Friday, November 14, 2008

Ghost of the Mercado

Hubby and I love to eat out, and Tourist Land is a gastronomic paradise full of a dizzying array of options. Many of them are located on I-Drive, but we hate traffic so we tend to stick to dining at Disney, on 192, Sand Lake Road or CityWalk. Granted, none of those locations totally avoids traffic nightmares, but they're much better than International Drive Hell. Not only is I-Drive wall to wall cars at peak times, but tourists pop out between the cars like targets in Whack-A-Mole. We only go to I-Drive restaurants when we have a specific reason and destination. Thus it was that we ended up there tonight, searching for an elusive dining spot called the Butcher Shop.

Friends of ours had a gift certificate that they couldn't use by the due date, so they gave it to us. Since we usually dine out over the weekend anyway, we figured we'd tear ourselves away from BJ's or Chevy's and give the Butcher Shop a try. Its address said that it was right on I-Drive, but I knew that was probably a misnomer. Sure enough a bit of internet sleuthing turned up the fact that it was in the Mercado shopping center.

I don't know I-Drive nearly as well as I know most other areas, but we'd been to the Mercado a year or so before to see the Titanic exhibit. At the time I think Titanic was the only place that was actually open, stuck among a maze of mouldering buildings in a shopping center turned ghost-town. The one thing that stands out for me is using the public restroom, which won my personal award for Top Five Filthiest Bathrooms I've Ever Peed In.

Titanic is long gone, but I figured that at least some of the buildings must still be there since that's where the resaurant was located. Even though we have OnStar, I figured I didn't need directions. I recalled that there were large "Mercado" signs and I knew its general location so we headed off blindly into I-Drive Hell, fully confident in our ability to find the Butcher Shop.

We wanted to sneak in the back way off Universal Boulevard, but I didn't see the shopping center nor any sign. Okay, I told myself, somehow we missed it. No problem. We circled around and came down I-Drive, squinting diligently in the darkness for the near-deserted location.

We made it all the way down to the convention center with no sign of the Mercado. I knew it had to be there somewhere because I'd made a reservation. We made two more passes and started watching the addresses. As we passed a vast, flat, open expanse of property encircled by a ramshackle fence, I commented to hubby, "Hmmmm, according to the address numbers that's where it should be."

We made a U-turn, and sure enough it appeared that the Butcher Shop should be in that very spot based on its street address. Indeed the whole Mercado should have been there, but apparently the whole tragically empty mall had been leveled. No wonder there were no signs. No wonder we had missed seeing it. It existed now only in our memories.

Okay, so where did that leave the Butcher Shop? We saw a bright, illuminated sign for the Sleuth's dinner show and various other establishments but nothing indicating that our steak house destination was actually still standing. Finally in the murky darkness I made out a banner draped on the fence. The Butcher Shop! We had to be close! I turned down a forlorn driveway that looked like it led into nothingness and followed it down to the last sad remains of the Mercado.

Apparently the Butcher Shop is last remaining part of that old complex, butting up against the fence and tucked into an area where it's nearly impossible to find. Even though the whole shopping center is now a wasteland, one old archway that proclaims "Mercado" still stands at the edge of the parking lot.

I was a bit conerned because there were only two other cars in the parking lot. Indeed, there were only two other parties in the whole restaurant...downright scary for a Friday night at 6:15 p.m. We glanced around apprehensively, but what the heck, we had a gift certificate. It just felt very odd to be a patron in an eatery where the staff outnumbered the customers 5 to 1.

We perused the menu, which was obviously heavy on steak. The prices were nearly at the level of Morton's or Ruth's Chris and we wondered if the cuisine would match the hefty price tag. We ordered a crab stuff portobello mushroom appetizer and split a filet mignon and an order of asparagus. Hubby got mushrooms as his own side dish, while I opted for a loaded baked potato.

They had a decent wine list so hubby tried a couple different varieties by the glass. I had my usual unsweetened iced tea. The service was prompt and our appetizer soon arrived. I must say, it was utterly delicious. They also served a loaf of fresh, hot bread...mmmmm.

Shortly thereafter our dinner showed up. When we ordered, they told us there would be a $7.00 charge for splitting an entree. At the time I agree but thought to myself, "Geez, that's a waste." I soon revised my opinion, as they had neatly divided everything up for us (the appetizer had been served pre-split too). They did such a good job that it actually seemed to be worth the seven bucks.

As I bit into my steak, I was prepared for disappointment. We tried Mortons last year, and for their prices I expected to be bowled over by the godliness of their filet in the way that Lawry's is far superior to any prime rib I've ever tasted. Nope. Morton's really wasn't much better than the Logan's right across from Celebration.

I chewed slowly, expected a repeat of my Mortons opinion. I was in for a pleasant surprise. The steak wasn't just was delicious! Excellent...flavorful, with a texture that melted like butter in my mouth. Even tho' they'd equipped us with knives that looked like they could have dropped a charging bear in its tracks, I could probably have eaten the steak with a spoon.

The other items were good too, but nothing special. The steak was the definite hit of the meal. I wished that the Butcher Shop was located in the Mortons spot on Sand Lake Road instead of its God and customer forsaken spot in the shadow of the long-gone Mercado. Sadly, not one other customer showed up in all the time we were there. It was just us and the two other parties, both of whom were totally obsessed with their cell phones. I can't imagine that the restaurant broke even that night, let alone turned any profit.

Even tho' we'd eaten heartily, the dessert menu was tempting so we ended up splitting a piece of Key Lime Pie. I didn't think anything would beat the steak, but it was a taste of Heaven on earth. It made me so sad to see such a good place suffering for business. I know it's partially the economy, but even people who might want to find them would be hard-pressed to ferret out their miserable location.

As we headed home down I-Drive, we passed Cafe Tu Tu Tango, a former favorite that never recovered in our eyes after being closed down by the health department. Once that hit the news we never went back; I imagine they corrected the problems, but when a place gets that taint in your mind it's hard to forget. I wonder if others felt the same way too as I noticed that their parking lot was literally empty. I called when we got home and there was no answer, so I suspect that they might have shut down.

I'm afraid that the Butcher Shop might follow suit, although they did have a sign in the window saying that they were moving to a new location in 2008. There's still a month and a half left for that to come true.

If they do, hopefully we'll return someday and hopefully it won't take many futile passes before we actually find them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is sad that the Mercado is gone, I remember as a child going there all the time with my parents. It was one of my mother's favorite spots to shop!! :) Amongst every other store of course!! :) I remember belly dancers in the open area in the middle of the Mercado--what a shame to here it is gone!! :(