by Alice Levitt
169 Church St., Burlington 802-540-3095
It's always nice to see restaurateurs giving people what they want. Not surprisingly, in Burlington, that means only the most local, seasonal ingredients available. That wasn't originally a focus at El Gato Cantina, but in recent weeks, owner Tree Bertram has made it clear that she's been listening.
Out went the popular elotes (grilled corn topped with queso fresco). In came specials focused on local meat and even Lyndon-made Sheffield Seitan.
When I tried the the new dishes last night, several things were missing, most notably, the pork mole made with braised local shoulder, which was out of stock. No matter, the chicken version is now made with Misty Knoll Farms chicken. I've had plenty of local lengua, and the truth is, tongue is tongue, even when it's from LaPlatte River Farm. I decided to go for the seitan instead.
But first, chips. I think it's safe to say that the cilantro woven densely into the salsa was not grown in Vermont, but who cares? It's part of what may be the best classic salsa currently served at a restaurant in Vermont.
First of all, the texture is perfect. The veggies and herbs are blended so that a full-bodied mix covers each chip; none of that thin juice so prevalent in coarsely chopped salsas. Jalapeños also ensure that a light burn accompanies each bite.
I would have been happy to stop there, but the vegan taco arrived, closely followed by our two entrées.
The seitan inside the taco was brushed with sweet ancho chile glaze, which was flavorful, but still not enough to cover up the telltale, overbearingly earthy taste of wheat gluten.
However, the fresh cabbage, onions and cilantro that buried the meat replacement provided enough bright flavor that the taco, as a whole, was delicious, if a little messy to eat. The glaze dripped out of the tortilla with each bite.
At $3.99 for a surprisingly good-size taco, vegans, or just folks who feel like a lighter alternative, might easily make a satisfying meal with an order of two.
Onto the chicken. Under those unnecessary mounds of cheese (right) were two very satisfying enchiladas. Misty Knoll chicken was braised in a spinach sauce (yes, hidden vegetables!), then rolled in tortillas and topped with tomatillo sauce.
The chicken was nicely seasoned and braised to a pleasant level of yielding. One of the two tortillas, however, contained a few inedible pieces of cartilage attached to the meat.
The tomatillo sauce was mildly tangy. Yummy, but still no competition for the mindblowing powers of the green sauce at Firebird Café in Essex.
The mild refried beans were good, if not exciting. The buttery rice, flavored with tomatoes and big chunks of onions, was an uncommonly appetizing version of the often dry, veggie-studded rice typically served at Mexican joints.
When the mole arrived the first time, the half chicken's worth of pieces (breast, wing and drumsticks) were all cold in the middle.
It took a while to get the plate back (it appeared to be a whole new dish, without my previous bite marks) and when I did, my single corn tortilla had been replaced by a salad of cabbage and pickled onions. A little odd, but not unwelcome.
The Misty Knoll chicken had a lovely texture. The wing, especially, fell apart in hearty, crisp-ended strands that would not have been possible with lower quality meat. Score one for local chicken! Even the meaty breast was tender and juicy. Score two!
I always say that I want my mole to taste like mud and twigs. This did not, but the sweetness of the lightly spiced chocolaty sauce was sufficiently subdued to make me happy. It could have used more depth, and perhaps a stronger sesame flavor, but I liked it.
It was nicely balanced with a fruity side of black beans, too.
Best of all, there was more than enough to save for a second meal. Misty Knoll mole, I look forward to round two.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.