I shouldn't like Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina. Starting with that name: the empty, abstract noun (Life!), the condescending y. It's in a shopping mall. It's a chain, with the same parent company (Charlotte-based Bar Management Group) as its Saint Louis Galleria neighbor, the equally uninspiringly monikered BlackFinn American Grille.
It serves a "signature" skinny margarita.
Undeniably, Vida panders to a certain yoga-pantsed demographic. But I'll be damned if this sleek, three-month-old spot doesn't serve decent grub.
Regular readers of this column won't be surprised to learn that I immediately opened Vida's extensive menu to the taco selection. These are taqueria-style tacos fattened to American portions. And prices: At lunch a plate of two tacos al pastor and one side costs $8.99; at dinner the asking price elevates to $13.99. Are these numbers absurd relative to what you'd spend for tacos on Cherokee Street or in north county? Absolutely. Then again, if you already have a go-to spot for tacos, you're not what Vida's aiming for.
Vida's target market has never heard of tacos al pastor, and the restaurant provides a fine first impression: a single corn tortilla per taco (as opposed to a stacked pair you get at a taqueria) overloaded with roasted pork and juicy grilled pineapple in a rich, red-chile-laced manchamantel sauce (from Oaxaca — it literally translates as "tablecloth staining"), garnished with cilantro, onion and shredded cheese. Tacos with braised, shredded short-rib meat are even better. The chipotles in the braise lend a smoky-hot note to the meat, while an avocado-serrano chile salsa adds a touch of sweetness and additional heat. (As a gateway to a true taqueria experience, the beef's texture provides a fair approximation of succulent tacos de cabeza.)
The enchiladas aren't the gringo-friendly standard of blandly seasoned meat inside corn tortillas that have been smothered in melted cheese and generic ranchero sauce. Instead they feature simple, appealing arrangements, such as sautéed spinach and chicken tinged with red chile in a chipotle-queso sauce, and pork and avocado in chile-verde sauce.
Vida's entrées include a few dishes more notable for their price tag than any claims to Mexican authenticity: a $25 filet mignon (but with blackened tomatillo salsa!), a $26 seared ahi tuna (but with mango-habanero salsa!). Several servers recommended the carnitas entrée, said to be a recipe passed down from the Mexican grandmother of a cook at the incipient chain's flagship location in Charlotte. The exterior of the pork bears the deep-brown color of proper carnitas, but the meat has none of the succulence. Mine was nothing short of desiccated.
But that initial crunch of crisp pork is beguiling, is it not? Sure, you can find better carnitas in St. Louis. I'd suggest where, but if a stop at Vida marks the start of your quest, I prefer to let you enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
Slideshow: Photos of Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina
I want to love Arcelia's. Sometimes I think I do. When the basket of complimentary tortilla chips arrives, and I see from the glimmer of oil that they are fresh from the deep-fryer and not merely warm but burn-your-tongue hot: I love Arcelia's then. When I see the photographs of the restaurant's late founder and namesake, Arcelia Sanchez, on the walls, or the many awards it has won from this and other publications: I love Arcelia's then, too.
How can you not root for Arcelia's? The restaurant didn't open this past October so much as rise from the dead. The original Arcelia's shuttered three years ago, ending a twenty-year run for the St. Louis institution. (Sanchez herself had died in a car accident in 2003.) In 2011, a new owner, Pat Shelton, bought the restaurant's building in Lafayette Square and announced plans to reopen it as Arcelia's. However, when she finally did open her restaurant last summer, it had a new name — Laredo on Lafayette Square — and a different menu.
Meanwhile, Sanchez's family, led by her daughter, Marta Ramirez, announced plans to reopen Arcelia's in a new location just east of the Gravois Avenue-Interstate 44/55 interchange in Soulard. Not only would this new Arcelia's feature much of the original restaurant's menu, it would also serve as an almost-literal homecoming. Arcelia's version 1.0 opened at South Ninth and Victor streets in Soulard in the early 1980s before moving to Lafayette Square.
But you could know exactly none of Arcelia's back-story and still feel a sense of déjà vu there. Will an order of the pork chile verde bring bits of meat swimming in a tomatillo-tangy, mildly spicy and a tad oily sauce, with refried beans and "Spanish" rice on the side? It will. Does an order of chiles rellenos drown otherwise excellent deep-fried poblano chiles — lightly battered, oozing but not gushing melted cheese — in a thick, oddly creamsicle-colored and even more oddly flavorless sauce, with refried beans and "Spanish" rice on the side? It does. Are the tamales too much masa, not enough meat, and served diner-style, topped with chili? They are.
The menu avoids the clutter that bedevils so many Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. You don't have to page through dozens upon dozens of dishes and dozens upon dozens of combination platters of those same dishes. I would say simpler is better. Carne en su jugo, flank steak and pinto beans in a tomatillo-bacon broth, is a straightforward pleasure: meaty, tangy and spicy. The fish tacos are an unimpeachable version of the species. Yet a basic quesadilla with grilled steak suffers from too little cheese; it's more like a steak wrap doused with sour cream. And a seemingly slam-dunk dish, guacamole, is woefully underseasoned.
The most telling thing I saw at Arcelia's wasn't a piece of food but a picture on the wall opposite the bar: a portrait of the "Most Interesting Man in the World," the character from the Dos Equis ad campaign. Here is exactly the sort of crass pandering that I expected to find in Vida. Yet that restaurant, a national chain in a shopping mall, succeeds in acknowledging how our understanding of Mexican cuisine has evolved over the past few years.
Arcelia's has come full circle, returning to Soulard. What it still must do is move forward.