by Mike Corrigan

To seek out an eatery serving tasty and carefully prepared lunchables and review it. That was the mission. Simple enough, right? So it would seem. Yet there were conditions to contend with. Early on we agreed -- as we often do -- that such an establishment must be locally owned and operated. We were also bound by the self-imposed commandment: "thou shalt not review that which thou hast reviewed before." Cruising along 29th near Lincoln Heights Shopping Center in increasingly desperate straits (hungry, irritable), we spied it. If the traffic hadn't been moving so excruciatingly slow, we might have missed it altogether, but there it was. Tucked into the end of a strip mall anchored by Rosauers, of all things, was a small but inviting storefront boasting Mexican food. The name ("Chapala") resonated agreeably with the group. And so it was decided.

Though it appears tiny from the street, Chapala is cavernous and roomy inside. With two levels of dining, owners Jesse and Connie Cabrera could probably accommodate a small army in here. It's neat and clean, with an open kitchen and an interior d & eacute;cor that happily goes a long way towards making you forget the rest of your immediate surroundings (i.e., the asphalt jungle along 29th Ave.). The walls are bright and colorful, covered with lively, hand-painted murals depicting animals, houses with white picket fences, pastoral vistas and scenes of family life.

Chapala serves its lunch specials Monday-Friday from 11 am-2:30 pm. The lunch menu features 28 different selections, many of which seem to be plucked from the even larger, slightly more expensive dinner menu. Your favorites -- tacos, enchiladas, burritos -- are all here, of course, but so are several slightly esoteric creations -- to Norte Americanos, at least -- such as the mole de pollo ($6.50) and the chorzio burrito ($6.25). The prices range from the $3.95 bowl of chili to the $7.95 shrimp quesadilla. Most lunches seem to come with rice and beans. (This is not indicated on the very non-descriptive lunch menu, however. If in doubt, ask.)

The complimentary chips and salsa appetizer has pretty much become standard throughout Spokane. At Chapala, I'd have to say this pre-meal treat exceeded our expectations. In addition to a generous pile of warm, tender chips, our server laid two kinds of salsa on us (mild and hot). The salsa itself was excellent, and the hot one was actually quite fiery.

As for the main course, Chapala's signature dish -- what else but the $7.25 Chapala Burrito? -- sounded to me like a good place to start. On a plate hot from the oven it arrived: my choice of meat (pork), beans, cheese, lettuce and mild salsa wrapped in a flour tortilla, smothered with red sauce and a dusting of melted cheese. Served with a side of rice and beans, topped with a dollop of guacamole and sour cream and garnished with a tomato wedge, the dish was as artfully presented as is possible for such humble ingredients. And no complaints were registered in the taste department. Everything -- from the obvious freshness of the ingredients to the zesty red sauce and cool guacamole suggested careful preparation, putting the Chapala Burrito on par with the best Mexican food I've had anywhere.

Other menu items presented to our team of tasters included the chimichanga ($6.75) and a veggie enchilada ($4.95). The chimi (a rolled tortilla filled with chicken, delicately deep-fried and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, guacamole and sour cream) was declared "the highlight of my lunchbox week" by one taster. We considered the veggie enchilada not only a nice option amid all the meatier selections but smashing on its own merits as well. For such a simple thing -- a rolled flour tortilla filled with spinach, mushrooms, onions and bell peppers and topped with lovely and de-lish green tomatillo sauce -- the results were sublime.

Also worth reporting is the very friendly and attentive service we experienced for the duration of our stay. Menu items were explained, water glasses kept topped off and requests for salsa refills throughout the meal were always cheerfully granted.

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Sat., Sept. 26, 12-8 p.m.
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