by Frank Sabatini Jr.
409 F St. (Gaslamp Quarter)
Dinner prices: Salads, street tacos and tapas, $5 to $14; entrees, $13 to $19
If you’ve never experienced a Bolivian-style steak that’s plainly breaded and topped with an egg, or the tomato-y sweetness of red snapper ceviche common throughout Mexico’s eastern state of Veracruz, then look no further than the stylish ViVa Bar + Kitchen.
“The next best cuisine to French is that from Latin regions,” says owner Sean Shoja, a Montreal native who presents a succinct repertoire of tapas and entrees indigenous to Spain, Cuba, Mexico and various countries in South America.
ViVa is the reincarnation of The Red Light District, which Shoja operated as a French-Asian restaurant before realizing the concept was too pricey and ambitious for Gaslamp revelers. He avoided reopening it as an Italian kitchen because of their ubiquity, and not to mention that he already owns one a few blocks away under the name Toscana Café & Wine Bar. So he opted instead for a Latin-everything menu earlier this summer and Americanized the food slightly “to make it easy for people to recognize.”
Vestiges from Red Light still remain, such as the crimson-illuminated central bar and a few stately chandeliers hovering over jumbo booths that seat six people comfortably. In addition, a wall of pivoted windows opens nicely to the colorful bustle of Fourth Avenue.
The chef, Ted Ortega, grew up on a Colorado farm and last worked at the former Anthology supper club in Little Italy. Hence, his penchant for using fresh ingredients and making sauces from scratch comes naturally as it should for tackling the intricacies of Latin cooking.
Visiting as a twosome, we were immediately impressed with a charcuterie arrangement displayed atop a small, wooden trestle table. At neck level were Spanish imports such as aged salami, Iberian ham and a few cheeses including mild Manchego and assertive Roquefort. The unexpected mindblower on the board was a dollop of bright-tasting house-made tomato jam, which gave rise to anything we smeared it on.
White and red versions of fruit-filled Sangria became a must. Both were lip-smacking; the red sweetened with berry liqueur and the white revealing soft, blossomy undertones. The margaritas that followed were also above average, thanks to the compatible zing imparted from brined Fresno chili peppers bobbing within. Tequila lovers will want to take note of a glass-enclosed collection that adds swank to the interior design.
Inspired from Spain’s modern tapas houses is filetto, which featured a trio of grilled baguette slices crowned with juicy bite-size chunks of filet mignon. The beef was superbly rich and tender, singing to roasted tomatoes and shishito peppers. It ranked among our favorite dishes of the evening.
We proceeded to shareable portions of tamarind-glazed ribs, red-snapper ceviche and a skillet of quesdo fundido accompanied by forgettable corn tostadas that were chewy and overly thick. The ribs were succulent but tasted rather familiar, whereby the Veracruz-style ceviche incorporated sweet, mellow tomato sauce to distinguish it from pedestrian Baja versions doused only in lime.
Transitioning from tapas to entrees, we zeroed in on conejo falso, the Bolivian equivalent of Wiener schnitzel. Instead of a pounded-out pork fillet dusted in flour and delicately pan-fried, this recipe uses rib eye steak and receives a soft-cooked egg on top for extra richness. The chef encircles the golden-crusted meat with sherry-lemon vinaigrette and what might have been a few eye drops of chimichurri sauce. The outcome was dynamic, much like the personality of our zesty young waitress who moved here recently from the Yucatan Peninsula.
I’m not sure from what Latin nation “viva scallops” originate, but they too struck an intriguing, complex flavor profile due to a bedding of creamy jalapeno polenta, green onion hash and red pepper sauce. Despite numerous ingredients at work, the five jumbo mollusks maintained their ocean freshness and were seared to a pearly finish.
Other entrée choices include grilled Brazilian-style steak, Cochinita pibil pork, and two types of paella, with either seafood only or mixed additionally with chicken and sausage. There is also a selection of street tacos doctored up with various garnishments such as garlic aioli, grilled limes and a cilantro-jalapeno-onion slaw that attests to the American tweaking of certain recipes.
All of our plate presentations were exquisite, with the winner being cream-filled “churro bites” for dessert. Contained in a miniature fry basket flanked by caramel and chocolate dipping sauces, the cinnamon-sugar dusting on them glimmered like tiny crystals. But then again, nearly everything we ate sparkled with heart and soul.
Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press), and began writing about food two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. He has since covered the culinary scene extensively for NBC; Pacific San Diego Magazine; San Diego Downtown News; San Diego Uptown News; Gay San Diego; and Living in Style Magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.