Long Beach Lunch: El Paisa

Right around the time customers stopped going to Bambuco, Long Beach’s then-only Colombian restaurant, El Paisa opened as a spacious, superior alternative.

The quality and portion sizes of arepas and bandejas at poor Bambuco had been rapidly declining since we first reviewed it a few years ago, and the lack of business (more likely due to its isolated Westside, port-adjacent locale than anything else) caused a steep increase in prices. Bambuco closed sometime in late 2014 (RIP) and the location is now a Nayarit-style seafood restaurant, leaving El Paisa to reign supreme as Long Beach’s only — and thankfully best — Colombian restaurant.

It’s a title the East Coast-bred owners don’t take lightly, and over the last year and a half, they’ve succeeded in making EL Paisa a one-stop cultural shop that’s worth the drive (yes, even from Orange County) for the area’s small-but-proud Colombian community.

The hallmarks of typical Colombian cooking are all on the menu here: loaded bandejas, or smorgasboard platters usually consisting of some combination of meat (beef), meat (chorizo), more meat (fried pork belly), fried eggs, beans, rice, arepas and avocado; various cuts of beef and pork either drenched in spice-rich salsa de criolla or else served still-sizzling on cast-iron skillets; and for snacks, the nation’s signature little deep fried empanadas, golden yellow and stuffed with spiced ground beef and chicken.
But then, El Paisa goes beyond, with entire portions of the menu dedicated to the seafood from Colombia’s coastal regions, like whole fried red snappers, shrimp placed upright, as if dancing, on a plate of creamy garlic sauce, and some sort of South American jambalaya loaded with mussels and clams and served with a juicy half pollo a la brasa on the side.

Every meal comes with a small side salad and, if there are enough people at the table, you’ll likely also net at least a few servings of Colombia’s plentiful side dishes: mushy grilled plantains, soft white rice and a generous helping of the country’s famous frijoles, made here with giant stewed red beans, flavored with cumin, achiote powder and – you guessed it – more meat.

As the unofficial Colombian cultural center for Long Beach, El Paisa takes a lot of responsibility in its service to the community. In addition to being a restaurant and fruteria where newbies to the cuisine can discover its complexities alongside colombianos reliving a taste of home, the place is also a miniature grocery store (where you can buy imported goods like coffee, spices, candies, toys and clothes), a panaderia that keeps a display case stocked with everything from pan de coco to bunelos and an event space that often hosts Colombian singers and other excuses for Colombians to get together and hang out. (And just in case your cell phone is about to die when you enter El Paisa, there’s also charging station on the counter, because, why not?)
If the worth of a good ethnic restaurant can be gleaned by the percentage of people of that ethnicity who dine there, then El Paisa is pure gold. Colombian couples rattling off conversations in the country’s distinctive Spanish accent stop by on their lunch breaks and greet the owners by first name, and entire Colombian families have been known to treat the restaurant as their own dining room, lingering for hours eating full, multi-course traditional dinners. Gabachas and other non-colombianos like myself are not an uncommon sight, but we are definitely not the target audience.

This is saying something now that Long Beach’s only Colombian restaurant isn’t buried halfway into the Westside industrial zone, but is instead in the heart of the city’s densely populated Eastside. Where Bambuco failed to connect with either Colombians or outsiders, El Paisa is thriving with a space that welcomes both.

1640 Orange Ave., Long Beach; (562) 333-8119

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