Moonwalker breakfast sandwich Credit: J. Kirby Torres

When Arlene Luna moved back to Chicago in December 2020 she discovered that all of her old classmates from the now-defunct Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago had left the life.

“Everyone that I knew from back then is no longer in the business,” she says. “I came back and started looking up a few people, and they were all either retired and no longer cooking, selling products, or doing research and development.”

Luna hadn’t. She’d spent the previous 15 years cooking in southern California in the country club, fine dining, and catering kitchens of Palm Springs, and later Long Beach. In June 2020 she’d been clocking five hours a day on the 405, commuting to a private chef gig 30 miles away in Beverly Hills. The pandemic put a stop to that.

A family visit home to Avondale convinced her it was time to move back, and she convinced her boyfriend, John “Jack” Blue, a recent accounting school graduate, to join her. Her sister happened to own an empty loft across the street from where she’d attended Madonna High School, and they planned to settle in. As they prepared to move, her sister noticed that an abandoned taqueria just 300 feet away was available for lease.

“Thirty years ago when I was a freshman I was always thinking, ‘If I want to eat something really good I have to go further east,’” she says. “Everything was east of Western.” Even now, there’s a couple of diners and a bunch of fast-food joints within the immediate orbit, but no one’s offering the fresh, local, made-to-order food she knew the neighborhood needed.

“‘You’ll be able to moonwalk to work,’” her brother told her, and since luna is Spanish for moon, Moonwalker Cafe seemed like the right name. Luna already knew she wanted to source her bread from Evanston’s Hewn Bakery, and she wanted to serve Dark Matter Coffee, but with few remaining industry contacts, she took to Instagram to discover the other products she needed: kombucha from Vargo Brother Ferments; syrups from Jo Snow; Berkshire ham and sausage for breakfast sandwiches from Catalpa Grove Farm; and Hewn pastries and Do-Rite Donuts to supplement Luna’s croissants.

Unicorn Blood latte spiked with beet juice Credit: Courtesy Moonwalker Cafe

Blue, who’d had relatively little restaurant experience, submitted to a few days of basic barista training at Dark Matter HQ and began to develop what would become a number of signature drinks: the mocha, coconut milk, and almond milk Almond Joyous latte; Jarritos tamarind soda matcha; Unicorn Blood latte spiked with beet juice.

Moonwalker opened its doors in early August with the first of what would become many of Luna’s own popular signatures: a house-smoked, hand-carved turkey sandwich on Hewn country loaf, with lettuce, tomato, and a choice of chili and/or garlic aioli. Available only on Wednesdays, it sold out each week.

Mostly open for breakfast and lunch, Luna and Blue tried to meet more of the neighborhood’s demand for thoughtful, real food with Sunday morning biscuits and gravy, and sold out Friday night pop-ups featuring “whatever Jack craves”: smoked brisket sandwiches, chicken parmesan, boeuf bourguignon, and west coast In-N-Out-style burgers. “Jack was having withdrawals,” she says.

“I tell her what I want, and she makes it happen,” says Blue. This impulsive approach extends to the daytime menu, which is ever changing in line with the seasons and an increasing influx of new, word-of-mouth visitors coming from outside the neighborhood; the turkey sandwich is temporarily 86’d in consideration of holiday oversaturation (but back next week). 

Tomato or split pea soup bread bowls are currently having a moment, as is an off-menu breakfast burrito, and the coquito latte, based on the eggnog-like Puerto Rican holiday drink that’s been given an extended run.

“People keep coming in specifically for that drink,” says Luna, who makes her own evaporated and condensed coconut milk for it. “In southern California it’s something that almost nobody knows. When I was out there I always made it for different holiday events. Growing up in Chicago you either had a friend or neighbor that would bring your family a bottle. We’re definitely keeping that on the menu through the winter months.”

Chopped brisket sandwich Credit: Courtesy Moonwalker Cafe

Neighborhood support has allowed them to hire two employees, including Kelsey Summers, a neighborhood home baker who started Gold Dust Bakery during the pandemic and was looking for professional kitchen experience. Luna is planning to teach her how to make bagels in house.

They’re also planning to restart and expand their evening pop-ups after a holiday hiatus, perhaps inviting other chefs into the kitchen to cook for the neighbors, who just seem excited that outsiders are taking notice of this once overlooked pocket of Avondale. A recent blurb in Chicago caused a stir. People were just coming in like, ‘Wow, you guys made this list.’ They felt like it was for them—and that’s kind of what we hoped for; that people would think that it’s a place that belongs to them.”

Moonwalker Cafe
4101 W. Belmont
773-628-7945
moonwalkerchicago.com
instagram.com/moonwalkercafe

On January 31, Luna and Blue will be expanding their orbit further when they arrive at the Kedzie Inn in Irving Park as part of the second season of Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up series. Watch this space for details.