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Published: 9/15/2010

Restaurant Reviews: El Camino Real **

Toledo and its ‘burbs boast an abundance of Tex-Mex restaurants, so it says something when the street is torn up for repairs around an eatery but a crowd still manages to find a way in.

Such a place is El Camino Real on Dussel Drive, now serving up nachos and guacamole in a former home of a Ground Round restaurant and before that a Bill Knapp's. But if you didn't know about the previous occupants, you wouldn't suspect it, so complete is the renovation. Bright colors warm the rooms, Mexican art graces the wall, and adobe-colored tile floors complete the picture.

Just a bit east of the Salisbury Road ramp to I-475, El Camino Real is a sister to restaurants in West Toledo (Douglas Road and Sylvania Avenue), Oregon (El Camino Sky, 2072 Woodville Rd.), and Ann Arbor.

To be honest, the food is hearty and portions large, but except for the occasional grace note — I love the guacamole — it's fairly ordinary. What brings crowds in are the tasty margaritas and the atmosphere, which gets downright festive on busy evenings and is low-key and mellow at other times.

I took myself there for a late lunch one weekday afternoon with just a book for a companion. My server kept my water and pop glasses filled and occasionally dropped by to see how I was doing, but other than that, he left me alone with my lunch and book. Before I knew it, more than an hour had passed and no one was in a hurry to rush me out of there.

I tried the chilaquiles Mexicanos ($9.50), which, from the description, I expected to be sort of a tostado, with shredded chicken and a variety of vegetables atop a tortilla. It was more like a super-sized serving of nachos piled on a platter and covered with the chicken, a spicy sauce, lettuce, and lots of cheese. The menu didn't mention that it would be spicy, and I needed to hit the water glass pretty hard.

Most of the meals that I tried at El Camino Real were covered in a layer of melted cheese, and they all came from the kitchen quickly, leading me to believe that the ingredients were prepared earlier in the day and were just waiting to be assembled into an assortment of combinations.

This is not a place where you can expect to have plenty of time to digest an appetizer before the entr e comes out.

For supper another night, my companion and I tried the enchiladas verdes ($9.50; $11.50 if you add shrimp) and a combo meal of a ground beef enchilada and a chalupa ($8.50). Both came with rice and beans. The combo meal was fairly ordinary, and the enchiladas verdes were good, after I got over the fact the shrimp were scattered atop the enchiladas, not tucked inside. However, the accompanying rice was dry and the beans were even more so, with little dehydration cracks on the top.

The large margarita was really good, however, and priced reasonably at $5.

After learning my lesson on the portion sizes, I tried a lunch-size beef fajita platter for dinner ($8.25), and it was still big enough to bring some home for the next day's lunch. The beef was somewhat overcooked … no medium rare here ... but the sauteed onions and pepper had some crunch to them, the lettuce was crispy, and the guacamole good. A dinner-sized portion is $12.

The menu includes some interesting offerings, including a “pizza” made of two grilled flour tortillas stuffed with shrimp, steak, chicken, refried beans, cheese, and vegetables ($12) and el tapatio, which mixes grilled chicken breast and chorizo sausage, smothered with cheese ($11.75). Both are on my radar to try if I go back.

It's a big if, however, because there are plenty of other Mexican restaurants serving food that's just as good or better, and they're closer to home.

Contact Bill of Fare at: fare@theblade.com.



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