Tucked into a corner at the back of the dining room at Santa Luna Restaurant—the Mexican joint that occupies the shell left by Torino’s@Home’s treasonous decampment for Albuquerque—is a chalkboard with this jauntily scrawled message: “Authentic Mexican Flavor!”
Santa Luna sidesteps the trap of coupling “authentic” and “Mexican” by touting its adherence to selections that span all of Mexico and its many distinct states and culinary regions. Every menu item comes with a rough geo-location: The flautas are traced to San Luis Potosí; a shrimp soup hails from Sinaloa; and, obviously, the mole Oaxaqueña is blamed on Oaxaca.
The produce is purchased fresh and, whenever possible, sourced locally, and it shows.
The kitchen works only with organic chicken and beef, although seafood and pork are without provenance.
Every meal is primed, authentically for Mexican fare on this side of la frontera, by light, crisp chips and, more enticingly, by a fresh-made tomatillo and cilantro salsa. There’s not a lot of heat, but any Mexican knows one of the many things that makes Americans so weird is their general disdain for the wonders of the tomatillo.
Santa Luna has a small but sound selection of traditional appetizers and antojitos—enchiladas, tamales, rellenos, etc.—and an alarming parade of high-end dishes. It takes authentic cojones to open a lunch-only hole-in-the-wall and then lay out eight dishes over $17.
Not willing to let good sense overcome a macho challenge, I took the bait on the lomo de puerco: tenderloin pork medallions wrapped in bacon, served atop rice and cashews, and doused in a chipotle-lime sauce.
Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to eat his or her way across Mexico knows that the cuisine is unified through dedication to process and presentation. There are wildly different sensibilities and ingredients, but respect for proper preparation and an infallible belief that food should be presented beautifully are universal.
The plating at Santa Luna exemplifies this. When the lomo de puerco (tagged as a specialty of Guanajuato) was placed in front of me, I almost wanted to have my picture taken next to it more than I wanted to eat it.
Unfortunately, someone in the kitchen was feeling less artful about the preparation. The tender had been mercilessly cooked right out of the loin, and the allegedly fresh chipotle-lime sauce tasted conspicuously like store-bought BBQ sauce. To top it off, dominating the bedrock of rice and cashews was a ponderous pile of slimy bell pepper slivers. A lot of bell peppers are grown in Mexico, but very few are eaten there, as Mexicans are not fooled by the watery blandness of these pseudo-peppers. The sea-monstery heap threw “authenticity” out the window for me.
Fortunately, on another visit, the Jalisco-style torta ahogada—toasted ciabatta halves stuffed with carnitas, salsa, refried beans, onions, tomato and avocado—showed none of the same weaknesses. At $7.50, it’s a relative bargain and a flavorful geology of texture and taste striations. The chile en nogada ($8.95) was equally exceptional, with a flavorful sauce of pomegranate-dusted pecan playing over a poblano stuffed with dried pineapple and beef.
Mole is to Oaxaca as chile is to New Mexico and gelato is to Italy—it’s inexplicably difficult for anyone to do it properly outside of certain geographic borders. After sampling Santa Luna’s mole over cheese enchiladas ($8.95), I can’t change my mind, but I can say it’s far better than most attempts.
The only real problem with Santa Luna is that even the smallest meal induces the deep, immediate need for a siesta—the taste for which, like the tomatillo, inexplicably eludes us in this so-called modern, progressive nation.
Follow SFR food news on Twitter: @eating_wrong