Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (2024)

The Washington area, long lacking in quality options, is finally experiencing its Mexican food moment. And a Falls Church taqueria, featuring a fascinating culinary mashup, is at its epicenter. A classic Mexican taqueria that also happens to be completely halal, La Tingeria honors both the rich food culture that immigrants from Mexico have brought to the United States, as well as the ingenuity that is a defining mark of America’s most successful immigrant restaurateurs.

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (1)

(Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (2)

(Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (3)

(Hector Emanuel for The Washington Post)

The story is told in a single dish. Al pastor — marinated pork layered on a rotating spit — is perhaps Mexico’s most popular type of taco.

Its roots, though, are from the Middle East: The handheld favorites were made with lamb by Lebanese migrants who brought the shawarma cooking technique and equipment with them.

“Mexico made its variation with pork, and we’re just bringing it back 360 and doing it the halal way,” Chef and owner David Andres Peña told me, when describing his restaurants signature “Hal Pastor” offering.

Peña developed his skills at Arlington’s Italian mainstay Rustico before opening his popular food truck in Arlington. Early in the pandemic, when offices were abandoned, Peña’s regular customers vanished, too. On the recommendation of a friend, he started doing halal-only days for a Muslim community eager to broaden its culinary horizons while adhering to their religious traditions. It was an immediate success. When Peña had the opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar shop, staying halal just felt like the right thing to do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jason Rezaian: What are the challenges of being an immigrant restaurant owner?

David Andres Peña: My parents were 17 and 18 years old when they left Mexico. They didn’t know a lick of English but now both have successful careers. They own a home, completely paid off; both have successful jobs they can retire from. I felt like, What is my excuse? Knowing all that, I’ve always pushed myself in every job that I’ve had.

But there are skills that we were never taught when we were little. We were always taught just to work, work, work. And my parents would tell me to save money. What I’m learning now is not just about saving, but also learning how to invest — learning to use your money to make more money, about good debt and bad debt.

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (4)

Is there a food from home that you can’t get here?

There are so many places where you can buy actual Mexican products. We can replicate all the flavors of Mexico. Especially in this area, we have so many international stores. The produce available is just crazy.

Is there an aroma that takes you back to Mexico?

Every time I come [to the restaurant], especially if I come here later in the day, just going in the back and smelling the tacos — that reminds me of Mexico. I smell the al pastor and the tortillas. You can smell that corn cooking, that tortilla smell. That really brings back some memories.

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Do you remember your first al pastor taco?

We would travel to Mexico every year until I was 12 or 11. I remember being a little kid and always seeing that spit turning, the meat’s juices. I’ve always loved it. We didn’t [install a spit] here sooner because we didn’t have the space. But having a restaurant let us expand. And it’s all really bringing me back to my childhood and going to Mexico.

What are the ingredients you need to make your dish that aren’t readily available here? And are there ingredients that you have discovered here that have changed and reshaped your cooking?

It varies depending on the season. During the pandemic, of course, there was a lot of stuff we ran out of. We didn’t have chipotle for a while.

As for ingredients, you don’t see a lot of rosemary and thyme in Mexican cooking. But I was trained by Italians. Especially in our lengua (beef tongue) or in our chicken stock, those herbs just give it a different taste. Something else I learned from Italian chefs that I had to adapt for our brisket: braising with wine. But we use a nonalcoholic wine here.

How do these two worlds — your old world and the new world — come together in a dish?

Somebody tried to talk trash to me a while ago. He said, “I don’t get why you’re doing ‘al pastor’ with chicken. Back in Mexico, it’s only pork. So it should be pork.” I told him, “First of all, we call it Hal Pastor. And yeah, al pastor has been done with pork in Mexico. But our ingredients are the same as they would be for a traditional al pastor — it’s just with chicken.”

Before covid, we weren’t halal, but then we switched over, and we had a boom in sales. Knowing that I was bringing happiness and smiles and showing people a new kind of food — that’s why we stayed halal.

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (5)

Some people talk a lot of trash about America. But I love America. I love that I was able to combine Mexican, American and the Middle Eastern cuisine, all into one. Today, you see halal joints everywhere, serving so many different kinds of food from around the world. Being forerunners in integrating Mexican into halal options and showing people you can be successful without selling alcohol — that’s what makes me so excited about what we’re doing. And so excited about America.

Mexican restaurants in the D.C. metro area

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (6)

There are more than 1,300 Mexican

restaurants in the D.C. metro area

La Tingeria

Falls Church, Va.

D.C.

VIRGINIA

La Tingeria

Fredericksburg, Va.

Maryland

Source: Yelp

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (7)

There are more than 1,300 Mexican restaurants

in the D.C. metro area

La Tingeria

Falls Church, Va.

D.C.

VIRGINIA

Maryland

La Tingeria

Fredericksburg, Va.

Source: Yelp

Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (8)

There are more than 1,300 Mexican restaurants in the D.C. metro area

D.C.

La Tingeria

Falls Church, Va.

VIRGINIA

Maryland

La Tingeria

Fredericksburg, Va.

Source: Yelp

La Tingeria

626 S. Washington St., Falls Church, Va. (571) 648-9167.

4828 Southpoint Pkwy, Fredericksburg, Va.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: $3.5-$16.50 for all items on the menu.

Post Opinions wants to know: What are the foods and ingredients that take you back to your own childhood and where you grew up? Share your thoughts with us.

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Opinion | He used to work construction. Then he started serving up halal tacos. (2024)
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