Thomas Pash might not wear a cowboy hat, or boots, but he’s a true-blue Texan, right down to his love of spicy fajitas and potent margaritas. Ahead of the launch of his third El Camino Cantina, and the first in Brisbane, he spills the (refried) beans on how this boisterous brand came about. It’s a story that started 35 years ago.
What’s your connection to Texas – are you the real McCoy?
I have lived in, or been based out of, Texas for the past 20 years and I love the Lone Star State, so I am definitely the real deal. I don’t own cowboy boots or a hat though, so other Texans might dispute my claim to be part of the clan. I also prefer rock & roll and pretty much all genres of music over country music, which is trademark Texan, but I like to think that many of my other typical traits make up for this.
What do you love about Texas?
As with most Texans, I love great food, cold beer and large portions. I love how Texas does BBQ, Tex-Mex, steakhouses and Cajun food.
What was your first professional experience in a Tex-Mex restaurant?
My first job in the industry was working at a little Mexican restaurant outside of Houston. I was only 15 years old and I rode my bike back and forth to work, which was almost 6km away. I was the only staff member that spoke English, the rest of the team could only speak Spanish. I was the waiter, the dishwasher, the host and pretty much did everything else beyond cooking. The food was awesome as everything was covered in melted cheese and loaded with big flavourful and hot varieties of chillies. I was immediately hooked on tacos, fajitas, burritos and enchiladas. It’s hard to believe that 35 years later I am rolling out a Tex-Mex concept here in Australia and actually using some of the knowledge I gained at the age of 15. How crazy is that? I wouldn’t have dreamt this at the age of 15.
Describe Tex-Mex cuisine.
Tex-Mex food is really simple at its core. It is all about great, fresh produce and ingredients, real cheese, hot chillies, vibrant sauces and hand-made tortillas. And of course, everything should be eaten with a side of refried beans and rice. Most importantly, Tex-Mex isn’t Tex-Mex without being accompanied by cold Mexican beers, great tequila and big, strong margaritas.
Tell us about El Camino Cantina – how and when did the idea come about, and how long did it take to bring it to fruition?
El Camino is 35 years in the making and a style of food that I truly love. El Camino is influenced by all the great Tex-Mex concepts that I love, regularly enjoy and respect. In Texas, there is a Tex-Mex restaurant on every street corner and competition is fierce. I think I have tried them all, but there are three or four that I have eaten at probably 1000 times each – if not more. El Camino is a compilation of my favourite aspects of all of my favourite Tex-Mex hangouts.
What do you like best about the concept?
There is nothing in Australia like El Camino. It is an authentic Tex-Mex experience that you would find in Austin, Houston, Dallas and other parts Texas. I don’t believe anyone in Australia is doing anything like it. The fresh food, the great drinks, the interior design and the music make for a fun and flavourful dining experience that no other place competes with. Portions are big and drinks are strong too, so I think it is a great value for money.
Favourite dish on the menu?
I love the chicken and beef fajitas. The meat is perfectly marinated and the sides – pico de gallo, sautéed veggies and onions, sour cream and cheese – create the perfect package when stuffed into a warm, flour tortilla and topped with hot sauce. Order a side of refried beans and rice and a hit of guacamole and you’re in Tex-Mex heaven. Of course, you need to wash it down with a great, cold Mexican beer with lime, or one of our massive, frozen margaritas.
Your favourite drink?
My favourite drink is a 22oz house frozen margarita, more specifically the Cadillac version, which means it has an extra shot of Grand Marnier on top. The recipe we use for our frozen margaritas is one that I have worked on for 35 years and dialled in over the course of many, many ritas. I’ve well and truly done my research.
What has been the biggest challenge for El Camino Cantina?
When we opened the first El Camino in The Rocks, Sydney we struggled to create a restaurant that was as good as those in Texas. Customers also didn’t quite get the concept, at first. It was hard to find certain ingredients and hard to find chefs that understood the flavour profiles. It was hard to find the right equipment, too. It took us about six months to really dial it in and deliver a true Tex-Mex experience. When we did that, customers understood it, started to support us, and put us on their weekly, or monthly dining itinerary. Once you get people hooked on that weekly margarita, fajita, or selection of tacos you have them for life!
What do you miss most about Texas?
When I first arrived in Australia four years ago, I missed Tex-Mex and margaritas, but now I have that covered! Of course I miss my children, Paige and Patrick. They are also addicted to Tex-Mex thanks to their many years doing research and development with my wife, Laura, and I.
THE ROCKPOOL FILES