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'We were a take-out joint.' Food award is a game-changer for Burlington restaurant Café Mamajuana

A close-up of a beef burger with cheese sitting atop a tostones bun, made from fried plantains.
Courtesy, Maria Lara-Bregatta
Café Mamajuana dishes are often naturally gluten-free, like this cheeseburger sitting atop a bun made from tostones, or fried plantain.

Named for a healing elixir brewed from spices, barks, wine and rum, Café Mamajuana in Burlington’s Old North End is barely a year old, but it’s already caught the attention of the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

The restaurant, which serves up Dominican fusion dishes and desserts from a brightly painted café on Oak Street, was recently named as a semi-finalist for best new restaurant in 2022.

VPR's Mary Engisch recently spoke to owner and chef Maria Lara-Bregatta about the restaurant. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Your restaurant is among a pretty dizzying list of new restaurants from Los Angeles to San Francisco, New Orleans, New York City and all points in between. How does it feel to be on that list?

Maria Lara-Bregatta: It meant the world. I mean, I have a new daughter. And so to open a business your first year, being a new mom, really, my team held it down. I'm kind of like the visual recipe developer, you know, the ideas that get scribbled down at 2 a.m. And you know, I cooked up until the moment she was born.

But really, my chef and my team kind of held it down. So I'm just so proud of them. Because my chef Eric [Hodet], he grew up in Vermont; he wasn't really familiar with Dominican food or Dominican-isms. And now he's kind of like my honorary Dominican. He's just kind of mastered the cuisine, really listened to all my recipes, listened to my parents who were involved in the beginning and just channeled the energy that we were trying to bring to each dish. And for that, I'm so thankful.

Now we're finally open for indoor dining. But we were a takeout joint up until like, three weeks ago.

How does the James Beard award work? Is it like the Disney movie Ratatouille, like the food critic comes in secretly and tastes all the food and then you find out later?

That’s so funny. Growing up, my mom used to do that. So yeah, somebody definitely came in and tasted. So. (Baby noises) Hi, baby!

Busy working chef, owner, parent! I love hearing baby putting in her two cents in this interview. 

We were short-staffed yesterday. And you know, she came to work with me. She's gonna be just like me, growing up in the restaurant and working at an early age if she wants to. And we will have had very similar upbringings.

And what does that feel like?

I love it. I really love it. I think you have to be a certain type of crazy to do it. I cherished my memories growing up in the restaurant. I became the person I am because of that. And I am quite proud of who I am.

More from VPR News: 'I See Myself In Her': Creating Representation In New Afro-Pollinator Mural In Burlington's Old North End

You know, sometimes people have journals and vision boards full of things that they're manifesting into being. Did you know you were destined to own your own restaurant?

I did. I have to say I didn't think I would own a Dominican restaurant. Because I grew up in one. And you know, a lot of times whatever you grew up doing, you're like, “I swear I won't do that!”

As the years passed, I totally manifested things. I had hoped to own a bakery. I had been a pastry chef, prior to moving to Vermont. So, I had vision boards of bakeries.

And when I moved to Vermont, and I realized that there wasn't food that I grew up eating, that's when I decided "OK, it's probably time for me to bring a little bit of that flavor here to Vermont." So, it really came out of a need, more than a desire, to be in this exact lane. But now I'm just enjoying it because it hasn't been done. And it resonates with people, which is pretty awesome.

You're located at 88 Oak St. in Burlington’s Old North End. And I understand that the folks who own Skinny Pancake sort of flipped it and made it into a cooperative. How does that work?

I got looped into this project with Matt Cropp and Benji [Adler], who owns the Skinny Pancake. Benji was selling the building but didn't want it to go to some kind of developer. So we quickly scrambled and quickly formed a real estate co-op and took small investments from folks promising them a dividend of 6% at the end of the year. And so 80 people in the community invested in the building itself and that's how we paid off the mortgage and bought the building.

And then tell me about your café itself. Take us through the front door. What's the decor and vibe?

So it's a small, cozy, 20-person restaurant with beautiful murals on both the outside and the inside done by BIPOC artists Phoebe Lowe and Juniper Creative. It's a really fun, zesty space. You definitely get those tropical feels.

There's a brown woman painted on the outside of the building and then on the inside we have tropical fruits and wild birds and all that good stuff. So it's a bright, happy space.

A sunny cafe table with a jar filled with flowers. The walls are painted with colorful images of animals.
courtesy, Maria Lara-Bregatta
The interior of Cafe Mamajuana features brightly-painted images evoking a warm, tropical vibe.

OK, tell me about the menu. What should I order? 

Most of our dishes will have some kind of plantain component. If you're looking for something authentic, where you're going to kind of get a taste of all the flavors that we offer, the canoa is probably our top seller. It’s a sweet plantain that is stuff with rice, beans. Curtido is just like a pickled cabbage slaw. We make three sauces in house. And definitely try our desserts. I think they're some of the best desserts in Vermont. And then we make ice cream in house so you can get fresh ice cream.

But the menu varies every week, so we try to do something special every week. This week, I have some sancocho on, just a big stew of all our Indigenous vegetables like yuca and ñame, which I went in late one night and made with my ancestors on my mind. There's always something new.

The community funded this project. So really the restaurant was funded by the people and so the honor isn't just mine. It's kind of like I hope all the people who invested and took a chance on me, I hope it feels good to see that in the news to know that they contributed to something that matters and is making a difference. And that is yummy.

After this conversation, we learned that the café did not advance to the finals round. Chef Nisachon Morganat Vermont eatery, Saap, in Randolph, is now a James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef in the Northeast.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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