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A good route to take south of the border

(ran TP edition)

Not counting Taco Bell, Mexican food usually doesn't fare well as takeout. (Besides, I'm talking about good Mexican food.)

But Estela's, a new Mexican restaurant on Davis Islands, does an admirable job.

As soon as we walked in the small, dimly lit dining room at 8:45 p.m., a waiter hustled us into a seat and brought us chips and salsa while we browsed a long, varied menu. At 9 p.m., our food arrived in a plastic bag filled with neat containers.

At home, my chicken burrito, cheese enchilada, refried beans and rice were still hot in their foil pan with a cardboard top. My friend's chicken enchilada and chile relleno were still warm, too. The only item that didn't keep was the sopapillas, crunchy triangles of fried dough drizzled with sugary condensed milk.

Our entrees, and the cheese quesadilla we shared, were not the best Mexican food we had ever had, but it was a far cry from Taco Bell. The quesadilla and accompanying guacamole was bland and the brown sauce on the enchiladas and chile relleno had an odd barbecue taste ("I'm not into the brown sauce," my friend remarked), but the chicken was fresh and tender.

"There's a big difference between average Mexican and really bad Mexican," my friend added. "This is not really bad Mexican."

Estela's earns points for an eager, friendly serving staff, the speed with which the food was prepared, the generous portions and the neat take-out wrapping. Included in our order were forks, knives and napkins, which would have come in handy if we had not been headed home.

Looking back, it would have been better to sit down for our meals at one of the umbrella-topped tables on Estela's small patio fronting Davis Islands' main drag, Davis Boulevard. The cool breeze, soft Colombian pop music and joking waiters probably would have made up for the brown sauce.

HILLSBOROUGH TO GO

ESTELA'S MEXICAN RESTAURANT

209 E Davis Blvd., Tampa

Phone: 251-0558

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Customers: Two adults

Order: Cheese quesadilla, combination 7 (chicken enchilada, chile relleno, Spanish rice and refried beans) and 17 (chicken burrito, cheese enchilada, Spanish rice and refried beans), sopapillas

Cost: $20.18

Pay: Cash or personal check; no credit cards

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