HOLLADAY — In the couple years since it opened in Holladay, Loco Lizard Cantina has settled in well.

This eatery, which has an older sister site in Park City, balances traditional Mexican with innovative twists, as well as a slightly "upscale" environment that nonetheless welcomes all comers.

I wasn't sure how we would do with the kids at Loco Lizard, but I need not have worried. A huge sign in the lobby proclaims that any kids arriving for dinner in sports uniforms get a free kids meal (if their parents buy an adult meal, of course). I figured, if sweaty, grass-stained soccer kids are welcome, mine must be, too!

And they were, along with the rest of the family. I saw plenty of couples talking intimately near the bar at Loco Lizard, but we fit right into a commodious booth near both the windows and a giant lizard painted on the wall.

Seconds after we arrived at our table, we were served a bucket of crisp, warm chips with dishes of chunky salsa roja and creamy salsa verde. I liked them both but particularly enjoyed the verde, with its unusual texture and smooth finish.

We started with the pork-and-onion taquitos, crisply fried rolls of corn tortilla containing just enough sweetly seasoned meat to make them moist and chewy. We also tried the sampler plate of tamales, with one each of pork, chicken and wild mushroom. I'm a big tamale lover, and Loco Lizard's three varieties fared well, particularly with regard to their moist, tender fillings. The wild mushroom tastes a little unusual and wouldn't be for all palates, but it's a fresh take on a traditional dish.

Diners looking for more sophisticated starters could try the ceviche — fresh scallops and shrimp, marinated in citrus juices — or ancho chiles stuffed with beef, pork, nuts and raisins.

For dinner, the kids shared a meal of "lizard legs," otherwise known as chicken strips, while my husband chose the chicken combo, which features a chicken enchilada, taco and tamale with salsa verde. Everything on the plate was good, but I particularly liked the sweetish, plumply filled enchilada. The meal was served with black beans and Loco Lizard's Mexican rice, which is a nice surprise, being both quite moist and studded with peas, carrots and corn.

I was tempted by my usual favorites — mole and chili verde — but decided to go with the steak and chicken fajitas, which Loco Lizard does well. For starters, there's tons of food: practically a whole, sliced and grilled chicken breast, and similar amount of lean, tender steak, all of it resting on a pile of peppers and onions, cooked just right to bring out their depth and sweetness. There were scoops of sour cream, as well as fresh pico de gallo and guacamole, and refried beans and rice on the side. It's been awhile since I had fajitas, so I had a good time rolling up various combinations in the accompanying small-and-soft flour tortillas.

For dessert there are all kinds of tempting, sometimes surprising options. We went with our server's recommendation and had the chocolate tres leches cake. This is a wonderful dessert, with spongy chocolate cake, studded with chocolate chips sitting in a pool of creamy tres leches sauce and topped with a chocolate glaze. Without the sauce, it would be cloying; with it the dessert provides smooth, rich satisfaction.

Another surprising dessert, at least for me, was the churros. We got them mainly for the kids (I was picturing the stiff state-fair variety), but once they arrived, we kept stealing bites of soft, doughnut-like spears of pastry rolled in cinnamon sugar and accompanied with warm pots of Mexican chocolate and caramel.

Appetizers $6.99-$10.99, soups and stews $3.99-$6.99, salads $6.99-$12.99, combinations $11.99, entrees $7.99-$15.99, kids meals $4.99-$5.99, desserts $4.99-$6.99.

Rating: ***

Where: 6550 S. Big Cottonwood Canyon Road (3000 East), Holladay (also 1612 Ute Blvd., Park City)

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Payment: Checks, major credit cards

Reservations: Accepted

Phone: 453-9400 (Park City: 645-7000)

Web:www.locolizardcantina.com


Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: skratz@desnews.com