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The food equivalent of the busy but gorgeous interior is a sampling platter called a fiesta de botanas whose arrival elicits small gasps of surprise, first for the bounty. Up for grabs: shallot-studded beef skewers topped with a fabulous mole, cigar-length flautas stuffed with shredded chicken and streaked with tangy Mexican cream, nubby empanadas filled with crab and shrimp, salsas of avocado and habanero for a handful of airy chicharrones – to start. By the time a server finishes introducing the rest of the spread—pickled vegetables, cubed Mexican cheese, tajin-flecked oranges, the coppery Mexican chili seasoning—I’m tempted to cancel the rest of my order.
The feast, largely designed to be eaten with hands, is a prime example of the “happy food” devised 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.
Recipe: Seafood Guacamole from Roberto Santibañez
You can start smaller if you wish. Among the leftovers of the original Mi Vida is a chunky guacamole encrusted with blue cheese, juicy grapes and smoked almonds. Yes, it’s a circus, but I love the combination of salt, sweet, and crunch you feel when a tortilla chip manages to nab all three atypical toppings. Unlike the Wharf, 14th Street is “more of a neighborhood,” says Santibañez. Hence the plate of hearty appetizers but also lighter appetizers, including skewers. A skewer of Chilean sea bass is particularly appealing, the fish silky crisp from the grill and speckled with a teasing macha salsa made with pumpkin seeds and fruity guajillo and other peppers.
Although larger, the nearly 300-seat spin-off has a lot in common with the waterfront original. Both are loud and dark at night. Pack the food and the tables and Mi Vida could be a night club. Both restaurants serve good drinks. The tequila-based Buena Vida, a nice balance of Grand Marnier and orange, is one of the few that can also be explored as part of a four-cocktail flight or by the pitcher.
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“Our flavors are a little bolder,” says Santibañez, originally from Mexico City. “We are not afraid to cook the way we like to eat.” Poke around the ensalada picada — a bowl of fruit made with apple, mango, jicama and more — and you’ll detect a little chipotle heat in the tamarind dressing. Part of what makes fried cod tacos so compelling is the jalapeño tang in the tartar sauce and crispy coleslaw. Then there’s the butterfly branzino, one side painted red, the other green, with coaxing sauces of guajillo and tomatillo and serrano mayonnaise, respectively. The fish is flanked by beans that get their heat from epazote and jalapeño. Seasonings are deployed to nuance the dishes, not to overpower them.
The sauce is outstanding. Warm corn tortillas layered with braised duck, flavored like Christmas with cloves and orange, come in a curtain of mashed red peppers, onions and a touch of habanero turned into liquid velvet at the cream. My visit in mid-September coincided with Mexican Independence Day and a specialty of chiles en nogada – a grilled poblano billowing with short ribs, plantains and fruit and usually draped in ground walnut sauce. Mi Vida swapped in a puree of goat cheese and ground almonds for an elegant effect.
Chiles en nogada is a Mexican classic that celebrates the past and the present
The daily chef is Antonio Contreras, who has spent nearly eight years in restaurants in the Rosa Mexicano area and channels his native Puebla, Mexico with his mole. The wonder begins with the roasting of ancho and mulato peppers, to which garlic, onions and chocolate are added, as well as ground hazelnuts, plantains and tortillas which thicken the mole. The many ingredients are cooked in chicken broth until the peppers give off their full flavor. Contreras says the aromas transport him back in time. “Does my mother cook here?” he says he is wondering in the kitchen. At home, he said, the mole would be treated by hand. Mi Vida uses blenders, but the process still takes eight hours from start to finish.
Long story short, you want to taste the mole here.
The kitchen caters to vegetarians with some really good empanadas and tacos stuffed with mushrooms, but also enchiladas rancheras which feature roasted cauliflower, mushrooms and kale cooked with onion and jalapeño – a little garden smoothed with cream and so good that every carnivore could fight for the last bite.
I’m the kind of diner that can be directed to something based on its side dishes alone. The blushing slices of grilled flank steak are good on their own, but the beef thrives in the company of roasted poblano strips and a heady sauce of wild mushrooms, chipotle and tangy cream. Mi Vida’s roast chicken is good. The real prizes on the plate are the tangy pickled vegetables and charred corn tossed with lime juice, cotija and smoked mayonnaise with chili de arbol.
Desserts include the expected sugar-dusted churros and tres leches cake, both good versions. You’re likely to find yourself dipping the churros twice in the intense, cinnamon-smelling chocolate sauce, and enjoying the refreshing fruit salad, bright with lime juice and orange zest, on top of the cake soaked in milk.
Not all dishes turn heads or appeal to taste buds. A cod starter is almost buried by an overly spicy tomato sauce, while the pork knuckle is memorable for being overcooked. The majority of the kitchen, however, sweetens the news that 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 eschews Day of the Dead cliches, the kitchen makes a statement. Once again, Mi Vida delivers on the promise of its name.
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 to Friday; for dinner from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, from 4 p.m. to midnight on Friday, from 3 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday; for brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Price: Dinner entrees $1.50 (for a deviled egg) to $18, entrees $19 to $49 (for a rib eye). Sound control: 76 decibels/must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry/elevator to floor; ADA compliant restrooms. Pandemic Protocol: Staff are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.