El Parador Café
325 East 34th Street
New York, New York
Established in 1959 by the flamboyant Carlos Jacott, El Parador is the oldest Mexican restaurant in New York City. And when you realize that the average lifespan of a restaurant is five years or less, this esteemed eatery’s fifty-three years are all the more impressive.
And although El Parador was sold to Manuel Alejandro in 1990, it continued on with a definitive sense of style. The torch was subsequently passed to Mr. Alejandro’s son, José, known as Alex, a 1994 graduate of the French Culinary Institute, who continues to impress discriminating diners with his innovative cookery.
But El Parador is famous for infinitely more than its longevity. According to Le Guide Michelin, it is the numero uno Mexican restaurant in the Big Apple. It was also named “Bib Gourmand,” which means it is considered an exceptionally good value.
So you leave the bustling sidewalks of East 34th Street behind and step into El Parador’s convivial bar/lounge. There are some establishments that put you at ease the moment you cross the threshold… and this is most assuredly one of them. Here you may assuage your thirst by downing one of the restaurant’s signature margaritas while savoring crisp complimentary tortilla chips companioned by a warm dipping sauce redolent of spices. Ah, yes… all seems right with the world.
And when it comes time to settle in at table, the casual, romantically-imbued dining area decked out in dark wood, Spanish tiles, and colorful lanterns surely beckons. Or you may also elect, as we did, to stake a claim to one of the cozy booths adjacent to the bar. These are actually more intimate, allowing for private conversations, and affording a bird’s-eye view of the spirited goings-on that are so typically – and magically – Manhattan.
To start things off, the black bean soup is a perennial favorite. Plenty of spice here – and there’s just enough heat to tantalize the taste buds without paralyzing them – but the secret is the artful integration of an exquisite selection of seasonings, which brings about a remarkably harmonious gestalt. In a similar vein, the exceedingly popular chili con carne, available at lunch and at dinner by request, is also not to be missed. Assertively seasoned with beef picadillo (ground beef, tomatoes, garlic, and onions), it is also crowned with a zippy jalapeño relish.
The quesadillas are particularly recommended appetizers. These are flour tortillas that are filled with a variety of delectable items and then folded in the shape of a half moon and toasted under the broiler. Recently sampled, for instance, was a savory combo of potato and chorizo sausage garnished with a contrastingly crunchy and colorful pickled coleslaw.
But the sine qua non of a visit to El Parador – other than the chunky, impeccably seasoned guacamole clásico prepared in the establishment’s 43-year-old molcajete (mortar) – remains the pickled jalapeño peppers stuffed with peanut butter. The peppers are filled with chunky peanut butter, dipped in flour, egg and bread crumbs, and then fried. According to urban legend, during Mr. Jacott’s college days, all he had in the refrigerator were jalapeños & peanut butter; and that’s how a great recipe was born… At least that’s the story handed down from old bartenders and waiters. But however the dish came about, it is a triumph of culinary ingenuity, an unmitigated joy of tastes and textures.
When it comes to entrées, my advice is to firmly resist the temptation to order the usual suspects – namely enchiladas or combo platters. Not that these items aren’t up to the mark; they most certainly are. But the kitchen here operates on a much higher plain; and you will be rewarded if you go for the gold rather than the mundane. Confirmed carnivores, for example, can’t miss with either the 24-ounce center cut sirloin or the double-cut baby lamb chops. The former is served up with a delicious array of roasted seasonal vegetables and a zesty red onion relish. The latter is enhanced with a chipotle & garlic adobo rub (a piquant paste consisting of ground chilies, herbs, and vinegar) and finished with guajillo salsa (a thick, red, flavorful sauce produced from seeded, soaked, pulverized, and cooked guajillo chilies).
Then, of course, for those in search of true culinary authenticity, there is always the mole poblano, the national dish of Mexico. One-half chicken is slowly stewed in mole, a reddish-brown sauce (literally, “concoction”) comprised of a blend of onions, garlic, several types of chilies, ground seeds, and a small amount of Mexican chocolate. The result is an utterly delicious, spicy, rich, smooth, complex, downright sexy sauce that succeeds in totally beguiling the palate without overwhelming it.
One additional note with regard to entrées: El Parador’s kitchen is particularly adept at matters thalassic. So if you happen to have an incurable love for the pleasures of the sea, this is the ideal spot to indulge those noble predispositions.
And surely the place to begin is the bouillabaisse Veracruzana, a mainstay on the restaurant’s printed menu. All the constituents – lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, and mussels – are prepared to perfection… But it is the extraordinary broth that succeeds in propelling this dish into orbit. Veracruz or Veracruzana refers to a Mexican dish (usually of fish or shellfish) that is cooked in a sauce/broth that is comprised of tomatoes, chilies, onion, and garlic flavored with a dash of oregano and splash lime juice, which is generally served over rice. In this case, the tomatoes are charred; the garlic is predominant but not overpowering; the jalapeños provide just enough heat to make things interesting; and the well-seasoned rice is served on the side. A truly outstanding presentation.
And the day boat halibut, a special of the evening, is every bit its equal. The filet itself is pristine of health and beautifully grilled; its snowy white countenance firm of texture yet incredibly moist. A stunning warm tomato & red onion vinaigrette provides the crowning touch; black rice and grilled scallions the perfectly complementary traveling companions. Undoubtedly the most illustrious representative of this particular species that it has ever been my pleasure to ingest.
But do leave room for dessert. The Flan de la Casa, for example, is benchmark. Flan is the Mexican version of crème caramel. El Parador’s denouement offers not only ethereal custard coated with browned caramel, but also a crunchy foundation of texturally contrasting pecan wedding cookie and the tasty divergence of spicy mango.
… But the Mexican fried ice cream is also a worthy contender. A delectable orb is cut into four sections and adorned with Mexican crema & honey; artistic dabs of blueberry sauce and sprinkling of peanut brittle add color and texture to this highly recommendable sweet ending.
In an interview, another food writer asked executive chef/proprietor Alex Alejandro why he thought El Parador had not only survived but had also greatly prospered for over half-a-century in such an intensely competitive culinary environment. Mr. Alejandro’s immediate response: “The secret is consistency…”
How true… “A foolish consistency” may very well be “the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson once noted… But in the restaurant business it is that one indisputably essential element that separates the few truly venerable establishments from a host of flash-in-the-pan also-rans. Given the seamless stability of El Parador’s cuisine, service, and ambiance, I see no reason why it will not continue to cater to its ever-growing loyal clientele for yet another fifty years.
The Artful Diner
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Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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