Apr 10, 2008
Taqueria El Paraiso (Durham)
Yesterday's lunch. In the foreground: a pair of gorditas. Farther back: an "open-face burrito".
By accident this week, I'm continuing a tour of restaurants mentioned in Gourmet Magazine's "Carolina Cocina" article.* Years ago, I used to eat frequently at this Alston Ave. -- before it was named El Paraiso, I think. In any case, I'm happy to have returned.
Four random notes on the restaurant and food:
El Paraiso's salsa verde is reason enough to go there. It's served in a squirt bottle, and here are the essential ingredients, as told to me (in no particular order) by the cocinera:
The salsa roja is also plenty yummy:
- dried chile de arbol
- a few other things
Gorditas have been described as "the pita bread of Mexico". But yummier. Made like a very thick, moderately greasy tortilla, the outside has a little crunch, and the inside is soft. Most often, the gordita is split open from one side, stuffed with something yummy, then topped with a bit of lettuce and tomato, a splash of media crema, and a sprinkling of what I'm guessing is grated queso fresco. El Paraiso's variation is to pile everything on top of the gordita instead of inside. The nice thing about this method is that you know from the beginning that you can use a fork.**
Gringos are Welcome at El Paraiso. At 12:30 this afternoon, there were three parties in the restaurant. One pair of white businessmen with a laptop out. One big table of white young professionals (or maybe grad students) in their late twenties. And me plus my (white -- you guessed it) client. I'm used to being the only non-white person in a place. But not in East Durham. This was a happy moment.***
El Paraiso is on Alston Ave. between E. Main St. and Angier Ave. This is an interesting and appealing neighborhood that has been written about several times at Endangered Durham. I can't decide which of Endangered Durham's blogs to send you to, so I'll pick two: Alston Avenue Update (a pause on the road widening) and Commonwealth/Asbury/United Methodist Church.
The folks at Uplift East Durham also write about this neighborhood that they live and work in. I enjoyed my frequent drives through here back in 2005 when I was taking care of a friend who lived out on East Angier. It's easy to imagine the area's healthier past, and a hoped-for good future.
ALSO: Chowhound's co-founder Jim Leff has many praising words and pictures of El Paraiso in this blog: North America Dispatch #18: Great 'Cue with Bob Garner, Two Pillars of Mexican Cooking, and a Deafening Honduran Pool Hall.
**Click for a scan of the Carolina Cocina article (.pdf 2MB)
**I had my first great gorditas in Mérida, Mexico. After I apologized for using so many napkins, the cook said, "Yucatecan food is messy." El Paraiso is run by folks from Oaxaca, where my gringo lunchmate has traveled. His Spanish is better than mine. While asking for the salsa recipes, I kept trying to verify the absence of some expected ingredients, "...y no vinagre? no limón?" He said that better choices would be "nada de vinagre? nada de limón?" or even "...sin vinagre? sin limón?" I will try to remember for next time.
***Back in 2001, my Rhode Island friend Sheila accepted an senior executive job at Duke, and I took her to dinner here on one of her first nights in Durham. As we seated ourselves, she said, "my colleagues are taking me to dinner tomorrow and they asked where we'd be going tonight -- just to make sure they didn't pick the same restaurant. I don't think they needed to worry."