The intoxicating aroma of gambas al ajillo—shrimp nestled in piping hot olive oil infused with garlic, bay leaf, red chile and Spanish paprika—arrives at my table well before the small earthenware crock holding it does at El Mercat Bar de Tapas. The crustaceans are perfectly cooked and kissed with spritzes of lemon juice to impart acidity and cut the richness of the tasty oil, which gets sopped up by three accompanying slices of toasted bread. This perfect rendition of a Spanish tapa standby keeps good company with many other flavorful 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] Gumbo Ya Ya space, we checked it out and fell in love with it,” Rodrigues says. “We felt the Spanish vibes. We live five minutes from there and were big fans of La Tasca.” (That Spanish tapas restaurant closed in Rockville Town Square in May 2020.)
Rodrigues, 40, has experience in Spanish cooking. After going to culinary school in his native Brazil, he intended to backpack through 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 helmed by noted chef Jose Garces, where he worked for five years, leaving in 2010. Later jobs took him to Boston and Washington, D.C., working at chef Michael Schlow’s Tico in both places. From 2018 to 2021, he was the chef at D.C. tapas restaurant Boqueria.
Alves designed the 1,800-square-foot, 60-seat restaurant, and its name has sentimental value. Rodrigues proposed to Alves at Barcelona’s huge outdoor market, El Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, in 2015. On one 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 “Bar de Tapas” sign contribute to the Barcelona vibe. (An outdoor patio with 28 seats will open when Rodrigues is able to staff it.)
The menu features 22 tapas (11 vegetarian, six meat and five fish), four paellas, three entrees and four desserts. Standouts we’ve sampled include Spanish tortilla, the custardy potato-layered omelet served with saffron and garlic mayo; patatas bravas, crispy fried potatoes 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 Spanish bomba rice black from squid ink, comes teeming with mussels, clams, shrimp and squid. Another excellent paella is made with roast chicken and chorizo sausage topped with salsa verde. Both paellas reveal the hallmark of well-made versions of the dish: socarrat, a crusty layer of rice at the bottom of the pan. Don’t miss the churros stuffed with Nutella for dessert. The 32 bottles on the wine and sherry list are all Spanish. Cocktails and beer are also available.
El Mercat Bar de Tapas, 101 Gibbs St. (Rockville Town Square), Rockville, 240-403-7436, elmercatbardetapas.com
Comings & goings
A New York City-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 market and cafe chain with a few local outposts, is planning to open later this year on Bethesda Row, replacing Mussel Bar & Grille, which closed in April.
Bethesda-based sushi chainlet Raku is predicting a late fall opening for a second Bethesda location—this one in Wildwood Shopping Center—to be called Rakugaki.
Several food outlets have announced plans to open in the Chevy Chase Lake development in Chevy Chase. Baltimore-based ice cream chainlet The Charmery is slated to open this summer and fast-casual chainlet Playa Bowls (fruit bowls and smoothies) plans a fall opening. Danilo Simic and chef Colin McClimans, who own Nina May restaurant in Washington, are expecting to open American restaurant Elena James by the end of 2023.
Hulu Skewer House, which will offer skewered items and Chinese food, is hoping for a late summer opening in 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 Chevy Chase’s Friendship Heights neighborhood.
Goldberg’s New York Bagels closed its location in Potomac’s Cabin John Village in April.