Luna Maya — Don’t Call It Tex-Mex (Grade: A-)

UPDATED (April 2012)

Boliv-Mex might be a more accurate description for this strip-mall spot in Norfolk. When I originally reviewed this restaurant back in, oh, 2010 or so, I wrote:  “If you’re looking for either Mexican food or Tex-Mex, you should just plan on being disappointed, because Luna Maya is neither of those things. If you go with an open mind, however, you’ll have a great time.”

At the time, Luna Maya was kind of conflicted between its Bolivian roots and, well, with what sells in southern Virginia.  And what tends to sell is lousy Tex-Mex.

Since then, however, Luna Maya moved into a new, (much) bigger place and revamped their menu so that it’s shot through with modern nuevo Mexican fare like the taquitos campesinos (it comes with a garlic guajillo sauce — need I say more?) and riffs on traditional Mexican dishes like the gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic butter) and tacos carnitas.  So, to be fair, Luna Maya has moved in a much more distinctly interior Mexican direction … and that is always welcome, in my book.  So much so that I bumped them up from a B+ to an A-.

Luna Maya is a restaurant run by Bolivian sisters, and while it draws on Mexican and Tex-Mex influences, it really has its own identity. I’ve never been to Bolivia, but the intertoobs, as invented by Sen. Ted Stevens, tells me Luna Maya isn’t exactly serving typico Bolivian fare. I have been to Mexico, and I’ve spent more than enough of my life in Texas, and they aren’t serving Luna Maya’s cuisine in either of those places, so, yeah, focus on that whole “open mind” thing. Think chili powder, smoky habanero, black beans and sweet corn, and you’ll get a general sense of the menu.

Luna Maya’s old space was a small boxy room that could be turned into a Nine West store with nothing more than a coat of peach-colored paint. To tart the cramped room up, it had been painted in a jarringly bright orange, filled it with hipster-friendly 70s-style furniture, and cranked the lights down to “nearly off.”

The new joint?  It’s none of that.  It’s got more of a cool modern groove than just about anyplace in Hampton Roads I’ve been to.  Ever been to any of the Thievery Corporation joints in DC (Local 16, 18th Street Lounge, Marvin)?  It’s like that, but without the nightclub.  If you’re one of those poor souls who haven’t been there, just think high ceilings, simple chandeliers, tall mirrors, exposed brick walls and warm vintage incandescent light bulbs.  In a word, it’s cool.

Luna Maya is a popular place — plan on waiting 30-45 minutes for a table on the weekends (they don’t take reservations). The bar itself will be full of folks eating their dinner there, so you’ll get to have your pre-dinner drink standing in the vicinity of the bar, which is pretty much means you’ll be shuffling around to get out of the way of the waitstaff, new patrons, the host/hostess, people who are waiting for a table but don’t want a pre-dinner drink … you get the picture. I have no problem standing around having a drink or two, but your mileage may vary.

And those drinks? Let’s say “inconsistent” is the appropriate adjective. On one visit, the margaritas were tasty, but weak. They’re served in pint glasses, so essentially a shot of tequila plus loads of mix. One visit had thin, mix-heavy drinks. On another, the “gold margarita” was a boozy knockout. Overall, I would say don’t worry about the upscale “top shelf” margarita with premium tequilas at $13. By the time you’ve thrown that much mix at the tequila, you’re not going to be able to taste the tequila, whether it’s Cuervo or Herradura. So, bottom line, go with the cheaper margaritas – there’s not much difference between it and the more expensive versions tastewise (unless you hate tequila, then buy the most expensive one and spend the evening asking yourself why you ordered a margarita in the first place).

They also offer the regrettably named “margatini.” Don’t be fooled, this isn’t the olive-juice spiked Mexican martini that’s the stiff staple at bars across Austin. Instead, it’s a shaken margarita with an orange-based sour mix, poured into a chipotle-salt rimmed martini glass. The chipotle salt bears a word here: this stuff is not for the faint of heart. Chipotles themselves – smoked jalepenos – have more than enough concentrated heat to spare, and all that heat is represented in this salt. A lick of the salt is sort of like tazing your tastebuds. Your eyes will open wide (if not bug out), you’ll suck in a quick breath, and you’ll start guzzling the drink to stifle the heat. If you’re not a bona fide chile head, I recommend asking the barkeep to rim only half the glass. The drink itself is great. The problem is you won’t taste much beyond the salt.

Since my last visit, Luna Maya ramped up their drink menu and incorporated one of the great dark horses of the tequila world:  Espolon.  More importantly, they’ve concocted the passionfruit-infused “Margatini Espolon,” which — as goofy as it sounds — tastes really, really great.

