Atmosphere: Casual and cozy.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Price range: $4 to $7.50.

Credit cards: None taken; personal checks taken with proper identification.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Special facilities: Parking in restaurant lot; accessible to handicapped; highchairs and booster seats available.

A couple of years ago, standing in line for a table at a popular Mexican restaurant, we passed the time talking about local restaurants with the family behind us. It was a classic restaurant conversation: They knew a wonderful, inexpensive place, but they couldn't remember the name; it was just beyond Powder Mill Road, somewhere out in the country, a golden needle in a haystack.

Much later, when Gringada's name was mentioned to us, we didn't connect it with the conversation. After dinner there, I suspect Gringada is the fabled place. Located straight out Rte. 1, almost in Laurel, Gringada is a small but pleasant Mexican restaurant specializing in Tex-Mex cooking. The food is very good and the place seems all the more valuable because it is located in an area where there are not a lot of restaurants.

One large room has been skillfully divided into smaller sections at Gringada so that diners have a sense of privacy and space. It is simply decorated with paneling and paper placemats, but flickering hurricane lamps and colorful serapes make the dining room inviting.

Children under 12 may order a bargain hot dog or taco with french fries and soft drink for $1.60, but like most Mexican restaurants, Gringada offers enough low-priced a' la carte dishes to give kids a much larger choice.

Mexican dinners ($5.50 each) offer generous servings accompanied by either salad or taco, rice and refried beans. Steak, fried shrimp and chicken will accommodate North American tastes at similarly modest prices.

Our waitress took a look at our hungry children and produced two baskets of good tostadas, which we munched while trying to decide what to order. The salsa picante that came with them was deliciously spicy and served, for once, in a bowl large enough for dipping.

Our 10-year-old daughters ordered from the a' la carte section: enchiladas and rice ($3.25) and a beef burrito ($2.50). Our teen-aged daughter wanted a combination plate of tamales and enchiladas, rice and beans ($5.50), and my husband ordered a chili relleno platter ($4.50). I asked for the comida grande ($7.50), a combination plate with a bit of everything on it, including a delicious serving of nachos large enough to share.

The comida grande should probably not be ordered by anybody with less than the appetite of a hungry truck driver, but we would offer no other cautions. Everything was fresh, well-prepared and delicious. Just as the success of many Italian dishes depends on the quality of the sauce used in them, the key ingredient in many Tex-Mex dishes is a well-seasoned filling.

At Gringada it is as good as it can be, making for successful tacos, burritos and tamales. Enchiladas--either beef, chicken or cheese--also were excellent, and the chili rellenos--stuffed peppers with a cheese souffle topping--were delightful.

For dessert, if you have room, Gringada offers the usual flan as well as empanadas, fruit tarts and our daughters' favorite, sopapillas. These pieces of hot fried dough are usually soft and puffy; Gringada's are crisp, but still a good base for their powdered sugar and honey topping. At 60 cents for a large serving, they are a bargain dessert. We asked for two orders to share; one would have been enough, even for five of us. The restaurant also recently received a liquor license, and serves some Mexican-style drinks as well as beer and wine.

For quality and price, it is hard to beat Gringada. Our whole meal, tax and tip included, cost $34.04.