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Side Dishes: New fast-casual eatery to open in former Souza's spot

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Will Pouch put 15,000 miles on his car’s odometer searching for a place to open the third branch of the restaurant family that started with his Saratoga Springs eatery, Esperanto. The hunt took him to college towns such as Ithaca and New Paltz, N.Y., and Northhampton, Mass.

But it was Burlington that captured Pouch’s attention. “Everyone who heard I was looking at Burlington said, ‘Oh, you belong there,’” he says. Pouch thought so, too. This September, he and his partners will open Esperanto in the Main Street space that has been empty for nearly a year since Souza’s Brasilian Steakhouse closed.

“People here were looking for an independent business that does fresh food from scratch. That’s who we are,” Pouch says. Pouch started Esperanto with his wife, Belinda, and two friends with the motto “Great Food Fast & Fresh” — in 1995. At the time, the only fast-food options in Saratoga “were a couple of good sandwich and pizza places,” Pouch recalls.

Their concept: fresh, housemade fast food such as falafel, oversize burritos, quesadillas, chunky salads, Thai chicken curry, gyros and even jambalaya. Esperanto scored big with one particular dish: the Dough-Boy, which consists of diced, spiced chicken breast, scallions and cheeses baked in fresh pizza dough. “Our magic weapon is our Dough-Boy. We sell more of them than anything,” says Pouch. In fact, the item’s popularity helped the partners open a satellite Esperanto at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center seven years ago. Over time, a vegetable-filled Dough-Girl followed, as well as daily spin-off versions called “Dough-Cousins.”

Dough-Boys and -Girls will populate the grab-and-go hot case inside the Burlington eatery, while occasional cousins will come filled with local, seasonal ingredients. Sharing the case will be black-bean burritos, twice-baked potatoes and baked chimichangas.

Other dishes — such as pizza, enchiladas and salads — will be made to order. Since the Vermont space lacks the venting system for a fryer, Pouch says the menu will adapt accordingly. He’ll also drop items that might compete with nearby businesses.

But the Burlington restaurant will share a key Esperanto feature: food service from lunch straight through to the early morning, after bars have closed. (Esperanto will appear on Esquire’s upcoming list of best late-night eateries in the country, according to Pouch.)

Half of Esperanto’s current employees have Burlington roots; several are moving up for the launch. “We’ve got a lot of excitement [on staff],” says Pouch, who also expects to hire some staffers here.

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