Bring on the blood sausage. El Paisa, Central Falls’ temple to Colombian cuisine, boasts a menu that will excite even the most adventurous carnivore.
598 Dexter Street, Central Falls, 726-8864, elpaisa.com. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Wheelchair accessible. Street parking. Cuisine Emphatically South American. Capacity A hundred between two rooms. Vibe School cafeteria meets family dinner. Prices In a nutshell: low. Appetizers: $2–$6; entrees: $7.50–$17; desserts: $1.50–$3. Cash only, ATM on the premises. Karen’s picks Colombian tamal, sweet corn bread, meat of any variety, tres leches cake.
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What we know is always less intimidating than what we don’t. It’s the obvious explanation for our reluctance to jump headfirst into different cuisines, despite the potential payback. Curiously, the more adventurous one becomes, the easier it is to track parallels between seemingly disparate ethnicities. In fact, a good meal can go a long way in broadening cultural horizons and, along the journey, it’s not uncommon to realize that regional traditions often adhere to some rudimentary principles. The most obvious? Protein + Starch = Happy.
The equation is simple and it obviously works. Cesar and Donatila Zupata’s El Paisa has been disseminating Colombian culture to local crowds for thirty years (and to a campaigning Hillary Clinton last year), but they still draw few non-Latino diners. The predicament is not entirely surprising. Central Falls is densely populated and has five times more Hispanic residents than the state average (around 50 percent). El Paisa is plenty popular in its own neighborhood and may not need to draw customers from farther away. But what a shame to keep this South American find in the shadows.
Given that familiarity placates the un-initiated, here’s what you need to know. First, if you have a Spanish speaker in the group, bring them along. It’s not essential (the menu’s bilingual), but it’s helpful. Secondly, there’s no need to dress up. Integrity is clearly in the food, but the aesthetics are minimal at best. One room borders the deli-countered kitchen while a Christmas-lit bar is the focal point for the second. Lightweight tables shift easily around the floor for larger groups; snapshots of Colombia and its pre-Spanish architecture line the walls. The lack of design doesn’t do much to hamper the good will though, so a convivial attitude will serve you well. Third, don’t eat lunch. Portions are preternaturally large. Fourth, be ready to eat meat. The only thing that trumps the quantity of food on the plates is the variety of meat. Some cuts are standard; others may seem exotic but should be fairly recognizable to an international crowd: blood sausage (hello, Britain), tripe (ciao, Italia) and tongue (slapped between two slices of rye it’s a Jewish staple). Lastly, embrace all things starchy. El Paisa bakes their myriad breads daily and serves them shamelessly with piles of potatoes, cassava (or yucca) and plantains. The plants are native to the region, but it’s the sweet and savory corn breads that speak to the history of American cuisine from both continents.
Bear in mind, however, that nearly all aspects of a meal at El Paisa are heavy. Small side salad and the occasional tomato excepted, those looking for light dishes will search in vain. Like much food of the early Americas, this is food meant for pre-office people who worked the fields with enough vigor to burn it off. Salt levels are also high, so those with a penchant for poor health and complete inertia need not apply.
El Paisa’s super picada ($20) is a good way to get to know your meats. The double platter buckles under the weight of Colombian salami (cured sausage), chorizo (less spicy and more floral than the more recognizable Portuguese), grilled pork strips, fanned and fried bacon (eat it like a diced mango in its skin) and a pile of fried yucca (think fried mashed potato wedges) that seem an unnecessary accompaniment to this carnivorous homage until you taste them. The assortment takes effort — it’s dense and chewy — and is best paired with some gentler appetizers. Sweet flattened corn bread (arepa de chocolo, $2) is just that: subtle in flavor, crisped on the edges and topped with a light, tangy farmer’s cheese. Even more compulsory is the Colombian tamal ($5), a stew of salty dark-meat chicken wrapped in a sweet corn dumpling. It’s a preparation that not only transcends topography but defines it as domestic bliss.
The seasoned meats — prominent as entrees as well — were bred for lively banter and a cold beer. Pork and chicken are pounded thin and grilled well; they also lend themselves to being wrapped in flattened tortilla-like disks of corn bread. Fried fish, whole and filleted, have that same snack-bar feel to them. (Except for the Mona Lisa eyeballs monitoring their own demise.) But the popular rotisserie chickens (order quick; they often sell out) and braised beef moderate the pace considerably. There’s something about slow-cooking that demands diners savor time spent on the stove. It’s Sunday dinner tinged with spring vacation.
If the meat extravaganza has you a bit worried, let it be known that dinner platters ($10–$17) are as much about sides as their fried, roasted or stewed cen-terpieces. Soupy beans, sauteed bananas, boiled potatoes and cassava, more fried bacon (all hail the pig) and a sprinkling of salad have a plate of their own. Small balls of white corn dough perch atop awaiting pan drippings. Not unexpectedly, it’s these sides that make the meal and compel you to clean the plate regardless of capacity.
So where are you now? Perhaps un-comfortably full. But remember: It’s rude to turn down anything that looks as if your grandma made it and even more ill-mannered not to cleanse your palate with a little sugar. Desserts (all $3) are recognizable — most are cakes — but have their own definitive sense of style. Caramel cake may be forgettable, but the chocolate is pleasant. The ultra-moist tres leches cake is an irresistible sponge soaked with a trio of sweet milk, and the guava cake sprinkled with coconut conjures memories of childhood jelly rolls. Neither should be missed, nor should El Paisa, which manages to do a whole lot with an unpretentious menu.
In the end, its success lies both in the Zupatas’ ability to promote South American custom and in the recognition that certain cuisines can stir nostalgia in a diverse group of diners. The beauty of rustic cooking is that it has a currency all its own, where grand acquisitions are defined by who got the wedge of broth-soaked onion and which plate ended up with enough gravy to saturate the potatoes all the way through. El Paisa certainly can’t keep up with the trajectory of modern American cooking that relies on a constantly evolving technique and a museum-worthy aesthetic. But it can slow the pace of life enough to enjoy what you’re eating and where it comes from.
Karen Deutsch is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York.