Cecilia's 6924 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington 536-3278 Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Soups and appetizers $1.75 to $3.50; entrees $7 to $8. Cards: Visa, MasterCard. No nonsmoking section.
When you first drive up to Cecilia's, you will notice that the window signs still list the Greek/Italian specialties of the previous restaurant, although they haven't been served since Wilfredo and Gudelia Villarreal took over the place eight years ago.
Inside the 50-seat storefront, the wallpaper hasn't changed either, and the weekday menu of subs and souvlaki also seems like a carry-over.
Beginning on Thursdays, however, the kitchen begins to turn out the first of 1,300 sensational saltenas that are available through the weekend. A full-blown Bolivian menu is also in effect on the weekend.
Served only until 1:30 p.m. for $1.75 each, the popular, plump meat pies called saltenas are a sweet dough wrapper nicely browned and filled with chunks of beef, chicken, potatoes and raisins in a mildly spicy sauce. Simple but heavenly. If you wait until 1 p.m., on some weekends a steady stream of saltena fans may have consumed the day's quota. (Some of the meat pies are also diverted to Cecilia's new downtown location.)
A pleasant accompaniment to the saltenas are the tasty, homemade soups, such as the sopa de mani, or peanut soup, a faintly nutty, soothing broth garnished with a chunk of beef, parsley, carrots and, of course, a piece or two of boiled potato. Hardly a dish leaves the kitchen without some form of potato, a reminder that the potato first sprouted in the area that now includes Bolivia and Peru.
Chuno, a Bolivian potato specialty, is made here by freeze-drying peeled, whole potatoes until they turn black. Then they're diced and freeze-dried again. When served alone as a side dish, they have a slightly bitter taste that takes some getting used to, but they are more agreeable in a hearty soup, such as the flavorful chairo, which includes pieces of lamb, barley and peas.
The peppery kidney soup, jolke, tastes strongly, but not unpleasantly, of beef kidneys.
Although the entrees are a homey, filling fare, they are not in the same league with the soups and saltenas. The best are the beef platters of silpancho and lomo a la chorrellana -- thin, fried steaks atop french fries next to two perfectly fried eggs on rice. The seasoned, pan-fried lomo comes topped with a zippy melange of onions, hot peppers and tomatoes, and the thinner, breaded silpancho comes with shredded lettuce and tomato.
Falso conejo, another fried steak dish similar to the silpancho but with a tangy wine sauce, can be ordered in a "triple": a whopping combination plate that also includes samples of aji di pollo and aji de lengua. Both the chicken and tongue were tender, bathed in a sauce gently spiced with cumin and hot peppers.
The only dish that for me had few endearing qualities was chicharron -- dried-out cubes of pork that were first baked and then fried, served with bland, boiled corn nuts.
As for beverages, I enjoyed the batido de vino, an egg and sugar blended with red wine. A batido with dark beer is even better. There is also a refreshing drink made by soaking dried peaches in sugar water spiced with cloves and the Bolivian stick cinnamon, canela.
Although I was told that flan is made on the weekends, it was not available on recent visits.
With expansion under way, there will soon be a bigger Cecilia's at the present location. But for a first-time visitor, even a bigger Cecilia's, on a one-way stretch of Fairfax Drive along I-66 near Washington Blvd., will be tricky to find. The saltenas alone, however, are worth the effort.