“That’s El Angel,” our server said. “It commemorates Mexico’s war of independence.” I had just complimented the mural of Mexico City landmarks that spans one wall of the dining room at Viva DF, and asked about one in particular, a column surmounted by a gold angel.
Our server went on to volunteer a concise but enthusiastic guided tour of the other buildings depicted in the mural, laced with personal tidbits that made it clear she has fond memories of the city. As a bonus, she informed us that the words “distrito federal” painted across the top of the mural – the DF in the restaurant’s name – are the official governmental designation for Mexico’s capital city. “Like your DC,” she said.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting – or charming – way to set the mood for a meal at Viva DF (pronounced DAY EFF-ay). Unless it’s to sip on one of the more than 80 tequilas on offer as you listen. Or maybe a margarita made with fresh squeezed juices and organic agave nectar. The Zocalo, say, a classic pairing of Patron silver and Grand Marnier. Or the mezcal-smoky Wahaca if you’re feeling adventurous.
The menu bills Viva DF as a “tequila & taco bar,” and you certainly won’t go wrong by taking the suggestion when ordering. Tacos al pastor – adobo-marinated, slow-roasted pork with grilled pineapple, onions and cilantro on local corn tortillas – are a standout. So are carne asada tacos, a tweak on the perennial taqueria favorite featuring flour tortillas generously filled with exceptionally tender strips of grilled skirt steak. Other options cover a broad spectrum from chicken tinga (juicy shreds in a tomato-chipotle sauce) to pescado, a vibrant pastiche of grilled mahi, mango salsa and red cabbage on a flour tortilla canvas.
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But tacos are by no means the only attraction. You’ll want to go easy on the cumin-scented salsa that lands on your table with a basket of warm chips soon after you’re seated, and leave room for an order of classic, avocado-chunky guacamole. Taquitos – you get two filled with chicken tinga and two with melted Muenster cheese – are another worthy starter. And crema de frijol, a creamy black bean soup enriched with avocado and pasilla chiles, garnished with crispy tortilla strips and crema dulce, is a must. My wife will back me up on this, and she doesn’t like black beans.
The entree offering is limited but varied. If you like the tinga tacos, you’ll love enchiladas suizas, filled with succulent shreds of chicken and baked under a patchwork of creamy green sauce and molten cheese. Chimichanga, filled with ropa vieja-style shredded beef, is another winner.
Fajitas (steak, chicken, shrimp or veggie) are popular, but if you can talk someone into sharing, by all means spring for the parrillada. Your reward will be a feast of grilled skirt steak, boneless chicken breast, carnitas (shredded, not nuggets), a skewer of shrimp and a slab of partially melted Muenster cheese on a sizzling platter. Squeezed in so tight among the meats that you can barely see the platter are grilled peppers and onions, lime wedges, and a couple of ears of grilled corn. You get rice and black beans (both excellent, though my wife wishes to recuse herself on the beans), and a warm pile of those local corn tortillas on the side.
The parrillada is so much food that my wife and I could almost overlook the fact that the corn – which looked so tantalizing on the platter with its grill-charred stripes – turned out to be soft and mushy, as if it had been sitting too long in hot water before hitting the grill.
Such misfires in the kitchen are rare, though; the only other one I encountered being chilaquiles verdes marred by a surfeit of tortilla chips dissolved in the sauce, transforming it into a thick, gloppy mass. When I described the dish to managing partner Miguel Araiza a couple weeks later on the phone, he told me he had noticed the same problem and assured me that it had already been fixed.
Araiza is one of the partners in Planet Taco Hospitality Group, which also owns Totopos in Cary. Fans of that restaurant will recognize many of the same dishes on the Viva DF menu. But while the new restaurant is a sibling of the old one (relatively speaking; Totopos just celebrated its first anniversary), it is not a clone.
“Both are inspired by Mexico City, where I come from,” explains Araiza, “but with Viva DF we’re going for a more urban trendy vibe.”
The decor at the new restaurant backs up that goal with a streamlined, contemporary look and an open feel that allows bar and dining room to meld almost seamlessly into one another. Regardless of where you’re sitting, you can see both the black granite-topped bar and the mural on the back wall.
When she was describing the landmarks depicted on that mural, our gregarious server/tour guide pointed to a distinctive-looking skyscraper and said, “We call that one El Pantalón, because it looks like a giant pair of pants.”
Even without a tour guide, you shouldn’t have any trouble spotting that one.
4075 Davis Drive, Morrisville; 919-467-2627
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: open and contemporary
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: enthusiastic and attentive
Recommended: crema de frijol, tacos al pastor, enchiladas suizas, parrillada, guava flan
Open: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.