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The Real Deal 

by Joel Smith & r & If you're in the mood for Mexican, you could go to one of those places with the burbling fountains and the overblown murals and the waiters in serapes and the serenading mariachis. Do it, if it satisfies your romantic ideas of Old Mexico.


Or try La Luna. It's nothing if not authentic. By which I mean that the food's made the right way, and the puzzling decor is real Mexican, not Azteca Mexican.


I have to start with the decor, because the place is so un-Rancho Casa de Oro or whatever that when we pulled into the parking lot outside, we weren't sure we even had the right address. Tucked away on a side street, a block south of Wellesley, it looked like one of those 'envia dinero a Mexico' places. And it looked closed.


Not sure if we were walking into a grocery store or a restaurant or an office, we passed through the front door cautiously. Inside, we still didn't know where we were. The place was empty of diners, but full of a lot of other stuff. A scattering of pink-topped fast food-style tables, a glass case covered in purchasable baseball caps and full of children's shoes, rosaries and virgen candles. The ceiling was patchily painted with what looked like vast areas of exposed drywall. Were they under construction? Had they just moved in?


A sweet-faced older woman, who quickly made it clear that she spoke and understood little English, greeted us and motioned for us to have a seat. We did, near the back of the long, narrow room. We noticed an adjoining back room through a couple of stucco arches. It was full of bric-a-brac, a vacuum cleaner, discarded furniture. Was this all a front? The blinds were drawn. I wondered aloud whether we might soon be the victims of some kind of mob hit.


We weren't. We were the victims of a salsa and chips hit -- and a toothsome one at that. The red sauce was sweet and insipid, but the salsa verde was spot-on, and the chips -- light, crisp, just salty enough. This boded well.


The menu's got all your standard Mexican fare, even if it stops short of tongue tacos or brain enchiladas. Chimichangas, tostadas, chiles rellenos, fajitas, carne asada -- all between $7 and $13, all looking good, all contributing to an aroma cloud that wafted luxuriantly from the voluminous kitchen at the opposite end of the room. How to decide?


We landed on flautas and taquitos for starters and entrees of arroz con pollo, chile verde and a pair of enchiladas. In the interim, I ordered something not on the menu -- a horchata, that mildly sweet rice milk and cinnamon concoction that is a staple at the taquerias in Southern California, where I attended college. There's nothing like horchata to defuse the picante heat of Mexican cuisine. Unfortunately, this one was so sweet, so heavy and rich and laced with cinnamon and nutmeg that I felt full halfway through.


We looked around. This place really wasn't your typical American Mexican restaurant. It was an honest-to-God Mexican tienda. A mini-mart. The glass case full of goods. The tough office-style carpet. We noticed a little room off to one side, with shelves full of rentable videos (I wonder if they have From Justin to Kelly). Why merely specialize in cuisine when you can also loan videos and peddle whole liters of Tapatio hot sauce and (they do) fresh tortillas?


The apps arrived -- flautas of a perfect, almost pastry-like crispness, blunt taquitos that were sharply crisp but surprisingly flavorful after their mild predecessor. We were impressed.


Onward to entrees.


Luke remarked that the refried beans were the perfect illustration of La Luna's authenticity. Probably made with lard -- cow fat, that is -- they & iacute;ll appeal most to people who crave real Mexican food, prepared the way they do it in, you know, Mexico. That is, with the maximum amount of flavor, with calories and cholesterol be damned. I ogled the delicious, tender cubes of pork on his plate, swimming in a green tomatillo sauce.


Josh was disappointed with his enchiladas, particularly the chicken, which had virtually no flavor to speak of, while the beef managed to soak up all the flavor it could and provide, he said, 'a reasonable facsimile of an enchilada.'


I, on the other hand, reveled in my arroz con pollo. That dish in general is kind of my litmus test for Mexican restaurants; I seem to order it every time I visit a new place. They did it almost just right. It looked like a riot on my plate -- burning in reds and oranges and deep browns. The mushrooms were deep and earthy, the strips of chicken tender and uncharacteristically flavorful. The best part, though, was the stack of hot little handmade tortillas that accompanied it all. The dish itself was a little salty and overbearing, but wrapped inside these warm tortillas, it was divine.


I finished last. Not necessarily because I eat slowly, but because it was so filling. If I rushed it, I might split in two. The sweet-faced older woman brought out sopapillas -- delicately crispy fried dough, topped with cinnamon and cream -- on the house. We went to the counter to pay, and I tried to ask her how long they & iacute;d owned the place. Three years. My other questions were met with incomprehension. We struggled to understand each other and both gave up. I paid and told her 'gracias.' She smiled.





La Luna, 923 E. Hoffman Ave., 489-2023, hours: 11 am-6 pm, Mon-Sat.

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