Spread of tapas and paella at El Mercat Bar de Tapas Credit: Rey Lopez LeadingDC

A Brazilian couple is trying to capture the essence of a Spanish tapas bar with El Mercat Bar de Tapas opening this winter in Rockville. The inspiration behind the name is two-fold. The bustling atmosphere at the famed Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria in Barcelona entranced Chef George Rodrigues and Wanessa Alves when they visited. And Rodrigues’ big break in the restaurant industry came when he landed a job at Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago under Jose Garces

Rockville Town Square was home to a tapas restaurant, La Tasca, as recently as 2020. It closed after the local chain filed for bankruptcy. El Mercat Bar de Tapas is opening around the bend at 101 Gibbs Street Unit C. “People ask about the difference between us,” Rodrigues says. “We’re going to be really true to the Spanish culture. That’s what we want to be. We want the vibe to be very Spanish. We know La Tasca. We live close by. They had a little more freedom with their menu and their decor.”

Photo of pulpo con patatas by Rey Lopez LeadingDC

Look for familiar tapas like gambas al ajillo, pulpo con patatas, croquettas, pan con tomate, and tortilla Española. Paella fans can also plan to be satiated by several styles of the centerpiece rice dish. One is the color of charcoal thanks to squid ink and comes topped with shrimp and saffron aioli. Save room for churros or Basque cheesecake for dessert.

Alves and the bar manager amassed a collection of Spanish wines to pair, along with sangria, cocktails, and some Spanish beers if supply chain issues begin to resolve. “We want to be the restaurant for people wanting to be transported to Spain,” Rodrigues says. “We want to bring that vibrant culture to this area.”

Rodrigues grew up in Brazil and helped cook for his large family. His grandmother had nine children. “It was very common for us every single weekend to gather as a family and do barbecue and it was really fun because we all got together,” he says. His sisters didn’t show interest in helping their mom in the kitchen, so Rodrigues stepped in and found his calling. 

But before committing to a cooking career, Rodrigues first went to college to study civil engineering. “In the late ’90s, being a chef in Brazil wasn’t a thing to aspire to be,” he explains. “But in my last year before graduation, I like to say I had a little meltdown. This is not what I want to do for my life.” He left college and enrolled in culinary school. 

Upon graduation, he landed a job at a hotel in Brazil before moving to the U.S. soon after in 2007. Garces was having a big moment and tapped Rodrigues to cook at Mercat a la Planxa.

After working his way up to sous chef over three years, he left for Boston to open the first Tico for chef and restaurateur Michael Schlow. Three and a half years went by and Schlow set his sights on opening restaurants in D.C. He sent Rodrigues to the District to open Tico on 14th Street NW. In his seven years with Schlow Restaurant Group, he also helped lead the kitchen at The Riggsby, which recently closed.  

Later, Rodrigues replaced Austin Fausett as the Executive Chef at Proof in 2018. It closed in early 2019. Most recently he’s been the chef de cuisine at Boqueria’s Penn Quarter location. He continues to work there as he prepares to open El Mercat Bar de Tapas this winter. 

Photo of Chef George Rodrigues by Rey Lopez LeadingDC

Before restaurants open they often have what are known as “friends and family nights,” to which close contacts are invited for a test drive in exchange for feedback. Alves came into Tico for one such night. That’s when the couple met. “I remember because my chef was like, ‘Take this dish to that table,’” Rodrigues says. “My friends tease me,” Alves adds. “They saw the look on my face when the chef approached.”

Alves is also from Brazil and has been in the D.C. area for 22 years. She is behind the decor at the 2,000-squar-foot restaurant. It can seat 60 inside and another 30 outside. The display of Spanish wines draws the eye in. If Montgomery County would only let her, Alves says she would hang legs of  jamón serrano from the ceiling. “We’re looking for a casual place,” she says. “We want a place where people feel cozy and at home.” 

When it opens, El Mercat Bar de Tapas will only serve dinner. Soon after they’ll introduce lunch and brunch. They will take reservations and plan to show some Spanish soccer games.

The couple watched restaurants and retail shops close during the pandemic, leaving behind empty storefronts. They want to play a role in bringing liveliness back to their neighborhood. “We’re Rockville residents,” Alves says. “We’re trying to build a sense of community and getting to know the neighbors. It’s residential on top and all of that surrounding area. We want people to come and we want to get to know them.”

El Mercat Bar de Tapas, 101 Gibbs Street Unit C, Rockville; (240) 403-7436; elmercatbardetapas.com

Photo of gambas al ajillo by Rey Lopez LeadingDC