REAL DEAL: When Real Paraiso (478 North Ave., in the Piggly Wiggly shopping center) replaced El Paisano, I must admit I was a little nervous. El Paisano never had much in the way of atmosphere—little in the shopping center does, and with its barely perceptible parking lines and series of businesses that don’t appear to be doing great business, it can feel like a ghost town—but its food was really tasty. Real Paraiso continues in exactly that line. The menu ranges from the mundane Ameri-Mex you can get anywhere (big burritos, unimpressive sides of rice and faintly sweet beans) to cocteles, real soft tacos and more.
You might end up eating all by yourself in the cavernous room broken up by weird fake stucco dividers adorned with sombreros and beer-company paraphernalia, but if you order well, you will still be happy. The Mexican-style tacos (barbacoa in particular) are solid, made with fresh corn tortillas and copious amounts of chopped onion. They have enough going on not to need the wedge of lime that comes on the side. If there’s one thing you should definitely order, it’s the sopes. Again, the maize base of the dish is excellent: well-fried, well-seasoned, not greasy and topped with much deliciousness.
The chicken soup (shredded meat, avocado, rice, tomato) is a little bland, and the central component is dry, but the house version of huevos rancheros is wonderfully spicy, with chiles and tomatoes incorporated into the eggs during the cooking process, leaving one with a couple of flat discs of protein and heat that make for a satisfying meal. The camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp) aren’t huge, but they don’t skimp on flavor. The torta is the variety made with an enormous but feather-light roll for the bread, letting one concentrate on the wonderful variety of fillings that include refried beans. Even the complimentary salsa is fairly fresh and seems made in-house rather than coming from a giant can.
A small bar operates at the back of the room, and the middle of the space has pool tables. The waitstaff can be super-friendly or somewhat grouchy, depending on whom you draw, but the overall experience is rarely less than pleasant. Real Paraiso is open every day for lunch and dinner, although a handwritten sign suggests it may be changing its hours. It has a full bar, does take-out, takes credit cards and retails high-quality temporary tattoos out of a vending machine near the cash register.
MUNCHIES: Always Baked Goodies (723 Baxter St., 706-850-5478) has a nice atmosphere in its new location, with some comfortable seating areas and shelves scattered around the walls with good books for sale, and its prices are mostly inexpensive. The stand-alone store evolved out of once-delivery-only cookie company of essentially the same name. The place is 100 percent amiable, giving some percentage of proceeds to charity and manned by heavy-lidded, sweet people who live up to exactly the image it promotes.
Does it have its act together? Do you really expect it to? The idea of the “Get Baked Breakfast Sandwiches”—meat, cheese and egg on Texas toast—is a fine one, but the execution, with thin, soggy toast that is more Delaware than Texas and a giant slice of fried bologna, is a disappointment. The tater tots (“Pack a Bowl”) topped with cheese are both no better and no worse than any you might make yourself, and it’s nice to know you can get a funnel cake (“The Stank”) delivered to your door should you need one, but most of the stuff the restaurant puts outs is greasy, fried and seems straight off the Sysco truck.
One thing after another doesn’t live up to what it could be, and the general attitude, while friendly, is more hapless than helpful. Completely out of soda? Unfamiliar with the menu? An apology does wonders. Even the cookies, the place’s raison d’etre, are blah, whether you opt for the “Sack of Nugs” (battered and fried cookie dough) or the “R.E.M.&M.”
By comparison, Insomnia Cookies (228 E. Clayton St.), which also focuses on late-night cookie delivery, is a thoroughly corporate product. It has no individuality, no sparkle when it comes to naming its products and its cookies no doubt come premixed from the franchise HQ, but at least it has its act together, and the cookies are considerably better, not to mention priced slightly lower and larger in diameter. There is something to be said for a soulless focus on consistency and customer experience.
Always Baked is open 8:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, until 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday and from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sunday; still does delivery as well as take-out; and takes credit cards.
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