Richard Foss

Death and dining [restaurant review]

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Mercado serves high style Mexican food in a space with stylish Day of the Dead themes

Mercado manager Andrew DeMeter with the popular guacamole and mushroom choriqueso and the carnitas. Photos by JP Cordero

I am used to Mexican restaurants with a Day of the Dead theme, but still puzzled by them. Isn’t eating well a celebration of life? Why would I want to do that in an environment that reminds me that existence is fleeting, that my flesh will someday be stripped from my bones? Yes, there is a whimsicality and humor that is part of that tradition, a message that this life is brief so we should enjoy it while we may. Still, sometimes in the midst of a meal I glance at a set of empty eye sockets reproaching me and feel a chill down my spine.

At many restaurants with this theme the emotional impact is cushioned by the cartoonish or deliberately primitive nature of the art. Mercado in the Manhattan Village Mall offers an environment that is somewhat different, with some images that are beautiful and slightly disturbing.

The restaurant is part of an expanding chain that began with the celebrated Yxta Cocina in Downtown LA in 2009, which helped popularize modern Mexican food with boutique farm ingredients. Its interior was contemporary, with nothing but the modern Mexican art on the walls to let you know you were in a Mexican restaurant. That original had a pared-down menu of relatively standard items, with no deep dives into regional tradition or exotic preparations, which is the same here. The culinary approach is so similar that it’s hard to figure out why they bothered to brand them separately.

The most popular starter, the dip duo of guacamole and mushroom choriqueso, shows why that approach is successful. Choriqueso, for those who haven’t had it, is melted three-cheese blend with white wine, mushrooms, a little chorizo, and poblano peppers. The cheese usually used is somewhat oily, and the cheap chorizo most restaurants use is even more so, so the dish can be one dimensional and greasy. That’s not the case here. They have low-fat Cotija and Parmesan along with Oaxacan cheese and add enough quality chorizo for flavor without swamping everything else. The richly flavored mushrooms add funky overtones that make this easily the most successful version of this dish I’ve ever had. The guacamole is first class too, with chunks of avocado, a dash of chile and cilantro, and toasted pumpkin seeds for both texture and flavor.

The downside to this high quality is the sticker shock — that pair of dips with a basket of chips is $22, more than a full meal at most South Bay.Mexican restaurants If you just want the guacamole that will run you thirteen bucks, and if you are happy with just chips and two salsas that’s three dollars. The portions on all of these are substantial, but the price still seems high, especially when you consider that several full meals are priced the same or less.

We also tried starters of tamales, a seared ahi “taco”, and a house specialty, cauliflower al pastor. The filling in the tamales changes daily, and the night we ordered it was carnitas in a red chili sauce topped with tomatillo sauce and cotija cheese. The tomatillo sauce had a citrusy and spicy tang but wasn’t as hot as the red sauce, and since the red sauce was concentrated in the center the tamale got hotter as you went to the middle. As is often the case with tamales they didn’t look very large but they were quite filling. I was slightly less impressed with the cauliflower al pastor even though the combination of vegetable and sauce with pineapple and cilantro was a good one. Unlike some of the other things here, this was something I could do at home.

The seared ahi taco was a strange idea that was nevertheless successful. The menu listed ahi, jicama, guacamole, and sprouts, which we expected to find inside a conventional tortilla. Instead what arrived was two thin slices of jicama with a piece of seared ahi centered on each topped with guacamole, sprouts, a sliced red chile, a single cilantro leaf precariously balanced on top. The flavor combination was excellent and we enjoyed it though we questioned whether the two bites each of fish and vegetable were actually worth sixteen dollars.

We had no such reservations about the main courses, which were generously portioned and had equally vivid flavors. Chicken enchiladas topped with Oaxacan mole sauce were very fine, and I would happily have that sauce over a classic chicken mole, but they don’t serve it. They do serve a remarkable roasted half chicken with a four chile sauce that goes very well with the spice rub on the skin. It’s served over a winning mix of mashed potatoes and roasted corn topped with queso fresco. This is a fine formula and absolutely worth the 26 bucks.

The carnitas is served with cauliflower and guacamole.

So are the carnitas, which was very tender and had some sections with crisp roasted exterior that also shows off a spice rub. This came with tortillas, cauliflower, and some guacamole, and it’s in the running for the best in the South Bay. While I may quibble about the pricing, there’s no question that this kitchen is both inventive and capable.

That is true of the bar too, because the cocktails here are inventive and well-made. The flor de Jamaica is everything that I like about the hibiscus-based soft drink but with a judicious amount of tequila and a splash of triple sec, and the “new piña” gets a perfect hint of smokiness from the technique of grilling a pineapple before juicing it. They do have a habit of coating the rim of their drinks rather exuberantly with sweet or spicy rims, but if you ask they will coat only half the rim. This allows you to try the drink with or without the extra flavor, which I recommend. We sipped our drinks while contemplating an unsettling trio of ghostly framed images of skulls that hang at the back of the room and a portrait of an androgynous figure with and elaborately painted death mask. Something about this figure was strange and uncanny, a slight and probably deliberate distortion that created the feeling that what was underneath was not entirely human, and possibly had never been. We admired the skill of both of these, but found ourselves musing about why the restaurant called Mercado didn’t have images of an actual Mexican market instead, which would be more appetizing. It seems an odd juxtaposition of name and décor, but since this is an expanding and apparently successful chain a lot of people must appreciate it.

The desserts were an excellent finish for the meal, and I say that as someone who usually finds Mexican desserts too sweet. The tres leches cake was first class, moist with milky umami like the very best cheesecakes, and the flan had a perfect balance of caramel and custard. 

I will be back to Mercado, particularly during happy hour when prices are more modest on some of the most popular items. The service on multiple visits was excellent, the food superb, and if you’re looking for a special occasion Mexican restaurant that is really all about the food, this is probably where you ought to go. 

Mercado is at 3212 A North Sepulveda in the Manhattan Mall. Mon. – thurs. 11:30 a.m. –  9 p.m. Fri., Sat 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Sun. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Parking lot. Wheelchair access good. Some vegetarian items. Sound level low. (310) 545-0388. Cocinasycalaveras.com. ER

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