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Diego's Mexican Food and Cantina is up and running on the 16th Street Mall

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Diego's Mexican Food and Cantina officially opened for business on Tuesday on the 16th Street Mall, and so far the place appears to be mighty popular -- in part, no doubt, because the employees are passing out coupons for free full-sized chips and queso appetizers at the corner of 16th and Champa.

The restaurant is on the basement level of the Champa Square building -- away from foot traffic -- but a brief walk down the stairs reveals a comfortable patio area complete with grass-shack bar and one of those digital fireplace pictures that actually looks like a fireplace from a few yards away. It's pretty to look at, but unfortunately it emanates no warmth.

Through the glass doors is a decent-sized waiting area and a bar off to the right with plenty of seats, tables and plasma TVs tuned into ESPN. The dining room seats 350 and has a festive Mexican resort feel to it, with colorful lighting, a huge fountain in the middle and decorative masks on the walls.

Servers -- they're quick -- have been trained for volume, which will be a bonus during the crazy-busy summer months ahead. The house margaritas are made from scratch, and the restaurant is featuring Casa by Lapostolle wines. There are eight beers on tap and a tropical-island-worthy selection of bottled beers, as well as strawberry, banana or mango daiquiris made with fresh fruit.

The menu spotlights family recipes from owner Anthony Terrones: chile verde, posole, menudo (Saturday and Sunday only), carne adovada, carnitas, chiles rellenos, and the requisite tacos, burritos and enchiladas.

Vegetarians get their own meatless red sauce and plenty of meat-free offerings, while the "slopper" -- which is not vegetarian -- is a typical gut bomb for someone who's never had one, or for those who miss having them at other restaurants throughout the Southwest. It's a half-pound beef burger served open-faced and slathered in red or green chile, or "Christmas style" (with both).

The starter basket of chips is served with a duo of chunky tomato- and chile-based salsas, and the hotter of the two is sprinkled with seeds for a nice slow, moderate heat. A blend of cheddar cheese sauce and green chile -- itself a medium-thick, meaty stew with plenty of fruity chile and tomato, low garlic and low heat -- is the recipe for the gratis queso.

Diego's is open for lunch and dinner, but will offer breakfast in the future. In the meantime, according to the staff, employees will be out on the Champa Street corner hustling up business with freebie/discount coupons for an indefinite amount of time.

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