I read in Anthony Blue’s magazine about a new hot drink called the “Mercedes Margarita.” Not wanting to remain un-hip I decided to try one. Also, the picture of Mercedes Ahrablou, the owner, standing with the drink in her hand looked inviting.
The Mercede’s Grill turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected. First of all, being warmly greeted by a really attractive brunette was a good start. Finding out that she is the owner, and a lot better looking than Anthony’s picture suggested, enhanced the entrée. After some conversation about food and drink and discovering a really intelligent food person convinced me that I had stumbled on to something special.
Mercede’s Grille turned out to be a Cuban-influenced watering hole near the beach in Marina del Rey. But when I say “influenced” I don’t mean it’s another Mexican restaurant with Cuban names: here we have real Cuban food. When you see lamb ropa vieja (“old clothes”) on the menu you know where you are. Cuban garlic citrus pork and tomatillo port enchiladas add veracity. And when the plates come with real black beans and perfectly fried plantains — well, it’s better than being in Cuba. But not much more expensive I’ll bet.
The main courses are $12 to $14. At the same price are the popular Cuban pork sandwich and the bacon cheddar burger. A pair of French tourists was seated next to me the last time I was there, and I asked them what they thought about the restaurant. “Ze burger, she is better zan in France” said the tall French blond. “Ze food they are good” said her short, dark husband, “but it is ze service which is so differente.” He was impressed by the fact that the waiters were friendly, and the food came out quickly. He had never traveled out of France before.
The breakfast and lunch menus are equally eclectic, and for something different for breakfast I recommend Joey’s healthy Cubano: egg whites and grilled Cuban garlic citrus chicken breast topped with grilled onions and served with rice, black beans and plantains — $12.95. Be sure and ask for the chipotle sauce and the house spicy sauce to go with it — they will make your day, although you might have a momentary problem carrying on a conversation with your dining companion.
Did I mention the delicious small muffins that were served before the food arrived? An assortment of pumpkin chocolate chip, banana cinnamon, and blueberry muffins killed my diet for the day, but what a great way to go.
There is a little wine list with seemingly over-priced offerings, but one can find a decent glass for $8. I appreciate that the list of choices includes a few half bottles, but it hardly matters because any reasonable person would have a beer with this food.
Mercedes recently took over the sushi bar next door and converted it into a wine bar with snacks, called Bin 73. The snacks are plenty for a meal. The wine list has an adequate selection, and the prices for a glass, generally between $7 and $10 are not out of line. No one has given the list the kind of thought that a real wine bar requires, but few will have any problem with it. It’s not a gourmet destination; it’s a friendly spot near the beach full of mostly young people in beachwear.
But when you are looking for a friendly place with great Cuban pork dishes, and you’re not willing to drive to Versailles in Culver City or Hollywood, it’s the best game in town.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
If You Go<p>
Mercede’s Grille, Bin 73
14-18 Washington Blvd.
Marina del Rey, Calif., 90202
Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.