“I like to describe Oaxaca as the Texas of Mexico,” Leslie Luna says.
Texans might think that’s big talk, but Oaxacans can back it up with a unique centuries-old heritage that sets their state apart from the rest of Mexico in culture, history and cuisine.
“There is just so much culture in that one state, so much pride,” she continues. “Not just pride in being Mexican but being born and raised in Oaxaca.”
That pride is the basis of Luna 23, where Oaxaca native Lon Luna, his daughter Leslie and their colleagues prepare all the classics of their state’s cuisine: memelitas, huaraches, mole negro and even chapulines, the crunchy, snacky grasshoppers. This is the first restaurant from the Luna family, who named the business after both themselves and a lotería card.
To find their moles and sopes, venture just north of downtown Garland and down a small side street, past an abandoned drive-in restaurant and rows of residences. Luna 23’s bucolic location, opposite a leafy park, feels far removed from the bustle of Dallas.
“Even though there's amazing Mexican food in abundance here in Texas, we were definitely missing some Oaxacan food,” Leslie Luna says.
The restaurant’s star attraction is the tlayuda, an enormous, circular corn tortilla that is pressed onto a griddle until crisp, then topped with pureed black beans, meats and vegetables and grilled again. By the end, the tortilla has a cracker-like crunch, but it still manages to hold the weight of its toppings.
Tlayudas are often compared to pizzas by non-Mexicans, and some restaurants have embraced the “Mexican pizza” name. The comparison is useful but superficial: They’re both round doughs with a bunch of delicious stuff on top. People all around the world have made flatbread-like foods for millennia, and the tlayuda may well be older than the pizza. Its name derives from Nahuatl, and indigenous Mexican people have been putting fillings on tortillas for at least 500 years.
Luna 23’s tlayudas are served pre-sliced and in familiar pizza boxes. They’re big enough to serve four people, loaded as they are with black beans, cabbage, cheese and the diner’s choice of meat ($16 for one meat, $18 for two, $20 for three). The three paltry slices of tomato and the single grilled spring onion are more garnish than topping, but they’re welcome.
One warm Saturday afternoon this fall, I took a takeout tlayuda box across the street to the shady woods of Garland’s Bradfield Park. (The picnic area is east of Luna 23, on the other side of a small creek.)
We’d ordered a tlayuda with barbacoa only; it came with chorizo, too, by happy mistake. The barbacoa rested on the black bean puree in fist-sized heaps of tender stewed beef. On the side, a tiny cup of fiery chile oil, grains of dried pepper still suspended in the liquid, stood ready to be drizzled over everything.
There are plenty of other masa-centric delights at Luna 23, including huaraches, memelitas and machetes, the long, thin, blade-shaped quesadillas ($16). The sopes, about three inches in diameter, have tender bases as thick as a pencil and gently flexible ($8). The real key to these sopes, though, is the black beans spread on top, which have soulful depth and richness.
Grab enfrijoladas ($10) with their traditional filling, tasajo, a part-dried and sliced cut of beef. Tasajo is ubiquitous in Oaxacan cuisine but less common north of the border; it’s a staple on tlayudas, and the meat’s firm texture is especially well-suited to contrast with the softness of enchiladas and enfrijoladas.
The restaurant’s enchiladas verdes are topped with one of the spiciest salsas verdes in the Dallas area ($10). Luckily, the salsa isn’t poured on too heavily, allowing the rest of the flavors to come through, too. Diners can choose any meat; I recommend vividly seasoned and stewed chicken.
Enchiladas and enfrijoladas are served here as they often are in central Mexico, with the tortillas folded once around the filling and drowned in salsa or beans. In the United States, enchiladas are more frequently rolled tightly. Neither is more “right” or “authentic;” they’re two different and complementary styles.
The Luna family’s restaurant is decorated to fit their tastes. The menu is on a large black chalkboard, and if customers dine in on Sundays, they can catch a Cowboys game. All along the front of the restaurant, in the floor-to-ceiling windows, big, colorful handbags hang on hooks as decoration.
There are a few signs that Luna 23’s owners aren’t experienced industry veterans. Although the store is well-equipped to handle walk-in and phone-in orders, the website’s online ordering function is currently disabled, probably because of this author. I ordered a takeout lunch online in September, drove to Garland and discovered nobody at the restaurant had looked for any online orders. When they showed me the software, it became clear why: Mine was the first web order in two weeks.
Now the website mainly exists to show off the restaurant’s menu. But according to the Lunas, the menu promises to get even more exciting in the weeks to come. Holiday season means tamales — Oaxacan tamales, the bigger parcels wrapped in banana leaves and filled with masa, meat and a spoonful of mole. Cold weather also brings weekend cups of champurrado, the thick, warming chocolate drink.
In other words, this is the perfect season for Oaxacan food. When the mole-filled tamales start arriving at Luna 23, we will be racing to Garland to get a taste.
Luna 23, 813 Castle Drive, Garland. 469-443-0888. Open for takeout and dine-in 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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