Most of the menu at Las Vegas is a pretty good bet

Roughly translated, Las Vegas, according to our server, means "the suburbs." The Las Vegas in Nevada pretty much started out that way, as a stopover and R&R locale for the folks working on the Boulder Dam.

Our local Las Vegas is also in the 'burbs. In Jessup, on Route 1, just south of Route 175, next to a Burger King. Indeed, you can't get much more "modern" suburban than locating your eatery in a strip center.

Co-owner, manager, cook and all-around general factotum Tomas Cruz, a native of San Salvador, opened this 70-seat, south-of-the-border themed restaurant in April 2009. With three or four employees, including wife Blanca, this hard-working Vegas team antes up some very good eating.

On the menu, the food is billed as a Tex-Mex restaurant, but the theme is more Latino, predominantly what we gringos know as Mexican, to be sure, but also featuring dishes from other Central American countries, such as Ecuador and Guatemala. Indeed, there are maps of those countries gracing the walls. Even the televisions (inevitable in virtually all "casual" restaurants these days) were tuned to Spanish-language stations.

The décor here isn't fancy. There are two dining areas, one on each side of the front door. The walls are cheerful yellow, and fans are suspended from the drop ceiling. With ceramic tile floors and bare-topped tables, and two-tone green booths along the sides. And a soft-drink beverage bar at the back, opposite the front door. Soft drinks are plentiful in variety, perhaps because Las Vegas doesn't have a liquor license and, as of this writing, the management does not encourage you to BYOB.

Focus on food

The fairly large menu contains something for just about everyone, and includes lunch specials and a kids' section. It's especially helpful for those who have trouble picturing what a particular dish will be like just from a verbal description. Lots of mouth-watering photographs tempt the appetite. And the plates that come from the kitchen actually look like the photos in the menu.

As mentioned, there are the typical Mexican standards here: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas and combination plates. You'd be hard put to spend more than $10 on any of them, and most are sided with things like Mexican rice, refried beans, even guacamole.

House specialties go all the way up to $12.99, and star such tempters as fried fish, spicy shrimp, shrimp wrapped in bacon, and grilled salmon. And a section featuring chicken, pork (including ribs and fries) and beef boasts a dish containing steak, chicken and shrimp for $13.99.

The bill of fare also includes a trio of main-dish soups (seafood, beef, and tripe, $9.99 to $12.99) and a quartet of main-dish salads ($5.99 to $6.99).

The most expensive of the three desserts costs $2.99.

Four of us stopped in on a recent Sunday evening and, intrigued by the menu pix, ordered a whole bunch of stuff, a lot of which we happily took home to enjoy another time. Adding to the pictorial temptations, you see, was that prices were so reasonable. And since no margaritas or Coronas were available, this undoubtedly helped keep the total bill low anyway.

Nacho chips and a medium-hot, relatively smooth homemade salsa accompanied our journey through the menu. We chose four appetizers, getting double orders of several of them, since they were offered as single items. For instance, the tamal de elote ($1.75), a warm, fluffy masa (corn meal) cylinder, a bit on the sweet side, served with sour cream. And tamal de pollo ($1.50), another huskless treat, a bit more savory, and replete with chicken.

Mild and appetizing pupusas ($1.75) comprised a pair of soft corn tortillas filled with cheese and roasted pork. A perky marinated cabbage "slaw" topped with smooth tomato sauce accompanied.

And platanos ($5.59) featured a generous supply of fried plantains, those quasi-sweet banana relatives. Perhaps a tad overcooked, these still made for good nibbling, especially when paired with the refried beans and sour cream that accompanied.

Las comidas

Already pretty much filled up by our first impressions, our dauntless quartet bravely ordered yet more food. And we were glad we did. Camarones en crema ($11.99), from the house specialties menu section, brought large, crisp-tender shrimp sautéed with just the right amount of tomatoes, cream and "kick" to create an atypical Tex-Mex result. Two warm flour tortillas — for sopping up sauce — came with them, along with Mexican rice and refried beans.

As to the Mexican rice, and the beans: The Las Vegas kitchen doesn't mess around with trying to fix a variety of side dishes to "complement" the starring protein source in each combination. With a few exceptions, rice and beans are it. But, it should be known that the rice is nicely flavored, fluffy and among the better that we've tried. And the refried beans, although not terribly attractive, are earthy, soothing and completely cooked so they're as soft as we think refried beans should be.

Fajitas ($11.99 for a chicken and beef combo) were also as they should be. Arriving all sizzly hot, featuring ample tender meats, three warm tortillas, rice, beans, shredded lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo. The meats were a mite salty, but the overall impression was satisfying.

Carne asada ($12.99) was somewhat disappointing. The seasoned grilled steak was thin, tender-chewy, but rather dry, and looking more like a cube steak than "real" steak. Accompaniments included a fresh lettuce and tomato "salad," rice, beans and avocado slices. The promised Salvadorian cheese seemed to be missing.

On the other hand, the combination platter — billed as Las Vegas Combination ($10.99) — was a most successful main dish (and then some). Not one, but two platters made up this gut-stuffer. Included were a pair of chicken flautas (like rolled, fried mini-tacos), two ground beef tacos (traditional, soft) and two chicken enchiladas, plus Mexican rice, refried beans and lots of cheese sprinkled all over. Definitely a winner for the traditionalist. And for all but the most voracious eater, affording the opportunity to take some home for another meal.

Dessert? Flan? Tres Leches (cake)? Empanadas de platano? We really wished we could. Another time, we'll start with them.

Las Vegas (410-799-3241) is at 7968 Washington Blvd. (Route 1), Jessup.

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