Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine. Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay. I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food. We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.
As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami. So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.
Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day. Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me. I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner! I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/). It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.
And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant. Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters. They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation. It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials. It ended up being exactly what I… wanted? NO. It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.
Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich. I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.
The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house. It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo. Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant. It was great!
The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself. I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo. You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”
Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better. And you know what? It was a delicious sandwich, even cold. I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich. The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for). It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.
I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like. The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche. Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux. But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.
In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised. I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home. And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.
I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese. I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada. (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)
And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.
So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location. If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place. And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was. While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.