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Side Dishes: Mexican cantina to open on Church Street

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Church Street will see a continental cuisine shift this spring: A Mexican restaurant is on track to take over the space currently occupied by Vietnam Restaurant II. El Gato Cantina will open in midsummer with a roster of tamales, carnitas and other traditional dishes based on the family recipes of owner Tree Bertram.

“I don’t want to do fusion Mexican food. I want to bring what you get on the street corner in Mexico, or what my 4-foot grandma made,” says Bertram, who grew up in a Mexican American family in California’s Central Valley. “I really think this is a niche that needs to be filled.”

Bertram, who has owned several eateries in the Atlanta area, signed the lease on the 98-seat restaurant a few days ago. She’s interviewing potential staff and plans to open in six to eight weeks, she says. In addition to the fresh salsas, carnitas, chili relleño and tacos (at least 10 different kinds), she’ll be cooking up elote — Mexican grilled corn — and pozole, the ancient Aztec soup of pork and hominy. Behind the bar, she’ll stock a range of tequilas, including some infused with jalapeños and oranges. “I really want to share the love of the food. For me it’s soul food, and it’s putting my soul on the line,” she says.

Bertram says Atlanta had a vibrant Mexican food scene, so she didn’t miss the cuisine on the East Coast until she moved to Burlington six years ago. She hopes to locally source as much produce as possible. “I want people to know that Mexican food is not always bad for you. There are healthy choices you can make,” Bertram says, and cites the fish tacos and whole-wheat tortillas she’ll put on her menu.

Not on offer, at least from the outset, will be her grandfather’s menudo, the tripe and hominy soup that Bertram grew up eating. “I’m not sure people are ready for tripe. I would mostly eat the hominy when I was young, and ate more of the meat as I got older,” she says. She may offer it as an occasional special, though.

Meanwhile, it sounds as if Burlington is down one of its Vietnamese restaurants. Calls to owner Hiep Pham — who also owns Vietnam Restaurant in Essex — were not answered by press time.

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