What is it about noise? There are noisy restaurants you avoid because the din destroys the evening. And there are noisy restaurants you relish in spite of the ruckus: They’re fun and busy and consistently appealing, with a high energy level that balances out the high decibels.

El Rayo Taqueria in Scarborough (a new Portland location opens in the spring at 26 Free St.) is the latter. Sure, it’s boisterous and filled with kids and couples and strings of lights and trays of margaritas.

And, yes, it’s on an undistinguished stretch of Route 1 where the high beams from passing cars pierce the windows and rake over booths like the sweep of a beacon from a lighthouse.

But – distractions aside – the place feels good. And if the “authentic Mexican” food (a bit of an overstatement) is largely predictable, does that really matter? After you dig into your taco and adjust to the background roar, you may be surprised how much you’re enjoying the place.

Walk in the front door and look up and you’ll quickly discover part of the reason for the clamor. The ceilings at El Rayo are covered with corrugated metal, as if someone flipped the roof upside down and brought the outside in. Next, pick your seating: There are two-tops, booths, stools lined up in front of the curving bar, and tables that look like stumps but are actually thick slices of Indonesian monkey wood plunked down on bases and big enough to seat four or more.

You can order an $8.50 margarita (pretty good) or a $4 Mexican beer from one of the upbeat servers, or pass on drinks and go right for the guacamole ($5.75), a small bowl of creamy dip dotted with good-sized chunks of avocado. Grab one of the thin tortilla chips and plunge it into the vivid green guac: It’s bright and tart and seasoned with just enough salt and lime, plus a satisfying, lingering dose of heat from jalapenos and chipotles.

The deep-fried plantains ($4.95), served on a brilliant, salmon-colored plate, are nearly as good, thanks to the chipotle mayo they come with. Rich and thick, smoky and spicy with a strong spritz of citrus to boot, it turns the plantains into mere sauce-delivery systems. A friend sitting across the stump from me said, “See if you can get a juice glass filled with more of that stuff … I want to take it home.”

You may have to shout at your dinner partner to be heard, but you won’t have to raise your voice to hail down a server. Quite a few are moving through the dining room, and they’re all willing to answer questions, and happy to bring out more chips or more drinks or more of that chipotle mayonnaise. El Rayo’s website says, “Don’t be surprised to see the chef personally serve you.” We didn’t, but we probably saw every other member of the team.

The multi-page menu features quesadillas, burritos, salads and rice-and-bean bowls, as well as a few daily specials and a long list of tacos. While the waitress described the specials as “authentic,” both of those we tried fell flat. The corn poblano soup, a cream-based appetizer with roasted corn and poblano peppers ($4.95), was thick but lacked distinctive flavor. It was much better with a sprinkling of salt (turns out that’s what fills the El Jimador tequila flask on the table) and several large dribbles of arbol chili sauce. Likewise, the special empanadas ($11.95) filled with ground beef and caramelized onions looked good, and the pastry was light and deliciously flaky, but the filling had no taste, no spice. Nada.

So skip the lackluster specials and try a selection of tacos instead. Served on warm corn tortillas (you can request flour tortillas) and garnished with loads of cilantro, they’re fresh, varied and so full of flavor, I forgot all about the anemic empanadas. The al carbon ($3.95) has cubes of char-grilled chicken with a spicy pico de gallo salsa and grainy cotija cheese on top. Better still is the barbecued pulled pork ($3.95) filled with shreds of tender, juicy pork bathed in barbecue sauce and topped with a red onion escabeche. (The paper napkin dispenser on the table comes in handy here.)

Desserts at El Rayo include selections from both south and north of the border. (Rice Krispie squares anyone?) The key lime pie ($3.95) with graham cracker crust may have wandered over from Florida, but it’s intensely fresh-tasting with a filling tart enough to make you pucker yet nicely balanced with just the right amount of sugar.

There’s also a dessert listed as Mexican “chocolate pudding” ($3.95), with a heady aroma and the usual chocolate-cinnamon-cayenne blend. Its consistency approaches that of a slightly undercooked brownie. (A friend drove his spoon into the center of the pudding and raised his eyebrows. “Shouldn’t they call that chocolate spackle?” he asked.) Each spoonful tastes both spicy and sweet, and a lavish hand with the whipped cream doesn’t hurt, either.

El Rayo doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s not fancy, it’s not particularly adventurous and it’s certainly not quiet. But the place is definitely fun, and affordable and on occasion pleasantly surprising. So go with a crowd, share a few of tacos and make as much noise as you want. You’ll be in good company.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.