Photo by Matt OttoAmongst the well-manicured lawns of Lake Forest, in between rows of suburbia and the ceaseless traffic of El Toro Road, is El Paraíso, a sweaty, loud, unkempt Salvadoran restaurant that outdoes any Santa Ana establishment in steadfastly ignoring assimilation. Phone-card ads color its walls; a plastic parrot hanging above the register grips a Corona. Want a beer? Call for it, let the cashier pop the top, and sink back into your chair—they'll put it on your tab. Outside, day laborers rush desperately toward any car that pulls into the parking lot. If you don't hire them, they'll follow you into El Paraíso. But don't worry—they won't assault you. They just need a break from the sun. And a pupusa.
No matter who's ordering what or working where, everyone who comes to El Paraíso forks through at least two pupusas, the Salvadoran griddle cake that's the sole unifier of the fractious Central American nation. The crust of El Paraíso's pupusas is malleable like Play-Doh; the cheese inside is stretchy and possesses a gentle Brie-esque edge. Stuffing choices—shredded pork, refried beans or the addictive bitter flower bud called loroco—are fresh and maintain their flavor against the onslaught of melted fromage. More impressively, El Paraíso acknowledges its largely Mexican clientele by including jalapeños in its curtido (coleslaw) and replacing the customary side of bland Salvadoran tomato sauce with a peppier, spicier salsa. If there's a better pupusa in South County, you're eating a gordita.
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El Paraíso prepares sit-down platters as well: aromatic soups of chicken, beef or cow's foot with about four different squashes and potatoes; nicely grilled meats; and yucca sancochada, a golden and chewy version of the tuber doused with lemon. But since most of El Paraíso's clients are on the go, the menu skews toward the portable—plates you can easily wrap in foil just in case a contractor walks in with the promise of a full workday. Corn tamales are dense, steaming hulks that possess the distinct sweetness of maize so beloved in Latin America but drowned stateside in butter and salt. Plátano frito—a fried plantain accompanied by black beans and Salvadoran sour cream—is the sweetest breakfast since Lucky Charms and large enough to aliment you through the day. And while they unfortunately don't sell Salvadoran horchata here, the creamy orange tang of Kolashampan will douse that disappointment quickly.
El Paraíso also sells tacos and tortas, but ordering Mexican food at a Salvadoran joint is akin to buying falafels from an Israeli.
EL PARAÍSO, 25252 JERONIMO RD., STE. B, LAKE FOREST, (949) 770-2775.