A few years ago, Smile Politely’s Editorial Board published an article about five cuisines we need in Champaign-Urbana. Five is the tip of the iceberg; there are many cuisines that are not well represented in C-U. Until recently, that included food from the Caribbean and South America. El Paraiso, which opened in Broadway Food Hall in 2020 and is now located on Main Street in Urbana, offers a menu full of Caribbean and South American dishes. The restaurant is owned and operated by two women, Lusi and Jacqueline Aguilar. You’ll find them running the kitchen and the counter, and they are often the only two people working in the restaurant.
The Aguilar sisters have curated a menu that is absolutely delicious. If you remember nothing else about this article, or stop reading right now, know that the food is fantastic.
I love plantains. They are versatile and tasty. Green ones are starchy, like potatoes. Ripe ones are sweet, like bananas. They take on all sorts of flavors really well. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong when ordering plantains. All of this is to say: many of the items in this article contain plantains.
When El Paraiso was in Broadway Food Hall, I tried the mofongo. I loved it. I have since had it many more times, and it remains delicious, which speaks to the knowledge and consistency in execution the restaurant offers. On my most recent visits, I ordered it with chicken, which was fall-off-the-bone tender and flavorful ($15.50). The chicken was moist and well seasoned. The plantain — green and starchy, fried and mashed with garlic — was also well seasoned, tender, moist, and the perfect vehicle to soak up the sauce from the chicken. This is a classic dish in many Caribbean cuisines and my go-to for savory applications of plantains. The mofongo is served with rice. On one occasion I ordered it with white rice, which was perfectly cooked, and on another with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). The arroz con gandules was beautifully cooked and, at the risk of sounding redundant, well seasoned. It’s not easy to strike a balance of perfectly cooked rice that isn’t too greasy or salty, so when it’s really well done, it’s worth noting. I’d order arroz con gandules over plain white rice any day.
The flautas ($11.25), three perfectly rolled and fried tortillas stuffed with chicken and cheese, were served on a bed of rice with beans on the side. The beans were the perfect crisp-tender and dressed up the white rice wonderfully. This was more than enough for one person, but most fun to share with some friends.
A couple of weeks ago, I ordered the canastas with steak ($14.50). Canasta means basket in Spanish, so this dish was three little “baskets” made of fried, green plantains stuffed with steak, avocado, sour cream, and crumbled cheese. They were very cute and even more delicious. The steak was so flavorful and tender, a difficult task given the size of the steak strips, as they are easy to overcook. The toppings were generously portioned, and the avocado was perfectly ripe. The combo of textures and flavors was most enjoyable, and I will certainly be ordering the canastas again very soon.
El Paraiso’s menu of sides is not to be overlooked. I’ve tried the platanos maduros (fried sweet plantains, $3), and they were soft inside with slightly chewy caramelized exteriors. They’re so different in taste and texture from the green plantains found in mofongo and canastas that I often order them as a side because, as I noted, I really like plantains.
The pupusa ($4.50) is the national dish of El Salvador. It’s made with masa harina and stuffed. I’ve ordered it with beans and cheese, but it’s also available with pork or chicken. Served with a tangy slaw, the pupusa is a must-order. It’s great to share as an appetizer, or order a couple and call it a meal.
Finally, I strongly recommend the llapingachos ($3), an Ecuadorian dish of seasoned mashed potatoes stuffed with cheese. They aren’t breaded like a potato croquette, but they are similar in that they are mashed, seasoned, stuffed with cheese, and then pan-fried. This is Ecuadorian comfort food. I have met many folks in the Midwest who would never turn away a potato, and readers, here is an opportunity to expand your potato horizons.
My favorite way to eat at El Paraiso is to order a bunch of things and share with my dining companion(s). It’s an easy way to try a bunch of different things and bond with your friends and family about which dishes you like most and why. Service at El Paraiso can sometimes be a little slow because there are usually only two people working, and all of your food is cooked to order. Please believe me when I say it is well worth the wait. Your tastebuds will not be disappointed.
What are your favorite dishes at El Paraiso? Send us a note to let us know what you loved most. I will certainly be back to try more of the menu.
126 W Main
T- F noon to 3 p.m. + 4 to 8 p.m.
Sa noon to 6 p.m.