If you’ve heard of Belize, it’s probably from one of those high-end House Hunters shows, or maybe from a resort trip someone on your block took a few years ago. The coastal Central American country isn’t big enough to be a consistent player on the world stage, and owing to its location — pushed out towards the Caribbean waters by Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula — it’s not as easy of a getaway for Americans as, say, Cancun or the Bahamas, though English is the official language and their Belizean dollar is pegged to the US currency at a 2-to-$1 rate.
Of course, anyone who has spent time in Belize likely won’t shut up about it. Startlingly blue waters temped to a perfect bathtub warmth; untold reefs and cayes for endless snorkeling and scuba diving; white-sand luxury for those with the want (and the wallet). Belize is, in many ways, a Caribbean paradise, full of lush interior jungles and sweepingly beautiful coastline. Oh, and the food is delicious too.
Which brings us, aptly enough, to Belizean Paradise, a what’s-new-is-old eatery on La Brea that garnered some small amount of press several years ago under the moniker Flavors of Belize.
Inside what looks like it should be the lobby is mostly just a collection of colorful, puffy booths
Apparently that name proved too confusing for some folks to Google, particularly with a cookbook and yearly magazine of the same name, so ownership decided to swap in the new title last year.
Don’t worry, everything else you might have loved about Flavors of Belize (if you ever to actually made it there) remains almost exactly the same. The location, in a clunky turn-off just north of San Vicente on La Brea, is as odd and wonderful as ever, thanks to its connection to a less-than-seemly motel painted in a fading pale orange. Inside what looks like it should be the lobby is mostly just a collection of colorful, puffy booths and a hanging TV, either showing a soccer game or playing some nondescript telenovela on loop.
Service remains almost comically unobtrusive. Most days, it seems like everyone is genuinely surprised to see another customer walk in and sit down, though locals tend to pass through with some frequency, either grabbing takeout meat pie orders or sitting down to laugh with the owner over some unheard story.
When examining the trifold plastic menu at the restaurant, it’s important to keep in mind that Belizean cuisine is less about uniformity or culture than it is appropriation. Over centuries of Mayan rule, Spanish conquest, British oversight, and eventual self-determination, Belizeans managed to take the best of what was around and showcase it on the plate. Add in the undeniable influences from Mexico, Latin America, a local Mestizo population, and nearby Caribbean islands, and you start to understand the grab-bag mentality that applies to Belizean food today.
Mostly, you should expect simple offerings, usually accompanied by a side of rice and beans. Depending on the day (or on the specials board), that could mean slow-cooked pig's tail or a whole tilapia. Stew beef and curried chicken are well-tread options, featured alongside wide mounds of coconut milk-cooked rice and some potato salad — and don’t forget the fried plantain. During lunch, most of these entree plates are portioned down to a more manageable size and slapped with an improbably cheap $7 price tag.
Where Belizean Paradise really shines is in their collection of small bites, meant to be enjoyed piecemeal before the main dishes or as a sampler platter for everyone to share.
Fried orange panades are lightly stuffed with meat or beans, while garnaches and salbutes act as Belizean tostadas, simple savory mixes scooped on top of sturdier fried rounds of masa. There are meat pies and Creole breads and, if you’ve caught the season just right (and the owners have decided to bring in a haul), you can even snap up a plate of conch fritters.
It’s easy to work through most of the menu at Belizean Paradise with a few friends and $30 between you, everyone snacking on this or pulling forkfuls of that. Even better: you’ll likely each discover a dish you hadn’t heard of (or at least put much thought into) that emerges as a personal highlight — be it the stewed dark meat chicken chirmole, a sort of black bean soup that is the unofficial house specialty, or the wonderfully punchy shrimp in garlic sauce.
It seems, with the booth seating, the big menus, and the culturally amorphous cuisine itself, that sharing is entirely the point here. So don’t be afraid to tell your friends — there’s a good chance they’ve never heard of Belizean Paradise before.