GEARHART - One in Long Beach, Wash. Four in Astoria. A couple in Seaside. Plus another each in Warrenton, Cannon Beach and Manzanita.

Last year's hottest restaurant question: With the above lineup, does the Columbia-Pacific region warrant, or need, yet another Mexican eatery?

The Bautista brothers, originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, thought so. Three months ago they opened El Mariachi Loco (loosely translated: "the crazy band"; it's also the name of a song), a new addition to the burgeoning and less-than-distinctive U.S. Highway 101 strip development on Gearhart's east side. Situated next to a day spa, the place would be easy to miss.

Inside the smallish establishment, there's no mistaking the south-of-the-border mood and decor. Prints of beach scenes and parrots, along with a sombrero or three, hang from the avocado-green walls, while Mexican music emanates from the sound system. A dozen tables, arranged in three rows, crowd the space closely enough that you could almost reach to the table across the way for extra chips. Still, the place feels cozy, and the staff is all smiles.

Similar to most of this area's like-minded restaurants (Astoria's Rio Cafe is an exception), El Mariachi purveys standard Tex-Mex, a cuisine that's making a bold stab for restaurant market share. Certainly this style of food is popular. I mean, who doesn't like burritos plump with melted cheeses, beans, beef and what not? Plus prices are inexpensive to moderate, portions are ample and Tex-Mex restaurants are fun places to eat, usually staffed by Latino servers ready to do whatever's necessary to keep customers happy.

Because of all the above, diners have deemed El Mariachi inviting and worth recommending (three people told me about it). Yet I suspect patrons have found the food equally appealing. Meals begin with - what else? - standard oven-warmed chips sided with salsa, in this case a sassy but thin-textured concoction that'll make you pucker. El Mariachi's extensive menu features all the faves, and then some, upwards of 100 entree choices ranging from chorizo con huevos (Mexican sausage blended with eggs) to a 12-ounce charbroiled T-bone steak.

What sets this place apart from most of the pack is a slight, and in most cases welcome, variation on the Tex-Mex theme - say, the well-seasoned shredded beef inside a burrito, or the pleasantly spicy chili relleno innards. The list goes on: swell guacamole; a super-cheesy chicken breast burrito wrapped in a puffy tortilla that tastes homemade; sides of rice and beans (unless you crave refried, request the whole pinto beans) that are actually worth savoring; and some sauces with flavor and kick that go beyond the same old, same old. And for Tex-Mex surf 'n turf, there's a skewered shrimp, chicken and steak setup named broncheta de camaron pollo azado and carne azade - it's a mouthful to order and eat.

Not everything adds up, however. Mariscos Mexicanos, blended with scallops (prawns also are available and are a better bet) is one of those bland Tex-Mex platters smothered in a sauce that resembles a souped-up salad dressing, although a slew of thick-sliced grilled onions add oomph. That most Mexican of sauces, mole, tastes underseasoned and overly sweet, while a fajita quesadilla platter is more about humongous glops of guacamole, sour cream and refried beans than the advertised two-cheese steak or chicken innards.

Still, you couldn't find more friendly servers, all of them looking to please (during one visit, a small plate of sopapillas - sweetened deep-fried tortillas coated with whipped cream and strawberries - was complimentary). Shipped-in Tex-Mex cheesecake, wrapped in a tortilla pastry, then dusted with cinnamon and sugar, is a more enticing and more filling dessert. Even including beverages, desserts and tip, two could eat like royalty and be treated as such for less than $35.

Bottom line: With its cozy atmosphere, smily servers, sometimes complimentary sopapillas and especially, the kitchen's attempt to mix up the formula food, El Mariachi rates a notch above typical Tex-Mex. Guess, an additional restaurant of this stripe was warranted around here, after all.

Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail mouth@dailyastorian.com

El Mariachi Loco

Two stars (out of four)

3615 U.S. Highway 101 N., Gearhart

(503) 717-9123

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (occasionally 8:30 p.m.) every day.

Prices: Inexpensive to moderate. All the starters and all but one entree (the Caldo 7 Mares, at $14.95) cost less than $12.

Superior selections: Guacamole, chili relleno, carnita de res, camarones Monterey, and a skewered shrimp-chicken-steak dish that's called broncheta de camaron pollo azado and carne azade.

Atmosphere: Typical Tex-Mex with a warmer-than-usual feel.

Service: Ultrafriendly. El Mariachi's staff will warm your heart with their kindness.

Kid-friendly: Yes, and there's a mini kid's menu.

Vegetarian options: Bean and cheese burritos, cheese and onion enchilada, onion-pepper-bean enchilada; many entrees can be ordered meatless.

Alcohol: Cocktails, a small selection of bottled beers and a forgettable house wine.

Access: The entrance and restrooms are accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa.

Personal checks: Local checks, only.

Reservations: Not necessary.

Smoking: Not permitted.

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