If you don’t speak Spanish, El Mercadito No. 2 might be a little intimidating, and it doesn’t help that the setup is slightly disorienting.
When you walk in the front door to the Greensboro market and café during a lunch rush, it’s almost like you’re cutting the line to order, with the cash register immediately to the left of the doors and people sometimes waiting to order somewhat blocking the entrance. It’s a little easier to navigate, now that the menu is more visibly posted near the register, and while Spanish isn’t necessary, it certainly helps.
Especially when they call out your order, calling out in Spanish the number you were handed, similarly to a butcher’s counter. If it’s busy, pay attention to the two people who order ahead of you, as the dishes generally come out sequentially, or use your phone to look up the pronunciation of the figure you were given.
For those less confident consumers, the meat market, baked goods and grocery areas of the Mercadito No. 2 can provide a chance to peruse, scoping the lay of the land on your initial visit. And for anyone, including longtime regulars, it’s always worth walking past the fresh baked goods for the aroma alone. Don’t let the cookies, Mexican treats, cakes and pastries distract you too much — cheap as they are, the best approach is to snag a few for later, because the lunch entrees here are more than enough to fill you up on their own.
Greensboro is home to countless little Mexican tiendas like this one, and restaurants with similar fare dot the city’s major and minor thoroughfares. My favorite of all — Villa del Mar, thanks to its phenomenal chicken burrito — is just across the street from Mercadito No. 2, and other places like Carniceria El Rey Mercadito and San Luis Mexican restaurant are a few blocks away.
This stretch of High Point Road — excuse me, Gate City Boulevard — is overrun with remarkable international cuisine, including Van Loi II practically next door, Banh Mi Saigon across the street and until recently, Los Gordos not to far away.
For those familiar with some of the city’s Latin cuisine, this particular café and market is reminiscent of Carnicería El Mercadito at the intersection of Muirs Chapel Road and West Market Street, though based on several visits to the latter, I prefer the former, even if I can’t quite put my finger on why the food tastes better.
El Mercadito No. 2 began serving a burrito, my go-to Mexican food order, relatively recently, but that isn’t its selling point. Though quite tasty, mine came poorly wrapped with the tin foil tucked into the tortilla, forcing me to pull it out before eating and making for a messier meal.
Instead, here’s the move: Inspect the Spiderman and Cinderella piñatas first if it will lower your stress level, making your way over to the produce including cactus. Inhale deeply near the cases of baked goods before making your way past the cuts of meat at one counter and up to the register at the front entrance (there’s another door at the side if you’d prefer). Order the chicken torta, or sandwich, and grab an open table if one’s available while you wait.
Here’s the key to unlocking one of the best meals in Greensboro, in case you don’t already possess it: You say, “Una torta de pollo [pronounced poy-yo] por favor.”
It really is that easy. That, and somewhere around $6.
The chicken torta comes with shredded lettuce, onion, strips of jalapeño, tomato, mayo and top-of-the-line avocados. The massive pieces of chicken are freshly cooked, and make the sandwich formidable enough that some people will want to share it or take a portion home, though it tastes best while it’s still warm. I’ve been known to pull out about half the jalapeño peppers — they’re good but plentiful and I feel like they distract a little from the rest of the taste — but try the sandwich unaltered at first.
Order something else, such as the daily special, soup, a gordita, and other standard Mexican options or try the torta with a different meat, but remember that I’ve already led you to the holy grail.
Vegetarians, I’m sorry, but this just isn’t the place for you, unless you’re here for some Honduran cheese, cookies colored to look like a watermelon and some horchata mix from the other parts of the mercadito instead of lunch.
In a region with few California-style hand-held burrito purveyors, I’m often inclined to order a chicken torta (though you can catch me with vegetarian quesadillas, tostadas and loaded nachos on occasion). The torta, while not as common here as enchiladas or arroz con pollo, is in many ways a standard bearer of taste with minimal glitz and cheese that can sometimes hide insufficiencies in other dishes.
Like pizza, the chicken torta is kinda hard to mess up, and most places do a solid job with it. But — I was reminded a few nights ago while chowing down on one from another Mexican restaurant in Greensboro — it isn’t easy to make one great.
And that’s why El Mercadito No. 2 deserves an ode of its own.
Visit Mercadito #2 at 3821 Gate City Blvd. (GSO) across the street from Banh Mi Saigon and basically next to Van Loi II.