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Restaurant Review - Got your goat

Authentic Mexican specialties at El Paraiso

Whether it's On the Border, Rio Bravo or El Azteca, the franchising and corporatization of Tex-Mex food has gone a long way toward lowering consumer expectations. These days, we tolerate a lot less originality from our most influential culinary neighbors to the south, and often we don't even notice when there's something available beyond the usual burrito, enchilada, taco or that perfect combo plate with beans and rice on the side.

Simply walking into El Paraiso won't lead you to expect anything different. The restaurant opened along Roswell Road in the former El Azteca location (the former tenants inching a little closer to I-285) without much refurbishment. You'll find the barn-like space painted green, and "Mexican" paraphernalia dotting the bar and walls. The furnishings and tableware of the low-grade sort remain, giving it that seedy Tex-Mex feel we crave.

At first glance, the menu contains the usual — the obligatory fajitas, chile rellenos, tamales and chalupas. Combos of tacos, enchiladas, rice and beans come in various assortments priced from $6.95-$7.75.

Peruse the house specials, however, and you'll find some unusual items. There's the quail ($11.99): two specially seasoned whole birds deep-fried or mesquite-grilled, served with rice and frijole borrachos ("drunken" pinto beans prepared with beer). Not what you'd expect from your typical Tex-Mex.

El Paraiso is happy to give the suburban crowds what they want. But the restaurant's staff, all of who arrived intact from Houston, also serves a growing Mexican population looking for more authentic dishes.

That's where the cabrito comes in. The menu purports to serve the "choicest, plumpest, most tender, milk-fed cabrito available." Translated, that's tenderly roasted, young goat. The only problem is that it's not always available (top-notch young goats are sometimes hard to come by). Two choices of goat are on the menu: cabrito al pastor ($16.99), mesquite-roasted young goat with frijoles borrachos; and cabrito al horno ($16.99), oven-baked goat with Mexican-style barbecue salsa and frijoles borrachos.

If goat makes you a bit squeamish, other specialties include chicken, pork and good ol' cow. The pollo ruffino ($11.99) shouldn't do much to offend your tongue — or your love for cute little bahhing animals. A chicken fajita breast, marinated in white wine garlic mushroom sauce until it's juicy and tender, is covered in a creamy white sauce and topped with artichoke hearts and capers; Spanish rice and grilled zucchini, carrots and squash are served on the side. The carnitas ($8.99), or flash-fried roasted pork, is a quick fix, as is the tampiquena ($11.99) — fajita steak topped with chile peppers and chipotles — served with a cheese enchilada, refried beans and guacamole.

Seafood specials also are available, including the redfish Acapulco ($11.99), sauteed in a light wine sauce, topped with tomatoes, artichoke hearts and capers. Or try the heart attack-inducing camarones enbrochette ($11.75), six fried shrimp stuffed with Jack cheese and bell peppers, and wrapped in bacon. If you're feeling especially exotic, there's the deep-fried jumbo frog legs ($11.99).

But just because there are so many more exotic-sounding dishes doesn't mean you should overlook old reliables like the fajitas. Well-done mesquite-grilled steak is served sizzling hot with green bell peppers and onions, and sides of pico de gallo, guac, sour cream and frijoles borrachos ($10.50). Maybe you don't see the flautas coming hot off the rack like at Rio Bravo, but they're still fresh and warm — and perfect for wrapping up the piping-hot goodies.

In truth, the only drawback to the restaurant is its dingy environs. During the week, you'll find the place garishly lit and mostly empty. The $1.99 Monday margarita special hasn't done much to attract crowds, though things do pick up as the weekend nears. The food seems overpriced for the location and environment. But if you're after something a little more adventurous than what El Azteca is hocking down the road, rest assured El Paraiso is a worthy oasis on the Roswell strip.??