Best Bites of 2012
This year, Burlington restaurants rocked the sequel
file: Matthew Thorsen
Sequels suck, right? Not always. Does anyone think the first Street Fighter video game or film The Terminator is better than its follow-up? I even hold the unpopular opinion that Revenge of the Sith is better than the original Star Wars trilogy.
A pair of great Burlington restaurants became part of the same trend this year with sequels that may well have outstripped the originals.
Right at the beginning of 2012 (or on December 31, 2011, to be exact), El Cortijo Taqueria Y Cantina finally remedied the dearth of high-quality, flavorful Mexican food in the Queen City, bringing a whole different concept from the locavore burgers at its sister restaurant, the Farmhouse Tap & Grill. In July, Bluebird Barbecue pulled off a similar feat with smoked meat. Taking over the space where Bluebird Tavern opened two years earlier (before it moved downtown last winter), the new restaurant is a casual, lower-priced extension of the increasingly upscale original.
Both restaurants started out as something special, but each grew and improved throughout the year to join the company of the most consistently delicious eateries in the state. Now, at the end of 2012, they’ve become two of my most frequent destinations, right along with my picks last year for best new eateries, San Sai Japanese Restaurant and Farah’s Place.
There were other close contenders. The meal I had at Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen in Barre might have qualified it as my selection for best new restaurant if I had had more than a month to see it grow. Incidentally, the Common Man in Warren, which Cornerstone co-owner Keith Paxman sold to Adam Longworth and Lorien Wroten last year, would also have been a contender had it been a wholly new restaurant and not just under new ownership.
But back to El Cortijo and Bluebird Barbecue. Since I’ve been to both restaurants many times, I can do better than regurgitate the details of my early, for-review meals. Instead, here’s a side-by-side guide to what made them the best new restaurants of 2012.
El Cortijo: It was the first great thing I ate in 2012, and I still crave it as if for the first time. The tocino taco is only available at Saturday and Sunday brunch, but it’s worth making time for a daylight-hours binge.
Scrambled eggs with an ample stuffing of cilantro are the base for a luxurious combo of ultra-creamy queso fundido and cubes of meaty, slightly sweet housemade bacon.
But it’s the salsa verde that makes it sing. Tangy and bright, with just a slight wash of heat, it makes me salivate long after I’ve finished my meal.
Do I really have to choose? Actually, no. That’s why I try to bring three friends with me when I visit the Riverside Avenue resto, so we can order the Family Reunion Pack.
The meal for four includes tastes of every meat and side on the menu. From smoked-ringed baby backs and rosemary-rubbed, lightly crisped brisket to sage-flecked house sausage and well-vinegared, barky pulled pork, there isn’t a loser in this carnivore’s wet dream. Even the collard greens and sweet pit beans come with bits of delicious, slow-cooked flesh. At least the shimmering, spiced applesauce is wholly vegetarian. I think.
What Else to Eat?
El Cortijo: In my first year with El Cortijo, I’ve developed a routine. And, believe it or not, it involves a double dose of salad. The greens with citrus vinaigrette are so refreshing, I order a taco plate with two orders of salad instead of the perfectly yummy Spanish rice or black beans.
One of the two tacos on my plate is invariably either the crisp flounder taco with tangy cabbage slaw or the juicy pork carnitas with charred pineapple salsa. From there, I spring for a special, such as the shredded Misty Knoll chicken taco with creamy pepita sauce and fried plantain treasure that I recently tried.
Bluebird Barbecue: If trying every smoked meat and every side in the Family Reunion Pack isn’t enough, I recommend a mix of greens very unlike the ethereal combination at El Cortijo. Betty’s Salad is more heart-stopping than refreshing, with a thick slab of chicken breast, beautifully brined and then fried in a thick batter, resting atop a pile of cucumbers, tomatoes, homemade croutons and shredded American cheese, all bathed in thick buttermilk ranch dressing.
El Cortijo: The menu doesn’t refer to its Margaritas as “wicked fly” for naught — especially in the case of the Caliente, made with jalapeño essence. Fresh limejuice sweetened with agave nectar gives way to a powerful, throat-coating burn that makes the cocktail a complex experience in itself.
Bluebird Barbecue: Rookie’s Root Beer designed a drink just for Bluebird Barbecue, called Rookie’s Red. Its makers refer to it as a “lemon-orange-vanilla experience.” Maybe it’s just the candy-apple-red color, but it makes me think of a grown-up, citrus-infused Shirley Temple. Good Ship Lollipop, indeed.
What to Look For
El Cortijo: The diner-style counter and booths remain as a nod to former tenant the Oasis Diner, but they’re not the most fun thing about the décor at the restaurant, which is known for its neon-orange-and-blue sign and matching details along the wood bar. The most fun thing is the toilets. Whether or not nature calls, it’s worth a trip to the WC to see one of these porcelain artworks, painted by Sarah Ryan with busy, Mexican-style flowers and vines.
Bluebird Barbecue: The front room’s pub space has a TV and shuffleboards. When I dine in the barroom, there always seems to be someone at the foosball table. Bluebird Barbecue practically screams “fun.”
But the greeting painted near the entrance, entreating guests to “Meat Here!” gives merely a hint of the friendly vibe that emanates from owner Sue Bette herself. I’ve rarely seen a table of customers leave the place without her asking for their frank opinions on the experience and calling them “friends.”