l carajo," translates to the crow's nest of a Spanish Gallion. Almost everyone knows, however, that it is slang for almost anything too far away or crappy (as in "vete para carajo" or "go to hell").
That pretty much summed up my experience at El Carajo, the tapas restaurant hidden in the back of the BP gas station on US 1 and SW 17th Avenue.
I've been here before to buy gas and wine (they have a pretty decent wine selection...for a gas station), but never to dine. I just never got around to it.
Well, I finally did the other night. Like a speakeasy from prohibition, El Carajo is tucked away, past the cashier selling condoms and international phone cards. Decorated like a wine cellar (with a good selection of wines by the bottle), the place charmed me slightly. I've traveled around Central America and have eaten some of my favorite meals from gas stations hiding kitchens filled with good smells and cold beer.
I must say, I was blown away..by the prices. We chose a bottle of Washington State Pinot Noir at a respectable $16 to go with dinner and were surprised by the $10 corkage fee (at a gas station). At $16, the wine was a buy. At $26, it was on par with an average restaurant.
As we perused the menu (rolled in parchment and tied with twine, like a pirate map), I couldn't help but notice that these prices weren't cheap. But who cares when it comes time to eat, right? We ordered a cheese platter ($12), mixed marinated olives ($6), mushrooms sauteed in cabernet ($7), and piquillo peppers stuffed with cod ($10.50).
To be honest, the food wasn't great, but it was way better than the usual gas station fare of beef jerky, Four Loko and HoHo's. The olives were the same as the jarred antipasto from the grocery store and the cheese was good, but uninspired. The stuffed peppers were tender, but the cod overpowered the sauce and the mushrooms were underseasoned. If we're talking about a meal that's over $60 before tax and tip then the food was a rip-off.
I'm not even talking about the quality. I'm talking about the value. I'm talking about ambiance and location and service and all that other stuff that goes into the dining experience.
So I did a little experiment. I compared El Carajo's prices to that of a small plates restaurant that no doubt is more expensive, has a better atmosphere and a better chef - Sra. Martinez. I purposely chose a restaurant that had to be at least twice the price of the modest little gas station, right? Uhh...wrong. They were surprisingly similar in price (though not in quality). Though the menu items weren't exactly the same, here's what I found:
At El Carajo, my meal (as described above) was $61.50 before tax and tip.
At Sra. Martinez (based on the online menu) I could order a similar meal of:
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Olives ($4) and house pickles ($2), two cheeses ($10), mushrooms in truffled butter ($9), mussels al ajillo ($12) and a bottle of 2006 Granache ($27) for a total of $64 before tip and tax.
All in all, I'm all for out of the way, hole in the wall places with amazing food and great prices. But that's the key. The prices have to be great and the food has to be amazing. So for my dining dollars, I'll stick with Sra. Martinez. For the extra few bucks, I'll get delectable food by a great chef, with top-notch service in a beautiful room.
The only drawback? I'll have to stop for gas (and condoms) on my way home.