Atlanta Orders In: Bar Mercado switches from classic Spanish to Latin American comfort dishes

Takeout from Bar Mercado includes (clockwise from upper left):  grilled shrimp, with crispy okra; grilled Peruvian-spiced chicken, with black beans, rice and Salvadoran slaw; Mexican street corn; glazed ribs, with pineapple slaw; short-rib ropa vieja, with beans, rice and yuca fries. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Takeout from Bar Mercado includes (clockwise from upper left): grilled shrimp, with crispy okra; grilled Peruvian-spiced chicken, with black beans, rice and Salvadoran slaw; Mexican street corn; glazed ribs, with pineapple slaw; short-rib ropa vieja, with beans, rice and yuca fries. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Raul Dominguez is a former Marine with a culinary degree from the Art Institute of Atlanta, and experience at some of Atlanta’s top restaurants (Kyma, Bacchanalia, Miller Union). But, ever since he started cooking, he’s called home for help with family recipes.

With Salvadoran parents, a Mexican stepmother and a Dominican stepfather, the chef has a virtual database of Latin American home cooking to complement his fine-dining prowess. So, when the owners of Bar Mercado decided to change their concept, from classic Spanish tapas to “eclectic Latin American,” Dominguez was the perfect candidate to lead the transition.

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This takeout order from Bar Mercado includes: Peruvian-spiced grilled chicken, with rice, beans and Salvadoran slaw; and Mexican street corn. Wendell Brock for The AJC
This takeout order from Bar Mercado includes: Peruvian-spiced grilled chicken, with rice, beans and Salvadoran slaw; and Mexican street corn. Wendell Brock for The AJC

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

After several months of menu research and development, and an interior redo of the Krog Street Market space, Castellucci Hospitality Group launched the reimagined Bar Mercado at the end of February, with Dominguez as the newly promoted executive chef. “We had that menu about a month,” he recalled. “We were crazy about it. It was doing really, really well.”

One creation he remembers with great pride is a whole fish cooked in a banana leaf and paired with a composed salad of quinoa and tamarind. In its way, the ambitious, Caribbean-inspired dish was an encapsulation of his life in food — from his Central American heritage to the fish-handling skills he acquired at Kyma.

Then, the pandemic hit, and Federico Castellucci III, Dominguez’s boss, thought the newly buoyant Bar Mercado surely would tank, and all their efforts to transform it would be lost.

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Bar Mercado’s grilled chicken is served with beans, rice and Salvadoran slaw. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Bar Mercado’s grilled chicken is served with beans, rice and Salvadoran slaw. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Instead, Dominguez and Executive Sous Chef Luis Guevara hustled to right the ship, devising takeout that preserved the bold flavors of the original menu, without all the fancy footwork. Once again, Dominguez called on the home cooking and street food of his ancestors — everything from easy-to-hold empanadas, tacos and burritos, to diner-style plates of Cuban ropa vieja, Peruvian grilled chicken and churrasco steak with chimichurri sauce.

“We made things more approachable, but we didn’t necessarily sacrifice technique,” said Dominguez, 35, who moved from El Salvador to the U.S. at around age 2.

Some plates at Bar Mercado still are listed as tapas, including grilled shrimp, with crispy okra, roasted tomato and merken butter; and glazed ribs, with pineapple slaw. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Some plates at Bar Mercado still are listed as tapas, including grilled shrimp, with crispy okra, roasted tomato and merken butter; and glazed ribs, with pineapple slaw. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

As it turned out, the nail-biting was all for naught.

More than seven months into the pandemic, Bar Mercado is the feel-good story of the seven-restaurant Castellucci group. While most of the company’s stores have seen sales drop by 15 percent to 50 percent, Bar Mercado’s sales are up 25 percent. “One of our worst businesses became one of our best,” Castellucci said.

In response to COVID-19, the Castelluccis consolidated the operations of Bar Mercado and adjacent sister restaurant Recess. Dominguez leads the combined kitchen. From a newly built stand outside Bar Mercado’s patio, guests have access to food from both restaurants. There, they can place to-go orders, pick up takeout, or ask to be seated and order from either restaurant’s menu.

Bar Mercado Executive Chef Raul Dominguez was born in El Salvador and has a Mexican stepmother and Dominican stepdad. Courtesy of Heidi Harris
Bar Mercado Executive Chef Raul Dominguez was born in El Salvador and has a Mexican stepmother and Dominican stepdad. Courtesy of Heidi Harris

Credit: Heidi Harris

Credit: Heidi Harris

After Castellucci told me about the surprise success of Bar Mercado, I decided to check it out. I hadn’t dined at the restaurant since shortly after it opened, three years ago. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution never had reviewed it.

Ropa vieja, the first dish Dominguez learned to cook while fumbling around his home kitchen as a Marine, has been refined here into something truly extraordinary. Long and lovingly braised short ribs are exquisitely tender and flavorful. The accompaniments — rice, black beans, fried yucca — may seem simple, but they are deeply nuanced. The rice gets its yellow tint from house-steeped annatto oil, its extra flavor from sofrito. The beans are deeply seasoned, with hints of oregano, epazote and avocado leaf.

Bar Mercado at Krog Street Market has a festive stand for ordering and picking up takeout, which it shares with sister restaurant Recess. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Bar Mercado at Krog Street Market has a festive stand for ordering and picking up takeout, which it shares with sister restaurant Recess. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Also excellent is the grilled half chicken rubbed with Peruvian spices and packed in a to-go container with beans, rice and Salvadoran slaw, inspired by Dominguez’s grandmother’s curtido. Both the ropa vieja and the chicken are superb Latin American meat-and-threes, generously portioned and a terrific value, at $18 and $16 respectively. I also loved the various mix-and-match table sauces, and the ribs.

After Dominguez unveiled his first menu, his father and stepmother came in for a feast. His stepmom was moved to tears, and so was he. All those phone calls had paid off.

BAR MERCADO

Menu: casual Latin American cuisine

Alcohol: beer and wine available to go

What I ordered: grilled shrimp with crispy okra, glazed ribs, street corn, pollo asado, ropa vieja

Service options: dine-in, takeout, or delivery via UberEats and Postmates

Outdoor dining: yes

Mask policy: customers are required to wear masks

Address, phone: 99-V Krog St., Atlanta; 404-480-4866

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. every day

Website: barmercadoatl.com

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