Monday, October 10, 2016

The Taste of Yucatán: Unique niche cuisine and a must try for anyone in Orlando

Finally, a change from the regular humdrum and onto a new and never-tried cuisine in Orlando. Taste of Yucatán just opened three weeks ago. It's located not far from the busy intersection of Semoran and Curry Ford. How often do you try an establishment that specializes in regional Mexican cuisine? Unless you are shopping at a local mexican store with a side kitchen serving hot food, the answer is probably not that often.
The building is rather unassuming. To be honest, it used to be a Church's Chicken property before it traded hands. When we arrived, the parking lot had but a few cars and I have to say, I was a little concerned this was not what I had hoped for. 

My reservations about this place melted away as soon as we entered. The restaurant was clean, well lit, minimally decorated, and the ordering counter had 3 flat screens that effectively (and efficiently) described the ordering process while giving ample visual examples of their dishes from one slide to next. To top it off, we had the owner, Joal Rodriguez, take our order with a big smile. His willingness to help make our experience as best as it could get really impressed me as he truly went out of his way to make sure we were satisfied while placing our order.

The process is simple- choose a 'presentation' (taco, quesadilla, bowl, etc.) and the 'filling' that would reside on or in your presentation (mayan-style pork, cheese, chorizo, poblano peppers, etc.). There are appetizers as well... and get this, nothing on the menu is more than $7 per order. Talk about a deal. 

We ordered quite a bit- some panuchos (a Yucatán specialty made by deep-frying a corn tortilla stuffed with refried beans), some tamales, some quesadillas, freshly made guacamole, and a mexican tamarind-flavored soda.

I have to say, everything- and I mean everything- was delicious. Granted, I'm not a connoisseur of Yucatec cuisine or culture, but it's that feeling you get regardless of expertise when you know something has been made with care, consideration, quality, and love. 

I loved the papas con chorizo filling (potatoes and spicy sausage) on my panucho. Contrary to expectation, I didn't see chorizo bits in the mashed potato mixture- rather, the chorizo was completely incorporated into the potatoes to give it an orange-brown hue which permeated that classic spicy sausage taste evenly. 

The vaporsitos (beef tamales scented with wrapped banana leaves) were a little bit on the denser side (I like my tamales soft and very moist) and they had a cake-like consistency. The flavor was milder than what I had expected, but after adding some freshly made salsa verde and homemade spicy sauce of ground chile de árbol in oil, that too disappeared down my throat.

For all you pork lovers, the Cochinita Pibil quesadilla was very good. If I had a second stomach, I would have ordered another one of these. The flour tortillas were pillowy soft and the pulled pork was succulent and mildly spiced while enrobed in a gorgeous thick brown sauce. Add some fresh cilantro, minced onions, and a couple wedges of lime from the condiment area on the counter, and you'll make quick work of this divine dish in minutes.

The guacamole was exceedingly fresh and come in a 5oz container. For something that would cost $8-$10 easily at a fine dining Mexican restaurant, The Taste of Yucatán serves this delicious made-to-order appetizer for a meager $4.50 with a side of tortillas and free unlimited toppings (crema, salsas, pico de gallo, lime wedges, etc.). 

IN A NUTSHELL: Go to this place before the crowds rush in and change it's dynamic. That's because everything is made in-house and it is highly evident that they take great pride in their Yucatec background.  So, if the place gets busy, food wait times may become longer. This is a great place for a quick office meal during the work week if you want to surprise your co-workers by breaking the routine of the usual franchise restaurants. This restaurant offers a cheap bite for any curious foodie that wants to explore their palate without breaking the bank. I highly recommend this place at this time as I'm digging the owners enthusiasm to bring a little bit of the Yucatán to Orlando. I wish this restaurant great success as I was delightfully surprised how good the food, service, and the bill were.

Cochinita quesadilla, Papas con chorizo panucho, and tamales

Made-to-order guacamole with chips. I drizzled the crema and added on the condiments later. The owners special hot sauce (chile de árbol in oil) is on the top right corner of the basket.

