Customer Insight

Vida Cantina: Bringing Unique Mexican Cuisine to the Seacoast

If you’re craving authentic Mexican cuisine, but love a modern and creative twist on foods, then Vida Cantina in Portsmouth is going to be your new favorite spot.

We sat down with chef and owner David Vargas and he gave us the scoop on how it all came into place for him. “I’ve been doing this for a long time now”, he began, “my parents opened up restaurant when I was 11.” He pondered the idea of going down a different career path, but something always pulled him back into the restaurant industry.

Before Vargas committed to culinary school, he thought he wanted to major in business, “I didn’t really know what I was going to do, I went to a few different colleges.” He began cooking for himself and found himself more and more interested in being creative with his food and felt the desire to cook for other people. Vargas felt that was what he truly wanted to do, and so he went to culinary school out in Minneapolis. Any chef would agree with David when he tells us that culinary school doesn’t prepare you for what it is truly like to work in the restaurant world. “You have to work yourself into it” he says.

He then, if you can imagine, worked at a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant and washed dishes at a Japanese restaurant. “I was just trying to take in as much as I could from everything…and it’s been an awesome ride so far,” Vargas told us with a smile on his face. “More and more it’s just about knowledge and the talented people you surround yourself with.” He feels very lucky to be surrounded by the talented chefs that continuously push him and drive him to be better.

David moved around to a couple different places, including California, and the Caribbean, where he was a personal chef, with all experiences and cultures influencing his intricate style of cooking today. His wife is originally from the Seacoast are, so they decided to move back in 2010. “We picked the seacoast, and it’s been awesome ever since,” David told us.

After their move, Vargas began his chef life at M.C. Perkins Cove, where he stayed until he realized that if he couldn’t move up then it was time to move on, which lead him to what was then Bonta in Hampton, NH as a sous chef. When their chef at the time left, he replaced him until it was sold to become CR’s. Vargas bounced around to a couple different places, and took about four months off to try and figure out what his next step was, and then came the opportunity with Vida Cantina. “It landed into my lap,” is how he described getting to his current position.  “I’ve been very, very lucky.” Vargas affirmed.

“It’s part of a bigger group – the seacoast restaurant group that includes, Jumpin’ Jays, Moxie, Franklin Oyster House, White Heron Tea. Each restaurant is their own, we just come to each other for help.” Vargas enlightened us.

“Mexican food is what I know…what I’ve always wanted to end up doing, Mexican culture is all about fresh cuisine.” He took over Vida Cantina in August 2014. “It’s been an awesome, awesome ride!” Vargas happily told us. “We do a modern interpretation of Mexican food.” He describes it as a “taco destination”. For the most part they do everything from scratch at Vida Cantina, minus just a few things.

On top of being the owner of Vida Cantina, Vargas is also the Corporate Executive Chef of Jumpin Jay’s Fish Café. He was given the opportunity with Jumpin’ Jays about a year after beginning at Vida Cantina. He balances his time between both restaurants, devoting about 90 ours a week to his passion.

“We put our own touch, our own colors, our own swag, I guess you could say.” They are continuing to become their own and evolve more and more each year. The first year at Vida Cantina was all about figuring out how they wanted to do things, and they’ve made many changes, like devoting themselves to making homemade taco shells. They thought, ‘how can we elevate our tortillas even more?’ “We outsourced to a local farm now that grows all our corn for us and then we grind all our corn… we’ve been elevating ourselves month after month.” David asserted that Vida Cantina is not just a place to dine. “It’s not just what’s going to help our restaurant survive, but what’s going to help our community survive…” That’s the difference. “We are a place where you have to tell a story, what we are, what we’re doing here, this is what it is…not your typical Mexican cuisine.”

An important milestone that put everything into perspective for Chef Vargas was when Food Network came calling and they were lucky enough to see Vida Cantina featured on Diners, Drive-In’s and Drives. “It’s a really good feeling.” This certainly spiked interest in the restaurant, and the team had people calling and emailing from all over the country after their episode aired. “It’s nice to finally feel like you’re getting somewhere and progressing in this career, because sometimes you don’t, this career can definitely eat you up if you let it…” Vargas says. Social media has been the biggest thing for Vida Cantina as far as marketing, and they’ve also done some events, like a food and wine festival in New York. They are continuing to get more and more press.

In the beginning, it was a bit challenging when David had to learn to find a balance between his vision and what would actually work for Mexican cuisine in New England, but it has been a positive experience for him to learn what the customer base here wants and expects and how he can make it work. He began observing everything inside the restaurant and he listened to the people, which has made it easier to improve. “The critique of the chef is a reflection of the restaurant.” Vargas says you must listen, review, and focus, and that you’re not going to be able to please everybody all the time, but “you have to stay true to what you are, no way any body’s going to stop you.” Vargas feels like this year was their break out year.

Their margarita is simply fresh squeezed lime juice, organic agave nectar, El Jimador tequila, and triple sec. Their Happy Hour includes half off drafts and wine by the glass, and a reduced price on margaritas and sangria, as well as a Happy Hour Menu which includes mostly bar snack foods, which takes places from 4pm-6pm Monday through Friday. Their hours are Monday-Thursday 4pm-9pm, Friday and Saturday 11am-10pm, and Sunday 11am-9pm, and on Sunday they do brunch. “We used to be open every day at 11, then they realized that lunch during the week wasn’t working out. We pushed all business to the night time during the week.” And this has changed has worked out for them. The shops and the movie theater and the area itself have aided them in their success, once again proving that location is key.

We asked David what a typical day for him entials. “It all depends on the day, it balances between both restaurants for me.” He checks in and preps until about 2:00 at Vida Cantina, then he goes over and works at Jumpin’ Jay’s all night. There is a Chef De Cuisine right under him and Sous Chef under that person at both restaurants to hold down the fort if he isn’t present at one.

When it comes to staffing and being ‘the boss’, Vargas told us, “the biggest thing is hiring the right people, and knowing if they’re not the right people to let them go. To succeed, the staff has to be surrounded by professional people. Commitment to help them succeed and show them you believe in them. We’ve been very lucky here, and we’ve been very lucky at Jumpin’ Jay’s.” He goes on to say, “when the place is professional and happy, people will want to work there and we get great people because of the environment that has been created.”

The menu ideas at Vida Cantina stem from David’s eclectic background. Their menu is a combination of Mexican cuisine, with touches of Caribbean, Italian, and Asian inspiration. He says that in modern Mexican cuisine you can get away with interpreting things your own way, so their menu has been influenced by many cultures and dishes. They’ve done an Italian themed meal before with Mexican touches, and they’ve also incorporated Asian cuisine into their Mexican dishes. “We continue you to push the limits for what we can do, have more and more fun with it and see what we can do.”

Their area of Portsmouth is continuing to expand, with restaurants, condos, etc. being added to the strip. Although Vargas and his team are almost positive they will stay in their current location, when the lease is up, they might consider changing that, or they might just purchase their current one. Only time will tell!

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