Atmosphere: Mexican food in an airy south-of-the-border setting.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Price range: Platters $5.95; specialties from $3.85 for huevos rancheros to $7.90 for an enchilada stuffed with crab meat; a la carte entrees, side dishes, salads, and desserts from 40 cents for a tortilla to $5.20 for three beef enchiladas; children's platters $1.99.
Reservations: A good idea on weekends, especially for large parties.
Special Faclities: Children's menu; booster seats and high chairs; a double set of doors and a curb step may prove difficult for patrons in wheelchairs.
The fact that the taco has made its way onto lunch menus at local public schools is an indiction of its popularity, right up there with hamburgers and pizza.
For families who want to indulge their taste for Mexican fare, El Palacio is a good bet. It offers tasty, inexpensive food in attractive surroundings. The service is unhurried and the atmosphere is relaxed, allowing parents to linger over a margarita or a pitcher of sangria while the children examine their own menus, which are shaped like sombreros and are cut so they they can actually be worn.
The restaurant is tastefully decorated with ornaments from Mexico -- woven wall hangings, small ceramic statues and wooden bird cages. No cliches. Dining areas are spacious, or at least seem so, because the dividers open into archways at about waist height. The arches are outlined with small light bulbs for a glitzy rather than a garish effect.
The staple food at El Palacio is the tortilla, a thin pancake made from cornmeal or flour. It appears first in the form of appetizer chips, which are on the house. The chips are warm, crisp and unsalted. Those hankering after a little spice can dip the chips into a sauce of tomatoes, onions and green chilis. The sauce is very peppery, so unless the children have cast-iron palates, restrict them to the chips.
Diners who order one of the 12 combination platters are offered a choice of bean soup or guacamole salad. The soup is really a thin, lightly flavored broth that can be garnished with slices of raw onion, bacon bits or tortilla chips. The salad of lettuce, tomatoes and avocado slices is lifted out of the ordinary by guacamole dressing, made from a base of avocodos pureed to a smooth, delicate perfection.
For the main course, the ubiquitous tortilla is available in a variety of guises -- tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chalupas and chili con queso. When served crisp, as a taco, the tortilla is at its best. Covered with sauce, it can be a bit mealy and chewy. The consistency becomes less noticeable, however, in a dish with numerous ingredients, such as the chalupa, in which the flat tortilla is smothered under layers of refried beans, beef, cheese, lettuce and guacamole sauce.
Accompanying some of the entrees are refried beans and Spanish rice, cooked with scallions to a distinctive crumbly state.
The beef filling used in the dishes is bland rather than spicy, probably making it more acceptable to children. Adults can always add hot sauce.
For those die-hards who insist on the familiar, El Palacio does serve hamburgers for $2.75, chopped steak for $5.75 and fried flounder for $5.50.
Children 10 and younger have a choice of taco or enchilada. Both are served with refried beans and rice. Another item with the children's dinner is a dessert bread called sopaipilla. It is made of yeast dough, fried until it is light and puffy, and served piping hot with honey. This dessert, available a la carte for $1.25, is ordered by many an adult who has sampled a child's serving.
There are six other El Palacio restaurants in the Washington area, all under the same ownership and similar in food and decor.
Virginia locations are in Alexandria at 6126 Rose Hill Dr. and 7629 Richmond Highway; in Arlington at 4700 Lee Highway, and in Bailey's Cross-roads at 5872 Leesburg Pike. There is also an El Palacio in Washington at 1827 M. St. NW and in Gaithersburg, Md., at the Lakeforest Shopping Mall.