- Melissa Pasanen
- Chili momo from Maya's Mini Mart & Deli
Who knows what "normal" is at this point? But we've still got to eat — and we still feel the urge to treat ourselves to an occasional night off from cooking.
Since it started in 2016, our "Dining on a Dime" online column has covered more than 100 meals that cost $12 or less. Recently, we've debated raising the price limit in light of significant jumps in the cost of ingredients and other restaurant supplies. At the same time, though, we recognize that many people are watching their own budgets as carefully as ever and seeking affordable meals out.
So, for the following collection of five new Dining on a Dimes, we kept an eye on price but also gave ourselves — and the featured businesses — wiggle room up to $15 if needed.
Everyone can use a break from the routine these days. As Alfred Oloura of South Burlington said when he stopped to chat on the way out of China Express on Shelburne Road, "Sometimes we don't want to cook."
Oloura and his wife planned to pair their order of fried rice with wings from Buffalo Wild Wings down the street. "It's different food than we make at home," he said. "It's a treat."
The five meals detailed here deliver flavors from around the globe: Mexico, China, Bhutan, Eritrea and Cuba. If you're eating at home, try dining to appropriately themed music and checking the Travel Channel for a documentary to transport and inform you as you eat plump dumplings, crispy chicken tacos or berbere-spiced beef.
It'll be the cheapest "trip" you ever took.
Arandas Mexican Cuisine, 535 Route 302, Barre, 622-0453
- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- Pork tamales with a side of black beans and salsa verde at Arandas Mexican Cuisine
Most of the drivers pulling into Thomas Farm & Garden in Barre on the snowy Sunday after Thanksgiving were after one thing: a Christmas tree. Evergreens lined the front of the building, and the greenhouses were filled with vibrant poinsettias and wreaths bedecked with bows.
But I was in search of lunch. At the other end of the garden center on the Barre-Montpelier Road, a tiny takeout spot serves a menu packed with Mexican specialties, from enchiladas to picadillo tacos to picadas to stuffed poblano peppers. Like the filling inside tamales' unassuming corn husks, Arandas Mexican Cuisine is a surprise.
Lu Sola-Thomas and David Thomas own both the restaurant and the garden center. They bought the building — formerly Legare's Farm Market — in early 2020, just before the start of the pandemic.
The restaurant part of the biz started as a scoop shop and pizza place. "I was not going to open a Mexican restaurant," said Sola-Thomas, who moved to Vermont a few years ago from Mexico City. "But everybody started asking for Mexican food, because they realized I was Mexican."
A Mexican-style pizza was an easy solution, she said. Next, she added burritos to the menu, since "that's what everybody knew."
Initially, sourcing good Mexican ingredients was a challenge. Sola-Thomas relied on her mom, who brought products with her from Mexico when she came to visit.
"But she was like, 'I'm not gonna be able to bring products every time!' And I was struggling," Sola-Thomas said.
She slowly added dishes to the menu and trained several cooks to make her family recipes, ordering her ingredients online. Eventually, a rep for a New York-based distributor that delivers to other Mexican restaurants in Vermont noticed the expanded menu and asked whether she'd like to be added to the route.
Fully stocked, Sola-Thomas relaunched the restaurant side of the garden center in February 2021. She named it Arandas for the town in Jalisco — "the land of tequila," she said — where her grandfather is from.
"It's a lot of traditions there, and a lot of memories," she said. "All the plates I serve are family traditions and plates my family and friends cook in different regions in Mexico. They're really, really Mexican things."
On the day I visited, a steady stream of patrons strapped their trees to their car roofs and then wandered in to order vegetarian enchiladas, crispy chicken tacos or tacos al pastor.
Most items on the menu are $13.99. The 12-inch burrito ($14.99) and the nachos for two ($14.99) looked big enough to share, especially with a side of black or refried beans (each $4.99) or chips and guacamole ($6.45).
- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- Arandas Mexican Cuisine counter and seating
I was flying solo, and the weather and post-Thanksgiving holiday spirit drew me to the steamy pork tamales ($13.99 for two, with an ample side of black beans and salsa verde). Tamales are traditionally made at Christmastime, when families get together for tamaladas, or tamale-making parties, to share the labor-intensive work of preparing masa and fillings.
