What's Good in the 'Hood | Food News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Food News

What's Good in the 'Hood

Burlington's Old North End serves up everything from Americanos to pho tai


Published April 2, 2008 at 7:15 a.m.

Now that the Greater Burlington area has branded itself as "the West Coast of New England," it's fitting that a slice of the Old North End should emerge as a Vermont version of Berkeley's famous "Gourmet Ghetto."

The blocks around North Street and North Winooski Avenue have sprouted an eclectic collection of unchained fast-food joints, eateries specializing in various ethnic cuisines and immigrant-owned shops selling such items as fu-fu paste and mung beans. Besides the standard New England pizza parlor and creemee outlet, the seasonings in this global potpourri include an espresso house, a bakery, side-by-side Middle Eastern and African markets, and — coming soon — a vegan café. Not far away, foodies can find a Vietnamese restaurant, a Chinese takeout and a couple of pan-Asian grocery stores, one of which also carries African products.

In Berkeley, bustling Shattuck Avenue is the Gourmet Ghetto's central artery. Here it's pokier North Winooski, where, just off Church Street, an older row of funky restaurants beckon curiosity seekers and adventurous tourists into the Old North End. On this initial strip, hungry hipsters can choose among Mexican, Indian and Caribbean fare, as well as Vermont-style sandwiches — all of which they can wash down with a soy latte at Radio Bean or a stronger brew at The Other Place. A Vietnamese nail salon offers manicures nearby.

While the word "ghetto" applies only ironically to Berkeley's pricey gourmet zone — which includes Alice Waters' landmark restaurant Chez Panisse — the dining experience to be enjoyed along North Winooski is decidedly more downscale. It's no ghetto, but superstar chef Thomas Keller wouldn't recognize this area as a destination for gourmands, either.

A stroll down the avenue from Pearl Street to Riverside is actually a much cheerier experience today than it was just a couple of years ago, although these mixed commercial-residential streets are still largely ungentrified and attract few outsiders. Food and drink generally come with few flourishes and fewer pretensions. They're served, however, at prices just right for the students, longtime locals and refugee newcomers who account for most of the restaurants' and grocery stores' customers.

The area does have a certain Left Coast sensibility, says Megan Munson-Warnken, co-owner of Viva Espresso at 197 North Winooski Ave. The joint's name comes from the battle cry "Viva la Revolución!" Munson-Warnken explains, noting, "Coffee shops are traditionally where revolutions germinate." Getting rid of Republican-dominated government would constitute a revolutionary act, she maintains — and so, on a more local scale, would getting to know one's neighbors. "In this email techno culture we live in, there's something real about a place that knows who you are," she says.

Munson-Warnken, 32, likens Burlington's "laidback scene" to that of Portland, Oregon, where she lived after earning a Master's degree in literature from the University of Washington. In the Old North End, she says, she's found the same devotion to "the art and science of espresso" that preoccupies many residents of the Pacific Northwest.

"There were people who thought we were crazy to open up in this part of town," Munson-Warnken acknowledges. But she and fellow entrepreneur Heather Bauman, also a West Coast émigré, "had a hunch there was a market here" for a community-conscious coffee house. Two years of profitable operation have validated their intuition. Viva's regulars include locals of all ages who no longer have to schlep downtown for their joe, as well as commuters from the South End and the Burlington suburbs who make the trip for the organic espresso roasted by the Vermont Coffee Company.

Viva's mellow vibe is what draws Jeremiah Wright, a young South Ender who describes the espresso creations sold there as "the best in Burlington." To make it so, Munson-Warnken sank more than $10,000 into the brand of espresso machine used in "international barista championships," she says. But just as important is Viva's investment in ambience. Some mornings, the place looks like a daycare center that happens to serve coffee.

"I came here because of the mom thing," says Gyllian Svensson, 35, a South Ender who recently opened The Bobbin Sew Bar & Craft Lounge at the corner of North Winooski and Archibald Street. Svensson is one of several mothers who frequent Viva because they can chat and sip espressos while their young kids enjoy the café's play area.

Next door at Panadero Bakery, most customers are from the 'hood, with a sprinkling of "real die-hards from the farmers' market" in City Hall Park, notes co-owner Lyndsay Klepper. That's where she and her husband, David Cannizzaro, garnered an initial clientele for their breads and pastries before opening Panadero in 2005.

Klepper says she and Cannizzaro wanted to situate their bakery in the neighborhood where they live. "We were looking to be localized," she explains. "It was a serving-your-neighbors attitude." The monthly rent for the storefront on North Winooski is also a bargain compared with what they would pay in Burlington's main shopping precinct.

"This isn't a tourist area," Klepper notes. "Very few people from out of town will walk even two blocks north of Church Street."

Chris Hathaway, co-owner of New World Tortilla at 10 North Winooski Ave., seconds that assessment. "We'll never get the soccer-mom shoppers from Williston," Hathaway says. "We're a block away from the Church Street Marketplace, but we don't ever get tourists coming in here."

That's part of the funky charm of places such as Panadero, where a cup of coffee still costs $1 — about half what Starbucks charges at the entrance to the Town Center shopping mall.

If anything, Old North End food outlets are intensifying their local focus, though the mostly young entrepreneurs who started these businesses certainly aren't averse to attracting customers from outside the immediate area.

Dino's, a pizza and sub spot at the intersection of North Winooski and North Street, plans to sponsor movie nights to draw more students and older residents of the neighborhood. "Instead of going downtown for a more expensive bite, people from the neighborhood can come here," Dan Eckman, 24, says while prepping a chicken pizza at Dino's.

Sam Lai, owner of China Express on lower North Street, has a similar vision for New Ethic, the vegan café he and chef Owen Hoppe plan to open this summer in a newly renovated space across the street from Dino's. Lai sees this unique combination of coffee house and raw-foods bar as a "hangout spot for the college market." Students will come to "eat, sit and do their homework," Lai predicts.

No one planned the ongoing transformation of this part of the Old North End into a soulful alternative to the more sterile food scene downtown. "It just sort of happened," says Cyndi Christensen of the city's Community and Economic Development Office. But she's not surprised by the influx of ethnic restaurants and grocery stores to the area.

"There's a lot of refugees and immigrants living around there," Christensen notes. "They're all very entrepreneurial and have a great desire to maintain their cultures through food and activities."

Waell Murray, a Palestinian, recently moved his Middle Eastern café and provisions shop to 156 North Winooski from the former bus garage farther up the avenue. (That space now houses Pho Hong, a Vietnamese restaurant.) Now called Globalmartvt.com, the erstwhile Global Markets is situated alongside the African market established by Congolese merchants two years ago. Though the website at his URL isn't up yet, Murray plans to do brisk business on the Web. Outside cyberspace, he'll make takeaway falafels and sell fresh produce in his new spot, but for now he's simply offering specialty canned goods to Bosnians and Arabs who live nearby.

"The people who shop in my store come here every week," Murray says. "It's the only place they can find these products." Globalmartvt.com is designed for "people at or just above the poverty line," he adds.

His shop is helping make the intersection of North Winooski Avenue and North Street "the place to go when you want to buy something different — the sort of thing you can't find at Price Chopper or Shaw's," Murray says. The addition of Globalmartvt.com, which opened in January, should strengthen the area's new identity as a destination for intrepid foodies, he suggests: "I complete the picture here."

That picture doesn't include the mile-long artisan cheese bars or yuppies pushing $5000 strollers you might see on the West Coast. But for local folks, the "gourmet ghetto" is a pretty tasty spread.