Cactus Jack's

1207 19th St. NW

223-3617

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.); 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.).

Prices: Soups and appetizers $2.95 to $7.50, entrees $5.50 to $14.95.

Credit Cards: Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.

No separate nonsmoking area.

For diet-weary folks tired of steamed vegetables and grilled fish, Cactus Jack's has an antidote.

The new Tex-Mex restaurant-bar, on 19th Street near M Street NW, offers food that is heavy, filling, spicy and not terribly expensive. Its menu also is unapologetic: Almost nothing on it is good for you.

All the more reason to give this restaurant-bar a try before New Year's resolutions set in. This may be a good place to get your office colleagues together for a holiday luncheon or happy hour.

We've had mixed experiences at Cactus Jack's, which could be a result of its being new. Operated by the people who ran Flaps Rickenbacker's, the beer-and-hamburger place that was in the same spot until earlier this year, Cactus Jack's has been open less than four months and still seems to be working out kinks in the kitchen.

All meals start with chips and pretty standard salsa with a dash of coriander. Crisp and salt-free, Cactus Jack's chips taste homemade but also a little greasy.

If you're sitting at the bar, a frozen margarita may suggest itself, and you could do worse. Piped out of what looks like a frozen-yogurt machine, Cactus Jack's margaritas come in beer steins with quasi-permanent salt rims. If it's blustery outside, you may want to try the spiced cider, served with a slice of lemon, a stick of cinnamon and a shot of applejack brandy ($3.50).

Also available are two Texan beers -- including one called Rattlesnake -- and four from Mexico ($2.75 to $3.75). During happy hour (4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday), Cuorvo tequila drinks and Miller Lite are $2.

On one occasion, the chicken chimichanga consisted of a large tortilla, neatly folded envelope-style around chunks of chicken and lightly fried. Served with plenty of beans and rice, it made a filling, satisfying meal -- all the more appealing because of its reasonable price ($5.95).

On another occasion, the same item consisted of chicken that had been bathed in red salsa before being stuffed into a greasy tortilla that was fried either too long or at too low a temperature.

Most entrees we tried were generous and came with plenty of refried beans that, we were pleased to see, were not whipped into a puree. The exception was a turkey enchilada special at $6.95; this single enchilada glazed with a tangy green salsa came out of the kitchen looking forlorn with only small servings of rice and beans.

Cheese lovers should consider a couple of appetizers as meals in themselves. The quesadillas -- grilled cheese on tortillas -- were more than enough for one and cost $6.25. Nacho Grande -- with spicy beef, beans and cheese -- was $4.95.

Many Tex-Mex places pride themselves on their chili, and Cactus Jack's is no exception. This is the "authentic" kind: almost all meat with a few beans thrown in for the record. The meat had been simmered in its own fat and plenty of spices, and came in a large bowl with a topping of melted cheese.

The chili's $4.50 price tag makes it a sure bet if you are a bit impoverished but extremely hungry. However, you should also be in a somewhat self-destructive mood, as this haunting dish will stay with you a long time. It comes with a chunk of chewy cornbread, which in our case seemed to have been toughened up in a microwave oven.

The menu describes fajita salad ($8.95) as "topped with spicy hot beef or chicken." A better description would be: a deep-fried tortilla piled high with crunchy romaine, thin slices of plain, cold beef or chicken, and plenty of shredded cheese. Salsa and salad dressing came on the side.

Among the entrees we tried, our favorite was the mesquite-smoked chicken breast ($8.95). Boned chicken breast had been masterfully grilled so that it remained moist but tasted smoky. The dish came with a side order of jalapeno-flavored melted butter, a tangy barbecue sauce, beans and rice.

The mood at Cactus Jack's is folksy. A neon sign advertises the Lone Star State, cowboy hats hang over the bar and Willie Nelson croons from the jukebox. On warm days, the patio, which overlooks busy 19th Street, has sunny tables. On cold days, the bar and three other indoor dining areas are warm and inviting.

The staff tries hard too: One exceedingly cheerful bartender tried her darndest to disarm the overhead fans when we complained once of the blinding, psychedelic effect of the fan blades slicing through overhead spotlights. (More recently, we were pleased to see that someone finally had stilled the fans.)

Despite its ambiance, Cactus Jack's is still rough around the edges. Time may prove it worthy of Washington's current infatuation with Tex-Mex food, but right now it remains a distant cousin to such successful rivals as Rio Grande in Bethesda and even the American Cafe, newly across the street with a menu that includes Tex-Mex food.