Jesse Gomez leans over the railing of the mezzanine level of his new Santa Monica Mexican restaurant, Mercado, looking down on the buzzing scene below. It's early on a Wednesday night and already every table in the sleek, white room is full, as is every seat at the bar where mixologist Gilbert Marquez shakes up a storm of Latin-influenced craft cocktails.
"It's like this every night," Gomez says of the restaurant, which is in the same 4th Street block as the famed Border Grill. "And on Friday and Saturday nights it fills upstairs too."
The high-octane hustle and bustle in the dining room is the realization of a third-generation immigrant success story. In 1964, Gomez's grandparents, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Querétaro, Mexico, opened Highland Park landmark El Arco Iris with just eight tables. Today Gomez, 38, owns that restaurant in addition to Mercado and Yxta Cocina Mexicana in downtown Los Angeles. Soon he'll open a fourth down the street from Yxta with an emphasis on cocktails and small eclectic bites to accompany them.
Gomez learned much of what he knows about the restaurant business from growing up at El Arco Iris. He was a chubby child, so his grandparents, Gustavo and Irene Montes, named a big burrito after him. His mother and her seven siblings all worked in the restaurant, beginning when they were as young as 12.
El Arco Iris existed "to support and feed the family," Gomez says. "With their kids they had a small labor force and the customers watched them grow to adulthood."
Gomez too put in some time at the restaurant before shipping off to Princeton with dreams of becoming a lawyer. Eventually, though, he decided that he had to try his hand at the family business. It was in his blood.
"I remember telling my mom I didn't want to be a lawyer, and she probably cried," Gomez says. "And then I said I wanted to go into the restaurant business, and she probably cried some more."
In 2006, he gave El Arco Iris a face-lift — without alienating its long-term customers — and three years later opened Yxta. At first he struggled with Yxta; the economy had just tanked, and the restaurant was situated on the industrial edges of skid row.
"A lot of days I went home in tears," he recalls. But the restaurant finally caught its stride, and he was able to focus his attention on Mercado, securing the help of Guanajuato-born chef Jose Acevedo.
Acevedo is turning out flavorful plates of modern Mexican food, including his signature carnitas — ample chunks of pork that are coated ever so lightly with caramelized sugar, which lends the meat a hint of savory sweetness and causes it to harden on the outside while retaining a melting interior — as well as fresh seafood dishes such as blackened mahi mahi with marinated brocollini and roasted poblano corn coleslaw on a fragrant bed of cilantro-lime rice, ringed by a delicate yellow tomato mole.
Fresh Santa Monica farmers market vegetables are front and center in every dish, and Acevedo cuts all his own meat and fish, which he gets from Santa Monica Seafood.
Mercado has been doing so well that Gomez expects to open a second within a year and hopes to eventually expand the brand into other states — an ambition that floors his grandmother.
"My grandfather has Alzheimer's so he doesn't know about Mercado," Gomez says. "But I took my grandma here one night, and she just sat at a two-top, watching. She was digging it. And to me, I don't have this without her."