Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina (South Brentwood Boulevard & Clayton Road, Richmond Heights; 314-863-1150) opened its doors this week at the Saint Louis Galleria. Gut Check spoke with head chef Chris Swinyard to get the lowdown on everything from the restaurant's "traditional guacamole" to its margaritas.
The first Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina opened in Charlotte, North Carolina, but the St. Louis location has dropped a few items from that menu and added a few of its own. You'll find both traditional dishes such as tender carnitas and Americanized options like bulging burritos.
Swinyard says adding burritos led to a bit of a debate among the staff about the dish's authenticity, or lack thereof, but in the end, they wanted to give people something familiar that they know and love.
He adds, "If we're going to do a burrito, we're going to do the best burrito we possibly can."
Swinyard explains that the Vida team worked together to create something they would be proud to serve and enjoy eating: "It's really just an evolution of us talking about food we like."
"I've always dreamed of having a Mexican restaurant, " Swinyard says. "We want to stay authentic but have fun with it too."
When Gut Check asks Swinyard which menu item was his favorite mix of authenticity and creativity, he immediately points out the "Filet Mignon with Poblano Pesto," an eight-ounce filet topped with a homemade poblano-pesto sauce along with the house cheese blend and served with a blackened tomatillo salsa and grilled green onions.
Swinyard is also quite proud of what he considers his most authentic dish, the carnitas. Everything from the high quality CAB meat to the preparation process is just like it is in Mexico. The slightly tweaked recipe is based on one created by the Mexican grandmother of one of the chefs at Vida's Charlotte location. The carnitas are cooked in clarified lard and marinated overnight. Vida has a prep team working sixteen hours a day to make sure things like the carnitas as well as the barbacoa meat -- which is marinated for a whopping 24 hours -- are always perfectly seasoned and cooked.
Swinyard is so dedicated to the authenticity of his cuisine that he plans annual trips to Mexico for his St. Louis and Charlotte cooking teams. "I'll take the team to Mexico for a weeklong culinary school," he says. The goal is to keep the menu fresh and never considered it completely finished.
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