Barbara Adam investigates El Camino, a hidden Korean taco speakeasy in downtown District 1. Photos by Jonny Edbrooke.

An eclectic mix of dive bar, Korean food truck and speakeasy, El Camino is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s newest — and hippest — hangout spots.

Despite its hipness, El Camino has a welcoming laidback feel, helped along by friendly staff and some sensational fusion flavours.

The decor is understated, and continues the welcoming vibe, with a reclaimed wood bar, leather banquettes and walls decorated with black and white photos of Hollywood movie stars interspersed with a series on the homeless by Hans Gutknecht.

El Camino is the fourth project for Calvin Bui, of Pop Fries, Sancho’s Cantina and Publik House fame. It’s also his first solo project, and one that gets him back in the kitchen.

Calvin’s kept the menus brief and simple, but every dish has a unique twist.

The no-fuss drinks menu has a selection of bottled beers, soft drinks and double-shot cocktails, including a refreshing soju and aloe vera number called the Ric Flair. The food menu is also short and sharp, with a heavy focus on snack-y and shared dishes. “We’ve really tried to create some high-level flavour profiles,” Calvin said as he placed bowls of tortilla chips and dips in front of the AsiaLIFE team.

Unusual and eye-widening flavours certainly were delivered, starting with the Gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes) sprinkled on the tortilla chips and continuing with each dip of bacon and blue cheese guacamole (VND180,000). The endamame guacamole has a fresher taste and slightly grittier texture than traditional avocado guac, rounded out with the surprise tang of blue cheese.

The six layers of love (VND170,000), suitable for vegetarians, was also full of surprises: black beans, roasted corn, edamame guacamole, kim chi cherry tomato pico de gallo, pickled chilli, sour cream and green onions. Both dips lend themselves to long relaxed conversations, punctuated by a couple of drinks.

The next two dishes we tried were also perfect bar snacks, the Dalat green chilli poppers (VND135,000) didn’t have too much of a chilli kick, just enough to nudge you into taking another sip of your drink. The El Camino chicken wings (VND180,000), meanwhile, coated with a delicious blend of caramelised fish sauce, roasted peanuts, pickled chilli, fresh mint and fried garlic, pair perfectly with a pint of icy cold Heverlee draught beer.

The showstoppers were, without a doubt, the El Camino Korean tacos (VND50,000 for one, or VND135,000 for three), which come in four flavours: kalbi beef shoulder with spicy mayo; spicy gochujang (a sweet and spicy Korean condiment) chicken, with roasted pineapple salsa; Korean pork carnitas with fresh kimchi slaw; and brekkie tacos with black beans, home-style potato hash, scrambled eggs, gochujang and endamame guacamole.

The tortillas, made with a touch of non-traditional rice flour, are slightly crunchy, and the fillings very flavourful.

There’s a lot to love at El Camino, hipster or not.   

91 Pasteur, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Opening hours: 5pm to 1am
www.facebook.com/elcaminosaigon