FIRST impressions on our return to El Camino? Why hadn’t they mounted a set of lucha libre wrestling posters, as we’d recommended on a preview visit? OK, there were concessions to Mexico in what is essentially a pop-up in a cool aparthotel. One of the servers was wearing a green national football shirt and a floppy sombrero hung by the door (for gringo selfie requests/). Still it took a couple of frozen margaritas to get in the mood; mezcal was off limits as it was a weekday lunchtime.
It is hard, of course, to put down roots when you are guaranteed just a three month tenure in Whitworth Locke’s 78-cover dining space called The Cotton Factory – a nod to a previous life.
A success in Urmston as a spin-off from Get Chucked burgers, El Camino is meant to be the the first of an evolving series of ‘restaurant residency’ collaborations with up and coming food traders, showcasing global cuisines.
The only native Mexican involved is affable front of house Hanna Monroy, who injected Authentic with a capital A into the Northern Quarter’s El Taquero. A refreshingly leftfield hibiscus drink proffered is a reminder of her impact there, ditto the intense guacamole that accompanies our nachos nibbles.
After which we over-order, which is an easy thing to do when even the subtlest Mexican cuisine is, let’s say, substantial. Hard to complete our exploration of a burrito crammed with tinga chicken (£6.95) – a meal in itself, as they say.
Much of the menu features shredded meat and ample chilli, so it felt slightly daring to culminate the meal with a pork chop, highly recommended by a critic colleague. If the vast slab of £14.95 protein didn’t quite live up to ‘the best chop I’ve ever eaten’ hype, being slightly dry, it was certainly a belter with its fruity salsa topping of sweet mango cubes and a light undertow of spice.
How do veggies fare here? Well, the relentless jackfruit could have been substituted for the tinga filling and a pumpkin and cheese quesadilla (£6.25, above) is snackily OK. For spicier tastes the chipotle cauli corn taco with radish and raw chilli (£3.75) is a gasper.
Our favourite taste on the menu, the beer braised ox cheek comes both in a quesadilla and in a £4.25 taco with pickled red chilli, crispy shallots and a pungent chipotle aioli. This is where the margarita anaesthetic comes into its own.
Finally, another big plate of grilled fillet of sea bream (£13.95, main image) satisfies, partly because it’s a relief from all that meat and cheese. The skin is crisp and the salsa verde suits the fish well. El Camino deserves to get six months here without remission. Just lose the sombrero.
The Cotton Factory, Whitworth Locke, 74 Princess St, M1 6JD. El Camino is open 12pm-11pm (Mon-Sat) and 12pm-9pm (Sun).