The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Fall Dining Guide.
Having wooed us with his native Balkan food at Ambar restaurants, Ivan Iricanin turned his attention to Mexico, where he recruited a consultant in chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo, whose family runs Restaurante Nicos in Mexico City. Three dining experiences spread across 8,000 square feet: a breezy diner on the sidewalk level, a tropically inspired rooftop bar and, in the middle, the second-story Buena Vida, an expanse of tiles, basket lights and open kitchen.
Lush raw tuna and juicy pineapple share their bowl with an electric citrus sauce and nutty chia seeds. Lamb, braised until knives aren’t necessary, resonates with spicy, smoky and slightly sweet chiles. Proof that soup can be “dry” and delicious: sopa seca — vermicelli noodles cooked with roasted chiles, garlic and chicken stock. This restaurant sweats the small stuff. No need to put your purse or bag on the floor; treelike stands do the job.
2.5 stars (Good/Excellent)
Buena Vida: 2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-888-1259. buenavidaclarendon.com .
Open: Dinner and lunch daily, brunch weekends.
Price: Dinner mains $9-$15, sharing places $29-$35.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published May 31, 2019.
Living the good life, Mexican-style, at Buena Vida
When you buy into 8,000 square feet of space in the suburbs, it behooves a restaurateur to fill the void with more than one idea. And so it is that Ivan Iricanin came up with three Mexican menus on just as many floors for his latest project in Arlington: TTT Mexican Diner at street level, the more luxe Buena Vida a flight up and soon, Buena Vida Social Club, destined for the rooftop.
“Each has its own audience,” says Iricanin, who got a chance to test the idea a year ago when he opened just two notions under one roof in Silver Spring.
The entrepreneur’s big advantage in Northern Virginia, where his restaurant follows the behemoth La Tasca: chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo, who hails from Mexico City, where his family runs the esteemed Restaurante Nicos, which is where Iricanin came to love his food and coaxed the talent into consulting for him.
Meals in Buena Vida — an expanse of colorful tiles, handsome basket lights, light wood and open kitchen — are off to a rousing start with a basket of sturdy chips, lovely salsas and Mr. Fancy, a blend of mezcal, sweet vermouth and orange liquor that makes it easy to order another round.
Diners can expect to find some expected Mexican dishes — ceviche, birria — done exceedingly well. Lush, diced raw tuna and sweet and juicy pineapple share their bowl with an electric citrus sauce and nutty little chia seeds for texture. Lamb is braised to a point where knives aren’t necessary to eat the soft meat, swollen with the flavor of spicy, smoky and slightly sweet chiles, a concert interspersed with a garnish of sharp white onions.
But the kitchen, under the day-to-day care of chef Nikola Stefanovic, 33, offers little surprises, too, at least for those customers accustomed to, for instance, lime juice in their guacamole. Buena Vida doesn’t add any citrus, which is used primarily to extend the life of the mashed avocado, says Stefanovic, who has twice traveled to Mexico for research. Olive oil is used to give the dip its lushness.
Can soup be “dry” and delicious? Look for proof in a bowl of sopa seca, a dish served at the 62-year-old Nicos: fried vermicelli cooked with roasted chiles, garlic and chicken stock, the sum of which the noodles absorb to create a dish, finished with cotija and a fan of avocado, as easily eaten with a fork as a spoon.
The underperformer on the menu is the stolid, sous-vide turkey. More seasoning on the beans, too, por favor? Otherwise, the sides are swell, most of all the sticky-sweet plantains supporting the plump, pan-fried tiger shrimp. They’re the color of a sunset and teasing, with red chile oil.
Iricanin, whose Street Guys Hospitality group started with the popular, Balkan-themed Ambar restaurants, has thought through every moment of a diner’s time with Buena Vida. Treelike metal stands are brought to anyone who might have wraps or bags they’d rather not sit with or place on the floor. What look like colorful pot holders do their best to keep an order of tortillas warm. Even the napkins feel better than standard. In coming weeks, diners might see carts for making Caesar salads tableside. “Hey, brother,” a server greeted me one night, and the salutation felt just right.
When the rooftop component opens this month, patrons can ascend for empanadas, tostadas, burritos and make-your-own tacos, a script served with a bird’s-eye view of Arlington.
On the way down and out from Buena Vida most recently, I spotted a crowd at TTT, set off with roll-up garage doors, spilling out onto the sidewalk patio. Iricanin is onto something good with his three-ingredient recipe.