An hot and crispy empanada. More panuchos (this time with sautéed poblanos and corn, and another with  Yucatán-style pulled pork). Barbacoa quesadilla (only $3.50).

Tamarind soda. Try it. It's made with 100% real sugar.

The Taste of Yucatan Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Red Robin: The 'Olive Garden' of Burgers

I don't make it a habit about blogging about chain restaurants. But something about this place made me take up typing tonight. 

There is a defining characteristic about Red Robin- they have portion control down to a science. A large franchise usually does have scientists and mathematicians employed that not only objectify food quantities, but also flavor. And rightfully so. After all, it's a conglomerate that's in it to make money by carefully balancing between borderline small portion sizes and excess food wastage.

Before I start writing about the food, I must say that the service was very good. Our server was pleasant like sunshine on a wintry day. We even had two different managers come up and check on us. Food service times were not a problem and the ambience was inviting and modern. Everything you would expect from a restaurant that has studied it's market audience and their preferences over and over.

For starters, the Great Northern Poutine Fries were a must ($7). I ordered the Avo-Cob-O salad ($10.99) and my partner ordered the Southern Charm burger ($13.99). On flavor, none of these dishes fell short. The Poutine, a combination of deep fried cheese curd bites and fries covered with mushroom brown gravy, was excellent. The Avo-Cob-O salad? Perfect. Big chunks of bleu cheese paired with succulent, perfectly grilled chicken strips. Even the Southern Charm burger with BBQ sauce on a ciabatta bun was delectable. Every flavor the menu promised, the food delivered. One cannot criticize Red Robin on delivering on what they state.

The only drawback of this restaurant would be that the menu is too tantalizing. Can you imagine that as a drawback? The reason is that they have done such a fantastic job on making your mouth water on every page, that your eyes expect a big fat burger fit for a lumberjack landing in front of you after the order is placed. The truth is, most of the burger patties run at 6oz while their signature burgers patties are at 8oz.... portion sizes. Needless to say, the truth is in the fine print in-between the enticing pictures. But in their defense, their price points are not completely outrageous. They were slightly on the higher end for the portion size one is probably expecting but not by a wide margin. Again, a fine balance between going easy on the wallet vs. not quite starving you out of hefty meal.

Bottomless fries are indeed bottomless. But I wish they showed some generosity with potatoes (you know, one of the most affordable vegetables in the united states) by handing you a big basket of them. Somehow, I feel that they have even accounted for each portion size on that- approximately 8 fries per request. The establishment is a well-oiled machine, but it only makes one compare Red Robin to other restaurants that cater to big-boy portion sizes that southerners are far more accustomed and gravitate to.

I have to go on record by stating that I'm a huge opponent of the Ziosk tabletop ordering and payment system. At a restaurant where you expect the server to take care of your needs, I feel that I'm now coerced into partially doing some work that was the servers before. In a way, Red Robin has also partially done away with this workforce and replaced it with an machine that takes up permanent residence on your table throughout the dining experience. I'm boycotting this Ziosk stupidity. It's one step closer to eliminating an entire job sector in hospitality and I'm not buying in on the 'convenience'. I feel like Red Robin has taken their streamlining/portion-control/cost-basis analysis a bit too far by implementing Ziosk. Forget the numbers! I'm a sit-down restaurant and I have an expectation on a basic level of service that entails!

IN A NUTSHELL: The only simile that comes to mind is Olive Garden. Is it the best Italian food you've ever had? No. Do you leave feeling satisfied and with little to no complaints? Probably yes. Red Robin is kind of like that- a well-manicured franchise that knows how to satisfy you without being the best mind-blowing food you've ever eaten. This place is a smart choice when you have a large group with differing tastes that want to go out together. I can assure you, Red Robin has very likely figured out that it can cater to almost any individual preference across a wide spectrum of palates. Some people will cry foul with slightly overpriced food items for the smaller portion sizes that roll out of their kitchen, but others will feel satisfied in that their experience wasn't hindered by  any major food or service complaints.

