The outgoing chef at the Boqueria tapas bar in Penn Quarter will demonstrate his elaborate Spanish culinary skills in his first solo project, which opens in Rockville Town Square this winter.
George Rodrigues hopes to open El Mercat Bar De Tapas in mid-December in the 2,000-square-foot space that houses the ephemeral Cajun and Puerto Rican restaurant Gumbo Ya Ya (101 Gibbs Street, Rockville, Maryland). Rodrigues was part of the Boqueria Penn Quarter opening team in 2019 and learned how to perfect his paella under Barcelona-born chef Marc Vidal, whose group runs two locations in DC, four in NYC and one in Chicago.
Rodrigues’ breakout menu at El Mercat Bar De Tapas will start with some of his personal favorites filled with seafood. Chorizo and chicken; and squid ink, served in 10- or 14-inch round pans for one or two people. The key to a Spanish paella, he says, is the finishing touches known as the “socarrat,” or the crust that forms at the bottom of the bombas rice.
“I’m going back to what I learned at Boqueria – the traditional way that focuses on the cooking process,” says Rodrigues, which involves starting and stopping the communal dish in the oven.
Tapas associated with different communities across Spain, from Catalan to Galicia, are served in vegetarian, meat and seafood sections. Catalonia’s popular escalivada (fried vegetables) will be on display as well as the lesser-known calçots of the same region or charred and smoked spring onions, which celebrate their own festival every year in Spain.
Other tapas on tap include lamb meatballs, shishito peppers, calamari, spicy papas bravas, pulpo con patatas (lightly cooked squid and potatoes), pollo rostizado (roast chicken), and a selection of Spanish cheeses and meats such as serrano ham.
His new restaurant with 60 seats is about half the size of what he is used to from the Boqueria Penn Quarter. A terrace with 30 seats will be added next spring. While DC has world-class tapas venues, the Rockville resident says his neighborhood could use its own.
“I used to always go to La Tosca when it was in the same block,” he says. “We decided to bring [Spanish tapas] back – we don’t really have this tariff in Rockville. “
El Mercat Bar De Tapas uses an elegant space originally created for Gumbo Ya Ya, who moved there from Germantown in late 2019 but closed just months later due to COVID-19.
“The room was empty and ready for use,” he says.
Odes to the Basque Country include artwork by flamenco dancers at the bar, splashes of red and yellow to accentuate the colors of the Spanish flag, and European tile work. The bar program includes sangrias and a wine list that is exclusively filled with Spanish grape varieties.
“We wanted to bring a little piece of Spain into the neighborhood, like being transferred to a tapas bar in Barcelona – comfortable, cozy and relaxing,” says Rodrigues.
He traveled to the culinary capital with Vidal and Boqueria’s research and development team and previously asked his wife the question while on vacation there.
“[Barcelona] is close to my heart, ”he says.
Before Vidal, Brazilian-born Rodrigues worked for other high profile chefs like Iron cook Jose Garces in the Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago, followed by restaurateur Michael Schlow in the Latin American Tico in Boston. Rodrigues was tasked with bringing the brand to 14th Street NW and overseeing the tapas pop-up on Calle Cinco. His resume also includes participating in Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay (which he did).
El Mercat Bar De Tapas initially opens for dinner, followed by brunch and lunch two weeks later.
Starting next spring, he wants to continue teaching his customers the art of making paella through on-site cooking courses. At Boqueria, he has put together video tutorials on the home paella kits.
“We’re really looking forward to Chef George,” a Boqueria representative told Eater, adding, “We’re currently looking for a replacement.”
The veteran chef from Dupont Boqueria will step in in the meantime to support the Penn Quarter location, she adds.