El Expensivo

A few margaritas can make anything taste good.

Mexican peasant food isn't haute cuisine. There's simply nothing glamorous about beans and corn. The best is often the cheapest: pork tacos scored from a roadside taco wagon, or, if you're lucky, fresh fish tacos from a Baja stall.

My bar was raised high in childhood by the tacos at a favorite family-run hole-in-the-wall. The large migrant population around my east-of-the-mountains hometown meant that the food had to be aut鮴ico, and the tacos that passed this particular counter were the best. A soft corn tortilla hammock, the bottom saturated and stretching under the moist, well-spiced ground beef, coddled the meat tenderly, protectively. I remember the slightly salty beef on my tongue; the way that tortilla held together, right down to the last juicy bite; the orange stains the meal left on my hands.

El Camino's no taco stand. I knew this. I'd been to the glitzy Fremont nightspot for the margaritas (tart, hand-shaken, and served in a generous pint glass, they're worthy of their popularity), heard the Latin background beats, seen the low-lit Mexi-kitsch design, the hordes of glossy bar patrons. I'd also seen the menu, traditional Mexican dishes touted as "contemporary," which, at least in this case, translates to "expensive," especially for modest Fremont. Still, I figured that, like the margaritas, the food would be worth the decidedly Belltown pricing.

I was wrong. That first meal, service was sketchy at best. I'll cut our server some slack because, for all I know, it may have been her first day, but shouldn't a restaurant serving $17 fish tacos provide a little training? The service was ill-timed (food too fast, drinks too slow) and awkward. Then, the food: Chicken enchiladas were bathed in a too-sweet mole poblano ($14). Bearing the deep purple of poblano chiles but lacking the traditional spicy zing, the mole tasted more like Hershey's soup. Saut饤 greens were weirdly citrusy.

The four little tacos de carne asada, on their tiny white corn tortillas, were cute and done well, with the four-cheese topping complementing the tender grilled steak. But for $12, I'll take substantial over cute any day (Peso's Mexican Kitchen on lower Queen Anne serves nearly identical tacos for happy hour as appetizerstwo of 'em for $3. Granted, El Camino's come with beans and rice, but still, do the math . . . ).

By the end of the meal, a serious quality-price disparity was becoming obvious, but, disarmed and determined, I charged on. Surely, I thought, I must be mistaken about this placeI mean, it's so popular. Next time, I brought three companions with very different tastes, so as to triple-check my judgment. Though the dining room was nearly empty (a weeknight), we were seated at an awkward, out-of-the-way table. Upon request, a gracious hostess moved us to a better locale: off to a good start. Our server, too, was friendly and attentive.

Then came the food: Nothing was awful, just . . . unbalanced. If something wasn't too bland, it was too intense. At $9, a full plate of grilled giant shrimp actually seemed a good deal. Marinated in cayenne and garlic and grilled just enough, the shrimp were obviously fresh (the texture resistant and not too rubbery) but lukewarm (though an accompanying pineapple pico de gallo was a treatsweet and complex). The duck in the salbutes con pato ($9) was flavorful and moist, but the black beans it rested on tasted straight from the can. A salad of field greens ($6) was surprising and well-presented, topped with jicama and tortilla julienne, though dressed too heavily in a creamy lime-coriander vinaigrette. Mr. Friendly and Attentive stayed that way, but it turned out he, too, wasn't well trained. Entr饳 were served before we'd finished the first course, and, even after we had, the appetizer plates weren't cleared, leaving a clutter.

All could have been saved by a knockout main course, but, alas, it was not to be. A pork tenderloin ($17) was not so tender, cooked just shy of way too much. The accompanying ancho chile sauce was bland and complemented somewhat aggressively by wet, zealously cinnamon-dusted pear slices. The chile-spiced spaghetti squash on the side was zingy and satisfying but, together with the tough tenderloin, not quite worth the $17 price tag. With a hearty pozole verde ($9) that could have been great but was too salty, my heart sank. Granted, vegetarian chiles rellenos ($13) were beautifully presentedthree purple poblanos atop a yin-yang of a red and a white sauce. Chunky, cheesy, and piquant, the stuffing could have packed a little more spice, but in all, it was our most pleasing dish.

After dinner, a chocolate torte ($5.50) was handsome if too sweet, but no matter; the coconut flan ($5.50)and a few margaritasnearly reconciled all mistakes. Light and creamy with a coy caramel drizzle, the gelatinous mound quivered flirtatiously at the first exploratory tap of a spoon, and then, in an instant, it was gone. Too bad those lovely desserts are made out of house. We left full, but not as satisfied as the hefty bill warranted.

Now, having eaten nearly halfway through the short menu, I'm sure of it: El Camino's not attracting all those beautiful people with its foodit's the margaritas. After a few shots of premium tequila, it's hard to tell the difference between good food and overpriced mediocrity. It's enough to rouse a girl's otherwise latent sense of injustice. The food's not terrible; it's just that the prices are so high. I'm sure I'll be back for the margaritas, but I'll fill up at a real taco joint on the way. And all that money I'll save? Tequila!


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