Helping the world, one taco at a time

Staff writer

In a couple hours of down time, between lunch and supper, a Tampa resident came in to visit with Tara Luna at her new restaurant in Tampa.

In the conversation, the resident told Luna that she had to put her dog down. Luna’s immediate response was that she needed to sit down and eat some free food, whatever she wanted. She wanted to provide comfort, but she also had a feeling the woman had not eaten much all day and was not planning to do so in her state of grief.

“I want to help the world,” Luna said. “One thing God has blessed me with is being a people person.”

The Mexican dishes at La Luna may not solve the world’s problems — the spicy, peppery shredded pork, while delicious, is not going to bring peace to the Middle East — but the restaurant may be a tonic for Tampa.

The Lunas, Tara and Jamey, who live outside of Hillsboro, inquired with building owner David Mueller after the Tampa Café closed in January.

They negotiated with Mueller on rent and then started remodeling.

Tara wanted to put her spin on the restaurant. One of the touches is suitcases sliced in half used for shelves.

“I don’t want anything to be normal,” she said. “You know like TGI Fridays? I want it to be crazy.”

An addition yet to arrive is a big screen TV. Tara plans to do a karaoke night. The sounds of “Love Shack,” “YMCA,” and “We Are the Champions” will mingle with the normally tranquil Tampa night.

Tara hails from Chicago. She wants the atmosphere at La Luna to be similar to Ed Debevic’s — where servers climb into booths to take orders and personalize every interaction — with some of the sarcasm toned down a touch.

“I want it to be fun for people,” Luna said.

She takes fun very seriously. When she worked at another Marion County restaurant, she was appalled that the staff did not sing happy birthday to their guests. She took it upon herself to sing happy birthday loud enough for everyone to hear.

“My father was a pastor,” she said. “Nothing is quiet. We’re Greek and loud. Talking is not talking, it’s hollering.”

She wants to acknowledge customers walking in. She is instructing full-time waitress Addie Love and part-time waitresses Anna Weber, and Leann Pankratz to do the same. During the summer her daughters, Gracie, 11, and Sophia, 9, will help out.

None of this matters without good food, and that’s where Jamey Luna comes in. Opening a restaurant was Jamey’s dream. He has studied Mexican cooking from the best teachers: his grandmother and mother.

One of their first lessons was that a restaurant should make as many of its items as possible. Jamey lets his sauce rendered from chili peppers simmer for 12 hours. He fries all of his own taco shells. He plans to make his own tortillas, using his grandmother’s recipe and technique.

Rice and shredded pork recipes also come from her.

“You’ve never had rice like this in a Mexican restaurant,” he said.

He also makes a hot pork chop, smothered in hot salsa and subsequently juicy. He is still working on a refried beans recipe, trying to mimic the taste his grandmother achieves.

“It’s not quite the same,” he said.

Mexican staples such as enchiladas, tacos, burritos, and chimichangas are part of the regular menu. Tamales, with homemade masa, will be a specialty.

The Lunas are worried about competing with Al’s Café in Lost Springs, which also specializes in Mexican food. Both Tara and Jamey worked at Al’s previously. They have structured their schedule to accommodate both restaurants. La Luna is closed on Monday and Tuesday while Al’s closed on Wednesday and Thursday.

La Luna is looking to accommodate its customers, too. During harvest, they are offering a brown-bag special with a burger and fries for $6.

Money is not the Lunas’ primary concern. Jamey works a second full-time job.

“It’s a bigger thing,” Tara Luna said. “This is our love.”

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