Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hoover's Market- Altamonte's 40yr-old secret?

So, why haven’t I heard about this alternative to Whole Food’s? Maybe because it’s smaller, more local, and non-franchised?

Plus, it’s not really evident from SR436- even though it’s just a block north on Academy Drive. In fact, it’s very plausible that most people will drive right past this spot without noticing that they are missing out on a part of history.

Hoover’s has been around for 40 years and they still have that mom-n-pop feel to their store. Yes, they have a similar Whole Foods layout to an extent but it’s way smaller. The key difference being the food bar aka the ‘Sunflower Market’ (tucked at the end of the fresh produce section) which just specializes in sandwiches, wraps, juices, soups and a few select homemade items.

The sandwiches are simple and come in an assortment of different bread choices (7-grain, sour dough, and wheat among others) but it’s just a standard slice of bread (nothing gourmet) with any organic toppings that you want (a standard selection of spinach, sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, etc). They even have vegan cheese. The juices are freshly prepared in front of your eyes. Chicken and pasta salads are also available from time to time while supplies last. I recommend the wraps over the sandwiches because for a dollar more (about $5 and change), you get a lot more bang for your buck (compared to about $4 for a sandwich). The sizes of the wraps are also run bigger and the attendant behind the counter will add ingredients as you wish and bill you accordingly. Well, at least he should. Read on…

Apparently the guy in front of me ordering his food at the counter had gone too far- adding too many vegetables in heaping quantities and extra hummus when he perfectly knew that his wrap would be charged just the same if it had half the ingredients in it. So the attendant bounced back and told him enough is enough. I somehow got caught in the fiasco when the client started throwing a fit aloud that the attendant was out of line. Personally, it’s rare to be caught in a verbal mêlée, so in an attempt to diffuse the situation I politely reminded the client that it is, after all, only a wrap. Arguments and wars have been had over more serious things than extra hummus on a flour tortilla. 

The client didn’t heed to any of my advice and started complaining to everyone and anyone who wanted to hear him. He even stopped Jordan, the assistant manager (who coincidently is the owner’s son) and started complaining over his $5 grievance and using me as a key 'witness' to prove his case. I managed to pry myself out of the dramatic cross-fire and find a spot outside to sit and eat.

And here’s where it got real sweet- the client followed me out and apologized for dragging me into the situation. Moreover, the manager even came over a little bit later and offered me coupons towards my next purchase! He said that he didn’t want that that situation ruin ‘my experience at Hoover’s’- something that I thought was a shining example of what lengths the proprietors here go to ensure customer satisfaction.

IN A NUTSHELL: Crawl behind any whiny, dramatic, and vociferous client that may cause a scene so you may score a discount. Just kidding. Check this place out though for a healthy snack- the Sunflower Market has very modest selections so don’t keep your hopes up for an extravagant Michelin-star meal. Be prepared to wait a little while (especially if the person in front of you has an elaborate saga of an order that comes straight out of telenovela) since things are mostly made-to-order. Smile and thank Dr. Hoover that he raised a good son like Jordan who is ensuring that good business practices are in place for a least another generation.
Hoover's Market - Sunflower Café on Urbanspoon

Ethos: Delicious but a limited variation when it comes to being vegan

I’m gung-ho about veganism more and more each day. Though I don’t think I can possibly ever wean myself off any dairy products completely (I love them), the concept of having more vegetables in my diet in general is something that I have grown to embrace and love. With this growing affection for meatless meals, I decided to try out Ethos for the very first time.




Although they have ‘chickun’ (a vegan substitute for the real thing) on their menu, I steered clear of that hocus-pocus. Rather, I chose meals that were overtly vegan or very close to it. Here’s what I ordered: Pecan- encrusted Eggplant served with asparagus, mashed potatoes and vegan gravy ($12.95), a Hippie Wrap with a side of fresh fruit ($6.95), and a Peak Pomegranate Wheat Draft Beer ($3.50).
 

The pecan-encrusted eggplant happens to be their signature dish- and it did not disappoint when it came to uniqueness. Not mushy as you would expect eggplants to be, the pecans imparted a crispy, dense coating a very thin slice of eggplant. However, for eggplant lovers, I would not necessarily recommend this dish as it was nowhere reminiscent texturally of eggplant. The red wine sauce was delicious and similar to a berry reduction in consistency. A little more of the sweet sauce would have rescued me easily from the relatively dry crust. I liked the vegan gravy which was slightly salty but flavorful and muddled with complex notes of earthy goodness. The asparagus, which was the vegetable-of-the-day for the dish, was sautéed in very rich-flavored oil.

