Outside the cafe, which is tucked away on Cambridge Avenue just one block off Palo Alto's busy California Avenue, a sandwich-board sign announces lattes, saltenas, peanut soup and cunapes. While a full complement of coffee drinks are available, so is yerba mate. The menu is peppered with Bolivian fare.
The idea for the cafe has been marinating for the past six or seven years, Gloria Justiniano says. She and her sisters Roxana and Fatima — 3G's stands for three girls — spent years fine-tuning family recipes and testing them out at potlucks before deciding to open the cafe.
"Everybody loved the food," Justiniano says. "We thought, why not provide these flavors to the community?"
They took the leap this summer, opening 3G's at the end of August. They've relied mostly on word-of-mouth, Justiniano says.
"Today we got 11 students from Stanford, all from Bolivia," she says. "They were waiting for the saltenas."
The saltenas ($3-$3.25) are made from a family recipe that goes back generations. Her mom, Elva, oversees the two-day process of making the savory pastry pockets, similar to empanadas. A tender, slightly sweet dough is filled with beef or chicken stew in a light gravy, and baked until golden. They're all made by hand, because there's no mechanized way to create the dough and seal in the gravy so it doesn't leak out, Justiniano says. She makes a face at the thought of a dry saltena that's lost its juicy filling.
The hearty saltenas are eaten all day long, hot or cold, as breakfast or a snack, although few Bolivians make them at home, she says. "When I visit back home, I go straight from the airport" to get a saltena, she says.
The cafe also offers more typical fare, with made-to-order sandwiches, salads, cookies and scones. But there are also slices of brazo de gitano ($1.85), a light white cake rolled around a thick, caramel-colored filling of dulce de leche. Crumbly alfajores ($1), cookies sandwiched around dulce de leche and rolled in shredded coconut, share a pastry case with chocolate chip cookies.
The cunapes ($1.50) are similar to a savory cheese biscuit, but are made with yucca instead of flour, which gives them an unusual texture. Pan de arroz ($1.50) is a sticky pancake made of rice flour studded with chunks of cheese that's baked on a banana leaf. The peanut and quinoa soups ($3.25-$4.25) are also typical Bolivian fare, although the creamy-smooth blended texture comes from Justiniano's family recipe.
While many of the menu items won't be found at a Starbucks or Peet's, Justiniano says there's been a great response, and a surprising number of people who are familiar with the dishes.
"We're surprised: The community has really responded," she says. "I'm encouraged."
Besides seeing homesick Bolivians, 3G's is welcoming a lot of patrons from Central America, Chile, Argentina and Peru, she says.
"Many of the items are the same, but have different names," Justiniano says. "In our heads, it's close enough; it reminds us of home."
While the weekday crowd is mostly people who work nearby, on the weekends people living in the nearby neighborhood venture into 3G's, often to check out the weekend specials, where Justiniano and her sisters test out new recipes.
Recent weekend specials have been pico de gallina, chicken with spicy red sauce served with rice; and majado, a rice dish with dried beef that's topped with egg and fried plantains.
On Sundays, shoppers at the California Avenue farmers market have begun to discover 3G's, Justiniano says.
Justiniano and her sisters don't have any previous experience in the restaurant business — one sister is a dentist, the other does medical billings, and Justiniano quit her job as a dental assistant to work full-time at 3G's.
Make that more than full-time.
Since its opening, Justiniano has been putting in 16- or 18-hour days. Her sisters work in the cafe on weekends, and they all pitch in to make the pastries, soups and other dishes 3G's serves.
"We were well-prepared to work hard," she says. "It's fun, but it's hard work."
Part of that is because everything is made fresh daily. "We don't have a microwave," she says, gesturing toward the small space behind the counter that's dominated by a large oven. "I'm that type of person."
3G's doesn't have full breakfasts because there's no stove, and Justiniano isn't interested in using the microwaveable egg-mixes available.
While she said it's been surprisingly easy to find local sources that carry specialty ingredients like yucca flour, quinoa and yerba mate, getting other Bolivian specialties has been a little more frustrating. She says she's been trying to get Buena Vista coffee from Bolivia, and the coca tea won't get past customs in Miami. "I keep banging my head against the wall," she says.
Despite the challenges, Justiniano seems confident that 3G's is going to be a success. "We got some regulars from day one," she says. "We're trying to create that atmosphere."
Working in a dentist's office, she appreciated the friendly atmosphere, where she not only knew her patients, she knew their children and their families, too.
"I like that environment and I want to create the same kind here," she says.
456 Cambridge Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Weekdays 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
3.3 pounds grated cheese, such as queso fresco
1.1 pounds yucca (also known as cassava or tapioca) starch
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons milk
salt to taste
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, mix grated cheese, yucca starch, sugar and salt (if the cheese is not salty). Finally add milk, pouring little by little until you have a smooth, but not dry, dough.
3. Place dough on a work surface sprinkled with some yucca starch. Knead until the dough is smooth and even.
4. Make small balls. With your finger, make a small hole at the bottom of each ball. Place the cunapes in a yucca-starch-sprinkled baking sheet, with the hole in direct contact with the sheet.
5. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, or until cunapes are golden.