Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hoping For A Repeat of Our First Salvadoran Experience

El Paraiso
25252 El Toro Road Suite B-2
Lake Forest, CA 92630

Ever since we went to a wedding in Santa Maria, we have been on the lookout for Salvadorian food in Orange County. On a whim, we searched around our hotel in Santa Maria, and a Salvadorian restaurant was the closest, and one of the highest rated on Yelp. Katie and I became enamored with pupusas and the tamales of El Salvador after eating there, and we wondered about the Salvadoran scene back home in OC.

A quick search of Yelp yielded about 14 restaurants that claim to serve Salvadorian food, but most of these are a hybrid of other Central American cuisines as well. As luck would have it, one of the 14 Salvadoran restaurants is pretty close to our house, so we made a beeline for El Paraiso in Lake Forest.

El Paraiso is in the only shopping area at the corner of El Toro Road and Jeronimo. There's a pho place and a liquor store in this small shopping center, and not much else. We drove past El Paraiso the first time through the shopping center, but persistence paid off on our second sweep through, as we finally found it.

Not really a big restaurant, we were surprised to see this place nearly full on a recent Tuesday night at 5:30. There's about ten tables here, and they are pretty close together, as we were bumped around by diners either getting up from their table or snagging a seat. Decor is obviously not the main draw here, but they do have two nice TVs, which were both turned to different soccer games during our stay at El Paraiso.

The menu is pretty ambitious for such a small restaurant. They have appetizers, Salvadoran specialties, breakfast plates, a number of seafood options, soups, and a good amount of Mexican items. No soda fountain here, as they have canned and bottled sodas, along with juices, horchata, and beers. My favorite, iced tea, was not offered, so I settled on a horchata. The horchata here was good, but after a few sips, the sweetness was a little too much for me. After about five minutes, our food started to make its way out to our table. Let's see if this Salvadoran experience will equal or surpass our Santa Maria adventure.

As is Katie's custom, if Chips and Guacamole ($4.99) are offered in a restaurant, she has to try them. The tortilla chips were pretty average here, as was the salsa, which only had a hint of spice to it. The real star of this plate was the guacamole. It had a good chunk to it, the avocados were fresh, and the inclusion of jalapenos in this made this a better than average guacamole. Definitely worth trying.

I'm going to lump both mine and Katie's meals together, since they looked almost identical. We both had the Combination ($6.99), which included your choice of pupusa, a tamal, rice and beans. There are 10 different varieties of pupusas to choose from. Katie selected the squash and cheese one, just like she had in Santa Maria, while I went with one filled with pork and cheese. Pupusas are made out of a thick rice flour, and stuffed with your choice of ingredients. Kind of like a pocket bread. They do not over stuff these by any stretch of the imagination. Katie liked the one here a little less than the one she had up north, because it seemed to be a little greasier. It was still a good pupusa in her book though. I liked mine just as well as the others I have had. The insides were a little subtle, but still noticeable. Tender shredded pork and the traditional queso blanco went well with the outer layer of the pupusa. We both really like these Salvadoran tamals a lot more than the corn husk variety. They are wrapped in banana leaf, which seems to make them more moist. The insides had tender chicken and mine a good amount of shredded pork. The rice was lighter than I was expecting, and the beans were smoother than what we are used to, but still good. With the pupusas, you are also served the traditional Curtido, which is a fermented cabbage relish, which you are supposed to eat with the pupusa. It's okay, but I'd rather eat my pupusa without it.

I had forgotten how filling  pupusas were when I ordered, so when this Huarache ($4.99) came to the table, I realized I did not need to finish it, and took most of it to work with me the next day. This was my first time having a huarache, which has a thick fried masa base, which is then topped with your choice of meat, (I went with carnitas), beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream, cheese, and a little splash of hot sauce. Similar to a tostada, but with a thicker base, I grew to like this more with every bite. The masa base threw me for a bit, but the toppings won me over here. The sour cream could have been spread more evenly, but the pork was tasty, and I liked the smear of beans and the slight heat of the hot sauce. I'm definitely going to be on the lookout for more huarache's on menus when I'm out.

So, El Paraiso was pretty solid for Salvadorian food, but just a shade better was our experience in Santa Maria. We will definitely be back though, because it saves us from a three hour drive north on the 5 Freeway, and that's without traffic. I look forward to trying their plantains or yuca frita on my next visit here. The service was good. All of our questions were answered, and we felt that the value for the money was well worth it. Ordering just the combination plate here will fill you up, until your next meal time. Glad we have a Salvadorian place that's a lot closer than halfway up the state.

Out of five volcanoes, (because the coat of arms for El Salvador has five volcanoes on it, which symbolizes the five member states of the Federal Republic of Central America), five being best to zero being worst, El Paraiso gets 3 volcanoes.

For more information about El Paraiso, go to their website here:

El Paraiso on Urbanspoon

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