By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Since opening nearly 15 years ago in San Diego’s Torrey Highland area, Luna Grill has sizzled into more than a dozen locations within the county, including Hillcrest and Mission Valley. Then, in a blink of an eye, the mom-and-pop kebabery became a giant, extending its vaguely defined “near East and Mediterranean” fast-casual cuisine into regions throughout Southern California and Texas.
The food is outstandingly clean and flavorful — a mishmash of Greek-Lebanese-Persian dishes using meat and produce mostly free of hormones, antibiotics, GMOs and preservatives. The icing on the cake is an energized staff of full-thinking employees who defy today’s breezy approach to service.
Based on visits to the Hillcrest and Mission Valley outlets, the workers pretty much knew what elements go into certain meat marinades (oregano, turmeric, onions and nearly a dozen others), and how the meats essentially cook from the inside out (on metal skewers that turn blistering hot when placed over low flames).
Lately it seems that someone in the operation possesses a keen eye for capable, trainable employees of whom the company refers to on its website as “LUNAtics.”
I also learned from them that the long-grain basmati rice undergoes extensive de-starching in a process that takes 24 hours to complete — hence its uber-fluffy consistency.
And if you’re wondering about those mini cupcakes and baklava bites sitting prettily in display cases at the order counter, they’re sourced from The Cheesecake Factory and Baklava King.
Arabic-style drop lighting aesthetically matches decorative red chairs that cry for seat cushions. Professional food photography adorns the walls, adding a sleek and modern feel to the design, assuring that what you’re about to eat doesn’t fall into the category of junk food.
And that’s the real comfort factor here — not to mention that the menu affords you calorie counts for every dish.
Waves of mint, parsley and lemon spring forth in quinoa tabbouleh. It’s a nourishing, wholesome belly filler that subdues your inner wolf toward whatever meat is about to come.
Ditto for velvety organic hummus (spicy or plain), lentil or lemon-chicken soup, or a variety of snazzy salads such as apple-walnut with pomegranate vinaigrette. In a recent visit, an organic spinach salad — easily shareable — came out with liberal measures of crumbled feta.
Red meat cravings are better sated by the Halal lamb or beef filet kebab. The latter was deeply charred, yet juicy and delicious. Skip the ground-sirloin option unless a train of densely packed ground meat with fewer seasonings is what you prefer.
All of the proteins are de-skewered moments before they’re plated, including the bone-in Cornish game kebab, which in two separate encounters left me wishing for more. I’m also a stickler for the chicken because the boneless, skinless breast meat offers above-normal succulence, herby undertones and decent bang for the buck.
The kebab plates come with small house salads, basmati rice, warm pita bread, cooling cucumber-yogurt dip, and sliced carrots or a grilled tomato. The latter never disappoints.
Super-strength garlic dip is free for the asking. It’s similar to the Turkish versions I’ve had in Europe that almost burn your tongue if you dab more than a bead of it onto your food.
Other dishes include stuffed grape leaves; gyros, salmon or vegetable kebabs; various wraps; a grass-fed burger; and two different bowls: beet or gyros, layered with feta and veggies.
Luna Grill recently reinstated happy hour after discontinuing it a few years back. It’s held from 3 to 6 p.m. on Monday through Friday. Beer and wine by the glass are $5, and appetizers are $1 off.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.