It's a very cold Monday night when I go to La Duni on Oak Lawn to visit with their corporate chef, 37-year-old Julia Lopez. Horse-drawn carriages roll by outside and almost all of the tables inside are filled with large parties of revelers. 'Tis the season and all.
Warm, freshly-made, perfectly-salted tortilla chips come out quickly with a fresh salsa followed by their special queso verde, made of four cheeses -- cotija, gruyere, mozzarella, and queso fresco -- along with corn, Serrano peppers, and, of course, cilantro giving it its inviting green color.
"Everyone loves the cheese dip," she says with a smile. How do you create something so special from such basic ingredients? Lopez says the trick is subtlety: "What you want is for it to be well-seasoned, bold." It is creamy and warm and highly likely to spoil your dinner. You've been warned.
After pouring over the menu like it's the last supper, we finally decided on two dishes. First, the Pechuga de Pollo Con Broccoli, grilled chicken breast with lime-Oregano mojo, served with garlic-chili flakes, pan-seared broccoli, asparagus, mashed potatoes, and roasted tomato. And then the Cuadril Tacos with seared cuadril steak strip tacos, iron skillet tomato, onion, and Serrano salsa, mashed avocados, and lime vegetables with corn or flour tortillas and a small salad.
Both were straightforward, fresh, and delicious, relying on smart seasoning and the perfect pairing of ingredients. That's the focus of all of Lopez's menu creation and cooking for La Duni - smart and simple.
La Duni, as you likely know, is also well-known for its incredible desserts, which meant we couldn't leave without having the warm, milk chocolate cake pudding, a vanilla cake baked in milk chocolate custard served with vanilla bean ice cream, homemade chocolate syrup, Arequipe caramel, raspberry sauce and pecan crocante. And, yes, it is as good as it sounds. Actually, it's better. And I am a chocolate whore. So I know.
We also indulged in the cuatro leches cake, a layered Mantecado vanilla sponge cake, soaked in cuatro leches sauce, topped with caramelized Swiss meringue and dotted with Arequipe reduction, served with tres leches sauce and Arequipe caramel. Not chocolate. But as delicious as its chocolate compadre.
Lopez was born in Chicago, but grew up in a small town in Chihuahua, Mexico. But 12 years ago, Lopez came back to the US. Her father wanted her to get to "explore her home country." Her sister was already in the States, doing well for herself, while Lopez was studying accounting and living at home, neither of which felt like success. So Lopez decided to make the leap, moving to El Paso and starting ESL classes straightaway.
She spoke no English at all, which made finding a job very difficult. But her sister had a friend working at Jack in the Box and managed to get her a job as a prep cook. "The prep cook only does tomatoes and lettuce. It's the only thing fresh that they have. They finally moved me to fryer station, which I found a little more fun. My main goal was how fast can I learn the language."
Lopez later moved to Dallas with her sister and decided that being a chef was what she wanted to do with her life. "My friends said, 'You should become a chef" and I said, 'Can I do that?'" When they assured her she could, that was all she needed. She knew then that the next step had to be getting a job where she could work with real chefs, which is exactly what she did. She applied to the Marriott, but the hotel didn't have any openings in the kitchen at first. Lopez was prepared to wait as long as she had to.
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"They offered me banquet and I said, 'No, I want to work in the kitchen.' One time they were so desperate that they called for an interview. They asked me, 'Why do you want to come here?' and I told them that I wanted to get experience before spending time and money on school. I got the job and it was one of happiest days of my life."
She then enrolled at El Centro, worked on her English, moved to the Wyndham, then to the Mansion at Turtle Creek, and finally landed at La Duni. That was eight years ago now. She helps oversee all of the La Duni locations and is busy planning for their next opening in Fairview. Her work has given her insight into Dallas diners.
Among other more mundane things, what Dallas diners want, she says, is heat. "You'd be surprised. They ask for a lot of spice. Diners here are very familiar with peppers I think because Texas is a big producer of peppers. Dallas is a lot into Tex-Mex food."
The holidays keep Lopez on the go. "I have caterings every day. I'm wherever it's the busiest. Lopez also creates all of the menus for La Duni. "They don't' change a lot. But every single new recipe comes from my hands."