By Ken Alan
David Steiger is a veteran restaurateur with a background that includes time at Stephen Starr’s Buddakan in Center City Philadelphia. More recently, he served as director of operations for Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar. La Piña Valley Cantina is the 42-year-old’s first solo venture, and it celebrates the vibrant, pepper-flecked flavors of Mexico via its updated interpretations of classic fare.
La Piña is Spanish for the pineapple, a well-known symbol of hospitality that Steiger has taken to heart. His staff offers a warm welcome to guests—and this allegiance to comfort is reflected in the kitchen, where fellow Starr alum Angel Diaz Rivera lends atypical panache to a mostly familiar list of specialties from northern Mexico. Tacos, tortas, marinated meats, fresh seafood and other enhanced street foods are prepared with a keen focus on presentation.
Those dishes pair well with a beverage program that’s naturally skewed toward tequila more than 70 varieties in all, from traditional pours to rare aged offerings. Not surprisingly, La Piña’s margaritas are excellent, and an impressive selection of mezcal—tequila’s smoky cousin—includes George Clooney’s much-publicized Casamigos brand. For the bar’s wicked take on an Old Fashioned, a lit piece of cedar plank is extinguished in an empty, overturned glass before mezcal is added. It’s like drinking a liquid bonfire, with a taste akin to a peaty single-malt scotch.
Interestingly enough, the cantina’s straight-back booths and bar shelves are fashioned from reclaimed church pews. The visual centerpiece is a striking wall mural, a feminine Day of the Dead visage with piercing gray eyes painstakingly created by David’s 76-year-old aunt.
One crunch will tell you that the tortilla chips are baked in-house. The accompanying salsa has some nice heat to go with its tang, and fresh guacamole is prepared tableside with a pestle-wielding flourish. I enjoyed the shrimp ceviche’s citrusy freshness and the bite of the jicama and shaved fennel. The grilled octopus was light on the garlic and heavy on flavor.
There’s an ample assortment of tacos, of which the carne asada and cheesy chicken tinga were standouts. A welcomed Tex-Mex touch finds its way into the chicken enchiladas verde. For the record, my side of esquites—creamy corn salad with lime, cilantro and spices—had potential but was a little too watery.
La Piña’s Lechon & Tamarindo entrée, on the other hand, is a multitextured marvel, comprised of slow-roasted suckling pig basted in its own rendered fat and juices, with calabaza (sweet squash) purée and baby carrots on the side. Also exceptional was the chorizo-filled pozole, an earthy paella-like stew.
The stand-alone property in Garnet Valley Plaza has plenty of parking and offers easy access when coming north. For those coming the other way on U.S. 202, turning left requires patience, especially during rush hour. But La Piña Valley Cantina’s Pineapple Standard should make it worth the wait.
This article originally appeared in Delaware Today.