The ownership group behind Ambar opens its second multi-restaurant Mexican food complex today, introducing Tacos, Tortas, and Tequila (TTT) and Buena Vida in Clarendon.
Despite sharing names with the contemporary-style TTT and Buena Vida that opened in a two-story building in Silver Spring last year, the Northern Virginia locations have wholly different ambitions because of a whirlwind courtship between restaurateur Ivan Iricanin and Mexico City-based chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo.
“I wanted to make traditional Mexican food,” Iricanin tells Eater, “and somehow, I got the most traditional Mexican chef in the world.”
Vázquez Lugo is the head chef at Restaurante Nicos, which Eater has called the best place to eat in Mexico City. Founded in 1957 by Vázquez Lugo’s parents, Nicos has catapulted to fame on the strength of dishes that had been in the family for generations. Since taking over the kitchen in 1996, Vázquez Lugo has become a celebrity in his home country, leading the “slow food” movement in Mexico and hosting his own TV show.
With equal parts persistence and charm, Iricanin recruited Vázquez Lugo to be the “concept chef” developing the menu for what will be three restaurants on three different floors inside the former La Tasca at 2900 Wilson Boulevard.
On the first floor, TTT will fulfill Iricanin’s vision for a Mexican diner with a menu rooted in street food from Mexico City. Torta rolls, biscuits, and concha pastries are baked in-house, and the restaurant is grinding its own Mexican heirloom corn to make tortillas. Daily brunch will be a big attraction — Vázquez Lugo has come up with a churro waffle that calls for dunking the molded disk in a deep fryer.
On the second floor, Buena Vida will match the sensibility of Nicos, where Vázquez Lugo and his mother work to preserve traditional flavors from all over the country. Like at Nicos, there will be tableside Caesar salad service, showcasing a dish that was invented in Tijuana. Iricanin installed a spit roaster so the staff could slow-cook sides of lamb to make birria.
When the front of the house went through a tasting to learn the food, two plates that went fast were the arroz a la tumbada — a paella-like dish made with seafood, tomato, and epazote — and chickpeas in amarillo — a turmeric-heavy preparation that comes from the indigenous Otomi tribe.
A third restaurant on the rooftop will be a marisquería (seafood house) that calls back to Vázquez Lugo’s family vacations in Acapulco. That part of the building is still under construction and won’t be ready for months. TTT/Buena Vida was originally scheduled to open last fall, but building new stairs and elevators to the roof delayed construction — which allowed time for Iricanin to add Vázquez Lugo.
Vázquez Lugo’s contract with Iricanin stipulates that the chef will check in at the restaurants for a week at a time at least four times per year. Part of what attracted Vázquez Lugo to the project in the first place was Iricanin’s success as an international operator. His Street Guys Hospitality group runs six restaurants in Serbia in addition to D.C. area locations for Balkan brunch destination Ambar (Clarendon, Capitol Hill), Baba, and the first TTT/Buena Vida.
Iricanin was on a research trip to Mexico City when a three-hour lunch at Nicos left him stunned. The Serbian businessman was resolved to meet Vázquez Lugo and pitch him on partnering up in the United States.
“We talked to the server, and he was like, ‘You can’t get to him. He’s a celebrity.’” Iricanin says. “Then I googled him and was like, ‘Oh my god, now I really want to meet him!”
Days later, after talking to a manager and getting vetted by Vázquez Lugo’s representatives, Iricanin got the chance to make a 15-minute pitch on why the chef should help him open a Mexican food complex in Virginia. Vázquez Lugo agreed to let Iricanin host him in D.C., where the chef noted that every employee at Ambar was smiling throughout the service.
“So I said, that’s the point that I can work with him, because people are happy,” Vázquez Lugo says. “They like their job. It’s a good company. It’s a serious company.”
The two sides struck an agreement during the visit in January, and Iricanin sent two of his top Serbian chefs to embed with Vázquez Lugo at Nicos. By the end of it, the Serbs were working the line and serving up tableside salsas.
Northern Virginia recently got another restaurant with a chef flown in from Mexico City, Urbano 116. In a one-star review, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema slammed it as an “inconsistent and frustrating place to eat.”
When asked about the ability of his chefs to replicate Vázquez Lugo’s flavors after a short, intense period of training, Iricanin says he trusts his crew. And more than anyone, he says, it will be his job to taste and report back to Vázquez Lugo in Mexico.
“This is not CraigsList,” Iricanin says. “We don’t hire these people and now we’re going to expect them to perform and cross our fingers. These are serious veterans of cooking.”
TTT is open for brunch Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lunch and dinner is Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Buena Vida is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner is Sunday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Brunch, to be added later this spring, will be Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
- Team Ambar Aims to Transport Diners to Mexico at Its Three-Story Clarendon Restaurant [EDC]
- The Best Place to Eat in Mexico City Is Restaurante Nicos [E]
- Joint Restaurants TTT and Buena Vida Reveal Their Modern Mexican Fare [EDC]
- Look Inside Silver Spring’s Newest Mexican Restaurants [EDC]
- A Oaxacan Chef From Mexico City Opens an Alexandria Restaurant Next Week [EDC]
- Urbano 116 looks like the real deal, but its food is a faint echo of Mexico [WaPo]