Restaurants

Is the East Coast’s Best Mexican Food at Vida Cantina, a Former Friendly’s in New Hampshire?

A nationally-lauded chef perfects tacos, enchiladas, and more amid Granite State strip malls.


Inside the colorful Vida Cantina. / Courtesy photo

Fun fact: A James Beard Award–nominated chef is making some of the best Mexican food on the East Coast in a former Friendly’s in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Yes, really.

Vida Cantina isn’t an obvious destination for day-trippers lured by Portsmouth’s marinas and increasingly lauded cache of bars and restaurants. In fact, I first happened upon chef David Vargas’s quiet, casual stunner off the Route 1 bypass while looking for a Walmart. It was late. I was full. Yet I braked at the sight of a white-brick wall scrawled with voluminous red letters: “Vida Cantina.” Curiosity—and the rich, lambent backlight of an “Open” sign—stoked my appetite.

As it turned out, my instincts were spot-on. Inside, I found a vibe completely at odds with the strip-mall-adjacent locale: plush pink and red décor, dark wood, and the blink of another welcome sign: “Hola.” Endearingly, though, I still sensed the bones of the Friendly’s era as plates emerged from a small line of cooks to the wraparound bar and remodeled booths.

Inside the colorful Vida Cantina. / Courtesy photo

As resourceful as Vargas was with Vida Cantina’s footprint, he’s even more so with the food: The chef’s Mexican heritage (his parents are from Jalisco) and New Hampshire’s bounty find a common language in a locally based menu. I tasted that seamless synthesis in exceptional house-made tortillas with freshly milled local corn; seasonal staples, including husky enchiladas laden with farm-sourced black turtle beans and tomatillo-braised chicken; and oft-changing specials, such as roasted pink oyster mushrooms with Oaxacan black mole powder.

By the end of the meal, what once seemed incongruous now felt utterly at home—prompting the kind of gut-deep, intangible warmth that, even more than a fantastic enchilada and one hell of a margarita, tends to turn random diners into regulars. I felt it again one recent evening, tucking into a velvety tortilla layered with blue-corn-fried shrimp, baja slaw, and salsa de aguacate, washed down with a house-made agua frescsa. It was early on a Wednesday night, and the parking lot was full. Nobody was looking for a Walmart.

Ale House Inn’s cozy common space. / Photo by Rare Brick

Vida Cantina
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Miles from Boston: 57
603-501-0648, vidacantinanh.com.

STAY

Say cheers to the Ale House Inn (starting at $209 per night), a restored, 19th-century brick warehouse that formerly housed kegs for Portsmouth Brewing Company. At check-in, guests receive complimentary bottles from local brewery Smuttynose, not to mention ample advice for a beer crawl at other nearby favorites, including Earth Eagle, Liar’s Bench, and Great Rhythm.

603-431-7760, alehouseinn.com.

PLAY

A mash-up of a live performance venue, contemporary art gallery, and locally minded restaurant, 3S Artspace is a major player in the hipification of historical Portsmouth. Check out a concert, artsy parties, or summer exhibitions showcasing bold watercolors or wood-fired ceramics.

603-766-3330, 3arts.org.

Portsmouth’s trendy 3S Artspace. / Photo by David Murray

Read more about the Ultimate Five-Star Foodie Road Trip