The Real Steal

Cheap, tasty Veracruzana is as authentic as a gringo can imagine.

By Robin Rinaldi
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 11, 2002

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TAQUERIA LA VERACRUZANA
908 Washington Ave., 215.465.1440
Cuisine: Mexican
Prices: $5-$10
Hours: 7am-midnight daily

The Rinaldi Rundown
Atmosphere: Cheery, bright and no-frills.
Service: Efficient and bilingual.
Food: Don't miss the tacos, the tamales or the salsas. Skip the burritos.

It was a wintry, windy Sunday afternoon when we headed down to South Philly to check the buzz about "the best Mexican food in the city" at Taqueria La Veracruzana.

My hopes were high, for I'm beginning to tire of the Nuevo Latino wave such wallet-suckers as $11 empanadas and $8 mojitos ride on while the music pulses and the women at the bar model the requisite pointy heels and straightened hair. I stare down at that single empanada, no bigger than a meatball, and it whispers sadly, "I'm not really a Latin appetizer, but I play one on TV."

Veracruzana didn't disappoint. Small, clean and fluorescent, its bi-level storefront was packed with Mexican families hovering over steaming bowls of lamb soup. On the corner-mounted TV, a Spanish-speaking soap star was accusing her lover of infidelity. The drink of choice at most tables was a bottle of orange Jarritos soda (no beer or wine), and the two busy servers inched their way between chairs delivering plates loaded with three tacos each.

Let's start with those tacos. They're simple and superb, two fresh, hot corn tortillas wrapped around your choice of meat, topped only with onions and cilantro. Whether it was chunks of steak, chicken or the shredded pork of carnitas, the tortilla-onion-cilantro combination worked the kind of magic the Earl of Sandwich could only dream of: yielding, aromatic, slightly greasy. Splash it with some fresh lime, add some of the best salsa this side of Corpus Christi--a fiery red one, a thick orange sauce and a supernal green chile puree herbed-up and creamed with a little avocado--and you're looking at the reason Veracruzana is all the rage right now.

Those tacos were so addictive I went back twice in the next week. I found myself thinking about tacos in the middle of the day.

My favorite turned out to be something I'd never seen before: a small chile relleno taco, the cheese-filled fried pepper fitting perfectly into the tortilla, with the same garnishes.

But tacos aren't the only thing to order at Veracruzana. The pork tamale was also one of the best I've had in years: moist and laced with green salsa inside.

The chicken fajitas were enough to feed two, especially given all the tortillas that came on the side along with rice, refried beans and guacamole. I mistook the long slices of jalape�os for the wimpy green bell peppers usually found in fajitas, packing them into my little boat of cornmeal and taking two big bites before I realized my mistake. I recommend you get a big bottle of water and do the same.

The most expensive items on the menu, at a whopping $10, are huge entrees like the "alambre," beef and bacon with all the fixings, and the "choriqueso," beef with chorizo and cactus topped with melted cheese (why have just beef when you can add bacon or sausage?). They're meaty and salty, and you need to be hungry to attack them.

Not everything at Veracruzana is peachy, though. I couldn't help noticing that the meat, especially the beef, was consistently fatty, sometimes to the point of being difficult to chew. The dishes tasted so good I kept on trying, but still. And the carnitas were tasty, but definitely not crispy or browned enough to rise above mere pork to carnitas status.

But my biggest warning has to do with the burritos, specifically a gargantuan chicken burrito that made use of sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, avocado, canned jalape�os and what looked and tasted exactly like processed American cheese. It was watery and tasted like a bad chicken hoagie, and I couldn't for the life of me decipher why. Perhaps American cheese is a custom in Veracruz. If so, it's one that should be abolished.

Those are the only two caveats at an eatery that happily evokes the mood and food you might find in Oaxaca or Guadalajara. And Veracruzana serves breakfast every day, mixing eggs 15 different ways with peppers, ham, bacon, tomato, enchiladas and even mole for $5.

A small price to pay for the real deal. Is it the best Mexican in the city? Maybe. But I'm going to keep looking, just in case.

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