The bight, airy dining room of El Camino./Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
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One might question the logic.
In the past few years, several modern Mexican restaurants opened in and around Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach. Most of them closed after a year or two. Those that succeeded seem to have done so on the strength of location or liquor sales, not food and service. And there are plenty more traditional Mexican restaurants and taquerias with loyal followings. Why would anyone risk opening another, even remotely Mexican place?
Because they know what they’re doing, and they are certain they can make it work.
That’s the MO for Carl and Lisa Georigi. Excepting the gamble on their first restaurant, Eclipse Bistro, a high-ish end establishment opened in a renovated fried chicken joint in Wilmington 23 years ago, every one of their places was carefully conceived and meticulously planned. Their Platinum Dining Group, now comprised of four popular restaurants, other ventures and some key veteran employees, is one of the most successful in the state.
So it should come as no surprise that the Georigis’ new El Camino Mexican Kitchen in North Wilmington should pop out of the box pretty much fully formed and well-tuned, instantly drawing the crowds that indicate a good long life ahead.
Steak tacos with charred onions, roasted garlic oil, tomato, cilantro and radish./Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
El Camino has it all: a primo location in The Concord apartment community on Silverside Road, a light, bright and playfully decorated dining room and lounge, well executed food that ranges from familiar to fun, and a lively beverage program that includes cocktails made with fresh ingredients. It had me at hello—a blood orange margarita busting with bright fruit flavor. (Marg lovers, beware: They are dangerously delicious.)
Our visit, made on a whim, coincided with the first truly beautiful weekend of spring, and it seemed every curious diner in our corner of the county had the same idea. We arrived at primetime on Saturday night—only the restaurant’s third in business—to find a crowd to rival that at the populist big-pad places down the road. That was a good sign for the owners—and possibly bad news for two parents who took too long to get their hangry kids out of the house.
But the advertised 20-minute wait (borderline under our personal circumstances, but an acceptable risk) turned out to be five tops. The speedy placing was a credit to the staff’s operational savvy, as well as its reluctance to disappoint. Seconds after we were seated, a server arrived, smiling broadly. That doesn’t always happen so promptly, and those new servers often appear totally stressed or befuddled. El Camino clearly hired and trained well.
Street corn with chipotle mayo, cotija cheese and cilantro./Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
The menu is organized as snacks, tacos, burritos, enchiladas and main plates. We dove right into the snacks for the sake of expediency. The guacamole proved perfectly fresh and tasty, the accompanying tortilla chips blistered perfectly. One might balk at paying $10 for corn on the cob, but it’s to be expected at such places. El Camino’s street corn was, I daresay, well worth it. Three half ears, charred on the grill, were slathered in tasty chipotle mayo, then topped with bits of cotija cheese and fresh chopped cilantro.
I often order calamari as a test of the kitchen’s skill. (Chewy, overcooked squid I find an indication of more mediocrity to come.) This time we ordered to satisfy the 7-year-old, a born connoisseur of the stuff. A sizable bowlful arrived perfectly tender, topped with tangy lime aioli and piquant pickled chilis with red salsa on the side. Sonny was happy with the fish and aioli. We grownups found the combination a fun setup for more delightful combinations.
We found exactly that in unusually light, wholly satisfying tamales (no plops of mushy steamed masa here) topped with plump sautéed shrimp drizzled with poblano cream. I gladly would have made a meal out of a double or triple order of any one of the so-called snacks.
One cannot live on snacks alone, however, nor can one get a broad sense of the menu, so we moved on to two main plates. At Mexican restaurants, chilis rellenos is another touchstone dish for me. El Camino surprises not with its batter or filling of cheese or cheesy mashed potatoes, but with a lack of batter and the inclusion of spicy, lean pork picadillo, all topped with Monterey Jack cheese. It was an unexpected, worthy alternative to the traditional dish.
(From Left): Fried calimari with salsa roja, lime aioli and pickled chilis.;The shrimp tamale at El Camino./Photos by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
El Camino’s sea bass Veracruz hewed to the conventional—wisely perhaps. There is little reason to depart from the classic sauce of stewed tomatoes, olives and capers, a staple of coastal Latin cuisine. Served over rice, the El Camino version was as good as it gets anywhere.
We barely scratched the menu, which is as large and diverse as any Mexican menu, but full of unexpected combinations—mushroom tacos, seared ahi with pineapple-black bean salsa, barbacoa enchiladas. While the kids went for an order of churros, Mom opted for another cocktail. Like all the house drinks, the watermelon-basil margarita was made with fresh juice and herbs, and it was as clean and tasty as the first.
Throughout our 90-minute stay, we were visited regularly by floor managers who asked about our experience. Whether they visited so often because the restaurant was new or because Platinum simply cares so much for its guests hardly matters. Not one staffer wore anything less than a smile. Nor did any of our neighboring diners. Take that as a good sign.
El Camino Mexican Kitchen
3559 Silverside Road, Wilmington • 543-4245
Recommended: blood orange margarita, calamari, shrimp tamales, sea bass Veracruz
Prices: snacks: $10-$19; tacos: $12-$15 (order of two), $17-$19 (order of three); enchiladas: $16-$19; main plates, $16-$24