Mexed-up

Las Peñas in Miamisburg is a tasty treasure

Photo: Huevos rancheros

By Paula Johnson

TV personality, chef, and food writer Anthony Bourdain has claimed that Mexican food is one of the least understood cuisines in the world. I would tend to agree, adding that what the typical American experiences and expects from Mexican restaurants isn’t typical at all of what Mexicans truly eat. And what they eat depends on where they live. Certain regions feature tomatoes, chiles, corn, and beans, and others near the coastal areas highlight fish and seafood. As with almost every cuisine, hybridized American versions made with available ingredients have roots in what immigrants prepared and served at home. Those dishes were also subject to, and changed by, American tastes. The result is a large misconception by the American public manifested in foods like nachos and the expectation that everything comes bathed in gooey cheese sauce. I didn’t see any nachos on Las Peñas Mexican Grocery and Restaurant’s menu, and I can categorically say nothing there swims in cheese.

There’s a restaurant there?

I had often driven by Las Peñas Mexican Grocery on Byers Road near the Dayton Mall. Their red, white and green-lighted sign features the Mexican flag, and underneath looking almost as an afterthought, there’s a hand painted plank tacked up proclaiming “And Restaurant”. I admit to never noticing the restaurant sign till my first visit with some Dayton City Paper (DCP) friends last month. Entering through the front door, the space is bisected with half devoted to selling imported products and groceries, and the other a casual, order-at-the-counter and seat-yourself dining area. Menus can be found at the tables covered with brightly colored plastic tablecloths, each with shaker jars and squeeze bottles filled with various condiments. Bottled drinks are self-serve from the refrigerated coolers, and can be opened at a wall mounted bottle opener beside the ordering counter. If you’ve never experienced the joy of real Mexican Coke made with sugar—NOT corn syrup—here’s your chance. They also offer a wide flavor selection of Jarritos, my all-time favorite soda pop.

So much wonderful stuff on the Las Peñas menu! The menu is written in English, but some of the dishes might bear a little explaining, with many not found in most local Mexican places. Some examples: How about Menudo, a traditional Mexican soup made with beef stomach (tripe), in broth with a red chili pepper base? Or burritos made with Cabeza (head), Tripa (stomach), or Lengua (tongue)? Not everything is made with these maybe less familiar ingredients. Las Peñas offers Caldo de Res, a brothy beef short rib soup with yucca, potatoes, corn, and carrots, and Burritos Al Pastor, a preparation influenced by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. The marinated spit grilled meat here is akin to shawarma or gyro meat. I also found pupusas, thick-stuffed corn tortillas served with curtido, a spicy fresh coleslaw, and tamales wrapped in banana leaves, as well as those more commonly wrapped in corn husks. Guisado, a beef stew flavored with cumin, oregano, onion, and jalapeno is on the menu, along with sweet delicious grilled plantains.

Plan for the plantains

I visited twice in order to sample a wider array of what Las Peñas offers. Breakfast items are also available, so Huevos Rancheros was a must to start. Tortillas, beans, rice, and nice runny eggs with a sprinkling of pico de gallo might be my favorite breakfast. I added a side of chorizo and guacamole, and could have stopped there, except for the plantains. When grilled, they develop a deep, sweet caramelized surface. While the soft, fleshy texture is similar to a cooked banana, there’s a brightness and tang to the taste. I could eat them at every meal. We also tried the Caldo de Res, the beef soup I mentioned earlier. This is a mild, brothy soup that is homey and comforting—not for someone who is looking for heat and deep flavor. (If you are, the menudo is for you!). This soup is about large chunks of vegetables and fatty hunks of beef. You could easily picture an abuelita ladling a steaming bowl and commanding you to sit and eat. Tacos are the soft kind, with a confetti of cilantro and a light sprinkling of queso fresco. I also enjoyed the tamales, one pork and one chicken, each with a different wrapping. I did find a slight flavor difference with the banana leaf wrap.

There is no bill, it›s the honor system. When you finish, you simply go to the cashier near the front door and tell her what you ordered. The first time I visited there were two of us, and the total came to $22.00. The second time there were five of us for a grand total of $63.72. You can count Las Peñas in the affordable lunch category, and also the delicious lunch category. I’ve already been back once, and can’t wait to get there again.

Las Peñas is located at 215 Byers Rd in Miamisburg. For more information, please call 937.866.4457 or visit LasPenasGrocery.com

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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