El Camino

4838 Rugby Ave., Bethesda

654-3440

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $8 to $14.

Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

If you're familiar with Tia Queta, you'll know what to expect from its sister restaurant, El Camino. This is classy Mexican cooking, which means you won't find gooey combination platters and you won't be bored by endless combinations of corn, ground beef and melted cheese. It's more expensive than your average beans-and-taco joint and worth it.

El Camino is nice looking too, severe but cheerful, with white walls and plenty of window space to add brightness.

The menu is quite similar to Tia Queta's: fish, shrimp, chicken, beef and pork in a variety of interesting sauces, plus a list of standard Mexican restaurant items (enchiladas, tamales, etc.), all done unusually well.

One major feature of El Camino not available at Tia Queta (and apparently one of the best-kept secrets in Bethesda) is a marvelous dinner buffet (Friday and Saturday only) at a very reasonable $13.95. The buffet is all the more remarkable because many of the items that you'd expect to suffer from sitting in trays seem as fresh and fluffy as if they'd just slid out of the skillet.

Here's a rundown of the buffet the night we tried it. Tortilla chips with a top-notch chunky salsa. Excellent seviche, not overly acid and beautifully flavored. A terrific down-home chicken soup with a rich broth, pasta shells, vegetables and big chunks of chicken. Remarkably flaky empanadas.

You'll also find excellent pasta, perfectly al dente, with good little shrimp and a simple garlic sauce. Zucchini stuffed with ground beef, wrapped in an airy scrambled egg and served in a very good green chili sauce. Exceptional chiles rellenos. Surprisingly firm and juicy fish fillets in a mild, fresh-tasting sauce with tomato and onion. And chicken with a particularly good chocolate-based mole sauce, intensely flavored but not thick or sweet.

Then there are pork carnitas, made with flavorful, fork-tender pork loin in a fine tomatillo sauce. And top-notch chicken faijitas (the beef version is a little dry). Even the tamales on the buffet are exceptional, as are the refried beans. The buffet also includes a do-it-yourself taco bar with all the fixings, including an excellent guacamole. And to finish, fresh melon. One caution about buffet nights: Reserve a table in advance.

The regular menu can't match the buffet's bargain price, but most of the dishes are top quality. Among the best of the appetizers are the broiled mussels, fresh and plump, in a lovely butter-garlic-parsley sauce. The sauteed mushrooms, on the other hand, are ordinary. The tortilla soup, with tomato, avocado and cheese, is wonderful, but the black bean soup is surprisingly bland.

A dynamite entree is camarones a la veracruzana, big, tender, fresh-tasting shrimp in a vibrant, irresistible sauce with tomato, onion, capers and olives. Pipian rojo, a classic chicken dish, has a complex, well-balanced sauce, made with sesame and pumpkin seeds, but slightly dry meat. Fresh fish is generally offered with a mild white wine sauce or a fiery tomatillo sauce -- the latter overwhelms the fish.

For dessert, try the excellent Mexican crepes with caramel sauce.