By the time I caught up with David Andres Peña’s food truck in the fall of 2021, it had already pivoted to birria tacos, with the option of consommé for dipping, interactive Mexican-SoCal food that lit up our dark pandemic lives. Sure, Peña was still serving his famous chicken tinga, the dish that gave his truck its name, but that wasn’t the reason people had put on their winter coats on that cold November afternoon to queue at La Tingeria.
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That certainly wasn’t the reason I was there. I was there, like almost everyone gathered on the sidewalk of South Courthouse Road in Arlington, to sample Peña’s goat and beef birria tacos, with or without queso, with or without dip in his consommé. It was the right thing to do, as surely as ordering a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl. But it also meant Peña’s chicken tinga was a second-class citizen in his own food truck.
I had my first taste of the chef and owner’s chicken tinga at his new storefront, located on the corner of South Washington Street and West Westmoreland Road in Falls Church, directly across from a specialty store in Greek-Mex cuisine. I ordered tacos filled with chicken tinga de Peña, that juicy mass of shredded breast meat held together with a mixture of tomatoes, onions, chipotle peppers and more. The tinga had a decided chilli bite, but it was augmented with the most tantalizing sweetness, one that lingers just below the main flavors, discreet but essential.
I asked Peña about the sweetness, which didn’t strike me as being that generated by cinnamon or allspice or some other obvious source. He revealed his secret. “One thing that makes us different…is that we actually caramelize our onions,” he says. “It’s something I really like to do, because the more caramelized onions, the sweeter it is.”
It was only later that I realized that Peña had said much the same thing to my colleague G. Daniela Galarza in her concise and precise exploration of tinga, which I had forgotten about in the months following her publication. I think that says a lot about the knowledge gained from reading versus the knowledge gained from experience (not to mention the brain fog of long covid) because once I tried chicken tinga de Peña, there was no way I would ever forget it. It is so good.
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The chef’s chicken tinga is still not La Tingeria’s top seller, which is just plain wrong. His quesobirria brisket tacos continue to have a grip on the public imagination. That’s the thing about La Tingeria: on some level, everything seems to be upside down and upside down. Tinga should be the destination dish, but it’s not. Neighborhood folks should be thrilled to have such quality at their fingertips, but some aren’t.
Shortly after La Tingeria made its brick-and-mortar debut last fall at Falls Church, Peña began receiving complaints about customer parking in the residential area along West Westmoreland. The grievances were reportedly so frequent that the city said it would revoke La Tingeria’s occupancy permit on January 2. (Peña sent me a copy of the letter.) Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and both parties have found a solution. But the conflict has rocked Peña, even though he is confident he can still succeed in the city.
Peña, after all, knows how to follow the rules. Yet he also knows how to break them, at least some of the unwritten ones in the kitchen.
La Tingeria, for example, does not prepare al pastor as you would find it in Puebla. Peña relies on marinated chicken thighs, not a sliced pork tower, for his al pastor, which his team cooks on a griddle rather than a Lebanese-style rotisserie. There is a method to this apparent madness: during the pandemic, La Tingeria became halal. At a time when office buildings were closing, virtually eliminating La Tingeria’s clientele, Peña made the decision to expand his business into the Muslim community. As Peña says, it was a game-changer for the food truck. He decided that the restaurant would also be halal.
“Opening a restaurant and not making it halal, honestly I felt like it might have been disrespectful in some way, because [the Muslim community] helped me get to this point,” says Peña. “I really think going halal has helped me get here a lot faster.”
Peña has a name for his Muslim-Mex concoction: he calls it Hal Pastor, which is, anyway, just awesome. His friend German Hernandez coined the term, and Peña tries to trademark it, with the idea of one day selling Hal Pastor in supermarkets.
But for now, it’s only available at La Tingeria in Falls Church, one of many meats you can wrap in your favorite wrap: taco, torta, tostada, sope, or quesadilla. Because Hal Pastor doesn’t have the charred, dehydrated edges associated with traditional al pastor – you know, the crispy bits we all know as char – I think the super tender chicken pieces work best on a tostada or in a taco, to provide a crunch kickback.
Quesadillas will work with any toppings you desire. Flour tortillas, smeared with birria oil, crisp up on a griddle, adding a distinct crunch to the meaty, gooey mass stuffed inside your quesadillas. The thing is, Peña understands the importance of adding flavor to the outside of all his food, whether it’s a layer of mayo on the telera bread before the torta hits the griddle or a long squeeze of birria oil on the corn tortillas used to swaddle his crispy tacos.
As you can see, the birria oil, which Peña and his team prepare in large quantities, trains in La Tingeria. That should tell you something about the success of its birria, available in beef or goat. Customers want these flavors – a little sweet, a little spicy, deeply rich – on virtually everything. There’s a reason for that, and I hate to say it out loud, lest it add to the slights chicken tinga has already suffered in its own store. But Peña makes one hell of a quesobirria taco.
626 S. Washington St., Falls Church, Va. No phone or website, but you can order online.
Hours: noon to 4 p.m. Thursday; noon to 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: $2 to $13 for all menu items.