My pal the Bar Belle is also the boss of me when it comes to this column, but that sure doesn’t stop me from calling Bullwinkle when I just have to. So, yo, Bar Belle! You’ve got it all wrong when you go hatin’ on El Camino! How did this debate work out? Well, our conversation went something like this:
Your Humble Critic: We checked out El Camino the other night. It’s the new place with the Cali-Mex surfer/tiki-bar vibe that’s run by the Silver Dollar peeps in the old Avalon space on Bardstown. It is truly awesome.
The Bar Belle: I went the other night and wasn’t impressed.
Belle: Too expensive for me — drinks and food. Especially the drinks, and you got so little for what you were paying for. I even blogged about it.
Critic: Well, yeah, the main dishes can be pricey, but the food is really good. The booze pricing seemed consistent with Rye, Proof or St. Charles Exchange to me, and my $12 tequila cocktail was strong. That was good.
Belle: It is consistent with Rye and Proof — I just didn’t think that’s what they were going for. If they want to be a fancy, upscale bar, then those prices make sense. I thought they wanted to be a taco joint and had comparable prices to Silver Dollar. Plus, the only domestic bottled beer is Coors Light at $4 — way too high for a domestic. And they had shitty canned beer at $3-$4.
Critic: Well, maybe, if you want a domestic bottle or a canned beer. The food was super, though, and we had great service from a really nice guy, a skinny-jeaned hipster in a Derby hat. I do have to give cred to the food and the mood.
Belle: Harrumph. Well, I did like the patio and atmosphere.
Critic: Hey, the guy from The Courier-Journal loved the place so much that he crunched out a rave review three weeks after it opened. I think he would have asked it out on a date if he hadn’t been afraid it would say no.
Belle: When did you start caring what the C-J does?
So, Belle, I’m standing on my first impression. The folks who brought us Silver Dollar have hit another home run here. Where Silver Dollar is all about Bakersfield in California’s dusty Central Valley, Chef Jonathan Schwartz brings another genre of blue-collar Anglo-Chicano fare here, this one loosely focused on the Surf Coast somewhere from Santa Cruz to Ensenada.
The old Avalon dining rooms and expansive patio have undergone a substantial remake. A huge, U-shaped bar fills the main floor; the dining rooms are up stairs to a couple levels of closely spaced tables. El Camino certainly boasts a trendy noisy atmosphere, but it’s decibels short of Silver Dollar’s Bakersfield blast.
Decor is fun and hip, combining glimpses of Day of the Dead celebrations, stone fireplaces and stained-glass windows that evoke old-line California missions with big-screen televisions that dwell with delight on surfer action. Banzai pipe, yes!
Main courses (Estrellas) are upscale but worth it, from $17 (for mushroom enchiladas suizas) to $30 (for soft-shell crab). The rest of the menu comes at prices even a thrifty Bar Belle could embrace. Appetizers, soups and salads are mostly $5 to $10. Cal-Mex tacos on hand-made corn tortillas are $3 or $4, and hefty torta sandwiches on house-baked telera rolls are $8 to $12.
Conscience-driven diners will applaud Schwartz’s insistence on local, hormone-free, sustainable meats including free-range chicken, Berkshire pork, pastured Kentucky lamb and grass-fed beef. “We use the whole cow,” they claim, although my wife Mary was cranky at the lack of her favorite lengua (beef tongue) taco.
Crisp, thick house-fried chips in a paper bag with “mucho guac” ($7) made a great starter, a bowl of textured, hand-mashed guacamole surrounded by pico de gallo, warm green and fiery red salsitas and piquant home-pickled veggies.
A portobello adobo taco ($3) was just big enough to put away in four bites. Tender grilled mushroom and earthy goat cheese were parked in a fresh corn taco with spicy adobo sauce and funky cilantro.
Birria de borrego ($23) consisted of tender, long-braised lamb shoulder, rich in that gamey flavor that lamb-lovers desire, in a gently spicy reddish-brown broth scented with guajillo and arbol peppers and topped with a cooling mini-salad of avocado and radishes.
Enchiladas suizas ($17) were amazing, one of those meatless dishes you’d swear were loaded with long-smoked pigmeat or cow. Four tender tortillas were folded over a blend of earthy grilled mushrooms and potatoes en adobo, baked under a blanket of green chiles, funky Chihuahua cheese and soothing crema.
Desserts displayed creativity and flavor art. An ice cream trio ($7) featured vanilla bean, sweet corn with pumpkin-seed brittle and cajeta caramel with cocoa nibs and sea salt. An avocado-mango palete ($4) was a tart-sweet handmade popsicle, far better than anything the ice-cream truck ever dreamed of.
Dinner for two, with the cocktail, a Pacifico beer and a tall, icy watermelon agua fresca, came to a not-unreasonable $88.50 (I mean it, Bar Belle!). The guy in the Derby hat earned a $20 tip.