Ernesto Delgado, owner of downtown Sacramento’s Tequila Museo Mayahuel fine-dining restaurant, opened the more casual Mesa Mercado in September, following River City Brewing – displaced from its longtime Downtown Plaza site by Golden 1 Center – into the Milagro Centre. The 46,000-square-foot shopping center models itself after Oxbow Public Market in Napa and San Francisco’s Ferry Building in offering multiple food and drink vendors in one space.
Mesa Mercado sits down the way from River City and across from Insight Coffee Roasters and Ghiotto Gelato. Temporary walls, augmented by tarps, separate a big, under-construction portion of the building from the active businesses. Part of this space will hold Hunt and Gather, a fruit, vegetable and meat market owned by Delgado and Chris Jarosz (Broderick Roadhouse, Saddle Rock). A building over, across a large courtyard that holds seating and a giant fireplace, will go Billy Ngo’s second Fish Face Poke Bar, and the Patriot restaurant, another new Jarosz project.
Delgado demarcated his restaurant with attractive wooden barriers that will double as shelves for items for sale as the market evolves, he said. Mesa Mercado already holds a retail space near the building’s front door, where Delgado sells molcajetes – the mortar-and-pestle used to smash avocado and grind spices – and art pieces by local and Mexican artists.
Local artists also helped with the restaurant’s design, painting and staining concrete floors with pre-Columbian imagery, their black coloring creating an interesting shadow effect. The sides of the restaurant’s bar hold attractive, artfully lit tile work.
Its look orchestrated by Sacramento’s DesignTECH, Mesa Mercado feels like a restaurant instead of just a stall, and offers full, attentive, friendly service. We never heard hammering or sawing on our three visits. Apart from the plywood and tarps, the only indicator of the unfinished larger space was temperature – a chill crept in about 15 minutes into each visit. Temperature is hard to regulate, one assumes, in a large, partially completed space in winter.
Michoacán native Delgado modeled his menu – developed with Bertha Medrano Rios, a Mexico City restaurateur currently living locally for family reasons – on Mexican mercados, the cooking stalls which use ingredients from nearby produce stands. Delgado said he expects to get Mesa Mercado ingredients from Hunt and Gather and from a planned fish market at Fish Face. For now, he uses other vendors, including farm-to-table specialist Produce Express.
Meals start, refreshingly, with gratis chunks of fresh mango topped with a chili-lime mix. Delgado, who started in the Sacramento restaurant business with the late El Patron Bar & Grill on Folsom Boulevard and is building a restaurant called La Cosecha in Cesar Chavez Plaza, seems to make thoughtful decisions based on his experience.
He offers mango as the free starter rather than chips and salsa, he said, because it’s a common Mexican street/mercado food and also lighter than chips and salsa, on which people tend to fill up before ordering bigger plates. Mesa Mercado does offer, for $3, chips and three salsas – a rich, slightly sweet guajillo-tamarind, sparky tomatillo and smoky chipotle. Though I oppose paying for chips and salsa in theory, offering mango in lieu of them softened my objection this time out.
For $9, one can buy another south-of-the-border market-stall staple – tacos dorados de papa, or four tacos holding mashed potatoes that are flavored with tomatoes and garlic, browned and then stuffed in corn tortillas before everything goes in the deep fryer. Salsa and crema top the closed tacos, eaten from a horizontal position.
The hard-shell tortillas and perfectly seasoned potatoes offer a crispy/creamy textural effect that exemplifies comfort food and makes this starter the best dish on the menu, and its best deal. Though tortillas and potatoes are cheap ingredients, the expertise shown in their preparation here adds value.
Mesa Mercado’s guacamole arrives with such an ample serving of smashed avocado that its $7.50 price tag also would seem a deal, were it not for the “build your own” concept (at dinner, when we ordered it, but not lunch, when it is pre-mixed). Delgado said that he wanted to distinguish Mesa Mercado from restaurants that prepare guacamole in advance and let it sit. He considered having servers mix it table-side, but that seemed labor-intensive. So the guacamole comes with avocado, salt, serrano pepper and lemon wedges separated.
We mixed, juiced and salted, but our guacamole still tasted bland, partly because lemon does not add dimension to avocado the way lime does. We asked a server to bring us lime wedges, which helped. But by then we had extended too much effort for too little payoff.
Freshness became more flavorful with the $9.50 “caldo de cosecha,” a vegetable-filled broth that is listed as a stew but eats like a soup. On the cold day I ordered it, this vegetarian broth evoked gardens and sunlight, though a cob of corn within it was nearly flavorless.
Uncommon flavors packed the excellent savory/sweet chilies en nogada ($11), a chilled dish arranged on the plate to evoke the Mexican flag, with a roasted poblano pepper providing the green, a walnut cream sauce the white and pomegranate seeds and sauce the red. Inside the pepper lay ground pork and beef, and raisins.
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Chocolate is the strongest note in the stellar mole oaxaqueño ($18, over chicken, with a side of rice), the overall flavor is more earthy than sweet, and the stewed chicken beneath the mole notably juicy.
Mesa Mercado’s dishes come with beans or rice depending on what best suits the dish at hand. The beans are expertly salted, and mostly intact, though there is a saucelike quality to this side dish. The rice is subtly flavored but was overcooked a few of the times we tried it.
The kitchen never goes heavy on salt or cumin – elements that can lend a sameness to Mexican meals. Though the marinade that goes into the meat of the al pastor tacos ($11) holds achiote, vinegar and fresh citrus, they all work in service not of themselves, but the pork’s natural meaty flavor.
The pork’s only drawback was the tortillas around it. Every Mesa Mercado taco we tried, apart from potato taco on the starter menu, came with blue corn tortillas Delgado gets specially made for his restaurants in Modesto. The examples of these tortillas we tried lacked much flavor, but offered a distinctive texture – their edges were tough enough to be nearly rubber band-like.
Though Mesa Mercado’s kitchen showed it can pull off complex and/or highly distinctive dishes such as mole and chilies en nogada, we are living in the time of the taco. Or, for people who prefer burritos, the tyranny of the taco.
The measure of a taco truck, or market stand, or mid-priced Carmichael Mexican restaurant, is being taken not just by how its tacos’ carne asada tastes, but by the freshness and provenance of its tortillas. Roseville’s Nixtaco, the best new Mexican spot to open in the Sacramento region in the past year, makes scratch tortillas from heirloom Mexican corn.
In such a climate, tortillas with tough edges are a liability.
6241 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael. 916-283-4081, www.mesamercado.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Full bar, including craft cocktails. Ten beers on draft. Premium tequila by the glass. Short list of red and white wines.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: Moderate, though this big, open – and possibly noise-prone – space was not crowded on our visits.
Ambiance: Mesa Mercado sits in the still-under-construction Milagro Centre public market, and although it is well-designed and feels like a contained restaurant, it was physically cold on our three visits.
Overall ☆☆ 1/2
The setting is unusual and interesting, if sometimes cold. Standout dishes outnumber disappointing ones, and service is good.
Food ☆☆ 1/2
The 4-month-old restaurant’s menu, like the building in which it sits, is a work in progress. (Owner Ernesto Delgado said an updated menu with 12 more items will be out soon). Although the kitchen shows a flair for more complex dishes like mole, and nails comfort food like the tacos dorados de papa, the make-your-own guacamole is a miss, and most tacos come in tough-edged blue corn tortillas.
Attentive yet unobtrusive.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
The four-taco, delicious tacos dorados de papa plate is a good value at $9. Other, three-taco plates in the $11-$15 range, including a fish-taco special, did not seem like such deals.