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Fresh Southwestern Fare at Moe's

When customers enter Moe's Southwest Grill in Chantilly, not only are they greeted by a cheerful atmosphere and tantalizing aromas, but also a hearty, "Welcome to Moe's!" from the staff.

"WE WANT to make them feel welcome," said Frank Maresca, who owns this branch with wife Carol. "Sometimes they throw up their arms and say, 'Yeah!'"

Featuring freshly made burritos, tacos, quesadillas, salads, nachos and fajitas, Moe's has 300 locations in the U.S., 11 in Virginia and four in Northern Virginia. The Marescas plan to open another this summer in South Riding.

"And about 25 more are coming in the next few years in the [Washington], D.C. Metropolitan area, and 700 more nationwide by 2010," said Maresca. "It's been one of the hottest-growing franchises."

Moe's won a 2004 "Hot Concepts!" award from "Nation's Restaurant News" and was ranked No. 11 in "Inc." magazine's 2005 ranking of the top 500 fastest-growing private companies. The Chantilly restaurant opened here March 23 in Westone Plaza, off Route 28 and Westfields Boulevard, and proved an instant hit.

Clifton's Dan Hanlon comes for both the food and the sweet tea. "You can't find it up north," he said. "Sweet tea is a southern thing." He ate lunch there recently with friend Adam Neckar of Manassas, and both were chowing down.

Hanlon had the Triple Lindy, a big burrito filled with rice, beans, guacamole, jalapeños, cheese and salsa. "It's really good," he said. "And I like that the guacamole comes with the burrito. You don't have to pay extra for it, like at some other places."

HE ALSO goes to the Moe's in Richmond where he attends Randolph Macon College and recommends both restaurants to others. "They have good prices, and it's different from other Mexican, fast-food chains. Moe's is friendlier, with a better atmosphere. And they have TVs here."

Neckar enjoyed a Homewrecker burrito, similar to the Triple Lindy, but with lettuce and sour cream, too. And tri-colored corn chips came with both meals. He likes Moe's because "they have lots of different spices with a zestier freshness than the other chains. And you can get chicken, steak or tofu in the burritos." Having steak that day in his burrito, he said it was tender and flavorful.

Besides that, he said, "It feels like you can just come in here, sit and chat and relax. It's not a hustle-bustle type of atmosphere." And since he used to drive all the way to Leesburg for a Moe's before this one opened in Chantilly, he's also pleased with the convenient location."

The Marescas chose this spot because "it's a great combination of families, neighborhoods and schools, plus the businesses in Westfields." And customers are flocking, said Maresca, because they get "fresh, flavorful, southwestern food, a great kids' menu, healthy food choices, a fun, family-friendly atmosphere, music, TVs and a warm, inviting welcome," all in one place.

Moe's began in Atlanta in 2000, so that's why it offers sweet tea. The philosophy behind the brand, said Maresca, is "a fun atmosphere, fresh food and southwestern cuisine. And everything's made right in front of you so you can have what you want. There are no freezers, no microwaves, just good flavorful cuisine."

THE NAMES of the menu items are taken from pop culture, so customers may order, for example, a Pinky Tuscadero Salad or an Alfredo Garcia Fajita. Most popular among adults, said Maresca, are the $6.49 Homewrecker burrito and the $5.59 Joey Bag of Donuts.

"The Homewrecker is fully loaded," he said. "It's a big, monstrous burrito. We call it 20 ounces of pure love. The Joey Bag of Donuts is a basic, no-frills burrito. And people get a kick out of saying the name."

On the kids' menu, Moo Moo Mr. Cow is a big seller. "Children love to say it, and it's good," said Maresca. "It's a small, kid version of the Joey." They may also order Mini-Me, a kid-sized cheese quesadilla, or Puff the Magic Dragon, a hard or soft taco with choice of meat, plus lettuce and shredded cheese.

Every menu item is available in a choice of chicken, ground beef, steak or tofu. "And we've actually sold a lot of tofu items here because it seems to be a health-conscious area," said Maresca. "We also offer lots of vegetarian items, such as the [$5.49] Art Vandalay burrito." It's filled with rice, beans, shredded cheese, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and lettuce. Carb-counting customers may also order their meals without the tortilla.

Maresca also stressed that Moe's has two, separate grills — one for tofu and vegetable dishes only, and the other for chicken and beef items. "When I mention that to vegetarians, their eyes light up," he said.

All the meats are marinated in a special, secret, southwestern marinade, and the pico de gallo and guacamole are made fresh every day. "Our food is very flavorful, but not overly spicy," said Maresca. "We have two mild salsas, a medium and a hot — Moe's Hard Rock Salsa. It'll melt your tongue."

And because this type of food travels well, the Chantilly restaurant now offers catering (call 703-817-9540/41). "We'll bring it and set it up," said Maresca. "We've already gotten calls from corporations in Westfields, so I think catering will be very big here. We need a couple days' notice for 200 people. Anything smaller, we could do in 24 hours' notice."

The chain definitely has a sense of humor. Another popular and trademark Moe's item is the $5.59 John Coctostan — a grilled-crispy quesadilla with meat, cheese and beans. "It's hard to pronounce on purpose, just to be fun," explained Maresca. "We tell people, 'Next time, just say, 'I'll have the J.C.' We do it to create a fun atmosphere, not just another place to eat."

ALSO A HIT is the Close Talker, a salad with a crispy, edible, flour-tortilla shell filled with a choice of meat, plus beans, lettuce, cheese, salsa, olives and cucumbers, for $6.49. Just ask spry senior citizens Margaret and Clinton Phillips of Sully Station.

"I like everything they put on it," said Margaret. "I have mine with ranch dressing, and he has vinaigrette. We come here a couple times a week, at least. The food's good — and it's good for you."

"It's got everything I need," said Clinton. Added his wife: "You've got a meal, in itself, and it's easier, actually, to come here than to cook at home. We'd recommend it; it's close by, healthy food, good service and a nice environment. We'll probably come even more when the weather gets warmer and we can eat outside."

All during May, the restaurant is celebrating "Cinco de Moe's" — a nationwide campaign benefiting the chain's corporate charity, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. This Moe's will contribute 75 cents for every Joey Bag of Donuts sold this month. Said Maresca: "As parents [of daughter Anna, 20 months], my wife and I are glad to be able to raise money for this organization."

Meanwhile, new customers keep coming. First-timers Shirley Penaloza of London Towne, Ruby Suchdeve of Sully Station II and Jessica Giles of Gate Post Estates recently enjoyed lunch there together. Penaloza said her Alfredo Garcia fajita was tasty and seasoned well. She said Moe's "looks friendly and bright, and the food's not expensive."

Suchdeve chose chicken in her Billy Barou Nachos and pronounced it delicious. "I liked the combination of cheese and chicken, and I'd recommend Moe's because the food's really good." Giles ate the Fat Sam Fajita and said the tortillas that came were it were terrific. "You can tell they were just made," she said. "They were very fresh."