Diana Guerrero takes customers' orders at Magda Luna in Burlingame.
When Diana Guerrero’s mother asked her to help launch a new restaurant in Burlingame, she told her mother she had one condition: All meat would have to come from sources that treat animals humanely. Because those sources are well regarded by food enthusiasts and chefs, this fit perfectly with her mother’s desire to offer great tasting, healthy Latin food.
Guerrero was just 3 years old when her family immigrated from Mexico. She paints a heroic picture of her mother, Magdalena Perez, who worked long hours at housecleaning jobs by day, and then worked as a cook at night. Guerrero said she got used to being awakened by the sounds of pots and pans, because her mother often dealt with her frequent insomnia by experimenting in the kitchen.
“My mom used to just tinker in the kitchen,” said Guerrero, “If she couldn’t sleep, she would tinker with her recipes. She was always saying things like, ‘Hey, look at this, I added vinegar, and look what it did to the flavor.’”
Guerrero said the restaurant’s name, Magda Luna, is a play on her mother’s first name. She said their decision to go into business was partly due to Magdalena’s dissatisfaction with the quality of food she experienced when eating out.
“She was never pleased with the restaurant food we got anywhere, and she wanted to serve the kind of food we eat at home, because ours is really different,” she said.
Magda Luna also addresses Guerrero’s main issue with restaurant food. For years, she adhered to a vegan diet, out of concern for animal welfare. Although she’s no longer a vegan, Guerrero said if she doesn’t know exactly where a restaurant gets its meat, she won’t eat it. Magda Luna’s meat, poultry and dairy products come from Niman Ranch, Mary’s Chickens and Clover Stornetta Farms, all of which have built their reputations on humane treatment of animals and organic, sustainable farming practices.
Though Guerrero said the higher cost of these ethically sourced ingredients are reflected in Magda Luna’s prices, the selections can hardly be described as expensive. Prices range from $2.95 for a crispy taco to $16.75 for a carne asada plate with thin-sliced filets of arrachera steak that would put most steak houses to shame.
Since its August opening, Magda Luna has been popular with health-conscious diners who value organically grown food that’s free of hormones and antibiotics.
“Especially with parents, we’re a huge hit,” she said. “We have one father who comes in regularly because he likes being able to give his daughter Mexican food that’s not fattening and not covered in lard. ... We never use lard.”
Elaborating on what her restaurant does and doesn’t do, Guerrero said, “We’re a casual café, but we’re not fast-food. We don’t make things until they’re ordered. We make our own tortillas from scratch. We use real eggs, not pre-scrambled egg products. Instead of tofu, which is processed, we ‘sub in’ veggies for the meatless versions of our dishes. The veggies are grilled or sautéed when they’re ordered, so they’re not sitting under heat lamps, losing their nutrients.”
The bright airiness of Magda Luna’s spacious dining room contrasts with the almost carnal red of its walls, which bear three large skull paintings by local artist Alyssa Levitan. Rendered in classic El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) style, the paintings echo one of Guerrero’s other passions: She is a member of Damas de Los Muertos, a team in the fiercely competitive Peninsula Roller Girls roller derby league.
The team’s name translates as “Ladies of the Dead,” and their uniforms and spooky makeup are consistent with the art on Magda Luna’s walls. At a bout last year, a devoted fan held up a homemade sign reading, “Come on Private Choke-Her, let me see your war face!”
“Private Choke-Her” is Guerrero’s stage name, so it should come as no surprise that she got into the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby competition because she saw it as a natural progression from the boxing and wrestling which characterized her active lifestyle.
Guerrero is obviously not one to shrink from a challenge. She admits, however, that the fast pace of her wildly popular eatery does take its toll. She’d applied to law school just prior to opening the restaurant, and now sometimes wonders if becoming a lawyer would have been easier.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life, never even come close to it,” she said.
If you go ...
1199 Broadway, Suite 2
Burlingame, CA 94010