El Camino in Brunswick says it serves the “best Mexican food north of Mexico.” If you haven’t tried its chicken enchiladas, stop reading this and go now. It opens at 5 p.m., and the enchiladas are, at the very least, the best you’ll find north of Boston.
But this isn’t a food review. It’s a review about El Camino’s bar scene.
Bar manager and longtime El Camino employee Daniel Trefethen has worked a variety of positions in his eight years at the restaurant. These days, you’ll find him behind the bar slinging house margaritas or any number of cocktails from a list of more than 20 (most cocktails are within the $7.50 to $9 range).
(A few years ago, Maine writer Michael Paterniti selected the Margarita El Camino as one of 20 best cocktails in the country for a GQ Magazine article. Made with silver tequila, triple sec, fresh lime juice and a splash of pomegranate juice, this house favorite comes highly recommended.)
While the pomegranate in everyone’s favorite margarita isn’t local, El Camino tries to source as much of its menu as possible from local farms.
“Everyone who works here has either been here for as long as I have or since the very beginning,” Trefethen said, noting that this month marks El Camino’s 10th anniversary.
“You know how everyone’s doing ‘local’ food now? Yeah, we were doing that right from the beginning. We wanted to take advantage of Brunswick’s farms. The food is just better that way.”
The owners, twin sisters Eloise Humphrey and Daphne Comaskey and Daphne’s husband, Paul, have roots in California and the restaurant business. When they moved to Maine they had a hankering for authentic Mexican food.
Trefethen says he and his colleagues at the bar are given a lot of freedom to experiment. They’re quite knowledgeable about tequila, the latest craft beer and how to create a new twist on a classic, like a mojito or an Old Fashioned.
On any given night, the bar at El Camino can be packed with locals craving the house-made chips and salsa or fresh fish tacos.
The stools are clunky, retro and not entirely comfortable, but it’s all part of the charm.
The walls are what Trefethen calls “Eloise’s brainchild,” meaning kitschy, funky, wacky.
Decorations range from the bright orange walls to the hubcaps and license plates, the recycled fake (and silver) Christmas tree, string lights and Mexican dolls.
The crowd is down-to-earth, boisterous and conversational. You’ll likely make a friend or two if you sit at the bar, which was renovated in March.
Trefethen loves his job and has no plans to leave, but on a recent night, as he mixed a margarita for one couple and shuffled plates of tacos and quesadillas to a group of three, he thought out loud, “Yeah, who knows how long I’ll be here!”
At that, the customer now happily sipping his margarita, piped up and said, “No, Dan! You gotta stay! We need you here!”
The same sentiment is true for the rest of El Camino Cantina. You’ve got to stay. We need you here.
WHERE: 15 Cushing St., Brunswick
HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
SPECIALS: Daily specials posted online and in bar area. Ask your server.
AMENITIES: Entertaining decorations, borax dry soap in the bathroom (owners claim this soap doesn’t interfere with tasting and smelling your food), dim lighting (if you like that sort of thing), plenty of standing or sitting room if it gets crowded and you’re waiting for a table.
PARKING: Parking lot and street parking.
BOTTOM LINE: El Camino Cantina in Brunswick is one of the reasons Brunswick has become its own foodie town in recent years. El Camino has been around since 2004 and was one of the first restaurants in the area to take advantage of local farms. The cocktails are unique, not too pricey, and a refreshing spin on some Mexican classics.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes.