Z Food

Z Food

For New Year’s Eve, VivaZ Cantina planned quite the fiesta. The Mexican restaurant’s four-course prix fixe menu (at $65 per person) featured starters like Pozole (boneless pork stew with white corn, radishes, onions and shredded lettuce), Sopa de Chorizo (a dish with a corn masa base, sprinkled with spicy sausage and refried beans) and Zucchini Relleno (zucchini stuffed with a blend of Oaxacan and mozzarella cheese, breaded and fried and topped with tomato sauce). Main courses, served with sides of rice, beans and tortillas, included a pork chop with pumpkin-seed green salsa; Salmon a la Parilla in a light corn purée on a bed of zucchini; and NY Strip Ranchero, served over cactus and topped with VivaZ’s housemade ranchero sauce. At 10 p.m., a sonidero fired up some Dominican cumbia and bachata for dancing. Two hours later, everyone gathered in the bar to greet the new year and enjoy a champagne toast.

I wasn’t there, though Instagram videos help confirm the evening went to plan. I’d visited VivaZ on previous evenings, when I was won over by its homestyle (yet occasionally daring) Central Mexican cuisine, comfortable and quirky layout and attentive service.

One of my favorite dishes was the Chilaquiles ($15)—corn chips loaded with Oaxacan cheese, avocado, raw onion, sour cream and a choice of either salsa verde or roja, finished with a fried egg and, if you so desire, chicken, carne asada or shrimp. It’s typically a breakfast dish in Mexico, but it’s my new go-to “breakfast for dinner.”

I also enjoyed the Tamal de Salsa Verde ($4.50)—my first-ever tamale, a labor-intensive item rarely found on local menus, here containing a not-too-spicy blend of chicken and corn. Another revelation was the Sopa de Tortilla ($6), a hearty chicken broth with tortilla strips, chunks of avocado, Oaxacan cheese and sour cream, though I would have also liked to try the Caldo de Pollo special ($6), made with celery, cabbage, corn and potato.

Co-owner Bernardino Lanche, his sister Dora (who oversees the kitchen) and their nephew Joe (who helps manage the restaurant) are the leaders at VivaZ, a sequel of sorts to Viva Zapata, which opened in 1972 and occupied this spot at 161 Park Street for nearly 50 years. Though they’ve kept much of the familiar Mexican fare (and ambience) that Zapata’s regulars loved—tacos ($4 apiece), enchiladas ($15), fajitas ($15) and nachos ($16)—they’re determined to keep digging.

“For instance, it can take six to 10 hours to fully prep and cook a tamale,” Joe says. “Other restaurants may not offer them because of the labor costs”—but the Lanches believe authenticity is worth the price. Housemade mole sauce made with dark chocolate, poblano peppers, walnuts, raisins and thyme is the crowning glory of the restaurant’s Mole con Pollo ($22). “Every Mexican restaurant should have its own mole,” says Joe. “Ours is on the sweet side; some people prefer it savory. It really depends on the region the chef comes from.” VivaZ’s first chef came from Puebla, “which some people consider the food capital of Mexico.” His aunt and uncle hail from Hidalgo, like Puebla not far from Mexico City.

Though Joe says he isn’t involved in kitchen management, he’s played a big role in the creation of the restaurant’s drink menu. While Viva Zapata was known for pitchers of margaritas and beer, VivaZ has ventured into craft cocktails. “When I was in Mexico City last December, I hit a cool place called Handshake Speakeasy that’s currently ranked the third-best bar in the world,” as voted by a panel of “680 drinks experts from across the globe.” Inspired by its example, VivaZ offers concoctions like Sweet and Sassy Paulina ($12), a mix of tequila, Ilegal mezcal, salsa Valentina, lime, mango and ginger beer, and the 69 En Cancun ($10), with vodka, peach schnapps, lemon and guava.

There’s also a rainbow of margarita styles and flavors—I enjoyed both a House Margarita with Tamarind ($11) and a Margarita Coronita ($14), the latter served with a seven-ounce bottle of Corona perched bottom-up so it could gradually pour itself into my drink. Next visit I might try the Negroni Mexicano ($14), made with mole bitters, or the Michelada ($15), featuring your beer of choice, Clamato juice, salsa Valentina, lime, tajin and tamarind. Those with serious tequila preferences have over 50 labels to choose from, or they can figure out their favorite by trying flights of four ($24-$50).

The walls are hung with more and less traditional artworks and colorful sombreros, one of which softens the helm of an imposing suit of armor. A previously unused section of the restaurant has been turned into a waiting area with comfy benches and throw pillows. Customers have apparently been so taken with these pillows as well as tchotchkes perched on the restaurant’s shelves that they’ve asked to buy them. “We tell them nothing’s really for sale, but Bernardino has given a couple of items to our regulars for free,” Joe says.

Pieces of Viva Zapata can still be found: vintage signage, antique books and the messages that five decades-worth of customers scratched into the venerable wooden tables and bar. “People come back after years and years away and look for the place where they carved in their names,” Joe says.

The holidays may be over, but VivaZ is planning yet another party tomorrow, on January 6: a second-anniversary celebration featuring a mariachi band (from 6 to 8 p.m.), raffles and bottle-shaped piñatas. If you go, be prepared to raise a glass—except, perhaps, when there’s a Coronita positioned precariously over the top.

VivaZ Cantina
161 Park St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sun 4pm-1am
(475) 238-6390

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Images 1 and 3 by @vivaznewhaven. Images 2 and 4 photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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