Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Restaurant 11: Mercadito

RESTAURANT: Mercadito
LOCATION: 179 Avenue B
DATE: April 27, 2005
FOOD: Tacos De Camaron with Avocado and Roasted Garlic Chili Chipotle Mojo; Arroz y Frijoles; Ceviche de Pulpo (Octopus, White Sweet Potato, Jicama, Pico de Gallo, Lemon-Chile Gualijo Broth); Side of Chorizo; a few Fried Plantains
DRINK: Margarita de Tres Citricos (Torado, Orange, Grapefuit, Lemon, Habanero)
PRICE: $37.00

Of the few words I still remember from the four years of high school Spanish I so poorly mumbled my way through, is a comprehensive vocabulary of Mexican food. Mercadito’s menu doesn’t really require a knowledge of Spanish, but if you speak it as awfully as I do, you can at least amuse the waitress with your hacked pronunciations when you order. Even with my linguistic limitations, I can describe the food at Mercadito accurately: muy bien y excellente (I apologize to all those who speak the language of Borges, Marquez and Shakira for this pitiful butchering).

Mercadito is a crawl space of a restaurant, tucked away in the inaccessible by subway twilight zone that is Alphabet City. But it’s worth the journey, as the kitchen creates outstanding Mexican tapas. They also make some of the best margaritas in the city, which is how I began the evening. The “Tres Citricos” margaritas, like all the other blended drinks on the menu, is made entirely with mashed fruit and liquor – no genetically modified corn syrup in these cocktails. But the best aspect of the “Tres Citricos” margarita wasn’t even the fruit or the tequila. It was the habanero. I had certainly never had a drink mixed with a hot pepper, but the combination was sublime. The habanero buzzes the lips, pushing against the typical sweetness of the fruit. Taking sips at various points in the meal, I would get random hits of heat, which only added to the spices of the food.

Mercadito and Taco Bell are both Mexican food in the same way as Nabakov and Mary Higgins Clark are both mystery writers. Mercadito is Mexican food done right. Everything at the restaurant focuses on bold dishes prepared with an eye on aesthetic presentation, bringing in bright, equatorial colors. Alex and I started by splitting the octopus ceviche. This was my first ceviche, which might not have been a wise idea. For this was an amazing mix of chewy octopus, white sweet potato, and citrus flavors mimicking my margarita and will be hard for other contenders to measure up to. Scooped onto flatbread, one bite brought a myriad of ingredients into seamless integration, a symbiotic relationship to make the animal kingdom jealous. Nothing overwhelmed anything else and the dish was refreshing in the way lemonade cools during a blazing summer afternoon. Garfield, a native of the Caribbean, and no newcomer to ceviches, found this opening as pleasing as Alex and I did.

Fish tacos are one of the world’s best foods when they’re done right. It should almost go without saying that Mercadito manipulates fish wrapped in tortillas like Bill Frist and Tom Delay manipulate the Christian right wing for votes – very successfully. While I would have tried any of the tacos on the menu, Alex and I went with the house specialty, the shrimp and avocado. The shrimp came covered in a brick red chipotle garlic sauce, a not overly spicy smattering that soaked into the tortilla delightfully. The bite-size shrimp was tender and cooked perfectly. Mercadito even did the afterthoughts well, the rice and beans surprisingly better than most Mexican restaurant offerings. The fried plantains that Garfield and Eddie ordered were also delicious. I would recommend avoiding the chorizo, which was served like ground beef and was incredibly greasy, leaving a large pool of oil on the plate. But this was the only thing we had that wasn’t exceptional.

Our waitress had enough cheer to cause even Bukowski to smile. But she couldn’t cover up for a kitchen that seemed to forget our order, as we had to wait nearly forty minutes for even the first courses. Mercadito is a tiny restaurant, so I can see how this can happen, but it’s not the customer’s fault if the chef’s are besieged. This would be my main criticism of a restaurant that otherwise was wonderful, amber lighting creating a peaceful interior fit for the fine cuisine.

Food brings people together. So it’s nice to see that Mexican has gone the way of small plates, the better to sample with a group of friends. And at a place like Mercadito, where there are so many intriguing and unique flavors to taste, there’s no reason not to share.

RATING: 8.0/10

1 comment:

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