To step through the glass door of El Paisa Colombian restaurant in Central Long Beach is to experience a little slice of the South American nation, wedged between Alamitos Avenue and E 17th Street.
Cumbia music plays as the aroma of toasty empanadas, rounded buñuelos and cheesy pan de bonos resting on the counter’s heated display embrace guests who walk in. Near the cash register sits a mini-mart of Colombian sodas, baking ingredients to make arepas and assorted candies.
Decorations of sombreros volteados and Willys Jeeps packed high with coffee pouches adorn the eating hall. Karaoke night turns the restaurant into a dance hall on Friday nights.
It’s the second restaurant Luis Melvin Henriquez, 35, has co-launched in Long Beach. Known as “Melvin el paisa,” Henriquez and his sister also operate a Salvadorean bakery and pupuseria called La Guanaquita in North Long Beach.
The two restaurants pay homage to their Salvadorean mother and Colombian father.
Henriquez moved from Armenia, Colombia, to New York in 2001. He worked at multiple restaurants, starting out as a dishwasher and eventually becoming a shift manager.
He moved to California and opened el El Paisa in October of 2015 to fill a void of Latin American eats that he believes was missing on the West Coast.
“California is missing that special Colombian sasón,” Henriquez said in Spanish. “We have Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan—but we are missing Colombian. Many cultures have built up Long Beach.”
Henriquez says Colombian food is a “parade of flavors” and credits the nation’s fertile farming grounds for the production of those dishes.
Exotic fruits and vegetables combined with different methods of meat preparation create distinct plates such as la bandeja paisa, also called la bandeja campesina, which is a symbolic dish in the region where Henriquez grew up: the mountains of Colombia’s Quindío department.
The “country” plate features grilled steak, fried egg, corn cake, pork, sausage, sweet plantains, avocado, rice and beans. It’s a hefty plate, and for good reason. Henriquez said the dish was originally created to feed the farmers who worked long hours among the valleys and mountain ranges.
“‘Paisa’ represents the humble people, people who work the fields,” Henriquez said. “The Quindío state offers lots of nature and exotic fruits that carry the culture forward.”
The restaurant has developed an eager base of regulars. That support became a lifeline for Henriquez as the pandemic forced his restaurant to offer takeout only last year.
Live music and festive weekend nights came to an abrupt end, but fans of his dishes still placed orders and continued to support the restaurant.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Henriquez said. “But many people have supported us to get to this point.”
Currently, there is only one El Paisa restaurant, but Henriquez is envisioning a push to franchise the business. Henriquez has already seen success in spreading the word of his restaurant.
The official El Paisa restaurant Instagram page has collected over 40,000 followers. Henriquez has also been hosted on Spanish-news station Univision to show off Colombian food typically eaten during Christmas.
“We are a family business with many dreams,” Henriquez said. “We want to create job opportunities to allow Latinos to triumph in the restaurant business.”