It was never my intention for this review to be like a cactus – prickly. Indeed, taking into consideration the sum total of my Mexican gastronomic and culinary history thus far amounted to a pair of Freebird breakfast burritos, I’d decided to enlist the support over dinner of not just one but two fellow expats, neither of whom were strangers to the varied flavors of Mexican cuisine. One, a true trencherman, had lived in Mexico for years, and the other, a native Angelino, could be quite fairly described as a connoisseur of LA taco trucks. Both brought a certain weight, seriousness and dignity to the occasion.
So before becoming Grinch-like and taking a swipe at the food, I feel that in the interests of fairness and balance, time should be spent emphasizing the positives because this simply isn’t a question of food per se but of the dining experience as a whole and much of it was good.
For a start, the drinks were fantastic value. Who needs Corona or Sol ($3) when a foaming glass of fresh, ice-cold Anchor costs a trifling fifty cents? You can’t fault the value there.
By the same token, the frozen margaritas (‘brain-freeze’ guaranteed) won’t make much of a notch on your tab either at a piffling $1.50 each. Granted, they aren’t as storming as the margaritas at the Elephant Bar but nor do they cost $9.
The interior designers have gone for unfussy canteen-like look and just as in Viva’s sister venue up in Siem Reap, the owner isn’t afraid to crank up the aircon to the max to greet customers with a welcoming blast of cool air. Furthermore, and most unusually for this town, he doesn’t wait for the first group of customer to arrive before doing so. No scrimping, there then.
And then there was the service, which was pleasantly confident and run by a permanently grinning waiter, shuttling back and forth with admirable dexterity.
So out came the bright, waxy plastic-covered menus and not so long afterwards we kicked off with a competent and savory quesadilla ($3) accompanied by an acceptable tortilla soup ($2.50) rather let down by the single lonely-looking tortilla squatting atop.
It was soon after that my dining partners noticeably winced when encountering the problem that would unfortunately crop up again and again during lunch: the absence of chili and the trademark vim it brings to real Mexican food. This ersatz stuff was far from the renditions of Mexican food my dining partners were used to south of the border and in LA. There was no heat – no kick from the chili mule – and while most dishes were well prepared, they suffered from blandness and vapidity.
During a hiatus between courses and while my dining partners were lamenting their overly tame ‘San Francisco’ tomato sauce, I was temporarily struck dumb with margarita related ‘brainfreeze’ and left gasping like a goldfish that had jumped out of its tank. Nevertheless, the genial waiter – grinning that grin again – took this all in his stride as he brought out the plates of neatly folded things one by one.
Carne Asada Burrito ($6)
Pork Enchilada ($5)
Pork Tenderloin ($5)
Both wrapped mains came with a with a side order of sautéed, reddish orange Mexican rice, which had a pleasant smoky flavor, the shredded beef steak in the wheat flour burrito had been agreeably marinated and for one titillating moment my dining partner ‘thought’ he had actually found a red chili. Alas, on closer inspection the soggy vegetable transpired to be dreary capsicum rather than the vibrant and fiery capsaicin.
Likewise, the corn enchilada was entirely competent, but sadly shrouded in a tame and lackluster ‘San Francisco’ tomato sauce rather than the promised chili pepper packed sauce. (To add insult to injury Enchilada is the past participle of the Spanish enchilar, “to add chilli pepper’’ or so Wikipedia tells me.)
So far so ‘not so good, not so bad’ and the only real stinker was an insufficiently marinated pork tenderloin that left my dining partner, tequila-soaked carnivore that he is, feeling underwhelmed.
With hindsight, the dining experience certainly wasn’t a disgrace and much of the food was tasty and flavorsome. Furthermore, if you are looking to get a full belly at a riverside eatery for less than a tenner a head and have confined chili peppers to your culinary room 101 then Vivas fits the bill, but if you’re pining for authentic highly spiced Mexican food, you certainly won’t find it here.
Calling Vivas a ‘Mexican’ restaurant is, I suppose, technically correct as far as the sign over the front door goes but you wouldn’t want to press the point too much.
Viva Mexican Restaurant
Sisowath Quay along the river front, directly opposite Titanic Restaurant
Open 11am – 11pm
Restaurant non smoking. Tables for smokers outside on the terrace
Words: Peter Hogan
Photography: Jeff Mudrick