Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant

The first time I ever heard of Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant (https://www.lascarretasmexicanrest.com/), my heart filled with joy and hope, then immediate disappointment.  When I first saw a sign that the restaurant was opening soon in the Publix plaza on the corner of University Boulevard and Goldenrod Road in east Winter Park, I was overjoyed, thinking at first it meant an outpost of La Carreta, my family’s favorite Cuban restaurant chain in Miami, was coming to the Orlando area.

But I quickly noticed the sign was pluralized: “Las Carretas,” not “La Carreta,” and that it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, not Cuban.  We already have far more good Mexican restaurants here than in Miami, but I got over that initial disappointment and forgot about it for a while.  It opened earlier this year, and diners started posting really positive reviews on the Orlando Foodie Forum Presented by Tasty Chomps!, and I started paying attention all over again.

Well, I have eaten there four times now, and I can happily report that Las Carretas is an excellent Mexican restaurant, and we should be happy it’s here.  The initial fault was mine for misreading the sign and getting my hopes up.  It might not be the beloved Cuban restaurant of my past, but it is the terrific Mexican restaurant of my present and future.

The Las Carretas menu is HUGE, so I strongly suggest studying it in advance.  On our first visit, my wife and I started our first meal with a couple of aguas frescas ($4.99 each), sweet, non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverages that are much tastier and more refreshing than sodas, and much better for cutting the heat of spicy food.  I chose horchata (left), sweet, creamy rice milk seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.  My wife chose coco nuez, a rich and creamy agua fresca made with coconut milk, coconut shreds, and crushed pecans.  I’m not big on nuts, but I do love coconut, and I liked her drink even more than mine.  These are gigantic glass mugs, by the way — think German biergarten mugs.  No free refills, though!  (Yes, I asked.)

They have a self-service salsa bar!  Just use hand sanitizer before and after, and fill the little plastic cups with chilled fresh salsas and pickled vegetables (jalapeños, carrots, onions, nopal cactus strips) to your heart’s content.  They will be perfect for the fresh, crispy, thin tortilla chips about to grace your table.

Here are those chips with an assortment of salsas.  The white stuff turned out to be a tangy, creamy, cool salad dressing, but it was nice to dip the chips in, and it works well cutting the heat of some of the spicier ones.   The dark salsa next to it is a smoky chipotle salsa, blended smooth so it is thin, with no chunks in it.  That one was my wife’s favorite by far.  They’re all a little bit different, so if you’re anything like me, a self-proclaimed salsaholic, you will want to try little dabs of all of them on your chips.  One or two are extremely spicy, but I honestly don’t remember which of these were the spicy ones.  I think the orange one on the left was fiery, so be prepared!

My wife ordered table-side guacamole ($8.99), hold the jalapeños and easy on the tomatoes and onions.  It was made with care and flair by a nice lady who probably has to make guacamole in front of people all day, pushing her cart around the restaurant like teachers who wanted to show a video in class back in the day.  It was some of the freshest, nicest guac I’ve ever had.

For her meal, my wife chose the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99), a dazzling platter of grilled shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, and bacon, with grilled peppers and onions, topped with melty oaxaca cheese and sliced avocado, tomato, and radish.  She loved it, except for the cheese.  She thought it overwhelmed the more subtle seafood flavors.  I’ve never noticed alambres on a menu before, but all of the ones at Las Carretas come with five tortillas.  She chose corn tortillas with it.   
This picture barely communicates the size of the platter and exactly how much food comes on it!

I couldn’t resist an alambre either, but I chose the alambre mata hambre ($16.99), which lived up to its name as a true “hunger killer.”  It was an equally massive platter of pork loin, al pastor pork, carne asada (grilled steak seasoned with lime), chorizo, bacon, ham, grilled bell peppers, onions, pineapple, melty oaxaca cheese, and topped with sliced avocado, tomato, and radish, and served with five tortillas (flour for me):

The a la carte menu has a lot of options for people who like to sample things, like a single cheese tamale ($3.50), which we both thought was just okay:

This is an a la carte beef burrito ($3.99), served “wet” (smothered in sauce and melted cheese).  It’s a classic wet burrito, which is making me reminiscent for Taco Viva, a South Florida fast food chain that predated Taco Bell in the ’80s.  They all closed decades ago, but they gave me my first tastes of Mexican food as a kid, igniting a lifelong love affair.  I don’t even know if Taco Viva was any damn good by Mexican food standards (probably not), but you know what is?  Las Carretas and this burrito right here:

This is a huge a la carte chile relleno stuffed with cheese ($4.99).  After I was so disappointed Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s removed chiles rellenos from its menu at some point in the last year and a half, I was thrilled to discover such a good one here at Las Carretas, with a lightly crispy batter that didn’t get soggy under all that sauce, and didn’t fall or peel off.

