Philip Schaefer didn’t plan to open a restaurant. He moved to Missoula to pursue a Master’s degree in creative writing, working in the bar and restaurant industry while going to school, eventually ending up at Montgomery Distillery.
He and a coworker took a sales trip to Chicago, finding themselves at a restaurant serving tequila and whiskey cocktails, tacos, and other Mexican dishes. Upon their return, Philip received a late-night text message from his coworker Tad: “We should try to open something like that in Missoula.”
Philip brushed it off at first.
“I thought it was a joke. Tad said, ‘What else are we gonna do?’” Philip explained. “I was trying to be a professor. But also, I was newly married and needed a career. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t adjunct my way across the country.”
So Tad and Philip cooked their way through that winter, researching and experimenting, the results of which were a business plan and finally, after talking to bank after bank, the financing to fund their dream.
The Camino, a Mexican kitchen and agave bar, opened on November 29, 2019 in the southeast corner of the Mercantile building in downtown Missoula.
“There was a gap in what Missoula could offer in terms of Mexican cuisine,” Philip explained. “We travel to Mexico once a year, to regions all over. Every place we go we learn traditional culture, cuisine, and practices.”
The Camino offers simple Mexican food, the basis of which rests on corn masa tortillas—an “almost currency in Mexico,” according to Philip.
“We wanted to create a unique Mexican space in Missoula with the food but also with the vibe and feel,” he said. The Camino features décor made with raw materials and pops of color—design elements that bring the distinct Mexican feel that complements the food and also their unique spin on tequila, mescal, and agave cocktails the Coyote.
The Camino works with a purveyor in Los Angeles that imports sustainable, fair-trade corn, beans, and chiles from Mexico. Tad aims to source as much produce and other meats from local producers as possible, resulting in seasonal menu selections.
“We can source all sorts of weird things that are fun,” Philip said. "It’s part knowing what you’re going to get, but also being able to try new things.”
Camino means “the path” or “the way” and the restaurant’s simple drawing of a coyote symbolizes the whimsical nature of the restaurant and its devotion to traditional methods (like grinding all of the corn and juicing all of the citrus in-house, every day) and creative innovations with tried-and-true dishes—think carne asada or beef brisket tacos and seared scallops but with a fennel and strawberry salad.
“We are a scratch kitchen, start to finish. The integrity of the product is super important to us,” Philip said. “This is truly a passion project. To fail is not an option. It’s fun. It’s an environment and culture that should be enjoyed, but not taken too seriously.”
1.5 oz Espolon blanco
.75 oz fresh lime juice
.5 oz agave syrup (agave nectar cut with equal parts boiling water)
2 oz hibiscus tea (made in house w/hibiscus flower -- can provide recipe if needed)
5 dashes orange bitters
“We travel to Mexico once a year, to regions all over. Every place we go we learn traditional culture, cuisine, and practices.” Philip Schaefer