Day 53: Bolivia
A little while ago, a lovely woman named Ivone was watching the KTLA Morning News while my bleary eyed face happened to be on it. I was asked what foods I had eaten so far on the project and bumbled through a few previous countries before totally screwing up and saying “Bolivia”, which was only on my mind because it was a country’s cuisine I actually couldn’t find in all my food searching. There was a restaurant in North Hollywood, but it had closed down. Ivone’s family is from Bolivia, so she went to check out where I ate, but finding nothing, left a comment on the site. I got in touch with her and she was not only able to suggest a restaurant, but also managed to get her mother, her brother and his wife to meet me at Beba’s in Anaheim for a Bolivian Sunday brunch.
With a steady supply of tissues to soak up the gooey discharge spewed out by the mucus monster that is currently living inside my head, I make the forty minute drive down to Anaheim. When I arrive, I notice that the sign says both “Beba’s” and “Gilmore’s”. Confused, I head inside and sit at the counter while I wait for Ivone and her family to meet me. Their restaurant looks like your everyday United States of American breakfast joint. Families are sitting at tables eating pancakes and eggs, a sweaty cook is sliding an omelet into the service window and the menu doesn’t have anything you couldn’t find at Denny’s. But then I look closer. There are South American baked goods available on the counter and traditional Bolivian clothing and accessories scattered throughout the restaurant. A moment later, the lovely Ivone arrives with her family. I shake hands with them, deciding immediately that her mother is one of the sweetest people on the planet, and we sit down at a table as Bolivian specific menus are presented to us. I glance quickly through the menu, but it’s not long before the waitress, who has clearly served this family many times before, asks how many salteñas we want. Ivone orders ten, her brother orders a humita, and we all sit back and chat for a minute.
“My mother used to make these for special occasions.” Says Ivone. “But they’re very time consuming and once we found them here, she stopped making them altogether.” A raw, very spicy and very fresh salsa is dropped on the table along with the salteñas, which are essentially the Bolivian version of empanadas. Fresh out of the oven and with a curled top, these golden pockets of crispy bread look gorgeous. “There’s another place we go for these sometimes, but it’s more of a bakery and they’re a little sweeter,” says Ivone. Her mother takes a salteña and quickly cuts off the tip as steam and a fragrant red juice seep out of the hole. “They’re very hot. You have to let them ventilate for a minute.” I make the mistake of putting the salsa on top of my salteña before realizing that the better way is to drop it in through the ventilation hole. I quickly correct my mistake, then take a bite of the crusty edge that was removed for cooling. By itself it would make for a pleasant, sweet bread, but it’s the insides that I’m excited about. Ground beef, chicken, peas, egg, potatoes and that spicy red sauce are calling to me.
Ivone’s mother shows me how she enjoys them, using a small spoon to scoop out the tasty goods and eat them by themselves first. The filling is savory and refreshing, brightened up by the salsa as I bounce the contents on my tongue, pushing heat out through my mouth before I swallow, and barely noticing the smile that found its way on my face. Now I pick it up with my hands and take a bite of the whole thing. The crunch on the outside, the sweetness mixed with the meat and spice; its got the total package. I can see why this family loves their salteñas. “Usually,” Ivone says, “you eat these to start a meal. We always plan on ordering something else, but every time we just wind up getting more salteñas.” Her brother adds “It’s always better than anything else I eat later, so why bother?” After my second salteña, my plate has turned into a giant pool of red liquid. Is it rude if drink it right off the plate?
The brother’s humita comes next. A humita is a sort of tamale, the Chilean version of which I tried earlier on the food journey, but this one looks quite different from any of them. Wrapped with a black and gray striped husk into a triangular package and darkened in the oven, he unwraps the cornmeal creation to reveal a tender mass with crisp and blackened edges. He powers through it quickly as Ivone asks if I want to try the sopa de chairo. “It’s good for a cold.” I tell her that sounds great as her mother talks of her love for lengua. “It means tongue.” I explain that I love lengua and her mother smiles happily. “Next time, you and I will have the lengua.” I can’t wait. My soup arrives and I’m immediately pleased. A gentle beef broth with fresh herbs on top, a hunk of beef-on-the-bone, carrots, purple poatoes, hominy, chunyo (the very popular Bolivian re-hydrated potatoes) and any other starch they can come up with. “Some people put the salsa in it too,” says her brother. “I can see myself doing that,” I respond, and do. Warming, satisfying, and further proof that soup is one of the best things in the world.
I finish the soup and we all go on to chat for a good forty-five minutes before any of us even think of wrapping things up. Ivone and her brother speak fondly of their late father and the amazing bread he used to bake, and they tell stories of how her mother would make chunyo, shocking the potatoes and drying them so they would last for a very long time, then re-hydrating them when needed. Looking around, it seems that the Bolivian contingency of Anaheim has started making its way into the restaurant as I see various delicious Bolivian-looking dishes as well as multiple salteñas filling up the tables around us. I head to the restroom and when I return, the bill has already been paid. I offer money and they decline decisively with a wave of the hand. “We want you to have a good time today and not think about money.” Once again, people’s fondness for their food— the stuff they grew up eating— brings out a humbling level of joy and generosity. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but as it’s been proven time and time again on this edible journey, an excitement for food and a desire to try new things will let you into people’s lives, their families and their hearts. Ivone’s sister-in-law probably says it best, “For centuries, food has been an amazing leveler. People have sat down to meals to get over their differences and figure out how to get along.” That’s my kind of tradition.
Beba’s & Gilmore’s
1909 E. Lincoln Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92805
Food Breakdown: 10 salteñas, 1 humita, 1 soup
Price: Unknown, thanks to the kindness of strangers
Distance From My House: 36.3 miles