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Drive-thru Bliss

For most of us, fast food is an ugly fact of life; it's the dull, greasy stuff you eat because you're short on time and money. But cheap, quick food can be done well -- and Chacho's is proof.

For starters, the restaurant's cheerful: Even on a cloudy, steel-gray day, you can't help but feel a pinch more happy when you recognize its fiesta-colored building -- a riot of purple, turquoise, red and tangerine -- bedecked with not one but two drive-thru lanes. The place is always open, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And it's blessedly fast; the friendly platoon of kitchen help seems able to deliver almost any order in less than ten minutes.

Chacho's further distinguishes itself from (God forbid!) Taco Bell in several ways: by emphasizing fresh ingredients ("Wanna get fresh?" is its motto); by serving good frozen margaritas and fresh orange juice at its full-service bar; and, not least, by offering six sauces at its condiment bar. Here, caution is in order: Don't try the cojones sauce unless you really like it hot; the same goes for the chile arbol sauce. But the more nuanced salsa quemada involves roasted serrano peppers in a rich tomato base; it leaves the palate with a delicate longing for more. And the tomatillo sauce manages to be both robust and innocent.

For breakfast, try the migas ($3.29), a Tex-Mex mainstay consisting of fried tortilla strips, scrambled eggs, fresh-sliced serranos, onions, tomatoes and Cheddar. The egg concoction is accompanied by refried beans and mildly seasoned but well-grilled chunks of potato.

The Mexican Plate ($5.49) offers even greater abundance: three cheese enchiladas, a crispy beef taco, refried beans, rice, guacamole and tortillas. And the appealing Black & White Chalupa ($2.99) mixes black beans with white cheese, along with lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole and sour cream, all atop a giant flour tortilla.

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Sadly, the fish taco is less successful. It's not obvious what kind of fish this was. The menu doesn't say, and the portion is too skimpy to yield clues.

Chacho's looks like a Tex-Mex fast-food prototype ready to explode. In fact, the Houston location is part of a tiny Texas-based chain; its two siblings are in San Antonio. We can only hope there are more to come.

Chacho's, 6006 Westheimer, (713)975-9699.

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