Lively Mari Luna is a nibbler's delight from salsa to finish

Marinated meats are exceptional at Mexican grill

Eats: Dining Reviews, Hot Stuff

September 16, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After two decades of working for French, Italian and Cuban restaurants, Jaime Luna has finally opened the Mexican restaurant he's always wanted.

Luna, most recently executive chef at Babalu Grill downtown, houses his Mari Luna Mexican Grill in a bright yellow concrete building on Reisterstown Road. The interior, painted in robust blues, reds and yellows, exudes a casual warmth, complemented by tile floors and a bright Mexican blanket hanging from one wall.

Even the outside seating area, a more casual space with a ceiling and floor but linoleum tables and plastic sheeting for walls, manages to charm, despite the sounds of traffic and a less-than-scenic view of the Rite Aid across the street.

The restaurant, open since early summer, has already attracted a steady following. Even on a weeknight, the place was crowded, and several customers, clearly regulars, bantered comfortably with servers. Many families arrived with youngsters, and the servers seemed particularly attuned to their needs, bringing the food quickly and making sure the guacamole didn't touch the quesadillas - a serious sin to most kids.

In addition to the expected burritos, tacos and enchiladas, Mari Luna serves a roster of more complex entrees, including pollo en mole, chicken in mole sauce; cordero jalisco, lamb shanks in a chili sauce; and salmon veracruza, flavored with chili, lime and garlic.

Everything I tried was as lively and inviting as the setting. Starting with the salsa, and continuing to a rich chocolate layer cake for dessert, this was food we couldn't stop nibbling, even after we were full.

The guacamole, served as a side with several entrees, was both citrusy and savory, with a generous measure of lime and chunks of tomatoes and onions. It was best when scooped up by the crunchy, only slightly salty tortilla chips that were placed on our table. For a pretty presentation, Luna makes them from red, green, purple and yellow tortillas.

The meats, heavily marinated and then grilled, were particularly good. The salty, robustly flavored strips of steak for our fajita were so tender we could cut them with a fork, even though they were cooked medium well as requested. The steak arrived with tortillas, salsa, rice and beans - no onions and peppers, no "sizzling platter" as found in so many chain restaurants - for us to assemble our own fajitas. Mostly, we just ate the steak, then poured the creamy, meaty beans over the highly flavored rice and gobbled that too.

The burritos were enormous, stuffed with meats and the same rice and beans, then topped with cheese and chili sauce. If the chicken in my burrito was any guide, all the meats are heavily marinated and then grilled. Though every burrito bite was a happy blend of flavors, the chicken stood out as exceptionally tasty.

My least favorite entree was a tilapia filet topped with shrimp and flavored with citrus, scallions and garlic. Though the flavors were robust enough, the fish was a little too soft for me. It wasn't mushy, but it wasn't firm either.

Mari Luna offers a fine selection of Mexican-style desserts, including flan, tres leches cake and churros, which are fried cinnamon-sugar dusted dough. There were no churros the night we were there, but we were very happy with the sopapilla, fried cinnamony tortilla chips surrounding a generous mound of ice cream drizzled with chocolate and caramel, and the rich chocolate cake, layered with a dense chocolate mousse and what tasted like cherry filling.

Our checks arrived with sweet Key lime-flavored hard candies instead of the usual mints. A nice touch.

The only thing missing from Mari Luna is a liquor license, and Luna says he's working on it. A couple of cervezas would go very nicely with the salty, flavorful food and the relaxed, friendly feel of the place.

Mari Luna Mexican Grill

Where: 102 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Call: 410-486-9910

Open: Every day except Monday for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $5-$12, entrees $2.50-$16

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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