Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bountiful Bolivia (and Venezuela too)

I do not know very much about South America or South American cuisine. There is an Argentine place Vronsky and I used to visit in Tribeca, but ever since he moved, we have not had the chance to visit as frequently, although they had the best rosemary lamb chops I have ever tasted, and a killer wine list to boot. I love Chilean wines as well and we have toyed with going to Buenos Aires and then to Chile for our honeymoon (a little culture, a little skiing, a little viewing-of-Penguins), but that is as far as my knowledge of that vast and vibrant continent goes, unless you count the tales of life in Rio that my Brazilian literary sub-agents tell me, in which case, I am packing my bags!

But a literary life on a Brazilian beach in a thong aside, over Thanksgiving, my parents took Vronsky and I to the most charming restaurant in Falls Church, VA, La Caraquena, which features authentic Bolivian and Venezuelan food. My mom and dad love trying new food and La Caraquena had received rave reviews in the Washingtonian and Washington Post and so as a nice pre-Thanksgiving meal on Wednesday night, squeezed into a booth in the petite, but homey, restaurant, and boy, were we in for a treat.

The head chef, Raul A. Claros, based the menu around traditional Bolivian and Venezuelan food, as he he was born in Venezuela to restauranteur parents, and then moved to Bolivia as a young man. The highlight of the entire meal was the Salteñas, which is essentially an empanada on steroids. They are tennis-ball sized "turnovers," and the crust is flavored with a mildly bitter seed called the achiote, but it sets off the flavor of the filling to a tee: robustly flavored beef with diced potatoes, carrots, peas, an olive or two and a chapped egg. I think I could have easily ordered 4 of those as a meal with a nice red wine and been perfectly satisfied.

But then I would have missed out on the arepas, which are the Venezuelan staples on the menu. Arepas are flat, white ground-corn cakes amendable for stuffing, and stuffed they were, as there are close to a dozen fillings to choose from on the menu, from black beans and grated white cheese to "Sifrina" (chicken salad with mayonnaise and avocado, and the "Perico," which is egg with chopped tomatoes and bell peppers. Then there is "JP's Favorite," which was my favorite too: thin slices of garlicky steak with onions and cilantro.

My sister had the peanut soup, which was quite delicious although I don't know if I could have taken an entire bowl of it. I loved their black bean soup, mopped up with some of their yuca fries, and while we were busy stuffing our faces we were also angering our livers with some of their delicious passion fruit or mango margaritas.

After we waddled off home, Vronsky and I were fairly dead set on honeymoon-ing in Bolivia just so we could stuff ourselves with salteñas. While that might not eventually come to fruition (Greece might still call my name), we'd like to keep exploring Latin American, if only on our dinner plates!

There is Boca Chica on 1st Ave near Houston that I have heard is quite tasty, and then there is El Cocotera for traditional Venezuelan food in Chelsea. Industria Argentina is that place in Tribeca that I now have a yen to return to, and if any one has any other recommendations for places in Manhattan or Brooklyn, let me know in the comments! Till then, I'll be pining for those La Caraquena salteñas until I am home again for Christmas.


  1. Ah ha! We are going back on Friday. Mama and I are having a hankering for their soups!

  2. It is the best food in DC. I can say this with conviction, having enjoyed the energetic cuisine and the lovely sangria.

    You know of what you speak!