 

The Hippie Wrap was a huge success. What was notable here is that the hummus was ground to such a fine, creamy consistency that it almost doubled as a dressing or an aioli! The dish was delightful from start to finish and was very finger-friendly. Lip-smacking good with wonderfully varied vegetable textures bomb-blasting my mouth all at once, I was beside myself. Sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers, and that supreme hummus spread made this spinach-tortilla wrap one for the books. Simple in its structure and compactness, it is a revelation for anyone that may feign at the idea that vegetables can be boring.

 

I don’t review beers a lot, but Peak’s Pomegranate Wheat that they had available on draft was excellent. As you can tell from the blog picture, I couldn't control myself long enough to take a picture of a full glass of it. Not too pomegranate-like in flavor, it was floral and smooth. On a hot summer afternoon, this was a fine, cooling refreshment. For people that love Blue Moon or Shock Top, give this organic ale a try.

 

Even though Ethos is on the main thoroughfare of Fairbanks, it offers a surprisingly small selection of vegan ingredients that have been spun into different dishes. It seems that Ethos has pigeon-holed itself into a ‘comfort food’ cuisine niche rather than offering far more healthier options that veganism can encompass- think amaranth, lentils, or quinoa, for example. These ‘super-grains’ that are renowned to offer what dieticians consider ‘whole-protein’ options that are plant-based rather than what is typically found in meat. Curiously, Ethos does not offer them as part of their daily menu. This is boggling because the cornerstone of any vegan lifestyle is to supplement nutrient-packed meats with equally comparable plant-derived choices.

 
IN A NUTSHELL: The experience as a whole was delightfully satiating. The meal also didn't sit around in the stomach like a lump of meat usually does (maybe all that fiber IS good for you after all).  I suspected plant-based shortening was used in some of the dish preparations (especially the asparagus) which imparted a lot of flavor, but also some unhealthy saturated fats. ETHOS CAN BE BETTER BY OFFERING EVEN MORE NUTRITIOUS OPTIONS. However, it seems for now that they have resigned to a fate of diner-like staples that have a vegan twist (mac-n-vegan-cheese, vegan-cheese-calzones, etc.) which may be more appropriate for clients that are just trying a vegan lifestyle for the first time. I recommend this venue for first-timers or vegans that are taking their non-vegetarian friends out to dinner.



Ethos Vegan Kitchen on Urbanspoon

House of Pizza: Good food, hope they make it


I was a little dubious about this place. Reviews from previous customers led me to believe that there may be slow service and slow food turnout. It was relieving to note that even thought these claims may be true, they were justified when I visited House of Pizza.

I ordered 10 buffalo wings ($7.99) in the ‘extreme hot’ flavor, a large calzone ($12.99) with broccoli and mozzarella, and a large-size vegetarian specialty pizza ($16.95)


Freshly sliced peppers, sweet red onions, sliced black olives, fresh mushrooms and cubed plum tomatoes festooned the pizza in generous quantities. None of the ingredients overshadowed the other and although I would’ve preferred a fancier olive rather than the standard from-a-can variety, it was pretty tasty. The crust was neither too doughy nor too thin- something that I particularly liked. I thought that this would probably appeal to the masses by striking that delicate doughy line that almost everyone would find little objection towards. The pizza as a whole was not salty or overly seasoned- another bonus. It let the vegetables do all the talking. All in all, a pretty decent pie.

I was equally enamored with the calzone- especially when it arrived lightly glistening with olive oil, oregano, parmesan, and minced garlic that made for a very tantalizing picture (see blog post). The filling (any two toppings of your choice) again was simple and to-the-point where the ingredients talked the talk, and walked the walk.  A side portion of marinara sauce was good for the crusty crescent corners but otherwise unnecessary.

The only thing that I was not happy with was the hot sauce the wings were covered in. Rather than being supremely spicy (as advertized), it was somewhat spicy. The crushed black pepper used in the dish was SO much that it gave the entire dish a granular texture. I’m not sure if they were aiming for spiciness or pepperyness- but those two words are exactly the same. The side cup of ‘bleu cheese dressing’ was in fact more ranch than anything. The wings were cooked well and otherwise fair. On another note, I’m beginning to believe that many establishments in Orlando should discontinue the usage of ‘extreme’ or ‘hell’ or ‘death-wish’ when their spice levels are nowhere near that.

