Buenos Días, Amigos!

by Jennifer Lee

Abel Ramos took a rather circuitous route from his hometown of San Ignacio in Jalisco, Mexico to owning and running his Camino Real Restaurant on Crow Street in Berryville. After years of contract work picking fruit in California, Oregon, and Washington, Abel’s father, Laureano, gradually moved his family to Kirkland, Washington. Abel was 14 years old. Then and there he started his career in the restaurant business.

“My father, mother, my two brothers, and me—we all worked in restaurants. My dad was the dishwasher, my brother Benjamin was a cook, and I waited tables,” Abel recalls. His father’s cousins had 18 restaurants around the state, and gave the family the experience and subsequent impetus to open their own restaurant. After moving to Blaine, Wash., they opened their first restaurant there in 1995.

Blaine is a town slightly larger than Berryville, sitting at the intersection of the Canadian border, a major interstate (I-5), and the Pacific Ocean. The Peace Arch, an international monument erected in 1921, stands there. Blaine was once home to the largest salmon cannery in the world, but the site has since been converted to a waterfront resort destination. What Berryville and Blaine may share is a “turn-of-the-century” character, embracing the architecture and signage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as a deep appreciation for nature and the surrounding landscape among residents.

The Ramos’s passion for cooking began back in Mexico. “My grandmother served dinner out of her kitchen table in Mexico, and raised her family selling food to locals at our home town San Ignacio,” Abel recalled. The recipes he uses at Camino Real are largely old family recipes.

In the mid 1990s, Abel’s brother Benjamin made his way East and opened his restaurant (also Camino Real) in Winchester in 1996. “I came to visit and liked the area, so I stayed,” Abel says. Benjamin opened Camino Real on Main Street in Berryville in December 1997, and Abel took over the following year. At the time, Camino Real was one of just a few restaurants in Berryville, and its tattered booths were often full. “We could not have large groups there, like we can now. It just wasn’t an option,” Abel says.

Later, the Crow Street restaurant was built—a major conversion and expansion of an old, abandoned house—to house a Greek-style restaurant. When that business moved, the Ramoses took a big leap of faith. They moved from the small, cozy space that is now Boyd’s Nest restaurant into the Crow Street building. “So many people told me I was crazy,” Abel laughs. “Running a restaurant that is almost 7,000 square feet in a small town like Berryville costs a lot of money. We have to sell a lot of enchiladas in order to break even.”

They kept the ocean blue and white colors already in the restaurant, but added a furnished outdoor patio, lots of plants, colorful Mexican-inspired art, and large murals reflective of the Southwest. A bright mural of Mission San Javier del Bac, near Tucson, Arizona, is painted on the two-story wall in the dining room. “I just always liked the look of that place,” Abel says. He says business has grown by at least 60 percent since they moved from the Main Street space to Crow Street. Ninety percent of their customers, he said, are locals. Many of them come on a regular basis.

“I’ve made so many good friends,” said Ramos, “it is worth every hour I have worked.”

Every hour combined to add up to a lot of hours—an average of 70 hours a week for many years. Now Abel has slowed down a bit, to about 50 hours. “My wife doesn’t allow me to work so much,” he said with a wink while Alisia Ramos stood nearby with their curly-haired 3-year old son Damian. “But I like to be here, making sure everything is running properly,” he said.

Abel met Alisia 13 years ago while bartending at his brother’s restaurant in Winchester. They and their two children live in Boyce.

For many locals, Camino Real is a gathering place, with its small, well-stocked bar and lounge area with video gaming machines. The airy dining room seats about 50 people and the outdoor patio, warmed by a gas fireplace or cooled by large ceiling fans, seats about 20. The winding staircase in the front room leads to two more rooms upstairs, one equipped with another bar and plenty of seating for large parties or meetings.

“You may rent the upstairs for free if you eat our food. If you want to bring your own food, we charge a fee,” Abel explained. And by “our food,” Abel means an extensive selection of Mexican dishes and a few American standards, such as cheeseburgers, ribs, and steaks. You can get a chicken burrito or steak fajitas, served with rice and refried beans, or something more exotic, such as Abel’s favorite, Pollo en Mole – chicken cooked in a sweet, spicy, nutty salsa. He says the most popular dish they serve is Arroz con Pollo and the most popular beer is Dos Equis. And what’s his favorite American meal? Prime rib and mashed potatoes.

Camino Real makes its salsa and tortilla chips fresh every day, and serves them gratis with each meal. The guacamole is homemade, too, with big chunks of avocado and tomato. The margaritas have fresh-squeezed lime juice and are served in frozen, salt-rimmed glasses.

Abel travelled a long way to get from his hometown of San Ignacio to Berryville. Now people travel to enjoy to the Ramos family’s offerings. “People travel from up to 50 miles to come and eat here because the portions are good, the price is right, the food is delicious, and always served with a smile,” Abel said.

Camino Real likes its fiestas, too. It has Cinco de Mayo and Black Friday parties every year, karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights, and occasional live music. It is often the only restaurant in Berryville where you can grab a beer and snack after 10pm on the weekends.

As well as serving generous portions, Camino Real is supportive of community events and fundraisers. They help schools raise money through the PTA, sponsor Relay for Life events and Music in the Park. “Little things that mean a lot,” Abel said.

Camino Real Restaurant is located at 16 Crow Street in Berryville. Hours are Sunday–Thursday 11am–9:30pm, Friday and Saturday 11am–midnight. Website with menu at www.caminorealfamilyrestaurant.com. Phone: 540-955-430.