In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I thought I’d post about Mercadito, a “Mexican” joint in River North. We went for lunch one afternoon a while ago and I have to say, I have mixed feelings about this place. Here’s why:
When we first walked in I thought to myself, “Oh! This place is kinda cool!” That reaction was based on the colorful, modern look of the entry, front room and bar, because that’s all we could see from there. Then we were seated and I took a look around. The wall to my left was painted with a huge, dare I say, ugly, mural of Incan ruins and a couple of war-hyped horses. What?! Where does that fit in?! It’s like there’s some sort of unbreakable tradition in every Mexican restaurant that says you can’t refuse Tio Pablo’s offer to add his artistic touch through a wall mural. You know what I mean; every mom and pop Mexican joint in America has one. Usually they’re really colorful and really bad. Well, this one wasn’t colorful…
Anyway, the food was pretty good! I put the word Mexican in quotation marks above because it’s not traditional Mexican restaurant. It’s one that uses Mexican names and ingredients but you’d probably never see any of these dishes in Mexico. The menu items were more enhanced classics and, for the most part, I enjoyed these non-traditional flavor combinations.
We started with one of their signature items: guacamole. Actually, they serve multiple varieties of guacamole. They even offer smaller portions, almost flights, so that you’re able to taste a more than one. We chose the traditional and the mango. I preferred the traditional; fresh and creamy avocados brightened with lime juice and flavored with cilantro and jalapeno. It was delicious. The mango, too, was good, even if the mango wasn’t a dominant flavor. I’m pretty sure that the chips they were served with were made in house. They were thick and crunchy and salty.
We continued on with tacos, the other signature of Mercadito. Now, this is where I got mad. The tacos come 3 to an order, but they have to be 3 of the same one. Again, what?! I hate that. Either let me buy them individually, or let me mix and match. I don’t want 3 of the same taco! Bo-ring! And now our server is well aware of this fact. Sorry, hombre. I didn’t mean to jump down your throat and I know you don’t make the rules, but come on! The entire rest of the world sells tacos individually! Please pass along my frustration. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I would have ordered one of each, even if it was more expensive than ordering a plate of 3. Plus, then we would have ordered ceviche, too. Really, Mercadito could have made a lot more money off of me. But, nooooooo….
We finally settled on just TWO different tacos, after much debate. With the help of our rolly-polly server, we opted first for the carnitas taco. (I totally saw that one coming. A little gordito recommending lard-fried braised pork? How odd.) They were served with a colorful slaw and toasted peanuts. They were tasty in a ‘fat is flavor’ kind of way.
My preference of the two, though, was the carne asada. The steak was marinated before it was grilled and managed to keep a tenderness and juiciness. It’s not often that you get a nice piece of steak made into carne asada. Mostly you see cheap, thin cuts that end up dry and/or overcooked. Not this one. It still had a little blood. It was served with some sweet, crunchy I-don’t-know-what and pureed avocado. It was very flavorful.
Because I was only allowed to choose 2 items to taste from the ENTIRE menu, that’s all I get to write about. I can’t tell you about the duck taco, nor the fish or mushroom or shrimp or chicken. Nor can I tell you about any number of the ceviches I would have ordered, nor the salsas, or tortas or anything else.
I might have also left with a different impression had we been there for dinner rather than lunch. It just felt like much more of a dinner place to me. I could imagine the place full of people joyfully drinking margs and snacking on tacos, laughing and mingling. The tequilla and margarita list were pretty impressive looking, too, with a huge variety of flavors to choose from. I’m sure that’s a big draw for them. The party’s sure to be rockin’ at Mercadito tonight!
Happy Cinco de Mayo!
The short version (out of 10)…
Overall impression: 7
Would I go back?
Well… let’s just say that I’m not running back. I might give it a go for happy hour or a weekend brunch sometime.