I later learned that the tamales are one of the few dishes not made in-house at Arandas — manufactured in New York City, they come via the distributor.
"Making tamales is a full-day process," Sola-Thomas explained. "You need two people to do it, and it's too much work." But she likes the flavors of these, and so did I. They were ready after a short wait, which I spent wandering through the greenhouses looking at houseplants and soaking up warmth.
My meal was packed to go, but I grabbed a seat at one of two picnic tables inside the small restaurant space. The pork was succulent and plentiful, and the masa was fluffy and moist, just like the menu promised. A simple salsa verde spiced things up, and the side of beans was so big that I left stuffed.
The tamales were near the top of our budget, but when talking with Sola-Thomas after the fact, I realized they perfectly fit the spirit of the series.
"Tamales are everywhere in Mexico," she said. "They're traditional because it's a very cheap food — it's something that everybody can afford eating."
In Vermont, where good Mexican food can be tough to find, I'll gladly pay an extra few bucks for the real deal.
China Express, 295 Shelburne Rd., Burlington, 865-2155
- Melissa Pasanen
- China Express co-owner Yan Chen
China Express is made for dining on a dime. The back of the paper menu lists 72 lunch and dinner specials, from chicken chow mein to tofu with mixed vegetables. All come with rice and an egg roll or spring roll for $9.25 or less. For $8.75, the "create your personal tofu dish" option includes steamed or fried tofu, a choice of two vegetables, and 10 sauces to pick from.
I, however, came to this unassuming Chinese restaurant for one dish in particular, having seen a positive review on social media of the restaurant's cold noodles with sesame sauce.
Often called peanut noodles, this dish was a staple in our family dinner rotation when my kids were little. While it's deceptively simple, it's hard to get just right: The sauce can be too thick or too thin. The noodles easily turn into a gloppy tangle.
At China Express, you may be surprised to find the cold noodles in the "hot appetizers" section of the menu. They cost $4.75, so I added an appetizer of teriyaki chicken for $6.50, bringing my total to $11.25. For a vegetarian option, I scanned the menu for a vegetable dish to complement the noodles but couldn't find one to fit the budget. Later, I realized that, at least at lunchtime, I could have added a special such as tofu with mixed vegetables. For $6.70, I would also have gotten a bonus egg roll and rice to deploy later in homemade fried rice.
I had no reason to worry about getting my vegetables, though, because the ample serving of chewy, generously sauced lo mein noodles hid a small quantity of shredded green cabbage. The vegetable added a nice crunch when tossed with the noodles and creamy, sesame-speckled sauce, which had a judicious but detectable touch of chile heat.
The four skewers of moist, dark-meat chicken were glazed with a salty-sweet teriyaki sauce. Sliced into bite-size pieces, they were a great addition to the noodles, and I had enough food to share lunch with my son.
- Melissa Pasanen
- Cold sesame noodles and chicken teriyaki takeout from China Express
Doing a twofer Dining on a Dime — $24 for two diners — opens up more vegetable choices. I can recommend the velvet-soft eggplant with garlic sauce ($8.95), though the broccoli with garlic sauce ($8.50) would be a good textural addition to the noodles and chicken. Either will keep you easily under budget.
The day after my lunch order, I swung by the small restaurant to chat with co-owner Ming Zhang. He said his family is originally from Fujian, China, and lived in New York City before moving to Vermont. His father bought the restaurant in 2008, when Zhang was 22, and Zhang has worked there ever since. Since the pandemic, he and his wife and co-owner, Yan Chen, have been the only staff.
"It's hard to find people for [jobs] now," Zhang said.
Their business, mostly takeout, has been steady, but Zhang said costs for staples, from cooking oil to takeout containers, have jumped the last few months. "We are hoping they will go down," he said.
The couple has been able to keep their own prices stable because "we do everything," Zhang explained.
Customers will find the owners cooking and serving behind the counter seven days a week, even on Christmas. "That is a very busy day," Chen said.
