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Venue Review: Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina

A heaping serving of smart
Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina
By "Helen Schwab"
The Charlotte Observer

210 E. Trade St. at EpiCentre

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What's best about Vida is that it's smart.

Smart look, smart service and a really smart menu: diverse in both price and degree of innovation, meaning uncommon dishes share space with familiar ones.

Add to those a plethora of tequilas and a 100-calorie margarita (note: I abhor this concept, but it's still smart), and you've got something for just about anyone.

Best in show on our visits goes to perfectly turned out pork green chile stew: big, tender chunks of pork in a near-puree of green chiles, served with a good, warm flour tortilla, plus avocado and lime, plus two sides. Seated at a booth amid handsome wood walls and art glass lights, with a stylish night view of uptown, you're not expecting a big bowl of good for 11 bucks. Or at least I'm not, these days.

So this is refreshing. So is the fact that servers work to be friendly, help each other and are well-educated about the fare.

You can certainly spend more: Filet mignon topped with poblano pesto and cheese (a chef favorite) goes for $25, surf and turf tacos use filet and butter-poached lobster tail for $24, and enchiladas with lump crab and shrimp cost $18.

But I'd suggest making a study of tequilas instead, given the place not only has an impressive list but offers flights as well. The less adventurous could go for a Millionaire's Margarita, which includes Corzo blanco and enough Grand Marnier that that's all you taste, for $15.

You can peruse the drink list in the bottle-decorated bar, or on the nook of a patio overlooking the corner of College and Trade. But those are significantly louder than the dining area, which is segmented into booths. (The Latino-infused playlist - "Chain of Fools"? Really? - still reverberates, but not as much.)

Other winning dishes: an upscale carne asada, grilled to order, sliced and layered attractively; salmon with a fruit sauce whose name means "tablecloth stainer") and carnitas (which chef/partner Chris Swinyard calls "an old-style Mexican grandma recipe, with orange, cinnamon, a little milk... then lard and frying it again: It's everything you don't want to hear about... and all kinds of yummy"). Indeed.

Don't miss the side of ripe plantain and black bean mash: Pretty, it ain't, but delicious. Guacamole is made tableside, offering diners the option of skipping onions, jalapenos and/or cilantro (though you shouldn't). I've never quite understood tableside guac allure. Diners tend not to interact, and it's not as if it's a showy process. But at least offering diners options makes some sense.

Disappointing: chicken crusted with red chiles and pecans (tough) and ceviche of lump crab and shrimp in which the latter had gone considerably past tender.

Everything's served up with a generous hand, so plan on sharing or toting boxes. Desserts, particularly, were oversized; the banana-heavy version of tres leches cake was huge.

Swinyard says the place has seen about 30 percent more volume than he and partner Sean O'Brien anticipated, which is good and bad: "We're adjusting. We're learning and moving forward."

His resume includes exec chef work at Red Sage in Washington D.C. and Dean & Deluca in New York City, while O'Brien was managing partner at Charlotte's Capital Grille for more than a decade.

Their experience and seasoning show. Vida's good, and I expect it will improve.

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11/12/2010 - The Charlotte Observer - Helen Schwab

From the look to the service to the menu and - of course - the food, Vida does it all well.

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