When a restaurant dubs itself the purveyor of "sexy Tex-Mex," it's hard not to go in with a few preconceived notions.
No, Vida Tex-Mex doesn't allow children inside the restaurant, but that doesn't make it a bordello. Some of the Federico Archuleta art lining the walls has a hint of sexy, albeit with a vintage, 1940s Mexican movie poster aesthetic, but it's nothing compared to the nudies lining the walls at Strip House. The "sexy" vibe mostly comes from dimmed lights and deep red and purple walls.
I actually like the multi-colored, Dale Chihuly-esque light fixtures and iridescent central bar. It's not the most sophisticated design, but walking in after a long workday, it felt nice to escape the late sun and step into an evening atmosphere.
The service was attentive and eager, if not exactly polished, the tortilla chips were tasty and the margaritas were decently strong, arriving promptly and with an orchid blossom on top. All good things.
Unfortunately, the food was terrible.
We started with the red snapper ceviche, which had meaty chunks of fish but lacked a real citrus flavor and was irredeemably marred by a soggy, rice-pudding-like texture that was (presumably) what the menu advertised as a bed of plantain. It was weird and unappealing.
At the advice of my server, I ordered the shrimp tacos. The corn tortillas were dry and had a tendency to fall apart, and to counteract this Vida loaded the tacos with a bland mayo-and-stringy-cabbage slaw. Dumping most of the salad, I was able to put together three decent tacos — the shrimp was plump and plentiful, if a bit overcooked — but it was a mediocre dish at best.
Vida's fancy tamales proved to be a dense, house-made masa, a basic beef flavor and a thin, underwhelming chili gravy. (Where is Shirley Bailey when you need her?)
My dinner date ordered the ground chuck tamales, which was just a terrible idea. There is simply no way that a $13 tamale plate at a nice restaurant will be as good as — much less several times better than — the cheap versions sold out of street carts and amateur kitchens. That's just a fact of life. Of course, some people have to learn the hard way.
Vida's fancy tamales proved to be a dense, house-made masa, a basic beef flavor and a thin, underwhelming chili gravy. (Where is Shirley Bailey when you need her?) The side of rice looked nice wrapped in the tamale husk, but it was slightly annoying to work to free the rice from the interior.
By far the best part of the meal were the churros for dessert. The starburst pattern sticks were slightly smaller than the churros I'm used to giving them a great balance between warm doughy goodness and crunch. They were topped with the perfect amount of cinnamon and tasted even better when dipped into the accompanying vanilla bean ice cream. Sure, fried dough plus sugar is a recipe for success, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
I think there's an audience for the kind of restaurant experience that Vida is selling, so it's a shame that the offerings coming out of the kitchen just aren't working at all. There's nothing sexy about underwhelming food.