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Chef’s Table: Tale of a taco

Tacos de CamarMercadi108 W. Kinzie. (Al Podgorski/Sun-Times)

Tacos de Camaron at Mercadito, 108 W. Kinzie. (Al Podgorski/Sun-Times)

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Updated: January 12, 2011 2:37AM

There are certain dishes that take me right back to my childhood whenever I smell or taste them.

One such dish is tacos de camaron, shrimp topped with roasted garlic, chipotle mojo and avocado and served on a warm, homemade corn tortilla. This taco is the evolution of a dish I ate as a child at my father’s restaurant in Acapulco, Mexico.

My brothers and I grew up in his restaurant, Madeiras, which is of course where our love of food and the restaurant business developed.

Every Sunday, my brother Alfredo and I would go to the restaurant — we were only 5 or 6 years old at the time — sit at a table, order our meal and eat like two adults. It was completely normal for two kids to be eating dinner alone at a fine dining restaurant.

And just about every Sunday, I would order this shrimp dish served over cilantro rice with a garlic mojo. It always was (and still is) my favorite dish. And it’s still the first thing I order every time I go home.

I tried for years to re-create the dish in other restaurants where I worked, but was never able to get it quite right. It wasn’t until I opened the original Mercadito in New York City that I was able to combine all the elements of my dad’s dish into a taco and bring a little bit of my past to my new home.

I didn’t want to replicate the dish, but rather capture its essence . And because Mercadito is taco-centric, I thought, what better way to do this than to put it in a taco and make it my own?

All the elements are there: the spicy, rich garlic mojo and the tender sauteed shrimp, but with a few new touches, such as creamy avocado slices on top.

This is such a simple, beautiful dish, but the layers of flavors are so complex and work together so harmoniously in your mouth, it creates the perfect little bite.

The different flavors, textures, smells and cooking styles I was exposed to when I was young constantly come back to me when I am cooking or creating new dishes. And nothing brings me back to my childhood more than this dish.

Patricio Sandoval is the executive chef of Mercadito, 108 W. Kinzie (with locations also in New York and Miami).

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