To understand La Merced, a Mexico City-style restaurant in Mesa, you could start with its flautas, a dish that challenges the notion that good things have to come in small packages. Nearly double the size of those you might find elsewhere in the Valley, the flour tortillas, full of moist shredded chicken or beef spiced with chiles and tomatoes, are rolled and fried until they resemble elegantly long and crispy scrolls. Plowing through their toppings of lettuce, cotija cheese, and streaks of sour cream to dip them in a biting red salsa can feel like Italian breadsticks and sauce by way of the Distrito Federal.
The six-year-old restaurant takes its name from Mexico City's largest traditional food market, a fact that seems to contrast its small, unassuming space in a near-vacant strip mall but not its gigantic plates of boldly flavored eats. At La Merced, bigger is better, and the locals know this to be true. Its clean and comfortable room — with beige walls appointed with pictures of Mexico, maroon curtains in the windows, and movies like Bruce Almighty dubbed in Spanish on one of two televisions — beckons its guests to sit and relax rather than dine and dash. Here, laborers and families with young children stop in for well-made traditional dishes at a value, and with leftovers for home.
Begin with a beverage: a large glass filled with sweet horchata, a bracing agua de fruta of pineapple and lemon, or a malt of fresh banana and Choco Milk reminiscent of an afterschool Ovaltine treat. Or, if you prefer your drink to be more of a meal, there is the sweet and refreshing Bomba. A kind of Mexico City fast food made with fruit, pecans, and granola — and pretty much anything else that can be put in a blender — the Bomba is typically consumed during breakfast. But since La Merced serves its Bomba in a giant, foot-high martini glass, you couldn't be blamed for wishing it were spiked with alcohol and offered with a few extra straws and a salsa track.
As it does with the flautas, the kitchen fills and tops its Mexican street food generously. You might try a large, half-moon-shaped corn quesadilla packed with moist, chipotle-laced shredded beef, a fist-size gordita layered with deep red scraps of porky, sweet, and smoky chicharrón prensado (pressed pigskin), or a duo of saucer-size sopes, heaped with tender and sweet al pastor.
But if you've come to La Merced for the best of its proteins, you've come for the tinga de pollo, shredded chicken in a near-perfect spicy, sweet, and smoky sauce of chipotles and tomatoes. The biggest dish to put it on is the huarache, whose oblong fried masa base probably isn't the best you've had (it leans toward mushy). But the tinga de pollo and a heady salsa verde results in a clean plate just the same.
There are decent tortas, Mexican sandwiches that La Merced advertises as gigante, a description that should be taken seriously. Nearly the length of your forearm, they arrive on toasted telera buns, crispy outside and soft within, that are stuffed with tiers of ingredients like Oaxaca cheese, avocado, and Mexican-style ham. An order of the house specialty turns out to be the most monstrous (and outrageous) of the bunch: a hefty beast of bread and meat teetering with layers of chicken milanesa, ham, chorizo, fried eggs, cheese, and several slices of hot dog. More manageable (and favored by locals) is the Milanesa, a torta of thin, well-seasoned breaded chicken cutlets and gooey Oaxaca cheese.
Entrees are served as heaping plates of traditional Mexican favorites: moist chicken topped with a dark and rich mole poblano that is spicier than what you may have had elsewhere; alambres, skillet-style creations of grilled beef or chicken mixed with ham, bacon, chorizo, bell peppers, and onions in a slightly sweet and sour salsa and topped with a blanket of melted Mexican cheese; and chilaquiles verdes, fried tortillas bathing in a pool of robust roasted green chile sauce with a slow-burning heat and topped with handfuls of well-seasoned grilled chicken pieces.
Many of the dinners up the food-intake ante by including a choice of sides. There are the standard options — refried beans, rice, French fries — as well as less frequently seen add-ons like a cilantro-heavy nopal (cactus) salad with onions, tomatoes, and crumbled Mexican cheese (as tasty by itself as it is placed inside tortillas with a splash of spicy red salsa) and rusa, a creamy, mayo-rich potato salad studded with carrots and peas.
To experience the biggest and best of what La Merced has to offer, the Casuela a la Mexicana, requires the assistance of a few hungry friends. The feast, containing eight dishes laid out together on a platter accented with avocado halves and taco fixin's, includes standouts such as thin, peppery beefsteak slathered in grilled onions, chunks of tender pork in a spicy green chile sauce, and small cubes of carnitas tinged with garlic and a lip-smacking bit of char. Whether you're one of those who packs the meat into tortillas, puts a sample of each on a plate, or stabs at whatever's nearest on the platter, this meal's a steal at $32.99.
The best dessert — if you have room for dessert — is the flan, its thick disc of creamy custard with a syrupy golden topping of caramelized sugar half-wrapped in clouds of whipped cream.
Chances are, one of the friendly young servers will bring up the subject of to-go boxes before you do.