Ah, the elusive fish taco. A good one — particularly when accompanied by a cold margarita — can sweep you away to a beautiful sandy beach in sunny Mexico. And a bad one — well, let’s not even go there.
Chef Patricio Sandoval of Mercadito Chicago understands his diners’ desire for a fresh and delicious version of the often poorly executed Baja classic. So he offers an upscale interpretation — estilo baja — on this River North eatery’s gourmet taco-centric menu.
“People are always looking for a good fish taco,” says Sandoval, who uses beer battered mahi-mahi in this signature dish. “Ours is fried, but it’s light and crispy. And it has a lot of crunch with the [Mexican] coleslaw and smokiness from the chipotle aioli too.”
Mercadito Chicago, a spin-off of the New York-based Mercadito restaurant group, discourages the typical guacamole/combination plate/flan-style American-Mexican dining experience. Instead, Sandoval and company encourage diners to mix and match from the ample selection of market-fresh exotic guacamoles, ceviches, botanas (appetizers), side dishes — and, of course, tacos.
The restaurant offers only four large plates: chile rellenos ($21.50), grilled chicken ($17.50/$27.50), skirt steak ($24.50) and enchiladas ($21.50).
“I want to keep the menu fun and not do what everybody else is doing,” Sandoval says. “We want to be as creative as possible with the traditional foods of Mexico.” Sandoval grew up eating these foods, he says, in his father’s restaurant in Mexico.
For first-time diners, Sandoval suggests sharing a variety of his guacamoles, ceviches and tacos. This is precisely what I did when I dined there recently with my husband and our eldest son (hereafter known as the “The Eating Machine.”)
Under the tutelage of our trusty server, Rafael, we started with a trio of guacamoles (one $8.50/two $11.50/three $13.50). From the six offered, Rafael steered us toward: toreado (sautéed chile Serrano, garlic, oregano, tomatillo pico de gallo); Granada (pomegranate, tomatillo pico de gallo, queso fresco, habanero); and the tradicional (tomatillo pico de gallo, jalapeño, garlic, lime juice, cilantro). Of the three, the clear favorite was the spicy Granada with its refreshing pops of sweet, crunchy pomegranate seeds. The Eating Machine and I locked tortilla chips several times as we scurried to scrape up every bite.
From the list of three ceviches (one $11.50/two $19.50/three $26.50), Rafael recommended the citrusy-minty callo (bay scallops, red grapes, lime-morita broth, fresh mint) and the light and flavorful dorado (mahi-mahi, avocado, tomato, orange-chile de arbol broth). We agreed to try the third ceviche — shrimp — on our next visit.
A bit overwhelmed with choices, we asked Rafael to choose a cavalcade of tacos from the menu’s 11 varieties (four/$14.50). He selected the basic but tasty pollo (grilled chicken, cactus salad, tomatillo salsa, avocado) and the nicely crisped pescado (tilapia, chile poblano, tomatillo-garlic mojo), which was well spiced, but a bit “oceany” in flavor. The big winners were tender carne (rosemary-marinated skirt steak, potato-rajas-cactus fundido, avocado) and sweet-and-salty carnitas (braised Berkshire pork, chile de arbol, coleslaw and toasted peanuts).
I was not surprised to learn from Sandoval that the carne and carnitas are two of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
“Everybody loves pork,” says Sandoval, discussing the carnitas’ appeal. “It has good spice from the chile de arbol, and the peanuts give it a nice crunch.”
The Eating Machine wanted to order another round of tacos, but we wisely moved on to dessert. Rafael picked flan de cajeta, a dreamy goat’s milk caramel custard. And then he made us feel super-special by suggesting the off-the-menu dish torrejas, a delightful Mexican equivalent of a custardy French toast.
One of Sandoval’s goals is to get diners to “share as many things as possible,” he says. Amply full from Rafael’s selections, I believe we hit that mark. The Eating Machine, although he enjoyed Mercadito Chicago, respectfully disagrees.
108 West Kinzie Street
Chicago, Illinois 60654