Open since September, the newish Mexican restaurant Mercado is in a super-busy spot, adjacent to the Original Farmers Market and a little west of the Grove. But if you drop in for happy hour, you'll feel as relaxed as if you were seaside in Mexico. You'll sit in a large patio room that's open to the breezes. Never mind that heavy traffic on Third Street is just outside. You could as well be in Mazatlán or Cabo.
This is the second Mercado, more than twice the size of the original in Santa Monica. It has the same communal tables and light fixtures, but the space makes possible a second room with booths, if you crave quiet and privacy, and a “mural” room painted with ghostly figures.
“I am fascinated by these skulls, or calaveras, as they are called,” says owner Jesse Gomez. “I wanted them to be a part of the restaurant design. They represent a very Mexican element to me.” Skulls are on the side of the building, over the entrance and on the floor to startle you as you walk in. (Now you know where to go for Halloween or Day of the Dead.)
There's an airy long bar, where you'd better not stuff yourself with the house-made spicy peanuts, because executive chef Jose Acevedo has come up with new dishes that you won't want to miss. Introduced here, they'll also turn up at Mercado in Santa Monica.
The costillas de res, beef back ribs laced with mustard-guajillo barbecue sauce, are so tender the meat drops off the bones. When the next heat wave hits, you'll want the jicama salad, which is loaded with pineapple, mango, cucumber and oranges in a spicy dressing. Small plates include prime skirt steak tacos and camarones al ajillo – shrimp with chile de árbol garlic butter and ciabatta to soak up the juices.
Vegetarian? There's a chile relleno stuffed with grilled vegetables and Oaxaca cheese and served on a bed of Mexican rice topped with roasted corn and vegan yellow mole. Happy hour (hora feliz) has its own menu (tacos, gringas, nachos, etc.) and drinks that include a hibiscus margarita.
The food is pricier than usual in many Mexican restaurants, because the ingredients are high-end, such as prime beef, free-range chicken and farmers market vegetables. As an example, the nopales that Acevedo buys cost almost $4 per pound. They go into a salad with red onion, bell peppers, cilantro and the vinegar from pickled vegetables.
Mercado is now open for happy hour, dinner and brunch on Sunday; lunch is coming soon.