Hours: Mondays through Friday, lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner from 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 10 p.m. Closed Sundays.

Atmosphere: Festive, friendly.

Price Range: From $4.75 for huevos rancheros to $9.75 for a broiled steak. Most entrees under $6.

Credit Cards: Master Card and Visa.

Special Features: Entrance accessible to wheelchairs; highchairs and booster seats available. Parking in shopping center lot. A children's platter is available (although the choice is limited).

Everyone is always searching for an authentic ethnic restaurant in the suburbs without downtown prices.

Relax. El Rancho could solve your family's price requirements, while letting you enjoy a visit to a Mexican village in Falls Church.

El Rancho, in a shopping center center full of restaurants, is a family-owned establishment where you immediately know you are welcome. The waiter greets you warmly, quiet Mexican music sets the tone, and the colorful sombreros and serapes that line the walls create the vision of a festival.

Although El Rancho is somewhat larger than many neighborhood establishments, it sacrifices nothing in the way of quality. The homestyle influence is clearly stated on the menu: "We start from scratch. Our food is prepared fresh daily."

To start the meal, our waiter brought tostadas -- crisp and greaseless -- and warned the children that the special sauce for dipping might be too hot for them. The children agreed and enjoyed the chips sans sauce.

The menu includes the expected Mexican dishes -- tacos, burritos, enchiladas and tamales -- but surpasses the ordinary with daily and house specials.

Appetizers are basically limited to chips and dips, except for empanadas ($1.60), deep-fried, filled pastries, somewhat like turnovers. El Rancho empanadas come with one of three fillings -- cheese, chicken of beef. We shared one chicken empanada and one beef, and found the skillful use of spices and finely chopped meats a delightful beginning.

For the younger set, there is a children's platter, although the selection is very limited. For $2.95, the platter includes a taco or an enchilada, rice and refried beans. Our daughter picked a taco platter. Although the taco was fine, she wondered, when the other dinners arrived, if she should have been more adventuresome.

The daily special the night we were there was polo en mole ($5.95). As described on the menu, the chicken is sauteed with onions, tomatoes and spices and covered with a chocolate sauce. The word "chocolate" was enough to convince our son that he was in the right place.

As it turned out, the sauce was unsweetened chocolate, and by itself, not enouth to excite a 9-year-old. But the entire dish was a delight.

My husband and I shared an avocado salad ($1.50), with a perfectly ripe slice of avocado on a bed of lettuce with a light dressing. For main courses, we both decided to sample specialties of the house.

I had no difficulty deciding on the enchiladas de espinaca ($5.85). two enchiladas filled with spinach, then covered with a light cheese sauce and a dollop of sour cream. The fillings were fresh, and the dish came with lettuce and tomatoes, refried beans and rice. It didn't take long to decide that the dish lived up to the menu's comment, "delicioso."

My husband chose enchiladas suiza ($6.75), three beef-filled enchiladas accompanied by a green sour cream sauce, refried beans and rice. Again, the ingredients were fresh and everything was delicately seasoned.

Three desserts ($1.60 each) are available, and any will solve your cravings for sweets. Our daughter chose a strawberry empanada, while the rest of us shared sopapillas. A sopapilla consists of a light, flaky dough that is folded and then deepfried. The sopapilla then puffs and fills with air. Traditionally, sopapillas are eaten with honey, poured over the outside or, if you like, poured on the inside after you cut off one end. El Rancho provided both honey and cinnamon.

Our bill for four, which included icy cold Mexican beers, sodas and a thorough sampling of the menu, totaled $44.45 with tax and tip.