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Lauded Mexico City-based chef brings skill to Buena Vida

Clarendon-based restaurant eschews cliches like fajitas and chimichangas

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Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, gay news, Washington Blade
Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo says his food philosphy is ‘fresh, yet respectful of ancient cultures.’ (Photo courtesy Buena Vida)

Last year at this time, chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo was a celebrated figure in his hometown of Mexico City, a driving force of the slow cooking movement with two lauded restaurants to his name. He did not yet, however, know his way around Arlington.

All that changed by March 16, when he took his spot at the helm of the three-story, three-concept Buena Vida/TTT Clarendon (2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington/buenavidarestaurant.com), where he is stamping his vivacious spirit and wildly creative skillet. Fajitas, however, will likely not be on the menu. 

“I’m presenting the face of Mexican cuisine, a vision that is fresh yet respectful of ancient cultures,” he says. “It’s not what it seems we all think about Mexican food. I’m sourcing fresh and seasonal products in traditional recipes reinvented in a modern way. Even though the recipes are simple they are sustainable and socially responsible cooking.”

Vázquez Lugo, who is gay, also remains the executive chef of Nicos, a homey restaurant his parents founded in 1957. Sixty years later, Nicos was named one of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America while maintaining its family roots in a city bursting with cutting-edge, avant-garde restaurants. He and his mother received The Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award 2018 for their joint contribution to Mexican cuisine. He spends most of his time at Nicos in Mexico City but came to the U.S. to oversee the menu at Buena Vida. 

Vázquez Lugo came to the Buena Vida project auspiciously. Owner Ivan Iricanin (CEO of Street Guys Hospitality, which runs the three Ambar restaurants, among others) took himself on a fact-finding trip to Mexico at the end of 2018 for his other Mexican destination, Buena Vida/TTT in Silver Spring. 

At Nicos, he found himself impressed. 

“I asked to see the chef,” he says, “but they told me he was a celebrity and couldn’t talk.”

The staff finally granted Iricanin 15 minutes for his presentation. Vázquez Lugo was in. 

While Iricanin brings his original plan to bear at Buena Vida (three floors, three menus, three concepts, three soundtracks), it is Vázquez Lugo’s commitment to tradition and personal passion that arrive on the plate.

“My idea is to present Mexico away from chimichangas,” he says. “I want to change the stereotype of greasy pork for authentic heritage.”

In Mexico, Vázquez Lugo is a leader of the slow food movement, which dedicates itself to social and environmental responsibility. He’s brought this philosophy with him across the border to Buena Vida and its many spaces.

Upon entering, ground-floor TTT bustles as a relaxed streetside cafe (including patio seating) bursting with art. A bakery is the centerpiece, churning out from-scratch tortillas, fluffy tortas and sweets like buñuelos from the coast of Yucatan. 

As a good D.C.-area restaurant, it’ll serve brunch as well as lunch and dinner. 

A flight up, Buena Vida is the main attraction and where Vázquez Lugo finds his strength. At its core, it’s a “a menu showcasing traditional, indigenous fare,” he says. 

“This restaurant is representative of Nicos and its commitment to tradition,” Vázquez Lugo says.

Interactive service is a mainstay there; Buena Vida waiters prepare Caesar salads tableside as Nicos staff does in honor of the iconic dish’s invention in Tijuana. Family-recipe guac — a simple prep of avocado, onion and olive oil, without lime — comes this way as well. 

Vázquez Lugo’s traditionally inspired sophistication arrives in the form of melt-in-the-mouth rabbit barbacoa, slow-braised and marinated in chiles; and a showstopping, glistening ancho pepper stuffed with ground ribeye, bathed in a rich black-bean sauce and sprinkled with almonds. In what’s almost de riguer of late, Brussels sprouts appear, cloaked in Oaxacan cheese and tucked into a quesadilla.

From the sea, Acapulco-style seared snapper is paired with sweet potato puree and mango salad that add color, sweetness and ingredients native to the Americas.

Still, this reflection of Nicos is no bucolic hacienda affair. As the hour grows later, Buena Vida turns as dynamic as any lounge in the chic Polanco district of Mexico City. A wine cellar boasts an extensive collection of Mexican vintages (Iricanin’s goal is to make it the largest in the area); the mezcal and tequila list is dizzying even before testing. Cocktails are creative with nods to dishes they’re served with, like the margarita al pastor, made from a base of bacon-infused tequila brightened by pineapple and chili celery salt.

