On Wednesday, September 23, New Haven’s Westville neighborhood was abustle with the press opening of Camacho Garage. The restaurant is situated in a former New Haven Savings Bank building on the northwest corner of Fountain Street and Central Avenue.
Camacho Garage is the latest restaurant from the team behind Shell & Bones Oyster Bar and Grill at City Point in New Haven, Geronimo Tequila Bar & Southwest Grill in downtown New Haven and Fairfield, and (oh, by the way) Bar Yoshi in Nantucket, Mass. That team comprises co-owners Robert Bolduc and Marc Knight plus executive chef and co-owner Arturo Franco-Camacho.
Camacho, who has legions of Connecticut fans and is one of the state’s top chefs, arrived here in 1995, the same year I started reviewing restaurants. After serving for five years as the executive sous chef of the QE2, Camacho made his name locally, first on the Fairfield County food scene at the helm of beloved restaurants like Café Mozart in Stamford and Habana in South Norwalk, and then in New Haven County with his own restaurants, most notably Roomba and Bespoke in downtown New Haven and Suburban in Branford, before teaming up with Bolduc and Knight.
The restaurant’s name and vintage garage motif are a tribute to his father, Pedro Camacho, who owned a garage in Tijuana, Mexico. “When my siblings and I would spend the morning helping him in the shop, he would make us tacos for lunch out of any ingredients on hand. Between that, and spending time cooking with my mother and grandmother, I learned that anything can be put in a taco!”
Camacho Garage’s tacos come with a host of intriguing fillings. They can be ordered classic (either served inside a housemade corn tortilla or in a lettuce wrap) or naked (over a cazuela of grains, beans and greens).
The all-day menu features numerous small plates designed to encourage sampling. In addition to tacos, there are oysters on the half shell, ceviches, salads, a fruit cocktail, roasted vegetables, empanadas, croquetas, gorditas, tostadas, quesadillas, queso flameado, Mexican street corn, Mexican hot dogs and even guacamole prepared tableside in a large molcajete.
But Camacho Garage isn’t just playing “small ball.” Larger plates are available as rotating daily specials. And there’s a menu section dedicated to family-style dinners that includes items like guajillo-marinated whole chicken and plantain leaf-roasted boneless branzino. Desserts include delights like churros, flan and paletas (popsicles of different flavors).
The photographed foods selected for the mostly outdoor event—which was bravely organized by Shelley Kapitulik of Splash PR with social distancing, appropriate mask usage and the eatery’s garage doors flung wide open—included a ceviche de nopales hongos of grilled cactus, wild mushroom, white onion, citrus, cilantro and tomato; an herb guacamole with crisp tortillas; an al pastor (achiote-marinated, spit roasted pork with pineapple) and a pocho asado taco (adobe-marinated chicken, crema, cotija); and duck tambores (duck drumettes in a ginger-orange-habanero sauce).
There was another savory dish (not pictured) that didn’t make it to our table—ancho curly fries with pico de gallo, chipotle mayo, crema and cilantro. And finally, there was a dessert sampler with biscuits topped with sweet fried plantain and dulce de leche; figs filled with chocolate and cinnamon; and a walnut paleta.
Camacho Garage’s bar menu is focused on specialty cocktails, draft and bottled beer, Tequila and other Mexican beverages. The photographed drinks included a mojito and a Geronimo margarita.
The restaurant’s soft opening followed the day after the press event, with the official opening coming on Monday, September 28th. I checked in with Camacho earlier today. “The response has been great,” he enthused.
We talked about the evolving menu. “The options we can present here are limitless,” Camacho said. “We’re adding a [pork] carnitas taco, a lamb barbacoa taco and a Gulf-style ceviche cocktail. For dessert, we’re adding our famous tres leches cake, a flan paleta, and I just tried a dulce de leche lava cake that came out really great!”
Designed by Christian P. Arkay-Leliever, Camacho Garage is a beautiful example of industrial chic that makes great use of concrete, wire, glass and steel, and showcases a zinc bar top. Under normal conditions, there is seating for 30 people at the bar, 78 in the main dining area, 14 at the patio bar and 80 on the outdoor patio.
A lively, fun, high-concept eatery inspired by the Mexican street foods of Camacho’s youth, its closest genre competitors are probably the Bartacos of the Barcelona Restaurant Group in Westport, Stamford and West Hartford, and the Bodega Taco Bars of Darien and Fairfield, none of which, obviously, are geographic competitors. But one would be hard-pressed to find a Connecticut restaurant that’s taking as deep, authentic and stylish a dive into the cuisine.