It was six years ago when a restaurant called Mercadito debuted in New York. Soon it expanded to two other Big Apple locations plus one in Chicago. Owners Alfredo, Felipe, and (chef) Patricio Sandoval, three hermanos Mexicanos, officially opened their 5,600-square-foot modern-day Margaritaville in Miami on March 18. The 145-seater (with tables for another 45 on the outdoor patio) is an airy, comfortable room of blond woods, rope lanterns, white quartzite tabletops, and vividly colored Mexican pop art by Erni Vales, guru of the 3-D graffiti movement; these murals are not 3-D, but they fairly jump out from the white brick walls just the same. The contemporary urban décor is conducive to sharing good times and good drinks. It's also home to inconsistent faux-Mex cuisine. (An adjacent take-out taqueria started up just weeks ago.)
Another set of siblings — the esteemed Tippling brothers — serves as Mercadito's beverage consultants. This means an extensive list of premium tequilas, creative cocktails, and margaritas spiked with unexpected additions such as mango, chile morita, a blueberry float — and that's just in one concoction, the delectable Smoky Pablo. The bar drinks are great.
It wouldn't have surprised me to see those same ingredients in one of the guacamoles; there seems to be a let's-see-how-this-flies philosophy behind many of the flavor combinations. We skipped a trippy tomatillo-and-habanero-flecked guac with apples and almonds, and likewise shunned one wired with mango, jícama, and chipotle. Instead, we began with the "tradicional," a tasty, chunky-style mash of avocado with pico de gallo, key lime juice, and supposedly jalapeño, though the pepper didn't register. The toreado guac was even better, packing a pleasant piquancy from sauteed chile serrano and tomatillo pico de gallo. We did not, however, escape our avocado experience unscathed by regrettable concept — specifically, we ingested guacamole with mole poblano sauce glazed over it like chocolate syrup on ice cream. The world's greatest mole would likely fail in this context, but Mercadito's version, which actually tastes like chocolate syrup, made the dip inedible. Tortilla chips, prepared on the premises, are thick and corny.
Mercadito Miami: 3252 NE First Ave., Miami; 786-369-0430; mercaditorestaurants.com. Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Tuesday 5 p.m. to midnight, Wednesday and Thursday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
If you're the sort of person who prefers fruit in ceviche, watermelon pairs with marinated red snapper, while tangerine helps to macerate shrimp and roasted jalapeños. The squares of snapper were too mushy in the former, but the tiny dice of watermelon added a nice sweetness to the lime tang — the fish further buttressed by cilantro,and minced pico de gallo.
Tostadas de hongos were the hit among appetizers. The trio of crunchy corn tortilla rounds came topped with pinto beans, wild mushrooms, Manchego cheese, tomatillo salsa, and a pungent, epazote-flavored crema fresca: complex, savory, distinctive. Rock shrimp in chipotle were not nearly as riveting. The sauce was tasty, but the medium-size crustaceans were coated in a bready beer batter that could have been crisper. Boston lettuce leaves are served on the side for rolling the shrimp.
Tacos are Mercadito's bread and butter, so to speak. No, wait — margaritas are its bread and butter, which makes tacos the crackers and cheese. In any event, about a dozen varieties come four to the order. Warm tortillas, made in-house, exude a strong corn flavor cut by the intangible taste of slaked lime. They are excellent. Fillings include ancho chile-rubbed pork with grilled pineapple; homemade ground red chorizo with Manchego and roasted tomato-arbol salsa; and hot, crisp, beer-battered mahi-mahi topped with dull napa coleslaw (drizzled with chipotle sauce). My favorite featured chunks of grilled, herb-marinated chicken with small cubes of pickled sweet potato, crisp bits of Manchego, and chipotle salsa. Something tells me Mercadito would have called itself "Chipotle" had the name not already been taken.
A trio of make-your-own tacos, called taquizas, are also up for grabs. Taquizas, in Mexico, are taqueria-like stands, except you fill your own tortillas and they come with a veritable chorus line of salsas. Mercadito offers three types: braised organic chicken, barbacoa style; rosemary marinated carne asada; and Michoacán-style carnitas, which translated to moist, sweetened shreds of braised Berkshire pork packed in a mini cast-iron pan with lid. Steamy corn tortillas are served alongside, as are a dish of minced onions, a wedge of lime, and a generous helping of habanero coleslaw that was crazy-ass hot; we liked it, but diners should really be forewarned about so incendiary a dish. Taquizas here do not come surrounded by salsas, but diners get to select two of six varieties. Don't miss the cacahuate version, a spicy Russian-dressing-looking purée of grilled tomatoes, toasted peanuts, and chile de árbol.
The waitstaff is friendly and performs adequately, much in the way servers at Denny's might be friendly and perform adequately (our waiter on one visit, however, exhibited professionalism). They neglected to mention daily specials on both occasions, but did warn us that dishes are served when ready — which we took to imply a staggering of the appetizers, followed by the same concerning main courses. The first part held true, but one of the entrées came with the starters — the carnitas tacos, which could easily have been timed to appear with the other main courses. Two other entrées arrived awhile later, but the final one, a whole snapper, was delivered to the table so long afterward that we ate it in lieu of dessert. This messed up our meal. Who cares that it is done by design?
Chile relleno, one of five "platos fuertes," brought a prodigious, unbattered poblano pepper stuffed with shrimp and scallops that were reduced to buoys of distress bobbing in a garlic-marred blend of melted Oaxaca and Manchego cheeses. Black beans that accompany the relleno (and most other main courses) contained even more garlic, in this instance unpleasantly raw. Rice is served too, the overcooked grains softly swelled with chicken stock.
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Prices are anything but forgiving — $21.50 for the carnitas taquizas, $14.50 for the tacos (four to the order, but no mixing-and-matching). Entrées range from $21.50 to $28.50, guacamole is $8.50, and salsa is $3. Depending upon day and time, there are happy-hour specials and all-you-can-eat taco deals; if they don't have Mexican karaoke yet, just you wait.
It was somewhat surprising our waiter didn't offer to fillet that whole red snapper for us when it tardily arrived, but the sweet, pristine flakes of fish provided the best eating of the night — especially when lightly splashed with chipotle vinaigrette that came on the side.
Three of the half-dozen dessert options are flans: coconut, tres leches, and flan de Cajeta, a dense, brown, caramelized goat's milk custard served with teeny, syrup-soaked pound cake croutons. Not bad.
Mercadito mirrors another south-of-the-border import from up North: Rosa Mexicano. Both chains rely on chic décor and sales of margaritas, tequilas, and other alcoholic elixirs to create a hip and happy Mexico-in-America ambiance. (Rumor has it the corporate brass is planning an unhappy Mexico-in-America branch for Phoenix.) Overall, Mercadito's cuisine leaves something to be desired. Maybe something Mexican. If I return, it will be only for another Smoky Pablo.