Momos on the Move
Maya's Mini Mart & Deli, 78 North St., Burlington, 497-2390
- Melissa Pasanen
- Maya Gurung-Subba and her husband, Suk Subba
Late this past summer, Maya Gurung-Subba and her husband, Suk Subba, opened Maya's Mini Mart & Deli with a small menu of Himalayan takeout. The business, located in the former Nepali Dumpling House in Burlington's Old North End, is a downsized version of what the couple calls their American dream. It was born from the pandemic-related closure of their New North End restaurant, Maya's Kitchen, in January 2021 after fewer than two years in business.
A wall of beer and soda coolers hides the new store's kitchen. There, the couple tag-teams to prepare Himalayan-style dumplings called momos and a couple of other dishes from scratch, all of which sell for $12 or under.
Subba makes the shopping list, and Gurung-Subba heads to local markets. He does the prep, and she makes and cooks the dumplings. "I always tell him, 'Make it ready!'" Gurung-Subba said with a laugh.
Vegetable, pork and chicken momo fillings are seasoned with a family secret mix of more than a dozen spices, Gurung-Subba said, noting that she keeps vegetarian options carefully separate from the meat.
The hand-formed dumplings come 10 to an order steamed; eight, fried in a tangy, chile-spiked sauce (chili momo); or six, served in a tomato-based broth (jhol momo). Prices range from $8.99 for jhol momo to $12 for chili momo.
"People may not know our flavors and textures. This is what we used to eat in Bhutan," Subba said, referring to the country that their families were forced to leave when the pair were young children. They spent years in Nepalese refugee camps before immigrating to the U.S.
My favorite dish is the fried chili momo. The pork filling of a recent order was well seasoned and juicy, while the dumpling skins were simultaneously chewy and crisp, coated. The almost caramelized chile-tomato sauce packs just the right amount of heat. Al dente chunks of sweet, cooked onion and a scattering of raw red onion and chopped cilantro finished off the dish.
During my visit to Maya's, a woman popped her head in the door to thank the couple for an order of steamed vegetable momos she'd brought to a gathering. A man stopped by to buy a Budweiser tall boy and chatted about how business was going.
The market's shelves offer an eclectic mix of candy, snacks, cleavers, kitchen strainers and small toys. Subba said demand for the prepared foods has been so steady that the couple hasn't had much time to figure out their retail mix. He recommended that customers call to order ahead.
"We chose this place because it is close to home and close to [our children's] school," Gurung-Subba said. The new business model suits them, too; the mini mart's menu and hours are both more limited and more flexible than those of their restaurant.
"I have time for the kids, to make them breakfast before school," Gurung-Subba said. "It's less work, less stress."
Mulu's Kitchen & Catering, 881-9933; at the Winooski Farmers Market at Four Quarters Brewing on December 12; visit Mulu's Kitchen on Facebook for future events.
- Melissa Pasanen
- Mulu Tewelde at the winter pop-up Winooski Farmers Market
Since I first tasted Mulu Tewelde's food at a multicultural dinner series in Winooski a couple of years ago, I've jumped on opportunities to enjoy the dishes she cooks from her native Eritrea.
I am particularly enamored of the tangy, spongy flatbread called injera, which is also a mainstay of Ethiopian cuisine and traditionally used as the utensil with which one scoops up mouthfuls of curried lentils, stewed greens and vibrantly spiced, braised meats. When I saw that Tewelde was one of the vendors at the winter pop-up Winooski Farmers Market hosted by Four Quarters Brewing at 70 Main Street, I grabbed my shopping bags and headed over for some vegetables and injera.
Tewelde lives in South Burlington with her family. She squeezes her food business around her day job working with seniors in Burlington. This summer, she brought Mulu's Kitchen to the Winooski Farmers Market. Now she sometimes numbers among the small set of vendors who come to the pop-up market on Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the brewery's new taproom.
At the pop-up market, Tewelde offers four different dishes weekly, plus injera — or rice as a gluten-free alternative. The choices vary weekly, but one staple is lentils stewed with curry, turmeric, garlic, onion and ginger. Other dishes might include curried chicken (doro alicia) simmered with onions, ginger, garlic, tomato, curry, turmeric, clarified butter and herbs. Spicy mushrooms (engudey wat) are cooked with berbere, the signature Eritrean and Ethiopian blend of ground chiles, coriander, garlic, ginger, black cardamom and fenugreek.
