Mercadito Counter fresh and fast food

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Lou Foglia

Mercadito has a varied menu including the tasty steak nachos or the satisfying Mexican and Fundido hot dogs.

With so many Mexican restaurants to choose from, it is hard for newcomers to stand out. But Mercadito Counter, 738 N. Clark St., a self-described “Mexican Deli,” avoids falling into the fast-food category next to popular chains such as Chipotle or Qdoba and differentiates itself by its Mexican twist on classic American comfort food.

Following a yearlong delay, the eatery opened its doors in August, moving into a former Bel 50 location. Mercadito Counter was founded by Alfredo Sandoval of Mercadito Hospitality, the restaurant group’s 11th holding.

The restaurant provides counter service along with a friendly staff, and the food is delivered from the kitchen within five minutes of ordering. The inexpensive prices and swift service make Mercadito a great dining spot.

Mercadito Counter keeps its menu simple with classic Mexican dishes such as flour-tortilla tacos, including a choice of toppings ranging from steak ($3) to fish ($3.50). Each taco is served “almost naked” with house-made salsas on the side. The flour tortilla of the Gringo ($3.50) blends nicely with the succulent slices of steak topped with lettuce, cheddar cheese and a colorful jolt of pico de gallo.

While the menu includes a variety of well-known Mexican favorites, the real star is the restaurant’s signature hot dogs. One of the best items, The Mexican ($4), includes a bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with pico de gallo, mayo, jalapeno relish, mustard and ketchup. Although ketchup on a hot dog is something native Chicagoans frown upon, both The Mexican and the Fundido’s ($4.50) singular taste and presentation might be exceptions to the rule.

The hot dogs are appeal to on-the-go customers, but Mercadito Counter features delicious Mexican dishes such as the Quesadillas ($6.50) and the Chicken a las Brasas ($12.50/$19.50), served in a tortilla filled with pan-fried chicken, rice, beans and a choice of garlic-lemon or adobo seasoning. Nachos ($7.50) include freshly baked chips with typical yet tasty toppings like a choice of steak, chicken, shrimp or corn and poblano. Unlike many nacho plates, the Mercadito Counter’s include a large portion of chips and toppings, but the dish is not messy. The chips stay crisp with every bite, rather than turning the meal into a soggy, greasy mess.

Mercadito Counter also features a variety of tasty beverages, from the Triple Citrus Aide ($3.50) to the House Made Agua Fresca ($4), including a choice of sweet strawberry-cinnamon, refreshing cucumber-lemongrass or pineapple-ginger. While these items are a refreshing, it is hard to set foot inside Mercadito without ordering one of its delicious Mexican milkshakes. The Spicechata ($5.50) is a vanilla milkshake spiced with morita chile seasoning to add some heat to the usual treat. The mix of sweet vanilla ice cream blended together with the chile seasoning makes for a surprisingly satisfying dessert or side item.

While the other Mexican sit-down restaurants often strive for an overly authentic aesthetic that winds up gauche, Mercadito’s dimly lit track lighting and art-filled walls make customers feel right at home. There are no fancy gimmicks at Mercadito, only a casual dining experience that makes it a great place to grab a quick and inexpensive bite no matter the time of day.