For Burlington’s working peeps, the stroke of noon can bring a conundrum. While we sometimes tuck into home-prepared salads or leftovers to save money (and calories), downtown Burlington is so dense with lunch options, you could return to your desk with a different culinary treasure every day.
The arrival of three new lunch-centric venues in recent months has made the brown-bagging-it option look even less enticing. First came Anatolian Grand Bazaar, a Turkish market and take-out spot that opened in a Pearl Street storefront in late spring. A few months later arrived Lucky Next Door, the cheerful, casual sister (and adjacent neighbor) of Penny Cluse Café. Bento, a Japanese market and deli on College Street, more recently upped the to-go bounty.
Each place has its own distinct character that goes way beyond sandwiches and salads, with fare ranging from indulgences such as walnut baklava and Mexican hot chocolate to healthy plates of dolmas, sushi and mustard-slathered sardines.
We fanned out to test the tastes. Here’s our report.
Anyone who’s tried to have brunch at Penny Cluse Café on a weekend has endured The Wait — sometimes it can take more than an hour to snag a table at the 15-year-old spot. While that may seem like a good business problem to have, the crowds spurred owners Charles and Holly Reeves to purchase the newly vacant building beside theirs and transform it into a 25-seat casual counterpart to Penny Cluse. They named it Lucky Next Door.
Not just an anteroom, Lucky is more like Penny Cluse’s Wonder Twin. With sleek lines, funky artwork and high wooden counters, it’s inviting in a different way. A few acquaintances I’ve run into there have proclaimed it their new favorite lunch spot, and probably not just for the relaxed ambiance. The modernized, earthy-crunchy plates — prepared next door by Penny Cluse chef Maura O’Sullivan and finished at Lucky — are across-the-board delicious.
Lucky starts serving at breakfast, doling out espresso drinks, pastries such as luscious blueberry crumb cake, and frittatas and other gut-sticking creations. A cast-iron skillet full of baked eggs with tomatoes, Blythedale Farm Cooksville Grana and pesto ($7) recently brightened an otherwise gloomy morning; the sizzling and gooey (and high-calorie) mass of deliciousness came with buttery toast triangles. Since it was a workday, I couldn’t partake in a Pickler, Penny Cluse’s version of a Bloody Mary, which is also served at Lucky. Fresh-squeezed OJ and oolong tea had to suffice.
I’ve tackled the savory lunch menu at Lucky on successive visits, but there’s still more I want to sample from its long list of sandwiches, salads and entrées. I’ve ogled the flaky pork pie and the corned-lamb sandwich, but instead chose a hulking sautéed-broccoli-rabe-and-shaved-beef sandwich ($7). The tangy, bitter greens were piled atop almost pillowy meat, and the entire thing spilled out of grilled bread tarted up with spicy cherry pepper relish and more of that Grana cheese. If you’re feeling truly gluttonous, you can get the sandwich with a $3.50 side dish of mac and cheese, slathered in two kinds of cheese and topped with a crunchy, caramelized crust. A healthier alternative is a side of chili-laced cucumber salad (also $3.50) showered with ground peanuts.
During another visit, a sardine plate ($7) straddled fall and winter, as well as the textures of tuna and steak. The tiny fish were tossed with capers and slivers of red onion in an earthy mustard sauce and served with those little toasts. The result was akin to a more flavorful tuna salad.
The food at Lucky comes fast, but, even so, I couldn’t resist ordering kombucha while I waited. Lucky Next Door serves Aqua Vitea on tap, including the hibiscus-ginger-lime I imbibed last week. What I really wanted was a pint of Lost Nation Brewing Gose or any of the other beers on tap, which are served until Lucky closes at 8 p.m. — C.H.
Where can you get a meal-size portion of fresh tuna, salmon or yellowtail tuna for $4? If you’re thinking of a market take-out case, you’re not wrong. But at Bento, there’s no granular rice or dried-out seafood to be found.
Since the College Street venue recently added sushi, Chris Russo, co-chef-owner of San Sai Japanese Restaurant, has been making the rolls to order at the counter just a few feet away from the display case. He stuffs fluffy, glutinous rice with fillings such as pickled plums or salted salmon for onigiri ($3). Edamame and fresh garden salads with ginger dressing top out at $2.
But the items that lend the storefront its name are segmented lunchboxes filled with six or seven colorful foodstuffs each. There’s always at least one type of seaweed salad, along with a protein — sometimes two — and a small portion of fresh mixed greens. The last is presented with a tiny cup of tangy, orange-colored dressing.
Last week, Bento’s boxes also included crunchy, purple-and-green pickles and an orange segment for a light dessert. On other visits, I’ve found sweet, soy-marinated mushrooms and fall-apart-tender salmon belly.
The centerpieces of the boxes are also subject to change. Russo says that on a given day salmon teriyaki might sell out, while on other days, juicy shumai or gyoza attract dumpling fans (each $10). Tofu teriyaki and crisp mashed-potato croquettes called korokke ($8) are enough to provide a light eater with two lunches.
Salmon or hamachi collars come in ample portions, well worth the $12 price for the moist, tender fish that melts in its lightly sugared, soy-based dipping sauce. Most other dishes ring up at $10, including spicy, pan-seared squid; katsu with a thick, fruity sauce; a hard-to-find dish called tsukune, which consists of ground-meat skewers blended with yakitori-style sauce; and ultra-fresh Boston mackerel served in myriad forms.
Customers select their lunchbox from the case, then Russo doles out a hot portion of rice as a base for their protein. If diners like, he’ll heat up any items that don’t benefit from the chill of the grab-and-go case. A steaming cup of miso broth is just $1 extra.
Though Bento is worthy of regular visits for lunch, Russo says the place’s original concept included selling Japanese groceries not otherwise available in Vermont. He has no date set for the arrival of those wares, but perhaps they’ll be on the shelves before he enacts next summer’s plans: cooking yakitori and takoyaki at a stand in front of the eatery. — A.L.
Though Efe Çimrin does a brisk online trade in Turkish food from inside his unassuming Pearl Street storefront, he’s also ready and willing to ply you with cardamom-laced Turkish coffee and grab-and-go dolmas, dobreks, dips and baklava. And you should let him.
This mother-and-son-owned company got its start at the Burlington Farmers Market; Çimrin and his mom chose to go brick-and-mortar late last summer. Their feather-light walnut baklava and nutty butter cookies line the counter inside the spare, cozy, light-filled space. There are no seats to speak of, but a refrigerator is packed with savory vegetarian Turkish dishes.
Those include a bevy of soups in foil bags, as well as a variety of dips such as eggplant ezme ($6.50), a thick, smoky-sweet blend of eggplant puréed with red peppers, walnuts and bread crumbs. The Bazaar sells bags of rolls to go with them. Çimrin also offers numerous veggie boreks, or savory pastries, including a flaky, light potato borek ($6.50) dusted with poppy seeds. As the popular vegetarian pancakes ($3.50 each) were sold out during a recent visit, Çimrin instead sent me home with rich vegetarian izmir kofte, ground soy “meatballs” that had been simmered in a mild tomato sauce laced with potatoes and peas.
The food from Anatolian Grand Bazaar requires a bit more labor from the diner than those of the other two lunch spots profiled here; you need to spoon it into bowls and plates for reheating. One house specialty you can eat — or, rather, drink — right from the jar is Boza ($3), a traditional Turkish fermented millet drink. Though its texture may be off-putting at first, boza has a floral, lemony and gently sweet flavor. Dusted with cinnamon, it’s delicious for dessert or on its own. — C.H.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Locating Lunch"