Finding authentic and noteworthy Mexican or Latin-inspired restaurants is a never-ending passion of mine.
I know my quest will usually end in disappointment -- another dinner of stringy cheese, tasteless guacamole and cookie-cutter menus.
But sometimes -- like last week -- I get lucky.
The place was El Mercado, a pop-up restaurant that serves Mexican, Cuban, Latin and Spanish-inspired food two nights a week.
The restaurant recently opened in Loose Cannon Gallery.
On the nights El Mercado serves its mole and guacamole, the gallery is filled with tables draped with black tablecloths.
Several art displays remained in the large central room, creating a unique space for a restaurant.
The tables had fresh flowers and votive candles for centerpieces, accented by soft lighting.
A word of caution: The restaurant usually is open Wednesday and Thursday evenings, but the nights can vary based on the gallery's availability. It is best to call ahead.
IF YOU GO
Where: El Mercado, 1800-A Rossville Avenue (Loose Cannon Gallery).
Hours: 7-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (hours and days may vary, so check before visiting).
Price range: $7 (guacamole)-$24 (seared sea bass).
No bland cheese quesadillas or chicken tacos here.
Instead, there was a mix of unique dishes containing poblano peppers, avocados, mole and chilies, tomatillos and variations of corn. While it might not have been the basic Mexican menu of beans, rice tortillas and enchiladas I grew up eating, this was food I knew and loved.
Appetizers include the quintessential guacamole ($7), ceviche (a seafood dish), rajas quesadillas made with poblano peppers or shrimp, and a chipotle grits cake ($8-9 each).
For entrees, we chose from roasted poblano peppers, pork tamales ($14), braised short ribs ($22) and seared sea bass ($24).
Our server informed us the restaurant also frequently serves off-menu items. The night we visited, those items were avocado soup and duck mole tostada ($18).
For dessert, there is tres leches cake, served with strawberries and kiwis.
The restaurant does not serve alcohol but invites guests to bring drinks of their choice, with no corking fee.
They also provide a margarita base -- sans tequila -- or other nonalcoholic ingredients for mixed drinks.
We began with the guacamole and ceviche appetizers, both served with crisp, fresh chips.
The guacamole contained chunks of avocado, onions, tomatoes and a touch of jalapeno peppers. It was fresh and perfectly seasoned, especially when balanced with the salty chips. It was some of the best guacamole I have eaten in a long time.
The ceviche, made with white fish, cucumbers, onion and cilantro in a tangy tomato sauce, was equally well-prepared. It came with a side of fresh jicama.
For my main dish, I choose the duo of pork tamales. The two large tamales had a standard corn base, but one was flavored with a sauce of red roasted chilies and annatto seed and the second with a green roasted tomatillo salsa.
Both sauces were spicy with a perfect touch of heat. The corn was soft and tasty but did not overwhelm the rest of the dish.
The dish was served with a generous order of fried plantains.
Other orders around the table included the braised short ribs and the off-menu duck mole, both of which were given a resounding thumbs-up.
The ribs, braised in green tomatillos and toasted pumpkin seed mole, were served with corn and poblano cream. The ribs were flavorful, and the corn and cream side was a delicious accompaniment.
According to the chef, the mole on the duck includes a wide range of ingredients in addition to the required chocolate.
Neither of those dishes was as spicy as the tamales, and all three had generous portions.
For dessert, we split several orders of the tres leches cake. The cake, topped with fresh whipped cream and fruit, was light and fluffy.
The cake was less sweet than some, a difference my companions did not like. But I often find a traditional tres leches cake too rich and liked the change.
The atmosphere at El Mercado is welcoming and casual.
The servers greeted us like friends and provided helpful service throughout the meal, answering questions about the menu and recommending their favorite items.
When our table grew from three diners to an unexpected six, they graciously switched us to a larger table without complaint.
The chef, Alvaro Victoria, came into the dining room several times to chat with diners.
About halfway through the meal, I realized, with growing delight, that Chattanooga now is a city on a rarefied list: authentic and delicious Mexican food served here.
It may not be quite standard Mexican fare, but the chef uses Latin ingredients to create unique, delicious and wonderful dishes.
While my budget may prevent me from making a weekly visit, the dishes are well worth the price. In addition, the ability to bring your own alcohol cuts down on the tab.
As we walked out the door, we were already planning a return visit.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...