Engaging Experience

El Parador Offers Great Sonoran Fare.

By Rebecca Cook

I HADN'T HEARD much about El Parador until a friend recently related a less-than-flattering tale of the place.

Seems that one Saturday night, she found herself home alone and decided to stave off the blues by taking herself out to dinner. The chosen restaurant for this personal indulgence was El Parador.

Chow What initially seemed a good idea began to wither soon after her arrival: No one paid her any mind as she stood, patiently waiting to be seated. Waiters and waitresses flew about from every corner of the room, but neither host nor hostess was anywhere in sight, and no one else apparently thought it their duty to take care of a single customer.

Eventually, my friend grabbed the sleeve of a passing server and asked to be seated. This accomplished, she sat another 10 minutes without benefit of water, menu or even an apologetic acknowledgment. In desperation, she asked to see the manager, to inform him of the shabby treatment she'd received. She even went so far as to claim to be me, an announcement that, while unadvisable, seemed to lend more credence to her reproach.

Sure enough, the situation was soon rectified: An on-the-house margarita scintillated in front of her, and the rest of the dinner proceeded without any additional difficulty or delay.

I was thus compelled to visit El Parador myself, not only to investigate the quality of the service, but also to set the record straight on their latest menu, which reportedly places the restaurant well apart from the more than 100 other Mexican eateries on the Tucson dining landscape.

Described by one waiter as "Nuevo Latino," El Parador now explores not only the familiar cuisine of Mexico (in particular, the state of Sonora) but also delves into the dining heritage of Argentina, Peru, Mallorca, Spain and Cuba.

A Tucson landmark since 1976, El Parador is no stranger to internationalism. Owner John Jacob is the son Taft Jacob Mabarak, who followed the rest of his Lebanese family west sometime before the Civil War in a scheme to develop a link of camel transportation between Camp Verde in Texas and San Diego. Mabarak finally landed in Tucson around 1919, where his family opened a modest fruit stand on Congress Street, an enterprise that eventually evolved into the Tucson Public Market, the city's first real supermarket.

Jacob and his brothers learned this region's cuisine well. Shortly after World War II, with only a handful of Mexican restaurants in town, the brothers opened their own enterprise (Club 21 on North Oracle Road). Jacob opened El Parador on his own in 1976, and the restaurant is run today primarily by his children, with John still consulting in a semi-retirement capacity.

El Parador's tropical interior has always been a singular quality: Lush green foliage canopies much of the floor and lofty ceiling space, and skylights infuse the room with filtered light. Tablecloths and napkins in jaunty hues of red, purple and green accent the main room. In addition, the walls have been painted a vibrant green, a shade that could variously be described as "Kelly" or "bilious," depending on your verdant disposition.

Promptly seated upon both my visits, I proceeded directly to El Parador's menu, which is extensive and comprehensive for both lunch and dinner.

Luncheon specials primarily feature Sonoran fare, with combination plates that include plenty of tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, tostadas, tamales, chimichangas, black beans and rice. In addition to these more familiar items, two unusual enchilada preparations are worth looking into: a spinach variety, stuffed with fresh greens, sautéed onion and mushrooms, pine nuts, mild cojita cheese and a cilantro-chardonnay salsa; and the enchiladas chimichurri, featuring an abundance of moist, shredded chicken and longhorn cheddar topped with an Argentine chimichurri sauce and broiled or baked crisp. Both are excellent.

When sticking to the more traditional dishes, diners will likely find that El Parador easily meets the high Mexican- food standard this town demands. But when branching out into other Latin cuisines, the foundation cracks ever so slightly.

For instance, there's the matter of the chimichurri sauce, which appears again during dinner with the bistec chimichurri. In Argentina, this condiment is as common as ketchup. A thick herb sauce consisting of olive oil, vinegar and loads of chopped, fresh parsley, oregano, onion and garlic, chimichurri makes an outstanding companion for all manner of grilled meats--especially beef.