IN A NUTSHELL: It is important to note that you order at the counter, pay, and then sit down and wait for your food to be delivered. Not exactly smart for the waitress to earn her tips when no service has been given prior when paying for the bill with a credit card. They have a soda fountain accessible to guests so you can help yourself to whatever you want (note,  water and lemonade run from the same beverage line so let it run for a little bit before you grab water). The artwork on the walls indicate that the proprietors have some connection to New York City- yet I won’t go as far as claiming that this is a truly New York-style eatery by any means. The dough is made in-house and each ticket is made to order- therefore, it’s no wonder that it takes a little time to make each item! I like this establishment because it’s non-pretentious and what you see is what you taste. Located across from Gatorland, it’s my hope that this joint grows over time to improve on some shortcomings while retaining its overall food philosophy.
House of Pizza on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Raga Restaurant, Bar, Lounge- Part Deux

Rarely do I review a restaurant twice. I am writing about Raga for a second time (the first one has been made on my blog a few weeks previous to this). You might say that I have a soft spot for this establishment or that I really want this place succeed. Either way, you'd be right.

I'm sick and tired of Orlando Indian restaurants being pigeonholed into two different categories: one being a horrible, hole-in-the-wall, with seedy, questionable hygiene practices and the other being too-exotic, unfriendly, and unapproachable to the masses. It's high time Americans got on the bandwagon and made Indian food their new Italian. The U.K. made it their #1 cuisine- so, why can't we at least give it a good try?

Raga seems to be a different breed- good locale, decent service, fine-dining, and a rather (for now) pristine atmosphere. All things that typically work in favor of any burgeoning business. So, I had to go back and give them another shot.

This time around, I intentionally tried a completely different set of food options to see if there would be a difference at all- Peppery Mushrooms (a 'Chef's Signature' item-$16), Nilgiri Tahr Curry ($14), Paneer Elaichi Pasanda ($14), and to round-off the experience a Gulmohar Naan ($4) and Mango Lassi ($3).

The Peppery Mushrooms were with onions and chillies in a peppery soy sauce (just as described on the menu- WOO-HOO!) and they were sublimely addictive. High notes of salt and crisp, lightly sauteed vegetables matched perfectly with the undercurrents of heat from the black pepper. Scallions and cilantro complimented the nutty, earthy bite of crunchy, batter-fried mushrooms. Wonderful in it's umami flavor, it was appropriately highlighted as a signature item. Well done.

The Paneer Elaichi Pasanda was made with 'home-made' paneer (a fact that I can neither confirm nor deny) simmered in a creamy, honey-laced, tomato gravy. The description was close to what was served in front of me- volatile cardamom wafts cutting through the air between the fork and the nose was very tantalizing. Except, the sweetness of the honey didn't come through. Maybe it was eclipsed by the inherent sweetness of the vegetables and the cheese? Not sure. Regardless, this dish didn't sing Old Delhi- it read more like a fusion dish that some people might especially like when they are first introduced to Indian cooking.

The Nilgiri Tahr curry was described as being 'garden fresh vegetables' prepared in a south Indian style with mint and coconut and it was very close to that. Carrots, peas, potatoes, cilantro and even a few cubes of paneer bobbed above the dark greenish-brown curry. The only thing that was apparent and unlike the Paneer Elaichi Pasanda was that this sauce was probably put together (a little coconut chutney here, a little curry sauce there) minutes after the order was put in- rather than something that develops deeper flavor profiles when cooked longer on the stove. Nevertheless, if that was the objective of the dish, then the chefs executed it well.

The Gulmohar Naan was described to be 'stuffed with nuts and raisin paste'. Minced Almonds were present but I barely could taste the raisin paste. Rather, the Naan sang of maraschino cherries that dotted the interior frequently and blotted the bread deep pink wherever they were. Again, not something that was described and not what I was expecting. Did it ruin the bread? Not really, but maraschino cherries should be reserved for culinary 101- remember, these heavily pickled (not to mention chemically dyed) fruit are food-safe, but not exactly the healthiest things on the planet.

In a bizarre flip-flop, the Mango Lassi was rich, thick, and creamy. It even tasted like adequate mango puree was in it- a far cry from the thin, watery Plain Lassi I had a few weeks prior. This leads me to believe that this restaurant may be suffering from finding it's stride in standardizing it's food product-  from table to table as well as day by day. Also, there is a lackadaisical departure from what is promised in the description of the menu (what the customer anticipates his money is going towards) and what really appears on the waiters tray. Again, another chronic problem that a lot of Indian and other restaurants here in Orlando tend to be plagued by.

