Michael T. Regan
Ambitious is not the right word for a place that styles itself a "Mexican border bar," but there is something daring about El Camino Real. Owen Kamihira's latest concept is all about straddling lines: between Texas and Mexico, restaurant and saloon, fancy and feedlot. This is a place with beef-tongue burritos for foodies, and a "hard-hat special" of grilled cheese and hot links at lunch. Drinks run from $12 pitchers of Miller Lite to a splash of 23-year-old Rittenhouse Rye that'll set you back $33.
You could even credit Kamihira with attempting something noble. Splitting the strands of Tex-Mex, a fusion cuisine that stopped producing new ideas long ago, into a fresher format is a project that sorely needs doing. Kamihira's track record includes the excellent Bar Ferdinand — directly across Liberties Walk — so I've been eager to try his second place since it opened in December.
But of all the borders El Camino Real straddles, the line it came closest to crossing for me was the one separating mere disappointment from Hell's Kitchen-style outrage.
Margaritas are so sickly sweet they'd embarrass the bartender at a sorority social. The thick sludge masquerading as a michilada was "like drinking Old Bay," one companion marveled. Too much of the meat was fatty and/or tough. Straight through to a final cobbler made by someone who had evidently mistaken salt for sugar, it did not get better. Forgotten side dishes, inexplicable delays, inconsistent portion sizes: By night's end, it was hard to avoid thinking that dinner at El Camino Real verged on fraud.
Where to even begin? Before opening, Kamihira and head chef Jen Zavala drove from El Paso to Juarez to gather inspiration. I shudder to imagine what they were served.
There are two sides to El Camino Real's menu: Texas and Mexico. The former is all about barbecue — ribs, brisket, pork loin — plus fixins like mac 'n' cheese, chili and coleslaw. Burritos dominate the other half, along with sides like red rice and grilled corn.
Prices are all over the map. A fan of sliced brisket with baked beans comes in at $10. The same thing as part of a platter that includes a modest bit of sausage somehow commands $20. A "pig wing" appetizer, which was really the only succulent meat that graced our table, was if anything too big. But $8 for a whopping three stuffed jalapeños dressed with a cloying apricot marmalade? You'd think that the servers would provide a little guidance, but our attendant acted as though management prohibited it.
The portion problem bedeviled the only dish that won unanimous praise: fried pickles. Lightly battered, crisp and still slightly cool inside, these tart treats were as fun as a no-frills starter gets. But to call the dozen pickle coins we got a miserly allotment would be an insult to misers. The effect was like getting a plate containing 20 shoestring French fries. What gives? They're pickles, not caviar.
Alas, they were the meal's only unqualified highlight. The beef tongue in my burritos was tender and tasty and sliced as lovingly as carpaccio, but something's wrong when a flour tortilla dominates the flavor of what it contains. It's also annoying that burritos come in pairs, but you can choose only one filling. The menu boasts 13, from chicken to tripe to cactus and potato. "The kitchen bites my head off when I put in a split order," our server explained.
Well, I hope they don't cook it afterward, because on an off night this crew could give brain tissue the texture of leather. I don't care how good the sauce is (and the interplay of sweet and hot in El Camino Real's merits praise) — a barbecue joint has got to serve tender meat. The short ribs, far from falling off the bone, wouldn't pry loose even as I yanked with my teeth hard enough to risk whiplash. That cut was much softer during a slow lunch hour, but the brisket remained fatty and weirdly tasteless. A skirt-steak skewer was tastier, but came with an acidic chimichurri whose scant parsley had turned dun green with apparent age.
Yet even that was better than dessert. Buñelos had been fried past the burning point. The "bourbon pecan pie" was not a pie at all, but a bar of squishy crust topped with a layer of filling that was actually thinner than a pecan — of which there were precious few. And while I'm supplying the ironic quotation marks that were missing from the menu itself, add the "S'mores bread pudding," which was basically cake with graham crackers and ice cream.
Then there was that salty cobbler with mushy crust. Ordinarily I'd give a server the opportunity to rectify something this wrong, but dessert had taken so long to come — and morale at our table was so low — that all we could think about was leaving as quickly as possible. Plus, there's seemingly a limit to how much you can send back. To Camino's credit, the bartender had already removed a pitcher of margaritas from our bill. But when we showed our server that michilada, he brought it back with what was apparently a dose of water meant to thin out the sludge. Service the second time around was friendlier, though uninformed.
One of the tragedies of this place is how much thought went into creating the interior. Kamihira is a gifted designer, no doubt about it. From the devotional statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe mounted in an upright bath basin to a giant carving of a longhorn steer skull, his visual mash-up of border culture is inventive and playful. If you're after a rollicking atmosphere and don't care too much about hearing across the rough-hewn wooden tables, it wouldn't be a bad place for a drink (just not the kind requiring bartender involvement).
But without a lot of improvement, a tragedy is what El Camino Real is destined to be. As one of my guests put it: "I enjoy your company and all, but I really wish I'd stayed home." As a host who'd been reduced to mumbling apologies for inviting her, I could hardly take offense.
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner daily, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. (bar till 2 a.m.); brunch Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Appetizers, $3-$11 Entrées, $10-$28