- Sarah Priestap
- Filipino bánh mì
At first glance, Kuya's Sandwiches + Kitchen looks like any other small-town Vermont sandwich shop. Peering through tall windows from Randolph's Main Street, passersby will find a familiar scene of mismatched wooden chairs, art-filled walls and handwritten chalkboard menus.
What's on those menus is what makes Kuya's stand out. Besides making classic Italian, veggie, Reuben and French dip sandwiches, Patty and Travis Burns fill sandwiches with the flavors and ingredients of the Philippines, from pork belly marinated in pineapple barbecue sauce to roasted chicken with yellow curry and bananas.
Kuya is the Tagalog word for "brother," used widely in the Philippines as a term of endearment and sign of respect, said Patty, 36, who moved from the Philippines to the United States in 2006. She settled in San Francisco, where she helped a friend run a Filipino American restaurant for nearly 10 years.
Travis, 31, found his way to California after graduating from Randolph Union High School in 2008. Having worked at Randolph's now-closed Three Bean Café and a deli his father owned in Waitsfield, he continued his restaurant career in the Bay Area.
The two met at Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails, an Italian restaurant in Alameda, Calif., where they bartended side by side. "We remained friends," Patty said with a chuckle. "And years later, we ended up being romantic."
- Sarah Priestap
- Korean beef bulgogi with house-pickled ginger and broccoli
By 2019, they were married and had moved to Nashville, Tenn., to open a restaurant of their own. But after the pandemic broke out, they decided to return to Randolph instead. The timing was right: A friend who owned a deli in town was ready to move on, leaving the space on Main Street available.
"We had confidence that we could build something and enough knowledge to thrive and survive pretty much anywhere you put us," Patty said. "Being from the Philippines, I'm resilient and used to hardships and hard work."
The couple opened Kuya's on February 26, 2021. They started with takeout, and when the state lifted its pandemic restrictions in June, they added on-site dining.
"There's nothing like seeing diners really enjoy your food and seeing their reaction to the first bite," Patty said. "Especially with the kind of stuff we have — we're a bit out there for many people here."
It's no surprise that many of Kuya's customers are unfamiliar with food from the Philippines; Vermont's only other Filipino restaurant is Pica-Pica in St. Johnsbury.
Patty tells customers it's all about flavor. "It's a melting pot of flavorful food that is mainly eaten at home. And, you know, we were colonized by Spain for, like, 300 years, so there's a lot of Spanish influence," she added.
When I had my first bite of a Kuya's sandwich, that flavor blew me away. I shouted an emphatic "Yum!" across the restaurant to Patty, who lit up in reply.
It was a bit of a strange time for sandwiches — around dusk on a Sunday — and my husband and I were the only ones in the restaurant. A crowd wouldn't have stopped my outburst, though.
I'd ordered the Filipino bánh mì ($11), which Patty described as a "fusion" take on the popular Vietnamese street-food sandwich and Kuya's best seller. The warm baguette was stuffed with the usual pickled carrots and radishes, cilantro, and sriracha aioli. But it also had a big slab of grilled pork belly marinated in a tangy pineapple barbecue sauce.
"That's like the nationwide marinade for the whole country," Patty said. "It's a standard Filipino flavor that you find in the streets and in people's houses."
I made the mistake of giving my husband a bite. He then coyly suggested that we share, offering me half of his French dip sandwich ($11).
- Sarah Priestap
- Filipino sans rival, made with buttercream, cashew meringue and crushed cashews
The thinly sliced roast beef on the French dip is topped with horseradish mascarpone, caramelized onions and Provolone cheese. After a dip in the rich, savory jus served alongside, the meat melted in my mouth. It was a perfectly composed sandwich and reflective of the Burnses' love for food from around the world.
But I was pretty stuck on the powerful flavors of the bánh mì. As we left, I regretted not ordering a second one to go.
Kuya's menu has plenty more that will draw me back. For instance, the Swede ($11), another of the six house sandwiches that anchor the menu, combines roasted chicken with housemade yellow curry sauce, red onions, banana, cilantro and maple-smoked cheddar.
The couple initially envisioned opening a casual fine-dining restaurant, but the constraints of the pandemic led them to opt for sandwiches instead. "Travis cooks for me, so I know what kind of products he can make," Patty said. "I knew that if we did a sandwich shop, he would just kill it."
Some of the sandwiches are also available as rice bowls, along with a bowl of Korean beef bulgogi ($12) and occasional specials, such as a Sicilian caponata the night we were there.
When Kuya's opened, the couple offered giniling — a picadillo-like ground beef dish with carrots, peas and fried plantain — and chicken adobo rice bowls. Both are classic Filipino dishes, Patty said. But it was a challenge for the two-person team to produce them consistently.
Now that they've found their rhythm and added a few employees to their team, Travis and Patty plan to slowly incorporate new plated dishes, such as Southeast Asian-inspired noodles, into the dinner menu over the next few months. They'd also like to source more ingredients from local farmers.
"We have to get a dishwasher first, though," Patty joked.
In the meantime, diners looking for Filipino flavors outside a sandwich or rice bowl can opt for sides of tomato-cucumber salad ($4) or macaroni salad ($4.50). Special and rotating soup options have included a traditional bone marrow broth with cabbage, corn, carrots and fish sauce; and arroz caldo, a popular rice porridge that the Burnses topped with pork rinds, a squeeze of lime, scallions, hard-boiled egg and crispy garlic.
- Sarah Priestap
- Patty and Travis Burns
Crispy garlic also appeared in a little snack that Patty brought to our table as we waited for our sandwiches: adobong mani, or garlic peanuts.
The food at Kuya's takes time to prepare, and peanuts are something crunchy and salty for diners to nibble on while they wait. In the Philippines, "You'll see a lady selling them from a basket for really cheap, as just a snack," Patty said. For the holidays, she's spiced up jars of those peanuts with Thai chiles. She's also making a festive cake called sans rival — similar to her sylvanas, cashew meringue cookies that are filled with buttercream and served cold.
The cake is gluten free, and many of Kuya's menu items are adaptable to fit dietary restrictions. The Swede, for instance, can be made vegan by swapping cauliflower for the roasted chicken and skipping the cheese. The rice bowl version of the Filipino bánh mì is gluten free; it's also the most traditional way to eat the pork belly, Patty said.
The adaptable menu and welcoming service have earned the 9-month-old business a growing list of regulars. Out-of-towners, on their way down Interstate 89 are drawn to the hard-to-find Filipino flavors at Kuya's. In the Philippines, Patty noted, "You can call anyone kuya, whether they're your family or a stranger."
The restaurant displays works by local artists, both up-and-coming and established, and the Burnses donate a portion of art sales to local nonprofits and the high school. Their meet-and-greet events with the artists have been a big hit, Patty said.
"I didn't really know what to expect coming here," she added. "But even in this small town, people are hungry for culture, for travel, for something different."