by Alice Levitt
3 Main St., Burlington, 802-657-3377
The Mexican explosion in Vermont just seems to continue. Last week, Corin reported that a new Mad Taco is opening in Montpelier and that the Farmhhouse Tap & Grill team is throwing its sombrero into the ring with El Cortijo.
This new glut owes directly to the long-standing complaint that Tex-Mex food in the Burlington area was lacking. Amidst all the chatter, I recently realized that it had been years since I'd given a chance to one of Burlington's elder statesmen, Madera's Restaurante Mexicano Cantina. Was it as lackluster as people said? Perhaps it was a hidden gem and folks were simply ordering the wrong thing.
The restaurant smelled great as I entered, though the spices reminded me more of Indian cuisine than Mexican. Immediately upon being seated, our server proffered chips, salsa and steaming hot refried beans. Nice touch. Too bad they were all a little disappointing. The chips were crisp but low on flavor. The beans, too, were bland, but they were so warm and soft, I couldn't stop eating them. I had an easier time resisting the salsa, which was punctuated throughout by stale-tasting dried herbs.
I was excited to try the house special. I adore green chiles, and this flat enchilada was made with Hatch chiles, straight from New Mexico. A pepper symbol next to the item on the menu denoted it would be hot. It was not, though green chile dishes are usually more tangy than spicy, so I didn't mind. The problem was, it was also missing that telltale zing. Most of the dish's flavor came from the fresh cilantro sprinkled on top.
It was too bad. I loved the soft braised pork with its barky crust that filled the quesadillas. I also liked the fact that the whole plate had been heated in the oven, leaving the rice with a paella-like crispness on top. The beans were so thickly laced with cheese that I ended up scraping them to avoid it. All that said, I still kind of enjoyed the meal. Though the flavors were on mute, the textures were very pleasing.
The script was flipped with the combo platter we tried. The red sauce that covered the enchilada and tamale was unconventional and quite yummy. Cinnamon played a more dominant role than chiles. Unfortunately, the chicken in the enchilada hadn't been cooked in it. The pulled meat was hard and stringy, and untouched by sauce.
The pork in the tamale was more moist, and speckled with seeds from the peppers that flavored it. However, the masa in which it was enrobed reminded me of semi-hardened Play-Doh, far from the creamy tamale I had hoped for.
It was nice that we were allowed to replace the rice and beans of that dish with a big green salad with homemade salsa-based dressing. Another fun departure was the option of a pair of Mexican sodas. I tried the Jarritos Mandarina. It didn't really taste like mandarin oranges, but I can never say no to an orange soda, especially if it's imported.
We had hoped to end the meal with sopaipillas, but our courteous waiter informed us, with apologies, that the kitchen had run out. Too bad, but with a few sips of Mandarina left to end the meal, I can't complain too much.