food road trip: luna rotisserie & empanadas...it's south latin american-ish
Evidently the Triangle (that's Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) is becoming a hot bed of food revival with an array of "hip and trendy" restaurants and chefs emerging in the area to impress critics and tempt diners with their "edgy" food creations. Durham in particular has recently seen an ongoing revitalizing of its downtown area with an influx of new housing and business. Basically it is going through its own gentrification, a slow process that honestly has felt to me like it has been going on for decades but only recently seems to have gone into overdrive.
As with any influx of young, upwardly mobile, millennials or whatever you want to call them, many times a resurgence seems to begin when a new restaurant opens and explodes in popularity bringing people downtown who normally would never have set foot there if they didn't have to. And as one goes, so others follow. While there I was interested in trying one of the newish spots at the epicenter of the re-growth that seems to have garnered a following, Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas.
I mean, what says the middle class are coming back downtown better than a spot specializing in locally sourced food to create upscaled Mexican food! Let's face it, this is an issue we currently have in SF too. It is a clash of ideas where there is a thriving culture of Mexican experience serving tasty authentic dishes at prices that are affordable for such an unaffordable city and yet, places continue to open that offer what they like to recall a more "refined" experience. That's really just a code word for costs more.
It is hit or miss with many of these spots and I will admit upfront, I have issues with overpriced burritos when I can get a great one at many a taqueria in the Mission for less than you can get a sandwich in this town. But seeing as this was Durham and not SF, I wanted to keep an open mind for the food and look past the prices and the fact the owner/chef didn't have roots in Latin America so much as he worked with relief organizations there for a number of years. Which honestly, could open up a whole other discussion of appropriation and privilege of how he's able to open a restaurant while others simply cannot. Putting all that aside (even though it seems I can't) I was interested in trying the place as they were offering more a mesh of foods by blending Latin American with Southern dishes to create Southern American?
Walking in, the place does remind me of spots in SF with its industrial look of high ceilings and lots of wood and metal. Not to mention a chalkboard menu and a loud, hopping crowd for a Wednesday night.
I'm with an old friend from high school (wad' up Ms. M!) and we decided to share a number of plates in order to maximize our eating. Right off the top from the appetizers we both zoomed in on the arepas.
What is more of a mix of food cultures than a corn cake topped with stuff! An arepa is pretty much a Johnnycake, a nice Southern staple I like covered in butter, but meat and cheese works too. These small round ground corn cakes were topped separately with beef, pork, chicken, black beans and then a white corn salsa, jack cheese and a mashed avocado. You get four for $12.75.
The arepas were nicely crisped on the outside and soft and sweet inside, like cornbread. The corn also added some crunch and the avocado provided a little creamy richness. Each of the meats were tender, though it was hard to distinguish much variation in flavor. Outside of their colors, in a blind taste test you might not be able to tell which was which. And for something so South American, it lacked some much needed heat. Fortunately they had their own hot sauce on the tables to help kick it up. I'm guessing(?) they were seasoned down to appeal to a broader range of taste buds and then folks could spice up to their likeness. Though not totally sure. Without the heat they were nice, with the spice they were much brighter with the mix of sweet corn and heat. That one little addition made these the best thing we had.
Since empanada was in the name of the place it seemed proper to give one a try. They have three meat or three veggie varieties to choose from in either dinner plate option or $3.50 a pop. We opted for the chicken with mixed with potatoes and roasted red peppers. They are slightly larger than the ones you would find at say El Porteno. The dough was flaky and buttery which was nice, though the pulled chicken on the inside was a little dry. Not much, but when mixed with the thickness of potatoes, enough to be noticeable. It comes with a side sauce that was kind of like a runny dijonnaise with, surprise, a real kick of pepper heat. It did add some needed flavor so I'm kind of looking past the weird thinness of the sauce the plainness of the empanada to say that together it was good enough.
Now here's something that truly made me feel like I was in an SF restaurant--a mostly gluten free beer! Called Glutiny, it is a pale ale made by New Belgium in a process to significantly reduce the gluten produced by the hops in the fermentation process. Feel free to read about it here. I kind of tried it on a lark and I actually sort of liked it. It doesn't have that bitter hops after taste and combined with some citrus and fruit notes it comes across like a smoother version of Blue Moon or Hefeweizen. I'm not the biggest beer fan so this one fit right in my wheel house by not making me wince when drinking it. Brewed in Ft Collins CO and Asheville NC, this is one instance where I'm giving a real thumbs up to something gluten-free.
For our final dish we ordered up one of the rotisserie meats. The chili braised Meyer local harvest brisket with a choice of two sides--the fried yuca sticks and pan roasted succotash with bacon for $13.50. So, the first surprise for us when this dish arrived was that the brisket was served shredded. I think we expected slices of juicy meat like a pot roast. The second was the general lack of flavor this dish had. For something that was described as chili braised, the meat didn't have much of any flavor outside of stringy, though that is more adjective. As Ms. M said, "there isn't really anything there." While it was wet, that was more juice coming off it. It needed salt or most any kind of seasoning. It just wasn't good.
The succotash, a Southern staple side dish, also lacked seasoning. It may have been pan roasted but I don't know in what. There were bits of bacon but even they seemed to lack giving this the needed salt it desperately could have used. Saving grace for me were the yuca fries. I will say they were served hot out of the fryer and had a nice golden brown crispy outer shell and soft inside. Something sometimes hard to do with such a fibrous root veggie. Though it might have been nice to have a dip for them (even ketchup) as they can come across dry because of their thickness when they actually are not.
I think the other thing that bug both of us was the server actually never asked us about the food. Except for the fries, we did not even come close to finishing the meat or the succotash. When the she came by, she asked me if I wanted a to go box and even after I gave her one of my withering "No's", she whisked the plate away without so much as inquiring whether we liked it or not. Seriously, when I waited tables, if I saw that much food left it meant they were either full or didn't like it and I always inquired if everything was okay to find out.
If this place were in SF, it wouldn't last very long as there are too many other places doing better versions of the same thing. In Durham, it is a different story. With its mash up of Southern and Latin American, it is just innocuous enough to appeal to broader group of people who can find it just pleasing enough to their palate while pretending they are dining out of the box on some kind of authentic Latin American cuisine. If that's your thing, great! Having new food experiences is worthwhile to expand your horizons of what is out there. Though I might suggest you find some truly authentic South or Latin American (or even Mexican) spot and try their carnitas or hand made tortillas or even empanadas. Then compare it to this spot and see what you think. Your food eyes might open a little wider along with your taste buds.