Get your livers ready

Vive! Cocina Mexicana & Ultra Lounge

723 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 444-1322

Vive!—their exclamation mark—is a Latin-themed nightclub occupying the space near Seventh and K streets formerly known as Three Monkeys, a Sybil-esque restaurant whose owner walked away two Novembers ago when he couldn’t make his monthly nut.

Bummer about all the redevelopment dough spent to rejuvenate the place that once was home to Sacramento’s iteration of West Sacramento’s venerable Emma’s Taco House. Three Monkeys’ schizophrenia was evidenced in its combination of brewpub food—think pulled pork and sliders—steak and sushi. Schizophrenia aside, to say Three Monkeys’ sushi chefs were wondrously inventive undersells the word “inventive,” and the chefs, two of whom, Anthony Kivera and Ross Dreizler, still work their magic at Momiji and Sapporo Grill, respectively.

Vive! recently became, using their words, a “Cocina Mexicana.” Like its downtown neighbor, Azukar, at 16th and J streets, Vive! seems better at being a nightspot than an eatery and appears to market itself accordingly. The MySpace page exhorts: “Get your livers ready!! It’s Patron time!!!” The takeout menu has an insert touting a “2X1” drink special on all drinks from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

For those familiar with the Three Monkeys layout, the large “back” portion with a door onto K Street is now the nightclub, with a lifetime supply of countless tequila types on the shelves behind the bar. A large deejay station stands beneath a mirror ball. It’s a little depressing to see the big space with the lights off. The smaller, front part of Vive! is the restaurant.

Luis, the conscientious waiter, says chiles rellenos are the house specialty. At $10.99, the expectation is that more than one large Cotija-filled Anaheim pepper would bask in a sea of terminally mild red sauce. A separate plate comes with a small mound of cilantro-speckled rice and a bowl of frijoles. The nicely seasoned frijoles are an improvement over the first visit, in which the refried beans accompanying the chile verde are cold. Way cold. There is nothing remarkable or innovative about the chiles rellenos, which fosters a certain amount of consternation over its selection as a specialty of the house.

Despite its somewhat bland taste, more appealing is the $5.99 tortilla soup, with a floor of tortilla strips upon which is piled a generous mound of chopped tomatoes topped with a sour cream chapeau. Hidden beneath are occasional avocado and queso chunks. More spices would jazz it up. A pinch or five more epazote, perhaps? A sprinkling of cilantro? Generously portioned, however.

The chile verde also suffers from the same lack of oomph. It’s tomatillo, yes, but nothing some serranos, diced onion or splashes of vinegar wouldn’t enliven. The introductory chips are crisp and fresh—not as common as one would like at downtown Mexican eateries—but, on the first visit, the red salsa’s blandness leads to what can be the most perilous or pleasurable question at a Mexican restaurant: Is there a hotter salsa available?

Yes, there is. And now we’re cooking with gas. Smoky with a sneak-up-on-you, steady afterburn that simmers heatedly but never scalds. Luis says this magical concoction is salsa adobo, and it does possess the smokiness of chipotles, although the salsa is chunkier than the traditionally smooth adobo sauce. Whatever its constituents, this is a salsa to showcase. Bring the adobo to the table. If the diner can’t stand the heat, go back and get the wimpier stuff from the kitchen. Accompany with blue corn chips and a few lime wedges for a killer first impression.

There’s mole on the menu, grilled chicken in orange-achiote sauce, carnitas and arrachera—grilled skirt steak. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the offerings at Zócalo, although more expansive.

As the legislative cliché goes, Vive! is still a “work in progress.” Some basic moves aren’t yet down, like waiting to bring the entree until the appetizer is dispatched. But culinary critiques aside, it’s way better to have a going concern on K Street than more empty space. Buena suerte.