by Alice Levitt
34 Park Street, Essex Junction, 876-7431
An important part of my job as a food writer is listening to the recommendations of others. I would have been unlikely to try this hole-in-the-wall in downtown Essex Junction if a family member and longtime line cook hadn't wholeheartedly endorsed it.
But for all their good intentions,recommenders sometimes lead me astray. Unfortunately, I was not as taken with the Hungry Dutchman as I had hoped to be.
Much as I would have loved some pannekoeken or Indonesian curry, the "Dutchman" only refers to the brothers who own it, Timothy and Thomas Roorda. They run the kitchen, while an older woman genially takes orders.
Instead, the menu offers a wide selection of American favorites: pizza, subs, fried appetizers and comfort-food dinners.
There were so many options, it was difficult to choose dishes that I felt might do justice to the place, so I stuck as much as possible to what had been recommended.
That meant wings were right at the top of my list. Specifically, the Caribbean jerk wings, which my friend had said were among the best he'd ever tasted.
The chicken itself was perfectly crisped, but for me, the sauce ruined the petite wings. It was gloopy and oversweet, it reminded me of General Tso's chicken, without a hint of the Caribbean. Kudos, though, to the Roordas for making their sauces in-house. There are about a dozen different ones for the wings alone.
I preferred another appetizer, the Meatball Steamer.
The homemade meatballs, the centerpiece of the dish, weren't exactly what you'd dream of getting from your Nonna, but they were tender and nicely flavored with Parmesan and oregano.
The tomato sauce in which the balls rested was pleasant enough, but more or less disappeared beneath a thick layer of herb-topped mozzarella. Sure, it was a cheese bomb, but it was a comforting one on a snowy night. The one thing that I wished for was fresh herbs instead of dried ones, to give the meatballs and sauce a fresher flavor.
Our motherly server told us that hot turkey sandwiches were on the menu as a salute to the former Lincoln Inn, just down the street. She remembered ordering the hot open sandwiches as a child in the space that now holds the Belted Cow.
The turkey was somewhere between deli slices and thick chunks that I prefer. My dining partner didn't mind, though. He was too busy singing the praises of the the combo of gravy, meat and buttered, toasted white bread. I was less enchanted, especially with the handcut fries that turned to greasy mush underneath a liberal dousing of gravy.
To our surprise, our favorite dish at the Hungry Dutchman was a salad. The $8.95 plate was enormous — I'll have another meal from the leftovers — but the flavors were far bolder than the photo at right suggests.
The greens, carrots and cabbage were tossed in a light, pleasantly mustardy honey-Dijon vinaigrette. Chewy dried cranberries and fresh Granny Smith apples added a touch of tart sweetness, while walnuts lent some extra crunch.
Warm chicken breast was described as "blackened" on the menu, and there was some sort of dark powder on it, but, really, the meat pretty much just tasted like chicken.
I can understand the appeal of the Hungry Dutchman to locals. If you don't have a dad to cook for you, the Roordas will fill the void with their home cooking. Just expect homey fare.
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.