Summer is well on its way, and this weeked I had a chance to beat the heat at El Mercado. So far during The Austinot Tex-Mex Food Challenge, I’ve learned that the title of “Best Tex-Mex in Austin” is very subjective. Plus, it takes a ton of time and work for an out-of-state immigrant like myself to fully understand it.
Despite these hurdles, I can do my civic duty by telling people a bit about some Tex-Mex places they haven’t visited yet. Check it out!
Today’s Featured Restaurant
This weekend I had the good fortune of dining at El Mercado. Created 23 years ago down in south Austin, El Mercado began by selling breakfast tacos at a local market. Apparently it worked well for them because the business has since spread across Austin. Currently you can find three locations in town: South 1st, Lavaca, and Burnet. Even though the original location is on South 1st, I was pointed toward the Burnet location for the best food.
El Mercado looks a bit crazy at first glance. In fact, the architecture and interior design reminded me a lot of Chuy’s Tex-Mex. You’ll see bright colors and festive decorations galore. In fact, the whole place is pretty casual. It’s not the type of casual that comes from a very small mom-and-pop-style restaurant, though. El Mercado has a style that’s been crafted to be fun and laid-back all at the same time. I enjoyed being able to settle down and relax before my server arrived.
The Food and Drink
First came the chips and salsa. As per usual, I paid close attention. As my salsa palate has grown and expanded, I’ve been using salsa as a benchmark for the Tex-Mex restaurants I’ve visited. Many people (for better or worse) can be turned off to a Tex-Mex restaurant simply because of the salsa. I found El Mercado’s salsa to be complex and tasty, though decidedly mild in taste. It’s very thin, not a tomato or largeish onion chunk to be found. While the lack of spice was somewhat disappointing, it was a solid salsa nonetheless.
The waitstaff here is prompt and polite at the table. This was definitely a bonus. Our server answered all of our questions without hesitation. In a flash, he brought me a margartia in a tall glass. It was a great way to relax on a hot Texas afternoon. Much like the salsa, the margaritas perform well on all fronts without excelling in any. The sour was not overpowering and the tequila held just enough of a punch to make me drink it slowly.
Your best time for drinks at El Mercado is 3-7 PM, Monday through Thursday. That’s happy hour. If happy hour isn’t quite your thing, though, you can also grab cheap drinks on the weekend. You can buy lime margaritas, bloody marys and screw drivers for $3.50 till 5 PM on Saturday and Sunday. That’s also the perfect time to snag a couple of those breakfast burritos that first made El Mercado popular. Brunch lasts until 3:30 on the weekends.
My photographer Haleigh and I shared two plates: the mixed grill and chicken cheese enchiladas – with corn tortillas, as one reader vehemently suggested. We were happily sated. El Mercado puts a ton of emphasis on its meats, as it turns out. Our meat was tender and heavily marinated.
Would I reccommend this place to a friend looking for Tex-Mex food? Probably. The portions are quite large. The seasoning and marinade dominates the meat, but not in an unpleasant way.
I can sense a dividing line among people who have tried El Mercado. One one side are the Tex-Mex purists, the ones who take it very seriously. These are the people who give the most precise criticisms of my blog posts because they simply know so much. On the other side are the laid-back Tex-Mex foodies. They enjoy Tex-Mex because of the good times they have while eating it. These people point me toward the coolest Tex-Mex hangouts.
El Mercado is perfect for the latter type of Tex-Mex fan. While the food is not bad, much of the emphasis is devoted to the style and feel of the restaurant.
What do you think of El Mercado?
Have you read our other Tex-Mex restaurant reviews?