Odds are I am tweeting with someone, visiting from the Big Smoke who asked for recommendations for where to eat. Odds are that someone is familiar with Toronto’s food scene. Odds are that someone also asked for unpretentious dining and value-oriented plates.
Contemporary takes on classic Mexican street tacos usually fit the bill. Tacos, soft or hard shelled, are already universal crowd pleasers. Easy-to-make and kid-friendly, they tend to make it into the weekday dinner circuit. Of late, well-sourced tacos, made by people who dedicate themselves to “working the line,” are particularly popular.
Ottawa’s outpost for “chefly” but “not quite authentic” tacos is somewhat unique to the national capital region. While other purveyors, including Chicago’s Big Star (from which Grand Electric reputedly took its cue), build tacos on a foundation of corn, El Camino opts for flour tortillas. El Camino’s are similar to local chain Lone Star‘s. Both are freshly made throughout service. Both are soft and yielding. Both grill up nicely, holding up well to wet taco fodder. Though, former Sous Kristine Hartling (now chef of the Glebe neighbourhood’s The Urban Pear) once assured me there is masa in the mixture as I watched her work lard into a new batch.
Most days, the line-up climbs the stairs from the sub-street level eatery on Elgin at 5:00 pm. At 5:30 pm, the doors open and El Camino gets slammed. Every seat fills. Servers race to distribute one page menus and list off the daily special that often runs out an hour later. Niall Robertson-Patterson, the gentle general of the bar, well the drink-dispensing end, looks on with two other bartenders as craft cocktail orders come in. Game time! Triage protocol! Get the first turnover served: drinks, first; food, shortly thereafter.
[I’ve rarely seen front of house staff move faster!]
El Camino stays slammed until 2:00 am. The atmosphere truly is electric as rush after rush comes and goes. Just about everyone in the opening line-up finds seats in the atypical dining room with a meandering bar, few deuces, communal picnic-style table, and pair of booths for large groups. Then, the host starts the unenviable task of creating the wait list of cell phone numbers to text when seats free up. Above him is a sign that reads, “Don’t be a dick.” First come and first seated, the mash-up of taqueria and contemporary Asian eatery does not accept reservations.
[Don’t think El Camino’s cash-only take-out window is any less busy. Former cook Kiel Coyle estimated serving between 100 – 150 people/day this past winter, even when temperatures fell to -30C.]
On that note, El Camino’s offerings are actually more diverse than Grand Electric’s, both drink and food. Grand Electric was opened by Colin Tooke, the chef who took over after Grant van Gameren left legendary Black Hoof. Black Hoof broke ground in Toronto, serving creative nose-to-tail charcuterie and drawing a significant line in the culinary sand. Tooke’s intention for Grand Electric and now Electric Mud BBQ involves serving dishes people like at affordable prices. He largely serves tacos and bourbon at Grand Electric.
Chef Matt Carmichael operates El Camino with Jordan Holley, wrangling the high pressure kitchen. Holley, ostensibly the sous, is the gentleman you’ll see at the pass, expediting and putting platters on the pass for service.
Quite frankly, Holley and company are up to something. When Carmichael went on vacation, Holley and line cook Joe Juarez fired up their newly purchased vertical rotisserie to cook and serve El Camino’s first al pastor tacos.
[A tad wet, the tacos were tasty. The long marinated and slow roasted pork smacked of chiles and roasted pineapple. Barely discernible, the spice that gives al pastor its characteristic red pigment, anatto seeds (aka: achiote), imparted a bitterness.]
The next day, Holley and Juarez served braised pork tamales.
[The tamales were meals unto themselves. Well seasoned and stuffed with pork and masa, partaking of the tamales meant we had no appetites for El Camino’s made-to-order churros.]
These are but samples of the increasingly sophisticated daily specials served. From time-to-time, the kitchen rolls and ties pork belly akin to “chasu.” The belly is then braised, roasted, sliced, and served with peanuts. Pork belly done this way is often served with bowls of Japanese ramen. A lobster tostada has also made several appearances.
When I learned this past April’s Chef Appreciation Night at Oz Kafe (361 Elgin Street) was being prepared by El Camino, my curiosity was piqued. I begged owner Oz Balpinar to let me attend. She relented. I sat at the bar. I shot. I ate. I bought the kitchen a round. And, I left quietly.
[w/chive, mustard, and michaelsdolce sriracha]
[w/corn miso, pork floss, shallots, and chick weed]
[w/ajitsuke tamago (marinated egg), pork belly, scallions, and nori]
[w/house fermented kimchi]
[w/sesame chip, tapioca pearls, and yuzu]
Yeah, something is definitely up. Holley, with a team made up of Jarrett Gorveatt, Justin Villanueva, and Daniel Ranger, served distinctly Asian fare well beyond El Camino’s shrimp dumplings, shrimp stuffed betel leaves, and pepper salt squid.
Grand Electric in Toronto is looking at a second floor expansion. News just broke about a potential second location in Muskoka.
For El Camino, rumour has it Carmichael is looking into burgers or pizza, aiming to replicate his success with chefly takes on a plebeian dish. But, opening a second location at 343 Somerset Street W. with Montreal’s Joe Beef-inspired dishes has been abandoned.
None of Carmichael’s brigade will divulge anything, smiling knowingly when asked.
I’m thinking the concept will be a contemporary take on an Asian staple.
380 Elgin Street