The deeply green, intensely-flavored sauce that I recalled, however, was very different from El Parador's version, which more resembled a light tomato puree and was disappointingly bland. The filet mignon was also a bust--at best on par with a decent cut of sirloin--and curiously devoid of flavor. The fact that it was initially served well-done rather than the requested medium-rare didn't help matters.

A bouillabaisse-type dish dubbed "Los Siete Mares" was quite handsome in its presentation, a bowl filled to the brim with large shrimp, scallops, black mussels, little-neck clams, diced white fish and a melange of vegetables in a delicate saffron, butter and white-wine broth. The ingredients tasted fresh enough, but the broth, which was egregiously buttery, lacked sophistication and subtlety. Other than the faint yellow color, the broth gave not even a hint of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, and usually noted for its pungency.

If the entrees failed to elicit a rave response, a few of the meal's starters were quite successful. The ceviche, which included pieces of shrimp, scallops and white fish "cooked" in fresh lime juice and served with small rounds of crisp corn tortilla, peppers and sliced red apple, was an ideal margarita match. A green-chile soup, made with a clear cilantro-herbed broth and riddled with chopped tomato, onion, green chiles and a nest of grated white and yellow cheese, was wonderfully satisfying, as was a simple green salad topped with El Parador's own orange-citrus dressing.

Desserts range from light sorbet to deep chocolate overload, permitting the diner to contemplate a broad palette. For overkill, the chocolate taco is superb, a solid chocolate-almond shell filled with Kahlua-Amaretto mousse and sliced fresh strawberries, which is then served on a lovely, swirling pool of raspberry and mango coulis. Deep-fried ice cream (vanilla coated in cinnamon sugar and corn flakes) is another viable alternative, but only if whipped cream is available, which it wasn't the night we visited.

The service was excellent for the most part, but (on both visits) oddly sluggish when it came time to settle the tab. Maybe it's my own quirk, but I hate sitting around for any length of time for the sole purpose of paying the bill. It's not exactly the most enjoyable part of dining out anyway, so why drag it out?

If you stick with the traditional Sonoran fare, avoid dining alone on a Saturday night, and approach those nuevo dishes with caution, eating at El Parador can be a thoroughly engaging experience. Unless you take exception to the color green, in which case you'd best keep moving. TW

El Parador. 2744 E. Broadway. 881-2808. Open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. All major credit cards, no personal checks. Menu items: (lunch) $2.95-$13.95, (dinner) $4.95-$16.95.

REDECORATING EL PARADOR'S long bar lounge--shades of Mediterranean blue and dusty rose--signals a completely revised wine list and even a new Tequila/Margarita menu due by Cinco de Mayo. Among the management team of twins Dan & Don, brother John and sister Loretta, it's John who's the menu-maker; and his favorite Margarita is his "amnesia" recipe, calling for Añejo (aged) Tequila, Gran Torres (Spanish Valencia orange) liqueur and fresh-squeezed lime juice. "So smooth it makes you forget everything," grins John. El Parador Margaritas come in 12-ounce, double-size "E.P." and 60-ounce pitchers. Fruit flavors include peach, strawberry, raspberry and melon. The rest are varying combos of Tequila from ordinary white to Cuervo Gold and Añejo, mixed with Cointreau, Gran Marnier or Triple Sec, and priced on a scale accordingly.

Besides the Mondavi Coastal and ever-popular K-J Chardonnay, John's new wine list is comprised of the best import values he can find--and he works hard to match his wines to fit the character of the Latin foods El Parador features. The list is not long, but look for Chilean and Australian whites and reds under $20 a bottle (thanks to mark-ups that stay at double, rather than triple). Lots of by-the-glass selections from $3.50 to $4.50, for a six-ounce pour.

The waitstaff isn't especially trained, but if you find John, you can talk wine happily. If all else fails, look for a half-dozen of Mexico's best beers--all good, and fairly priced. TW

--Gary Greenberg

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