If you need convincing that dining out has become akin to theatre, just stop by the corner of Elgin Street and Gladstone Avenue and stand at the top of the stairs that lead down to this buzzy new taqueria with an Asian twist. Witness a perpetual house-party scene made up of mobile munchers and sit-down revellers, as well as the kitchen crew in action through a transparent-box-cum-takeout-window. It’s mesmerizing to watch tequila cocktails being shaken, dough being kneaded by hand, fresh tortillas rolling off the machine, and fine-dining-darling chef Matthew Carmichael ruling his roost — at home in the heart of his very own kitchen at last.
Anyone who knows Carmichael cuisine from his time at the helm of the kitchen at Side Door and his pop-up restaurant at Mellos Diner will feel they had a glimpse of the artist’s sketches before this final installation was unveiled. The restaurant’s name, a reference to the ’70s-era automobile rather than the cuisine of Mexico, lays itself open to interpretation, but the vibe is unquestionably nostalgic, gritty, and hip. In addition to tacos, the simple menu features a few signature dishes such as crispy prawn in betel leaf, salt-and-pepper squid, and some exquisite raw seafood.
You don’t have to be young and tattooed to eat here, but you might need to knock back a few El Fuegos to tolerate the eardrum-busting music that plays from the moment the doors open at 5:30 p.m. until the last drunken dude staggers in for a beef-tongue taco at 2 a.m. Jockeying for spots at the high bistro tables, the long meandering bar, the communal table, or one of the more intimate booths at the back is all part of the adventure. Or perch yourself at street level and marvel at the move from shady nightclub cave to one of this city’s most exciting social experiments. 380 Elgin St., 613-422-2800
Q&A | ANDREW REEVES, ARCHITECT
Q: How was your firm chosen to design El Camino?
A: Matt [Carmichael] hired me to design the interior of his house four years ago. I have lots of clients who are cooking enthusiasts, but this was my first time designing a home kitchen for a professional chef. His kitchen is his little baby, and he was very particular about what he wanted. It was all about ensuring continuous interaction, an eye-to-eye relationship between cook and guests — he never wanted to turn his back on the people. I knew Matt really well by the time we started to discuss El Camino. We treated it as his second home, and it needed to reflect a new stage in his life.
Q: What did you learn about Matt during the process of designing his home kitchen?
A: He’s different from most chefs. He didn’t want any crazy top-of-the-line Sub-Zero equipment. It was the opposite — it was almost stripped down. He wanted a character-filled space using some old commercial pieces. It helps that he also has a strong sense of design and respect for real materials — real metal, real leather, real concrete. You don’t put fake wood on top of concrete — you go with the rawness of the materials. He likes the contrast of the rough elements with clean lines, and he likes the friction between old, worn-in, and new.
Q: Did anything surprise you?
A: Matt’s unpretentious. He’s not at all arrogant. He wants people around him and wants to share his ideas. He wants to challenge conventions and to continue to push himself. Everything we did at El Camino was a constant collaboration between craftsmen, architect, and chef — no one is claiming copyright to the design.
Q: What’s your favourite design feature?
A: From the start, we understood that chefs and foodies have a connection to sitting at the bar and eating at the counter. The bar at El Camino is spectacular and the main focus of the space. Its winding shape and two-sided seating challenge the conventional idea of separation between staff and patrons and chef: we all become part of the experience. The space allows for many different configurations, and those will change every time you come in. Now groups of four or six — or 10 — can sit across from each other at the bar. Initially we had pushback from investors, who argued we could fit in more tables if we took out the long, snaking bar, but now the bar is the first thing to be packed.
Q: What is your impression of Ottawa’s dining scene from a design perspective?
A: It’s exciting times. We are seeing more collaboration, and our chefs are gaining confidence. But unfortunately, in many restaurants, the experience of the food is still just the plate that falls in front of you. I think there’s a missed opportunity to connect with the physical space. A lot of the design out there is trend-driven — a painted barn wood wall doesn’t say anything about the food. There’s no depth. I think the experience can be a lot more powerful than that. Matt was inspired by old diners like Mellos, and he wanted to create that vibe. El Camino is an opportunity for people to get to know him and his personality.