- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

Few things are as good as a cold beer, an icy margarita or a refreshing sangria on a hot and steamy summer night, which are three of the reasons why La Loma, a stone's throw from the Capitol, fills up with Hill folk and others night after night.

This 4-year-old Mexican restaurant recently took over the town house next door to double its seating capacity both inside and especially outside. Not enough. There is still a wait some evenings.

Is it worth the wait? Mostly.

The mandatory chips are crispy and not too oily or salty, and the salsa is just right, with chunks of fresh tomato and onion. But the guacamole is (or was that night) completely off, even sour. Avocados go bad in the blink of an eye, and only a few restaurants master the task of keeping these green jewels fresh. La Loma is not despite its turnover one of them.

The turnover is amazing. If you are on your way to a play or movie, La Loma is the place to go for a quick bite to eat. The waiters are alert, helpful and speedy. We received our drinks, chips and salsa in just over two minutes. And the appetizer, chicken quesadillas, was not far behind.

The quesadillas were stuffed with tender, tasty chicken and cheese, but were on the greasy side, which didn't stop us from devouring a generous helping in seconds.

In fact, at La Loma, all helpings are abundant, even the sides.

We included two of these orders with our main course: tamale and chili relleno, pure Mexican dishes which can serve as a true test of the quality of a purportedly south-of-the-border restaurant.

La Loma's chili relleno easily gets our stamp of approval, with its lightly battered poblano pepper, fried just right and covered with mild, creamy cheese. The tamale, on the other hand, was low on the spicy meat and high on the cornmeal it tasted fine, but the balance of corn versus meat was off.

The next dish to meet our palates was shrimp and beef fajitas carbon, served with rice and black beans. The sizzling dish colorful with red and green peppers as well as onions has the tenderest (We suspect it's dunked in a spicy, lemony marinade overnight.), juiciest of beef, and the shrimp, too, is just right. Not mushy and yet not chewy.

Usually, Mexican food does not come with great presentation it's colorful but simple and usually goes something like this: a white plate with beans, rice, a little cheese, a heap of lettuce and a splash of salsa.

But the mariscada veracruzana was not just the tastiest of our many dishes, but also the most eye-catching. The steamed shrimp, squid, flounder, sea scallops and clams, served in a terra cotta-colored bowl, rested in a saffron butter sauce with red pimento, garlic and scallions. The excellently steamed seafood so simple, so sumptuous came with a side dish of white rice and black beans, which was good. But who wants to starch up when faced with a pile of sea treasures?

We highly recommend this dish, which, when we ordered it, received a raised eyebrow and a nod of approval from our waiter. We now know why. It's fresh, it melts in your mouth, and it is mild but well-seasoned.

The desserts are neither many nor impressive, but that's not out of the ordinary at a Mexican restaurant. In fact, our waiter seemed so surprised when we ordered our sopapillas, honey-drenched sweet cornmeal pockets, that it took maybe 10 minutes, a lifetime at La Loma, for him to serve them. We threw him off. He was ready to hand us the check. And, unlike the rest of the meal, except of course for the guacamole, the sopapillas were not worth the wait. They were chewy and so dry that not even the honey and vanilla ice cream could hide it.

Sitting there without plates in front of us gave us an opportunity to engage in people-watching, which La Loma is almost alone in providing on the Hill. The clientele is mixed and includes Hill interns, young homeowners, families and older couples.

La Loma is a fine neighborhood Mexican restaurant, enough above average to attract people from other quadrants. (Some arrive in taxis.)The food is good and sometimes, such as in the case of the mariscada veracruzana (the seafood platter), great. The service is speedy, if a little impersonal. The drinks of course are fantastic but, for some reason, always too small.

So, as the steamy summer continues for another month or three and you don't feel like laboring in your own hot, humid kitchen, La Loma can provide a relatively cheap, quick and tasty alternative.

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