Vida Latin Restaurant
3579 Lake Emma Road, Lake Mary
The corner of Lake Emma Road and Lake Mary Boulevard is quickly becoming one of the most diverse quadrants in Seminole County, with independently owned Colombian, Thai, Greek, Indian and Japanese restaurants vying for area diners’ discretionary income. And now a Dominican restaurant is throwing its gorra into the proverbial ruedo. The friendly owners of Vida Latin, William and Natividad “Vida” Hawkins, bring a health-conscious approach to the island’s traditionally starch-heavy diet. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of yuca, rice and plantains to stiffen one’s viscera, but you’ll also find vegetarian and gluten-free options, choices not typically found in Latin eateries.
Just as fresh as their approach to D.R. cuisine is the atypical manner in which they’ve decorated this strip-mall space; eye-catching chalk drawings on canvas of Mangulina dance, pastoral life and Dominican figures by artist Abraham Polanco really serve to animate the place. As we took our seats under the heaving chest of ’40s glamour girl Maria Montez (loved her in Cobra Woman!), we gestured our respect to the owners for not going all Latin-tropical on us.
What also won our respect: a steaming bowl of Dominican penicillin, aka chicken soup ($3), replete with yuca, potatoes, carrots and big hunks of pollo – the go-to broth of choice in case of illness. Not to be out-comforted, the heaping plate of mangu ($2.50), a vegetarian and gluten-free starter of smashed green plantains crowned with sautéed onions, was about as thick and filling a starter we’ve ever sampled. We would’ve preferred a more traditional rendering of the dish with some grated cheese and lardons, but pastelitos ($2.75), empanada-like fritters filled with beef and chicken, helped quell the meat craving.
For our mains, we shied away from the steam tables and selected from the house specialties. Casuela de mariscos ($20), a casserole of squid, clams, scallops, octopus and shrimp, suffered only from the apparent use of frozen vegetables, a practice antithetical to Vida’s “natural” and “fresh” cooking ethic. But this dish is all about the sauce, and they did it right with a proper light and tangy broth, heavy with the essence of the sea. Another specialty, bistec encebollado ($13), was a tender if somewhat ho-hum pan-Latin staple. Plenty of onions dressed the flattened steak and the seasonings seemed spot-on, but the steak would’ve worked better as a sandwich. (The beef, by the way, was advertised as hormone- and antibiotic-free.) An accompanying plate of veggie-studded rice and beans also seemed to use less-than-fresh vegetables; they appeared shriveled and dry.
The menu states that “there are no words” to describe the Dominican cake ($2.50) – which turned out to be true; they didn’t have any. So we savored the “light and creamy” flan ($2.50) which was anything but. The wedge was dense but delicious, and best enjoyed with a cup of café con leche ($1.75). As expected from a family-run operation, service was dedicated and friendly, even if we were a little nonplussed by our unfledged busboy’s attempts to pull the plate out from under our food. But we appreciated seeing our coffee brewed by William himself.
Latin eateries aren’t that common a sight in Lake Mary, but the city’s culinary diversification signals more than a trend – it heralds a new direction for the hamlet’s burgeoning dining scene.