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October 8, 2013

Alice Eats: ABC Café & Pub

La-bourdain-31 Towne Marketplace, Essex Junction, 872-8188

On an April episode of Anthony Bourdain's CNN show, "Parts Unknown," artist David Choe took the chef on an unlikely trip in his native Koreatown.

The pair headed to Sizzler, where Choe, in an all-orange suit, showed off the finer points of constructing a meatball taco from the buffet offerings. "There's nowhere else in the world where you can have this," Choe explained to Bourdain.

IMG_6396Well, Choe may need to hop on a plane for another "nowhere else in the world" creation. Vermont, meet ABC Café & Pub's samosa. Mashed potatoes mixed with beef, peas and onions are wrapped in a Chinese wonton skin with nary a hint of curry flavor. The combination is more shepherd's pie than samosa, but just when you think you've got it figured out, there's the side of marinara sauce for dipping. Is it good? Not really, but that's beside the point.

Since Chinese native David Lee took over the former Banana Winds Café & Pub last spring, the townie bar has seen an interesting menu transformation. And according to the regulars with whom I sat during their Sunday night football pool, the food has drastically improved.

IMG_6394The service was exactly the "Cheers"-like friendliness one would expect at such a place, even though the bartender didn't know my name. Lee worked the kitchen, putting out everything from homemade chili to Caprese sandwiches. My table mates recommended the Caesar salad, and for bar food, I was pleasantly surprised by the well-balanced plate with spotless lettuce and a sparing dose of Parmesan and tangy dressing.

Lee's heritage (or American expectations thereof) showed itself in the wing choices. I ordered two pairs of two since it was 50-cent wing night and I was racking up only $2 more on the range of $5.95 appetizers and salad I'd already ordered.

The General Tso version was as sticky-sweet as one might expect, but with a surprising wallop of five-spice powder. I preferred the ABC spicy wings, laden with garlic and burning with chiles.

IMG_6397My favorite dish of the meal was an order of pan-fried dumplings. Yep, dive-bar dumplings.

I won't stop going to Zen Gardens or A Single Pebble for something more refined, but for a bar-food take on the Asian dish, ABC's was a $5.95 success.

Inside the chewy and slightly greasy skins, lean chicken was moist and redolent of ginger. A bit of cabbage lent a mild crunch. There was clearly thought behind these dumplings. Their sauce, too, was balanced admirably between the zip of vinegar and salt of soy sauce. It wasn't gourmet, but for a bar with no gastropub ambitions, it was a winner.

IMG_6399We ended the meal with yet another fried delicacy, Nutella Banana Bites. Twelve of them. The generous portion made sense as we gobbled the wonton-wrapped Nutella bombs, with just enough banana to give them texture. But we couldn't finish the whole basket. We shared dessert with the football-fan regulars and headed on our way.

A friendly bar with cheap but eclectic food? It might not always be a touchdown, but it's certainly in a league of its own.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].

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