When you’re the person who writes about food, there’s a surprising regularity to which everyone at your table puts down their menus and turns over their dining experience—and hard-earned cash for their portion of the bill—to you. Being a certified Type A personality, I’m usually more than happy to do so.
In this spirit, I will design the exact meal you should have at La Leña, the new Peruvian restaurant on Southeast Hawthorne. This new counter-service spot comes via longtime Navarre chef Adam Warren and his Peruvian-born wife, Angeline Perla. In the months since opening, this rotisserie-based kitchen has been gaining steam (or smoke, if you will), producing increasingly tasty dishes with crisp cocktails heavy on the pisco.
The focus is on casual and homey dishes, some from Perla’s father, like pollo a la brasa, that revered Lima staple of chicken slow-roasted over flames; a citrusy ceviche; and lomo saltado, a hangar steak with verdant aji salsa. All are serviceable and worth an order to round out a meal with a group, if not the best versions you can find in the Portland area.
There’s also unexpected Andean-level highs, especially a velvety chowder, chupe de camarones ($18). Wild pink shrimp and yucca luxuriate in the orange chili-spiked broth, with a poached egg adding infinite richness—it’s a bowl that deserves a spot on any best-of lists for winter warming.
Yucca fries ($4/$9) are thick and perfectly crisp on the outside, giving way to a pillow-soft center—dip it, still steaming, into the creamy salsa pollera. Slice up an empanada ($8) with richly spiced beef inside and a just-perceptible dusting of powdered sugar on the outside, and pass it around to everyone at the table. Don’t be frightened that the anticuchos ($11) skewers are beef heart—they’re well marinated, taking most of the chew and turning the meat tender before grilling.
Wash this down with one of the several fresh juices available, or even better with a glass of purple chica morada, a spiced corn drink that I’d never seen but gulped down happily. The pisco sour ($10) does its home country justice, the strong Peruvian brandy rightly balanced with tart lime juice and frothy egg whites. It’s a cocktail uniquely suited to the country’s plates, playing with the chilies and acids inherent to the cooking.
La Leña is stepping into a crowded market—there are some excellent Peruvian restaurants in town, and oh-so-many excellent roasted chicken options. In that spirit, I’d only recommend they continue to go bigger and bolder with flavors: a causa, mashed yellow potatoes topped with albacore and avocado was criminally bland, and the ceviche—which is a national obsession in Peru—lacked any heat and the fish was dry from marinating in lime for too long. And while La Leña hangs its hat on the roasted chicken, our results on several visits were varied, and bounced from overcooked one day to underseasoned another.
That said, the clientele increased steadily over our visits—with the restaurant going from nearly empty to hardly an open seat in the house—and there are already a solid stable of options that make it worth a visit. I know I’ll be back for that soup.