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Missing Mexican

South-of-the-Border Cuisine Goes Way South

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La Carreta, Rosita's and El Mariachi are gone. Miguel's Stowe Away in Burlington lasted less than a year. Then, on April 7, the long-lived Miguel's Stowe Away Lodge in Stowe - family-owned for 30 years - closed its puertas. What's troubling Latin and Tex-Mex restaurants in Vermont?

Miguel's proprietors couldn't be reached for comment, but other area business owners have some ideas. Monique Duckworth, who owns Stowe's 15-year-old Cactus Café - the town's only remaining Mexican restaurant - doesn't think "Mexican is going passé, or anything like that." What's the problem? The economic climate in general, she suggests. "It's getting harder and harder for small businesses to make a living in Vermont with this whole Catamount Health Insurance, proposed 1 percent tax on fuel and propane . . ."

Valerie Rochon of the Stowe Area Association agrees. "The businesses in Stowe are being absolutely strangled," she complains. "How much more serious does it have to get . . . before the legislature does something about it?"

Rochon notes that in addition to skyrocketing property taxes and rising utility bills, the weather also plays a role. "God has a little bit to do with our marketing efforts. When your bottom line is iffy and your revenue is somewhat sporadic because of poor weather . . . you go out of business . . . The fact that any [restaurants] are still open is a testament to their will power and their business management skills."

Is Duckworth concerned about her café's future? Although it makes her nervous to be the "only game in town," she professes to be hopeful. "When we first started, it was really hard . . . but we keep up with everybody else now." Also, she's confident about the "word-of-mouth recognition" she's gained with locals. Another plus: "There's really something on the menu for everyone," Duckworth points out. "And we have a really tight staff - like family."

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