***Update: La Costenita, sadly, has closed. Those tamales will be missed. We’re leaving this post up, but this restaurant is CLOSED.***
Sometimes, when I have a really terrific dining experience at a place where I didn’t expect to have one, I think: “Maybe I just caught these folks on a good day.” My recent experiences at La Costenita may have all happened on great days, but at this point, I’m thinking it’s simpler than that. I am thinking that this very humble eatery at 2601 Lakeshore Drive in Shreveport is serving some of the best authentic Mexican food in Shreveport-Bossier.
The Veracruz-style tamales ($2.75 apiece), which are only served on Fridays and Saturdays, are unlike any others I’ve had in Shreveport-Bossier. Available in chicken or pork versions, they are steamed in plantain leaves and stuffed with giant, spicy chunks of meat. On my most recent visit, my chicken tamale contained an entire chicken drumette (I take it this is how it’s done in Veracruz), cooked to tenderness in the Maseca dough and topped with a wonderful chipotle sauce. I ate the pork tamales, too, but am still sort of daydreaming about the chicken version.
“The typical way of doing tamales in Veracruz is in a plantain leaf,” I was told by Tony Rios, son of owner and cook Alma Rios-Rivera. “That’s because it’s a coastal area, so plantain trees are everywhere.”
Over the course of a few visits, I’ve also enjoyed several other dishes, some of which have been flat-out attractive. The asado de puerco ($10.95, pictured in featured image), a smoky red chile pork stew, was simple and profoundly good. Tender chunks of pork are served in a smoky, piquant adobo sauce with handmade tortillas. Sopes ($2.50 each) are adorable little corncakes topped with spicy shredded chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, avocado, sour cream and queso fresco.
All of this great stuff is cooked by Alma Rios-Rivera, winner of the 2014 State Fair of Louisiana Hispanic Heritage Day’s Tamale Cook-Off. Rios-Rivera grew up in Veracruz, Mexico, the oldest of seven children. As the oldest, she learned to cook as her mother’s kitchen assistant. She helped her mother sell pastries, tamales and cut flowers from their home. Later, the family operated a small restaurant in Veracruz before relocating to Lufkin, Texas in 1995 and to Shreveport in 1997. She worked at Pancho’s Buffet in Bossier City for six years, starting out as a salad bar attendant and working her way up to assistant kitchen manager.
“I would watch the way they prepared the chile relleno,” she told me, her son translating our conversation. “And it made me mad.”
I asked: “Is that why you wanted to start an authentic restaurant like this, even though Tex-Mex is more popular around here?”
“There’s too many Tex-Mex,” she responded, not missing a beat. I kind of wanted to hug her at that point, but figured that’d be weird.
19 cooks created tamales for the State Fair of Louisiana contest, many submitting multiple entries. Rios-Rivera just brought one entry. Arriving late, she barely made it in time to enter the contest, and was pushed to the end of the table by other entrants. As the judges began to announce winners, she turned to her husband and asked: “What should I say when I win?” After she won the contest, she says, it just felt like she was meant to return to cooking. The family opened La Costenita in December of 2014.
If you like tamales – or fresh, authentic Mexican food, in general – it’s worth making the trip to Lakeshore Drive.