L.A.’s appetite for Mexican fare is as old as the city itself. From the hole in the wall taquería to the corner taco truck, it’s pretty easy to score some good Mexican grub. And for a culture that has worked its way up the restaurant ranks from dishwashers and line cooks to managers and executive chefs, it can be argued that the cuisine has been raised a few echelons as well.
Mercado is Mexican food at its finest. Or perhaps it is fine food that happens to be Mexican? Regardless, co-owner Jesse Gomez has pieced together one of Santa Monica’s newest hot spots. (Mercado is in the same family as El Arco Iris in Highland Park and Yxta Cocina Mexicana in Downtown L.A.)
The menu is pretty basic and quite familiar to even a gringo like myself. On it you will find Mexican mainstays like tacos, tamales, carne asada, and enchiladas. So why all the fuss?
Perhaps it has to do with Executive Chef Jose Acevedo’s unique twist on seemingly standard offerings such as carnitas. The braised pork, about the size of a fist, plated on a bed of roasted cauliflower and escabeche, and served with guacamole and chile sauce, is one of the restaurant’s benchmark dishes for good reason. Effortlessly breaking into the sizable hunk of meat with a fork and knife, you will realize how tender the carnitas are. Wrapping the shredded pork in a tortilla and biting into it is truly achieving some sort of slow-cooked nirvana.
Most of the dishes (or at least ones that I tried) followed the simple concept of taking good ingredients, cooking them properly, and essentially letting the food and flavors speak for themselves. A plate of roasted purple and yellow cauliflower with carrots and broccolini from the Downtown Farmers’ Market is not exactly breaking news, but accompanied by a perfectly grilled, perfectly marinated skirt steak warrants a big nod of approval.
Whether it is a simple kale and arugula salad or the spit roasted pastor tacos, everything across the board at Mercado is on point. Chef Jose did not reinvent the wheel, he just made it much more delicious to eat.
While the menu is manageable, the tequila list is enough to make your head spin without even taking a single shot. The tequila labels (over 70) are broken down into Blanco, Reposado and Añejo varieties. If you can, try to catch Marco managing the floor. His knowledge of tequila is comparable to a master sommelier’s knowledge of wine and he can easily tell you more than you have thought you ever needed to know about the agave-based spirit. It is an impressive and the most extensive collection I am aware of in Santa Monica. Salud!
Drinks and dinner aside, Mercado offers a contemporary casual dining atmosphere. Service is helpful but not overbearing. It can get pretty packed, especially on the weekend. Prices are comparable to well established Border Grill down the street. And according to OC Weekly, they have “The best flan in the universe.” High praise for caramel custard, but after trying it for myself, it is indeed the best I have ever had.
Two thumbs up, five stars, perfect 10, however you want to break it down, Mercado is easily my favorite new restaurant here in town. Order the carnitas and for God’s sake try the flan, if it is not the best you have ever had, you could club me over the head with one of Chef Jose’s pavo en mole Oaxaqueño (whole turkey leg).
If you go
1416 Fourth St.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Michael can be seen riding around town on his bike burning calories so he can eat more food, or on CityTV hosting his own show, “Tour de Feast.” To reach him visit his website at tourdefeast.net or follow him on Twitter @TourDeFeastSM.