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Friday, November 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

Hats off to the margaritas

Special to The Seattle Times

El Sombrero


4868 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-725-1418

Mexican

$$

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 3-10 p.m. Sundays.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, D, MC, V / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

Rating: recommended.

Part of me couldn't wait to review El Sombrero, the newest Mexican restaurant in my neck of Columbia City. I love the vivid red space, late the dear departed Deux Tamales, chopped into two halves to separate the lively bar from the family restaurant.

I love the family emphasis, right down to the color crayons, cheapo kids menu, free soft-drink refills and an incredibly patient waitstaff. It helps to compensate for the neighborhood pub down the street that doesn't allow children, the popular new neighborhood pizzeria that takes too long to seat them, and the neighborhood Ethiopian place that we just keep dreaming will one day appeal to them.

I love the bar, which dispenses margaritas of every conceivable species (order yours macho, Cadillac, ultimate, with a premium tequila, blended, on the rocks, in a strawberry flavor, or kiwi, or fresh mango), and does so with a confident hand.

Mostly I love the confluence of all these factors, which provides an effervescent setting for the impromptu neighborhood gatherings that make urban living so invigorating.

Now I just wish I loved the food.

Make no mistake — it's a solid "all right," from the quesadilla-and-nacho genus of appetizers to the soups, salads and tostadas, burritos, tacos, enchiladas, combos and specialty items (camarones, fajitas, arroz con pollo, you get the drift).

But, just as there's not a single surprise on the menu, there does not appear to be a wow in the house. Plenty is quite tasty enough — a designation that certainly fills the tummy and satisfies the young 'uns.

But asked to specify how this place differs from (insert name of standby Mexican restaurant here), you might scratch your head a minute before concluding that it doesn't: The menu is predictably vast, the food unremarkably tasty, the setting bountifully convivial and the prices commensurate with — or are perhaps a touch higher than — the type (about $6-$11 per entree).

Enough of the incidentals are in place to draw me back, which explains the "recommended" rating at left. But only you can decide whether that constitutes a recommendation for you.

Check please:

Vegetarian quesadilla: There's a way to do a potato quesadilla that's brisk and appealing, but this isn't it. The potatoes were overcooked and mushy, with cheese and tomatoes as the only cooked-in counterpoints. (Lettuce, green onions, sour cream, pico de gallo and mellow guacamole appeared on the side.) Yawn.

Fajita taco salad: The regular size was admirably large, with shredded lettuce all tossed up with rice, whole beans and sautéed chicken, onions and peppers in one of those fat-bomb tortilla shells that resembles a Jackie O pillbox hat. A satisfying graze to be sure, but not an inspired one.

Chicken fajitas: The chicken pieces were tenderly cooked, wafting low levels of compellingly savory flavor, grilled up with peppers and onions. But nothing rose above standard, and the tortillas were too gummy.

Cuervo margarita: Did I say there's not a wow in the house? Let me rephrase that: My blended Cuervo margarita was a sure-handed winner. Next time I don't have to be anywhere for the next three or four days, I'll try the Macho Margarita, which comes in a goblet the size of my child's head.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Vegetarian quesadilla (large) $6.50

Fajita taco salad (regular) $7.95

Chicken fajitas $11.95

Cuervo margarita $6.00

Tax $2.85

Total$35.25

Kathryn Robinson: kathrynrobinson@speakeasy.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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