It was certainly not the reason I was there. I was there, as was almost everyone assembled on the sidewalk on South Courthouse Road in Arlington, to sample Peña’s goat and beef birria tacos, with or without queso, with or without a dip in his consommé. It was the thing to do, as surely as ordering a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl. But it also meant that Peña’s chicken tinga was a second-class citizen at its own food truck.
My first taste of the chef and owner’s chicken tinga was at his new storefront, situated on the corner of South Washington Street and West Westmoreland Road in Falls Church, just across the way from a shop that specializes in Greek-Mex cuisine. I ordered tacos packed with Peña’s chicken tinga, this juicy mass of shredded breast meat held together with a guisado-like mixture of tomatoes, onions, chipotle peppers and more. The tinga had a decided chile pepper bite, but it was augmented with the most tantalizing sweetness, the kind that lingers just beneath the principal flavors, unobtrusive but essential.
I asked Peña about the sweetness, which didn’t strike me as the kind generated from cinnamon or allspice or some other obvious source. He spilled his secret. “One thing that makes us different … is that we really caramelize our onions,” he says. “That’s one thing I really like to do, because the more caramelized onions, the sweeter it is.”
It was only later that I realized Peña had told my colleague G. Daniela Galarza much the same thing in her concise, precise exploration of tinga, which I had forgotten about in the months since it was published. I think this says something about knowledge learned from reading versus knowledge gained from experience (not to mention the brain fog of long covid), because once I tried Peña’s chicken tinga, there was no way I would ever forget it. It’s that good.
The chef’s chicken tinga is still not the top seller at La Tingeria, which is just, well, wrong. His quesobirria brisket tacos continue to have a stranglehold on the public’s imagination. This is the thing about La Tingeria: On some level, everything seems to be upside down and inside out. The tinga should be the destination dish, but it’s not. People in the neighborhood should be thrilled to have such quality fare within their reach, but some are not.
Not long after La Tingeria made its brick-and-mortar debut last fall in Falls Church, Peña started receiving complaints about customers parking in the residential neighborhood along West Westmoreland. The grievances were, allegedly, of such frequency that the city said it would revoke La Tingeria’s occupancy permit on Jan. 2. (Peña sent me a copy of the letter.) Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and both sides worked out a solution. But the conflict shook Peña, though he’s convinced he can still make a go of it in the city.
Peña, after all, knows how to follow the rules. Yet he knows how to break them, too, at least some of the unwritten ones in cooking.
La Tingeria, for instance, doesn’t prepare al pastor the way you might find it in Puebla. Peña relies on marinated chicken thighs, not a tower of sliced pork, for his al pastor, which his team cooks on a griddle rather than on a Lebanese-style rotisserie. There is a method to this apparent madness: During the pandemic, La Tingeria went halal. At a time when office buildings were closing down, all but eliminating La Tingeria’s customer base, Peña made the decision to expand his business into the Muslim community. It was, as Peña says, a game changer for the food truck. He decided the restaurant would be halal, too.
“Opening up a restaurant and not making it halal, honestly, I felt like it might have been disrespectful in a way, because [the Muslim community] helped me get to this point,” Peña says. “I really feel that going halal has helped me get here a lot faster.”
Peña has a name for his Muslim-Mex preparation: He calls it Hal Pastor, which is, any way you look at it, just brilliant. His friend German Hernandez coined the term, and Peña is trying to trademark it, with the idea of selling Hal Pastor in supermarkets some day.
But for now, it’s available only at La Tingeria in Falls Church, one of several meats that you can pack into your preferred package: taco, torta, tostada, sope or quesadilla. Because Hal Pastor doesn’t have the blackened and dehydrated edges associated with traditional al pastor — you know, the crispy bits we all know as char — I think the super-tender pieces of chicken work best on a tostada or in a taco, to provide a counterpunch of crunch.
The quesadillas will accommodate any filling you desire. The flour tortillas, stained with birria oil, are crisped up on a griddle, adding a distinct crackle to the meaty, gooey mass stuffed inside your quesadillas. The fact is, Peña understands the importance of adding flavor to the exterior of all his food, whether it’s a slathering 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 batches, gets a workout at La Tingeria. This should tell you something about the success of its birria, available in either beef or goat. Customers want those flavors — a little sweet, a little spicy, profoundly rich — on virtually everything. There’s a reason for this, and I’m loathe to say it out loud, lest I add to the slights already suffered by the chicken tinga at its own shop. But Peña does make one helluva 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 items on the menu.