IN A NUTSHELL: This experience was much better than the previous one. The service was attentive on both occasions- and maybe more so this time around when the server noticed that I was taking notes as I ate every single dish. There was no debacle near the bar as I had seen before and Rajiv pleasantly kept himself productive and unmemorably engrossed in FOH duties. If Raga leaps beyond the chronic problems of menu inconsistency and staying loyal to what they promise to offer, they will strike a vein in the heart of Orlando that most would akin to gold.


Raga Restaurant · Bar · Lounge on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Recipe 4 50: A Great South-Asian recipe blog by Chef Gopakumar

Hello All,

Please check out Chef Gopakumar's Recipe 4 50 blog on delicious South Asian (specifically the Indian Subcontinent) recipes. As the name suggests, the recipes range from serving 4 to 50 guests. Pictures aid in sequential step-by-step instructions that guide the reader to a delicious outcome.

Chef Gopakumar has been a someone that I've known personally for well over 6 years now and one of the few people that I can personally vouch for his culinary caliber. When it comes to putting out great product, Chef Gopakumar has always (and I mean ALWAYS) met the challenge head-on with crowd-pleasing results. It's a rarity that I can say something like this.

Besides offering a rare window into Indian recipes that are typically well-guarded secrets, Gopakumar is a kind, sentient man that has always radiated with supportive criticisms that only elevate his peers towards perfecting a dish further and further.

Please check out his site here:
http://www.recipe4fifty.com/

Chef Gopakumar presently works for the Hilton chain of restaurants in the U.K. It is with utmost sincerity that I wish him all the luck in his future endeavors in the culinary field.

Kind Regards,

EPH

B & B Junction: Okay, but not heavenly

B&B Junction, as most of you all know, has taken up the old 4-Rivers BBQ spot on Fairbanks. The layout and structure of the establishment is exactly the same- except for it's new proprietors.
Something that they tout is their 'farm-to-table' philosophy- more of this later.

I ordered the #6 ($8.5) with a veggie patty, a large portion of hand-cut fries ($6) and a seasonal Delirium Noël dark ale($6).



The #6 is a "ghost chili cheese, roasted poblano-bacon jam, sriracha aioli, arugula"- only some of which actually came through on the palate. The patty itself was delicious- packed with black-eyed peas, wild rice and even celery. It was moist and very good.  The rest of the burger was nowhere as spicy as it had advertised. As a crash-course for chili-heads, the ghost chili is one of the hottest peppers on the planet until last year when it was dethroned by an Trinidadian hybrid. At over a million Scoville heat units, the ghost pepper is exceptionally hot (law enforcement pepper spray only being much more hotter). Needless to say, this burger was nowhere near it. The poblano-bacon jam was a smidgen of a dollop and the sriracha aioli just as much. Arugula was the only thing that was present in a decent amount beyond the patty and the bun. It was a sheer disappointment especially when the menu had a pepper symbol as a warning for all those who dared to venture- I ordered it hoping that it was a mouth-searing, eyeball-tearing, face-sweating extravaganza. It turned out... more sweet than spicy.

The fries were delicious and well-seasoned. What I really enjoyed were their in-house condiments with ketchup laced with sweet mango and a creamy mustard zinging with horseradish. Plus when the server told us about their Portabello fries, I could only imagine them being yummy with other fry combinations.

The beers, I'm assuming, vary from season to season so I won't go much into them. I know that the beer was supposed to be presented in a snifter, but I wished they had digressed from that and presented a pint of it- especially for $6 when on draft. It felt small on the portion size.

IN A NUTSHELL: This is not exactly a farm-to-table establishment some meats come all the way from California or New Hampshire (therefore, a middle man was required at some point). Yet they know where their main ingredients are sourced and, on the flip-side, some of the greens come from straight from their backyard in Eustis. So it's close, but not exactly as advertised. Portion sizes are good for a power lunch but not for a gorging session (even with a 10oz burger for an additional $3 I can imagine stomachs having room for seconds). Beers need to be upgraded to thirst-quenching sizes- especially if you are sitting outside on their patio area under the hot Florida sun. Burgers are creative, varied in different interesting combinations, and good, but not addictive enough that they would make me drive here everyday.

B&B Junction on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mung Bean Flat Bread

Mung beans are an excellent source of protein and dietary fiber, and also contain vitamins A, C and E, folate, phosphorous, magnesium, iron and calcium.

