Indianapolis' only Southwestern-style restaurantCafÈ Santa FÈ, still Indianapolis' only Southwestern-style restaurant, has been something of an institution ever since it opened its doors about a decade ago. Oddly enough, I had never really considered eating here until recently, always preferring to drop in for a cocktail from time to time, or join the late-night restaurant crowd for an after-work libation. With its remarkably late hours, CafÈ Santa FÈ is something of a hangout for chefs and their acolytes, serving up a good selection of mixed drinks at very fair prices, as well as a more than adequate offering of tequilas.

With the massive eruption of Hispanic restaurants (mostly Mexican) around town over the past couple of years, I recently decided that it would be worthwhile paying this venerable old establishment a visit to see if it could hold its own against the likes of Don Victor's, Pancho's or La Frontera, to name but a few. The answer is that, although these restaurants probably share a small percentage of customers in common, the overall demographic is somewhat different, so the comparison isn't quite valid.

By placing an emphasis on Southwestern cooking, CafÈ Santa FÈ allows itself greater latitude than it would otherwise enjoy if it stuck to strictly Mexican classics. And, although there is certainly a healthy proportion of Mexican fare on the menu, much of it is served with one eye firmly on the Midwestern palate and culinary sensibility. This is clearly not a bad thing at all, because the formula has kept the place hopping for quite a few years. It says something about quality and longevity when you still have to wait for a table at a restaurant that's been around for this long.

Being something of a fan of fine Southwestern cooking, and enjoying immensely the likes of CafÈ Terracotta and Janos in Arizona, I have to state off the bat that CafÈ Santa FÈ does not aspire to the lofty culinary ambitions of such establishments. It doesn't share the pricing of the latter, either. Instead, it offers up a healthy range of fresh and savory dishes with just enough heat to turn the head from time to time at very fair prices. With most entrees under $20, and portion sizes substantial, this is immediately a consumer-friendly restaurant.

The surprising number of families that dine here confirms its value. Consistency is the key to success at CafÈ Santa FÈ, and I don't think I've yet encountered anyone who has not had at least a good meal and a good time, every time. And that's about as solid a recommendation as you're going to get these days.

If you visit this restaurant during the day, the dÈcor appears more striking than if you visit at night. By day, the sunlight picks out the sandy desert tones and ochre highlights in a rather pleasing way. It also flattens out some of the tattered and worn edges that the lighting tends to exaggerate. By day the restaurant has the warmth and character of a genuine Southwestern cafÈ. By night it seems more like a weathered old cantina, but who cares? It has character however you look at it, especially if you sit at the small and frequently crowded bar. A neon sign in the window offers "Immediate Seating," and, although I've never seen it un-illuminated, I'm sure that it goes off periodically during peak hours. On a recent weekend evening, however, there was no wait, and my friend A-L and I were seated immediately as advertised.

As the wine list at CafÈ Santa FÈ is short and rather uninspired, we decided to drink beer. Micros are priced at $4.75 and others are $3.25 apiece. Choosing a couple of seafood-themed appetizers, we began the evening with crabcakes ($7.95) and clam and corn fritters. The former, served on a tasty bed of mixed greens in a sweetish balsamic vinaigrette, was very sound indeed. Close scrutiny revealed a goodly proportion of dark crabmeat, and the texture was firm and not at all pasty. These were good specimens, and they boded well for the rest of the meal. Less satisfying, however, were the clam and corn fritters. Although the serving was generous (six golfball-and-a-half-sized servings for $5.95), we found the texture of these deep-fried spheres to be a bit on the dry side, and the flavor lacking in focus. I seldom add salt to dishes in restaurants, preferring to try the food as the chef intended it, but in this case I was obliged to add a few shakes to lift the flavor a bit.

Moving straight on to entrees, we opted for the chicken mole and the adovada ($11.95). Now, if a restaurant could ever earn five stars for a single dish, then this would be the one. The adovada, a slow-cooked hunk of pork in a fabulously rich and aromatic stock, was an absolute joy. Served with bread and soft flour tortillas for dipping, this formerly tough and gnarly old cut of meat had been turned into something absolutely otherworldly through a combination of slow cooking, sensible spicing and real attention to detail. Unfortunately, the portion was so large that we were unable to finish it, in spite of every noble effort. Bravo, chaps!

Not quite as good, but quite sound nevertheless, was the chicken mole. Two breasts of chicken were served grilled on a bed of caramelized vegetables, along with some perfectly al-dente posole corn and a scoop of freshly made refried beans. Even the rice was carefully prepared. Despite the excellent flavor and smooth texture of the slightly bitter chocolate sauce, the chicken breasts were rather dry, and detracted considerably from our enjoyment of the dish. Just in case you might think this is a serious criticism, it isn't, but it would certainly have been nice had the chicken been a little more moist.

And so onto dessert. If you're bored with the ever-present cheesecakes and double death by chocolate confections that seem to abound around town these days, then you might want to give CafÈ Santa FÈ"s excellent brandy flan a quick whirl. Decidedly house-made, and with a firm but delicate texture, this is a very fine example, indeed. I'd prefer to see individual portions instead of portions by the slice, but the flavor's what really matters.

As the only Southwestern restaurant in town, CafÈ Santa FÈ does a very creditable job, and impresses with its authentic, if somewhat limited, repertoire. For value and overall consistency, it's pretty hard to beat, especially if you like to eat late and don't mind eavesdropping on your neighbor's conversation. Or vice versa, for that matter.

Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.

Cafe Santa FÈ3948 E. 82nd St. 576-0022 Monday-Saturday noon-3 a.m. Sun 4 p.m.-midnight Food : 3 stars Atmosphere : 3 1/2 stars Service : 2 1/2 stars