D.C.’s beloved Bolivian pop-up Casa Kantuta rang in 2023 with a more permanent location to call home. The neon-lit speakeasy is nestled under vegan eatery SpacyCloud, where it will stay for a year or more following a peripatetic journey from a month-long residency in 2021 in this same spot, to a stint in Arlington, and now back to where it all started.
Owned by Bolivian-born siblings Carla and Juan Sanchez, the lengthy basement bar (2309 18th Street NW) got a $50,000 makeover to go along with a new cocktail menu from its returning Bolivian-Venezuelan bar manager Luis Aliaga.
“[Casa Kantuta] is a cultural, immersive experience inspired by the Bolivian way of life,” says Carla Sanchez. “We want people to fall in love with our country through all their senses.”
At the center of the sensory experience is a crop of modernized Bolivian cocktails and other creations inspired by neighboring South American countries.
“When Juan and Carla presented the opportunity for me to create a menu based on our heritage, I immediately agreed,” says Aliaga, who most recently oversaw beverages at Shaw’s now-closed Roy Boys. “Bolivians love to have a good time and the beverage culture reflects that.”
The team points out that while other South American countries have their claim-to-fame liquors (pisco in Peru, cachaca in Brazil), Bolivia’s national drink (Singani) is lesser known, and the Sanchez siblings want the grape-distilled liquor to achieve that kind of exposure.
Singani’s time to shine in the states is now. Following a years-long campaign led by Ocean’s 11 filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who owns the Singani 63 brand, the spirit just got legal recognition from the U.S. government as a type of brandy from Bolivia.
At Casa Kantuta 2.0, Aliaga brings back the best-selling Angry Llama: Rujero Singani, tequila, lime, pineapple, celery bitters, and a touch of a spicy Bolivian condiment called llaja, all under shaken egg white and a shower of tiny rose petals.
“The drink is the face of Casa Kantuta, since the llama is one of the national animals of Bolivia,” Aliaga explains. “Plus, Carla loves anything spicy.”
The new tropical-yet-wintry Rurre cocktail, named for the small town of Rurrenabaque on the Beni River, reflects the lush fruit and moving waters of the Amazon. Its features Singani, Brazilian gin, Cynar, Campari, pineapple juice, lime juice, and cold brew coffee to riff on the espresso martini.
Beyond liquor and icy shots of Singani, Aliaga pours a short selection of wines all sourced from South America, including a duo of Bolivian varietals. There’s also beer and non-alcoholic options.
On weekend afternoons, Casa Kantuta serves salteñas—a traditional street food that’s similar in shape to an empanada, but comes filled with soupy, savory stews. Slightly sweet dough envelops potatoes, egg, olives, and chicken or beef. There’s also a weekend pop-up “mercadito,” or marketplace, selling clothing and other goods. In making itself a welcoming space for all, there’s no age restriction during these times to allow families to visit together.
The reimagined interior includes a sleek white marble bar extending to the front wall, bar seats upholstered in colorful Bolivian fabrics, and intricate masks displayed on the walls. Casa Kantuta is named for the national flower of Bolivia that is also the sacred flower of the Inca people.
“We have put our hearts, souls, joys, and life experiences from La Paz to D.C. into Casa Kantuta,” says Carla. “Every piece of art, every mask, even the coverings on our barstools came from Bolivia.”
Upon entry, guests encounter a large mural from La Paz’s popular street artist Alvaro Huayllas. The painting showcases a giant ekeko—a mustached ceramic figurine that represents luck and prosperity, but with both Bolivian and American additions that reflect the Sanchez’s D.C. residency. Fellow Bolivians living in the states are coming in droves to check out D.C.’s first Bolivian bar, including a recent visit by a NYC dance troupe group.
Past the bar is a cozy lounge area that Carla calls “abuela’s living room,” with photos and memorabilia of the Sanchez family and culture. A bright neon sign celebrates the spirit of the bar, reading “Viva Bolivia, carajo!” which roughly translates to “hell yeah, Bolivia.”
The bar just debuted weekday happy hour (5 p.m. to 8 p.m.) that runs all day Wednesday. That’s when its 13 cocktails, normally $14 each, are priced $9 and $11 and wines are $5 and beers are $3.
“We are creating something that our fellow Bolivians can be proud of, that’s also something every visitor we have can enjoy and learn something from, was really important to us,” says Carla.
To get the party started, the soundtrack jumps around various genres: hip-hop, Bolivian music, Reggaeton, and Cumbia Villera, which highlights rhythm and folk-dance traditions of Latin America.
Hours are Tuesday to Thursdays from 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.; and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
—Tierney Plumb contributed to this report