A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Jan. 9.

Dinner -

Mercadito - 179 Ave. B, East Village
Ceviche Sampler: Ceviche de Camaron with shrimp, pineapple, serrano coconut milk, milk and lime juice; Ceviche de Mahi Mahi Ahumado with smoked mahi mahi, ruby red grapefruit, cactus, pico de gallo and citrus-chile habanero broth; Ceviche de Salmon with wild king salmon, pickled jalapenos, capers, orange, parsley and cucumber-horseradish broth); Beer-Battered Taco de Mahi Mahi; Tacos de Camaron with shrimp, avocado and roasted garlic chile chipotle mojo; Mango Mojito; Mojito de Casa (complimentary)
$49

Restaurants already have reputations by the time most diners get to experience them. That’s why when Mercadito opened in Alphabet City, I was eager to check it out before the buzz became too deafening. I wanted to form my own take on the spot before the Times and New York had put their critical stamps on it. It wasn’t too risky a venture though, because the early word was already exceedingly positive. My first impression, when I went with Perry a while back in its opening weeks, was more mixed though.

Of the many pet peeves I have about restaurants, Mercadito was initially guilty of two of the worst: a no reservations policy and cramped seating. With only thirty seats in their packed room, the waiting list on a random Tuesday night hovering at an hour, and people pushed into the space in the hopes of their names being called, Mercadito didn’t fit my idea of a relaxing night. Even after Perry and I killed lots of time at Louis, a cool jazz bar on 11th and C, we were relegated to sitting at the bar for an evening of waiters and hostesses shuffling back and forth behind us.

The nouveau Mexican menu proved to be a great consolation though. Good flatbread, a great ceviche sampler, a nice array of margarita and mojito options, and superb shrimp tacos. As we chowed down, we talked to our very friendly (and attractive) bartender/server and I questioned her about where the restaurant was heading. A reservations policy or some more seating would be nice, I unsubtly suggested. Along with great drinks, she offered great news: in the coming weeks, Mercadito would be opening up another room and taking reservations to boot. I promised her I’d return.

Sure enough, weeks later, just as my friend Pat and I decide to see these new developments in action, the Times prints a fairly complimentary Diner’s Journal, New York has its say and a solid cocoon of praise has formed around the restaurant. I warned Pat that the wait may have only worsened (the reservations policy unfortunately never materialized), but as our luck turned out, Sunday was the day to go. We were escorted right away to a table in a back room serene enough to make the bar room look like a train station at rush hour. Our waitress was again friendly and flirtatious, making suggestions and prompting us to order more.

I went for a mango mojito to compare with the mango margarita I’d opted for last time. This mojito wasn’t great and the chunks of mango thrown in didn’t do anything besides raise the price to a lofty eleven dollars, whereas the margarita was tastier and more unique (though no cheaper). Otherwise, by sticking with and minorly tweaking dishes I’d already tried and enjoyed, I had more success. Pat and I split the ceviche sampler, keeping the shrimp in coconut broth and the mahi mahi in three-citrus broth I’d already tried but switching tuna for Pat’s pick, the king salmon in horseradish-habañero broth. Though all three had their moments, and the shrimp ceviche was a little too soggy, both times it was the best.

The tacos were the stars though. The portions were small, at only three hand-sized soft-shell tacos per order, but what they lacked in size they more than compensated for in flavor. The beer-battered mahi mahi variety was excellent, outshining many of the traditional tacos I’ve tried. Better yet though, the shrimp tacos were as superlative as I’d remembered them. After we each had one and a half, I only regretted that there weren’t six more waiting. But alas, Mercadito is far more based on the paradigms of small plates and taperias than any hearty Mexican feast. In other words, it’s more about fun than full.

Although the food was very good on both of my visits, I have to say that my second trip was much more enjoyable. The back room was far more conducive to enjoyable eating and not waiting an hour is always a good appetizer. I don't recommend trying to go on Thursday through Saturday for a while without at least calling ahead and putting your name on their growing list. Then again, lots of people will show up anyway, seemingly enjoying the craziness of a packed room, especially after Mercadito continues to prove its reputation right. 8/10

Update (3/2/05): Mercadito now takes reservations.

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