Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

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On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
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When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.

Twisted Root Burger Co.

Twisted Root Burger Co. (https://www.twistedrootburgerco.com/) is the latest fast-casual burger chain out of Texas to come to Orlando, after Hopdoddy Burger Bar opened earlier this year in the Pointe Orlando mall on International Drive.  But luckily for us, Twisted Root opened much closer to where we live, in a little shopping center on Aloma Avenue and Howell Branch Road that has been brought back to life by an influx of new restaurants, including the adjoining Pho Cali and Quickly Boba, which I reviewed in 2018.

Twisted Root goes for a theme of irreverent, wacky fun, with animal head busts above the counter where you order, letting you know which ones are available to eat on any given day.  From right to left:dsc02661.jpg

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After you place your order, you can go get drinks.  There is a full bar, and more options than usual for the non-drinkers.  I love hip hop and my wife loves Law and Order: SVU, so this was a delightful display:DSC02667

Twisted Root serves its own fountain sodas, all made with cane sugar instead of the usual high fructose corn syrup.  I sampled sips of the watermelon Ice-T, cream soda, root beer, and lemonade, and the cream soda was my favorite.  A refillable drink is $2.25, by the way.  I think that would be worth it for most, just to try their versions of all the different sodas and teas.dsc02669.jpgdsc02670.jpg

Pass the soda fountain and you will encounter the pickle bar.  I’ve written before about how I’ve never been a big fan of pickles, but I’m all about trying them now, to grow my appreciation for them.  Needless to say, I had to try all five varieties here, especially since they’re free!  From left to right: atomic (spicy), sweet & spicy, ranch, bread & butter, and dill.  I think I liked the bread & butter pickles the most, and there was only one flavor I really disliked — I think it was probably the ranch.  DSC02672This was a nice feature, especially because I’m not willing to shell out for whole jars of pickles I might not like, the way I do with mustards and other condiments (and new flavors of chips and sodas).

When you order, they give you a buzzer with a pop culture icon on it to alert you that your food is ready to pick up from the counter.  We got Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which was aces with me, because I used to be a huge pro wrestling fan and am slowly wading back into that pool, and also because he elevates almost every movie he’s in.  Seriously, The Rock makes decent movies better and terrible movies tolerable.

When our buzzer went off so quickly, I was surprised our food was already ready, since the place was so slammed they had shut down one of their cash registers to give the kitchen a chance to catch up.  But it was just my wife’s s’mores milkshake ($6).  dsc02674.jpg
Her verdict: it was okay.  She thought the marshmallow tasted like lighter fluid.  I had some and liked it fine, I think even more than she did.  But I could take or leave marshmallows, whereas she is a connoisseur.

It didn’t take that much longer for The Rock to buzz us again, letting me know our food was ready.  I ordered the Freedom Melt ($11), served on “Texas toast” with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onion straws, and brisket on top — a very “me” burger to order.  Be forewarned that Twisted Root cooks all burgers MEDIUM WELL unless you ask them not to, and I’m not down with that.  I asked for mine medium rare, and it came out between medium rare and medium, but still very juicy.  DSC02675I’ve been spoiled by too much great barbecue brisket, at our well-respected homegrown chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse, and most recently, at the fantastic Git-N-Messy Barbecue in Sanford.  So I guess I was expecting shredded (but recognizable) brisket on top of my burger, instead of the finely-chopped (and probably sauced) meat I got.  It was tastier than I expected and definitely tastier than it looked, nice and smoky (again, possibly from the sauce), but it reminded me of really tender chopped beef jerky even more than brisket.

I haven’t done a

[Air horn]
RING THE ALARM!
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feature in a while, but Twisted Root offers fried onion strings ($3), and those count!  They were good — never as satisfying or substantial as thicker-cut, beer-battered onion rings, but they added a good dimension to my burger and gave me stuff to dip (more on that later).

