Tuesday, December 6, 2011

mercadito - mastering the art of tacos & tequila

chicago - river north
miami - midtown
nyc - avenue b & grove

From the really cute Spanish lady in the back of the kitchen using a cast iron presser to make perfectly sized corn tortillas – one by one – to the house mixologists stirring crazy ingredients away during the lull of the day, concocting new recipes to serve eager patrons later on in the evening...  Mercadito consistently succeeds because they brilliantly pick the best that Mexican cuisine has to offer, diligently perfecting each aspect. Dried and fresh chiles are skillfully immersed in dishes - de arbol, serrano, haberno – you name it, they’re about to artfully feed you with it. Presenting the food and delivering flavors in ways you couldn’t dare imagine. 

The focus is on fresh at Mercadito. In fact, i found myself continuously using the thesaurus so I wouldn't overuse the word fresh as I wrote this post. Mercadito means ‘Little Market’ in Spanish therefore the idea is to experience a variety of flavors and ingredients from Southern Mexico – served tapas style. This way you are not overwhelmed with one big burrito and instead can see the versatility of the cuisine in beautiful, small portions. The restaurant is always bustling - vibrant ambiance, great crowd and topnotch service but the heart beats here because of the food.

*courtesy of facebook.com/mercaditochicago

Ripe avocados are getting sliced and ready to mingle with ingredients such as mango, pomegranate, and even sweet potato in what will inevitably become some of the best damn guacamole you will ever have. You can’t have great guac with mediocre chips and they don’t want you to – instead they use those freshly made tortillas the cute little lady in the back just made, fry them and kindly serve it warm for your liking.

*courtesy of delish.com

Mercadito offers tequilas beyond comparison and drinks are served by gifted boys & girls who skillfully make alcoholic beverages that are appealing to both the eye and discerning palate. They’re more like wizards concocting new recipes and trying to find the next spell that’s going to mesmerize you and keep you asking for more. My recommendation is the ‘Misty’s Sleeve’ – an outrageously delicious blend of el Tesoro blanco, ginger, orange, hibiscus and chile Serrano… it’s a spicy kick your taste buds didn’t see coming but will end up thanking you for. Add heat for some interactive fun and enjoy fire on top of your beverage as its served... which your server will kindly fight off so you.

*courtesy of dudesonfood.blogspot.com

By now you are sipping finely created cocktails and munching on unrivaled guacamole... so the time has come to conquer the rest of the menu. I can easily write paragraphs upon paragraphs on each item offered but instead I’m going to happily share how I would order at Mercadito (since I get to work at the Chicago location and have had the good fortune to try mostly everything the talented and humble chef Patricio Sandoval makes– who was born in Mexico and brings you dishes that were inspired from meals he was raised on since childhood.)

Do the sharing menu – regardless of how many people you are eating with – this way you get to explore the menu like you yourself were in the “little markets” of Mexico, trying one thing at a time, at all the different stalls.

For guacamoles, order mango (sweet & spicy), toreado (spicy) and traditional (better than any ol’ regular guac you’ve tried before.) Definitely get the chipotle salsa (a smoky-sweet finish) and roja salsa too. Ask for the ceviche with scallops (mixed with pumpkin seeds and a key-lime habanero broth) as well as the mahi mahi - which comes in a superb tamarind-chipotle broth. There are 11 tacos to choose from but my choices are the ‘estilo baja’ (crispy beer battered mahi mahi), ‘carnitas de puerco’ (flavorful braised pork), ‘camaron’ (shrimp), ‘carne’ (skirt steak) and the ‘pollo’ (smoked chicken.) Each has its own unique topping – anywhere from Mexican style coleslaw to crispy plantains. Every taco is exceptional and since you will naturally be inclined to visit again, be sure to try them all and proudly gloat that you have mastered the mercadito menu and maybe even become the Mayor of Mercadito via FourSquare.

Other highlights are the ‘pollo enchilado’ that is described on the menu as a chile morita-arbol crusted chicken but all you have to know is it’s especially delicious and even the 45-minutes it takes to make it doesn’t stop anyone from ordering it. They also have a Mexican style corn on the cob, brussel sprouts cooked in crispy pork belly and for dessert get the ‘torreas de bolillo’ – an ode to French toast but turned Mexican and entirely incredible.

There's a reason why they have a countless amount of regulars and there's certainly a reason why they have a countless amount of newcomers - all arriving with empty stomachs and eager palates. 

I would say to go if you love Mexican food but I will make it much easier and just say that if you love food in general then "check-in" at Mercadito.