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El Paraiso has a menu full of Mexican favorites

In a region replete with Mexican restaurants, a downtown Medford location still stands out.

Occupying a circa-1920s building, the eatery formerly known as Habaneros is beloved for its vine-twined patio and expansive bar that frequently hosts live music. The clean, airy dining room also is appealing amid social-distancing protocols instituted since the name El Paraiso was adopted earlier this year.

Under the new name, customers find a menu that mirrors the sister business’ in Ashland. But because Habaneros remains such a byword in Medford, a menu of eight “favorites” also is available. Headlining those is shrimp queso fundido ($9), which earned my vote more than 15 years ago as best appetizer among Southern Oregon’s Mexican restaurants.

The melted vat of cheese, teeming with shrimp and served with pico de gallo, jalapeno cream and tortilla chips, is almost irresistible. But my partner isn’t so enamored of cheese and asked why we would get a dish that relies on yet more chips, which we already were nibbling free of charge. Because it’s delicious! I yielded but vowed to entice a fellow cheese lover to accompany me another time for drinks and my favorite Mexican appetizer.

Another of Habaneros “favorites” — the crisp-fried Baja fish tacos ($14) — did earn my partner’s approval. The regular El Paraiso menu prepares tacos de pescado with sautéed fish and omits the chipotle ranch dressing. Rather than the requisite refried beans, we asked for whole black beans, another touch that helped to distinguish Habaneros locally throughout its nearly 25-year history.

Also a longstanding favorite, the enchiladas San Marcos ($14) are notable for their spicy tomatillo sauce and topping of sliced avocado, which often warrants an extra charge on other establishment’s menus. Craving the classic accompaniment to sauce-smothered chicken enchiladas, we requested the refried beans.

Arriving between the typical lunch and dinner hours to a nearly empty eatery, we waited just a few minutes for our food. Such speedy preparation, however, likely resulted in the warm, not hot, presentation. Yet the plating was more attractive than at many Mexican counterparts locally, boasting drizzles of crema and crumbled cotija cheese in lieu of the confounding, but commonplace, cheddar.

Both the tacos and enchiladas were generously stuffed with proteins and featured slightly tart notes to counteract the dairy’s richness. Although flour tortillas stay true to Habaneros’ history, corn tortillas play better on my palate, particularly for tacos. These ones seemed a little dense and tough. Portions were generous enough that we took home an entire taco and half of an enchilada.

Embracing the full El Paraiso menu, customers can choose from more than 75 items: running the gamut of tacos, enchiladas, burritos and tostadas. In the realm of combination plates, “macho platters” up the ante with steak and fried jalapenos. There also are fajitas, carne asada and other specialties of Mexico’s Jalisco state, as well as seafood dishes and “Americano” T-bone steaks and cheeseburgers. Most priced around $15, selections top out at $26.75 for a 12-ounce T-bone garnished with mushrooms and served with sautéed shrimp.

The abbreviated afternoon menu still offers plenty of variety beyond combination plates, with fajitas as the most costly meal for $13.50. Egg dishes augment house specials and entrees highlighting chicken and shrimp, along with several hearty salads, including fajita taco, bacon avocado and grilled chicken Caesar. Single tacos — steak, chicken, carnitas or al pastor — cost $4 apiece, $5 for fish or shrimp, garnished with limes, onion, cilantro and green salsa.

Among combination plate choices, the server touted El Paraiso’s traditional recipe for chile relleno, which I mistrust at many other establishments. He confirmed this is a whole cheese-stuffed chile — battered, fried and sauced — not the cheese-laden, chile-stuffed omelet that passes for the dish at too many Mexican eateries locally. I chose just the chile, served with rice and beans for $8.50. Adding a second item — enchilada, taco, tostada, chimichanga, burrito or tamale — brings the cost to $11.

My friend also favored a single item: the ground beef enchilada. Already indulging in drinks — a “paradise mule” ($8) for me and margarita ($10) for her — we relished the ice-cold refreshment at an umbrella-topped table on El Paraiso’s front patio.

The server did overlook our water, but El Paraiso’s food fortunately is on the mild side. My friend complimented her enchilada, served with rice, beans and a small chopped salad of cabbage, carrot and cilantro.

My chile relleno was indeed the real deal: a portly poblano stuffed with cheese and dipped in egg batter. Still tender after frying, the batter held up well to the chile’s slightly piquant tomato sauce. I’d order this well-tuned dish every time at El Paraiso — after some shrimp queso fundido.

Located at 142 N. Front St., El Paraiso is open from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. View the menu at elparaisomexican.com or call 541-779-9770.

The website offers online ordering from El Paraiso’s Ashland location, 545 Clover Lane. Or call 541-488-5877.

Tempo Tidbits

Fondue is a new format at Wooldridge Creek Winery in the Applegate Valley.

Seating for the winery’s Saturday pop-up fondue dinner was filling quickly this week. Reservations also were available for a repeat event, beginning at 6 p.m. Oct. 17, outdoors at 818 Slagle Creek Road, Grants Pass. Call 541-226-2664.

Known for farmstead cheeses and artisan cured meats, Wooldridge Creek started hosting fondue dinners this summer as a “natural way to add some dinner service to the winery location” amid coronavirus-related restrictions for restaurants, said Gabrielle Hahn, general manager of VINFARM, Wooldridge Creek’s tasting room and farm-to-table eatery in downtown Grants Pass.

“We had been testing melting cheese recipes and trying to figure out service setups for VINFARM since last fall,” said Hahn. “With VINFARM being indoor seating only, it was our way to increase availability for customers.”

Wooldridge Creek is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. See wcv.farm or call 541-846-6364.

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Ashland’s Peerless Restaurant & Bar plans to reopen next week following a two-week closure to curb the coronavirus.

A restaurant employee tested positive for the virus after experiencing symptoms and immediately underwent testing, according to management. Peerless announced a two-week closure Sept. 24 on its social media platforms and plans to reopen Thursday, Oct. 8.

The staff member was recovering, and no colleagues had exhibited COVID-19 symptoms, according to restaurant management when it reported the illness to the community. All staff, however, were required to undergo testing before returning to work.

The restaurant at 265 Fourth St. was scheduled for thorough disinfecting and is undertaking every other precaution to ensure customer and staff health, according to management. Peerless credited its ill employee for safeguarding the wellness of the community by acting quickly and communicating with management, which, in turn, made swift and informed business decisions.

See peerlessrestaurant.com for operating hours or call 541-488-6067.

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Remodeling will close The Cafe at Medford Food Co-op this month.

The Co-op’s board had been redesigning the eatery to improve acoustics, expand menu options and reduce customer wait times and lines, according to posts on its social media platforms. The Cafe is open today before closing Saturday, Oct. 3.

Completion of construction is anticipated before the holiday season, stated Co-op management via social media. In the interim, fresh, house-made, grab-and-go sandwiches and salads will be available daily inside the store at 945 S. Riverside Ave., Medford.

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Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

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If you are a restaurant helping others or your restaurant or nightlife business has been affected by the recent wildfires, email thewholedish@gmail.com to contact food writer and columnist Sarah Lemon.

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow thewholedishblog on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.

Baja fish tacos at El Paraiso in Medford are finished with chipotle ranch dressing and pico de gallo.
Enchiladas San Marcos are filled with chicken and topped with tomatillo sauce and avocado at El Paraiso in Medford.{ }Photos by Sarah Lemon