When the popular Arcelia's left Lafayette Square a while back, it left a vacuum in the neighborhood for those with a taste for Mexican fare. So when Laredo opened up in the same space a couple of years ago, there was much anticipation for this new kid on the block, and we were eager to finally give the place a try.

It had been a while since we had visited Arcelia's, and our memory of the decor was somewhat fuzzy, but Laredo seems to have a more streamlined, understated feel than its predecessor. While the restaurant specializes in Mexican cuisine; thankfully, there's no annoying south-of-the-border kitsch adorning the walls as is the case in so many eateries with similar menus.

To get in the proper frame of mind for menu perusal, we nipped on a couple of Milagro Blanco tequilas ($7 each), paired with bottles of Corona ($4 each), while noshing on some house-made chips and salsa. The salsa had a really nice kick to it, providing a good balance of spice, heat and sweetness.

With unlimited chips in front of us, we bypassed the appetizers and ordered up our mains. First, the Enchiladas ($10), which come two to a plate with a choice of braised beef, chicken or cheese (we opted for beef). We augmented our order with a side of tortillas ($2). These enchiladas were plenty flavorful, though another one on the plate would have been welcome.

There are two Trio options on the menu under Combinations. We ordered Trio # 1 ($11), which offers a choice of either the chicken consomme or the soup of the day, the house salad or the espinacas (spinach salad) and half of one of the quesadilla offerings. We chose the consomme, espinacas and a cheese quesadilla. The soup was full of tender pulled chicken in a fairly standard chicken broth. Tasty, but not particularly spicy, though the menu listed lemon, onion, cilantro, oregano and diced serrano peppers as part of the mix. The espinacas was the star of the trio. A bed of tender spinach leaves topped with dried apricots and cherries for some sweetness and a tequila orange vinaigrette for a bit of a bite. If the espinacas was the highpoint, the quesadilla was on the low end. Though it only was a half-sized portion, we expected a bit more than the tiny slivers of tortilla and cheese we ended up with. Taste-wise, they were on the bland side and could've used some more ooomph. We dipped them in some of the leftover salsa, a move we highly recommend.

To finish up, some Flan ($6) and a Sopapilla ($6). Again, portion size was an issue, this time with the flan, which was downright puny. It was much heavier than other examples we've tried over the years, as well, more of a pie than a custard.

Service was extremely attentive and the overall feel of Laredo was that of a comfortable neighborhood joint. During our recent visit, the locals were out in force, popping in for takeout orders and a Margarita or two after work. With a few tweaks to the portion sizes and a freer hand with the spices, Laredo has all the makings of a top-notch Mexican eatery.

-- 2001 Park Ave., 231-9200,

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