With the notable exception of Border Grill, Las Vegas is sadly lacking in quality higher-end Mexican cuisine. Three brothers from Chicago are trying to change that, however, with Mercadito in Red Rock Resort and a soon-to-open sister restaurant in Green Valley Ranch. And after a handful of visits, I’m encouraged by what they’re bringing to the table.
Mercadito is a restaurant group run by partners Alfredo, Felipe and Patricio Sandoval. They opened their first Mercadito in New York in 2004, and now have restaurants in Chicago, Miami and San Diego. The Red Rock Resort location occupies the space that once housed LBS Burgers, although it’s had a complete makeover that now includes outdoor seating.
The menu is deceptively simple, dominated by guacamoles, ceviches, salsas and tacos, with various other Mexican staples sprinkled in for good measure. But the chef here gets a lot more creative than what you‘ll find at your typical taco joint. Take the guacamole, for example: Three different types are offered, and guests can order one, two or three at a time. While the traditional and mango versions are both very good, be sure to sample the tocino (bacon) variety, which mixes the salty meat with corn, hominy, pico de gallo and habanero peppers.
Mercadito also offers three different varieties of ceviche: shrimp, mahi mahi and a mixture of shrimp, mahi mahi and octopus. I’m not a big fan of pineapple, which is used in the shrimp version, so I generally prefer the mahi mahi with its hint of orange, or the combo with a touch of passion fruit. But like the guac, the best way to enjoy this is to order all three. (In fact, that’s really the best rule of thumb for the restaurant as a whole, so your best bet is to come with a large group and share.)
One more starter worth mentioning is the queso fundido. It’s a nontraditional combination of Chihuahua, Oaxaca and Gouda cheeses (the latter isn’t listed on the menu) that comes topped with either short ribs or mushrooms, but is delicious enough to stand on its own.
The centerpiece of the menu is a collection of nine tacos, which come four to an order. (Sadly, you can’t mix and match.) Seafood taco purists will love the Estilo Baja version. Made with beer-battered mahi mahi, and topped with chipotle aioli and Mexican slaw, it was named Best Fish Taco in 2006 by New York magazine. I’m something of a heretic, however, preferring my fish tacos grilled. So I lean toward the lightly blackened swordfish, topped with spicy aioli and cabbage-jalapeño slaw. I also love the pancita, which tops spicy chili-rubbed pork belly with sweet grilled peach salsita.
So far, I’ve only tried one of the restaurant’s five large plates: a shrimp chile relleno. I realize it may sound silly to say the grilled poblano pepper was packed with too much shrimp, but the truth is I would have liked a bit more cheese in the mix. I was more impressed with the two side dishes I ordered with that meal. The mac and cheese featured just enough poblano that you could taste the freshness of the pepper without totally blowing out your taste buds with heat. And the three-corn pico de gallo—made with hominy, yellow and white corn—had a perfect touch of roasted garlic.
Word seems to have gotten out quickly about Mercadito’s creative cuisine, so if you visit on a weekend, expect a wait for a table. (Do that at the bar, where cocktails are on draft, a signature of Mercadito beverage consultants Paul Tanguay and Tad Carducci, a.k.a. The Tippling Bros. Their bar concept, Tippling Hall, will join the forthcoming Mercadito at Green Valley Ranch.) Despite the large crowds, the staff seems to be coping, and service during all of my visits was generally good.
For a level of Mexican food that’s relatively rare in this town, it’s worth braving the crowds.
Al’s Menu Picks
- trio of guacamole ($14.50)
- queso fundido ($9.50)
- pancita tacos ($14.50)
- swordfish tacos ($14.50)
- mac and cheese ($4.50)
Red Rock Resort, 702-979-3609. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.–midnight Sun–Thu, 11:30 a.m.–1 a.m. Fri–Sat. Dinner for two, $40–$75.