The $20 Diner: El Paraiso’s identity crisis in Takoma Park

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to El Paraiso as being in Takoma Park. It is just outside Takoma Park, in Prince George's County. This version has been updated.


San Antonio fajitas with shrimp, beef and chicken at El Paraiso in Takoma Park. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 23, 2013

Tex-Mex is one of the most abused terms in gastronomy. Too often used as a slur against Mexican cooking that’s been run through the American industrial food complex — Velveeta cheese and prefab taco shells, anyone? — Tex-Mex has for decades been recognized as a legitimate regional cuisine, the creation of two strong cultures that found assimilation on the plate, if nowhere else.

By now, several generations of Texans have been raised on good, greasy platters of cheese enchiladas smothered in brown onion gravy. As a latecomer to the Lone Star State, I wasn’t even raised on Tex-Mex, but I still miss it like my childhood dog. Some days, I ache for a combination plate packed with Spanish rice, refried beans, beef enchiladas, sour cream, salsa, crispy tacos and maybe even a brittle little tostada topped with shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes.

To me, Tex-Mex generates mostly warm memories.

Until I think about Tex-Mex in the Washington region. The closest approximation we have to the Texas regional cuisine still falls far short of the real thing. Places like Lauriol Plaza, Cactus Cantina and Austin Grill are too sophisticated, too corporate or too inclusive in their Latin American offerings to qualify as a true Tex-Mex joint.

So you could imagine my excitement/apprehension when I spotted a restaurant on New Hampshire Avenue outside Takoma Park that dares to bill itself as Tex-Mex, in a suburban area better known for grafting Mexican and Salvadoran dishes onto a single menu. Could El Paraiso Tex-Mex Restaurant provide the Velveeta-and-brown-gravy deliverance I had been waiting for all these years?

My answer came the moment I opened the menu. There on the first page is the word that imploded all my expectations: pupusa. El Paraiso is a Sal-Mex restaurant in a pearl-snap shirt.

El Paraiso is, I’d come to learn, the third restaurant in a small chain owned by the Buruca family, whose roots can be traced to El Salvador. Jose Buruca, once a cook for Roberto Donna at some iteration of Galileo, leads the kitchen here. Buruca’s background in Italian cooking may explain the oddest experience I had at El Paraiso: The pickled vegetable condiment known as curtido was paired with a red sauce that smacked of oregano, not habanero peppers. It was a pasta sauce disguised as hot sauce, and somehow this Italian interloper kept its imperial tendencies in check, never subjugating Buruca’s thin, crispy, gooey and perfectly formed pupusas.

That same herby sauce made its way into my chicken enchilada, too, lending the stuffed tortilla a sweetness that threatened to shift the dish’s geographical locus to somewhere in the Mediterranean. More surprising, the enchilada had a magnetic quality about it, attracting my fork back to it time and again, even after I wanted to dismiss the whole stupid thing out of hand. Perhaps Buruca is onto something: Sici-Mex?

I have a theory about that mysterious sauce: If I sampled it again later this year, maybe even later today, it would taste altogether different. I base this theory on my experience with El Paraiso’s complimentary salsa, which was never the same tabletop dip during my three visits. It started off tasting like pureed tomatoes straight from the can, with cilantro and onions for brightness and texture, but later morphed into something with more body, spice and flavor. A similar transformation occurred with the guacamole, which mutated from fresh-but-bland to fresh-and-flavorful. Either El Paraiso is learning at exponential speeds or the kitchen has wilder mood swings than Mel Gibson.

The dining room, with its French bistro and Venice waterway artwork, shares the kitchen’s bipolar personality, never settling on a theme. The only two things I could consistently rely on here were the wait staff, always friendly and attentive, and the Tejano and salsa music, which regularly filled the room with a pulse that was hard to ignore. Some patrons didn’t and turned the dining room into a temporary dance floor, complete with ogling hombres nursing their cheap beers.

I tried to keep my attention on the plate, where the pleasures were as unpredictable as the kitchen. El Paraiso has a whole page (plus a few appetizers) devoted to seafood dishes, some as quirky and inexplicable as a Sal-Mex restaurant that calls itself Tex-Mex. My seviche appetizer, a bowl brimming with shrimp, calamari and white fish, had a surprise flavor agent: small pieces of diced ginger floating in the lime juice, adding their sweet floral spice to the seafood in ways that delighted and puzzled me. By contrast, I was outright mystified by my Veracruz entree, fillets of sauteed tilapia and salmon in a “tequila cream sauce” that suggested neither tequila nor cream. It tasted like butter — butter the shade of Mario Batali’s Crocs, I should note.

Its seafood emphasis aside, El Paraiso performs better with meats. The San Antonio fajitas, a sizzling platter of chicken, beef and shrimp, could use a dash more seasoning. But once you tucked the proteins into a warm house-made tortilla and applied your preferred toppings, the meats perked up appreciably.

My favorite dish at El Paraiso came with a side dish of absurdity. The chicken chimichanga has all the subtlety of a Led Zeppelin tribute band, and yet I was inexorably drawn to its fatty excess, where I was rewarded with big, satisfying bites of crusty tortilla entombing sweet, well-seasoned meat. I appreciated the comedy of the moment. Here I was at a Tex-Mex wannabe run by Salvadorans and enjoying a dish that apparently comes from . . . Arizona.

El Paraiso Tex-Mex Restaurant

6515 New Hampshire Ave.

301-270-1190. www.elparaisomd.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Sunday.

Nearest Metro station: Takoma, a 1.3-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: Entrees, $7.95-$16.95.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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