About four years ago, Anepalco chef-owner Danny Godinez took me and a group of mutual friends into a gutted space in downtown SanTana right next to the Yost Theater. "This is going to be El Mercado," he said, a restaurant he promised would revolutionize Mexican cuisine in this most Mexican of cities. "We'll be open in about six months."
"Six months" is finally happening this Saturday, when El Mercado Modern Cuisine is having its grand opening. They held a preview night yesterday, unveiling their bold, successful restaurant strategy: with no due respect to the CHAVALA Rick Bayless, Godinez is mastering Mexico, one plate at a time.
Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, Godinez has constructed a menu representing all of Mexico's 31 states—yep, every single one, ranging from appetizer to entree to dessert. 17 were on display yesterday: aguachile from Sinaloa, rompope-flavored jericalla from Jalisco, Chiapas seafood, mole poblano, and so much more, all through the lens of Godinez's alta cocina techniques. It was a dizzyingly thrilling menu, with eaters astounded at the inclusion of some items. "Tacos aguados? De veras? Really?" said Cecilia Rios Murrieta, owner of La Niña del Mezcal, whose booze is featured prominently in El Mercado's cocktail menu. She couldn't believe that this staple of Godinez's home state of Guerrero was actually on an American menu. But one bite of the appetizer, all about crunch and spice and a fabulous chicken broth, took Rios Murrieta back to the Tierra Caliente.
El Mercado will open firing on all cylinders. The space is big, with a small bar, a lounge area, and seats spanning the narrow restaurant. Its aesthetic is sleek, and the music last night veered more toward electronica—this ain't Mariscos Hector, gentle cabrones. More importantly, the food was as delicious as what Godinez makes at his Anepalcos, and the cocktail program, helmed by Cesar Cerrudo, just might be the most Mexican thing since Nezahualcoyotl, featuring everything from bacanora to sotol to aloe vera and even a marigold liqueur that our own Dave Lieberman described as smelling like "Albertson's sheet cake.
I wish I was able to give more of a review, but I ended up chatting with El Mercado's PR team—the guy remembered me from a lecture I gave years ago at Orange Coast College, while the lady Shelly (who has a cocktail named after her) knows the wife of my cousin; both of them went to Anaheim High, like me. How about that? And I, of course, got smashed (and Ubered!) and kept wowing Shelly's Syrian friend, Karen, with my knowledge of Middle Eastern cuisine. When the tacos orientales, the Chihuahuan version of al pastor, came out, I let her know that the tradition came from Lebanese immigrants who came to Mexico in the first part of the 20th century. "I'm a picky eater," Karen replied, "but this food is good." You know it, habibi!
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It was a big crowd at the preview night: seen were people from Soho Taco, Arroyo Trabuco Golf Course, and even the mysterious Ben Dayhoe, a SanTana personality who was seen scarfing down everything in front of him. "This is the Mexican restaurant," Dayhoe said, "that downtown Santa Ana deserves."
Other than him mispronouncing SanTana as "Santa Ana," I agree. Everyone: head over to El Mercado and show the world OC loves Mexican food beyond MILF-tastic margaritas—salé?
El Mercado Modern Cuisine, 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (714) 338-2446; www.mercadomodern.com