CORALVILLE — Crackling fire and a campfire aroma are the first thing you notice when you walk into La Vecina, a new restaurant in Coralville’s Iowa River Landing.
The restaurant was opened June 12 by Sam Hall and Ravi, Raj and Sajni Patel of Hawkeye Hotels, which has properties across the country. This is their third restaurant in the Corridor, along with Clinton Street Social Club, which they bought in 2017, and Marquee Pizzeria, another Iowa River Landing eatery.
La Vecina features Mexican food cooked over a wood fire, with the kitchen open to the dining room so customers can watch their food roasting and smoking over the flames.
“We’re doing such a unique, fun, historic way of cooking, so we wanted to showcase it,” Hall said.
The menu was inspired by cuisine from the Mexican regions of Oaxca and Baja, with an emphasis on seafood and masa, flour made from heirloom corn imported from Mexico. La Vecina’s staff turn it into masa flour with a traditional method called nixtamlization before cooking the tortillas.
“The masa will always be the heart of our menu,” Hall said. “We just wanted to honor the region of Oaxaca with the corn.”
Because of the focus on corn, they only have one menu item, avocado tacos, that is not gluten free, Hall said.
“The menu is meant to be shareable,” he said. “I just felt like it’s a very fun experience, sharing food, talking about the dishes.”
La Vecina translates to “The Neighbor,” which Hall said encapsulates the vibe he wants for the restaurant.
“It best symbolized what I wanted it to feel like when you walk in,” he said.
The food includes small plate starters like baked oysters, grilled shrimp, guacamole and salsa, plus an assortment of tacos. They also have larger entrees such as Tampiquena, a ribeye steak served with salsa and avocado and roasted garlic, and Pollo Dominguero, roasted chicken with spring onion and salsa. They plan to further expand the offerings with dishes such as lamb, tamales and desserts.
Research for the restaurant came from books, travels and eating at other restaurants, Hall said. Austin in particular was a gastronomic inspiration, and James Beard-nominated Austin chef Rene Ortiz teamed up with La Vecina’s executive chef, Will Evans, to develop the menu.
The wood fire kitchen setup includes an oven with smoker attachment, a flat-top cooking surface over charcoal and a grill. Chickens and pineapples alike can soak up smoke while suspended from hooks over the fire.
All of this lets diners eat with their eyes and noses first, long before food hits the table.
“My favorite part of the open kitchen is the aesthetics. You get a lot of oohs and aahs,” Evans said. “It adds to the theatrics.”
Managing the fire is more involved than simply turning on a gas or electric oven.
“You have to get started early and try to maintain it without it getting too hot, while still maintaining minimal heat,” he said. “Fire’s a beast, but you tame it, and at the end of it, it’s fruitful and fun. ... This is the oldest form of cooking.”
He helped Hall open Marquee Pizzeria, which uses a wood-fired oven and is in Iowa River Landing.
“Marquee gave us the steppingstones to handle and manage wood,” Evans said. “Smoke is pretty much incorporated into every aspect of our menu.”
Hall said cooking with fire at Marquee made him want to try different cuisines with the tactic.
“I just love the wood fire. A couple of day ago, my mom told me, ‘You were always the one playing with the fire at the end of camping,’” he said. “It’s the unknown. It’s hard. It’s a challenge. You have to master how to feed the fire, to maintain it. It’s the root of civilization. It’s a lot more cooking with feelings. ... You have to watch it a lot closer, to understand how it cooks under low fire and high fire.”
Jay Sanders, who is director of bar operations for the restaurant group, said La Vecina has an “agave-focused bar,” with a selection of mezcal and tequilas alongside signature cocktails.
“They’re bright, fresh and vegetal to complement the food,” Sanders said.
Several drinks feature produce, like the Bellringer, with tequila, gin, yellow bell pepper, basil and lime, or the Field of Dreams, with cachaca, sweet corn, honey, cinnamon and lemon.
“I look at the food menu first and the ingredients it works with. I try to complement the food as much as I can,” Sanders said.
In a small backroom, a second bar is under construction. It will be a “secret bar,”
Sanders said, with a host to let people in and it’s own entrance off the back of the building. They plan to call it 400 Rabbits, after an Aztec myth about the 400 rabbit gods birthed by Mayahuel, the goddess who gave humans the agave plant, from which tequila and mezcal are made. Legend says when a party has a good vibe, one of the rabbits is present, Sanders said. That’s the convivial spirit he wants the bar to evoke. It is slated to open later this summer and will have a separate drink menu.
“It’s just about enjoying the drinks in front of you and the people you’re here with,” he said.
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If You Go
• What: La Vecina
• Where: 211 E. Ninth St., #135, Coralville
• Hours: Kitchen open 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; bar open until midnight Friday and Saturday
• Details: (319) 359-1343, lavecinarestaurante.com