Jo Lerma-Lopez was going crazy. Not only was she stressing over all the normal things that preoccupy restaurateurs, like the city’s bureaucratic red tape, the menu and the aesthetic details—from the wrought iron dining room chairs and zinc bar to the soothing, azure blue of the eatery’s rustic front door. But to make matters worse,
she simply couldn’t find the right corn.

Some might be satisfied with the most cost-effective option—especially when it comes to something so basic as corn—but not Lerma-Lopez. The co-founder and chef of LUNA Mexican Kitchen on The Alameda remains firmly committed to serving the freshest and most authentic ingredients possible. From the Mi Rancho corn and organic rice to the heritage Rancho Gordo beans, which are grown in Fresno and served within a few months from when they are picked, her tenacity knows no bounds.

“It took me over six months just to find the right corn,” she says, explaining that the challenge came in locating a certified non-GMO strain. “You’d think that it was plentiful, but it’s not.”

LUNA, which is Spanish for moon, is also an acronym. It stands for Local Unrefined Natural Authentic. Her dedication to abiding by her restaurant’s namesake has not gone unnoticed by the dining community. Lerma-Lopez claimed her very first Michelin Bib Gourmand award in 2019. Though not as illustrious as a Michelin star, the Bib is a coveted recognition. The food-ranking organization awards Bib Gourmands to those establishments that serve “exceptionally good food at moderate prices.” This year, Michelin handed out just 68 Bibs in the Bay Area, and only three were given to restaurants in the South Bay: Jeffrey Stout’s Orchard City Kitchen in Campbell and David Kinch’s The Bywater in Los Gatos were the other two.

“We were so surprised, and so humbled to be recognized for our ingredients,” Lerma-Lopez says, referring to the Bib Gourmand. She was especially happy that Michelin recognized the labor-intensive processes behind her dishes, all of which are made from scratch.

And then there’s the matter of the corn. Before it can be flattened into rounds and turned into tortillas, it is subjected to two days of nixtamalization—an ancient technique, that involves soaking the ground maize in a highly alkaline lime-water solution. This process removes impurities and prepares the meal to be transformed into dough.

In addition to lauding Lerma-Lopez’s authentic cooking methods, Michelin also specifically mentions LUNA’s chile relleno picadillo ($15) for its fire-roasted poblano chilis stuffed with a hearty grass-fed beef stew and deep-fried to golden perfection. Their mole poblano con pollo ($22) is also a must; the tender, roasted half chicken coated with a silky, earthy, chocolatey Oaxacan mole is a delight.

But their real pièce de résistance is the cochinita pibil ($21). Hailing from the Yucatan Peninsula, this dish features a pork shoulder wrapped in a banana leaf and slow-braised in an achiote sauce. Served with a spicy habanero salsa and tangy, quick-pickled red onions, it practically melts in your mouth.

Lerma-Lopez, along with her husband and LUNA co-founder John Lopez, are San Jose natives. They first opened less than two years ago in an iconic mission-style building that locals will recognize as the former home of Las Palmas. This is their very first restaurant endeavor, but not their first taste of success.

Their story actually begins back in 1987 with a music shop. Back then, the couple ran Upstairs Records in downtown San Jose. They sold vinyl records, primarily to DJs and radio stations. Their business put them in contact with many in the music industry, and within a few years they launched a record label—signing and managing a diverse roster of talent, including television actors, recording artists and touring musicians.

After nearly three decades in the music business, Lerma-Lopez says she and John were ready to try something new. “We always wanted to open our own restaurant,” she says.

And so, Lerma-Lopez went to culinary school. There she learned about the healing properties of quality ingredients and made it her goal to promote good health through eating cleanly. A self-described “dirty vegetarian,” Lerma-Lopez makes sure to taste every ingredient in the cooking process—even the meats—to ensure quality and flavor.

“When people come here and eat our food, they feel good,” she says, explaining that LUNA isn’t reinventing the wheel, just cooking with simple ingredients and not cutting corners.

Though LUNA has been open for just under two years, it feels more like four for Lerma-Lopez. It took almost two years before the place was up to code and up to her own standards. “We had anticipated being open in six months,” she says with a knowing laugh. “But we learned.”

Now that they know what to expect, LUNA is planning to expand. They will open a second location in The Pruneyard, in the space previously occupied by El Burro. The new restaurant is set to open sometime this spring, and will be almost six times the size of their space on The Alameda (7,600 square feet compared to 1,200).

The new LUNA will feature a private room, a large bar with a special focus on tequila pairings and a 1,400-square-foot patio with a second bar. They also plan on holding special events, like a meet-the-makers experience with Mexican tequila manufacturers, as well as interactive culinary classes to educate the public on authentic Mexican cooking methods, like making corn tortillas from scratch.

“I want to elevate the dining experience,” Lerma-Lopez says. “When people come for pairings and tastings, I want people to actually learn and have it be an experience.”

The larger space also makes room for a bigger kitchen and a broader menu, which will feature more seafood and an greater selection of fresh-squeezed juices. This will allow LUNA to expand the use of their nixtamal masa, which they’ll use to make a variety of tamales, including vegan, vegetarian and several braised meat varieties.

When speaking about the new menu, Lerma-Lopez says she has her sights set on coming up with a killer torta. However, just as she was stalled in her search for the right corn, she is now on the hunt for the perfect bread.

“I’ve been looking at several suppliers,” she says, “but I need to make sure that they do it the right way… you know?”

LUNA Mexican Kitchen

1495 The Alameda, San Jose