There were almost too many good choices for dessert, but on this first visit, my wife chose fried ice cream ($5.99).  The scoop of vanilla had a nice, thin, crackly coating she liked that reminded me of crushed corn flakes, and that was her favorite part.  I preferred the fried flour shell/”bowl,” so that worked out well for both of us.  But we had other dessert ideas that would have to wait for our second visit.

My wife and I went back for a second lunch a couple of weeks later (months ago, at this point), and met a good friend there.  I ordered the chimichanga ($9.99 on the lunch menu), sort of like a burrito wrapped in a flour tortilla, then lightly fried.  It was smothered with a sticky, thick cheese sauce and stuffed with beef tips that ended up being kind of like pot roast.  The Mexican rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream were nice, fresh accompaniments that kept the beef, sticky cheese sauce, and crispy shell from feeling too heavy.

Our friend got enchiladas rancheras ($9.99) on the lunch menu — cheese-stuffed enchiladas topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, green and red bell peppers, and enchilada sauce.  I swear there are enchiladas under there!

My wife went back to the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99) again, only asked for it without cheese this time.  She liked it even better without the melted cheese contrasting against the seafood.

This one cracked me up.  I always love tortas, Mexican sandwiches on bolillo rolls, so I ordered the one torta on Las Carretas’ menu, the torta toloqueña ($11.99 on the lunch menu), intending to split it with our friend.  The sandwich comes with chicken milanesa (a chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded, and fried), ham, oaxaca cheese, pineapple, “vinegar mixed manzano pepper,” tomato, avocado, ketchup, mayonnaise… and salchicha, which I know means sausage.  Well, I expecting more like a chorizo-like sausage, and not these hot dogs on top!  That’s my bad.  I should have known better.  All three of us had a good laugh over it, and we still shared the salty, overstuffed torta.  It was an unexpected surprise, but it was still a really decadent and satisfying sandwich.  This torta toloqueña was the only time in my life I’ve ever been okay with ketchup being anywhere near hot dogs.

We couldn’t decide between two desserts, so we got both!  These are the churros ($4.99), served with caramel and chocolate sauces:

And sopapillas ($5.99), fried flour tortilla wedges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with honey, and served with a rapidly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I couldn’t tell you which of the three desserts was my favorite, but they all involved comparable flavors.

On both of these visits, I was thinking about how much my co-workers would enjoy Las Carretas, so a few weeks later, at the first mention of a work lunch, I was quick to suggest this place.  When I returned to Las Carretas for my third time, I brought three co-workers with me.  None of them are the adventurous eaters I am, so we often end up at Chili’s, Miller’s Ale House, or Gator’s Dockside for work lunches.  But I implored them to give this new Mexican restaurant a chance, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

They weren’t.

My vegetarian supervisor and friend ordered enchiladas vegetarianas ($10.99), three enchiladas stuffed with zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, and mushrooms, topped with ranchera sauce and mozzarella cheese:

Another co-worker, my former supervisor who has since been promoted, ordered this beautiful campeche quesadilla ($13.99), with grilled shrimp, onions, bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese:

I ordered the party tacos ($14.99), because nothing says “party” like a lunch with your current and former supervisors and one other guy, where you talk all about work before having to drive back to work and not fall asleep.  Anyway, you get an order of six tacos and can try two proteins in them.  Frankly, I would have preferred an option where I could buy six individual tacos, all with different proteins, but I chose wisely: cabeza (tender, moist, fatty beef head; along the top) and al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated in pineapple juice; along the bottom).  Both were so delicious and satisfying, not dry at all like the meats occasionally are at even the best taquerias.  This is an incredible dish, and a good deal too.

