When we arrived at La Puente Restaurant on a recent Friday evening, the place was packed. Of my many pet peeves, standing in line is right at the top of my list. We were told the wait would be 20 minutes, a response I cynically thought was as rehearsed as the waiter or waitress asking "How is everything?" when it is often too late to remedy inferior meals.

I have long given up expecting all restaurants to handle reservations. One way to ensure quick turnover and full capacity, necessities in these times of rising costs, is to pack customers in during peak times, especially Friday and Saturday night. Would the wait be worth it, especially with a few squirmy kids in our group?Initially, we passed the first 15 minutes or so enjoying the sounds of a lovely trio singing traditional Mexican folk songs. Not only did they serenade diners among the tables, but they visited the crowds in the waiting area. We also took in the colorful, brightly lit interior, complete with Mexican art and a wall-sized mural in the informal foyer.

But music and paintings do not often appease fidgety and hungry diners. The hostess, sensing our frustration, reassured us that our table would be ready soon. Surprisingly, at almost the appointed time we were seated. Our service for the rest of the evening was just as hospitable and attentive.

La Puente's bill of fare is a lengthy list of reasonably priced Mexican favorites. Smothered burritos, green and red chili bowls, soft shell tacos, menudo, tostadas and different choices of enchiladas overflow from the a la carte list. Combination platters that include rice, beans and lettuce garnish range from $4 to $6.

Not only did we get our fill of the complimentary crunchy corn chips and spicy salsa (which is also served in a squeeze bottle - another pet peeve of mine, though not as bothersome considering that it was pretty good), but the guacamole salad ($3.90) was a generous and freshly made portion.

For entrees, we sampled a steaming large combination plate ($6.20), brimming with a cheese enchilada, tostada, hard shell taco, bean and chili verde burrito, rice, beans and a flour tortilla. The chili relleno ($4.10) was also very good - two piquant green chilis stuffed with cheese and surrounded by a fluffy egg batter. Another generous serving was the nachos grandes ($5.45), corn chips covered with shredded beef, refritos, melted cheese, jalapeno slices and sour cream. The optional guacamole added to the color and flavor.

A few of the side orders were good, though somewhat ordinary. The tamale had a dense yellow corn outside, but the red chili and meat filling were sparse. The bowl of green chili ($4.10) was very lively, the few chunks of pork were tender, but the sauce was a bit too thin. More meat and chilis would have added to the impact.

Other specialties include huevos rancheros and chorizo con heuvos on the breakfast menu as well as several chili-topped steaks, as well as ribs for lunch and dinner. Desserts include fried ice cream and rice pudding.

La Puente, which means "the bridge," will lead diners to festive and lively Mexican food that is predictable, plentiful and reasonably priced.

Rating: * * *

La Puente, 3434 S. State, 466-1194. Open 7 days a week. Hours Monday through Thursday: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m.; Sunday until 10 p.m. Accepts major credit cards and check with guarantee card.