Chow Town

Exploring Mexican street food, California beach culture in Louisville

Black Bean Soup and Baja Taco from El Camino “Sabor de Corazon” in Lousiville, Ky.
Black Bean Soup and Baja Taco from El Camino “Sabor de Corazon” in Lousiville, Ky. Special to The Star

Our daughter had recently moved to Louisville, Ky., when I visited for the first time in April. Stephanie was ready to show off her Highlands neighborhood, and I happily tagged along.

We set out on a surprisingly chilly and gray spring morning, enjoying java at a locally owned coffee shop and poking around a tiny local bookstore.

As the morning hours ended we headed toward El Camino “Sabor de Corazon”, which offers an interesting mix of Mexican street food and California beach culture. Four months earlier, Yahoo Travel had named El Camino one of the nation’s best new bars. Not bad for a place that opened in October 2013.

The second local restaurant venture for co-owner Shawn Cantley, it honors his southern California roots. Add co-owner Larry Rice and chef Brian Enyart (mentored by renowned Chicago Mexican chef, Rick Bayless) and it’s a winning combination.

An enormous mural of the bear from California’s state flag greeted us, and the dining room décor completely captivated me.

Thin bamboo cane covered the entire main floor ceiling, where multipointed, punched metal stars functioned as overhead lamps. The riotous color scheme included turquoise, lime and yellow walls with accents punctuated by natural wood and stone-faced fireplaces — one of which glowed warmly. An open garage door offered access to a front patio, while two video screens showed rotating beach scenes.

Although we didn’t order cocktails with our meal, El Camino’s enormous bar inventory was intriguing. It includes more than 40 tequilas, 15-plus mescal varieties, and upward of 90 rums from all over the world.

There are also decent-sized wine and beer menus as well as three cocktail bowls/punches that serve as many as six people.

Our stomachs growled and we eagerly perused the menu. El Camino’s food is mostly gluten-free and the restaurant proudly supports local and sustainable agriculture. They also handcraft their tortillas with fresh masa.

Everything we ordered tasted ultrafresh. Chips & Mucho Guac included creamy, can’t-stop-at-one-bite guacamole served in a small bowl with salsa Mexicana, salsa verde, salsa guajillo and house-pickled vegetables.

The small metal bowls nestled into a short wooden plank, accompanied by still-warm tortilla chips in a small bag. We had to force ourselves to stop noshing and save room for our meal.

The springtime chill and open door left me craving something warm so I ordered black bean soup. Rich and hearty, it featured grilled mushrooms, salsa verde, queso cotija cheese crumbles and bite-sized crispy tortilla pieces.

My single Baja taco paired an open-faced tortilla with lightly battered Pacific cod, crunchy cabbage slaw, fresh and bright arbol salsa and a generous drizzle of crema. My taste buds sighed happily.

Stephanie offered me a bite of her Torta/Ahogada, a sandwich that combined rich and moist Berkshire pork carnitas with pink pickled onion and cilantro. It arrived inside house-baked telera — which is a a popular bread that the restaurant uses for “sub” sandwiches.

As Stephanie and I ate a leisurely meal together for the first time since Christmas, I savored our easy conversation and the opportunity to explore Louisville with her. The visit had barely begun and I couldn’t wait to return.

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer based in Overland Park. She specializes in food and travel writing.