52 Waterloo St
Surry Hills NSW 2010
Ph : (02) 9699 2518
Enough words have already been written about the “Latin American canteen”, comments about the name, the artwork on the walls with the guns, the roosters, the stacks of faux money, so let’s just do away with repetition of the same, shall we?
Apart from the obligatory shot of the stools, that is…Has anyone commented on their comfort levels? I found them unexpectedly comfortable, and ultimately, that's what is most important about chairs, is it not?
The middle in a row of three eating establishments, with Orto Trading and Izakaya Fujiyama on either side (Orto is probably my top pick of the three of them), during the day this is an attractive, well lit and welcoming place with the increasingly common combination of regular table-chair configurations with large communal ones. There are also a few tables outside, with heaters for what passes for Winter in Sydney.
The lunch menu (available as dine-in or takeaway) is a compact six items, with an additional salad ("Son of El Capo" – cabbage, rasins, hazelnut), corn bread, and dessert. Two visits, and all voila, all items tried.
My drink of choice on both occasions was the tamarind drink. New to me, not too sweet, and quite refreshing.
Condiments are a tomato salsa and habaneros saue. They come gratis on a tray with the ubiquitous fake bills.
First up, empanadas versus arepas - the latter are made from cornmeal. They are flat, unleavened, and grilled, baked or fried, and generally contain a filling. Empanadas, on the other hand, are a stuffed pastry which can be baked or fried. In this instance, fried. I’m more an empanada person than an arepa one, and so it was at El Capo. I think that it’s just that cornbread isn’t really something for which I’ve managed to acquire a taste.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the arepa for what they were, it’s just that the empanadas (below), eaten with a liberal dose of the tomato salsa and with the salad, were quite addictive and snacky, and I’d have been happy to have ordered another serve, whilst I didn’t feel similarly about the arepas.
Arroz Con Pollo (Caribbean chicken rice) versus Smokey Beans (Chipotle beans, spinach, soft cooked egg with rice) – these are the two 'rice dishes' on the lunchtime menu. The one thing they have in common is their generosity of serving, these are quite filling dishes. The Arroz con Pollo was very rich dish. Loved the taste, but it was a bit too heavy for any one person to finish, and definitely needed something else as a periodic ‘taste intermission’ to cut through the heaviness.
Not being a devotee of the whole 'beans and rice' combination, I was pleasantly surprised by the Smokey Beans, which had nice smokey depth. The egg was perfectly poached, but a bit more spinach would not have gone astray.
The Encebollado (spicy fish soup) was the dish with the biggest kick to it. For $10, you don’t expect a lot of fish pieces in there, but there were half a dozen pieces, the bowl was a large portion by any point of comparison, and it was a punchy soup packed with flavour that I am more than happy to order again.
The star of the lunch menu was the Grits, Pork and Salad (pork, puffed white corn and cabbage salad). There was no skimping on any of the components of this salad, the proportion of each was nicely balanced, the grits addictive, and it was just a helluva tasty dish.
Ah yes, I mentioned my ambivalence about corn bread. House made butter or no house made butter, they just didn’t do it for me, but I found them best eaten dipped in the Encebollado.
The single dessert choice at lunch (also $10) is the Three Milk (tres leches) Cake. Slices of a light vanilla cake with cream, dulce de leche, pomegranate, cherries malt powder, and whatever those flowers are (don’t ask me). Attractive, and easy on the tastebuds as well as the eye, but perhaps a little less of the awkward using-a-non-plate-for-dramatic-effect and a little less of the smearing? Scraping dulce de leche off a non-plate is just all a bit unnecessary…
El Capo is a fun place. Very in-the-Surry-Hills-moment, but with food that is full of flavour and bang for buck in terms of their lunch menu, I’ll definitely be back.
I don't know who this photographer was, but I saw him again, at Orto Dining, the week after my first visit to El Capo.