Crisis, revolution, political unrest—upheavals are old news in Bolivia, a country that in the last century alone has all but rewritten the book on instability.
But at a Bolivian restaurant?
OK, so I’m exaggerating—but only slightly.
No blood has been shed, and no coup has occurred, but for a restaurant that has been open for all of 10 months, Palladium Restaurant and Nightclub, located in a shabby strip mall on Lee Highway in Arlington, can lay claim to a pretty turbulent history.
The place opened last spring as Luzmila’s Restaurant, a spinoff of the appealing, well-stocked Bolivian carryout and grocery on Broad Street in Falls Church called Luzmila’s Cuisine. Until health problems forced her to sell, Luzmila Ampuero both ran the business and presided over the kitchen, turning out generous, lovingly prepared home-style dishes from her native country for a small but regular crowd of émigrés like herself.
Enter Richard Cadima, an auto mechanic at the local Brown’s Honda in Arlington. Born in Bolivia and raised in the States, Cadima was “eating there all the time” anyway, becoming as familiar a presence to the staff as the tables and chairs. In September, he bought the restaurant and set to tinkering. He increased the staff, luring a second chef from one of his competitors, and made sure that “Miss Luzmila,” as he calls her, stayed on to train the new hire. But though he was careful to keep her original recipes, he also signed off on an expansion of the menu, adding a raft of Peruvian dishes. “We just don’t want to target [only] Bolivians,” he explains. And so a menu so traditional it included just two seafood options—both of them shrimp, neither of them entrees—was quickly transformed: Two kinds of seviche were added, along with a crispy whole sea bass, two kinds of grilled fish, and a seafood mixed grill.
Cadima didn’t stop there. He had big plans for the modest restaurant, intending to capitalize on the generous-sized dance floor, complete with mirror ball, adjacent to the dining area and transform Luzmila’s from a place where expats gathered to eat into a place where they would gather to eat and drink and party. Before Cadima, the restaurant kept late-night hours only on Friday and Saturday; now it now stays open after midnight from Thursday through Sunday. Not content to serve only beer and wine, Cadima applied for a full liquor license. And, of course, he changed the name, dispensing with the reassuring evocation of an abuelita at the stove in favor of a ’70s-era disco moniker. This in itself would not be cause for alarm, but when you add in the fact that Cadima decided to keep his day job, the prospect of the restaurant’s continued success begins to sound more and more dubious.
The good news is that so far at least, the place shows little outward inclination of becoming the hot spot Cadima envisions. The first thing you notice as you walk in is the big-screen TV tuned to a Spanish-language soap, the characters bathed in a green glow, casualties of poor tuning. The second thing you notice is the spots of ground-in dirt on the nearby tablecloths. The third thing you notice? That the first two things hardly matter, because although this new-again operation might not be the most meticulous in matters external, when it comes to the details of the kitchen, it gets just about everything right. It might just serve the best Bolivian food in the area.
Meals begin well, with a complimentary bread basket (a wonderfully soft, airy roll with a dish of llajua, sweet-hot green-pepper sauce, for judicious spooning), and get better. Salteñas, those flaky, hand-held pot pies, their tops egg-washed and baked to a finish as glossy as a freshly waxed car, not only are light, but also manage to maintain the delicate balance between savory and sweet. And I love the papa relleno, which, with its accompanying simple salad, makes for a nice small meal: mashed potatoes stuffed with chopped, seasoned beef (with fresh oregano), mounded to resemble a mini-Nerf football and given a light, golden fry.
The kitchen is less assured with its corn-based appetizers. Humintas—steamed, sweet corn cakes that most closely resemble tamales de elotes—are drier than they need to be, and the choclo con queso, which calls to mind a cob of corn on steroids, is virtually impossible to eat with anything approaching delicacy. Best, probably, to cut off the giant, waxy kernels with a knife and then spear them with a hunk of the accompanying salty queso.
The heart of the menu, even after the sea-based additions, remains the various preparations of beef. You’ll find everything from the grilled to the sauteed to the sauced (the spicy falso conejo) to the breaded and fried (the appealing milanesa de carne) to the marinated and roasted (the papaya-soaked lapping). My favorite is asado tira, a plate of short ribs smeared with chimichurri and then given a quick but proper grilling. The meat isn’t butchered in the traditional manner—the cuts are made not parallel to the bone, but crossways. The plate arrives bearing three large strips of beef, each with three unmistakable eyelets of bone. The meat is salty and occasionally chewy, but surprisingly pink and juicy inside.
There are two chicken dishes—discounting the milanesa de pollo, a sandwich—and of these the better by far is the picante de pollo, a half-chicken simmered in a peppery red sauce and strewn with onions and peppers. It’s tremendously satisfying, though the kitchen feels a need to round it out with a couple of boiled potatoes, a heaping of fluffy oiled rice, and a chalky frozen-potato mixture that could satisfy only the homesick.
I’m less crazy about the enrollado, a dish of stuffed and rolled diced pork. It’s pretty to look at—sliced and quartered cubes arrayed about a vinegared salad of onion, tomato, and carrot—and the kitchen is generous in its portioning, but the terrine-like cubes possess an unapologetically porky quality that is best appreciated in small doses.
Cadima has retained Miss Luzmila’s special weekend menu, providing émigrés a chance to sample some of the long-simmered dishes of their native Bolivia. A few weeks back, I sat with my wife in the dining room on a slow Sunday night, picking my way through the pampaku, a supersized platter of chicken, duck, and pork, my stomach expanding by degrees as a stream of young men made their way to the karaoke stage and awkwardly belted out Spanish-language ballads for their dates.
Was Cadima in the house? I wondered. And if so, could he see just what a little gem of a place he had here, all by its humble self? The crowd, though small for the sometimes drafty dining room, seemed to be having a great time. If neither the clunky musical production nor the heavy, peasanty food seemed a good fit with the slick-sounding new name, that was—for me anyway—cause for relief. In short, I was having exactly the kind of night out that the old Luzmila’s was almost sure to deliver—and that, with any luck, the soon-to-be-clubby Palladium will keep on delivering.
Palladium Restaurant and Nightclub, 5171 Lee Highway, Arlington, (703) 241-8701. —Todd Kliman
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