Cafe Society

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

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.

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.

Our other entree, a platter of tamales, turned out to be the best dish I've found at El Camino. The tamales were like little unwrapped presents: mounds of grainy, sweet cornmeal covered with savory pork smothered in piquant, jalapeño-based green chile, then topped with melted cheddar and Jack cheeses and a thin zigzag of sour cream. These were far from authentic tamales; in Mexico and many spots in this city, they're sold to the patron still wrapped in the husk. But that authentic version is often just a dry cornmeal cake. At El Camino, bending the rules had improved on the original; those tamales made me hungry to try more of the kitchen's innovations.

And sure enough, I was back a few days later, sitting at the bar and downing a lunch combo that included another chicken taco, another pork tamale and a beef enchilada, done Tex-Mex style, smothered in earthy red enchilada sauce and plenty of melted cheddar and Jack. You won't find enchiladas like this on the streets of Mexico, where the street snack might be dipped in chile rather than drowned. But authentic or not, I liked this gooey, peppery version, which was lighter than most Tex-Mex renditions, and I liked the way it paired with yet another margarita.

A breeze was blowing in through the big, open windows while I ate; like me, many others were enjoying the weather, enjoying the food, enjoying a long, lazy meal at El Camino.

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk