Imagine this: Power-suit-wearing executives congregate around a table in a chichi conference room in Manhattan's Soho district. The big shot at the head of the room clanks his Perrier-filled crystal glass and asks the group: "Where should we open our sixth Dos Caminos location, ladies and gentlemen?" In deep contemplation, they rub their chins with manicured fingertips until one proudly yelps, "I've got it! That old hotel in South Florida shaped like a ship!"
When the Mexican eatery announced the new venue at the old Sheraton Yankee Clipper, it seemed a curious choice. Other locations for the trendy minichain include swanky areas of Manhattan and a five-star luxury hotel, the Palazzo, in Las Vegas. Although the hotel recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation and a name change to Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, it's not exactly a hot spot for dining or nightlife. Take the campy Wreck Bar. Despite the refurbishment, the historical, nautical-themed dive remains adjacent to the modern lobby, like Grandma's doily on a sexy chaise lounge.
To get to Dos Caminos, guests awkwardly walk through a sparkling-white hotel lobby to the bar and lounge area dotted with quasi-folksy skeleton-themed décor, a nod to the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. Quite a contrast of ambiance next to the lobby bookshelves, Tic-Tac-Toe sets, and an internet café — but then again, the English translation of Dos Caminos is two paths.
On a weekday evening, the bar was bustling with smiling diners enjoying cocktails. Surrounded by high-top wooden tables adorned with tall, tapered candles, three of us ordered from the expansive cocktail menu. My favorite was my friend Reed's calle fresca — a mango- and cucumber-infused 'rita on the rocks ($11). When Charles ordered a Jai Alai IPA beer, the bartender asked, "What's that?" "It's one of the beers listed here on the menu," Charles explained to her. True, the restaurant just opened January 27, but I would soon be surprised to see so many staff members appear on the verge of a panic attack when asked a question about the offerings.
Following the hostess to our table, we rounded the corner of the lounge into an extremely long and narrow dining area that resembled a hallway, with a row of tables on one side and a row of booths along the other. The room extends to the outdoor patio, where tables face traffic on A1A, and was lit by a soft glow from gold sconces against warm red walls. As we slowly marched across the concrete floor, Ashley joked, "It's like walking the mile of a Mexican jail!"
Soon after we were seated, our nervous waitress accidentally knocked over one of our cocktails. After she replaced it, I asked her to walk us through the menu. Confused, she hesitantly responded to my request with a guacamole sales spiel.
Diners who have visited Dos Caminos' other locations gush over the guacamole as if it were made by a culinary demigod with a golden mortar and pestle. And the way servers sell it, you would think a prize is awarded for the highest guac sales each night. At other branches, a big to-do is made of the tableside preparation, but here, that service isn't offered, because servers would block the narrow aisle. The guac is quite good — made from fresh avocado blended with lime, cilantro, studded with chopped onion, diced tomato, and flecks of spicy jalapeño.
Tasty as it may be, it's difficult to justify paying $24 for a four-person portion ($12 for a smaller version). But it does come with warm, crisp, and salty tortilla chips and a trio of salsas. The spiciest is the habanero — so fiery, Reed jolted back violently in his seat and squalled, "Woo! That's hot!" We looked over with concern and encouraged him to extinguish the burn with the mild tomatillo salsa verde.
From the bocaditos (starters) menu, we ordered the ceviche trio ($16), of which a favorite was the citrus-marinated shrimp, layered with sweet flavors of coconut and mango, spiced with the zing of habanero pepper. But even better was the cazuela de queso fundido ($12) — a hot skillet oozing with three melted cheeses (Muenster, drunken goat, and Chihuahua). My God, the cheesy goodness bubbling in that cast-iron plate is a hug for your mouth. Even better, it's served with grilled slices of chorizo and fork-tender fingerling potatoes. If I ever end up on death row, I'm getting this as my last meal.
We may have overdone it on the starters and should have waved the white flag of satiety, but the dinner menu beckoned. Ashley chose the carnitas tacos ($14) — homemade corn tortillas filled with roasted pork and spicy serrano chili salsa and topped with Cotija cheese ("Mexico's Parmesan"), which added a salty bite. Aged Cotija grates smoothly and is similar in consistency and use to Parmigiano-Reggiano, thus earning its nickname.
