Faced with food that the Surgeon General would probably like to ban, it’s hard to talk seriously about health. “Yeah, my dad’s got a bit of a weight problem,” my roommate says of his cigar-smoking father, who’s thinking he’ll take up golf to infuse his life with vigor. As genuine as my roommate’s concerns are, the irony presented by our lunch can’t be ignored.

Staring at us both is a mound of food that our stomachs will feel for days and our arteries even longer: a daunting com-bo of quesadillas, taquitos, chicken wings, and nachos, all hidden beneath giant scoops of guacamole and sour cream and swimming in the grease of melted cheese. The moment is funny not only because we’d been contemplating fitness, but because we still have main courses coming, and we are already full from the basket of snacks we were given when we sat down. Many hours later, when it came time for dinner, we could stomach only fruit.

At El Tamarindo, the Salvadoran/Mexican institution that sits where Florida Avenue tangles with 18th and U Streets, the bounty of chips and salsa complicate things. For one, the gratuitous offering dulls the novelty of food-writing’s greatest perk: dining for free. More importantly, El Tamarindo’s salsa (a fresh, chunky mixture of spices and vegetables, some of which retain their crunch) and crispy, often hot tortilla chips are significantly better than most everything they offer on their menu.

“I’m usually scared to experiment here,” is the first thing one companion said when he cracked open his menu before dinner. His apprehensions weren’t unfounded: When we decided to get gutsy on an earlier visit and order a crab and shrimp chimichanga, the stale taste of fish lingered in my mouth all day—and I only had three bites. Despite my warning to steer clear of the seafood, we went for the ceviche: a wonderfully light salad of cod and baby shrimp marinated in lemon juice and cilantro, and topped with onions, tomatoes, and avocados. Besides the chips and dip, the ceviche was the only thing at El Tamarindo I’d want to eat again.

El Tamarindo isn’t crowded during lunch hour and weekend nights by accident. It’s a family-run business, and the walls boast plaques awarded for the restaurant’s commitment to the community. El Tamarindo’s selection of tequilas is the size of some restaurants’ wine lists; margaritas, served frozen or on the rocks, can be consumed by the pitcher. A Saturday night spent gorging yourself over one of El Tamarindo’s red-and-white checked tablecloths won’t be boring—but you may regret it in the morning.

The entrees we tried were consistently bland, which wouldn’t have been so bad were it easier to get refills of salsa. So, as my one companion picked at a lifeless plate of chicken Yucatán and said, “I’m not really sure what the point of it is,” he could have been talking about any number of the restaurant’s offerings: the omnipresent refried beans that were almost runny enough to be slurped through a straw; the twin burrito plate whose two offerings—one beef, one chicken—were distinguishable only by color and texture; “Monterey,” the dairy bonanza of cheese-filled tortillas slopped heavily with sour cream that was one of the few dishes a vegetarian companion could eat; or the tacos al pastor, which were essentially tortillas filled with the uninspired combo of chopped beef and salsa. The chicken fajitas, with their delicate hints of soy sauce and red vinegar marinade, would have been a bona fide triumph had we not found an unidentifiable, rock-hard object mingling with the

vegetables.

As I sat hovering over my fourth straight plate of half-eaten food at

El Tamarindo, I started to wonder why the not-very-rich would dine here when you can get twice the quality at half the price somewhere like Burrito Brothers. “You’ve got to go late-night,” is the answer several Tamarindo devotees would blurt when confronted with my

criticism.

And when might that be? Three separate calls netted five different answers. Depending on the day of the week (and the alignment of the stars, apparently), the restaurant stays open until 10 p.m., 11 p.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., or 5 a.m. Eating at El Tam may not be better late than never, but it is better late than early. I will admit that when I wandered in after a concert last week, the chips and salsa went down even better than I remembered, and the waiter replenished the supply twice without my asking. But when I laid down the 11 bucks it took to cover a Coke, tip, and a combination guanaca plate that, except for its pupusa and platanos, I left mostly untouched, it dawned on me that it is true what they say: There’s no such thing as a free lunch—even after dark.

El Tamarindo: 1785 Florida Ave. NW. (202) 328-3660. Also at 7331 Georgia Ave. NW and 4910 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

Hot Plate:

Corned beef or pastrami? The debate has raged among health-indifferent lunchers since the dawn of the delicatessen. At So’s Your Mom, the 10-year-old deli on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, they approach the issue with the same confrontational spirit they employed when choosing their name. The handwritten menu gives the less-seasoned meat a slight promotional edge, referring to their particular vintage of corned beef as “no nonsense.” To judge for yourself, order the half-and-half sandwich (hot or cold) and find out which fares better. I’m a die-hard pastrami man, personally. But with a generous spread of spicy mustard and a badass pickle on the side, the corned beef held its own.

So’s Your Mom: 1831 Columbia Road NW. (202) 462-3666. CP

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