When is a tortilla an omelette? When should you fry a banana? Is it possible for a child to eat squid without making a face?
All these questions can be answered in a Spanish kitchen. They also can be answered at Mundo Latino, an understated, inexpensive restaurant on 20th Street.
Although pleasant, the place is essentially plain -- a small dining room with bar simply decorated in muted green and brown tiles. The walls are mirrored and stuccoed; the small tables sport white linen.
Taped Spanish music provides some atmosphere, and if the place lacks pizazz, it is a comfortable spot for a family to sample the flavor of several Hispanic countries in one small location. Mom can eat in Bolivia, Dad in Ecuador and the kids in Mexico; all you can eat well if you choose the right things.
We passed up several interesting appetizers to sample calamares al limon, fried squid rings with lemon, $2.95, and platano maduro con creme de queso, fried banana with cream cheese, $1.50.
For the first time ever, when we passed the calamares around, the 14-year-old and the 10-year-olds tried them -- and liked them. We weren't as happy. They were tender enough, but the batter coating the calamares was too highly seasoned to complement the mild-flavored seafood. Cooking seems to increase the sweetness of banana and cream cheese complemented it nicely, but I would have preferred the dish for dessert.
For dinner, our older daughter ordered tacos, $3.95, and the younger ones ordered empanadas, $2.50, and tossed salads, $1.95. Although they are an appetizer, the empanadas, two beef turnovers similar to burritos, were just the right amount for the girls.
My husband and I were tempted by the paella but decided we didn't want to wait an extra 20 minutes for it to be cooked. I ordered zarsuela de mariscos a la latina, $7.95, and he chose lomo saltado, $7, a beef dish from Peru.
Lomo saltado, served in casserole, was thick strips of sauteed beef, onions, tomatoes and peppers in sauce, topped with several spears of home-fried potatoes. It was adequate but unexciting compared to the zarsuela, a casserole of nice-sized shrimp, bay scallops, squid, mussels and clams in a wine and brandy sauce that had body and character. It was delicious.
Dinners are served with bowls of white rice and black beans, which your waiter will replenish as necessary. These traditional staples of a Spanish meal were perfect accompaniments to the sauces of the casseroles.
As might be expected, Mundo Latino offers flan, ice cream, and guava fruit with cream cheese for dessert. Chocolate ice cream was perfectly fine, but the flan was mediocre.
Although a bit uneven, Mundo Latino is a good place to try Spanish cooking outside the hustle-bustle of Adams-Morgan. Our tab, with tax and tip, was $47.86.
Atmosphere: Simple, low-key Spanish ambience.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday.
Price range: $4.50 for tortilla espanola to $8.95 for steak champignon; most dinners in $6-$7 range.
Reservations: Not necessary.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express.
Special facilities: Street parking only; not accessible to wheelchairs because of steps leading down from street door; no booster seats or highchairs.