15 Cushing St., Brunswick, (207) 725-8228.
Open from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Wed through Sun., bar open late.
Credit cards accepted.
Mexican restaurants in Maine, or the Northeast in general, or any state that doesnít have Mexico bordering them to the south, will automatically come under fire for not being "authentic" enough. Well, itís probably true. Iím guessing that the Chalupas at the Taco Bell in the Maine Mall are not as vibrant as the Chalupas in a Taco Bell in San Diego, but that being said: You come to Maine for soundly authentic Mexican eats as often as you go to Texas for good Maine lobster. Itís not even worth comparing.
So, the best we can hope for is a little joint ó the smaller the better ó on a side street that serves a tidy menu with fresh ingredients. Not a huge, rambling Mexican-themed restaurant (the Border Café in Cambridge comes to mind) with in-your-face stereotypes (the drunk, sombrero-wearing donkey of Margaritas), but something off-kitsch, with a bit of restraint. Iím not talking about a compromise of ideals here, Iím simply talking about the way Northeast Mexican food is. Itís what weíve come to enjoy, and expect.
El Camino, in Brunswick, is pretty close to the ideal. Whether itís named after the mid-to-late 20th-century automobile phenomenon or the more philosophical notion of "the way" (as in "the way to El Camino is slightly confusing"), it doesnít really matter because they serve Gearyís Root Beer on tap. If youíre not into root beer, you can do two things: get your head out of your ass, or order the equally refreshing El Camino Limeade, made with lime juice and coconut milk. Or do what I did, and order both. And while we did not get any of the Margarita choices the bar offered, the gaggle of post-work 30-somethings at the abutting table got a few rounds and seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.
While the U-shaped bar that makes up the front of the house remained virtually empty on the Wednesday night we dined there, the cozy orange glow of the dining area rumbled with the guffaws of middle-aged patrons for our entire stay. There were a few stylized posters, and some hubcaps nailed to the wall, but all in all El Camino is decorated with a light hand. The bathrooms are a refreshing blue, and Iím not joking when I say itís worth a trip there just to adjust your eyes once in a while.
The menu is small and easily executable. The only true appetizers offered on the menu are house-fried flour tortilla chips with fire-roasted tomato salsa or guacamole. The salsa is dark and flecked with bits of the torched tomato, not spicy, but slightly bitter to compliment its natural sweet-and-sourness. The guacamole is the spicier option, heated with jalapeno and chunks of red onion. Both are worth getting with the chips. The Quesadilla can be ordered as an appetizer as well, but we got it as a meal by tacking on rice and beans.
Nice, crispy flour tortillas filled with cheese and my choice of house-made chorizo sausage and potato made up the Quesadilla, and it was served with salsa and a piquant Mexican Crema ó homemade cultured cream, similar to sour cream or crème fraiche, mixed with lime and cilantro. The Tacos were again of the soft-flour variety, but you could substitute corn tacos if you preferred. Wife Jackie chose the Chile-Rubbed Skirt Steak as her filling. While each ingredient in the taco stood out, as opposed to the pasty mess with wilted greens dished up so frequently, the only issue was with the slightly tough cut of beef. You had to really get through it with your teeth to get a clean bite away.
Each entrée (we didnít get to try the huge taco salad) is served with your choice of sausage, skirt steak, chicken, or fish ó as well as the plain old veggie ó and all of them cost around a paltry $8.50 for gut-busting pleasure. That may seem like a lot for Brunswick folk, but if youíre coming from Portland, thatís a pretty good deal. Specials run nightly, such as Marinated and Seared Sea Scallops; thereís also a soup of the day. Ours was a Carrot Orange Coriander offering, pureed but left just a bit chunky and sweet. The rice, a spiced and aromatic white variety, and the beans, refried or black, were complementary to everything on the menu.
El Camino might take a bit of a drive and some driving around to find, but itís the out-of-the-wayness that is attractive. If you needed another reason to see why this restaurant has become something of a hot spot, it boasts on the top of the menu that local vegetables are used whenever possible, and all of their meats are hormone- and antibiotic-free. Cheap, local, tasty, and with a conscience . . . do we see a trend? Letís hope so.
Andy King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org