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A Star Is Born 

Mexican fare burns bright at Cascabels Cantina and Grill

After years of a relative gustatory void, all of a sudden there is a wealth of places to procure good food at the west end of Garden of the Gods Road, especially on and around Centennial. Mollica's is still thriving, Marigold's moved and expanded, and other purveyors and restaurateurs have made the move to the north. You practically need a scorecard to keep up, what with gourmet markets and mom-and-pop restaurants fighting the good fight with the ubiquitous chains.

If you're looking for a nice Mexican restaurant where you can get really good food, really good service and not break the bank, you're in luck. Cascabel's Cantina and Grill fills the bill perfectly. The interior is warm and inviting, and the staff is welcoming, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. It's a great place for a quiet dinner, a romantic dinner, a business lunch or a meal with the kids.

The menu at Cascabel's is limited, but that's a plus. There's plenty of variety, but they don't try to offer every Mexican dish you've ever heard of, in a variety of combinations that boggle the mind. You've got 10 choices for lunch and seven for dinner (plus five choices on the children's menu), and that means that individual items get lavished with attention. The drink menu is companionably short, with a few Mexican beers, American beers, wine and soft drinks. I don't know if the owners are planning on expanding that menu, but I have a feeling they would make an excellent margarita if they put their minds to it. The attention to detail is superb.

Take the salsa, for example. Take lots of it, because your server will refill your chips and salsa as often as you empty the bowls. The salsa is chunky and fresh tasting, with a medium heat and a lingering, smoky taste that we found quite addictive. I asked one of the owners if there was a secret, but she assured me that the salsa is made fresh every morning with just roasted green chiles, roasted tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro. The sum is so much more than the parts! The guacamole is similarly fresh with the clean taste of avocado dominating, nice and chunky without too much adulteration. And the chips, freshly fried, are a treat for young and old, because you get a mixture of traditional corn tortillas plus flour tortillas. The flour tortillas fry up quite differently, more crunchy than crispy, perfect for scooping up more salsa.

One of the dinner combinations that I wouldn't hesitate to order again is Jorge's. You get a beef chalupa -- defined as a sopapilla stuffed with beef and refried beans and smothered with green chili -- and a beef Norteno -- a mild green chile stuffed with ground beef and onions and covered with a green chile and cheese sauce. The chalupa had a nice balance of beef and beans, and the sopapilla shell stood up to the sauce without being too greasy. The Norteno was perfection, the chile roasted and peeled, silky but firm-textured and not overcooked. The green chili covering both dishes was delightful, smooth and flavorful, full of the essence of green chiles, with a medium heat. I know that rice came with the meal, and I know I enjoyed it, but it was overshadowed by the main dish. The refried beans that came with the other entrees were also quite good -- a nice combination of whole beans and mashed beans, with some real flavor to them.

Other dinner options include a Grande Burrito that comes with green chili, guacamole, sour cream, rice and beans. They aren't kidding when they say grande, and the fillings -- beef or chicken -- are tender, moist and packed with flavor. If you're starving, you can get the Cascabel Grande, which has a stomach-stretching quartet of a tamale, a cheese enchilada, a beef taco, and a tostada, and is served with rice and beans. Cascabel's has also recently added a steak to the dinner menu, medium-sized, perfectly cooked and topped with green chili.

The lunch menu is similar to the dinner menu, with slightly smaller portions and more combinations. You can also get a taco salad or Nachos Supreme for lunch, plus the a la carte menu lets you add a taco, a burrito, a tostada or an enchilada to any meal and you can smother it with green or red chili. All the entrees come with rice and beans, and the prices range from $5.75 to $6.25. Dinner is hardly more expensive, with prices ranging from $7.95 to $9.25.

Save room for dessert, if you can. The sopapillas are pretty tasty -- puffy and golden without being too greasy, sprinkled generously with cinnamon and sugar, and served with a squeeze bottle of honey. I'm looking forward to trying the fried ice cream and bunuelos on future visits. I also can't wait to see which way the menu expands. I'm pretty sure that whatever they're serving up at Cascabel's, I'm going to be willing to try it.

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