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El Camino Real IV
Out of a possible five

Expansive menu a plus for Decatur restaurant

With all of the great options in Fort Wayne, I seldom leave the city when I am in the mood for Mexican food.

But I recently ventured south to Decatur to try El Camino Real IV, hoping this ever-busy eatery would make me rethink my policy.

It did not.

There were a couple of good things about this strip-mall restaurant right off the bat. It makes the most of its retail space to create a warm atmosphere. It has attractive tile floors, an orange, green and yellow paint scheme with Mexican street scene paintings scattered about and a few nice pieces of flair, like the cool wagon-wheel windows dividing the main dining room from the back.

And the menu is vast. You will not have a hard time finding something that sounds good.

Finding something that tastes good, however …

From my first taste – the complimentary salsa – El Camino’s offerings were bland and lifeless. The salsa was just awful and had to have been from a can or jar. So I tried the cheese sauce, hoping to find something to lift my just-as-boring chips (i.e. not freshly fried or warm). What I received was a cup of thin white sauce that tasted like warm milk without any hint of jalapeno flavor or heat.

I thought the bean dip would be a better choice but never received it.

It was not the first or last of many service issues I ran into at El Camino Real.

The one meal that I could speak highly of was the Chimichanga Los Dos Amigos. Two flour tortillas – one stuffed with strip steak and the other with chicken strips – were deep fried until crisp, coated in cheese sauce and flanked by lettuce, guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream.

The steak was tender and flavorful, as were the pieces of chicken breast, and the pico had plenty of jalapeno kick, which was needed with the timid cheese sauce. The guacamole was sludgy and tasted processed, and my lettuce consisted of mostly one big inedible, slightly rusty iceberg heart. But the meat and still-crispy tortillas made this worth trying again.

The Chapala was also at least passable, with a pair of chicken-stuffed offerings – a flour tortilla with shredded chicken and a corn tortilla with spicy chicken – each topped with cheese and red enchilada sauce. The spicy chicken was better than the rather lifeless shredded, and the side of lettuce was decent this time.

The El Presidente combination dinner was hardly fit for a president. The chili con carne’s “flat, crispy tortilla covered with ground beef and cheese sauce” was soaked with drippings from the bland, flavorless ground beef, making the tortilla soggy. It was like a flat version of the ground beef enchilada, which also came with this meal and included the same ingredients wrapped inside a soggy unfried tortilla. The chile relleno was OK with plenty of cheese inside the egg-battered and fried chile pepper. The shredded chicken enchilada was the worst of the lot, as its sour green chile sauce tasted as if it was off.

El Camino Real’s carnitas platter was one of the worst I have ever had. Instead of moist, slow-cooked chunks of pork, I was served four large pieces that were drab and gray. They were dry on the exterior and even drier after I cut into them. And there was no hint of the “homemade special sauce” they were said to have been marinated in.

I wish I could tell you that dessert made up for the lackluster entrées, but I was not patient enough to wait on them during either visit. After main courses arrived, my party was pretty much ignored. It was so bad I could not even find a server to flag down when seated in the back dining room, which, I might add, was at a lovely booth next to a dusty stack of old tables and chairs, a computer ordering system and a gym bag stuffed with sweatshirts.

Other issues:

•Chips were not refilled promptly. Even after ordering cheese dip, it arrived without a fresh basket, and I waited for nearly 10 minutes to get more.

•Incorrect entrées were brought to the tables and placed in front of us. I had to stop the server as he tried to make a quick getaway to take them to whatever table actually ordered them.

•Two meals arrived for my party of four, and the remaining two were not served for nearly 10 minutes.

•Was seated for 15 minutes without menus before being greeted or having drink orders taken. Had to ask two servers before receiving menus.

•The food was sloppily plated with several items thrown on top of soupy refried beans.

Restaurant: El Camino Real IV

Address: 1380 Winchester Road, Decatur

Phone: 260-728-4008

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Cheese sauce ($2.75), bean dip ($3.50), Chimichanga Los Dos Amigos ($9.99), Chalapa ($7.99), carnitas ($9.25), El Presidente ($10.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.