Whatever you do while dining at Kantutas Restaurant do not, under any circumstance, ignore the tiny saucer of sauce that owner Maria Peredo drops off at your table at this meaty Bolivian outpost in Wheaton. A mix of parsley, cilantro, jalapenos, Jamaican peppers and, for all I know, a mysterious Andean elixir, the green salsa called llajua is the Javier Bardem of condiments: It improves everything it touches.
I came to this conclusion after serious scientific investigation into my costilla asada, a grilled beef short rib platter overflowing with rice, lime wedges, half a ripe avocado, a lightly dressed salad and a fried potato sawed in half. I tried the thinly sliced rib meat unadorned and savored its salt and char, its fire and flesh. Then I paired another bite with a small sliver of avocado, which was as cooling and lush as you’d expect. I continued mixing and matching the beef with all the elements on my plate, down to the white rice that had been blackened with the meat’s good, greasy drippings. (Allow me to add that these slickened grains have practically altered my geographic definition of dirty rice to somewhere below the equator.) Every bite offered its own pleasures, each as individual and colorful as a fresh twist of a kaleidoscope.
But when I topped the beef with Peredo’s version of llajua, the condiment unlocked some secret chamber of flavor. The salsa added more than a gentle application of heat. It added more than a high note of herbal fragrance. It seemed to heighten the flavors of the entire bite, as if the sauce were the Bolivian equivalent of Vietnamese nuoc mam, intensifying every ingredient with its umami alchemy.
Perhaps I may be pushing credibility to say that this transformation, this deepening of flavors, occurred every single time I scooped a small spoonful of the salsa onto a dish, whether a Bolivian peanut soup, a few bloated kernels of choclo (also known as Peruvian corn) or a carb-loaded platter of rice, baked potato and breaded beef called silpancho. More on this in a second.
First, I think it’s important to have an frank discussion about Bolivian food in general and Kantutas in particular. Both can present challenges to an unprepared diner. The cuisine itself is a B-grade splatter film for vegetarians. As a countryman once told me years ago, “If you don’t have meat in Bolivia, it’s like you don’t have anything to eat.” What’s more, given the Andes’ wealth of potatoes and the influx of Asian immigrants to South America, most plates are loaded with starches — rice, potatoes, fries, choclo, even pasta on occasion. The plates themselves virtually pant and heave under the weight of all those proteins and carbs. Best to come hungry.
As for Kantutas, a blue box of a restaurant with pan-flute or racy salsa videos on a constant loop on two flatscreens, it takes a loose approach to catering to the public. Its hours are posted on the window and on a Web page or two, but that’s no guarantee the place will be open. I know. Twice, I arrived during posted operating hours, and twice Kantutas was closed. Peredo encourages people to call before driving to Wheaton, advice that I wholeheartedly second, given that the restaurant tends to shutter early during the dinner hour if the kitchen has exhausted its supplies or the crowds have thinned.