I want to like vegetarian restaurants. I really do. As an avid carnivore, I know I need to eat more plants and less dairy. So I really want to like vegetarian and vegan restaurants. But dammit, sometimes they just won't let me.
Viva Vegeria is the sister restaurant to Vegeria on Broadway. Located on the West Side, it's not close to food snob locations like Alamo Heights or the Pearl. But it's definitely a neighborhood favorite — people come all day on Saturdays for the brunch buffet or just to have a beer. And it is a place where Mexican favorites are remade to be healthier, more "plant forward." Viva Vegeria is larger than the original on Broadway, and is bringing healthier options to the area. On a recent weekend visit, I saw everyone from large families with small children to adults dining alone, all enjoying themselves. The local artwork and bright decor gave the whole place a funky feel, and it's a nice place to while away an afternoon.
Most of my past encounters with vegan queso have been terrible. I've been known to tell vegan cheese to die in a fire. The texture and taste usually doesn't come close to real cheese. But Viva Vegeria's vegan queso is creamy, tangy, not at all gritty. It's a little thinner than a cheese-based queso, but that's more of a personal preference. The nachos, which come in a half or full order, are topped with quinoa, spinach and guacamole. I expected to get a salad, judging by the ingredients. What I got was a well-balanced plate of delicious nachos. The sprinkling of quinoa added a bit of texture and the spinach didn't overwhelm the palate. I consider myself a nacho fanatic and these could have passed for carnivore nachos. (Is there a higher nacho compliment than that?)
The dishes were a bit of a rollercoaster after that. The Portobello mushroom tacos were a flavor letdown. The mushrooms were well-breaded and well-cooked. If they'd had a salsa or vinegary slaw, they would have satisfied my craving for fish tacos. But they came plain, just the mushrooms in a tortilla. Adding in the side salad (which comes with all entrees) helped, but shouldn't a vegan Mexican restaurant have salsa on just about everything? Or have it available on the tables in syrup bottles? That might've helped the side of black beans, which supposedly had paprika and garlic in them, but were invisible to my palate. The papas fritas arrived drenched in oil and absolutely flaccid. The garlic curry ketchup the papas fritas came with was intriguing, but with nothing to dip into it, the sauce was abandoned on the side of my plate.
On a brighter note, the spinach enchiladas and sweet potato flautas were great and well-balanced. The enchilada filling was a little blah, but the crema sauce (made from sunflower seeds and queso) was the saving grace. The flauta filling was tasty and a bit spicy, due to the peppers inside. They weren't fried very well though, and came a little oily and soggy. Still, I was happy to have the flavors.
When I think of vegan and gluten-free desserts, my expectations are pretty low, but I had high hopes for Viva Vegeria's desserts. If anyone knows how to make vegan desserts not terrible, it should be a vegan restaurant. The joint has a half-dozen cupcake flavors in rotation every day. I chose a blackberry cupcake with blackberry icing and a dollop of blackberry preserves in the center. I'm not sure if it was the addition of the preserves or the cupcakes in general, but this cupcake was so moist and cakey, it collapsed when grazed by a fork. It was so moist, I could have wrung it out. The preserves were good, but there was simply too big of a dollop inside and the whole cupcake collapsed in on itself. And whatever they were using for a sweetener was too powerful — all I could taste was the sugars and very little of the blackberry.
Did Viva Vegeria make it into my rotation of healthy-ish restaurants? For the nachos, yes. For a brunch buffet that doesn't make me regret everything later, yes. For a casual place to drink and have some nibbles, maybe. But for a real meal? No. Viva Vegeria needs to work on their flavors in general, both amping them up and balancing them. I'm glad they're bringing a different view on food, but when adding vegan fare to an otherwise meat-eating area, it should be a better-executed view.
1422 Nogalitos St., (210) 465-9233
The Skinny: Viva Vegeria tries to win over the city's West Side with vegan fare. For now, there are some wins and a few misses.
Best Bets: Flautas and nachos. Good vegan queso? It can be true.
Cost: $3.49-$12.49 apps; $6.99-$12.49 entrees
Hours: 11am to 9pm Mon-Thu; 11am to 10pm Fri-Sat; closed Sundays