Atmosphere: Go for the food, not the atmosphere.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday night but open for Tuesday Lunch.
Price Range: A la carte menu, 25 cents to $3.50; dinners $3.50 to $8.00. Most dinners around $5.10.
Reservations: Not necessary
Credit Cards Visa, Mastercharge, Card Blanche, Diner's Club.
Special Facilities: Metered parking on the street; wheelchairs must negotiate streetside curb, but restaurant itself is accessible. No boosters or high chairs. Cocktail menu.
"Bienvenido" greets you at Los Planes de Renderos, the El Salvadorean restaurant on 11th Street NW. The Greyhound bus terminal is a block away in this low-rent district, and the cavernous site of the national convention center yawns across the street. But a trip to Los Planes is worth it, for the restaurant sets out delicious Central American food the whole family can enjoy at very resonable prices.
The place itself is small, and like the neighborhood, plain. It is a storefront restaurant with all the charm of a downtown luncheonette. Tables are bare and decor is absent, although the night we visited, some trailing white streamers and paper wedding bells, along with one or two deflated balloons, hung from the ceiling in memory of some festive occasion.
But that's all right. There is taped Spanish-language music and a local Hispanic clientele attesting to the authenticity of the cooking at Los Planes. Whether you're Hispanic or not, you'll find the food down-to-earth and home-cooked. Dining here has the same appeal as sitting down to eat a family meal at a friend's kitchen table.
The menu offers a variety of platters cooked in El Salvadorean fashion. Fish, shrimp, steak and chicken are all offered "smothered in a sauteed onions, peppers and tomatoes," served with Spanish rice, salad or refried beans and cheese.
Other platters offer a combination of foods that might also be associated with Mexico, although these El Salvadorean versions are less piquant than much Mexican cooking. The same items are available a la carte if you choose to make your own combination plate: burritos, chile relleno, enchilladas, chalupas, tacos and tamales.
In addition, you can order "platos tipicos" typical Central and South American dishes like empanadas, fried yuca or plantains (a fruit much like a banana) and pupusas de queso or de chicharron, soft tortillas prepared with a mild cheese. Only one children's plate is offered, at $2.25, but it seems to have everything a child would want: a taco, french fries and salad.
We were seated immediately and served a bowl of good tostada chips and salsa picante. They were gone before we had finished reading the menu. The motherly lady who served us reappeared unbidden with not one but two fresh bowls of chips, one of which she sets down between two of our hungry daughters.
My husband ordered roast chicken smothered in vegetables, $4.60, and I sampled the Tijuana platter with empanada and enchilladas, $5.10. One of the girls chose the children's taco and french fries combination, while her sister ordered a burrito, $2, and an enchillada, $1.25. Our older daughter loves burritos and ordered one, too, accompanied by two tacos.
The chicken, though a bit overdone, was served with perfectly sauteed tomatoes and peppers, and the empanada, a pastry turnover with a mildly seasoned meat filling, was excellent. Enchalladas were delicious and the girls loved their burritos, which turned out to be a meal in themselves.
Even Los Planes' side dishes -- surely a measure of a kitchen's standards -- are well done. Refried beans had good flavor and texture, and the Spanish rice, unlike many versions, lacked tomato sauce. It was perfectly cooked, lightly seasoned, with flecks of carrot and greens in it -- a pretty and fresh-tasting accompaniment to the heavier food we were eating. Every platter is served with a piece of creamy mild country cheese, a refreshing change from the usual sprinklings of grated cheddar on Latin dishes.
One word about drinks. Los Planes offers an enticing variety of fruit drinks well worth trying, if the sangria is any measure of its nonalcoholic cousins.
Los Planes serves no desserts. As we paid our bill, we told the pleasant young man who took our check how much we enjoyed the food. He thanked us and added, "Please tell your friends about us." Little did he know.