Mercado (Santa Monica)
Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to a special Friends & Family soft opening of Mercado, the newest collaboration between Chef Jose Acevedo and co-owner Jesse Gomez, who are also behind El Arco Irisin Highland Park and Yxta Cocina Mexicanain Downtown LA.
Mercado is billed as authentic Mexican cuisine but the experience is nothing sort of a fine dining experience in a casual yet modern setting. Nothing I ate last night disappointed me. The food, service and decor all came together so well that it was hard to believe that this was just a test run.
We started the evening with a few margaritas and small plates, including the Elote Callejero (grilled sweet corn, caramelized onions, chile piquin butter, queso cotija), Coliflor con Escabeche (roasted cauliflower, pickled vegetables), Rajas Poblanas (poblano strips, sweet corn, spicy queso añejo, tortillas) Chayote con Calabacitas (chayote, zucchini, corn, tomatoes, spicy queso añejo) and Choriqueso (melted cotija, parmesan, oaxaca, house chorizo, poblanos, mushrooms, fresh chips).
No surprise that the two cheese dishes (Rajas Poblanas and Choriqueso) were so impressive that I could not muster enough self control to save room or the rest of the dinner. The Rajas Poblanos was creamy with thin and slightly roasted strips of poblano peppers. It was not very spicy but it was full of flavor and tasted great as a cheese dip with nachos or mixed with the grilled corn and cauliflower.
As for the Choriqueso, we renamed it “Crack in a bowl” because it was perfection. It’s essentially a fundio, a slightly salty but very hearty cheese dip with house chorizo that had me wanting to stick my finger in the bowl and wipe it clean. I tried very hard not to embarrass myself while eating this but failed miserably and left droplets of cheese from the bowl to my mouth while basically eating this with the restraint of a four year-old eating cookie dough.
For our second course, we shared the Tacos de Jicama con Camarón (crispy mexican sweet shrimp, chile de arbol aioli, mexican slaw, jicama tortilla), Dos Gringas (pastor, oaxaca, onions, cilantro, chile de arbol salsa, avocado salsa, flour tortillas), Carnitas (slow-cooked natural pork, guacamole, chile de arbol salsa, cauliflower with escabeche) and the Enchiladas de Camarón (Mexican sweet shrimp, yellow mole, cilantro lime rice).
The Tacos de Jicama con Camaron were refreshing with the light and crisp jicama wrapper and the warm crunch of the crispy and lightly breaded shrimp. The Dos Gringas is lined with melted cheese and hits you full force with its savory roast pork and bright and sweet chunks of pineapple. Despite it’s unassuming size and even though each order has two tacos, you can easily feel satisfied after eating a few small plates and one of these pastor tacos.
The Carnitas at Mercado was excellent and eating more than a few bites is sure to put you into a food coma. The plate was generously portioned and the fattiness of the slow-cooked pork kept the meat moist, tender and full of flavor.
As for as enchiladas go, the Enchiladas de Camarón was on the lighter side since it wasn’t drowned in mole or buried under melted cheese. The tortilla were fresh and light and the shrimp were tender, sweet and not the least bite dry. The side of Chayote con Calabacitas and rice were nice compliments both with subtle flavors that added a nice dimension to the shrimp enchiladas.
We also ordered the Ceviche Tropical (citrus-marinated white fish and shrimp, mango, jicama, cucumbers, red onions, cilantro, serrano peppers, red peppers, grilled pineapple) but I didn’t have a chance to try it. The tortilla soup was the best I’ve ever had. Simply amazing!
Not to worry though, I will definitely be making my way back to Mercado to try the ceviche, as well as the Carne Asada (Niman Ranch marinated skirt steak, guacamole, grilled corn), Callos de Hacha (jumbo deep sea scallops encrusted with pumpkin seeds, chipotle-peppercorn sauce, chayote with calabacitas) and Pollo en Salsa de Chipotle (free-range half chicken, chipotle wild mushroom sauce, queso fresco mashed), not to mention the fantastic house Cadillac margaritas and their mind-blowing selection of tequilas such as the Don Julio 1942! Oh – and lets not forget, I need to return for another fix of liquid Crack in a Bowl (aka “Choriqueso”).
Mercado officially opens tomorrow, May 1, 2012, just in time for Cinco de Mayo! So, get your reservations ready!