Vermont is about as far as from the Mexican border as anywhere in the U.S. — in both geography and culture. Here in the Green Mountains, we're more likely to hear Québécois French than Spanish, and authentic Mexican food is tough to come by.
But that doesn't stop us from loving a good fiesta. Lately, we've noticed a proliferation of Taco Tuesday specials at area restaurants, ranging from simple, $2 ground-beef crunchers at South Burlington's Rotisserie Restaurant to pricier, more artisanal options such as braised oxtail at Winooski's Mule Bar ($10 a pair) or $17 seared ahi tuna tostadas at Waitsfield's Hyde Away Inn and Restaurant.
Chefs at Burlington's Citizen Cider and Middlebury's Two Brothers Tavern say they use the Tuesday special as a way to feature new seasonal ingredients and play around with flavors, giving the Mexican street eat a deliciously Vermont-y spin.
Regardless of the inspiration, anything wrapped in a tortilla shell and topped with veggies and salsa seems to say "eat me."
Over the last few weeks, the Seven Days food team sallied forth on a taco-tasting mission. We couldn't hit them all; Tuesday specials not listed here include those at Winooski's Pingala Café & Eatery, West Glover's Parker Pie, Rutland's Roots the Restaurant and Manchester Center's Firefly Restaurant. And not all special taco nights are limited to Tuesday: 3 Squares Café in Vergennes turns into a taqueria Thursday through Saturday, serving up cacao-laden savories.
Still, it's good to have a culinary day at the playa to look forward to as darkness descends and the temperatures drop.
Since 2011, diners with a yen for hardcore Mexican flavors have made the pilgrimage to the Mad Taco in Waitsfield or Montpelier. Lucky for Chittenden County residents, the same owners are behind Mule Bar in Winooski. On Tuesdays, its tacos follow the same template of local meats and big tastes served in pairs of doubled-up corn tortillas. But chef Jeremy Silansky is quick to point out that Tuesdays at Mule Bar are not simply Mad Taco North.
Silansky, who has run the kitchen since January, has a particular affection for food from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. That's reflected on the regular menu in dishes such as hanger steak with a green pumpkinseed mole, but the chef turns on the slow-cooked charm every Tuesday.
He kind of has to. Though there's always a fish and a veggie taco on the menu, the meat version is usually made from cuts such as tongue, heart or pork belly. When Neill Farm in Waitsfield makes a meat delivery, "They bring 20 pounds of weird shit," explains Silansky. "It usually is offal. You can have fun with it."
I had more than my share of fun sitting at the bar to wolf down a pre-Halloween taco dubbed Ox Tales From the Crypt. A towering portion of shredded oxtail was meaty and unctuous but not overly fatty. A braising liquid of red wine and veal stock gave the impression of a Euro-style reduction sauce, which quickly melted away as cacao nibs, coffee and chile took over. A smoky crema on top added more heat, tempered by cilantro and a tangy red-cabbage slaw.
We paired it with that night's draught cocktail, the Ninth Green. The honey-sweetened tipple married smoked lemon and Earl Grey-infused bourbon for its own dose of smoky burn.
But not everything coming out of the kitchen was on fire. Crispy pollock tacos were so heavily breaded that they should have been called fish beignets. The slaw, crema and cilantro just weren't enough to wake up the listless combination. Luckily, Silansky had three squeeze bottles of house hot sauce at the ready. Pitched lower than Mad Taco's screaming highs, it took one labeled with a 9.2 heat to do the trick for me. But it wasn't the spice I enjoyed as much as the tangy, earthy notes.
I regret not trying the week's veggie option, a set of tacos filled with rice-and-black-bean fritters. Does that mean I'll have to return to Mule's Taco Tuesday? Well, if I must...
Until I ordered $2 tacos at the Rotisserie Restaurant recently, I had not eaten a hard-shell tortilla since fifth grade. So they smack of elementary school to me, a place that few of us want to relive.
But for $2, where's the harm? I ordered one, complete with ground beef and all the tweenage fixings. Luckily, the Rotisserie doesn't stop there. There are soft corn tacos, too. They're not made in-house, but they're lightly toasted before being stuffed with meat, and as a result taste fresh from the comal.
The flat Mexican griddle may not be used in the Rotisserie's kitchen, but that's not the point. The South Burlington family restaurant specializes in all-American fare such as prime rib and chicken wings. It's the kind of place where the curtains and homey paintings in the dining room conjure visions of Grandma's house.
Why tacos, then? According to lunch manager Summer Batdorf, chefs at the restaurant were "looking for a gimmick. They wanted to do something other than a tired chicken-wing special." Taco Tuesday has been a hit for two years, she adds.
Most plates gracing the tables during a visit two weeks ago looked much like the one I ordered, with grilled chicken in a soft tortilla and beef in a hard one. I tried to add to my $4 tab a couple of $1 Buffalo-style drumsticks, but that special had already sold out by the time I arrived at 7:30 p.m. My dining partner ordered a bowl of beefy French onion soup to sample the homey regular fare.
