This past Sunday was one of those rainy days where you don’t really want to do anything. It wasn’t the most oppressive in the recent spat of bad weather but it was annoying enough that you just don’t want to do anything. To top it all off, we were dreadfully hungover and trying to figure out how to recover as we had been absolute wrecks. While visiting friends in Santa Monica, we were on the hunt for a comforting dinner place that doubled as a shield from the rain. We considered a few styles (Italian? Pizza? Hamburgers?) but Mexican seemed like the perfect place to remedy an all day hangover. This took us to new Fourth Street spot Mercado, which we had never even heard of and had no idea what to expect.
NOTE: Apologies in advance but we didn’t get a chance to photograph the dishes. Please imagine as best you can and cross reference with Yelp images. We blame the hangover.
The space is just a parallel jump from the bustling Promenade and is incredibly unassuming. You approach it to find a very glassy, cool exterior that even employs a distressed Courier for its font (an irony as near homonym Bäco Mercat employs a similar typewriting for its logo). The space glowed on a rainy night and was bustling with people perched over communal tables. We were lucky enough to get a table in their quiet upstairs area that overlooks the main dining room. It felt a bit like Mas Malo’s setup but without all the noise or embellishments. The entire restaurant does feel like a converted bank but perhaps one from the mid-1980s instead of mid-twentieth century.
For not wanting to drink, the drink selection was very kind. Like many local Latin restaurants, they have a big selection of tequila complimented with a mezcal menu. We had to abide by the unspoken rule of “When in a Mexican restaurant, drink a margarita.” and thusly ordered the house margarita and the spicy sounding La Picosa. The regular margarita was light and gets to the essence of a margarita. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the drink nor is it drawn out of a troth of margarita that is cheaply shovel out to customers: it is a clean, crispy, nice take on the drink. It probably should not be as easy to drink as it was. La Picosa is a “spicy margarita” but does not kill you with the spice. Like the classic, it is crisp and you get the taste of jalapeño without an overwhelming amount of its fire. They are well done.
Examining the menu brought brief anxiety that we’d have to be splitting New Mexican small plates (Ugh.) but that is not the case: the “Small Plates” are appetizers and the “Large Plates” are entrees. It’s easy to confuse this for shared eating: thank heavens it isn’t. The selection is a combination of New Mexican, comfortable and craveable Mexican, and Santa Monica Farmers Market freshness. There is a Kale Salad, there are classic taco selections, there is a soup for every day, and many opportunities for food culture collisions. We opted to start with the “Dip Duo” and then have a go with their shrimp skewering Alambres de Camarõn and mildly intimidating sounding Pollo en Salsa de Chipotle.
The Dip Duo is a serving of guacamole and “Choriqueso,” which we decided to go for since we were hungover and wanted lots of chips and more than guacamole. The guacamole looked a little silly as there were some pine nuts sprinkled on it but it ended up being an acovado, tomato, mildly spicy perfect guacamole: it was great! The Choriqueso is a melted cotija with chorizo and mushrooms and was almost infuriatingly gooey good. It reminded me of this dumb dip all of the super white kids in my high school would order at Mexican restaurants, which was simply referred to as the bastardized “Queso.” This was the adult Queso and undoubtedly would cause any of those friends from high school to fall into a seizure. It should also be noted that the chips were flawlessly crunchy and soft at the same time: they were exactly what you want from a chip.
The entries arrive and, like everything else, were served on Heath ceramics. That was a nice, surprising touch. The Alambres de Camarõn were a grouping of shrimp skewers over a bed of rice and friends. We added some flour tortillas to make improvised tacos out of them and they were great. The shrimp was crisp and blackened–and a dash more of lime would have been welcomed but, hey, all good. The Pollo en Salsa de Chipotle was a bit intimidating because it’s fairly large and very, very boney. The mass of chicken is served with corn and two ice cream looking scoops of mashed potatoes that all mix together in a Santa Monica Mexican balance of fresh ingredients and blackened chicken. The bones were a bit too much to handle and the rosemary garnish was sadly inedible as it tasted a bit too medicinal when mixed into the dish. This said, it was a good feast.
To close, we accidentally scored some Flan for dessert as a result of a margarita not showing up. We hadn’t mentioned service up until now but it was excellent. You are attended to without being smothered. There was some anxiety about sitting upstairs (Having served before at multi-level restaurants, you know the main floor gets more attention.) but we were cared for all the same. The flan was delightfully creamy with strong caramel notes. It was also served with an almond liqueur bath, a great way to soak your flan.
Mercado is great–and incredibly unexpected. We had no idea what it was going to be but it was a very positive dining experience. If we lived or worked in the Santa Monica area, this is likely a place that we would frequent because it’s so cozy and comfortable. It has all the familiarity of classic Mexican as it does the experimental tendencies of New Mexican: it slides itself nicely into the landscape of LA Mexican food. What a perfect cure to a rainy, hungover Sunday in LA!