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El Camino – A Restaurant that is Good for Ottawa

"The Road" in Spanish "The Road" in Spanish
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A longtime observer of Ottawa’s food scene, I celebrate how far things have come in such a remarkably short period of time. No longer do locals have to travel to Montreal or Toronto for a decent meal.

Now, Canada’s capital, newly infatuated with street food, raw bars, and craft cocktails, aspires to be a food destination. Fearless chef entrepreneurs have established destination restaurants, some award-winning.

Consider Town (smaller plates of finer Italian-inspired fare), Navarra (Latin-inspired fine fare), Wellington Gastropub (beer-inspired gastronomy and now nano-brewery), and Murray Street Kitchen (German-inspired farm-to-table fare).

Diners have kept pace, mostly. Neither ZenKitchen (with its groundbreaking vegan menu) nor Atelier (with its blind modernist multi-course menu) were expected to survive their first year of operation. Bold, brash, and independent, Marc Lepine’s Atelier and Dave Loan’s ZenKitchen expanded our palates, demonstrating a largely “govie” town has an appetite for food beyond pub grub.

When recession struck, diners craved comfort. At the same time, the larger food world looked to simplify, re-acquainting itself with the “origins of cuisine.” Enter Back Lane Cafe (middle-eastern flavours prepared by the hearth), Brut Cantina (classic French fare, served tapas-style), Union Local 613 (Ottawa’s first bourbon bar and paragon of Canadian-ized Southern Comfort dining), and Two Six {Ate} (a play on Union, but with Italian-inspired tapas).

During our seven years, promoting Ottawa food, we’ve made countless recommendations for restaurants to visit. A difficult lesson learned involves our realizing what is “hip and hot” in the city to locals, may not measure up to visitors’ expectations. That is, the hottest new restaurant may only be only good for Ottawa.

There is nothing remotely arrogant or “foodie” about the difference between what is good for Ottawa and what is good for Ottawa.

Consider the explosively successful El Camino by Chef Matt Carmichael. The impossible taqueria averages an unheard of 400 covers any given Tuesday. It averages 600 covers most Sundays and retails 300 tacos from its public-facing takeaway window daily. That window is cash-only too.

Cash-only Taco Window

Cash-only Taco Window

Behind the Taco Window

Behind the Taco Window

Ox Tongue Taco Takeout $4/each

Ox Tongue Taco Takeout $4/each

El Camino makes very little sense on so many levels, especially when compared to its in-town contemporaries.

Its dining room includes a few high-tops (deuces and 4-tops), essentially higher seated “bistro” tables that do not accommodate children. There are but two 6-seater booths in the back (8 persons max!). There is a communal table at the front. Remainder seating consists of of a meandering bar that doesn’t really distinguish between where patrons perch atop stools and servers serve plates. Of course, there are a handful of seats in front of the busy service window.

Communal Table

Communal Table

Predominantly High-Top Dining Room

Predominantly High-Top Dining Room

Meandering Bar

Meandering Bar

Service Window

Service Window

Ever visit Sidedoor Kitchen (18b York Street), owned by Caroline Gosselin? Top Chef Canada alumnus Jonny Korecki leads its kitchen. Well, it was originally opened by Carmichael, formerly Executive Chef of Gosselin’s Social and E18hteen.

Sidedoor was hailed by an Ottawa food writer as an Asian contemporary first. Interestingly, its claim to fame were donuts and two-bite tacos made with local ingredients.

Carmichael’s concept for both Sidedoor and El Camino involved sharing his take on street food, namely his love of South-East Asian “hawker fare.” That said, to pay the bills, he knew he had to baseline both menus in something more accessible than Susur Lee-style papaya salad, so tacos.

The difference between Sidedoor and El Camino, as echoed by the owners of Ottawa’s Novotel Hotel during a brief late-night visit, the latter does not “feel” like an Ottawa restaurant.

At El Camino, like his pop-up dinners at Mellos Diner last year, Carmichael concentrates on the food. Service is well coordinated and thoughtful. Drinks are creative. But, there is no emphasis on decor. Stark and austere, there are few wall accents. There is a pinball machine in the corner, a favourite from Carmichael’s childhood.

