“I left Bolivia, but Bolivia never left my heart,” says Genoveva Escobar. Affectionately known as “Beba” to most, Escobar is the spry 65-year-old behind Southern California’s longest-standing Bolivian restaurant, the namesake Beba’s Restaurant in Anaheim. Escobar left her homeland in 1989 in search of a better life, and along the way has become what many consider to be the region’s unofficial “ambassador of Bolivia.”
In addition to serving delicious Bolivian staples and carving out a space for the Bolivian community, Beba’s tells a story of immigrant perseverance and hard-fought success. Born in La Paz, Escobar started out in the culinary world as a baker, running a business with her late husband Germán serving Bolivian staples like empanadas and cuñapé (yucca-cheese bread). Their specialty was salteñas, an empanada made with sweet and dense dough, stuffed with juicy, almost stew-like filling.
“I had baked all of my life,” says Escobar of those early years before moving to the States, “but I didn’t have much experience cooking in the kitchen when this all started.”
After suffering a robbery in 1988, the Escobars sought a fresh start. Within a year the family headed to the U.S., where Beba’s older brother was working as a manager at La Rancherita Bakery in Santa Ana. Germán Escobar was the first to arrive in Los Angeles, with Beba following three months later after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally with her three-year-old son. Those early years were far from easy. Beba’s brother was able to get her husband a job at the bakery, while Escobar herself worked making salteñas at a Bolivian-Italian restaurant nearby. “This was before we knew about labor laws,” she says. “It was very hard… My boss was very demanding.”
With few resources and no English, the family’s living conditions were far from ideal. In the early 90s, the trio shared a room with Beba’s brother, but they had to sleep during the day while her brother slept at night. Escobar would go on to work at several restaurants in the LA area over the next few years while her husband continued at the bakery. Eventually Germán traveled back to Bolivia and returned with their two other young children, adding to the already tight living arrangement. With more mouths to feed Escobar worked at least one job every day, turning to babysitting during the week while covering extra restaurant shifts during the weekend. Despite the difficulties, the Escobars pushed forward. And after more than four years of hard work, things started to look up.
When Beba’s brother became the owner of the bakery, he was able to officially hire his sister as head chef and Germán as the saltinguero (salteña maker). In one fell swoop, the Escobars gained new job titles and a pathway to legal immigration status. The pair returned to Bolivia in 1994 to begin formal paperwork proceedings and returned to California in January 1995, green cards and children in tow. “We came with new energy and enthusiasm,” Escobar says. “We wanted to set up a little restaurant or stand where we would sell salteñas.”
With new aspirations, the Escobars decided to partner with the owners of Don Luis, the Bolivian restaurant in Santa Ana where Beba had worked before departing for Bolivia in 1994. “The agreement was that they would put the store and we would [provide] the service,” says Escobar. After just a couple of months, the owners of Don Luis wanted out, having realized that they were ready to retire from the restaurant world. They offered to sell the store to Beba and Germán.
On June 26, 1995, the Escobars officially took over the lease. The restaurant was renamed after Escobar’s nickname and quickly became a crowd favorite. The hours were long, Escobar says, but it was hard to beat the sense of pride that came from sharing their Bolivian culinary traditions with an eager Orange County audience.
With more than 7,000 Bolivian residents, the L.A. metro area is home to one of the largest Bolivian communities in the United States, with a particularly large enclave in Orange County. Still, Bolivia’s cuisine remains relatively unknown, both in California and worldwide.
A multi-ethnic country of roughly 10 million people, Bolivia and its national identity are bolstered by a varied and significant indigenous community, with 36 officially recognized indigenous languages spoken across its nine regional administrative departments. As a result, the nation’s cuisine varies from region to region, often intermixing native and European flavors and traditions.
Some dishes may draw similarities to those served in neighboring countries like Argentina or Peru, but the landlocked nation is amongst the fifteen most biodiverse countries in the world, bringing unique ingredients into Bolivian kitchens. Dishes from its Andean region are characterized by their use of potatoes, meat and ají amarillo, while recipes from the Amazon rely heavily on local fruits and freshwater fish.
While the Escobars’ original plan was to set up a simple salteña stand, their menu ended up showcasing the diversity of their homeland’s culinary customs.
Twelve years later, the Escobars lost their lease. “Patrol One [a security company] was expanding and unbeknown to my mom and dad, they beat us to the lease,” recounts Grover, Beba’s son. This was another very sad moment,” Escobar adds. “All of the hard work we had invested was suddenly lost.”
