Edmonds family’s legacy: Copacabana, the state’s only Bolivian restaurant

Bolivian cuisine is often described as “homestyle cooking.”

Washington state’s only Bolivian restaurant, Copacabana, will be celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer. Owned by Edmonds residents Vivian Almagsusi and her father Michael Morrow, Copacabana is one of the oldest family-operated restaurants in Seattle, located at Pike Place Market.

Founded by Ramón and Hortencia Palaez after they immigrated from La Paz, Bolivia, as political exiles, Copacabana first opened its doors at the Sanitary Public Market in 1964. The Palaezes were the parents of Morrow’s late wife Martha.

“They quickly realized that the market was a place that was very important to Seattle, and they wanted to be a part of this historic place,” Morrow said. “The Copacabana became a gathering place for friends to come and eat and socialize. After their passing, [their] daughter Martha and [I] took over running the business. The restaurant has many extended family members working there on a daily basis.”

The restaurant’s outdoor deck at Pike Place Market.

Copacabana moved to the second floor of the Triangle Building in 1976 after the City of Seattle wanted to repurpose and restore the Sanitary Market building. The outdoor deck, which was Martha’s idea, stretches alongside the restaurant and provides diners with a vantage point above the bustling Pike Market. It was constructed shortly before Copacabana’s reopening in the market in 1978.

While Bolivian cuisine shares some similarities with other South American cuisines, there are some distinctive foods that make it unique. 

“A salteña is a savory pastry filled with beef, potatoes, peas, carrots, raisins, egg and olives,” Morrow said. “When it is fresh from the oven, it has an extremely juicy broth interior – almost soup-like. Salteñas are Bolivia’s version of a quick handheld lunch item.”

The salteña is one of the signature food items of Bolivian cuisine.

“Every country has a pastry filled with something: hand pies, piroshkys, empanadas,” Almagsusi said. “If you say it’s kind of like an empanada, people tend to understand quicker. Bolivians would eat it with their hands, not with a fork and knife.”

She also said that people who have visited or worked in Bolivia would stop by Copacabana to buy salteñas – some of them after trying to make the pastries by hand. “It’s a two-day labor to make them,” Almagsusi said. “And people do it for fun one time and never do it again. People buy them no matter how much it costs because it is labor intensive. Salteñas are not quick to make.”

Morrow and Almagsusi described Bolivian food as “homestyle comfort food,” adding it is not considered “fine dining” like French, Italian and typical North American cuisine. 

The green ají is a mild spice salsa that is usually eaten with most Bolivian meals.

“While most dishes are not spicy, our housemade Bolivian hot sauce, called ají, is always served to every table,” Morrow said. “For those who like spice, this hot sauce has great flavor and adds a nice touch of heat to any item on the menu. We also serve Bolivian cocktails made from the Bolivian national spirit called Singani, which is made from grapes grown at 5,000-plus feet above sea level. The liquor has a very floral, smooth and peppery taste.”

Ramón Palaez owned two radio stations in La Paz before the Bolivian government shut them down, and Almagsusi’s maternal grandparents were exiled. The Seattle Times reported in May 1965 that his radio broadcasts were “very popular” in Bolivia and were “pro-American and anti-Communist.” Ramón and Hortencia were exiled from Bolivia in 1957 and moved to Seattle in 1963. 

The Seattle Sunday Times covered Copacabana in May 1965.

They already had family living in the Seattle area, including one of their daughters, Aida, who married Seattle resident Robert Edenholm, and their two other daughters Sonia and Martha. One of their sons, Fernando, moved to Seattle from New York City in April 1965.

Ramón tried to get a job in the radio business but was unsuccessful. When he and Hortencia saw Pike Place Market, it reminded them of the open-air markets back in La Paz. They found a vacant space at the Sanitary Market and took a chance. Copacabana Café was born.

The 50-plus-year-old family “tree” of Copacabana includes three generations of the male members of the family. Regular patrons used to hang their coffee mugs on the board so they could use them when they had their coffee.

“My grandfather had to start anew,” Almagsusi said. “Other countries, especially in Latin America, are very social. They take two-hour lunches, have coffee and tea for two to three hours. He was like, ‘How am I going to recreate that here?’ People come, they eat, drink, talk, and bring their families and friends. It’s a gathering place for fun.”

Although Almagsusi never met her maternal grandparents – they died in the early 1970s when she was a toddler – she thought that her grandfather was a “very charismatic” man. He befriended several high-profile Seattle residents, including Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck, who preserved Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market, and Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson. Steinbrueck’s son Peter, who is a former Seattle city councilmember and port commissioner, still occasionally pops into Copacabana because he is a good friend of Ramón.

Copacabana manager Vivian Almagsusi shares some photos and newspaper clips and mementos of the restaurant’s history.
The Morrow family in the late 1970s (L-R): Vivian Almagsusi and her younger brother, Martha Morrow and Michael Morrow.

Copacabana is named after the patron saint of Bolivia. The restaurant’s llama logo reflects the importance of the animal in Bolivia. “When you visit the [Bolivian] countryside, you see llamas all over like we see sheep and cows here in America,” Morrow said. “They are perfectly suited to the high altitude and are used for work purposes to carry heavy loads. They are shaved like sheep for their fur, which is used in making clothing and other wool items like rugs and pillows.”

Morrow and his wife took over the restaurant operation in 1971, running it until they retired in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[My] family generously donated a lot of their own time and effort to make sure the restaurant could survive during that trying time,” he added. “The Pike Place Market held several fundraising events, and the City of Seattle aided in helping businesses through grants.”  

Like many restaurants in downtown Seattle, Almagsusi said that Copacabana has not recovered to its pre-pandemic state because many office workers have not returned to work downtown and are working remotely. 

In an effort to expand its dining options, Copacabana is adding churros to its menu, which are made at Edmonds-based Alberto’s Churros. Almagsusi met Alberto’s Churros owner Steven Ramirez-Araujo and his family at the restaurant earlier this year, and the two eventually connected after she discovered he was in the churro business.

While Morrow no longer works at the restaurant, he is still involved with the daily operations from his Edmonds home office, including managing deliveries, ordering from vendors and bookkeeping. He said he also visits the restaurant occasionally.

“Because there’s so much family here, he’s relaxed about not having to come down here,” Almagsusi said of her father. “He’s happy now. He’s enjoying being home.”

The staff at Copacabana.

Morrow hopes that Copacabana will return to its pre-pandemic hours by this summer. Currently, they are serving only breakfast and lunch.

“Luckily, we have an amazing family of not only my children but extended family members that all work together at our family restaurant,” he said. “Our 60th anniversary begins in June. As for celebrating, we are planning to have food and drink specials all summer!”

— Story and photos by Nick Ng

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