Even owner Brandon Belluscio is surprised at the wild success of his 5-month-old El Camino. He says he didn't realize so many people loved Mexican food.
To which I say, this is no ordinary Mexican food.
Chef Victor Meneses was born in Juarez, Mexico, and raised in Albuquerque, where he first learned to cook authentic Mexican street food alongside his father in the family food truck. He left New Mexico for Washington, D.C., where he trained at L'Academie de Cuisine and worked alongside the luminaries Michel Richard at his now-shuttered Citronelle and Todd Gray at Equinox.
Meneses' cooking is the best combination of authenticity and modern creativity. He's not afraid of using more chiles than we might expect. He cooks with lard, judiciously. And his cooking isn't muddied with the cheesy trappings of Tex-Mex. Unlike much Mexican food, Meneses' food includes top-quality ingredients: Berkshire pork in his tamales ($8), Bell and Evans chicken in his burritos ($14). The hot sauce that's delivered to every table is made in-house.
Would anyone but a self-confident Mexican-American chef open a menu with chicharrones ($6)? At El Camino, the platter-size piece of crispy pork skin is served with cactus slaw and pickled jalapeno. Order it while you sip an ice-cold glass of the appropriately named Mexican Standoff ($8), the porter-style brew made by Due South Brewing Co. in Boynton Beach. The restaurant also stocks nearly 200 different kinds of tequila.
Charred octopus ($9) is served with a kind of slaw composed of julienne jicama, chayote and smoky jalapeno. Guacamole ($9) is made to order, but thankfully doesn't involve a table-side demonstration.
Oversize tacos, three per order, are served on house-made corn tortillas with Mexican rice and a choice of pinto beans, smoky black beans or refried beans. Both the pinto and black beans are perfectly cooked, with a bit of bite, but creamy inside.
Gulf shrimp tacos ($14) are rolled with chipotle salsa, smoky charred tomato and guacamole. Barbecue pork belly tacos ($12) have a slight barbecue flavor along with cactus slaw and a crunchy garnish made with chopped chicharrones, as well as peanuts, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds — all toasted in lard.
Enchiladas are served with rice and a choice of salsa roja, salsa verde or mole negro. Fans of brisket will love the smoked brisket enchilada ($16), with big chunks of smoky, spicy beef. Bell and Evans chicken enchiladas tone down the spice, but deliver chicken so moist and tender it could have been brined and roasted. Burritos ($13-$16) are just as delicious and oversize. The version filled with the braised pork know as carnitas ($14) puts to shame a certain Mexican chain.
Even desserts are thoughtful. Warm churros ($6) are sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served with a pot of Mexican hot chocolate. A firm vanilla flan ($6) is accompanied with a piece of house-made peanut brittle. You could serve me just the brittle, and I'd be happy.
Belluscio and his partners, Brian Albe and Anthony Pizzo, who also own Cut 432 and Park Tavern in Delray Beach, have created not just a restaurant but a destination. They commissioned Miami artist Ruben Ubiera to paint the huge mural that invites diners and browsers to stop and marvel. The mural includes portraits of artist Frida Kahlo and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata Salazar. There are skeleton mariachis and, of course, a vintage El Camino. Belluscio says another nearby business will soon contract for another mural.
Inside the 110-seat El Camino, Belluscio worked with Fort Lauderdale interior designer Pamela Manhas to maintain as much as possible of the original 1930s building, which started life as a car dealership. They added dozens of pulleys and Edison bulbs that dangle from the ceiling. Lime-colored tufted booths provide a wonderful pop of color. When the wooden ceiling was removed, many of the planks were repurposed into the bar and tables. As gorgeous as the room looks, it's one of the loudest restaurants I can remember visiting.
Despite the din, an efficient staff of T-shirted servers works hard to connect with diners. It's the same kind of efficient service the owners offer at their nearby steakhouse. It's not something you'd expect at a Mexican restaurant named after a long-gone Chevy.
I grew up in a place where just about everyone was involved in the making of cars, and the El Camino represented a certain brand of cool. At one point in my childhood, the El Camino was the most coveted among my Hot Wheels collection.
All these years later, El Camino the restaurant is just as cool.
15 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Loud when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Nearby public garage or valet