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Bell Gardens

One of the ‘Best Paellas in the World’ is Hiding In a Mariscos Restaurant In a Bell Gardens Strip Mall

2:06 PM PST on January 3, 2023

paella coraloense

Mariscos logic: If you possess enough sazón to make one of the best ceviches in Los Angeles, can you also make an incredible paella?  If you are Natalie and Maria Curie, the mother-and-daughter team behind the two-decade-old mariscos restaurant in southeast Los Angeles, El Coraloense, the answer is hell’s yes. 

On Thursday nights, the family-owned mariscos restaurant—and 2014 TACO MADNESS champions—located next to a liquor store dims its lights, hires a local musician to play classical Spanish guitar, and transforms into The Paella Concept. Instead of their usual chamoy-smothered ceviches tacos de pescado al pastor on the menu, there are patatas bravas, fried cauliflower, and a complimentary glass of wine with your dinner reservation. The price ranges around $59 per person before tax and tip, with additional protein supplements like lobster and secreto (a juicy and delicious, steak-like rare Spanish cut of pork). The menu changes every week. You reserve your spot on their website—one paella pan minimum, which easily feeds two hungry paella-obsessed people.

“I’d never cooked paella professionally before my first contest in 2016,” Natalie says. Her friend suggested she give it a shot and gave her a paella pan. Natalie was initially skeptical about entering, having no paella experience, but she ate all the paellas in L.A. and saw as many videos on Youtube as she could for the two weeks leading up to the competition. Maria, who is naturally always curious and cooking new dishes joined Natalie and learned as much as she could. Her first first-place win was in a paella contest in Orange County. The grand prize changed her cooking-based way of life; it was a free trip to compete in one of the biggest paella competitions in Valencia, Spain, called the Concurso Internacional de Paella Valenciana de Sueca. “We placed in that competition but finally won first place for ‘best international paella in the world’ last year.” In September, we won 2nd best in the World Paella Day Cup. Natalie has documented her paella journey on Instagram.

The Paella Concept's lobster paella.
The Paella Concept's lobster paella. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
Churros for dessert are also included in your paella dinner. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
One of the many recognitions that Natalie and Maria Curie have achieved for their paella on El Coraloense's wall.
One of the many recognitions that Natalie and Maria Curie have achieved for their paella on El Coraloense's wall.

Natalie and Maria’s paella is intensely savory. Each grain of tender al dente rice is lacquered with an umami sheen, which can only be accomplished by a painstaking fumet (long-simmered fish stock) or meat broth, both bases brimming with lip-coating gelatin. The lobster is sweet and not overcooked, and the secreto pork is cooked medium-rare. Natalie does not claim her paella is authentic. 

According to her, the secret ingredient to her paella is timing and building your flavors along with a higher-starch type of rice for paellas. It’s called jsendra and absorbs more flavor than the usual bomba rice variety, but the tradeoff is that it is less forgiving and takes less time to cook. Natalie is also passionate about developing socarrat in her paellas, which is the crispy layer of rice that forms on the bottom of the paella pan. "Without socarrat, are you even eating paella?!" She responds when asked if we need to make a special request for it when placing your order. 

“I never thought I would get this far with paella. It’s crazy.

Natalie feels grateful that this new venture is with her mom. “I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else. My mom is my teacher, and we have a dynamic where we don’t need to communicate verbally; she knows exactly what needs to get done without me even saying it.” When asked how many competitions she’s won first or in the top three, Natalie counts up to 15 competitions in five years, even with COVID live event limitations. Her fideuà, which is like paella but made with fideo pasta, is also reported to be incredible. She learned to make fideuè in Gandilla, Spain, where the dish originated. 

Photo via El Coraloense.
Photo via Natalie Curie.
Photo via Natalie Curie.
Photo via Natalie Curie.
Photo via Natalie Curie.
Photo via Natalie Curie.

So far, their loyal customers, mostly SELA residents, are reacting to their paella nights “really well.” Natalie sees this weekly pop-up as a stepping stone to building a brick-and-mortar paella restaurant. Her dream is to open a paella restaurant in Downey and one day get a Michelin star or two. “I was raised in Downey, and people know their good food, but it would be all about finding the right location.” She’s offered her-awarrd paella to El Coraloense’s customers on Sundays for the last couple of years as a special and slowly built a local following. Natalie and Maria also offer their paella for catering.

“I never thought I would get this far with paella. It’s crazy; all from learning on Youtube. It’s incredible, but all the information is out there. It’s just a matter of wanting to learn and putting your mind to it.”  

The Paella Concept opens inside El Coraloense at 6600 Florence Ave, Bell Gardens, CA 90201 on Thursday evenings and must be reserved in advance on their website. They also do catering. 

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