A taste of Spanish home cooking with a twist in Phu My Hung
As the blackboard menu at El Camino (137 SB-02 Nguyen Duc Canh, D7) says, these are tapas “just like mama used to make.” Francis Aliu has been serving Barcelona-style tapas from his new restaurant in District 7 for just two months, yet he is already drawing a loyal local following – as well as attracting those prepared to make the journey from Districts 1 or 2 to satisfy their craving for Spanish food. Francis is Spanish and grew up on the culture of late night dining on small plates of nourishing, tasty food. His philosophy is simple: serving affordable, authentic Spanish food with the additional twist of a few dishes borrowed from other cuisines.
“I want to make tapas as accessible as they are in Spain, not high end or high priced,” he explains. “I can’t get the prices any lower because I use a lot of Spanish ingredients.” There are 26 tapas dishes on the main menu, none priced at more than VND55,000, along with two platter options at VND95,000.
El Camino is located on the fast-changing tree-lined boulevard of eateries and cafes in the heart of Phu My Hung. It’s a compact restaurant elegantly adorned with bright colored art and furnishings inside. But from our observation, most diners prefer to chill outside on large comfy sofas on the broad pavement, sipping cool, fruity Sangrias (available in white or red versions) and watching the eclectic mix of the local expat community amble by. This street feels a long way from Vietnam with its wide pavements, trees, al fresco eating and global brands mixing with local entrepreneurs. It’s a fitting environment for a tapas eatery.
Tapas without red wine or Sangria just aren’t the real deal, so we eagerly ordered a bottle of Marques de Caceres Crianza Rioja 2009 (VND490,000), a smooth Spanish red we recalled fondly from Australian Spanish restaurants. And it was served non-chilled, just how we like it.
Francis is very proud of his cannelloni (Canelones con béchamel at VND49,000) – the only non-tapas dish we ordered (a mini hamburger, Hamburgueses mini at VND55,000, is another option).
“It’s not really a tapas dish but I wanted to add it to the menu as my mother cooked it in Barcelona when I was a kid,” he says.
The cannelloni was full of soft, warm meat and creamy béchamel sauce. If you close your eyes you can imagine yourself in the kitchen of a Spanish farmhouse on a cold winter’s night, seated around a family table before a coal range. Yes, this is just how mama would have made it.
“It’s not just the taste but the texture,” Francis explained after our meal. “I remembered the taste and the feeling and we tried seven or eight recipes. We just kept trying different ingredients until we got it right.”
Chorizo Frito (VND55,000) was served in meaty chunks in a pool of olive oil. It tasted smoky and deliciously oily and moorish, soft on the tongue with a hint of tang in the aftertaste. The Gambas al ajillo (VND45,000) – prawns with garlic – were lightly cooked, tender, juicy, and deliciously garlicky, served with a sprinkling of herbs.
Croquetas (VDN49,000) are potato croquettes made with Serrano ham, salmon and shrimp. The flavor was delicate, the balance of different meats complementing each other in the soft potato.
Francesco urged us to try his Jamon Serrano (VND55,000), which he is particularly proud to have sourced from Spain. “It’s hard to find good Serrano ham for a good price, but my supplier is very good and the quality of the meat is very, very good.” We were glad for the recommendation – it was wafer thin, soft and delicately flavored, slightly salty on the palate.
Manchego cheese is another of my favorite tapas dishes. El Camino’s Queso Manchego (VND49,000) is served thinly sliced with ciabatta bread drizzled with a mix of tomato, olive oil and salt.
The final dish in our banquet was Patatas Bravas (VND29,000) tossed in a garlic aioli by request. The menu has patatas bravas served hot with a tomato sauce or cold with garlic aioli, but the chef was happy to mix the offer to indulge our garlic craving, served with hot potatoes. The garlic was very strong – just like how the Europeans love it.
We were way too full after this European feast to indulge in desserts, but at the time of writing El Camino was augmenting its plate of fresh fruits with a traditional Creme Catalina and a selection of Bellany ice creams.
El Camino is exactly what it sets out to be: an authentic tapas experience with accessible pricing, a relaxed al fresco pavement dining area and cheerful, attentive staff. If you live in Phu My Hung and you’re partial to Spanish food, it’s an ideal spot to chill and graze. It’s also well worth the journey if you live further afield.
Images by Loc Nguyen