This is a  3 ingredient, nutrient packed snack or side item
Whole Wheat Flour- enough to bind all the beans with a sprinkle of salt to taste
5-day soaked, refrigerated Mung beans. Boiled in the same soaking water- and enough of this water retained to form a tight dough ball
Olive oil for a skillet to cook the flattened dough

So easy... the pictures are visual enough to entail the entire recipe.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Raga Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge


I wanted to write something about Raga- the relatively new Indian fine-dining experience on Restaurant Row in Dr. Phillips. I had first visited this place a few weeks after it first opened- when it was only functioning in the evening for dinner, but I waited off on a report so Raga’s timeline was a little longer than a hot second.

You should know right off the bat that Raga is indeed one of the prettier establishments – in fact, THE prettiest establishment when it comes to décor, ambiance, place-settings, lighting, and food presentation. This has not changed since the beginning of its opening. However, there are some things that have changed.

I tried the following dishes this time- Raj Kachori ($6), Aloo Pardesi ($10), Lasooni Saag Paneer ($14), Chandni Korma ($14), Chatpata Naan ($3) and for a libation, a Sweet Lassi ($3).
 

The Raj Kachori was described on the menu as being “stuffed with sprouts” but there was none in the appetizer. It was medium-spiced with a slight kick towards the end. A very time-sensitive dish once prepared, black garbanzo beans, yogurt, mint/green chutneys softened the crisp fried wafer to what was a soggy, muddled, appetizer rather than a crunchy, layered one. Nevertheless, it was tangy, tasty, and not overly seasoned. The Aloo Pardesi was wonderful and promised all the ingredients that were listed on the menu (potato barrels stuffed with cashews, mixed vegetables, served on the bed of sautéed vegetables with touches of mint-basil dipping sauce). The raw slivers of red radish skewed the profile to bitter and I just wish there was more chutney or something moist since the dish as a whole was very dry two bites into it. In short, I was looking for some moistness in the Pardesi and a little more dryness in Kachori.

Saag paneer was a superb concoction- a wonderfully medium-spiced sauce intertwined with soft paneer cubes and then further garnished with shredded paneer. The sauce itself was a supremely smooth herb purée with great notes of herbaceous spinach, ginger, garlic, and cumin in a well-balanced recipe. Chandni Korma with its vegetables (some type of squash and cauliflower) in a creamy yogurt sauce with dried apricots and almonds was divine. The oil in the dish started to separate from the sauce mid-meal. However, the smooth flavor from all those wonderful Indian spices was very soothing. The Chatpata Naan was lack-luster. Basil, which the menu described, was absent in it and no matter how finely one minces and spreads cilantro, the two do not taste the same. Bottom line- it was a garlic naan with sparse and minute green flecks that was meant to substitute for the real thing. The sweet Lassi was pure yogurt, sugar, and water and not as thick and rich as other establishments serve.




 

IN A NUTSHELL: Food fare is standard here that will appeal to most. The prices are competitive with a good range of variation that goes beyond the standard selections that you would find in another Indian restaurant.  The food presentation and the ambiance is probably the best for Indian restaurants in town. The service was attentive. Most (if not all) of the servers here are non-Indian so please overlook that they cannot pronounce food items correctly. Indians were reserved for the kitchen and the FOH maître d'- and this is not exactly a good thing because a large party of smarmy men were seen trying to sneak in their own alcohol without waiting to be sat and then pulling their server aside to bribe him away from a corkage fee (Rajiv should have handled this better and showed them the door as other patrons were looking on to see what is and isn’t permissible at Raga). Only time will tell if Raga will flourish or perish- but it is my hope that fine dining standards are adhered to- on the menu as well as on the floor.

Raga Restaurant · Bar · Lounge on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A leave of absence

Dear Readers,
Some of you may have wondered if I had dropped off the planet.

The answer is yes and no- family health issues have delayed and postponed my food reporting for quite some time. I was forced to take a complete break from blogging and social media. In fact, I am still in the midst of stressful chaos that keeps me inundated with family obligations even on my days off.

So please excuse the lapse in posts- I'll catch up .

