1314 Bardstown Rd.
Louisville, KY 40204
What do you get when you combine a Southern California Surfer theme, classic Tiki drinks and straight-from the-homeland Mexican street food including scratch-made tortillas from fresh Masa? El Camino, the latest bar and restaurant venture of co-owners Larry Rice and Shawn Cantley, and executive chef Jonathan Schwartz. Larry and Shawn’s first restaurant The Silver Dollar, features Chef Schwartz’s amazing Southern and Mexican inspired food and has historically been my favorite honky tonk in town. Tonight, I may have found my new spot. There is something about the laid-back execution in Larry and Shawn’s style that makes any restaurant they create feel just like home. The fresh, bright flavors of the food from Chef Schwartz and perfect blend of the cocktails never disappoint.
Last night, on opening night at El Camino, I experienced my best first meal at a restaurant. EVER. And, if Silver Dollar is any indication of the El Camino to come, the consistency and quality will continue to be flawless and heaven on a plate (and in a glass) with every dish that comes to the table. El Camino’s menu is loaded with words that sound like a song to a locavore – grass-fed, local, free-range, organic, pasture-raised, sustainable. And 90% of the menu is gluten free which makes it easy eating for some of the people I know.
In my usual style, I sampled as many dishes as possible that first night to process the full spectrum of offerings at El Camino. Luckily, I had a group of great friends along who were happy to order up a variety of dishes that we could all share and pass around the table. And that is just the thing to do at El Camino. Chef Schwartz learned how to create Mexican cuisine from his mother-in-law who is an active chef in Cancun. The authenticity of the food, and time taken to learn the craft, really shines through in every dish Schwartz has created.
First, we started out with the Esquitas Con Jaiba (Roasted Corn, Crab, Lime and Chiles) and the Queso Fundido (Melted Monterey Jack Cheese in a cast iron skillet over Negra Modella Braised Mushrooms and Poblanos). Larry mentioned this was a combination not to miss, and he was spot on. The Queso was served with warm housemade tortillas and we made brilliant little tacos with Corn, Crab and melty Cheesy goodness.
Then the Green Miracle Sauce was brought to the table. At least, that is my name for it. I believe the staff leisurely refers to it as “Salsa Roberto” after the genius in the kitchen, Bob Durbin (new to the Louisville food scene), who concocted this creation. Holy smokes kids, this oozey, creamy, pale green stuff was out of this world perfection with everything. It was simply dreamy. I asked at least three different employees during the night what was in there, and nobody was giving up the ghost beyond the two primary ingredients of Jalapeño and Garlic. The tricky thing is, it wasn’t spicy. It was cooling, and we even suspected there was cucumber mixed into the batch. UPDATE: Since the time of this original post I have confirmed from the creator that there is no cucumber (take a visit there yourself and try to figure it out).
Rumor has it the Green Miracle Sauce will be jarred and sold at the new Mexican-style bakery the team is opening next door. What’s that, a Mexican bakery? Yes, indeed. This coming Spring, Larry and Shawn plan to open a panaderia style Mexican bakery in the building that sits just next to El Camino and is now vacant. I frequent panaderias when traveling in Mexico – the stacks of sweet cookies, fruit pastries, fresh tortillas and savory meat filled pies call to me daily on my travels there. The bakery may also incorporate a Mexican style market with sodas, produce and other goods (the final plans are still in the works). As Shawn said, “It will be like a Panera, if Panera was cool.” I can only imagine that the bakery these guys pull together will have all the tasty morsels of a traditional Mexican bakery with a flare of panache and tastiness that we cannot foresee. Somehow, they have a way of doing these things. But I digress, back to dinner…
The night went on with piles of amazing tacos – Al Pastor, the Achiote Marinated Berkshire Pork; Barbacoa, the Slow Roasted Grass-fed Beef and Pescado, the Grilled Swordfish. The Tortas, Mexican sandwiches, were served on a house baked bread that was surprising. In a restaurant focused on Mexican food, you don’t expect to stumble upon amazing sandwich bread, but there is was. Really something to come back and eat again and again, and a sneak peak of what is to come at the new bakery. (When breakfast sandwiches start rolling out on that bread I may drive to this Highlands neighborhood daily!)