Reed and I selected tacos en cazuela — specialty meat fillings served in mini cast-iron pots with a side of warm corn tortillas. I also tried the cochinita pibil ($18), tender pork braised in a pickled red-onion sauce. The pickled onion offered both bitter and sweet taste to the shredded pork traced with earthy achiote. Reed added the carne parrillada ($21), a mound of well-seasoned, juicy sirloin strips, smoked bacon, and poblano chilies topped with guacamole and crumbled Cotija.
Charles' spit-roasted chicken enchiladas ($18) were smothered in an umber-hued mole sauce. Mild heat from chili peppers was calmed by a smoky chocolate finish and cool salsa verde. There are numerous variations of the complex sauce, with mole poblano (usually containing chilies, nuts, fruit, spices, and chocolate) being the version most often seen here in the States.
For dessert (yes, we went for that too), three of us shared vanilla caramel flan ($6), hesitantly passing up dark chocolate tamal ($7) and white and dark chocolate fondue ($10). We were pleased with the light and creamy custard floating in a small pool of caramel — a refreshing end to a hearty meal.
Despite subpar service, the food was quite tasty. However, the distress that began later that evening was unpleasant enough to erase our positive experience. Readers with sensitive stomachs may want to skip the next paragraph.
That night, I spent 14 hours near the toilet while my bowels emptied faster than Speedy Gonzales can outrun a clowder of cats. And it wasn't just me: Three out of four of us suffered a mild yet still very disturbing episode. Paralyzed in the fetal position, my sweaty cheek rested on the cool tile of the bathroom floor as I breathlessly clasped for more aloe-infused Charmin.
It's unclear which dish or drink might have caused our gastrointestinal woes. The only difference between the tormented trio and the lone survivor were drinks and flan. I called the restaurant to alert them to the health incident, and a genuinely apologetic general manager assured me he would investigate. His hypothesis? Contaminated eggs in the flan were to blame.
With a kung-fu grip on a small bottle of pink bismuth, I returned with high hopes of trying the Mexican eggs Benedict for breakfast. I had begun salivating at the website's description of "jalapeño-cheddar biscuits, nopales, green chili, and chorizo gravy."
Unfortunately, the breakfast is run by Sheraton, not Dos Caminos. Think typical hotel fare like omelets and pancakes. Only a measly three options actually belong to Dos Caminos — huevos rancheros, a baked egg casserole, and a breakfast quesadilla ($12 to $14). Such a shame — since a Mexican breakfast could be a nice alternative for diners. Frustrated, I left without eating.
Yet Dos Caminos reminds me of a paramour I had in college, the big man on campus skilled in the craft of balancing charm and detachment. You know, a bad boy. Despite all I had endured, I returned to Dos Caminos like a desperate girlfriend, hoping and wishing that maybe this time would be different.
It took a fair amount of begging to convince someone to go with me for visit numero tres. The same lackluster service prevailed when our waiter couldn't answer basic questions about dishes on the menu. "How is the Mexican street corn prepared?" I inquired. The waiter thought for a moment and pitifully responded: "You know, I just don't know."
This time, two of us shared pulled chicken taquitos ($8) as a starter. Two warm, crisp-fried rolled tortillas were stuffed with shredded chicken, queso fresco, sour cream, and serrano chile salsa. Unfortunately, shards of bones were carelessly left in the filling, attacking my soft palate like a miniature Mexican infantry soldier advancing, sword in hand.
Entrées of grilled open-face shrimp ($18) and chicken quesadillas ($15) arrived lukewarm. The open-face tortilla was topped with a thick layer of Mexican cheeses that overpowered the delicate flavor of the shrimp, resulting in one-dimensional flavor. My companion could accomplish only a few bites of his chicken quesadilla due to a dousing of chipotle barbecue sauce. "I'm really not that hungry," he whimpered, leaving an entire plate of food.
Combined with the odd location, poor service, and risk of food-borne gastrointestinal upset, Dos Caminos may struggle to amass the fanfare of its New York and Las Vegas locations. Although it'd pass as a fair spot for cocktails and appetizers, without significant improvement, Dos Caminos will work as nothing more than a stopover for guests of the ship-shaped hotel.