Avo-Cob-O Salad. Notice the small portion size (knife gives a measuring reference). Good for an early bird special. Not so much for the hungry big boys in your family.

Dainty but delicious (the steak fries give you a measuring reference for the burger size). There are 8 fries. If the fries are indeed bottomless, go big or go home on your generosity.

Poutine Fries. Just delicious. But again, fried cheese curd bites were a bit small even for an appetizer.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers & Brews Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Dandelion Communitea Cafe- Giddyup Bowl Every Monday, Forever.

I'm not a vegan. I love all dairy products, eggs, chicken, and fish. I could not part with them even if I could live without them. That being said, recent studies have consistently shown following a vegan diet is indeed good for your body and your longevity. Perhaps it does make sense to listen to people that make it their life's work to educate the public on healthful choices and habits.

But perhaps I'm sort of like Kim Kardashian. A 'flexitarian', that is (and nothing else might I add). I'm flexible with my diet to incorporate as many servings of fruit and vegetables as I want everyday, but I do indulge in non-vegetarian options when the smell of fried chicken comes calling.

Dandelion is indeed a local staple in the core of the Mills 50 neighborhood. Many office workers come here on their lunch break to sit outside under the lull of a Florida breeze and their scenic, overgrown pesticide-free landscape. I still remember when it first opened. I thought it was where the hippies got together to discuss their leftist, socialist ways and preach fervently about everything from the political to personal. Only after a few years did I venture into their establishment since I felt so out of place among people that I imagined were so far from of my moderate ideology.

I'm glad I went on a Monday. The Giddyup Bowl is but $5 and is by far (and will continue to be), one of the most satisfying vegan soul food you will ever eat. A fresh bed of mixed greens, tricolor quinoa, kidney bean gravy, always-freshly cut tomatoes and scallions, topped with a highly addictive warm vegan 'queso' sauce. The mouthfeel of this dish is so satisfying. You get the coziness of warm, tender beans and queso sauces while the freshness of the vegetables cut right through it with acidic and peppery notes. The quinoa not only adds a different element of carbohydrates in this dish but it also happens to make the meal a complete protein for the diet-conscious. Truly, you do not miss non-vegetarian elements at all in the Giddyup Bowl. It is as wholesome as it is delicious. The perfect vegan introduction to meatlovers, I must say.

We also tried the vegan carrot cake donut and it was so-so. I wouldn't say it was disappointing, but in a world of Krispy Kremes and Dunkin Donuts, one will find objection to the chewiness of dense dough. The donut was not overly sweet or replete with shredded carrots (except as a slight garnish), which may not be for everyone especially when a carrot cake inspires deep, over-the-top flavors of southern decadent sweets here in the South.

Not really pertaining to their food, I have to say I was really taken with this new Sriracha that I found at an empty adjacent table. The level of heat on this Sky Valley Sriracha is so much better than the one with the logo of a Rooster. Think premium gasoline vs. regular. Great blend of different peppers and styles (I'm guessing jalapeños, cayenne, and paprika) and it still was faithful to what Sriracha is all about. In a world where almost everything is drugged with sugar, I prefer even my Sriracha to be not overtly sweet. For people who like heat with their Giddyup, this sauce is a must try.

IN A NUTSHELL: Giddyup galore. A very unassuming establishment that still follows it's hippy vibe, Dandelion is for everyone. If you ever find yourself with the Monday munchies, know that the Giddyup is but a short drive away. You can call ahead to place a large party order or sit and enjoy your meal with a sip of their great seasonal teas. I have to admit, I've been there at least a dozen times by now, but I seem to always order the same thing. If it's that good, why break the habit? 

Dandelion Communitea Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, September 16, 2016

Outpost Neighborhood Kitchen: Above average with good service

Outpost has been in College Park for over a year and a half now. Somehow, I just managed to get there this week. Why haven't I been to this place sooner? 

The layout of the dining room is small but cozy. There are rustic details throughout the space which teeters on shabby chic and vintage. Either way, it wasn't over the top and the small tchotchkes here and there weren't overt distractions from the feel and vibe of the place.

