Rockville Town Center’s anticipated El Mercat Bar De Tapas comes from George Rodrigues, the former chef de cuisine at revered tapas chain Boqueria in Penn Quarter. His breakout project up I-270 makes use of a modern space that housed short-lived Cajun and Puerto Rican restaurant Gumbo Ya Ya (101 Gibbs Street, Rockville, Maryland).
Preview dinners scheduled for Friday, January 21, and Saturday, January 22, showcase a cross-section of the menu, with two seatings each night. Tickets ($75 per person) includes veggie, meat, and seafood tapas, paella, dessert, and two glasses of red, white, or seasonal sangria — plus free sparkling wine to celebrate the arrival of his long-awaited solo venture.
“It’s been a dream of mine to open my own restaurant since I moved to the U.S.,” says Brazilian-born Rodrigues, who’s devoted much of his 20-year career to making tapas under a string of celebrity chefs.
The full menu goes live on Sunday, January 23, with nightly dinner service only for two weeks, followed by lunch.
His opening list of two dozen Spanish tapas swing from familiar (shishito peppers, calamari, ham croquettes, spicy papas bravas) to lesser-known regional delicacies like Catalonia’s calçots — a long, green scallion that gets its own festival in Spain every year. At El Mercat, he serves the charred and smoked vegetable next to a creamy cup of romesco.
Other tapas on tap include escalivada (roasted vegetables with labne yogurt), pulpo con patatas (slightly cooked octopus and potatoes), pan con tomate with an optional anchovies add-on, pollo rostizado (roast chicken), and tortilla española (Spanish omelette) made with egg, potato, and onion and cooked in olive oil. Diners can kick off the meal with a medley of Spanish cheeses and meats for $30.
Paella openers play up his personal favorites (seafood; chorizo and chicken; and squid ink sauce with saffron aioli and shrimp), served in 10- or 14-inch circular skillets. He credits Boqueria’s executive chef Marc Vidal with helping him perfect the communal dish. Barcelona-born Vidal, who brought the Boqueria brand to D.C., NYC, and Chicago, studied the art of paella under Ferran Adria (of El Bulli fame).
“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 dish in the oven.
Before Vidal, Rodrigues worked under other big names like Iron Chef Jose Garces at Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago and restaurateur Michael Schlow at Latin-leaning Tico in Boston and D.C. before joining Boqueria’s opening team in Penn Quarter in 2019. Like many chefs, a sudden standstill of service during the early days of the pandemic put his culinary career into perspective.
“Everything happened so fast — the restaurant was full one day then had to shut down. It was a scary time. It also offered an opportunity for someone like myself who’s never had a restaurant before to go for it,” he says.
Rodrigues lives in Rockville and says up-and-coming dining destinations like the nearby Pike & Rose complex show the Maryland suburb is ready for a sophisticated Spanish spot to call its own. La Tasca in Rockville was once the main tapas game in town, he says, but that location closed permanently during the pandemic. He says he found a great deal to take over the 2,000-square-foot home of short-lived Gumbo Ya Ya in Rockville Town Center.
The redesign is filled odes to Basque country, including artwork of flamenco dancers at the bar, rustic wood paneling, red and yellow tones to match the Spanish flag, and European tile work. A marble-topped bar sends out an array of sangrias, with a wine list that only features Spanish grapes. Desserts include burnt Basque cheesecake and churros with caramel or chocolate sauce.
“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.
The 60-seat restaurant will grow with a 30-seat patio in the spring, and he plans to lead paella and Spanish wine classes on-site this year.
- Boqueria Penn Quarter’s Paella Pro Branches Out With a New Rockville Restaurant [EDC]
- Where to Eat and Drink in Rockville [EDC]
- Inside the New Boqueria, an Abstract Spanish Stunner With Glowing Banquettes [EDC]
- Boqueria Brings Suckling Pig Feasts to Penn Quarter [EDC]
- Enjoy A Messy Feast: The Calçotada Food Festivals Of Catalonia [Forbes]