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For Portsmouth chef David Vargas, ‘Vida Cantina’ is more than just a restaurant. It’s a platform for local BIPOC communities.

Courtesy Photo

This year, three New Hampshire-based chefs are semifinalists for the James Beard Awards, which celebrate culinary talent around the U.S. Among them is David Vargas, Chicano chef and the owner of modern-Mexican restaurant Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It's not the first time Vargas has been nominated – he was a semifinalist for the Northeast’s best chef category in. 2019 and 2020.

NHPR's ¿Qué Hay de Nuevo, New Hampshire? interviewed Vargas recently, and here are three elements Vargas centers in his restaurant and cooking:

  • Originality: He prepares what he calls fresh Mexican food, his own vision of the food from Mexico. For example, he uses seasonal vegetables in some well-known plates: right now, his pozole has winter squash. 
  • Community: Last year, along with two colleagues, he organized the first BIPOC fest of the Seacoast. 
  • Local farmers: Vida Tortilla is his organic tortilla company based in Dover. These are the tortillas he uses for his restaurant tacos. 

Here’s more about what makes Vargas more than just a chef. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Vida Cantina started in 2013 as more than a restaurant, and as a platform to give voice to underserved communities 

When Vargas came to New Hampshire he saw that there weren't many people in the BIPOC community and he wanted to work within that community.

“I use my restaurant as a platform for the voice of everybody, for the voices of people that can't talk,” he said.

Last September, Vargas worked with two of his friends, Joanna Kelly, owner of Cup of Joe in Portsmouth, and Evan Mallett, owner of the Black Trumpet Bistro, to organize the Seacoast’s first BIPOC festival at Vida Cantina. Nearly 800 people showed up.

“I still have a smile from that day,” Vargas said. “We want it to grow.”

Vargas said this year the festival will be at Vida Cantina, but he and his friends are planning to host it in downtown Portsmouth next year, “because we already know it is going to grow and grow every year.”

Vida Cantina’s menu is different from the Mexican menus of the area (the mole negro has squid ink)

Many customers ask Vargas if he has quesadillas or burritos. He usually responds “I don't have that. I have a version of what I think Mexican food is.”

For him, Mexican food is just fresh food, and he sources a lot of his ingredients from local farms. He points to his pozole dish as an example of how he defines Mexican cooking.

“It is not the pozole we all know … it has corn and hominy, but it has local vegetables, right now it has winter squash and all that,” he said.

As for his mole negro, he adds squid ink.

At first, Vargas thought Vida Cantina wouldn’t make it in New Hampshire  

“During the first three years, it was tough for us,” Vargas said. Many people that came to the Cantina wanted the Mexican food they already knew. They wanted burritos, they wanted fajitas, they wanted cheese all over the food. Vargas didn't have that.

“I didn't think I was going to make it,” he said. “It was tough, teaching everyone what I was doing because I just wanted to prepare the food I wanted, what I thought was Mexican food.”

But he did end up adding familiar dishes to his menu, like enchiladas. When people order those dishes he uses that as a learning opportunity.

“Oh, look, I also have this food you can try that is different from the food you know.”

Vargas’ favorite: The one and only taco 

The tacos have a bit of history of the area because every taco that is eaten supports the community. The corn comes from three local farms, as a part of the Vida Tortilla project.

The James Beard award nominations are something Vargas didn’t expect  

When I got the first, three or four years ago, I was in tears … and this time for the third, I´m still in tears,” he said. “I’m just doing what I need to live, to earn money and give my family food,” he said. He didn’t expect a Mexican restaurant in New Hampshire could get a nomination like this.

But at the end of the day for Vargas, his work is about helping his community.

“I’m just doing what I want to do,” he said. “I can't believe it. It gives me value about what we are doing here.”

Restaurante de comida mexicana en Portsmouth
Courtesy Photo
Restaurante de comida mexicana en Portsmouth

Maria Aguirre is a bilingual journalist that currently lives and works remotely from her home in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She currently writes and produces ¿Qué Hay de Nuevo, New Hampshire?
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