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The neon sign glowing in the window at El Pike in Arlington promises salteñas in big red letters, looking as seductive to me as anything I’d encounter on a stroll down Amsterdam’s red-light district. The culinary come-hither, however, proves to be nothing but a tease once I grab a seat at this modest Bolivian outpost on Columbia Pike. Though we don’t share the same language, the waitress manages to tell me that the kitchen has run out of salteñas, which apparently happens a lot on weekdays.
I’m dumbfounded. Not only is El Pike known for this braided, Bolivian equivalent of the empanada, but the savory pastry is also the national dish of the South American country. A Bolivian restaurant with no salteñas? Isn’t that like a Mexican restaurant without tacos? A Peruvian restaurant without ceviche? McDonald’s without fat kids?
I have no backup plan once I hear the bad news. I eventually settle on a breaded steak called silpancho and slump back into my seat, hoping to nurse my resentment with a bottle of Paceña beer and a non-stop feed of cheesy Bolivian music videos, circa 1980s, on an overhead TV. By the time my food arrives, I’m lost in a world of synth drums, voluptuous divas, and Latin mullets.
The silpancho snaps me back to the real world. The beef is as large as a small Caribbean island and, despite its coating, as thin as wax paper. The meat is topped with an equally thin layer of “Bolivian salad”—essentially diced tomatoes and red onions—and conceals a wealth of ingredients underneath its beefy mass, including soft, spuddy fries, white rice, and two fried eggs. Once I break the yolks, releasing a rivulet onto my rice, I take a forkful of the yellow-coated grains and pair them with the salad-covered cutlet. I’m taken aback by the flavors, at once rich and meaty and acidic. The dish has better balance than LeBron James.
As I wolf down my silpancho, I begin wondering, how on earth had I missed this dish all these years? I must confess that, until recently, I was pretty ignorant of the Bolivian food in the area.
As I started to research the subject, I discovered others already on the job. Earlier this year, D.C. Foodies wrote a smart piece about the Bolivian options in Northern Virginia, which led me to other articles, notably Douglas Hanks III’s excellent 2001 overview, “The Saltena Circuit,” in the Washington Post. A common theme to each piece—aside from the salteñas—is the fact that the D.C. area is home to one of the largest Bolivian populations in America, ranging from 13,000 to perhaps 40,000 expats.
And yet Bolivian food flies under the radar, at least when compared to Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Korean cuisines, which cater to equally large immigrant communities here. How to explain the discrepancy? Part of the problem may be that Bolivians, unlike Vietnamese with the Eden Center in Falls Church or Ethiopians with Little Ethiopia on Ninth Street NW, don’t have a centralized location to draw patrons and repeated media attention. Strangers to the cuisine must navigate the strange, sometimes contradictory world of Bolivian eateries, like Tutto Bene Italian Restaurant and Grill in Arlington.
Tutto Bene is owned by Orlando Murillo, a native of La Paz. He bought the restaurant two decades ago from his former bosses, who once relied on Murillo to manage the eateries in their small Italian Oven chain. His reward for seven years of loyal service was the opportunity to purchase the Arlington location, which Murillo promptly renamed Tutto Bene. He kept the Italian-American menu.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Murillo started adding Bolivian food. He was then the president of a Bolivian soccer league and was starting to field questions about why his restaurant wasn’t serving the expat community better. “At the moment, it wasn’t popular to mix cuisines,” he says. So he decided to quietly add salteñas; six months later, he had a full-fledged Bolivian menu.
But you can’t just walk into Tutto Bene any day of the week and order salteñas or silpancho or other Bolivian dishes. Murillo serves the food only on the weekends, when Tutto Bene, a classic red-sauce house, becomes a defacto Bolivian restaurant. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the place fills with Latino families fussing over their salteñas or fricase paceño; the latter is a steaming bowl of spicy pork soup larded down with hominy, freeze-dried potatoes called chuños, and large chunks of pork belly, sometimes complete with protruding pig nipples. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Such fatty, if almost Freudian, moments help explain why Bolivian food remains on the margins of the American mainstream, Murillo tells me. The staple of the Bolivian diet, he says, is meat and more meat; the typical lunch includes a soup with meat and an entrée of beef, chicken, or liver. “If you don’t have meat in Bolivia, it’s like you don’t have anything to eat,” Murillo says.
I can see how such a rich diet wouldn’t sit well with certain non-Bolivians, but I don’t understand, at all, how the salteña is not among the iconic ethnic dishes of D.C., along with pho, pupusas, and falafel. These golden brown pockets may be the most unique of them all.
The hard outer shell is a baked mixture of sugar, shortening, and high-gluten flour, perfect for holding the soupy contents that occupy the hollow of a salteña. The trick is learning how to eat one. Never use a spoon, even if your server gives you one. Hold the salteña in one hand and break the top off with the other. Wolf down the top, drink the liquid as necessary, and then start nibbling around the edges, making sure to eat both the pastry and the spicy, cumin-scented meat-egg-and-potato filling at the same time. It’s the only way to balance the sweet with the heat, those twin pleasures of opposite poles.
Not every place does salteñas the same, a fact I learned recently when visiting Cecilia’s in Arlington, a wood-heavy space known as much for its salsa dancing as for its Bolivian cuisine. The filling in Cecilia’s salteñas is decidedly sweeter than that at Tutto Bene; it also includes kalamata olives, which Murillo no longer uses because he hates the way olives stain the salteña shell. Frankly, I can live without them, too, but I desperately require more heat than Cecilia’s provides; without it, the salteñas have all the contrast of a Toby Keith concert.
What Cecilia’s does well, however, is charque, a heaping plate of dried shredded beef that’s fried and served atop hominy and boiled potatoes. The beef itself crackles under tooth before revealing its true nature: salty, slightly chewy bites whose harsher qualities are mellowed with chunks of fresh cheese and forkfuls of hominy onto which soft pats of butter have melted. Twenty arteries probably clogged while reading that last sentence, but my heart just started racing again—for Bolivian food that’s been hiding in plain sight.
El Pike I, 4111 Columbia Pike, Arlington, (703) 521-3010.
Tutto Bene Italian Restaurant & Grill, 501 N. Randolph St. Arlington, (703) 522-1005.
Cecilia’s, 2619 Columbia Pike, Arlington, (703) 685-0790
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.