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Salsita and Soul

by S. Kirchberg & Mary Jane Garza

What do homemade chicken soup, zesty Cuban sones and colorful Huichol art have in common? If you answered sustenance for the soul, then El Sol y La Luna restaurant will certainly satisfy the psyche. Situated on Austin, Texas' funky South Congress Avenue, this down to earth cafe features an eclectic mix of Latin American cuisine, revolving art exhibits and live entertainment in a cozy, laid back atmosphere.
Business co-owners Nilda de la Llata and Ana Salinas pooled their talents six years ago to open a space where Latin American arts and food could be enjoyed hand-in-hand. Both women are aficionados of creative prowess. De la Llata, who has been privately collecting Mexican and Latin American fine and folk art for more than twenty years, currently serves as president of the city's Mexic-Arte Museum Board of Directors, and partner Ana Salinas is also actively involved in the local arts community.
"We have been supporting the arts and music since the restaurant opened six years ago," comments De la Llata. "We focus on different styles, themes and mediums which will complement our space and be appropriate for a family oriented restaurant. The idea to hold exhibits at the restaurant came from Ana Salinas, and I thought it would be a great complement to the food and live music."
Apparently so do many others. El Sol y La Luna has been ranked among the best 50 Latino restaurants in the United States for three consecutive years by Hispanic Magazine and it was also recently voted fifth favorite restaurant in Austin, out of a list of over two thousand. The menu is a mix of Caribbean, Cuban and Mexican fare created from scratch using fresh ingredients. De la Llata is quick to add that the locale's popularity is due in large part not only to the homestyle Latin American cuisine but also the ambiance created through mixing art, music and great food under one roof.
The two women, along with a third, silent partner, opened the restaurant / gallery in what was then an empty locale next to the Austin Motel in March, 1995. Working with a limited budget, they set about renovating and decorating the structure with little outside help. Over the past six years they have built the business through hours of old fashioned hard work, sterling customer relations and a lot of positive energy. Today El Sol y La Luna is a thriving concern, pulling in an estimated million dollars in sales yearly. "I think all businesses should dedicate a little bit of their time or support to the arts," says De la Llata. She comments that as businesses work to offer greater backing of the arts, communities grow richer and more culturally aware of their environment. "Some people don't care, but I just wish that more people had this idea (of advocating creative endeavours). I'm really proud of what we've done and how the community comes here."
First Lady Bush, who is an enthusiast of Latin American and Mexican arts, has frequented El Sol y La Luna restaurant on a few occasions, as have many other celebrities. "She mentioned to me at a reception held for Mexic-Arte Museum that the restaurant was her daughters favorite place in Austin," De la Llata notes with pride.
Among some of the more recent showings held at the cafe have been a photographic exhibit to benefit the local Girl Scouts chapter, works by surrealist Neil Cronk, Chilean artist Liliana Wilson Grez, Andres Vera, Keith Davis and Jose Trevino. A showing of indigenous Huichol art from Mexico was met with tremendous success. Most of the art exhibited is also for sale, and De la Llata comments that sales are normally brisk. A colorfully painted antique cabinet serves as an accent piece and display case in the main dining room and folk art by local and international artists decorates the walls between shows. The exhibits change every couple of months. "We have had shows here where we have sold every single one of the pieces," says De la Llata. "I love all kinds of art. That is probably my biggest thrill in life, just to see art, all kinds of mediums, but specifically visual art."
De la Llata's spunky personality has also been a stimulus for attracting a varied clientele to El Sol y La Luna. Born and raised on the Matamoros / Brownsville border, she radiates charm and warm hospitality. "I like taking care of the customers. I like to make sure everything goes well." It is not unusual to find her chatting at a table with dining artists or good-naturedly haggling over the price of a piece she wants to purchase for her private collection. She and Salinas personally manage the day-to-day operations of the business, including booking the bands and choosing which artists the restaurant will represent.
"I'm always willing to experiment," comments the entrepreneur, regarding their line-up of live weekend music. Among some of the local and international entertainment the restaurant has sponsored are talented groups such as Son y no Son (Cuban sones), Oliver Rajamani (Indian music), Lee Ann Atherton (folk), Toqui Amaru (Latin American) and a visiting Tango duo from Argentina.
Although El Sol y La Luna is a place of repose for its guests, we couldn't help but wonder where De la Llata goes for relief from her hectic pace. "I do keep extremely busy between the restaurant and museum," she comments. "I get up by 6 am to feed my cows and donkeys, I live on a beautiful 22-acre, small ranch / paradise in the middle of Austin with ponds, natural springs, a big barn and corrals for the animals, and a great pool for me. To relax, I read works by Ana Castillo and spend time with my animals here at home. But my most favorite thing to do is run across the street from El Sol y La Luna every Tuesday afternoon for Happy Hour at The Continental Club to hear and enjoy my favorite singer, Toni Price. Her songs are my therapy for the rest of the week. I simply have to be there every Tuesday to meet good friends, have a laugh and enjoy life. That's the key to being balanced."
It is also the key to El Sol y La Luna's tremendous success great food, good art and live music in a friendly environment. "It's a wonderful combination," says De la Llata with a smile.