Two weeks ago, east met west and went south—or rather, Tony Lucca of American restaurant 1905 joined forces with Phil Rodriguez of Sticky Rice sushi bar, and opened Mexican restaurant El Camino at 108 Rhode Island Ave. NW in Washington, DC. In addition to a number of reasonably priced tacos, which range from $2.50 to $3.50 each, El Camino boasts a strong list of colorful cocktails that have miraculously escaped the sickeningly sweet and/or salty taste characterizing most Mexican- inspired drinks.
Lucca and Rodriguez, two self-described “white guys from the East Coast,” wanted to create an authentic Mexican fare while remaining cognizant of their own American roots.
“We didn’t want to be over the top,” says Lucca, “and we definitely did not want to be a “Tex-Mex” restaurant. DC has enough of those. But there was a big gap for traditional Mexican fare. We started thinking Southern Californian, West-Coast Mexican food.”
The Chicano-California concept is immediately apparent, but not overwhelming. Brightly colored walls meet cement and steel to produce a comfortable blend between a lively industrial bar and an inviting kitchen in Mexico City. Ceramic tiles perfectly balance metal steering-wheel light fixtures and car-rim table bases, both reminiscent of the El Camino car, which gives the restaurant its name.
While the distinctive aesthetic is enough to set El Camino apart from its predecessors, it’s the drinks that will have you recommending this place to your friends; departing from a number of overpriced and underwhelming Mexican cocktails, their authentic Latin-American ingredients provide an impressive combination of great flavors—all for $10 or under.
The house made jalapeño-ginger beer tastes as intriguing as it sounds. The refreshingly sweet soda has a unique spicy aftertaste that keeps you thirsting for another sip—and at $4, you can go right ahead.
If you’re in the mood for brandy, order the “Zoe”, pictured below, which is a mix of apple brandy, vermouth, cinnamon syrup, bitters, and cachaça—cachaça being a popular distilled Brazilian alcohol made from sugarcane juice.
If you walk in early, you’ll notice some poor soul squeezing dozens and dozens of limes at the bar. His pain is your gain, however. The juice makes the delicious cucumber margarita, which calls for house-made cucumber syrup, basil oil, and, of course, fresh lime.
The “Silvia”, an upcoming addition to the menu, is a combination of tepache, pear liquor, orange and bitters. Tepache, a Mexican fermented beverage made from pineapple, most likely hasn’t been part of your alcoholic repertoire to date—if you’re hesitant to look past its intimidating name, Bon Appétit wrote an article earlier this year on why you should give tepache a chance. Be brave, it’s worth a try.
Small dishes range from $2.50 to $11, while larger entrees range from $11 to $22. Cocktails go for $7 to $10, and their beer and wine selection ranges from $5 to $9 (they have a $6 red wine on the menu—wine drinkers rejoice).
Location: 108 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington, DC
Hours of operation: Sun-Thurs. 5:00 p.m. – 12 a.m., Fri-Sat. 5:00 p.m. – 1 a.m