Tad Hilton and Philip Schaefer’s love for Mexican culture and cuisine inspired them to take the leap and create an experience for Missoulians in the downtown’s new Mercantile building.

This fall, The Camino will offer an agave bar with tequila and mezcal varieties, along with an extensive menu of traditionally prepared Mexican dishes. Spices and recipes will be sourced from Mexico, while produce, herbs and protein will come from western Montana food producers.

“Missoula seems to be growing quite a bit, and the amount of focused ethnic food, there could always be more of it,” Schaefer said. “We have a lot of really great burgers, pizza joints, tapa-style restaurants, but a lot of them incorporate multiple different cuisines and we just want to focus on something simple.”

The restaurant will have a variety of different tacos, along with more traditional dishes like cochinita pibil, a pork dish from the Yucatán, as well as tacos al pastor with shawarma spit-grilled meat.

Corn will be sourced from Oaxaca, and cocktails and Mexican brewery beer will be brought in as well.

The menu goes beyond burritos, quesadillas and other Tex-Mex cuisine, Hilton said.

“The world of Mexican cuisine is endless, so we can always learn more and we can always bring in new flavors,” Hilton said.

In order to achieve that level of quality, Hilton and Schaefer are partnering with local growers for their ingredients. 

New Life Micro Greens owner Caleb Smith uses a hydroponic system to grow herbs and other produce in a temperature- and light-controlled environment in Evaro. (Courtesy photo)
New Life Micro Greens owner Caleb Smith uses a hydroponic system to grow herbs and other produce in a temperature- and light-controlled environment in Evaro. (Courtesy photo)

Caleb Smith, founder of Newlife Micro Greens in Evaro, is preparing to grow a list of herbs for the restaurant. Mexican versions of cilantro called chepiche will be harvested, as well as a type of basil called albahaca. About 10 different herbs will come from the hydroponic farm.

The farm uses only organic heirloom seeds, using only water, seeds and light to grow their produce.

“It’s a world of difference and it’s a taste difference,” Smith said. “It’s a cultural experience that’s happening that I don’t think a lot of people get exposed to, which is awesome.”

Brian Herbel, owner of Verdure Pastures in Victor, will provide the restaurant some of its goat meat, pork and produce. The Camino will be the first restaurant in Missoula that the young farm and orchard will supply.

Already, Herbel provides ingredients to restaurants in Stevensville and Hamilton.

“I think what’s exciting about this relationship is working with a specific restaurant with a more focused growing paradigm,” Herbel said.

Using local food producers not only creates more flavorful dishes, but also cuts out unnecessary steps to restaurant operations.

“We’re all part of the same system,” Herbel said. “If you’re supporting your immediate local workforce and we all support each other, it makes for a more cohesive community. If that can translate into ingredients that end up in restaurants, then it’s all part of the same circle. You’re removing unnecessary steps out of the chain when everything you need is right here.”

While the experienced restaurateurs, both of whom work at Montgomery Distillery, have already established partnerships, they will also look to the Western Montana Growers Cooperative for other connections.

Last week, the Missoula County commissioners approved a $159,000 economic development loan application for The Camino to help the business create eight full-time jobs for low-income workers. The restaurant plans to have about 30 employees total.

Contact reporter Mari Hall via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.