…he’s the chef and owner of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, and owner of Ore Nell’s Barbeque in Kittery, Maine, working with chef Will Myska on his Texas-style barbeque menu. He’s launched Vida Tortilla with Joel Harris from Dos Amigos Burritos, making corn tortillas from locally grown heritage corn and they now supply 5,000 tortillas a week to local restaurants. Recently, he became the Operations Manager for all of the Dos Amigos locations and will bring more of his culinary concepts to those restaurants, too. So, yes, it’s been a very busy five years.
We were dining at Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, N.H., arguably one of the best, most authentic Mexican restaurants in New England. The colorful, casual restaurant is located outside the city’s buzzing downtown, in a barely converted Friendly’s restaurant, along a busy road lined with strip malls and fast food joints. It’s a quirky spot, but diners in the know, craving south-of-the-border food, crowd the place.
This former fast-food joint dances with vibrant colors and serves bright, beautiful dishes to match. Chef-Owner David Vargas channels the traditional tastes of Mexico, but delivers them in slightly tweaked formats. His pork belly tacos are a popular pick. Housemade tortillas are layered with jicama slaw and crisp slabs of spice-laden pork belly, then topped with mango salsa, Cotija cheese and a flurry of fresh flower petals.
Special Dishes: Pork Belly Tacos, Pig Head Platter
Roger Mooking travels the country to discover the top fifteen greatest pork dishes. Regional pride and bragging rights are a big part of the evolution of these exceptional pork dishes, not to mention the unbelievable variety. Pig cheeks, pig feet, bacon bombs, ribs, ham, pork wings, and whole hog are all a delicious part of the wide world of pork.
Tortillas from scratch, pork belly tacos, and drinks that will send you over the border, tonight we head to Vida Cantina in Portsmouth where for Chef Vargas and crew everyday is Cinco de Mayo, and a chance to embrace authentic Mexican cuisine.
WHDH 7's Sarah French is at Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to learn how to make shrimp gazpacho in this week's "What's Cooking."
Recognize the exterior? Yep, this used to be a Friendly’s. Located almost four miles outside of downtown Portsmouth, this one’s a drive rather than a walk, but it’s worth the trip for tacos (confit pork belly, mushroom “chorizo,” and more), enchiladas, and the signature pig head platter for four. There’s a large selection of tequila — try a flight — and plenty of margaritas. Swing by during happy hour (4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday) for discounted bites and drinks. $5 house margarita, anyone?
You can’t get fresher ingredients in your food than a farm to table restaurant like Vida Cantina and the effort and dedication that not only their owners, but their staff as well - put into the establishment truly is exemplified in their dishes, their atmosphere and their quality of service. I would highly recommend stopping by and tasting Vida Cantina for yourself this Cinco De Mayo (or any other day of the year). When you do stop in, don’t forget to try one of their margaritas with a choice of over forty different tequilas!
Chef David Vargas is the real deal. A son of Mexican immigrants, he is creating a modern version of authentic dishes packed with flavor and presented with a flair and local sourcing. It’s all here. Tacos come on house-made tortillas, including the local fish marinated in mezcal and tempura fried for a Baja taco. Try the marinated carne asada with two eggs, kale salad and potato cake for a Mexican version of steak and eggs for brunch. Find enchiladas with black mole or local braised beef on the dinner menu, as well as a 30-hour sous vide carne al pastor.
Chef David Vargas’s passion for Mexican cuisine oozes out of every aspect of the Vida Cantina menu. Keeping on point with that ooey, gooey feel is their contribution to this month’s theme, ‘Goat Cheese Fundido’. “It really is gluttony at its best,” says Chef Vargas. “It comes to to table still bubbling from the oven with its oils dripping all over,” he describes.
After working for JBF Award winners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier at their acclaimed restaurants in Ogunquit, Maine, David Vargas relocated to New Hampshire to open his own eatery, the charming Vida Cantina, where he serves a vibrant Mexican menu inspired by his family’s heritage.
Photos by Megan Swann
There was a chef shift at Vida well over a year ago and now that David Vargas is the Executive Chef, (he’s also the EC at Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Cafe), Vida has become one of the top 10 restaurants on the Seacoast (and even in the greater New England region) in my book (which, at least while you’re reading this, is the only book that matters). Vargas has taken the Vida vision and cranked it up to 11, creating delicious, real Mexican cuisine using our local and seasonal ingredients and challenging us to get the hell out of our comfort zone at the same time.
This jaunty cantina's owners take pride in serving locally-grown and organic produce where possible, and even make their own tortillas using local heirloom corn. The chef's wife is vegan, so the meatless dishes aren't just an afterthought.
Jay McSharry’s take on re-envisioned Mexican cuisine is housed in a former Friendly’s restaurant. Charming booth seating remains and so does the ice cream made in house, this time with a more creative inclination and local cream. Recently the bar area was expanded so there is more room to start sampling the 40 tequilas and interesting margaritas on the drink list. Specials add interest to the short entrée menu, which features local seafood. Find authentic Mexican cheeses, queso fresco and Oaxaca in enchiladas with slow-roasted chicken or smoked beef brisket. Cod from our coast can be the centerpiece of the fish taco while local flounder is marinated in a ceviche appetizer. Pretty presentations are part of the appeal too. Just love those tiny cast iron skillets.
For this month’s theme we are celebrating the most important meal of the day, breakfast. Vida Cantina’s best-selling item on the menu is the Huevos Rancheros, but for this series we are featuring their Chilaquiles.
“We make them in a classic, traditional style, just like Mom used to make,” describes Chef Vargas. The bowl is filled with smothered, lightly spiced, tortilla chips, fresh guacamole and salsa, but the real standout here are the super fresh eggs. They get them delivered weekly from White Gate Farm in Epping.
Slide into a comfy booth and order a ﬂight of salsas to top one of their popular tacos, or head straight for standout entrees like Pepita Crusted Scallops with crisp and creamy pork belly or the Slow Roasted Chicken Enchiladas. In case you need a reason to rush back, the lunch menu offers a variety of tortas (sandwiches) on house-made bread, served to the beat of the mariachi.
Everyone loves brunch, but if you’re looking for a twist for next Sunday, visit Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, where you can brunch south of the border. The blueberry pancakes come with agave syrup or try a Mexican classic like huevos rancheros or chilaquiles. Oh, and did we mention the homemade donuts? Don’t leave without one (or three) of those.
David Vargas, Vida Cantina, Portsmouth