This is NOT an empanada
By Isabela Dias & Megan Messana
How the Oropeza brothers are promoting their culture in the only Bolivian restaurant in Manhattan
Don’t mistake salteñas for empanadas. The traditional 200-year Bolivian recipe might bear a resemblance to the braided Argentinean dough, but there is one defining difference; the juicy, stew-like filling called jigote. Bolivian Llama Party (BLP) is the one place in Manhattan to get your hands on them. Run by brothers Alex, David and Patrick Oropeza, the restaurant is not easy to spot — underground in the heart of TurnStyle Food Court at Columbus Circle Station.
The Oropezas started out selling salteñas at street fairs back in 2012. At the time, Alex worked in finance, David studied journalism and Patrick studied philosophy and marketing. The reason they started selling the pastries in the first place was so Patrick and David could raise money for their progressive rock band, Red Heathers. While the band did not work out, the Bolivian Llama Party was officially born. Originally given a stall at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, they soon branched out to a booth at Rockaway Beach in Queens, with their TurnStyle location opening most recently in 2016.
Although inspired by and grounded in the traditions of Bolivia’s cuisine, the Llama Brothers don’t want to follow the same path as other restaurants in New York that make Bolivian food in a more conservative way. Evolution and reinvention are their key words, but innovation doesn’t come without criticism. Salteñas are usually filled with beef, chicken or pork, so when the brothers created a vegetarian version using agar-agar, a seaweed extract to replace bone-based collagen, some “purists” weren’t very happy about it.
“We’re trying to stay true to what we wanna do which is bring awareness to Bolivian food,” says Alex. “Evolution is important and it’s important to our culture to be able to stay relevant, and exciting and new.”
The BLP’s irreverent style is showcased not only in the name of the business but also in their mascots, three llama masks, one for each brother. “Llamas” is also what they call their team of employees — in a reference to the South American animal’s habit of creating very strong family connections. “We like to have fun with our food, fun with our marketing, our vibe and just like to spread love and good food”, adds David.
And they have big ideas about how to accomplish that. This year, in celebration of the Bolivian Independence Day, the brothers made the largest salteña in the world, a 2-pound dough recipe that took Patrick, the chef, two weeks to develop. Ever altruistic, the brothers held a contest to give away 10 of these massive pastries. Videos poured in from customers, each telling their favorite thing about Bolivian culture, and a huge crowd gathered in Columbus Circle.
While all of the brothers feel close ties to Bolivia, Alex was the only one to have been born in the South American country. The oldest Oropeza brother sat down to discuss immigrating to the United States as a child, the brothers’ take on Bolivian food, and his love of llamas.
Making a salteña is not an easy task. Three days are needed to work on the dough, hand-braiding it under the right temperature so the filling won’t burst when it’s baked. Eating a salteña, however, is just as much of a challenge. Right at the entrance of the Columbus Circle shop, you will find an explanatory board on “how to eat a salteña without wearing it,” but it’s much more fun hearing Alex explain it.
Though their Columbus Circle location might be the most well known, brother David, 29, is a fan of Far Rockaway. “It’s a different vibe,” the youngest Llama says, “Columbus Circle is a little more professional, business oriented. Here it’s like, people want to hang out, spend the day at Rockaway.” A small beach on the tip of southern Queens, it being lesser-known adds to its appeal. “It’s unlike any other beach I’ve been to,” David says with a smile, “I can’t say enough about it.”
The Oropeza brothers try not to think too much about the recognition they’re getting in Bolivia, even though they’ve been featured in Bolivian newspapers and magazines several times. For David, the most rewarding aspect about the thriving business is being able to support people who have influenced them from the beginning.
His aunt, who introduced him to his first chola sandwich, is one of those people. A business owner herself, her shop wasn’t doing too well in recent years. However, a Bolivian newspaper featuring Bolivian Llama Party helped her recover. The newspaper mentioned how her business, which was then on the brink of collapse, was where it all began for the Oropeza brothers.
“My aunt calls me and tells me that the business picked up after that publication,” David says. “It’s just an awesome way of directly giving back to my aunt, which is super cool.”