116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Despite having more than two dozen Mexican restaurants in Cedar Rapids — the largest category of locally owned restaurants after American food categories — La Chamba manages to stand out from the crowd in the City of Five Seasons.
“We’re from Mexico, but (the food) is totally different,” co-owner Sarahi Santos said. “It’s not the same.”
Santos and husband Rayo, of Coralville, are joining forces with Liz Valez and husband Jose, of Cedar Rapids, to bring two new regions of Mexican food to town. Santos and Rayo come from Mexico’s southern Pacific state of Guerrero. Jose Valez hails from La Piedad, a city northwest of Guerrero in the state of Michoacan.
In a departure from the style of most other Cedar Rapids restaurants, which they say is based on the cuisine from central Mexico City, diners will notice a few different things at La Chamba.
“It’s the same concept, just a little bit different,” Liz explained.
What: La Chamba
Where: 5001 First Ave. SE, Suite 104, Cedar Rapids; Located in the same plaza as Fieldhouse First Avenue
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Phone: (319) 775-4014
Website: Find La Chamba on Facebook
Details: Open for dine-in and carryout only; Currently, there is no delivery service
La Piedad salsas are fire-roasted instead of boiled, she said. The city’s food uses different chilies, tomatoes and peppers than typical Mexican cuisine, causing a normally dark red Chile Colorado, for example, to appear bright and almost orange. Different meats bring a new variety to the table with more cuts like rib-eye in use.
Guerrero uses different seasonings than in La Piedad, with a preference for pan roasting them and a strong penchant for epazote in a mix of fresh herbs rather than dried. Epazote, which is distinctly aromatic, is also known for reducing the gas associated with beans. That may come in handy for some of their dishes, which use whole beans.
For those looking for a little extra kick in a restaurant that doesn’t shy away from its heritage to appease tamer palates, Santos’ mother makes a spicy salsa with chiles de arbol, a potent pepper. Aside from the spice level, La Chamba’s salsa has a more full-bodied flavor than other Mexican restaurants, Liz said.
Side-by-side, specialties from both parts of Mexico are available for lunch, dinner and even breakfast in a growing scene for Mexican breakfast in Cedar Rapids. Entrees are not a fusion — plates offer flavors from either La Piedad or Guerrero, allowing each to stand on its own merits.
Although they’re a newcomer to the birria scene heating up in Cedar Rapids, the three Mexican natives and Liz, from Illinois, are confident enough to proclaim that Santos’ mother cooks their birria tacos the correct way.
“They do a dry rub first and then marinate it,” Liz said. “They don’t just dump it all in one pot. Birria around here (at other restaurants) — they just put it in a pot and let it boil.”
Convincingly, the owners of La Chamba also know how to pronounce birria correctly — with an emphasis on the rolled r’s some English speakers struggle with, not the second i, as others in the birria restaurant scene tend to do.
If you want birria tacos comparable to the structure of others in town, make sure you order your tacos with queso. With balanced seasoning, you can distinguish the individual components in a sea of flavors without relying on the consomme broth.
Other signatures at La Chamba include La Piedad tacos made with slightly sweet, seasoned cactus leaves. Meat options include steak, carnitas and their homemade chorizo, which allows unique savory flavors to reach your senses before the spices do. Tacos are topped with whole beans.
Costillas present riblets slow cooked in chile verde alongside potatoes. Intact on the bone, the meat retains more flavor with a crisp outer edge and moisture inside.
Breakfast and dessert are not afterthoughts here, either. A large breakfast menu makes the backgrounds of Liz and Rayo apparent after having worked together for years at Perkins.
Here, you’ll find an unusually large number of sweet items for a Mexican restaurant, including homemade crepes with strawberry parfait and tres leche or banana split pancakes. Alongside them are more traditional Mexican options like vatos omelet with steak, chorizo and jalapenos, or the Huevos Divorciados with red sauce and a rib-eye.
For dessert, try the choco flan, a dense chocolate cake base topped with the custard-based flan. Sweet empanadas are another confection made by hand there.
After decades working at various restaurants — Perkins, Fiesta del Sol, La Cantina, LongHorn Steakhouse and more — the quartet pooled their resources to make a dream happen for Rayo and Jose. The space near Lindale Mall opened after the departure of VIP Sushi.
Rayo knew how to make good food that stood out from the crowd. Jose previously sold food from home. Both always wanted the opportunity to serve it to others, so after years of saving, La Chamba opened in early March.
“This is their dream,” Liz said. “We’re here to make it come true.”
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