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Hellbender Burritos

Giant salamander lends name to restaurant's giant burritos

By TAYLOR KUYKENDALL · tkuykendall@statejournal.com

DAVIS — You'll more easily find a burrito than a hellbender in West Virginia, and if you're lucky, it's at Hellbender Burritos. 

Don't worry, you won't find any of the giant salamanders among the offerings of burrito toppings (or is that stuffings?). Owners Melissa and Robert Borowitz said they are really into the outdoors, and the hellbender was a frequent topic of discussion. 

"We were just brainstorming on names, and the hellbender is just one of those creatures I've always been interested in," Melissa said. "It's an endangered species. I've never seen one, but I've always heard of them. Both of us, my husband and I, love the outdoors, and we're often around the creeks and rivers of West Virginia."

The hellbender is a rare species of giant salamander native to West Virginia. An adult can weigh in at more than five pounds and can be up to 16 inches long, making it the third largest aquatic salamander species in the world. 

Melissa, originally from Charleston, said the idea to start the restaurant came on a visit in her home state.

"We were vacationing in the area and saw a building for sale," Melissa said. "We both lived in West Virginia for a really long time, but at the time we were living in D.C. and we wanted to come back to West Virginia. We started talking about it and wanted buy it. It took us a few years to build up our plan and decide on the cuisine we'd like to have and what the area didn't have already."

Nowadays, burrito places are a little easier to find in West Virginia. Q'doba, Moe's and Chipotle are well-known establishments on the East Coast. The meal-size burrito, Melissa said, wasn't well known when the restaurant got its start in Davis.

"We have a great pizza place across the street and a great steakhouse, but there was no burrito shop in town. So we decided to go with that," she said. "(Years before) we traveled out west and saw lots of burrito-type places with everything in them, the rice and everything. At the time there was nothing like that in the East."

The menu has a diverse array of options that will fit the tastes of a lot of different people, Melissa said. 

"The menu just kind of came out of ideas from food items that my husband and I like to eat," she said. "It's just some of our favorite foods just rolled into burritos, basically."

Asked what the star menu item would be, Melissa said there are simply too many great items on the menu to narrow it down to one selection. 

"Our menu is about 50 percent vegetarian items, so we offer, I think, something for everyone," she said. "There are so many favorites. I recommend people buy one and take one to go."

The menu does have quite a bit of variety. Appetizers range from the standard fare of salsa and chips to the more unique applewood-smoked tilapia. Entrees include specialty burritos with unique ingredients such as olive tapenade, horseradish coleslaw and garlic mayonnaise alongside more traditional stuffings such as spicy chicken, cheesesteak and guacamole.

The very small town is mostly supported by people who come to take advantage of the area's expansive outdoor activities, including skiing, hiking and mountain biking.

"Davis and Thomas are very close together. They're kind of sister towns with a population of around 600 people each," Melissa explained. "There is not a lot of people that live here, but there are a lot of people that come and vacation here."

The beautiful landscape attracts a lot of visitors, which means the smaller West Virginia towns can support a variety of culinary options beyond towns of similar sizes.

"We're surrounded by National Forest, so it's kind of unique," Melissa said. "There's so many people that come to play in this area. … There's not a lot of restaurants here, but we do, with the three of us and the breakfast place, there's a lot to offer in such a tiny town." 

While the visitors and tourists keep the place booming during peak seasons, Melissa said it has been the support of the locals that makes Hellbender Burritos work. 

"We have a really great local community here, and they like us and keep us in business," she said. "We have a great local following. They really keep us going. We're lucky to have them." 

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