Restaurant Review: Buena Vida
Restaurateur Ivan Iricanin takes Mexican to the next level—make that three stories.
Buena Vida touts its house-made corn tortillas as a specialty. Unfortunately, the ones I encounter in the mushroom quesadillas are dry and rubbery. Instead I scarf down a heavenly “dry soup” of toasted vermicelli noodles, simmered in chicken stock with three kinds of dried peppers, epazote (an aromatic herb) and tomatoes, then topped with salty cotija cheese, avocado and olive oil.
Moving to the entrées, I fall hard for the roasted ancho chili stuffed with picadillo (ground beef, onions, almonds, raisins and tomatoes) and slathered in black bean sauce and crema. It’s a tour de force of texture and complex flavors. Braised rabbit in a dark, lush clove-and-cumin spiked pasilla pepper sauce—and served with a delicate spinach tamale—also earns my seal of approval.
A seared, then roasted salmon fillet gets upgraded to first class by its tangy tamarind-pumpkin-seed sauce (clemole) and a summer’s bounty medley of fava beans, cherry tomatoes and pattypan squash.
The lamb ribs—slow-cooked to tenderness in red wine with pasilla peppers—are fine, but there’s no flavor pop. The chickpea stew they rest upon is downright bland.
I visited TTT one day to try some tacos (you won’t find those on the Buena Vida menu). They come three to an order and you can mix and match, choosing among 14 options such as carne asada, pork al pastor, grilled fish and mushroom. It should be noted that here, the tortillas, which are doubled up on each taco, were tender and flavorful. I particularly enjoyed the generously portioned steak and cheese taco with pico de gallo and morita pepper sauce.
If you’re up for dessert at Buena Vida, take a pass on the bunuelos—cold, unpleasant balls of fried dough stuffed with vanilla ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce. A superior option is the Mexican chocolate ganache tart with an amaranth flour crust and dollops of caramel.
Even better yet is the mango-chili soft-serve ice cream from TTT downstairs. But sadly you cannot order items from one Esquina concept while dining in another—the three kitchens are separate.
To live your best life at Buena Vida, skip dessert entirely and head up to the rooftop after dinner. The view and the vibe alone are worth it. Have a peach spritzer and a mango mojito and pat yourself on the back for ending your meal with fruit.
What To Drink
Margaritas, of course, such as a “modern” one topped with tequila lime foam. The bar also mixes a good selection of signature cocktails, mostly tequila or mezcal-based, such as a riff on an old-fashioned called Mr. Fancy, made with mezcal reposado, sweet vermouth, orange liqueur and a maraschino cherry.
The wine list features 16 Mexican bottles ($28 to $140), most of which are also available by the glass ($9 to $14).
Check out the list of 48 tequilas ($11 to $37 a pour) and 14 mezcals ($12 to $40).
Buena Vida Clarendon
2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
Sunday-Thursday: 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 5 to 11:30 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Street parking exists, but good luck with that. There’s a Colonial parking garage across the street at 1303 N. Fillmore St.
Appetizers: $9 to $16
Entrées: $21 to $33
Desserts: $6 to $9