Viva Mercado’s is the culmination of the life work of Robert Mercado where we proudly serve a large variety of traditional Mexican dishes with a homemade taste. Our restaurant is a lively family-and-friends restaurant for all occasions. We have many long-time fans who have been visiting with us for years. And we’ve met a lot of new friends since our move to Summerlin. Come and see us for lunch, dinner, happy hour, fiestas or just to have a drink at our bar after a movie night out.
Meet Robert Mercado
Bobby Mercado knows the value of friendship. Mercado’s parents divorced when he was young, and even though he grew up with a traditional family structure, he said that same family wasn’t always there for him later in life. While he prefers to keep some specifics of his past private, this much he would reveal: At an early age he gave up his dreams of college to support his siblings, and when he moved to Las Vegas, he had $5 in his pocket. But never one to dwell on the past, Mercado turned that $5 into one of Southern Nevada’s premier Mexican food restaurants, Viva Mercado’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina, and he is raising a large, healthy family of his own. But Mercado said none of it would have happened were it not for the friends he’s made during his time here. “I had a lot of help,” he said.
The original restaurant, tucked into a shopping center at the intersection of Flamingo Road and Jones Boulevard, was named one of Chile Pepper magazine’s “30 Best Zesty Restaurants in the Country,” as well as earning a five-star rating from the International Restaurant and Hospitality Bureau since 2003, Excellent Ratings by Zagat, AAA and Mobile Travel Guide, and has been receiving awards steadily every year. The original restaurant was relatively small, with 12 booths and eight tables illuminated by low-hanging soft-light lamps. A bar area provides six stools to enjoy a beer or play video poker, with five additional stools opposite those if space is limited. Green was the dominant color throughout, as evidenced by the tables, carpeting, trees and plants. Other local color was provided by hanging pinatas and wall-mounted ceramic masks and metallic suns. Sombreros helped to heighten the atmosphere. This theme is even more evident at the new location. Two photos of recent “Employee of the Month” winners hang by the entrance, as well as several youth soccer and Little League teams Mercado sponsors. While Mercado has been successful as a businessman, he said his ultimate goal is to pay back the respect and kindness he was afforded when he had nothing. “I want to be part of the community,” he said. “It’s my way of saying, ‘Thank you’ for everything that I’m being blessed with. The restaurant is affording me a nice lifestyle and things I didn’t have when I was a kid. I wanted kids to have nice things early on. Responsibility comes quickly enough.”
Born in 1956 in Mexico City, Mercado was raised primarily by his mother, Olga, and his stepfather, Absalon. At five years old, when his family moved to the United States, Mercado’s most vivid memories are of meals, specifically those created by his mother and his grandmother, Victoria. “I remember my father’s house, family, food, festive gatherings,” Mercado said. Mercado also learned the importance of sauces in the preparation of Mexican food. “My grandmother made eggs with chile chipotle, which is a vine-ripened jalapeno that turns red and a little bit sweet,” he said. “To turn it into chipotle, it’s dried, smoked and cook in an adobo sauce with spices and garlic.” Victoria, who lived in Mexico City her whole life and died in the 1970s, passed down to Mercado her knowledge of moles, or sauces served with different foods. While moles are made with ingredients ranging from sesame seeds, onions, garlic, chiles and the like, mole poblano has Mexican chocolate, which adds richness to the sauce. “We love sauces, and that’s important in our cooking,” Mercado said. “Anyone can broil a piece of meat, but the sauce is what gives it its flavor.”
Mercado and his family moved to Chicago in 1961. His biological father, Roberto Cantoral, still lives in Mexico City and is president of the Composers and Musicians Guild of Latin America. He also composes music and writes soap operas, and Mercado’s half-sister, Itati, stars in a soap opera in Brazil. “I have no relationship with any family in Mexico,” he said. “We just lost all contact.” Mercado’s upbringing in Chicago consisted mostly of going to school and working the odd part-time job, but he continued his food education. “When my mother wanted to cook, she’d give me a list, and I’d bring everything back and watch her cook,” Mercado said. “I learned how to mess around with different recipes by watching her.”
In 1971 Mercado’s stepfather got a job as manager of La Margarita, a 400-seat Mexican restaurant in Morton Grove, a suburb of Chicago. At the time Mercado was a freshman at Notre Dame High School in Niles, another suburb of Chicago, with dreams of going to college and into the Air Force. In his junior year, those plans were put on hold. In the summer of 1972, the INS came and took the restaurant’s dishwashers away,” Mercado remembers. “My dad called me and said, ‘Get on your bike and get over here.’ I rode about six miles, and when I got there the chef showed me how to work the conveyor belt for the dishwasher.” So began Mercado’s immersion into the world of restaurants. He remained on board for the remainder of the summer, and in the fall he went to school and worked evenings, working his way up from dishwasher to prep cook to assistant cook to head cook to busboy to waiter. “The whole enchilada,” Mercado said jokingly.
In December of 1974, Mercado was joined by his stepfather and his brothers Eddy and Jimmy for a move to Vegas. There was a dire family emergency involving my mother, and we had to get over here,” Mercado said, preferring to leave the specifics unsaid. So quickly planned was the trip that Mercado’s father didn’t even have a job lined up. Mercado was forced to assume the role of caregiver. I had four brothers and three sisters, all younger than me,” he said. “So college was no longer part of the plan. If I could have gone to college, I would.”
