El Camino: Hip Mexican in DC

What I love most about El Camino in DC’s Bloomingdales neighborhood are the owners and the staff.   They take their role as a community restaurant seriously.  As a result, they are welcoming, attentive and engaging with their patrons.   As further evidence, they list  their “partners” on their site.  Their partners include the general contractor and the artists who designed aspects of the restaurant.

On one of my visits, the staff was having an animated discussion about how to stay engaged with the community, bring in business and be friendly toward their fellow restaurant owners but at the same time make sure their outdoor space was available for their patrons, not overrun with coffee drinkers from the coffee shop next door.   They endeared themselves to me as a result.

The restaurant does have a really cool vibe.  The light fixtures are hip chain link creations.  The place is small, dark, a great atmosphere with lots of funky, edgy art on the wall.  The tables are all a good size so you don’t feel like you are miles away from your dinner partner.  They have a decent sized bar which usually has folks sitting around in fun conversations.  But beware, for some reason, the phone rings at the bar, its a little startling even in these days of cell phones ringing everywhere – you just don’t expect a phone to ring right next to the liquor bottles.

The food, well – its a bit hit or miss depending on what you order.  The chips are always crisp, salty and not greasy.   The salsas and hot sauces are all made in house and are really snappy and zesty.   The hottest sauce a mango-habanera does not bring the bang you would expect but it is still unique and spicy enough.  I prefer the green salsa, I think the flavor is a bit more unique and spirited than the red salsa.

They also make their own taco shells, quesadilla shells, etc.  They are fabulous with a great corn taste and have much more heft than you usually get in a tortilla.  They are my favorite part of the meals.  An outstanding dish is the spicy corn.  A friend who regularly travels to Mexico declared it to be better than the spicy corn she buys from vendors in Mexico City.  I have to agree – super fresh corn and a real bite of spice.  The fajitas have been too soggy as are the salads  – just way too much sauce and oil.  It ends up drowning out any flavors of the dish.  I enjoy the quesadillas, because of the shell and the spicy salsa, although I had to add a lit of extra salsa and sauce to get it a real bite of salsa flavor.  The mushrooms and other veggies were well-seasoned.

The margaritas are often too heavy with the mix and too short on the hooch.

But, its still worth a trip to experience and to support this great local Mexican joint.

Butter My Bun & Call Me a Biscuit

I have tried to make a great buttermilk biscuit.  My biscuits turned out like hockey pucks.   (A game well-suited to the northern part of the U.S. – remember this.) My mother has tried to make a great buttermilk biscuit.  Despite her baking blue ribbon county fair pedigree, my mom’s biscuits are not that perfect light, feathery, buttery biscuit but are not as bad as my hockey puck.  My mom even had my dad’s southern kin teach her the secrets to the great southern buttermilk biscuit – it did not help.

But, just because we cannot make the ideal southern biscuit, does not mean we don’t love them.

I fell in love in Charleston with the consummate Southern buttermilk biscuit – buttery, moist, light as a feather, not greasy, just divine.  Then when my husband slathered butter and berry jam on top, the biscuit we were supposed to be sharing suddenly became land we were each trying to claim in battle – a fight erupted over each bite since neither of us wanted to give up one bite of that biscuit.

I have no idea how to replicate it.  My mother can’t either.  Perhaps it just cannot be done in the north.  Perhaps we need to stick with the snow, ice, rhubarb pie and hockey pucks and leave buttermilk biscuits to our southern kin.

But, that does not mean you cannot get yourself a great buttermilk biscuit up north.  The biscuit we split was in the Charleston City Market at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits.  Fortunately, Callie must know that up north, we cannot bake ourselves a decent buttermilk biscuit, so she will ship you her biscuits.


Gelato with a Dollop of Attitude in DC

I have been to Dolcezza at 14th and P for an affogatto about four times over the past year.  Each time, I ended up with a dollop of attitude, an expensive watery espresso, with a nothing special scoop of gelato.

The last time I went, standing by the bar to order, the barista did not even bother to look up at me and instead with great attitude asked what I wanted from behind the espresso machine.  When I told her there was no response.  Moments later, another employee came to ring me up and for some reason, charged me for two affogatos, she did not even ask what I had ordered.  I told her I ordered only one when the rude barista hollers over – “Oh, I thought you said two.”  Weird.  The cashier adjusted and charged me for one.  The cashier barely said a word to me and just flipped the tablet around for me to sign.  I have had a similar experience with the staff almost every time I have gone there – they project as if they are doing you a favor by making you a cup of coffee.

In addition to the unwelcoming attitude, the space is unwelcoming.  It is a weird lay out, like a galley kitchen and there is almost never any seating.  Then, although there are three doors, the staff will inexplicably lock one or two of them.  There is no consistency.

The other aspect that makes me crazy is that right by where you stand and order, is some type of drain for the milk or for the water used to clean the tools the barista uses.  So, as you are ordering and anticipating a delightful cup of joe, you get to watch the barista discard the unclean milk and water down this little drain.  It is right there, totally exposed by the cash register. Again – just weird.

Finally, the gelato is just ok, nothing to note.  Coffee is the same, kind of bland.

My recommendation when in the area of 14th and P and you need a coffee, duck into the Whole Foods and get a cup at the Whole Foods coffee shop.  The folks are friendly, the environment is more welcoming and the coffee is a lot better.