El Paraiso: Hearty, Authentic Mexican

Special To The Courant

I'm going to let you in on a secret: My favorite Mexican restaurant in Bridgeport is El Paraiso. It's on Madison Avenue in the old Italian neighborhood. From the outside, with white-painted gates covering some of the windows, El Paraiso can look closed, but inside, it's usually bustling.

Two big rooms have tile floors, sturdy wood tables, with Mexican television and music playing, and the atmosphere is instantly welcoming. Waitresses wear red shirts and red lipstick, and their dark hair is pulled back from their faces. They are charming. If you don't speak Spanish and they don't speak English, smiles and gestures will work.

I go to El Paraiso for hearty plates of enchiladas. On weekends when lunch is filled with tables of families, I go for pozole, a pork and hominy stew that's served with condiments. It's always fun to add the condiments – chopped onions, Mexican oregano, lime, and red or green sauce. The rich broth is traditionally made from hominy (dried corn soaked in lime, which removes its tough skin, plumps the kernels and adds calcium) cooked with pork hocks, feet and shoulder. Spoonfuls of El Paraiso's rich broth bring up tender pieces of pork shoulder, soft kernels of white hominy, onions and cilantro. This soup is a meal in a big bowl. And it comes with two full-sized tostados on the side.

The crisp, deep-fried tortillas are smeared with refried beans, topped with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, sliced avocado and crema. How do you eat it? Any way you want. My friend picks it up and bites. I break off pieces and drop them into my soup as I go. It adds crunch and creaminess;I love the softer texture of the shredded lettuce and radish, and the richness of the avocado. Some people like to break off pieces of tosada and dip them into the sauce, fishing out pieces of pork and hominy. Any way you do it, it's a great food experience.

Unlike the hip high-end Mexican places in surrounding towns in Fairfield County, El Paraiso is generous with avocado. The prices — in the $10 to $12 range for big servings of homemade food — are great, too.

El Paraiso makes the best enchiladas. Bountiful plates are loaded with sauce-drenched tortillas, refried beans and Spanish rice, shredded lettuce, sliced radish and thick slices of avocado. Chicken enchiladas with green sauce are stuffed with pieces of soft, tender, juicy chicken that has gained extra flavor from being cooked on the griddle. Pork carnitas enchiladas in a deep, spicy red mole is a favorite, too.

Try the fresh fruit drinks. We usually have the refreshing melon or watermelon, rather than the sweeter mango or papaya. The drinks are so juicy and sweet, they make you wonder why someone would mar the flavor with alcohol. El Paraiso delivers as well.

El Paraiso Mexican Restaurant, 1026 Madison Ave., Bridgeport, is open Monday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. 203-382-9679 and 203-382-9680.

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