The times they are a-changing in La Plata. Six months ago if you wanted a burrito in La Plata, you headed for the frozen food aisle at Safeway, or to Waldorf. Today there are three new Mexican restaurants.

First came La Tolteca, in the old Safeway strip mall at Routes 301 and 6. Then El Ranchero arrived where Marie's restaurant used to be on the southbound side of Route 301. Finally, El Dorado opened its doors last month on Charles Street in the middle of town.

We decided to check out El Dorado, which is in the space that's been inhabited most recently by a series of Chinese restaurants and Chef Jeff's Sandwich Shoppe. The new operation has been open for only a few weeks and has not yet been "discovered." It will be.

We thought El Dorado would be just another Mexican restaurant, but when we arrived we realized it is a fine Mexican and Spanish place.

The dining room is painted in subtle green and peach and has the feel of an urban upscale restaurant -- with rows of closely spaced tables with white tablecloths. The excellent servers wear crisp white shirts with ties and black aprons. Recorded music plays in the background. One friend said that the way the interior has been dressed up, along with windows on La Plata's main street, makes it a really pleasant place.

The first time we visited, we took a group of friends for lunch and asked them to let us know how they felt about their dish. Baskets of freshly made tortilla chips appeared almost as soon as we sat down. They are light, airy and warm -- with an accompanying not-too-spicy salsa that was marvelous.

Chef Luis Hernandez told us how he makes the salsa: gently roasted tomatoes, sauteed onions and serrano peppers blended to almost the consistency of a puree. Proprietor Simon Gutierrez says that the chip recipe is from Texas, but we see a resemblance to the ones we've had at Lauriol Plaza near Dupont Circle.

Our friend from Iowa (cow country) couldn't resist ordering the beef burrito ($5.95) -- served with rice and beans -- and said it was "quite good . . . a cut above others" maybe partly because El Dorado never uses ground beef in its dishes. The parrillada nortena ($7.95) -- the place's version of fajitas on the lunch menu -- features large pieces of tender and well-seasoned chicken and steak served on a sizzling platter with peppers, sauteed onions and tomatoes. Our friends liked the Mexican rice mixed with pieces of corn, an unusual and colorful addition that added great texture.

We'd heard from the hairdressers at Charles Street Boutique that it "was really good and worth the extra money," so we expected a hefty bill, but didn't get one. The tab for lunch for seven of us came to $53.67.

Dinner is a lot of fun at El Dorado. The menu is extensive, with both Mexican and Spanish selections. The Spanish entrees deserve special attention. To our knowledge, El Dorado is the only Southern Maryland restaurant that serves Spanish food. Each entree comes with white rice and black beans. They have traditional pollo asado, a baked half-chicken topped with onions ($11.95), bistec al catalan, a 12-ounce rib-eye steak topped with three jumbo shrimp ($17.95), and two kinds of paella ($16.95).

We tried the paella Valenciana, a mix of Spanish sausage, chicken, shrimp, mussels and clams cooked with saffron rice. There's also paella de marisco, a mix of more kinds of seafood in the saffron rice. Both dishes are cooked in a cast pot and transferred tableside from pot to plate. The paella is excellent, moist and tasty, and is one of El Dorado's most popular dishes. There are a dozen other Spanish entrees that we've yet to try. Life is good.

All desserts are homemade and cost less than $4. There's flan, tres leches, Kahlua-chocolate mousse, fried ice cream and cajeta (vanilla ice cream covered with coconut served on a cinnamon tortilla).

Parking is a drawback at El Dorado. There are limited spaces down an alley behind the building that is shared with neighboring businesses during the day. As word gets out about the quality of the food, the auxiliary parking lot around the corner at Baltimore and Maple should get good use. El Dorado is wheelchair-accessible via a ramp at the rear of the building. The door is kept locked for safety, so just ring the bell.

Hernandez and Gutierrez have worked together at several Hispanic restaurants in the D.C. area for the past several years. They finally decided to open El Dorado (named for the legendary city of gold) in La Plata. We think La Plata got the gold.

El Dorado316 E. Charles St., La Plata


HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

PRICES: Lunch, $5.95 to 7.95; dinner, $8.95 to $18.95. Carryout available. Major credit cards accepted.

BEST-KEPT SECRET: They plan to add a breakfast menu this spring -- eggs Benedict, huevos rancheros, egg burritos, omelets (cheese, black bean, veggie or seafood); or breakfast your way, two eggs made any way you want with breakfast potatoes. Breakfasts will cost $5 to $6.