Costa del Sol
4906 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Most dinner entrees $5.50 to $11.
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
Costa del Sol, which occupies the premises of a former Mexican restaurant, is a very simple place. Nothing fancy on the menu, nothing fancy in the decor: just a limited selection of Salvadoran dishes at reasonable prices in a cheerful, cozy, impeccably neat dining room. Some of those dishes are only so-so, which further limits the selection. But a few items are outstanding, and there are enough of them to make a visit more than worthwhile.
To start with, have an order of the outstanding guacamole to eat with your tortilla chips. It's delightfully fresh-tasting, light in texture and zingy with pepper and garlic. From there, you might try the pasteles, little fried pie appetizers filled with yuca and carrot. The bean soup is pleasant but ordinary. Sidestep the pupusas, fried tortillas filled mainly with refried beans. At Costa del Sol, they've been saturated with oil.
Perhaps the best appetizer in the house is a shared order of the terrific shrimp and clam soup, a good, garlicky seafood broth with big, plump shrimp and nicely fresh clams accompanied by lively carrot, onion and tomato, along with bits of fluffy egg. (There are also special beef and tripe soups, available only on Saturday and Sunday, which we didn't try. Judging by the shrimp and clam soup, they're probably excellent.)
When it comes to entrees, you can choose from among a few standard south-of-the-border items: burritos, huevos rancheros, chimichangas, enchiladas. Or beef, chicken or shrimp fajitas. Or several meat dishes, most of which are served in the same fine tomato, green pepper and onion mixture that accompanies the fajitas. Most entrees come with excellent rice.
Among the standard items, the huevos rancheros are particularly nice, light and fluffy. But they're a little runny in the center; ask that they be cooked through.
The fajitas are excellent. Their meats are juicy, their vegetables are lively (the onions are lightly caramelized for sweetness) and they come with a dollop of that lovely guacamole.
Among the meats with the basic tomato, pepper and onion sauce, the carne guisada is best, with lean, fork-tender beef chunks. Pollo guisada, the same dish made with chicken, suffers from dry meat. The pork version, chiccharones de puerco, is flavorful but even drier. The same goes for the beef, called bistec encebollado: flavorful but very dry. There's also a similar dish with shrimp. Since the shrimp here has been first-rate, it's probably a winner.
The one departure from the basic sauce is pollo en crema, disappointingly dry chicken bolstered by a lovely, simple cream sauce enlivened by lemon.
Don't forget a side order of fried plantain -- it's a light, sweet version that goes with anything.
For dessert, have the fried ice cream, served in a very good pastry shell. The flan is pleasant but ordinary, and the somewhat disappointing plantain pie has the texture and flavor of a sweet banana pudding with cream.