Vida Cantina server Robert Johonnett, center, takes orders in a packed dining room on a recent Thursday evening. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

I’ve seen efficient service before, but until I visited Vida Cantina for dinner last week, I had never seen someone serve two booths at once. It was a striking scene, watching this cartoon Road Runner of a young man dart into the space between my table and my neighbors’ and simultaneously deliver two baskets of “bottomless” chips and salsa ($8).

More remarkable was what he said, arms outstretched. To both booths, he explained, “Here’s our homemade salsa, nice and oniony today, and a basket of our own, homemade tortilla chips that we make with our own, homemade masa corn flour.”

One smart aleck at the next table laughed and quipped back, “So next you’re going to tell us that you grow everything yourself, too.”

Our server grinned broadly. I could tell he’d done this before. “Yes, I am,” he said. “Well, not the tomatoes, since it’s fricking cold in Portsmouth in March, but we do grow our own corn, 100%.” This shut up our neighbors, who gulped out a few “oohs,” “huhs” and “Oh, wows.”

Really, what else could they say?

Me, I was already shtum, happily quieted by a sip of my industrial-strength El Magico margarita ($15) and a handful of those freshly fried, salt-seasoned chips I’d dunked into the tangy, garlickly salsa fresca. But I did grab my menu and reread descriptions to see what items and ingredients were listed as house-made. There were quite a few.


That’s how, five minutes into my meal, I had my first questions for chef/co-owner David Vargas, who opened his modern, pan-Mexican restaurant, Vida Cantina in 2013, on what was then a sleepy stretch of U.S. Route 1.

“We’re really most proud of the Masa Project. It’s a revolution that started around Year 3, when we were already making homemade tortillas and buying corn to do the nixtamal process (soaking corn in a high pH solution to release nutrients and transform it into a malleable dough). We played around, toying with the idea to see if we could maybe grow the corn ourselves,” he said. “And now, we just harvested three entire acres of heirloom and indigenous corn at Tuckaway Farm in Lee (New Hampshire). We’re able to harvest enough for the restaurant and to sustain the local community, too.”

Vargas, a Southern California transplant of Mexican heritage who worked at MC Perkins Cove before opening his Portsmouth restaurant, clearly believes in local sourcing and sustainability. He’s also ambitious enough to make it happen, even when area producers aren’t ready to supply him, just yet.

Heck, Vida Cantina even employs its own “forager” who, during the warmer months, comes in with boxes of edible wild ingredients she finds in the woods. In the winter, she decamps to Florida, where she cleans out a local “secret wild citrus spot” that yields the grapefruit for the Aperol Spritz ($13) and starfruit (not citrus, but still) for one of the restaurant’s several salsas (a flight of three is $11).

Vida Cantina’s carnitas enchiladas with Oaxacan black mole, served with rice and beans. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That exotic, unbelievably wild-and-sustainably sourced starfruit salsa pairs especially well with a carnitas-filled enchilada ($22), a tightly rolled tortilla stuffed with slow-cooked, savory pulled pork. And it really needs a little something extra, because dunked in a velvety, Oaxacan-style mole that gets its alarmingly Vantablack-like hue from burnt tortilla scraps and squid ink, it reveals bitter, funky overtones that need counterbalance.

Tacos at Vida Cantina. From left: marinated pollo with rajas and salsa verde; fried avocado with lemon cilantro aioli; OG Tofu Taco with cilantro cashew cheese, red cabbage, New Mexico chili vinaigrette. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

My dinner guest and I ran into a few other flavor balance issues with other dishes, as well. In particular, the tacos ($6 each), all made with fillings nestled into Vida Cantina’s bespoke, homegrown corn tortillas. The Marinated Pollo shared the enchilada’s too-bitter flavor profile, most likely due to overenthusiastic grilling of chicken thighs and bell-pepper rajas, while the masa-battered fried avocado was mostly bland, apart from sweetness from unripe, woody pineapple. My pick for best of a rather disappointing trio was the sticky-sweet, cashew-cheese-topped OG tofu taco, although this vegan option desperately needed a generous squeeze of lime.


