Adventures on El Camino: Fernando's

El Camino Real. The Royal Road. The King's Highway. The 600 mile trail connecting the historic Spanish mission of California, from San Diego to Sonoma. Legend has it that the padres used to sprinkle mustard seeds along the path as they walked in order to mark it with bright yellow flowers. In 1912, San Mateo County decided to pave part of the road, beginning in San Bruno, and the rest is history. Route 82 was born, connecting the cities of the peninsula with a busy street full of major business along with some serious dives. Our Redwood City store is located at 3005 El Camino in Redwood City. I live just off of El Camino in downtown San Mateo. I used to live just off El Camino in Burlingame. Before that, I lived just off El Camino in Millbrae. Before that, I lived just off Mission St. in San Francisco, which is what El Camino turns into when you get into the city.

In other words, this road has played a huge role in the making of modern California and it continues to play a huge role in my life. I love living along this long, undivided highway. It brings a certain sense of community to the Peninsula, a community I've learned to embrace in my seven years living here. You go from town to town across borders without any space in between. I live on El Camino. I work on El Camino. I shop on El Camino. I drive to work down El Camino. I drive home down El Camino.

Anyone who does the same is aware of the diversity that exists along the Royal Road. You'll find major stores like Whole Foods and Target, but also places like Mercado Latino and Nijiya Market. There's a Cheesecake Factory on El Camino in San Mateo, but there's also thousands of hole-in-the-wall knick-knacks that you know like the back of your hand, yet have never taken the time to visit. I'm done simply driving by.

I recently started a column on the K&L Wine Blog called "What the F is this?" where I buy the most random, non-descript bottles in the store and review them, while shedding some light on what they are. The goal is to focus on bottles most customers would never buy and therefore never learn anything about. I'm going to begin doing the same thing on El Camino. In the name of strengthening community ties, spicing up my everyday existance, and serving the local readership, I am going to eat, drink, and hang out at those places along El Camino where no one else does. I shouldn't say "no one," I guess. If they're still in business, that means people are frequenting these establishments.

First off: Fernando's Mexican Restaurant on 37th Ave in San Mateo.

I usually get on to Highway 101 before ever getting that far south on El Camino – either via 92 or Hillsdale Blvd. However, just off the road on 37th Ave is a long-standing Mexican restaurant called Fernando's. This place is ooooooooold school and in a state full of latino standouts, this one doesn't stand out at all - aesthetically speaking. Most of 37th looks like it hasn't changed a lick since 1972 and Fernando's is no exception. The speakers out front still blast mariachi music into the street, the doors still look like an art-deco rancho, and the interior is dark in the way that early 80s cinema is dim and grainy. Walking in is like a time warp, but in a very comforting, nostalgic, warming sort of way.

In a world filled with chain stores, chain restaurants, and corporate ubiquity, one of the things that makes El Camino Real so refreshing is its plethora of pre-modern era businesses. Fernando's is where the Goonies would have eaten if they had lived in San Mateo. It's where Serpico would have eaten if he was a cop in San Mateo. It's the type of place you grew up remembering, yet it's still there! You can still go and enjoy it!

Drinks at Fernando's are simple. Pint glasses for everything – for your beer, sangria, or cocktail. They're up with the times, however, because you can get a Flaco (skinny) Margarita with tequila, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice instead of the goopy-goop stuff. My wife was thrilled. I ordered a Negro Modelo and munched on the warm, crispy chips with roasted tomato salsa that tasted like 1985 in a bowl. Yum.

Fernando's speciality seems to be the Arroz con Pollo (chicken and rice), so that made my choice easy. You get a bowl of soup to start, so make sure you save room for the gigantic deluge that follows it. As the photo above shows, the rice is completely smothered, buried deep beneath the mountain of onions, mushrooms, and chicken breast strips that adorn the savory, tomato-based sauce. Spoon it into your corn tortillas and chow down!

There's a full bar at Fernando's along with an ancient counter where you can pull up a stool and watch the game if you're so inclined. They have live mariachi in the evenings, so it might be a good idea to grab a seat when that happens. Check out these drinks, by the way:

Before you make any judgements, the margaritas we ordered were solid. No gripes, whatsoever. But look at the La Bamba cocktail. Are you kidding me? They have crazy, over-the-top drinks at Fernando's, which endears the place to me. The food is rustic, hearty, and filling. The atmosphere makes me want to curl up in a ball and listen to the Thompson Twins. The drinks are cheap, big, and tasty. And you can really get nuts if you're in the mood.

I think we spent $50 for two people with two drinks each and a bag full of leftovers. If you've got an entire Sunday afternoon to kill, you could do worse than a table at Fernando's. Give me a call and I'll drive down El Camino to meet you. First round's on me.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll