El Paragua in Es­pañola

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(or re­ally, when­ever it rains), res­i­dents tend to make one re­mark in par­tic­u­lar. When a down­pour sub­sides and the sun reemerges, one per­son might nod to the other, and then some­one ut­ters the sim­ple phrase, “We needed it.”

Lately, I’ve thought about that say­ing — an ex­pres­sion of grat­i­tude for the el­e­ments — on trips to and from Es­pañola, where I’ve en­joyed mem­o­rable meals at El Paragua, the ven­er­a­ble es­tab­lish­ment just off U.S. 84/285. El Paragua’s legacy — which in­cludes its cui­sine, at­mos­phere, pa­trons, and staff — seems to em­body a sim­i­lar ideal of es­sen­tial­ism: Like the rain sus­tains the land, this restau­rant nour­ishes its peo­ple.

The restau­rant’s ori­gins are sto­ry­book: In 1958, the two el­der Aten­cio broth­ers be­gan sell­ing their mother’s beef tacos and pork tamales un­der a col­or­ful pa­tio um­brella on the high­way to Taos. Years later, the fam­ily opened El Paragua, converting their old tack room into a restau­rant named af­ter the um­brella. (Thus was also born El Para­sol, a fast-food taco wagon off­shoot with five lo­ca­tions in North­ern New Mexico.)

The place casts a spell. A meal at El Paragua can be an aes­thetic study in the charm of mul­ti­ple tex­tures — from the bar, with its tree grow­ing through to the sec­ond floor and the roof be­yond; to the vestibule’s vin­tage royal-blue cook­stove, near which you’re likely to spot a cook shap­ing masa dough; to the dimly lit jux­ta­po­si­tion of old cob­ble­stones, latil­las, Span­ish tile, and bright stained-glass um­brella win­dows in the down­stairs din­ing room. The over­all am­bi­ence is rar­efied yet cozy. Decades of re­views from ma­jor me­dia out­lets are mounted on the walls, crowd­ing pho­to­graphs of the Aten­cios. In 1985, the

crowed, “El Paragua is a place on which a food critic can stake his rep­u­ta­tion. There are no more au­then­tic New Mex­i­can kitchens like this.”

Brows­ing El Paragua’s cur­rent menu, I found as many items of strictly Mex­i­can prove­nance than New Mexico spe­cial­ties. But no mat­ter the dishes’ ori­gins, they’re pretty much all good. Whether at brunch or at din­ner, meals be­gin with an old-school side salad of crisp ice­berg let­tuce, fresh shaved car­rots, and sliv­ers of purple cab­bage driz­zled with an ad­dic­tively tangy or­ange-hued Ital­ian-style dress­ing, about which our server re­fused to dis­close even a sin­gle in­gre­di­ent. (“Fam­ily recipe,” she de­murred.)

For din­ner, we chose two clas­sic en­trees: en­chi­ladas Aten­cio, a creamy blend of chicken, mush­rooms, and onions rolled in corn tor­tillas and topped with green chile; and the carne asada al estilo tampiqueña, a size­able rib-eye steak crowned with a whole roasted green chile. Each dish was tran­scen­dent. The en­chi­ladas fea­tured earthy sauteed mush­rooms that gave way to soft, spicy chicken; bathed in deca­dent cream and smoth­ered in hot chile, the dish was ac­com­pa­nied by rich cow­boy-style pin­tos and Span­ish rice. The juicy, ten­der rib-eye sported an im­pec­ca­ble char and sea­son­ing and was flanked by creamy gua­camole, re­fried beans, and an ooz­ing rolled cheese en­chi­lada. I couldn’t re­mem­ber the last time I’d had such an ex­em­plary steak din­ner. Our dessert of cin­na­mon­dusted natil­las was thick and lus­cious.

At Sun­day brunch, the fes­tive rain­bow stream­ing through the win­dows coaxed us into a cou­ple of tart-sweet mar­gar­i­tas. The huevos rancheros, which I or­dered scram­bled, ar­rived with eggs atop a large flour tor­tilla and with sep­a­rate piles of sausage, re­fried beans, rice, and green chile. I liked the de­con­structed na­ture of these huevos, which al­lowed me to retro­fit ev­ery bite with bits of each in­gre­di­ent. The caldo tlalpeño — a com­pelling blend of ten­der stewed chicken chunks, chick­peas, and chiles served with sliced av­o­cado — had a smoky-spicy cures-what-ails-you broth, and each steamy spoon­ful had a pi­quant fla­vor. Chiles rel­lenos were cov­ered in soggy bread­ing and stuffed with just tomato and onion; though I en­joyed the veggies, I missed the cheesy good­ness and the crunch of other rel­lenos.

A plate of shred­ded chicken tacos turned out to be the deluxe, ex­tra-fresh ver­sion of the chick­en­gua­camole taco I usu­ally pick up from El Para­sol in town — truly a restau­rant-qual­ity replica of a fast­food standby. The mas­sive break­fast bur­rito ar­rived with half its grill-marked trunk glazed in red chile, the other half sport­ing a chunky green-chile fin­ish. Its blend of scram­bled egg, pota­toes, and cheese, con­sti­tuted a savvy com­bi­na­tion of fla­vors.

Touches on the plates tend to­ward the sweetly retro — a gen­er­ous por­tion of gua­camole is dol­loped into a let­tuce cup and fin­ished with a large black olive, and many dishes in­clude a tra­di­tional pars­ley gar­nish. At the end of a meal, rel­ish­ing a set of puffy sopaip­il­las with am­brosial house-made peach pre­serves, I found my­self thank­ful for the old ways, which do quite of­ten turn out to be the best ways. Greeted by a down­pour out­side the restau­rant, my com­pan­ion turned to me as we found our­selves say­ing, nearly in uni­son, “We needed it.”

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