Luna Maya (still) takes a significant hit with its chips and salsa. My view is that chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants should be free and plentiful. I mean, every restaurant in Texas can’t be wrong, right? At Luna Maya, the guacamole appetizer is seven bucks (a side of guacamole, however, is only three). This gets you a healthy serving of fantastic, freshly made garlic-infused guacamole. Hats off to Luna Maya there. But the guacamole comes in a dish that is basically three bowls linked together. Guacamole on one side, salsa on the other, chips in the middle. The salsa is an awesome smoky chipotle sauce made with roasted tomatoes. The center bowl holds the chips. Sounds great, right? It would be if you got more than a third of a cup of salsa (on my first visit, it was more like a couple tablespoons). There’s no excuse for charging the prices Luna Maya does for their salsa, especially when they’re serving store-bought chips. So note to the kitchen: if you’re going to charge four bucks for your chips and salsa, you need to: 1) offer bottomless bowls of both, and 2) start frying your own chips.

The Bolivian dishes are good, but you figure out pretty quickly why you don’t have Bolivian take-out joints on every street corner. It’s kind of an acquired taste. Case in point: the original tamale. Yes, it shows up in a corn husk like every other tamale you’ve seen come out of Mexico, but it’s filled with a sweet corn stuffing. And that sweet corn stuffing rocks. But it’s sweet. Damn sweet. Overpoweringly, almost cloyingly sweet. The Salvadorans know enough to serve you a simple tamal el elote – a sweet corn tamale with nothing more than some sour cream on the side. The Bolivians (at least those at Luna Maya, anyway) use the sweet corn tamale as a base to throw a bunch of other things at: chicken, cheese, mushrooms, well – you get the picture. And the flavor of those other things? Completely wiped out by the sweetness of the corn. As in, might as well not be there at all. If you’re cool with having dessert for dinner, this dish is for you. If you’re looking for something a little more savory, you need to explore some other corner of the menu.

Case in point #2: the spicy shrimp tacos. Here you get a bowl of shrimp and onions cooked in a pretty tasty, mildly spicy, chile-based sauce. It comes with about a tablespoon of guacamole, and maybe a tablespoon and a half of pico de gallo. You also get three or four flour tortillas that were plainly made off-site. Let’s pause here. Flour tortillas? Flour? For purportedly authentic Central American tacos? We should have at least been given the option of corn tortillas. And not homemade? This just makes me sad.

Anyway, the spicy shrimp tacos are pretty good. Not stop-the-presses great, but pretty good. Actually, what was most interesting on the plate were the black beans that were pushed off to the back as sort of an afterthought sidedish. Rich, smoky and decadent, the beans were some of the best I’ve had. The beans alone are worth going to the restaurant.

Some dishes, on the other hand, are simply fantastic for what they are. For example, the burrito con rajas, which is billed as containing “spicy pork chorizo, roasted poblano chiles, rice, beans, caramelized onions, and chipotle sour cream” shows up looking like a food-cart crepe, the burrito’s contents spilling out onto the plate. The chorizo is a spicy hard sausage (not the crumbly Mexican variety), which is an unexpected find in the middle of a burrito. But it tastes great. The spiciness of the chorizo and the chipotle is the perfect foil for the sweet and starchy flavors in the rest of the burrito. The dish is awesome. You won’t find it at Taco Bell, Chipotle or Baja Fresh … but that’s kind of the point. If you aren’t willing to say, “Gosh, maybe there’s more to life than ‘fire sauce,'” then Luna Maya isn’t for you.

Service at Luna Maya is affable, tattooed, and somewhat clueless. An order for chips and salsa at the bar went the way of Newt Gingrich’s political career. When I pointed out the omission to the bartender and asked to upgrade the order to the seven-dollar guacamole dish, she didn’t bother to acknowledge she’d completely dropped the ball on the original order. Later on, a caipirinha ordered from the table quickly went M.I.A. Once confronted with the omission, the waiter promptly blamed the barkeep and surfaced with the missing drink about ten seconds later. The waiter came by later to offer up another drink that the bartender “made by mistake,” which I guess is sort of laudable. Kind of hard to tell – making up for an obvious omission by trying to pawn of an errant beverage? I know it’s a free drink, but really?

Bottom line: Luna Maya is energetic, fun and tasty. It’s rough around the edges and will confuse those looking for Mexican or Tex-Mex fare, but if you go there open-minded (and tongued), my money is that you’ll love it.

Grade: A-
Address: 2010 Colley Avenue, Norfolk
Phone: (757) 622-6986

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