Sincerely, EPH

Monday, October 10, 2011

Feed The Need 2011



For over 10 years, Dubsdread and the Christian Service Center have been partnering up to support our local community. Feed the Need helps raise funds and awareness towards impoverished individuals and families in Central Florida. See you next year when you can eat, drink, dance, and make a difference!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tako Cheena- a preliminary impression

Pom Moongauklang’s new concept will be opening in August. It’s not far from her well-known Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria- about 2 miles away. What I found curious was that this concept seems to reflect on her old New York stomping grounds at Nobu- where Matsuhisha’s Latin-Asian prowess resonate as reminders of her own past. But that’s where the similarity stops- Pom’s vision is for the masses. A mere $2-$6 for a filling bite compared to the Benjamins you’d shuck out over a Michelin Star Chef.

I was lucky enough to try some of her ideas while doing a short video of Tako Cheena on YouTube. Don’t hate- seriously, wish I could send all of you a ‘wish you were there’ postcard. Her restaurant concept may not arguably be the first in Orlando, but it is definitely the frontrunner in creativity.

The Tuna ‘Tataki’ was exceptionally good. Lemongrass-infused avocado, cabbage, and freshly caught Tuna (her friend caught and gifted it to her) marinated in a Thai spice blend formed the foundation of taco. Ginger and scallions splayed the dish with additional flavor dimensions. One note: the guava-salsa that accompanies this dish may enjoyed better on the side. I think the flavors were delightfully deep and savory- the salsa was appending a sweet profile that could be skipped. Adventurous seafood lovers will really dig the seriously (and almost-deafening) mouth-feel on this taco.

The Crispy Fried Tofu will find fans in some vegetarians. Crispy breading generously slapped on with Asian spices was an interestingly ‘intense’ experience that some people would not imagine Tofu to possess. Imbued with smoky curry powder, it wasn’t my personal favorite, but I can see others going gaga over its taste and vegan-friendliness.

IN A NUTSHELL: Tako Cheena will be on 932 Mills Avenue and will open in August. Tako Cheena’s message is simple- explore the flavors of the world on a few dollars. This is a GREAT way to introduce some of your friends to exotic flavors and Pom would probably smile if she saw you doing that. The space is small but will boast local artwork and well as monthly artist gatherings. Realize that this is a completely different concept from the Teahouse (Brooklyners will be surprised to know that there may a Pom Teahouse opening soon in their New York neighborhood). Catering will be available.



Sneak Peek at Pom Pom's new venture! Enjoy :)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gringos Locos: A Downtown Drunk’s Best Friend

True, I visited Gringos during daylight hours but the feel of the place immediately alerted me that it’s really hoppin’ after the bars start shutting down. Open until 3am, it’s actually a quiet spot to grab a bite for lunch.

Gringos has a beautiful, straightforward menu which is efficiently broken down into 4 main categories- Lite Affair, Tacos, Burritos, and Full Affair (it probably keeps things simple when you’re not working at full capacity after a few shots). This afternoon, I opted for the Double D’s from the Tacos section- a hard-n-soft shell taco with cheese, your choice of meat, lettuce, pico de gallo, and sour cream (2 for $5.95) and OG Nachos ($5.75) from the Full Affair section- cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream and ground beef ($1.75 extra).

First off, the service here is REALLY helpful and very friendly. Since yours truly is trying to be more healthful (especially when sober), the guy at the back of the counter piled on veggies in my taco- olives, diced tomatoes, jalapenos, and (delightfully) cilantro. It was a great revelation to find out that a taco, especially here, can give you an ample serving of nutritious vegetables… minus the innocuous ‘daily salad’ concept that I’ve being accustomed to lately. And to match that health-consciousness, he even suggested that I skip the sour cream to savor those fresh, herbaceous flavors. Who am I to counter such brilliance?

Salty, succulent pieces of dark chicken meat greeted my mouth like a long-lost lover. She enshrouded her allure with crisp lettuce and sultry kisses of freshly sliced jalapenos. The ultra-fine shredded white and yellow cheeses only cemented my appetite for her. The cilantro was particularly instrumental in giving the taco a beautiful, ethnic mouth-feel. And parlaying into that experience, the textural combination of soft and hard shell tacos in one bite made this dish an INSTANT ADDICTION.

The OG Nachos, in my opinion, are best eaten when you have the drunk munchies. To me, it didn’t really make a lot of sense eating weirdly sweet ground beef (a mixture of chipotle, spice, and brown sugar) heaped with a curious cheese sauce mixture only to be wetted down with tomatoes and sour cream. This lead to a very soggy nacho combination that sticks to the roof of the mouth. Freshly made right behind the counter, the dish became a sloppy mess within minutes. Delicious when drunk, not so much when sober.

