Sometimes, you just want to indulge yourself in simple food over a fancy tasting menu. My wife Jun and I have always found Spanish dishes consistently satisfying so long as they use the right ingredients and are executed with care. Luckily, we have the Spanish Diner from Jose Andres in Bethesda nearby our home (although Jun thinks the original one at Hudson Yards in Manhattan is better). On a recent weekend where we had a reservation at a fancy restaurant in DC, I felt pretty lazy and wanted to see if there was any new casual spot in Maryland to check out. We have been to Rockville a few times this year for the very delicious Thai food at Thai Chef, and it appeared that there was a fairly new Spanish restaurant nearby at the Town Center. We visited El Mercat with fairly modest expectations and liked it a lot that we ended up visiting again the week after with another couple to sample more dishes.
The food from Brazil-born chef George Rodrigues (who honed his skills at the DC’s Penn Quarter branch of Boqueria) is a very deft mix of traditional and modern. There is no groundbreaking dish on your table, but after you take a bite of the classic pan con tomate, you will instantly realize that El Mercat is not just another neighborhood joint. Our favorite tapas during our visits was the chorizo a la plancha, with delicious chorizo on top of toasted bread that will be a treat for any meat lover. The gambas al ajillo was also quite delicious with its crunchy shrimp in aromatic garlic broth; on the other hand, I wished the octopus in the pulpo con patatas came with a bit more size and texture.
We tried two paellas during our visits, and by far the best one was the negra one with squid ink sauce, saffron aioli and calamari. The contrast between the crunchy bomba race and the lightly grilled calamari is a model for how a paella dish should be made, and Jun and I gladly finished it without looking back. While the mariscos paella with a variety of seafood ingredients was also solid, it didn’t have the same delightful socarrat that the negra dish showed. I will say one thing that is very important if you want to have a successful meal at El Mercat. DO NOT SKIP THE DESSERT! While Jun and I had had some really outstanding cheesecakes before, the Basque burnt cheesecake from the restaurant definitely stands on its own with fabulous texture. The stuffed churros (with either dulce de leche or Nutella inside) are also not to be missed as a decadent treat, and the crema catalana is a great option for someone who is a crème brulee fan.
Getting a reservation at via Resy El Mercat is not too difficult. The cozy neighborhood atmosphere of the restaurant (it also regularly hosts special events like flamenco shows) makes it a great option for casual hangouts with friends and family where you get to share a variety of dishes. The restaurant also has a full bar with solid cocktails and a fairly diverse list of Spanish wines. I am very glad that we recently found El Mercat; it will be one of our go-to options whenever we feel too lazy to go out to DC and need some soulful Spanish food.
KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.75/10)
Address: 101 Gibbs St., Rockville, MD 20850
Reservation via Resy