“If small businesses are the backbone of American commerce, then the good old-fashioned lemonade stand is the spinal cord.” That sagacious metaphor (for which I unfortunately cannot take credit) is an apt description for how El Paragua transcended its humble beginnings to become one of the culinary crown jewels of Northern New Mexico.
In 1958, the Atencio brothers, two precocious entrepreneurs growing up in the enchanting Española valley did the old-fashioned lemonade stand one better. They built a stand in which they sold their mother’s tacos and tamales. The stand’s overhanging roof provided respite from the rain, hence the name “El Paragua” or “the umbrella.” By 1965, the Atencio boys’ business was booming and the family home was transformed into a sit-down restaurant in which hungry patrons could partake of all of Mama Atencio’s culinary magic.
Today El Paragua is a dining destination that has achieved worldwide acclaim. Dr. N Scott Momaday, the UNM educated (Bachelor’s degree) Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a glowing review for the New York Times. The restaurant’s walls are papered with reviews from such industry standard publications as Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Sunset magazine as well as numerous newspapers.
El Paragua’s decor combines the varying influences of the traditional Hispanic culture unique to northern New Mexico, but you might also swear you’re dining in old Mexico. That means an eclectic mix of eye-catching brickerbrack strewn throughout the capacious restaurant’s several dining rooms. In one of those dining rooms, the bases of the cloth covered tables were constructed of old treadle-type Singer sewing machines. The ceilings were fashioned of heavy wooden beams and the dark, alluring ambience is of stone and wood. The floors are red-tiled while multi-hued, hand-painted Saltillo tile trimmings accentuate the walls on which are also hung vintage family photographs and Catholic iconography.
Despite the aforementioned trappings, once your eyes have adjusted to the dimly lit front room, they will probably train instantly on the stately, multi-trunked cottonwood that grows through the restaurant’s roof. That imposing tree extends upward for fifty feet or more–still providing an umbrella of shade for El Parasol, the taco stand next door.
You won’t be seated long before a basket of complementary low-salt chips (thin and crisp) and a bowl of fiery, Christmassy (red and green) jalapeno-based salsa is brought to your table. The salsa is replenished faithfully and despite more than a hint of cilantro, is quite good. Expect to consume two or three bowls before your entrees are served.
The menu is unlike that of other New Mexican restaurants. It’s more than an eclectic mix of American, Mexican and New Mexican items and includes a surprising array of mariscos (Mexican seafood) and steak. The steak selections includes Churrasco Argentino, cooked in a green herb salsa chimichurri and served for two on a hot brazier. Steaks and fish (try the pan-fried breaded trout almondine) are grilled over a mesquite-wood fire. For less meaty fare, the lime-basted chicken with apple sauce is a delicious option.
The menu’s selection of New Mexican food is incomparable. Authentic New Mexican treasures (such as menudo) and variations (such as chorizo enchiladas) on those treasures abound. The best way to sample the restaurant’s savory New Mexican fare is by ordering a combination plate which includes a tamale, enchilada, taco, carne adovada, refried beans and rice. The shredded beef taco is the same one you’d get next door at El Parasol. Everything on the combination plate save for the carne adovada (too much cilantro) is absolutely delicious.
It’s easy to see why the carnitas are a popular favorite. The chunks of pork marinated with grilled onions and tomatoes are delicious bite-sized pieces of some of the very best carnitas you’ll find in New Mexico.
The complementary sopaipillas are light, flaky and huge, maybe the largest sopaipillas we’ve seen. Despite their prolific size, they form perfect, accommodating pockets for honey or the restaurant’s house-made apricot preserves.
If you’re a caloric overachiever and you’ve got the room for it, don’t dare pass up two New Mexican dessert comfort foods–natillas, an egg-based custard and capirotada, New Mexican bread pudding. I don’t know of any other restaurant menus in New Mexico that feature capirotada and though it’s not nearly as wonderful as the one my mom makes, it’s quite good for a restaurant offering.
El Paragua is only 24 miles north of Santa Fe, just off the Taos Highway on State Road 76. It’s the type of restaurant you wouldn’t mind driving 100 miles for.
603 Santa Cruz
LATEST VISIT: 17 May 2006
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Combination Platter, Natillas, Chips & Salsa