Move over, boring breakfast sandwiches. D.C. gets a big Bolivian boost with the arrival of Saya Salteña on Friday, October 20. Situated in the heart of Foggy Bottom, owner Maria Helena Iturralde goes all in on her South American country’s most popular street food with seven types of salteñas to start (1919 Pennsylvania Avenue NW).
Brothy stews packed with potatoes, hard-boiled egg, peas, Kalamata olives, and Andean spices are neatly encased in slightly sweet dough to produce each sizable salteña. Unlike an empanada, which shares a similar physique, these heftier handhelds are best tackled from the top down (not in the middle).
“It’s like a mission in itself to eat one,” says Iturralde. “It’s such a crowd-pleaser.”
At Saya Salteña, fillings swing from savory — (spicy) beef, (spicy) chicken, and (vegan) quinoa — to sweet (apple-passion fruit and pear-cranberry). The tiny takeout, open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., caters to the surrounding pool of busy commuters, college students, faculty, and office workers searching for a satisfying meal in the form of an affordable portable ($4-$6 each). The first 25 guests on Saturday, October 21 get a salteña on the house.
Iturralde envisions its first standalone home as “the starting point of hopefully a salteña empire and proof of concept for Bolivian food in D.C.”
While its football-shaped namesake is the star, the menu also showcases snacky Bolivian antojitos like pukacapas (baked empanadas stuffed with spicy cheese), tamales, and peanut soup with beef short ribs. Breaded mashed potato rounds (papa rellena), filled with minced beef and peas, are compatible to a “fried Shepherd’s pie,” she says.
Another stray from salteñas is the “de chola” — a sandwich synonymous with Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz, where Iturralde is from. Marinated pork shoulder seasoned with native chile peppers is slow-cooked six hours before being freshly sliced and placed between a soft brioche bun.
One especially meaningful import is its single-origin coffee. Bolivian beans sourced from her family’s high-altitude plantation in Takesi Valley help jumpstart the D.C. day in a non-Starbucks way. Options include cold brew, lattes, and espresso drinks.
Bolivia’s lush landscape also provides produce to build out the menu. A dessert empanada offers juicy guava in each bite. To make a refreshing mocochinchi, she simmers dehydrated peaches for hours alongside cinnamon, sugar, and water until the fruit starts releasing its juices. The spiced infusion results in a delicious drink that’s served with the pitted Bolivian peach on the side.
Saya Salteña’s opening is a full-circle moment for Iturralde, who graduated from George Washington University in 2005. “I couldn’t have imagined that when I was a student just blocks away, I’d be opening my own business down the street,” she says.
When the pandemic put her catering company on pause in 2020, she shifted attention to Saya Salteña and cultivated the fledgling brand out of Northeast culinary incubator Mess Hall. She brought her husband Raul Flores into the fold, and the two decided to pursue the brick-and-mortar route to introduce the cuisine “to a bigger crowd.”
She applauds Adams Morgan’s Singani-fueled cocktail bar Casa Kantuta for “trailblazing” the Bolivian movement in the nation’s capital since 2021. “Maria was a key player to our first pop-up success and we hope to unite forces again with her in the near future to continue to represent our Bolivian culture,” says co-owner Carla Sanchez.
The “Saya” side of the name refers to the lively Bolivian art form marked by Andean wood instruments, music, and masks. Iturralde herself used to dance the Saya at the colorful Carnaval de Oruro, an 18th-century festival still celebrated annually.
Saya Salteña honors its culture with indoor-outdoor murals from popular Bolivian duo ArteSano Mutante. While the small setup is seatless, there is a small patio out front — and a “really nice park where people can go to eat their salteñas,” she says.
Bolivian is the latest cuisine to liven up the 9-to-5 corridor. Ambitious food market the Square opened a few blocks away last month, bringing the area a globe-trotting assortment of choices for Spanish street foods, tacos, sushi, and more.