Authentic Mexican food for fast food prices
A plateful of tender carnitas is accompanied with rice, beans and lettuce to pile into fresh tortillas. For a low price at local restaurant El Camino Real, customers can receive two meals’ worth of food. | Ashleigh Fox/THE CHIMES
As a Southern California native, I have eaten at my fair share of taco shops and Mexican restaurants. Some are greasy, though cheap. Others, usually American-ized chains, resemble something closer to the ever-dreaded Tex Mex. Several are good and worth frequenting, especially if they are near your place of residence and open late. Few are truly memorable and worth going out of your way to visit. However, when you find one of these treasures, where the tortillas are fresh, the horchata is cold and the salsa is spicy, you never cease telling people about it and pray fervently that it stays in business forever.
El Camino Real falls into the final category and is the second hidden restaurant gem in a bleak Fullerton strip mall, only a few doors down from Orange Sushi. I left this affordable and delicious Mexican joint planning my next visit. There will be tamales involved and it will be glorious.
Think of your favorite kind of Mexican food — their expansive menu probably has it. Even better, everything from the juices to the desserts is homemade at El Camino Real. Crowded with individual boxes containing several options for tacos, burritos, tostadas, nachos and tamales, the menu is simultaneously wonderful and overwhelming. Combination plates come with rice, beans and corn or flour tortillas and offer customers 24 choices, including enchiladas, chile rellenos or a heap of carne asada. A rack in front of the main counter boasts homemade chips and fresh tortillas, still warm in the bags. Fresh homemade salsa is sold by the pint as well.
A fresh juice bar stationed across from the main counter turns out smoothies, fruit salads and, of course, juice to order. Their horchata has a perfect balance of cinnamon and is not over-sweetened. They also offer pineapple, melon, jamaica and tamarind waters.
The only unfortunate aspect of this place is that it is only open until 9:30 p.m., ruling it out as an option for late night finals week runs. However, the all-day breakfast burrito service redeems them in my book. The staff is polite and efficient, but not overly chatty. Though some may take this as rudeness, I did not. They answered my questions about the food and were helpful when I asked for a to-go box and bag for my leftovers. The restaurant is often busy but they do their job quickly and well, which is more than I can say about some wait staff I have encountered at more expensive restaurants.
Orders come with a complimentary plate of chips to eat while you wait, though even during the busy lunch hour the food flies out of the kitchen. Their fresh salsa bar has a range of mild to spicy, flavorful salsas. If you are not a friend of spicy food, tread carefully and try the light green salsa first. The salsa that looks like an innocently mild pico de gallo contains small pieces of jalapeno, which is either a pleasant surprise or unwelcome heat depending on your heat tolerance. The red salsa is medium heat and was my favorite for its deep, smoky flavor.
The styrofoam plate divided into three compartments that arrived on the pick-up counter when my number was called was full of carnitas, rice and beans. I knew at first glance that I had just purchased two meals for the price of $6.69. At my table, I unrolled the foil-wrapped flour tortillas and piled on meat, beans, rice and lettuce. The carnitas were tender, almost falling apart, and could be eaten alone as easily as in a taco. The seared side of the meat was crisp and maintained the smoky flavor that comes from grilling meat hot and fast. The lettuce was crisp and fresh, and the rice and beans were cooked to perfection. My friend’s chicken tamale, only $1.79, was the perfect balance of filling and corn breading. Neither of us paid more than $10 for our meals, including drinks, and both of us left the restaurant full.
Whether you plan to eat in, take out or stock up on fresh tortillas, El Camino should be your first stop. Travel straight down La Mirada Boulevard for about 15 minutes to make all your Mexican food dreams come true.
El Camino Real
Prices: $2 - $8
Hours: Monday - Sunday: 7:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
303 N. Euclid St.
Fullerton, CA 92832
El Camino Real, an authentic Mexican restaurant, provides customers homemade dishes in nearby Fullerton. | Ashleigh Fox/THE CHIMES