Just over a year ago I was thrilled when renowned Orange County chef Danny Godinez opened a new restaurant, Maestro on East Union Street in Pasadena, featuring his modern Mexican cuisine. Six months later I was delighted when Danny Trejo took over the jinxed venue adjacent to the Pasadena Playhouse to debut the latest of six Trejo’s Tacos restaurants, also featuring Mexican and fusion recipes with a bent toward satisfying contemporary eating preferences, including vegetarian and vegan items.
In early August came the unexpected news that Godinez was ending his personal involvement in Maestro and heading back to his Orange County restaurants, leaving me to worry that Maestro would revamp to a simpler and less exciting menu. So far, my fears have been largely unfounded, with most of the original offerings intact and quality high. Fingers crossed the new onsite management stays true to Maestro’s inception. The fact that Godinez remains a partner, at least for now, should help.
And now, a new branch of yet another haute Mexican restaurant chain, Mercado, has opened on South Lake Avenue. It replaces Seco, a Smith Brothers’ restaurant which replaced their Café 140 South which in turn replaced their Crocodile Café, a restaurant I adored from its opening in 1987 and from which I still treasure the lounging sun-glassed crocodile-adorned sweatshirts I bought for myself and my soon-to-be husband.
I’m not the only one, however, who remembers Crocodile Café with fondness. Mercado’s owner Jesse Gomez used to work for the Smith Brothers and may have been a staff member of that very restaurant. And although after 30 years I still pine for the sunlit casual restaurant with its superb burgers and adorable Suzy-Q fries, I can’t imagine a better successor.
In the years between Jesse’s “apprenticeship” with the Smiths and the opening of Pasadena’s Mercado less than three weeks ago, he has become a successful entrepreneur. With his chef/partner Jose Acevedo, he now operates seven restaurants all over the Los Angeles area, including Mercados and 1 Mercado Taqueria in Studio City, Maradentro in Brentwood and Yxta Cocina Mexicana in downtown LA under the umbrella title Cocinas y Calaveras.
The interior of this newest Mercado sibling has been completely transformed by designer Janel Wright. Sunshine is mostly reserved for the large patio while the formerly bright interior has become dark and cozy. The long space to the left of the entrance is dressed with umber floors, furnishings and booths with burgundy upholstery. Lighting is low. The well-stocked bar to the right occupies what appears to be an equally long area with high chairs, stools and tables.
Walls are adorned with white and burgundy rectangular tiles arranged in irregular diagonal patterns, periodically punctuated with startling images of grinning skulls with brilliant red roses for eyes. These skulls and roses, replicating the skull which forms part of the Cocinas y Calaveras logo (it fills the “o” in Cocinas and also appears on menus) have been created with multicolored shell casings by bullet artist David Palmer.
If the décor is riveting, even more so is the food. Like Maestro and Trejo’s, it’s also somewhat more expensive than your average Mexican restaurant, especially if you go for the large plates on the dinner menu. But then, like Maestro and Trejo’s, Mercado isn’t your average Mexican restaurant. Nevertheless, for our initial visit, we decided to be frugal and sample the reduced price offerings on the Happy Hour menu.
We got there just before 4:30 and found the interior relatively empty, but in less than 15 minutes the joint was jumping. Nevertheless, service was stellar and members of the white shirt, jeans and tan aproned wait staff found time to chat and ask if we were enjoying our meal. And, yes, we absolutely were, from the first 16-ounce glass of Dos Equis amber ($4/regular price $6) and Mercado margarita-rocks ($9/rp $12) to the five extraordinary items we ordered to go with our drinks.
First came rajas poblanas ($6/rp $8), a platter full of poblano strips with sweet corn kernels, swimming in a sinfully rich cream sauce thickened with spiced queso añejo and topped with a generous sprinkle of crispy onion tendrils. It came with warm blue corn tortillas but a major omission was a spoon for capturing the dregs. (We asked.) Wonderful!
Our second selection was a pair of jicama shrimp tacos ($9/rp $12). What a surprise to find that the advertised jicama tortillas were exactly that — paper-thin slices of crisp jicama instead of ordinary tortillas with jicama added to the mix. Each taco held one piping hot jumbo shrimp, coated with a crunchy batter, topped with “Mexican” green and purple cabbage slaw, potent chile de arbol aioli and a garnish of emerald micro-greens. The space between the two tacos was filled with pickled veggie wedges. Spectacular!
Next we sampled tacos de carnitas ($9/ $17 rp at lunch with rice and beans) and were again amazed at the perfectly cooked pork with lots of crispy bits and incredible flavor. Piled on corn tortillas with red onions, cilantro and guacamole, they were spiked with Yxta salsa brava, a pungent topping made from a base of tomato, onion, garlic and vinegar. Magnificent!
We followed these tacos with others labeled “Dos Gringas” ($10/rp $13) consisting of spit-roasted pastor (pork), oaxaca cheese, onions, cilantro, pineapple chunks, more salsa brava and a decorative drizzle of avocado salsa, arranged on flour tortillas. N.B., Wikipedia, my go-to source for food origins, is uncertain how the name (rough translation — two foreign women) attached to the dish but speculates it might be due to the white flour tortillas. Fabulous!
Finally, we put in an order for carnitas nachos ($12 but not listed on either lunch or dinner menus). The platter came piled high with black beans, carnitas, chopped tomato and onion, choriqueso (a cheese sauce made for melted cotija, parmesan and oaxaca cheeses mixed with house chorizo, poblanos and mushrooms) with a huge blob of spring green guacamole, all atop thick warm chips which, amazingly, kept their crisp while we attempted, futilely, to finish the dish. Overwhelming!
Despite having gorged ourselves into a near stupor, we emerged into the late afternoon sunshine marveling at all the great food we’d managed to consume. On the way to our car, we were already trying to figure out when we could find time for a second visit. Once home, I checked out the lunch and dinner menus online. Everything on them is appealing but we’re so in love with our Happy Hour meal that we’ll probably be late afternoon regulars for the next few months.