As a former restaurateur, I will always have the bug. You work in restaurants because you can’t imagine doing anything else. It may be the hardest way to earn a living, yet passionate restaurateurs keep doubling down. That pretty much explains Jesse Gomez. He has six eateries: five Mercado outposts, plus his original baby, Yxta Cocina Mexicana in downtown LA.
The Mercado brand, which Jesse co-created with friend and chef Jose Acevedo, was introduced in 2012 with its first location in Santa Monica. Now that eatery, plus four others—including one in Studio City—have passed their 10-year anniversary.
The food thing is in Jesse’s blood. His grandparents, Gustavo and Irene Montes, opened El Arco Iris in Highland Park in 1964. Although Jesse graduated from Princeton with a degree in psychology and thought about becoming a lawyer, he dropped out of law school after a semester. He realized he had more of an affinity for tacos than torts.
“When you have grandparents who came here with nothing and can’t speak English and have eight kids—and they build a restaurant institution that thrives for five decades, that is your barometer for success.”
“My family’s restaurant was so old-school. We had a cash register! I was a cashier, bartender, server, busser. I was an expediter. I used to have to bag food, cash this guy out, go make margaritas, clean a table, take an order. At lunch, it was me and one or two servers. We had to do everything.”
From 2005 to 2009 (when he opened Yxta Cocina Mexicana) Jesse helped run the family business with his mom. El Arco Iris finally closed doors in 2017—a long stint when you consider that roughly 90% of restaurants fail in their first five years. How has Jesse made it so long with his eateries? He chalks it up to the high bar his family set. “When you have grandparents who came here with nothing and can’t speak English and have eight kids—and they build a restaurant institution that thrives for five decades, that is your barometer for success.”
Jesse has an unstoppable drive to get it right—and that was evident in the lunch we shared at Mercado. He insists no experience here is complete without guacamole first, followed by carnitas with handmade tortillas. At Yxta, Jesse’s downtown eatery, the carnitas are “grandmother-style,” he says. “We’ve always had the same recipe: old-school, on the salty side, braised and slow-cooked.” At Mercado, that recipe is elevated by adding a touch of sugar at the end of the cooking process to create crispy edges without the use of lard. To cap off the guac and carnitas, Jesse suggests classic flan. “I think those three define our food,” he quips.
We kicked off the meal with an El Verde, a vibrant, nonalcoholic, green take on a spicy cucumber margarita. Garnished with a fresh slice of jalapeño, it tasted like biting into a fresh cucumber that had been rubbed with Tajín. The cocktail was complemented by guacamole—“a Mexico City version,” according to Jesse, topped with sweet/tart pomegranate seeds and a salty punch of mild queso fresco. Next came a bowl of ceviche with fried slices of plantains for scooping. Large chunks (love this instead of the usual small chop) of sushi-grade ahi tuna were marinated in a mix of soy and morita chili sauce. The smoky morita peppers perfectly balanced the creamy chunks of avocado, crisp cool pieces of jicama, sweet ripe mango and touch of red onion heat.
When it comes to the success of his restaurants, Jesse points to his partnership with chef Jose Acevedo, who has been into food since he was a kid growing up in Guanajuato, Mexico.
“There’s compromise and respect. He can come out and say: Hey, Jesse, what do you think about this plate? And I say it’s too busy. Take these two things off. Or maybe it’s: This salad is lacking some crunch and texture. He’s not going to sit there and say what do you know about food? He’s going to say, OK, good point.”
We are deep in conversation when the tinga chicken tacos with pickled red onions come out. The meat was on the most tender, thick, moist, handmade tortillas I’ve ever had. You could taste the pure corn flavor of the masa griddled to perfection. We also had a chicken torta (sandwich) with a delightfully simple flavor and texture. It tasted like something that Jesse’s grandmother might have made him.
Another don’t-miss dish: zaranddeado, grilled whole fish. Occasionally served at Mercado as a special, it is enough for two. With a crisp skin, the flesh is moist and flaky. Rubbed with a poblano mayo that melts into the fish, it is topped with a cucumber relish.
Dishes like zaranddeado are what make Mercado a standout eatery, a vision crafted by two people with a passion for food, who embrace working hard—and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jeffrey Saad is a realtor, chef and former restauranteur. He is married to his real estate partner, Nadia. They have two grown children and live in Sherman Oaks.
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