Pull up to 8407 Ramsey Ave. in Silver Spring and be prepared to whip out your phone for an Instagram moment. The building, formerly the home of 8407 Kitchen Bar, houses a dual restaurant concept called Buena Vida restaurant and Tacos, Tortas & Tequilas (TTT). Its exterior is adorned with stunning, brightly colored murals in aqua, magenta, sunflower, turquoise and bright orange by Victor Quiñonez, a Mexican-born, Brooklyn-based artist who grew up in Dallas. His work, including his Silver Spring paintings, often depicts the lively, rich culture of his native land.
Buena Vida and TTT are the latest project of restaurateur Ivan Iricanin, founder and CEO of Street Guys Hospitality, which owns Balkan restaurant Ambar, with locations in Washington, D.C., and Clarendon, Virginia. Buena Vida, as at Ambar, offers a $35 unlimited small plate “experience,” this one featuring Mexican fare. (You can also order à la carte.)
Iricanin enlisted Graham Bartlett, 41, as the chef. He was formerly the D.C.-area corporate chef for Richard Sandoval Hospitality, a worldwide restaurant group that locally includes Mexican restaurants El Centro D.F. in Washington and La Sandia in Tysons Corner. Bartlett grew up traveling frequently in Mexico and his Sandoval job took him there extensively for research.
Washington-based HapstakDemetriou+ architectural firm designed the two-story restaurant. Buena Vida, which means “good life” in Spanish, is upstairs. It’s the more formal of the two eateries and takes reservations. TTT, downstairs, is first come, first served. Buena Vida’s décor is farmhouse-meets-midcentury-modern. Whitewashed wood (on some flooring and ceiling beams), handsome blond hardwood floors and white brick walls mix with mod light fixtures, wicker birdcage pendant lampshades, geometric white metal stools, and side chairs made of wicker and wrought iron. One large wall is filled entirely with racks holding wine and tequila bottles; another features a vibrant jungle mural.
Soon after you’re seated, tortilla chips are served with pickled vegetables and two salsas, one made with roasted tomatoes redolent of smoky dried Mexican chipotle chilies, the other a zesty tomatillo salsa bursting with lime. Start munching after ordering a libation, say a bracing Paloma cocktail (tequila, lime, grapefruit juice, club soda) served in a terra-cotta vessel.
On my visits, I opt for the $35 experience. Servers deliver on a promise not to bring all the dishes at the same time after pressing me to place my entire order at once. Traditional guacamole laced with tomatoes, onions and chunks of avocado could use more lime juice, cilantro and jalapeño for my taste, but Bartlett says in a phone interview that he pared it down to focus on the avocado’s fattiness.
I’m a fan of two cheesy starters: queso fundido with melted Oaxacan and Chihuahua cheeses, roasted portabella mushrooms and chopped poblano peppers; and an open-faced quesadilla, where a flour tortilla is draped over a casserole dish, topped with braised chicken, tomatoes, onions and loads of cheese and baked to melty nirvana. Thumbs-up also to shrimp ceviche in a pool of magenta hibiscus marinade with a hint of habanero pepper. Duck tortilla soup, as dark and rich as a superlative gumbo, achieves complexity thanks to earthy dried pasilla peppers, duck fat and epazote, a pungent herb.
There are misses at Buena Vida, though. A salad of country ham and melon balls—a riff on prosciutto and melon—suffers from overt sweetness. Skinny tubes of corn tortilla (flautas) are so small that their scant potato and cheese filling has no discernable flavor. (Continued on next page.)
Overall Rating: B
8407 Ramsey Ave., Silver Spring, 301-755-6132, buenavidarestaurant.com
Favorite Dishes: Open-faced chicken quesadilla;
duck tortilla soup; queso fundido with mushrooms;
fried shrimp taco; requeson gelato with masa
pastry cream and strawberries; apple and goat
Prices: $35 per person for the all-you-can-eat experience. À la carte, starters are $6 to $11;
tacos $3 to $5; small plate “chef creations” $8 to $13.
Libations: Buena Vida has seven margaritas, including one made with hibiscus and habanero chili and others made with strawberry or mango, as well as 10 other specialty cocktails. The margaritas and cocktails we sampled were fine but not rave-worthy. There are three sparkling, one rosé, seven white and seven red wines offered by the glass ($8 to $13) and bottle ($30 to $50), all from Spain, Portugal, Argentina or Chile. Six draft beers and 10 by the bottle or can are each $6.
Try the refreshing aguas frescas, nonalcoholic sweetened fruit or flower drinks, such as one with fresh pineapple and mint. Tequila aficionados should ask for the Agave Bible. There you’ll find tasting flights and an abundant selection of tequilas, as well as mezcals.
Service: Very attentive