By John McNeilly
The first thing you notice walking through the towering front doors of Cocina on Market is a blast of vibrant colors. The newest dining establishment in downtown Leesburg explodes with bright pastels, splashed with intricately detailed tiles and artwork. It’s like stepping into the middle of a festive market in Mexico.
But this is no mere taqueria or burrito joint.
Cocina on Market is Chef Jason Lage’s and Rebecca Dudley’s third restaurant in Loudoun, an encore to their restaurants Market Table Bistro in Lovettsville and Market Burger in Purcellville. This newest incarnation of Lage’s ambitious culinary vision focuses on authentic Mexican cuisine. It’s a notable departure from their other restaurants, which emphasize Lage’s well-established talent for American- and French-inspired cooking.
Guests entering from Market Street flow into the restaurant’s tequila bar, an open room with high ceilings, large windows and walls adorned with original art commissioned by Lage and his team. Patrons can relax, order one of many tequila- or mezcal-based cocktails, house-made juices and horchata or a favorite beer while sampling a variety of starters, including street tacos, tortas and quesadillas. Or, patrons can request a table in the restaurant’s two equally colorful, well-appointed dining areas.
The restaurant, at 7 W. Market Street, is housed in an historic building built in 1871. It was home to a series of banks, most recently BB&T Bank before closing two years ago. While honoring the building’s distinctive architecture, Lage and his team also spent months exploring concepts to make the space, décor and vibe uniquely their own.
Traditional Mexican food is no passing fancy for Lage.
He and Dudley have travelled Mexico extensively. And not the resorts, either. They’ve focused on remote towns and villages tourists rarely visit.
“We’ve eaten our way across most of Mexico,” Lage said.
Over the years, Lage devoured books by the American masters of Mexican cuisine, Dianne Kennedy and Rick Bayless. His passion for and knowledge about the cuisine means Lage’s vision for his menu is clear as a shot of tequila.
“Not only do I love making and eating this food, I’m interested in educating people about the diversity of Mexican cooking, which is as old as civilization itself,” he said. Lage especially wants to help overcome common misconceptions about the cuisine, particularly that it’s all smoldering hot.
“Spicy food is actually the antithesis of most Mexican cooking,” Lage said. “It’s much more complex and nuanced than people realize.”
He and his team focus on three Mexican states for their inspiration: Oaxaca, the homeland for complex moles; Puebla, which was influenced by French colonials, including “some of the best bread and sandwiches you’ll ever eat, something people don’t associate as Mexican;” and the coastal state of Veracruz, where the Gulf of Mexico provides an abundance of briny riches for its seafood-driven, African-influenced cuisine, introduced to the New World by enslaved Africans.
Lage’s starters include fried pork skin, chicharrones, crisp but light and perfectly seasoned with lime and chili; freshly made guacamole; ceviches that highlight fresh-from-the-sea scallops, shrimp, tuna, squid and other catches of the day, which taste bright and clean with a balanced application of citrus and heat.
The restaurant’s “from the street” menu offers quick, tasty finger foods, easily popped into the mouth in a single bite (or two). Lage spent months finding local corn that could provide the base for his handmade tortillas for a variety of traditional street tacos, including beef tongue, fish and mushroom, as well as quesadillas.
“Cocina on Market’s menu is driven by the seasonality of local fruits and vegetables,” he said. “And just like Market Table Bistro, our menu will never be static. It will evolve and adapt to whatever the freshest ingredients of the day provide us. This, by the way, is the same mindset behind all of Mexican cuisine, too.”
Main dishes include a crispy whole fish, whatever is fresh from the sea, Asado chicken and a variety of pork dishes and moles.
Although the restaurant has a finished roof-top area, Lage and Dudley are not yet sure how they’ll use it. They’re considering perhaps a private club, or hosting special events, such as offering a whole roasted pig or other similar dining concepts. “Our ideas are still evolving, but we definitely want to try to make it open to the public a couple of times a week. It’s an amazing space, with great views of downtown and beyond,” he said.
Being a new restaurant, Lage and his team are focused intently on the food and service.
“It takes a while for a staff, both the severs and kitchen crew, to get their legs under them. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of practice and learning from mistakes,” he said earlier this week. “But after a solid week of service, we’ve already made great progress as a team.”
Leesburg: Dining Destination
The arrival of Cocina on Market is only the latest in a slew of new establishments setting up shop and drawing crowds to downtown Leesburg. Delirium Café, Black Hoof Brewing Company and Captain Catoctin’s Crab House & Concoctions, have all opened their doors in the past two months.
The activity thrills Marantha Edwards, Leesburg’s economic development officer. She’s been working on bringing new businesses to town for more than 17 years, and she’s slated to retire in January. Edwards is particularly excited about Lage and Dudley landing downtown.
“I’ve been trying to get Jason to come to Leesburg for years,” laughs Edwards. She met him in Lovettsville while taking a cooking class at Market Table Bistro and was immediately impressed by his intensity and passion for cooking. “After he opened Market Burger in Purcellville, I told him, ‘Come on, Jason, we’re ready for you in Leesburg, too.’”
Edwards said the slate of new eateries demonstrate Leesburg’s established viability for future business growth. She said Leesburg’s Tally Ho Theatre and the restaurants at Market Station, particularly Tuscarora Mill, have been important catalysts for the town’s growth, especially the dining scene.
“We do independent restaurants really well,” Edwards said. “And good restaurants bring visitors and attract millennials and boomers and residents as well. It’s an exciting time.”
Find Cocina on Market at 7 West Market Street in Leesburg. Contact them at 571-707-8593 or cocinaonmarket.com.