Stepping into El Paraiso on a Saturday night is maybe not exactly what I envisioned Paradise to be like, but nevertheless, there it is. I suppose if God were a Norteño, and couldn't get a real band for the night, then maybe this would be paradise, because the overwhelming sound of a one-man synthesizer show filled the restaurant in a most obnoxious manner. Despite that, when given the option by our friendly hostess of the "quiet side", where a few sad-looking Gringo families were politely munching away on their tacos, or "this side" where a mustached Mexican version of Robby Gould the wedding singer was wailing into his microphone while the "oom-pa-oom-pa" of Cumbia beats vibrated the walls with a pair of speakers that could fill a concert hall, I nodded in his direction and most decidedly indicated, "this side."
After a good five minutes she returned to seat us even though we could see very clearly that the dining room was only about half full. It was alright, however, because it gave us time to take in the scenery and soak in the plastic, day-glo vibe of the place.
Stepping down into the dining room, I was surprised not to see some hollering drunks in the back bar, or at least one couple with tight jeans and cowboy boots seductively hopping to the beat. In fact, in spite of the insanely loud music, everyone was pretty much just eating and talking; acting very much like they always dine with horrendously loud Norteña beats blasting in their ears. I have to admit, to me the music was a little overwhelming, but if this was Paradise, I wanted the whole experience.
Part of the experience in Paradise includes being surrounded by gaudy, airbrushed murals. Apparently in Paradise, giant naked woman sleep in volcanoes and when the sun rises, they burst out to catch flying Marlin from the beach. Actually, that sounds just about right.
Snapping me out of my paradisiacal volcanic fantasies, our server came by to bring us huge plastic menus and get our drink order. The conversation went like this:
Me: "Negra Modelo, por favor."
Me: "NE-GRA MO-DE-LO."
Her: "Ahhh. Una Corona."
Again, I repeated it, straining my voice over the music. She nodded, jettisoned off towards the bar and surprisingly returned only moments later with the correct beers. Now, properly beveraged, we opened menus and got to choosing.
The El Paraiso options are plentiful, but they certainly specialize in seafood and other Parilladas, or grill platters. They also have these things they claimed to have invented, called molcajetes, which, for the record, they didn't. Molcajetes are big stone mortar and pestles used to grind up salsas, and restaurants in Mexico have been using them to serve heaping piles of food since El Paraiso was still a twinkle in the eye of the Wheatridge Township.
Anyway, we order a seafood parillada and the chicken mole enchiladas. The seafood comes out looking delicious, but with varying levels of temperature. It was all actually quite good: crab legs, grilled trout, shrimp and octopus-- it's just that some things were clearly cooked a while back, and some were still steaming hot. Actually the grilled shrimp were especially good in that I could taste the smoke from the charcoal grilling it received. It was also nice to make some octopus, pepper and onion tacos with the good red salsa.
Also with the seafood parillada came the option of frijoles charros. I don't remember the other option, but it doesn't matter because you want to get this. In fact, I would have been happy with a big, steamy bowl of these beans, slow cooked in a rich broth, and full of huge chunks of bacon and pork bits. They were divine. Even my bean-hating wife couldn't stop eating them.
The enchiladas de mole were fantastic as well. This is obviously a good recipe and once you have that, it is pretty hard to mess anything else up. Topped with a queso fresco (but without onions) it was hearty and satisfying; and hard to stop eating although I was entirely full about half-way through.
So here is what I think about El Paraiso: It is not paradise by any means, nor is it likely Denver's best Mexican restaurant as many people claim, but it clearly is an authentic Mexican restaurant with good food. I get the feeling that on a good night it could be a great place, and that it maybe still is at times. However, I also get the feeling that less and less people working there care about how those recipes are executed these days. I realize it is a large place and I know that perfect, consistent execution is not realistic, but for a $19 seafood plate for one (though big enough for two), I would expect at least that it was all cooked to order. I would go back for another authentic experience, and to continue my way down the extensive menu, but I'll keep looking for another Mexican restaurant to call Denver's best.
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