El Golfo Restaurant

8739 Flower Ave. (near Piney Branch Road),

Silver Spring. 301-608-2122

Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $2.95 to $8.95, entrees $7.95 to $15.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $25 per person.

They look a little homesick, the four young guys sitting at a nearby table at El Golfo. Of the many Latin American restaurants they could have picked nearby, I'm curious why they've chosen this place to gather for a late lunch on a recent Sunday.

Is it the shy smiles and quiet efficiency of the women who bring them their meals? The husk-wrapped tamales, rich with corn and soft as custard? Surely the mood here must be part of the draw: a soundtrack of love songs interwoven with more festive scores, and fellow diners -- young couples, small families -- almost all conversing in Spanish.

The scene has played this way at this address for a while now, first when the restaurant was called El Tazumal, after a Mayan pyramid, and for the last four months as El Golfo, after the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout, the ownership has stayed the same: Jose Perez, who also owns El Mariachi in Rockville and Mexicali Cantina in Frederick, switched the name after changing the Salvadoran-Mexican menu to include more seafood items and freshening up the walls with new paint and artwork.

If you sampled nothing but soup here, you'd leave happier than when you arrived. Every bowl I've tried tastes as if someone's generous mama had a hand in its creation. Meaty short ribs and soft cabbage dominate in one recipe, its beef broth bolstered with chunks of yuca and plantain and a wedge of lemon. On another visit I fell for the chicken soup, the liquid echoing with the flavor of fresh corn, and thick with bright-colored carrots, celery and pungent cilantro as well as rich slivers of the lead ingredient. As with the beef soup, a squeeze of citrus coaxes maximum savor from this mix.

These are not the only good beginnings. Stuffed with shredded chicken or studded with corn kernels, the tamales also make luscious introductions. My first pick is the bundle with corn, which plays sweet, hot vegetable off the cool tang of sour cream. Heartier is a shallow dish of bubbling Chihuahua (a cheddarlike white cheese) heaped with crumbled chorizo and browned onions, a decadent snack partnered with warm tortillas for scooping. The homey flavors of yuca con chicharron -- a little feast of tender pork and crisped, starchy yuca -- are invigorated by a sharp salsa. But the seviche throws cold water on the party. Marinated shrimp, squid, white fish and slices of sweet potato, served in a heap, are too tough and so cold as to mask the individual flavors of the seafood.

With two rosy dining areas set off by arches and mirrors, El Golfo is a modest looker. Sturdy wood chairs surround cloth-covered tables, and the Mexican paintings on the walls, capturing sunny beaches and quiet alleys, are thoughtful alternatives to the usual tourist posters. The environment is neat and tidy and shows a personal touch, as do the bountiful plates that leave the kitchen. In a rectangular plate of vegetarian tastes -- called "Margarita's Platter," it combines a chile relleno, a guacamole-stuffed taco and a cheese enchilada -- stripes of yellow rice and midnight black beans run through the careful arrangement. (When it expanded its seafood

offerings, El Golfo added more vegetarian dishes, too, including some fine enchiladas packed with a delectable blend of sauteed spinach, cheese and mushrooms.)

Despite its name change, meat selections remain this restaurant's strong suit. Two standouts are carne asada, a thin but succulent and surprisingly juicy grilled beefsteak, and lomo saltado, a rustic toss of beef strips, green pepper chunks, sliced potatoes and red onion moistened with a light, tomatoey sauce and flanked by oiled white rice. A pitcher of sangria, holding an orchard's worth of chopped apples, goes down well with this fare; nondrinkers might opt for the gently sweet, almond-flavored beverage known as horchata.

A less appealing reality sometimes intrudes, as in one night's whole fried sea bass, which was as scrawny as a runway model. "Where's the meat?" a pal of mine wanted to know as he flipped the wisp of a thing over with his utensils in search of something edible. Thank goodness there were lusty black beans, rice and a sprightly salad of radishes, onion and cucumber for him to fill up on.

Besides, with my seafood enchiladas, there was plenty to share. Lapped with a cream sauce that was pink from cayenne and paprika, the two flour tortillas were barely visible beneath a sea of decent scallops and better shrimp. Still, the simple things are what bring me back, like fajitas prepared with flounder, rubbed with garlic and lemon pepper and spunky with charred onions, tomatoes and bell peppers. The plate arrives in a sizzle of steam, momentarily stopping conversation as everyone takes in the show.

For the most part, this is food that leaves you satisfied even as you undo your belt and vow to reacquaint yourself with the gym tomorrow. Should you pass on dessert, though, you'd miss a dense flan ringed with a light caramel sauce and a sweet white cake soaked in milk, the traditional tres leches. Like so much of the menu at El Golfo, they're the sort of dishes that call to people looking for a taste of home.

Ask Tom

"My wife and I were fond of the Hibiscus Cafe," writes reader Matt O'Brien of Alexandria, who wonders what happened to the chef of that fanciful Caribbean restaurant in Georgetown, which closed three years ago. "If we could enjoy some of his creations at another eatery, we would love to do so." As it turns out, the chef behind those creations is a woman, Sharon Banks. She and her husband, restaurateur Jimmie Banks, after a short stint at Red Ginger on Wisconsin Avenue, are developing a place that they say will bring together casual and formal Caribbean fare in paired restaurants, at 822 E St. NW. At Ginger Cove, they promise fish and chips, jerk chicken and braised oxtail in a 47-seat cafe; the more upscale Ginger Reef will offer such Hibiscus hits as spiny lobster, stuffed quail and curried mussels in a larger underground dining room, complete with a chef's table looking into the kitchen. The owners hope to open Ginger Cove as early as next month, followed in March by Ginger Reef.

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