David Pena’s culinary career began at Rustico, where he worked his way up the line to sous-chef over the course of three years split between the Arlington and Alexandria locations. When it was his turn to cook the family meal for the restaurant staff, he would oftentimes make tinga based on recipes handed down by his Mexican mother and grandmother. The casual, comforting stewed meats spiced with chipotle sauce were always a hit with Pena’s colleagues, who half-jokingly told him more than once that he should make nothing but tinga full-time.
This past summer, the 24-year-old Arlingtonian decided to make a go of it with a food truck. He roped in his cousin, Alex Garcia, who had some experience at Rustico, to help out. La Tingeria hit Arlington streets in late July with a focused, no-fuss menu. I tried everything on it and spent just $18, including tip.
Pena’s former co-workers were spot on: He makes top-notch tinga. The beef brisket version is braised for four hours with carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns and kosher salt, then shredded. Chicken is similarly prepared. The results are flavorable, moist and memorable. Pena also offers less-impressive, slow-cooked beef cubes that are quickly griddled before they’re served, and a commendably spicy ground chorizo handmade by the butchers at Americana Grocery in Woodbridge.
Any of those proteins can be put into any of the four hand-held options available: tostadas, tacos, sopes and quesadillas. Each single item is reasonably priced at $2.50; you probably want to order two or three for a serving.
The beef tostada de tinga comes topped with a bit of fresh Mexican cheese and chopped lettuce. You can add more flavor by applying the complimentary house-made salsa verde (grilled tomatillos, cilantro, onion and garlic) or the tomato-habanero salsa.
La Tingeria’s quesadilla is not like those you would order at a fast-casual restaurant, and that’s a good thing. House-made corn flour dough is flattened, folded over with mozzarella at the core, pinched off at the ends and fried to order. Once it’s golden, the quesadilla is split open and filled with lettuce, sour cream and your choice of meat. I recommend chicken or chorizo.
The tacos were surprisingly underwhelming. Two-ply corn tortillas come filled with your choice of meat. They were supposed to be complemented by onions, salsa and chopped cilantro; ours arrived without any extras.
The Elote Locos ($2) made up for the misstep: skewered, steamed ears of corn, lavished with creamy mayonnaise, a strong squeeze of fresh lime juice, crumbled queso fresco and a sprinkle of lemon-zested chili powder. They beg to be devoured quickly. Don’t forget to ask for a few napkins. You’re going to need them.