When it comes to “Offbeat Eating”, one of my delights is finding particularly good food in places where you wouldn’t normally expect it. But sometimes there are little hidden gems hiding away in quiet neighborhoods outside of the normal shopping or dining districts. One of these is hiding in plain sight in Burlington, Vermont’s Old North End (not to be confused with the New North End about a mile away to the Northeast): on a fairly quiet cross-street halfway between the Battery St and Winooski Ave thoroughfares, is a quiet little building that looks like it’s a neighborhood convenience store. That’s because it is a neighborhood convenience store. The Shopping Bag is mostly a convenience store, with a selection of snack foods, beverages, light groceries, and even a small meat counter. But nestled into the front right corner of the store is a grilling station and a large menu board, and it’s actually one of the better places in Burlington to score a burger.
One of our occasional favorites on the local dining scene is a tapas place: Candela Tapas Lounge in Hanover (you can read my review of them here), but it’s not the only place in the area doing “Pan-Latin inspired tapas”. Melaza Bistro over in Woodstock, Vermont, serves up “Caribbean tapas & entrees”, and has been a perennial item on our “places in the Upper Valley to check out” (early in its history, there was some involvement from the current owner of Candela, but the businesses are completely separate now). So when we recently had to celebrate a birthday, we decided to finally check out Melaza.
Over the years, Carol and I have had some pretty good luck with raffles, so when we were attending last year’s SipTemberfest at Mad River Glen, we couldn’t resist buying tickets to the Mad River Path Association’s raffle. And indeed, a bit later when they started drawing tickets, we soon found ourselves winning a free night at the Pitcher Inn in Warren, VT. The Pitcher Inn is basically the ne plus ultra of Vermont country inns, so, a few months later, we found ourselves taking a nice mid-week vacation (the free night wasn’t good on weekends) and having a very pleasant stay at the Pitcher in their “Mallard Room”. But that also gave us an opportunity to check out their rather nice restaurant, 275 Main.
I have a soft spot for Montpelier, one of the United States’ most quiet state capitals. It’s a pleasant town, with a lot of little stores, and a decent arts scene. And, most importantly, for a modest city of its size, it actually has an impressive assortment of restaurants, ranging from classic diner (Coffee Corner, to funky Asian-inspired (Kismet), to pizza (Positive Pie II), just for starts. And in this environment, new eateries are appearing all the time, and most of them have staying power. So, when a new place shows up in Montpelier, I’m usually interested in checking it out, so a trip up to Warren VT turned involved a chance to stop by and check out a relative newcomer: Downhome.
Every once in a while, it’s nice to see a local place start to hit their stride and become successful. In this case, I’m talking about Pierogi Me. While there’s a modest Polish population here (particularly in Claremont, NH), Polish food is mostly limited to the occasional special event (like Polish Night at The Old Courthouse), so I’m always on the lookout for opportunity to find some Polish sausages or pierogi. So when I first heard about Pierogi Me, finding their product involved a bit of a hunt, since they made the pierogi in their own kitchen and primarily sold pierogi at several farmers markets, the Killdeer Farm Stand, and, most easily found, the freezer case at Dan and Whit’s General Store. Alas, about half of the times I went to try and get them, I’d find that the word had gotten out, and there wouldn’t be anything left. But then, an important change happened: they opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
A recent trip to Burlington had us searching out some pizza for a craving. This isn’t particularly challenging in Burlington, which has rather a lot of decent pizza places with good beer lists, including American Flatbread, Ken’s Pizza, Leonardo’s Pizza, and Manhattan Pizza and Pub. Yes, the fine people of Burlington do indeed like their pizza and beer. But our trip had us staying a night in the newly opened Hilton Garden Inn, and the back entrance dropped us out right in front of Pizzeria Verita. We’d known of it for a while, but it had never percolated to the top of our list. Why? Two reasons. First, it’s next to the truly wonderful Trattoria Delia, which has been known to suck us in off the street in hopes of scoring a table without a reservation (we’ve generally been successful at that). The second? The location, 156 St Paul Street, is one of Burlington’s “cursed restaurant” spots. Over the years I’ve been going to Burlington, it’s been a string of different restaurants (in my tenure, it’s ranged from Irish to Hipster heaven to Sports Bar), some good, most mediocre, none of them lingering long. So, to be honest, I was waiting to see if Pizzeria Verita lasted a while before going, and on this trip, seeing it across the street reminded me that they’ve been around since 2012, thus probably breaking the curse.
