You don’t have to leave D.C. to visit a ThinkFoodGroup restaurant. You don’t have to leave Penn Quarter for most of everything José Andrés produces. But there is something nice about tasting a country under one massive roof. Mercado Little Spain, the most recent ThinkFoodGroup addition, is a huge food and drink complex that’s part fast casual, part market, part restaurants, all packed with action. We recently visited on one of the first open weekends. There was a line nearly a block long an hour after doors opened.
BW: Now that you’ve visited Mercado Little Spain, how would you recommend approaching it?
KD: I think it depends on if you’re there as a family, on a date, with friends or dining solo… Although now that I think of it, 90% of the time you should probably start off with a cocktail (and I don’t think that just because that’s what we did). Waiting for your churro order to come out is much more manageable when you have a sangria in your hand. Wandering through crowds is more manageable with a drink in your hand. I sound like an alcoholic, but if you’re going to wait for an hour to get in you’re going to want that immediate satisfaction. The second best place to start is maybe the meat and cheese kiosk. It doesn’t take very long to get a slice of cheese.
BW: We should probably let people know how massive this place is. There’s a map, like a mall map, to navigate your culinary experience. It’s the first map I’ve seen with octopus listed as an option.
Sure, cocktails are always a good idea. Most always. Sometimes. Sometimes cocktails are a good idea so I’m not going to dissuade people from a cocktail. But there were quite a lot of families there when we visited and cocktails aren’t a great idea for a 10-year-old so I think the meat and cheese kiosk might be the best option. It’s a nice introduction to Jamón ibérico, especially if you’re with a group that isn’t familiar with Spanish tapas.
Getting back to your initial observation. I think how you approach Mercado Little Spain will have everything to do with your party. If you’re with an adventurous eater with no dietary restrictions, walking and tasking is my pick. If you’re with a hesitant family member, I might book a table at one of the restaurants.
KD: Absolutely. Another important thing to note about the space is how close together the different kiosks / food stalls are organized. It’s like walking through a food court version of the Shambles in York (which is a weird comparison) or maybe Las Ramblas in Barcelona (I have never been to Barcelona)? It’s a twist-y, turn-y jumble of oysters and paella and eggs and empanadas. If you’re overwhelmed easily or are looking for a quiet meal, you’re going to want to skip this until the full service restaurants open.
But the restaurants aren’t open. So which kiosk do you think is the most important? Which one can’t be missed?
BW: I have been to Barcelona and while the flavors of Barcelona are present, it doesn’t exactly feel like Barcelona. It’s impossible for a new development to embody a nearly 200 year old market. This place is part old school market (fruits and vegetables stand, jamon and queso stand), part new boogie food court. It has something for everyone if you’re willing to put in the time.
The can’t miss kiosk is the Pasteles or Churros. The easiest way to get people to try new things is to present something somewhat familiar. While you and I are familiar with the offerings, I’d guess most people aren’t and sweets are the gateway drug.
KD: I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I wasn’t saying the new, shiny and impeccably designed food market has the charm of a medieval city, but (like a medieval city) the layout is purposefully constructed to get you lost. You’re supposed to wander. The chaos is a planned element. José Andrés seems to have done this successfully, but in D.C. we have another neighborhood that’s been designed with the same kind of disorientation in mind. The Wharf.
Now, I think The Wharf is largely a weird real estate experiment gone wrong, but it seems like the New Hot Thing is to 1. Reference old stuff. 2. Make everything seem European. Why hop on a flight to Spain when you can take a train to Hudson Yards and go to Spain? Or take the Metro to The Wharf and be in a nightmare version of “Copenhagen, Barcelona, Sorrento, Meatpacking District, Pike Place and the Ferry Building?” Why go anywhere when everything is coming to you? (Albeit, a watered down version) I think I’m having an existential crisis in the middle of this email.
To be clear, I had a great time at Mercado and I would go back in a heartbeat, but I guess I can’t stop thinking about the trend of marketing restaurants with language like, “Go to Spain without going to Spain,” or “Dinner Here Is Cheaper than a flight to Spain.” We are definitely guilty of doing this at BYT, but I think the crux of my thinking is, do places like this get people more interested in leaving NYC (or D.C.) to go see the real thing? Or do they stop people? Also, Is this even a question and am I losing it?
BW: I think I understand your point. Let’s make it clear, going to another country is always better than experience that country’s cuisine here. Travel is always worthwhile. Go, go, go. We’re not saying this place or any other place is the ‘real thing.’ I don’t think it matters what’s it’s trying to be, I think what matters is how it will be used. And that’s why I like this place.
Mercado Little Spain can be what you want it to be. If you’re coming off The High Line and stumble upon it, get a coffee and pastry. If you’re looking for a fast lunch, get a coca. If you need a gift, stop at the flower shop. If you’re a specific Spanish craving, this place has it.
KD: I’m glad you brought up the cocas because I actually think that’s a better introduction point than the pastries / churros. Not everyone likes sweets, but everyone likes pizza. It was the best pizza I had when we were in New York.
BW: And it’s not pizza! They really want you to know it’s not pizza even though it comes in a pizza box and has dough and sauce and cheese and served exactly like &Pizza.
KD: And isn’t it almost as cheap as &Pizza? It seems very easy to go hard at Mercado, but if you want to swing by for coffee / lunch / a drink it won’t eat up your entire paycheck. It’s a grown up (and more delicious) mall food court. You can go wild and spend all your money at Great American Cookies or you can save some cash and get a slice at Sbarro. If anyone at ThinkFoodGroup is reading this, I’m sorry for this metaphor.
BW: Yep, depending on the toppings, it’s sometimes cheaper than &Pizza.
Since we’re talking about money, we should mention you can drop a lot. Two of the best things we had came from their tapas bar, La Barra. The nuestra pan con tomate, toasted slices of bread with fresh tomato and rabo de toro, stewed ox tail in red wine and fried potatoes, are both meant for sharing and come in at $10 and $16. Add in two or more dishes and two glasses of wine and you’re no longer on a cheap date.
It’s not much different than visiting a ThinkFoodGroup restaurant in D.C. You can have a very affordable lunch at Beefsteak and spend the most you’ll spend on any meal at Minibar. The major difference between Mercado Little Spain and the stand alone restaurants is Mercado Little Spain is all under one roof.
KD: I’d also like to shout out the Gambas al ajillo which is basically sautéed shrimp in the worlds most wonderful garlic / white wine sauce. Now that I’m done dreaming about the shrimp, I have two questions. Do you wish there was a Mercado in D.C.? Do we need a Mercado in D.C.?
BW: I do not wish there was a Mercado in D.C. because we have more ThinkFoodGroup restaurants than any other city but I wouldn’t mind a ThinkFoodGroup airport terminal. DCA or IAD or BWI should let TFG take over a terminal and make air travel a more delicious experience. If Rick Bayless can have Tortas Frontera in O’Hare, there should be a Mercado in an airport.
KD: Let’s take it a step further and hope Andrés, Richard Branson-style, opens his own airline. I want to drink sangria and eat gambas in the sky.
BW: So final thoughts: It’s definitely worth your time if you’re nearby, it’s a good entry point to the Think Food Group and after he’s done feeding an island, Andrés should feed people in the sky?