Remember that time you invited me to join you for lunch, and I was like, "That sounds great. Where should we go?" And you said, "La Paz." And I said, "Hmm. How about some other place in Green Hills?" And you pointed out there was no other place in Green Hills. Then I suddenly remembered I had a thing I had to do and asked for a rain check on lunch?
Well, I'm ready for that rain check — along with a plate of fish tacos — at La Paz, which relocated in November to the sleek shotgun address on Elliston Place that formerly housed the defunct Ombi restaurant.
The transition is a dramatic one for the 20-year-old Nashville outpost of the Atlanta-based La Paz chain, which operates nine stores in five states. In moving from the bend of Cleghorn to the Rock Block, the restaurant downsized its real estate by more than half and traded its sprawling suburban patio for a handful of outdoor seats with the ambiance of a sidewalk cafe. While the Green Hills location thrived at dinner — with tequila-tippling crowds spilling onto the patio in fair weather — lunch was a less populated and less festive affair. In our experience at La Paz Elliston, the lunchtime crowd appeared to have bulked up, enlivening the noontime vibe.
It's not just the relocation that transformed our impression of La Paz, but also the food, which surprised us with creativity and freshness. According to the servers, the menu of enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas has changed only gradually over the years, so at first blush it was hard to know why our opinion of the food was so much more positive. Then it hit us: Years ago, when we last slurped margaritas on the Green Hills patio, we no doubt ordered from the cheap end of the menu, sticking with predictable quesadillas. But on recent visits we explored the pricier end of the roster, where things got more inventive. (Prices top out at $17 for sizzling fajitas or a 6-ounce filet mignon.)
Of course, inventiveness is relative, and fans of the departed Ombi will cry a little inside when they see the gleaming copper chef's bar standing idle. Where diners once gathered for gastronomic spectacles — from head cheese to Rocky Mountain corn dogs — now no culinary drama unfolds. But a script of colorful and fresh south of the border-inspired cuisine makes a reliable repertoire, a few steps above standard Tex-Mex. And the dazzling interior, with floating panels of blond wood, concrete countertops and stainless-steel chain-link curtain, gets another lease on life — albeit with the extravagant brushed-metal Emeco chairs traded out for more modest wooden seating.
In our experience, fish tacos were the star of the show. The $10 lunchtime portion included two tender flour tortillas loaded generously with white fish dusted with red spices and grilled to perfect flakiness. (The $14 dinner portion comes with three tacos.) The pretty assembly included a side of rice studded with corn, carrots and peas; citrus-tinged shredded cabbage; mildly spicy remoulade; lime wedges; and a gorgeous rough-chopped medley of mango, red peppers and green onion. The pièce de résistance on the platter was a brace of piping-hot fried plantain slices drizzled with cool crema.
Other highlights included barbecue shrimp brochettes — skewers with six shrimp wrapped in bacon and slathered with sweet and smoky glaze — plated with rice, tortillas and the colorful combination of finely chopped and gently sautéed zucchini, corn and red pepper known as calabacitas.
The plump bacon-wrapped seafood also appeared in the aptly named Over the Top Fajitas. The sizzling combination platter was loaded with grilled chicken, beef, bacon-wrapped shrimp, peppers and onions, as well as fluffy mounds of fresh guacamole and pico de gallo. When we ran out of warm tortillas wrapped in foil, our server graciously brought more, and the heaping plate stretched easily to feed several people.
Likewise, the Cuban quesadilla — a dinner plate-sized layering of moist shredded pork and cheese grilled between two flour tortillas, served with cool mango salsa and piquant creamy cilantro dip — could easily feed two people.
If you were among the many families who frequented La Paz Green Hills for the cheese quesadillas and bottomless baskets of warm chips with red and green salsas, take heart: The chic and sleek Elliston location still wants your business and is quick on the draw with kids' menus and crayons. But you might also take a good look at the prices. Kids' meals do not include drinks, so a $4.50 corn dog with $2.25 soda adds up quickly.
If you're watching your beverage budget, check out the newly instituted happy hour, from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, when the house margaritas are just $3.
But why am I looking at the prices when you're the one who invited me to dine at La Paz? The meal's on you, right?
La Paz serves lunch and dinner daily.