Drop the chalupa. There's a new Mexican place in town -- Mexico Restaurant in the Festival Shopping Center in Waldorf at Routes 228 and 301.

Patricia Garcia and her husband, Benny Ayala, opened about a month ago next to Hancock Fabrics in the building at the center of Festival's giant parking lot.

Mexico Restaurant is a family-owned chain with six locations in central Virginia. The Waldorf site is the company's first venture on this side of the Potomac.

The place is huge, filling space once occupied by Crown Books. Seating is available for about 180, and a private dining room holds parties of 50 to 60.

A smiling waiter or waitress brings warm corn tortilla chips with fresh homemade mild salsa to the table as soon as you sit down and takes your drink order. That's a good thing, because the large menu means it will take some time for meal decisions. The menu offers steaks, seafood, fajitas, chicken dishes, house specialties and more than 25 combination dinners.

For those less familiar with Mexican food, a description of Mexican dishes is on the back of the menu. You'll finally be able to tell the difference between a tostado and a tostaquac.

We started with chile con queso ($3.25) and mushroom quesadilla ($2.75). The con queso was two soft corn tortillas covered with melted cheese and jalapen~o peppers. It had a real bite.

The quesadilla was a flour tortilla filled with cheese and saute{acute}ed mushrooms, onions and spices, and then grilled and served like an omelet -- flipped over -- a tasty and appetizing dish. You can also order cheese or chicken quesadillas ($1.95 or $3.25).

As main courses, we tried taco salad ($6.50) and rib-eye steak ($10.75). What distinguishes this taco salad from some others is its hot tortilla basket. Light and crisp, this edible container is filled with just the right amount of spicy ground beef, beans, cheese dip, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream. A taco salad at Mexico is the perfect size for diners with an average appetite.

Spanish rice, fried beans, guacamole salad and tortillas served with the rib-eye steak were good, but the steak itself was a little small and overcooked for our taste. If you're fussy about steak, be sure to specify how you want it grilled.

More than 20 lunch specials are served from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and many are combination platters ranging from $4 to $6. You can even get a lunch margarita for $1.95.

Other impressive offerings are the vegetarian dishes. Rarely do you see such a selection of meat-free options.

Vegetarian fajitas ($9.25) -- mushrooms, yellow zucchini, green squash, bell peppers, onions and tomatoes -- served with Spanish rice, fried beans and tortillas offer a lot of flavor. You can also have fajitas with steak or chicken ($10.95), chicken and shrimp ($11.25) or all three ($11.50).

A full bar sells nine Mexican brands of beer and 11 kinds of margaritas. Ay caramba!

Finally, a kids menu offers a half-dozen mini-meals for $4.25, including chicken nuggets and fries for the unadventurous young hombres.

Mexico Restaurant is a fun place to eat. The food is good and plentiful, and the prices are not hard on the wallet. It's a fine addition to our dining community.

Waitress Maria Ayala stands ready to serve complimentary tortilla chips and fresh homemade salsa to customers at the restaurant in Waldorf's Festival Shopping Center.Alfredo Castro displays an armload of Mexico Restaurant's dishes: chicken fajitas, chicken burrito, grande special (chalupa, chile relleno, enchilada and taco), fajita fixings and a bowl of french fries, with a plate of rice in his left hand. Shrimp fajitas, top right, are also available.