My wife ordered a venison burger ($10), one of the special game meats, on “Texas toast,” otherwise served plain.  I didn’t get a picture of it, but it looked like pretty much any other burger.  She ate the whole thing, which is a good sign that she liked it.  She ordered hand-cut potato chips ($2) as her side, a nice-sized order of crispy (not overly crunchy) chips that were just salty enough.  I had to help her finish those, happily.
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A friendly manager came by to ask us how we were liking everything, and she was really craving honest feedback.  The ONLY complaint I had, and it’s a minor one, was that the “Texas toast” wasn’t what we were expecting.  I really love getting Texas toast at my beloved Waffle House — thick slices of white Wonder bread, spread liberally with butter and then grilled on both sides.  The “Texas toast” both of our burgers came on was just regular white bread: not thick, not square, not Wonder, definitely not buttered or grilled, and barely even toasted.  I always hate to complain about anything, but she asked, and it was a minor quibble.  I think thicker bread, buttered and grilled, would add so much richness to the burgers.  If they don’t change it, I’ll simply order a brioche bun with my burger on my next visit.

I was already digging Twisted Root offering so many choices (sodas, sides, pickles), but their condiment game is also strong.  Every table has squeeze bottles of Heinz ketchup and yellow mustard, plus these three beauties.  The horseradish Dijon mustard was fabulous (I’d buy a jar), the ancho chipotle ketchup was great, but as much as I love root beer AND barbecue sauce, I thought it was a little too thin and tasted a little too much of molasses.
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So this restaurant is a real “get” for our quiet, boring little area where Winter Springs, Oviedo, and Winter Park run together.  It was super-busy when we were there, but that was also a Friday night on its opening week.  I think they will do very well, especially since the shopping center has returned to life.  I liked my burger much more than some of the more popular fast-casual contenders, and I love all the different options and how close it is to our home.

Oh, one last thing: the men’s restroom is wallpapered with silly memes and sayings about the most overrated action movie “star” of all time, which I feel obligated to point out after praising the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson earlier in this review.  Yes, you can’t wash your hands without being inundated with tall tales of Texas’ own adopted son Chuck Norris, who I don’t think ever made a good movie or TV show.  I don’t know how beatifying Chuck Norris became a thing.  Sure, he was a legit martial artist, unlike many of the other action actors of the ’70s and ’80s, but Norris was a charisma vacuum, compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham, The Rock, and the vast majority of superhero actors.  Heck, even Jean-Claude Van Damme had two great (or at least memorable) movies in his career, and if any Saboscrivner readers think you can guess what they are, then let me know!

MX Taco (soft opening!)

Happy New Year, Sabo-bots and Sabo-cons!  Here’s hoping that 2019 brings us all health, happiness, and some truly memorable meals.

Yesterday I attended the soft opening of Orlando’s newest taco spot, MX Taco.  Chef-owner Ryan Manning started out cooking in kitchens across Mexico, and his specialty is cuisine from the Yucatan region.  He was the chef of the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C. before he brought his expertise with authentic Mexican cuisine to our city.

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We already have plenty of taco joints and Mexican restaurants to choose from, and some of my favorites include Tortas El Rey, Francisco’s Taco Madness, and Hunger Street Tacos.  But the good news is that they provide something to satisfy everyone.  None of these restaurants are exactly alike, and they all have unique specialties, strengths, and weaknesses, so there is room for all.  Besides, tacos are tasty!

MX Taco is a tiny little spot on Bumby Avenue, near Lou’s Lounge and Saigon Noodle and Grill, with Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market across the street.  There are only four tables (three of which are high-tops), and you order and pay at the counter.  For the soft opening, Chef Manning wasn’t offering every single item on their exciting menu, but most of them were available, and I tried everything I could.

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I absolutely love that MX Taco’s menu is a map of Mexico, showing you which region each individual dish comes from.  I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Mexico, but I love geography and how food influences and is in turn influenced by geography, economics, and culture at large.  It’s rare when you can order food at a restaurant and learn something at the same time.

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Prices are extremely reasonable, since you order tacos and other items individually — everything I ordered was either $3, $3.25, or $3.50.

