Three things you need to know about Chef Adam Warren:
- He ran the kitchen at Navarre for eight years, geeking out over seasonal produce and restaurant ethos with owner John Taboada.
- His first taste of Peruvian food came courtesy of his future wife, Lima-born Angeline Perla, who fed him grilled beef hearts skewers and Botija olives at a barbecue 16 years ago.
- He’s really, really into juice.
“Both John Taboada and I have lusted after the Zumex Versatile Podium juicer for a while. There’s video of them online. I’ve watched them extensively. I told a friend I was up late watching videos online one night. They asked, “What were you watching? Porn?” And I said, “Nah, juicing machines. I’m sad.”
Or...just really committed to his vision of simple, delicious food and drink—including the fresh fruit juices that are a staple of Peruvian cuisine. Warren and Perla are readying to open La Leña, a friendly Peruvian spot inspired by the pollo a la brasa joints and humble comida criolla fare that dots Lima’s neighborhoods, in the former Sandoval space on SE Hawthorne (1864 SE Hawthorne Blvd). They aim to open in early June.
Expect family-style meals of whole chickens, spit-roasted over oak in a hulking rotisserie the couple imported from Peru, and served with traditional Peruvian accompaniments: thick, fresh-cut fries, spicy aji chile sauces, and sturdy, red wine vinaigrette-drizzled salads.
“Pollo a la brasa is huge all over Peru; especially delivery. There’s always little cars and scooters zooming around all the time delivering these family dinners,” remembers Warren, who aims to charge around $30 for his full meals. “We love it. We always thought: why is no one doing this?”
Other menu highlights include comida criolla go-tos like ceviches, aguadito de pollo soup thick and green with cilantro and rice, and potatoes with spicy cheese sauce, olives, and boiled eggs (papa a la Huancaina).
“I always just think of comida criolla as the food I grew up eating—dishes my dad made,” says Perla, a nurse who doubles as the restaurant’s business arm and lead “taster.” “Ask any Peruvian and these are the dishes that come up again and again.” True to form, Warren has built many of La Leña’s dishes around hand-written recipes from Perla’s dad or from the family’s multiple trips to Lima.
Less high-end than Andina or Paiche, Warren points to Gresham’s excellent El Inka rotisserie as an analog to their new venture. That said, with nearly a decade at seasonal mecca Navarre under his belt, the chef can’t shake his farm fresh roots entirely: while hard-to-find chiles will be imported from Peru, he’s leaning heavily on local farms for most of his kitchen goods. High quality chickens come from Scratch Farms while farmer Mark Wooten (also a kitchen regular at Nodoguru) has been persuaded to grow huacatay, Peruvian black mint, just for the restaurant.
Still, La Leña’s mode is staunchly down-home, with classic starch-heavy, “rib-sticking” Peruvian-Chinese “chifa” fare like red wine vinegar-spiked arroz chiofa (Peruvian fried rice) and home wok classic lomo saltado beef stir fry on the opening roster. With its central location on SE Hawthorne, blocks away from Castagna and Cartopia, Warren also hopes the restaurant will become a neighborhood staple, with a robust takeout and delivery business.
That seductive juicer will hold court at the bar, squeezing fresh juices (orange to pomegranate and grapefruit) as part of a big non-alcoholic drink program that includes limonata and purple corn chicha morada. A handful of Peruvian cocktails, Pisco sours included, are in the mix as are Oregon wines on tap and South American wines by the bottle.
As La Leña’s opening date creeps closer, the couple is hard at work transforming the former Sandoval space into a Lima neighborhood joint—painted in bold blues and earth tones. Their next project will be to install the heart of the operation: the 1,500-pound spit rotisserie oven that roasts around 30 chickens at a time in less than an hour thanks to a unique Ferris wheel design.
After searching in vain on the West Coast for their magic wheel the couple ended up ordering a sturdy model from Peru’s own H. Ruiz & Hermanos (see video, above), which has been constructing Lima’s own polla a la brasa rotisseries since the 1950s.
When the grill arrived by boat earlier this month, the couple was shocked to find the crate it was housed in was made from pure mahogany. Warren spent a weekend prying “a thousand nails” out of the crate wood in order to reuse it for La Leña’s signage. “We couldn’t let it go to waste! A recycled crate sign…Now that’s Portland,” Perla chuckles. “And Peru.”