Ace Mercado: a culinary teleportation device

27 Oct

Ottawa has two types of restaurants: those that make you feel like you’re imprisoned in a bureaucrat’s bureau, and those that transport you to a more, shall we say, cosmopolitan place.  Ace Mercado is firmly in the latter category, and the Byward Market is immeasurably better off because of it.  Ace occupies the busy corner of Dalhousie and Clarence, and it replaced a universally lampooned Italian restaurant named Mangia, a restaurant that will only be missed by those who have a palate as bland as powdered mashed potatoes.

Ace is the brainchild of Top Chef Canada winner Rene Rodriguez, proprietor of nearby Navarra.  In my not-so-humble opinion, Ace is the real winner between the two.  Its menu has all of the innovation, creativity and boldness of Navarra’s without the sticker shock.  The atmosphere is essentially a cross between El Camino and Czehoski’s on Queen West.  This may sound like too much of a scene thing for some, but if you tune out the douchetastic conversations, the overall buzz is energetic and dynamic.  Ottawa needs this to counteract the whiff of dying souls that emanates from its overly ample suburbs.  More importantly, the Market needs this to drive out the tourist-trap, pedestrian slop-troughs that masquerade as restaurants.

Most importantly, the food lives up to the hype and the scene.  When I saw the menu, I was faced with the pleasant yet stressful dilemma that every foodie faces at a good restaurant – how to eat all the things.  Fortunately, I was with other eat-all-the-things people, so we made a serious dent in the menu.  The deviled spot prawns were spot on (yes, I did that).  The prawns retained their juicy sweetness in the face of bold Mexican-inspired spices.  I could find nothing Mexican about the Mexican Fries.  In fact, they were more like a bipolar Francophone – the fries were cooked so well that a Belgian would have been proud, and they were covered in cheese and dotted with crispy fried pigs’ ears – music to any Quebecker’s ears.  They were so crazy that they were awesome.

The tacos were no less impressive.  The lamb taco could compete with El Camino’s, and I think that El Camino’s lamb tacos are the single greatest taco ever made.  The crispy pig’s ear tacos would not have been out of place in a cabane à sucre in Papineauville, which makes them some of the most whimsical tacos I’ve ever had.  The fish tacos were innovative – most tacquerias stick to the well worn path of stuffing a battered and fried piece of whitefish in a shell.  Ace’s version was stuffed with grilled and flaked red snapper, which gave it a decidedly meatier texture.  Hit with some lime, they were almost flawless. In fact, the only flaw with the tacos was the shell.  The wraps were tepid, dry and flavourless.  Sadly, they did not add flavour to the whole, as a good taco shell should.  This flaw is the single reason why I must declare that El Camino’s tacos are marginally – but universally – better.

Ace Mercado’s drinks list is as laudable as its food.  The beer list is tight, but features a blend of local and foreign beers that pair well with all the items.  The tequila list is excellent and covers all the right bases.  Be sure to have a shot of house-made sangrita, a concoction that is essentially a Caesar that took a wrong turn on the highway and ended up in Tijuana.

I will go back to Ace Mercado after a day when I have to deal with HR, IT or any number of other bureaucratic black holes.  Ace Mercado can fix you on days when you think you’ve lost your soul to the crushing dreariness of Place du Portage.  Given how many people work there, I suspect that Ace will be packed on most nights.


3.74 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

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