“There will be no chips. No salsa. No frozen margaritas. Still interested?” So goes my cranky preamble to potential guests before visiting the new El Mercado Modern Cuisine in downtown Santa Ana. ¶ “But isn’t it a Mexican place?” some ask. Indeed it is. But El Mercado is unlike any Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana, or any other city in Orange County. Its singular character is one of this long-awaited venue’s many charms. Open since September, El Mercado is Danny Godinez’s newest undertaking, a novel encore to his two Anepalco cafes in Orange. He teams with Fernando Franco and Jose Cerrudo for this decidedly urban venture. Chef Nate Overstreet, of the now-shuttered artisan butchery Wheat & Sons, ably helms the kitchen that brings Godinez’s vision to the plate.
Despite its name, El Mercado is not a market. It’s a full-service restaurant and bar that seats 115 in a vintage site with soaring ceilings and a tree-shaded patio adjoining the pedestrian esplanade between Third and Fourth streets. The storied Yost Theater is just steps north.
Modern Cuisine, the most essential half of El Mercado’s name, plays out memorably once food and drink enter the picture. One sip of the purple Ay Madre tequila cocktail, with its hibiscus-cabernet vinegar shrub and tamarind candy swizzle stick, and the intent is clear—creativity is key. One bite of a soft, fluffy omelet with an exquisite crown of onion petals and frilly tender herbs, and the point is obvious—refinement matters.
On my visits, the menu lists 20 dishes, nominally organized from light to heavy, and on the reverse side, signature, mescal-centric cocktails and craft brews on tap. Dish names denote the Mexican state that inspires each recipe, Sinaloa to Sonora, along with a few key ingredients for a terse description. The bare-bones explanations spawn more questions than answers, and the emphasis on geography adds a travelogue aspect that complicates the message. Clearly, this menu is written by a chef, for a chef, ensuring that the unflappable, knowledgeable servers work hard for their tips.
At dinner, expect to order at least two or three plates per person, as portions are small and the share-plate concept rules. Start at the top with a sublime aguachile verde (Sinaloa), halved crescents of raw shrimp with red-onion slivers and bits of ripe avocado under a roof of thin cucumber slices. This dish succeeds on a precise cool broth of fresh lime juice and green chiles so balanced you will slurp every drop from the plate’s deep well once the pink shrimp are gone. Tacos ahogado (Guerrero), one of the rare taco dishes, surprises with two rolled chicken tacos (think crisp taquitos) resting in hot broth fragrant from long hours of simmering. Brawny, hand-formed corn tortillas safeguard against sogginess. Tlayuda (picture a hefty corn tostada) is the nod to Oaxaca, smeared with dusky bean puree, then a layer of creamy avocado, with brined onion for juicy punch and jocoque (fermented buttermilk) for funk.
Puebla, the Instagram darling of the menu, is a clever portrait of Mexico on a plate. Composed with tender chicken in brick-red mole, ivory crema, and lacy, green micro-cilantro, the dish begs to be conquered whether you start at Baja Norte or Yucatán. Savory carnitas on a wood plank (Michoacán), pulled into feathery strands of mouthwatering pork, gets extra points for shards of pig-ear cracklings, a side pot of mole, and two wondrous just-made tortillas. Folks complain about paying $1.50 each for extra tortillas, but when a proper croissant costs $1.95, why the whining?
Chiapas, the fish of the day, is typically a meaty white fish, expertly pan-fried and partnered with a bean puree or chunky roasted salsa. New York steak (Sonora) and skirt steak (Cuahila) are best left to devout beef-eaters, leaving the supply of barbacoa chivo (Hidalgo) for diners up for fiery, succulent goat served with its juices, refined into a rich consommé. For dessert, the bridal-white coconut ice cream (Morelos), with its fat toasted curls of fresh coconut meat, shines brightest, making the rum-heavy flan (Jalisco) taste harsh by comparison.
Muted colors, mellow lighting, and oversize wall art lend a modern aura to the setting, reinforced by low-slung furnishings and hip mixes of pop music with an electronic edge. At brunch, daylight streams through the arched windows, illuminating the sleek room while revealing random patches of street-side graffiti on the glass. It’s a downtown moment: urbanity vs. profanity.
That battle is real, as on every visit I have the same thought. This special place should be much, much busier. All week long. The city’s severe parking protocol aside, I see no reason why El Mercado isn’t drawing loads of adventurous diners. Sure, it has rabid fans, but it deserves more.
Here’s hoping the recently added “Ruta del Agave” Tuesdays that offer three tacos paired with three of the restaurant’s top spirits will upend banal taco Tuesdays. Wednesday presents “Cita,” a date-night multicourse meal that’s a steal for two. Dining here anytime is an undeniable value.
Chilly days are inspiring menu additions such as chorizo-infused mussels. And I can’t wait to slip my spoon into a bowl of El Mercado’s pozole with cured pork and burnt shallots. I trust this newcomer will transport guests to new realms of Mexican cuisine. Alas, the nature of my job prevents me from dining here more often. What’s your excuse?
El Mercado Modern Cuisine
301 N. Spurgeon St.
Photos by Priscilla Iezzi