Chi-Chi's Tex-Mex fare, cheerful surroundings and kids make a good mix

MATTERS OF TASTE for the family

January 23, 1992|By Mary Maushard

''That was a good place,'' my 3-year-old said without prompting as we left Chi-Chi's in Timonium.

Her older sister was slightly more explicit.

''It was medium food,'' she had decided.

That is to say, not fast food, which you get at a counter, or ''slow food,'' which means waiting to order and having to listen to boring adults between courses.

When you think about it, ''medium food'' seems like an appropriate label for Chi-Chi's Tex-Mex fare.

Nobody would ever confuse it with haute cuisine, but it's not bad either. The portions are certainly large and the prices reasonable. The atmosphere is bustling. The dining room where we were seated was filled with bright trappings de Mexico, which spurred a lengthy -- some adults would think it boring -- conversation on pinatas and whether candy would shower over us at any minute. (Another family was having the same conversation at an adjacent table.)

Chi-Chi's is entertaining, at least for family dining. And the folks who work there are friendly, accommodating and skilled at managing a crowd.

Even though Chi-Chi's has several dining rooms, it was overflowing when we arrived about 5 o'clock on a Sunday evening. We were told there would be a 25-minute wait. While we waited and the waiting time grew, I saw only one person who decided not to wait, and I saw no one disgruntled over the wait. Many adjourned to the bar.

Just before our 25 minutes were up, we were seated.

The wait had made us hungry. We dug into the complimentary taco chips and salsa. Our waitress warned us that one salsa was ''hot.'' I didn't find it extremely fiery, though I think it would have been too much for my companions, who liked the mild salsa a lot.

Chi-Chi's menu, like those at most other Tex-Mex places is large and lively. When you're ordering with two children, though, it's difficult to consider all the combinations and permutations.

The children's menu had six offerings, with tacos the only one remotely Mexican. We settled on a Grilled Cheese and a Mini-Pizza with ground beef.

My older daughter was pleased with the pizza, made on a flour tortilla, because it had only cheese and ground beef. Sometimes she finds pizza tomato sauce too spicy.

The grilled cheese was golden with lots of gooey cheese and came with french fries.

The children's dishes, $1.79 each on the menu, were only 99 cents on our check. I didn't see any signs about special offers, but it certainly was a great deal. Likewise, the Shirley Temples at 50 cents each couldn't be beat.

I ordered The Special Dinner ($7.99) -- a large onion and cheese enchilada, a taco and something called a taquito served with Spanish rice, refried beans and a tiny salad.

The enchilada, with ''spicy'' ground beef, and the crisp taco, with very fresh fillings, were good. The taquito had an odd taste and texture. It appeared to be a tortilla wrapped around ground beef and then fried. It wasn't crispy, though, just a bit tough.

The side dishes left much to be desired.

The beans tasted like they had been on the heat too long; the rice had an odd spice, and the salad had gotten so warm from the tray that it was unpleasantly limp.

My side order of guacamole ($1.49) was a little bland, but good, with slices of avocado and bits of tomato.

My companions and I shared a Fried Ice Cream ($2.49) for dessert. We enjoyed the large serving of vanilla ice cream with its crunchy coating and chocolate sauce. It was served in a fried tortilla.

Our waitress had been especially attentive to the children, going out of her way to find crayons and serving their water in small glasses. It took her a long time to bring our check, though I think that was due to the number of tables she was serving.

Our bill, with one frosty margarita ($2.99) and one coffee (99 cents), was $19.88. And we had leftovers, too.

** 1/2

Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant

21 W. Timonium Road, Timonium

561-2464

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Reservations: None accepted for groups of eight or more; "preferred seating" allows you to put your name on waiting list when you leave home.

Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.

Handicapped access: Accessible.

Smoking: Separate areas designated.

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