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Photographs by Kevin A. Roberts
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When we paid a visit to Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina earlier this week, there were 117 tequilas floating above the rectangular bar, alphabetized and organized by type--silver, reposado, and añejo. When another scribe stopped by later, the count had risen to 120. Suffice to say, Vida has the deepest tequila selection in town, no matter what the day. One could opt for a margarita (widely regarded as "the most popular cocktail in America"), or indulge in a flight of three tequilas: nine structured flights are listed on Vida's tequila menu, but we'd wager that with 120 available, some improvisation is possible.
Although Vida seats over 200, all cocktails are given the same attention they'd get in a much smaller establishment: all margaritas are hand-shaken and all juices are fresh-squeezed daily.
From its size and location, the place looks and sounds like a chain restaurant, but it's not. Not right now, anyway. The only other unit is the 2-year old flagship, located in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Relish caught wind of Vida's St. Louis intentions back in June of last year.)
In the kitchen, Vida's emphasis is on the trending "fresh Mexican" approach, i.e., using no pre-made products, which "puts stronger flavors on the plate," according to Ryan Bentley, one of the Charlotte-based chefs in town for the opening.
There was a time when Mexican food was assembled and served quickly from components held for hours in a steam table. That time has passed. Bentley reminded us that today's customer now expects higher-quality products, like locally-made 100% corn tortillas, chips (almost) made to order, and flour tortillas that are free of fillers. And slicker presentations, like guacamole made on demand and served in a molcajete. Vida's website calls the approach "evolved Mexican cuisine."
So the culinary focus at Vida is not a literal interpretation, but rather food that is Mexican-inspired with some contemporary touches. Cases in point: an 8 oz. beef filet accented by a pesto made from poblano peppers and almonds; a salmon with grilled pineapple salsa and manchamantel (literally "tablecloth stainer"), an aromatic, fruit-spiked, tomato-based sauce (below left); and perhaps the most unusual, chicken tinga, red chile chicken and chorizo simmered in a blackened tomato salsa, then topped with a sunny-side up egg. The latter has been an early crowd-pleaser--and it doesn't hurt that it's priced at $12.99.
We also like the spin that Vida puts on the ubiquitous nacho: of course you can get the sharable version served on a platter, but consider a more civilized iteration (above right), where either carne asada or lump crabmeat (along with an array of other goodies) are hand-placed atop individual chips, so the toppings end up in your mouth, not on the front of your shirt.
Sweets are big in Mexico, and the few we sampled we'd order again: cinnamon-sugared churros (below left) benefited from a side of warm, Mexican dipping chocolate; and a tres leches cake (below right) was made even more moist by the addition of roasted bananas.
A few cautions and caveats: the ceviche here is properly designated as a ceviche cocktail, with plentiful shrimp and knobs of lump crabmeat (below). Fans of the Mexican shrimp cocktail will love it; aficionados of traditional lime-cooked ceviche should expect a different twist.
Vida's name could be misinterpreted as well: where "cantina" may conjure some faux, ramshackle lean-to dolled up in bright pastels, Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina is just the opposite: walls in rich earth tones, dark wood tables and chairs with comfortable seats made from woven nylon (the same material used to make automotive seat belts). Wall art consists of bouncy and colorful collages. The result is a pleasant diversion from the kitschy faux-brick-and-terracotta-tile-bedecked dining room we've all seen plenty of. The largest piece is in the mallway (below) and alerts the curious that Vida is different, about 180 degrees from the aforementioned "cantina."
According to GM Drew Graefe, St. Louis (and the St. Louis Galleria in particular) was chosen because of its "traffic, centrality, and demographics." Our take: it's the perfect fit for its mid-county location. It's also positioned itself properly on the mass market's culinary timeline.
After a week long soft opening, Vida opened officially on November 1.
Vida Mexican Kitchen Y Cantina
1137 St. Louis Galleria (formerly Houlihan's)
Lunch and dinner daily, plus Saturday & Sunday brunch.