By Jacquie Simone
As the leaves fall and temperatures plunge, beckoning yet another blustery upstate New York winter, I often find myself wishing for a trip south of the border. Fortunately, Ithaca is home to Viva, a taqueria and cantina offering colorful, fresh Mexican food.
Stepping into Viva, you’ll see the complete opposite of the drab late-autumn landscape. One half of the restaurant is the Taqueria, where customers order at a counter and can eat there or take their meals away to munch on during a stroll through the nearby Commons. The Cantina, or full-service restaurant portion of Viva, looks like it was decorated by Frida Kahlo. The vibrant walls are adorned with masks, some adorable and some downright scary. One wall is dominated by a bar offering a myriad of libations such as specialty margaritas, sangria, beers and of course tequila.
The cuisine is as stimulating as the décor. I’ve never had the pleasure of actually visiting Mexico, so I cannot attest to the authenticity of the food. The menu is familiar enough, with an assortment of tacos, burritos, nachos and quesadillas. There are options for omnivores, vegetarians and vegans, since Viva offers meat, tofu or a mixture of veggies called calabacitas. Most dinners are around $8—definitely reasonable considering the options and generous portion sizes, but it would be nice if this price included chips and salsa or some other snack to munch on while you wait.
The waitstaff is incredibly friendly and lively. Although they might not necessarily be Mexican, they are mostly experts on the menu. My waiter did not miss a beat when I asked for a recommendation—he promptly suggested the ranchero sauce instead of the tomatillo for my particular burrito. Considering that we arrived later at night and had a medium-sized group, the service was surprisingly fast. Viva prepares all its food fresh daily, proving that quality does not have to be sacrificed for speed.
Once they arrive, the meals are as beautiful as the restaurant itself. I ordered a smothered burrito with tofu, beans, rice, cheese and veggies. The burrito was stuffed and oozing with delicious fillings, and it had extra beans and ranchero sauce on top—definitely a fork-and-knife affair, since using your hands could be disastrous. The messy burrito was not too spicy, but packed with flavors. The dish came with a type of zesty cole slaw and some mouth-watering pickled vegetables. The crispiness of the veggies offered a wonderful contrast to the soft, gooey burrito.
My friends all loved their meals, too, which they were actually able to eat with their hands. They had various burritos and quesadillas and unanimously enjoyed them. The portions were so large that they were able to take some home to enjoy later. As for me, I just can’t stop devouring good food until my plate is clean. And when it’s as delicious as Viva, I make no apologies for my gluttony.
Viva is located at 101 North Aurora Street on the Commons.