La Peña’s still one of a kind4/22/2015
Chefs complain that Des Moines diners are resistant to change. If a restaurant replaces a dish or alters a recipe, someone will complain. In this environment, any change of ownership at traditional establishments comes with customer anxiety. In the last year-and-a-half, La Pena, Chuck’s, Tally’s, The Radish and the Des Moines Art Center Café all changed hands. Regulars who drink from half-empty glasses predicted the end of life as they knew it. I try to soothe them with stories about changes that made places even better, like when Bob and Amy Tursi bought the Latin King or when Zach Mannheimer and Sean Wilson bought Proof.
La Peña has been a one-of-a-kind place here since Luis and Carmen de Avila opened it at the beginning of the millennium. It was our first birrieria, a place that specializes in goat. Birria is to Guadalajara as pork tenderloins are to Des Moines. It’s ubiquitous in the city, popular in some central states surrounding Jalisco, but rarely found elsewhere in Mexico. It’s also become popular in Los Angeles and Chicago. The dish comes in two styles: slow roasted goat, usually whole goat; and braised goat, usually boneless chunks. It is accompanied by two styles of consommé: goat stock with or without tomatoes. Cumin and oregano usually dominate its mild spices.
At La Peña, it’s served a la carte ($11.50) with bowls of consommé available as sides for $3 and also “revolcados” ($13), meaning with beans and rice and smothered in consommé, which is always of the tomato-style here. Onions, cilantro and two kinds of salsas are as essential to this dish as basil, cilantro and bean sprouts are to pho. The salsas here are anything but mild. La Peña makes them with chilies de arbol, the legendary chili that Columbus first noticed in the New World. They produce a unique tannic, smoky flavor. Their high heat makes them rare in culinary applications, but La Peña mixes them with enough fresh tomatillos and tomatoes to cut their heat and perfectly complement their homemade chips from homemade tortillas.
Other specialties of the house include: barbacoa ($13), a bowl of braised beef in consommé; and menudo ($9). Like birria, they are served daily, not just on weekends. The three specialties are all considered cures for hangovers. I have ordered menudo here with a calf’s foot. Tortas, tacos, gorditas, sopes and tostadas are available with your choice of cheese, barbacoa, birria, adoba (pork), steak, sausage or chicken. All are made with homemade corn flour starches. Artisan breads of Central Mexico are also sold and used in sandwich specials. These are wheat breads of different styles.
Tamales were made from scratch in savory and sweet styles. Chilies rellenos were made with stem-on poblanos and Mexican cheeses. Even the creamy beans and rice were distinctive. Steak, chicken and a breakfast menu are also offered. Flan was made from scratch in a swimming pool of caramel sauce. It is my favorite version in town. Jarritos and Mexican Coke are available, but the latter was made with high fructose corn syrup, the sad end product of Mexico having elected a Coke executive as president.
Bottom line: In 2002, I wrote “La Peña is our happiest discovery since we started writing about food in this state a dozen years ago.” That holds up a year after Luis and Carmen fled Iowa winters. If anything, the six-booth café is better than ever.
Natural Grocers, a Denver-based company, opened its first area store, in a former Dahl’s at 86th and Hickman. The chain specializes in organic and natural products. Fresh Thyme Farmers Market and Fresh Market will offer similar fare, the former in Clocktower Square, the latter in Mills Crossing and also on Ingersoll. CV
2010 Indianola Ave. 288-3226
Mon. and Wed. – Sat. 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.,
Sun 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.