Upon first bites of each taco, my initial impressions were that they came in two flavors: salted and unsalted. The beef mix was the salty one, immediately desiccating my mouth; the bland chicken tasted of little more than grill marks. On the plus side, the chopped lettuce and tomatoes stuffed in both were fresh and moist. One taco even had a cube of green pepper in it. I could have done without the unmelted cheese shreds on top. Overall, these tacos reminded me of the kind the lunch ladies made in my elementary school.
Batdorf later told me that my server, Susan (though she was very friendly), forgot to bring me the homemade ghost-chile-infused hot sauce. The squeeze bottle I was given instead gushed out something that merely tasted red. But for this early-'90s time capsule, nothing else would have hit the right neural pathways. Thanks, red taco sauce.
There's nothing new about Taco Tuesday at the Hyde Away Inn. According to co-owner Margaret DeFoor, the inn introduced its south-of-the-border nights 15 years ago, when the choices were hard shells filled with either beef or chicken.
But when chef Ryan Mayo took over the kitchen last year, she brought with her a new taco concept. The $2 basic tacos remain (with a suggested pairing of PBR), with the addition of soft-shell and black-bean options. But each Tuesday, diners eagerly call in to find out what locavore Mexican specials Mayo is cooking up that night.
Last Tuesday, the bar was still packed with taco lovers at 9:30 p.m., half an hour after the dining room officially closed. My other half and I sat at a high table beneath the message "Tacos are my friend ... They never lie to me," handwritten on the wall. This must be depressing on nights when no tacos are served.
Our meal started with an order of chips and salsa. The latter arrived in a standard smooth, tangy red version and — for an additional 50 cents — in a roasted tomatillo version, sharp with acid and a pair of chopped chiles.
Apps included nachos and PEI mussels flavored with sweet corn, tomatillos and house Misty Knoll Farms chicken chorizo. We dined on a different chorizo, made from "pig face" that originated at nearby Gaylord Farm. The spicy ground meat came underneath a pair of over-easy eggs, each in a soft green-chile-and-corn tortilla. It was more of a knife-and-fork taco than something I dared to pick up. Grafton Village Cheese cheddar and avocado made each bite creamy, while cilantro and pickled onion brightened it up. On the side, a hash of butternut squash, potatoes, black beans, red peppers and jalapeños added a Vermont-plus-Mexico touch to the uncommon huevos rancheros.
Mayo's tuna tostadas contained too many ethnic nods to enumerate. Best to say that she made them her own. Lightly grilled ahi tuna was served over a big, crispy wonton, sort of like giant versions of those fried noodles you get with Chinese fast food. Avocado and shaved cabbage with the fish made for an alluring mix of textures. The cilantro-lime vinaigrette drizzled on top was addictive on its own, made more so with squiggles of sweet guava aioli and tiny cubes of grilled pineapple.
Before we ordered our entrées, we reserved the last vanilla Choco Taco of the night. The only Taco Tuesday dessert I've spotted anywhere, Mayo's Choco Taco has little to do with the packaged Klondike version. Hers features a fried flour tortilla dressed in cinnamon sugar and filled with ice cream. To my disappointment, the only chocolate in the dish was a sauce drizzled on top. But Choco Taco beggars can't be Choco Taco choosers. It was still worth a return engagement.
Next time I make the trek to the Mad River Valley, it might be for Tacky Taco Tuesday, an occasional special night devoted to replacing local cheese with Velveeta in chef-honed takes on gorditas — a pastry that means "little fat one" — and Taco Bell Crunchwraps. Either way, I expect to head south of the (Chittenden County) border back to Waitsfield sooner rather than later.
Since moving to Pine Street from Essex last spring, Burlington's populist cidery has continued to up the ante with its food. What began in April 2014 as a modest menu has morphed into a fairly significant spread, complete with nightly specials.
"The tacos change every week," says chef Lo Garry-McGrath of the Tuesday special, "so it can be anything from adobo-seasoned Boyden [Farm] beef to wild-caught swordfish." The choices vary, but Garry-McGrath typically offers both veggie and meat options.
Each taco costs a rather steep $5, but the ingredients are fresh and responsibly sourced — local, grass-fed meats, organic produce and starches, and fresh Atlantic fish. The chef says she uses the specials to flex her creative muscles. "It's a really fun and interesting way to showcase Vermont food," she says, "but in a not-so-Vermont kind of way."
The tacos, rolled into organic, soft corn tortillas, are also somewhat more substantial than others I've tried. Two, with cider, filled me up for dinner, though I suspect a larger, hungrier person might need more to feel sated.
"Don't forget the toppings!" a board by the kitchen reminds patrons. Near the front door is a bar stocked with accoutrements — fresh chopped pico de gallo, roasted tomatillo salsa, diced red onions, spicy salsa roja — that seem to come straight from Texas or further south. And sauces abound. Paying a small premium allows you to pair your tacos with any of the 10 fresh-pressed ciders on draught.
This matters because the kitchen puts out tacos that pair beautifully with apple drinks.