IN A NUTSHELL: Gringos Locos is your stop after the bars (it’s catty-corner from I-Bar). It remains one of the few cool places that still give you GREAT DEALS IF YOU BUY MORE OF THE SAME ITEM (my tacos were 2 for $5.95, 3 for $8.00, or 4 for $9.75). They at least have 3 different types of hot sauces. Try to sit OUTSIDE- a mere hour inside the joint and my shirt smelled strongly like deep fried salsa (not really a good thing when you still have the errands to run). And if you want to impress your friends by getting your picture on their counter, you can try the Drunk Gringo Challenger Showdown where you try to inhale a burrito as fast as you can (the current time to beat is 1min 21secs). But please, have some dignity and barf outside the restaurant if the alcohol revolts inside you. That’s probably the reason why Gringos has 100% recycled paper napkins but no recycling trashcans for their canned and bottled beverages.
Gringos Locos on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A New Video for Dixie Crossroads!



I recently revisited this historically-important restaurant. The Rock Shrimp are delicate (and rich when dipped in butter) in flavor when eaten by themselves. A must try if you ever venture out to Titusville. What I'm really proud of, however, is elucidating the story behind this business. Enjoy the video!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Paco’s: An Orlando citizen’s pilgrimage

Pacos has been around before Orlando started having I-4 traffic problems. Yes, it hails from a time when the city still felt like a Southern town. Some of the servers at Paco’s, a rarity in itself, have been there for close to 30 years. It seems when a restaurant attains a sacred age, you have to visit it just to say you’ve been there… almost, like a pilgrimage.

So, for this evening’s homage, we had a Chili Relleno for $4.95, a Giant Chili Chimi for $9.95, and a three-taco option for $8.75.

Complimentary chips and salsa break up the food waiting time. A standard salsa accompanies a basket of tortilla chips that’s good enough for a person to have as an appetizer. The Chili Relleno at Paco’s is very different from other establishments.
True, it is baked; but the layered strips of UNbattered Poblano peppers that are separated by generous amounts of shredded cheese make this an experience very unique to this establishment. Other restaurants may cry fowl- but the tenure of Paco’s overrules.

The Giant Chili Chimi is not gigantic visually. There are many layers to it, however. The burrito itself is stuffed with your choice of chicken or beef (or even a mixture of the two), fried, and THEN topped with homemade chili. To round things off, sour cream, guacamole, onions, and sliced pickled jalapenos finish the dish.
The taste of this mixture is exactly what it sounds like- soft exterior, tough burrito shell, meaty interior. It may look small, but the Giant Chili Chimi is more than satisfying. It sticks to your stomach for filling meal.

The three-taco option was perfectly portion sized. At Paco’s you can even mix things up by ordering hard and a soft-shell tacos.
You also get a choice of Chicken, Beef, or Guacamole, and they all come with lettuce, tomato, and cheese. Their refried beans are nothing extraordinary but their rice packs a good tomato flavor with a soft, sticky consistency.

IN A NUTSHELL: Paco’s is a modest location on Fairbanks- but anyone who has lived in Orlando for a while uses it as a landmark. An interesting fact about this place is that if you buy one of their T-shirts, you also get 10% off your check. For foodies and aspiring chefs, the Marj Myers Scholoarship Fund has been started at Valencia’s Culinary Program (Marj was the owner of Paco’s for over 28 years). The workers have been around longer than some of us, so show you admire their dedication. Paco’s hours of operation are not consistent through the week- be sure to call ahead. For a piece of local history that fills your belly at modest price, Paco’s is definitely worth a trip.
Paco's on Urbanspoon

Hard Rock Café: Good food, beware of Universal’s alcohol prices

For a pre-concert dine-and-dash, the Café seemed to be the most convenient choice given that it’s right next to the it’s very own auditorium. Café, however, is a misnomer since this establishment fits clearly into a full-fledged chain restaurant.

I deliberately tried to avoid a full stomach prior to the show (I intended to enjoy more drinks than food on this occasion) and ordered a Haystack Chicken Salad for $12.50- minus the ranch dressing. The portion size was decent and filling. The diced pieces of grilled chicken in the salad were not numerous but I did manage to get my protein fix. Generous amounts of corn finished the salad comprised of crisp lettuce, carrots, freshly diced tomatoes, and shredded American cheddar. There were scant specks of spiced pecans. I wished there were more (well, more than 3 pieces at least). Piled high on top of the salad was a mound of fried tortilla strips.

