Best Mexican north of the (Massachusetts) border
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — There is no dainty way to eat a pig’s head. Ours arrived on a giant wood platter surrounded by a flight of homemade salsas, onions, fresh cilantro, lime wedges, and warm, house-made corn tortillas. It was dressed with pretty edible flowers, and it drew attention from nearby diners, who gawked and asked about ordering one themselves. The pig’s head platter for two (it was plenty enough for four) was already sold out for the evening.
We were dining at Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, N.H., arguably one of the best, most authentic Mexican restaurants in New England. The colorful, casual restaurant is located outside the city’s buzzing downtown, in a barely converted Friendly’s restaurant, along a busy road lined with strip malls and fast food joints. It’s a quirky spot, but diners in the know, craving south-of-the-border food, crowd the place.
We had started with chips and house-made salsas — salsa fresca, salsa verde, and mango habanero — followed by the ultra-fresh tuna ceviche with avocado, mango, and crunchy peanuts. What to drink? There was house Sangria, an impressive list of tequilas and mezcals, Mexican cervezas and local draft beers, specialty cocktails and margaritas, including the house margarita made with El Jimador tequila, triple sec, fresh squeezed lime juice, and a touch of agave. April Teth, our server, suggested we try their special tequila, made exclusively in collaboration with Tequila Herradura at their facility in Guadalajara, Mexico. We tried a few sips straight, and then had it substituted for the El Jimador in the house margarita. And then the platter arrived.
We got to work on the bronzed, crispy pig’s head with our knives and forks, uncovering sweet, fatty treasure. At one point, we dismissed utensils and picked the meat out with our fingers — rich, sweet, salty, fatty, warm deliciousness.
There aren’t a lot of places where you can get a pig’s head cooked to perfection; not many New England chefs offer it. This one, which Guy Fieri showcased on national TV, took two days to prepare. The first day, it was prepped and brined; the second day it was cooked slowly in its own juices. They heated it up in a 500-degree oven when we ordered it.
“It began when a local farmer came up to me and told me that pig’s head is a product that was being wasted,” says chef-owner David Vargas. “He asked if I thought there was some way to use it, and I said absolutely!”
Vargas is nearly evangelistic about using local ingredients, and possesses a strong waste-not, want-not ethos. The list of local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who supply the restaurant’s ingredients is huge. For example, N.H. Community Seafood provides the catch of the week for Vida’s popular fish tacos. We’ve had them mezcal-battered with slaw and guacamole.
“It could be pollack, dogfish, cod — you never know!” says Vargas. “It’s fun to be creative and make it work.”
Riverside Farms in South Berwick, Maine, delivers more than 40 pounds of kale a week; they built a greenhouse just to grow kale for Vida Cantina yearlong. It comes topped with almonds, cojita cheese, and crunchy masa croutons, drizzled with a tangy sherry vinaigrette.
Each dish on the menu is labeled vegetarian, gluten-free or vegan, and most dishes can be modified. Vargas says the vegan dishes, inspired by his wife, are his favorites, including the Tofu Ranchera served with a pickled carrot slaw and boom-spiced peanuts, and the Jackfruit “Carnitas” served with homemade cashew cheese and chipotle slaw. They’re good examples of how Vargas, whose parents have Mexican lineage, interprets traditional cuisine, using local ingredients and modern flourish.
“These flavors remind me of my childhood,” Vargas says. “I have visions of how my parents prepared our food when we were young, and this is a nod to that.”
There were other items on the menu that piqued our interest, like the daily special tecate poached shrimp gazpacho with charred avocado, and the cilantro lime gnocchi with chimichurri, and jalapeno butter. And other nights, we’ve dined on slow-roasted pork and blue corn fried shrimp tacos, and tender guajillo braised beef enchiladas with a zippy red chili sauce.
But, this night, we enjoyed the almost-decadent pig’s head, a messy, juicy, fatty, crispy delight.
Vida Cantina, 2456 Lafayette Road, Portsmouth, N.H., 603-501-0648, www.vida