Zapata – In the far reaches of South Texas, smack dab between Laredo and Rio Grande City, you’ll find Zapata. Falcon Lake is big draw to these parts, but so is one of the oldest eateries in this area.
This week, we’re in Zapata to try out some chicken fried steak at El Paraiso.
“We eat it all the time,” Jamie Gonzalez said. “So when other people come over and they’ve had it for the first time, ‘Oh, can’t believe this.’”
Being by the border, we automatically assumed El Paraiso would be the place for Tex-Mex. We met up with the owner to see what kind of comida would cure our hunger. Instead, we met a lovely lady from a long way away. Wendy wound up in Zapata in 1992 after wanting to get away from the nasty northern winters.
“Oh, I love it here,” Wendy said. “ I’m not from big city. I’m from very small, back forty kind of city up there.”
Zapata simply seemed to call to her, and when she arrived she took a job as a waitress at the original El Paraiso. She worked for Hortencia Medina, the woman who started it all.
“In ’56, she opened up her own restaurant,” Wendy said. “I think it was only like 100, 150 square feet. It was real small. She was a pillar of the community. She helped anybody and everybody.”
That woman ended up being Wendy’s mother-in-law after she fell in love with Juan, the bosses son. Juan passed away unexpectedly in November of 2016, leaving Wendy the weight of carrying on the restaurant with a long tradition.
“Wendy had to take over, and that was very tough,” Jamie said. “It was very tough for her. The success of the business has proven that she did a good job. She’s a very hard worker.”
We found out first-hand that sitting still wasn’t something Wendy enjoys. So, we figured it was about time to savor the specialty at El Paraiso.
“Chicken fried steak,” Wendy said. “That was Hortencia. She’s the one that started that.”
We’re not just eating some home cooking, we’re getting the whole enchilada…and then some. The El Paraiso special. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. The first thing you get with this plate is the amazing amount of cheese just covered all over that chicken fried steak along with the guacamole and the taco. The enchilada is hidden somewhere in there. You just don’t know what to expect.
“Mouth-watering,” Juoaqin said. “It’s delicious. And if you add it to your fries, it’s even better. If you’re down this way, might as well come down and enjoy a good chicken fried steak.”
Wendy will never feel comfortable with being called the boss, but having the best chicken fried steak on the border is a title she’ll happily share with her El Paraiso team. If you’re looking for an incredible Mexican food restaurant that happens to have one heck of a chicken fried steak, El Paraiso in Zapata is well-worth a stop on the Texas Bucket List.
“So we’re a team, my waitresses and I,” Wendy said. “And my cooks, and my dishwashers. Without them, it’s nothing.”