Stop by the new Mari Luna Latin Grille in Pikesville around dinner time and you'll find yourself asking, "What recession?"
I suppose you could argue that the people who used to be eating at the fine-dining Ruth's Chris Steak House a bit north on Reisterstown Road have now cut back and are eating at Mari Luna for about half as much, and that's why the place is so busy.
Or you could just accept the fact that its sister restaurant, Mari Luna Mexican Grill, is so popular that when the owner, Jaime Luna, decided to open an upscale version, customers flocked to it.
Upscale is a relative term; this is still a place you don't have to dress up for. Many of the entrees are under $20. But the menu is more wide-ranging, featuring dishes from Central America, the Caribbean, South America and even Spain. The wine list specializes in bottles from Argentina, Chile and Spain. There are lots of Latin American beers, and the house drink is a caipirinha, a popular drink in Brazil. For the less adventuresome, there are mojitos and sangria.
The new Mari Luna is twice as large as its sibling, done in bright Caribbean colors. There are no tablecloths or carpeting, but even when the place is full (as it was when we were there on a weeknight) it isn't unbearably noisy. These days it's reassuring to be in a place this festive; it has the same good-time feeling as Tio Pepe at its best, although the two restaurants aren't anything alike.
The problem is that when a place is this busy during the week, it usually means that folks are all coming at the same time: early. We had reservations for 7 p.m. but didn't get seated until 7:15, and didn't get served our drinks for another half-hour. I thought it was going to be a very long night, but it turned out not to be. By 8 p.m. the dining room started to clear out, and our food arrived relatively quickly. Still, if the new Mari Luna wants to continue to be this successful, it's going to have to figure out how to handle the crowds.
Our server seemed unnerved by how much she had to do, and you could tell she wouldn't usually be so inefficient. (Small example: We watched her ring up the check for the table next to us while our drinks sat on the bar right by the cash register. She didn't think to bring them along with the other table's check.)
Almost every complaint I have about the food could be blamed on the kitchen being overwhelmed. I have a feeling that the airy popovers served with every meal wouldn't normally be so dark as to be almost burned. The tiny dish of mango-papaya butter that came with them was straight from the fridge, and on a slower night someone might have noticed it was sitting in a little water.
Half a rotisserie chicken, Peruvian style, was delicious, but it was stone cold. I don't mean lukewarm. It was cold. But if you could convince yourself it was meant to be served cold with its fine creamy basil sauce, it was almost the best thing on the table.
That honor, however, went to the great mound of ropa vieja, a Cuban dish of shredded beef in a tart, subtly flavored tomato sauce that in no way overwhelmed the dish.
Mari Luna's menu has its share of steaks and chops, including rack of lamb and a grilled rib-eye. There is also a Yucatan-style grilled pork chop, which turned out to be two pork chops, meaty and tender. The fruity mango-chutney sauce and pickled red onion slaw offered an attractive interplay of sweet and sour. A pupusa, a sort of thick corn tortilla, came on the side.
Seafood is represented on the menu by a classic Spanish paella, a shellfish dish called salpicon del mar, grilled scallops, shrimp in a mojito sauce and various fish. A firm, snowy piece of grouper was encrusted in a thin, crisp coating of fried plantain, which kept the fish moist. Its spicy creole sauce was on the side, and like other examples of heat on the menu was, therefore, optional. The emphasis at the new Mari Luna is more on seasonings for flavor than fire.
Each of these reasonably priced entrees comes with two sides, which might be yuca fries, garlicky mashed potatoes, congri (a Cuban dish of rice and black beans), fried plantains sweet enough to have for dessert or, for the health-conscious, a mix of fresh vegetables.
A couple of the people next to us were eating an appetizer for their main course, the gambas al ajillo, shrimp flavored with garlic and lime, sauteed in olive oil and served with grilled bread. It looked fabulous so I ordered it, but the shrimp had been a bit overcooked and the bread was dry as melba toast. I would definitely give this dish a second chance, though, because of the appealing seasonings.
Another possibility if you're in a small-plates mood is the empanadas salternas, my favorite of the appetizers we tried. The turnovers were fat with good things like shredded chicken, raisins, olives and hard-boiled egg, with a fine peppery dipping sauce.
If you like conch chowder, try the Honduran version made with coconut milk. It's a standout. Other soup possibilities were a lobster bisque and a Spanish lentil and vegetable.
Only the chicharron de puerco con yuca failed to interest me. What are described on the menu as "crispy morsels of pork" are fried chunks of meat that aren't particularly crispy but are greasy. Still, they came with a spicy dipping sauce, yuca fries and slaw, so they were almost a light meal in themselves for $7.
Mari Luna has desserts down. I loved the moist bread pudding with orange sauce, but it's so packed with dried fruits and nuts that if you're a fruitcake hater you won't like it. Try instead the chocolate tres leche cake or the flan with bits of fresh mango and other tropical fruits. A bombe made of vanilla, raspberry and chocolate ice cream with custard sauce is unexpectedly wonderful. As for coffee, Mari Luna has all the specialty drinks, including an excellent cafe Americano.
mari luna latin grille Address: 1010 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Hours: Open nightly for dinner
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$10; entrees: $14-$26
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