For the most part, however, Vida Cantina gets seasoning right. Light, masa-battered sweet potato fries ($10) are a good example. Here, the hand-punched tubers get an extended bath in buttermilk before being dredged in corn starch, fried until that lacy coating turns fragile and crisp, and tossed with salt. Dip one into the accompanying New Mexico red chile aioli if you like, but they’re also fantastic plain.

Vida Cantina’s coconut tres leches cake with toasted coconut, vanilla ice cream and freeze-dried strawberries. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Pastry chef Juvia Lopez’s tres leches cake with homemade vanilla ice cream ($13) is another of Vida Cantina’s better dishes, from the dairy-soaked coconut-flecked base to the tart, pulverized strawberries that the kitchen sweetens with agave, then freeze-dries on-site. A few cooling spoonfuls of ice cream in, I remembered that this efflorescent space, from multi-colored neon ceiling tiles to cover a drop-ceiling, to evocative and impressionistic wallpaper featuring folky, Otomi-inspired animals, once housed a restaurant where diners would expect to be eating ice cream for dessert.

You can probably recognize the former Friendly’s from the outside, but inside, the space has been magically transformed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Being from California, I had never been to a Friendly’s before, but I knew it was an iconic place in New England,” Vargas told me. “The building was empty for a good amount of time, and since we completely redid it, we kept only a few things. One is the gigantic freezer for ice cream. It’s now a huge walk-in (cooler), which is really nice! We also kept the booths because Friendly’s must have had the most amazing algorithm for fitting the most people in a small space comfortably. We really embraced that, even though it looks completely different.”

He’s right. There is something Tardis-like about the space. Around every turn, there seems to be another seating zone. Under a tin sculpture that spells out “Hola” in lights, you’ll encounter comfy leather-embroidered bar seats. Follow those, and you’ll find yourself in room segmented by dozens of wood-paneled booths. All told, Vida Cantina can host 116 diners indoors and another 62 when the outdoor patio opens. And Vargas is right: Inside, the restaurant doesn’t resemble a Friendly’s.

Well, almost. A bite or two into my favorite dish, I got hit by a taste memory of the iconic Friendly’s Fishamajig, a cross between a grilled cheese and a fish filet sandwich. As flashbacks go, that’s a pleasant one.

Vida Cantina’s fried fish torta with Baja slaw, guacamole, pickled red onions and tortilla chips. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

At Vida Cantina, however, their take on the same concept is orders of magnitude better – less tartar and more torta. This particular Mexican street-food sandwich is served on pillowy, sweet homemade buns made by co-owner and baker Erika Vargas ($15). It only gets better: jalapeño crema slathered on one side of the split bun, fresh guacamole on the other, and in the center, an ample, masa-battered, deep-fried filet of Portsmouth-caught pollock strewn with pickled onions and crunchy Napa cabbage slaw.


I’m afraid my childhood memories of that sandwich have now officially been overwritten by tastier, fresher and more sustainable ones. “Oh, wow,” indeed.

Vida Cantina’s cucumber-lime aqua fresca. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ***1/2
WHERE: 2456 Lafayette Rd., Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 603-501-0648
SERVING: Monday to Thursday, 4-9 p.m., Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Snacks and tacos: $6-19, Mains and tortas: $14-35
NOISE LEVEL: Table-dancing scene in Rent
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Wine, beer, cocktails
BOTTOM LINE: Much has been made of the architectural transformation that chef/owner David Vargas undertook, turning a disused Friendly’s into a dynamic, modern Mexican restaurant. Decorated in vivid colors, folk-art-patterned wallpaper and illuminated sculpture, Vida Cantina is, as the name (“Life Kitchen”) implies, vital and animated. It’s a pleasure to sit inside and have a drink here, anything from a well-prepared margaritas to a tart, nonalcoholic cucumber-and-lime agua fresca ($4). Food – most of which is prepared from scratch, including homegrown, New Hampshire corn harvested to make the restaurant’s superb tortillas – is a fascinating case study of local sourcing. Overall, it’s quite tasty. Tacos and enchiladas can be off-kilter in seasoning and flavors, but dishes like craveable fried-pollock torta sandwiches, moist (and not-too-sweet) tres leches cake, and insanely crisp sweet potato fries battered in the restaurant’s house-farmed, harvested, ground and pounded masa are what make Vida Cantina worth a visit.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.