I ordered the Vanderbilt Salad ($13) and a Moscow Mule ($11) and both were pretty good. The salad was very lightly tossed in dressing so I asked for more and the server was happy to oblige. Kale, spinach, pineapple, BBQ chicken, and avocado... topped with a cilantro vinaigrette. Mm, so good. And the portion size was not on the skimpy side. I took some leftovers to-go.

My only suggestion is that if you visit, try to beat any large parties ahead of you. Due to real estate prices skyrocketing in this neighborhood of Orlando, I can see why the loin's share of the space was designed for the customer- only to have a smaller kitchen pressured to churn out consistent, quality food to parties of 6 or more that need to be fed at the same time. 

The service was very good and a few of the servers came over and apologized for the delay in food while they served the 13-top in the center of the room. I appreciated that and I wanted to validate their efforts as it made my patience for my meal increase as well. 

Outpost has an amazing and creative menu ranging from burgers, salads, real southern-style sides, and imaginative apps. Plus a full bar. It's a charming spot and I do recommend this restaurant when you aren't in a rush to get fed and head out. 

IN A NUTSHELL: Go during the off-peak hours. Good ambiance with good service and a killer Moscow Mule await you. I can see a wide variety of clientele liking this spot- from the gluten-intolerant to the paleo-heads that just want to inhale a burger or two. Outpost says that they make everything from scratch. Though, I suspect there is a canned tomato component to their ketchup, I'll give them credit for aspiring to be a restaurant that prides on personal recipes without premade shortcuts.

Outpost Neighborhood Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, February 26, 2016

Cotillion Southern Cafe- Southern shabby chic with overpriced entrées

Cotillion. How many times do you hear that word these days? Well, if you're in Wildwood, you will. It's on the lips of every white woman between the ages of 50-90. And if you happen to be in this demographic, the Cotillion Cafe may be a good pilgrimage for you. And if you're not, you better be on your best manners because you'll be in the company of them when you get there.

Needless to say, I don't fall in this demographic and I only ended up here because of the 'you so have to try this place' talk that some friends persuade you into. I acquiesced to the word-of-mouth because I am a huge fan of Southern food.

While at the Cotillion, reservations are absolutely a must. Wha', it just wouldn't be fittin' if you didn't. While service was on point for the entire experience, it seemed to me a very noticeable inconvenience to be accommodated during their lunch hour without one. Eventually, they were gracious enough to figure out a table after a few adjustments on their small dining room area. For lunch, we ordered Chicken and Waffles ($13.75), the Junkyard Sandwich ($11.75) and Miz Kathi's signature Fried Green Tomatoes as an appetizer ($9).

We were lucky to arrive when we did. Apparently the table that was split-off from ours (and literally 1.5 feet away) told us that they had to wait 45 mins for their food due to how busy the kitchen was. The fried green tomatoes were quite good when they arrived- hot and crispy, there were 8-9 discs of them nicely arranged around their in-house remoulade sauce. The batter had a mild seasoning of paprika and other scant dry spices that gave the tomatoes a hint of of crunchy complexity. It wasn't too spicy and neither was the sauce. All in all, their signature dish scored high points not only for authenticity but also for universal appeal.

The main course, however, left so much to desire. Let's start with the chicken and waffles. The waffles were limp and soggy. The tenders were coated in the same exact batter as the fried green tomatoes. More over, I couldn't get over the paltry portion sizes. Yes, it was accompanied with gravy with crumbled sausage in a dainty boat. However, it just couldn't even compare to what other restaurants put out for chicken and waffles- a nice big waffle with meaty, crispy chicken strips. Yes, I ordered 'lunch portion size'. But does that warrant this price tag? Unfortunately not. I'd have paid more for a better, generous product. But then again, I looked around the room and thought, perhaps for the retired ladies, something soft to chew, smaller-portioned but with a posh price point was what this restaurant was catering to. I'll stop while I'm ahead.

