As great a restaurant city as Las Vegas has become, there remains the opportunity for any new dining destination to immediately become elite in its category, the best of its class. There’s always room to get our minds blown.
So the category is Mexican food, or, more specifically, Mexican restaurants with huge flavors and great cocktails where you can grab a casual lunch or make a night out of dinner. Basically, we want it all. And the best of this class, suddenly, is Mercadito, the taco-centric Chicago transplant powered by the Sandoval brothers—Alfredo, Felipe and chef Patricio—and the Tippling Brothers, sommeliers/mixologists Paul Tanguay and Tad Carducci.
The first local Mercadito (another one is planned for Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson) takes over the former LBS Burger site at Summerlin’s Red Rock Resort, and the space is unrecognizable in its lively new form. You’ll need at least two party trips to adequately explore the drink options here, so plan to spend your future happy hours at the tidy bar or out on the new patio, tasting margaritas, tequilas or imaginative draft cocktails. Here’s a sip to get you going: The Smokey Pablo ($11.50) is out of this world, Cazadores Reposado with mango, smoked jalapeño and a blueberry float.
We may not be used to sharing anything other than chips and guacamole when we dine at Mexican restaurants, but that will have to change. Well, not the guacamole part; Mercadito serves up to five varieties, including tocino guac ($8.50) with bacon, corn, pico de gallo, crispy hominy and habanero. But the majority of this food works best when passed around the table. There are also multiple ceviches and salsas, and you can order tastings of each, like the guacamole. Small plates aren’t that small, with terrific appetizers like nachos ($9.50 or $12 with chicken, steak or carnitas) or beer-battered chipotle rock shrimp in lettuce cups ($12.50) satisfying four or more. Do not skip the sublime queso fundido ($9.50), baked cheeses laced with your choice of wild mushrooms or braised short ribs. Trust me, get the meat.
Now you’ve arrived at the taco portion of the menu, probably the most ambitious and delicious selection of this simple, beloved bite Las Vegas has ever seen. There are 11 rotating variations, each with distinctly different fillings and flavors, all on perfect house-made corn tortillas. At dinner, they come in orders of four for $14.50 (at lunch it’s three for $11.50), and you can’t mix and match, which is where the sharing comes in. The classic choice is estilo baja, crispy mahi mahi with chipotle aioli and creamy slaw, the best fish taco. Or is it? The espada offers chunks of blackened swordfish with a spicy aioli and jalapeño slaw, for those who like some heat. The camarón is unbeatable, plump, garlicky shrimp with avocado in a bright orange, spicy-creamy chipotle mojo.
The carne asada, chicken, pastor-style pork and mushroom with tomato sofrito tacos are just as great. You can also take the taquiza route, building your own tacos with skewers of grilled shrimp, steak and chicken ($19.50), short ribs or seafood. Side dish offerings ($4.50-$5.50) include street-style corn on the cob, fried plantains with ginger-jalapeño sauce and a brilliant three-corn pico de gallo. A few large plates round out the menu, such as a shrimp-stuffed chile relleno ($18.50), chicken or shrimp enchiladas ($18.50) and adobo-marinated red snapper ($29.50).
Mercadito is a perfect fit at Red Rock, and emblematic, let’s hope, of the next wave of neighborhood dining across the Valley.
Mercadito Red Rock Resort, 702-979-3609. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday & Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.