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With oil prices and the economy being what they are, the timing is certainly right for a cheap dinner-date spot. Casa de Elián, the new homestyle Mexican eatery on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, is right on the mark. It's a no-frills kind of place with prices to match.

The succinct menu shows creativity and thoughtfulness. It balances the predictable tacos and enchiladas with some more unusual dishes like tilapia Veracruzana. The tacos include options that are anything but run-of-the-mill, with choices like asparagus and cheese, shrimp, octopus or tilapia.

The three reasonably priced salads offered — elote asado, jicama and mango, and avocado with hearts of palm, can all be enhanced with chicken or shrimp for an extra $2-3 for an economical summer meal. The elote asado features roasted corn combined with avocado and bacon over romaine lettuce. The individual corn kernels show off their roastiness with just the right amount of brown intensifying their sweetness. This makes for a very rich but still summery salad.

We attempted to try the jicama and mango salad. We say "attempted" because jicama was totally absent from what we were served. When this was pointed out to our server, she informed us that they were out of jicama so they substituted kiwi fruit. Kiwi fruit? And nobody thought to mention this beforehand? Did they think no one would notice because kiwis are so similar to jicama? Well, of course, they're both white and crunchy, except for the kiwis! There should be a substitution disclosure law!

The tilapia ceviche was nicely done and contained everything advertised, marinated in lime with plenty of red onion, tomato and cilantro. It was very fresh tasting, accompanied by super homemade tortilla strips.

Tacos, especially Casa de Elián's very fresh homemade ones, also work as an excellent starter. We favor the shrimp ones, although at $2-$3 a pop, an assortment could keep two diners very happy.

Even though it appears with the side dishes, elote asado (yes, the same stuff that's in the salad) makes a wonderful appetizer. It is a grilled whole ear of corn topped with butter and crumbled Mexican cheese. It's the essence of summer.

Speaking of side dishes, we swooned over their "red" (Mexican) rice. It's fluffy, fragrant and buttery, but seemingly greaseless. Perfection. Don't pass it up — even if you also ordered the corn. The refried beans, on the other hand, were very homogenized. There was no hint that they came from a little round legume. It was just a bland pasty puree, like an Indian dhal without the spices.

Of the two entrees we tried, we preferred the tilapia Veracruzana, which basked in a light tomato sauce punctuated with plenty of olives. Tasty, but a little timid with the spices, which seems to be the style here. The same could be said of the chicken enchiladas with tomatillo sauce — that it lacked heat.

Desserts are limited to two Mexican classics — tres leches cake or flan with toasted coconut, both equally rich. The flan is very dense, but kind of addictive. After the first bite we thought we couldn't possibly finish it, but then somehow it was all gone.

The décor bespeaks fashionable frugality. Well, maybe they went a little overboard with the frugality. The tables and chairs appear to have been knocked together from crates. We sat on the upholstered banquette, which was so high that a short person's feet don't reach the ground. The table and chairs are rough and scratchy, a problem for women in scanty summer clothes. The look has its charms, but a little more attention should be paid to comfort.

The Bottom Line

Casa de Elián is a welcome addition to the nabe. Its gentle spicings will appeal to mainstream tastes, and modest prices to all tastes. As of this writing, they are without a liquor license and allow patrons to bring their own, saving you even more money. If the economy is causing you to tighten your belt, this will help figuratively, if not literally.

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger's restaurant critic and author of "Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America's Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y." She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Casa de Elián

104-20 Metropolitan Ave,

Forest Hills, NY 11375

718.263.2492

Cuisine: Homestyle Mexican

Setting: Small, haute rustic

Service: Satisfactory

Hours: Sun, Mon, Wed 5-10 p.m., Thurs, Fri 5-10:30 p.m., Sat 5-11 p.m. Closed Tues

Alcohol: License pending

Reservations: Optional

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Takeout: Yes

Credit Cards: Yes

Noise Level: Acceptable

Handicap Accessible: Yes

A SAMPLE FROM THE MENU

All soups ... $4

All salads ... $6

Appetizers ... $7

All tacos meat/seafood ... $2-3

All entrees ... $14

All desserts ... $4

Posted 6:38 pm, October 10, 2011
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