The Junkyard dog was alright. Noteworthy? Not really- a standard medley of sautéed peppers, onions, bacon, accompanied by a borderline bland sausage. What was really annoying was the side dish glaring at me from the plate in all its puniness- the green bean casserole. In all my years of blogging, this dish brought about a lot of ire especially when it comes to the reputation of Southern food. Firstly, the portion size was less than 3oz- probably enough to fit inside a small jar of baby food. Secondly, never in my entire life have I seen a green bean casserole soaked with that much butter. Thirdly, and probably the worst offender, the casserole was so bland. I was hoping to taste something beyond the salt and fat. But those two flavors murdered the flavors of the vegetable and anything else that was in that baby jar.  I was trying to justify this entire debacle, but then I caught myself- why am I justifying this when I should honestly be enjoying it?

In a pleasant turn of events, we ordered the Hoochie Momma pie ($6.95). For it's unabashed title, this Chess pie with pecans was devine. Finally, my salvation came during dessert! The portion size was generous, flavors sweeter than a sack of sugar, replete with pecans, and a flaky crust. This dessert was a life saver (and stomach-filler) and I knew then and there that at least the baker at Miz Kathi's Cotillion knows how to do Southern right. The rest of the kitchen can head back to Kansas.

IN A NUTSHELL: This restaurant prides itself on making everything from scratch. Service is good but stressed during busy timeframes. The room layout can feel cramped and there is a lot of tasteful (antique milk glass dishes) and not-so-tasteful décor (ordinary displayed aprons and mittens for $25+ each? Please stop preying upon senile patrons) along the walls including the restrooms. The place screams old lady even though I wish it didn't (especially when you have items on the menu like 'Junkyard', 'Hoochie Momma', and 'Redneck Nachos'). Unfortunately for me, my social security checks haven't kicked in yet so I'll take a rain check on food and probably have the dessert to-go. Food times may be a problem depending on the time of day. Though the salads are generous in their portion sizes and there is attention given to food presentation in dainty serviceware, the rest of the food has a disparaging contrast between their price point, quantity, and quality. Just because it's Southern food with simple ingredients doesn't make it acceptable for the food to be bland or floppy. Side dishes need to be presented differently and substantially. True craftsmanship is only derived when you can make simplicity sing and the Cotillion missed the mark on this for the most part.

Cotillion Southern Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Ole Times Country Buffet- Surprisingly good food, meh on the ambiance

Walking into this place, I immediately knew I was walking into a relaxed Southern atmosphere. The walls where covered with a shade of yellow wood panels festooned with random memorabilia crap that someone found a space and decided to hammer a nail to hang it. Some call in ole country chic, I call it beyond tacky and quite frankly, a useless distraction.

You have to go through a double-laned cash register channel before you get to the buffet. Sardonically, it reminded me of how pigs are probably queued before they pay they meet their maker. The entrance winds into a narrow hallway that wraps around the parameter of the restaurant and opens up in the middle of the restaurant to- tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and honey for sale (all at pretty reasonable prices).

I could tell by this sales structure that they either a) may have been overwhelmed by large crowds b) may have experienced people that didn't pay on their way out c) needed to figure out a way so that a hostess doesn't have the headache to find you a table or d) all of the above. I think there could have been a smoother, classier way to handle this but it did bring about a burning question- if the food is purportedly good, why relegate customers to this?

It was rush hour and I had to forage for a table before food. I had to mark my territory with an empty plate before heading to the buffet. It was every man for himself. It's funny when you're the paying customer and you have to fend for things. After being initiated into all things Ole Times, I sat down to eat. The food was surprisingly tasty. And that's the only reason why this restaurant made it on to my blog. Everything seemed to have been freshly readied and maintained. There was a cold buffet bar with salads, dressings, and toppings as well as a long warm buffet island with fried chicken, various kinds of prepared beans, fried catfish (on the bone and filleted), smoked sausage, smoked ribs, and bbq pulled chicken among other things.

