The owner of the Balkan-themed Ambar restaurants in the District and Arlington recently added Mexican and Maryland to his portfolio with two restaurants under one roof. Say hola to Tacos, Tortas & Tequila and Buena Vida in Silver Spring, the expansive turquoise facade of which signals good times from blocks away.
The former establishment, known as TTT, unfolds on the ground floor, which is set off with a marble-topped bar and a dining area ringed with a striped-fabric banquette. Buena Vida, a flight up, accepts reservations and features a style of eating — all you can eat for $35 — made popular at Ambar, the creation of Ivan Iricanin of Street Guys Hospitality.
Customers at first-come, first-served TTT check off their choices on a slender paper list that a waiter then delivers to the kitchen. The best of the street-food selections are the tacos, based on housemade tortillas using three kinds of corn flour. Braised beef tongue striped with tomatillo sauce and chopped onion, and fried skate topped with lemony cabbage make for memorable fillings. Tortas, or sandwiches, embrace a nice-enough Milanese that finds pounded fried chicken between a smear of black beans and buttery avocado slices. TTT’s rich milkshakes include La Malta Cabra, made decadent with goat’s milk caramel, white chocolate, a blast of banana malt and garnishes of sweet plantains around the rim: dessert in every slurp.
Patrons of the airy Buena Vida are welcomed with a trio of enticing salsas and chips that don’t always smack of having been fried that day, along with some of the raciest pickled vegetables for miles. Much of the rest of the meal makes you happy to be here, grazing on a ceviche of chopped tuna, watermelon and salsa macha, excited with sesame seeds, chiles, garlic, oil and vinegar — among the early bestsellers here — or corn-filled empanadas arranged on lush guacamole with pickled red onions and lashings of guajillo salsa. Iricanin says diners typically order between five and seven small plates. Early favorites among the tacos on the second floor are shredded duck made juicy with orange and tart with pickled cabbage, and housemade chorizo and Oaxaca cheese, best blasted with lime at the table.
Graham Bartlett, the former regional executive chef for New York-based restaurateur Richard Sandoval, whose dining empire includes El Centro D.F. and Masa 14 locally, says he spent a year working on recipes for the two ideas, which share a single long and narrow kitchen on the ground floor. Day-to-day cooking is handled by executive chef Terry Natas, who comes to the project from Graffiato in the District.
Heed your server’s advice at Buena Vida and say “si” to apple empanadas served with atequila gelato that doesn’t stint on the spirit. As one waiter joked, “It’s the only dish we ask for ID.”