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.