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Tex-Mex, Better’n Sex (Says So on the Menu)

This entry is part of a series, Austin Scene»

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Cat-sitting has its moments. (Archie, ready to roll above, might disagree by now.) After all the fights, the feedings and the frenetic searches (how’d Samantha get into that vent, exactly?), there’s the Big Payoff. And we’re not talking hairballs here…

PJ’s sister offered a dinner out as recompense for the effort of helping her two older cats out, so I said yes. I mean, how can you turn down a deal like that? The little aliens in cat suits visitors would mostly hide in my office anyway, so it was really no hassle at all. The week went by quickly, and Liz didn’t have to worry (much) about her four-legged owners children. Besides, I had a whole week to figure out where to go for that premium reimbursement meal.

Tex-Mex Delights

Problem is, I looked and looked, and didn’t find anything that excited me and met all the other constraints in the system. (Don’t ask; it’s complicated. Really.)

Yesterday morning I was still stumped. Paula Jo offered some sage advice, but even that didn’t break the logjam. What to do, what to do? They were already in the air on their way here. I wasn’t in full panic mode yet, but I was, shall we say, distracted. Then wifey had a thought: Vivo Cocina Mexicana. She said she used to go there after work, back when she worked for AMAT, with friends who really needed a drink and a relaxing environment. (How the heck I missed out on those evenings I’ll never know. Maybe spending all that time in Asia wasn’t such a good deal?)

Of course like any drowning man I grasped at the first available straw I told my darling spouse I’d consider her suggestion, then I bolted sauntered into the Chile Underground Man Cave and looked Vivo up.

Yep, it fit perfectly. And that isn’t panic talking either! Eclectic, a bit funky even; a perfect Austin-style place to take friends and family for a quiet dinner and a cocktail. If you believe everything you read on the Interwebz, of course…

So I eventually told PJ that, yes, we’d give Vivo a try. She smiled and nodded, something like I imagine Buddha once did when a slack student finally got the simplest point. Okay, I thought as I crossed my fingers; we’re set.

Raspberry MargaritaOff to the airport to collect the sub-Clan, then we headed up the highway to Manor Road and the restaurant.

We drove right by the best turn to the parking lot, but never fear, there’s a second entrance. If you don’t mind turning into a skinny little side-alley and sliding by the side of the house that’s been converted into this interesting eatery. We eventually found our way around back and into proper alignment with the Universe (and the parking lot) and we dismounted. The other relatives who were dining with us were already there (they took our parking spot, in fact), so we were ready to eat.

The East Austin location of Vivo (there’s two) is, indeed, in an old house. There’s an amazing deck on the southwest side, with all kinds of plants and flowing water around. It’s a smaller area than it seems, but still there’s a number of tables and alcoves for al fresco dining. With the temperature still in the high 90’s, though, we chose to sit inside. Six hungry adults and one anklebiter nephew, nearly a year old. Nobody ever told me how much of a “chick magnet” a young male creature can be. (I know about tiny, redheaded females; they work. Had one of those. And Golden Retrievers. But boys? Sheesh.) Even the wait staff were stopping by to make odd noises and entertain the kid.

I concentrated on my ‘rita. Which was a frozen strawberry, as they were sadly out of the raspberry. Kev ordered one of their signature prickly pear margaritas, and pronounced it “interesting, good, but sweet.” Several other adult beverages were tested, and all were satisfying.

Wendy brought chips and table salsa, and while we attacked like the Huns sacking Rome munched I looked around at the restaurant. This place is fun! Interesting and different art, more plants, lots of dark colors and candles. In its own whimsical way, Vivo is a poster child for Keep Austin Weird (and Well-Fed). By the way, the salsa’s outstanding. It’s quite zesty, but not tongue-burning. Lots of roasted chiles of some sort; Serranos, maybe? Some ancho chile too, I’m not quite sure. It’s a cooked salsa, and very savory. Less tomato essence than typical Tex-Mex salsas. It gets you on the back of the tongue too, so it’s more complex than a lot of other dips you find on dinner tables around town.

The wait staff bustled around keeping diners supplied and sated. Vivo was busy but not stuffed. I counted about eighteen tables and booths inside, and I think the place would be overcrowded when full. The tables are a bit close together; but then, I’m left-handed, and it’s easy for me to get bumped in close quarters, so I notice details like that. Still, it seemed that the staff were up to the task. I really liked the sense of calm and serenity every one of these busy servers demonstrated.

The only appetizer we tried (other than the generous, complimentary chips and salsa) was the Chile con Queso. We got a bowl, and it was a big bowl! Plenty for six adults. With a small bowl of guacamole added (for those of us who must have our Green Goo), it was a steal at $9.45.

