I consider myself very lucky to be able to review restaurants in a town with such a diverse and exciting food scene. There is, however, one glaring absence in Lutherville’s dining repertoire that has always bugged me—the almost completely vacant Latin American restaurant market.
I know some of you will point out that there are several chain restaurants around town where you can grab an over-sized burrito and some “queso sauce,” and believe me, I’m certainly not above that. But lately I’ve been finding myself craving some really authentic Latin food, and unfortunately, no such destination exists here in Lutherville.
The good news is, just a short drive away on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, I stumbled upon a little restaurant that took care of all my Latin cravings, and that restaurant was .
From outside, Mari Luna may not look like much with its very modest front façade and almost non-existent parking lot. Those diners who are deterred by Mari Luna’s appearance are missing out. Once inside, the restaurant opens into a very spacious and welcoming room with modern style red-on-black décor. There is also a large, fully stocked bar.
While I am raving about the hip and fun design of the restaurant, I will admit I was a bit worried that the swanky décor would mean pretentious and inauthentic food. Luckily, once the menu arrived, it was quite clear that I had nothing to worry about in that department.
From top to bottom, the menu at Mari Luna is a collection of authentic and very classic Latin dishes, all of which are prepared with the chef’s subtle modern interpretations. From simple classics such as the sopa de frijoles (black bean soup) or the vegetable paella to the more adventurous fare such as the cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style pork chop) or the ceviche de mariscos (Latin-style ceviche), Mari Luna’s kitchen offers a wide array of exciting options.
Before my actual food even arrived I was treated to yet another pleasant surprise.
My lovely and helpful bartender Judy offered a complimentary popover while I waited for my food. Now if you’ve never tried a popover, you're missing out. These light and fluffy pastries are the result of allowing a very thin, biscuit-like dough to rise in muffin tins until they are over-inflated, flakey balloons of goodness. Honestly, the popover at Mari Luna, served with a sweet herbed butter, is worth making the trip all by itself, and this is merely a side dish.
As for the real food, it only gets better.
I started with the black bean soup, which was rich and flavorful with an almost silky texture. Then, it was on to the ceviche. For me, perhaps the best thing to come out of the Top Chef/Food Network explosion of the last five years is that the stigma that the general public had for things like ceviche or tartare has now almost completely disappeared, and thus it is actually possible to find good ceviche without catching a flight south of the border.
My ceviche was a fresh mix of shrimp, scallops and tilapia, all dressed just right with lime juice and tossed with red onions and chiles. As full as I was, I finished the meal off with the Peruvian chicken, which was yet another juicy, boldly spiced and deeply flavored take on an old classic.
I’m always in the market to find something different, and the best discoveries for me are those places that offer a something different yet somehow familiar feel.
While Mari Luna seeks to offer that unique flare with items such as their popovers, or the practice of offering both a vegetable and a potato of the day, their mission is always to deliver classic flavors with a new and interesting take.
If you are simply in the mood for the same old chicken and bean burrito, go ahead and stick with the chains, but if you’re looking for some authentic Latin cuisine with a little excitement on the side, then get in your car and make the drive to Mari Luna.
You can follow restaurant reviewer Mike DiMarco and his foodie adventures on Twitter, here.
Editor's Note: You can read the review from Pikesville Patch .