Located in the back room of a defunct gas station at the intersection of three highways, 3 Caminos Tienda y Taqueria does little to charm customers with the sort of happy Mexican decor that is commonplace among restaurants that serve commonplace Mexican food. 3 Caminos’ charm comes in the form of excellent food that is well above commonplace.
Walking in, a newcomer might be apprehensive. The building has no windows, except a few that have been boarded up. The store part of the operation, mostly at the front, is a maze of merchandise. Head to the back room and things perk up dramatically. Refrigerated bins hold very fresh looking produce. Epazote (for weekend menudo) might be drying on a makeshift rack nearby. At the back of a small, orderly dining room is a window to the kitchen. Smells wafting out the window are convincing argument to stay and place an order (at that window). Find something to drink in a case that holds countless cans and bottles of sodas from Latin America and the U.S. Have a seat.
It takes a while to get the food, for nothing is pre-assembled. When it’s ready, a member of the staff carries the meal out to the table you have chosen. The menu includes such basics as burritos (huge and picture-perfect), tacos, gorditas, tortas, and quesadillas. They can be made with ingredients that range from familiar — steak, carnitas (pulled pork), chorizo sausage, chicken — to such non-Taco Bell items as beef cheeks, pork stomach, and tongue.
I am particularly fond of carnitas, which is a jumble of soft shreds and bacon-crisp edges. It’s delicious unadorned, but even more exciting when dressed with one of the salsas set out on a buffet table near the order window. In addition to pico de gallo and sliced radishes, there are zesty salsas — an orange one that is Hades-hot, a cheerful green one that seems like little more than pureed and seasoned cilantro, and marinated onions laced with fiery habanero peppers.
“My friend, you made a good choice,” says the only other person in the dining room early one weekend morning when I walk in and he hears me order menudo. “That menudo brings me back alive,” he declares as he wipes sweat from his forehead and pushes back from an emptied bowl. 3 Caminos menudo is potent stuff, no doubt — red-pepper hot and lacking the palliative hominy that tends to be a major player in Southwest and north Mexico versions. (Instead, you get tortillas on the side.) The great cinnabar-red soup is laced with perfumy epazote and loaded with nuggets of tripe so unctuous that they feel like soft, melty fat. I’m the first to say this is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea; but if you are a menudo fancier, check it out. In my limited experience, it is some of the best. (Saturday only)