Luna Rotisserie evokes the travel nostalgia that comes with tasting a memory.
My first meal at downtown Durham's welcome new attempt at South American-and-American South hybrids transported me to a moment in 2007 with my friend Mariana. The two of us sat in a Lima cafe, nervously giggling as we bit into shortbread cookies tinged green by coca leaf batter. We wondered if these cookies would get us high. We wondered if the family we were visiting knew we had left. We wondered if they knew we had stolen their car.
This was our scheme to try "fancy" Peruvian food at Tanta cafe, one of the many offshoots of chef Gastón Acurio's popular high-end Astrid y Gastón. Our Peruvian friends had turned their noses up at "fusion" cuisine, but Mariana and I—neither of us Peruvian, mind you—had been geeking out about Acurio for a while. He seemed obscure in the United States then, and our only point of reference for friends had been to tell people he'd lent his voice to the Spanish-language version of Pixar's Ratatouille.
But in 2014, The Wall Street Journal called Acurio Peru's Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver. That same year, a Tanta opened in Chicago. NPR recently heralded his Peru as the "tome of Peruvian cooking" by the country's "greatest ambassador." Today, that best-selling cookbook rests behind the bar at Luna, a reminder that the goal here will never be some elusive authentic Peruvian experience.
In Lima, Mariana and I hoped to scope out this new cuisine—a fusion of Quechua ingredients like coca leaf with French baking techniques, or the legendary Peruvian potato varieties mashed into a "cau-sushi" as a nod to Lima's significant Japanese population. These are the ways we all should navigate new cultures with our palates, by combining what we've long loved with what we've just found. Armed with the privilege of an American passport, many of us traipse through other countries, stuffing bizarre foods into our mouths and backpacks like we're Andrew Zimmern and yelping through a virtual megaphone to declare something the best, "most authentic" meal of our lives.
The search for authenticity in cuisine, especially here in the United States, is bogus. And we can simply retire the tired, reductive, meaningless term "ethnic." Whether you insist we live in a salad bowl or a melting pot, it's a mixed buffet everywhere, especially in the South. We should be guided by a responsibility and a respect not only to our palates but to one another. With that, we can revel in or complain about all the food—native to our region or to our neighbor's homeland or to our own gilded memories—all we want.
Luna gets that. Founded by Shawn Stokes, the restaurant doesn't pose as authentic to anyone or to anywhere but the chef-owner's memories of taste while living and traveling abroad. The menu expresses appreciation rather than appropriation, staying respectful to influences by offering an artistic representation of memory.
Though Luna is not a Peruvian restaurant, a first-timer should indeed order the pollo a la brasa. (Also, sit at the bar. Walking in to order at a host's stand is confusing, especially since you must first pass half of the available tables.) I didn't get a look at the rotisserie, but that distinctive spit-fired taste lurks right beneath the skin. Those of us with memories of Boston Market may remember the strange sweetness from the meat. Reimagine it, instead, with smokiness and a skin that's much more crisp.
I brought along a Peruvian friend, Andrea, for my debut trip. During the last six years, she and I have eaten every pollo a la brasa in the Triangle. When chewing on Luna's version, she closed her eyes and opened them only to declare that this was the best she has tasted in North Carolina. I asked her why, but she could only say she was bringing her mother and aunt next time.
At Luna, the dark meat lends itself to the saturation of a pleasant marinade that's subtle, not saucy. The skin isn't greasy, but the experience still requires a tactile finagling with your bare hands. (This is the only way to eat chicken off the bone—authentic, I dare say.) Dunk it into the aji verde, a bright green sauce based on herbs like cilantro. We still like Mami Nora's, especially considering the bang for your buck. Luna's portion won't fill up a tray like that—it's a standard quarter-size fit for one person, and that's just enough. Still, with two sides, it's a hearty dinner for less than $12.
The beef empanada is another standout. It nods to the flavors of Chile and includes the classic hard-boiled egg, a homemade touch. The lingering flavor of thyme brightens the meaty filling, packed neatly into baked pastry.
Or for the extra carnivorous, meat plates piled with chili-braised beef brisket or pork carnitas may make you feel pleasantly comatose. If you order the carnitas in a patacon sandwich, pay attention to the sweet lemon zest that peeks through the corn relish. I could eat an entire bowl of that corn. Chili-braised jackfruit presents an intriguing vegan option, too.
Ceviches alternate based on the season and availability. The shrimp tasted clean and fresh, with a fair amount of lime. Though I prefer a spicier version, I respect the kitchen's decision to tone it down for a wider audience. The plantain chips served with the ceviche, however, came out a little too brown. The burnt after-taste competed with the dish's appealing simplicity.
In general, Luna's fried options could use a lighter touch. The patacon sandwich, a riff on a Venezuelan fried plantain, should be less oily. At least the yucca fries emerge from the fryer just right. Ask for a side of Luna's homemade hot sauce, a very spicy blend beaming in the habanero pepper's sunset orange hue.
Most drinks are homemade, too. The pineapple agua fresca is diluted enough to quench your thirst, though it holds its natural sweetness. Beware the habanero lemonade if you're prone to heartburn. The horchata tea, however, offers a wonderful blend of calming, cooling herbs, whether simply served cold or with vodka. When I tried to order a pisco sour, the bartender told me they had run out of pisco, due to our state's low availability of imported alcohol. Get your act together, ABC.
These drinks, like the food, are an amalgam of nostalgia for two regions. Luna immediately joins the ranks of other local restaurants like Mateo, Jose and Sons, Old Havana Sandwich Shop and Dashi's izakaya bar, all which skillfully incorporate influences from afar with Southern ingredients. Their menus reflect the respective personalities and influences of each of their chefs, while also representing our precious homegrown flavors. Luna is a welcome addition on this hot, assorted buffet.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dishing without taking"