l Camino co-owner Sean Morgan was manning the counter of the new (and packed) addition to Mount Lookout Square when I arrived with a friend for dinner on a Thursday night. Housed in the 1,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by brunch favorite Annabel’s, the restaurant is bright and cozy, with chalkboard menus and a casual atmosphere. At the counter, Morgan was friendly and informative, and when we sat down he refilled my water whenever he noticed my glass was empty, which was frequently because I drink an absurd amount of water.
Morgan and chef Brad Johnson decided to open the Puerto Rican and Cuban street-food-inspired eatery after meeting at BrewRiver GastroPub, where Morgan, a middle and high school substitute teacher by trade, waited tables on nights and weekends while Johnson worked as the pub’s sous chef. Though neither of the duo is Puerto Rican or Cuban, Johnson married into a Puerto Rican family and trained as a chef in Puerto Rico. When I approached Morgan at the counter and told him I was going to order a lot of food and then probably more food after that, he grinned and told me, “I like the way you do business. Let’s go.”My friend and I started with the queso ($6.95), because melted cheese is never a bad idea. El Camino’s isn’t quite viscous enough for my taste — I need to be able to scoop a large amount of it onto my chip, and the liquidity of this iteration doesn’t allow for that — but the flavor is great, creamy and sharp. The real star of this appetizer, however, is the Mexican chorizo crumbled on top: smoky with an almost floral quality; the depth of flavor that this sausage achieves is simply sublime. The only problem is that there’s not nearly enough of it, because my friend and I both found ourselves stirring through the queso with our tortilla chips to find the bits that had married with the cheese mixture. More, please.
We also split an order of tostones ($3.50), which are deep-fried plantains that come, in this case, with a side of garlic ketchup. Like most Americans, I love fried food, but I’m very picky about tostones, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed El Camino’s version of the Latin American street-food staple. They’re crisp, crunchy and, miraculously, not at all greasy. The garlic ketchup has an acidity that balances out the fried-ness of the tostones nicely.
For my main course, I opted to try the Cubano sandwich ($7.95), while my friend ordered the black bean veggie burger with sweet corn and avocado crema ($6.95) and a side of fries ($2.25). My Cuban was delicious, standard and comforting, though I think it spent just a touch too long on the grill because the pork shoulder was a bit dry. The black bean veggie burger was undeniably yummy, but became paste-like in parts where the patty started to deteriorate. Not necessarily bad, but not necessarily a burger.
We decided we had enough room to sample one of their huge empanadas ($4.95), this one filled with seasoned beef, though Morgan told me that the fillings rotate. Unfortunately for me, this week’s seasoned beef contained cooked peppers, an ingredient I aggressively hate. But my friend tried the empanada in my stead, and, after some prompting (“I’m a math person! I don’t know how to describe things! It’s… savory?”), I managed to get out of her that it tasted like Puerto Rican comfort food, and had the perfect amount of spice. I did manage to try a piece of outer empanada shell that hadn’t been contaminated by peppers, and it was so flaky and buttery and melt-in-my-mouth that I can’t wait to go back and try an empanada with veggies I don’t hate.
My friend does not adhere to my restaurant motto of ETTP — eat through the pain — so I was left to order the flan ($5.50) for just myself. It was silky, and the caramel was smoky and burnt in a good way.
About halfway through our meal, a person in the group next to us commented, as the line at the counter became longer, that El Camino isn’t big enough for how popular it is.
He’s probably right, and if they keep serving up good food at reasonable prices, they might have to expand.
GO: 1004 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout; CALL: 513-376-8328; INTERNET: facebook.com/elcaminocincy; HOURS: 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Friday; noon-3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday.