With sharp, fresh flavors, as well as certain spices and textures, Latin American food finds a savory level of satisfaction that is very difficult to replicate.
As a former owner of a taco restaurant in Moscow, Idaho, I look at new places serving such food with great enthusiasm and curiosity. Seeing Mala Luna open this spring at 624 W. Idaho St., where Dharma was once located — Mala Luna is a Boise Fry Co. brainchild — made me thrilled to try it out.
Stepping into the new space, I was impressed by the total transformation from what used to be there. The room feels both moody and light, welcoming and exclusive, and classic with modern features.
My dining companion and I were informed upon getting seated that staff were in training that day and getting familiar with the new menu and bar listings. This showed when our waiter forgot our order and had to return to the table.
The menu, however, was easy to digest, not overly lengthy and broken down into simple sections. Mala Luna offers two variations of nachos, three kinds of Torta sandwiches, three choices of empanadas, a salad, and frybread tacos — on top of four sides and a plentiful drink menu. We decided to go with the Pork Torta, the Brisket Empanadas, the side salad and the Navajo Fry-Bread Tacos.
To drink we tried the house-made Mango Agua Fresca, as we sat street-side and watched Boise coming back to life, which was exactly what I wanted to see.
The empanadas were beautifully crispy, their little pillow pockets packing meaty flavor and featuring a sweet, mildly spicy and smoky afterglow. I easily could have had these alone as a meal. They were paired with a chimichurri sauce, which is a vinegar-based cilantro sauce that is spiced with a little jalapeno and shallot. It’s a perfect pairing. The herbaceous flavor of the cilantro in contrast with the richness of the brisket and green olive was honestly perfect.
The side salad was charred corn, greens, jicama, avocado and salty Cotija cheese, with an avocado crème dressing. It had a light and subtle flavor, but its crush and earthiness were a refreshing palate cleanser to the depth of the empanadas. We washed it down with the mango drink, which was sweet, refreshing and flavorful. It was a great start.
The next items coming out were the Pork Cochinita Torta and the tacos. The first thing that struck me about these dishes was the size — the portions were big! The sandwich packed a lot of bulk, possibly too much, as it had a hard time propping itself up. The filling was falling out of the sides, like the condiments dripping off a burger in an ad, and it was messy. Accepting the sloppiness and taking a bite, we noticed that the flavor was nice, with similar characteristics of the empanadas, but the meat was inconsistent and frankly distracting from the total presentation.
Some of the meat was tender and well-executed, for instance, but it was tainted by small chunks of gristle and fat that were unpleasant and disorienting. The grease in the sandwich was also a bit much, and while the cabbage slaw was a nice attempt to offset the heaviness of the dish, it didn’t quite hit the proper balancing mark. This sandwich has a lot of potential, but it’s not quite there yet.
The tacos were unfortunately in a similar category. The meat was inconsistent and almost an identical filling to the torta, except it had lettuce instead of a cabbage slaw. The black bean puree was a bit chunky and didn’t do any favors to the texture or flavor. The highlight was the shells themselves. They were soft and savory, really well done, light and salty. The amount of filling was again overwhelming, spilling out as we ate. I was disappointed, but also think there is potential in reforming the compilation with the given ingredients.
Overall, Mala Luna is worth a visit. It’s new, and every new restaurant has growing pains, from staff to food. The concept and vibe are worth welcoming to downtown Boise. It’s a fun menu — prices are $11-$12 for tortas, $8.50-$9.50 for empanadas, $12 for the tacos, $10 for our nachos — and I look forward to exploring the cocktail menu further, as well as finding dishes as good as the empanadas.
Amos Rothstein is a freelance restaurant reviewer for the Idaho Statesman.