Mari Luna Mexican Grill Gets Off to a Very Promising Start
Accept the construct that this is the first column of a new year—the first full hump day of fall, the first week following the High Holy days, the first issue after the reflective Best of Baltimore. Then accept that, as far as restaurants go, this year is off to a flying, hopeful start. Mari Luna Mexican Grill pleased us through and through, with its steady applications of Mexican and Central American classics (e.g., various shells stuffed with meat and cheese) and especially the kitchen’s expert handling of the menu’s more serious, heartfelt cuisine: mole sauce, slow-cooked meats, and lime-infused sauces. Mari Luna restored our faith in the ability of a restaurant to surprise and delight. The flavors announce themselves clearly, and ingredients broadcast their inherent freshness and quality. And the prices are wackily low.
Mari Luna occupies a cheerfully renovated roadside building, most recently tenanted by a Russian restaurant and, from the looks of it, originally a fast-food joint. With its bustling open kitchen, warm clay-tile floors, and kitsch-free Mexican art and artifacts, the main dining room hums with something approaching urban verve. Good early signs: The complimentary basket of multicolored, reasonably salty tortilla chips came with fresh chunky salsa that was darker, herbier, and smokier than the typical offering. Next, the sopa de tortilla con pollo ($4) was quite simply the best damn bowl of chicken soup we’ve met in moons. The broth reminded us of good, homemade delicatessen concoctions, peppery and brimming with strips of flavorful dark chicken meat; the toppings—mild shredded cheese, crisp tortilla pieces, and particularly the hand-cut hunks of fresh avocado pulp—added nuanced variety of texture and taste.
The Mari Luna sample platter ($12) displayed the kitchen’s proficiency with familiar fare—a beef-stuffed tamale in a greaseless corn shell; a shapely corn pupusa, fried and filled with shredded white meat chicken (actually, here, dark meat would have been better); a crispy flauta housing ground beef and cheese; a soft and pleasantly oily pupusa oozing real queso fresco; a broad, flat golden empanada; and a creamy, bubbling chili con queso, flecked with fresh cilantro and diced poblano peppers. Best of all, the gambas al ajillo, shrimp sautéed with olive oil, lime, and garlic—perfect. Order them separately ($7). We admired the presentation, too. This combo wasn’t thrown together but arranged with precision and pride on a sturdy aquamarine plate.
More similar treats arrived on the entrée-sized Mexican platter ($14), Mari Luna’s version of the classic combo plate. Along with another exemplary enchilada and fine flauta came two more well-wrought standards—a thin and crispy stuffed pepper, fried lightly in Mari Luna’s “special butter,” and a gordita, which suffered only by the blandness of its white-chicken meat stuffing. A suggestion: alternative meatless versions of the combination appetizer and entrée platters.
The real reason for packing up the family and driving off to Pikesville, though, is the selection of hard-core entrées. Lamb shanks, pork, salmon, and Peruvian-style chicken tempted us, and we’ll be back for them. But we were plenty satisfied with a pan-seared tilapia fillet ($16), whose flavors had been gently and simply coaxed with lemon juice and olive oil (bonus: that great shrimp); the deep and complex mole sauce, hints of chocolate and cinnamon, that coated a full fresh half-chicken ($8, are they crazy?); and the tender strips of braised flank steak that headlined the carne asada entrée ($11). Deal clinchers: the great guacamole; nongummy, nonsoupy, actually flavorful rice; and every fresh and perky piece of lettuce and tomato that garnished our plates.
When we visited, the kitchen was gamely struggling to keep up with a constant supply of Saturday-night diners, and our server (the owner’s daughter—this is clearly a family operation) warned us, in the sweetest way imaginable, that we might experience long waits for our food. And we did. I recommend visiting on a weeknight, at least until Mari Luna clicks into high gear.