Tucked away in a sleepy shopping center next to one of my favorite BBQ spots in Hunt Valley sits a tiny powerhouse that delivers authentic Central American cuisine at dirt cheap prices. El Paraiso Tropical and it’s adjoining grocery store, La Favorita, are in the Cranbrook Shopping Center in Cockeysville/Hunt Valley. Despite what some Yelp reviews might have you believe, this restaurant is a hidden gem, especially in an area that has a stark lack of diversity in its dining scene.
First let’s get some things straight, El Paraiso is not your standard Tex-Mex style restaurant. Tex-Mex is great, I love it, but it’s not the same thing as authentic Central American/El Salvadorean food which is different and incredible in its own right. If you’ve been reading the blog, you’ll know that I’ve become somewhat of a Pupusa hound. I visited Irene’s in Wheaton and was blown away by the deliciousness, but I don’t always want to have to drive that far. So I found a place nearby my office that serves up food that is just as good and cheap.
When you walk into El Paraiso the first thing you realize is that it’s very small. The picture of the dining area is taken from the opposite wall of the space, so seating can be limited, and I can see how people might get frustrated with the restaurants seating because nobody really greets you and seats you. I experienced this myself the second time I attempted to dine here, literally you can sit there for 20 minutes and nobody will come to take your order. I would implore you to be patient and wait since the food is still very good.
(I should add that this place does do carry-out if that’s your jam).
The seating area in the restaurant is beautiful, the vibrant colors pop and it creates a very festive environment throughout the space. Once you have the menu in your hands I’d recommend steering towards the delicious appetizers, tacos, and pupusas for your first go around. You’ll have a much higher success rate. But enough chit chat, let’s talk FOOD.
They start you with the house chips which were piping hot and incredible. The chips were super crunchy but still had enough strength to take on the delicious salsa. I recommend ordering a soda with your drink as they serve the Mexican sodas that come in the glass bottle with real sugar in them, it just adds to the experience.
We started with some yucca con chicharron, which is a classic dish that is fried yucca along with cuts of pork shoulder. This is one of my favorite things to get and they didn’t disappoint, the yucca was fried to perfection with just the right amount of crunch to go with the delicious squishy interior. Meanwhile the salty pork is the perfect dance partner to go with the yucca and the cortido. In addition to the yucca we ordered fried plantains. The plantains are great with spicy food as the sweetness of the plantains goes together very well with the spicy sauces that accompany many of the dishes. The plantains come with beans and a square of what looked like queso fresco, I’ll be honest they were both kind of meh but I didn’t really care you can eat the plantains with the mayo based dipping sauce by themselves.
We started off our main courses with an order of barbacoa tacos. The meat itself maybe slightly under-seasoned, but I think they intend rather for you to top them with the array of onions, cilantro, and spicy salsa instead. The corn tortillas are fresh, double stacked to ensure taco structural integrity, and delicious. The barbacoa tacos are a must get, but keep in mind these aren’t your standard tacos that you maybe used to. You won’t find globs of cheese (or any) for that matter near these tacos, just fresh ingredients paired with tasty meat.
Now for the main event, their pupusas, they don’t have as wide an array of pupusas as Irene’s in Wheaton does, but the pupusas are still very good. We ordered a queso pupusa and a revuelta and both were fantastic. The pupusas have a great pillowy texture that compliment their fillings well. Queso pupusas are a standard style pupusa filled with a delicious Oaxaca style cheese, while the revuelta pupusa is filled with cheese and pork. The cortido that accompanied the pupusas was equally delicious, it had just the right amount of spicy to sour.
Overall El Paraiso is a fantastic place to get great cheap eats (whole meal was under 32 bucks). Is everything on the menu going to blow you away? Probably not, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that what they do good, they do REALLY good.
Final Grade: B+, easily the best place in Hunt Valley to get good pupusas.The only reason this is a B+ and not an A is because of the hit or miss seating/ordering arrangement.
Service – Friendly, if you know a little Spanish it will help speed things along.
Price – Cheap, tip is included in the bill so don’t get all pissy like some people on the internet did about this.
Parking – Plentiful (it’s in a strip mall)
Ambiance – During the day it’s quiet, at night I’m sure it’s a little more lively.