First Person: Next Level Mexican Cuisine

Posted on Oct 6 by SEASONS Magazine

Beloved for his fast casual Los Agaves restaurants, owner Carlos Luna takes the cuisine—and the cocktails—up a notch with his newest endeavor, Santo Mezcal, courtesy photo.

Beloved for his fast casual Los Agaves restaurants, owner Carlos Luna takes the cuisine—and the cocktails—up a notch with his newest endeavor, Santo Mezcal, courtesy photo.

By Rachel Hommel

Carlos Luna, owner and proprietor of Los Agaves, is a man who wears many hats. When he opened his first restaurant on Milpas Street in 2008, Luna was just 27 years old. Born in Santa Barbara and raised in Ocotlán, Mexico, an hour south of the bustling city of Guadalajara, his hands-on hospitality created a name around town. After graduating from college in Guadalajara, Luna returned to Santa Barbara to work at La Tolteca Restaurant, a tortilla-making factory and eatery. Friends with the owners, he quickly learned the restaurant business, eventually accepting an opportunity to take over the space.

As for his vision for his first restaurant, he says, “I would travel back and forth between Guadalajara and Santa Barbara each summer. It was hard to find dishes from my city, and I wanted to create that. I saw an opportunity to expand what people saw as Mexican food.”

Courtesy Santo Mezcal.

Courtesy Santo Mezcal.

Enlisting executive chef and childhood friend Ricardo Garcia, the two realized their dreams of opening their own restaurant. Inspired by the cuisine of their home state of Jalisco, Luna wanted to create a restaurant that showcased a diverse lineup of items not seen before in Santa Barbara. Los Agaves, named after memories from his home state, is now a family affair, with Luna’s mother and brother joining the team as well.

“Growing up in the state of Jalisco, I used to love horseback riding…I loved riding through the agave plants,” says Luna. “I had really great memories of that and wanted to bring a sense of home back to Santa Barbara.”

Courtesy Los Agaves.

Courtesy Los Agaves.

Keeping the same hands-on hospitality work ethic, Luna personally oversees all locations—which include the original Los Agaves on Milpas Street and restaurants on De la Vina Street, in Camino Real Marketplace in Goleta and in Westlake Village. In May, Luna opened the more upscale Santo Mezcal in the Funk Zone. As Luna and Garcia developed the menu for Santo Mezcal, they used their popular Los Agaves restaurants as test kitchens, in a sense, running specials to see what worked and what people were excited about.

“With this new concept, we will have more time to create new dishes and innovate what Mexican cuisine can be in this town,” says Luna. “Chef Ricardo is amazingly talented when it comes to flavors.”

The Peruvian "Peruana" cocktail from Santo Mezcal, accompanied by smiley/salty Peruvian Inca corn nuts, courtesy photo.

The Peruvian “Peruana” cocktail from Santo Mezcal, accompanied by smiley/salty Peruvian Inca corn nuts, courtesy photo.

Wanting to create an elevated Mexican restaurant and cocktail program, Luna and Garcia conceived the modern-concept restaurant with a full bar specializing in mezcal and tequila, in addition to exquisite seafood. Sourcing from local farmers, ranchers and seafood purveyors, Luna stresses the importance of seasonal cuisine, offering traditional cooking styles with an ingredient-driven menu.

“Every state has a little bit of their own flavor and style,” says Luna. For example, “the Pulpo a Las Brasas dish is a show stopper. We hadn’t seen octopus done in this way anywhere else in Santa Barbara.”

A fan of artisanal spirits and hand-crafted cuisine, Luna hopes to elevate Mexican food to yet another level in Santa Barbara, creating innovative dishes that rotate frequently. Starting next year, he hopes to cultivate land to begin growing and sourcing their own produce, also working with farmers in Mexico, to create a truly authentic farm-to-table experience for guests.

“I love this town, this is home. I wouldn’t pick any other city to live in, It’s amazing the local support we have received. I love seeing people I’ve grown up with coming back with their families.”

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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