Mercadito

  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
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Photograph: Martha Williams
Mercadito
River North
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The server warned me the fish tacos were spicy, slathered with a chipotle aioli that gave them significant bite. I said bring it on. I wasn’t worried about the spice. The mole poblano guacamole had promised spice, too, but it boasted more sugar than heat. My companion’s “Little Market” cocktail was supposedly rimmed with guajillo chile powder—and by all appearances it was—but the spice was only barely perceptible.

Maybe this is what New Yorkers think Mexican food is. Years ago, when I lived in Brooklyn, the joke was always on the Empire City when it came to Mexican food, because it didn’t have any that was good. That’s allegedly changed, thanks to places like Mercadito, which has three always-packed locations in Manhattan. Still, New York exporting its Mexican joints to us? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

If we have anything to learn from Manhattan—and I’m not saying we do, necessarily—it might be cocktails. But we’ve learned that already, as evidenced by the talent Mercadito amassed for its bar—folks like Daniel Love and Kyle McHugh. Yet, while the restaurant obviously did its homework on whom to hire, it hasn’t yet given them any real ownership over the list. Their task is simply to execute drinks designed by the Tippling Bros., an East Coast consulting team that is a giant in its own right. Tippling Bros. has created an enticing menu for this place, but its take on the margarita (which all of the cocktails are riffs on) is an unusual one—the drinks are round and smooth and lack a punchy lime presence, so much so that they almost fall out of balance. They take some time to reveal themselves, too. The para té, a pear-and-black-tea variation, didn’t give off its dark tea notes until I was half finished.

Some of the food was the same way. The shrimp ceviche was inconsistent—one bite would be all sweet pineapple, the next all guajillo spice, which was a shame, because the rare bite that included both was pretty satisfying. The sope-like picadas, on the other hand, never came together—their tough masa shells ruined them from the start.

I preferred the tacos: carnitas married with cool coleslaw and rich peanuts; those crispy estilo Baja tacos with an aioli that, as promised, made me sweat. These were the flavors I’d been waiting for. Before them, the menu had been teasing me. Now it was finally putting out.

Still, the place has some significant growing up to do. Despite the all-star bartending team, the cocktails were painfully slow (they didn’t arrive until long after the first courses did), and desserts are a work in progress. “The chef’s working on that. But tonight we have caramel flan, coconut flan, coconut flan and caramel flan,” our server said, jokingly repeating the two dessert choices.

They were experiments, tests for the upcoming pastry menu, but they were phenomenal—some of the creamiest, richest bites of flan I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. I took that as a sign of chef Patricio Sandoval’s talent and as evidence that if he keeps on experimenting, maybe we’ll learn something from New York Mexican after all.

Venue name: Mercadito
Contact:
Address: 108 W Kinzie St
Chicago

Cross street: between Clark St and LaSalle Dr
Opening hours: Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner
Transport: El stop: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Merchandise Mart; Red to Grand; Blue, Green, Pink, Orange to Clark/Lake.
Price: Average main course: $15
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