“Authentic” is the kind of adjective applied to food so indiscriminately that one forgets what it was supposed to signify in the first place. (See also: “organic,” “natural,” “artisanal.”) But even if the idea of food authenticity hadn’t been mostly marketed into meaninglessness, it’s a slippery concept to begin with.
The word’s prevalence raises some questions: What makes food authentic? And what exactly is a person wooed by the promise of authenticity looking for in a dining experience? It could be a checklist of recipes that verifiably recreates the cuisine of a different place, giving you the magical ability to travel, for the duration of a meal, without leaving your neighborhood. It could be nostalgia for something you’ve never really experienced.
Maybe it’s food that is somehow exempt from the passage of time, immune to the processes of assimilation, migration, colonialism, interpretation and economics that evolve and spread a region’s culinary traditions.
La Huasteca, a five-year-old Mexican restaurant on Plainfield Avenue NE in Grand Rapids’ Creston neighborhood, offers some illuminating answers. There are the obvious indicators: White cheese, not yellow. Tacos are served in soft tortillas and contain little besides meat, onions and cilantro. Said tortillas are handmade.
While the menu contains dry and wet burritos — those staples of Americanized Tex-Mex — they’re probably a concession to the market and are near the bottom of the menu. The Coke has real sugar in it. The guacamole is potentially life-altering. Ditto: the tamales. The signature recipes are passed down through generations of a single family.
You’re also never more than an arm’s length away from bottles of green and red hot sauce. You may need to look up the names of some meats. There’s limited seating in booths whose upholstery has seen better days. The paint is chipped and the intimate room is bathed in the aroma of slow barbacoa cooking.
After years of hearing enthusiastic recommendations, I made a recent dinner visit to La Huasteca with a couple of friends. We warmed up with an appetizer of chips and guacamole — a bit pricey at $4.99, but so perfectly accented with cilantro and lime juice that it didn’t feel unreasonable.
I ordered from the ample seafood menu, which offers tilapia, mojarra and three shrimp entrees, of which I opted for the Camarones a la Mexicana ($13.99). The dish contains 15 — I confirmed it was exactly 15 — plump shrimp cooked with onion, tomatoes and, to keep you alert, jalapeno peppers. The meal came with sides of beans, rice and salad, plus a stack of corn tortillas, which I chose over flour. (Conventional wisdom suggests corn is the more authentic tortilla type, but it depends on the region of Mexico.)
One of my guests, Katy, is vegetarian and selected a “pick-two” combination platter, with one meatless tostada and one meatless gordita, along with rice and bean sides. The other options are tacos, sopes and tamales. She was impressed that the vegetarian options contained actual vegetables, in this case buttery-tasting cactus (nopales), rather than redundantly doubling up on the beans.
My other guest, Casey, emphatically not a vegetarian, ordered a platter of alambre, a steak dish cooked with onions and green peppers and served on a skillet with sides of rice, beans and salad. He appreciated that the hot skillet continued to add a flavor-enhancing char to the meat throughout the meal.
La Huasteca’s kitchen staff has a deft command of Mexican staples geared toward both traditionalists and casual diners, emphasizing the southeastern gulf region of the country for which the restaurant is named. We also happily discovered that a meal here felt less like a typical restaurant experience than a visit to the dining room of an old friend.
This, as much as the food, validates La Huasteca’s claims to authenticity. It ranks among the best little Mexican restaurants in a city full of very good ones, and in this capacity is virtually alone in the northeast quadrant of Grand Rapids. (Although we were bummed to discover it wasn’t a BYOB spot, La Huasteca is a couple of doors down from Vinny’s Bar, an exceedingly surreal dive.)
The restaurant’s menu pays loving tribute to manager Salvador Oliveros’ great-grandmother, who developed a recipe for pork tamales — plus a top-secret “chilpan” red sauce — that has endured nearly a century. La Huasteca proudly advertises its authenticity, but it doesn’t need to. It spends every minute of your visit confidently demonstrating what that means.
La Huasteca, 1811 Plainfield Ave NE, Grand Rapids
Open Mon.–Sat., (616) 447-7733, lahuastecagr.com