When Arlene Luna returned to Chicago in December 2020, she discovered that all of her former classmates at the former Chicago Cooking and Hospitality Institute had died.
“Everyone I knew at the time is no longer with the company,” she says. “I came back and started looking for a few people, and they were all retired and no longer cooking, selling products, or doing research and development.”
Luna hadn’t. She had spent the previous 15 years cooking in Southern California in the country club, fine dining, and dining kitchens of Palm Springs, and later Long Beach. By June 2020, she had spent five hours a day on the 405, going to a private conductor concert 30 miles away in Beverly Hills. The pandemic put an end to that.
A family visit to Avondale convinced her it was time to come back, and she convinced her boyfriend, John “Jack” Blue, a recent graduate of an accounting school, to join her. Her sister owned an empty loft across from where she attended Madonna High School, and they were planning to move there. As they prepared to move, her sister noticed that an abandoned taqueria just 100 yards away was available for rent.
“Thirty years ago, when I was in first grade, I was always like, ‘If I want to eat something really good, I have to go further east,’” she says. “It was all east of Western.” Even now, there are a few diners and a bunch of fast food outlets in the immediate orbit, but no one offers the fresh, local, custom-made food they knew the neighborhood needed.
“You can walk on the moon to work,” her brother told her, and since Luna means moon in Spanish, Moonwalker Cafe seemed like the right name. Luna already knew she wanted to source bread from Evanston’s Hewn Bakery, and she wanted to serve Dark Matter coffee, but with few contacts remaining in the industry, she took to Instagram to find out about the others. products she needed: kombucha from Vargo Brother Ferments; syrups from Jo Snow; Berkshire ham and sausages for breakfast sandwiches from Catalpa Grove Farm; and cut pastries and Do-Rite donuts to complement Luna’s croissants.
Blue, who had relatively little experience in the restaurant business, went through a few days of basic barista training at Dark Matter’s headquarters and began to develop what would become a number of iconic drinks: mocha, coconut milk and almond milk Almond Joyous latte; Jarritos matcha soda with tamarind; Unicorn Blood Latte enriched with beetroot juice.
Moonwalker opened in early August with the premiere of what would become Luna’s most popular signatures: a smoked, hand-carved turkey sandwich on hewn country bread, with lettuce, tomato and a choice of chili and / or garlic Aioli. Available only on Wednesdays, it sells out weekly.
Mainly open for breakfast and lunch, Luna and Blue has tried to meet more of the neighborhood’s demand for thoughtful, authentic food with Sunday morning cookies and gravy, and sold-out pop-ups. Friday night featuring ‘everything Jack craves’: smoked brisket sandwiches, chicken parmesan, beef bourguignon and West Coast In-N-Out burgers. “Jack had withdrawals,” she said.
“I tell her what I want, and she gets to it,” Blue said. This impulsive approach extends to the menu of the day, which changes with the seasons and the growing influx of new word of mouth visitors from outside the neighborhood; the turkey sandwich is temporarily 86’d due to the holiday oversaturation (but back next week).
Tomato or split pea soup bread bowls are having a moment right now, as is an off-menu breakfast burrito and coquito latte, based on the eggnog-like Puerto Rican holiday drink that made the subject of an extended edition.
“People keep coming specifically for this drink,” says Luna, who makes her own evaporated and condensed coconut milk for it. “In Southern California, this is something that hardly anyone knows about. When I was there I always did it for different holiday events. Growing up in Chicago, you had a friend or neighbor who brought your family a bottle. We certainly keep this on the menu during the winter months.
Neighborhood support enabled them to hire two employees, including Kelsey Summers, a neighborhood home baker who started Gold powder bakery during the pandemic and was looking for professional cooking experience. Luna plans to teach him how to make homemade bagels.
They also plan to restart and expand their evening pop-ups after a vacation break, perhaps inviting other chefs into the kitchen to cook for the neighbors, who just seem delighted that strangers are noticing that pocket once. neglected Avondale. A recent presentation text in Chicago caused a sensation. “People would just come in like, ‘Wow, you made that list.’ They felt like it was for them — and that’s kind of what we were hoping for; that people would think this is a place they own.
On January 31, Luna and Blue will further expand their orbit when they arrive at the Kedzie Inn in Irving Park as part of the second season of Monday night food ball, the ReaderChef’s weekly pop-up series. Watch this space for more details.