The restaurant’s crown jewel is the rooftop, beguilingly monikered Buena Vista Social Club. Iricanin promises an early-summer debut for this open-air space to evoke carefree ‘50s and ‘60s Acapulco. DJs are set to spin from brunch until late, accompanied by a raw bar with as much bite as the beats. Iricanin plans to add space for hookahs and cigars. In other words, it’s an all-day beach party.

Beyond his cooking, for Vázquez Lugo, reverence for ancient and modern Mexican tradition extends to acceptance for all Mexicans. 

“In my dishes, I respect the wide ethic and environmental diversity and heritage of Mexico. In my restaurants, I respect the wide identities and ways of life of Mexicans.” 

As a gay man and cultural leader, he’s worked to set an example.

“My team has people with all skin colors, from all ages, and all sexual identities,” he says. 

When he first started working at Nicos, he felt that he had to hide his identity. Today, “no one worries about these things,” he says, and notes that “Mexico City has advanced impressively in the area of human rights.” 

During that capital city’s Pride celebrations, Nicos welcomes families and participants who are celebrating. The restaurant bakes sweets with the rainbow flag emblazoned on top and changes its website to recognize the important date. He hopes to accomplish similar goals at Buena Vida.

His genuine pride has led him to host a Mexican cooking show. He also teases a possible book. 

Vázquez Lugo’s modern vision of Mexican gastronomic and cultural patrimony is set be a joyous cross-border affair: just with more menudo and fewer fajitas.

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Dining

D.C.’s creative culinary scene thriving post-pandemic

The Wharf continues to expand and other highlights

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D.C. is getting plenty of new restaurants this fall.

Colorful foliage, colorful openings: While the dining industry has struggled under the weight of the pandemic, staffing shortages, supply chain crises, inflation, and a spate of closings over the summer, the spirit of colorful creativity in the District hasn’t slowed. This fall, we look forward to visiting brand-new ideas, creative concept changes, additional spots from beloved chefs, an ever-expanding Wharf, and more. Note that some of these restaurants have opened already, while others have planned opening dates through the rest of the year.

Bar Spero

From the owner of Georgetown’s tasting-menu Michelin-starred Reverie comes Bar Spero to the Capitol Crossing complex. Taking inspiration from San Sebastian, Spain, Bar Spero is named for its owner and chef Johnny Spero, with a dynamic energy, modern dishes, raw bar, and fiery grill that touches nearly all the dishes. Check out highlights like grilled imported Spanish turbot and lobster knuckle tossed right on the embers.

Butter Me Up

The little bakery that could is now opening its second brick-and-mortar shop just off 14th Street, N.W. The breakfast sandwich concept that began as a pop-up in May 2020 at HalfSmoke is now plating its celebrated breakfast sammies on toasted brioche butter rolls baked daily, as well as superfood bowls, toasts, and tots. On the liquid side, look to house-pressed juices, smoothies, and brunch cocktails.

Gordon Ramsay’s Fish & Chips and Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen

Michelin-starred and TV shouter Gordon Ramsay is anchoring himself twice over on the expanding Southwest Wharf with new locations of his Fish & Chips and Hell’s Kitchen chains. Fish & Chips is Ramsay’s take on the classic British pub grub, with cod dusted and deep-fried under a crust of custard powder batter. The massive 14,000-sqaure-foot Hell’s Kitchen, with three other U.S. locations, takes cues from Ramsay’s fiery TV show (and personality). The menu will include the British chef’s signatures like Beef Wellington, the “HELL’S KITCHEN Burger,” and Sticky Toffee Pudding. Don’t miss cocktails like the Notes from Gordon (gin, green tea, peach), complete with a message from Chef Ramsay himself.

Le Mont Royal

French disco is back with a vengeance and a Canadian accent in Adams Morgan. With “the idea of a French wine dance party” in mind, the bar will specialize in “juicy” natural wines, grower Champagnes, and funky cocktails. Look out for offbeat plates like poutine with elevated add-on options like truffle, and a foie gras-ice cream-stuffed twinkie. The first floor will feature velvet banquettes for lounge seating; upstairs will include touches like a pool table, large-group seating, and plenty of space for dancing to enjoy the house collection of soul, funk, and disco vinyls. 

Nama Ko

14th Street mainstay Tico has closed its doors after eight years, making way for a new concept by the same owner, Michael Schlow. Schlow also operates sushi restaurant Nama and Italian restaurant Alta Strada. Nama Ko opened this week and offers a large cellar of Japanese whiskeys and sakes, plus a raw bar, full entrees, and its spectacular sushi selection with items like foie gras and golden eye snapper.

