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Mercado

The Santa Monica restaurant riffs on the techniques of authentic Mexican without being bound to them

Photograph by Andrea Bricco

At Mercado the pozole is finished with cilantro and diced red onion, arriving in an off-white Heath Ceramics bowl. Unadorned in a domestic sort of way yet with an artistic matte glaze, the vessel is a perfect example of midcentury design. Does it add anything to the traditional pork stew? Not a lick. The rich pork broth of guajillo chiles and hominy would be as satisfying on a Styrofoam plate at a swap meet. But this is a restaurant on 4th Street in Santa Monica, within pepita-spitting distance of the Pacific. ¶ Mercado isn’t simply repackaging a cuisine we tend to associate with humble mom-and-pop storefronts; it’s trying to reshape the way we think about Mexican food. We’re pretty site-specific when discussing Mexican food, exchanging tips about places with names like Tacos El Pecas and gladly driving massive lengths of freeway to experience some incontestably authentic rendering. Mercado makes you reconsider what “authentic” means. The interior is a modernist mash-up of tiles, mirrors, and long communal tables hewn from wood that could pass for oil-stained planks from the pier. Scrawled on the mirror above the dark banquettes are mentions of farmers’ market vegetables and hyperdetailed facts about the añejo of the week. This isn’t an eatery that gives patronizing design cues about what’s in the kitchen or one that aims to gentrify the offerings for folks reluctant to venture past their usual off-ramp. Sure, it may appear more democratic to suck down some jiggly cabeza tacos at the stand by the car wash on Pico, but few restaurants prove as seamlessly that zip code and trappings ultimately have little to do with the power of what is presented on the plate.

Jesse Gomez and Jose Acevedo launched Mercado earlier this year after working together at Taleo Grill, a forward-thinking (and now defunct) Mexican restaurant near an Irvine business park. Before that, Acevedo plied the stoves for the Hillstone and Wolfgang Puck restaurant groups, while Gomez was a manager at Houston’s and Katana, part of the Sushi Roku family of restaurants. OK, that’s a lot of corporate names, but Gomez, the 38-year-old grandson of Gustavo and Irene Montes, a couple from the state of Querétaro who started El Arco Iris in Highland Park in 1964, grew up doing his homework—literally—at those tables. He went on to earn a degree in psychology from Princeton, and after a flirtation with law school, Gomez found himself drawn back into the restaurant world, gaining the chops he’d need when he took over the arches and booths of El Arco Iris in 2005.

Located on York Boulevard, in a neighborhood where bougainvillea grows over splayed back fences and city streets wind onto the Arroyo Seco Parkway, El Arco Iris needed only an upgrade in the bar and a little Diego Rivera on the walls to keep pace with an evolving Highland Park. The art changed; Irene’s chilaquiles, in a torrid chile verde sauce, stayed the same. In 2009, Gomez opened Yxta (named after lawyer-novelist Yxta Maya Murray) in the produce district near Central Avenue. A trendy, industrially spare space where the small-batch mescal flows, it was a step closer to Mercado in terms of its vision and lack of visual cues. You don’t need a bunch of serapes on the wall to know that the arrachera—a strip of charred skirt steak that comes with a cheese enchilada—has been done right.

With Mercado, Gomez has thrown his grappling hook deep into the Westside, doubling down on Yxta’s hip aesthetic (both places were designed by New York-based Poonam Khanna) while banking on a less direct approach. Heritage, after all, hadn’t worked for the previous tenant, La Serenata de Garibaldi, whose beach-adjacent outpost never felt as rooted as the original near 1st and Boyle.

At Gomez’s other restaurants, free chips and salsa-bearing molcajetes are practical touches; here, where they might be considered ironic, they aren’t served. Instead of what’s expected, Mercado weaves a constant dialogue between the comforts of comida casera—patient home-style cooking that revolves around the steaming pot—and the energy of comida callejera, or street food, with its emphasis on efficiently delivered maximum effect. Acevedo will cook nopales slowly—cutting the cactus paddles into strips before sautéing them with garlic, a smidge of chile negro, and tomatillo—then turn them off at just the right moment so they remain brothy rather than become slimy: the embodiment of casera cooking. Pivoting, he’ll do the opposite with the elote callejero, unleashing chile piquín, cotija cheese, and lime on roasted corn kernels for a refined (as in heightened but not denatured) version of the charred cobs cooked at sidewalk grills. 

