A Mexican restaurant like Luna de Juarez seemed to us to be a bit of a tough sell at first. Not that there's a dearth of folks with an appetite for the cuisine, in Astoria -- 28 percent of the residents self-identify as Hispanic, and many of those are Mexican. But in a part of the neighborhood that's largely Balkan and Middle Eastern, a Mexican place seems oddly out of place (no one is smoking a hookah inside) and its somewhat more upscale offerings (compared with the taquerías that line several avenues south of 30th) make it a would-be destination spot, only it's not centrally located to anything -- it's a bit of a hike from the subway. And when we first walked by, the prominent bar was brightly lit, making it appear more like a sports bar than a date-friendly nook.
But when we went there one Thursday evening, the lights were dimmed, giving the light ochre walls a gentle glow, and it was clear that couples of Astoria had taken to the restaurant -- seven pairs were scattered about, with no families to be found. It wasn't exactly romantic, nor did it evoke the moonlight of Juarez, but everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, and we followed suit.
The waiter recommended the New York strip steak, but we wanted something a little more...Mexican (the menu also features spaghetti -- we suppose they wanted to cover all bases), so we went with the steak fajita and enchiladas suizas. The enchiladas were made with good Mexican farmer's cheese (not cheddar, thank goodness) and had a mild green tomatillo sauce that was flavorful if not spicy. The fajitas are Tex-Mex, of course, a term that's frequently accompanied by the wrinkled, upturned nose of a foodie. But as a "native foreign food," as termed by noted food writer Waverley Root, it's a legitimate cuisine that can tastily exist outside of Chili's. We didn't expect to find it at a local restaurant in Astoria, but we're glad we did -- the peppers hit the crispy-tender spot that they should, the marinated steak was juicy and flavorful, and it was all encased with lovingly foil-wrapped flour tortillas. (We admit to being a bit disappointed that it didn't arrive sizzling, a la Chili's.)
Our mildly confused waiter bumbling with the menu matched the mood of the restaurant: a bit unsure of its choices, trying to hit the balance between casual-fine dining and down-home service. Like the neighborhood as a whole, Luna de Juarez is in flux between rooted but growing ethnic communities and a sudden surge of diners who want oversized margaritas along with their "authentic" cuisine. The opening and apparent thriving of Mojave near Ditmars, an offshoot of Agave in the West Village, shows that there's room for the latter. Luna de Juarez may be trying to supply a bridge between dining styles that no one was particularly looking to cross, but we wish it the best.
Price: Around $15 for entrees
Will we go again? We immediately said we would—and haven't thought of it since. Maybe.