Fish tacos come in all flavors and configurations – and they’re ubiquitous on menus. I’ve spotted them at brewpubs, sit-down chain restaurants and even corner delis: Grilled, blackened, sautéed, fried or baked; with lettuce, cabbage and even fancy micro greens; cilantro-lime infused sour cream, roasted pepper salsa and even a pomegranate sauce.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen fish tacos as cheap or as tasty as the shrimp and sole tacos at El Paraiso Fish Tacos in Lakewood.
I got a tip from a TNT Diner reader about this curious little Mexican restaurant (read: hole in the wall) that opened a few months ago in the same shopping center as the Lakewood Cinema theaters. The fish tacos here don’t have an Americana or healthy eating twist or some high falutin’ pomegranate sour cream sauce– they’re good ol’ battered and fried fish tacos served on house-made tortillas. And they’re about as perfect as I’ve found for that style of fish taco.
The tacos are a bargain $1.99 each in either shrimp or Dover sole and I noticed a theme right away: fresh. In the shrimp taco, two discs of puffy dough encased plump shrimp cooked just enough to retain some of the juicy snap that I love about fresh shrimp. The battered sole was feathery soft, fresh tasting and also perfectly fried. The batter was doughy, fresh and creamy, not brittle or greasy (my big pet peeve for fried fish). The tacos came on a fabulous foundation: freshly griddled house-made flour tortillas (which earned El Paraiso serious bonus points, right there). A generous swipe of sour cream, chopped cabbage, a few flecks of cilantro leaves, chopped tomatoes and onions finished the tacos. The only thing they required was a scant squeeze from a lime wedge, which was available on the salsa bar near the door, along with roasted, pickled whole jalapenos (delicious), three kinds of salsa (passable, but nothing memorable) a few other pickled vegetables and a creamy green jalapeno puree that tasted purely of peppers (be sure to get a cup).
For a restaurant with fish tacos in the name, I’d expect more than two varieties, but that’s all the menu lists. I saw ceviche and asked the requisite questions: Is it raw fish cooked in a lime bath? Or cooked fish squirted with some lime juice as an afterthought? It was the latter, so I skipped. If it’s not real ceviche, I won’t waste my time or yours.
Chiles Rellenos ($7.99) looked promising. We were pleasantly surprised by the healthy thump of spice from the pepper (It caused my dining partner to declare at the end of the meal, “My head is kinda sweaty now.”). Gooey mozzarella oozed out of the pepper as we cut through the eggy batter. The pepper held just the slightest bit of crunch, which gave the dish body that I liked. It was topped with a mild tomato sauce. Note to kitchen: I could have done without the toothpicks that were holding the pepper together. Beans on the side were thin, but tasty, and rice was well seasoned, but not too salty. Corn tortillas came on the side.
The rest of the menu mostly is taqueria eats: tacos (99 cents-$1.49), burritos ($5.99), enchiladas ($7.99), tortas (5.99). A few house specialties sounded a bit unusual. A whole fried tilapia fish, Pescado Dorado ($12.95), and an empanadas plate ($6.99) sounded worthy of a return trip. Beef, pork or cheese and pepper tamales ($1.49 each) and menudo ($7.99) are offered on the weekends.
Service was order at the counter, friendly and knowledgeable. The atmosphere is downscale taqueria. The dining room is filled with a handful of ‘70s style brown laminate tables with matching fake leather chairs that can best be described as ‘70s casino chic. El Paraiso may not be fancy, but it’s got character. On the television was something quite curious, “Le Fea Mas Bella,” which turned out to be something like a Mexican soap opera version of “Ugly Betty,” only with mariachi music. We couldn’t take our eyes off it.
El Paraiso Fish Tacos & Mexican Food
Where: 2510 84th St. S., Lakewood (next to the Lakewood Cinemas)
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily