Our first attempt at going to El Camino was a bit of a bust. Walking through the heavy door directly into the middle of a bustling bar scene on a Saturday night was not at all what we expected from this restaurant, tucked away on a side street in Brunswick. The restaurant is divided into three rooms, and the first one, when you enter, is dominated by a huge, horseshoe-shaped bar. Everything glows a warm red from the numerous colored bulbs scattered throughout the space, and on this particular night, there were Brunswick hipsters (who knew Brunswick even had hipsters?) clustered around the bar, jockeying for position and standing three rows deep. Our entrance had gone understandably unnoticed in the thick throngs of people; we had arrived when El Camino was in full-on drinking mode, not dinner mode. We spun around and scooted back out, vowing to return on a weeknight, when, we assumed, over-the-hill thirtysomethings and their expectant wives could return for a mid-week burrito, when we could enjoy a mild “woohoo,” instead of a full-on, tie-your-shirt-around-your-head “¡WOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!”
When we returned on a Thursday, it was to a much quieter version of the restaurant. This time, the bar was full, but there was ample room to maneuver, and there were several empty tables in the two adjoining dining areas. The restaurant is pleasantly dim and warmly decorated with a healthy sense of retro cantina style, with 1950s-style formica-and-chrome dining tables bathed in red Christmas lights, a few hubcaps on the orange walls, and colorful papel picado banners strung along the restaurant’s drop-ceilings. Instead of the sprawling, 100-item menus so common in Mexican restaurants, El Camino focuses on just a few key appetizers and regular dishes; some guacamole, some soft tacos, a few quesdadillas, and a taco salad. Much more of the restaurant’s attention and creativity seems to be focused on their specials, written in chalk on a blackboard in the corner. That’s where you’ll find El Camino’s bread-and-butter, wildly inventive dishes that may not be entirely authentic, but are presented with enough imagination and enthusiasm, that you’ll hardly notice.
Jillian: Sitting at a little table in the center room of El Camino, you are outside of Maine, but neither are you in Mexico. An impossible border town of the mind, directed by Robert Rodriguez with rose-colored lighting, and antique steering wheels driving the journey, this place transports you into the bleeding Jesus heart of all your romantic South of the Border fantasies. It’s “the way,” as well as the destination. I wish I were bellied up to the u-shaped bar with red vinyl stools and a hibiscus margarita in my hand right now, even though I’ve sworn off tequila for life, after too many Mexicans told me they respect it too much to drink. There is a palpable drug-like quality in its atmosphere, which is not unappealing. Plus, the guacamole is delicious.
We started with the house guacamole and a basket of chips, one of the only starters at El Camino. Served with thick, crunchy corn tortilla chips and topped with a few stray beans, the guacamole was cool, smooth, and velvety, even if the presentation, made to appear more ample by being piled high on top of more chips, proved a little aggravating by the end. In order to put myself in the funky, festive mood the restaurant demands, I also tried an El Camino house margarita, an excellent $9.00 version of the classic served on the rocks, using top-shelf liquor.
I tried the “Cider & Chipotle Braised Pork Belly Tacos,” ($15.00) one of the specials of the evening. The combination included two tacos, each wrapped in a dual layer of corn tortillas that may not have been made in-house, but certainly had a lot more character than we are used to seeing in local Mexican restaurants, as well as a pile of rice, and a scoop each of refried pinto beans and black beans. The tacos were outrageously good, with huge, thick slabs of braised pork belly covered with a quick salsa of diced apples and a sprinkling of red cabbage. “After they cook the pork,” our server helpfully explained, “they drizzle the tacos in some of the braising liquid.” The result is intensely flavorful, but not clumsy, the way this on-trend ingredient tends to be; the brightness of the fruit balanced the heavy, smoky, fatty pork beautifully. This attention to detail comes at a price; at around seven dollars a piece, these aren’t the least expensive tacos in town. I was also less enthusiastic about the beans, which were seasoned a little too aggressively for me, since I tend to look to beans to provide some quiet to the raging flavors of the other parts of a dish. They were only okay; clearly made on-site, by someone who really, really loves cumin.
Jillian: My dinner was a many-textured thing, an oblong plate smothered in two kinds of beans, savory rice with carrots and onions, red and green salsas, cabbage shavings, a droplet of sour cream and two dense pupusas, one filled with chorizo, the other with mild green peppers and cheese. I can’t say it was unsatisfying. But I don’t know that I’d get it again. There was a definite dearth of mouth-assaulting flavor, yet it all tasted good enough, though I wish the chorizo had been more potent. But there was so much going on. On the plate, on the walls, we had at least three servers who were fleet and helpful. Since the menu is brief, we stuck to the specials, many of which were vegetarian and sounded well-thought-out and intriguing.
Jillian ordered the pupusas ($13.50), another of the night’s specials, served with more of the beans. The corn cakes were crispy on the outside, but so thick that they were a little mushy and obscured some of the flavor of their fillings, fresh Mexican chorizo in one, and green chile in the other. I couldn’t help but compare them to the (much superior) pupusas at Tu Casa in Portland, my only pupusa frame of reference, where they are flat, oozing with cheese, and the size of a salad plate, topped with a crunchy cabbage slaw. These pupusas proved to be more of a vehicle for crema and hot sauce, and I returned most of my attention to polishing off my tacos.
El Camino is the kind of restaurant I could very vividly imagine a past version of myself falling head-over-heels in love with. Ten years ago, I would have practically lived there, seated on a vinyl stool at the end of the bar with other kids in ironic tee shirts, drinking round after round of tequila as the dinner crowd thinned, broken up only by the occasional soft taco order, and hilariously unsuccessful, clumsy attempts at flirtation with the bartender. By the end of the night, I would do something wildly embarrassing and inappropriate, and maybe the owner would drive me home, or at the very least, call me a cab, only to welcome me back with open arms the next night. With those days (thankfully) behind me, I can still find lots to love at El Camino. The restaurant and the menu show a deep love and appreciation for Mexican flavor and culture, with nary a cartoon rendering of a luchador in sight. The restaurant’s specials are all stunningly inspired twists on classic flavors, and not in that bumbling “let’s-just-put-cilantro-scented-crema-on-everything” kind of way so typical in modern Mexican. Instead, local ingredients take center stage, and the flavors burst and combine in new ways that had never occurred to me. Maple chipotle marinated scallops? Squash and sage ricotta enchiladas? It may not be typical of what you’d find South of the Border, but handled this expertly, that’s fine with me.
Jillian: There’s no reason not to go. You will have fun. Unless, upon drinking three strong cocktails and meeting a James Spader circa 1986 look-a-like, you decide to flee your life and family and run away with his band to Canada, where he abandons you in the bathroom of a Tim Horton’s and you can’t even buy a box of Timbits because you lost your wallet and don’t speak the language. If this exact scenario has been predicted by some kind of oracle or sibyl, I would then exhort you to stay far away from Cushing Street and its exotic siren song of senoritas and swarthy men. If not, go straight there. As the nights get colder, El Camino stays warm and lit from within. It’s cinematic and cool and has tacos. What more could you ask for in Brunswick?