After splitting with a star opening chef and seeing another step down, the owner of Emilie’s has shut down the once-splashy communal dining venue and turned the Capitol Hill space into an entirely new restaurant. Paraíso, a modern taqueria and mezcaleria focusing on food from the U.S.-Mexico border, will open in its place December 1.
Majority owner Sam Shoja has installed chef Geovany Beltran, who hails from coastal Pacific state of Guerrero, Mexico, to lead the rebranding project. Beltran previously worked at one of Shoja’s Jinya Ramen Bar franchises. Along with a core kitchen team that includes chefs Carlos Valenzuela and Nash Rana and pastry chef Blenda Navarette, Beltran is creating dishes that nod to street food and home kitchens.
Paraíso serves familiar dishes like esquites (street corn salad) invigorated with a crunchy addition of Takis. Beltran’s ceviche includes shrimp, orange, mango, green apples, lime, and jicama. Tacos arrive atop homemade heirloom corn tortillas, brightly colored in shades of green and pink thanks to the addition of cilantro and beets, respectively.
The photogenic tortillas come filled with options like braised pork shoulder, with adobo sauce, grilled pineapple sauce, and cilantro — Paraíso’s take on the al pastor. El Camaron, “the shrimp” taco, comes with sautéed shrimp, mango slaw, mango habanero salsa, and cilantro. La Suegra is a taco filled with braised beef tongue, guacamole sauce, pickled chiles, grilled scallions, and oregano. El Berenjena, the only vegetarian option, features roasted eggplant, tomatillo sauce, lime cilantro crème, garlic, and onion crisp.
Beltran adds international influences with dishes like mussels in a coconut milk curry. Fried oysters served with peach habanero salsa and chipotle lime crème riff on flavors from the American South.
A traditional Mexican point of view still unifies much of the menu, with entrees like a braised lamb shank with mole, frijoles, escabeche, and Mexican rice. “Pina para la nina” is an Instagram-ready baked pineapple stuffed with tenderloin strips, onions and a blend of Oaxacan and Monterrey cheese and chile.
Other fun touches include lotería cards that servers distribute to dine-in guests so they can cash-in a complimentary cocktail, like an agave old fashioned with Agave de mezcal, tequila reposado, agave, and lemon hellfire bitters. Another cocktail called El Diablito features tequila blanco, Triple Sec, mango habanero puree, Lime, tajin, and chamoy chile sauce. Margaritas come in a classic form and in a signature blood orange habanero flavor.
Blenda, dubbed the “postres queen,” is dishing up a coconut yuca cake, with Mexican hot chocolate creme anglaise and almond crumble, and a tres leches cake with passion fruit chantilly cream and mango gelee.
The change in direction at Paraíso follows month of upheaval at Emilie’s. Disagreements between majority owner Sam Shoja and chef Kevin Tien, who now leads high-end Vietnamese restaurant Moon Rabbit at the Wharf, led the two to sever their partnership. When Tien led the kitchen, he had Japanese, Latin American, and Southern influences on a menu that offered Vietnamese pork steak next to ranch fried chicken next to Sichuan green beans.
Chef Hamilton Johnson, formerly of Tim Ma’s American Son fame, replaced Tien but left the restaurant two months later as the team faced down the financial reality of the novel coronavirus crisis. Johnson now has a top post at Michael Schlow’s Glover Park Grill.
Despite challenges, Emilie’s never shut down. It pivoted in recent months to double as a market, selling preprepared dishes, local produce, bottled cocktails, and wines from woman- and minority-owned vineyards.
With its new identity, Paraíso looks to inject some fun into the minimalist space. The restaurant is filled with neon lights, hand-painted signs, and original artwork that intend to evoke a day at a Mexican feria (fair).
“We’re trying to stimulate all the senses,” says Tahmina Ghaffer, Shoja’s niece and a new addition to the restaurant as a head of communications. “We’re trying to encourage simple pleasures and fun times.”