The $20 Diner: Kantutas Restaurant, meaty Bolivian fare in Wheaton

(Bill O'Leary/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Falso conejo, a marinated beef served with freeze-dried Bolivian potatoesat Kantutas Restaurant in Wheaton.

(Bill O'Leary/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Falso conejo, a marinated beef served with freeze-dried Bolivian potatoesat Kantutas Restaurant in Wheaton.

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.

Kantutas

$ ($14 and under) | Latin American
Information: 301-929-2865
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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.

Kantutas also has adopted a quirky strategy to menu planning. I have little confidence in my ability to break down what dishes are available during what days or on what lunar cycles or whatever formula Kantutas follows. The bottom line: Not all dishes are available daily, in large part because of the restaurant’s small staff and the large amount of work that goes into, say, the peanut soup (a creamy, understated pleasure — with french fries floating on the surface! — requires hours on the stove to cook down those pureed nuts).

Perhaps more important, Kantutas, for a number of operational reasons, opts not to sell the ubiquitous Bolivian snack, the saltena, the braided dough pocket that serves as an edible bowl for a buffet of liquidy ingredients. Instead, Peredo offers the deep-fried equivalent, the empanada tucumanas stuffed with beef or chicken and many of the typical saltena fillings, such as raisins, peas, olives and sliced boiled eggs. The appetizer is head-smackingly good, at once chewy, moist, savory and ever so piquant thanks to the spellbinding green sauce. The only thing missing are the chunks of potatoes — and the joy of eating a hot soup from a hollow of baked sweetened dough.

Other Bolivian staples are easily obtained, however, even if the staff may downplay them to non-natives. Like the charke, a salty, oven-dried beef served on a platter with dried corn, fried potato, hard-boiled eggs (really hard, as in green-gray yolks) and a dollop of fresh house-made cheese. Charke is often referred to as Bolivian jerky, but that’s deceiving; its texture is airier than those leathery beef belts in America. Charke also has more crunch, like the bovine form of shoestring potatoes. When paired with starchy corn, salty cheese and, yes, the green salsa, it’s a heady, multi-layered bite.

Don’t miss the anticuchos, whenever they’re available; the finely sliced beef heart is marinated and grilled to a salty (and peppery) succulence. The pollo a la plancha, or grilled chicken, will cause instant salivation, its glistening, thinly pounded breast meat seared to a golden, hypnotic hue. The dish that appears on most tables, though, is the silpancho, which makes sense in this (or any) economy. The platter probably has enough calories to sustain a classroom of high-metabolic rugrats for a week.

Still, whatever its nutritional deficiencies, silpancho is a superfood in my book, at least from its expert layering of flavors. The starchy rice base is complemented by the breaded beef, both blanketed in a rich yolk released from a stratum of fried eggs, all of which is mercifully elevated with an acidic blast of pico de gallo. Wash it down with a sweet horchata or chicha morada, and your day is complete. Management geeks might view the meal as vertically integrated.

And you know what sends silpancho over the top? Yes, that’s right: a healthy dose of Kantutas’s tableside salsa.

Kantutas

2462 Ennalls Ave., Wheaton.
301-929-2865.

Nearest Metro station: Wheaton, a 0.2-mile walk from the restaurant.
Hours: Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday;
9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to
8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices:
Entrees range from $8 to $14.

 
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