I had read about El Mercadito a number of times in the past, and all of the reviews began with something along the lines of "who would expect to find great Mexican food way out on John's Island in a Piggly Wiggly shopping center?" So, it has been on my list of Charleston restaurants to try for quite some time. This weekend I finally made it out there for lunch.
When I first opened the menu I was pretty disappointed. I was expecting some fantastic roll call of Mexican specialties that you just can't get on the Carolina coast--things like mole and real tamales and meatballs in chipotle sauce. What I found looked like the same menu you see in every one of those La Hacienda/Monterrey/San Jose/etc. restaurants that have Mexican (or, at least, Latino) owner/operators but apparently all share the same distributor and recipes--including, of course, the "Speedy Gonzales" #1 Lunch Special , which must appear on about eighty-three thousand Mexican restaurant menus in the Southeast.
And then I spied, amid all the standard franchise tex-mex numbered combos, a picture of a platter of tacos, and I knew immediately what I was ordering.
I was about to write, "El Mercadito has real tacos," but I really can't say that for sure, having never been to Mexico and not knowing for sure even if Mexico is the home of the real taco. If you believe food writers (like Mark Bittman, who recently published a nice column on "real tacos" in the New York Times) then these are the real thing. And, real or not, I can say with certainty that they are GREAT tacos.
First, each taco is served on two soft, warm corn tortillas (not a deep fried corn tortilla shell nor a chewy flour "soft taco" tortilla). And, second, you get a choice of five great meats: al pastor, pork carnitas, carne asada (beef), something I can't remember (probably chicken), and cabeza. I knew the last one literally means "head", but the menu had it translated as "beef cheeks". I ordered three tacos, including one with cabeza, figuring that something so odd-sounding had to be good. And, as luck would have it, they were all out of cabeza (or, at least they claimed to be out of it. As with the seared pig trotters at Amuse, I'm starting to suspect that whenever I order something unusual the waiter takes a look at me, figures I don't look like an adventurous enough guy, and tells me they're out of it just to spare me from being disappointed.) So, I ended up with a carnitas, a beef, and an al pastor.
The latter was probably my favorite--a hard call to make, admittedly: all the meats were tender with crisp edges and smoky and fantastic and miles away from the typical overly-spiced steamed ground beef. Tacos al pastor are made from a big hunk of pork coated with spices and cooked on a rotisserie, then shaved off as the tacos are ordered--much like the giant blocks of lamb meat from which gyros are carved.
El Mercadito dresses its tacos not with a big wad of shredded iceberg lettuce and gobs of pasty colby-jack but rather with onions and a little cilantro and nothing else. Wedges of lime are placed on the side, and a small rack of three salsas--pico de gallo, salsa verde, and a rich red chile sauce--are served alongside. And the tacos were fantastic.
Surfing the web as I worked on this post, I noticed a review that suggested El Mercadito recently underwent a renovation to make it into more of the classic "American Mexican" restaurant that Southern diners have come to expect--explaining the presence of the infamous "Speedy Gonzales" lunch combo.
I say more power to them. If the bland, standard menu and baskets of chips and salsa get more patrons in the door and helps pay the bills and keeps the restaurant open that's fine with me. As long as they keep tacos al pastor and other genuine delicacies tucked away somewhere in the back of the menu, I'll be happy. And, I'll be coming back for more.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Posted at 8:14 PM