When it comes to food from Central and South America, some dishes have become ubiquitous in the US – like the taco – while others haven’t seeped into the country’s consciousness in quite the same way. “We’d like for a salteña to be like a taco,” David Oropeza tells us at our table outside Bolivian Llama Party (BLP), the Sunnyside restaurant he co-owns with his two older brothers, Alex and Patrick.
True to that mission, the trio has done more to popularize the salteña than anyone in the city. But a salteña is no taco. In fact, at a glance it resembles nothing more than a fat baked empanada – a resemblance that can vanish with one incautious bite.
No one would be so careless in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s gastronomic capital, in the Andean highlands. Alex, now in his mid-40s, was born there; Patrick and David, now in their 30s, were born in Queens, after the family emigrated from Bolivia to the States. Today the brothers, as well as their parents, all live close to one another in the Queens neighborhoods of Richmond Hill and Ozone Park.
The local Bolivian community is small, and the country’s cuisine is relatively unknown to many New Yorkers. And so a decade ago, when Patrick and David were raising funds to cut a progressive rock album, they began to capitalize on the novelty of Bolivian food by selling it at street fairs, then at pop-ups, and eventually at Smorgasburg. In pre-Covid days, Brooklyn-born Smorgasburg was an outdoor mosh pit of a hundred food stalls competing each weekend for the attention of thousands of customers.
For Bolivian Llama Party, Smorgasburg was a steppingstone to fame, and to a pair of brick-and-mortar locations. BLP was the “first Bolivian restaurant in Manhattan,” David tells us, when it opened in 2016 in Turnstyle, literally an underground food hall in the Columbus Circle subway station. In 2018, it was also the first in Brooklyn, he adds, when BLP opened in the culinary market of The Ashland, a luxury apartment complex close to the borough’s largest transit hub. Both locations offered a small selection of salteñas, sandwiches, salads and other dishes that didn’t require ready access to a full kitchen.
Compared with Bolivian Llama Party’s pop-up and weekend appearances, this brick-and-mortar expansion required more business discipline. Today, Alex handles BLP’s finances, Patrick runs the kitchen, and David manages operations. It also required a commissary – a permanent culinary base of operations – especially for the preparation of salteñas.
Compared with an empanada, David summarizes, a salteña “needs three days, not 20 minutes” to prepare.
Although it might look like an empanada, a salteña is filled with a soupy stew called a jigote (he-Go-tay). Even for BLP’s most basic varieties of salteña, beef and chicken, the jigote is simmered for many hours with vegetables, mild chiles and other seasonings. And cow’s foot, too, whose gelatin not only provides a luxuriant mouthfeel but also enables a vital step in the production process. As the jigote cools, it sets; eventually a cube of meat-enriched gelatin, and a sliver of hardboiled egg, is sealed in dough. Cane sugar is added to the dough, meaning that before the customer adds llajua (Ya-hwa), a hot sauce, most salteñas are mild in flavor, even a little sweet, rather than spicy.
Each salteña is wrapped and braided by hand – not by machine, as is often the case with empanadas – to ensure that no air pockets remain, which could lead to the pastries bursting open when they are finally baked. Compared with an empanada, David summarizes, a salteña “needs three days, not 20 minutes” to prepare.
Some six years ago, David and his brothers found their commissary in Sunnyside. The name of the neighborhood, like that of Woodside, to the east, suggests the slope of a hill (but one that tops out at a mere 82 feet, or 25 meters – these aren’t the Andes). Apartment buildings in Sunnyside generally rise no more than six stories, and independently owned businesses, including many mom-and-pops, outnumber chain stores. The choice of locally available cuisines rambles across several continents; within a few minutes’ walk one can sample Romanian, Colombian and Tibetan, Turkish, Irish and Thai.
A proud sign for Mi Bolivia fits right in. Here on a quiet, breezy thoroughfare, several blocks removed from the elevated 7 train, Marcelino Quispe served traditional Bolivian fare for more than a quarter-century. After he sold his restaurant to the Oropezas, they retained the Mi Bolivia sign in his honor, David tells us, and longtime customers still ask, “Is Marcelino here?”
The arrival of the pandemic upended affairs at Bolivian Llama Party, as it did for so many other businesses. For the time being, the brothers have shuttered their Manhattan and Brooklyn locations, as there’s not enough foot traffic to sustain them. But after a makeover in March 2020, their Sunnyside commissary opened to the public for the first time, for outdoor dining, takeaway and delivery.
Before this year, Bolivian Llama Party had relied on an Astoria bakery for its sandwich bread. Patrick began baking it himself – it cradles a chola sandwich featuring slow-roasted pork-shoulder – with results that David maintains are “more consistent and higher quality.” The brothers have also expanded their menu since March, he adds, introducing plate meals, as well as soup – we’ve relished the sopa de maní, thickened with peanut. There’s housemade ice cream now, too.
Certain ingredients, however, have become harder to source. David mentions chuños, the naturally freeze-dried Andean potatoes, and an herb called quilquiña, which is “like a very strong cilantro, very aromatic.” The occasional hand-carried shipments brought from Bolivia by friends and relatives all but vanished with the onset of the virus. David tells us that his mom grows some in her home garden, and for perhaps one month of the year it will be fresh. During the other eleven months, the kitchen does its best to evoke quilquiña with a blend of readily available herbs.
The push-and-pull between a traditional menu and dishes that are adapted for New York – Marcelino wrestled with this issue, too – is apparent even in the music that’s piped into the sheltered outdoor dining area. “We like to play lesser-known Latin American music,” David says. But on a recent visit, we also heard the likes of James Brown and Link Wray.
BLP does its best not to “pigeonhole” itself, David explains, by not filling its menu with Bolivian dishes that are “so regional, so specific” that no one will order them through the major food-delivery services. That said, he encourages customers to bypass online services that take a cut of the profits and to order directly from BLP, and from restaurants in general – they’re part of the “fabric of the neighborhood.”
We agree, implicitly, when we walk up to the service window, ring the bell, place our order – “Give me about seven minutes,” David tells us – and eventually carry a beef salteña back to our seat.
Holding it upright, we nibble away one end, venting steam and releasing a dribble of jigote. We lean in, carefully.
Published on January 13, 2021