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El Parador Cafe, Offering a Hint of Romance for 50 Years

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This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Adam Lerner]

El Parador opened the year before Kennedy was elected, when Mexican food was still an exotic thing. It began at Second Avenue and 31st Street and then moved ten years later to its current location on 34th Street, a point even further off the midtown map. Another shift and it would have pitched into the East River.

Its out-of-the-way situation is probably what made it attractive in those early days as a cheater's joint. Husbands would take their chippies there to not be seen under the room-darkening red light bulbs. The founder was one Carlos Jacott, a native of the town of Dolores in Chihuahua. When he decided to retire in 1990, he cast an eye among his family and close friends for a successor, and decided upon Manuel Alejandro, a Spaniard with whose father he had done business. Manny's son Alex now runs the place.

Though the interior has received a sleek revamp under the Alejandros, it still has the earmarks of an veteran restaurant—long awning outside, cloak room just inside the door. The same goes for the menu. Among more modern temptations are El Parador standbys like eye-watering Jalapenos Rellenos, Pollo Parador ("allow 30 minutes") and Mole Poblano ("allow 25 minutes"). The menu also encouraged patrons to ask for any old dish they may remember from the past. Service comes with a bit of panache and ceremony, the waiters making like magicians unveiling their latest trick. When you order a beer, they bring the bottle and the glass on a tray, pour the beer into the vessel, and then place the glass on the table before you. A Corona has never gotten such grand treatment.

The clientele, Alex said, come from everywhere—around the neighborhood, across town, other states. Famous folk and politicians, too. "It's a rare week that someone doesn't come in here and say, 'The last time I was here was 40 years ago.'" On the night I went, it was a popular place for girlfriends to confab over sangria or red wine or blended Margaritas. A duo of working girls on either side of my table provided me with a dinner accompaniment of non-stop, stereophonic gossip. They never stopped talking, and they never stopped drinking. And boy were they having a good time. Across the way, a sextet of young office friends sat down for dinner. Three men in bulging blue dress shirts shared a business meal. On the other side of the room, three far more curious men chilled in matching white track suits.

Romance has not completely abandoned El Parador, though today it takes on a legit form. On the wall of a corner booth in the back, near the kitchen, are a few gold plaques. The first says such and such a couple became engaged in this booth in 1983. The second says such and such had their first date there in 2001. The last is also about the second pair. They got married in 2003.
—Brooks of Sheffield