It is just before noon, in the neighborhood of San Miguel in the southern Zona Sur area of La Paz, Bolivia, and down a narow alley, amongst a short line of food stalls, people are already crowding the stools around Sofi's tucumana stand.
They chat while tucking in and biting down on Bolivia's version of an empanada: essentially deeply fried, spicy snacks stuffed with onions, potatoes, and meat.
Pablo, the La Paz local who's leading me on a street food tour, tells me this is one of the most popular tucumana joints in the city. Sofi's been frying up at this spot for 17 years, and she jokes that she’s growing old there. After all, she’s there seven days a week and takes just one day off in the year—Christmas Day.
The traditional tucumana is one stuffed with beef or chicken. But at Sofi’s, they come bursting with ham and cheese and shellfish, all for between 6 and 12 bolivianos each—that's somewhere between 0.90 cents and $1.80. It's enough to draw people from other cities to Sofi's stand. What, don't they have tucumanas in Santa Cruz?
“They do have them, but not like these ones," Sofi says.
Unlike it’s neighbour, Peru, Bolivia’s cuisine hasn’t yet created waves in the world of gastronomy, and La Paz isn’t famed for its restaurants. Still, there's perhaps no better way to discover Bolivia's high-altitude capitals than by exploring its cuisine, and in La Paz, that cuisine is served in alley shops, market stalls, and food carts.
Look out for saltenas, with the signature ridge splitting them down the middle—similar to tucumanas, only baked. Inside the doughy exterior is a savory, liquidy pleasure: meat, potatoes, and egg. The trick, Pablo tells me, is to bite the top off and drink the juice as if sipping from a glass before tackling the rest. Cutlery, he adds explicitly, is a huge no-no. Find Pablo's perfect saltena at the corner of Calle 21 and Calle Julio Patino, where Dona Rosa has been selling saltenas for 25 years.
If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, look for Dona Aurora, who sits at the side of a street with her lechon al horno between Calle 21 and Avenida Montenegro. She offers up thick slices of the roasted pork with delicious sweet potatoes and plantains on the side. Everything's been baked in a traditional brick oven—one of several communal ones that are often rented out by the city’s bakers.
For more street food treats, get out of Zona Sur, and head to the centre of the bustling city. By the city’s cathedral, the Iglesia de San Francisco, is Mercado Lanza: a market block that stretches a few stories high. Walk up to the third floor and ask for Dona Elvira’s choripan stand. You'll recognize the corner shop when you its huge poster, as well as the crowds loitering nearby. Her chorizo sandwiches are legendary, and for only 8 bolivianos, they're a steal, too.
If you haven’t had enough pork yet, the chola sandwich must be next. In the city’s Miraflores district, east of the centre, on Avenida Saavedra near the Estado Mayor, 80-year-old Paulina Cruz sells chola sandwiches as she has for the last five decades. It’s the signature La Paz sandwich, made with pork that’s been brined, seasoned, and roasted, served on round sandwich bread. Ask for the completo, topped with pickled onions, carrots, and a spicy yellow sauce called aji amarillo.
Satisfy your late-night food cravings after drinking in La Paz’s downtown with the anticucho. These thinly sliced pieces of beef heart, marinated in a special brine and grilled on skewers over an open flame, will prevent even the most potent hangover. The best come from a downtown stand in the neighbourhood of Sopocachi, run by the mother-daughter duo of Anjelica Callejas and Pamela Quizpes.
While there are numerous anticucho stands all across the city, often on corners outside bars or clubs, this particular stand’s been at this spot at the corner of Avenida de 20 Octubre and Calle Aspiazu for 25 years. Even Bizarre Food’s Andrew Zimmern has been here, Anjelica says with great pride. They’re the busiest over the weekends, when the stand attracts late-night revellers. This at least partially explains the stands' 6 a.m. closing time on Saturdays and Sundays.
For those short on time or for those who’re not lucky enough to have a wonderful guide like Pablo, try the Suma Phayata tour. It’s a street food tour organised by the La Paz restaurant Gustu owned by Danish chef Claus Meyer, of Noma fame.