Vida Cantina opened last year in the former Friendly's restaurant on Lafayette Road in Portsmouth.
Gone is the typical ice cream parlor décor, replaced with bright colors, a large bar and a contemporary vibe. Gone also are the burgers and Supermelts, which have been replaced by a varied modern Mexican menu.
One look at the menu tells you this is not your average Mexican restaurant. If you have an adventurous palate and are looking for some unique flavors, you are in luck. The menu highlights ingredients such as Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheese and pork belly, even cow tongue, which happened to be on the taco specials the night we visited.
The appetizer (or what they call "snacks") menu, features offerings such as Goat Cheese Fundido, Braised Pork Sope and Butternut Squash Tamales. Seeing an opportunity to try something I haven't had before, I opted for the Ceviche de Casa ($11), local flounder with avocado, mango and cucumber, served with blue corn tortilla chips.
The ceviche, raw fish which is marinated in citrus juices to "cook" it, had a lot of good things going for it. I liked the sweetness of the mango and the creaminess that the avocado added to the dish. The only thing missing was a little bit of salt, which I think would have brought out more of the flavor of the fish.
The Dining Companion ordered the salsa flight ($5) with the idea that he could use whatever salsa was left over for his entree. This appetizer comes with an order of chips and three diverse salsas. The first is a salsa fresca which, like its name implies, is a fresh garden blend with a typical tomato base. Next was salsa verde, a thin, dark green dipping sauce which TDC thought had the strongest kick of all three — even more so than the mango habanero, a mixture of fall-like colors with a much subtler sweetness than he expected and a spiciness that creeps up on you like an afterthought.
He found all three salsas to be fresh and delicious; none were excessively hot, which allowed him to enjoy bite after bite.
For the main course, TDC, an admitted taco fiend, took advantage of Vida Cantina's variety: You can choose two tacos for $9, or three for $13.25, and mix and match to your heart's content. He opted for the triple.
He chose the Carne Asada, translated as grilled meat or beef, which contained rajas, a Mexican dish comprised of sliced pablano peppers, Oaxaca cheese and chipotle cream. His second was a chicken offering, the Marinated Pollo, also served with rajas along with cilantro and salsa fresca. His final choice was the Carnitas, which is filled with slow-roasted pork, salsa verde and queso fresco.
All three tacos were served in a soft white shell, and each was stuffed to the max and served with an artistic flair. These are not your typical boring, pedestrian tacos. Each is an individually authentic, memorable Mexican dish with a unique style and flavor, the type you won't find up the street or in the next town over. Did I mention that each was ridiculously delicious?
I decided to continue my seafood theme with the Pepita Crusted Scallops ($20), scallops served with two pieces of pork belly, atop brown-butter sage Brussels sprouts and roasted sweet potato.
The scallops were perfectly cooked, tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside. They paired nicely with the crispy pork belly. The perfect bite was a combined forkful of scallop, pork belly and the vegetables. This great dish hit all the right flavor notes: crunchy, sweet, salty and bitter. My only criticism is that toward the end, the dish became a bit greasy, thanks to the pork belly.
I put TDC in charge of ordering dessert. For himself, he chose the warm Mexican chocolate brownie ($7). The brownie was indeed soft and warm, like a chocolate hug, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (his choice) coated in a crunchy salted caramel that made for a sweetly satisfying send off.
He chose the Almond Tres Leches Cake ($7) for me, an almond cake served with a poached pear and topped with almond meringue crunch. The sponge cake, soaked in three milks, had a decidedly strong almond flavor, which I appreciated. I loved the very soft texture of the cake, which was perfectly sweet and a great end to my meal.
In addition to the delicious food, and fun atmosphere, we can't speak highly enough of our server, who impressed us with his knowledge of the food. How he remembered all the specials in such detail, we will never know. He was attentive and personable, and we wish we could clone him for other restaurants.
Vida Cantina may not be located in hip downtown Portsmouth, but it's worth the drive down Route 1 to enjoy some unique, delicious food and great service.