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    Eat & Swig

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    By Ben Gierhart

    Aaron Diaz always knew he wanted to do a Mexican barbecue restaurant. “And then Coco came out,” Diaz says of the popular 2017 Disney/Pixar film about Día de los Muertos, a traditional Mexican holiday that, looking past its spooky appearance, is really all about family and remembering loved ones who have died. “It was kind of a sign that I should run with it and that people would be a little more accepting of it,” Diaz says.


    Aaron Diaz on a balcony in his restaurant, Noche.

    As a boy, Diaz, who hails from Midland, Texas, recalls building Día de los Muertos altars called ofrendas (complete with candles, flowers and personal possessions) with his grandmother (who’s from Mexico) and mother. For his restaurant, he settled on the name Noche because the holiday is mainly celebrated at night, as well as to avoid the stereotypical names that are common for Mexican restaurants in America. “There’s a lot of generic Mexican stereotypes,” he says. “I asked my family for names. They gave me all the names you’ve heard before.” Somebody suggested Diaz de Los Muertos. “And I’m like, ‘No!’” he says with a laugh.

    Noche's aged pipe organ.

    Día de los Muertos traditionally starts at a church, which is why Diaz couldn’t say no when presented with the opportunity to open his restaurant in a former church. Diaz invited people who were part of the church’s past to experience its future. “The stained-glass artist came for dinner,” Diaz says of the man who built the church’s windows in the ’80s. “He said that he was just so happy that people could see those windows again.” Located on Bardstown Road in the Highlands, Calvary Lutheran Church was built in the 1920s, and in 2016 the building was sold to be transformed into luxury apartments. Some such apartments do exist in the basement, but the bulk of the repurposed building is now home to Noche, which opened in August. Many of the original architectural elements, such as doors, signs, arches and columns, remain. An ombré effect on the walls creates an illusion of sky. A canvas re-creation of a photo of a woman wearing Día de los Muertos makeup and attire is front and center.


    Carnita quesadilla at Noche.

    And then there’s the barbecue, with ribs, brisket and other meaty fare, plus perennial favorites like tacos, burritos and fajitas. “My dad has this rib recipe, and everyone (always) told him that he should open a restaurant,” Diaz says. An entire section of the menu is dedicated to antojitos (“little cravings,” aka Mexican street food) like nachos, quesadillas with smoked brisket, and “armadillo eggs” (bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and shrimp). Calabacitas is Mexican squash mixed with corn, cheese and tomatoes, and conchitas is a tomato-based soup with cheesy pasta shells. The bar serves mescal flights and refreshing cocktails such as Lotería de la Muerte, named after a Día de los Muertos game of chance. Served in a skull glass, it is like a tequila version of agua fresca, with flavors of cantaloupe, basil, agave and pink Himalayan salt.

    Esquites (street-style corn).

    Día de los Muertos is a three-day celebration (Oct. 31 through Nov. 2), and Diaz would like to change up the menu for each of those days. He’s also envisioning a block party. At the very least, he plans to open Noche’s lawn area to the public. “A lot of people think I’m a chef. I don’t do this because I like cooking,” Diaz says. “I like how food pulls everyone together.”

    This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Buenos Noche.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Danny Alexander, dannyalexanderphoto.com

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