December 2, 2022

La Luna turns 10 in Newcastle, unsure of toll road plans

A large restaurant ― bathed in yellows and purples against gray limestone and adorned with a heart symbol, a peace sign and the word “TACOS” ― stands just off the US 62 service road in Newcastle .

Family-owned and operated, La Luna Cantina & Grill has been serving Mexican staples made from scratch in various locations across central Oklahoma for over three decades. But the Newcastle site is the only one left, after restaurants in Oklahoma City and Norman have closed over the past 10 years.

“It’s a friendly, family-friendly environment, and I love that,” said Andrea Patrick, who three years ago rose through the restaurant ranks from server to general manager in just six weeks. “We have live music playing here on the weekends, and a lot of the teenagers who work here seem to really enjoy it.”

A map of planned toll highway expansions, however, indicates that the tradition of dining at La Luna may not last much longer.

Preliminary maps released by the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority for the ACCESS Oklahoma Project show the broad lanes of a planned Kilpatrick Turnpike expansion passing through the area of ​​activity occupied by La Luna Cantina & Grill.

A map of the project released by ACCESS Oklahoma shows that the property, along with several other businesses in the area, would likely be replaced by a Kilpatrick Turnpike expansion junction as part of the “Tri-City Connector” for Newcastle, Blanchard and Tuttle.

After:Turnpike Authority approves $200 million line of credit to start ACCESS Oklahoma

But La Luna employees said they were unsure of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s exact plans and their impact on the restaurant, with conversations suggesting staff could be kicked out of the location for up to 5 years or as close as 18 months from now.

“We heard we might be out of here in 3-5 years, but then we heard it didn’t affect us,” Patrick said. “We’ve heard different things, so we really don’t know how it’s going to affect us.”

The restaurant has seen a boost thanks to the new law on take-out cocktails

For decades, La Luna’s menu has offered a wide range of authentic Mexican dishes, from burritos, enchiladas and tacos to fajitas, nachos, quesadillas, tamales, steak and seafood. Every meal at La Luna starts with a free order of homemade fries, queso and salsa.

A regular request at La Luna is the Pollo Verde dinner, which includes chunks of marinated chicken breast sautéed with green chili, Monterrey jack cheese, tomatoes and onions, and Mexican potatoes and beans.

Related:Oklahoma’s restaurant industry is working toward a new normal amid myriad challenges

The 'cantina' section of La Luna restaurant in Newcastle is a popular spot, especially since takeaway cocktails were allowed to be sold.

La Luna employees also say the Sangria Margarita Swirl is one of the most popular items on the menu, especially since recent changes to the liquor law have allowed the sale of takeout cocktails.

“We can sell the take-out swirls and margaritas as long as they’re in a sealed container,” Patrick said. “It was a very big success and a huge moneymaker.”

Surviving the restaurant pandemic credited to loyal customers, ordering online takeout

La Luna switched to online ordering and take-out meals only at the height of the pandemic in 2020, but the restaurant was maintained until dining restrictions were lifted.

Like every other restaurant, La Luna rose to the challenge of COVID-19 in 2020, in Patrick’s first year, but she said they weathered the pandemic thanks to loyal customers.

“We stayed open and served takeout all the time, so it was nice to be able to do that,” Patrick said. “We never really closed. We have an online ordering system that we do through TapTapEat, and delivery is an option, but it’s not something that we manage ourselves. It’s the company who’s handling it for us. But I think we’ve done pretty well away from the takeaway until things stabilize.”

After:Want to support Oklahoma City restaurants? There is an application for that

10th anniversary celebration during Cinco de Mayo

Mexican-American decor has added a distinct flair to La Luna Cantina & Grill, which occupies what was once a simple building before owner Cindy Cabrera repurposed it.

The La Luna site in Newcastle celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Due to inclement weather, the restaurant was unable to mark the milestone as originally planned in February, so the celebration was pushed back to coincide with a three-day long Cinco de Mayo weekend.

“Cinco de Mayo is always our busiest time of year,” Patrick said. “I never realized, until I worked in a Mexican restaurant, how many people celebrate Cinco de Mayo. I think we (in the United States) celebrate it more than people in Mexico.”

After:Latin American restaurant celebrates 10th anniversary at OKC

Local bands such as 90 Proof and Bad Neighbors performed on the restaurant’s outdoor patio during the celebration, and frequent customers and newcomers were seen happily playing pool in the bar.

Owner ‘not going to move’ despite toll road expansion plans

Despite its stature as a long-standing facility in the community, La Luna now faces an uncertain future with the threat posed by the planned toll highway expansion.

The restaurant is in a growing commercial area near the HE Bailey Turnpike in Newcastle that sees an average of 14,000 daily travelers, according to Oklahoma Department of Transportation estimates.

If the ACCESS Oklahoma project is not modified, an expanded toll junction would pass directly through the La Luna Cantina property, displacing up to 55 employees.

Related:Normandy town hall draws massive crowd to protest against toll motorway expansion

The La Luna food truck, or "TacoTaxi," stands in front of the main building on May 18.  Two weeks prior, the restaurant celebrated its 10th anniversary during a long Cinco de Mayo weekend.

Cindy Cabrera, the owner of La Luna who comes from a long line of Oklahoma City restaurateurs since 1968, could not be reached for comment. But Patrick said that, as far as she knows, the toll road authority has not yet contacted the company for negotiations.

“(Cabrera) is not going to move, that I know,” said Patrick.