Chorrellana, like so many dishes of the Bolivian table, is more than a meal. It is a reminder of life’s bounty, a heaping mound of animal flesh, vegetable, grain and egg, their raw forms still recognizable despite the modest amount of manipulation performed by the cooks in the kitchen. I find it hard to look at this outsize expression of Bolivian generosity and feel anything but gratitude. (Okay, maybe a vague sense of intimidation, too.) You get the sense the world has been served up on a plate, just for you.
Thousands of Bolivian expats live in Northern Virginia, including Arlington, known as Little Bolivia among those who have rebuilt their lives in the area. Their restaurants, informal and familial, have for decades served as gathering spots for those in need of an emergency order of salteñas or a plate overflowing with lapping, a papaya-tenderized slab of beef. But Silpancho’s House does something different: It puts a semi-fast-casual spin on the standard Bolivian-American dining experience, streamlining the menu and the operations, without downsizing the dishes. It’s a smart play.
Opened in April in a free-standing building — a converted residential home right next to a Lube-It station in Alexandria — Silpancho’s House is a family business started by Eulogia Cabero, her sister and chef, Rosemary Vasquez, and their two brothers. They all hail from Cochabamba in the central Andean valley, home to the dish that gives their restaurant its name. Back in their mother country, the siblings would frequently end their day by cutting into the Bolivian version of chicken fried steak (or Wiener schnitzel or veal alla Milanese or any other number of breaded-and-fried cutlets found around the globe).
Like so many who have grown up on a particular dish, one as rich in memories as a family photo album, Cabero, Vasquez and their brothers could never find a silpancho in Washington restaurants that matched the one of their youth. So Vasquez, the cook among them, went about trying to engineer one at home.
“We adopted ingredients from here and fused them with the ingredients of Bolivia, and, little by little, we found the flavor that best suited our childhood memories,” the owners wrote in a Spanish-language statement forwarded to me. (Thank you, Google translate.) From there, the family was just a small decision away — a decision fraught with significant risk, of course — from offering their silpancho to the public.
Silpancho differs from its international cousins in several notable ways: Once pounded into a thin cutlet, the beef is neither dredged in flour nor dipped into an egg mixture. A cook merely presses bread crumbs into the cutlet before taking the hard edge of a meat tenderizer and further flattening the beef into a layer so thin and wide it almost shapeshifts from comestible to canvas. The dimensions are such that silpancho shatters all notions of a center-of-plate protein. This is a smothering-of-the-plate protein. You can barely detect the dishware underneath this landmass of meat.
Because of its unique flattening technique, silpancho isn’t meat encased in a fried flour shell. The line between protein and coating is all but obliterated with silpancho, as if the bread crumbs and the flesh have melded into something wholly original. Tender and toothsome, the beef makes for superb eating, especially when enriched by the yolks of two over-easy eggs and ignited by the jalapeño sting of llajua, the indispensable Bolivian condiment. Between the beef and its accompaniments — rice and fried potatoes under the meat, and diced tomatoes, onions and jalapeños atop it — it’s easy to mix and match bites until that continental landmass has been reduced to a small island.
Silpancho’s House assumes different personas depending on what day and what time you visit. On weekdays, lunch is a compact, two-course affair, an echo of life back in Bolivia where the midday repast is the main meal. Lunch starts with a “small” bowl of soup, a portion that would constitute a meal in countless Zip codes across the District line. The second course is an entree scaled to American-sized appetites, such as the mini-silpancho, whether the traditional pounded-beef version or a chicken variation that looks (and eats) more like a standard breaded cutlet.
No matter what size you order, Vasquez has an excellent touch with soups. Her chairo is a Bolivian mountain-to-table soup, a beef-based broth that showcases the pride of Andean agriculture: potatoes, both freshly cooked tubers and the chalky, freeze-dried variety known as chuños. It is simultaneously rugged, starchy and graceful. Her sopa de mani has just as much depth; it’s a peanut soup loaded with beef, potatoes and herbs, then finished with fried shoestring-like spuds. Personally, I’m content to pair one of the chef’s soups with her salteñas, these housemade pastries with the sweet braided shells that conceal a meaty stew, lightly spiced, just the way they like it in Cochabamba.
Vasquez expands her menu on weekends, offering up Bolivian dishes that attract expats to this dining room outfitted with metal tables and coolers packed with Latin American beers and plastic cups of mocochinchi, the peach tea with a small sigh of cinnamon. (Check the glowing, rewritable menu behind the cash register to see what’s available.) I’ve savored a giant plate of puchero with brisket and rice cooked down until they’ve begun to loose their shape, both covered with a pepper sauce sweetened with onions. I’ve appreciated Vasquez’s ability to spotlight the minute variations between plates overflowing with Bolivian beef: It might be the light vegetal murmur of her papaya-rubbed lapping or the sweet, dripping richness of her chorrellana.
But I have also noticed her versatility. Those crumbly alfajores, thick with dulce de leche and buried under a blizzard of powdered sugar? Those Bolivian cheese puffs, called cuñapés, which go down like French gougères with more chew? They’re also the work of Vasquez, whose previous culinary experience has been employment at BGR: The Burger Joint. As far as I know, Bolivia doesn’t have a rising star chef in America to champion its cuisine. Could Rosemary Vasquez be the one?
3401 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-664-0000.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $7 to $16.50 for sandwiches, soups and entrees.