I also chowed down on a hearty plate of Cochinita Pibil, an Achiote Seed Slathered Pork Shoulder Slow Roasted in Banana Leaves. This dish was perfect with a side dish of the Arroz Con Ajo (Aromatice Rice with Garlic and Serrrano). For years during law school I dated a guy who was part Spanish. He would often make Cochinita Pibil dish and it softens my heart a little anytime I see it on a menu. I’ve tried it in restaurants numerous times and this was the best I’d had that wasn’t made by his loving hands. The serving was more than enough for me and others at the table, and I still had plenty for lunch the next day.
Of course, I’ve yet to address the most important part of the night – cocktails. Scorpion bowls brimming with alcohol and fruit, served with long straws to share with friends are classic Tiki drinks. A tempting list of “Bowls and Punches” is included in El Camino’s drink menu and our group did not skip on the experience. We started our night with the Aku Aku Lapu, a Rum based drink with citrusy juices and undertones of Almond, Clove and Ginger. Nothing makes you feel young again like sharing a giant cocktail with friends drinking out of giant, colorful, slurpy straws.
While Tiki cocktails tend to be mostly Rum based, the stellar bar team at El Camino managed to sneak-in at least one Bourbon based cocktail, the Port Light. With a base of Buffalo Trace, a smooth and easy drinking Bourbon, the additions of Passionfruit, Grenadine and Lemon continued the Tiki theme. The Port Light was tart fruit and Bourbon-y goodness in a terra cotta style Tiki glass that stayed pleasingly icy to the touch throughout dinner. The drinks served around our table were varied, and flavors of smoky and bitter danced in the glasses along with the sweet and tart. There is a drink on the menu for every palate.
As dinner and drinks were winding down we looked towards dessert, or Postres, keeping with the traditional Mexican foods of the night. The dessert menu ranged from classics like Flan and Tres Leches to Ice Cream and Popsicles (Paletes). We decided on a trio of ice creams and trio of sorbets. Spiced Cocoa Nib Ice Cream with Sea Salt, Strawberry Angostura Bitter Sorbet and Tequila Lime Sorbet with Candied Jalapeños topped out list of favorites. The Tequila Lime in particular, was a wild explosion of flavor. While I couldn’t eat a whole dish, a few shared bites was just right. The creamy texture and depth of rich flavor in the Spiced Cocoa Nib was surprising. Lucky for all of us that El Camino inherited a lovely ice cream maker from Avalon (the former restaurant that sat in this spot).
El Camino has definitely transformed the vibe and ambiance of the former Avalon. As co-owner Larry Rice mentioned, “We were trying to combine two of the tackiest types of decor – Mexican and Tiki. But I hope we pulled it off.” And the team absolutely did.
There was an interesting kind of reverence to the space. Stained glass windows and candles with religious figures, including various saints and Our Lady of Guadalupe, lit up the warm and inviting walls and woodwork. Fires glowed brightly from the hearth and, in the outside bar, from the center of tables. Handmade estrella (star) lights bedazzled the ceiling creating an internal sparkling night sky. There is a surprising quiet hush to the space (in the back part of the restaurant away from the bar) and lilting surfer music floating through the air. If you’re used to the loud rumble of The Silver Dollar, you’ll find the noise level much more calming at El Camino. The owners, very much aware of the reverberations of their first restaurant, made an effort in this new space to ensure adequate soundproofing, and the results could be heard in a lovely muffled type of quiet. The bar and the front dining area is more boisterous and energetic, as you would expect. You can also catch a glimpse of surfer dudes and Mexican wrestlers on the TVs and projector screens. A unique purview for dinner to be sure.
Overall, opening night at El Camino was the best first experience I’ve had at any restaurant. In addition to all the accolades above, the service was prompt, friendly and excellent and the price points were reasonable and flexible. Those looking to spend less could fill up on fresh tacos filled with local meats for around $10, and those looking to spend more could dine on hearty plates of Grass-fed New York Strip, Crab, Braised Pork and Fish. It is worth noting that the outside patio is open for seating, but not completely finished. Given the late open in the Fall season and ever cooling weather, the fully decked-out patio will have a grand opening next Spring when the weather starts to warm again.
All around, this is a spot where anyone can go to dine and be happy. Priority seating reservations are available on Open Table, make yours now or call the number above to inquire about a table. Get down to El Camino, chill, have a drink, eat a tasty taco and enjoy.