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The cantina has been serving up tex-mex dishes for over 11 years. Photo:AL DIA News
The cantina has been serving up tex-mex dishes for over 11 years. Photo:AL DIA News

How El Camino Real’s Tex-Mex mission has survived COVID-19

From building an outdoor seating setup to battling delivery apps, the road has not been an easy one.

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Ever had a craving for Texas barbeque, but then realized you lived in Philadelphia?

Have no fear, because El Camino Real in Fishtown is here to bring Tex-Mex barbeque right into your hands.

Chef Michael Thomas has been serving up tantalizing barbecue with Mexican inspirations for over 11 years.

“The first time someone told me that they loved my food, it was like a lightbulb turned on in my head, the instant gratification was such a powerful drug and I changed my whole lifestyle to become a chef,” Thomas said.

Joshua Zameska, the operations manager for El Camino, knew that it would be an easy decision for his team to set up shop in Fishtown because around that time, not everyone had access to Tex-Mex food.

“When we first started, we just knew that there was a lack of restaurants in the neighborhood and at the time there weren’t any Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood that had decent prices, so we wanted to deliver that,” he said.

Thomas understood that if they were going to make it in business, they had to offer something different that not your average Mexican restaurant can give you, so they decided to add Tex-Mex dishes that required diverse preparation.

“What makes Texas barbecue different from other barbecue restaurants is the dry rub that we use, we dry rub all of our meat will be brisket, short ribs, pork butt, and we slow smoke our meats for 24 hours, and break them down into portion sizes,” Thomas said.

The restaurant sells a multitude of different foods that are rare finds in Philly, and they also take pride in making parts of their menu and ingredients in house.

“It’s hard to say what our best-selling dishes are, but for barbecue, I would have to say the brisket,” Thomas said. “We also make sausage in-house, and I’d have to say that’s another best selling food item.”

El Camino is arguably one of the most-popular restaurants in Fishtown, with a cantina stocked with mezcal and tequila, where friends can go on the weekend for drinks and tacos. 

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, business stalled.

“We had to lay off almost all of our staff, then we had to lay more people off once our PPP loan ran out, it has been a juggling act,” Thomas said.

But like all small businesses across the city and country, El Camino decided they were going to give it their all.

“Business is definitely slower, but we were able to fabricate a beautiful outside area, we are trying to make the best of this situation,” Thomas said.

To accommodate the outside area, the business purchased heated seats for customers, built an outside deck, and adorned it with string lights.

“We needed to figure a way out so people could feel comfortable being outside,” he explained.

So far, they still have their loyal customers, but with big delivery services like GrubHub and Doordash, they aren’t seeing the profit that they used to see.

“These corporations take a big percentage of our profit, like 30%, then you add on labor, and rent, our profit drops dramatically,” Zameska expressed.

This controversial way of delivery has its pros and cons, but for small businesses, the cons outweigh the pros.

“We have to use these platforms because we don’t really have any other revenue source, so it’s kind of tough,” Zameska said.

Small businesses are what makes the city so diverse, in order to support their work, make sure to give their restaurant a helping hand by checking out their menu and trying out their gringo burrito, or their famous Panchos nachos.

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