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Free Range

Viva la luna

A return to the Mari Luna mothership finds that todo esta bien

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Sam Holden


It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since Mari Luna Mexican Grill (102 Reisterstown Rd, [410] 486-9910, mariluna.com) opened the doors of its sunshine-colored restaurant and made a stretch of Reisterstown Road, better known for kosher markets, an unlikely go-to for top-quality Mexican food. During the eight-year span, owner Jaime Luna has opened two more Mari Lunas: Mari Luna Latin Grille, with its extra “e” and supperclub aura a few blocks north, and Mari Luna Bistro in Mount Vernon. There are charms in all three restaurants (some more subtle than others), but the Mexican Grill has always been my favorite, and given the crowded dining room on a recent weekday evening, I suspect I’m not alone here.

Mari Luna’s appeal starts with the football-sized burritos and broad choice of taco fillings (slow-braised tongue, potato and cheese, barbacoa-style made with lamb) and extends to the brilliant blue ceilings and butternut-squash colored walls, and it especially applies to the sweet service that makes you feel like a regular even if you’re not (and that brings an ice bucket for your BYO beer or wine in what feels like seconds after greeting you). Families proliferate, and the dining room’s buzzy hum is matched by the sizzle and thwack of the open kitchen. Rather than being a distraction, the noise is more of a rush, a sense of being co-participants in the enjoyment of a meal.

It’s a relief to be able to write that in the years that it’s been in business, it doesn’t feel like much has changed at Mari Luna, except the prices, which are still pretty reasonable. When City Paper last reviewed the place in 2004, the pollo en mole was $8. Now the plump half chicken, braised and painted with mole, is $13. It’s still a deal, though a little more sauce on the bird would be welcome. Call us greedy.

Mari Luna creates a list of daily specials, typed up and tucked under the glass tabletop, many of them seafood-based, like a very nice grouper fillet, crusted in tortilla chards and served with a bright mango salsa ($24), or red snapper, tossed with capers, tomatoes, and olives. Regular entrees include standards, like the aforementioned chicken in mole, carne asada, arroz con pollo, fajitas, chile rellenos, and carnitas Uruapan ($14), which turned out to be the only blip in an otherwise very satisfying evening. The slow-roasted pork tasted uncharacteristically under-seasoned and was marbled with more fat than was necessary, though the plethora of accompaniments—smoky beans, rice, homemade tortillas, fresh pico de gallo and dollops of crema and guacamole—were on right on target, making the dish feel like an anomaly rather than the status quo.

Where Mari Luna really shines is in the opening portion of their menu where the soups and appetizers are found, and it’s easy to make a meal of chunky gazpacho ($6) or a black bean soup the color of chocolate syrup, and garlicky gambas al ajillo or three gorgeous beef-stuffed tamales that crumble into their corn-husk beds when pierced with a fork. Better still is to order the plato combinado ($14) and get the shrimp and the tamales along with a fluffy, cheese-stuffed pupusa, a flauta, a quesadilla, and an empanada that forks will do battle over.

Even then, you will only have cracked the surface of Mari Luna’s menu which also offers enchiladas, chimichangas, a variety of sandwiches, and yes, salads, for those who are trying to watch their diets (but note, if you order a taco salad, the size of it alone will make you re-think its efficacy as a healthy choice). You can also order platano (plantain) frito and yuca frita (fried yucca) as sides, which is always a plus in my book, and their flan ($5), made in-house, as are a number of the desserts, is as good as any.

Mari Luna’s corkage fee is a reasonable $5, and they have a small, but manageable parking lot—a boon on a busy stretch of road. They do not, however, take reservations, so plan to wait if you go on a weekend, the happy result of eight years’ accumulation of loyal customers.

Mari Luna Mexican Grill is open Tuesday-Sunday for lunch and dinner.

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