Since La Viga opened in downtown Redwood City in 2012, the city has seen a tremendous surge in construction, with tech companies staking their claim and new bars, restaurants and coffee shops filling downtown's streets. However, the construction boom hasn't seemed to move past the famous "Climate Best By Government Test" sign to the more industrial surrounding streets, just a three minute stroll from the downtown core, where you'll find La Viga.
La Viga ties together Redwood City's Mexican and Latin American culinary scene, with a focus on seasonal and local ingredients. The restaurant's namesake is the main seafood market in Mexico City -- chef-owner Manuel Martinez's hometown -- which explains why his menu heavily favors fish.
At La Viga, the main courses are as compelling as the small plates, if not more so. Talk about a rarity these days.
One standout entree is the Yucatan region's signature dish, cochinita pibil ($20). It's a dense stew of fork-tender pork, lots of achiote spicing and orange juice, all steamed in a banana leaf and tossed with thick, acidic slivers of pickled onions. Try a few bites of meat with the cilantro rice and plantains in a do-it-yourself taco, and maybe add a touch of habaÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â±ero salsa.
Angel hair pasta comes to mind in the fideo pasta bowl, tallarines con mariscos ($21). The thin, sticky strands of fideo are spun together with a pitch-perfect spicy tomato sauce, mushrooms, salsa verde and shellfish. Chile relleno ($21) is the runaway winner for the Instagram crowd with the poblano pepper covered in an artistic drizzle of crema and sitting in a pool of green olive sauce. It has a heat that grows from mild to noticeable. Unfortunately, the salmon and shrimp filling is muddled from the various other components.
A crowd-pleaser is the whole grilled fish (usually branzino, market price) featuring a rustic chipotle sauce that is the antithesis of the typical accompaniment of a squeeze of lemon juice.
Martinez's culinary background comes from French restaurants he's worked at, including Left Bank in Menlo Park. A year after opening La Viga, Martinez unveiled his sequel, LV Mar, in the heart of Redwood City's downtown. LV Mar also has a seafood focus, but is more playful and daring with its dishes.
Starting a meal at either restaurant with one of the ceviches is practically obligatory. The mahi mahi ($16) with mango and sweet potato is a bit too sweet but the fish is superb. The pescado ($15) is made up of red snapper and tomato broth with diced cucumber. The shrimp ceviche ($15) -- made with pico de gallo salsa, avocado and whole tiny shrimp -- surpasses any steakhouse shrimp cocktail.
Not chewy at all, the octopus and calamari ($14) in the bold saffron and garlic sauce comes with about a half-pound of fragrant fennel slices. The dish is a success and large enough to be a light main course. The empanadas (two per order, $11) are impressive, with the flaky pastry contrasting nicely with the fillings -- moist salmon in one and shrimp in the other. The textbook guacamole comes with lumps of queso fresco ($8).
For tacos ($12 for a trio), the snapper is an exemplary rendition of the Baja style, with a grease-free tempura batter. Also consider the carne asada with cactus or a fun salmon taco with a chili lime sauce as thick as mole. The eyebrow-raiser is the aguacate with crispy breaded avocado and black bean salsa. It's fried avocado, in a tortilla. Yes, it's great.
Service is some of the most genuine around, with a rare combination of enthusiasm and professionalism. If you ask for a suggestion, you'll get honesty. During one meal, I was curious about a mysterious fruit salad component for the salmon taco. The waiter said it was jicama and even brought one from the kitchen for me to see. Have a question about the sweetness of the tropical iced tea? You'll get a taste.
La Viga has a fine-tuned ambiance that blends casual restaurant decor with a backyard seafood cook-out. Tables are picnic-style with bare wood and most have bench seating. For decor, there's the slightly exposed open kitchen, a medium-sized wine rack that would be comparable to what you'd find in a San Francisco studio apartment and photos of seafood dishes on the wall. Soccer plays on the TV, sometimes enhanced with pop music. People of all ages and backgrounds seem to be having a good time.
There is no hard liquor license (for craft cocktails, go to LV Mar) but the restaurant has decent, sweet sangria ($7) and an agave wine margarita ($9). Wines are good values from South America or Spain, so don't expect an award-winning Sancerre.
Dessert options include sorbet or ice cream (seasonal flavors, $5), churros ($6), flan ($6), chocolate cake ($7) or creamy arroz con leche (rice pudding, $6).
From tacos to ceviche to empanadas, passing over any savory dish is a challenge at La Viga. The restaurant is one of the key dining experiences in a city that's rapidly becoming an important culinary destination on the Peninsula.
1772 Broadway St., Redwood City
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Mondays
Credit cards: yes
Parking: street, generally easy
Beer and wine only
Outdoor seating: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: quiet to medium
Bathroom cleanliness: good