At Nightingale, Chef Luna Contreras Celebrates Mexican Street Food While Championing Identity and Community

At Nightingale, Chef Luna Contreras Celebrates Mexican Street Food While Championing Identity and Community
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The tiniest cubes of mango tickle the tongue atop crisp, carnitas-style duck tacos sweetened with guava chutney on fluffy corn tortillas, smeared with silky black beans and flanked by sharp watercress. On a charming heated patio, guests sip quirkily named cocktails like Lou Reed’s Leather-based Jacket or Heaven Is When, a punchy-pink mezcal margarita mixing up blood orange, cinnamon, and artichoke. Inside of, dimly lit with flickering candles, are uncomplicated picket tables for spaced-out diners, the faint singing of Natalia Lafourcade in the qualifications, and bare walls waiting around for guest artists to showcase Mexican folk artwork.

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Welcome to the environment of Nightingale, which chef Luna Contreras and co-proprietor and bartender Chris Mateja opened on NE 28th’s cafe row last December. Contreras melds her like for Mexican road food items with a enthusiasm for seasonal vegetables, uncovered although staging at the famed Chez Panisse and honed as the chef at critically acclaimed San Francisco places to eat Mamacita and Padrecito. It’s a private narrative efficiently instructed by foods.

To fully grasp Nightingale’s roots, we journey to Jalisco, the place Contreras was born and lived until eventually age 10. Her father wasn’t close to, and her mother was a trainer on assignment in rural Mexico for months at a time. So Contreras spent tons of time with her grandmother, Chelo, supporting out at her fonda, or community eatery, serving tacos, tostadas, pozole, and birria.

Her reward: accompanying Chelo to the centro’s markets in Guadalajara to take in each and every road food imaginable. “All the mariscos ... tacos de canasta, the tacos al vapor,” she says. “That was a single of the factors I often appeared forward to.”

Nightingale’s menu hearkens back again to satisfied memories, with street food–inspired antojitos at the middle. Don’t miss the gorditas—fragrant, nutty, toasty fried masa shells like the kinds you’d obtain on street corners in Mexico, but as an alternative showcasing domestically sourced shiitakes, maitakes, and oyster mushrooms with earthy kale.

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Potato flautas are also a should-try—crunchy-shelled ease and comfort like the taquitos Contreras liked at the markets developing up. Her twist: caramelized, melty leeks inside of, area minor gem lettuce on major. Guajillo salsa just like Grandma Chelo’s brings the flavors home—cooked down until eventually velvety, tinged with toasty piloncillo sugar.

These dishes are only portion of Nightingale’s tale. Developing up, Contreras realized she was trans. Her father did not settle for her identity, and her mom took time to arrive all-around. But Chelo, who has due to the fact handed away, wholly embraced her.

“My grandma was truly great with it, but my mom and father, they have been not—especially my dad,” she recalls. “I would rest in my grandma’s room to sense safe and sound.”

A vital component of Nightingale’s mission: to be a safe house for women, people today of color, and trans folks, from team to the broader group. Previously mentioned the restaurant’s dining area is a couch, open to ladies and trans men and women escaping violence and abuse. On Instagram, Contreras talks right to the digital camera about her struggles as a trans lady and her journey considering the fact that starting up hormone replacement remedy previous spring, soon just before Nightingale’s opening. Trans teenagers have DMed her for tips, and Contreras is always joyful to communicate. “Money isn’t everything—but identification is,” Contreras claims.

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She and Mateja named the restaurant Nightingale—a tiny, plain-on the lookout brown fowl that only arrives out at evening, but with a stunning tune. “I hid for a lot of several years,” Contreras claims. She was anxious about opening a restaurant as a trans girl, but the neighborhood has been supportive, equally of her organization and her id. Clients flooded the cafe with takeout orders right after its outside structure was demolished by February’s snowstorm and required to be rebuilt. Workers from neighboring restaurant Navarre have walked her to her car or truck at night time following function.

Meanwhile, Contreras in no way will take her foot off the gas in the kitchen. The botanas, or snacks, lean heavily on greens, which get the royal treatment method. Contreras’s yucca fries are a labor of appreciate: boiled, mashed yucca with the stringy bits eliminated, then blended with cream and plenty of paprika, frozen, and slice into sticks. Just about every receives dredged in buttermilk and corn flour, rolled in blue and yellow corn grits, and deep-fried to an extremely hard crackle. Dip them in tangy goat-milk-and-buttermilk crema tinged inexperienced with epazote, or thick, spicy sikil pak, a pumpkin-seed dip with Contreras’s Mediterranean twist of olive oil and crimson pepper.

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Along with road foodstuff, the story of Nightingale is greatest informed in exceptional desserts. Tres leches cake, fluffy and delicately sweet, arrives with cheery seasonal garnishes like pomegranate seeds. Chocoflan—coffee-infused chocolate cake topped with jiggly custard—is fudgy and decadent. Home-created ice product rivals any scoop shop in city, with cheeky, nostalgia-fueled flavors like chocolate cookie dough amped up with chile-laden Ancho Reyes liqueur.

Baking has been Contreras’s therapeutic outlet recently. (Lots of of us can likely relate.) Just about every Tuesday, she’ll tinker for hours, blasting punk tunes by Deal with to Deal with and the indie crooning of the Weakerthans. The ritual, she claims, aids keep her satisfied, concentrated, and playful—a alter she noticed as quickly as she commenced hormone substitute therapy.

“It was just an fast swap. I felt self-confident, and I felt effective, and some thing vivid was awoken.” And Contreras’s cooking is noticeably distinct now. “I can do factors and not truly feel like I must be judged,” she suggests. “I’ve felt a deeper connection and a additional grounded solution to flavor. Considerably additional vibrancy. Remaining happy definitely has altered me.”