FOOD: Not Hungry? Read About Salteñas and You Will Be!

Jimmy-thumbWith a chill in the air these past few weeks my culinary thoughts have turned to the wonderfully warming foods of the fall and winter. Most of my meals in the coming months will revolve around soups, stews, braises and the like.

Hopefully a good portion of those will include salteñas, the savory-sweet Bolivian turnovers that I just can’t seem to get enough of. The perfect cold weather food, salteñas are one of the great hand-held meat pastries I have come across, and we are lucky to have an abundance of options for them in Falls Church.

Chances are I wouldn’t even know what a salteña is had I not been raised in Northern Virginia, which has the largest population of Bolivian immigrants in the United States. The census puts the number somewhere around 47,000, but I spoke to Oswaldo Cuevas, the consul general at the Bolivian Embassy in Washington, and he thinks there are closer to 85,000 Bolivians in the region.

Like any immigrant group settling in America, Bolivians brought with them a strong attachment to their native foods. When huge waves of people started coming from Cochabamba in the mid-1980s, Arlington and Falls Church, in particular, became the breeding grounds for Bolivian restaurants serving up the famously hearty fare from the landlocked country. Salteñas were a mainstay on every menu, often times reserved for weekend service because they are so labor intensive to make.

Today the Bolivian restaurant scene remains strong, with many restaurants serving the small turnovers every day to accommodate lunchtime crowds. You’ll rarely see a Bolivian eating a salteña past noon. The national dish is usually enjoyed as a late morning snack.

I’ll take one any time of day. They are just so addictively comforting. Typically a salteña will consist of a slightly sweet, thick, egg-rich pastry crust encasing a soupy filling of beef or chicken (or both), potatoes, peas, and sometimes hard-boiled eggs and an un-pitted olive. The seasonings usually include a mix of cayenne, cumin, and oregano, used in varying proportions depending on the cook’s preferences. The ubiquitous condiment to eat with them is llajua, the Bolivian version of salsa verde, which also varies greatly depending on the restaurant.

salt2It’s the soupiness that makes salteñas so memorable and really separates them from their drier South American cousin, the empanada (well, that and the fact that they are baked, while most types of empanadas are fried). When you bite into a salteña it should ooze out piping hot meat juices. That liquid center is achieved by making the meat filling, adding gelatin, and letting it congeal overnight. When the filling is baked, the gelatin melts to create a soup-like mixture that is magically held inside the crust. There’s a skill to biting off the pastry exterior and catching the drippings that seems innate in Bolivians, but I think I’m starting to catch on. This week alone I downed nearly a half-dozen.

So, where do I go to satisfy my cravings?

Two spots in the City are near the top of my lengthy list. Luzmila’s Cuisine, a Bolivian dive on Broad Street that hums with regulars every day, offers beef and chicken varieties that are the spiciest I’ve had. The turnovers are baked off throughout the morning and await you right as you walk in, resting in heat lamps along with steamed corn and cheese pies called huminitas. Luzmila’s llajua is forgettable—it’s watery and one-note—but I forgive them. The sweet crust and mouth-tingling filling is perfectly balanced all on its own. Just beware the un-pitted olive in each one and try to eat the pastry as quickly as possible, as they are prone to sogginess after sitting in a takeout container for too long.

My other favorite in the City is La Caraqueña, a relative newcomer to the Falls Church dining scene and not a Bolivian restaurant in the strictest sense. The menu spans much of Latin America, touching down in Chile and Venezuela most often, but Chef Raul Claros is Bolivian and talks up his mixed beef and chicken salteña like a parent bragging about a child.

He’s got good reason to boast. Carlos is the only one in the area to bake each salteña to order, ensuring a piping hot product each time. His little beauties never fall victim to wet crusts and tepid fillings. The accompanying salsa verde also blows away any other rendition I’ve had. It’s bright, well-balanced, and the perfect foil for the sweet pastry crust.

My only gripe about La Caraqueña is the price. The salteñas are $4.99 a pop, which is nearly twice as much as any other place I’ve been to. That’s the kind of money I’d expect to pay in D.C. or in a fine dining establishment trying to push an upscale knock-off. But this is just a salteña, perhaps marginally better than the others in the area. I don’t see how they can justify charging so much. If I’m already sitting down to eat dinner there I’d order a few for sure, but for takeout purposes it’s too pricey and too time-consuming to wait for them to bake.

Outside of the City there are many places I wouldn’t hesitate to stop in if I had an itch to scratch. My Bakery & Café, a popular Bolivian bakery off Columbia Pike, serves a mixed beef and chicken version that is smaller than most and very generously spiced with cumin. The filling isn’t quite as soupy as I’d like it to be, but the flavor is there for sure.

saltenaIf you ever find yourself in Arlington, Tutto Bene and Pike Pizza are excellent choices that have been written up in all the area’s magazines and newspapers. Tutto Bene is an Italian restaurant run by Bolivians that serves Bolivian food on weekends only. Salteñas come in waves out of the pizza ovens and are even packed up in pizza boxes for large orders. I’ve stood in line and watched families take home three or four dozen at one time. This place is an institution and the weekend lunch rush is quite a scene. When I mentioned salteñas to Cuevas in our conversation about Bolivian immigration, he praised Tutto Bene for its authentic beef and chicken varieties. Personally, I find their crust to be quite sweet, which sometimes I’m in the mood for and other times I’m not.

