There seems to be two schools of Mexican food. The first is the kind of Mexican food you go to, to eat as much chips and melted cheese as you can until you pop like an overblown balloon. Which I totally love. And then there’s Mexican food, said with gravitas, made fresh fresh fresh, and with so much flavor it punches you in the mouth. Which I love even more. Both are hard to find in South Florida, which is surprising, given our population’s affinity for seafood and spice.
I grew up an hour outside of Miami, but now that many of my friends, including my best friend, Mrs. Miami, have moved there full-time, I have the occasion to venture in, and try some of the city’s hopefully best restaurants. We’ve had some hits and we’ve had some misses: last Friday night at Mercadito was a HIT. Imagine three Mexican-starved twenty-somethings–me, Mrs. Miami, and her fiancé Mr. Miami–, finally finding aqua fresca in a midtown oasis, inhaling guacamoles, other moles, and basically everything within the limitations of our table. We were pretty hilarious in our enthusiasm.
Mercadito has six guacamoles on its menu. I recommend you opt to try two or three and share, since the servings here are smaller than at the first type of Mexican restaurant. In fact, most of the plates here are smaller and meant to share. We had the tradicional, made with my favorite Florida key limes, and the chipotle, smoky and spicy and studded with jicama, mango, and pico di gallo. The corn chips were home-fried. Terrific.
Next came the dorado, or mahi-mahi, ceviche. Mixed with the most finely chopped tomatoes I’ve ever come across, sweet from orange and chili, and mellowed out with chunks of avocado. Probably the biggest hit at the table.
Until the tacos showed up. Platters of four small tacos wrapped in soft, almost pillowy, homemade corn tortillas come in eleven different varieties; unfortunately, you can’t mix and match. We tried the camaron and the carnitas. The camaron, or shrimp taco, was a sleeper hit. With a mole that reeked of roasted garlic, it was the most flavorful thing on the table. My favorite of the night. The carnitas were unlike any carnitas I have ever seen. The slow-roasted pork was not a mishmash of pork detritus at the bottom of a greasy pot. It was dry, in large, tender chunks, and topped with some serious spicy slaw and crunchy peanuts.
At this point, it was a miracle that I was able to eat my Mexican grilled corn, but after having it for the first time this year at Café Habana in New York, I order it anywhere that sells it. Cotija cheese, dried chili, smoky soft corn. Not quite as good or as cheap as at Café Habana, but it was still fantastic.
The only thing I would steer clear of is the cucumber refresco de la casa, or house-made soda. With seltzer, cucumber puree or juice, and agave nectar, it just didn’t work. But I’m willing to try one of their other flavors, strawberry maybe, next time, because it’s a great idea, and from the rest of the food on the table, I’m pretty sure they can execute.
We finished up the meal with a piece of tres leches cake, that had goat cheese in the batter, and reached an inimitable texture of soft sponge with substantial crumbling crumbs. A drizzle of crushed pineapple syrup, and we were in business.
Mercadito has a wide-open floor plan, clean design, and peppy bar. It was full, and lively, but there was enough space between the tables that you didn’t feel like sardines sharing your last meal together in a tin. It feels like a destination to go out to, in our case on a Friday night, but it’s casual and laid back and just fun. I have never been to the New York location, but as we left last Friday night, we murmured to each other how glad we were that it was full, because we want this Miami outpost to stick around. I, for one, will be going back for $2.50 taco Tuesday!
3252 NE First Avenue
Miami, FL 33137