Still, after border crossings and cramped nights and years of travel between California and Bolivia, they weren’t about to give up on their dream. After an extensive search, the Escobars were able to find a new property in Anaheim, where Beba’s currently stands. The space even had two separate kitchens, which allowed the Escobars to share the rent with an American breakfast joint that was already there. “People would go eat American breakfast in the morning and later came the Bolivian food,” Escobar fondly remembers.
Two years in, during the financial crisis of 2008, an electrical fire burned Beba’s to the ground. Somehow still undeterred, the Escobars set about rebuilding, again. With the help of a friend, the family crafted their dream restaurant, shedding the breakfast fare and just focusing on making Bolivian food. After all, Escobar figured that after seeing her dream stricken and literally burned down, it made sense to go all-in on the cuisine that means the most to her.
It was well worth the risk. Six months later Escobar was able to open a second Beba’s in Van Nuys, thanks to the success of her Anaheim restaurant. Escobar and her family have been bringing a little piece of Bolivia to Southern California ever since.
“We serve dishes from seven of Bolivia’s nine departments [regional administrative subdivisions],” Escobar proudly notes. Her diverse menu offers eaters a peek across Bolivia’s different regions.
Take Escobar’s sopa de chairo, for example. This traditional paceño dish brings together tender stewed beef, an ingredient brought over by the Spaniards, and combines it with various Andean vegetables including chuño, a bitter dehydrated black potato that comes from the Aymara and Quechua tribes. Escobar also makes sopa de maní, a soup that features roasted peanuts, a crop that is thought to have originated in Bolivia, along with elbow noodles and a variety of locally-sourced vegetables. Nutty and slightly spiced, it’s satisfying enough to be consumed as a main course.
Her silpancho, which hails from Cochabamba, is another best-seller at Beba’s. While it hasn’t been around for that long, it takes its name from the Quechua word sillp’anchuin, which means “smashed and slender.” Escobar builds the hefty dish with freshly breaded milanesas served alongside crispy golden potatoes, fried eggs, and tomato-onion sauce that she says is similar to pico de gallo.
While her clients go crazy for her rotating weekend specials, Beba’s star dish remains her juicy salteña. “The salteña is something extraordinary,” says Escobar with a smile. Cleaning and mincing the meat herself, the stew-like filling is so juicy that it pours out after the first bite. The dough, which is slightly sweet, is thicker than other empanadas, as it needs to be heavy enough to hold the juices of the fillings. She makes everything from fresh chorizos and sausage in-house, and still finds time to tap into her bakery roots, offering dishes like humintas – traditional cornmeal husks baked with cheese.
Today, Escobar sources all of her ingredients from Bolivian and Peruvian importers — a feat that would have not been possible when the restaurant first started. With few other Bolivian options in Southern California, Escobar’s efforts have also put her home country’s food on the local culinary map. “Along with many Latinos like Argentines or Peruvians, we get a lot of Americans and many Koreans,” she says of her broad dining clientele, adding that non-Bolivians are usually very impressed by dishes that feature ají de chile (a local Bolivian pepper), since that’s what gives much of Bolivia’s food its ‘touch.’
Along with serving as a cultural ambassador to non-Bolivians, Escobar is very in touch with Los Angeles’ Bolivian consulate, always sharing any news that arises. “A lot of people end up hearing it here first,” she says, chuckling. “It’s beautiful to remember your country and culture. I’m very proud of where I come from.”
In 2019, Germán fell ill and the Escobars decided to permanently close the Van Nuys location Today, the focus is on the Anaheim restaurant, which Beba runs with her children. But to this day, she still gets orders from all over Southern California, noting that she travels to the San Fernando Valley – and even as far as San Diego — at least once a month.
The past couple of years haven’t been easy. Along with the complications brought on by the pandemic, Escobar has recently lost her husband and both parents. Stoically, Beba says that all she can do is continue to push forward, for herself and her children.
“People ask me how I keep on going,” says Escoba, tearing up. “But it’s what I have done my entire life.”It’s a lesson learned through the swelling of years, buoyed and burdened by hardship one moment and success the next.
“Time teaches the master… When you persevere and fight, you also learn.”
Beba’s Anaheim is open at 1909 E Lincoln Ave, Anaheim. The restaurant keeps hours from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.