There seems to be two kinds of Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles: The low-key, hole-in-the-wall spots that feature authentic Mexican fare owned and operated by folks with ties to our neighbors to the South, and the upscale, fancy takes on the fajita fare made possible by white folks with big bucks and bigger ambitions.
Mercado – a new place open now for about six months is the one anomaly – a high-aspiring, classy Mexican restaurant whose roots in owners and chef are of Mexican lineage (Jesse Gomez and Jose Acevedo, respectively).
The decor is classic open-air, communal seating with tables on two levels that all face 4th Street in Santa Monica and gives the place an almost New York busy vibe. The margaritas are drop-dead gorgeous and a couple bucks cheaper during daily Happy Hours (5-7pm Monday-Friday and 4-6pm on the weekends).
The refreshing Margarita de Jamaica features centenario rosangel, triple sec, fresh hibiscus and fresh sour. Dem Apples pours sacacuento silver mezcal, apples, lime juice and sidral mundet. Go spicy with La Picosa that muddles jalapeño lime and serrano peppers with fresh sour and the El Poblano favors mezcal with poblano peppers, lime juice, agave nectar and chipotle salt. Each drink is as distinctive as the next in addition to 70 tequilas ready for tasting.
The problem is certainly not the drinks, but the food that follows. It’s almost incredulous how terrible the repast is based on the professionalism of everything leading up to the meal: the drinks, the artsy atmosphere, the incredibly sweet service. All are let down by a major brain fart in the kitchen.
If you sit at the dining tables surrounding the main room, you can only choose from the dinner menu where every entrée is $20 and beyond. A better bet, is to sit at the bar or at one of three long communal tables where you can then order off the bar menu and get samples of several dishes for about $7 apiece.
A signature dish is their pork carnitas soft tacos which overindulge in onions you’ll bark up for hours after. Demeaning the meat further is a freezing-cold dollop of guacamole dollop which renders the tepid meat downright cold.
The al pastor beef is oily and dripping with cheese on a pan-seared flour tortilla which makes the bites basically a messy beef quesadilla. Much worse is the Tacos de Jicama con Camarón – crispy Mexican sweet shrimp wrapped in a deep-fried leather slipper that tastes like something some stoner pulled out of the freezer and cooked up in his microwave. Imagine the worst shrimp tempura and leave it out in the air to coalesce in its grease for 20 minutes. A pint of Valvoline thinks this dish is oily.
The best bite was a seasonal tamale stuffed with corn and queso fresco (uh, cheese) and diced smoked poblano peppers that had a unique smoky flavor drizzled with a tangy tomatillo sauce.
The place is only open for dinner, so your best bet is to drain a few signature margs, then cross the street to Border Grill where the high-end, urban class Cali-Mexico food is more thoughtfully prepared and welcomes the south-of-the-border flavors rather than deporting them.
1416 Fourth Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401