By Suzanne Parker
Thanks to the insistent connections of inscrutable internet logic, my attention has recently been driven to a constellation of articles about cultural appropriation as it relates to food. Are we really stealing something when mainstream cuisine adopts and adapts the foodways of ethnic cultures?
Oh, puh-leez! You want your abuela’s taco recipe to remain a secret? Then don’t let anyone into your kitchen and demand a non-disclosure agreement from anyone you feed. I would submit that culinary cross-pollination is as inevitable as evolution. I view this most multi-cultural of all boroughs as a giant potluck that we are all invited to enjoy, embrace and make our own. Don’t bother me with accusations of culinary imperialism.
It was with these issues percolating around my psyche that I found myself at Lunera, a new Steinway Street eatery in Astoria billing itself as “Modern Mexican.” Carrot-topped owner Rossa Quinn is a long way from his native Tipperary, Ireland. His appreciation for Mexican food developed from his travels through Central America, and he teamed up with Jose Ignacio Sanchez, the executive chef at the Spanish Embassy, to realize his vision.
Lunera’s space is a sophisticated gut-renovation featuring exposed brick and weathered wood with an array of illuminated nooks displaying Mexican masks. Very tasteful, nothing garish. The bar occupies much of the real estate — and not without good reason.
Lunera is as much a Mexican-themed bar as it is a restaurant. It offers no less than seven types of margaritas, as well as some specialty cocktails, and a nice selection of wines and brews. Its appetizer and small-plate offerings are perfect for an evening of nibbling and imbibing.
We started our visit with one of their admirable house margaritas — not too sweet, but with a definite wallop. Gratis salsa arrived, appealingly presented in a small molcajete bowl with both tortilla and plantain chips. We have one criticism, which was a harbinger of things to come. Where’s the heat? The salsa was fresh and pleasant, but lacked the expected piquancy.
The standout of our small plates was the Olive Mini Pancake. The pancake was buried under a stack of avocado slices, five plump supine bocarones (white anchovies), topped with chopped tomatoes bisected by what appeared to be an Italian pepper and strewn with bits of olive. There was a lot going on there, all of it good.
Our other two small items were both deep fried. Hard to go wrong with deep-fried tidbits. We’ve long believed that even dryer lint would be palatable prepared this way. Still, our Serrano ham croquettes, were delightfully crunchy on the outside and pleasantly gooey within, studded with bits of that luxury ham and accompanied by a lush chipotle aioli for added richness. Deep-fried Empanadas Tinga encased that Pueblan chicken classic. All of the above were worthy hors d’oeuvres, but lacked the signature zest normally associated with Mexican cuisine.
Lechon al horno is a braised pork shank astride a mound of jalapeno mashed potatoes, sauced with mushroom mole. A stern glance could have separated this tender pork from the bone. The mole sauce and mash were a delicious combination, but no heat from the aforementioned jalapenos was evident.
Two versions of paella are featured on Lunera’s menu—seafood or meat. The meat version was tempting, with the inclusion of skirt steak along with chorizo, chicken and pork belly. But since we were already porking it up with the Lechon, we opted instead for seafood.
The seafood paella, adequate for two not-too-voracious diners, seemed to abandon any pretense of being Mexican. Two of the main ingredients, saffron and green mojo, are associated with Spanish cuisine. Saffron is usually omitted from Mexican Paella, and green mojo is an innovation of the Canary Islands. But that didn’t in any way diminish its deliciousness. Amidst the abundant seafood, petite medallions of tender-chewy octopus stood out. The creamy risotto-like rice had those crunchy bits on the bottom that paella cognoscenti love.
The Bottom Line
Although Queens is celebrated for the authenticity of its ethnic food scene, there is nothing wrong with innovation. At Lunera, an ethnic cuisine usually associated with homey, casual dining has been given an upscale spin, and for a very affordable price. Let go of any purist expectations of Mexican cuisine, and there’s a lot to love here.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfo
If you go
Lunera Modern Mexican
3225 Steinway St
Astoria, NY 11103
Price Range: Small plates: $8–14
Cuisine: Modern Mexican
Setting: Small, chic restaurant with bar dominating space
Service: Professional, attentive.
Hours: Sun.—Thurs., 12:00—11:00 p.m., Fri., Sat: 12:00—12:00 p.m.
Alcohol: Full bar
Music: DJ at night
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Noisier later