Monday, June 23, 2014 | 5:31 p.m.
It has been several years since the hotshot celebrity chef Sandoval brothers from Chicago had to give up their restaurant Isla in Treasure Island when MGM Resorts sold T.I. to Phil Ruffin.
Now not only is Alfredo Sandoval back with a vengeance opening Mercadito today at Red Rock Resort, but also his ambitious plans for top-notch Mexican fare across the valley make it look like a total takeover promoting the evolution of Mexican food.
Despite juggling new restaurants in his empire in opening venues on the East Coast, Alfredo’s mind and body are wed to Las Vegas and his expansions this year at Green Valley Ranch. For the next three months, Alfredo vows that he will be here from Chicago headquarters five days and nights a week to ensure success for Mercadito and his other Las Vegas eateries.
He calls its casual creative cuisine drawn from culinary experiences in Mexican markets. Sitting in on the last day of two weeks of taco training last Friday, I call it some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted. There is not just one guacamole but five, including mango.
There are three choices of ceviche, and the creative tacos are delicately soft with superb sauces over shrimp, swordfish, mahi mahi and chicken. Heavenly! Order a Smokey Pablo cocktail to go with your mouth-watering lobster tostadas or the Mac and Cheese Mercadito style.
Mercadito, which means little market, is open for dinner and late-night dining starting today from 4 p.m. to midnight. Brunch and lunch hours will be announced later. The smart and chic $5 million, 5,500-sqare-foot restaurant with entrances from the casino and parking seats 110 inside, 19 at the bar lounge and 47 on the outdoor patio.
Alfredo was born in Mexico City but learned his passion for food in Acapulco when his father opened Madeira’s in 1980. By 16, he was finishing school in Corona del Mar, Calif., and working as an assistant restaurant manager. In 1997, he joined his older brother Richard to open one of the first high-end Mexican restaurants in Manhattan, Maya, which earned two stars from The New York Times.
They went on to open Maya in San Francisco and sister restaurants in Denver and the first Mercadito in 2004 in Manhattan’s East Village before expanding it to Chicago, San Diego and next Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., this fall.
Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay of Tippling Bros. have designed the beverage program at Mercadito, so many of the cocktails are served draft. Don’t be fooled because these are with Mexican ingredients, infused waters and tequilas and in my humble opinion are better than if a bartender made them from scratch.
“Instead of making one cocktail at a time, we’re making 100 cocktails at a time, and people prefer them to a fresh one made in front of them. I think fresh lime is just one of the secrets to its magic,” Paul told me. “The cocktails are totally unique. In Chicago where we have 48 lines, we won the Innovation of the Year award from the beverage industry.”
They are the perfect drinks for the new creative cuisine that is a twist on the traditional. Explained Alfredo: “We’re known for tacos. You can’t get more traditional than tacos, but here every taco is a dish in its own and completely different with creative combinations of textures and flavors.
“You can call it upmarket Mexican food at very realistic pricing. Tacos have never been made the way we’re making them. Our five guacamoles are different, as well. The mango one has chipotle to give it spice and smokiness with some fruity.”
Alfredo now looks after eight restaurants across the country, plus a downsized version of Mercadito in Chicago with a deli component that allows customers to pop in to take food home to cook themselves.
“For now, there’s no stopping,” said Alfredo. “I have to before I get older. Mexican food has become the third most sought cuisine in the world after Italian and steak. It’s more popular than ever before because it’s got a lot of depth, flavors, combinations and price value.
“Back in the day, people didn’t know any better. They thought Mexican food was Taco Bell or Chevy’s. The perception has really been growing much better in recent years, and that’s why I have big plans for Las Vegas.
“We’re in the middle of construction to open three concepts at Green Valley Ranch. We’re opening another Mercadito Tippling Hall and Double A at Green Valley. In Mercadito in Chicago, I have a tequila lounge downstairs, kind of like a speakeasy tequila lounge. If you don’t know it’s there, you don’t know it’s there.
“We’re doing that in Green Valley. All three are opening probably at the beginning of November. We’re also building in Philadelphia, which will open in December. We’re also opening a Mercadito in Washington, D.C.
“Before we were perceived as less of a dining experience. Today the growth speaks highly that Mexican cuisine has improved and is now accepted as one of the best. We also have a catering company in Chicago called MH Catering, and we will have that here in Las Vegas later on along with a food truck to come right to your home and entertain dozens of guests at a party.”
The Red Rock Mercadito is the flagship concept of the Chicago-based hospitality group, and Antonio Nunez is the executive chef. The family-style meals are designed for sharing. Zagat named Mercadito in Chicago one of “America’s Hottest Mexican Restaurants” last year, and USA Today heralded it for serving one of “the country’s 10 best margaritas.”
Las Vegas welcomes the return of the Sandoval name and Alfredo’s creative interpretations of Mexican traditional foods with a new taste.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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Situated at the entrance to Red Rock Canyon and minutes from the world-renowned Las Vegas Strip, Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa offers five-star luxury in a modern property, built in 2006.
The casino features features 3,000 slot and video poker machines, 60 table games including blackjack, baccarat, craps, poker, roulette, a 206-seat Race and Sports Book with a 96-foot video wall a 20-table smoke-free poker room open 24 hours a day, a 600-seat bingo hall with separate smoking and non-smoking sections, open 7 days a week with sessions running every other hour from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., a 20-seat keno lounge and a private high-limit room.
A recipient of the AAA Four Diamond Award since opening and named one of the world's best new hotels by Conde Nast Traveler magazine, Red Rock redefines casino resort architecture by incorporating natural light, a convenient layout and the comforts of a modern lifestyle.
The centerpiece of the property is the three-acre pool complex with 19 cabanas and swim-up gaming. Its location allows for balcony views from several of the property's restaurants and Cherry Nightclub. Aside from Cherry, guests can grab a drink at Onyx or Lucky or listen to live music in Rocks Lounge.
Dining spans the globe at Red Rock with more than 10 restaurants, including the Italian food of Terra Rossa, the Japanese fusion of Hachi, the Mexican spices at Cabo Cantina or a bit of everything at the Feast Buffet.
Unlike some resorts in town, Red Rock has activities for the whole family, such as a 16-screen movie theater and an arcade. The 72-lane bowling center features a VIP area and carpet that glows in the dark for after hours at Cosmic Bowling.