La Lomita

1330 Pennsylvania Ave. SE


Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday, 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers $1.95 to $4.95, lunch sandwiches and entrees $2.75 to $6.95, dinner entrees $5.95 to $10.95.

Cards: American Express, Choice, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.

Enriqueta's and Lauriol Plaza -- two of Washington's finest purveyors of south-of-the-border fare -- are in no danger of being unseated by the recently arrived La Lomita. Capitol Hill denizens, nevertheless, have good reason to celebrate the opening of this charming little producer of enchiladas, steaks and dizzyingly potent margaritas.

If it's not the Mexican eatery of our fantasies, at least it's a pleasant gastronomic diversion, and a modestly priced one at that.

Let's start with those margaritas. La Lomita's are big and boozy ones, liberally spiked so that one can actually taste the individual layers of booze and lime juice. They are a perfect prelude to the rest of the menu, which concentrates on such Mexican standards as tacos, chimichangas and burritos at lunch, and expands into a range of Spanish and Latin American dishes at dinner.

Those lime sherbet-colored margaritas also match the walls of the dining room, which is accented in at least four shades of green. The floor is a forest of deep-green carpet, and the tablecloths are green-and-white checked. Together with the few plants suspended from the ceiling, the small space takes on a fresh, outdoorsy air.

The background music is Mexican and soothing. The boisterous dinner crowd is less so. Still, La Lomita is prettier and more comfortable than its location and plain-Juanita facade would indicate. And it seems always to be busy -- the last time I visited, I ended up eating at the bar, where I got more service from the overworked bartender than the lone waiter could possibly have provided.

A few of the most appealing ways to set forth include ordering the piquant, cheese-topped slices of chorizo sausages, the sherry-and-garlic-laced shrimp, and the Brazilian salad, which is a standard lettuce and tomato salad dressed up to include a sprinkling of hearts of palm and a fine, thick moistener, hinting of garlic. Anyone who has had Enriqueta's cilantro-laced ceviche will find La Lomita's version timid, neither as abundant with seafood nor as refreshingly tangy. The quesadilla, on the other hand, is a fine version, golden and lightly crisp-surfaced, with a mellow ooze of cheese and a lively, herbal blend of tomatoes, onions and peppers set in the middle.

Beef dishes are a strong point with this kitchen, as they are at La Plaza, where the chef, Valentine Escobar, worked previously. One of my favorite selections is the juicy chunks of well-seasoned sirloin, tossed with a combination of fried potatoes (very fresh and full-flavored), and supported by a pleasant crunch from onions and green peppers. The comforting rib-eye steak, smothered with browned onions, was a marvel of simplicity, well-cooked and as succulent as one might wish. It was admirably backed up, as are most entrees, with hefty bowls of white rice and earthy black beans.

Another fine dinner was the roast chicken, similarly buried beneath a pile of onions, its skin delicately crisp, its meat juicy and full-flavored.

Surprisingly, the least successful plates have been the standard entrees. My foray into a plate of chicken and cheese enchiladas came up mushy and wet, although I enjoyed the side dishes of herbaceous salsa, rice and refried beans. And some otherwise satisfying fare is dragged down by too much salt: The generous paella, a saffron-tinged casserole of seafood, rice and peppers, comes to mind.

La Lomita claims to serve the best nachos on Capitol Hill. I tend to disagree after tasting the accompanying salsa, which reminded me of a watered-down gazpacho. And at least twice, my table wasn't even offered the complimentary nosh to begin with.

Still, what La Lomita does best -- margaritas, steak dishes, a good roast chicken and commendable accompaniments -- it does well indeed.

Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.