Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. till 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4:40 till 11 p.m. Prices: A la carte $1.75-8.95. Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa. By Eve Zibart Washington Post Staff Writer

Aficionados of fine Mexican food are the last of the Quixotes.

Even as they swear by their exalted cuisine, they seek the perfect salsa in the most commercialized of kitchens, crossing their fingers in fast food franchises and passing hopefully through one enchilada emporium after another.

What discourages most of them is the sheer weight of the food. When every production line, stained glass, happy hour bar is in competition to create the most macho nacho or tostada-and-colada, even the best-intentioned taco heaven is likely to reveal feet of clay.

But properly prepared, Mexican food is colorful and multi-textured, a mix of crispy and creamy, bland and biting, fresh and fried. And if you're willing to take the bull once more by the horns, Cantina Mexicanos might ring your taco bell.

Mexicanos undoubtedly is, as a friend of mine noted, the prettiest Mexican restaurant in the city: a whitewashed and refinished town house with a second story view of Georgetown, its claret interior walls hung with pretty porcelains and nary a matador in sight.

More importantly, it's the perfect compromise for people who love Mexican food but abhor noisy dining rooms or franchised burritos. Mexicanos is small enough to ensure good service and food cooked to order, but large enough to keep the prices down.

If it has one shortcoming (for veteran diners), it's a tentative way with the chili; but that may be an advantage for first-timers and sensitive palates, and the hard core can always order a side of jalapenos.

Mexicanos makes a good first impression with the complimentary chips and dips, extra-crispy tortilla triangles and a chopped (not pureed) tomato/onion/coriander salsa. For some reason, salsa always tempts people to order margaritas, and Mexicanos' are certainly respectable; but, in the long run, the hearty Mexican beers are more soothing.

The only thing to keep in mind when ordering an appetizer is that most are outsized. Mexicanos pizza, a delicious layering of cheddar and Monterey cheeses and chopped tomatoes over ground, spiced meat, all baked over a taco-thin shell, is a meal in itself. (The waiter later apologized for waffling over whether he should warn us we had ordered too much food.)

The quesadilla, a sort of vegetarian version, with cheese and tomato melted over a soft enchilada, is almost as large.

Most of the entrees fall into the familiar taco or enchilada categories, although not boringly; try a spiced chicken or sour cream enchilada, or a shredded beef chimichanga. And don't take the heat for granted: Although the listing for the chili relleno says it's for those who like it hot, at least two (on different occasions) were so mild they were overwhelmed by the cheese filling.

The chicken taco platter (described as another "meal in itself," which is an understatement) is extremely good, but something of a puzzle. Laid out on a platter alongside marinated, baked chicken are piles of grated mixed cheeses, cilantro, green onions, shredded lettuce and tomatoes, served with two taco shells.

But the marinated chicken is still on the bone, and while it is possible to cut the meat off and move it into the taco, it seems a bother. Besides, the chicken -- a breast, thigh and drumstick -- is beautifully seasoned and cooked as it is.

The seasoning of meats is a strong point here: Mexicanos' steak, five or six slices of marinated flank, is pungent but light and bright, not the sweet-sour oriental style. (Although the thin slices are hard to get rare, the kitchen does commendably hold off cooking it until your first course is finished.)

Sauces are a little timid, though. The green salsa spooned over the chili relleno adds little punch. And the Guacamole, while admirably ripe and thick, could be pure avacado puree. So pack your Tobasco.