Restaurant review: Starliner Diner

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Food still orbits around the sun and the moon on a whimsical, long-beloved mural. Star-shaped clocks still occupy a wall. And the mood is as rowdy and festive as ever. Most importantly, though, after changing addresses several weeks ago, Starliner Diner is still serving the same great, casual fare from the same great-priced menu.

Moving from the Cemetery Road strip mall it called home for 21 years to a picturesque street in Old Hilliard was a scenic upgrade for Starliner Diner. Another upgrade: patio seating. Otherwise, with all of its colorful paint, geegaws and laboriously transplanted murals in tow - and with a bigger kitchen to facilitate the consistently strong cooking - it's business as usual for this winningly eccentric diner renowned for big plates of soulful and accessible, Latin-tinged food.

Starliner also features a menu of margaritas; they're okay and fairly inexpensive ($7 to $8.50). Because they lack that rush of fresh lime juice that distinguishes really good margaritas, though, a cuisine-appropriate, $4 Mexican beer such as Pacifico, Negra Modelo or Dos Equis works at least as well.

And it makes an excellent partner for spicy starters such as Starliner's Chili Relleno ($5). A large, roasted and seeded poblano pepper encased in greaseless, deep-fried cornmeal batter is garnished with cilantro and served atop a tomato-based smoked chili sauce.

To cut into this crispy torpedo is to ogle a profusion of Monterey Jack cheese oozing out. When your fork is no longer useful, you might want to finish off any leftover sauce with a straw. Like many dishes here, this is wonderful comfort food with a kick.

Ditto for a meal-worthy bowl of the aptly named Starliner Chunky Chili ($7.75). Underneath a welcoming cap of melted cheese fused to sweet cornbread crumbles, you'll find rich and spicy Texas-style chili (stew meat, ground beef, no beans) so thick you can eat it with a fork. I know this because my greedy dining companion hogged the lone spoon at our table.

The romaine lettuce-based Vera Cruz Salad ($5), dressed with olive oil and fresh lime juice, proves Starliner doesn't need meat or cheese to create an interesting dish. With its sliced tomatillo and avocado plus diced tomato and cilantro, the refreshing salad is a riff on deconstructed guacamole.

I'm especially high on a recurring fish special: Cajun Walleye ($16). A zesty blackening spice mix livens - but doesn't overwhelm - a big, fresh-tasting fillet plated with flavorful, soupy black beans, white rice and a sautéed vegetable medley (corn, cauliflower, zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms and onions) that's memorably zippy from splashes of vinegar. The entree is fresh, filling, delicious and healthy. What more could you want?

Well, how about a classic Cuban Sandwich? Served with plump and sweet fried mature plantain nuggets, Starliner's straightforward "Media Noche" ($8) - sliced and griddled pork roast and ham steak, melted cheese, mustard and pickles on a toasted, suitably compressed hoagie roll - is as good as any version you'll find locally.

If you enjoy poultry with crackly bronzed skin, order the Cuban-style Roast Chicken ($12). The half bird, distinguished by a perky glaze of vinegar and sautéed onions, is served with a hunk of house-made Cuban bread and the usual suspects of side dishes: black beans, rice and fried plantains.

If you show up early (by 11 a.m. weekdays or by 3 p.m. on weekends), you can treat yourself to the Chilaquiles with chorizo and a half-and-half side of black beans and home fries ($9.25) - one of the best brunch dishes in the Columbus area. This enormous mélange of scrambled eggs, zingy sausage, sauteed vegetables, lightly fried tortilla chips, cheese and smoked chili sauce reminded me of that Starliner mural: The food is out of this world.

Starliner Diner

4121 Main St.,

Hilliard

614-529-1198

starlinerdiner.com