Jake Tran, owner of Firebird Café in Essex Junction, says his love of food was instilled in him by his mother and grandmother back in his native Santa Cruz, Calif. As the firstborn son in a Vietnamese family, Tran was spoiled with pots of pho perennially bubbling on the stove just for him. When he grew up, he recreated the comforting feeling of his mother’s kitchen in his own, preparing meals for friends, and now customers at his restaurants — he also owns Café Demeter in South Burlington.
Don’t expect Vietnamese classics at either of Tran’s businesses, though. Firebird opened last year in a spot on Pearl Street previously occupied by New World Tortilla and shares a specialty with that Burlington business. Big-flavor, California-style burritos are a menu feature, along with creative breakfasts and panini served until 3 p.m. every day but Monday, when busy Tran, 47, takes a much-needed day off.
He opened his first biz, Café Demeter, in 2001, never having worked in a restaurant before. Following a divorce, Tran left his 17-year job as a Federal Express driver to become a web designer. When a client mentioned he was selling his sandwich shop, Tran jumped on it.
The focus at Demeter is on panini and sandwiches, but Tran identified a void in the Essex dining scene and decided to give a California-style Mexican eatery a shot.
Tran developed his Mexican-inspired recipes from years of enthusiastic eating in his hometown, where authentic burritos are plentiful. “There are lots of little mom-and-pop Mexican joints out there where you can just walk in and get a home-cooked $4 burrito,” he says. “Those places inspire me and shaped my taste for burritos.”
According to Tran, his recipes are fairly standard and get their boldness from ultra-fresh ingredients. This is particularly clear when tasting the pico de gallo that comes with his meals. The slices of tomato burst with flavor, further brightened by onion and cilantro. And his sauces stand out, as well.
“I don’t know if there’s a more creative way of saying it, but it’s the sauce that makes the burrito taste good,” Tran says. All of the $6.95 wraps on his regular menu employ either green-tomatillo or red-chipotle sauce, and no creativity is necessary to enjoy the flavorful wallop of the tomatillo version. The green, seed-filled concoction explodes with tangy, salty, umami goodness.
It’s served over citrus-spiked, long-marinated, then slow-cooked carnitas in the pork burrito, which is also stuffed with creamy, slightly sharp Monterey Jack. While rice and beans can be merely filler in many Mexican wraps, in this version, brown rice and black beans are well seasoned and have personalities of their own.
The rust-colored chipotle sauce on the “beef carnitas” burrito could not be more different from its tomatillo counterpart on the pork. When slathered on tender beef with nary a speck of fat, the sauce’s tomato base and smoky chipotle peppers bring to mind a complex Mexican pot roast. For balance, the pico de gallo is served inside the burrito, along with the meat, cheese and avocado. The fresh flavors conceal a slight burn that builds with each bite. However, Tran says he makes sure to keep the heat to a minimum for Vermont palates. “Occasionally people come in and ask for it really hot, and we just add [more] chipotle,” he says.
And customers keep coming back to the red-walled dining room, decorated with birdcages and colorful statues of roosters. Tran’s gamble apparently has paid off. Though pho is big around Chittenden County, Firebird fills up with diners looking for chicken, carnitas or tofu in a tortilla, por favor.