By Edwin Goei
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Photo by Jessica CalkinsOnce, before a muckraking visit to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, I stopped at a nearby industrial park to figure out how best to unearth electoral shenanigans. But a neon sign proclaiming that Beba's Restaurant sold Bolivian food flickered in front of my car.
¿Comida boliviana?I rarely even thought of the country, much less what its cooking could possibly consist of. My appetite for new tastes is as ravenous as that of exposing corruption, though, so I ignored campaign-finance statements that day and entered Beba's.
Evil officials countywide should be grateful about this decision. Nowadays, a visit to Beba's constantly cuts short this Weeklycorrespondent's Registrar trips, if not cancels them altogether. The dishes there are so exciting I slather my commitment to investigative journalism with relishy Bolivian salsa and swallow it whole.
630 S. Grand Ave.
Santa Ana, CA 92705
Region: Out of Town
The Bolivian diet—heretofore unbeknownst to Orange County's cuisine scene—is heavy yet nuanced, and Beba's preparation of it is worth your stomach's consideration. It begins and ends with the potato, which is apt since the starchy tuber originated in the Andes Mountains that dominate the landlocked country. Every dish at Beba's uses it; it doesn't matter if it's seafood, soup or silpancho (breaded beef served with fried eggs).
These are not just your French fry-producing roots either. The divine ají de papalisa (beef simmered in an intoxicating ají sauce), for example, comes with three different kinds of potatoes—white, papalisa (red in color, grainy in texture), and the delicious chuño, a blackish type with the consistency and flavor of hard cottage cheese.
Before proceeding to Beba's potato party, begin with an appetizer. Most Latin American nations have some type of flour-based starter: Mexico pounds out gorditas, El Salvador produces pupusas, and Chile makes fine empanadas. But Bolivia beats them all with the salteña, a meat pie that's more wondrous with each nibble. Baked with sweet, slightly flaky bread that possesses the lightest touch of cheese, the salteña is a mini-meal unto itself. Inside, you'll find hard-boiled egg bits, raisins, peas, potato chunks, ground beef, and even the occasional olive. All of this broils in a hot stew that owner Beba Escóbar miraculously keeps inside the freshly made salteña. Wolf it down as you would any meat pie—with a spoon, then eat the remaining crust—lest you scald yourself trying to scarf it upright like I once did.
Two salteñas can easily be a feast, but then you'd deprive yourself of Beba's other fabulous offerings; there's no meal you can go wrong with here. A good initiation into Bolivian eats is the chorrellana; sautéed cow strips mixed with onions and peppers while white rice, a whole potato and a giant fried banana wait patiently on the side to reward your mouth with a different strain of sweetness. The saja de pollo does the same. A yellow sauce covers the giant chicken leg/thigh, and its faintly fried skin makes it a tasty version of KFC.
Bolivian beauty also extends to Beba's beverages. A guaraná soda evokes the feel of Bolivia's Amazonian region, but the country's national drinks are its chichas, mani and morada. The former is a great roasted-peanut water that recalls horchata while the latter is made of purple corn but tastes more like slightly tart grape juice. Chicha trivia courtesy of my Andean-versed friend: in the Andes countries, the term "chicha" in a beverage context connotes that women chewed the potion's ingredients in their mouth, spit it in a pot, and served it virtually unchanged. I doubt Beba's reproduces such a rigorous process, but both drinks are so invigorating that if the restaurant's chichas passed through the saliva of a fine Bolivian lass, I'd drink it with more abandon. You see, I haven't kissed a girl in a while.
On weekends, Orange County's sizable Bolivian community packs the restaurant as Beba's menu expands with harder-to-prepare plates such as the aforementioned ají and the addicting thimpú (a slab of lamb covered in a yellow sauce). The patrons stay for hours and dream of a non-Cocaine Coup country while watching videos of Bolivian dancers and singers on the big-screen TV. Beba's also serves as a mini-convenience store, selling candies and produce from the motherland and even advertises a courier service that goes to Bolivia about once a month. But with the Bolivia that Beba's re-creates, such trips are almost pointless.
BEBA'S RESTAURANT, LOCATED AT 630 GRAND AVE., SANTA ANA, IS OPEN MON., 11 A.M.-4 P.M.; TUES.-THURS., 11 A.M.-8 P.M.; FRI.-SUN., 9 A.M.-9 P.M. (714) 973-4928. BEER. DINNER FOR TWO, $13-$19, FOOD ONLY. CASH ONLY.