Even in cramped quarters the kitchen at Coco turns out some amazing food and the Cellar Bar doubles their modest seating.
- 485 West St.
- Amherst, MA 01002
is one of the few restaurants that’s close to our new apartment. We were excited to move back to the Northampton area, but wanted a nice big yard for our nice big dog. It’s hard to shop for a new apartment on one coast from the other, but we managed to find a place in Belchertown we’ve already grown to love. The downside of course is that we’re not walking distance from great places to eat. The last time we lived in these parts we were a half mile from downtown Noho.
We were stoked when our friend, artist Scout Cuomo, introduced us to Mission Cantina our first restaurant meal back in the Happy Valley. The place is the epitome of charm and after our travels in Oaxaca earlier this year it was nice to see our new love for Mezcal will be well satisfied. We’ve already been back (twice) and we’ve only been in town a month.
Mezcal? Yes, Please!
I consistently order the basic Mezcal Margarita on the menu. There are several Mezcals to choose from, but I’ve been happy with the house-selection since our first visit. It’s awesome. I love that each bartender at Mission Cantina has their own style. The drinks have been consistently good, but always a little different. Molly likes the daily drink specials, and on our last visit fell in love with the Cranberry Jalapeño Margarita Special. I liked it too. It reminded us of our own Blueberry Jalapeño Cocktail from last year. It definitely had more kick that ours, and that’s not a complaint.
Queso Fundido, as much a requirement as a Margarita
Who doesn’t love cheese dip? It’s a guilty pleasure wherever you get it. Most places are satisfied with a steamy serving of cheese. Mission Cantina is hardcore about theirs. It’s got spicy bits of Chorizo cooked in and comes topped with fresh diced tomato, onion, cilantro, the works. And it’s all served up in a cast iron skillet so hot you could brand yourself with it. That last bit means that by the end of your Fundido, just like a sizzling dolsot bibimbap in a good Korean restaurant, you’ve got crunchy and caramelized bits. I spoon these scrumptious morsels onto everything else I order.
Keeping it simple
Mission Cantina does not have very extensive food offerings. The whole menu fits on one double-sided, letter-sized laminate, and one whole side of it is alcohol. What they do have is tight, and we especially appreciate that the taco section includes single servings. That sort of thinking allows you and a few of your friends the luxury of ordering, “one of everything” if you like.
I’ve had the Combo Taco Plate for all three visits and gotten a different combination each time knowing we’d be reviewing them. There are ten choices, and we’ve hit all but two. Here’s the rundown:
- Grilled Chicken – quality white meat chicken that’s well charred without being dry. Subtle seasonings that still come through. Probably my favorite to spoon a generous scoop of Fundido on.
- Carne Asada – dead on Asada if a little by the book.
- Chorizo – haven’t tried this one yet.
- BBQ Pork – the sauce on this was a teensy bit heavy, but the caliber of the pork was perfect.
- Carnitas – This is my favorite. Like the Asada it doesn’t offer any surprises, but the A+ execution is really all you can ask for.
- Braised Beef – close second to the Carnitas. Plenty saucy, like a beef stew taco. My favorite to take as leftovers because out of the fridge cold it’s like a good roast beef sandwich.
- Grilled Shrimp – I’m not as huge a shrimp fan as Molly, but I’d order this one again. I prefer the Crispy Fish, but Molly gives the little crustacean her vote for tacos from the sea.
- Poblanos Rajas – haven’t tried this one yet.
- Vegetables – A generous mix that doesn’t leave you feeling cheated for not getting meat.
- Crispy Fish – California is the land of the fish taco and we’ve had some incredible ones there. I like that Mission’s doesn’t seem to follow the West Coast beer-batter convention. The fish is pan-fried and plenty crispy, but without a heavy breading. This made the shaved cabbage and special crema of that particular taco shine.
Pozolé Rojo, ¡Que Authentico!
I’m not the kind of foodie to complain about bastardized cultural dishes, but it is nice that the Sopa tradition of Mexico (ignored by most “Tex-Mex” places) is well represented at Mission. Molly had the Pozolé on her last visit and we both agreed it’s better than a cup of hot cocoa on a chilly winter evening. The broth alone would satisfy me, but the chunks of pork and stewed veggies make it all the better. The soup is hidden in their appetizer menu, but a large portion is plenty for dinner.
Mission Cantina is located at 485 West Street in South Amherst and is always busy. They will not seat an incomplete party, not even at the bar. If you go on the weekend you’re going to have to wait. During the week, well, you’ll have to wait but not as long. Don’t despair though, the Mission is catty-corner from The Moan and Dove. Put your name on the list at Mission and then skip across the road for a pint while you wait. You won’t regret it.
Sadly, Chez Albert in Amherst closed its doors May 25, 2018. It was extraordinary, one of our favorites, and dearly missed.