Restaurant review: El Camino Inn

  • Photos by Tim Johnson
From the July 19, 2012 edition

A taco truck crashed into a divey ’70s-style SoCal lounge and they called the hybrid the El Camino Inn. OK, not really, but that sounds like a plausible creation myth to me.

Owned by the folks who brought us a litany of lively, overachieving and successful bar-staurants such as The Rossi, Club 185 and the revamped Little Palace, the buzzy El Camino looks like another sure thing. This newbie brings together popular zeitgeisty tropes like cheap taco truck food and a heap of appealingly retro-funky style and attitude. Sealing the deal, it does this on a short block that, considering it also houses ever-slammed Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace and generally packed Little Palace, should be renamed Low-Dough Party Palace Avenue. Even if El Camino were a total dud — which it’s not — it’d likely survive by site-specific hipster spillover alone.

El Camino’s embrace of downscale chic begins with the smallish digs — with its cushy blue and cream pleather chairs, acrylic table, old Pepsi sign and massive lacquered sailfish, it looks like someone hit the vintage shop motherlode in there. Tack on the perfect playtime soundtrack (recently T-Rex segued seamlessly into Thin Lizzy in complete album forms), canned Mexican beers ($2.75-$3.75) and a non-pompous tequila cocktail with Jarritos grapefruit soda (the fairly refreshing Paloma, $6), and you’ve got quite an inviting setting for El Camino’s feeding fare.

So what’s it like to eat there? Well, it can be a rollicking damn good time — if you don’t mind mildly flavored, stewy meats that almost seem to have been steamed and service that can be un-speedy or indifferent.

Starter-wise, pass on the oddly watery Roasted Tomato Salsa ($3) and go with the good Guacamole ($4). Served with warm, puffy tortilla chips, it’s pleasantly spicy, garlicky and lime-y. Otherwise, ordering is merely a matter of choosing meats (there are six) and delivery systems (e.g. burrito, tostada, torta).

Tacos receive the terrific price ($2) and faultless treatment they and we deserve (wrapped in good soft warm corn tortillas with onion and cilantro, served with lime and radishes). My favorites were made with mildly spicy chorizo and “tenga” (i.e. tinga, a tangy shredded chicken stew), but the fresh-tasting if un-crispy carnitas were OK, too.

Tostadas and Gorditas (both $3) were also hits. While the clear edge went to the puffy and chewy fried masa gordita “paddles” (embracing beans, meat, cheese, lettuce and sour cream), the thin and crispy tostadas (similarly topped) were also pleasing.

Wanna go way over the top? Then target the kitchen-sinker (ham, hot dogs, chorizo, beans, mayo, cheese and more) Cubano Torta on its decent toasted bun ($8). Characteristically for El Camino, it’s believable-enough taco truck grub eaten at a place a helluva lot more fun than a curb.