Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Since owner/chef Mark Abernathy opened Loca Luna in 1996, it's been one of our favorite spots for the same reasons any restaurant is endearing: a large, diverse menu; consistent work in the kitchen; and friendly, efficient service.
But we must admit we'd gotten in a bit of a rut — albeit a pleasant, tasty rut — at Loca Luna. At lunch, it was always the tortilla soup (mammoth and the best we've ever had) or the four-vegetable plate. At dinner, the Voodoo Stew or the Pork Osso Bucco.
So when we heard Abernathy had spruced up the place a bit and added some new menu items as Loca Luna's 20th anniversary approached, we decided to shake things up.
As we sat down to dinner we noticed the new dining room lights and the new glass block and stacked stonewall where painted sheetrock had been. When we hopped up to take a closer look around we saw couches on the covered part of the patio and the ability to drop a wind break for cold weather. There's also an overhang that covers the row of patio tables closest to the restaurant wall, and even mascot Sally who greets folks as they arrive has a new dress.
The additions to the menu are most obvious in the "bites" and "appetizers" sections. Among the bites are homemade pork cracklings ($6) and potato chips ($4) and blistered Sishito peppers with Canadian bacon ($6), but we went for the crispy fried portabella slices ($5). The silver bucket was teeming with thin strips of hearty mushrooms in a light batter that clings nicely. They weren't at all greasy, and Barry — one of our favorite waiters, who has been at Loca Luna for 18 of its almost 20 years — was happy to get us a second cup of the zingy pepper ranch.
Appealing new appetizers include grilled steak sliders ($9); spicy bacon "pigmento" cheese ($8); super bacon savory shortcake ($9); and our choice, creole-smothered corn bread ($9), a large square of crumbly Southern, not-the-least-bit-sweet cornbread topped with a nice ladle full of crawfish-shrimp etoufee. It was tasty, rib-sticking and hearty.
Sticking to our rut-busting strategy, we went for two new dinner entrees — stuffed tilapia ($20) and crispy garlic shrimp with four-cheese ravioli ($19).
We adored the pan-seared tilapia, a slightly crisped-up, delicate white fish stuffed with what is billed as "deviled lobster-crab." When we hear "deviled" we think about those bready deviled crabs that were the least appealing thing on the "captain's platters" at seafood spots, but this was nothing like that. This stuffing was like a deconstructed crab-and-lobster cake with seafood the predominant taste. We enjoyed the accompanying wild rice and sauteed green beans, broccoli, red pepper, carrots, asparagus and squash.
Our other entree featured five slightly crisped shrimp (as in pan sauteed, not fried) and five large, perfectly al dente raviolis doused with just enough rich garlic cream sauce. The shrimp were large and tender; ricotta seemed to be the primary cheese.
Loca Luna makes all its desserts, and we hit a home run with the turtle pie ($7.45 with a side of Loblolly ice cream). Served on an Oreo crust, the pie featured lots of chocolate and pecans with a caramel drizzle. The rich, nutty ice cream was perfect with it.
When we returned for lunch, we were committed to try another new item. But we couldn't resist the Friday special — fried catfish with hushpuppies and two sides. In fact, the daily special is the only thing that has swayed us from tortilla soup or the veggie plate the last couple of years — the pork tamales (served on Wednesday) are the best we've had in town, and there's no comfort food much more comfortable than the chicken, broccoli and cheese casserole (served on Thursday.
Generally, catfish fillets come as several small, curled-up pieces, but Loca Luna serves a huge single fillet. It was both crispy and tender, and not at all fishy. The three hushpuppies included flecks of jalapeno that gave them some zing. For our two sides, we chose the scrumptious mashed potatoes with cream gravy and the squash casserole, knowing we were cheating on our new-dish pledge as those are two of our veggie plate standbys. And now we remember why.
We'll be back soon to Loca Luna — we always are — and now we've got some new favorites to add to the dishes we've loved for decades (almost).
3519 Old Cantrell Road
Loca Luna has some of the best wine prices in town. Sonoma Cutrer's chardonnay from the Russian River Valley is more than $33 most places. At $8.25 a glass, that's a bargain.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Full bar, credit cards accepted.