Keepin' It Real
|Barbecue lickin': El Camino Real’s ribs are served
with pickles and Texas toast (photo by michael persico).|
Jen Zavala brings authenticity to El Camino Real.
by Adam Erace
At first sight, it’s like being south of the border, in that kind of sexy, vaguely
sinister, Touch of Evil town. Dark. Noisy. The two oak bars, busy,
lined with sweaty bottles of Negra Modelo and weighty wood stools carved by calloused
hands in Chihuahua. Cowboys shoot the shit while tarts in fishnets shoot cheap bourbon,
and the Virgin of Guadalupe, unofficial guardian and bang-up baby-sitter, turns a blind
But take a closer look. The vintage Wranglers and Western plaid shirts are from Texas,
but by way of Sugar Cube and Green Street Consignment. Cans of PBR and “Push Pop”
cocktails stand alongside the Mexican beer, and sculptor Joe Brenman’s Virgin … well, at
the risk of my immortal soul, she looks like a drag cabaret headliner, with the
va-va-voom bod of Jessica Rabbit and the mitts of a power forward.
Dios mio, we’re not in Lord-lovin’ Texas anymore.
At El Camino Real, owner Owen Kamihira channels the Rio region with artistic Yankee
swagger, and like the atmosphere, the menu is a wild collision of West Texas and
Executive Chef Jen Zavala, the former Deuce sous chef, makes the flour tortillas from
her grandmother’s recipe—soft circles that surround carnitas, cactus, tongue and 10
other fillings in El Camino’s “Two Little Burritos.” Actually two big burritos—they’re
priced by the filling—but you can’t mix and match among the same price point. Bummed, I
steered toward the barbacoa burritos, stuffed with lamb, treated to a chili paste rub
and slow steam bath perfumed with apples, peppers and hoja santa, the Mexican herb
redolent of root beer and eucalyptus.
When the smoke cleared, the beef had taken on a near-jerky consistency and a
rootin’-tootin’ zestiness I loved. The meat went stag inside tortillas, with sliced
radish, lime, jicama-cabbage slaw and smoked pico de gallo riding shotgun. Like with
tacos, you’re meant to dress the burritos, but they’re already wrapped—albeit
carelessly, like loose-leaf megaphones you’d roll up in homeroom—leaving you to unroll,
reroll, unroll, reroll. It was annoying.
The better half of El Camino’s menu pays tribute to pit-style West Texas barbecue,
with Zavala smoking nine cuts of meat (plus seitan for the vegans) over applewood
mesquite in the restaurant’s twin 250-pound smokers. The pig wings, three smoked and
deep-fried pork shanks, are my new drinking buddies. They packed all the hot, buttery
satisfaction of conventional wings, plus the falling-apart texture of braised short
Priced by the quarter-pound and served with pickles, buttered thick-cut Texas
toast—Baker Street bakes the Wonder-like loaves exclusively for El Camino—and spicy or
sweet house-made barbecue sauces, the smoked meat entrees brought out the best in the
kitchen as well as the bartender.
Being neither a butcher nor a McDonald’s cook, I quickly realized I had no clue what a
quarter-pound looked like, so I ordered half a pound each of the 22-hour-smoked Wagyu
brisket and shaved Berkshire pork loin. The bartender, who up to this point had been the
kind of cool, friendly dude you hope your sister marries, hesitated. Too much food, he
said. Start with the quarter, go from there.
I’ve never had a server encourage me to order less. Usually, it’s, “Would you like
bottled water/a tableside shaving of black truffles/a construction-grade wheelbarrow to
assist your fat ass out the door?”
My man was right. The portions were enough, especially with the crazy-good grilled
corn on the cob with cotija cheese, cilantro lime aoili and fiery baked beans flecked
with house-cured bacon. Both cuts were incredibly juicy and tender. Zavala gets the
brisket from Strube Ranch just outside Dallas, but I won’t hold that against her.
The overly sweet banana pudding and overly salty buñuelos, however, I will. At $7, the
desserts are also expensive relative to the rest of the super-affordable menu. I
could’ve had that extra quarter-pound of glorious brisket for the same price.
In a city sorely lacking proper ’cue, Kamihira and Zavala delivered, but for me, it
was the easygoing, genuine service that stood out most. Someone trying to save you a
buck; that’s something you can appreciate no matter what country you’re in.