Pike Pizza, on Columbia Pike in the heart of the Bolivian community, is where I had my first taste of a salteña. They serve them everyday but frequently run out—always a good sign. Between their chicken and beef versions, I prefer the chicken, which has been more consistent in my many visits. The beef can turn up gristly at times. My only problem with Pike is that on occasion you’ll get a sad-looking pastry that’s been sitting around awhile and is only lukewarm. Still, I never fail to stop in any time I drive by.

Those are the places that keep calling me back, but there are many more in the area I have yet to try. And according to Cuevas the newest waves of Bolivian immigrants are coming from the eastern regions, which have different variations on the savory pastries.

I’ve read about fish, pork, and even vegetarian versions in Bolivia, so this is an exciting prospect.

I only wish more Westerners were as thrilled as I am to be surrounded by salteñas! We should’ve embraced them as a staple takeout food for the region years ago, but we haven’t. They are still mostly consumed by Bolivians. Give one a try the next time you crave a warming winter meal. Few foods offer such a uniquely satisfying balance of flavors and textures.

Luzmila’s Cuisine (closes at 5 p.m. daily): 809 W. Broad St., Falls Church, VA, 22046. (703) 237-0047.

La Caraqueña (closed Tuesdays): 300 W. Broad St., Falls Church, VA, 22046. (703)-533-0076.

My Bakery & Café : 3508 Courtland Dr., Falls Church, VA, 22041. (703) 842-3032.

Tutto Bene (Bolivian food only on weekends): 501 N Randolph St., Arlington, VA, 2203. (703) 522-1005.

Pike Pizza: 4111 Columbia Pike, Arlington, VA. 703-521-3010.

October 9, 2009 


7 Responses to “FOOD: Not Hungry? Read About Salteñas and You Will Be!”

  1. Jim Breiling on October 9th, 2009 9:17 am

    Fascinating. Thanks for the education — and recommendation. We’ll definitely try salteñas!

  2. TFC on October 9th, 2009 5:58 pm

    I had some alterations done at Tailor Lee and the smell from Luzmilla’s was heavenly…there were a ton of folks munching outside. I’ll make an effort to stop in and try ’em. Thanks for uncovering the gems around town…

  3. Dreamingin22046 on October 9th, 2009 8:31 pm

    Hey, they have those at the EuroMarket Chevron gas station up at 7 corners! They are pretty darn good if I do say so myself. They have good produce too.

  4. Lloyd Crowther on October 9th, 2009 10:59 pm

    There used to be a Bolivian takeout on South Washington Street that had good Saltenas at a very reasonable price. I don’t know if it is still there but that’s the place I first went to get them to introduce my French wife to a Bolivian treat I used to eat almost every day during my five years living in La Paz. In Jamaica they sell a very similar, but smaller, meat tart. I I used to get a dozen every Sunday morning when I lived in Kingston. By the way, the grocery stores in Kingston sell a bottle of coconut rum for less than a US dollar that would knock your shoes off. Unfortunately, it is only sold in country,

  5. TFC on October 10th, 2009 12:01 pm

    I buy cigarettes at the Chevron each week. As I recall, many of the baked goods offered there are through a collaboration with the “My Bakery” business up at Bailey’s Crossroads. They smell good too :)

  6. Jim Breiling on October 10th, 2009 3:52 pm

    Just back from salteñas at Luzmila’s Cuisine. An experience based second for your recommendation .

    To our surprise, at mid-afternoon Luzmila’s Cuisine was hopping, with any table opening quickly taken and a steady stream of customers for carry out orders to “work through” on the way to and from a table. Luzmila’s Cuisine has already been discovered, I suspect for some time.

    I didn’t ask the hectic workers at Luzmila’s Cuisine if they had seen the piece about salteñas and listing of Luzmila’s Cuisine for them. I did ask at Indian Spices and at Myanmar about whether they had seen the review about their place, and neither staff member had (in both cases the idea of accessing the piece on the internet seemed like an unknown process). It would be nice to see that any restaurant mentioned gets a copy of the piece about them or in which they are mentioned. If posted, the review would also inform customers of the food place about the FCT.

  7. Jimmy Scarano on October 10th, 2009 4:42 pm

    Jim… Thanks for that suggestion. I think it’s a fabulous idea. I’m not sure if I’ll do any of it retroactively, though. We’ll see.

    Yes, Luzmila’s is frequently crowded, as I said in my article. It’s been a mainstay in the Bolivian community for years. I hope you didnt get the impression from my story that I claimed any sort of “discovery” of it or any of the other places I mentioned. It’s hard to discover any new foods or spots in this area.

    Sounds like you enjoyed the saltenas. That’s awesome!

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