Restaurants can serve many different purposes in our lives: a romantic date, a business lunch, a family reunion. But even on the most ordinary Tuesday evening, a good meal at a restaurant is a journey, an escape from everyday life, a distant vacation that is just a few minutes from home.
There’s nothing truer to the wonder and escapism of dining out than going to a Mexican restaurant, and there’s no one I love going to a Mexican restaurant with more than my sister Rosie . For both of us, Mexican food is an all-night festival.
Even the simplest Mexican restaurant tends to have a magical atmosphere: bright primary colors on the walls, friendly, unassuming staff, sappy, brassy mariachi music, baskets of fries and salsa on the tables, an old, tattered photo of Pancho Villa taped to a wall.
The fun begins, of course, with margaritas. Tequila, cut by freshly squeezed lime juice and sweetened in the sweetness of orange liqueur (ideally Cointreau, Grand Marnier or triple sec), always seems to have a slightly different impact on the psyche than any other spirit. Start the night off with a margarita, and it can’t help but be a fun night. Especially if Rosie is here with me.
According to Nielsen, the margarita is America’s most popular cocktail today. Most historians of the cocktail agree that it was invented in the 1930s or 1940s somewhere on the US-Mexico border. My favorite of the dozens of competing legends of the origin of the margarita is set in 1948, at the Balinese Hall in Galveston, Texas, where bartender Santos Cruz made the very first margarita for sultry singer Margaret “Peggy” Lee. .
I was lucky enough to visit the Balinese Hall once in 2007. It was a creaking wooden palace of yesteryear, a former hub of gambling and other sordid vices, poised precariously along a pier narrow that plunged into the Gulf of Mexico, with the muddy waters of Galveston Bay lapping against the sea logs that supported the rickety structure.
Unfortunately, a year after I wandered there, the Balinese Hall and its entire pier were ferociously swept away by Hurricane Ike, making things ever more difficult for forensic margaritologists in the Americas.
In general, Rosie and I are split on our favorite margarita styles: She likes the berry flavored variations with a sugar edge, while I gravitate toward the more traditional lime and salt edge. One thing we both agree on, disagree with many pompous mixologists, is that there’s no shame in ordering a frozen margarita: it’s a little longer, less immediately boozy and more refreshing on a hot summer afternoon.
From the day Mama’s (the name we all know and love it by) opened on Main Street in 2007, it’s been a godsend: a Tex-Mex palace with just the right atmosphere, right downtown- town. From day one, the decor was stunning. The wallpapered walls were transportative. The bar was perfectly set up for socializing. The lighting was just right.
When Mama’s reopened in early 2022 after an excruciatingly long COVID shutdown, Rosie and I were so happy we were ready to throw a street party in their honor.
Strawberry or lime, rocks or frozen, salt or sugar, Rosie and I totally agree that Mama Iguana’s makes the best margaritas in Northampton, with super fresh juices and plenty of tequila – enough to really afternoon tea. Homemade, premium, spicy, lean, and mezcal versions are expertly crafted. The glass, however, is smaller and can disappear dangerously quickly.
Mama’s does a solid job with guacamole, fajitas, and other Mexican standards. The wings are good too. An authentic new treat in town since the 2022 reopening are chicken empanadas and birria (slow-braised beef with baking spices, served over nachos or in a taco). But the dark horse winner on the menu is the world-class Caesar salad.
Little known fact: Caesar salad is a Mexican dish, invented in Tijuana by a restaurant owner named Caesar Cardini. I’m a purist and believe in Cardini’s original recipe: the leaves should be crisp lettuce hearts (please, no soggy greens!), fully coated in an oil-emulsified vinaigrette, raw egg, lemon and anchovy that creams every inch of leaf without a bit of gloop. Mama’s standard version is excellent, and their one creative innovation is a winner: a reddish, hot spicy version.
