I’m not much of a creature of habit, but when the question “What do you want to eat on your birthday?” came up, I could only think of Mercado, a.k.a. downtown Santa Ana’s El Mercado Modern Cuisine.
The lengthy walk to its bar on your birthday can feel a little bit like dead man walking, with various hip joints and knee bones popping and cracking as if I were visiting the chiropractor. Pro tip: As you age, be sure to time your steps to the beat of the music so people aren’t startled by the noises your body makes as you stroll by.
Once I finally made it to an open barstool, I was greeted by bartender Cesar Cerrudo, who has been behind the stick since the restaurant opened in 2016.
Mercado’s menu updates regularly, so each visit is akin to dining at a new restaurant. Old favorites and staples remain, such as the heaping mound of carnitas and the ever-popular tlayuda, but spring brings new influences from other lands and cultures, a reflection of what’s happening within a few blocks of the hip yet hidden gem.
I can’t say I remember seeing a gastropub-style burger on the menu before, but this time I spotted not just one, but two: the classic, which runs $11 during happy hour, and the Mercado burger, which can be had for a buck more. Both are so dense they should be eaten with a knife and fork.
The biggest spring surprise is perhaps the udon soup, which looks Asian, yet smells like a steaming bowl of caldo de pollo. Blue and white puffy hominy, charred corn, and a jammy hard-boiled egg are joined with crunchy enoki mushrooms. Toasted sesame seeds add a nice depth of flavor to the steamy broth filled with slippery noodles.
The cocktail menu offers eight seasonal choices, each a riff on a classic as seen through Cerrudo’s booze goggles. #MercadoModern caught my eye not only because of its inclusion of Montelobos Mezcal, but also because it was the only drink donning a hashtag. The bright mango-orange concoction is served in a stemmed cocktail glass, stainless-steel straw bent outward, with a frozen violet hashtag cube on top. “That’s frozen chicha morada,” Cerrudo said with a smile.
Judging great cocktails isn’t all about looks, aromatics and mouthfeel, as the ultimate compliment to a well-designed drink is that of moorishness. With its balanced smokey-tropical fruitiness, I found #MercadoModern to be incredibly easy to suck down. As the hashtag melts, pick it up with your straw and nibble away at the Peruvian purple-corn ice.
Will I be back on my birthday next year? Perhaps if my old bones can take it.
El Mercado Modern Cuisine, 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (714) 338-2446; mercadomodern.com.