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Even the "inferior meats" are done well at El Camino

Even the "inferior meats" are done well at El Camino
Photo: Mark Manger
A plate of tamales for delivery to a table at El Camino, 3628 West 32nd Avenue.

I went to Swimclub32 more times than I liked to admit, since the dark den in the heart of Highland was haunted by a crowd more common to the depths of LoDo. My friends and I were fascinated by the hordes of men bathed in Acqua di Gio, the women tottering on impossible stilettos who were more interested in looking at the food than eating it, the tables covered with a fine film of residual blow, the hip lack of signage. In this rapidly gentrifying part of town, filling up with families and thirty-something urbanites, the concept was just douchebaggy enough to make Swimclub seem like a complete misfit.

And owner Grant Gingerich learned that the hard way. During the four years the place was open, he changed the culinary concept at least three times: wagyu beef cooked on hot rocks, followed by Italian cuisine and then, briefly, just thin-crust pizza. But the quality of the food was erratic, and the restaurant portion, at least, never caught on.

So Gingerich and then-partner Chris Golub, who has since moved away, finally did something smart: They closed Swimclub for a complete overhaul. Preserving only its rooftop garden and focus on sustainability, they took their inspiration from the taquerias that had occupied storefronts along West 32nd Avenue for decades, then gave it a sexy, contemporary twist. They painted the building bright pink, opened it to the street rather than closing it off, and re-emerged in late 2008 as El Camino, a casual joint decorated with skulls and chandeliers made of beer cans and other flashy Mexican accoutrements. The low couches that once lined one wall of the long, narrow space were gone, replaced with a table-lined banquette tall enough to facilitate conversation with someone standing beside it; backless bar stools were switched out for high, plush, padded chairs. Wide-open windows beckoned passersby; so did the lineup of tequila at the bar. Manned by an enthusiastic and almost freakishly attentive staff, the remodeled space was a comfortable, welcoming spot, still hip enough to pull in packs of young professionals, but without the pretentious air that had plagued its predecessor.

Rachal McCown serves tacos on Taco Tuesday at El Camino.
Photo: Mark Manger
Rachal McCown serves tacos on Taco Tuesday at El Camino.

Location Info

Map

El Camino

3628 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Northwest Denver

Details

El Camino
Chips and salsa $2.50
Chips and guacamole $7.95
Street tacos (3) $7.95
Tacos al pastor (3) $7.95
Fish tacos (3) $12.95
Tamales $7.95
Lunch combo #1 $8.95
3628 West 32nd Avenue
720-889-7946
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight Sunday

It was a perfect fit for the neighborhood.

The atmosphere alone might have been enough to attract crowds, but El Camino gave people another reason to come by, and then to keep coming: the food. Like the decor, it starts with traditional Mexican, then gives it several twists. The board is too heavy on molten cheese and too light on intestines and other offal to sate a craving for authentic fare — but it's not full of dishes that have gone upscale in the manner of Rick Bayless's Chicago restaurants, either. The menu pulls from all regions of our southern neighbor, then retools those dishes for American palates.

The first time I stopped by El Camino, I didn't eat at all; I was there to try the killer margaritas, which subsequently earned the Best House Margarita award in the Best of Denver 2011. So I didn't need much urging to return with friends for Taco Tuesday, when street tacos go for a dollar apiece. We grabbed one of those banquette tables, then ordered a round of margs as well as chips and guacamole. The just-fried corn chips came with a little dish of Chacala salsa, named for the Mexican beach town that supplied the recipe; it was thin, tangy and lip-stingingly spicy, with cilantro, onions and chile de arbol blending with tart tomatillo chiles and tomatoes. The guacamole was chunky with buttery avocados and flecked with bits of tomato, onions, habanero peppers and cilantro. And the margaritas were as killer as before. This first course went a long way toward confirming my suspicion that I could survive on a diet of chips, salsa and guacamole and not want for anything, except maybe tequila and lime.

Until the tacos arrived. Because they were just a buck, we'd ordered one of each. Small corn tortillas came piled high with chicken, carnitas, the al pastor blend of peppery pork and juicy pineapple, ground beef and steak, covered with diced onions and cilantro and a garlicky tomatillo salsa. Save for the steak, which was overcooked and cut into tiny cubes, they were all delicious. My favorite was the chicken; although I usually think chicken is an inferior meat, here it was moist and tender, done in a smoky marinade. Our server wouldn't divulge the ingredients of that marinade no matter how much I begged, though I suspect more chile de arbol went into the mix. I also appreciated the double-up on the corn tortillas, a touch that reminded me of my favorite Los Angeles taco stand and allowed us to divide the mountain of filling intended for a single taco between two.

 We'd supplemented all of that with a couple of entrees. The first was a regular order of fish tacos, crisply battered hunks of tilapia topped with salty queso fresco and shreds of crunchy cabbage. I wouldn't go for these again; the fish was dry, and not helped by the chipotle aioli that came on the side. When I smothered the whole thing in Cholula, it was just fine — but I could have done that with a dollar taco, too. I could have done that with a napkin.

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11 comments
Philo99
Philo99

Does anyone know the story with the Sushi bar that is opening in the former Hole space on Tennyson?

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Mayor
Mayor

I'd rather have an old El Camino than eat at this dump....Pretty ok, is all it is...Pretense is everything....Not in North Denver, Holmes.

Shantan2003
Shantan2003

The only good food at El Camino is the guac. The staff is wonderful and the space is fun, but I don't know of anybody that goes for the food.

Motoguy333
Motoguy333

Congradulations to El Camino and its "freakishly attentive staff" you all deserve it! best customer service in Denver!!!

Uncledave8
Uncledave8

Well, I live in Mexico half of the year and I just visited El Camino for the first time and I have to say I was pretty impressed. Is it strictly authentic Mexican? Well, maybe - maybe not. Mexican food varies widely across the country as does "American" food.

The food I sampled was very, very tasty. We had the guac and some exceptional chips. Shared a chile relleno (pork filled and in a freshly roasted poblano - and, thank God, not in an egg roll wrapper) and enchiladas (sampled beef, chicken and cheese) Christmas, so we got to taste both the wonderful red and green sauces and we were delighted. I wasn't as thrilled with the Margaritas as Westword, however. The best house Margarita in Denver is, and always has been, at Las Brisas in Englewood.

Mantonat
Mantonat

No surprise that the fish tacos were disappointing; tilapia is the worst thing to happen to seafood since the Fillet O'Fish.

I can't imagine tamales made better by the use of corn meal. Traditional tamales are made by whipping lard into masa to give the batter a light, airy texture. Good tamales, even if they have no meat filling, are moist, slightly fluffy, and balanced between corn and pork flavors.

I'm also saddened that your memory has to lead you all the way to Los Angeles for a glimpse of tacos served with two tortillas since there are so many excellent taco joints to be wistful about right here in Denver.

The margaritas sound great though!

Motoguy333
Motoguy333

Are you serious Shantan? obviously you have not ate there in a while. The quality of ingredients they use is amazing. There is not a lot mexican joints in this town that actually care about what they feed there customers....I happy to say I and A LOT of friends of mine eat there at least twice a week...

Denveronaspit
Denveronaspit

No doubt, thanks for recognizing the innumerable amount of taco places here in Denver that serve tacos con copia.

Greg1701
Greg1701

Love the food.. love the space.. good review too

 
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