All words by Elsie Yang
If it’s whimsy you want, it’s whimsy you’ll get at Paraíso, the newest taco joint to descend on D.C. From brightly colored tortillas, to funky wall art, to a playlist that will catch your attention without distracting you from your company, stepping into Paraíso feels a bit like stepping out of the mundanity of the COVID bubble. There’s something distinctly carefree about the space—expansive, brightly lit, and window-lined, with plenty of room for social distancing—and more importantly, about the food—unpretentious, delicious, and affordable.
Unlike other taquerias and mezcalerias to recently arrive on the scene, this isn’t the first life that Paraíso has lived. Instead, the restaurant, whose name literally means paradise, has been around the Capitol Hill block before — it was previously Emilie’s, the much-lauded Asian fusion hotspot whose combination of Vietnamese and American southern cuisine drew crowds aplenty. And while the ongoing pandemic has forced many restaurants to take a look at their future, it’s encouraged a sort of rebirth for the team behind Paraíso.
Led by Geovany Beltran, who hails from Guerrero, Mexico, the new kitchen concept behind 1101 Pennsylvania Avenue SE is distinctly Latin American, but with plenty of influences from around the world. In its current form, the menu is pleasantly uncrowded. To begin, there’s the predictable chips and dip and guacamole (though the trio of salsas in the Totopos & Salsa are quite distinctive, especially the guajillo variety).
Less predictable are the seafood focused antojitos, or small plates, which lay bare the coastal influences of Beltran’s Guerrero-based culinary roots. While you may not expect to find mussels on a Mexican menu, this team does its Thai-inspired mollusk dish more than justice — when served alongside homemade cornbread, it’s truly a menu standout. The ceviche is fresh and fruit-forward, and fried oysters will certainly please any lover of deep-fried seafood (or food in general).
And although it can be difficult to make a taco that’s worth writing home about, Paraíso certainly proves that Mexican street food also has a place in elevated kitchens. Those aforementioned brightly colored tortillas (they come in pink, green, and the more standard corn yellow) are naturally dyed thanks to the addition of beets and spinach, and are melt-in-your-mouth tender. They encase a range of toppings that are both familiar and less so — there’s a citrus-y carne asada, an almost pillow-like carnitas (probably my favorite), and traditional beef tongue. Don’t miss out on the vegetarian and fish options, though — the eggplant is somewhat reminiscent of a Chinese preparation, whereas the fried cod is, as the manager calls it, “the dark horse winner.”
All the tacos come overstuffed with their toppings, and none pass the $4.50 mark. Better still, most are actually less than $4, which means that you could realistically get full on less than $20.
In the coming months, the team also plans to add a full-blown mezcaleria, which would allow the restaurant to take advantage of the expansive bar area. For now, however, you can still delight in a range of cocktails that are mezcal-centric, but not mezcal-exclusive. While the Mezcal Manhattan is a personal preference, those opting for sweeter drinks may enjoy the elderflower and pineapple notes of El Dragon Verde, or the Mezcalito de Violeta, the tequila-based version of the Aviation cocktail. If you’re lucky, you could get one of these cocktails for free — waiters pass out loteria cards at random, and recipients can trade them in for a complimentary cocktail.
But gimmicks and deviations from the norm aside, the food and the atmosphere at Paraíso is ultimately an intimate one. “I feel proud to be able to serve Mexican food in our nation’s capital,” Beltran tells BYT. “My recipes have been in my family for generations and being able to share that with our community makes me very proud.”
And with dishes, cocktails, and a space that can make you suspend reality for just a moment, Beltran and the Paraíso team certainly have plenty to be proud of.
Paraíso Taquería & Mezcalería is located at 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Featured images by Anne Kim