Visit midweek, or during the recently added lunch service, and you'll find ably prepared, gussied-up street-food dishes in an appealing atmosphere. On weekends, however, the restaurant is going through some growing pains.
"It'll be a few minutes," the cheerful hostess told my wife.
A man standing close by glowered. "We've been waiting an hour," he muttered.
So my wife inquired. Would we, in fact, have to wait an hour for our table?"
"Oh, no," she assured us. "Just a few minutes."
Here's a tip: Given contradictory wait-time estimates from a bright-eyed hostess and a sullen customer, bet on the customer.
So we waited. And waited. Every 15 minutes or so, we'd check back in for another "just a few minutes" update. The hostess even tried the "I was just looking for you" ploy (she had done no such thing). She assured us that the first round of drinks would be free, and later upgraded that offer by saying there'd be some free guacamole. A manager, or someone acting like one, apologized for the delay and said that when it came time for the check, he'd stop by the table with an adjustment that would, in his words, "make you happy."
When check-time came, our waiter comped a round of drinks, but the additional adjustments never materialized. Not that that matters much to me, because the Tribune reimburses me for my meals. But it was another promise unkept.
We did get seated, about 65 minutes after our reservation (tip o' the hat to the anonymous tout by the host stand), and things improved slightly. The kitchen was pretty much in the weeds at this point, resulting in lengthy delays for even the simplest dishes. And Mercadito's tequila-heavy beverage list keeps the bartenders extremely busy, to the point that a round of margaritas took about 20 minutes to arrive.
The Sandoval brothers, who own this concept, may have taken on more than they can handle. The three Mercadito restaurants in New York are small, 50-seaters; the Chicago outpost holds at least 125, and that's not counting the downstairs lounge, said to be opening soon. And even as the Chicago restaurant is getting its bearings, the Sandovals are busily preparing to open yet another Mercadito, this one in Miami. (Judging by the teaser photos on the Mercadito Web site, the Miami outpost looks to be quite large and extremely chi-chi, and no, I'm not referring to the Mexican food chain.)
Diners who visit midweek, as I also did, will find little to no wait, well-versed waiters who have time for explanations and recommendations, and food that can be genuinely exciting. Tacos, served four to a plate (three during lunch), include the usual suspects but also offer versions with huitlacoche, mushrooms, Manchego cheese and salsa verde; and shrimp with roasted garlic, chipotle mojo and avocado. Charcoal-edged, bright pink slices of rosemary-marinated skirt steak make the tacos carne memorable; the taquizas, or assemble-it-yourself tacos, include a Berkshire pork carnitas version that's not to be missed.
There are three ceviches on the menu, served with house-made crackers (Sandoval's version of saltines), and they're all terrific, especially the bay scallops whose acidity (from a Key lime-morita- chile broth) is gently balanced by slivers of red grape. I'm less than thrilled by the skimpiness of the guacamoles, and though the mango and mole poblano versions (among others) are fine, none is an improvement on the traditional guacamole, which has a discernible spicy kick.
There are five entrees on the menu; I got to three of them, and my hands-down favorite is the chile relleno, stuffed with a delicious cheese blend and bolstered with bits of shrimp, octopus and scallop, over a tomato and arbol chile salsa.
Sandoval says he's concentrating on the savory side of the menu, so for now, the only dessert option is flan, though there are three flavors: horchata, with hints of almond and cinnamon, coconut and cajeta (goat-milk caramel). At $5 apiece, have them all.
Chef and partner Patricio Sandoval acknowledged the seating issues and says that timing tables -- estimating the time by which a table seated at, say, 6:30 will be available again -- has been difficult.
"We're finding people lingering at tables for three or four hours," he says. "But I don't like asking people to leave."
Lingering customers and weekend backups we understand, chef. But instruct your hosts to tell the truth. It's tough to appreciate food when your teeth are clenched.
Mercadito108 W. Kinzie St., 312-329-9555
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday.
Prices: Tacos (4) $12.50, entrees $18.50-$22.50
Credit cards: A, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking