El Mercat Bar de Tapas in Rockville offers Spanish dishes in style
The intoxicating aroma of gambas al ajillo – prawns nestled in piping hot olive oil infused with garlic, bay leaf, red chilli and Spanish paprika – arrive at my table long before the small earthenware pot that contains it at El Mercat Tapas Bar. Shellfish are perfectly cooked and kissed with drizzles of lemon juice to impart acidity and cut the richness of the savory oil, which is swallowed by three slices of toasted bread. This perfect rendition of a Spanish tapa eve keeps good company with many other tasty dishes on the menu at El Mercat Bar de Tapas, the Rockville Town Square restaurant opened in January by chef George Rodrigues and his wife, Wanessa Alves.
“When my wife saw the [former] The Gumbo Ya Ya space, we checked it out and fell in love with it,” says Rodrigues. “We felt the Spanish vibes. We live five minutes away and were big La Tasca fans. (This Spanish tapas restaurant closed in Rockville Town Square in May 2020.)
Rodrigues, 40, has experience in Spanish cuisine. After attending culinary school in his native Brazil, he intended to backpack around Europe and work in restaurants along the way before returning home to open a restaurant. Instead, a friend told him about a job at Mercat a la Planxa, a Spanish tapas restaurant in Chicago run by celebrity chef Jose Garces, where he worked for five years, leaving in 2010. took him to Boston and Washington, DC, working at chef Michael Schlow’s Tico in both locations. From 2018 to 2021, he was the chef of the DC tapas restaurant Boqueria.
Alves designed the 1,800-square-foot, 60-seat restaurant, and his name has sentimental value. Rodrigues proposed to Alves at Barcelona’s huge open-air market, El Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, in 2015. On a white brick wall, two sets of dark red shutters frame paintings of Barcelona street scenes . Another brick wall displays bottles of wine. Exposed beams, posts covered with Spanish tiles and a yellow neon sign “Bar de Tapas” contribute to the Barcelona atmosphere. (A 28-seat outdoor patio will open when Rodrigues is able to staff it.)
The menu offers 22 tapas (11 vegetarian, six meat and five fish), four paellas, three starters and four desserts. Among the specialties we sampled were the Spanish tortilla, the crispy potato omelet served with a saffron and garlic mayonnaise; patatas bravas, crispy fries with tomato sauce and aioli; cod fritters with aioli; and pork ribs braised in duck fat until ultra-tender, then glazed with apple cider. A seafood paella, its starchy black Spanish bomba rice with squid ink, is packed with mussels, clams, prawns and calamari. Another excellent paella is made with roast chicken and chorizo sausage topped with salsa verde. Both paellas reveal the hallmark of well-done versions of the dish: socarrat, a layer of crispy rice at the bottom of the pan. Don’t miss the churros stuffed with Nutella for dessert. The 32 bottles of the wine and sherry list are all Spanish. Cocktails and beer are also available.
El Mercat Tapas Bar, 101 Gibbs Street (Rockville Town Square), Rockville, 240-403-7436, elmercatbardetapas.com
Comings and goings
A New York-based bakery and cafe called Maman plans to open this summer in the Bethesda Row space that housed Le Pain Quotidien, which closed earlier this year.
Foxtrot, a chain of markets and cafes with a few local outposts, plans to open later this year on Bethesda Row, replacing Mussel Bar & Grille, which closed in April.
Bethesda-based sushi chain Raku is predicting a late fall opening for a second Bethesda location — this one in the Wildwood Mall — which will be called Rakugaki.
Several grocery stores have announced plans to open in the Chevy Chase Lake development in Chevy Chase. Baltimore-based ice cream chain The Charmery is slated to open this summer, and fast-food chain Playa Bowls (fruit bowls and smoothies) is planning to open in the fall. Danilo Simic and chef Colin McClimans, owners of the Nina May restaurant in Washington, plan to open the American restaurant Elena James by the end of 2023.
Hulu Skewer House, which will offer kebabs and Chinese food, hopes to open in late summer at the former On the Border space in Rockville.
BabyCat Brewery, which will be Kensington’s first brewery, aims to open by the end of the year.
Little Beet Table, a restaurant with a gluten-free menu, closed in March in The Collection shopping area in the Friendship Heights neighborhood of Chevy Chase.
Goldberg’s New York Bagels closed its location in Potomac’s Cabin John Village in April.