At the summer market, two dishes with injera or rice cost $12; a trio costs $16. When Tewelde moved to the winter market, she reluctantly increased the two-choice price to $13 to reflect skyrocketing ingredient costs, she said. She hopes to keep the three-choice price stable.
The cost of cooking oil has jumped by $3, Tewelde elaborated, while the price of collard greens, which she cooks with onions, celery, ginger and garlic, has increased by 30 cents a bunch. Ten-pound bags of onions have gone up by more than a dollar.
"I was worried to change it," Tewelde said of her price. "I try to keep it reasonable for me and my customers. It's not like fancy restaurants; it's just authentic food."
In my view, Tewelde's meals are well worth their price. The naturally leavened injera is finicky and takes her "hours and hours," she said.
For $13, I was fully satisfied with my chosen combination of nutty, spicy lentils (yemesser wet) and collard greens (gomen) with injera. I tasted a sample of the meltingly tender, warmly spiced beef (yesega wet) and put that on my priority list for the next time it's on offer.
Winooski's winter market may or may not continue into 2022, but if it does, Tewelde said she plans to participate. Either way, she will continue cooking monthly takeout dinners at the Old North End Community Center, which have a higher price point of $20.
I'm willing to fork over that much for an authentic taste of Eritrea. But if your budget doesn't allow that, catch the last 2021 pop-up appearance of Mulu's Kitchen on December 12 and look forward to the summer return of the regular market.
En la Avenida
Santiago's Cuban Cuisine, 1127 North Ave., Suite 20, Burlington, 862-4300
- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- Cubano sandwich and the Vegetariano plate
When the team behind Santiago's Cuban Cuisine took over the kitchen at Chile North this past August, business partners Luis Calderin and Oscar Arencibia promised they'd put a Cubano on the menu.
"Vermont has never had an official Cubano sandwich, because there hasn't been two Cuban guys making them," Calderin said at the time, chuckling. "Now there will be."
And, lucky for me, it's $12.
Chef Arencibia opened Santiago's in April, popping up in various locations with traditional Cuban dishes such as lechón and his grandmother's flan. In late August, Arencibia and Calderin teamed up with Chile North owners Carina Driscoll and Blake Ewoldsen for a six-week trial.
In mid-October, the pop-up became permanent: The signs on the former Chile North in the Ethan Allen Shopping Center on North Avenue now say "Santiago's Cuban Cuisine de la Avenida Norte."
The new sign was the first thing I noticed when I walked up on a Wednesday night to meet a friend for dinner. The second was the big, warm greeting that Calderin gave me as soon as I walked through the door. He grabbed menus and led me past the long bar to a cozy booth in the warm, open space.
I knew what I would order, but I read through the small plates anyway, getting hungrier and hungrier in the few minutes I waited for my friend. I did quick math to see how many things I could order to share for $24 or less. Crispy fried chicharrónes ($8) and fried plantain chips ($4) or Media Noche sliders ($9) and thin-cut French fries ($8) would have fit the bill.
My New North End friend got an even bigger greeting than I had when she walked in. Sitting down, she explained that she'd been to Santiago's a couple of times — for dinner with the family and alone for a quiet cocktail at the bar.
It means a lot to have a restaurant that can serve those different needs right in the neighborhood, she said. The drinks are good, too.
Despite playing with menu permutations, I stuck with my original order: the Cubano sandwich ($12) and the Vegetariano plate ($12). We weren't sharing — she got the picadillo, a stew-like beef hash ($16) — but I figured I'd eat half of my order and make two meals out of the combo.
The Cubano was everything I'd hoped Vermont's first "official" version would be. A base of perfectly griddled bread held slow-roasted, shredded lechón; ham; and melty Swiss cheese. Mustard, pickles and housemade mojo sauce punched through the richness of the pork in just the right balance.
The vegetarian entrée offered a sizable pile of rice and black beans, along with maduros — fried, caramelized sweet plantains — and a bright green salad with red onions, cherry tomatoes and a zesty citrus dressing. Satisfying enough to be a meal on its own, it would also make a great side dish for a group splitting several items.
That's my plan for my next trip to Santiago's, along with a Havana Yacht Club (dark rum, apricot brandy and sweet vermouth, $12) and some of Arencibia's grandma's caramel flan. I'm ready to be a regular.