“Is a Negroni without Campari really a Negroni?” I think to myself, sitting patiently at El Mercado’s bar on the east side of downtown Santa Ana. Head barman, Cesar Cerrudo, hand-saws a clear ice chunk like some sort of handyman, plops it in my glass, then swizzles Chartreuse, smoky mezcal, and Americano Aperitivo together, clipping an orange peel to the side like a bow on a gift before sliding it my way.
What’s in the glass is a peek into this drink creator’s mind.
“I find Campari to be a bit too sweet, I want my Negroni to finish clean,” says Cerrudo. And indeed it is. His Negroni is light and blushing with personality, letting the smokey phenols from the mezcal take the usual spotlight of the standard gin-Campari botanical-bitter. Also absent is the normal viscosity of a standard negroni. Instead, you’re treated to a few extra ABV’s, which not only thins the drink out, you get a little bit more bang for the buck.
During the day, Mercado’s long and slender dining room windows let light pour in like an old fancy train dining car. At night, the train departs for some sort of romantic flavor adventure in the dim and moody-hip restaurant.
I’d imagine a lot of mezcal flies across Mercado’s bar, which ties together with the kitchen’s cuisine. Smoke in any cocktail, whether it be from bar-pyrotechnics or distillery-smoked fermentables, can send Pavlovian signals to the brain that it’s almost time to eat. Where there’s smoke, there’s food.
Pulpo a la Plancha ($16), which is delivered under glass floating in a cloud of cinnamon smoke, is the perfect tinder match for Cesar’s Negroni. Its plump and delicate tentacles are crisp like a chicharrón yet cuts easily with a fork, sitting comfortably on a bed of smutty corn hash and salsa. “If I was chef, I’d want to put my tentacles all over this hash as well,” I quip to my kid who shakes her head in dad joke embarrassment.
If smoke aromatics and octopus aren’t your jam, the carnitas ($16) is another house specialty not to be missed. It’s like a built-to-scale Mayan pyramid of pork resting in its own juices with a piñata of sweet onions and cilantro shrubbery. The house tortillas offer the crispy pork party a vehicle for quick mouth delivery, combining the ingredients for adequate au jus dipping to reach total carnitas enlightenment.
Looking for a drink to match, I went with Cesar’s new Guascas cocktail (pronounced whuaskas) which is named after the Columbian namesake herb. A tea is made with it, mixing a bit of non-smoky mezcal and other house magic, which makes the sweetness in the carnitas pop. On its own, the drink has a chrysanthemum-like herbal tea character with a delicate honey sweetness and complex finish that lasts a good twenty seconds.
El Mercado Modern Cuisine, 301 N Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (714) 338-2446; www.mercadomodern.com.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest. When not writing about, photographing or filming beer, cocktails, and food, he can be found talking trash while playing video games under the name “OCBeer.”