As a born and raised Carroll County resident, I’ve tried a lot of restaurants over the years, and watched with interest as new places have popped up, our food scene has become slightly more adventurous, and some of my favorite spots have withstood the test of time.
So imagine my excitement when a new Mexican restaurant opened up just down the street in Hampstead!
If you’re new to Grit & Banter, you haven’t yet heard me wax poetic over guacamole and #ShireMargs (my family’s secret, infamous, margarita recipe), but you will. Suffice it to say, it’s hard for a Mexican restaurant to impress me.
LunaZul sits in Illiano Plaza II, right next to Hoffman’s Ice Cream (always an acceptable dinner choice in my book), off of Main Street in Hampstead. It opened in early January, and until early March, didn’t have a website, or even have a noticeable sign out front, just a small chalk board propped up in the window.
But despite its lack of advertising, LunaZul had been recommended to me so many times that I figured I’d finally give it a try . . . and another . . . and another . . . and another, because while my new guac stop set the bar pretty high right out of the gate, it’s improved every time I’ve been back.
The restaurant’s interior is relatively chic for a strip of store fronts in Hampstead, with more detail devoted to its decor than I’ve seen in most Carroll County spots. Exposed beams, single lightbulbs hung at varying levels, dark floors, white brick accent walls (one complete with faux window vignettes and the other with the LunaZul logo), and a wood-paneled wall behind the tiny bar help to make the small space seem larger.
But while ambiance is always nice, it’s LunaZul’s food that keeps bringing me back. It’s not your standard mass-produced Mexican food; rather, it’s fresh, authentic, and jam-packed with flavor.
My first visit was both hit-and-miss. The guac was sort of boring, but the house-made chips were perfect: crisp, salty, and not at all greasy. The margarita was weak, but my entree, the Mi Pueblo, blew my mind. (Cecina, carnitas, grilled chicken, rice, queso fresco, with salsa verde and tortillas.)
By my third visit, the guac was flavorful, the chips were still addictive, the marg was noticeably stronger, and the Seafood Molcajete (grilled shrimp, scallops, fish, queso fresco, salsa diabla, nopales, cheese quesadilla) was almost perfect. I thought the fish was a tiny bit dry, but to be fair, we snuck in at the very end of a very busy night, and the perfectly-spiced diabla sauce more than compensated.
On other visits I fell in love with the shrimp taco and the empanada (think comfort food, Mexican style), and finally got around to trying the Chile en Nogada (a poblano pepper stuffed with: ground beef, pineapple, raisins, peach, nuts and tomatoes, and topped with a cold, creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds). My various dining companions have raved about the gordita, burro fajita, various enchilladas, the Birria de Borrego (slow-cooked lamb in a special guajillo sauce with rice, spicy salsa, onions, cilantro, lime and tortillas), and the homemade tres leches cake.
Typically I think that all new restaurants have a “growing pains” phase and that it’s wise to give them time to find their groove. In the case of LunaZul (which, may I remind you, has only been open for 4 months!!!), I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly they seem to be tweaking their service and food, and am confident that with time they will further refine things. I’m even more thrilled with the variety of interesting dishes on the menu, and look forward to slowly (or not-so-slowly) working my way through the extensive choices.
In summary: I haven’t had authentic Mexican food this good since I was in San Francisco, (a foodie city that I happily ate my way through), and I would highly encourage all my local foodie friends to go support this genuinely delicious small business. Guac and margs forever!
*Main image is stock photo from Pexels.com, other images are my own, taken at LunaZul