And another guy got a trio of tacos, but I don’t remember which ones these are.  Carne asada would be my best guess.

On my fourth visit with one of the same co-workers, she got queso dip ($3.99) and table-side guacamole ($8.99) to go with the fresh tortilla chips:

And I tried yet another new dish, the Texas burrito ($11.99), a dry burrito (not smothered in cheese and sauce, so you can hold it and eat it), stuffed with crumbled chorizo sausage (another one of my favorite Mexican meats), rice, beans, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado sauce.  It was awesome and huge.  Look at it on this large, long plate:

And you thought it smelled good on the outside!

So that’s a massive review based on my four meals at Las Carretas, all eaten at the restaurant.  With how close it is to both work and home, I expect I will continue to be a regular at this place, especially since they have a large, covered outdoor seating area for when the weather finally cools down (and avoiding people carrying the Delta variant in the meantime).  Las Carretas may not be Miami’s La Carreta, but it is one of Orlando’s best Mexican restaurants, and now one of my favorites.  I can’t imagine anyone going out to eat here and being disappointed.  It’s a real crowd-pleaser in every way.

The ‘Dines List 2: Mission to Morocco!

Believe it or not, even though we’re finally into October, it’s still hurricane season, so this lifelong Florida Man isn’t relaxing just yet.  I usually don’t let my guard down until we get to Thanksgiving, so I still have a huge stash of shelf-stable food on hand, including plenty of my favorite quick, easy, healthy, delicious household staple, tinned sardines.

I don’t know if my first installment of The ‘Dines List, the new ongoing Saboscrivner feature where I review canned sardines and other tinned seafood, was a rousing hit among my dozens of readers back in July.  Most people come here for restaurant reviews, but because I don’t go out to eat as often as everyone thinks I do, I bolster those with reviews of other foods I enjoy and want to spread the word about in recurring features like Grocery Grails, Tight Chips, Cutting the Mustard, and now The ‘Dines List.  But the truth is, I eat a lot of sardines.  I got into them when I was a poor student, but now that I make the medium bucks in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of academia, I continue to dine on ‘dines because they’re so healthy, they’re environmentally sustainable (especially compared to most other fish), they’re cheap, they’re versatile, and I just like them.  Plus, as a lifelong collector of things like comic books, action figures, and music, I appreciate that there are seemingly infinite varieties of sardines, so I love discovering and collecting new brands and flavors and sharing information about them.

My first ‘Dines List feature, “Canned Sardines 101,” was a rundown of some of my all-time favorite sardines, meant as a guide for the unfamiliar and the skeptical, to ease new ‘dine eaters into those briny waters and introduce them to the tastiest and least-intimidating tinned ‘dines I know of.  But since there are so many more sardines out there, future ‘Dines List installments are going to have themes to them, and this one is going to be about sardines from Morocco.

Why Morocco?  Perhaps the better question is why not Morocco?  Located in the northwestern point of the African continent, Morocco borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost edge of the warm Mediterranean Sea.  This geographical area, where ocean meets sea, has a long history of fishing and trading, and there are commercial fisheries all through the region.  Morocco is right across from Spain and Portugal, and plenty of tinned sardines are products of those three countries.  I’ll cover Spanish and Portuguese sardines in future installments, but it is worth noting that due to European Union agreements regarding fishing rights, many Spanish vessels fish for sardines in Moroccan waters.

The first Moroccan sardines I found were from the Titus brand, which most Asian markets around Orlando seem to carry.  These had a very cool-looking can.  I love how sardine can graphic design tends to be “old-timey,” like they’ve had the same artwork, fonts, and colors for decades, or even longer.  You’ll never see tins emblazoned with a cartoon fish shredding on an electric guitar while riding a skateboard and wearing sunglasses and a backwards cap, because there are no focus groups warning the sardine companies they need to be more “extreme” and “totally in your face.”  And that’s just fine, really.

But the ‘dines inside weren’t the prettiest.  This was after I drained the oil, but don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.   

I just threw these over some pasta and didn’t bother to take a picture.  They were okay.  I don’t think I would get them again, but of course I bought two cans of the regular Titus and two cans of…

HOT TITUS!  I almost always gravitate toward spicy sardines, which are either packed in spicy oil or with some kind of hot peppers, or both.  They usually taste better than plain ones, at least to me.   