Mercado quickly went back to what he knew best, getting a job at Viva Zapata’s restaurant as a waiter. “The restaurant business was already in my blood, and when you’re a busboy or waiter, you have money every day,” he said. Because Mercado was barely 19 at the time, he had to be paired with a busboy of legal age. “I’d bring the drink orders to the bar, drop them off, and another busboy would pick it up and deliver the drink,” he remembers. By the time Mercado was 21, he was already in charge of the busboys. “In one year, I was in charge of the whole floor,” he said. When owner Greg Ramirez opened another Viva Zapata’s, Mercado was left in charge of the original. He asked me to come work for the new restaurant, but he couldn’t pay me what I made in tips. I was very popular,” he said, knocking on the table.
In 1978 Mercado agreed to work at the second restaurant. “There were big problems there, and they needed my help, but it put a big hurt on me, because I lost a lot of clientele,” he said. “But I felt I owed it to Greg, because he was a good friend to me. His wife Marilyn took me shopping and helped me pick out clothes. She was always kind to me.” It took nearly a year, but Mercado eventually built up a loyal clientele at the second Viva Zapata’s, and he also proved his worth as a menu contributor. “I introduced pico de gallo to Las Vegas,” he claims, referring to the spicy, raw salsa composed of fine-chopped cilantro, onions, jalapenos, tomatoes and lime juice. “When I moved here, restaurants here were tacos and burritos.” In 1985 Mercado was given the responsibility of Manager Head Waiter. I started developing new menus and started a catering service,” he said. “When I started, we had 10 to 15 items on our menu. When I was done, we had 50.”
In addition to what he learned from his family, Mercado got his hands on every book he could find to supplement his food knowledge. “I just think I always had a knack for it,” he said. “I love the creative side of this business. I have a tough time with customers’ names, but I always know what their favorite dish is.” By the time he was promoted to Manager, Mercado had a clear vision of his future: the owner was going to retire, and he would take over the establishment completely. In 1989 that plan fell completely apart. “They padlocked the place, just completely closed it up,” Mercado said. “It devastated me. I had nurtured that place, and I was in shock.”
Lean On Me
With no job to go to and no family to turn to for help (his stepfather died in 1982), Mercado turned to his friends. It turns out he had some particularly influential ones. “(Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada boss) Larry Ruvo had become a friend of mine through the restaurant,” Mercado said. “He found out about my situation and secured me interviews with all the restaurants in the city.” But there was a slight snag: No restaurants were hiring management without a college degree. I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “So Larry said, ‘Why don’t you come work for me as a liquor salesman?'” Mercado jumped at the opportunity, and for a while took care of Ruvo’s ethnic accounts — Mexican, Chinese and Japanese. “One day as I’m traveling, I bump into one of my old customers, and he asks, ‘Why don’t you open your own restaurant?’ He couldn’t find a restaurant that offered what I served. I honestly had not thought about it up to that point.” The only obstacle to opening his own restaurant was financial, and another of his friends helped with that. Ken Fleming, another of Mercado’s former customers, “helped me put together a business plan and helped me get a group of investors together.” Mercado picked out a property on West Flamingo Road and was ready to proceed, but it fell through. “Desert Storm happened, and most of the investors pulled out,” Mercado remembers. “The only investor who hung in was a little old lady who did not want to be named, and she told me to look for something smaller.” So instead of the first property — which was eventually purchased by the Ferraro family and is now Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant — Mercado opened in a shopping center located further west on Flamingo. While the space was initially small (about 1,800 square feet) Mercado had no trouble filling it. During his absence from the restaurant industry, his reputation had survived — and then some.
We opened in March of 1991, and had only 14 tables,” he said. “By the end of the first day, on word of mouth alone, we served more than 200 people.” Viva Mercado offers traditional favorites such as enchiladas, tamales and tostadas, but Mercado has made sure to include specialty dishes such as tacos de pescado, tostados Acapulco style and chicharrones (pork chunks simmered in salsa costena with whole pinto beans and topped with onion and cilantro). By the end of the first year Mercado had made enough money to expand into the next space. He attempted a second restaurant in 1996 in Green Valley, but by 1999 had to close. “Too many things were not going our way,” he said. Now at the new location on Rainbow and Spring Mountain, the future has never looked brighter.
While Mercado doesn’t keep in touch with his Mexico family, he maintains contact with his mother — now a Methodist minister in Atlanta — and all his siblings live in Las Vegas, although none of them are in the restaurant business. “I’m the only glutton for punishment,” he said, laughing. Despite his long hours committed to the restaurant, Mercado has managed to raise a large family of his own with his wife, Amy, whom he married in 1996. His children are Eddy, Alysa, Jared, and Aryn. A son from an earlier marriage, Christopher, lives in New York, and presented Mercado with a grandchild recently. Mercado wants all his children to get a college education, but added he wouldn’t stand in their way if they wanted to become involved in his line of work. “Eddy is dying to get started in the restaurant business,” Mercado said. “In fact, he’s already created his own dish. He took a quesadilla and rolled it, and then said to me, ‘You have to put it on the menu.’ “