Tacos, Enchiladas and Tequila Cocktails To-Go at the Big Spruce in Richmond | Good To-Go | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Tacos, Enchiladas and Tequila Cocktails To-Go at the Big Spruce in Richmond

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Chicken tinga taco - COURTESY OF SHEM ROOSE
  • Courtesy of Shem Roose
  • Chicken tinga taco

Richmond wasn't exactly a hot spot of activity on a winter night even before the pandemic. On the recent 12-degree Friday evening when I arrived for takeout from the Big Spruce, the downtown was still.

A few people were waiting for their food order in their cars outside the restaurant. But I stood outside to feel the night chill and countryish air, anticipating the warmth and comfort of my meal to come. As I waited, a pickup truck parked across the street. A man in ski gear got out and walked up to me.

"Where's the Big Spruce?" he asked.

"Right here," I told him.

A newcomer could indeed miss it. Mexican-themed and takeout only, due to the pandemic, the restaurant opened in mid-November in the renovated, charcoal-colored building that previously housed Toscano Café & Bistro and, before that, the Daily Bread Bakery & Café. Lights on the front porch illuminate the pickup windows. A small sign, lit-up that night, announces, "Tacos Are for Lovers; X O." (The "o" in lovers is represented by a heart.)

Unlike the traveling skier, I knew the Big Spruce's spot on Bridge Street. And I was warmly welcomed to it by a second figure that appeared on the street.

"Hey, Sally!" came a familiar voice.

It was Tatiana Bruno, the restaurant's general manager. They (Bruno uses gender-neutral pronouns) were walking from Hatchet, Big Spruce's companion restaurant across the street, back to the Mexican place. Bruno is director of operations and general manager at both businesses.

Wildfire cocktail - COURTESY OF SHEM ROOSE
  • Courtesy of Shem Roose
  • Wildfire cocktail

I knew Bruno, as many area diners probably do, from Hen of the Wood in Burlington. They worked at Hen for six years, from server to bartender to general manager. (Bruno also worked at Misery Loves Co. in Winooski.) Now here they were on a quiet village street, running two restaurants.

Soon after our brief encounter, Bruno handed me bags of food and drink through the front window of the Big Spruce. I set the goods in the passenger seat and texted my daughter before driving back to Burlington: "Headed home now, smells great!"

Though dinner from the Big Spruce was our big event of the week, she seemed to have other things on her mind: "Trump removed from twitter!" my kid texted back.

One of the bags — the one with the alluring aroma — held tacos, enchiladas, chips and salsa, and a Caesar salad. The other contained two bottles that clinked together as I drove: a house margarita in a little glass flask and a grapefruit Jarritos — a Mexican soft drink.

I can't be the only Vermonter who, driving home from a restaurant with a cocktail in tow, is tempted to take a sip. I'd double my wager about that temptation when it's the Friday night of a week when we witnessed insurrection in our nation's Capitol. But I promise I didn't touch the stuff!

At home, I dropped a couple of ice cubes in a glass and poured a Big Spruce Margarita ($9). Then we dug into the super-good housemade chips ($3), dusted with salt, chile and other spices, and dipped them in two salsas: verde and roja.

Enchiladas de mole - COURTESY OF SHEM ROOSE
  • Courtesy of Shem Roose
  • Enchiladas de mole

I took a bite of my steak taco ($6), filled with marinated and grilled local beef, and proceeded to eat most of it before even setting it on a plate. The Big Spruce's large Caesar salad ($11), bedecked with avocado and croutons that soaked up the dressing, was the only part of my meal requiring a fork.

My daughter ate the excellent chicken enchiladas with sweet-smoky mole sauce ($16), a dish we'd both flipped for on a previous occasion.

A few days after our meal, I had a conference call with Bruno; Gabe Firman, founder and co-owner of Hatchet and the Big Spruce; and Chuck Spock, co-owner and chef de cuisine of the two restaurants. Spock's previous chef experience includes Stone Corral in Richmond and ¡Duino! (Duende) in Burlington.

