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Tortilla Testing

Edible Complex


Published August 31, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Why can't Yankees cook real Mexican food? It seems so simple: The menu items in any family-owned Mexican restaurant in South Texas or East L.A. are variations on the recurring theme of rice, beans, meat, cheese and tortillas. It's like playing with a gastronomic Lego set: Choose from one of three sauces -- red, green or mole -- and three meats: chicken, beef or pork. Then you pick either a crunchy, deep-fried shell or a soft corn or flour tortilla, serve it with black or refried beans and a dollop of sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo and velO! You've got Mexican food. Add a couple of seafood dishes and it's practically alta cocina.

Yet something invariably gets lost in the translation. And the secret isn't in the water, as some people claim about New York-style pizza and bagels. Even in Manhattan -- which offers the most copious culinary concoctions on the continent -- emigres from southern-border states bemoan the dearth of authentic Mexican food. In the eight years since I returned to the north side of the Mason-Dixon line, I've found very few Mexican restaurants that can hold a candle to the standard Tex-Mex fast-food joint you might find in a Fort Worth shopping mall. What gives?

Honestly, I'm not a Mexican food snob. I enjoy a meal at Chili's as much as the next Vermonter, provided the margaritas aren't too watery and they keep the chips and salsa flowing. But sometimes I still yearn for the real deal from the People's Republic of Texas -- my favorite was Tamale House #3 in East Austin, a four-table hole-in-the-wall taco stand under the flight path of the old municipal airport. There, rotund Mexican women roll tamales and breakfast tacos that fill your belly -- three for two bucks!

Recently, the Burlington area has seen a modest proliferation of Mexican food restaurants. And while my Latino friends roll their eyes and pooh-pooh it all, these places aren't without their charm -- at least by gringo standards. My first outing was to Roque's Restaurante Mexicano and Cantina at the foot of Main Street in Burlington. The Mexican restaurant with the French-sounding name -- in the old Mona's location near the waterfront -- was mostly quiet on a recent Tuesday night, but it still took our waiter a while to get around to bringing over the chips and salsa. No major gripes about the margaritas -- I had a Bahama Mama and my date had the Georgia Peach. The drinks kept us satisfied until the food arrived, which was quickly.

We began with an appetizer of shrimp ceviche, marinated in fresh lime juice with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and cilantro. I enjoyed it, but my date complained, "It's not like they serve it in Ecuador." For entrees, we shared an order of spinach enchiladas and pescado borracho, which is grilled red snapper with sauteed mushrooms, onions and chiles in a light, white-wine sauce.

The presentation of both dishes was good, the portions were sizeable and the price was right -- entrees range from about $8 to $15 -- but the chef seemed timid that night. My date and I were completely befuddled by the one-pepper spiciness rating beside the pescado borracho -- it lacked punch and needed salt. The spinach enchiladas were just OK, lacking the Latin fire you expect from a south-of-the-border experience. A bottle of hot sauce was vital for both entrees.

Next stop was the new Miguel's Stowe Away on Church Street, which has an upscale feel and a more diverse menu. The Burlington location, which opened about a month ago, is roomier and noisier than its mothership in Stowe, so we opted to wait for a quieter booth in the back.

The bar offers the same excellent selection of margaritas as does the Stowe location. I had the Miguel's Extra Gold, which is served with fresh-squeezed lime juice. As we waited briefly at the bar, I noshed from a basket of warm, multicolored chips and a hefty bowl of homemade salsa made just the way I like it -- with plenty of cilantro.

For me, Miguel's Stowe Away proves a fundamental rule of good Mexican food: If you stick the landing on the guacamole, margaritas, chips and salsa, the judges will give you the benefit of the doubt for other minor technical flaws. My crab-enchilada entree was good but not great, but the chicken fajitas were right on the mark. The service was spot-on. Miguel's is only slightly pricier than Roque's -- entrees range from $13 to $19 -- but its offerings are tastier and worth the price difference. And with plenty of outside Marketplace seating, Miguel's is a good spot for people-watching. Next time I go, I'll make reservations to guarantee a table.

Rosita's, at 7 Fayette Drive in South Burlington, was a wholly unexpected treat. Ordinarily, I'm skeptical of any Mexican restaurant situated in a strip mall, but Rosita's definitely delivered the goods. Large, airy and comfortable, it's located in the old Cactus Pete's site just off Shelburne Road. The quality is high, and both the menu and the prices are "family friendly." Entrees range from $7 to $18.

The chips were warm and the salsa spicy. But what made it for me was the big bowl of guac, as smooth and creamy as butter. I'd definitely recommend the frozen mango margarita as well as the pomegranate margarita on ice. Those with a serious sweet tooth might want to request the "sugar rim" instead of salt on their margarita glasses.

Our entrees were both hot and huge. My date's beef enchiladas Rosita in red sauce was very tasty, and enough food for at least two meals. The fish in the taco de pescado varies from dia to dia. The day we went, the fish tacos came with a large portion of grilled tuna, cooked to perfection and served on a soft corn tortilla, with a lemon mayonnaise and fresh lime, refried beans and rice. Definitely a winner. And although it's easy to overlook side dishes, it was obvious that Rosita's Mexican rice and beans were both freshly made.

Finally, sombreros off to our waitress, Courtney, not only for two rock-solid margarita tips, but also for packing up our leftovers and labeling them with the restaurant and date of our visit. The only drawback I can think of about Rosita's is its location -- near the Route 7 construction. But that snafu will right itself once the bulldozers and steamrollers pack up for the season.

Mexican food purists may never find true satisfaction in Vermont, except maybe from the tamale girl at the Burlington Farmers' Market. But, like a lot of things in a capitalist system, more competition can only help matters. Is Burlington's Mexican fare "authentic"? Maybe not, but it comes a lot closer than it used to.