In Vermont, thousands of miles from the land of mariachi music and mole sauce, good south-of-the-border cuisine is hard to come by. But if you happen to be in or around Woodstock - near the Killington ski resort and only 10 minutes from Interstate 89 - Gusanoz, which proudly features authentic Mexican recipes, is worth a visit. "Ninety percent [of what we serve] is the food I grew up eating," declares co-owner Maria Limon, a Mexican native.
At Gusanoz - named after the caterpillar in the mescal bottle - diners are greeted by a blast of peppy Mexican music from the speakers and enticing aromas from the kitchen. Colorful photographs and tapestries hang on the walls, and streamers of flags advertising Corona and other libations crisscross the ceiling over the bar and dance floor. The bartenders serve up 20 kinds of tequila and "every Mexican beer that is available." Non-alcoholic options include exotic fruit sodas and Mexican Coke, as well as a drink made from hibiscus called Jamaica, pronounced "ha-ma-ike-ah." The menu, which boasts homemade sauces and traditional recipes, promises tantalizing tastes to come.
These are the flavors of Limon's childhood in Gomez Palacio, a city in the Durango region of north central Mexico. Limon, 40, came to the United States in the early 1980s. "I did work illegally at the beginning," she confides. With a family back home that was in "a good position financially," she had no intention of staying. "But I was young and I wanted the adventure."
When she got pregnant, though, her feelings about residency began to change. "I wanted my kid to have better opportunities than I did." Thanks to Reagan's amnesty program, Limon now holds a green card, and she and her second husband, Nick Yager, share ownership of two successful Mexican eateries: the flagship Gusanoz in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and the quieter, more seasonal Woodstock locale.
Limon's introduction to the restaurant business began at a small taco stand in her native land. "Mom was a housewife . . . a great cook," she boasts. The youngest of seven sisters, Limon took charge of the stand when she was very young. How was business? "It paid the mortgage," she reports matter-of-factly. But even though she loved spending time in the kitchen with her mother, she never imagined cooking as a vocation - her plans were much bigger. "I was going to be the president of Mexico," she says with a laugh.
Yager entered the kitchen young, too. At 12, he took a job washing dishes in a New Hampshire diner. "It wasn't a financial necessity," he claims. "Both my parents worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. It was more out of my desire to be in the industry." After moving up the ladder to work as a prep cook and baker, Yager took time off from the stove and joined the military. Tours of duty in Korea and Saudi Arabia expanded his palate.
After finishing his tour of duty in El Paso, Texas, Yager got a job at the ultra-efficient Applebee's International, Inc. That's where he met Limon: Following stints at Mexican mom-and-pop places in Seattle, she'd moved south to be near her ailing mother. In 1997, Yager got an R&D job with a deli chain called Schlotzsky's. After moving with the company several times, the duo decided to settle in a place with better school systems: New Hampshire, Nick's old stomping ground.
There Limon continued working for Applebee's, as a general manager. "Sometimes I had to do a lot of things I didn't agree with. Not that there was anything wrong with it; it just wasn't me," she explains. "I decided to leave the corporate world." Yager and Limon knew they had the chops to open their own restaurant, and Yager "was creative putting money together." But the proposition was risky. "Big pay cut, no benefits, we sacrificed a lot," Limon says, "but it was a dream that we had."
In 2005, the pair opened Gusanoz in Lebanon. Their made-from-scratch ethic resulted in long lines and repeat customers. After a year, they opted to bring the burritos to Woodstock. New business ops followed. The pair peddles imported Mexican goods at both restaurants and on their website. Offerings include hot sauces, corn flour, tortilla presses and chile-coated Mexican candy. And they sell fresh-made products, such as tamales and enchiladas, to food coops in Hanover and Lebanon.
But in Vermont, to get the real deal you've got to go to the restaurant. As soon as guests are seated, servers deliver baskets of warmed tortilla chips. These come with a duo of homemade salsas. On one particular Thursday, the salsa roja was a bit too salty, but the salsa verde was a perfect blend of piquancy, salinity and heat.
Luckily for those who overindulge, horchata, a cooling Mexican beverage, can assuage a tortured tongue. The secret soothing ingredient is homemade rice milk. Limon's recipe involves soaking rice in water and whirling the mixture in a blender until smooth. It's finished off with a mixture of condensed milk, cinnamon, vanilla and sugar, and served over ice. The drink is subtly sweet, pleasantly chilled and just cinnamon-y enough.
There are two traditional Mexican soups on the menu: caldo tlalpeno, a chicken soup with chickpeas, and pozole. Legend has it that the Aztecs and the Tonaltecas people of Jalisco, Mexico, served pozole soup made from human flesh. The tamer version at Gusanoz features chunks of pork and hominy - kernels of corn from which the outer hull and the germ have been removed. The fragrant broth is spiced with chili peppers, and arrives with shredded cabbage and chopped onion mix-ins on the side, and a couple wedges of refreshing lime.
Chicken mole is another authentic offering, but Limon confesses that the restaurant uses bottles of Doña Maria mole sauce - "like my mom used to," she notes. The cooks at Gusanoz add a few more ingredients to give the product a distinctive twist. Traditional moles, of which there are many varieties, often call for more than 20 ingredients. These components are toasted, blackened, peeled and ground up to make the complex topping. That might be too much work when serving gringos who are more likely to order a taco salad or the strikingly non-Mexican "Gusanoz buffalo chicken sandwich." Maybe. But in spite of its grocery-store origins, the mole is dark, rich and smoky.
All of the standard platos are available, too, such as burritos, fajitas, flautas and chimichangas. Combination plates let you mix and match, and include the required refried beans and rice. Multiple filling and sauce combinations make for some tricky choices. There's a meat-free spinach and mushroom filling for vegetarians, and also ground beef or shredded beef, pork and chicken. Certain dishes come with your pick of red sauce, green sauce or mole.
The homey refried beans are mild in flavor and topped with cheese. The rice is startlingly orange from being cooked in tomato sauce. Both the pork tamal - also spelled tamale - and a chicken enchilada with red sauce are flavorful without being too spicy for the American palate. The tostada is somewhat less exciting. The taste of the homemade "mild" sauce is lost under a mound of shredded lettuce, California olives and out-of-season tomatoes. In retrospect, a burrito "borracho" with "drunken salsa" would have been a more exciting choice.
Guests will likely leave with leftovers, especially if they try to save room for a sweet serving of egg-y flan, sopapillas or fried ice cream.
Unfortunately, none of the approximately 2000 undocumented Mexican workers in Vermont is likely to get a taste of Gusanoz. For fear of getting deported, the immigrants who live in the Green Mountains can't leave their farms to feast on tacos al pastor, corn tortillas with marinated, thinly-sliced pork, or arroz con camarones, shrimp with peppers and mushrooms over rice and cheese.
Nor can they work at the restaurant. "I would love to have more Mexican people," Limon says regrefully. "I have people who come in and ask for a job, and I know they can make homemade tortillas all day long by hand. But unfortunately, those people don't have papers to work, and I can't compromise my own stay in the United States."
Yager chimes in, "We would love to see a guest worker program." But until that happens, or Patrick Leahy's bill to legalize these immigrants becomes law, visitors to Gusanoz will have to make do with store-bought tortillas. Although they make their own for Cinco de Mayo, "We can't do that every day," says Limon.
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