When it wants to, Northern Liberties Tex-Mex joint El Camino Real can turn on the charm. But is it worth a long-term relationship?
1040 N. 2nd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Monday-Sunday: 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.
Lunch Monday-Friday: 11 a.m. &ndash 4 p.m.
Brunch Saturday & Sunday: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
A Bad Relationship?
Since I first flirted with the restaurant a few months after it opened, El Camino Real has been my manipulative boyfriend of dining. I can't say my friends didn't warn me; Inquirer critic Craig LeBan gave El Camino the dreaded one bell. But there's something about the barbecue smell El Camino wears like cologne that I just can't resist. I've visted again and again, sometimes against my better judgment, never knowing if I'll be treated to prompt and delicious food or lukewarm barbecue served unceremoniously after an hour's wait.
When the food is on, it's great. Dry-rubbed barbecue with just a bit of crisp is well-paired with buttery Texas toast and thin barbecue sauce served from bottles at the table (two of them: one hot, one sweet). Baked beans are rich with bacon. The burritos, two skinny, Northern-Mexico-style things served in flour tortillas, range from unremarkable to admirable; the chicken, seasonal fish and seitan are all notable, although the last one was off the menu on my last visit. (Do not order these if what you want is the typical, gargantuan rice-loaded burrito, that's on El Camino's menu as the Gringo.) The only dessert I've had there, a chocolate bread pudding with marshmallows, haunts me in the weirdest way. A not-too-sweet combination of chocolate and marshmallow, I loved the choice to not overload it with sugar. But I also wished that it was moister; the pudding really needed the ice cream it was served with.
El Camino's specials have never done me wrong when I've had them. A tomato soup topped with smoked cheddar and served with a pork empanada was a wonderful light meal, a sultry version of the old tomato-soup-with-grilled-cheese that makes normal grilled cheese seem to have all the sexiness of an elementary school PB&J.
But as my restaurant boyfriend, El Camino likes playing with my emotions. While I have had some winning meals there, the restaurant's quality remains inconsistent, even after they've cycled through new chefs. After a particularly good meal, I thought I found my perfect dish in the ¼ pound of seitan barbecue, but the next two times I ordered it were utter let downs. The first time, it was just mediocre, and the second time, my meal arrived lukewarm and served with meat-filled sides. This isn't a problem for me – I eat meat and just like seitan. But it was utterly sloppy of the waitress to serve meat to a likely vegetarian without even checking. And the sandwiches? When I've had them, meh. Served on Texas toast, they didn't have nearly enough filling to warrant the dry slices of bread that dominated the dishes.
The drinks, generally, are fine. The bar serves a mix of local and Mexican beers, as well as a decent collection of tequilas and whiskeys. The cocktails are far from artisinal, but they manage to walk the fine line of not tasting completely fake (always a danger with margaritas) while remaining inexpensive. The seasonal fruit margaritas are my favorites, featuring options like passion fruit and papaya – I'm not sure how on-season the word "seasonal" really is at El Camino Real, but I've never had a bad "seasonal" cocktail. The spiked lemonade is dangerously delicious, as is the adult root beer: Both barely taste like alcohol.
El Camino Real and I are not exclusive in the dating game, so I will encourage you to check it out. With tables out on Liberties Walk, it can be an especially nice place to eat in the summer. As for me, I'm still waiting for El Camino Real to grow up and settle down before I figure out if our relationship just consists of barbecue-scented booty calls or is something that could really last.