In the dusty, litter-strewn streets of Tijuana, tacos typically come from a stall or stand. A sole tortilla cradles gristly, grilled mystery meat all a-sizzle, perhaps topped with a bit of cabbage or pico de gallo and a squirt of soured cream. The salsa is thin and mostly spice and vinegar. But somehow it all magically combines to form a mouthwatering, chewy divine comedy — for me, great Mexican ridiculously defaults to terrible — with a serious shake of sketchiness.
Such food would be sorely out of place in Stowe, where owners Paul and Laura Biron replaced Frida's Taqueria with Mi Casa Kitchen & Bar at Main Street's Butler House in May, carrying the gringo-Mex torch forward for another iteration. In a recent conversation, chef Scott Hostetter, formerly of Pie in the Sky and Partridge Inn, said the team sought to bring "a traditional Mexican restaurant" to town.
But a glance at the menu, created in consultation with Green Mountain Inn chef Steve Trusco, reveals a very Vermonty spin on things. Hostetter sources meats and produce fresh from local farmers, and the wandering menu swings from chiles relleno to iceberg wedge salad, mixing and matching Mexican and Vermont flavors, ideas and ingredients.
The mashup begs a little getting used to. Maybe start with a margarita? Until very recently, house margs were $4.99 on weekday afternoons, but for the current price of $6.75, I'd rather splurge on a fancier tipple. Mi Casa's pomegranate margarita is a refreshing tropical treat in a dusty pink hue, spiked with tipsy tequila bitterness. But for this drinker, sangria hit the spot. Cool and juicy and not too sweet, the calming cocktail diluted the sting of my withering hope that I would find legit Mexican in the Green Mountains.
Guacamole, for instance, was offered topped with smoked trout or Vermont feta — something few Mexicans would dream up, as they tend to understand that good guac is a rare perfection and should be respected and left to shine without accoutrements. I balked at the oddball additions ... then succumbed to curiosity and opted for the trout. When the fresh-smashed avocado bowl arrived, sprinkled with crisp shreds of bacon and fish, the trout's smoky salt breathed much-needed life into the mash, which on its own was woefully undersalted. It wasn't really Mexican, but it wasn't half bad. For guac, it's a splurge at $11.95, but the generous portion size lasted a table of three through dinner.
The chips that came with it, flash-fried and dusted with ample salt and just a sprinkle of sugar, were also great with other dishes, such as a flame-broiled, bubbling bowl of queso fundido ($6.95). The creamy, gooey, molten bowl of Chihuahua cheese came studded with sweet poblano peppers and caramelized onions. It tasted of Philly cheesesteak sans steak or bread, but made for an over-the-top, heavy indulgence.
Fish reappeared in a cool bowl of tender, springy whitefish ceviche ($8.95), diced to bite size and soaked in limey brine with crisp red onion, tomato, avocado and cilantro. Biron says the chef has since swapped the whitefish for tuna, but the complementing ingredients remain more or less the same. The dark red fish likely adds a layer of iron-rich depth to the dish.
That ceviche spoke in a heavier Mexican accent than most items on the menu, and it wouldn't be out of place on the tonier streets of Jalisco or Cancún. Nor would the side of twice-fried tostones made with sweet plantains ($2.50). These carried the musty sweetness I grew to expect when I lived in Nicaragua. Whatever their provenance, Mi Casa's plaintains were seriously great — crisp and worthy of return visits.
A plate of wings ($7.95) kept closer to home. They were lightly fried and then tossed in sweet, sticky, chile-flecked maple glaze. A hint of adobo-soaked chipotle pepper in the sauce was the only thing linking the dish to Latin America. If the tie was tenuous, the wings nonetheless fed a craving for bite-size, bone-in chicken. And the dip, a buttermilky sauce made with feta from Bennington's Maplebrook Farm, was a worthy accompaniment to crisp sticks of carrot and jicama — a hydrating, south-of-the-border vegetable and fine stand-in for celery.
Mi Casa's tacos are a bit pricey and add up when ordered à la carte; better to go for a taco plate ($13.95). This delivers three tacos, rice, beans (whole black ones, savory with cumin and vegetable stock) and salsa. My tacos were inexplicably wrapped in soggy flour folds that did the fillings a disservice (next time I'll ask for corn tortillas). Still, the fillings were all quite tasty.
In the duck confit taco, the meat was tender, topped with tangy, cider-braised cabbage reminiscent of kimchi and just a bit of sweet beet purée, which lent a lovely pink color and earthy depth to the ensemble. Like the other tacos on the menu, the duck mélange paired similar flavors and textures. From bite to bite, distinguishing one ingredient from another took a good deal of effort, but it was a merry melding, and it worked. The carnitas tacos, stuffed with barely sweet, perfectly stringy pulled pork, salsa verde and tangy pickled onion, were especially good.
The carne asada taco was stacked with grilled chuck steak — not the skirt steak described on the menu — with caramelized onions and a squirt of creamed avocado. While this fold packed the most distinct flavors, it was the least interesting of the lot.
Still, diners who crave beef should get it in a taco and forsake the steak ($23), which was tough and riddled with gristle. The mostly unadorned hunk of beef shoulder was served with a sad side of wilted greens; the zingy tomatillo chimichurri atop the beef was the best thing about the dish. That and the yucca fries, which were cracking crisp outside and delightfully soft within — a fine starch to accompany any meat.
Those fries also appeared alongside a chorizo burger ($11.95). Despite the spicy moniker, the porky patty was milder than expected, but it had enough kick to give the burger — oozing and quivering with meaty juice — a smoky, sausage-like saltiness that bordered on brilliant. The burger came topped with cheese, avocado, mayo and a runny fried egg. If it sounds like a mouthful, it was, but a damn good one, and light enough for lunch. I limited myself to eating half and saved the rest for later, which left room for a few more of those fantastic yucca fries dipped in the chile de árbol mayo.
Mi Casa covers vegetarian ground, as well. A sauce-soaked vegetable enchilada ($12.95) came packed with cubes of fresh, grilled summer vegetables — which, during my visit, included squash, chayote, caramelized onions and roasted poblanos — along with creamy goat cheese. It was a hearty, satisfying dish with a hint of citrus, but it was also a reminder of what Mi Casa is and isn't. The dish, like the restaurant, lacked a certain cha cha cha, but for Yankee Mexican, 'ta bien, wey.