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Paellas and tapas on a big wooden table.
El Mercat brings Rockville seafood-studded paella and dozens of tapas.
Rey Lopez/LeadingDC

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A Master Tapas Chef in D.C. Breaks Out With His Own Rockville Restaurant

Maryland’s new El Mercat Bar De Tapas opens with a parade of paella, tapas, and Spanish wines

Rockville’s dining scene gets a major boost this weekend with the arrival of El Mercat Bar De Tapas, a polished paella place from a D.C. chef with superb Spanish cooking skills.

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.

Lamb meatballs with tomato sauce and manchego.
Rey Lopez/LeadingDC
Sauteed mushrooms with scallions and garlic.
Rey Lopez/LeadingDC

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.

Long green scallions next to a red romesco sauce on a wood table.
Calçots at El Mercat Bar De Tapas.
Rey Lopez/LeadingDC

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.

Tongs touching a paella cooking on a stove.
The key to a spot-in Spanish paella, says George Rodrigues, is the final touch known as “socarrat,” or the crust that forms at the bottom of the bomba rice.
Rey Lopez/LeadingDC
El Mercat chef/owner George Rodrigues posing in his restaurant with a brick wall behind him.
El Mercat chef/owner George Rodrigues.
Rey Lopez/LeadingDC

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.

A circular cheesecake sitting in brown paper with a spoon picking up a piece
San Sebastian cheesecake with licorice sauce.
Rey Lopez/LeadingDC

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