This can only included three large ‘dines, and in my experience, the bigger ones rarely taste as good as the smaller ones.  They tend to be drier and flakier in texture than smaller brisling sardines.   These Hot Titus ‘dines came packed with some very hot peppers (dry and full of spicy seeds) in addition to the bright orange spicy vegetable oil.

I made the Hot Titus ‘dines into one and a half sandwiches on delicious Deutsche Kuche soft pretzel sticks from my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” because I am easily amused.  The pretzel sticks are imported from Germany, and I just bake them in the toaster oven at 350 for nine minutes.  They come out with perfect crispy, crackly exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors, ideal for salvaging sardines (or sampling mustards, as in my Cutting the Mustard feature from earlier this summer).I left off the condiments to get their full flavor… which wasn’t much to speak of, even with the two peppers they had been canned with.  I drained the oil, as I always do, but it didn’t impart much flavor either.  That could have been because it was vegetable oil instead of the superior olive oil.  A schmear of mustard and some fresh and pickled vegetables would have helped turn these into superior sandwiches, even with mediocre ‘dines, but I wanted the full, unadulterated Hot Titus experience.

Earlier this year, I found these Brother and Sister sardines at Tima’s House, a Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, which has some neat stuff.  I don’t think they would have cost more than $3, or I would not have bought them.  You don’t usually see sardines in sunflower oil, but I’m a mark for spicy ‘dines with peppers, so I had to try them.  Plus, they were from Morocco!

They were pretty typical-looking large sardines with dark skin, packed in a deep orange spicy oil that didn’t actually impart much flavor. 

I had these four Brother and Sister ‘dines over a simple salad, since I pack a salad in my lunches for work almost every day.  This salad looks like it was more simple than usual, since I just see lettuce and cucumber on it, but I probably splashed on a bit of a vinaigrette dressing.  They were okay.  I’ve made better salads and eaten better sardines, that’s for sure.  The little peppers aren’t very tasty, and they are full of seeds, so I tossed them after taking this picture. 

I don’t remember if I got these Baraka sardines at Tima’s House or at one of Orlando’s many Middle Eastern grocery stores.  Once again, they are products of Morocco, and they are packed in soy oil with chili peppers, so I was on board.  The price was definitely right on these, but sometimes you don’t want the absolute cheapest canned seafood out there. 

I instinctively drained the orange oil before taking this photo, so they weren’t just sitting in a completely dry can:

And I enjoyed them on some marble rye toast with a schmear of neufchatel cheese (like cream cheese, but low-fat, so the cheese and your life are both less enjoyable) and everything bagel seasoning.  The tin ended up having just three large sardines plus the long chili pepper that didn’t taste very good on its own.

The next Moroccan ‘dines I tried were from the Sultan brand.  First I tried spicy Sultan sardines, in oil with chili peppers.  I believe I found these at the Walmart Supercenter, of all places, in the small Middle Eastern food section.  They were cheap, so I figured “Why not?  I’m already in Walmart.  How much worse can things get?”

They were pretty large ‘dines, as all the Moroccan ‘dines tend to be.

I had these on Ritz crackers (the BEST crackers for any purpose), with dabs of my homemade tzatziki sauce underneath each one — Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, and a dash of dill.  These spicy Sultans weren’t bad at all.  They were very meaty ‘dines, with decent flavor from the spicy oil and some subtle heat.  The chili peppers, as usual, were barely edible.  

I also bought a can of plain Sultan sardines at the same time, and my hopes for these weren’t as high, especially after the relative disappointment of the plain, non-hot Titus ‘dines compared to the Hot Titus.

These were even larger fish:

But I worked some magic, following a Sicilian recipe for pasta con le sarde, a dish that includes onions, garlic, fennel bulb, golden raisins soaked in wine, seasoned bread crumbs, the plain Sultan sardines, and pasta — in this case, some perciatelli, which is essentially the same as bucatini (long, hollow tubes).  Of course I didn’t have any wine to soak the golden raisins in since neither my wife nor I drink, so I just threw them in there unaltered, thinking the sweetness and chewiness would bring something nice to the experience.  It was a tasty pasta dish, especially with that fragrant fennel, which is a truly underrated ingredient.  But I felt like it could be better.

