by Mike Corrigan

A baja grill buried somewhere within the fast food/strip mall vortex that is the North Division Y? Yes. Is it worth a stop on your next trip to Target? Yes! Is it worth a special trip? YES! Dalcado's (between McDonald's and Rosauers in the Heritage Village shopping center) is an island of fresh and nutritious delights in a sea of burgers and fries. Inspired by the taquerias and Mexican grills of Southern California, Dalcado's specializes in burritos, tacos, quesadillas and salads all made fresh to order with high-quality ingredients featuring lean meats and a variety of salsas made daily -- all for a price that more than rivals other fast food fare.

"We didn't want to make it too fast food-like, but we definitely wanted to keep it fast," says Manager Gary Williams. "So we're kind of in- between."

Williams is the son-in-law of Dalcado's owners, husband and wife team Ron and Terri Janney. "As far as maintaining quality goes, it helps that we have a lot of family and friends working here," he admits. "We come in and make all the salsas, the dressings, the beans and rice fresh early every morning."

Dalcado's has been open for almost a year (May 18 is their anniversary date). On a recent visit, we were immediately impressed by Williams' friendly disposition and relentless attention to the tidiness of the dining area and salsa bar.

"Cleanliness and customer service are big issues for us," he says. "We really push that as hard as we can."

The restaurant's bright, cheery interior is achieved via big, southern-facing windows, warm earth tones, industrial accents and wooden chairs finished in primary colors. There is a well-established nautical theme, and the house system pipes in a mix of light jazz, R & amp;B and Caribbean. Although the owners did a great job of invoking a beachside taco hut atmosphere, we couldn't help but be a little distracted when we spied the line of grotesque SUVs clogging the drive-thru lane and belching hydrocarbons into the air across the parking lot at Mickey Ds. We found ourselves pining for a well-positioned venetian blind.

The Dalcado menu is a simple thing to grasp, but the tempting choices might get your head spinning. The tacos look fine (in addition to ground beef, grilled steak and chicken, you may choose shrimp or fish), but so do the burritos (with variations on the meat, bean, rice, salsa theme). Just when you think you have something nailed down, a heaping order of nachos (with choice of meat, plus cheese, beans, sour cream, guacamole and salsa fresca for $5.39) emerges from the kitchen, and all bets are off. But you must decide, and so we do.

The Dalcado Burrito ($5.49) is a very substantial flour tortilla bundle containing either grilled steak or grilled chicken, two kinds of cheese, guacamole, Mexican rice, pinto beans, salsa fresca and sour cream thoughtfully wrapped up in paper. These things get a little messy after all, especially when supercharged with goodies from the fully equipped salsa bar which includes five different salsas -- including pineapple and the smoothest salsa verde any of us had ever seen -- fresh limes, sliced jalapenos and a variety of hot sauces. I opted for steak and was glad I did. The meat was very tender and had a nice grilled flavor. The beans were firm yet tender, and the burrito's entire flavor profile was well-balanced.

The grilled chicken chopped salad ($4.79 for the large) was something less than attractive to look at -- the operative word here is "chopped"-- but it had great flavor. It was tangy and savory, with generous chunks of chicken tossed with lettuce, cabbage, three kinds of cheese, salsa, dressing and corn chip bits.

The Fish Burrito ($5.39) with beer-battered white fish wrapped up with shredded cabbage, salsa, cheese and white sauce was also terrific. The white sauce is a light, vaguely creamy sauce that infuses the mixture with a nice zip. This thing, like all the items we ordered, was big. It was sort of like picking up a baby.

Williams says there are tentative plans in the works to open another Dalcado's store closer to downtown, but for now the family-owned and -operated fast food alternative will continue to hook customers one at a time by doing pretty much everything right -- in a part of town desperate for diverse dining options.

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