El Camino takes food and surroundings to creative heights (4/4 Stars)

Courier Journal November 2013

by Marty Rosen

El Camino is destined to become one of Louisville’s most polarizing restaurants.

Some diners will object to the sound levels; others will revel in a soundtrack that pivots from Mexican-American border accordion to California punk to twanging surf guitars.

Some may take issue with the decorative skulls and skeletons that invoke the Dia de los Muertos celebration, while others will take giddy delight in watching masked, sequined Mexican wrestlers cavorting on the video monitors mounted throughout the space.

There may even be some folks who question why a city situated on the banks of the Ohio in the heart of Bourbon country needs a beachcomber bar and restaurant that celebrates coastal fantasies and Mexican street food and features an artisanal tiki cocktail program with dozens of rums (close to 90, by my count, from a dozen-and-a-half countries) and tequilas (about 60).

I can’t speak to whether Louisville needed a place like El Camino, but there’s no question El Camino will become a destination restaurant for diners who want to immerse themselves in revelry and spectacle.

Owners Shawn Cantley (Silver Dollar) and Larry Rice (Silver Dollar and 732 Social) have recast the interior of the former Avalon as a sort of stepped pyramid with a colorful bar at the base and tiers of seating that rise up, creating great sightlines from the bottom to the upper balcony (which looks like a great spot for large private parties).

Outside, a patio complex features a comfortably sheltered bar and open tables heated (on recent nights, anyway) by bright yellow flames. Furnishings are casual and comfortable — and the layout and traffic patterns seem mindfully designed to encourage social table-hopping.

Cantley, Rice and their team (chef Jonathan Schwartz; general manager Colin Shearn; pastry chefs Chris Ripley and Carter Gross; and beverage director Susie Hoyt) have assembled (and trained) a smart, knowledgeable team of servers and tenders (on one of our recent visits, we asked a few questions about specific rums and heard the sort of detailed responses you’d expect from a sommelier discoursing on a wine list).

In dish after dish and drink after drink, we found arresting ideas, brilliant flavors and detailed execution. (It’s worth noting that I was an enthusiastic supporter of both 732 Social and Silver Dollar, and am easily recognizable to the El Camino staff, but based on what I saw on other tables and at the bar, the quality of food and service we received was being enjoyed by all.)

The beverage program is superb, and includes an interesting wine list (by glass and bottle, with satisfactory options in the mid-$20s and interesting options in the $50/$60 range); an assortment of beers in cans, bottles and bombers, including plenty of craft options (though limited regional options on the opening list); and an impressive collection of cocktails and punches that touch on bourbon and gin, but make extensive use of the bar’s formidable holdings in rum and tequila.

Ice aficionados will appreciate the conical shape of the ice used in a drink called Navy Grog, but even if you care not about ice, you’ll respect the ingredients. Don the Beachcomber — a founding legend in the world of tiki and Polynesian cocktails — is reputed to have said that “what one rum can’t do, three rums can.” The Navy Grog goes one better, employing four rums (from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Martinique and Guyana) along with honey, lime and grapefruit.

I’m not sure what job Navy Grog is intended to get done, but a couple of these are likely to put you in the mood to sing a shanty or two; likewise, the exceptional gin-based Saturn (Beefeater’s, lemon, passionfruit, falernum and orgeat) and the Donga Punch (with the deep, rich tang of a sugarcane-based rum from Martinique and brisk flavors of cinnamon, grapefruit and lime).

Chef Schwartz’s menu is a magnificent tribute to Mexican cuisine that runs the gamut from simple to extravagant, with excellence (and locavore elements) at every step along the way.

Some diners will sip beer or cocktails with snacks and sandwiches. Tacos are perched on charred, house-made tortillas (grilled chunks of marinated swordfish with tart pickled jicama and charred avocado tomatillo sauce, $4; beer-battered cubes of cod with cabbage slaw, crema and a spicy salsa, $3.50; or succulent pork belly with pickled onion and fiery habanero, $4).

Tortas are stuffed inside exquisite house-baked telera rolls (masa-encrusted shrimp with a spicy aioli, cilantro and onion, $12; free-range chicken, smoky chipotles, queso and jalapeno, $10). By the way, a menu note indicates that the cuisine is gluten-free except for those tortas and the breading on the Baja tacos (the ones with the beer-battered cod).

Appetizers include things like queso fundido ($8, with elements like mushrooms braised in Negra Modelo); fried oysters perched on a creamy-grainy spread made from toasted pumpkin seeds with habanero aioli ($8); and chips with an assortment of salsas, pickled vegetables and a fine heap of guacamole ($7).

Or you could start a meal with an outstanding salad made from roasted corn (esquites con jaiba), queso fresco, lime, chilies and superb chunks of lump crabmeat served in a cast-iron skillet ($10).

Then there are extraordinary (and shareable) entrees, like a big portion of soft-shelled crab (three crabs, as far as I could tell) in a sturdy batter that held its crunch under a gem-like garnish of greens and radishes and a crimson tequila-chili sauce that pulsed the palate with layers of flavor ($30); or whole roasted sea bass with rice, fried capers and the fresh flavors of sauce Veracruzana ($27); or braised lamb shoulder ($23); or wonderful vegetarian enchiladas filled with adobo-spiced potatoes and lovely salsa verde ($17).

This is serious cuisine rooted in tradition and executed with the flair of a talented chef and a rigorous kitchen crew. And that same flair shows up in the work of the pastry chefs.

There are house-made ice creams and sorbets (cocoa nib ice cream with spices and sea salt, blackberry cantaloupe and more); there’s a classic flan adorned by a chunk of anise brittle that glows like stained glass — but you’ll forget about the look when you put a spoonful in your mouth and the flan releases that teasing hint of caramel and finishes with a creamy, buttery glow.

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