We ordered entrées and got our drinks refreshed. Kevin went for the Quesadillas Ixtapa (chicken, $9.95) from the Lighter Side options, while I tried out the Emma’s Choice combination plate ($10.95). Other dishes ordered around the table included Puffy Tacos ($10.50), Fajitas ($10.95) and Pollo Vivo ($11.95). My plate included one jumbo puffy taco (I tried chicken) and a massive beef enchilada, big enough to be two. The chicken is finely chopped and very traditionally flavored, with a mound of lettuce, cheese, onions and more on top, all fresh.

Tex-Mex Ingredients

Puffy tacos used to be a Big Deal in Tex-Mex restaurants some years back, but these days they’re hard to find. And even harder to find done well. I was impressed with this one, and the others who tried them said theirs were fine. So maybe I’ve found my new puffy taco outlet after all! The enchilada was tasty as well, with a chile gravy that’s full of ancho chile powder and other earthy flavors. I could tell, this chef must make a mean molé too! Anybody who can season the sauce this well, must be able to. I asked Wendy, and sure enough, there’s a molé special on Wednesday nights. Now I even know exactly which night of the week I’ll be back to Vivo!

The fajitas at Vivo aren’t served like other places do. They come as pre-made tacos, a couple large ones to a plate. I’m not sure why the difference, and I didn’t get to ask Wendy the rationale. I think the two of our crew who ordered fajitas were a bit confused by the presentation, though. They said they tasted fine.

When it came time to leave (reluctantly), we said our farewells to Wendy and explored the deck a bit more while we exited. I began to think, how good was our dining experience at Vivo? My take: The food’s better than, say, Chuy’s (another eclectic Austin special), and there’s less noise. The outside dining area’s unique, and weather permitting, we’ll try that next time. Service was quite good, although I wonder how good it would be with the place packed. (If you have Wendy as server, it’ll be very good, always.) The atmosphere is more relaxing than Baby Acapulco’s. The prices are good, the portions generous, the flavors outstanding. In a nutshell, my wife made a great restaurant find with my sterling assistance and direction. I put Vivo’s in the top 2-3 Tex-Mex places I’ve enjoyed in Austin.

What did I learn from all this? The moral of the story is, don’t be afraid to cat-sit for friends or relatives if they offer a meal as compensation, and maybe listen more to the Primary Spousal Unit when it comes to dining choices…

Vivo Cocina Mexicana on Urbanspoon

Vivo Cocina Mexicana (East Austin location, near the Univ. of Texas), 2015 Manor Rd., Austin, TX 78722. Phone 512.482.0300. Open seven days a week: Mon-Thurs, 11 AM – 10 PM; Fri-Sat, 11 AM – 10:30 PM; Sun, 5 PM – 9 PM. Large outdoor deck with plenty of shade.

Enjoy the (Austin-Weird, Satisfying Tex-Mex) Heat!

Entries in this series:
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  2. Restaurant Review: Gumbo's Louisiana Style Café
  3. Restaurant Review: Chola Indian Restaurant
  4. Restaurant Review: Fujian Grand China Buffet, Austin
  5. Restaurant Review: Casa Garcia's Tex-Mex Restaurant
  6. Review: Mesa Rosa Mexican Restaurant
  7. Restaurant Review: Truluck's Seafood, Steak and Crab House
  8. Restaurant Review Update: Fujian Grand China Buffet Restaurant
  9. Restaurant Review: Pho Viet Restaurant
  10. Sunday Brunch Anniversary Celebration: Moonshine Restaurant Patio Bar and Grill
  11. Late-Lunch Steaks at the Blue Oak Grill
  12. Mama Roux: So Good There's A Song About It, Sort Of...
  13. Phil's Ice House, an Austin-Weird Place for Great Burgers
  14. Easter Sunday Dinner: A Poor Experience at a Usually Reliable Locale
  15. A Sedate Spring Lunch at Zed’s
  16. Looking for a Taste of Germany? Well, We Tried…
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  18. The HomeField (Grill) Advantage
  19. Dinner for One: Sometimes the Good Stuff is Right Under Your Nose
  20. Smoky Heaven in Round Rock: Johnny T’s BBQ
  21. Tex-Mex, Better’n Sex (Says So on the Menu)
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  23. A Little Bit of the French Quarter, Here in Central Texas
  24. Quick Bites: El Caribe Tex-Mex
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  26. Casa G’s for Lunch (Hint: It’s Awesome)
  27. Chola Indian Restaurant: A Good Indian Eatery Gets Better
  28. Tacos are Brain Food, and Brainiacs Eat at El Taquito…
  29. Get Your Indian Food Fix the Easy Way: Tärkă Indian Kitchen
  30. Late Lunch at Mandola’s Italian Market; Worth the Wait…
  31. I Didn’t Know Sichuan, China Included Round Rock
  32. Sunday Brunch at Pecan Street Station; Good Choice…
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  44. Going Back Pho More at a Local Favorite
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