The Multiple Personalities of El Mercado
One of the primary joys of revisiting Europe last summer for me was coming across wonderful little cheese shops, bakeries, and wine stores serving up local fresh delicacies and cuisine for a fair price, found in just about every hamlet in Italy, Austria, Spain, and France. Unfortunately, in Bangkok, getting such mouthwatering items involves a trip to gourmet markets in designer malls or to jaw dropping rental units in Thonglor, with a mere few grams of my favorite delicacies costing a dear percentage of my monthly income. Thus, it is a delight to discover a homey spot bucking the trend and delivering a slice of Europe to our Bangkok doorstep.
El Mercado, Spanish for “the market,” really is right out of France. Hidden away in a small street tucked behind the Queen Sirikit MRT Station, passersby most likely don’t even know it’s there, as one has to go through a small tunnel-like entryway which then reveals a pleasant open courtyard, filled with tables and chairs, and then the wine shop and charcuterie / fromagerie, all in one café-shop behind it.
French owner Axel Aroussi and his Spanish partner Griselda wanted a place that typified French and Spanish markets, where caterers and haute cuisine chefs could buy high quality products at wholesale prices, sample the goods and have business meetings while ordering, and make such a place available to the public as well. El Mercado succeeds on all fronts, as it is the place for some of Bangkok’s best restaurants to buy meat and seafood, as well as being most welcoming to the average Joe wandering in from outside.
You’ll need to book a table if you want to eat dinner here at night, as seating is limited, the cooking takes time, and don’t expect fancy tablecloths, menus, or particularly attentive service. The daily offerings change depending on what the market has, and choices get written up on a blackboard. With a small staff and attention to the food, dishes take time to prepare, and you will be left mostly alone, but this is all about trattoria-style eating; you come with your friends, have a slow bottle of wine, order a plate of cold cuts that you choose yourself from the shop, and enjoy a quiet place well away from the normal hustle and bustle of Bangkok.
Perhaps even better is coming in here in the afternoon after lunch when it is quiet. I had the entire shop to myself for much of the time during a recent visit, with a chance to talk to the staff about various cheeses and meats while languidly nursing my latte. I set up an appointment to sample some imported olives, tried some Spanish salchichón, bought some creamy hummus, and was even offered a glass of pure pomegranate juice all the way from Azerbaijan, as the staff were keen to show off their products, knowledge, and just share the great food wealth with a visitor.
The only drawback of the shop portion of El Mercado is that it isn’t big enough to house all of the wide range of products they carry, so this is one place where you really do need to ask. The glass cases inside are made up mostly of goat and other creamy French cheeses, many of them now locally made, along with an awesome selection of cured meats, all of which are sold at prices below those of Bangkok supermarkets, yet of far superior quality (it probably helps when you aren’t paying Thonglor rents). At one end of the shop is the coffee bar, at the other end the kitchen, and there is also a bread shelf, with some of Bangkok’s top bakers contributing amazingly fresh baguettes and dense loaves of premium bread.
El Mercado has several kitchens, so that visiting chefs can test out the products they are purchasing, and while the fancy products may make the non-connoisseur feel a bit lost, the “place des cons” sign outside (essentially “place of the idiots”) makes everyone welcome and treats everyone as equals.
It’s easy to spend an afternoon here. One wanders in thinking it’s a shop, but then one gets invited to sample the products (an absolute rarity in Bangkok’s high end markets), and soon one is enjoying a fresh piece of quiche, a croissant, or having an espresso with a fellow gourmet food lover at the next table. This leads to a look at the outside blackboard, perhaps followed by ordering a full meal, followed by an investigation into the wine shop. Forget about time here, you are inside a courtyard that seems far closer to Barcelona than Bangkok.
While Thai food might still rule the roost, expats longing for some simple rustic home fare that won’t wipe out their wallet will find El Mercado a real treat. Think of gourmet markets like Rungis in Paris or La Boqueria in Barcelona, gourmands’ heaven, replicated on an intimate customer friendly scale, and you’ve got Bangkok’s latest surprise.
El Mercado – elmercadobangkok.com – 490 Soi Phai Singto, Tel. 02 003-8922.
The best way to get here is to take the MRT to Queen Sirikit, get out at Exit 4, walk south past the station entrance, and you’ll discover Soi Phai Singto leading off to the left. The soi curves left, then right, and El Mercado is about 100 meters after this turn on the right side.