Restaurant: Mercado in Santa Monica Was Worth the Wait
If a restaurant has its opening delayed for more than a year and the proprietors have a well earned reputation for high quality modern Mexican cuisine, expectations run high when it finally opens. Mercado, the new restaurant on 4th Street in Santa Monica is the brainchild of owner Jesse Gomez and co-owner/Chef Jose Acevedo. Gomez and Acevedo also have a successful restaurant called Yzta Cocina Mexicana on the east side of downtown Los Angeles. Mercado features the same sophisticated cooking using only the best farm fresh ingredients and complements the food with professionally mixed cocktails. The market for upscale Mexican cuisine is pretty crowded on the west side of Los Angeles, but Mercado definitely has the right formula for success.
Gomez grew up in the restaurant business. His grandparents opened El Arco Iris in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1964. In 2006 he redesigned El Arco Iris and in 2009 opened Yzta Cocina Mexicana. Mercado has been in the works for over a year, but various delays held back the opening until May 2012. The wait is over and the restaurant’s downtown Santa Monica location should draw crowds of hungry diners. The design of the space is a blend of classic and contemporary. It is reminiscent of a Mexico City gathering place but with a modern flair. The main room has an attractive bar and communal tables in the central area, while private tables line the two side walls. Upstairs is another, more private seating area, while a tequila tasting room is still in the development stage. Music and mood lighting fill the restaurant and when crowded, it feels like a festive marketplace.
We were anxious to sample some of Chef Acevedo’s creations and he did not disappoint. With the nearby farmers market offering many inspirations, the menu is loaded with fresh ingredients that are prepared with creativity and expertise. We started with a tangy kale and arugula salad that was loaded with candied pumpkin seeds, pears, dried strawberries and croutons all splashed with agave-lime vinaigrette. The Ceviche Tropical came next and it was served in a large bowl accompanied by a stack of saltines. The blend of white fish and shrimp marinated in lime juice with tropical fruits and vegetables was delicious. The salty crackers are an odd pairing choice that overpowers the delicate fish, so just enjoy the Ceviche by itself or ask for tortillas.
Before another course arrived, Marco Ramos, the restaurant’s manager and resident tequila expert brought over one of their signature cocktails. The El Pepino is a tasty jicama cucumber margarita rimmed with a blend of salt and spices – super tasty! Marco is incredibly knowledgeable about Mexican liquors. He will give you an interesting history lesson, weave a tale about tequila and before you know it, have your head spinning from the various selections he has brought to your table. While we continued to pig out on the food, Marco brought additional cocktails like the Mezcal Mojito made with Del Maguey Vida, muddled cucumber, mint and lime. We also sampled the La Picosa, a spicy margarita made with Tanteo jalapeño tequila, fresh sour and muddled serrano chile. A farmers market inspired cocktail was the Strawberry Mash made with muddled Carlsbad strawberries, mint, fresh sour and Camerena blanco tequila. For enthusiasts or those just learning about Mexican spirits, Marco can make recommendations from the more than seventy tequilas and mezcals stocked at the bar.
The feast continued with a whimsical small plate called Dos Gringas. Two open faced soft tacos of spit roasted pastor are layered with Oaxaca cheese, onions, cilantro, chili salsa and avocados. It is a rich, decadent treat. We also sampled the Carnitas from the main course menu. The slow cooked, carefully seasoned pork shoulder with a brown sugar glaze was incredibly tender and juicy. It was served with roasted cauliflower, chile de arbol salsa, guacamole and fresh made flour tortillas. This is a delicious, hearty dish that can easily be shared. Although we were bursting at the seams after the Carnitas, Marco insisted we try Chef Acevedo’s Flan, which one publication dubbed “the best Flan in the universe”. The dessert is presented with a small medley of fresh berries and a cup of Mexican eggnog. The Flan is light and creamy while the eggnog is loaded with rum that tastes great over the fluffy dessert.
Mercado proved to be everything we expected - delicious food, great cocktails, a fun atmosphere and knowledgeable, friendly service. The Mercado team has launched a fine Mexican restaurant that is a smart blend of old and new concepts. They recently added an all week happy hour with several food items and cocktails at reasonable prices. It is an excellent way to sample some of the menu offerings and creative cocktails. Also look for farmers market inspired additions to the menu, specially selected tequila flights and tastings. Once you try Chef Acevedo’s dishes and the tasty cocktails, Mercado will become your go to place in Santa Monica.
1416 Forth St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Mon, Tue, Wed: 5pm to 10pm
Thu: 5pm to 12am (kitchen 11pm)
Fri, Sat: 4pm to 12am (kitchen 11pm)
Sun: 4pm to 10pm
Happy Hour: M-F 5-7pm, Sat, Sun 4-6pm
[Andy J. Gordon, a Los Angeles-based marketing and strategy consultant, made his writing debut in “Brentwood” Magazine in 2007. His interests include music, sports, consumer electronics, premium libations, fine dining, travel, fast cars, and enjoying life.]
Photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon