Chef George Rodrigues has sliced and diced his way through the restaurant industry with a resume that includes being the chef de cuisine at D.C.’s Boqueria. Now, after years of sharpening his culinary skills, he’s opened El Mercat Bar de Tapas in Rockville, his first solo restaurant.
“Opening a restaurant was always a dream that I had. For many years I kind of pushed it aside,” Rodrigues said. “Like most of the hospitality industry, I got laid off because of COVID. So for four months I was without a job. It was a good time to think what will be next.”The pandemic helped Rodrigues find a location for his new restaurant.
“Unfortunately, COVID changed so many people’s and business’ lives. But at the same time, it presented opportunities. So we were able to seize the opportunity that it presented in terms of locations being available and rents being more manageable, and take advantage of that,” he said.
Rockville isn’t just a place for a new venture for Rodrigues and his family. To them, it’s home. Rodrigues said that one of the reasons they chose the space in Rockville Town Center was to help rebuild the local culinary scene after it took a huge hit from the pandemic.
“We live close by. We know this area, and prior to COVID this was a vibrant area. Like COVID did to many other areas, the restaurants and small businesses here were decimated. We want to bring that vitality back into the area,” he said.
Rodrigues also wanted to fill a gap that he noticed in the local food market with his new eatery.
“I think this area especially was lacking, in terms of culinary, some Spanish Tapas,” the chef said. “That was the main drive, really. When my wife and I were looking into what we wanted to do in this location, the idea of Spanish tapas came really easily.”
When you walk into El Mercat you are immediately met with warm tones and dim lighting to set the homey mood of the restaurant. The walls have oil paintings of alleyways framed with wooden window features that make you feel like you’ve been transported to a neighborhood in Spain. But when you look up to the bright neon sign over the bar, you are reminded that you are at a casual eatery.
So what should someone new to Spanish tapas order? Rodrigues said you can’t go wrong with getting the basics.
“The staples would be Spanish omelets, gambas al ajillo [shrimp with garlic], the octopus with potatoes,” he said. “Paellas is something else that’s very interesting. It’s a baked rice and it’s great. The traditional is a great way to start.”
Before the Brazilian-born chef went to culinary school, he was doing something a little different.
“I actually went to college for civil engineering,” he said. “Right before my graduation year, I decided that I didn’t want to waste half of my life working in that field if I didn’t have any passion for it. But I always loved cooking. It came naturally to me, and when I decided the college road wasn’t it, I decided to turn to being a chef.”
Aside from its unique décor and awesome eats, El Mercat also has an inviting environment, as designed by Rodrigues.
“We want to be a restaurant where the people here, our neighbors, can come in and have a good time,” he said. “We don’t just want to be a place where they come in, eat, pay for their meal and go. We want to meet them and greet them as if we were family.” 9
El Mercat de Tapas is located at 101 Gibbs St., Rockville. 240-403-7436. elmercatbardetapas.com
GAMBAS AL AJILLO
You can’t go wrong with the basics, says Chef George Rodrigues.
8 26/30 shrimp peeled and cleaned
3 ounces canola oil
1 ounce peeled and sliced garlic
3 pieces sliced and toasted
1 bay leaf
1 dry red pepper
1 6-inch terracotta cazuela
1 Add the oil into the cazuela
(or any cooking pan you prefer).
2 Add the sliced garlic while the oil is cold and let it cook until it starts to change colors.
3 Season shrimp and add to the oil and garlic and let it cook, turn it and add the bay leaf and red pepper.
4 Once the shrimp is cooked add a splash of fresh lemon juice, paprika and chopped parsley.
5 Serve with toasted bread.
6 Better served with a nice glass of wine.