El Parador is a Mexican restaurant on 34th between 1st and 2nd. It is not traditional mexican in the sense of Zarella (which I love) nor is it tex-mex. It is closer to traditional than it is to tex-mex. It is its own thing with a little spanish thrown in. I have eaten there a number of times over the last few years. It has been around since at least the 80's and I must say it really holds up. I organized a birthday dinner for 9 people, and we could not have chosen a better spot.
You know how a true tuscan trattoria or a French Bistro with the right decor can hold up for years without an update? El Parador is the same way. It feels cozy and authentic. It is dark enough to be alluring, but light enough to read the menus. It has exposed dark wood beams, terracotta tile floors, punched metal lamps hanging over the bar, and dark carved chairs and tables. When we were being seated I thought the highback chairs with cane seats around our table would be uncomfortable, but I never thought about them again through the whole meal, so I guess they were comfortable enough. In addition a round table that seats 9 is a little bit unusual these days, and it was perfect for our group. The only thing that I thought could us a little bit of an update was the bathrooms. The Men's room did not match the rustic elegance of the dining room.
First of all the service was great. Reserving a table for 9 people with less than a weeks notice during holiday time is very difficult but Alex was accomodating and when he couldn't give us an 8:30 he volunteered a 6:30, and told me that we could linger because the next group wasn't until after 9. The dinner service was just as accomodating some people may think it was a little slower than other places, but I think it was more leisurely. They weren't trying to turn the tables like crazy and they were always nearby if we needed anything. It is one of those places that gets a drink order and lets you visit and catch up before they shove menus in your face and ask for your order. Once everyone said hello passed along kisses and the last stragglers showed up and placed drink orders they delivered menus and left us alone. When they noticed a lull in conversation they asked if we wanted to order. They did not interrupt someone in mid-story - which I find is now the norm. Their servers do not think that they are the center of the evening, and you can ask anyone walking by for something and they will take care of it instead of sending your server over (which happened to me at Bar Americain recently - ugh).
The food was wonderful - I always forget how satisfying it is between visits. They start you with chips and salsa, but they delivered two salsas - a fresch pico de gallo and a wonderful warm salsa with a little bit of a cinnamon lilt to it. The Guacamole we ordered was fresh and clean and wonderful in flavor with a slight kick and a crunch provided by crisp fresh raw onion. We also ordered 3 orders of their baked chicken wings. I don't know how to describe them - a crumbly outer slightly crunchy texture with moist unbelievably tender meat. I didn't really want to order these but the birthday boy did, and they were a great choice.
My entree was sea bass in a Pasilla chili broth - it was served with a very good rice dish and a bowl of okay beans. The bass was perfect. Plated in a bowl with about 1/4 inch of the broth at the bottom and the bass with a nice brown carmelized crust on the side that was facing up. I know it sounds silly, but putting the crispy side up was ingenious and simple- it preserved the texture of crust and allowed the silky meat to absorb the broth. Friends had the Chilaquiles - rich and a little cheesy served in its own casserole dish with only the first few bites spooned out on to the plate over crisp tortilla strips - it was like a cheesy chicken stew (sounds wierd but it was great). The taco tray was also enjoyed by a couple of people, and I have gotten it in the past. It is a fun make your own taco kind of thing. A tray with little mounds of grilled chicken, cooked spicy salty chorizo, a wonderfull picadillo, a big pile of fresh cilantro, sour cream, guacamole, fresh onions, and a few other additions - our friends each ordered a small which was more than eany of them could eat. Served with a warm container of tortillas. Everything tasted fresh, and a lighter than one would expect. I recommend the large only if you want to share it with a whole table as an appetizer. They had an inventive bouillabaisse veracruz which was very good, and good porkchops. I don't remember the other dishes we had at the table, but no one had a dish they didn't like - and my crew would have mentioned it if they had an unsatisfactory experience.
For desert we orded a few different dishes - had a few orders of flan, a few orders of chocolate lava cake, and one fried ice cream. The lavacake was good (but not over the top fantastic), the flan was nice an eggy with a little of the burnt sugar taste that I like, and the fried icecream was fine. The deserts were all acceptable and fairly standard, but none were amazing. We sipped coffe laughed and generally enjoyed each others company over desert and coffe with no rush and no antsy host hovering nearby despite the fact that the place was packed when we left. They didn't bring the check until we asked for it, and it was surprisingly low it was considering the amount of food, desert, and the number of drinks we had (at least 2 premium margaritas each) - about $62 per person.
Overall, it was a wonderful meal well prepared, and perfectly served. I am going back, and I hope the place is around for another 20 years.