Let me tell you about the vegetables- they were simply prepared but yet so flavorful. I couldn't help but notice smoked ham hocks bobbing in most of them. Though some many find it revulsing, I actually liked that they didn't shy away from where their flavor profiles were hailing. I enjoyed the collard greens and the stewed cabbage- both of which were not cooked to death but were soft enough for nuanced texture while still imparting their juicy earthiness. The mashed potatoes were perfectly fluffy and salted. All in all, the first plate really rejuvenated the lunch experience. What can I say?When food is good, you stop griping and you start paying attention to what's in front of you.

The fried catfish fillets were so perfectly done. A perfect cornmeal coating gave the right amount of crunch before my teeth sunk into some of the moistest fish meat that I have had in years. Matter of fact as soon as I had it, my mouth screamed for more even though I wasn't particularly hungry. This was the only item that I went back for seconds. Speaking of fried, you probably are wondering by now how the fried chicken was. Yes, I'll admit it- I'm a fried chicken snob. But this restaurant's was quite good. It doesn't take the first place prize of the most amazing crispy skin of my dreams, but the meat was moist and the batter-to-meat ratio was nearly exact to what I always look for. And speaking of chicken the Smoked Chicken and BBQ Pulled Chicken were really good. The smoked chicken had a great rub with a very evident smoke ring that showed the penetration of the flavors into the meat that only happen skillfully. The meat was moist when I broke into it and the skin had a good char that made the palate happy. I loved the BBQ Pulled Chicken rendition- it was sweet with an addictive meat-to-sauce proportion. 

The smoked sausage needed some added dimension. It was too Plain Jane and unlike the fried catfish, I did want this meat to have been elevated somehow with added spices during it's preparation. On the other hand, the ribs were dry but spiced well. The smoke muted and married the ingredients almost too well and I couldn't discern if cumin, paprika, or sugar were the leading ingredients for the rub. I could have preferred some more heat on the ribs but looking around the dinning room, I think the rub mix was neutral enough for everyone to enjoy. Similarly, the Mac-N-Cheese was okay and probably more for the kids who lust for it's cheese sauce than for adults who want a bright cheddar flavor to come through. However, the spaghetti and meat sauce was very tasty and delicious. It had been a while since I had last tried this classic dish so it was a welcomed surprise to see it on their buffet.

What I understood from this experience is that this restaurant understands good southern food. Southern food tastes best with few ingredients but cooked with a higher skill set so the flavors speak for what home cookers cannot pull of. I also enjoyed the service here. The server was friendly and the employees replenishing the buffet line were more than helpful when some standard questions were thrown at them. I even was brazen enough to ask the attendant about the spices that were smothered on the smoked chicken and he offered to bring the chef out to describe his preparation for me. The attendant went on to say that each cook has their own particular vegetable that they like to prepare in a certain way- which means, if you go there, you may not get the exact product that I got. Yes, in a way, that's job security. But in another way, the freedom that the chain gives for the cooks to pour their love into their signature side dishes can only benefit the customer by ensuring a quality product is presented.Ole Times has been in business for over 8 years now. They have several outlets in South Georgia including sister restaurant chains by the names of Mama June's and Smok'n Pig.

Additionally, there are some quirks to this place- they have a separate counter for fried pork skins, a soft-serve machine (if this is by popular demand, tell those people to go somewhere else), and pies for dessert that are pre-sliced into tiny slivers and then served on styrofoam plates (while everything else is not).

IN A NUTSHELL: For less than $9 per person for lunch, I can see why there was a crowd. The food is good. I just wish they would explore different options of corralling the masses while still retaining it's casual dining experience. Regardless, it's worth the awkward pay-up-front-Golden-Corral experience because some of the food was indeed yummy. You don't want to take someone here for a first date- it's way to casual for that. But you do want to take your long time partner when food in the fridge is running low and you need a low cost, but delicious restaurant to go to. Do try the fried catfish, smoked chicken, and BBQ pulled chicken. I realize that with the masses, price is king. But I do want Ole Times Country Buffet to understand that they have a better food product than most in their league- and that deserves a higher platform for in my book.

ole Times Country Buffet Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato