Courtyard Dining Indoors

El Parador has one of the more unique dining areas in town--and the food's pretty good, too.

Thanks goodness the holidays are over. This means the end, for 11 months or so, of the Christmas parties that have been clogging up some of Tucson's best restaurants for the past month.

I visited El Parador on a recent Saturday night--my second trip to El Parador in three days--ignorantly believing that I should have no problem getting a table. I walked in about 8:30 p.m., and asked for a table for two; the hostess had to ask someone else if it was OK to put me on a waitlist for a table. I later learned they'd been turning people away, but because it was getting late, and the parties were breaking up, they would let me in.

Whew. Told my table should be ready in 15 minutes, I walked outside and waited for my friend, Rene, to show up. Meanwhile, I watched people pour out of the restaurant, carrying all sorts of gift baskets and other holiday party prizes.

El Parador claims a heritage back to 1946. That's when John Jacobs opened his first restaurant; a Tucson native, his family came to Tucson--after a stop in Mexico as Lebanese immigrants--in 1919. El Parador has been in business since 1977, when John and his children opened the doors.

My first visit was for lunch with Irene Messina; that dining experience was decidedly mixed.

We were seated in the front room of the restaurant, which is one of the nicer indoor places to dine in the Old Pueblo, because it features numerous live plants and trees, giving it the feel of a true outdoor courtyard. (The El Parador Web site explains that the room was once an open courtyard to several retail shops; a roof was put on later with skylights, allowing the plants, some of which are 50 years old, to remain.) The blue ceiling is quite high--allowing the plants the room they need--and adjacent rooms still look like they could be retail shops, with brick walls and awnings. With orange walls and pillars, multicolored tables and large windows, the place is airy and vibrant.

As we took in the lovely atmosphere, we chose what to eat. The menu features a number of Sonoran specialties for lunch, ranging in price from $5.95 to $7.95, along with salads, sandwiches and appetizers. El Parador is also currently offering a "Siesta Fiesta" menu with more unique entrées. I ordered the flautas del mar off this menu ($6.50, includes coffee, tea or a soft drink), along with a bowl of the soup of the day, cazuela ($4.95). Irene ordered the spinach enchilada lunch ($7.95), and we decided to split the queso chivo quesadilla ($6.95).

We were delivered some chips and salsa (the first basket is free, but be warned that subsequent baskets are $1.50). The chips were fresh, and the salsa was tasty--chunky and slightly sweet. But we didn't see our server again for quite some time. She was competent without being very pleasant (she barely smiled the entire time), and after a longer than normal wait, she brought the soup and the quesadilla. The quesadilla was excellent--containing goat cheese, pico de gallo, Monterey jack and cheddar, and served with mango salsa and guacamole. It was full of flavor. The goat cheese was a nice touch, making the taste pungent without being overwhelming. The mango salsa added on top provided a nice balance.

My soup, however, was sub-par. The beef, potato and onion soup tasted fine and was wonderfully hot, but the beef was tougher than shoe leather; it must have been overcooked, and as a result, it was barely edible.

Less than two minutes after the soup and quesadilla arrived, the entrées came. We put the appetizers aside in favor of our main courses, and for the most part, we enjoyed them. My four large flautas, served on a bed of lettuce, were delicious. Containing shrimp, crab and scallops, and topped with cheese, they were amazing. Meanwhile, Irene was delighted with her enchiladas, which contained spinach, mushrooms, pine nuts, onion and cotija cheese, along with a cilantro-chardonnay salsa. She said the spinach was quite fresh; it was a winner. On an odd and disappointing note, her accompanying black beans were awful. We both tasted them, and came to the conclusion that some sort of mistake must have been made: They were salty to the point of being inedible.

We left our lunch with mixed feelings. On one hand, our entrées were fantastic; on the other hand, we'd encountered one inedible side dish, a soup with nearly inedible beef and uninspired service. This was going through my mind on the Saturday as I waited for Rene and watched the parade of holiday partygoers depart.

When Rene arrived, our table was ready, and we were seated. The vibe at El Parador was happy and joyful--holiday cheer, aided by alcohol, can do that to a place--and I am happy to report that our dinner gave Rene and me a reason to be cheerful, too.

We split two appetizers, the ceviche ($7.95) and the tableside guacamole ($7.95). From the dinner menu, which includes a number of traditional Sonoran dishes as well as some "Nuevo Latino style" fare, I ordered the pollo fundido chimichanga ($10.95), while Rene got the El Parador special ($12.95, with a chile relleno, two chicken taquitos, a beef tamale, a cheese enchilada, rice and refried beans).

Our server was pleasant and appropriately talkative as he made the guacamole in front of us. After squashing the bejesus out of the avocados, he added a number of different ingredients, all presented in little cups, including lime, garlic, pico de gallo and chiles. The final result was a delicious, chunky delight, even if it was a bit pricey.

Delightful, too, was the ceviche. It was not presented like a cocktail; rather, the shrimp, scallops and fish were placed in a pile, and served with avocado and apple slices and four round tortilla chips. It was tangy, thanks to the citrus marinade. Rene--a world traveler from Nogales who knows a thing or two about ceviche--thought it was wonderful.

The entrees were both great. My chimichanga--the menu declares it is a "house specialty"--was huge. Containing chicken and cream cheese, and then slathered in a cheese sauce, it was one of the more unusual chimichangas I've had. My only complaint was that there was a little too much cream cheese, making it the dominant flavor; nonetheless, the chimichanga was a treat.

Rene had only good things to say about his El Parador special. He liked the blend of cheeses in the enchilada, and the chicken inside the taquitos was juicy and fresh. The chile relleno and beef tamales were standard, but fine.

As we finished our meals, El Parador was starting to transform into a nightclub; this happens every Saturday night. Friday nights feature Rafael Moreno and Descarga for all you salsa fans out there. We didn't want to stay for dancing, despite the encouragement from the hostess to do so, and we left, full and satisfied.

The dinner convinced me that El Parador's a winner, despite the lackluster lunch. And I take solace in the fact that it will be easier to get a table now that all those damn holiday parties are over.

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