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December 20, 2011

Alice Eats: El Gato Cantina

IMG_3344169 Church St., Burlington 802-540-3095

It's always nice to see restaurateurs giving people what they want. Not surprisingly, in Burlington, that means only the most local, seasonal ingredients available. That wasn't originally a focus at El Gato Cantina, but in recent weeks, owner Tree Bertram has made it clear that she's been listening.

Out went the popular elotes (grilled corn topped with queso fresco). In came specials focused on local meat and even Lyndon-made Sheffield Seitan.

When I tried the the new dishes last night, several things were missing, most notably, the pork mole made with braised local shoulder, which was out of stock. No matter, the chicken version is now made with Misty Knoll Farms chicken. I've had plenty of local lengua, and the truth is, tongue is tongue, even when it's from LaPlatte River Farm. I decided to go for the seitan instead.

IMG_3345But first, chips. I think it's safe to say that the cilantro woven densely into the salsa was not grown in Vermont, but who cares? It's part of what may be the best classic salsa currently served at a restaurant in Vermont.

First of all, the texture is perfect. The veggies and herbs are blended so that a full-bodied mix covers each chip; none of that thin juice so prevalent in coarsely chopped salsas. Jalapeños also ensure that a light burn accompanies each bite.

I would have been happy to stop there, but the vegan taco arrived, closely followed by our two entrées.

IMG_3347The seitan inside the taco was brushed with sweet ancho chile glaze, which was flavorful, but still not enough to cover up the telltale, overbearingly earthy taste of wheat gluten.

However, the fresh cabbage, onions and cilantro that buried the meat replacement provided enough bright flavor that the taco, as a whole, was delicious, if a little messy to eat. The glaze dripped out of the tortilla with each bite.

At $3.99 for a surprisingly good-size taco, vegans, or just folks who feel like a lighter alternative, might easily make a satisfying meal with an order of two.

IMG_3349Onto the chicken. Under those unnecessary mounds of cheese (right) were two very satisfying enchiladas. Misty Knoll chicken was braised in a spinach sauce (yes, hidden vegetables!), then rolled in tortillas and topped with tomatillo sauce.

The chicken was nicely seasoned and braised to a pleasant level of yielding. One of the two tortillas, however, contained a few inedible pieces of cartilage attached to the meat.

The tomatillo sauce was mildly tangy. Yummy, but still no competition for the mindblowing powers of the green sauce at Firebird Café in Essex.

The mild refried beans were good, if not exciting. The buttery rice, flavored with tomatoes and big chunks of onions, was an uncommonly appetizing version of the often dry, veggie-studded rice typically served at Mexican joints.

IMG_3350When the mole arrived the first time, the half chicken's worth of pieces (breast, wing and drumsticks) were all cold in the middle.

It took a while to get the plate back (it appeared to be a whole new dish, without my previous bite marks) and when I did, my single corn tortilla had been replaced by a salad of cabbage and pickled onions. A little odd, but not unwelcome.

The Misty Knoll chicken had a lovely texture. The wing, especially, fell apart in hearty, crisp-ended strands that would not have been possible with lower quality meat. Score one for local chicken! Even the meaty breast was tender and juicy. Score two!

I always say that I want my mole to taste like mud and twigs. This did not, but the sweetness of the lightly spiced chocolaty sauce was sufficiently subdued to make me happy. It could have used more depth, and perhaps a stronger sesame flavor, but I liked it.

It was nicely balanced with a fruity side of black beans, too.

Best of all, there was more than enough to save for a second meal. Misty Knoll mole, I look forward to round two.

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]



I'm so f***ing sick of Burlingtonites complaining about locally sourced ingrediants. Authentic Mexican cuisine can not be locally sourced. She needs a geography lesson. And then she complains that she can still taste the seitan. Are you f***ing kidding me?

It barely feels like journalism with this column. Her story sounds like a dictation from a legal deposition. "And then this came", "and then we ate this", "and it was followed by the mole and green sauce". Yikes. By the way, El Gato is awesome and so delicious. Damn the haters.

Alice knows nothing about food except how to eat it. She makes it obvious she has never worked in the restaurant industry or has any respect for the hard work, hours and dedication it takes to own , manage, or cook for one. She simply eats and criticizes. And how rude to mention another restaurant in your review. Especially how they - in your opinion have a better sauce.rude.
I have only been to El Gato once. The staff was amazing, the food was great, the margaritas were the best around. And if my chicken wasnt steaming hot but it was cooked i would have loved it too. I cant even read your reviews with any seriousness anymore. Seven days should hire a former restauranteur or chef to write. Not someone who just likes to eat and can look up fancy food terms on google like she has lived a life of food.

Really? I mean when is 7days going to wake up to this? I mean this is not really even a food review. It's some lady going to a restaurant and eating 6 things on the menu. Not loving these food reviews at all. Wishing their was some sort of editorial review or something like that. Really?

ALICE--Thank you for finally reviewing something vegan! Sounds good to me. Can't wait to try this place.

Once again, I find Alice Leavitt's blog posting to be good-natured, evocative, and informative.

Apparently I have lousy taste.


How many food critics can you mention who have worked in the restaurant industry, or "have any respect for the hard work, hours and dedication it takes" to own , manage, or cook for one?

I have worked in several kitchens and I don't consider myself a food critic, but I know what I like and don't like. El Gato doesn't sound like something I'd like, however it is still interesting from a voyeuristic perspective to read about a meal that someone else ate there.

Keep it up, Alice - good job.

Wow, what's eating the first three reviewers? If I were Tree Bertram, I'd be happy about the write-up and I'd have a talk with the cook over temperature control. Really. Health inspection score cards and food writers keep restaurants honest. That's my two pennies.

I, too, am getting, bored with the constant focus on local, seasonal ingredients. The quesadilla at this place has red peppers in it. That is in no way authentic Mexican. This town needs to change it up and find a way to get some real food that isn't just farm-to-table, taste how fresh my chicken is. I get fed Misty Knoll chicken at restaurants about as often as I get a glass of ice water for free. I don't care any more. Get some real Korean food, a real chinese place that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, some quality pad thai (or just a decent one that doesn't cost $15. Pad that is 7.95 at every authentic thai restaurant in LA. Why is our sub par crap twice the price?) a real sushi bar for people who care about good fish (yeah, place down by the water, your sushi is excellent, but you don't eat sushi at tables and you should know this. I want to talk to the guy and build a relationship). As for mexican, i kind of have hope for the new cantina in that space where the deli used to be, but my guess is they'll care too much about locally sourced ingredients and too little about tasting like actual mexican food, because apparently that's what the "people" want.

Seriously...if i hear the words "Misty Knoll Chicken" in a Burlington restaurant again I'm going to puke. If a Mexican joint is good, I want it to succeed without having to apologize for where they get their Cilantro. And we need a decent Indian place for chrissakes...local cardamom? This whole scene of overpriced hipster restaurants shoving Misty Knoll chicken and root vegetables down our throats is going to implode...the sooner the better!

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