Photo by Doug Trattner
Lulo Kitchen has the unmistakable feel of a boho-chic juice bar on Tulum’s famous beach road, a breezy sun-drenched space where art and culture and food collide. Given its perch on W. 9th Street in the Warehouse District, that free-spirited vibe comes as a complete surprise to first-time visitors like myself. But the surprises don’t stop there, I quickly discover.
Chef Stefhanie Montoya, along with her husband Mario, toiled for months to transform a former tattoo parlor into a lush space dripping with color, texture and art. For the better part of a year, the paper-covered windows teased the surrounding neighborhood with a pledge that whatever was slowly taking shape inside would be worth the wait. “It will be delicious,” the sign promised. True to their word, the result is an enchanting “all-day café” that has something special to offer guests morning, noon and night.
With a name like Lulo, which is borrowed from the tropical fruit, one would expect to find wholesome juices, smoothies and limonadas starring a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. Those invigorating beverages are joined by house-blended teas like blackberry, sour cherry and hibiscus and one comprised of white tea, sage, lavender and orange peel. Of course, as self-identifying Colombians, the owners proudly serve coffee from that South American country, served straight up as espresso, blended into cortados or layered into frothy cappuccinos.
As morning gives way to midday, pan-Latin salads, sandwiches, bowls and plates take center stage. It is here that Montoya’s creativity, technique and respect for ingredients begin to emerge. The mango salmon ($16) is one of those near-perfect foods that can be enjoyed multiple times per week. Like a rainbow on a plate, the dish features a flank of flaky seared salmon atop a bed of rice that is topped with a finely diced fruit and vegetable salad and ringed by vibrant wheels of watermelon radish.
The flavors of Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Brazil make appearances in the form of empanadas, tostones, Cubanos, carne asada and other satisfying items. Served four to an order, the beef or chicken filled empanadas ($14) arrive bearing a crisp, savory cornmeal-based shell. They come alive when drizzled with the bright, spicy salsa that arrives on the side. Vegans and vegetarians have options like a strawberry salad, rainbow bowls and teriyaki rice balls, while carnivores can dig into a pressed Cubano layered with ham, pork, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Better still is the carne asada bowl ($17), a marinated skirt steak grilled to medium-rare, thinly sliced and gilded with electric chimichurri. It’s paired with rice and a seasonal tomato salad.
As demanding and time-consuming as the upstairs renovation was to complete, the lower level was doubly so, says Montoya. That’s why it was only recently unveiled, months after the café opened its doors. As guests descend a sturdy wooden staircase, they arrive in a wholly different environment nearly twice the size, where brick archways, hand-drawn murals and surgically illuminated greenery combine to create a magical atmosphere.
The dimly lit “speakeasy with a Latin twist” opens for dinner and drinks on weekends, allowing the chef to spread her culinary wings ever wider. Down here, fresh fish and seafood are reworked into bracing ceviches, like a citrus-laced halibut and corvina ($28) balanced by tropical diced mango and a traditional Colombian shrimp cocktail ($18), which arrives in a sturdy goblet loaded with diced shrimp in a spiced tomato sauce.
At present, the weekend-only dinner menu contains some crossover items from lunch, but as things progress, the similarities will diminish. Dishes such as those heavenly empanadas join appetizers like tostones with guacamole, chorizo with fried plantain, and spicy shrimp with garlic bread. If those items aren’t enough to lure you underground, the meaty churrasco ($28) should be. The hefty grilled strip steak is joined by uber-crispy yuca fries and a creamy garlic sauce that puts ranch dressing to shame. For dessert, there’s moist, rich, cream-capped tres leches, chopped pecan-topped flan and passion fruit ice cream.
To drink there are wines from Spain, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, but also France, Italy, Germany and the States, many available by the glass. In keeping with the pan-Latin theme, the cocktail menu rounds up pisco sours from Peru, caipirinhas from Brazil and mojitos and margaritas from Cuba and Mexico.
Lulo was on pace to open its doors back in spring of 2020, but the Montoyas opted to shelve the project for an entire year. It wasn’t just the pandemic that slowed their roll; it was the unwavering desire to get things as close to perfect as they possibly could.
“We put so much work, love and time into this place,” Montoya says.
Lulo Kitchen and Juice Bar
1273 W. Ninth St., Cleveland