You can’t miss the artwork on the fence in front of Moonage Food Co. in Leucadia, and, honestly, I don’t think boring is allowed in this space. It was the original home of Hago’s, then Lanai and now Moonage has made the space its own. The name is derived from the David Bowie song “Moonage Daydream,” which in itself makes this place worthy. The space is a direct reflection of the eclectic background of chef/owner Tyler Mars and it’s a place that you are going to want to hang out once we can again. Until then, get there for some carryout. You can bask in its originality while some killer vinyl spins on the turntable and you wait for your food to go. Oh, and the food is not an afterthought — it’s unique and delicious. Tyler talks more about it in our conversation below.
Lick the Plate: Where are you from originally and what were some of your early food memories?
Tyler Mars: I was born in Malibu in 1972 and I do remember my folks had a garden and would grow corn and squash and probably other stuff. My interest in culinary I guess started to take its shape when I was a bit older and would help my mom in the kitchen with salads and cutting vegetables. Later in my teens at boarding school I got in trouble, and as the punishment I was sent to the kitchen to wash all the dishes and then do whatever the cooks needed. I showed up the next day because I thought it was fun, cooks called the principal, said Tyler is here and wants to work, so they put me to work.
LTP: Since music plays such a key element in what you do with food and the vibe of Moonage, who was your first concert and what three bands would you put on a stage for one night?
TM: Music is a big part of my life and Moonage as a whole experience. I have most of my personal records there and a turntable and anyone can spin my vinyl. My first concert was INXS at the Santa Barbara County Bowl mid ’80s. But the punk and ska scene was a very big part of growing up so I went to smaller shows, you know the ones with the hand-drawn flyer, 3-5 bucks at the door. My one-night lineup would be James Brown, The Clash and Black Sabbath.
LTP: How did Moonage come to be?
TM: Well, my girlfriend, now wife, and I moved to Bali for a job offered to me to run the restaurant, part of a place called Deus Ex Machina. I was a sushi chef doing fusion sushi that no one was really doing yet. Fast-forward to North County, I got a job at Zenbu in Cardiff, I was the head sushi chef there off and on for five years. During that time, I went to L.A., bought a taco stand and was experimenting with other stuff all tucked on a corn tortilla, and was doing side gigs. Then a friend of a friend told the people at the newly opened Culture Brewery in Solana Beach about me, so I parked there on Fridays. That was also the time that food trucks had a big head of steam behind them. They were marketed as these less expensive ways for chefs to start off and not have to do a brick and mortar and sell your soul to a bank. So I got the cash together and bought a truck. What I quickly realized is that the TV shows and cool stories were happening in the major markets, not in sleepy North County. So my brewery hustle began. Then this amazing spot opened up that is zoned for mobile food vendors fell in my lap, and here we are.
LTP: Your space has always been a favorite of mine. Tell me how you have made it your own.
TM: Well the whole block is so unique and funky with Thread Spun and Solomon Hair Salon, Child of Wild, of course, The Plant Lady & 101 Piercing. I mean where else can one go to get a haircut, a Prince Albert, a succulent plant and then some fusion street tacos or dumplings all in the same 100-foot zone? How I made it my own was getting rid all the dead plants, painting everything black inside and out, and then dropped my newest logo of a woman biting her lip while flashing her gold tooth and it says, “Moonage Eat Me.”
LTP: And your food … hard to pinpoint a style, but “eclectic goodness” is the closest I could come. How do you describe it and what can folks expect?
TM: Its very rock ’n’ roll mixed in with flavors I’ve picked up in all my travels. Folks say, “Oh it’s Mexican fusion” but I don’t see it that way. It’s a real culinary whitewater rafting trip that happens to have the tortilla and torta bun as the vessel. One of the unique things I can offer that no other restaurant in North County can is that I’m 100% outside dining. So when we do get back to a point of normality, the folks who wish to eat outside can do so without feeling like they are on top of each other. I also put in a stage for live music in the afternoons. The walls are covered in art, so people are able to flow through and experience the wide wonders of my tastes — both ocular and culinary. I also would dig having art shows in the spot as well as planning on marketing Moonage as a fantastic spot for private events.