Compiled by Kathie Jenkins

Southwestern food has been described as Tex-Mex with a college education. Right now, it's one of the trendiest tastes in town. If you want to try it, these local restaurants will gladly oblige.

ROSALIE'S (385 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 657-3850). The former 385 North has turned into Rosalie's, and this one-time California kitchen has taken a slightly Southwestern turn. To begin, there is a huge Southwestern antipasto plate that easily feeds three. Such dishes as prawn tamales with cilantro oregano butter sauce or the charred tuna with horseradish cream are good beginners. Entrees include duck burritos, smoked chorizo with frizzled leeks and smoked loin of pork with bourbon sauce. There is even a coleslaw taco! For the less adventurous there's good old fried chicken with mashed potatoes. Open for lunch Tue.-Fri., dinner daily. All major credit cards. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$75.

SAINT ESTEPHE (2640 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (213) 545-1334). There is nobody who cooks quite like owner/chef John Sedlar. Most of Sedlar's dishes depend largely on visual appeal for their effects. The dish he calls "the Painted Desert"--a small steamed salmon steak sitting on a plate brilliantly drawn with sorrel and red chile sauces--is Sedlar's excuse to use the plate as a canvas. Even less-complicated dishes, such as roast breast of chicken with wild spinach greens in a jalapeno vinegar sauce, arrive with the "tulips" constructed out of vegetables. The taste itself is earthy, the vinegar sauce and the wild greens bringing out the most assertive flavors of the chicken. The blue cornmeal crepes wrapped around pumpkin ice cream in a Grand Marnier sauce are alone worth the trip. Open for lunch Tue.-Fri., dinner Tue.-Sat. All major credit cards. Beer and wine only. Shopping center parking. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$100.

SONORA CAFE (445 S. Figueroa St. (in the Union Bank Building), Los Angeles, (213) 624-1800). This stylishly decorated restaurant, a member of the El Cholo family, has turned into a downtown hangout. The food ranges from fajitas , elegantly served, to exotic dishes like tequila-marinated salmon served on a bed of spinach and covered with beurre blanc . The crab and wild mushroom enchiladas in chipotle cream sauce are a brilliant flavor combination and probably the best thing on the menu. Beware: The little blue cornbread madeleines are rich and crunchy and positively addictive. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner daily. All major credit cards. Full bar. Parking in building validated after 5 p.m. only. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$45.

SOUTH OF SANTA FE (777 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 972-9900). The latest child in the El Cholo family of restaurants has a cheerful decor, busy and bizarre with weird little artifacts, paintings, neon shapes and custom-made sculptures. Chips and salsa are complimentary, but you have to request them. By all means do. Chips come in three colors and the salsa is delightfully chunky. Ditto a spicy guacamole. A few of the downright winners: Anaheim chili stuffed with leeks and goat cheese; a generous New York steak in an ancho chili sauce, and fresh swordfish in a smoked tomato, cilantro and lime salsa. For dessert, flourless Ibarra chocolate cake with a tequila sabayon is a good idea, and the house lemon pie an even better one. There is even an interesting collection of homemade ice cream. Open for lunch and dinner daily. MasterCard, Visa and American Express. Full bar. Shopping center parking. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$45.

TUMBLEWEED (130 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 274-5844). A tiny restaurant with an open kitchen that is painted a cheerfully bright shade of yellow. The menu sounds so delicious that you want to try everything on it. Some of the dishes to try: warm oyster shooters with chipotle salsa; apple-smoked Norwegian salmon; jicama, tangerine and pomegranate salad; homemade hot links; whole grilled striped bass; fresh crab and black bean cakes with sweet pepper vinaigrette, and hickory-smoked baby back ribs. Even the small wine list, which includes Tempier's wonderful Bandol rose, is impressive. Open for lunch Mon.-Sat. and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Beer and wine only. Meter parking or parking lots (in a neighborhood that is difficult to park in). Dinner for two, food only, $18-$24.

TURQUOISE CAFE (15025 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 995-6575). This brand-new bistro serves a bowdlerized version of modern Southwestern food. The mandatory potted cactuses are strewn about and large paintings, whose surfaces are spackled to match the texture of the stuccoed walls, depict the usual adobe sorts of things. If you order grilled dishes, it is possible to eat quite well here. The New York steak is garnished with a juicy melange of diced, basil-marinated tomatoes; moist, grilled loin of pork has delicious bits of spicy, charred crust adhering to it and comes with an interesting salsa of marinated black beans. Grilled tiger shrimp in a cilantro-lime butter sauce, laced with just enough chili to spark the sweet sea taste of the meat, is sensational. Open for lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat. MasterCard, Visa, and American Express. Beer and wine only. Parking in rear. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$30.

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