Enchiladas are my favorite Mexican comfort food. And rightly or not, my preference for a Mexican restaurant often depends on how well it handles this relatively straightforward dish. I've been spoiled in this regard by home-style Mexican kitchens that served pulled meats in robust brown sauces and salsas that were little more than diced jalapenos.
On a recent visit to Mari Luna on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, I ordered my old standby on the strong suspicion that I'd be in for a better-than-average rendition. And besides that, the platter allowed me to sample three different fillings. How could I go wrong?
As is so often the case, I would find a way. I think it will be a long time before I order another enchilada at Mari Luna's — but don't get discouraged.
11:42 a.m. We enter, and right away the vibe — light but maybe a touch more formal than most Mexican places I'm familiar with — suggests we're in for a treat. The music track is just loud enough to set a mood. White tablecloths contrast with solid, bold yellows and blues that dominate the interior color scheme. We're walked through the main dining room and into a brighter side room that has a patio feel, though it's enclosed.
Chips and salsa arrive quickly. The chips — red, yellow, dusty dark blue and green — are crisp. The fresh salsa is an earthy brown that looks like a cross between red and green sauces; it shows off tastes of the garden rather than emphasizing heat.
11:54 a.m. Our main server greets us in Spanish. If you're looking to test your vocabulary, Luna's is a safe place to do it. They get it if you have to fall back on English. We ordered pupusas ($7) for an appetizer, the enchilada platter ($12), and the cordero jalisco ($17) because, frankly, we weren't expecting lamb on a lunch menu, and it sounded intriguing.
12:03 p.m. The pupusas — 5-inch-diameter corn pancakes with nearly pureed pork and queso filling — look heavy, with glistening highlights of oil from the frying pan. But no. They have a stout corn tortilla tone but lighter, bready texture. A crunchy, modestly seasoned slaw makes for a cool complement. The pupusas can be a satisfying meal in themselves.
12:24 p.m. Our server sets a plate full of racy color before me. The bright red and green of the enchilada and guacamole sauces play off the brown beans and pale saffron yellow of the rice. A dollop of pure white sour cream and a small mound of red pico de gallo complete what amounts to a visual party.
You know enchiladas deserve better than ground up beef and chicken. Mari Luna knows, too. The beef was as chunky and tender as stew meat. The chicken light and moist. But the veggies — asparagus, spinach, mushrooms and a hint of tomato — provided a sly improvisation on this standard. Another nice touch was the side of whole pinto beans slathered in a vegetable stock teased with spices and tomato: a mellow counterpoint to the splashy, zesty red enchilada sauce.
The cordero jalisco, though, changed my mind about Mari Luna's enchiladas. A giant lamb shank dominated my dining companion's plate. I don't know what I was expecting — the menu said lamb shank, after all. I guess it was just bigger than I expected. And it's not something you see everyday at lunch.
From the burly bone fell some of the most yielding lamb I've had in a long time. Again, think stew meat. Luna bakes the shank in banana leaves and infuses a mild chili sauce. It makes for a rich, succulent dark meat.
12:40 p.m. We finish. Mari Luna's palate is much milder than you might expect from a Mexican restaurant. The emphasis here is on the play of savory and spice, always hinting and coaxing rather than slamming and flaming. Neither is it what you'd expect from the brash colors. The guacamole, for instance, looked as flammable as fresh peppers but tasted of cool avocado.
12:45 p.m. We pay and leave … and did I go wrong ordering the enchiladas? Not exactly. But if Mari Luna's menu invites exploration, its execution demands it. The kitchen offers the expected Mexican treats while claiming distinction with wider selections of meats and seafood. We noticed an adventurous dinner special menu with prices ranging from about $18 to $26. Because of our lamb experience, I'm eager to return, even if it means I have to pass on a fine example of an old standby.
Where: 102 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Lunch hours (same menu): 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Lunch entrees: $8-$19
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 63 minutes