The sign outside the austere storefront reads “Luzmary,” but if you Google the name, you’ll trip upon a website or two that calls the place “Luz and Mary’s.” Owner Marisol Gonzales explains that she originally preferred the latter, but friends convinced her that Luzmary would be a better option for her debut restaurant.
Perhaps that’s because the name strikes a warm, familiar chord with locals in Falls Church: Luzmary sounds awfully close to Luzmila’s, the no-frills spot that has helped Bolivian expats feel a little less homesick since 1999.
Gonzales is not trying to pull a fast one. Her mother — the person who taught Gonzales almost everything about running a professional kitchen — is actually the namesake behind Luzmila’s, even if the matriarch sold the restaurant in 2014 to a fellow Bolivian native. No, Luzmila Ampuero hasn’t officially returned to the ring, Ali-like, but the elder has assumed emeritus status, which apparently means she serves as Nit-picker in Residence at Luzmary.
“She’s always here bossing us around,” Gonzales says, with respect.
Tucked into a semi-shabby, high-turnover structure that District developers would raze faster than you can say “gentrification,” Luzmary is a homespun restaurant in the best sense of the term. Gonzales learned her craft from her mom, who in turn learned it from her mother and so on, a line of passed-down knowledge that can be traced to their home town of Cochabamba in a central Andean valley. The flavors of Bolivia are buried deep in this family’s DNA.
Meat is central to the Bolivian diet, which is apparent the second you crack open Luzmary’s photo-heavy menu. You won’t see this much flesh in a porn magazine. (Those mags still exist, right?) The most obscene example is the parrillada, a mixed-grill plate piled high with short ribs, pork sausages, blood sausage, flank steak and fried lengths of bovine intestines. There are enough meats here to start a butcher shop, but the dish’s strength lies in its implied indictment of America’s appetite for monochromatic strip steaks and rib-eyes: These lesser cuts exhibit a magnificent range of flavors, whether the livery funk of the intestines or the earthy, iron-like tang of the morcilla blood sausage.
When she still ran Luzmila’s, Ampuero’s salteñas were legend, regularly cited as the finest example of the Bolivian staple in the D.C. area. Gonzales relies on the same family recipe handed down countless generations. It begins with a bronzed, gorgeously braided pastry shell, crusty and thin, which conceals a heady beef or chicken stew studded with peas, egg, Kalamata olives, potatoes and more. Taken as a whole, the salteña leans sweet, even though you might occasionally hit on an olive that explodes with salt. But don’t judge the snack before you acknowledge the opportunity its sweetness provides: It allows you to dose the filling with llajua, the chili-pepper-based condiment fundamental to the Bolivian table. It brings order and a burning elegance to the salteña.
The llajua performs this task admirably despite its one-note formulation. In a perfect world, Gonzales would prepare her condiment with locoto peppers and quilquiña leaves, the latter an aromatic herb frequently compared to cilantro. The herb in particular is difficult to source, Gonzales says, so she relies on huacatay, the Peruvian black mint often used in the classic green sauce for pollo a la brasa. It’s a compromise likely lost on everyone but Bolivian nationals.
Regardless, the llajua stands out at Luzmary because it’s so defiantly basic. Little more than blended huacatay and jalapeños, the liquidy condiment doesn’t have the multi-pepper depth of ones prepared at such Bolivian eateries as Kantutas in Wheaton. The one-dimensional llajua is most noticeable on less-meaty fare, like the complimentary cuñapés, or cheese rolls, which arrive at the start of your meal. Spoon the vibrant salsa onto a chewy hunk of the cassava bread and it sparks with heat, but little else.
Despite the condiment’s limitations, you shouldn’t wander too far into the Luzmary menu without llajua, which plays a role closer to salt than salsa. Without llajua, the silpancho is a luxury cruise, a rich Bolivian take on milanesa with a land mass of breaded beef floating atop rice and steak fries, harboring two over-easy eggs. With the condiment, the silpancho is a party boat with Seth Rogen at the helm. The llajua livens up everything.
Some plates practically beg for llajua. The lomo montado, yet another steak-and-potatoes variation, probably shouldn’t leave the kitchen without it, which would save you the time of dousing the thick slab of well-done beef in salsa. The picante de pollo, a healthy helping of chicken simmered in a spicy and semi-oily sauce, comes with chuño, the white freeze-dried Bolivian potatoes that take to llajua like Anthony Weiner takes to sexting. And, of course, Luzmary’s entire line of tacos, filled with a mouthwatering array of marinated meats, are incomplete without salsa.
Luzmary can be a moving target: Several dishes and soups are available only on Saturday and Sunday, like the estofado de panza, a spicy cow’s stomach stew. The costillas de cerdo is a bonanza of fried, bone-in pork, surprisingly succulent and well-seasoned. But the stars of the weekend — to my mind at least — are the simple, cumin-scented slices of roast pork tucked into a cuñapé with diced tomatoes, jalapeños and onions. Dubbed a sub chola, the sandwich is a room-temperature bite whose pepper highs and roasty lows are pressed between slices of cheesy bread.
One constant at Luzmary is its floor staff, unfailingly friendly and helpful, even when language presents a barrier. One evening, our waiter explained that the puchero special was served with “sweet rice.” Another employee quickly corrected him and said the grains were more creamy than sweet. When the dish arrived, the rice had the consistency of grits, which smothered a slender section of lamb ribs, all hot and crusty. This classic carnaval dish was piquant, savory and starchy, thanks to the rice and some chuños buried at the bottom of the plate.
Come to think of it, perhaps there was a hint of sweetness in the puchero. Or maybe I was just thinking about how sweet it is to have Gonzales and her family back in business.
7151 Lee Hwy., Falls Church. 703-533-1105. luzmarybolivianfood.com.
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nearest Metro: East Falls Church, about 1½ miles from the restaurant.
Prices: Appetizers and tacos, $1.99-$13.99; sandwiches and entrees, $6-$45.