East End Eats: Mercado’s Pleasant Surprise
I’d been wanting to try Mercado in Bridgehampton for quite a while. But no matter what time of day or what time of year I drove by, the place looked empty. For years it has remained as mysterious as that roadside business in Southampton that has the creepy statuary of Elvis, elephants, Marilyn Monroe, big dinosaurs, and bigger Buddhas.
There have been advertisements recently on the local radio station WEHM for Mercado. They feature a lady saying something along the lines of “I drive by here all the time and I’ve never been in.” The ads also proclaim that Mercado has the best margaritas. Oh, boy.
So I put together my most reliable, intrepid, and game gang of tasters, and we went on a Sunday night. It was, indeed, empty. The entire time. As a matter of fact, after we had ordered our food, a gentleman who may have been the owner or manager (we never found out and he never acknowledged our presence) went out for a while and returned with some bags of groceries. Maybe they weren’t expecting us? Or anyone? Much to our amusement he spent most of the rest of the evening staring at a screen at the hostess station. Was he managing reservations? Trying to figure out where to put everybody? It shall remain a mystery.
The interior of Mercado (formerly the Woodshed and for many years Almond) is colorful. The tin ceiling is painted yellow, the walls are brick red, there are a few movie posters en espanol (“Rebelde Sin Causa!”), some mounted boxes with skulls, and some strips of different colored wood (flooring samples?) glued to another wall. There are four flat screen TVs above the long bar, which boasts 75 different kinds of tequila.
On this quiet, quiet night of our visit, Simon was our waiter, bartender, perhaps even chef, cook, and bottle washer for all we could tell. He was delightful company and made some very good margaritas, in particular the caliente version.
We began our meal with guacamole, salsas, and stuffed jalapeños. The guacamole was good, if a wee bit too cold. The chips are fried and come with a tomatillo salsa and another roasted chile salsa. Both were very good, and just spicy enough. The chips were also good, until you came across one that had been fried in rancid oil and tasted ghastly. They should clean out the fryer and start fresh.
For entrees we tried the Yucatan chicken, carne asada, and shrimp tacos. All three were very good. The Yucatan chicken was a chicken breast on top of jalapeño mashed potatoes, covered in an almond cream sauce, and topped with lightly cooked zucchini ribbons. The carne asada was a tender, well-seasoned piece of skirt steak with house made corn tortillas, flour tortillas, and caramelized onions, and was served on more of the excellent mashed potatoes. Our buddy Simon gave us some sautéed mushrooms to go along with it. The shrimp tacos were good — slightly sweet from some grilled pineapple and zesty from pickled red onions. The Mexican rice served alongside was sad, but the refried black beans were good.
The prices at Mercado are moderate. Appetizers are $6 to $16, quesadillas and salads are $13 to $27, and tacos and burgers are $12 to $23. Main dishes are $22 to $35, sides are $4 to $7, and desserts are $7. As I mentioned before, our server, Simon, was charming, and we had his undivided attention.
We were in a bit of a hurry to get home to watch the Golden Globes, so we ordered two desserts (made in house) to go, the flan, and the tres leches cake. The flan was okay, but a bit overdone, ergo gritty, and the tres leches cake had seen better days. It was dry and bland.
Over all, our dinner at Mercado was a pleasant surprise and the food quite decent. I would definitely go back for some of the dishes we tried. Were Mercado’s margaritas the best, as touted on the radio? Not quite. In my opinion, that award goes to Townline BBQ, but they were good.
It can be rather sad to be the only people in a restaurant on a Sunday night, and of course it doesn’t bode well for the business. But this place deserves a chance.