- Luke Awtry
- Taylor Parsons and Ali Nagle outside the Monkey House
As the sounds and vibes of Waking Windows fill Winooski this weekend, the Monkey House will keep things bumping until the wee hours of the morning. The bar and music venue is the music festival's unofficial center, and this year, it has pizza. Really good pizza.
Early in the pandemic, the Monkey started offering hot dogs and Cup Noodles to takeout customers along with its maple-whiskey lemonades and blueberry-lavender spritzers. The plan was to comply with the state's requirement that food be offered with to-go cocktails, making the fare more a formality than a real draw.
"We've always wanted to offer something for food, though," said Ali Nagle, Monkey House general manager and Waking Windows cofounder. "People know we have music, and we have a good late-night crowd, but we've never really had a solid happy hour crowd. And those people want food."
Then Taylor Parsons, who has worked at the Monkey for "seven or eight years," ran with an idea the team had been kicking around. "The one thing that was realistic — and would actually be real substance for people — is pizza," he said.
Parsons put his New England Culinary Institute training to use, creating a pizza program from scratch in the fall of 2020.
After that winter's pandemic shutdown, the Monkey relaunched its pizza full force in April 2021. The bar didn't originally have a kitchen, but now it has pizza ovens in the back corner and a prep kitchen upstairs, which it shares with its catering affiliate, Fluid Bar Service.
The New York-style slices quickly gathered a following. The Monkey hired a pizza team, cross-trained bar staff and started offering whole pies. Now, pizza sales make up 15 percent of the bar's total revenue and even more on show nights. Whole pies are available until 10 p.m., with slices typically on offer until midnight.
- Luke Awtry
- Danny LeFrancois, of Danny & the Parts, enjoying a brew and a slice of the McMonkey pizza
The Monkey has never been much of a college bar, Nagle said, but the pizza draws in more students, especially from Saint Michael's College and especially on Tuesdays, when a cheese slice and Miller Light combo costs $5.
"When we started this, I thought we were just going to make regular pizza to feed the people because they want to be here," Parsons said. "Now people are coming out of the woodwork saying we're the best pizza in town. I didn't expect that."
The hand-tossed sourdough pies are classic: thin and crispy, with big, wide slices. The dough recipe and the sourdough starter both come from Parsons' time at Sneakers Bistro, the Monkey's sister restaurant. (Gluten-free crust is available but not made in-house.) And it's not just cheese and pepperoni. Those are always on the menu, for $3.25 and $3.75 a slice, respectively ($18 and $20.50 for whole pies). But the short-and-sweet lineup also includes a vegetarian pesto pie, a well-thought-out Buffalo chicken and a rotating roster of "weird, cool pizzas," Parsons said ($4.25 per slice and $24.50 per pie). Specials have included taco pie; smoked tomato with creamed-corn ricotta; and the wildly popular current offering, the McMonkey.
Parsons listed the McMonkey's toppings in the exact singsong cadence of the classic McDonald's commercial: "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame-seed bun."
"I took all the things that the commercial says and put it on a pizza," he said, right down to American cheese and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
That jingle immediately made me hear the voice of "30 Rock"'s Liz Lemon singing about Cheesy Blasters: "Take a hot dog, stuff it with some jack cheese, fold it in a pizza — you've got Cheesy Blasters." Faced with that description, Tracy Jordan replies on the show, "I can't eat that. I'm a foodie."
But I hate the word "foodie." And if you can fold a hot dog in a pizza, why not a burger? Those were my thoughts as I folded the heavy, loaded McMonkey slice and took a bite.
I'm always a slice folder; a few years living in Brooklyn instilled it in my mind as the proper pizza-eating method, especially when handling a wide, New York-style slice. With the McMonkey, the fold was even more strategic — it kept a burger's worth of toppings from dropping all over my lap.
It's been a long time since I've had a Big Mac. But the McMonkey tasted like carefree memories of field-trip fast-food stops, thankfully without the queasiness that results from eating in the back of a school bus.
"You're going to be wondering where the fries are," Parsons said, stopping by my high-top table to see how I liked the pizza. I decided the beer I was drinking filled the fries void — though, if Parsons wanted to add them to the McMonkey, I'd support him.
- Luke Awtry
- Taylor Parsons finishing up a McMonkey pizza
The chopped iceberg lettuce on top of the McMonkey garners its fair share of stares as slices come out of the kitchen, Parsons said. "But salad pizzas really sell," he added.
