Making Happy at Mercado

Pasadena eatery creates Mexican favorites with style and substance

Published : Wednesday, August 8, 2018 | 4:04 AM

When I think Mexican food, I think, of course, of my mother’s cooking, especially her chicken tacos dorados with diced potatoes. Later, I fell back on the common combo plate. But now, Ay, Dios mío! There is Mercado. The newest of Cocinas y Calaveras restaurants has a new location in South Lake Pasadena. And forget about a wall, the Mexican food movement is already here.

My friend and I were there for lunch and began our visit with the dip duo, a mandatory starter—Guacamole, made with with large chucks of avocado and fresh cilantro, salsa that was more smokey than spicy, which we liked; and Choriqueso made with chorizo and melted cotija, served with fresh, crispy tortilla chips, the portions perfectly proportioned to suit each.

Mercado makes a daily signature drink, and today’s margarita, with its ingredients prepared fresh daily, made me think of a tropical vacation. My former go-to standard salt-rimmed margarita is now old news.

I don’t recall the last time I had pork, it could have been in the 80s with Culture Club on the radio, but Mercado’s Tacos de Carnitas, made with Chef Jose’s slow-cooked Salmon Creek pork and topped with guacamole, is a reason to have pork again. You’ll go back again just for these tacos.

Still the surprises kept coming. The Ceviche Tostada is a compact tower of generous pieces of citrus-marinated fish, mango, corn, cherry tomatoes, fresno chilies, and avocado.

Both taco and tostada were made with Mercado’s in-house blue corn tortillas. You can pretty much judge a good Mexican restaurant by its tortillas. While both the tacos and tostada are feasts by themselves, the side dishes here just cannot be missed. The Elote, grilled sweet corn with Chile piquing butter, is just sweet goodness. My friend wants to come back simply for a plate of corn sweetness. I’ll come with her.

The Cilantro Lime Rice, another side dish, made me re-think rice altogether. Who knew rice could have so much flavor and, well, oomph? And it’s hard to think of Mercado’s corn and rice as sides. Everything feels like an entree.

Just want a salad for lunch? Try their Kale Mexican salad. Yes, anti-hipsters, I said kale. It includes arugula, candied pepitas, pears, dried strawberries, queso fresco, cotija pesto bread crumbs and agave-lime vinaigrette. You can also add Jidori chicken or salmon, to rock your salad.

Easily one of my favorite dishes and worth every bite of decadence was their tamales, with today’s “Chef’s Choice” of filling, the queso fresco, with creamy green sauce.

Our sumptuous meal was completed with a warm flan, served with a non-dairy, alcoholic, kind of egg nog sauce. This flan will make you forget you ever met creme brûlée.

The General Manager, Justin Leyvas, was on the floor, hands-on and engaged. And owner Jesse Gomez was about as down-to-earth and friendly any proprietor you’ll meet, though you usually never meet them.

Here’s something else nice to know about Mercado—the wines on their list are all exclusively from Mexico. And for those who are all about table selection, pick one of their roomy booths.

Personally, I cant wait to return again for happy hour or dinner, or lunch, again and again.

Mercado, 140 S Lake Avenue, Suite 101, Pasadena, CA. (626) 345-5778. cocinasycalaveras.com.

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