Eats: The sun rises on Casa Del Luna

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Recently I ducked into the Mexican restaurant that opened in the old Margarita’s space at the Lewiston Mall back in November. I hoped that filling up on spicy food would warm me from the inside out on such a wet, wintry night. It turned out Casa Del Luna was just the ticket.

General Manager Chuck Smith and his friendly, accommodating staff were on hand to serve me their very own version of deliciousness, including two popular appetizers nestled in fried tortilla “cups,” my first-ever plate of fish tacos (a clever way to introduce Mainers to Mexican food) and an incredible dessert that actually made me swoon. (I shouldn’t admit it, but I gobbled down the gooey peanut-butter-and-chocolate chimichanga rolled in cinnamon sugar and dipped in caramel sauce in between the appetizers and entree.)

Smith, who was born in Lewiston and raised in Lisbon, is a self-made entrepreneur who started in the biz when he was just a mere pup. At the age of 15, he could be found serving customers at The Settlement, a well-known family diner in Sabattus, where he now resides. All the while he kept an eye on what was going on in the kitchen, wondering what it would be like to prep and cook.

With the exception of a brief stint at Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., Smith’s rising star stayed the course at Margarita’s, which relocated to Center Street in Auburn in 2007, where he admits he had his “baptism by fire.” “I was young and made a lot of mistakes. It was kind of like ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ and it certainly made me more humble,” he said.

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During that time, he had the opportunity to work alongside Marvin Merryman, now Casa Del Luna’s kitchen manager. The two pals were more than thrilled to join forces with Smith’s sister, Trina Turgeon, most recently of Lewiston’s Pedro O’Hara’s. When Turgeon came up with the idea of creating new digs for the three of them to showcase their hospitality and cooking talents, as well as liven up the Lewiston Mall with a bit of a Tex-Mex kick, Smith made the decision to go for it.

Every item on the menu is from original recipes developed for the restaurant by Smith and his team, which includes Merryman, Becky Holden and Josh Ward, among others.

“We just started out with a blank piece of paper and now we’re serving the results. Josh and I experimented for 12 straight hours one day,” said Smith. “We made the best memories! The entire staff brought forth ideas. Then we took the best from everyone here.

“Marvin and I not only have a history, but he’s one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever met; he’s just exploding with ideas. When we collaborate, interesting things come out.”

Traditional flavors such as garlic, cumin, chili powder and cilantro are found in the dishes offered at Casa Del Luna, but each is given its own nontraditional flair. For instance, the fish tacos consist of two crispy cod filets wrapped in grilled white corn tortillas, topped with homemade chipotle-adobo mayonnaise and corn and black bean salsa, then finished with shredded red cabbage for extra crunch.

Another popular dish served at Casa Del Luna is the empanadas, which Smith describes as a “Mexican hot pocket.” Stuffed with Angus ground beef, cheese and jalapenos, the flour tortillas are sealed shut and fried, then served with warm, creamy queso sauce.

Along with enchiladas, tacos, chimichangas and other south-of-the-border fare are eight varieties of fajitas. And there are burgers, steak, chicken tenders and wings for the less adventurous. A children’s menu offers eight entrees that include a drink, side and scoop of fried ice cream for $4.99.

On this page, Smith offers some recipes to tide you over until you can get to Casa Del Luna for the full treatment. When you show up, tell him I sent you. Just don’t forget to save room for that peanut-butter-and-chocolate chimichanga — or you could just go ahead and eat it first. We won’t tell.

Recipes

Queso dip

8-10 servings

12 ounces softened cream cheese

3 cups sour cream

1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

4 cups salsa

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Heat in the microwave or with a double-boiler until cheese is melted into other ingredients. Serve warm with tortilla chips. Keep any leftovers refrigerated. Will keep approximately six days.

Corn and black bean salsa

8-10 servings

4 cups fresh or frozen corn

3 cups rinsed and drained black beans

1 cup finely diced green pepper

1 cup finely diced red pepper

1 cup finely diced red onion

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

4 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon jalapeno pepper

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Keep refrigerated. Will keep up to four days.

Chicken seasoning

4-6 servings

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon garlic powder

In a bowl combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Pat dry 2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken with paper towels and cut into half-inch cubes. Place in a baking pan, rub chicken with olive oil then coat pieces with seasoning. Bake for 15 minutes or until done. Use in tacos or to top a salad.

838 Lisbon St., adjacent to Save-A-Lot in the Lewiston Mall

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.

For information and reservations call 241-0711.

On the web at www.casadellunamaine.com.

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