When it comes to Mexican food, this Discreet Diner is truly a gringo.

Until last fall, my gastronomic trips south of the border could be counted on one hand. That's not to say I don't like Mexican food. I'm just usually a creature of comfort, and my comfort zone rests in Italian bistros, steak houses and full-menu diners.

But in the last several months, I have ventured forth some. My recent visit to the Mexican Food Factory on Route 70 was my third in six months. And it won't be the last.

The Marlton hacienda has a reputation built over nearly 30 years that it richly deserves and that sets it apart from the chain Tex-Mex cantinas.

The MFF serves terrific food, offers wonderful service, and has decor reminiscent of the Spanish California of Zorro. Nothing about it connotes factory.

The food, which runs from tamales to chimichangas, from blackened red snapper to Texas crab cakes, is not cheap. That's not a criticism; I don't feel like we overpaid for the quantity and the quality of our dinners.

Our two meals - separate entrees with soup or salad, shared appetizer, shared dessert, and only sodas to drink - ran just over $50 before tip. Now that's not overly pricey by many standards. And both this diner and his senorita companion had half a meal to take home.

While taking our soft-drink orders, our friendly and knowledgeable waiter asked whether we wanted tortilla chips and returned with a large serving that we unhesitatingly munched on. The corn chips, a pre-appetizer treat that the MFF is known for, cost but 50 cents and came with three dipping relishes: sweet, mildly spicy and muy fuego.

We started for real with shrimp quesadilla ($9.50), a 10-inch flour tortilla filled with chipotle-marinated shrimp, arugula sauteed in garlic and olive oil, cheese, scallions and toasted almonds, grilled and served with sour cream and slices of avocado.

Cut into quarters, it was a perfect meal-starter and, in a larger serving, might make a fine entree.

My compañero ordered a two-enchilada plate ($12.25), choosing it to be stuffed with chicken rather than beef, beans or cheese. It came with rice and beans, but she waved off the beans in favor of some hearty-looking broccoli.

She chose salad over soup and enjoyed a healthy mix of greens, tomatoes, zucchini and carrots colorfully topped with blue tortilla strips.

Always in the mood for chicken, I opted for the Pollo Coyote ($17.25), a large breast marinated in maple balsamic vinaigrette, topped with melted pepper jack cheese and sliced avocados, and served on a bed of arugula. For my two sides, I chose white rice and cole slaw, a large delicious purple slaw that was just as fresh after a night in my refrigerator when it was served with the half of the breast I took home.

I chose corn soup (suggested by the waiter), which I'd never had and found to be amazingly good. The rich broth, a blend of corn, chiles and tomatoes, was mixed with cheddar cheese and topped with sour cream and scallions.

Full, but still determined to push on (after all, we were dining for a review), I took the lead on a dessert we would share. I chose the capirotada ($4.50), an awesome mix of bread pudding, raisins, almonds and cheddar cheese topped with whipped cream. I believe the Spanish word for sinful is pecaminoso.

Despite being perpetually busy, the restaurant has a laid-back atmosphere, and you don't feel rushed.

On this night, a guitar player strummed nicely through easy-listening, eclectic tunes from the likes of Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and the Beatles.


Mexican Food Factory

601 Route 70 W., Cherry Hill.

Phone: 856-983-9222.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Reservations: No.

Handicapped accessible: Yes.

Parking: Lot.

Children's menu: Yes.