More than wine in a box, Mexico’s most time-honored alcoholic beverage has an image problem.
Already, you have a picture in your head: Spring break, frat house, navel shots — clouded regrets of your 20s.
El Camino in Delray Beach wants to suggest a new Rorschach image.
The tack this three-month-old restaurant a block north of Atlantic Avenue takes is pairing tequila with a reputable wingman: an inventive menu comprised of locally sourced, often-organic ingredients where everything from the tortillas to the molé sauce is homemade.
The restaurateur team that imaged Delray success stories Park Tavern and steakhouse Cut 432 took an abandoned motor repair shop and turned it into a destination for this tequila transformation.
They hired Dominican-born artist Ruben Ubiera to airbrush murals of Frida Kahlo and Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata in a Day of the Dead theme that is both urban and a nod to tradition. (You can watch time-lapse video of the mural’s creation on the restaurant’s website.)
They reclaimed wood from the old garage for the dark, rustic tabletops that mirror the oversized bar spanning one wall, the entire space brightened by lime-green banquets and warm Edison bulbs. On a cool Tuesday night, the entire glass-door facade opens to the street, festive and cheerful music flowing with it.
A glance at the menu reveals what the restaurant means by “Mexican soul food.” Many traditional dishes are the inspiration for varied and flavorful plates that are ideal for sharing.
The smoked brisket enchiladas ($16), three to a plate, are redolent in molé negro sauce that is three days in the making. This a savory, smoky, dark-chocolate sauce with a complex flavors that enhance a tender braised brisket.
You’ll find charred octopus ($9) over a over a cold jicama, chayote and smoky jalapeño salad, lightly fried fish tacos ($12). And if a burrito ($16) arrives at your table by mistake, you’ll be grateful. It is a massive structure layered in flavors that include the homemade guacamole, which features smoky-hot Serrano chiles and can also be ordered as a generous appetizer ($9).
Yes, you will find quesadillas here, but even these have a twist. These ($10) were wrapped in homemade blue corn tortillas and filled with delicate squash blossoms that retain an al dente crunch while smothered in Oaxaca cheese. There is a depth of flavor here chain restaurants can’t match.
On a recent visit there were a few missteps, such as an octopus dish that may have had too strong an ocean flavor for some or fish tacos which, while crisply fried and tender inside, were heavy-handed with lime. Better to favor the hot, updated traditional Mexican fare, which is dutifully executed even on a night when every seat is filled.
El Camino finishes by dressing up tequila in a suit and tie.
The bar offers more than 200 varieties, including some of their best in tasting flights. Perhaps you’d like the three, 1.5 ounce samplings of “highland” tequilas of Mexico ($18), or “a study” of smoky mescals ($18) or reposado ($18). They are paired with a traditional homemade sangrita, a smooth salsa-like savory Bloody Mary mix with which to chase the tequila.
A real treat is the margarita. Forget that chalice from your local Chili’s. Here, more than half a dozen flavorful creations are thought out and crafted, such as the chile-guava ($10), a hot-and-sour concoction of reposado tequila, redolent guava nectar and just a slight kick from a chile tincture.
The servers know the characteristics of each drink and suggest them like sommeliers.
Best of all, at no point do you expect an impromptu wet T-shirt contest. El Camino has seen to it: This is a place for foodies, not frat boys.
Author: Carlos Frias