Say you were propelling your bird-prowed totora raft in a light breeze across Lake Titicaca, ringed with mountain peaks and said to be the birthplace of the sun. Separating Bolivia from Peru at a whopping 12,507 feet above sea level, it's the highest navigable lake in the world. Feeling a bit peckish, you row your vessel over to a thatched concession stand on the side of the lake to buy a hero sandwich. What would it be like?
The answer lies at Cumbre, one of only three Bolivian restaurants in the city. Located on Queens’ Woodside Avenue where it wends its way across the chasm of the BQE between Woodside and Elmhurst, the restaurant is intimate and boxy, with charming paintings of indigenistas and Andean villagescapes. The women in the pictures, of course, wear colorful woven shawls and those bowler hats that make them look like London gentlemen circa 1850.
The sandwich in question — available at Cumbre for $8 — is the tranca pecho ("chest clogger"). Eliciting oohs and aahs from fellow diners as it sails in on its demi-baguette, the sandwich comes diversely stuffed with a breaded beef cutlet, fried egg, chopped purple onions, ripe tomatoes, and diced beets that leave little rivulets of violent color on the stark-white egg. But the strangest ingredient of all is a layer of moist white rice that blankets the cut surface of the bread like a sort of granular mayonnaise, also ramping up the carb component — a real asset when you're toiling uphill all day.
Maybe it's the thin mountain air, but much of Bolivian cuisine presents similar unexpected (and often delightful) collisions of ingredients. Another case in point is pique macho ($15), a massive platter of beef swatches and hot dogs, constituting one of the world's craziest culinary pairings. Also featuring onions and tomatoes, the dish looks like a stir-fry, and indeed it was probably inspired by the Chinese cuisine that appeared in Bolivia a century ago. On top of the pique macho — which means something like "manhood challenge," a reference to the size of the platter — is a heap of cheese cubes. Stir them in immediately so they melt and glue the whole thing together.
Hands-down the best thing on the menu are Bolivia’s delightful empanadas, called saltenas ($2.50). The domed pies stuffed with beef or chicken also contain chopped eggs, raisins, olives, and peas. The pastry is fantastically obdurate, with a precisely braided spine. Why is the crust so hard? Tap into one and out squirts gravy. Indeed, these pies are as technically marvelous as Shanghai soup dumplings — they might be called Andean soup pies. Other dishes showing the influence of the Conquistadores include an escabeche mixto of pickled head cheese, pig foot, and vegetables that tastes good in a vinegary sort of way but requires lots of gnawing; it may not be your cup of tea.
In fact, one of the advantages of Cumbre for a certain type of adventuresome diner is the unreconstructed nature of the food, which hasn’t been gussied up to appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans. Organs, for example, abound. There’s a beef tripe soup using the type known as "book tripe," which might be mistaken for white polyethylene plastic, and a kidney soup laced with cumin, for pee lovers only. Much better is an entrée of cow tongue in big tender sheets blanketed with an agreeable sauce made from fresh tomatoes. This is one of only two sauces you’ll be seeing at the restaurant, both of which have an improvised quality as if concocted on the spot and not worked over the way French sauces are.
Another use of tomato sauce is falso conejo ($7 large, $13 humongous), featuring the same breaded beef cutlet you saw in the hero sandwich. The name means "fake rabbit," and the dish must have been invented just after the last bunny was shot in Bolivia, when some resourceful cook decided that a substitution smothered in sauce might go undetected. (Or you could make up your own story.)
The other improvised sauce, a bit grainy and exceedingly mild in flavor, is made with peanuts. It appears on a couple of Peruvian dishes that swam across the lake, including the beef-heart shish kebabs called anticuchos, and in the in the famous mountain concoction of boiled potatoes, papas ala Huancaina, here replacing the usual cheese sauce. Potatoes and peanuts also recur in a soup with a creamy base that floats french fries like boats on a lake. Should the fact that the fries are of the crinkle-cut frozen variety deter you from trying sopa de mani? Maybe not. This juxtaposition is only one of many startling and unpredictable features of the food at Cumbre.
Cost: Dinner for two with beers and tax but not tip, $40.
Sample dishes: Saltenas (empanadas), pique macho (beef-frankfurter stir fry), tranca pecho (hero sandwich), aji de lengua (braised tongue), brazuelo (fried lamb shank).
What to drink: Two Bolivian beers are available, Pacena (light lager) and El Inca (malty dark beer with a low alcohol content), along with fruit milkshakes and mate de coca, tea made from pulverized coca leaves. Don’t miss it if you’re feeling logy.
Bonus tip: Don’t miss the saltenas, and consider splitting a soup and one of the entrees between two diners and you’ll have plenty of food.