Roadside America: El Paragua Restaurant, Espanola, New Mexico

chilesThe little city of Española lies just 25 miles north of Santa Fe. It sits on the crossroads of SR 68 and NM 76 (aka the Taos Highway), which leads to the village of Chimayo, famed for its handwoven blankets, Santuario, and chiles. Española is also surrounded by some of the region’s famous Indian pueblos. Until about five years ago, I never saw any reason whatsoever to stop there, aside from filling up my gas tank. When you’re a dusty town located between some of a state’s biggest tourist attractions, you tend to get overlooked.

It’s my obsession with New Mexican cuisine – and posole (a dried hominy soup) in particular – that led the owner of a Santa Fe street food cart to tell me about El Paragua. I can’t recall our conversation, but he basically told me if I wanted to taste some of the best food in New Mexico, I should hightail it up to Española.

So that’s what I did. I pulled up to a large, imposing hacienda constructed from massive blocks of hand-hewn stone, located all by its lonesome on the corner of NM 76 and Highways 84/285. Inside, it was dimly lit, all rustic wooden beams, (vigas), terra-cotta floor tiles, and those same stone walls. El Paragua looked like an old-school Mexican restaurant and to a certain degree, that’s what it is.

El Paragua started out as a roadside food stand in 1958. Brothers Larry and Pete Atencio, the sons of plumber Luis Atencio, decided they were going to sell their mother Frances’ tacos and tamales. They added a table, and opened for business. Luis provided the boys with a multi-colored beach umbrella (paraguay) for shade, and El Paragua was born.

In 1966, the Atencio family converted their tack room into a restaurant, and continued to add expansions over the years (including converting Luis’ plumbing shop). Today, El Paragua is legendary for both the quality of the food (the Atencio’s are still actively involved in the daily operations, and use Frances’ recipes) and the service, which is unfailingly warm and friendly.

Let’s get to the important stuff, shall we? Never have I tasted posole or carne adovada that comes even close to touching El Paragua’s. Every dish is an explosion of flavor. The posole is a rich, well-seasoned, porky broth brimming with hunks of fork-tender meat, chewy morsels of hominy, and a goodly amount of chile (I prefer mine Christmas); eat it with greaseless puffs of sopapilla drizzled with honey. The fiery adovada sauce is brick-red and earthy, the pork succulent. The plate comes with a side of whole frijoles mixed with chicos (smoky bits of dried, then cooked, corn). The tortillas are made in-house. If you’re in a hurry, there’s also the parking lot taco-stand, El Parasol, a tribute to the original El Paragua. What’s not to love about quarts of green chile to go?

I now plan my New Mexico visits around El Paragua, to maximize the number of meals I can have there. If food is love, then El Paragua is a long-distance relationship worth staying in.

[Photo credit: Flickr user alasam]