In Berkeley, La Pena Cultural Center and Cafe La Pena are cultural hubs for showcasing art and cuisine with a strong emphasis on Latin American countries. The cultural center has strong historical ties and was started in 1975 as a response to the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. Through the 1970s and ’80s, during wars in El Salvador and other parts of Central America, the cultural center became a safe haven for Central American refugees. La Pena also aims to stay closely connected to groups in Latin America that organize cultural events. It strives to show relevant associations between art and politics and to recognize the cultural, social and political struggles for Latin Americans. The center serves to not only make local connections, but national and international ones as well.
Cafe La Pena opened last July under the management of the cultural center. The cafe serves cuisine that complements the center’s showcases and events. We came to sample Nora Mobile Spanish Cuisine & Catering’s first “pop-up” Spanish cuisine and ¡Cine, Cena y Cerveza! (dinner, drinks, and a movie) event that complemented the Spanish film, Volver. We ate several dishes, starting with a cangrejo and then a paella. Cangrejo, meaning crab, was a dish with Dungeness crab cake, piquillo peppers, saffron aioli and organic greens. The Dungeness crab cake texture was not overly bread-like, which is an uncommon characteristic of crab cakes. Chopped vegetables, such as onion and pepper, were in the middle of the crab cake. We enjoyed the stringy texture of the crab cake and also its creamier taste. The organic greens in the center of the dish included arugula with very subtle, light-tasting vinaigrette, fennel pieces and olives. The olives spiced up the otherwise bland arugula.
Paella is a Valencian rice dish typically served with vegetables and seafood. This particular one had chicken, chorizo, calamari, shrimp and peas. The dish came in a scalding-hot pan, which continued to cook a thin layer of rice at the bottom, creating a crispy texture. The crispy texture was unique and provided a contrast to the softer rice in the rest of the pan. The taste of the freshly made-to-order dish reminded us of home-cooked food with its soft consistency, rich taste and similarity to the food that mom cooks at home. The dish appeared simple and was not overly arranged or fancy, which reminded us even more of home. The paella tasted of spices and was strong and salty, just how paella should be. The seafood tasted fresh and clean. Another strong point of this paella is that the rice did not smother the ingredients; many times, chefs pack ingredients in the dish, and the unique taste of rice does not stand out anymore. We thought this paella was successful because we were satisfied just by the rice, and in the end, dug out forkfuls of it.
Before a sweet dessert came a plate of cheeses: Mahon Curado, Idiazabal, Truffle Tremor and membrillo. If we had to pick one plate, we would choose this one as the star. We had never eaten cheeses with quince paste, real honeycomb with honey, almonds and apple slices, and the combinations work together beautifully. Mahon curado is cow’s milk cheese from Minorca, Spain and has a nutty and rich flavor. Idiazabal is sheep milk cheese from the Basque Country or Navarre, Spain with a smoky, nutty and buttery flavor when eaten fresh. The last type of cheese, Truffle Tremor, is from goat milk and made in California, with an earthy herb-like taste. The Mahon Curado initially tastes like a lighter cheese, but chewing through it brings out its true sharp, buttery flavor, slightly reminiscent of sea salt. This cheese went beautifully with the quince paste, which is made from quince fruits and sugar. The light honey’s slight sweetness and floral flavor also balanced the strong and rich flavor of the Mahon Curado. The fruity, slightly acidic taste of the paste balanced out the strong, sharp cheese. The Idiazabal tasted balanced and delicious with the almonds and quince paste, whereas the apple slices offset the strong taste of the cheese. The pairings of cheese with apple slices, almonds, real honeycomb, honey and quince paste were very unique, as we had not encountered these pairings before this meal.
Another dessert we tasted was basil ice cream with chunks of goat cheese. We could smell the light and fragrant basil in the ice cream when it was served, and the ice cream was very creamy with goat cheese bits spread evenly throughout the ice cream. The ice cream itself was already very smooth, and the goat cheese made it even smoother with its buttery, viscous texture. The only aspect that needed slight improvement was the size of goat cheese chunks; the goat cheese overpowered the light and fresh taste of ice cream, and at one point, we could barely taste the ice cream and only had the creamy strong taste of goat cheese. Other than that, the ice cream was unique as we had never eaten a basil ice cream anywhere else, and the goat cheese paired well with the basil.
The last dish served was the classic Spanish dish of churros dipped in thick, semi-sweet dark chocolate, a fun treat in Spain. Many chocolate dipping sauces for churros end up being too sweet and fill the mouth with sugar, making it too creamy to continue eating; however, this sauce tasted slightly of dark chocolate with hints of cacao. As for the churros, they were perfectly crunchy; they held together and had a softer inner portion that contrasted the outer crunchiness. The dessert was a great homemade ending to the Spanish meal.
Cafe La Pena remains a place to showcase food artistry, pairing with the cultural center to showcase different parts of Hispanic and Latin American culture. The cafe hosts many other pop-up events with cultural performances from different countries, and the cuisine ties well with the cultural events to provide a more wholesome event for guests to understand a specific country’s cultural and culinary traditions.