The Big Spruce was conceived before the pandemic and designed to complement the comfort food, pub-style offerings of Hatchet.

"We basically take all the very local feedback that our constituents lay upon us, and we take it to heart," Firman explained. "We need to make sure we are ... marrying what we like to do with what our community enjoys."

Though the original plan was to offer outdoor dining at the Big Spruce this winter, in a space outfitted with picnic tables and firepits, that changed when the restaurant's opening coincided with an increase in COVID-19 cases. (Hardy diners are welcome to eat their takeout meals at the picnic tables.)

"It is so challenging in this community to keep people from congregating," Firman noted.

In the spring, when the restaurants expect to resume (or start) in-house dining, the creemee window from Hatchet will move across the street to the Big Spruce. Its offerings will be elevated and enhanced so that the window will become a full-fledged "creemee program," according to the restaurateurs.

During the phone call, I learned three particularly noteworthy things — one from each person on the line.

From Bruno, I got a lesson in bang-up customer service. Though I had asked them by email how they approach this at a takeout place (see sidebar), I got an unexpected and impromptu demo.

Chuck Spock - COURTESY OF SHEM ROOSE
  • Courtesy of Shem Roose
  • Chuck Spock

To my astonishment, Bruno remembered what my family ordered — drinks and food — both times we got meals from the Big Spruce. (The visits were about a month apart). They also suggested I branch out: Try the chicken tinga taco and Wildfire cocktail.

Chef Spock suggested that the variety of entrées at the Big Spruce is worth exploring. I silently scolded myself for not getting one. I'd come oh-so-close to ordering a seafood dish — grilled scallops with roasted corn, chorizo, black beans and citrus — or the shrimp and sautéed vegetables in creamy chipotle sauce. But when the chips were down, no pun intended, I just wanted to stuff a couple tacos in my mouth and down a margarita.

Firman explained the meaning of the restaurant's name. I had associated the Big Spruce with Hatchet — namely, a tree and the tool used to chop it down.

But it turns out there's a big spruce tree, roughly double the height of the building, on the restaurant's south side. It's a mystery to me how I failed to notice it during the countless times I've been on Bridge Street over the years.

Due to enlightenment by telephone, I need to return to drink a Wildfire, eat an entrée and look up at that tree.

One general manager, two restaurants, three questions

Tatiana Bruno - COURTESY OF SHEM ROOSE
  • Courtesy of Shem Roose
  • Tatiana Bruno

Tatiana Bruno is director of operations and general manager at the Big Spruce and Hatchet in Richmond. Bruno answered a few questions from Seven Days by email.

SEVEN DAYS: How do you manage the logistics of running two restaurants at once?

TATIANA BRUNO: Communication. Instinct. Humor.

Lots of brisk walking back and forth across the street. It's a matter of building programs and systems ... communication and prioritizing the time I spend between the two spaces.

SD: How do you approach customer service when your interactions with people are brief and limited: talking on the phone, handing over a bag of food?

TB: Authenticity. Empathy. Warmth.

Time is experienced differently by everyone; I believe in the ability for strong connections to be forged in brief moments, especially when what we're talking about is feeding people well. Especially when contact with others is more limited now than we'd become accustomed to.

In every interaction, I try to treat everyone as if they were my relatives ... relate to them in some way even with the smallest acknowledgment — while always making sure my mother can be proud, and continuing to be a leader in my industry.

And also, in Richmond, it helps that we are lucky to see the same smiling-eyed masked faces week to week on both sides of the street; it is truly a tight-knit and interwoven community.

SD: What's your vision for the Big Spruce when it's open for in-house dining?

TB: A party for our guests and us, where we're having fun and we all feel safe, looked out for, comfortable, inspired, fed and taken care of.

This interview has been condensed.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Spruced Up | Tacos, enchiladas and tequila cocktails in Richmond"

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