Livin' it Up at El Viva Mexico
South of the border flavor north of the freeway
El Viva Mexico is brimming with life and the authentic sabor of Mexico. From the moment I turned off Wyoming into the crowded dirt parking lot, it felt somehow like I was south of the border. Once inside, it could have been Juarez, with murals of sunny Mexican vistas on every wall, lots of candy vending machines and knickknacks here and there. A steady stream of families with lots of kids kept tables filled, while a television set emoted Mexican soap operas from a high corner. Mariachi music streamed from the kitchen. A small display case with authentic Mexican candies and other sweet treats reminded me of bygone days and penny candy stores.
On each of my visits here, I was the only gringo in the house—hard to understand because the food is good and the prices are very fair. Expand your culinary boundaries, become an intrepid traveler and try something you haven't tried before, like menudo ($3.50). It's a spicy tripe soup reputed to be a miracle hangover cure, offered Friday through Sunday only. My waitress told me they sell a remarkable volume of menudo for such a tiny place. If you're not so adventurous, you might go for the caldo de res (offered on Mondays and Thursdays), a hardy soup filled with pieces of beef and corn, and served with rice and tortillas.
The menu is broken up into sections that feature several typical meat preparations including carne asada (roasted beef), al pastor (marinated pork), desebrada (shredded beef), barbacoa (loosely translated, it means barbecue), carnitas (small bits of caramelized beef). You can enjoy them as the filling in burritos ($2.99), tacos ($1.99), tortas ($2.85) or straight up in a platillo (combination plate).
I became a huge fan of the complimentary salsa that arrives at the table in a red plastic ramekin. It was excellent and had a hefty heat quotient, but more importantly, the intense earthy flavor of serrano, ancho and jalapeño chiles shone through. I can't help thinking that this salsa would do very well in the yearly Scovie Awards, part of the Fiery Foods Show.
Breakfast is served all day and features the ubiquitous breakfast burrito ($1.99) and huevos rancheros ($3.95). Several other breakfast entrées are also offered, served with eggs, rice and beans and your choice of flour or corn tortilla.
There are lots of platillos to choose from. I ordered the platillo Mexicano ($5.95), which gave me a chance to sample two tiny but tasty beef flautas and a lightly battered chile relleno filled with queso blanco (a popular Mexican cheese) and covered with green chile sauce and melted cheese. The relleno was slightly oily, but I didn't mind because the flavor was delicious. It also came with an enchilada with carne desebrada. The beef had a crusty caramelization on the edges while the inside remained moist and delicious. El Viva's red chile sauce was tasty if not very spicy. The same was true of the green chile that lightly covered the chile relleno. Combination plates are rounded out with very fluffy rice and excellent refried beans and garnished with rich, creamy guacamole, lettuce and tomato. On my second visit, I enjoyed a torta with carne asada ($2.85), filled with bits of golden brown marinated meat, shredded lettuce, tomato and ripe slices of avocado.
Aguas Frescas are the perfect foil for the spicy afterglow of the chiles. Two homemade versions of this typical refreshment are offered here. The horchata ($1.35) is a dead ringer for a light, refreshing dairy product, all milky white and sweet, but it has no dairy at all. The beverage is made with rice, almonds, a little sugar and flavored with a vanilla bean. It has a truly unique taste and works like a charm in calming the effects of spicy chile. Still, my favorite is the refreshing melón agua fresca. It's just sweet enough and also puts out the fire.
The high volume of children of all ages warrants a kids menu; a highlighted sidebar warns that there will be no substitutions and that after the first batch of salsa and chips you'll have to pay $1.75 for a refill. Go for seconds, it's worth every penny.
You don't have to go south of the border the next time you get a hankering for authentic flavors of Mexico. In fact, you don't even have to go south of Central. Just a short hop from 1-40 on to Wyoming and you'll get a slice of Mexican life right here in Albuquerque.
El Viva Mexico; 237 Wyoming NE; 265-6285; Hours: M, Tu, Th 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m., F, Sa 7:30 a.m-8 p.m., Su 7 a.m-6 p.m., closed W; Price Range: Inexpensive; Master Card and Visa accepted.