Restaurant tycoon. Soft-spoken. Humble. Hard-working. Family man.
There are many ways to describe Carlos Luna — although the look on his face when taking in his latest venture says something much different.
He’s done with the seemingly endless process of securing permits for his oceanfront oasis, finally able to rid himself of contractors and serve the community he loves.
While many others in town have found rough times opening restaurants on or near Santa Barbara’s State Street, Mr. Luna is rolling the dice that his commitment to a family atmosphere will prove to work as he opens Flor De Maiz at 29 E. Cabrillo Blvd.
The Oaxacan-style menu brings a Mexican authenticity to downtown Santa Barbara, providing the most popular style of Mexican food with breathtaking views of the Santa Barbara Harbor, Stearns Wharf and the Pacific Ocean.
Those are views that are three years in the making — more than double what Mr. Luna is used to in opening all five of his Los Agaves restaurants on the South Coast, as well as Santo Mezcal.
“We’ve been working on this one for a long time,” Mr. Luna said.
Mr. Luna admits that it took patience to stay the course with this new concept, having to stay committed to creating an authentic look that is open in nature, but allows one to feel like they are enjoying a meal at home.
“We had a vision, it just took a long time to get it done,” Mr. Luna said.
During that time, Mr. Luna and Flor de Maiz’s general manager Hector Arellano — along with a handful of others — took trips down to Oaxaca, experiencing the culture and the food to make sure that the work being done back in Santa Barbara was authentic.
Oaxaca is located in southwestern Mexico, bordered by the Pacific Ocean to its south — much like Flor De Maiz.
The Mexican state is well known for its indigenous peoples, with 16 different officially recognized. These unique cultures have survived due to the state’s isolation. For tourists, Monte Albon and Mitla are popular stops, both expansive archeological sites.
However, in recent years, Oaxacan cuisine has seen a worldwide movement in popularity, particularly because of the region’s seven moles — coloradito, negro, rojo, verde, amarillo, chichi and manchamanteles.
Mole played a significant role in how Mr. Luna and Mr. Arellano created Flor De Maiz’s menu, even going as far as having a regional cocktail expert create a mixed drink with mole (aptly named Oaxaca), definitely something that is not found along the South Coast all that often.
“Mole is such an important part of Oaxacan food, we had to find unique ways to use it and make signature drinks and dishes,” Mr. Arellano said.
And while go-to menu items are critical to the success of Mr. Luna’s expanding restaurant lineup, both he and Mr. Arellano point to something much more important as the key to longevity in a cutthroat business:
Neither one of them look at the patrons walking through the doors of any of the restaurants as customers, they speak about them as family members.
Both of them spend time greeting people at the front door, as well as checking in throughout the meal, making sure that each dish is cooked as it was ordered.
Mr. Luna even visits each of his Santa Barbara-based restaurants daily, while making the trek to his Los Agaves restaurants in Oxnard and Westlake Village at least once per week.
“It is important to be available, to our employees and to our guests,” Mr. Luna said.
Their friendliness and willingness to be a part of the community they serve also extends to their new neighbors, Oku. Flor De Maiz shares a wall — and views — with the Japanese-style restaurant, not to mention core belief in building each other up instead of tearing each other down.
“We love the relationship we have with Oku, we send people their way and they send people our way,” Mr. Arellano said. “We both want to be successful, and we can help each other do that.”
There is a transparency to how Flor De Maiz operates, with its entire kitchen a spectacle throughout your meal, as you can watch the corn tortillas being made by hand, as well as the chefs cooking everything from octopus to their Tacos De Langosta, the latter featuring lobster craw meat with a black bean paste, avocado and cilantro that looks so simple, but tastes like hours of preparation went into it.
That’s just the way that Mr. Luna wants it — the comforts of home cooking, without having to do the work.
“We want to give people an experience, one that they can’t get anywhere else, but is also familiar,” Mr. Arellano said.
That commitment to the guest is something that has also trickled into the mindset of those that work for Mr. Luna at all seven restaurants — with Mr. Luna estimating that most employees stay with the company for more than three years, somewhat unheard of in the restaurant industry.
After working with Mr. Luna for a handful of years previously, Mr. Arellano returned from Miami to help open Flor de Maiz, leaving behind the bustling nightlife of southern Florida because he believed in the Oaxacan concept.
And in Mr. Luna’s vision.
“I love Santa Barbara. I love what we do for people, and I love what this restaurant represents,” Mr. Arellano. “We are bringing traditional Oaxacan cuisine to the beach, something no one else has done here.
“This community is our family, and we always want to provide what they want.”
Even if it did test every bit of patience they had, a piece of Oaxaca can now be found a few feet from the crashing waves of Santa Barbara’s pristine beaches.
And it was well worth the wait.