Chef Matt Carmichael

Chef Matt Carmichael

Prices match the decor. For under $100, you can order everything on the menu, which Jenn and I have, inviting friends from Toronto and overseas to join us.

Lamb, Pork, and Beef Tacos $4/each

Lamb, Pork, and Beef Tacos $4/each

Crispy Fish Tacos $4/each

Crispy Fish Tacos $4/each

Said Robbie Bargh of the Gorgeous Group, “There is a lot of love in this food.” Bargh opened The Albion Rooms (33 Nicholas Street) in the Novotel Hotel earlier this year.

Ox Tongue Tacos $4/each

Ox Tongue Tacos $4/each

"Crispy" Prawn-stuffed Betal Leaves - $9

“Crispy” Prawn-stuffed Betal Leaves – $9

Tuna Sashimi - $15

Tuna Sashimi – $15

Mexican Corn - $5

Mexican Corn – $5

Scallop Crudo with House-made XO Sauce - $16

Scallop Crudo with House-made XO Sauce – $16

El Camino’s tortillas are made with masa and wheat, essentially to order.

Be they tacos or dumplings, seasoning is spot on. Textures are spot on.

The ox tongue taco is a revelation for many, beefy yet offally good.

Two familiar popup menu items return, “Mexican” corn and the crispy fish taco (though smaller).

I have said time and again, our food scene is largely a local’s one. There are many hidden gems, some destination and some neighbourhood restaurants, to which we flock. With little local food journalism, oftentimes it takes national recognition for the city to realize what we have to offer.

A breath of fresh air, El Camino should be celebrated. Diners, be they locals or tourists, will “get it.”

There is value here that doesn’t involve having to consider quality of the ingredients (still as farm-to-table as possible), number of skilled hands in the kitchen (Carmichael hand-picked his staff), and overhead (below street level former shawarma house on Elgin Street).

You’re not going to drop a wad to eat well at El Camino. You’re not going to dress up. You’re not going to ask the sommelier for wine pairings.

[Though, a number of the servers on staff have that training and there is a wine list. Ask for Alex, formerly of Back Lane Cafe.]

El Camino gives up on the pretension.

El Camino stands up to scrutiny, both food and service.

Put simply, El Camino is a good visit. Bring friends.

Be patient as El Camino doesn’t take reservations.

Communal Table Seating

Communal Table Seating

Dark Unremarkable Chairs

Dark Unremarkable Chairs

Carmichael's Favourite Pin Ball Machine from his Childhood

Carmichael’s Favourite Pin Ball Machine from his Childhood

Particulars:
El Camino
380 Elgin Street
(613)422-2800

Mild-mannered IT professional by day and food blogger by night, I founded foodiePrints with a single intention, to share my love of all things food. My first post shared a recipe. Many followed. Eventually, I learned Ottawa prepares and serves great food. Thereafter, I started meeting restaurateurs, chefs, cooks, farmers, and other local producers, all good people. Ideas for food-related content swirled in my head. foodiePrints grew into a place to put them. From exploring foreign and domestic cuisines to shopping for exotic ingredients and cobbling together my takes on dishes in my meager kitchen, there are stories to tell. Welcome to foodiePrints. Here, you will find stories about food and drink, cooking, and eating in Canada’s capital. Be it food-related or just food-for-thought, I hope you find something tasty here.

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Alex

Excellent article don! Bill, folks like you are what's wrong with the otherwise pretty great dining crowd.

Don

We pay for everything we shoot. If comped a dish, the value goes back on the bill, and we tip on top of that. We make reservations under assumed names. There are no ads here. Of what are you accusing us?

Bill

Do you only review and make comments about restos that are buddies of yours or just the ones that give you free food?

Renaud

This is a great blog! I always follow your foodie posts and pics with great enthusiasm. You are a great attributive to our food scene here in Ottawa, thank you for doing this! Caroline

Laurent Beaulieu

Thank you for a nice article. Enjoyed it. Have you tried 327 Wine bar on Somerset? A very nice place.

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