Peru is blessed when it comes to food. A synthesis of native Incan and Spanish foods together with diverse terrain have created a distinctive cuisine. Ingredients come from along the Peruvian shore, the high Andes and the inland portion of Peru that shares a swath of Amazonian rainforest with Brazil. In the last decade, Lima's modernist chefs have made it a hotspot for international gourmands.
But Peru's humblest foods are every bit alluring as any high-end meal. That includes myriad varieties of corn and potatoes, plus fresh fish and roast chicken. These simple pleasures are the focus at La Leña, which opened on Southeast Hawthorne in July. Though there are some weak spots and weirdness, an outstanding meal can be crafted from La Leña's diverse menu.
Begin with a true-blue Peruvian nosh: freshly roasted corn kernels known as cancha ($2/$4). The variety used here look like pale, elongated versions of their American cousins with a flavor and texture somewhere betwixt popcorn and bagged Corn Nuts. In Lima, cancha is an obligatory preliminary offered in anticipation of a ceviche lunch. At La Leña, they hit the table salty, toasty and piping hot. Get one of two classically Peruvian beverages: a can of Inka Cola ($3), with its gaudy urine hue and flavor of bubble gum, or delicious chicha morada ($4/$8), made from lightly sweetened purple corn enhanced with a spill of pie spice.
Next, be sure to check any squeamishness at the door and order a couple anticucho skewers ($10). Succulent chunks of straight-from-the-grill beef heart, in all its essential beefiness—juicy, bold and slightly chewy—are reason enough to have La Leña on your radar. If you didn't know it was organ meat, you would have no idea. A side of the fried yucca ($4/$7)—a tuber that takes to hot oil as well as any potato—accompanied by two ají chile-enhanced dipping sauces makes for a nice twist on traditional steak frites.
Moving from ranch to sea, your next course should be chupe de camarones ($15). This rich chowder relies on a foundation of potent house-made shrimp stock pepped up with piquant chili and enriched with a little milk. Plenty of perfectly cooked, peeled shrimp float around the bowl, joined by an abundance of yucca chunks, which are a touch sweeter and firmer than U.S. russets. A knob of queso fresco and a poached egg enhance texture and richness. On reflection, I'm having trouble recalling a seafood chowder as wonderfully on point as this one. Once the rains come and temperatures dip, it will be worth a detour.
So much for the highlight reel. Rotisserie chicken (whole $29, half $15, quarter $8; with sides: $35/$18/$12) is deeply burnished, but more smoky than simply roasted and seasoned. And the absence of a readily visible rotisserie detracts from the experience. For pollo a la brasa fanatics, a schlep to El Inka in Gresham is still your best bet. Similarly, with the ceviche ($12), La Leña's simple take is fine but suffers in relation to the extraordinary counterparts once served at Paiche. The pastry casing on a beef empanada ($7) was a flaky delight, the filling mundane. For dessert, the dulce de leche-filled sandwich cookies called alfajores ($4) are the only way to go.
Portland's fashionable order-at-the-counter-then-bus-your-own-table system was the rule here until recently, when they eliminated the latter half of this ubiquitous annoyance. The space is attractive and the furnishings, including several large booths, are comfortable. The layout of a semi-enclosed prep kitchen and bar area—both rarely in use during my several visits—at either end of the dining room, was an odd design choice that detracts somewhat from the vibe.
Perhaps it's the lack of a solid clientele so far, but the staff has seemed downbeat when I've been in. The absence of positive energy won't help bring fickle Portlanders through the door. When I've engaged servers, cooks and the boss, former Navarre chef Adam Warren, they couldn't be friendlier.
La Leña is a fine restaurant well worth a visit, especially given the rarity of decent nearby Peruvian options. If anything, it's bound to improve, which is a positive for local diners and for La Leña's longevity in a tough environment.
La Leña, 1864 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-946-1157, lalenapdx.com; Hours: Noon-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, Noon-10:30 pm Friday, 4:30-10:30 pm Saturday-Sunday.