El Comalito’s two branches, in Easthampton and Amherst, might be the most authentic sit-down Mexican restaurants in the Pioneer Valley — and best of all, they’re authentically Salvadoran too. I love the Easthampton branch, right on Route 10; it has an unassuming piece with each wall panel painted in vibrant shades of pinks, purples, and blues. Harmonious arches above the cabins elegantly divide the space and cheerful music cheers you up.
El Comalito margaritas are amply sized and well balanced. On our last visit, Rosie’s bright red hibiscus margarita was a marriage between the margarita and the traditional Mexican agua de jamaica. My homemade margarita was moderately sweet, but like my personality, it wasn’t as sweet as Rosie’s.
On the extensive menu, highlights include a lovely prawn ceviche starter, which comes in an elegant 1950s cocktail glass brimming with vegetal freshness from cilantro, tomato, raw onion and fresh lime juice, with the side dish. saltine classic.
Among the mains, you can’t go wrong with the chicken enchiladas suizas, smothered in a rich sauce that mixes the tomatillo tartness of salsa verde with sour cream and melted cheese. Lightly velvety amber-colored refried beans and yellow rice are cooked perfectly.
El Comalito’s tender, well-seasoned carne asada is a favorite of Rosie and her partner EJ, both carne asada enthusiasts. An interesting “plato pobre” pairs the steak with Salvadoran sides, including thick slices of caramel-crusted sweet plantain.
I’ve been going to La Veracruzana since I was little. This is an airy and lively Mexican restaurant with high ceilings in downtown Northampton that has since expanded its mini-empire to Easthampton and Amherst.
Margaritas aren’t cheap these days — it’s hard to find one under $10 — and La Veracruzana’s homemade margarita wins the best value in town award: $7 for a drink of pint fully loaded. This one is on the very sweet end of the local spectrum, more like a sour tequila than a classic margarita. My favorite place to sip it is at the Main Street sidewalk tables, where you can sit in the sun, lick your salt rim, and enjoy the bustle of downtown.
Culinarily, what’s most impressive about La Veracruzana is its rare blend of legitimate south-of-the-border authenticity and delicious vegetarian options. My personal favorite is the chile relleno – a stuffed poblano coated in an ethereal, fluffy egg batter that’s equally satisfying in the non-vegetarian (beef and cheese) and vegetarian (cheese only) versions.
Other vegetarian winners include the large potato and carrot burritos in various textures; cheese quesadillas just for the price, made with nothing but corn tortillas and cheese, like the real ones in Mexico; and domingo enchiladas, stuffed with cheese, drowned in beer salsa and taken to the next level with a sprinkle of raw onions on top.
Perhaps best of all are the enfrijoladas, a smooth, crispy plate of fried corn tortillas with mashed black beans and cheese, topped with sour cream. This regional Oaxacan specialty is hard to find in most parts of Mexico, let alone Massachusetts.
Mission Cantina, the most atmospheric Mexican haunt in the Valley, is so popular it’s become famous for its long waits. Fortunately, while you wait, you can order margaritas on the terrace from the (sometimes) outstanding staff. You might even walk through two before sitting down, as they aren’t very boozy; but they are very well done, not too sweet, with a crunchy tart bite. My favorite order here is the smoked mezcal margarita. The skinny margarita, made without any sweeteners, is tangy; and it’s a great option for low carb dieters and sugar phobes.
A newer branch in Easthampton (“Mission Taco”) now has a nice patio as well, and waits can be shorter. But I’m still sensitive to the original location in Amherst, where the vibe is warmer and more intimate. Amherst also recently added a Texas-style barbecue program, Saturdays and Sundays only, from noon until whenever they are sold out.
Whoever invented the margarita, and wherever they did, would be happy to see the tradition carried on so proudly in Pioneer Valley – and everywhere else in America. A Mexican meal is a feast for the senses, even more so with a margarita. Bottom up.
Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: A Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst and the Five Colleges Area”. He sits remotely on the faculty of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at [email protected]