Review: Viva Mexico! Cantina & Grill

Head Downcity for south of the border goodness
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 13, 2013

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GIVE 'EM A SHOT Viva libations!

Viva Mexico! indeed. Both the salutation and the “Cantina & Grill” of that name, however self-congratulatory the exclamation point.

Why not boast if you manage to do things right? Tricky business, establishing a successful Mexican restaurant that stays muy autentico and at the same time doesn’t scare away wussies whose culinary appreciations haven’t yet ranged past tacos and tamales.

That accounted for the staying power of Mexico Garibaldi on Federal Hill, Viva’s still successful progenitor, which started out as a food truck in the ’80s. Pepe Garibaldi and his family made sure that people didn’t mistake the place for an Italian restaurant, despite their last name, offering cows’ feet tostadas as well as beef burritos.

The Washington Street location has been here for a couple of years and is as slick and colorful as a mariachi band, with a mural spelling Mexico on one red wall and spindle-back chairs bluer than the Acapulco sky. A Day of the Dead altar with fruit and photographs was prominent on our visit.

Come before 11 am and any unadventurous companion who wants an American breakfast can have bacon and eggs (or linguica or Italian sausage and eggs — this is Rhode Island, after all) instead of huevos rancheros. Come before 3 pm, and you’re in for some nice bargains, since the quantity of at least some of the offerings are as plentiful at lunch as at dinner, when the prices go up — for example, two chicken or pork enchiladas for $8 rather than $15, and a chile relleno for $10 rather than $12.

Speaking of bargains, any place with $7 margaritas has my love and appreciation (my almond-flavored Sombrero de Orzo made me smile, smile, smile). There are eight beers on draft (but Modelo Especial is featured with the usual Negra Modelo, four versions of mojitos and three of piña coladas, and not much in the way of wines (J. Lohr Chardonnay and Trivento Reserve malbeck).

While we cruised the menu, we noshed on a basket of corn chips, big enough for four to share. There are five variations of accompaniments, and we chose the spicy hot guacamole ($5 at lunch, $7.50 at dinner), served with two dipping sauces: pretty hot and way hotter. Johnnie hankered for a horchata ($3), the traditional beverage of sweetened ground rice and milk, and she liked that it was smooth rather than a grainy version. There are many other choices of drinks, including tamarindo and licuados (smoothies).

Eventually, she dove into a big, fat chile relleno ($10/$12), which was drowning in a mild red sauce and packed with chicken. No complaints there. Our dining companion chose the carne a la tampiqueña ($15). The large, thin sandwich steak was tasty and not tough, served with a mole sauce-covered chicken enchilada, the expected refried beans and rice and unexpected guacamole.

Some traditional Mexican dishes that were once exotic are now commonplace — does Taco Bell have goat meat yet? But I was pleased to be able to have lengua guizada ($10/$13). The sautéed beef tongue was fork-tender and delicious, served under onions and that loose tomato sauce and with the above sides. The lettuce and tomato slices on both plates was nicely vinegared rather than left plain, which I appreciated.

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