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Restaurant Week Diaries: El Cortijo Taqueria y Cantina & The Mad Taco

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El Cortijo Taqueria y Cantina, 189 Bank Street, Burlington, 497-1668

The Mad Taco, 72 Main Street, Montpelier, 225-6038

Appropriately for an event that ends just a day before Cinco de Mayo, lots of Mexican menus are available throughout Vermont Restaurant Week. Two nights in a row, I've enjoyed a pair of triumphs.

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For just $15, I ate like a champ at 9:45 p.m. on Sunday night. Thank you,  El Cortijo Taqueria y Cantina for being open late and for offering up three delicious courses.

We started with mini versions of the veggie-filled tortilla soup, full of melting Champlain Valley Creamery queso fresco and the green salad, flavorful, but missing its usual sweet potatoes.

El Cortijo is serving three different tacos just for Restaurant Week. The Clamares (pictured), filled with crispy Long Island squid and Maine beans was flavored with a garlicky chimichurri.

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I went ape for the Lonja de Puerco, meltingly fatty pork belly glazed with a combination of guajillo chiles and local honey. Soft, braised cabbage further sweetened the pork and thin slices of Hakurei turnips added crunch. If added to the regular menu, that taco would certainly join my rotation.

Like the appetizer portions, desserts were half size, but still so filling they left me with a stitch as I walked out the door. It was my first time trying the flan. Not usually a fan of the dish, I appreciated its relative sturdiness, with just a hint of jiggle and an eggy sweetness that reminded me of a simple soufflé — only cold.

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The following night, I headed to Montpelier to try a new location of a (not so old) favorite. I was initially disappointed when I was told that the Mad Taco would not be offering the advertised chef's tasting menu.

Instead, we were allowed to select an appetizer, entrée and dessert from the chalkboard specials. When my combo didn't quite add up to the $25 menu price, our chef/server allowed me to take a bag of crumbly, almond-filled Mexican wedding cookies to make up the difference.

I sat at the counter of the two-month-old, 18-seat eatery. It felt like hanging out at a favorite greasy spoon. Until I tried the food, that is.

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The meal started with a poblano pepper stuffed with meaty braised short ribs and queso. The pepper had a mild heat of its own, but an orange pool of fiery mojo raised the spice ante. Tangy drizzles of almond-based romesco added a nice counterpoint, but only the sprigs of cilantro truly cooled the combination of peppers.

I chose hake tacos as my entrée. The mild, flaky fish crumbled into a pleasant pile of spice-rubbed flesh as I bit in. Most of the flavor, however, came from the pineapple-habanero salsa. The sweet, tender fruit played well with the fish's seasoning and every few bites, I bit down on a fireball surprise — habanero. Bright pink shreds of pickled cabbage mitigated the heat just enough that I kept a burn on my lips, but was far from pained.

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Great, but my boyfriend's meal was truly inspired. Six jerk-seasoned shrimp were buried in a mound of salsa composed almost entirely of honeydew and watermelon.

But the real secret to the dish's success was a pile of coconut grits. The thick cornmeal porridge was cooked with coconut milk instead of water of cow's milk. The next time I make polenta at home, it will certainly be with coconut milk. The result is sweet, but not too sweet, and creamy, but not as heavy as a rich dairy version. Spicy food, you've met your match.

Dessert, however, was the night's biggest surprise. Morning

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chef Justin Finsen apparently has quite a way with the sweet stuff. He prepared one of the best classic bread puddings I've ever eaten.

Moist and gooey with notes of cinnamon, it would have been perfect on its own. But the chef took an extra step — or two. The dessert was filled with crispy pepitas that had been dusted with habanero. The result was a building warmth, like rubbing Icy Hot on a sore back. Sweet, viscous rum-toffee sauce added a layer of sweetness to balance the heat.

The pair of meals spiced up Restaurant Week, but still left me hungry to try more.

 

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