Food

A Bolivian Speakeasy with Street Food and an Artist Market Opens Today in Adams Morgan

Casa Kantuta highlights Bolivian spirits, food, and culture during a month-long pop-up.

Casa Kantuta, a Bolivian cocktail bar and market, opens in Adams Morgan. Left to right: bartender Luis B. Aliaga, and founders Carla and Juan Sanchez. Photograph by Jessica VanDop DeJesus

When Carla Sanchez thinks of a speakeasy, it’s not about fussy cocktails and a secret knock. Instead, it evokes her native La Paz, Bolivia—the city she left as an adolescent in the ’90s to come to Washington with her parents and brother, Juan Sanchez.

“La Paz is a very mysterious, beautiful city—everywhere you look has something special, something fun, something colorful,” says Sanchez, a digital content creator and lifestyle blogger. “I kept thinking I could open a speakeasy inspired by my home city one day.”

That day is today. The Sanchez siblings, along with a team of Bolivian expats and BIPOC industry professionals, are launching Casa Kantuta in Adams Morgan. The month-long pop-up takes over the basement of sPACEYcLOUD, a woman-owned skate shop/vegetarian restaurant/art gallery (so yes, it’s the coolest female-driven spot you’ll hang this summer). An artistic market by day and a bar serving South American cocktails and Bolivian street food at night, Kantuta aims to be a much-needed Bolivian cultural hub at any hour. The entire Sanchez family—parents to cousins—helped decorate the cozy space with Bolivian carnival masks, ekekos (small ceramic figurines that represent luck), and “cholita” accessories like bowler hats.

“DC is a melting pot, there’s a little of everything. But for some reason, Bolivia has not really made it to DC proper yet,” says Sanchez. “We have Mexico, Peru, Colombia, why is not Bolivia present? We have such a beautiful culture. And we’re party animals—we’re known for that.”

Cocktails star singani, a Bolivian spirit, and other Latin ingredients. Photograph courtesy of Casa Kantuta

For the party side of things, Sanchez recruited Roy Boys beverage director Luis Aliaga, a Bolivian/Venezuelan who also grew up in La Paz. There are plenty of Latin spirits behind the bar, ranging from mezcal to pisco, but he’s most excited to showcase rujero singani. The small-batch Bolivian spirit is distilled from a grape native to the Bolivian Andes, and is similar to Peruvian pisco when it comes to its versatile flavor and national fervor about the drink.

“It’s labeled as a brandy in the US, but it’s more delicate and floral, like another type of gin or organic vodka,” Aliaga says.

At Casa Kantuta, Aliaga mixes singani into a variety of cocktails, whether you’re craving flavors that are earthy, potent, sweet, or refreshing, including a play on Salvietti, a papaya soda (think Bolivia’s equivalent of French Orangina). Nostalgia often factors into the space—cue the music, a mix of traditional Bolivian artists, reggaeton, and ’90s hip-hop and R&B that the Sanchez siblings grew up on.

Bartender Luis Aliaga pours a singani cocktail. Photograph by Jessica VanDop DeJesus.

Another childhood (and now anytime) treat: salteñas, an empanada-like pastry filled with a savory stew of chicken or beef, potatoes, peas, and egg. Maria Helena of Shaw-based salteña bakery Saya—and another La Paz native—will be at Kantuta on Sundays for brunch. She’ll serve the warm pastries alongside Bolivian mimosas (singani and sparkling orange juice) and mocochinchi, a peach juice. On Saturdays and Sundays, the space will also host a market with local artists, designers, vintage collectors, and small business owners with a focus on female and BIPOC-owned businesses such and Spoken Spanglish and SunGods.

Sanchez is using the pop-up to test the water for a brick-and-mortar Casa Kantuta somewhere in DC. In the meantime, she plans to take the Bolivian show on the road for pop-ups in New York and elsewhere.

“I hope if you’re not Bolivian, you’ll come in and think ‘I need to book my ticket,’,” Sanchez says.  “I want it to be a cultural experience, and a beautiful one at that.”

Casa Kantuta. 2309 18th St., NW. Open Thursday through Sunday from 7 PM to 2 AM (bar service only);  Saturday and Sunday from 11 AM to 3 PM (market and brunch).

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.