Warmly decorated with white Christmas lights and festive star-shaped lanterns, the colorful exterior and interior of Viva Taqueria and Cantina defies the dark, bitter cold of Ithaca’s winters. As soon as you walk past the neon Dos Equis bar light, your eyes, overwhelmed by the restaurant’s playful theme, will bounce from wall to wall. The taqueria is covered in as many mosaic tiles as a beach is with pebbles. But if you manage to look up from the floor, you will find a familiar face staring back from one of many sun-shaped mirrors. Immediately above your head are four blue feet protruding from the ceiling, and your wonder will only intensify when your eyes eventually land on a massive blue hippopotamus head guarding the archway to the taqueria.
From here, your eyes might trail down towards the “Self Service / Full Service” sign located beneath the archway dividing the restaurant. I was delighted to learn that customers have the opportunity to grab a quick bite to go or eat at the bar-style seating of the self-service section. I find this especially convenient, being a busy college student who has little time to break up the routine of dining hall dinners. As is typical of many fast food restaurants, behind the counter are a number of drink machines, offering brightly colored juices that will tempt anyone with a sweet tooth. Written on a chalkboard are the items available to go, most of which are carried over from the restaurant’s full menu.
In the main dining room, you will find chubby-cheeked angels and horned-devil masks mounted on the wall over each booth and staring across the dining room towards the many ceramic suns and moons that decorate the cloud-covered walls and ceiling. In front of the bar is a vibrant mosaic of an orange bird with wings extended and legs outstretched. From fajitas to carnitas to burritos, the menu here consists of a humble amount of items that are simple and fairly well done. If you happen to need any allergen information or cannot remember what is in a certain sauce or topping, all of it is clearly laid out in a green box at the bottom of the menu.
Once we were seated, my friend Ben Wootton ’22 and I observed that each table had two El Yucateco hot sauce bottles (chile chipotle and green chile habanero), an appreciated alternative to Frank’s RedHot or Tabasco. I found myself craving a hardy and homely meal to lose the chills, so I decided to order their chicken mole enchiladas ($11.99), while Wootton, opting for a lighter dish, ordered a taco salad with chicken ($9.99). Both of us splurged as well, ordering a Jarritos soda ($3) each.
Although our orders came out surprisingly fast — in under ten minutes — we were disappointed to find that they were not piping hot, which made me wonder just how fresh they were. Regardless, the plating was quite pretty — the enchiladas were generously coated with a rich and creamy mole sauce and jazzed up with a drizzle of sour cream; the dish reminded me of a bougie latte you might order at Temple of Zeus.
The soft corn tortillas held together well, even under the healthy layer of sauce, which made up for the chicken’s dryness, though it was well-seasoned. The plate came with three light and simple sides: Spanish rice, black beans and pickled vegetables. These nicely complemented the rich entrée by adding the necessary crunch, acidity and volume that I personally enjoy when eating anything savory. Therefore, my hat is off to Viva for creating the ideal portion size; instead of feeling bogged down and bloated after the meal, I left feeling perfectly satisfied.
The taco salad Wootton ordered, which was also well-portioned, has the option of coming with either a lime vinaigrette or a salsa buttermilk dressing. He ordered both on the side; the vinaigrette was light, tart and refreshing — more appropriate for a summer day — while the salsa buttermilk tasted like tangy ranch dressing. The homemade flour tortilla chips wrapped around the side of the dish were hot and crunchy, a perfect contrast to the cool, fresh salad — no wilted lettuce here.
All things considered, I wouldn’t say I was exactly “wow-ed” by the food at Viva. Rather, I’d say it was perfectly mediocre in that it offered what I expected from any cantina with a particularly American spin — by looking at the menu, you can observe the heavy use of cheese and cream, as opposed to the freshness provided by a sprinkling of cilantro, a squeeze of lime juice and the bite of chopped yellow onion that is typical of traditional Mexican cuisine. In fact, Viva markets itself as “a California-style taqueria” on its website. There are, however, two big pluses of Viva Taqueria and Cantina: the efficiency of its kitchen and its comprehensive drinks menu. With three full pages of drinks, highlighted Happy Hours (4 – 6 p.m., Monday through Friday) and just about every kind of margarita under the sun, Viva might bolster a slightly more impressive bar than kitchen.
The last comment I want to make on Viva is a compliment to the staff. Everyone working there was genuinely kind, and even when I clumsily spilled a sip’s worth of my pineapple Jarritos, they offered to replace the entire bottle. Great customer service!
Serves: classic, Americanized Mexican fare
Vibe: festive and warm