Restaurant review: Flavor explosion at Red Mesa Mercado

Downtown St. Pete's Red Mesa Mercado adds more superb Mexican eats to its culinary portfolio.

click to enlarge URBAN MASH-UP: A Mercado combination platter with a chicken taco, sope and a pork tamale. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
URBAN MASH-UP: A Mercado combination platter with a chicken taco, sope and a pork tamale.

I’m heading west after dark on First Avenue North in downtown St. Pete and cross MLK. I forget to check my iPad to see on which side of the street I’ll find Red Mesa Mercado, so my eyes are peeled, hoping I won’t miss the storefront. It’s then that enormous green letters wrapped around a building catch my eye. They’re lit like a Hollywood opening, and jump out of the dark landscape. M-E-R-C-A-D-O. Next to the name is the painted image of a wild red-tongued animal holding a taco in one paw and a burrito in the other. I have arrived.

Red Mesa has produced chef Chris Fernandez’s sophisticated, refined Mexican cuisine for two decades. RM Cantina’s modern taqueria joined the fray five years ago with ceviche and artisan tequilas, and now RM Mercado brings a mash-up of urban drive-by dining and one-stop-shopping for all things Mexican.

The market side puts authentic sauces, salsas, moles, freshly prepared enchiladas and fajita “kits” at your fingertips to bring the tastes of five major regions of México, Centroamérica, El Caríbe and the American Southwest “home to su casa.”

The restaurant side is designed for quick no-nonsense take-out fare — even if you eat in. The spacious tiled courtyard is full of metal-framed wood slat tables and chairs that face large, well-marked windows: two for orders, one for pickup. Hovering above the windows are four huge flat screens. The entire space is carefully designed, from the stunning, colorful Mexican tiles peeking through the window openings to the hanging industrial lights interspersed between ceiling fans. Half the exterior is covered, so you may choose sun or shade.

click to enlarge Eaters dine streetside-style along the restaurant's welcoming outdoor patio. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Eaters dine streetside-style along the restaurant's welcoming outdoor patio.

After some less-than-thrilling sangria encounters recently, I’m happy to report that RMM’s version is simply scrumptious, delivering the sweet and fruity pleasure that I look for in sangria. I could drink a pitcher all by myself, but then I’d be face down on the table and miss all the great food. It’s nice, though, to sip as you wait for your order. The staff is friendly and quick. I have sangria in my happy hand almost immediately.

It turns out that the red-tongued creature pictured in the RMM logo is HueHue (pronounced “way-way”), the Aztec trickster god embodied by the clever “old, old coyote.” He’s a party animal who sings, dances and over-indulges — just as you’ll be tempted to do by the fresh, fresh, fresh tortillas made on site, and the array of tacos, quesadillas, burritos, empanadas, tamales and chimichangas.

Everything is made to order and explodes with flavor. This is the real deal, not Taco Bell. In general, the cuisine is spicy and not dumbed down for timid American palates. The lettuce is crisp, the tomatoes are ripe, the cheese has bite and all the choices are assembled with care. When every element is choice, the results are elevated.

The chicken burrito has a companion drooling, the pork tamale is steamed to perfection, balanced with red chile, and the savory beef empanada crackles as the delicious pastry yields. When the layered beef flavors spill on your tongue, your senses can’t help but snap out of their stupor. It’s attention to detail that also buoys simple ingredients like beans and Mexican rice. They’re not a dull afterthought. They sing with flavor.

click to enlarge The on-site tortilla factory crafts the ingredient fresh for RMM daily. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The on-site tortilla factory crafts the ingredient fresh for RMM daily.

RMM’s guacamole is perfectly luscious with a creamy mouthfeel that’s very seductive. The cilantro is kept in check, but there’s a slow burn on the finish that’s not for the faint of heart. The accompanying chips are wonderfully crisp and stocked with corn-filled goodness.

When it’s time for sweets (an essential ending to a meal in my book), you can’t go wrong with the tres leche cake. It’s moist, featuring a luxurious sweet dairy sauce to dip into with each bite. And it’s a satisfying way to end your spicy feast.

The one misstep during my visit is the “pan dulce” from the mercado side. We choose two lovely-looking pastries from the self-serve case in the corner of the market: one a nice muffin labeled as cream cheese, and the other a beautifully vanilla-iced doughnut-esque pastry. My table unanimously finds them dry, flavorless and inedible. It’s hard to believe they have any connection to the superb food coming out of the restaurant side. We don’t get a chance to try the ready-to-cook fajitas or enchiladas from the rest of the market’s bounty, but the labor-saving, shrink-wrapped packages look great. Stick with what you’re sure is fresh and you’ll be happy indeed.

Red Mesa Mercado is another winner. I couldn’t agree more with its website: “Mucho Yummy Bueno.” Sí, sí. 

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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