Photo by Angela Jackson
With its clubby neon Día de los Muertos motif, La Una Cantina is the $2 shot of fun that downtown Bloomington needs seven blocks from the hallowed limestone perimeter of Indiana University. A funky, freaky mash-up of murals and mirrors, skulls and backlit tequila bottles, Mexican folk art and banana-leaf wallpaper run through an Urban Outfitters focus group, this place grabs you by the collar and puts you under its youthful spell. You get flashes of spring break, a healthy dose of queso, and a refresher course in being carded, all in one big, busy room lit with strings of bare bulbs and big-screen TVs. It’s the kind of place where
every day feels like Taco Tuesday in Margaritaville. Or, at least, that’s one way of seeing it.
Another way of seeing it is through the exacting lens of its classically trained chef, Dean Wirkerman, the former head chef at Cardinal Spirits who attended the Culinary Institute of America, worked under renowned Napa Valley restaurateur Thomas Keller, and traveled to Mexico for inspiration right before opening La Una in March. He spent an intense two weeks in the kitchen of chef Enrique Olvera’s acclaimed Oaxaca restaurant, Criollo, known for its elaborate multi-course tasting menus that highlight the region’s earthy culinary tradition. In Criollo’s famous outdoor prep kitchen,Wirkerman got schooled in things like the ancient technique of nixtamalization, preparing different varieties of corn to be stone-ground into masa. He worked with local produce and traditional ingredients like pumpkin, beans, and lentils and gained a new appreciation for the dishes his Mexican grandmother prepared back in the day. “I knew I wanted to taste the foods myself and get inspired,” says Wirkerman, who had to cram in some intense Duolingo Spanish lessons before flying off to Oaxaca the day after he left Cardinal Spirits. “I went to Mexico instead of taking a break between jobs,” he says. “They thought I was crazy.”
Maybe they were on to something. Wirkerman came back with a vision that, admittedly, had to be tamped down and adjusted to meet the finicky whims of a Midwest college-town restaurant where queso and cheese enchiladas are the top sellers. On top of that, La Una’s prominent location at the corner of Walnut and 7th streets has proven to be such a restaurant graveyard over the years that the interior designer provided some sage to burn before opening night. But Wirkerman accepts these things as small bumps in the road to what he eventually wants to do at La Una. “I think restaurants sometimes forget that you have to compromise,” he says. “Now more than ever, chefs have to remember that they’re doing this for the customer, not themselves. It’s a business.”
While Wirkerman knows he has to do the queso and cheese enchilada to stay in business, he can also have a deep bench of traditional Oaxacan preparations, like sweet-potato enchiladas, pineapple-sweetened al pastor tacos dabbed with avocado salsa, and a massive pork cochinita torta packed with meat that marinates in aromatic achiote seasoning before it’s rolled inside banana leaves and slow-roasted.
The kitchen leans heavily on fresh sauces like the gently bittersweet mole negro made with burnt peppers, sweet plantains, dried fruit, and chocolate. The signature flavoring is delicious and complex, even when simply spooned into a shredded chicken taco and layered with onion, sesame, and soft crumbles of queso fresco. There’s a blackened fish of the day served over Mexican green rice with sweet plantains and a bright, zesty garlic-serrano mojo sauce, as well as an ancho-rubbed pork tenderloin plated with corn and crispy potatoes and finished with the yin-yang of poblano crema and orange-jalapeño salsa.
The tacos, served open-faced, are all tiny tortilla masterpieces Jackson Pollock’d with colorful fresh toppings and splashes of sauces and creams. The beer-battered cod version is slathered in pasilla chile mayo with pops of tamarind, cilantro, and pickled onion. The beef barbacoa, chicken tinga, sweet potato, and hongas tacos are similarly busy with veggies and housemade condiments. It makes perfect sense when Wirkerman explains that he built all of these elaborate tacos around sauce-based flavors. “Basically, everything needs to be juicy,” he says. “Everything needs to have a detail added to it. Instead of using black pepper, let’s bring in a unique spice blend.” Even the guacamole has a kick that made me pause and dab my forehead, thankful that it wasn’t a fever. “I tell people they shouldn’t be afraid to break a sweat,” Wirkerman says. “You start perspiring, and you have some cool refreshment. It’s very sexy.”
The tequila drinkers and tortilla chip dippers might not pick up on the fact that La Una’s chef is back there burning off peppers to release their bitter notes and spending hours manually removing the seeds from chiles instead of going the standard route of boiling them out (and thus sacrificing a lot of flavor). It is more likely that they will notice—as I did on the night I promised myself I would drink only one perfectly smooth and jaw-numbing passion fruit margarita—the employee behind the bar who spent her entire shift feeding limes into a juicer, filling pitcher after pitcher with cocktail fuel. And honestly, Wirkerman isn’t complaining, the world being in the state it’s in right now. After he breaks even with his dinner service, the after-10 crowd takes over, ordering drinks and buying shots, maybe springing for some easy-cheesy sustenance while the restaurant’s new security detail makes sure everyone keeps a proper social distance. The place isn’t just getting by during a national pandemic, but getting by quite well.
Last month, La Una introduced a brunch menu, and Wirkerman has his sights on an expanded Platos Fuertes (main dishes) menu that will incorporate some of the techniques that inspired him to open this restaurant in the first place. “But I’m taking it slow,” he says. “I have to earn people’s trust.” Then, he will give them exactly what they want—even if they don’t know what that is yet.