Tonight I had dinner at a place I only discovered last weekend, Costa Vida. It’s located in the Stone Point shopping center on Eureka where you’ll also find Paul Martin’s and Blue Nami. After doing a little poking around on their website it seems this place is a relatively new and growing chain. They have locations in many states, but most, including California, only have a few. Utah has a ton, and there’s a single location up in Canada. Costa Vida is Mexican restaurant, and I didn’t really have much idea of what it was until I walked in the door. Although much nicer looking, the process is much like Chipotle or Freebirds. You work your way down the counter and they build your plate as you go.
I met my family at 5PM and we seemed to be among the first of the dinner rush because there was hardly anyone in the dining room eating yet. We waited in the line for about 5 minutes or so. There were just a couple of employees working the line, plus a cashier at the end. Not only had I just discovered Costa Vida last weekend, while I was in the shopping center for some Blue Nami, but just a day or two later a friend mentioned to me how good the sweet pork was. I knew what I was getting already based on that recommendation, but I looked over the menu anyway just to see what else they had. You can get burritos, tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, salads and nachos. For each one you choose one of the following: sweet pork, grilled chicken, shredded beef, raspberry chipotle chicken, grilled steak or chile verde (with some minor variations between items, such as a fish or shrimp option for tacos and a mango chicken option for salads). After looking this over I started to have a very strong sense of déjà vu. I’ll get into that later. I decided on a salad with sweet pork. It comes in a small or regular size. For a little over a dollar more, the regular looks to be nearly twice the size. I kinda of wonder if you get that much more meat vs just a lot more beans and lettuce. I went with the small because I wanted to try out a side and dessert as well.
My turn came up and I told the guy working the front of the line that I was having the small salad. I was given the choice of a corn, flour or whole wheat tortilla. I chose corn, and a small one was placed at the bottom of my foil bowl, just big enough to sit perfectly in the bottom. Next I went with black beans, other choices were pinto and refried. The sweet pork was added next and I was passed on to the 2nd person. She asked me what I would like on my salad, and quickly rattled off cotija cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and tortilla strips. I thought for a moment, nodded and said, “yes, all of that sounds good!” Finally, there was a selection of three dressings: Tomatillo Ranch Dressing, Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette, or Sweet & Smooth Mango Dressing. I went with the tomatillo ranch.
Up at the register I asked for chips and guacamole (I had actually meant to order queso, but guacamole is what I said for some reason), an horchata and an order of flan. A huge basket of chips with a big serving of guacamole was added to my tray. At this point I realized that I had no idea if anyone else had ordered a side like this and hoped they didn’t, because this was starting to be too much food. The cashier checked for flan and said she had one ready and would get it to me later. That seemed odd at first, but I figured with a table full of food, and the fact that I wouldn’t be eating it right away, it did made sense. I paid and joined everyone else at the table. My dad had ordered a chili verde burrito, and the thing was ENORMOUS. I laughed and asked if he was going to eat the whole thing, but he seemed confident that he would. My mom and grandma both ordered sweet pork quesadillas, which looked a lot more reasonable in size.
We all shared the chips and guacamole and everyone agreed that both were very, very good. The chips were warm and had an excellent crunch to them, and the guacamole was fresh and, once again, continues the trend of really good guacamole I’ve been finding at restaurants while on this mission. I would not be surprised if the chips were made fresh in-house. My salad was wonderful. The tomatillo ranch was fairly light. The lettuce was very fresh, green and crisp. The combination of crunchy tortilla trips, crisp lettuce, smooth guacamole & sour cream and incredibly tender and juicy pork was amazing in flavor, but almost as importantly in texture as well. It was a real pleasure to eat from start to finish. The sweet pork was just as good as I was expecting. Definitely sweet, but savory just underneath as well. It was a very interesting and tasty salad overall. I didn’t ever get a bite of the corn tortilla at the bottom. It was almost just part of the bowl really. I suppose if I had grabbed a knife I could have cut some pieces out of it, but in the end I don’t feel like I was missing anything.
With my salad gone and the guacamole looking low I set out to the register again to get my flan. After just a moment the cashier, busy with customers, noticed me and had someone else in the kitchen get my flan. It was brought out of a cooler in a small tin bowl with plastic wrap over top. She flipped it onto a plate, then grabbed a frosting bag from another cooler and squeezed the white topping onto it. I don’t think I’ve ever had flan with anything on top, so I was curious. After bringing it to the table, there was a lot of interest in what it was, and we each tasted it. It was very cold, apparently out of the freezer, and had the consistency of soft serve ice cream. It was actually just whipped cream in the end. Very thick, very rich and very cold whipped cream. It was so rich in fact that I ended up pushing a majority of it to the side and just ate the flan with the residue that was left, and it was plenty. As for the flan itself, wow, just wow. I can say without hesitation that this was the most flavorful I’ve ever had. Everyone that tried it agreed that it was ridiculously good. One interesting thig about it was that the sugary top (or bottom, depending on what way you look at it) was frozen solid. It was thick enough and solid enough that there was no breaking through it with plastic cutlery. I slid this off as well, but there was plenty of melted sugary goodness left to go around.
All in all, an amazing dinner! I spent about $14. I can easily spend that amount of money lots of other places and not get nearly the amount nor the quality of food. This was a great value. As for my déjà vu, I realized while looking at the menu that I felt like I had been here before, that on my last trip to Vegas I must have gone to a Costa Vida. Everything sounded familiar, particularly the sweet pork. The serving sizes were identical, the ingredients seemed to be about the same and the process was the same. I shot a quick photo of the Costa Vida logo to my friend in Vegas and he told me that we actually went to a place called Cafe Rio. I checked their website just now, and indeed they have a very similar menu. Replace sweet pork with pork barbacoa and you’ve pretty much got the same place. I have to wonder if one is a blatant copy of the other. The world may never know. (Update: ok, so a couple minutes of Googling showed me that Cafe Rio was founded 6 years earlier than Costa Vida).