McALLEN — Jesus Gonzalez is the other mayor in McAllen.
Gonzalez is the owner and de facto face of the Mercado District, a high-end indoor food hall and retail space located in the old Bargain Bazaar building on 23rd Street, which began opening its shops and restaurants earlier this month and is expected to be fully operational by Tuesday.
It’s a market that Gonzalez dreamt up on trips around the world, a pueblito — as Gonzalez thinks of it — with its own bar and wine tasting room, nine restaurants and 28 storefronts, all air conditioned and all under the same roof.
Gonzalez was there Thursday afternoon, chatting with a saxophonist interested in playing at the Mercado and watching the last fixtures of the business be installed.
Many of the storefronts remained empty, although Gonzalez says they’re all leased and should be full soon, but by suppertime the Mercado was bustling with shoppers and diners.
Gonzalez was still there, chatting with customers and chefs and friends.
Patrons walked up and down a little lane of storefronts, under a black ceiling with strings of bare bulbs dangling beneath, something Gonzalez says he got from a trip to the markets in Buenos Aires.
It does feel almost like being outside in the little market. There’s no windows and the outside world sort of disappears under the music and the murmur of talking.
Other guests Thursday dined by the restaurants, on tables and chairs feet away from where chefs were making gourmet food like crab cakes and goat cheese sushi and high-end ramen. The chefs cooked in individual kitchens made out of storage containers, with patrons dining and ambling in between them.
It’s not unlike what you’d feel in a Las Vegas casino; it’s entirely possible to sit down for a beer and some quail legs and walk out a few hours later wondering how on earth it got so dark outside.
There’s not anything quite like Gonzalez’s Mercado in McAllen. There’s gourmet restaurants and places to shop and bars to drink at, but there’s nowhere with all those things and all that variety tucked neatly under one roof; nowhere quite so self-contained.
That, Gonzalez says, is the point. The Mercado isn’t a mall or a restaurant wine tasting room: it’s an experience.
“All the experience those chefs have makes a big universe,” he said.
Gonzalez says he’s had his eye out for a place to create that little universe for some time. He found it in the 40-odd-years old Bargain Bazaar, which hadn’t been renovated in years and was gradually losing vendors.
The Bargain Bazaar’s owner wasn’t interested in running it any longer and Gonzalez bought it and started renovations last year, fixing the air conditioning system and insulating the building. He partitioned it too, condensing its current lessees into one wing and building the Mercado District in the other.
They’re required to stay open three days a week now versus two, and the number of them is growing. There’s 84 leases now compared to the 55 there when the building sold, a business model Gonzalez said he’s proud to have preserved and reinvigorated.
“They’re happy,” he said. “We haven’t increased the rent for them. I don’t want to rush into doing anything — even if this is very successful and people want this higher end side of the business.”
Gonzalez’s passion, though, is the pristine southern side of the building. He declined to say on the record how much he paid to buy the building and renovate it, but the size of the investment is evident.
No stranger to business, Gonzalez leases a variety of businesses and restaurants in McAllen. He is one of the co-founders of artwalk, and his wife owns N.I.U.
The Mercado District built on that experience, Gonzalez said.
“It was designed, in my mind, to target my kids, who are well-traveled, well-educated and can spend a little bit of money,” he said.
Essentially, the Mercado District is hunting foodies, foodies who want gourmet food and are willing to lose fancy dishes and waiters in favor of gourmet food that’s a bit more economical and an increased selection.
Breakfast and brunch are on one end; a cafe with dessert is on the other. In between is everything from sushi to native Texas game.
The beauty of it, Gonzalez said, is that a couple can dine out at his restaurant even if one of them is vegan and the other is a carnivore. He says the other advantage is it’s easier on the chefs. After all, Mercado takes care of the dining room maintenance and the restaurants are self-service, so the chefs don’t have to pay waitstaff.
The Mercado’s eight restaurants and the chefs behind them were curated by Gonzalez like he was picking out conspirators in a heist movie.
Eduardo Avalos, the sushi chef, is soft-spoken and direct. Jesse Castellon, a ramen guru who started out cooking in Weslaco for a restaurant where U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson would often drop by.
When you get him going, Jesse’s full of jokes, stories and not-so-occasional curse words; he’s full of a passion for food too, especially noodles.
Just about all of the chefs are or have been fixtures on the Rio Grande Valley restaurant scene. If you’re a gourmand, you’ve probably tried some of their dishes before.
Gonzalez says putting them all under one roof was a windfall of the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout.
“They’re mostly either chefs who owned their own restaurant and for whatever reason failed during the pandemia, or worked in a restaurant and got laid off because of the pandemia,” Gonzalez said.
At least one of the chefs is expanding into the Mercado rather than rebounding there. Adam Cavazos, owner of Bodega Tavern & Kitchen on 10th St., was putting the finishing touches on Sendero Texas Gastropub on Thursday. It specializes in Texas cuisines, much of it traditional wild game food with a high-end spin.
The mini-restaurant, Cavazos said, is an intermediary step to his second full-fledged restaurant.
“We want to do restaurant quality food out of this little space,” he said. “This is my incubator for my full service restaurant number two, and so we aren’t compromising here. As a matter of fact, my to-go ware, I chose these to-gos so that we have the ability to plate beautifully like we do at Bodega.”
Cavazos is aiming at operating Sendero in the Mercado District for a year or so and then, ideally, expanding again.
“And then maybe turn this into something else. Maybe have that one be number three,” he said. “This is our incubator.”
The Mercado’s bar has a different sort of spin to it too. The bottom story strictly sells beer, ideally to patrons who will take it back to drink with a meal.
The upstairs part is a wine tasting room with a second-story dining space where Gonzalez sets up his musicians. Behind the seating space is a handsomely attired wine tasting room, where you’ll find wine expert Fernando Rocha and a whole lot of wine, ranging from double digit prices to thousands of dollars.
The idea, Rocha said, is to cultivate a membership of people drawn by the room’s exclusivity, and by Rocha’s expertise and the opportunity to taste a variety of wine.
“The goal here is for people to try different things,” he said. “When you get stuff from different areas at different price points, they really do taste different, and that’s the goal here — to get people to expand.”
There’s one other interesting thing about the Mercado District: its location.
The only other place in McAllen with the variety of upscale locally owned eatery options is down on Main Street.
There’s gourmet restaurants in the vicinity — El Divino and Maison Stivalet are a few minutes car ride away — but by opening the Mercado District Gonzalez essentially brought eight miniature fine dining establishments to a part of McAllen that doesn’t have many.
“There’s nothing entertainment wise on this side of town and there’s 4,000 homes around 2 miles around here,” he said. “So I think that’s going to work on our side.”
It’s an ambitious project that brings gourmet goods and dining to a part of McAllen that hasn’t had so much of that before. Gonzalez renovated and networked extensively, and poured a significant amount of work into a business McAllen hasn’t seen before.
Despite the risk and the effort, he’s confident in the project.
“I never had doubts that it would not work,” Gonzalez said in the Mercado’s wine tasting room Thursday, visitors chatting and eating down below. “I guess anyone who’s going into a new business doesn’t have doubts.”