RUMOR HAS IT that the venerable Rendezvous has lost its lease. I blame this tragedy on the Other Belltown: the shiny new Belltown comprised of shiny new condos and shiny new restaurants. Wherein has sprung Mama Lou's on First Avenue, the latest upscale variation on common restaurant themes. Many drinking establishments on First Avenue are Pioneer Square bars that got drunk, passed out in Belltown, and just decided to stay there. Most of the restaurants set my teeth gnashing. So why did I go to Mama Lou's? I kept hearing buzz about somebody's grandma's recipes. I have a soft spot for Grandma recipes. Especially tamales. So I took a date.

Mama Lou's dark cavernous interior looks, well, dark. And expensive. Fountains burble, candles flicker at recently adobe-esqued walls, evil-looking chandeliers are dimmed to barely orange. A Dining Experience is meant to happen here. We ordered delicious margaritas ($8.50!!! Each!!!), nibbled on chips, favoring the chipotle salsa. Service was quick and attentive, if a bit overeager in removing dishes still being picked at. Mama Lou's disappointing Family Recipe Tamales ($4.75) made me look around the environs and think, Disneyland. Gasp.

But our Green Chili Stew ($4.50) arrived, and blasted us with the chutzpah of its spicy New Mexico green chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, and roasted pork, temporarily distracting me from the malaise fostered by the absoluteness, totality, and completeness of the decor. When our waiter brought out a delightful palate cleanser of fresh fruit sorbet and mint leaves, we nearly cheered. The spicy was that spicy.

Then came the travesty of entrées. My date, who was very, VERY hungry, ordered the Crepas Mariscos ($13.95) with crab and bay shrimp in sour cream sauce. The accompanying black rice was sweet and interesting, rich from cooking in black-bean-infused water. Roasted vegetables were a pleasant relief from the usual beans and rice paste. But the crab and shrimp were truly awful; their briny and old flavor hardly disguised in bland sauce. We could not finish, so acutely did the dish taste more like old saltwater than seafood. And my date is not a picky man. My Bistecs Rellenos ($13.95) sounded brilliant: flank steak stuffed with smoked pork, spinach, and carrots, and baked with a tomato and roasted-garlic sauce. I am all for multi-meat dishes. After sawing at tough steak rolls, I picked one up and chewed at it. Depth of flavor aside (believe me, I tasted it after all that masticating), this dish disappointed with its poor handling of mediocre meat. For the price, I felt grumpy. My date became fidgety. Perhaps we had no business dining out on First Avenue. As we exited the Dining Experience and meandered down an alley, we found ourselves trapped by some asshole condo's GATED ENCLOSURE OF A PUBLIC THOROUGHFARE. The bitter aftertaste was complete.

As taste is dictated by smell, so dining is influenced by its context. Which is why I dragged my comrade in meat consumption, Sugar Shack, back to the patio of Mama Lou's and ordered us some Big Margaritas. As the sun and tequila intoxicated us, our waitress entertained my baby, retrieving hurled toys, mopping up spills, and bringing refried beans and tortillas, gratis. Free stuff always gets me. I snuggled up to Mama Lou as I considered entrées. I wanted their food to be as delicious as the menu sounded. I wanted to honor their grandma.

Enchiladas Santos ($9.25)--corn tortillas stacked with shredded pork, cheese, red chile sauce, and onions, and topped with two fried eggs--aroused my admiration once again for the unabashed spiciness; so hot it lingered smoky on my tongue. My date got down to business, pointing at the Camerones al Tocino ($16.95).

Minutes later, six FANTASTICALLY LARGE tiger prawns, skewered and stuffed with a Poblano chile slice, wrapped in BACON, and basted with cilantro jalapeño glaze, appeared on top of a mountain of roasted vegetables, pickled cactus, and black rice. Exploding with salty sweet perfection, the prawns temporarily stunned us into forgetting we spent $16.95 plus tax on six prawns.

Bacon may be Mama Lou's saving grace. As for me, I'll be drinking my little airplane bottles of tequila behind yon condo, giggling at the tinkle of breaking glass as I play Bug-the-Yuppies Bottle Toss.

Mama Lou's

2218 First Ave, 733-8226. Mon-Thurs 5 pm-midnight, Fri-Sat 5 pm-2 am, closed Sun. Full bar. $$.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up