A Paradise Found at Pleasure Island
The new Paradiso 37 isn't quite as billed, but the quality of the food makes up for that.
I went to Pleasure Island the other night, and ghosts followed me.
The old clubs are gone, the nightly New Year’s countdown is silenced, Disney cast members hawking Jell-O shots have moved on to other, presumably less alcoholic, pursuits. I stood on the steps of the deserted and much-loved Adventurers Club, where a man pointed out the chained doors to his young son and then sadly walked away.
The new plan for Pleasure Island calls for replacing dancing and public drunkenness with restaurants and shopping, and the first of the new eateries is a pan-American place called Paradiso 37.
Within a soaring wooden edifice, the restaurant is geared toward presenting street foods of the Americas. Supposedly, the “37” stands for fare from the 37 countries of North, Central and South America, even though there are more.
The two-level room, crossed with wooden beams and splashes of Aztec colors, is smaller than I’d expected—and noisier. Highlighting the downstairs bar area is a tower of tequila bottles “with 37 different varieties available,” as our waiter pointed out. I counted 45, proving that accountants don’t run restaurants. Downstairs is for serious drinking; the upstairs bar is for wine.
What I didn’t like about Paradiso: its loose interpretation of its own theme.
In keeping with that motif, South or Central American music should have been playing—or at least something more folkloric than the blaring, electro-beat foreground music. (It was too loud to be called background music).
Similarly, I anticipated a menu chock-full of popular goodies found on al fresco carts all across the Americas. Little pocket pastry empanadas are a specialty in virtually every Latin American country, but not here. Absent is anything specifically Brazilian at all. And no—thank goodness—Peruvian guinea pig. And what about Canada, eh?
What I did like: the food!
There are bold flavors at work, and I’m not talking spiciness. The bite-sized Caribbean crab and fish fritters ($10.50) blend actual crab meat (no “krab” substitute) with shrimp and fish in a slightly crunchy batter. An assertive taste of green pepper and cilantro reinforces the mild seafood. There’s a generous serving of about 10 fish pieces presented in a metal cone, and I wanted more.
It’s said that the best way to test a chef’s mettle is to order a simple dish, so out of Paradiso’s bustling open kitchen came the Baja burrito. Each ingredient stands out: squash an independent flavor from onion, sweet pimiento rising above the savory taste of marinated dark meat chicken, all caressed in several cheeses and a fresh flour tortilla. The one flat note was the barbecue sauce spooned on top, a cloying sweetness better left to lesser meals. At $14.99, the burrito is a bit pricier and somewhat smaller than, for example, what the Chipotle chain offers, but far more satisfying.
Many dishes are accompanied by long-simmered black beans and rice mixed with a pesto-like cilantro dressing, which I liked enough to want the recipe. The house-made tortilla chips use salt as an enhancing seasoning instead of a cover-up, and chilis such as serrano and jalapeno don’t blister, but warm and entice.
There’s not a lot of physical evidence of that street foods theme, aside from the “hot to go” paper bag used for the chips. Serving sizes, however, are true to form.
It might be hard to handle a platter of tacos, rice and beans while walking, but you could probably take the “whole crispy hen” for a stroll. Several neighboring diners thought they were ordering a full-sized chicken, but it is a game hen, about the size of a softball. A moist, deep-brown softball, marinated with lemon, garlic and cilantro in the Colombian style, and served with “North American” potato pancakes ($17.99).
I can imagine wolfing down pupusas on the road ($9.99). A dish native to El Salvador, it is a delight: five wee pocket breads stuffed, in this case, with earthy roasted mushrooms mixed with crumbled salty queso blanco, and blackened mahi with a tangy coleslaw. You can order them with chicken, steak or spicy pulled pork as well.
Grab a table at sunset on the patio overlooking Village Lake and toast the spirits of Pleasure Island past. There may not be dancing in the streets any more, but at least you’ll be eating in Paradise.
ADDRESS 1590 E. Buena Vista Drive Lake Buena Vista