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Arlington’s La Esquina de Clarendon features three Mexican concepts

The rooftop restaurant and bar includes three stories and plays with the breadth of Mexican cuisine.

Taste of the Tropics: Tuna and pineapple combine for a lush and juicy ceviche. (Photo by Rey Lopez)
★ ★ ☆ ☆
SCENE

Here, it’s about the scene: breezy, vacation vibes with interesting Mexican food.

DON’T MISS

Lounging on the rooftop; tuna ceviche; beetroot steak sliders; Acapulco-style fish


Restaurants with views are synonymous with lackluster food and sky-high prices. Selling a trio of sliders titled “beetroot steak” for $12 surely sounded like a trap at the new rooftop restaurant and bar, Buena Vida Social Club.

First, the scene. Employees walk around in white collared shirts embroidered with the restaurant’s name and logo, or in a T-shirt the color of Caribbean skies. “It feels like we’re at a resort,” a friend says of the vibe from above Wilson Avenue.

White booths, white bars, vibrant teal accents—like those high-top, plastic basket-weave chairs that simultaneously make you feel like a boss and make you feel like you’re relaxing in the fresh, sea air—set the mood. The vast rooftop space has its own kitchen, two bars, lots of lounge seating and two-thirds of the space is covered for rainy night partying. Mimicking the menu, drinks are mashups, like the smoky mule with mezcal instead of rum for a Mexican-ish version of the Moscow mule.

The beets arrive on tiny brioche buns with liquefied cheese and a few spinach leaves wilting from the heat of the sandwich. My friend and I take bites, look at each other, and the platitudes roll out of his mouth, beginning with: “Is this the unsung hero of Buena Vida?”

The beet, cut to about half-an-inch thick, is warm, roasty and decadent—and tastes far from the usually cold, earthy beets in a decade’s worth of salads with crumbled cheese. The beets are wrapped in foil and roasted, like any one of us could do at home, then marinated and chilled. It’s warmed on the griddle at order.

Chef Nikola Stefanovic seems to not understand why so many questions in the review interview are about this beet slider trio. He keeps the details coming nonetheless, like how these are organic beets, they’re young beets, soft and tender. And maybe that’s the answer to why this is so good, so shockingly good.

TTT, the Mexican diner for tacos, tortillas and tequila, occupies the first floor of the three-floor, three-concept La Esquina de Clarendon by Ivan Iricanin, best known for his Balkan restaurant across the street, Ambar. The casual vibe suits this busy section of the city, where there’s plenty of outside seating, even bar stools lined up outside against the inside bar. A duck carnitas taco works well for its crispy bits in a tamarind sauce, and the fish taco lets melting cod shine through a thick, puffy fried batter. A refreshing Michelada—tomato juice spiked with hot sauce and paired with Modelo—feels like just the right partner to this mostly fried fare.

Bright murals and light wood set the chill scene at Buena Vida. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Buena Vida, on the second floor, is where the serious cooking lies. Mexico City-based chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo designed the menu, and continues to consult, but it’s Serbian-born Stefanovic—who Iricanin noticed at Richard Sandoval’s Belgrade outpost of Toro, where Iricanin is a partner—running the kitchen daily.

The menu here bounces between vibrant, tropical flavors with slow-cooked meats. Raw cubes of mellow, lush tuna mix with punchy, juicy pineapple bites—and all coated in a sheen of plump chia seeds—for a starter that sets the mood. A light glossing of aioli over beef tartare lets that almost gamey, true beef taste surface.

The two housemade salsas are both fiery, so yes, it is worth it to pay the $10 for a heap of cooling guacamole. Instead of mashed to a pudding, the mound is built from chunks of avocado with olive oil instead of lime, turning this into a more luxurious starter.

Avocado appears on many dishes, including dry soup. Vermicelli noodles, cut to about a quarter of an inch, soak up a mixture of broth tinged with chiles (ancho, guajillo, chipotle), and is topped with salty specs of cheese. Slices of avocado fan over the top. It’s a little spicy, and very fun to eat.

With an upscale breeziness, it feels like vacation inside of Buena Vida with artfully arranged tiles in the mellow shades of melons and sunsets and huge woven baskets as light fixtures. It’s mostly bright and white with light woods and strategic pops of sea-themed hues. It’s striking, and gives this restaurant an essence of cool. Service is not always as sunny, sometimes taking too long between dishes, sometimes removing dishes when there’s food still on the plate, sometimes dishes arriving barely lukewarm.

Lamb ribs were a stunner, with a crisped top and tender, 12-hour cooked meat underneath, though I bet it was even better if it came to the table hot. Ditto with the duck carnitas, though that achiote-pumpkin seed-moria pepper sauce elevates this type of dish otherwise more familiar on Tex-Mex menus.

Fish Food: Red snapper and a fruit salad tuck into lettuce leaves for fish tacos. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Acapulco-style fish features gorgeous hunks of red snapper that don’t require any of the adornments on the plates: a puree of sweet potatoes blended with butter and orange juice but somehow still light and wispy and a mango salad mingling with jimaca, pineapple, red onion and habanero for lively textures and tastes. It’s served with tortillas and bibb lettuce for DIY taco-making, but everything doesn’t need to come together; it’s lovely on its own.

Flan is the slippery texture between dreaming and awake, a silky custard with structure. The caramel is taken to the edge of burnt, as is the sauce around the plate from the remnants of what was in the mold. A seed-studded flat biscuit tops the flan for a biting contrast.

Stefanovic, an industry vet for almost 20 years, is brand new to the United States, moving here from Belgrade for the job six months ago. He cooks Lugo’s food; he visited the chef in Mexico twice to train.

Buena Vida and its upstairs and downstairs neighbors nail exactly the right mood, buzzy and chill and ultimately cool. The food, some expected, some surprising, as well as delicious, plays second fiddle. But in Clarendon, a town best known for its partying bona fides, bring on the carefree resort vibes. // 2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; Buena Vida,
open daily for dinner, small plates: $9-$15; entrees: $12-$29;  TTT, open daily for lunch and dinner, $11-$16; Buena Vida Social Club, open daily for dinner; $9-$21

This post was originally published in our August 2019 issue. Interested in more food content? Subscribe to our monthly print magazine and weekly e-newsletter.

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