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Mexican Standout

Taqueria Los Hermanos fills the bill with family flavor

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I never have been able to figure out how many tables there are, exactly, at Taqueria Los Hermanos. My count changes continually because regular patrons keep moving tables around as the numbers in their parties expand. This is the kind of place where one is likely to run into friends and neighbors and wave them over. Which also explains why I have never walked through the door to find the place empty.

And why would it be? With a mediocre Mexican restaurant on practically every block in town, Taqueria Los Hermanos is that rare find: a family place serving good, honest food.

Bland and boring is not for the brother-owners. Nor for their mother, who lovingly prepares the weekends-only tamale special with her own hands. Everything on the short menu is full-flavored. Indeed, many dishes have the curious capacity for being salty and sweet at the same time. Further, even where the textures of a particular dish are light, the dish has body.

Both soups are excellent examples. I adore the shrimp corn chowder (cup $2.25, bowl $3.95) -- creamy, spicy and sweet, a pale yellow pool hiding its treasure of small tender shrimp and golden corn kernels. The tortilla chicken soup (cup $2.25, bowl $3.95), on the other hand, is tart in the extreme, thanks to the fresh lime juice. Suspended in honest-to-goodness chicken broth is real -- not reconstituted -- chicken meat, buttery avocado, lime, rice, carrots and shredded fresh tortillas. (The cup size, by the way, is really a small bowl's-worth.)

Whatever you order, do not expect your entrees to arrive at the table at the same time. Strangely enough, I find the uneven delivery excusable to the point of being endearing, given the friendly greeting and the family nature of the operation. Besides, the lags allow for leisurely sipping of the house sangria ($4.95 a glass) -- a heavy-duty version sporting a 2-inch cap of dainty apple wedges -- and for appreciating the comfortable interior while dipping into the chunky salsa.

Taqueria Los Hermanos makes its hard-edged shopping center storefront space appealing, with posters decoupaged to the chocolate-brown tabletops and colorful three-dimensional pictures on the walls. Bright red chair cushions play off terra cotta-colored floor tiles and mellow mustard-gold walls.

The food is nearly as colorful as the surroundings. Especially beautiful is the pescado specialty ($9.95), an 8-ounce tilapia filet grilled and served with sauteed black olives, capers and fresh tomatoes in a white wine sauce. Paired with salty roasted potatoes, the moist, thick fish is wonderfully tasty.

In addition to the tilapia, specials include pechuga de pollo ($7.95), grilled marinated chicken breast with sauteed zucchini; carne a la parrilla ($8.95), grilled flank steak daubed with red chile sauce and paired with a cheese enchilada; and fajitas. At $10.95, the shrimp fajita is the most expensive. But then, this is fresh shrimp, which is not often the case. Chicken fajitas, steak fajitas and the steak-and-chicken combination go for $8.95.

Note that, except for the fajitas and a quartet of dinner enchiladas, the condiments that typically overwhelm food at ordinary Mexican restaurants -- the sour cream, guacamole, Mexican rice and flour tortillas -- are side orders here. Refried beans accompany a couple of the specials, but if what you order happens not to be one of them, I urge you to order them on the side. That is because these are black beans instead of the typical pinto beans. What a difference that variation makes. The plain black beans (flavored faintly with cilantro) that arrive with the tamale special may be the best in town.

The dinner combinations are: rancheras, two chicken enchiladas under both a cheese sauce and green tomatillo sauce; marisco, two shrimp and crayfish enchiladas topped with roasted poblano cream sauce; vegetable, stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, zucchini, carrots and onions topped with melted cheese and tomato sauce; and burrito de lujo, beef topped with cheese and red chile sauce.

As one might expect, things are simpler at lunch. A single soft taco in a small red plastic basket goes for $2.50. Choose either soft corn tortillas (more flavorful) or flour tortillas (more delicate). I do not care for the marinated pork tacos (pastor -- "shepherd style); the meat takes on an unpleasant metallic taste when paired with the grilled onions. But I have only the highest praise for the tasty fish tacos. Other filling possibilities include sirloin, non-marinated pork, chicken, vegetables and, believe it or not, a Philly cheese steak taco.

The lunch menu also features pastor and sirloin burritos (flour tortillas), chicken, beef or spinach and cheese enchiladas (built on corn tortillas) with red chile, green tomatillo or tomato sauce -- your choice -- and a pair of tortas: Milanesa (deep-fried steak) and the ever-popular (in this kitchen, anyway) pastor.

Of course there is flan for dessert, an eye-catching mound of custard in a very butterscotchy sauce. But under no circumstances should you leave Taqueria Los Hermanos without sampling the stellar bread pudding with tequila sauce. The three white slabs of pudding, looking and tasting something like French toast, are delicious unadorned. But oh, that sauce -- it is nothing short of amazing.

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