Ottawa isn’t on many culinary can’t-miss lists. The tourist-trap Byward Market is, for the most part, laden with dreary, overpriced and uninventive restaurants that cater to bureaucrats with government expense accounts who gave up their palates around the same time as their will to live. However, a few enterprising Ottawans are making an effort to bring explosive flavour and a truly urban atmosphere to other parts of the city. El Camino is the brainchild of one of these individuals, chef Michael Carmichael, formerly of Sidedoor, Social and E18hteen.
El Camino is located near the south end of Elgin Street, on a strip that has long been popular with Ottawans for its bars and nightlife. In an appropriate twist of fate, it replaced a shady shawarma joint that served up a decidedly mediocre version of the drunk food of choice for Ottawa partygoers. It brings the now-trendy gourmet taco to a part of the city that was desperately in need of an unpretentious yet high-quality establishment that serves not only lunch and dinner, but also late night food.
Despite being a recent addition to the Elgin Street scene, El Camino has already nailed it in three important ways. First, its tacos have four things that all tacos worth my time must achieve – a meat or fish filling that stands up to the other powerful ingredients, bright and spicy flavours from the sauces and toppings, a soft shell that doesn’t taste or feel like cardboard and, finally, a reasonable price. At first, I thought the crispy fish taco was by far the best. The white fish’s delicate flavour came through and the batter stayed crispy despite the the generous heaping of house-made sauces and toppings. While it remains a stalwart in their lineup, on my second visit (a mere 12 hours later), the lamb taco stole the show. The meat had a deliciously distinct lamb flavour that bordered on the gamey, and it was well accompanied by the bright flavour of lime and fresh, thinly sliced chilli peppers. I can safely say that I’ve never had a better lamb taco. The beef tongue taco is also worth a try, although you can’t get it from the take out counter. Tongue is notoriously difficult to cook in a way that yields an appealing texture but the kitchen executed it masterfully.
All their tacos are $4 at the take out window, and $4 – $5 in the dining room.
Second, the dining experience isn’t just confined to good tacos, which generally make for quick meals or late-night food binges. My first experience involved tacos, shrimp dumplings and squid, and we didn’t make it to half the menu. The shrimp was fresh and the slightly browned and crisp dumpling wrapper was an excellent contrast to the tender, sweet and juicy crustacean. The spicy sauce generously sprinkled with fresh chillis brightened up the flavour of the shrimp. The salt and pepper squid wasn’t heavy on batter, which allowed the squid to remain the star of the show rather than merely an excuse to indulge in deep-fried goodness. All this good food doesn’t break the bank, which is a relief in a city where properly good food usually does. Most of the items are designed for sharing, which makes going there in a group the best strategy for experiencing all that El Camino has to offer. The wine list also contains an interesting option for those who love to share – one of the more reasonably priced wine options is a magnum of Norman Hardie’s white blend. This wine pairs well with a number of items on the menu and is the perfect option for a table of friends whose idea of a drink with dinner isn’t nursing one lonely glass through the entire meal until it gets repulsively warm. If you order this and you happen upon the right server, as we did, he’ll tell you you’re “awesome” and offer to keep the bottle chilled.
Third, the space is designed ingeniously to encourage interaction, not just between friends, but also among diners, servers and the bar. The highlight is the meandering bar, only a small part of which is reserved for the bartenders. You can sit around the rest of it, and the waiters can actually walk within it to serve. This means that you can end up sitting across from another group, but still be at the bar. You can see and talk to the friendly bartenders who craft delicious but slightly pricey cocktails with house-made mixes and fresh egg-whites. The space is also well designed for summer, with floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open to make the dining room almost feel like a patio. Patrons feel connected to the hustle and bustle of Elgin Street. Sitting near the front of the restaurant, whether at a table or at the bar, you can easily forget that the space is actually a basement.
El Camino is a beacon of culinary hope in a city that desperately needs one. Great culinary experiences are too few and far between, and those that do exist usually price most people out of the equation. I hope that El Camino sticks around, because the depth of the menu and its accessibility will stir the competitive pot and inspire other Ottawa restauranteurs to step up their game.