The day: Tuesday. The time: 8 p.m. (ish). The mission: Tacos.
We stepped out of our Uber and arrived at an empty parking lot in downtown Santa Ana. To our immediate left, bright street art, painted with neon abandon along one side of a stout, brick building. Strings of street lights twinkled up the otherwise dark corner, a truck hummed nearby, its bed full of old, wooden cabinets.
I smiled. It was strange but also strangely wonderful and though I wouldn’t know it yet, the distinctive scene was thoroughly befitting of what was about to go down that night.
Of note: El Mercado has knowingly named its Tuesday celebration Ruta Del Agave, which translated means “Agave Route” and much more accurately describes the journey of gourmet tacos and high-end sips (Tequila, Mezcal, Bacanora and Sotol) to be explored there on a Tuesday night.
The bones of the restaurant are long and narrow, its interior shabby chic meets Baja luxe. We—my storyteller/adventurer friend, Crescent and I—sat down at a plush booth near an oversized window. Then, the lights of the back bar beckoned.
I had tasted mixologist Cesar Cerrudo’s cocktails weeks before at OC Weekly’s Fresh Toast but was still unprepared to indulge in the thoughtfulness, virtuosity and at times outright audacity of his creations.
“I want to change the game,” he told me, and went on to explain how he concocted 22 custom drinks last season, scrapped them all for spring and now features 18 new cocktails on the menu. For summer, he’ll probably do the same clean sweep again. Crazy? Maybe. But there’s a thing or two to be said about a visionary who understands that changing the game means not being afraid of change.
He served Crescent a drink called TRU LIES (TRU Gin, Grand Poppy, Hibiscus Shrub and orange oil) and for me, a smooth, sweet, smoky temptation made with vanilla ice cream and mezcal. A hashtag-shaped mango sat appropriately on top. Both libations, I can personally confirm, were delicious.
Several plates into the meal, Cerrudo returned to set down a tasting trio of top-shelf agaves. The middle agave from Chihuaua, Mexico tasted like cheese, kale and truffles. A tequila salad? No complaints here. Food at El Mercado is recommended as an order of three or four small plates per person. Also, take the term “food” with a grain of warm salt because these dishes are so much more than mere food; they’re an anthropological study, a culinary report detailing the multitude of centuries-culled flavors and aromas that are singularly authentic to Mexico.
Anyway, I do approve of this three-to-four plate approach, which affords diners the opportunity to sample beyond their own safe taste predilections. And sample we did, from the Quesadilla Ciudad de Mexico with Oaxaca cheese, huitlacoche and a crunchy cricket (CRICKET!) salsa; Aguachile Sinaloa (cucumber, avocado, shrimp, red onion and chili powder); and the Tlacoyos Oaxaca (Oaxaca cheese, bean puree, avocado puree, onion and jocoque).
Oh, enough of my words, they don’t do this place justice. I invite you now to discover the mastery of El Mercado Modern Cuisine as seen through my camera lens, and then to discover it once again in person, although what cocktails might be on the menu when you go is anyone’s guess.
Melissa Kandel is a Southern California-based writer and the founder/author of little word studio. Follow her on Instagram here.