Usually when we take the kids out for dinner, I prep them about the meal ahead. “We’re going to have Chinese food tonight, you’d probably like the green beans and fried rice …” But on the recent night we headed to the new Peruvian restaurant La Leña on Southeast Hawthorne, I didn’t bother. My kids had never had Peruvian food and I knew it’d be kind of hard to explain, “It’s a little like Mexican, but not really …”
We arrived at 4:45 pm and had the place to ourselves. La Leña doesn’t have a dedicated kids menu, but I wasn’t worried, knowing that at the very least my kiddos would happily chow down on beans and rice. So we ended up ordering family-style, planning to share everything.
We tried the dish that inspired Adam Warren (former chef at Navarre) and his Peruvian-born wife, Angeline Perla, when they planned out the restaurant: pollo a la brasa, also known as Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken. The chicken proved flavorful and had just the right amount of char to it. And I couldn’t pick which of the two accompanying sauces was tastier: the tangy, bright green aji verde or the creamy salsa pollera. You can order a whole, half or quarter chicken as a combo with beans and white rice, or fries and salad ($35, $18, $12). We went with the thick-cut fries and ultra-fresh salad with a sherry vinaigrette. (And ordered a large side of beans and rice, $10.) About that rice: It’s garlicky and slightly tangy and my kiddos shoveled it in. The mashed Canary beans dressed with chicken drippings were a hit with my 5-year-old daughter as well, even though they did have a slightly spicy kick to them. She also approved of the rotisserie chicken, asking for seconds and singing a little song to herself as she was eating: “This place has chicken and rice and everything nice.”
We also ordered the lomo saltado ($17), Peru’s delicious answer to meat and potatoes — stir-fried hanger steak, tomatoes and onions tossed with those plank-like French fries. La Leña’s steak was intensely meaty and those fries are addictive. Vegetarians can dig into the meat-free version that swaps the beef for mushrooms. My 2-year-old gobbled up pieces of the steak, and would have eaten more if his parents hadn’t beat him to it. (Foodie win, parenting fail.)
We also tried one of the empanadas of the day ($8). When ordering there’d been a little confusion as to what the day’s meat filling was and when it would be ready. They offer a vegetarian empanada each day, too. (Another point in its favor, La Leña is a fast-casual joint where you order at the counter and get food rather quickly.) But we ended up getting a handpie stuffed with aji de gallina — chicken in a creamy sauce — delivered to our table swiftly. The crust was perfect, utterly flaky and rich. It was easy to get both kids to try a bite. They gave a thumbs up to the crust, but weren’t crazy about the filling, mostly I think because they associate “piecrust” with dessert. But it was no problem, my husband and I polished off the rest of the empanada. Heading home everyone was full and happy. My daughter expertly summed up our experience, “This is a really good restaurant.”
1864 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Tuesday-Thursday, noon-10 pm; Friday, noon-10:30 pm; Saturday-Sunday, 4:30 pm-10:30 pm. Closed Mondays. lalenapdx.com.
WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER
PDX is no stranger to South-American chicken joints.
Pollos a La Brasa El Inka serves up authentic homestyle Peruvian cooking. 48 NE Division St., Gresham. Restaurant. elinkarestaurant.com.
Las Primas is known for their Peruvian-style burger in addition to the
more traditional Latin-American dishes. 3971 N Williams Ave. Lasprimaskitchen.com.
The Polli-Tico food cart specializes in Peruvian street food, especially rotisserie chicken. 1179 SE Tacoma St.