A First Look at UnaVida in the West Village

A spontaneous lunch last week with my friend Margaret led us to UnaVida, the new Mexican restaurant in the West Village. The restaurant opened Nov. 27 in the former Taco Diner space and is already creating quite a buzz.

After the abrupt closing of Homewood on Feb. 14, 2023, Matt McCallister appeared to be keeping a low profile, when, in reality, he was brainstorming with Mike Karns of Local Favorite Restaurant Group, known for Meso Maya, Tulum, and Jalisco. Chef McCallister and Karns started working together to develop new restaurant projects. The first of several collaborations to come to fruition is UnaVida, which means One Life.

Matt McCallister

Culinarily speaking, Matt’s had several lives, starting in Dallas with Stephen Pyles’ namesake restaurant, then Pyles’ Campo and Fuego. He left to open FT33 and Filament on his own, then Homewood and, simultaneously, Commons Club at the Virgin Hotel. He also consulted with Jon Alexis on the menu creation for Malibu Poke.  McCallister’s restaurants have always been critically acclaimed, his menus wildly creative, high-brow gastronomic escapades. It must be both exhilarating and exhausting to have set the bar so high.

UnaVida’s menu items are familiar — enchiladas, tacos, salads, queso, guacamole — but the preparations are unique. Press materials report the kitchen uses no seed oils and only clean, locally, and responsibly sourced proteins and vegetables and the chef combines flavors in unexpected ways. “New takes on classics!” Many restaurants make the same claim and, frequently, diners can’t tell the difference.

UnaVida is different

PHOTO: Kayla Enright

In two visits, I covered a lot of menu territory and concluded that the food quality and preparation methods live up to the press release hype. It took me a minute, though.

On the first visit, Margaret and I were unprepared for the experience. We expected a traditional Mexican restaurant experience.  We were seated in the gorgeous Oaxaca-inspired dining room, water was poured and we were given a brief overview by an affable server: service options were to scan the table-top QR code to review the menu, order, and pay, or view the paper menu and have him take our order, but we can still scan the code if we want. Ouch.

I need a chip in my hand within 60 seconds of being seated at a Mexican restaurant.

We were seated for five minutes, and no chips and salsa arrived, but we had water refills already. Margaret and I were confused. I told her I felt like Ricky Bobby doing a TV interview; I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Normally at a Mexican restaurant, within 60 seconds of being seated, I have a chip loaded with fog-clearing salsa in my hand and I can process the menu.

That’s not how it goes at UnaVida. Chips and salsa aren’t a given, you order them off the menu which lists a choice of three different salsas.

Still unsure what to do with our hands and seeking familiarity of the traditional Mexican restaurant experience, we ordered the chips and two of the three salsa options and margaritas; a skinny Socorro for her and a roasted pineapple for me.

Once the chips and drinks arrived we reviewed the menu. Plates for the Table include a classic Mexican shrimp cocktail and rather Avant Garde takes on Mexican classics; the queso, for example, is vegan and made with cashews. The guacamole has dried blueberries and ginger in it. There are street corn fritters with elotes dipping sauce and crab cake-like cakes made with shredded hearts of palm. There’s also a whipped queso fresco dip served with raw vegetables including broccolini, which, up until then, I’d honestly never seen in a Mexican restaurant.

The Hot Take

The Shareable Plates on these starters is that these are some of the best bites of food around. Not what we were expecting, but excellent. New takes on classics, indeed.

The medium salsa has a nice guajillo-induced richness to it that stands up to the house-made tortilla chip strips. The tuna crudo was very gentle on the palate. Fish so fresh it was practically breathing; cubed so a bit of the mild, earthy macha verde sauce can cling to it, and topped with a small piece of serrano pepper. The street corn fritters are hushpuppy-like and fine on their own but amazing with the elotes dipping sauce. The heartcakes are flavorful and filling, served with slaw and avocado. That’s a dish that could double as a lunch entree.

Let’s get back to broccolini in a Mexican restaurant.  On my second visit, I dined solo and ordered the whipped queso fresco. When it arrived, I sent a photo to Margaret and we both lamented, by text, the presence of blindingly green vegetables at a Mexican restaurant.

The joke’s on me; that broccolini blew me away. The product itself was fresh and tender, lacking any of the sulfuric funk that sometimes accompanies it. Slathered with whipped queso fresco and the chili-red peanut salsa macha, that darned broccolini was the best bite of food I had all week. The jicama, carrots, and cucumber were also good, but the flavor combo of the broccolini and dip was otherworldly.

The menu has something for everyone, from vegans to omnivores. Karns pressed for more vegan options on the menu hence the cashew queso, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

You don’t see “Bowls” listed on many Mexican restaurant menus unless it’s bowls of queso or soup. UnaVida has Bowls that offer creative combinations of vegetables, legumes, pickled things, and various sauces. Proteins such as adobo chicken and wild ahi tuna can be added, as can heartcakes, and tofu chorizo.  The pickled veggies and flavor combos here are classic Matt McCallister. If you’ve ever eaten at Homewood or FT33, you know he’s a genius when it comes to pickling, fermenting, and combining disparate ingredients.

Another protein option is “forever braised barbacoa brisket” which can be added to Bowls or found in the trio of tacos that I ordered.

UnaVida probably has the best brisket tacos in town

The beef is lean and tender, a little crisped on the edges like carnitas. The corn tortilla has a layer of melted queso Chihuahua which is topped with a generous amount of brisket, rajas, and chipotle aioli. Greasy, fatty brisket tacos have an important role to play in many people’s lives, but McCallister’s tacos provide the same rich satisfaction and flavor without all the grease. This dish is the perfect example of the “real food, made well” claim UnaVida makes on the website.

To be honest, after my first visit, I was a little thrown off.  I personally don’t enjoy scanning QR codes for menus.  On my second visit, I reviewed the menu, ordered, and paid for my meal all before the server came by to check in with me. The only enjoyable part of that transaction was that I learned I was sitting at table 33; a cosmic reminder that Matt McCallister, formerly of FT33, is once again channeling his creativity into a dining experience diners and critics alike will enjoy.

The West Village is thriving. UnaVida is an excellent addition in a center where Mexican restaurants have come and gone. This one is different than its predecessors. With an uber talented chef who’s created a menu unlike any other Mexican restaurant in town, an enormous and inviting patio and the organizational prowess of Local Favorite Restaurants Group, UnaVida should have a larga vida.

UnaVida 3699 McKinney Ave. #307 in Dallas. www.unavidamex.com

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Kersten Rettig

Kersten Rettig is the only DFW Food/Travel writer with luxury hospitality leadership experience and a former restaurant owner, employee, and chief marketing officer. Kersten's worked on the inside and has the insight and experience to tell the stories to the outside. She's a Park Cities resident, mom, wife and a decent cook. Follow her on Instagram @KerstenEats.

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