Nick Stefanelli at The Morrow

NoMa’s sleek new hotel entrant, the Morrow, will house three dining options care of Michelin-starred chef Nicholas Stefanelli, who runs tasting-menu Masseria in nearby Union Market. The ground-floor French-inspired Le Clou is a chic, brasserie-style restaurant (with an adjoining lobby cocktail bar), while the energetic rooftop bar, Upstairs at The Morrow, pours elegant cocktails and offers wide city views. The sophisticated Vesper lounge, with craft cocktails and live music, will open in the winter.

Philippe Chow

Celeb fave Philippe Chow drops down I-95 from Manhattan to another new spot on the Wharf for Chef Chow’s spin on fine-dining Chinese. Known for his modern and theatrical style, Chef Chow’s brings a menu of lavish, Beijing-style dishes like glazed spare ribs and tableside-carved Peking duck. The restaurant features sweeping waterfront views of the Potomac.

Tigerella at Western Market

The creators of celebrated Mt. Pleasant morning Mecca Elle have opened Tigerella in Foggy Bottom’s Western Market. This all-day locale begins with café-style coffee, toasts, and sandwiches, but the dining room adds shareable snacks, meat and cheeses, and Italian entrees. A happy hour will begin soon. Western Market will also soon welcome a fistful of new openings in the coming months, from Alitiko, a Greco-Middle Eastern concept, to ExPat, a sports betting bar, to Hippo Taco, an Asian-fusion concept.

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Mi Vida bringing customers together on 14th Street

Striking new location invites group-friendly grazing

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Mi Vida took over the massive former Matchbox pizza location on 14th Street. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

The striking new Mi Vida’s location in the heart of 14th Street, N.W., is no coincidence. Opened in early August, it’s an outgrowth of the gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design restaurant group’s wildly popular location on the Wharf. 

Mi Vida meets its customers where they are: on a bustling, pedestrian-friendly corridor where the soaring, three-story interior welcomes group-friendly “grazing” shareables, refined cocktail flights, and a mole as rich as the Oaxacan culinary culture that it draws from.

KNEAD founders and husbands, Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, explain that they feel fortunate to meld their brand into a vibrant neighborhood that is a melting pot of nightlife and residential communities. “We are bringing Mi Vida to the people,” says Berry.

As with the Wharf Mi Vida, the duo brought on Chef Roberto Santibañez, who is also gay. Here, he extends to the lively neighborhood crowd with no-fork-needed skewers of agave-marinated chicken and sea bass enlivened by earth pumpkin seed salsa macha.

While the core menu is similar, Santibañez puts the festive in the “fiesta de botanas” platter: a “very fun, more communal” option, he says, for sharing, tasting, and intimately connecting with the food. Each platter comes with a bounty of the resto’s most popular apps and snacks, from crab empanadas to skirt steak skewers, accompanied by piquant habanero and creamy avocado salsas.

Berry notes that they “spared no expense” reimagining the hundred-year-old building that once played host to billiards, bowling, live jazz, and most recently, a Matchbox pizza. An “old building with a new core,” he says, the historic façade got a glow-up too: splashed atop a pink background is a vibrant mural of riotous shapes and patterns, a nod to what a diner might expect inside. Soaring pink fin panels greet guests at the entrance, flying across the 10,000-square-foot space. A patio on T Street promises heat lamps for cooler months.

From the top of the menu to the bottom, Mi Vida offers a “dulce suenos” shareable dessert platter that includes items like an ice cream volcano and espresso flan.

Beverage director Darlin Kulla took the group assignment to heart. “We are launching our Vuelo a Mexico, a flight of four of our favorite cocktails for groups to share.” Included sips are drinks like El Suave, a take on a margarita shot through with ginger, and the Ponche de Lola, a drink with the same mango vodka base that Reginbogin fine-tunes at each of KNEAD’s restaurants, whether with gin (The Grill), bourbon (Succotash), or tequila (Mi Vida).

New to this location is a trio of increasingly specialized tequila flights. Several imported Mexican beers and more than 100 agave-based spirits (tequila and mezcal) round out the extensive spirits menu.

Breaking into the birria trend, Berry ensured that this popular dish appears across the menu. It’s available as a short rib entrée, or the spiced stewed meat can be tucked into a quesabirria (“my weakness,” says Berry) – a tortilla that’s stained ocher by being tossed in a spicy broth before being slapped on the griddle. Santibañez also draws from his Oaxacan roots for his mole negro that masterfully combines the seeds of several chilies toasted in a comal and ground into powder.