The food was surprisingly filling… as did every other entrée that was glanced upon on other tables. Libations, however, were not cheap. The liquor prices were about $2-$3 additional for the common alcohols and presumably even more for the mixed cocktails. However, a majority of the restaurants these days offset their food costs with alcohol profits. Point of the story? Get trashed prior to getting there and ask someone else to be the designated driver.

IN A NUTSHELL: This place is noisy and huge. Two floors with a scenic patio area on the second level make this restaurant appropriate for the sheer volume of traffic at Universal Studios. Numerous music memorabilia festoon the walls from end to end. An interactive trivia touch-screen wall attracts (or distracts) people waiting on their food or just checking out the adjacent souvenir shop on the first floor. A special shout out goes to Kyle, our server- he was awesome.
Hard Rock Café on Urbanspoon

Blue Dolphin Café: Great service, satisfying food

Blue Dolphin seemed to be the only option besides the hotel’s continental breakfast in the immediate area. What first came to my mind was what a monopoly on the am shift this business had… it only occurred to me much later that I was hoping for some good food too.

I split a bacon-and-cheese omelet for breakfast (I wasn’t particularly hungry) with some additional whole-wheat toast, orange juice, skim milk, and coffee. The omelet was excellent! More on the verge of a frittata, it was ridiculously thick and packed with strips of bacon.

As the fork sliced through the contraption, melted cheddar cheese oozed out of it which became an instant feast for the eyes and the stomach. The omelet, at $8.50, came with a side of chopped potato wedges and whole-wheat toast. Satisfying? Yes. Under $20 for the bill around St. Armand’s eateries? Excellent.

IN A NUTSHELL: It seems the Blue Dolphin gets it’s adequate share of tourists much like the rest of Lido Key and St. Armand’s Circle. However, it also seems to be a place of congregation for the locals that live in the few houses that still remain on the island. Customer service at the Blue Dolphin was great and it seemed all the severs work together to ensure that. Blue Dolphin is ONLY open for breakfast and lunch. For a cheap and satisfying breakfast go there.
Blue Dolphin Cafe on Urbanspoon

Columbia: Decent price-points for Lunch

Columbia was a must on the list for my visit to Sarasota- especially when this location generates more revenue than the original at Ybor City.

For the lunch fare- the Pollo Riojana ($10.95) and the Roast Pork Loin “A la Cubana” ($10.95) were ordered. It was particularly a good deal because the entrées came with a side order of their Famous 1905 Salad for an additional $3.95. And for libations, their renowned Sangria was available at $4.95 a glass.

Crisp, warm Cuban bread was brought at the beginning of the meal followed by the Sangria.
The bread was delicious and each of us got half a loaf of it. It started the meal off on a great note. The Sangria was sweet, refreshing, and well-suited for a sultry day out by the beach. If I had to pick on anything, it would be that the Sangria had those dyed-red, pickled Maraschino cherries… I would’ve been fine if they had skipped the preserved fruit entirely.

I’m sure I’m going to cause a stir when I say that their 1905 salad is nothing remarkable. Perhaps in my mind, when I think of a delicious salad, I conjure up images of fresh, crisp greens tossed with generous amounts of other vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Their salad focuses more on the cheese- Swiss and Parmesan. Decent-sized bits of ham dot the lack-luster salad comprised mostly of Iceberg Lettuce and Romaine. Finally, the salad could have done without being drenched in dressing. In hindsight, you can request your server to dress the salad just the way you like it since it’s tossed and presented tableside.

Between the two entrées, the Pollo Riojana was better. For a boneless chicken that’s breaded and fried, topped with a deliciously tangy tomato sauce and Tetilla cheese, it was Y-U-M-M-Y. The side of yellow rice packed a strong note of cumin along with other spices. Cooked with peas and bell peppers, the rice showed the hand of a chef that has made this rice for many, many moons.

The Roast Pork Loin “A la Cubana” was outshined by the prior dish only because the meat was overcooked and dry. I didn’t notice ANY marinade for the pork as the menu had promised, but the black beans and rice were fabulous. Soft, but not-mushy, the rice was perfectly cooked while the delicious black beans became an instant hit on my palate.

IN A NUTSHELL: Columbia seems to have no dearth for a customer base- the place was busy even on a Monday afternoon. If you’re an herbivore, you probably won’t see the hoopla about the 1905 Salad. The Sangrias are good and so are the portion sizes. Unfortunately, the Cuban bread is not in-house (for any of the locations, as a matter of fact). For attentive and keen service, ask for Novi.
Columbia Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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