VivaZ Cantina serving authentic Mexican cuisine in the grounds of the former Viva Zapata in New Haven

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NEW HAVEN — One of New Haven’s best-known longtime spots for Mexican food, drinks and party vibes is back at 161 Park St., only this time what was once Viva Zapata is a colorful joint owned and run by a native of Mexico with an eye on serving authentic Mexican cuisine and libations.

Although it has a similar vibe and looks on the surface inside, VivaZ Cantina is not the same place as Viva Zapata, which closed at the start of the pandemic.

VivaZ, which opened on Jan. 6 — Three Kings Day — aims to continue to be a great place to hang out and drink margaritas, mojitos, micheladas and more, the owner said.

This new iteration in the space features a few authentic Mexican specialties, such as Costillas en Salsa Verde (Mexican pork ribs in a green tomatillo sauce) and Quesabirria (a spicy beef quesadilla served with beef consommé for dipping) that can be hard to find in other local Mexican restaurants.

“It comes from my heart,” said Lanche, 46, the youngest of eight siblings who grew up in Hidalgo, north of Mexico City in central Mexico.

He has lived in New Haven for many years and has been involved in the restaurant business for much of that time. He completed the culinary arts program at Gateway Community College and was previously a chef for Lindley Food Service, which prepared both school lunches and menus for senior centers, among other things.

At VivaZ Cantina, “I want to introduce people to food and my culture,” Lanche said.

Other VivaZ specialties include Chicken Mole Poblano – prepared by cooks in Puebla, Mexico – an authentic Chili Relleno and Tacos al Pastor topped with pineapple slices, as well as Cemitas (giant Mexican sandwiches).

Your food also comes with fresh homemade corn tortillas, freshly made daily on a flat tray out back by Lanche’s sister, Dora Lanche.

And you can always grab cold drinks at the bar, which is run by Lanche’s nephew, Robert Lanche, who grew up in West Haven.

“The menu is basically what I like,” said Bernardino Lanche as Mexican Norteño music from Los Cardinales de Nuevo Leon played in the background. Some of the recipes came from his grandmother, he said.

Lanche said he plans to expand the next version of the menu to add traditional Mexican dishes such as menudo (tripe), posole (hominy soup), Sopa de Mariscos (shellfish soup) and Mexican-style shrimp cocktails. , known as cocteles de camarones, as well as the traditional Mexican horchata (spicy rice drink) and Jamaican (hibiscus drink).

The menu includes several vegetarian dishes, including two varieties of vegetarian quesadillas and zucchini enchiladas, as well as a short list of American specialties. If anyone has special dietary needs, all they need to do is call ahead at 475-238-0664, Lanche said.

Before opening in January, Lanche spent months cleaning the place up and making it shine. He installed a brand new kitchen.

He also bought colorful Mexican artwork – some quite large – and hung it on the walls. The artist, Marco Hernandez, is a friend of a friend originally from Guatemala but now living in Mexico, Lanche said.

His friends in the restaurant business warned him not to open in January, but Three Kings Day is one of his favorite holidays. So he just did, and so far it seems to have worked out pretty well, he said.

“It’s going very well, given the pandemic,” Lanche said.

Growing up in Mexico, “I always wanted to open a ‘fonda'” – a type of restaurant where the cook basically decides every day what he wants to cook and the customers come, even without knowing what’s for lunch or dinner, because they know the food will be good no matter what, Lanche said.

As a child, “I used to play at the restaurant,” he says.

Lanche, who moved to the United States with his family in 1993, didn’t have to go too far to find a place to live out his Mexican restaurant dreams: he and her husband, David Cleman, already owned the building as well. than Partners Cafe, the long-running gay bar around the corner at 365 Crown St.

“When I saw the building, I said, ‘Oh yeah, that could be a good restaurant,'” Lanche said.

Lanche had a lot of help getting the restaurant off the ground.

Ruben Lemus, a native of Guatemala who works as a waiter, among other duties, loves the place so far.

“I think it’s great – good food, good people working here, friendly staff – and the food is fantastic,” Lemus said. “It makes you feel like you’re in Mexico!”

Joseph Lanche, 23, has worked in the restaurant business for six years, including at Cascade Banquet Hall in Hamden, Brazzi’s in New Haven and Mecha Noodle Bar in New Haven, where he still works, and is working hard to dream up new cocktails that VivaZ Cantina can serve.

So far, working at VivaZ Cantina “is surreal,” he said.

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