I almost forgot how early darkness arrives in the city and even on a warm Spring day, the air became instantly chilly. It was just past 7 pm at El Camino Real in Northern Liberties. The place was packed with customers yearning for a hearty Tex-Mex fix. On this particular evening, guests may have been visiting for the Philly Beer Week event like myself or they were just regular customers caught by prix-fixe menu surprise.
No matter what brought them there that night, if they made a wise decision to sample the signature menu paired with Sly Fox Beer, the unusually cold temperatures were probably no longer an issue. There was enough flavor packed into the carefully enhanced menu to warm a family of five.
After being told an outdoor table would be just a ten minute wait, my friend and I meandered inside for a pre-meal beer. Standing at the bar was Sly Fox representative Corey Reid, whom I knew from previous beer events, my regular visits to the Phoenixville Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery, and can proudly call my friendly neighbor! We chatted about Philly Beer Week events for a little while but our table was ready in a flash.
The waitstaff wasted no time when it came to checking on us for drinks and appetizers. We both passed since we’d just grabbed a beer at the bar earlier and (my Mexican food loving conscious is compelled to admit) eaten nachos just down the street before arriving. The pre-meal indulgence did not hinder my appetite in any way and I was still able to enjoy each item to its fullest.
We started it all off as every Tex-Mex meal should, with tortilla chips! Executive Chef Keith Bernstein and his assistants Adam Brod & Daniel Russo shook things up with a triad of dips. They didn’t skimp on the servings and we were kindly offered another basket of chips to finish the nearly overflowing ramekins of goodness. The menu stuck to the traditional guacamole, probably anticipating that it’s always a crowd pleaser. We were certainly pleased with it. Also along for the appetizer ride was a sweet watermelon and jicama salsa with a hint of jalapeno, and queso fundido. I was happy to see this course paired with my favorite, Royal Weisse. A light but flavorful beer from Sly Fox, this was a perfect match to the strong pepperoni accent in the cheese dip, which we scraped to the core!
Tacos set the main stage for the $35 per person three course menu. Our decision to share, although questioned by waitstaff at first, turned out to be a good one. They placed four packed tacos down between us, two of each style. I reached first for the Smoked Beer Can Chicken Taco and my guest snagged the Beer Braised Pork Belly. The chicken taco was filled with Pico De Gallo, Guacamole and Fried Chicken Skin. Everything was deliciously fresh and the fried chicken skin added a nice crunch mixed in with the naturally chewy ingredients.
Phoenix Pale Ale was the craft brew chosen to pair with the tasty Tex-Mex envelopes and it also aided in the cooking process, braising the pork. It was so incredibly tender and when the juices from the meat mixed in my mouth with the Sweet & Sour Slaw and Sly Fox’s BBQ sauce, I swear I heard angels singing. Then, just when I thought the meal couldn’t get any more heavenly, dessert entered the picture.
The third course featured Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout Ice Cream Sundae in a Fried Tortilla Bowl. Hearing Stout and Ice Cream in the same sentence made me giddy with excitement. O’Reilly’s Stout is rich and creamy, smooth enough to complement the ice cream and strong enough to challenge the fried portion of the meal.
We attempted to tackle this final course in its entirety but were defeated by the combination of sweetness and two previous courses that were beginning to settle in our bellies. Even after declaring my end, I snuck a few spoonfuls of the rich melted mess into my mouth and followed it with a sip of the Stout. The taste of both together was too blissfully perfect to resist.
As the Stout got lower and the plate got emptier, I reflected on the restaurant’s choice of name, El Camino Real. It seemed fitting for our particular occasion since, after the tab was paid, we embarked on a pleasantly long journey to my guest’s Fishtown residence. The walk might not have normally felt whimsical but with food fit for a king and fine craft beers consumed moments earlier, the roads traveled felt particularly royal that evening. Perhaps this is why El Camino Real, translated as “the royal trail,” was chosen as the restaurant’s name. Like any true scientific experiment, I can only get to the bottom of this mystery with repeated trials. I guess I’ll just have to return to El Camino Real for another delicious helping of their tex-mex cuisine!