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DAVID NELSON/ON RESTAURANTS

Bland Mexican Fare From Santos Hacienda

December 12, 1991|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Just as people in an elevator tend to move to points equidistant from one another as others exit the car, so it happens that when virtually any sort of commercial space--a former shoe store, dress shop, whatever--becomes available, a restaurant will move in to fill the void. We could call this the molecular theory of restaurants.

Restaurant rows used to spring up haphazardly as certain intersections proved attractive to the dining public. Now, of course, they are built from scratch, as in the cases of the immense Old San Marcos Restaurant Row and the Aventine restaurant collection in the Golden Triangle.

The Lumberyard in Encinitas started out more as a collection of shops than a gourmet rendezvous, but has steadily added eateries over the years and now offers something along the lines of one-stop-shopping for ethnic dining. If the restaurants all flew the flags of the national cuisines they serve, The Lumberyard would not quite resemble the United Nations, although Japan, India, Italy, Vietnam, France, China and others would be represented.

Among the entrants in this international parade is Santos Hacienda, a large, colorfully decorated establishment that cooks the California version of Mexican food. Inclusive rather than innovative, the menu has as its strength the fact that it offers virtually every dish common to this style.

The cooking seems average in most cases, and the presentation, even given the limitations of a cooking style in which so many items have the same, flat shade, seems at best perfunctory. There is no evidence of any effort to make plates attractive, except perhaps to those who appreciate the sight of very large quantities of food, which are the rule at Santos. In the same vein, the service also seems perfunctory rather than thoughtful, and the server at one meal, while pleasant, was both inattentive and hurried for reasons known only to himself. The dinner plates arrived just a moment after the soup had been placed on the table, which was annoying.

At its most adventurous, the appetizer list offers a quesadilla with strips of carne asada . Otherwise, the choice includes such standards as ceviche (fish "cooked" in a citrus marinade), guacamole and nachos.

The soup choices are welcome, however, and, while both are standard in Mexican cooking, they do not appear with great frequency on Mexican menus in California. Both start

with a fairly flavorful broth made tangy by the addition of mild chile peppers and sweetened by the presence of tomatoes, cabbage and thin rounds of zucchini. A handful of tiny meatballs, nicely flavored with the traditional mint that few places bother to add, enriched the likable albondigas soup, while the sopa de tortilla , filled to the brim with cheese and strips of fried tortilla, was messier than most but just as satisfying.

Tortillas are made on the premises, by the way, which is always a good sign and certainly seems the logical course of action when virtually every item on the menu depends on this versatile bread. These figure importantly in the many styles of enchilada, taco, burrito and tostada that dominate the menu, and also appear as optional wrappers for the fajitas and the house specialty of carnitas , long-cooked chunks of pork that are served for one or for the table with an array of traditional garnishes.

A guest at a recent meal was especially pleased by the presence of pork enchiladas as well as the more standard chicken and beef varieties. The enchilada figured as part of an immense plate that also included a beef taco, a tamale, a pool of smooth frijoles refritos and a mound of indifferent rice.

Among the three meat items, it was hard to distinguish differences in flavor, and, while each was acceptable, none seemed any more than that. An order of chicken fajitas , again most generously portioned, featured a surprisingly weak flavor despite the presence of plenty of sauteed bell pepper and onion strips.

The menu also offers chile colorado , or beef stewed in red chili sauce; steak picado , garnished with peppers, onions and tomatoes; shrimp with garlic butter, and crab enchiladas.

Santos Hacienda

In The Lumberyard, 937 1st St., Encinitas

Calls: 436-5895

Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly

Cost: Entree plates from $4.55 to $8.95; dinner for two, including a margarita each, tax and tip, about $20 to $35

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