On a recent Tuesday, a veggie taco came swaddled in spicy, melted pepper jack and stuffed with some of fall's finest ingredients. On a bed of nutty quinoa, cranberries mingled with cooked apples and diced sweet potato, scattered with tangy arugula and quite a bit of garlic. It was a nice mix of savory and sweet that went well with a glass of gingery Dirty Mayor, and also with the drier Stan Up I ordered afterward.
The meat option was simpler but just as good. Packed with an ancho-chile-spiked blend of Boyden Farm beef, Maple Wind Farm chicken and black beans topped with red cabbage, this taco required more of the toppings — but I would never complain about needing an extra dose of cool, wet tomato-jalapeño pico de gallo, roasted tomatillo salsa or a sloppy scoop of pale-red salsa roja.
It may not be a foodie destination, but lately I've developed a real affinity for downtown Burlington's Manhattan Pizza & Pub. I like that there are 20 beers on tap and that I can usually find something new to drink. I like that the pub's prices are fair; that there's a familiar, homey mix of Grateful Dead, oldies, jam and '80s bands on the sound system (if a band isn't playing live); and that the bartenders are quick and super-duper friendly.
And I like that about a month ago, the pub rolled out a Tuesday taco special. At $2 a pop, diners can scarf down chicken, beef and fish tacos that are far better than they need to be to justify the price. With $3 pints of Switchback's flagship amber ale (and cheap shots of Sauza tequila), the pub offers a pleasant — and affordable — way to while away a Tuesday night.
"Do you want Sriracha?" the bartender asked as I placed my order. The food came quickly: Within minutes, my tablemates and I were plowing into six floppy corn tortillas filled with meat and veggies. The fish taco was an all-around hit. A generous cut of breaded, deep-fried white fish came crisped to the nth degree and topped with pungent red cabbage and cilantro, along with a squirt of the requested spicy Thai sauce.
Ground chicken, dusted with a smoky chili-powder spice blend, was ice-cold but still good, and was crowned with housemade pico de gallo. The beef was similarly simple and went down easily. As we finished our spread, I noticed that most of the other tables were littered with empty red taco baskets, too.
In a phone conversation later, pub kitchen manager Ellis Johnson said the tacos are part of an experiment: "We're trying to run what we think might sell on a new menu," he said.
This part, at least, seems successful; since starting the Tuesday special, Johnson said he's noticed a significant uptick in business. "Tuesdays used to be pretty standard in terms of how much food we'd sell," he said, "but lately it's been pretty busy."
Middlebury's downtown tavern is another relative newcomer to the taco trend. In a recent phone conversation, chef Shane Lawton said the special, which he's been running for a couple of months, is intended to fill a niche. "We did a poll with the Middlebury Chamber of Commerce," he said, "and everyone said they were looking for Mexican in Middlebury. So we decided to do tacos one night a week."
For $3 apiece, the tacos were farm fresh, with meats and produce mostly grown in the area, and uncommonly large. Soon, the chef said, produce will come directly from the restaurant's budding hydroponic operation, situated near the front entrance and currently seeded with salad greens. Lawton plans to fill a second hydro-tower later this fall, growing herbs and other aromatic flora.
Lawton's taco spread changes every week but usually offers four choices. "I have, like, 20 different taco menus," he noted. He keeps a simple ground-beef version on the menu and mixes up the rest — though chicken and pulled pork are becoming popular standbys. All fillings are available in seven-inch flour tortillas, crispy yellow corn ones or, for diners savvy enough to ask for them, soft corn tortillas. From the bar, $5 margaritas make it a full-on fiesta.
Last week's choices included marinated grilled bison with spicy arugula, scallion, red onion and Sriracha sour cream. These were colorful and pretty, if a bit bland. But a shake of salt remedied that.
The chef's standard ground-beef wrap was Taco Bell trashy — that is to say, broadly appealing and wildly tasty — and reminiscent of the prepackaged Ortega taco-night kit your mama probably made at home. Spiced with a predictable cumin-y taco seasoning, the meat hid beneath a blanket of finely shredded cheese; cool, watery bites of lettuce and tomato added texture. For once, this fold had me wishing I'd opted for the hard taco so that it would more closely match the Taco Bell original.
The pulled-pork option was warming and rich, its meat stewed in a sweet barbecue sauce. Sprinkled with corn-and-bean salsa, lettuce and lots of cilantro, this was a fun Tex-Mex twist. A fish option came packed with flaky, oven-roasted mahi mahi and crisp red cabbage smothered with jack cheese and a generous dollop of cilantro-lime cream. For vegetarians, Lawton offers all options with seasoned black beans instead of meat.
On the whole, taco night has been a hit. "We have a great local following and a great group of regulars who come every week," Lawton said. "Our slowest taco night has been about 145 tacos, but once the college kids came back, we started to get up into the 200-taco range."
Tags: Food + Drink Features, tacos, mexico, cocktail, margarita, mexican, tequila, tortilla, tex-mex, taqueria, dining, dinner, drinks, Mule Bar, Rotisserie Restaurant, Citizen Cider, Manhattan Pizza & Pub, Two Brothers Tavern, Hyde Away Inn and Restaurant