First Bite: El Camino Real

I love small-plate eating: There’s no better way to sample what a restaurant really has to offer and keep up with our short-attention span world. But while it takes pressure off the kitchen in some respects (timing is less of an issue), it adds a whole lot more, too: More dishes mean more ingredients, more thought, more cooking and more room to go astray.

This is what I was wondering when I checked out El Camino Real last week, the new Mexi-que place from the people behind smash-hit Bar Ferdinand.

The menu is divided by cuisine — half “Mexico” and half “Texas” — but that’s not actually the confusing part. As a whole, the menu offers appetizers, small plates, noshes, entrees and sandwiches. There are $4 BBQ plates as well as appetizers like onion rings (is that really an app, anyway?) and mac and cheese. On the Mexico side, there are “small” burritos, which are actually pretty large (and a really good deal, if you know you don’t need to order that much more). There’s also chips and guac and a few salads as well as a tasty chimicuhiri skirt steak skewers dish that is $10 (the same price as some of the “small” burritos) — but the skewers are listing under entrees, with the option to add rice and beans for an additional $5. Huh? Before I even tasted this food, I was perplexed. How much of what things should I order for us? What if my dining mate only wanted a sandwich and fries, but I wanted to try a few things? And sadly, the waiter didn’t offer us much help in navigating the menu.

We went with a few apps, the taco salad, the onion rings (which was our favorite thing) and the brisket sandwich (which was tasty, but dry). The fact that the vibe is relaxed and fun, and the food different and exciting but sorta hit-or-miss, brings me back to the menu. Why not streamline a bit, concentrate on making those things perfect and making ordering easier on your customers? I’m just not convinced that offering smaller dishes here in combination with complete entrees works at El Camino — which leads to the Restaurant Club Question of the Week:

Do you think offering small plates is always a good idea? Let’s discuss in the comments below.