Tacos La Piedad at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
A selection of menu items at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Choco Flan at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Costillas in Salsa Verde at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Tres Leches Pancakes at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Canterito at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
CEDAR RAPIDS — Although there are more than two dozen Mexican restaurants in Cedar Rapids — the largest local restaurant category 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,” said co-owner Sarahi Santos. “It’s not the same thing.”
Santos and her husband Rayo, of Coralville, are teaming up with Liz Valez and her husband Jose, of Cedar Rapids, to bring two new regions of Mexican cuisine to town. Santos and Rayo come from the Mexican state of Guerrero in the South Pacific. Jose Valez is from La Piedad, a town northwest of Guerrero in the state of Michoacan.
Unlike the style of most other restaurants in Cedar Rapids, which they claim is based on central Mexico City cuisine, diners will notice a few different things at La Chamba.
“It’s the same concept, just a little different,” Liz explained.
If you are going to:
What: La Chamba
Or: 5001 First Ave. SE, Suite 104, Cedar Rapids; Located on 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
Call: (319) 775-4014
Website: Find La Chamba on Facebook
Details: Open only for meals on site and to take away; Currently there is no delivery service
La Piedad’s salsas are grilled instead of boiled, she said. City food uses different chilies, tomatoes, and peppers than typical Mexican cuisine, which makes a normally dark red Colorado Chili, for example, appear shiny and almost orange. Different meats bring new variety to the table with more cuts like ribeye in use.
Guerrero uses different seasonings than La Piedad, with a preference for pan-roasting and a strong penchant for epazote in a mixture of fresh rather than dried herbs. Epazote, which is distinctly aromatic, is also known to reduce grain-associated gas. This can be useful 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 whips up a spicy salsa with chilies de arbol, a potent chili. Spice level aside, 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 Mexican breakfast scene in Cedar Rapids. Appetizers are not a fusion – plates offer flavors from La Piedad or Guerrero, allowing each to stand out.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the birria scene heating up in Cedar Rapids, the three Mexicans and Liz, from Illinois, are confident enough to proclaim that Santos’ mother cooks their birria tacos correctly.
“They do a dry rub first and then marinate it,” Liz said. “They don’t just throw everything into one pot. Birria here (in 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 – emphasizing the rolled r’s that some English speakers struggle with, not the second i, as others in the birria restaurant scene tend to do it.
If you want birria tacos comparable to the structure of others in town, be sure to order your tacos with queso. With balanced seasoning, you can distinguish the individual components in a sea of flavors without relying on the broth being consumed.
Other La Chamba signatures include La Piedad tacos made with lightly sweetened and seasoned cactus leaves. Meat options include steak, carnitas, and their homemade chorizo, which allows the unique savory flavors to reach your senses before the spices. The tacos are topped with whole beans.
Costillas feature slow-cooked chili verde chops alongside potatoes. Undamaged on the bone, the meat retains more flavor with a crispy outer edge and moisture inside.
Breakfast and dessert are also not afterthoughts. A large breakfast menu highlights Liz and Rayo’s background after working together for years at Perkins.
Here, you’ll find an unusually high number of sweet items for a Mexican restaurant, including homemade pancakes with strawberry parfait and tres leche or banana split pancakes. Alongside them are more traditional Mexican options like the vatos omelette with steak, chorizo, and jalapenos, or the Huevos Divorciados with red sauce and rib eye.
For dessert, try the choco flan, a dense chocolate cake base topped with a custard-based flan. Sweet empanadas are another handmade confection there.
After decades of working at various restaurants — Perkins, Fiesta del Sol, La Cantina, LongHorn Steakhouse and more — the foursome pooled their resources to make a dream come true for Rayo and Jose. The space near Lindale Mall opened after VIP Sushi left.
Rayo knew how to make great food that stood out from the crowd. Jose previously sold food from doorsteps. Both have always wanted the opportunity to serve it to others, so after years of saving money, La Chamba opened its doors in early March.
“It’s their dream,” Liz said. “We are here to make it happen.”
Three Amigos at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
The Supreme Skillet at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Prickly Pear Margarita at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Double-o-siete cocktail party at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
José Valdez, Liz Valdez, Sarahi Santos and Martín Rayos stand for a portrait at La Chamba in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
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