Mark (mhaithaca) wrote,

My response to the owner of Viva Taqueria...

> Hey, I'm the owner of Viva Taqueria and I'm wondering why you hate Viva
> ("the long mexican food nightmare in ithaca is over") so much? Just interested.

Good morning, Ursula. Thanks for your note.

Back when it was just Viva Taqueria, I thought you had a good thing going. The food was simple and fresh, and a generous portion was inexpensive. As the portions shrank and the prices went up, it was less obviously a great deal. I understand the way costs have skyrocketed, so I don't begrudge you the price increase, but I still look for good deals to pass along to our readers. Food that's fair should be a bargain; food that's pricey should be great.

As for Viva Cantina, I have to say I love your tequila selection! You have some very good margaritas, and some decent food. But the food is honestly just decent, and some of the portions less impressive than others for the price. The service I've had on various visits has ranged from friendly but forgetful to inattentive to downright dismissive.

I wouldn't say I "hate" either place... I just wish they were better, because I'm confident they could be. I don't know if you saw it, but I think the review I did last fall was honest and fair in that regard.


After getting your note today, I went to Viva Cantina for lunch with some friends I knew were fans. I wanted to have some fresh thoughts to share with you.

Today's lunch was, overall, a good experience. (It would have been nice if there were fewer flies, but I'm guessing you haven't had a chance to react to them with the seasonal change bringing them indoors.) We had attentive, good service, and the food, if unexciting, did the trick. Honestly, I was surprised you didn't have a lunch menu... your food seems as though it would adapt very well to quick service of smaller portions at a lower price, to provide an affordable lunch option. There didn't seem to be a lot of less-expensive choices, and the four of us, sharing two appetizers and each having a burrito or a soft taco trio, and no drinks, ended up with a check north of $40 before the tip. Not outrageous, but not something I would put on a list of recommended weekday lunch spots. You're certainly not alone at the $10+ price point for lunch, but I think the average lunch-goer is looking for something more affordable at that hour.

Speaking of affordable, I'm glad to see there's still a $4 burrito on the Taqueria menu. (Even cheaper, if you go with the $2.50 "basic," but I figure most people want some protein or veggies!) But I'm curious what people get for their (roughly) extra two bucks when they buy comparable things in the Cantina. One way you could differentiate the experience is by offering the "traditional" complimentary basket of chips and salsa. Charging extra for the chips and salsa feels like a wasted opportunity to make the Cantina a good value.

Another occasion that struck me as unnecessary "nickel and diming" was when we consciously ordered chips and salsa we knew we'd have to pay for, and asked for hotter salsa, since what arrived was quite bland. There was no such thing, but the waitress offered to bring something else, probably the tomatillo sauce, for us to try. She should have, but didn't, tell us that she was going to charge us for the extra sauce she was offering.

It didn't affect us today, but your policy of never seating parties that are still missing someone comes across as very customer-unfriendly. Instead of a nearly complete table ordering drinks and appetizers while waiting for a friend who's gotten delayed for whatever reason, you've got an empty table and an increasingly frustrated group of people who want to start giving you money but aren't being allowed to. I can certainly understand not seating two people at a table for eight until more people show up, but seating six or seven at that same table for eight, rather than making them stand around waiting, seems like the right thing to do. I've also seen one of these situations result in the almost-complete party's table being given to another party. Surely leaving a little discretion to the host could work! Otherwise it's like the "zero tolerance" policy on "public displays of affection" that got a middle school girl suspended for two days for hugging a classmate whose father just died.

Is there anything I like? Sure! You already know I like the Chorizo Fundido. I think it's odd to serve these with tortillas instead of chips, but that's OK. It still works. I like the slaw and pickled vegetables served alongside the burrito. And I like the fact that the beef in the burritos is shredded, slow-cooked meat, and not hamburger. I don't think I've had any food I actually DISLIKE, I just wish more of it impressed me.

Every group that walks in the door is a new opportunity to impress with great service and great food at a reasonable price. It doesn't have to be cheap -- it just has to reflect what you're providing the customer. I was being completely honest when I said I thought with a little work, your eateries could shine. I truly hope you'll find some of the above thoughts useful, and perhaps make a few changes that will make me impressed next time I find myself coming in for a meal.

I actually asked our waiter if you were around this afternoon, but you weren't. I'll look forward to meeting you another time. Best of luck to you, and thanks for taking a moment to ask for my thoughts!

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