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Great Things Are Attached To Grocery Stores: El Paraiso

Observer Scene | Thursday, October 30, 2008

Just down Main Street in South Bend, El Paraiso is a Mexican restaurant that few students beyond the Irish ski team have discovered. And this needs to change. With prices and speed to rival Taco Bell, and traditional Mexican food that is hard to find past the Red River, it is more than worth a visit.

El Paraiso looks (and feels) like the type of dive frequented by Guy Fieri. Attached to a Mexican grocery store, it screams authenticity throughout the dining experience. The smell is overpowering when you enter, and it sets the stage for the dining experience to follow.

The restaurant itself is basic: a simple room with several cafeteria-type tables, orange walls and a few Mexican decorations spaced throughout. This simplicity belies all this place has to offer.

The menu offers anything and everything Mexican, from favorites such as tacos, burritos, and quesadillas to chimichangas and milanesa. Most selections are à la carte, although there are several plate options and daily specials. Rice and beans can also be added to any order for a few dollars more. But with the exceptionally generous portion sizes, they aren’t needed. The burrito size easily rivals those of Chipotle, except that instead of being overly stuffed with rice and other fillers, they contain copious amounts of meat with just enough sides to enhance the flavor. Quite obviously, these burritos mean business.

The food itself is amazing, albeit a little bit greasy (although with Mexican food that should be expected). To begin, pick an entrée. Then customize. Choose a main filling from steak, chicken, ground beef, pork or black beans. Several options, such as tacos and burritos, are offered in several styles, including ‘El Paraiso,’ with sour cream, cheese and ample guacamole, and “Mexican style” with cilantro and onions. For those less adventurous, they also offer the traditional “American style,” with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.

Besides all the offerings for such a small place, even the little things are done right. The beans and rice are a welcome break from what passes for such in the dining hall. The salsa actually has flavor and heat. The wet burrito and chimichanga are especially delicious and even their lesser-known entrées are cooked to perfection.

Best of all, it’s cheap. Tacos start at $1.50 each and burritos at $5.00. Even the most expensive offerings fail to bust the $10 mark. It is an easy place to visit on a budget and leave full and satisfied.

The service is good, for what it is. Mostly intended as a take out restaurant, the waitress managed to keep the chip basket full (although they do charge for refills beyond a certain point) and brought out the food as it was ready and warm. And while service is clearly not the strength of El Paraiso, it is better than expected.

The attached grocery store is an added bonus and worth a walk through even if you don’t buy anything. With traditional Mexican produce year-round, if you ever find yourself in need of a mango or coconut, you know where to look. The Mexican candy section is also culturally enlightening and offers several interesting Halloween treats.

Overall, El Paraiso offers an unexpected Mexican dining experience in South Bend on a college student budget. Go for the affordability. Return for the food.

Contact Kara King at kking5@nd.edu.