La Vida Cantina
1870 Harbor Boulevard
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
It's got to be a little nerve-racking opening a restaurant in a spot where the former tenant failed so miserably. Even more tense when you are opening the same kind of restaurant in this maybe cursed location. I never had the pleasure, or displeasure of eating at El Corozon when it was around for not even a year and a half. I did hear plenty about it though.
El Corozon got one of the nastiest restaurant reviews I have ever read from the OC Register's Brad Johnson. They barely got two and a half stars on Yelp, and probably the main reason I steered clear of El Corozon was that I learned that they were owned by the same people that run Saddle Ranch, which is right across the way from this spot. I've given Saddle Ranch three tries, and have regretted it all three visits. I guess if you're the owners of La Vida Cantina, you have to hope that people can distinguish that you are a different Mexican restaurant, and that you have nowhere to go but up from here.
La Vida Cantina is owned by Identity Management Group, which also owns the very successful Sutra, which has helped bring new life into this shopping complex that has been re-branded as The Triangle, but will always be Triangle Square to me. It seems that the bad taste left by El Corozon has become a faded memory. Yelp reviews for La Vida are overwhelmingly positive, and they have a four star rating with over 500 reviews. There has also been some very good word of mouth among the food community in OC about this restaurant, so this had me very hopeful on this evening.
It not only had me hopeful, but judging from the crowd at La Vida Cantina on a recent Saturday, a lot of people are also pretty excited about this place. We were here for the OC Restaurant Week menu on this evening, and sat on the darkened patio out in front of the restaurant, which had an unmistakable resort feel to it. With the frivolity of this shopping center, it is quite easy to imagine yourself out, not in Costa Mesa, but maybe Cabo San Lucas. Let's see if the food lives up to the vacation vibe here.
As is our custom when eating in Mexican restaurants, we always want to give you a look at the Chips and Salsa that are provided at the start of the meal. Both of these were pretty stellar. The salsa had some good chunk to it, while adding a little spark of spice. The chips were fresh, and fried nicely. They were also not shy about refilling either of these once they got low.
One thing Katie definitely inherited from her family is a love of Guacamole ($7.25), and there's definitely worse things she could have gotten from that bunch. Anyways, this was a very solid version of this classic appetizer. The avocados were mixed with the tomatoes, cilantro, onion, and Serrano pepper, which they used sparingly so the avocado would be front and center. A good consistency to this, my only complaint would be that they could have maybe added a little more spice, to make it pop a little more.
I usually do not drink when we are out eating, so I can save room for more food, but their $30 OC Restaurant Week menu included either a shot of tequila or this Karma Palapa Margarita. Not wanting to get too out of hand, as it usually does when I start doing shots, I went with the margarita. This margarita had a little bit of everything going on with it. This started with a base of Karma Silver Tequila, then had some St. Germain liqueur added, along with agave nectar, lime juice, jalapeno, cucumber, pineapple, and pomegranate. What I liked about this was that every sip of this drink was different. In some gulps I got the sweet from the pineapple, which then turned to the spice of the jalapeno. It really kept me interested the whole time.
As is the case when we are dining out for restaurant week, Katie and I divide the prix fixe menu between us, and then share what we want. I knew she'd love these Ahi Poke Tostadita, so I only took one bite of it. You would not expect a Mexican restaurant to have good ahi, but this was tasty. A small tortilla is topped with a good mount of ahi, then crowned with avocado, mango, red onion, Serrano pepper, chipotle sauce, cilantro, and a poke sauce. Just like the margarita, this had a lot going on with it, but that just kept us guessing as to which bite we were going to be getting. I also liked the different textures going on here. The crunch from the tortilla, the rich ahi, and the smooth avocado slice all worked well together to make this a great start to our meal.
Something a little more like you'd expect in a Mexican restaurant, these Taquitos were top notch. The restaurant week menu said that these would be chicken, but our waiter offered me a choice, so I definitely took him up on the shredded beef version. These rolled tacos came out plated nicely with plenty of salsa fresca, Mexican crema, guacamole, and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Not greasy at all, the beef was tender and flavored well, and the condiments here really added to these taquitos.
First things first, it was really dark on the patio, so that's why my pictures look a little washed out. Up first for the entrees was Katie's pick, the Mahi Tacos. These tacos started with a flour tortilla base, then piled high with some mahi mahi, salsa fresca, corn, shredded cabbage, chipotle cream, and cotija cheese. Dressed almost exactly like the taquitos, these were just as good. Katie was surprised by how much she enjoyed this. The fish was moist, and the other parts of this melded well with the fish. She'd definitely be hard pressed not to get this again on future visits.
My go to at Mexican restaurants is to always lean towards carnitas, and lucky for me, these Carnitas Tacos were offered on the restaurant week menu. On these they used a corn tortilla, and placed a boatload of pork on them, guacamole, cotija cheese, shredded cabbage, and salsa quemada, which I learned is a burnt, or smokey salsa. I'm usually more of a red salsa person, but this green version had a depth of flavor thanks to the roasting, it really went well with the tender pork also. They were a little difficult to eat because the tacos were filled with a lot of stuff, but that's a good problem to have. The beans and rice was good, with me liking the beans a tad more than the rice, but that's almost always the case for me.
A sweet ending was awaiting us when it was time to have dessert. Both Katie and I split both of the selections off of the restaurant week menu. The clear winner for me were these freshly made Churros. They came with a caramel dipping sauce, which was not overly sweet, and almost seemed to be spiked with something to tone down the sweetness. The churros were served warm, and had a great crunch on the outer shell, and soft insides. The Flan was good, but it kind of fell flat when it came to the sauce, which was a bit runny. Good creamy texture though.
I have to say I was pretty surprised with our visit to La Vida Cantina. Maybe subconsciously I was thinking about the awful reviews the old tenant had, but everything we had on this night was very solid. It was made even better because this was restaurant week, and after a quick tally of the things we consumed on this night, it would have cost us $40 a person during a regular week, but this particular week it was just $30 per person. Proof that most restaurant week menus are a real bargain. Service on this evening was exceptional with everyone we encountered, including Manager Diedre Stary. We will definitely be back, and maybe the restaurant across the way can take a lesson on how food is supposed to prepared, instead of coming out of a bag from the freezer.
Out of five turkey legs, (because Costa Mesa is home to the OC Fair, which happens every July, and they must sell a ton of turkey legs), five being best to zero being worst, La Vida Cantina gets 3.5 turkey legs.
For more information about La Vida Cantina, head to their website here: http://lavidacantina.com/