-- 3520 Lee Hwy., Arlington. 527-7276 Open: Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $5 to $6.50, entrees $7.50 to $9.50; dinner appetizers $6 to $9.50, entrees $10.50 to $17. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $25 to $35 per person.
ANITA'S VIENNA EAST
-- 521 E. Maple Ave., Vienna. 255-1001. Open: Sunday through Thursday 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Cash and personal checks. No reservations. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.95 to $3.95, entrees $5.25 to $14.95. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip $15 to $20 per person.
WHAT'S BEST?" WE ASKED the waiter at Pasquale. He shrugged.
"You're going to say it's all good, right?" we an- swered for him.
"Pretty good," he corrected us.
And he was right. The food at Pasquale is pretty good. The prices are pretty low. The dining room is pretty comfortable. And the service is very nice. They all add up to a beloved neighborhood restaurant.
Pasquale stands along Lee Highway, often with a full parking lot but otherwise nondescript. Inside are three dining rooms (sort of), one a long, narrow offshoot carved from a formerly large room to make space for the kitchen. There are white tablecloths and red silk roses, yet it is not a fancy place. Jeans will do, but you'll also feel welcome in a coat and tie.
The menu is predictable: veal milanese, parmigiana, francaise, piccata, marsala and saltimbocca; chicken breasts, shrimp, squid, lamb chops, steak and a couple of fish dishes, plus the usual pastas. While there are a few appetizers -- onion soup, hearts of palm, antipasti, clams casino -- the main-dish platters are so large that appetizers are irrelevant unless you want to take home enough leftovers to fill out your week.
What this restaurant specializes in is generosity. The bread basket is full -- and the bread is warm. The veal scaloppine covers the big oval plate, though it is heavily pounded and a little mushy. The lasagna spreads across a similar plate, and it is lasagna with admirably thin noodles -- but rather thin on flavor. The linguine with clams is factory-made noodles with clams from a can or freezer, but it looks like a pound of pasta and it is deliciously garlicky, buttery and peppery. Squid is better, squeaky fresh and ten- der in a brightly flavored tomato sauce. This is old-fashioned food, with the main dishes accompanied by spaghetti (chock-full of meat sauce or light, chunky tomato sauce) or a probably frozen vegetable. Only the manicotti and lasagna noodles are house-made, and the sauces are limited to tomato or garlic-butter, with one creamy seafood exception. The salad dressings are made in-house, either plain oil/vinegar/garlic or bright yellow with mustard, and the salad itself is iceberg lettuce with cucumbers -- nothing nouvelle here. But when's the last time you had filet of sole belle meuniere, the pure, clean taste of the fish sealed in by a light egg batter that absorbed the lemon butter, with lemony fresh mushrooms on the side? Never? Then you have missed the best of Pasquale.
SINCE ITS OPENING 16 YEARS AGO, Anita's has been a local miracle. A tiny Southwestern-style restaurant in what looked like an ex-doughnut shop, it served the most authentic New Mexican food ever seen around here. And while I held my breath with each expansion, it kept its quality for many years through the opening of several branches. Along the way, it slipped some -- I gradually found sopaipillas being served undercooked and the green chile sauce too watered down. But the basic quality held.
But now Anita's has six local locations, along with one in Santa Fe, N.M., and one in California, and things seem to have changed. Vienna East, its newest, is far from its doughnut-shop roots. It is a meaning-to-be-glamorous two-story restaurant with a plastic chain-restaurant feel, and amid the etched glass and framed Indian crafts are only three signs of rusticity: three scruffy handwritten notices forbidding reservations, credit cards and personal telephone calls.
What's worse, the food tastes like slightly up-market Taco Bell. Chain-restaurant cooking. To its credit, the chips are fine -- thin, crisp, fresh and plentiful. And the salsa, a near-liquid with a few strands of tomato and some onion, is hot, hot, hot -- not the best, not fresh and chunky, but certainly okay. But from there on, the cooking at Anita's new restaurant tastes definitely east-of-the-border.
The chile con queso is a tiny bowl brimming with pale melted cheese, only faintly peppery. If I had to guess the recipe, I would say to mix some processed cheese with flour to stretch it and add a dash of pepper. The guacamole is chunky and fresh, made from ripe avocados and a bit of tomato and onion, spooned into a small, crisp tortilla cup and topped with about five shreds of yellow cheese. It's barely seasoned, no threat to any palate.
Anita's advertisements boast that "every restaurant review written about Anita's has applauded" its carne adovada. And mine was among them. But note the past tense. At Anita's Vienna East, this marinated pork braised in red chile sauce is still tender and falls into shreds at the touch of a fork, but it hasn't the old intensity and punch. The sauce tastes of powdery spices, its character weakened.
Still, it makes a generous and reasonably good stuffing for a burrito, and the burritos would be fine if not for their sauce. They are aswim in watery red sauce that is more watery than red. Ditto for the green sauce. The chile relleno is worse. The whole green chile itself is bland, and it is stuffed with tasteless cheese (remember the chile con queso?). Furthermore, it is coated with a faintly sweet, dense and gummy fried armor that tastes uncannily like doughnut batter.
My waiter recommended the fajitas, and I could see why. Though the meat is chewy, it is flavorful beef, faintly vinegary from its marinade. And the serving is plentiful. But its accompaniments are timid, so that nobody needs to feel in danger of being attacked by a stray chile. Even the refried beans taste so watered down that people who shy away from beans need not worry.
Meals are followed by pallid, heavy sopaipillas. A beige ending.
Anita's has a bright veneer. Service has a have-a-nice-day kind of cheer, though it reflects activity more than attention. Busboys snatch your plate as soon as you put down your fork, but it is hard to catch the eye of a waiter.
You can tell a lot about a Southwestern restaurant from its margaritas. At the new Anita's, they look like lime Jell-O.