A cantina you can't go wrong in

Conveniently located directly on the Albertsons' parking lot, La Sirena's patio provides a spectacular ocean view over the hoods of the parked cars. The unadorned natural-wood picnic tables contrast nicely with the concrete sidewalk.

Each table seats up to eight uncomfortably. The more elegant interior actually features chairs at the tables and a hint of color in the concrete. The room is dominated by an open kitchen, a salsa bar and a drink dispenser. This contemporary cantina is done in tones of burnt orange and pale lime with pressed-tin wainscoting.

Dispensing with the maitre d', you may immediately assume a comfortable place in line from which to leisurely peruse the menu overhead. Others in your party may select a table from those that are available. No interacting with snooty waiters, or waiting for inefficient busboys, you can get your own water whenever you like.

Your representative in line can place everyone's order and pay the bill, eliminating the tedious wait at the end of the meal for the check to arrive. It goes without saying that the service is superior, since you do it yourself.

All kidding aside, the food is great!

Owners Scott Cortallesa and Mark Thompson met while working at Kachina, the southwestern restaurant that was David Wilhelm's first venture in Laguna Beach. In 1999, when a little cottage in downtown Laguna became available, they decided it would be the perfect place to realize their dream of opening their own eatery, and so the first La Sirena was born.

The instant popularity of this tiny spot encouraged them to open a larger second location a few years later, and they are looking for another.

The cuisine in these boisterous beaneries is California Mexican taken to a higher level. Creative touches abound and freshness rules. In addition to the standard menu items, tacos, burritos, enchiladas etc., there are also tortas, sopes and entrée salads.

All of these feature a choice of carne asada, carnitas and pollo, while some have pescado, shrimp or vegetarian fillings as well.

An example of their special touch with traditional fare is the quesadilla: spread with sautéed mushrooms and onions, then brushed with chipotle paste and stuffed with your choice of filling. Thus, bringing additional layers of flavor to a simple dish. The carnitas, pollo and carne asada quesadillas are really delicious.

Less interesting was the barbecued chicken because the BBQ sauce overwhelmed all the other tastes. All are served with very generous sides of chunky guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo.

Taquitos are distinguished by their savory filling, not the usual puréed mush but discernible bits of well-seasoned chicken. Although a tad on the greasy side, they are very tasty. At $2.25 for one, served with guacamole, sour cream and queso fresco, they're also a great deal.

We chose the taco special: fried calamari. The nuevo taco was topped with pico de gallo and slathered with aioli, unique in the world of tacos, rich and absolutely great. This flavorful sauce appears on their albacore and salmon tacos as well.

We were particularly impressed with the enchiladas. You have your choice of a mild guajillo red sauce or a medium-spiced serrano/tomatillo/cilantro green sauce, and both of them are first-rate.

We tried chicken with red sauce and the carnitas with the green and found them both to be especially felicitous combinations. The meat fillings were generous and the chicken was in good-sized chunks, not a bit overcooked. We ordered mountains of food to taste everything for you, but even though we were stuffed, we couldn't resist finishing those enchiladas.

We both have eaten the meal-sized salads many times. Mixed greens, tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with lime-cilantro dressing, topped with avocado, crispy onions, cheese and your choice of protein is especially good with a generous dollop of pico de gallo from the salsa bar. We are always impressed by the abundant quantity of protein in all their dishes, especially for the price.

The only really disappointing menu item that we tasted was the sope. The very thick corn tortilla that forms the base was tough and dried out. They can only be really good when they are freshly made and hot off the grill and this one was not. Also, the topping was a skimpy amount of bland red beans and overcooked albacore. The tortilla soup is hit and miss. One night it was fresh and perky and another time tired and boring.

We don't think there is anything in the restaurant, except perhaps the cookies, that wouldn't be enhanced by a trip to the salsa bar, where one encounters a trio of fabulous salsas: The mild red that actually still has a nice kick, the sensational medium green (serrano/tomatillo/cilantro) and the spicy, smoky salsa quemada. In addition, there are pickled peppers, pico de gallo and lime wedges.

Desserts are usually given short shrift in Mexican fast food restaurants and La Sirena is no exception. However, on the counter are three kinds of cookies, plus brownies and macaroons. As we eyed them without much enthusiasm Nick, the counterman, said that the coconut butterscotch is the best cookie he has ever tasted. Easily persuaded, we ate one and it was pretty darned good.

In the overused but still accurate expression of Emeril Lagasse, La Sirena Grill "kicks it up a notch" when it comes to California-Mexican food.cpt.10-gourmet-CPhotoInfoGN1OOOAB20060310ivucvlknDON LEACH / COASTLINE PILOT(LA)Blackened Salmon salad at La Sirena Cafe in Laguna is a light yet hearty mix of greens, peppers, avocado, with a touch of diced mango.

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