When I lived in Burlington from 2010 - 2014, my most-frequented food-and-drink spots were undeniably dive bars. Manhattan Pizza & Pub's Philly Friday was a weekly must, when a foot-long, salty sub and a side of crisp fries is $5.99 — and coveted cans of Heady Topper are $5. (Pro-tip: Every bar has Heady Topper. Go out; don't waste your time in packie lines.) At Burlington's best Boston sports bar, The OP, I consumed many a bowl of free popcorn, but I was never brave enough to give the soft-shell tacos a try. Vermont Pub & Brewery's toad-in-the-hole makes great leftovers for brunch the next day.
But you're taking a road trip; you want to live it up. While food has always been strong in the locally-focused and verdant state, the restaurant scene has been elevated in recent years. (Though, some notable closures have hit Burlington this year.) What follows is a list of casual, somewhat off-the-beaten-path suggestions for a solid 36 hours in Vermont's biggest city.
- Bluebird Barbecue: This kitschy, roadside spot was the younger sibling of Vermont's first gastropub, Bluebird Tavern, and opened when the Tavern moved downtown in 2012. Sadly, Bluebird Tavern recently shuttered for good. Bluebird Barbecue focuses on regional barbecue styles, including Texas-style brisket smoked in a shack on-site, wafting delectable aromas through the Old North End. Pitmaster wings are an irresistible starter, though the downside is the "maple-q" glaze diminishes the need to use one of three, house-made barbecue sauces on each table, Kansas City Red, Carolina-style apple vinegar, and sweet maple. Warning: This is not a good place to take vegetarians.
- Pho Hong: Located relatively far from downtown, this family-owned Vietnamese restaurant in the Old North End is the best in Vermont. While most fans rave about the pho, try the bun bo xao xa ot, a noodle bowl with beef and citrusy lemongrass; com chien, a somewhat smoky Vietnamese fried rice; or hu tieu mi xao, white and yellow noodles with bean sprouts and springy egg. Bring a couple of your own beers or a bottle of wine; many Asian restaurants are wonderfully BYOB in the greater Burlington area, and you can take your time with the menu — service isn't speedy at this busy place.
- Duino! (Duende): To describe this internationally-inspired eatery as "eclectic" would be an understatement. Burlington's a funky place, and proprietors Lee Anderson and Kat Wright's little empire on North Winooski Ave. epitomizes it. Duino is attached and open to their original cafe, bar, and music venue Radio Bean, and, since I moved, The Light Club Lamp Shop. All three are decorated with vintage lights, colorful art, taxidermied birds, mismatched furniture, so much gold, and more to notice on every visit. Food is priced well. Since you're in Vermont, perhaps a heaping, garlicky plate of steamed kale is a good place to start. Definitely check out the specials — Today Is Special, notes the placard — but chicken and waffles, Korean beef and mushroom bulgogi, or white bean papusa are all worthy orders.
El Cortijo: Beginning in 2010 with a flagship gastropub and beer bar, The Farmhouse Group now operates four farm-to-table concepts in greater Burlington. El Cortijo — "The Farmhouse" en Espanol — is a funky cantina in a renovated diner car. (During a 2012 visit, Eater Boston editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal was enamored with its artful toilet.) Make sure the queso fundido with house-pickled jalapenos comes to the table first. The taco plates, while definitely not cheap, are composed with top-notch ingredients. Bright colors and flavors abound, as you can select from all varieties — including creative specials — on plates of two or three. Try the carnitas, with fermented kohlrabi; chorizo, with an addictive queso fresca; and quinoa, mole, roasted corn salsa, and, of course, Vermont cheddar.
- Citizen Cider: This hard cider company was an obscure favorite of this budding cider nerd when it had a handful of bar seats at a production facility in a deactivated Army installation north of the city. The month I moved away, Citizen opened up a 9,000-square foot home in the artsy and happening South End of Burlington. The new taproom always has ciders like The Dirty Mayor (a ginger cider), Wit's Up (fermented with a Belgian yeast). and the flagship Unified Press available on draft and to take home, as well as limited releases and specialty ciders. If you're not sweet on cider, (you're wrong, but) there are local beers, as well. The food menu isn't an afterthought, with a veritable Vermont cheeseboard; poutine with hand-cut fries, duck fat gravy, and local cheese curds; cider-braised barbecue brisket; fiery apple wings; and more.
[Inset photo: El Cortijo's toilet, by Rachel Leah Blumenthal]