Best Mexican restaurant 

El Gato Cantina (Burlington) & The Mad Taco (Montpelier)


Inside Chittenden County

Winner:
El Gato Cantina

Runner-Up:
El Cortijo


Outside Chittenden County

Winner:
The Mad Taco

Runner-Up:
Frida's Taqueria & Grill

El Gato proprietor Teresa “Tree” Bertram grew up in California on her Mexican American grandmother’s cooking. In August 2011, she brought that authentic Mexican style to Burlington, using local proteins whenever possible but aiming to “stay true to the food” with traditional spices and flavors. Her Church Street cantina churns out elote (Mexican grilled corn), posole, tacos, tamales and more than 80 house-infused tequilas. 

SEVEN DAYS: How do you distinguish “authentic” Mexican food from the real deal?

TREE BERTRAM: You can always tell by the rice; if the rice is bad, it’s not authentic. Salsas are very important, too. Sometimes you can just feel it. There’s definitely a place for Mexican food where the chef comes in and puts a twist on it, and I think that’s great, but it’s not what I do. I can’t really eat Mexican food like that!

—Sachi Leith

Just two years ago, Mexican food in central Vermont was generally limited to nachos and jalapeño poppers. Then the Mad Taco opened in Waitsfield. And a little more than a year later, chef/co-owner Joey Nagy teamed up with the Three Penny Taproom folks to open a sister taqueria in Montpelier. The result was a hot and spicy revolution.

We’re not kidding about the heat. Both Mad Taco locations experiment with an ever-changing arsenal of hot sauces — some scorching — flavored with everything from carrots to chocolate.

The sauces might be best appreciated on the pork torta, a homemade roll stacked with smoky chunks of well-marbled pork, along with fatty but crisp cured belly, creamy avocado and tangy cabbage slaw. And there’s not a nacho in sight.

SEVEN DAYS: Has the lucha libre [Mexican wrestling] theme at the Waitsfield location ever stirred up an impromptu contest?

JOEY NAGY: One, yes. After a very stressful night, my chefs and I had a nice little wrestling match. [Cook] Simón Villa and I went at it. I’m not at liberty to say who won.

—Alice Levitt

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