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A native of Guanajuato, Acevedo is not one to be creative for creativity’s sake. He prepares his shrimp enchiladas with yellow mole straight up; there’s no improving on that texture when a tortilla is starting to get nice and juicy beneath a terrific sauce. At other times he adds only a subtle twist, like when he reconfigures Baja-style fish tacos by squeezing an aioli of chile de árbol under the battered flesh rather than supplying heat with the heap of fried chiles you might see at Tacos Baja Ensenada on Whittier Boulevard. Likewise, in place of the usual shredded carnitas, his are made from a large chunk of slow-cooked pork with vinegar-tinged cauliflower florets. What the carnitas lose in crispness they gain in natural moisture—far more satisfying than relying on lard to keep the meat from drying out. Frankly I’d love to see more along the lines of that cauliflower; despite the restaurant’s name and proximity to the farmers’ market, Acevedo always comes back to broccolini. A dull side, it’s a lackluster example of produce-driven cooking except when he Mexifies the roasted stalks by tossing them under alambres de arrachera, or ginger-glazed skirt steak skewers.

There may be no greater truism in dining than the notion that the kind of corpo-rate operations Acevedo and Gomez trained in are the enemy of authenticity. If you’re grand enough to have mission statements posted in the back rooms, hiring protocols, and HR departments, you couldn’t possibly cook up a good menudo. Acevedo can do legit Mexican (his tortilla with melted Oaxaca cheese and spit-roasted carne al pastor is one fine mula), but Mercado is often at its best precisely when it isn’t paying lip service to “the way it is really done.” Tuesday’s soup special is a stellar cream of lobster, for which Acevedo deglazes, then reduces, a blend of mirepoix and shells—a classic approach—before hitting it with a delicate layer of very nonclassical heat. It works. The way he forms his ceviche in a cup piled on a slice of grilled pineapple is a tad HoJo-ish, but cutting the fruit releases juices into the mixture of serrano chile, red pepper, and marinated whitefish, rendering the ceviche the ideal consistency for scooping onto a saltine. A ceviche that makes itself—it’s practically molecular.

I thought I’d dislike the scallops coated with crushed pumpkin seeds and arranged over oven-browned mashed potatoes; often that sort of crust prevents scallops from getting a good sear. Hooey! The guy pulled it off. The nutty flavor of the toasted seeds—a staple of afternoon strolls in the colonial cities of central Mexico—formed a compact with a ring of chipotle-peppercorn sauce. Sometimes it’s the unexpected scale of a cut that surprises. Acevedo serves the Shelton Farms turkey leg whole. Braised and moist, it glistens with a mole negro sauce every bit as complex as the one at El Sazon Oaxaqueño in Palms. That the portion is too big for one person doesn’t matter. I saw a group of friends make short work of it at the bar, wrapping hunks of the tender meat in handmade tortillas as the heavily tatted fellow mixing the drinks waved a sparking orange peel over a concoction.

Speaking of the bar, at least a handful of varietals from the burgeoning Mexican wine scene could stand to be represented among the 74 tequilas listed, but unlike many places, Mercado offers a serious exchange between the cocktail program and the food. I love the way the hibiscus-tinged Jamaica margarita plays off the jicama wrapper of a shrimp taco draped in pickled white cabbage slaw. The allusions unspool—aguas frescas kept cool in glass barrel jars, aproned ladies selling chile-spiked spears of cucumber, jicama, and papaya—but nothing is forced. Just as Thomas Keller might nod to Fernand Point with the butter-enhanced jus of a roasted chicken, Acevedo needs only a squirt of lime to conjure the parasol-bedecked pushcart.

Not all diners may get the specific references, but everyone gets the drift. A certain fluency is the natural outcome of living in a city filled with birrierías, tortillerías, and ice-shaving paleteros. When Mercado departs from the tried and true, it isn’t to bastardize; it’s to explore. The haul of shrimp on the tostadas served at places like Ostioneria Colima on Alvarado may have been the briny model for the sashimi strips stretched across Acevedo’s version. The sponge cake of the tres leches could have come from a pastelería where you help yourself with tongs and a plastic mesh basket. Only there it wouldn’t be freshly baked and oozing with condensed and evaporated milk. Another dessert, the flan, is rich enough to be a crème brûlée. Does it need the side of rompope, a celebratory eggnog? No, it’s essentially custard served with custard. But it’s a festive touch. For more than a few customers streaming in from the packed parking lots outside, it’s sentimental, too, bringing back memories of gatherings at Grandma’s house, where flowers grew out of Bustelo coffee cans and where you never got up from the table until you were way past full.                  

Mercado
1416 4th Street, Santa Monica, 310-526-7121

Best Dishes: Nopalitos, elote callejero, pozole (Sundays only), jicama taco with shrimp, alambres de arrachera, dos gringas (spit-roasted pastor), pastel de tres leches
Drinks: Extensive tequila and draft beer selection; smart cocktails but no Mexican wines
Atmosphere: Animated
Noise Level: Can get uncomfortably loud
Kid Friendly? Yes
Price Range: $7 (chicken tortilla soup) to $25 (carne asada plate)
Hours: Mon.-Wed., 5-10; Thu.-Fri., 5-midnight; Sat., 4-midnight; Sun., 4-10
Parking: Nearby lots
Reservations: Recommended
Credit Cards: All major