The outgoing chef de cuisine at Penn Quarter’s tapas bar Boqueria will showcase his polished Spanish cooking skills at his first solo project opening in Rockville Town Square this winter.
George Rodrigues hopes to debut El Mercat Bar De Tapas in mid-December in the 2,000-square-foot space that housed short-lived Cajun and Puerto Rican restaurant Gumbo Ya Ya (101 Gibbs Street, Rockville, Maryland). Rodrigues was part of Boqueria Penn Quarter’s opening team in 2019 and learned how to perfect his paella under its Barcelona-born executive chef Marc Vidal, whose group oversees a pair of locations in D.C., four in NYC, and one in Chicago.
Rodrigues’s breakout menu at El Mercat Bar De Tapas will kick off with a few of his personal favorites, packed with seafood; chorizo and chicken; and squid ink, served in 10- or 14-inch circular skillets for one or two people. The key to a spot-in Spanish paella, he says, is the final touch known as “socarrat,” or the crust that forms at the bottom of the bomba rice.
“I’m going back to what I learned with Boqueria — the traditional way that focuses on the cooking process,” says Rodrigues, which includes starting and finishing the communal dish in the oven.
Tapas tied to various communities across Spain, from Catalan to Galicia, are spread across vegetarian, meat, and seafood sections. Catalonia’s go-to escalivada (roasted vegetables) will make an appearance, as will the same region’s lesser-known calçots, or charred and smoked scallions that get their own festival in Spain every year.
Other tapas on tap include lamb meatballs, shishito peppers, calamari, spicy papas bravas, pulpo con patatas (slightly cooked octopus and potatoes), pollo rostizado (roast chicken), and a section of Spanish cheeses and meats like Serrano ham.
His new 60-seat restaurant is about half the size of what he’s used to at Boqueria Penn Quarter. A 30-seat patio will join the mix next spring. While D.C. is home to top-tier tapas spots, the Rockville resident says his neighborhood could use one of its own.
“I used to go to La Tosca all the time when it was on the same block,” he says. “We decided to bring [Spanish tapas] back — we don’t really have that fare in Rockville.”
El Mercat Bar De Tapas makes use of a sleek space originally made for Gumbo Ya Ya, which relocated there from Germantown at the end of 2019 but closed due to COVID-19 just a few months later.
“The space was empty and ready to go,” he says.
Added odes to Basque country include artwork of flamenco dancers at the bar, splashes of red and yellow to play up colors in the Spanish flag, and European tile work. The bar program includes sangrias and a wine list exclusively filled with Spanish varietals.
“We wanted to bring a little piece of Spain to the neighborhood, as if you’re transported to a Barcelona tapas bar — comfortable, homey, and relaxing,” says Rodrigues.
He traveled with Vidal and Boqueria’s team to the culinary capital for R&D, and he previously popped the question to his wife while vacationing there.
“[Barcelona] is near and dear to my heart,” he says.
Before Vidal, Brazilian-born Rodrigues worked for other high-profile bosses like Iron Chef Jose Garces at Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago, followed by restaurateur Michael Schlow at Latin-leaning Tico in Boston. Rodrigues was tapped to bring the brand to 14th Street NW and oversaw its tapas pop-up Calle Cinco. His resume also includes competing on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” (which he did).
El Mercat Bar De Tapas will open for dinner to start, followed by brunch and lunch two weeks later.
He plans to keep teaching customers the art of making a proper paella via cooking classes on-site starting next spring. At Boqueria, he compiled video tutorials with its at-home paella kits.
“We’re super excited for chef George,” a Boqueria rep tells Eater, adding “we’re currently still on the lookout for a replacement.”
Dupont Boqueria’s seasoned chef will step in to help out the Penn Quarter location in the interim, she adds.