The Monkey has also done a smoked tomato pie with fresh arugula and pickled red onion and a maple pizza with kale and sausage. Keeping on trend, the team plans to try a chicken Caesar pizza soon.
Even the Buffalo chicken is more salad-y than most: Parsons makes a ranch dressing in-house, packed with fresh herbs, and delicately drizzles it over each slice.
"The ranch is what's bringing our business in," Parsons joked. "But it's controversial." No classic buttermilk ranch, the dressing is greenish from all the herbs, with a strong dose of dill. Moreover, some customers maintain that the go-to drizzle on a Buffalo chicken slice should be blue cheese.
"We tried both," Nagle said. "I like blue cheese, but it's just not as popular."
Instead of the typical fried chicken cutlet found on Buffalo pies, the Monkey's version features chicken braised in beer. "Because we're a bar," Parsons said.
Though such recipes serve to remind customers of the Monkey's primary function, the pizza's popularity has given the bar a bit of an identity crisis.
"Now we're stuck," Parsons said. "Are we a pizza joint? Or are we just a bar that offers really good pizza?"
Wolfing Windows: Monkey House staffers share their favorite festival fuel
- Mac's Sugar Shack
During Waking Windows, from Friday, May 13, to Sunday, May 15, the Monkey House will serve pizza until 2 a.m. to the throngs attending the music festival, albeit with a streamlined menu of cheese, pepperoni and Buffalo chicken.
"It's a bit of an experiment for us," general manager Ali Nagle said, "but we'll make it work." The team is staffing up and adding a register at the pizza station, in addition to its normal order-at-the-bar situation.
"It's nice to be able to feed people after they've been drinking all day," Nagle added.
Her ideal combo is a slice of pepperoni — drizzled with dilly ranch dressing — and a domestic beer or a tequila soda. Head of the pizza program Taylor Parsons' usual is a McMonkey and a light lager.
"You'll have to come back on Monday for that, though," he said.
Waking Windows will have a lineup of food trucks and pop-up purveyors at the Main Stage and in Rotary Park all weekend, including Pingala Café's Broccoli Bar, Southern Smoke, Farmers & Foragers, Radio Bean, Luiza's Homemade With Love, Miso Toh Kome, Mule Bar's new food truck, Omakase, the Skinny Pancake, Maudite Poutine and the New Deal.
Seven Days asked Nagle and Parsons to recommend a few ultimate eats for the festival — besides their pizza. Both agreed on Mac's Sugar Shack, which will be parked outside the Monkey on Friday and Saturday.
"All of us get the taco bag," Nagle said. For $5, customers choose among four to eight types of chips; then Mac's owner, Marshall Cummings, adds taco meat (or rice and beans) and cheese directly to the bag. Customers DIY their toppings: sour cream, salsa, onions, lettuce, jalapeños and a variety of hot sauces.
Nagle chooses purple Doritos to go in the bag, while Parsons goes for spicy Cheetos or classic Doritos. "I usually eat three or four," Parsons said of the item, which Mac's calls "taco-in-a-bag."
"You can leave it plain or fill it up with as much as you want," Cummings said. "People go bonkers for it."
Cummings bought his tiki-style cart in Florida in 2011, but he didn't launch Mac's until returning to Vermont in 2016. The cart's previous owners used it to sell Hawaiian shaved ice on the beach, so he started by serving 18 flavors of the treat, including Vermont maple.
As Cummings looked to diversify, a friend suggested he serve taco-in-a-bag — also called Walking Tacos, Haystacks or Frito pie, depending on your location.
"It's a staple of life in lots of states, but growing up in Vermont, I'd never had it," Cummings said. Taco-in-a-bag is now a staple of Mac's menu, along with burrito bowls, taco hot dogs and the shaved ice.
Mac's Sugar Shack will show up this summer at Burlington's ArtsRiot Truck Stop and South Burlington's Thursday Night Take-Out and SoBu Nite Out. But Cummings sees Waking Windows as a highlight of his schedule.
"Waking Windows has a really chill vibe," he said. "I don't know if it's just Vermont or Winooski or the Monkey bar — everyone's always happy." Being stuffed full of taco bags might have something to do with it.
"They're former Tiny Thai employees, so we know them," Parsons said. (Tiny Thai used to be just down the block from the Monkey House.)
"And their bánh mì are incredible," Nagle added.