By BRAD A. JOHNSON, / RESTAURANT CRITIC
El Mercado Modern Cuisine
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Don’t miss: At brunch: chorizo and eggs, huevos rancheros. Dinner: tacos orientales, barbacoa de chivo, carnitas, tlacoyos.
What to skip: Fish
Best place to sit: Under the windows, where there is at least a glimmer of moonlight.
About the noise: Extremely loud.
County health inspection: Not yet available online.
Cost: Smallish plates $10-$15, larger plates up to $29.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambiance and service.
The hostess selects a couple of menus and leads us to a table in the darkness. I’ve been here before, at brunch, when sunshine streamed through the tall, arched windows. In the daylight, I had admired the purple walls and black tables. I thought it was clever how the Edison bulbs dangled from a black ceiling on black cords.
But now that it’s nighttime, the dining room is dark, pitch-black, like a cave. Those Edison bulbs emit the equivalent glow of a swarm of lightning bugs.
I feel like I’m in a bar, not a restaurant. I have to unlock my phone and turn on the flashlight, and the first thing I notice is a chunk of wet lettuce the size of a quarter clinging to my menu. This is when our waitress shows up.
She sees the compost and reaches toward it. I assume she’s going to retrieve the menu so she can replace it. But, no. She takes her thumb and smears the scrap across the page, then wipes her thumb on her apron. She doesn’t mention it, like it never happened.
A few moments later, the shrimp…