Where and what to eat at the wondrous Mercado González in Costa Mesa

A thousand stimuli charge your senses when you walk into the Mercado González in Costa Mesa.

Dragon fruit, colored in lucid pinks and greens, piled in a wooden bin among dozens of other fruits and vegetables displayed with a gallerist’s fastidious eye. The sunshine smell of masa, maybe mingling with the piercing scent of carnitas bubbling slowly in lard. Voices ringing like applause through 70,000 square feet — or maybe that’s actual clapping for the mariachi trio playing onstage in the food court. Your brain registers colorful signs for aguas frescas, mariscos and chicharrones, but you start by reaching for a pile of packaged tortillas near the entrance. They’re still warm.

Customers shop at Mercado González, which is both a grocery and food hall. A thousand stimuli charge the senses as soon as you enter, our critic writes.

(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Don Miguel and Doña Teresa González founded the Northgate Market chain in Anaheim in 1980; the company currently operates more than 40 locations throughout Southern California. The opening of Mercado González in November marks a new level of ambition for Northgate, now led by generations of family members: The enormous space seamlessly entwines a Mexican supermarket with a food hall anchored by over a dozen puestos (permanent stalls) and a finer-dining restaurant called Maizano.

Its scale at first overwhelms and exhilarates, but the mercado has quickly settled into useful everydayness. Customers stroll unhurriedly at all hours, chucking (among an approximate zillion choices) bunches of cilantro, dried chiles, coffee creamer and containers of pre-seasoned steak into their carts. A few loners meander with tacos or tortas in hand. Many more couples and families attempt to camp out at tables in the muraled food court or its adjoining, shaded patio. Vying for seats becomes cutthroat on weekends, when the place is mobbed and parking is a nightmare — the valet stand starts feeling like a practical option after circling for the fifth time — but the live music inside helps dispel the initial hassle.

Half a year in, the crowds show no signs of thinning.

As I’ve returned again and again over recent months, one stomach attempting to survey the puestos’ hundreds of culinary possibilities, it’s been stirring to witness the near-instant civic buy-in around the mercado. The curation reflects decades of business savvy, no question, but no amount of marketing or messaging could inspire the multigeneration scene on Saturday night, a parade of souls dancing, patrons downing a third shot of tequila or singling out the most unblemished head of lettuce under one roof. The community, it seems, has quickly chosen this place, giving it lifeblood as a vital third space.

These are 10 favorite ways to savor the mercado. It’s only a beginning, and I didn’t ignore the tamales, the spatchcocked pollo adobado and the paleta de fresa con crema. Those I took home (or ate in the car before they melted). Here I zero in on dishes I most enjoy eating within the mercado’s ever-resounding walls.

An outdoor photo of people walking around a parking lot in front of Mercado González Northgate Market.

Shoppers walk in the jammed parking lot of Mercado González. The valet stand starts feeling like a practical option after circling for the fifth time

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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