In a town not particularly known for a surplus of truly great Mexican restaurants, Jaime Luna and his family basically changed the landscape in the mid-2000s with not one but two wildly successful (and deservedly so) venues in Pikesville—the original hole-in-the-wall gem, Mari Luna Mexican Grill, and its more upscale (and more Pan-American) sister a bit farther down the road, Mari Luna Latin Grill.
City dwellers (like me) who craved Luna's winning combination of authentic Mexican food, friendly service, and rock-bottom prices made the trek to the 'burbs but secretly longed for a neighborhood Mexican place that wouldn't require a spin on the Beltway. Well, sometimes wishes do come true.
The family's newest venture, Mari Luna Bistro, is city chic and situated in the space longtime Baltimoreans will remember as Spike & Charlie's (and more recently, Robert Oliver), just a short trot from the Meyerhoff and Mt. Vernon. Even better, it's terrific.
Unlike a true (as in small and cozy) bistro, Mari Luna is a commodious space shot with primary colors of yellow, orange, red, and deep blue, where an upper tier of tables overlooks a large, sunken dining room. The bistro designation applies more aptly to the sensibility: Casual but sophisticated, this is a place where well-dressed symphony patrons mingle easily with drop-in diners in jeans.
And if "bistro" connotes home-style food prepared simply but well, this new Mari Luna fits the bill. Chef Luna's extensive menu borrows from both Pikesville outposts, with an emphasis on Mexican standards—think tacos, enchiladas, burritos, fajitas et al.—prepared with fresh ingredients and infinite care. If you think it's impossible to get excited by a simple taco, you need to taste Luna's elegant house-made corn tortillas piled with, say, red snapper nipped with the sweet heat of aji amarillo (a Peruvian yellow pepper sauce) and tart pico de gallo, or meltingly tender shredded pork marinated in pineapple-studded guajillo chile sauce.
In the same vein, the bistro's guacamole bar will make you rethink your relationship to the ubiquitous dip. There are seven varieties here, prepared and served in the traditional molcajete, and my new goal in life is to make my way through all seven.
One night, a friend and I sipped fine house margaritas, sampling the Puebla version (roughly mashed avocado, leeks, poblanos, tomatillos, onion, and cilantro) with the assistance of some fresh, warm, and salty tortilla chips. We decided there could be no more luscious iteration of guacamole, but that was before we tasted the Veracruz, where chunks of mango, papaya, and pomegranate seeds slip their way around the avocado. Two down and five to go . . .
Big portions are the rule for the entrees themselves. I had to pack up half my free-range pollo en mole one night, even though the mole sauce was complex and irresistible, with an addictively subtle fire.
Other standout entrees include an excellent cordero Jalisco, a lamb shank braised in cascabel chile sauce, and a splendidly garlicky skirt steak sided with what the menu dubs chimichurri, but which is smoother and thicker than the traditional Argentine condiment. But why nitpick? It was good.
Over two visits, I didn't taste anything that was less than exemplary, with the exception of a flan whose texture was a bit too pasty. Another dessert, a version of tres leches with chocolate sponge cake, made up for that glitch. Service here is prompt, knowledgeable, and professional.
I have only one suggestion to improve the chances that Mari Luna Bistro will attract customers beyond the inevitable seasonal ebb and flow of the symphony and theatre crowd: valet parking, preferably free. This venue deserves a fan base as strong and loyal as its sister restaurants, and the management should do whatever it can to make access easy. Until then, I'm doing my best to spread the word. Even if you have to trawl for a parking space, the city version of Mari Luna is well worth the effort.