Thursday, November 12, 2009

CHICAGO: Mercadito Mexican Restaurant

As people who spent a substantial portion of our lives in California and Arizona, my wife and I love good Mexican food. So we were pleasantly surprised when the concierge at our Chicago hotel recommended that we have dinner at the Mercadito.

Mercadito is a new Mexican restaurant that opened at 108 W. Kinzie Street in September. The name Mercadito means “little market”, which it technically isn’t; it’s a “restaurante.” Linguistics notwithstanding, the place is quite good!

Mercadito is one of a growing chain of five restaurants, with this establishment its first in Chicago. There are three others in New York City and one in Miami. The restaurant is said to be modeled after the markets in which chef/owner Patricio Sandoval shopped while growing up in his native Mexico.

With tile floors and brick walls adorned by contemporary art, the place gives off a lively vibe. It’s loud in a cheerful sort of way, and “cheerful” is certainly what one expects in a Mexican restaurant. No stuffy maitre d’s here!

The approach is similar to a tapas restaurant in that many of the dishes can be easily shared. For example, Mercadito offers three different ceviches. You can order one, two, or all three varieties, which makes it fun to compare and contrast but also encourages sharing. The same is true of the guacamoles (six different kinds), and tacos (11 different kinds) that come four to an order. “Sharing” seems to be the theme.

That was the challenge my wife and I faced as a “party of two”: so many interesting items on the menu, but so few diners in our party!

Coupled with that, the two-top table was quite small; not quite cocktail table size, but small enough to be crowded by our margaritas (which had too much mixer, too little tequila, and too little flavor) chips, ceviche, and our main dish of Pollo a las Brasas (whole adobo marinated organic chicken with three corn pico de gallo and chile de ├írbol salsa). Very tasty, but far too much for the two of us. If we lived in town, we’d have taken the rest home!

Dessert consisted of the restaurant’s flan. A traditional Mexican custard, flan recipes vary but are generally simple - eggs, milk, sugar, and vanilla - and are usually quite light and refreshing. Mercadito’s chef added what tasted like tamarind, which could have been interesting but which was very clearly overdone. The flavor overwhelmed the rest of the dessert and gave it an unpleasant heavy, grainy texture. We left most of it on the table.

The minor missteps with the margaritas and the flan aside, we thought it was quite good. If you’re hungry for Mexican food and are in downtown Chicago, Mercadito is well worth a try.


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