by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ometimes dining is about more than food. In fact, my peak food experiences (except for guilty solo dives into a pint of Ben and Jerry's) are usually about comfort, camaraderie, community, hospitality -- and only occasionally about cuisine.

So I wasn't sure what to expect at La Milpa, a family-owned, family-style Mexican restaurant located in the strip mall heaven of East Sprague in Spokane Valley. The building, just east of Bowdish, still shows vestiges of its earlier incarnation as a fast food palace, although the sunny Southwest colors both inside and out had attracted my eye and made me want to check the place out.

When Jessica and I entered La Milpa on a recent midweek lunch visit, we found Josh already settled in a corner booth, back to the wall, facing down the first of two complimentary baskets of chips with salsa. The servers greeted us enthusiastically, quickly delivering our menus and water to the beat of Mexican pop music in the background.

The menu is full of all the standard combos you'd expect to find, along with a few specialty burritos and traditional Mexican favorites like tacos de lengua, menudo and pozole. Most dishes come with rice and refried beans. The margaritas sounded tempting, and the selection of cervezas included several favorites from south of the border -- Modelo Especial, yum. But, alas, an afternoon of work beckoned, so a couple of horchatas had to satisfy our thirst for adventure.

The tortilla chips arrived warm and crispy, accompanied by a smooth tomato-ey salsa that had a little bit of zip to it while not being too strong for the faint of heart.

Josh's arroz con pollo ($7) was the hit of the meal: chunks of chicken saut & eacute;ed with plenty of vegetables and served in a lightly flavorful sauce over rice, with plenty of corn and flour tortillas on the side. "I could taste everything that was in it, rather than just an overpowering sauce," he says. "I'd definitely order it again."

My pollo en mole ($7) satisfied my craving for the rich, savory sauce made with cocoa and peanuts. The generous portion of boneless chicken tenders in thick brown sauce came garnished with a light sprinkling of sesame seeds; it carried just enough of a spicy kick to jazz up the flavors -- and generate a mini hot flash. (But then, that's not hard these days.) The equally generous servings of rice and refried beans were basic Mexican comfort food, plain and simple.

Jessica opted for the carne asada ($7), slices of grilled skirt steak that came with guacamole and the usual rice and beans. The ample serving of steak came lightly spiced and grilled yet still tender. The guacamole held chunks of avocado, proof that it was made from scratch and not scooped out of a plastic container. The overall effect was a little heavy on the meat, Jessica says, but tasty.

Every aspect of the food ranged from serviceable to really good, except for the horchata ($2). Both Jessica and I deemed it too sweet for our taste; the sugar overwhelmed the delicate rice and cinnamon flavors so much that it was basically like drinking sweetened water.

But the best part of the meal was the warmth and friendliness of the staff. Our server, Natalie, checked on us attentively -- refilling water glasses, bringing more chips, more tortillas -- without hovering. She delivered our plates with a smile and later talked to us about how cooking styles vary across Mexico. And she made sure to invite us back on a Monday, when the margaritas are only $2.

While we ate, a young family -- mom, dad and two little ones -- came in and sat nearby. They chatted casually with Natalie and the other server in Spanish. The kids munched happily on the chips and salsa, the rice and beans.

At the end of our meal, Jessica -- our California girl -- noted that generally she mistrusts servers who make a point of addressing her as "Senorita," as if needing to convince her she's in a Mexican restaurant. "Shouldn't the aromas and flavors of the food be proof enough?" she points out. But at La Milpa, she had a change of heart. "By the end of the meal, as I munched on the complimentary sopapillas, licking cinnamon, sugar and whipped cream from my lips while the server took time to chat with us about how the deep-fried tortilla treats were made, I was convinced that the friendliness was genuine," she says. "And when another server went out of his way to open the door and shout, 'Adios, amigos!' as we drove out of the parking lot, I couldn't help smiling and shouting back 'Adios!'"

Hospitality. Comfort. A little conversation en Espa & ntilde;ol. Decent food for not a lot. That's what you'll find at La Milpa. And that's enough.

La Milpa, 11519 E. Sprague, Spokane Valley, is open Mon-Thu, 11 am-8:30 pm; Fri-Sat, 11 am-9:30 pm; and Sun, 11 am-7 pm. Call 921-8109.

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