Guadalajara Café has more in common with tony bistros than its bustling cousins down on the Boulevard.

Taco of the town 

Guadalajara Café has more in common with tony bistros than its bustling cousins down on the Boulevard.

In the heart of a very Midwestern strip mall sits a Spanish-Mexican restaurant that, by local Mexican-restaurant standards, has more in common with the tony Café Allegro or Hannah Bistro than its bustling downtown cousins, with their neon beer signs and unabashedly casual service style. In fact, while sitting at Guadalajara Café (1144 W. 103rd Street), I wondered whether the clientele -- mostly middle-class, middle-age, and white -- sets the tone for this surprisingly elegant ambience or is simply drawn to it.

What makes the restaurant truly different from its better-known contemporaries down on Southwest Boulevard is the service -- slick and formal -- and the serious, even demure atmosphere. On a busy Saturday night, the main dining room was cool, collected, and composed. The tables were draped in white linens and a sheath of white butcher paper, the votive candles were twinkling, and there were fresh purple flowers in glass vases. It was pretty fancy, although the crowd wasn't exactly the glam set. There were a couple of families and one table of giggling single women, but most of the diners had probably driven over a few blocks from their south Kansas City or Prairie Village neighborhoods. I suspected that most of them were retired or nearly so. In an adjacent booth, a 60-something suburban couple ate their dinner in absolute silence. I felt embarrassed to be watching them, but I was fascinated that not a word passed between them for an entire meal. At one point, the woman, probably a grandmother, shyly sipped at her salt-rimmed margarita through a tiny straw, then looked blankly across the dining room and uttered a lonely sigh.

I thought it was one of the most poignant things I had ever seen.

"Oh, God," shuddered my cynical dining companion, snapping up a warm, crispy tortilla chip from a green plastic mesh basket and sloppily dipping it into the accompanying salsa (fresh-tasting and peppery, with lots of cooling chopped cilantro). "It's Heartbreak Hotel. Is this what I have to look forward to in my old age? Tense, silent dinners and wistful moments over a cocktail?"

"You should be so lucky," I reminded her. "The alternatives are worse."

On the whole, the Guadalajara itself is a pretty happy dining alternative. Tucked between a Waid's restaurant and an Applebee's, the pumpkin-color Guadalajara Cafe building practically screams for attention from its less stylish, all-American neighbors. It's the showiest venue on the block, inside and out.

The interior of the dining room, painted in shades of lemon and melon green, may look festive enough, but this is no raucous, rowdy joint. The well-scrubbed servers are dressed in freshly starched white cotton shirts, ties, and neatly pressed black pants. Polite and shy, they proudly sweep over to a table with a taco combination plate as if it were the most extraordinary and expensive dish on the menu (it is neither, by the way).

But if the service is formal and the music is played at a discreet level, the food more than makes up for it with fire and bite. An appetizer of fat, juicy shrimp sautéed in a sauce of garlic and fresh red peppers ($8) comes in three degrees of hotness (the medium hot is more than sufficient, trust me) and arrives at the table steaming and dappled with sautéed fresh mushrooms and four cool wedges of avocado. One could easily make a meal out of this dish alone, dipping tortilla chips into the sauce to lift out a succulent mushroom. But be careful: The sauce easily spatters on light-colored clothing, especially if you're even a slightly messy eater, as I am.

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