In general, I really enjoy that each part of the country has food specialties that they excel in, it gives me something to look forward to when I travel, like a good proper posole in New Mexico, or a proper Cuban sandwich in Miami. But it also leaves me with the occasional hard to satisfy craving. Like when I want a good, quality biscuit. Nominally, this shouldn’t be too hard, considering that within a 50 mile radius of me are about a dozen places that have biscuits on the menu… But I’ve learned that, like the phrase “New England Barbecue”, “biscuit” is a term to be treated with a certain amount of skepticism in these parts. I could get a nice, flaky, buttery biscuit with a bit of crumble… but I’m much more likely to get some sort of stale, leaden lump of dry dough that’s only vaguely suitable as a substrate for a biscuits and gravy. In short, most New England biscuits, well, suck. It baffles me a bit, since biscuits aren’t that hard to do… when I lived in the South, the vast majority of kitchens were able to put out a decent biscuit, without any products labeled with “Bisquik” or having any sort of canned dough being involved. But it’s something that most New England kitchens haven’t mastered, enough so that I’ve joked many a time about opening “Rich’s Remedial Biscuit School” and inviting local chefs. I was in that frame of mind when I was checking out reviews for some new places in Montpeliers, and I had noticed several good reviews for Philamena’s, a new Italian place that opened this year on Montpelier’s west side. Most importantly, more than one review mentioned great biscuits. Hopeful, but still skeptical, we decided to check them out for breakfast.
I’ve always enjoyed the little town of Hartland, VT. It’s a nice quiet little town, just off of I-91 and down the road from Windsor. It’s a bit funny, since it really has three village areas: Three Corners (where Route 5 and Route 12 intersect, and basically the main part of town), Four Corners (to the west, where Route 12 and Brownsville Road intersect), and North Hartland (a quiet little village nestled in between I-91 and the Connecticut River, and home of the North Hartland Dam, a rather nice little recreational area). As small Vermont towns go, Hartland is nice in that it’s actually got enough basic amenities: a gas station, two convenience stores, a library, several churches (including the host of the Famous Roast Beef Supper) and the like. And a diner, the Hartland Diner.
On our recent trip to Pho Dang in Winooski, we immediately noticed that not only did North Main Street have a phở joint, it also seemed to have it’s own little Southeast Asian neighbor, with several Asian-related businesses nearby. One of them, Dharshan Namaste Asian Deli, is directly across the street from Pho Dang, and proudly sports “Bánh Mì” sandwiches in their window. I love a good bánh mì, so, a few weeks later when we were back in the Winooski area, we decided that we’d duck in and try Dharshan Namaste and see how they did.
As I mentioned in my review of Montreal’s Fairmount Bagel a few years ago, bagels are generally a fairly regional food item, with various world metropolitan areas all having their own variations on the same theme. One of the more respected ones, the Montreal Bagel, is also one of the most regional: it’s rather difficult to find a proper “Montreal bagel” outside of Quebec (and heck, they get pretty scarce outside of Montreal itself). So it was with a bit of skepticism that upon hearing that a relatively new addition to Burlington’s bagel scene (which, to date, hadn’t really impressed me that much, even with the relatively low standards I’ve had for “New England” bagels). But a trip this summer by Carol up to Burlington to get an issue with her Mini Cooper fixed let her to try out Myer’s Bagels, and she came back excited: “They really are good, Montreal-style bagels”. So the next time we were both up in Burlington, it was time to check out Myer’s.