The KNEAD and Santibañez collab was a logical one: Berry and Santibañez first met while working at Rosa Mexicano almost a decade ago, and stayed in touch since. Santibañez came on to the KNEAD team to act as culinary director for the Wharf Mi Vida opening.

As an institution, KNEAD supports a host of LGBTQ causes, including sponsoring the Pride run this year and fundraising for the Trevor Project. “We do what makes sense to be part of the fabric of this community,” Berry says. “It’s important to plant our flag.” Santibañez added that when bringing on staff, the team is highly intentional. “Our staff is diverse and inclusive,” he says.

In Mexico, the phrase “mi vida” is also used as a term of endearment for close family and friends to signify love and care, which is how the owners and chef see each other, the neighborhood, and even the cuisine through Santibañez’s expression from his upbringing in Mexico City.

“14th Street is a special place. It’s the heart of the city, a gay-friendly neighborhood. We’ve always had our eye on this location. It was the right next step for our team,” says Berry. 

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Dining

Restaurants have history as places for protest

ShutDownDC solicits tips for whereabouts of anti-Roe justices

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Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the target of a recent protest at Morton’s Steakhouse. (Photo public domain)

Food is inherently political — including the spaces that serve them. Restaurants, as “third places” in the public arena (outside of home and work), are accessible and open, a convener of society. Politicians in D.C. have traditionally treated restaurants as a half-third space: a semi-private location outside of the office to conduct business, utilizing restaurants as an extension of their workspace. This public presence, however, implicitly invites the public in — and lawful protesters have taken note.

On July 6, the dimly lit downtown location of Morton’s The Steakhouse chain became a protest stakeout. According to media reports, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was having dinner at the steakhouse when protesters learned of his whereabouts, convening a small demonstration.

The gathering was put together by an organization called ShutDownDC, which has called for peaceful action against the justices who voted for the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v Wade. Politico reported that Kavanaugh may not have even seen or heard the protests, but he did leave before dessert.

And while the Supreme Court did not release a statement, the restaurant’s management was perturbed. It sent a statement to a Politico reporter noting:

“Honorable Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh and all of our other patrons at the restaurant were unduly harassed by unruly protestors while eating dinner at our Morton’s restaurant. Politics, regardless of your side or views, should not trample the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner. There is a time and place for everything. Disturbing the dinner of all of our customers was an act of selfishness and void of decency.”

The response to Morton’s plea was swift and fierce. Commentators noted that protest is enshrined in the Constitution, while the right to eat dinner is not.

Notably, Morton’s The Steakhouse parent company is owned by billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who also owns the Houston Rockets. According to The Counter, Fertitta is one of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s biggest donors, providing more than $100,000 annually since 2015. His family has given several hundred thousand dollars of donations to other Republican politicians, including President Trump.

After this protest, ShutDownDC stated on Twitter that it will offer up to $250 to industry staff for tips of the whereabouts of justices who voted for Dobbs.

This incident, however, was not the first time that citizens have engaged restaurants as a space for protest. Restaurants, as these third spaces, have offered fertile ground for previous demonstrations – especially during the Trump administration.

Washingtonian noted that one of the most infamous was against former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at Mexican restaurant MXDC in 2018 during a controversy regarding DHS and treatment of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Several other expressions of peaceful demonstrations against Trump officials took place during the rest of his term in office. Restaurant owners themselves are not immune to taking political action – during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, many restaurants offered food and other support.

During the tumultuous conclusion to that presidency, restaurants also had to contend with the specter of aggressive action. In preparation for what would turn out to be the Jan. 6 insurrection, many restaurants and other businesses closed their doors and fortified their exterior walls. In comparison to the peaceful restaurant protests, the Jan. 6 actions turned violent, denying restaurants revenue – and leaving many fearing for their safety.

Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was safely ensconced in his steakhouse, without fear of violence. Groups like ShutDownDC will continue to “use strategic direct action to advance justice and hold officials accountable,” according to its website, supporting nonviolent action in public places.

Anthony Aligo, a gay man and owner of wine bar Barkada, noted that, “This isn’t anything new. We believe everyone should be treated with respect and believe in the constitutional right to exercise your first amendment rights.”

This most recent event reinforces that restaurants, especially those known to harbor power lunches, must contend with the possibility of this type of protest. And leaders, when they decide to go out in these public spaces, must be aware that the people they represent also can be present there as well.

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