Much of chef Luna Contreras’s cooking is about fond memories of food with her grandmother, with whom she ran a weekend fonda and frequented Guadalajara’s markets—but in this case, it’s about a memory of what she couldn’t have: a Domino’s pizza.
“There was, like, one pizza shop—Domino's—in the neighborhood when I was growing up,” Contreras, who was most recently the chef at Nightingale in Portland, recalls of her hometown in Jalisco. “My grandma would not allow my little brother or me to have much pizza, or any other food that was not Mexican.” But on occasion, there were tlayudas, which often reminded her of pizza. Tlayudas are a Oaxacan specialty that she’d see from time to time in Guadalajara, too, albeit much smaller and more quesadilla-like than the original. While working as a chef at award-winning restaurants Mamacita and Padrecito in San Francisco, Contreras fell in love with rabbit tlayudas at a Berkeley restaurant, Comal, all while immersed in the Bay Area’s farmers’ market-obsessed, vegetable-forward cuisine.
From her love for street food, seasonal vegetables, and meat with a fine-dining treatment comes the snack I most loved at For Esme, Contreras's new pop-up with bartender Michelle Ruocco: a duck tlayuda. The base is a thin, crisp, toasty tlayuda—a large tortilla made of finely milled masa and cooked over a comal—imported from Oaxaca. A velvety layer of black beans gets spread over the tlayuda, sprinkled with Jack cheese, stringy queso oaxaca, and tangy ricotta. Juicy, tender duck confit is scattered throughout. On top are Contreras’s quirky selections of veggies: slices of Japanese purple sweet potatoes and rapini, garnished with sesame seeds, chia seeds, and not one but two types of salsa (salsa macha and a mojo verde made with tomatillo, cilantro, togarashi, and garlic). That’s not including the two housemade hot sauces served on the side—habanero-carrot sweetened with piloncillo, and a sweet-smoky chipotle and chile de arbol sauce—nor the garnishes of carrots, radishes, kumquat, Asian pear, and lime.
Yes, it sounds like absolute chaos. But the most important components—the nutty-tasting corn tlayuda, the warm silky beans, the melty cheeses, the rich duck, and the aromatics of fresh salsas—come through crystal-clear, the rest adding nuance and texture to a very devourable snack. Pair it with a cocktail like the Ability to Reason (mezcal, tequila, sweet corn, serrano pepper, and melon with a spiced rim reminiscent of barbecue chips) by Ruocco, whose recent stints have included Han Oak and Lazy Susan.
Contreras’s and Ruocco’s sit-down, table service pop-up, originally named Chelo after Contreras’s grandmother, began popping up every Monday and Tuesday at Magna in early October. The two teamed up for the first time back in April, when they created a dessert called the Fig Mac—Briar Rose cheese, fig preserves, agave “special sauce,” basil, and sea salt sandwiched between two lemon olive oil poppy seed cake buns—to sell at Nightingale to support sexual assault survivors. Now, their pop-up has a new name, For Esme, named after one of their favorite songs by punk band Jawbreaker. For two women who have been working in the tough restaurant industry for years, the name embodied the spirit they wanted to embrace at their pop-up. “A lot of the lyrics of that song talk about not breaking down and sharing your story,” Contreras says.
Next Monday, Nov 1 from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. is your last chance to catch For Esme at Magna. Contreras and Ruocco will host a Día de los Muertos-themed pop-up, where they’ll serve more savory snacks—next week’s tlayuda will combine achiote-marinated grilled chicken and chorizo—and cocktails. They’ll also host a number of talented women bakers including Filipino baker Allie G’s Pastries, mochi donut maker Heyday, and República dessert maker and bon bon creator Sweet Creature. Contreras and Ruocco are currently searching for a new space to hold future pop-ups.