As the temperature drops, we crave heartier foods. For stick- to-your-ribs satisfaction, it’s hard to beat tacos, enchiladas and burritos. However, many restaurants prepare these items with pork or lard. But with the recent opening of La Panza Café in Southeast Portland, people who observe Jewish dietary restrictions without keeping strictly kosher can enjoy these favorites.
Says co-owner Jessica Razatos of her New Mexican comfort food menu: “Here at La Panza, we are eager to accommodate any dietary requests. Our motto is ‘Panza llena, corazon contenta,’ which means, ‘A full belly is a happy heart.’ So, we want our customers to leave fulfilled.” At La Panza, the red and green chile sauces are prepared with cornstarch and vegetable stock instead of flour and chicken broth. Main courses come with posole instead of rice; the plump grains of hominy can be ordered without pork. Many items, such as the frito pie, burritos and enchiladas, can be filled with calabacitas (squash) instead of meat.
When asked what differentiates New Mexican from Mexican cuisine, Razatos explains: “New Mexican food is a combination of Spanish, Pueblo Native American and Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques that have been practiced and refined for over 400 years.” Enchiladas are stacked instead of rolled, red and green chile sauces are used, and there are unique dishes like posole and sopaipillas.
The sopaipillas alone are reason enough to visit La Panza. The fluffy pockets of dough can be ordered as a side dish, in a sundae with Mexican chocolate sauce or as a very filling main course. The squash-filled sopaipilla comes smothered with cheese and your choice of chile sauces; it is nestled next to heaps of posole and pinto beans.
Razatos says that while the stuffed sopaipillas are one of La Panza’s most popular dishes, their preparation is “deceptively simple, but very difficult to master.” Her husband, Chef Andy Razatos, has been cooking them all of his life. Non-alcoholic beverages at La Panza include traditional sweetened rice milk, Mexican hot chocolate and hibiscus lemonade; cocktails include a bright magenta prickly pear margarita.
In addition to lunch and dinner, the restaurant also serves breakfast. Specialties include huevos rancheros, blue corn piñon pancakes with maple syrup, chile relleno omelettes and egg-stuffed breakfast burritos. Tofu scrambles with soy chorizo are available for those who avoid dairy products. The Razatos’ have plans to add more New Mexican favorites to the menu.
La Panza falls under the Hidden Gems category because it is rather easy to miss from the street. You might drive by the Plaid Pantry without noticing the diminutive restaurant right next to it. But if you just drive more slowly, you’ll be treated to a hearty and satisfying meal. Just be aware it is closed Mondays.
La Panza: 2425 SE 26th Ave., Portland | 503-236-5005 | lapanzacafe.com |