Remember Matchbox on 14th Street? Its Mexican successor erases any memory of the pizza restaurant with a riot of color on the facade: pink, blue, red and purple radiating out from a commanding mahogany door with more holes than Swiss cheese.
The food equivalent of the busy but beautiful interior is a sampler platter called fiesta de botanas whose arrival prompts little gasps of surprise, initially for the sheer bounty. Up for grabs: shallot-strewn beef skewers cloaked in a fabulous mole, cigar-length flautas stuffed with shredded chicken and striped with tangy Mexican crema, nubby empanadas packed with crab and shrimp, avocado and habanero salsas for a fistful of airy chicharrones — to start. By the time a server finishes introducing the rest of the spread — pickled vegetables, cubed Mexican cheese, oranges speckled with tajin, the brassy Mexican chile seasoning — I’m tempted to cancel the rest of my order.
The feast, much of it designed to be eaten with your hands, is a prime example of the “happy food” conceived for Mi Vida by culinary director and co-owner Roberto Santibañez, the New York-based cookbook author and restaurateur behind Fonda in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
You can start smaller if you want. Among the holdovers from the original Mi Vida is a chunky guacamole embedded with blue cheese, juicy grapes and smoked almonds. Yep, it’s a circus, but I love the combination of salt, sweet and crunch you experience when a tortilla chip manages to catch all three atypical toppings. Unlike the Wharf, 14th Street is “more of a neighborhood,” says Santibañez. Hence the strapping appetizer platter but also lighter appetizers, including brochetas. A skewer of Chilean sea bass is especially appealing, the silken fish crisp from the grill and dappled with a teasing salsa macha made with pumpkin seeds and fruity guajillo and other peppers.
While bigger, the nearly 300-seat spinoff has a lot in common with the waterfront original. Both are loud and dim at night. Take away the food and the tables and Mi Vida could be a nightclub. Both restaurants serve good drinks. The tequila-based La Buena Vida, a nice balancing act involving Grand Marnier and orange, is one of a handful that can also be explored as part of a flight of four cocktails or by the pitcher.
“Our flavors are a little more bold,” says Santibañez, a native of Mexico City. “We’re not afraid of cooking the way we like to eat.” Poke around the ensalada picada — a fruit bowl of apple, mango, jicama and more — and you’ll detect some heat, from chipotle, in the tamarind dressing. Part of what makes the fried cod tacos so compelling is the zip of jalapeño in the tartar sauce and crisp slaw. Then there’s butterflied branzino, one side painted red, the other green, with sauces coaxed from guajillo mayonnaise and tomatillo and serrano, respectively. The fish is flanked with beans that get their warmth from epazote and jalapeño. Seasonings are deployed to shade dishes, not dominate them.
The saucing is noteworthy. Warm corn tortillas layered with braised duck, flavored like Christmas with clove and orange, come in a curtain of pureed red bell peppers, onions and a touch of habanero transformed into liquid velvet with cream. My visit in the middle of September coincided with Mexican Independence Day and a special of chiles en nogada — a grilled poblano swollen with short ribs, plantains and fruit and typically draped with ground-walnut sauce. Mi Vida swapped in a puree of goat cheese and ground almonds to elegant effect.
The day-to-day chef is Antonio Contreras, who spent almost eight years at area Rosa Mexicano restaurants and channels his native Puebla, Mexico, with his mole. The wonder starts by roasting ancho and mulato chiles, to which garlic, onions and chocolate are added, along with ground hazelnuts, plantains and tortillas that thicken the mole. The many ingredients are cooked in chicken stock until the chiles surrender all their flavor. Contreras says the aromas transport him back in time. “Is my mom around cooking here?” he says he asks himself in the kitchen. Back home, he says, the mole would be processed by hand. Mi Vida uses blenders, but the project still takes eight hours from start to finish.
Long story short, you want to sample the mole here.
The kitchen reaches out to vegetarians with very good mushroom-stuffed empanadas and tacos, but also an enchiladas rancheras that packs in roasted cauliflower, mushrooms and kale cooked with onion and jalapeño — a little garden smoothed out with crema and so good any carnivores might fight for the last bite.
I’m the type of diner who can be steered to something based solely on its accompaniments. Blushing slices of grilled skirt steak are good on their own, but the beef blossoms in the company of strips of roasted poblanos and a heady sauce gathering wild mushrooms, chipotle and hot cream. Mi Vida’s roast chicken is fine. The real prizes on the plate are the zingy pickled vegetables and charred corn mixed with lime juice, cotija and a mayonnaise made smoky with chile de arbol.
Desserts include the expected sugar-dusted churros and tres leches cake, both good versions. You’re apt to find yourself double-dipping the churros in the intense chocolate sauce, redolent of cinnamon, and appreciating the refreshing fruit salad, bright with lime juice and orange zest, atop the milk-soaked cake.
Not every dish turns heads or engages taste buds. An entree of cod is all but buried by an overly sharp tomato sauce, while the pork shank is memorable for being overcooked. The majority of the cooking, however, sweetens the news that the owners, including Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, founders of KNEAD Hospitality + Design, plan to open a third Mi Vida in the former Rosa Mexicano space in Penn Quarter. Look for the show in January.
Just as the design steers clear of Day of the Dead cliches, the cooking makes a distinctive splash. Once again, Mi Vida fulfills the promise of its name.
Mi Vida 14th Street
1901 14th St. NW. 202-597-5445. mividamexico.com. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; for dinner 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to midnight Friday, 3 to midnight Saturday, 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday; for brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $1.50 (for deviled egg) to $18, main courses $19 to $49 (for rib-eye). Sound check: 76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; elevator to upstairs; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocol: Staff are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.