For some, affixing a certain cuisine or heritage to your restaurant is a conscious and calculated move. For others—like Marisa Cadena and Ken Ho of Greenpoint’s Lucky Luna — it’s simply a natural reflex. Lucky Luna proudly serves a smorgasbord of Taiwanese and Mexican street foods, inspired by its married co-owners’ heritages. They aren’t going for formulas or any agenda aside from what they know best: Combined, they are Mexican and Taiwanese, and they love the plentiful street foods from each tradition.
Cadena and Ho met while working in a restaurant in the Bay Area: Cadena as a server and Ho as a bartender and supervisor. They were no strangers to restaurants beforehand, either. Ho had grown up in his parents’ Chinese restaurant in Berkeley, and Cadena had been a dishwasher, delivery girl and server throughout the U.S. and her family’s native Mexico. But she was also an artist, and spent years in nonprofit work focused on youth education.
“We wanted to take the tools and experiences of all the different types of establishments we have worked in—from rock bars to high-end restaurants—and make something better,” Cadena says.
When the couple switched coasts in 2011, they aimed to open a restaurant that would serve as a community hub and a platform for others’ artistic work. When I visited the space in July, its walls were covered in paintings by Lucky Luna server Andrea Jane (A. J.) Springer, an F.I.T. graduate. Also on display in the smallish, airy dining room were barstools bearing placards, etched with the names of donors who helped open the restaurant.
In addition to rotating solo and group art exhibits, Lucky Luna hosts regular artist salons, occasional supper club dinners featuring guest chefs, and a movie night here and there (the first featuring Taiwan’s acclaimed documentary Warriors of the Rainbow).
“We always wanted to build a Cheers feel to our place, where neighbors who live on the same block are able to meet and get to know each other,” says Ho.
So what if it’s the first Mexican-Taiwanese street food restaurant you’d ever heard of before? Since few have expectations for what that means, the owners can chart a course all their own.
The appetizers neatly summarize the course of action for the whole menu: There’s a duo of tacos, including an unctuous pork belly and kimchee and a slow-simmered chicken mole; and there’s Taiwanese-style steamed buns, with duck confit on a bun slathered with hoisin mayo and scattered with crispy chicharrones. There’s a juicy bok choy appetizer bowl, and a Mexican chopped salad. The menu is built to accommodate both Mexican and Asian cravings — you might find both leanings in the same dish.
Ho hasn’t tampered much with one Taiwanese specialty on the entrée list: The lu rou fan, a home-style staple, features minced pork stewed in a luscious soy sauce and five-spice broth. Only the poached egg on the side (rather than the traditional hard-boiled stew egg) gives it a slightly more contemporary feel.
Another homey favorite of quite separate origin, the pozole, finds the pork shoulder shredded alongside hominy in a Oaxacan-style tomato broth, topped with shreds of cabbage. The “Noodles of the Day” when I first visited was a pork belly ramen bowl, a clear soup that was seasoned mostly with the generous flavor of pork itself. (Lucky Luna sources its meats from Pat LaFreida.) Looking at these dishes, side-by-side at the table, you can see the reflections and the synergies between Mexican and Taiwanese cuisines before even tasting them. Even the side of beans and rice is served neatly in a Chinese rice bowl, with white rice beneath the softened, pink pinto beans.
“In the Bay Area, our concept isn’t something so unique — or rather, there is a greater concentration of Taiwanese, Chinese and Mexican offerings,” explains Marisa. But in Greenpoint, amid a sea of Polish delicatessens and eateries, Lucky Luna is a welcome anomaly. Where else can you get both ramen and tacos for lunch, then pick up a few kielbasa links from the Polish butcher? It’s a marriage of convenience you never knew you wanted.