Looking for My Long Lost Salteñas
While dining at Joyce and Gigi's it's impossible not to notice the South American influences on the menu. There are empanadas, fried yucca, churrasco and other dishes from all over the continent. One thing that is missing though, especially considering Gigliola Aguilera hails from Bolivia, is salteñas.
I wrote about the pastries when I did a brief first look at the restaurant weeks ago, but when I interviewed Aguilera for my review I pressed the issue. "There are no salteñas anywhere in Dallas as far as I can tell, and if there's anyone that would make them here it would have to be Joyce and Gigi's," I whined. And you know what? They're actually thinking about them as a lunch special.
Apparently the kitchen is pretty small at Joyce and Gigi's, and every new recipe has to be accompanied by an available real estate assessment. Aguilera is looking at reworking the kitchen a touch though, and if it all works out, salteñas just may be on the menu sometime in the future.
If you're confused by my obsession you just have to ask Aguilera or any other native Bolivian to tell you a little about salteñas. I swear I heard quiet bosso nova playing in the background as Aguilera spoke.
"It's one of my favorite things. Every time I go back home, the first thing I do -- after eating meat of course == is go to my salteña place. I don't know how to describe it; it just brings back a lot of memories. When I was in school we would actually skip class to eat salteñas. It's like eating a really good sandwich for American's -- that's what a salteña is for us."
I pressed my ear tightly to the phone, and asked Aguilera to describe the perfect salteña...
"The crust needs to be very, very, very, crispy but soft on the inside. And the filling -- it's kind of like a stew inside. You really need to know how to eat a salteña because you have to eat it without dropping any juice all over the place."
I had my first salteña in Falls Church, Virginia, at La Caraqueña, a tiny restaurant that featured a melting pot of South American flavors, just like Joyce and Gigi's. I was amazed that a pastry could so effectively hold a runny stew, and asked the chef Raul Claros how they were made. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen with Claros and his mother, rolling out achiote stained dough and filling the pockets with cold stew set in gelatin. When you bake them the pastry sets, while the gelatin melts, and you're left with a perfect vessel filled with a delicious, hearty soup.
So they're not all that hard to make, but don't think that means they're easy to eat. Both Claros and Aguilera told me the best salteña eaters can devour an entire pastry without spilling a drop of the soup. You have to turn the thing on its side and then break off the top like a cap, before using a spoon to scoop out the stew as you work your way down. It's fun. It's also hard, considering how delicious the damn things are.
"Yes, If I'm really into my salteña then I'll forget about it and the juice will go all over the place," Aguilera admitted. With any luck we'll get to test out our salteña eating skills here in Dallas sometime in the future.