South Royalton Mexican eatery rises from the ashes of burned-down food stand

By RAY COUTURE

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 11-27-2022 5:22 AM

SOUTH ROYALTON — When one opportunity burns down, another rises in its place — or at least that was the case for Dan Sherburne and his crew at Carlita’s Cantina, the new Mexican restaurant on Chelsea Street that opened for business last week.

On May 24, Carlita’s Cocina, a food stand owned and operated by Sherburne in downtown South Royalton near the White River, burned down. Insurance investigators never determined an official cause, Sherburne said, though he noted he was told it might have been an electrical fire caused by a busted power strip. He said his insurance company ruled out arson in the initial hours of the investigation.

Sherburne and his two full-time employees were able to salvage $25,000 worth of equipment from the damaged trailer, and insurance was able to cover the rest, including lost revenue, totaling around $500 per day, from the date of the fire until Carlita’s Cantina’s official reopening on Nov. 16. That money helped Sherburne, 39, start work on the new restaurant and enabled him to keep his employees from the food stand on his payroll.

“It was a blessing in disguise a little bit, the fire,” Sherburne said. “It’s definitely been a lot of work to get to this point because we did everything ourselves.”

Located at 212 Chelsea Street, which is owned by nearby Royalton Farms and in the heart of downtown South Royalton, the cantina was once the home of a pizza place and a vape shop but had been vacant for years when Sherburne moved in. The space was in disrepair; a few features left over from when it was a pizza joint, like elevated seating area near the front window, survived, but Sherburne rebuilt nearly everything else.

Without the help of contractors because he said he couldn’t find any available within a reasonable time frame, Sherburne and his crew got to work days after the fire, installing a bar area and new floors, refinishing the brick walls, reworking the space’s plumbing and electricity and fixing the ceiling, which was exposed with pipes and wires and not compliant with the town’s fire code.

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He also spent around $60,000 on new kitchen equipment. A Vulcan range was the only “big” piece of equipment salvaged from his burned food trailer to make it into the new cantina’s kitchen.

Sherburne’s not sure if he’ll return to his more mobile business. Born in Rockport, Mass., Sherburne was a chef at a yacht club in Gloucester, Mass., before moving to Vershire in 2016.

He built the wooden trailer that housed Carlita’s from scratch during the COVID-19 pandemic and said business was going great until the fire. He wanted to rebuild it in the same location but said he was told by officials with the Vermont Law and Graduate School, who own the property the food truck operated on, that he’d have to find a new spot.

So he pivoted to the building at 212 Chelsea Street.

Since opening, Sherburne said he’s been focusing on organizing the cantina’s front-of-house staff as he’s expanded his full-time workforce from two to six people. The two cooks that worked with him before the fire also came over, as did most of the core menu, which includes several variations of burritos and tacos, street corn, ribs, wings and rice bowls.

One big addition is the beer. South Royalton-based Upper Pass Brewery is supplying the cantina with 16 lines of draft beer. Sherburne said there will be 22 in total. The restaurant will also sell chicken, lamb, pork and beef from Royalton Farms out of a freezer near the front entrance.

“I think we have something the town needs,” Sherburne said. “There wasn’t a whole lot here for lunch and dinner.”

Other restaurants in the village of South Royalton include Worthy Burger, Crossroads Bar & Grill, 108 Chelsea Station and 802 Pizza SoRo.

Daisey Darling-Salls, who runs the nearby RB’s Deli, said she was happy that Sherburne was up and running again after the fire. She said she had the chance to try out the food at the cantina at its “soft” opening on Nov. 12.

“You don’t want to see empty spaces in town,” Darling-Salls said. “(And) Dan takes pride in food.”

Carlita’s Cantina is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Ray Couture can be reached at 1994rbc@gmail.com.

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