In my first ‘Dines List write-up, I sang the praises of Norway’s King Oscar brand, some of the best sardines you can buy in terms of quality, variety, and value.  King Oscars are readily available at most major supermarkets, and I mentioned last time that they are terrific “gateway sardines” for the uninitiated.  Most King Oscar sardines are products of Poland despite being caught in Norwegian waters.  However, these skinless and boneless Spanish Style ‘dines, packed in olive oil and seasoned with chili peppers and tiny slices of carrot and pickle, are products of Morocco, hence their inclusion here.

In that previous installment, I warned about avoiding boneless and skinless sardines.  That’s just a personal preference, but I felt obligated to try these for a more complete feature on the different varieties of Moroccan sardines.  These King Oscars are perfectly good sardines, but they never look right to me without the silvery skin.  And I think the bones add some interesting texture (plus calcium).

I decided to attempt pasta con le sarde again, to do something more exciting with these boneless, skinless ‘dines.  I started sautéing diced onions, garlic, and more of that awesome fennel bulb in extra virgin olive oil, then added a can of Cento anchovies, which I always stock up on at Trader Joe’s, because they are so good in recipes.  (They are also products of Morocco!)  I mashed up the salty anchovies and their oil in the aromatics and kept sautéing until the anchovies completely dissolved.  That added some saltiness and savory umami flavor, which is good because all boneless, skinless sardines are very mild.  (Although these Spanish Style King Oscars are the best boneless, skinless sardines I’ve ever tried, both flavor- and texture-wise.)

Once the aromatics were translucent and soft, I added sultanas (golden raisins) that I had been soaking in white wine vinegar as a substitute for wine, since I learn from my mistakes.  Then I stirred in the King Oscar ‘dines, their oil, and the tiny sliced vegetables straight out of the can, then some seasoned Italian bread crumbs and red pepper flakes, and let everything continue to sauté.  I tossed it all together with some al dente fettuccine pasta, threw some diced tomatoes on top, and boom: new and improved pasta con le sarde!  This was by far the better attempt, between the higher-quality King Oscar sardines that brought their own flavors, plus the can of anchovies, the red pepper flakes for some necessary heat, and the white wine vinegar-soaked golden raisins for sweetness and tartness.  I’ve never seen this pasta dish on a restaurant menu anywhere, but I am  obsessed with it now.

A long time ago, I bought a can of Alshark sardines from a Middle Eastern grocery store and thought they were pretty good, so I tracked down another can for the purposes of this review, since they are also Moroccan.  

This was the only sardine can I had trouble fully opening, but I was still able to get the four large ‘dines out.  

I ate them plain to really experience the flavor.  These were meaty and pleasantly spicy, moreso than any of the other so-called spicy ‘dines in this review.  I’d definitely get these Alshark ‘dines again.

Last but not least, I decided to try Wild Planet’s “Wild” white anchovies, another product of Morocco.  These are totally different from the salt-cured anchovies most people are familiar with, like the Cento anchovies shown above, which are one of my secret weapons when cooking.  These are more like typical tinned sardines than super-salty brown anchovy filets.  

White anchovies like this are popular in tapas dishes in Spain, where they are called boquerones.  I ate these straight out of the can after draining the oil because I had never had boquerones before, and they were okay.  Pretty plain and bland, like Wild Planet sardines I’ve tried before.  Despite the name of the company, there wasn’t much “wild” about their flavor.  Unfortunately I bought these at Costco, so I have four more cans to get through.  I will definitely jazz them up with more exciting recipes and serving methods to make them more interesting in the future.

So here ends our Mission to Morocco, the second of hopefully many ‘Dines List features right here on The Saboscrivner.  Expect to learn all about sardines from Spain, Portugal, and other parts unknown in the months (and years) to come, but at least I got this one out before hurricane season is over, just in case it inspires anyone to stock up on some sardines.

As always, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, let me know what you try and if you like them or not, and if there are other sardines or tinned seafood you recommend.  I’m always happy to take requests and accept freebies, especially if any of you jet-setters travel to Europe, where grocery stores have mythical aisles of nothing but fancy tinned seafood.  But in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt (or more accurately, gone fishin’) in Orlando’s many supermarkets and international grocery stores as a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, the dean of sardines.