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Restaurant review: El Paraiso's Mexican standards and specialties are a hit

El Paraiso is a crowd-pleaser.

Whether your friends are hard to impress foodie types, or cautious and careful when exploring a menu, El Paraiso ("the paradise" in Spanish) will make them happy. The restaurant, in a Reisterstown shopping center, serves tasty and familiar Mexican standards alongside authentic — and equally appealing — Salvadoran dishes like yuca con chicharron and beef tongue tacos.

The restaurant opened in 2003, but the recipes date back much further. El Paraiso's owners, Mercedes and Maria Rodriguez, emigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador during the Central American country's civil war in the 1980s. Initially, they landed in Los Angeles, but after a few years they joined extended family in Baltimore. Today, they spend their days in the kitchen, cooking the dishes of their childhoods.

El Paraiso is a family affair: The Rodriguez's eldest son bakes the restaurant's desserts and two younger twins wait tables, switching easily between perfect English and Spanish as they move from guest to guest. When we arrived on a recent Thursday night, one of the twins quickly rearranged tables to find us a comfortable spot in the small, mostly full space. The restaurant isn't fancy or polished — the casual vibe extends from the entrance, marked by a tall soda case, to the cluttered bathroom hallway, to the slightly overenthusiastic service. But with its beachy mural, friendly smiles and dessert case full of lovely cakes and pastries, it is welcoming.

Though El Paraiso carries a multitude of exotic sodas, from Peruvian to Salvadoran, the restaurant does not have a liquor license (there is no corkage fee for BYOB). Like the soda case, the menu is full of variety — in fact, it's a little overwhelming at first glance. Fortunately, many items are available a la carte, so mix-and-match meals are a possibility.

We started with two traditional Salvadoran appetizers — yuca con chicharron ($6.99) and pupusa revuelta ($1.85). Thumb-size chunks of yuca (cassava root), provided a mild, slightly sweet base for salty, crispy chicharron (otherwise known as fried pork rinds, but don't let that scare you away from this meaty treat). Sitting atop curtibo, a tart, bright orange slaw of cabbage and carrots marinated in vinegar, the dish hit every one of our taste buds.

Pupusas — thick tortillas stuffed with a variety of fillings — are a staple of Salvadoran cuisine. Ours came filled with a creamy, savory pork-based paste that, like the chicharron, was a good foil for the tangy curtibo.

Our entrees were equally pleasing. Enchiladas rojas ($9.99) were a standard take on chicken enchiladas, topped with a spicy (but not too spicy) red sauce — tasty and approachable.

The camarones en crema ($12.99) and carne asada ($9.99) were more adventurous, but still familiar. The camarones (shrimp) were tender and sweet, in a light and spicy bath of cream blended with a cayenne-based sauce and mixed with finely diced jalapenos. The carne asada — a flatiron steak marinated for three days — was surprisingly tender and full of intense garlicky flavor.

All three meals came with moist rice mixed with bits of tomatoes and spices and a small salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. After spying a trio of sauces on another table, we asked our waiter for the same. The sauces — slightly spicy, smooth red poblano salsa; moderately spicy, chunky tomatillo salsa; and chunky, onion-heavy pico de gallo — took the rice to another level.

When our waiter — one of the Rodriguez twins — added, "My dad also makes a habanero sauce. It's not too spicy," we couldn't resist. He was right about the spice: The smooth orange sauce had heat, but it didn't overpower the pepper's flavor. We liked it best drizzled on the beef tongue taco ($2.75 a la carte). The fatty chunks of tongue toned down the habanero's heat for a satisfying combination.

Though it was tempting to order additional entrees for dessert, we opted for the dense flan ($3.50), covered with deep-golden caramel sauce, and its polar opposite, a sweet and airy slice of tres leches cake ($3.50) — much lighter than many versions of the dessert — garnished with ripe strawberries.

But we couldn't stop ordering. After dessert, we went for another treat, a crunchy cookie filled with finely chopped pineapple ($0.89). Alone, the cookie may have been too dry, but paired with robust coffee ($1.69), it was a satisfyingly sweet end to the meal.

As we lingered over coffee, our biggest disappointment was that we hadn't tried the sopa de pata, a traditional Salvadoran tripe soup. Or anything in mole sauce. Or even the guacamole. Fortunately, with so many possibilities for every type of eater — from the culinary daredevil to the more timid — we'll have friends lining up for another trip to "paradise."

El Paraiso

Back story: El Paraiso is a family-owned Reisterstown restaurant serving good Mexican standards and authentic Salvadoran food.

Parking: Parking lot in front.

Signature dish: The carne asada, marinated for three days in a proprietary blend of herbs and spices, is full of flavor. Ask for the trio of house-made salsas to spice up the rice and salad served on the side.

Where: 11628 Reisterstown Road, Reisterstown

Contact: 410-833-3369

Open: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Credit Cards: Visa and MasterCard

Food: ✭✭✭1/2

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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