Well before the menu is presented at Paradise Grill, you become aware that the place does not allow its deep fryers to sit idle.
An atmosphere of frying oil greets you at the door and tags along to the table, where it underscores the Southern-style dishes that predominate on the menu. Traditional Southern cooking does, of course, go in heavily for fried foods, and Paradise Grill features such standards as chicken-fried steak and catfish coated with corn meal. Still in the idiom but less traditional is a plate of fried, boned chicken breasts topped with a choice of cream gravy or pecan sauce. Fried but not at all Southern is the shrimp crusted with shredded coconut.
This informal eatery, though located in the middle of hip Encinitas--a town in which angel hair pasta and cute baby vegetables are not without partisans--seems to have found a major audience for its interpretations of country cooking. Tables never stayed empty for more than a few minutes during the course of a recent, mid-week visit, and the bulk of the patrons seemed to have a great appetite for the heaped platters of old-fashioned fare.
The starter courses and salads seem designed to double as bar fare for the youngish crowd.
"Buffalo" chicken wings appear in this category of dishes, along with fried spiced chicken breast strips, fried squid steak strips, smoked chicken nachos, deep-fried jalapenos stuffed with cheese, and a starter-sized portion of the coconut shrimp. This last, described by the menu as lightly fried, arrived dark and unappetizing, which could only have been the result of inattentive cooking. Properly made, the dish has its merits; Paradise Grill presents it with a hot, Chinese-style mustard dip and a spicy, quite pleasant cherry sauce.
It is possible to order the chicken chili (apparently a house creation, it contains 25 ingredients and is topped with jalapeno-spiked cream cheese, no less) by itself, or ladled over a bowl of French fries; this is not food for the faint-hearted. The Pecos River red chili, made with beef, takes a highly spicy point of view, and reappears on the entree list as a sauce for the "Tex-Mex steak," a hamburger steak also anointed with chopped jalapenos and pepper cheese.
Paradise Grill likes things hot, and serves the conch chowder (this may be the only place in the county that offers conch, a shellfish from the Florida Keys, in chowder or otherwise) with a gratuitous bottle of Tabasco on the side. This soup, reddish and gravy-like and crammed with potatoes and carrots, used the shellfish as a seasoner more than a main ingredient, and, although the flavor was good, there should have been more conch.
The entree list divides between a section devoted to barbecued ribs and chicken and a list of old-timey offerings that includes meat loaf, pan fried ham steak in fruit and raisin sauce, charbroiled pork tenderloin in a spicy peanut sauce, roast turkey with corn bread dressing and prime rib.
The ribs, while described as barbecued, really are just smoked over hickory in the restaurant's own smokehouse, and they taste primarily of smoke; the tangy barbecue sauce offered on the side does not disguise this fact. Baby back ribs, while reasonably meaty, were tough and dry.
Dryness also characterized the fried chicken breasts in honey pecan sauce. This could be a delightful pairing, but the over-cooked meat was less than a pleasure.
The dessert list goes in for items that enjoyed a certain vogue in the early 1980s, including a Butterfinger pie made of ice cream and crushed candy bars, and a Jack Daniels-chocolate chip pecan pie that, had the serving been more fresh and not warmed in the microwave, had real potential.
1476 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees from $7.50 to $15.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $45.