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RESTAURANTS : AT TEX-MEX, A BULLHORN SUMMONS STARTS IT OFF

There are lace curtains and hanging ropes of garlic and peppers at Marix Tex-Mex Playa, but what I noticed first was the noise. Well actually, second. What I noticed first was how the raw pine wood architecture of the building (a Japanese restaurant was formerly on the site) had taken on a barn-raised look. And they’re hanging from the rafters here. Lots of pretty people are bellying up to the bar for “Texas Punch.” Santa Monica Canyon has a new hangout place. Grab yourself some chips and listen up good in all the din for your (first) name to be called out on a bullhorn.

The second auditory clue that you’re in Marix is the periodic sound of sizzling whizzing by. Fajitas --platters of incredibly hot grilled shrimp, vegetables, strips of beef or chicken--may be the bravado ‘80s answer to the pizazz of ‘50s crepes suzettes . “Is this what I’m supposed to die over?” a woman at the next table said. (Tables are very close together. It was her first fajita , and their first date.)

Listed as an appetizer, a full portion of this specialty of the house makes a fine meal. Served with a stack of fat, warm, homemade tortillas, a good chunky guacamole and pico de gallo , they are the Tex-Mex equivalent of moo shu pork. We ordered smoky, tender “charra” pinto beans, another good accompaniment.

Marix has quite a big menu including eight “Texican” dinners, and many variants of tortilla-wrapped foods-- flautas , chimichangas , quesadillas , etc. The chili, made with lots of meat, is simple and good. The “Santa Fe Special” sounds exotic, but the dense corn tortilla merely adds a dark layer to a sweet red chile-sauced affair.

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The service was consistently thoughtful, particularly remarkable since Marix is so busy. Both the gentle owner, who frequently makes his way through the tables, and the waiters and waitresses really seem concerned that you enjoy the meal. One night, the waitress took it to heart that we’d barely touched the ceviche, and then, we realized later, took it off the bill. (We tried the ceviche again another night and just didn’t think the barely marinated red snapper was any good.)

The chicken mole was one note sharp and came with vapid Mexican rice while the plato pepi , a grilled breast of chicken marinated in lime, was succulent and served with down-to-earth, homemade mashed potatoes. The tamales were steadfast and ungreasy. Puffy sopaipillas flew from the kitchen as hot as could be, properly served with honey too.

This is not the place for either rarefied cuisine or a real conversation. It’s just impossible to hear any intricacies of thought, at least at dinner time. (Lunch is a calmer affair.) After repeatedly repeating ourselves, my dinner companions and I gave up and just gave into dessert.

The sweet potato pecan pie was exceedingly buttery, the flan was the texture of a fried egg and the ice cream cloaked in a first-rate hot Dutch chocolate sauce. I took a shine to the Tall Tea, a healthy splash of Kahlua, soda water and plenty of fresh-squeezed lime. My friends tell me the special house Margarita really has some punch. The beer is served heavenly cold.

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Valet parking gets a bit tangled, at least on weekend nights. Be prepared to wait. “Where’d they park the car--Orange, N.J.?” one less than laid-back customer cried. If you’re in a convivial mood (or don’t want a torchy first date) Marix is lively and modestly priced. If you’re feeling quiet or just want to talk to your friends, you might ask the restaurant to pack you a meal. Head out to the beach--it’s right across the street. Or, as the days get longer, head up the hill to Will Rogers’ house and commune with an earlier vintage of Tex-Mex.

Marix Tex-Mex Playa, 118 Entrada Drive, Santa Monica, (213) 459-8596. Open daily, 11 a.m.- 11 p.m. Reservations suggested. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Valet parking. Dinner for two (food only): $13-$30.


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