At the restaurant, I ordered the cochinita pibil taco (pulled pork with bitter orange and pickled onion from the Yucatan region), the bistec en salsa roja taco (braised steak with pepper sauce and avocado from the Sonora region), the quesadilla con chorizo (Oaxacan cheese and crumbled chorizo sausage from Mexico City), and a piña (pineapple) agua fresca, a sweet, cold, refreshing drink made with fresh pineapple and surely plenty of sugar.  The food came out quickly, and everything was delicious.

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I love cochinita pibil (sometimes referred to on menus as puerco pibil) and order it whenever Mexican restaurants offer it, which isn’t often.  I always think back to the cheesy action movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, where Johnny Depp’s corrupt CIA agent ordered puerco pibil everywhere he ate, in a quest for the best version of the dish.  When he finally found it, he went into the kitchen and shot the chef to “consecrate the moment.”  It’s a good thing that was a fictional movie (and even better that the real Johnny Depp is somewhere far, far away from us), or otherwise Chef Manning might have been in danger!  It was so fresh and so good.  The chorizo in the quesadilla was excellent as well, and I’m a big chorizo fan too.

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They have three housemade hot sauces available in bottles on the tables.  From left to right: a medium arbol chile sauce that is orange, a mild guajillo pepper-based sauce that is thick and dark red, and a fiendishly-hot habanero sauce.  The Guajillo was my favorite.  Habanero is usually too much for me, but I had to try it, and I appreciated that it packed a lot of flavor (a bit fruity, in fact!), rather than just painful heat like too many sadistic sauces.

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I placed a takeout order to bring some food back home to my wife, and while I waited, Chef Manning insisted I try his avocado ice cream.  It was very smooth, soft, and creamy — not icy or chunky at all.  It tasted so much better than you’d ever expect avocado ice cream to taste, and I say this as someone who loves ice cream and avocados.  It was topped with pepitas (pumpkin seeds, possibly lightly toasted?), toasted shredded coconut, and dark chocolate shavings.  It was a small cup, but I highly recommend it to anyone who dines at MX Taco, as it was a nice palate cleanser and worked well for cutting any lingering heat.

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My wife insisted on letting me sample all the food I brought home for her: a carnitas taco (confit pulled pork, onion, and cilantro from the Michoacan region), a bistec con sikil pak taco (steak, avocado, pickled onion, and pumpkin seed sauce, which I asked for on the side, from the Yucatan region), a quesadilla (with Oaxacan cheese and chipotle crema, from Mexico City), and an order of totopos (chips) and guacamole.  The guacamole was excellent, I have to say.  Extremely fresh — some of the best I’ve had anywhere around here, including more upscale Mexican restaurants that make a big production of “tableside guac.”  It was a nice-sized serving of guacamole, too.

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Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner followers will probably recognize our green plates by now:

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I also got her an horchata con coco agua fresca, rice water sweetened with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and coconut — some of her favorite flavors in one drink, and an ideal heat-cutter.  It was the thickest and richest horchata I’ve ever sampled, that’s for sure.  I love aguas frescas, but a lot of them are made from sugary powdered mixes, not that dissimilar from Kool-Aid.  I could tell both my pineapple drink and her horchata were very fresh.

It should go without saying that everything is made fresh in-house.  The only exception are the tortillas, corn tortillas Chef Manning told me he gets from a tortilleria in Atlanta.  I almost hate to admit it, but I prefer flour tortillas, and I’ve never had quesadillas on corn tortillas before.  The totopos looked like they might have been made from the same corn tortillas.  I thought they could have used some salt, but the guac was good enough to offset that.

Orlando taco lovers, I encourage you to make it over to MX Taco sooner rather than later, to try the newest taqueria in town and see how it stacks up to your established favorites.  I guarantee it will be different enough from the tried-and-true taco joints that you’ll appreciate having it as one more option.  Just FYI, Chef Manning told me he will be closed today (Friday, January 4th) and open for limited hours over the next week: 4:00 to 8:00 PM, starting tomorrow, Saturday the 5th.

Tortilleria El Progreso

Orlando is full of hidden treasures, and my latest discovery is Tortilleria El Progreso (https://www.tortilleriaelprogreso.com/), nestled in a nondescript strip shopping center in the shadow of a Home Depot, along a busy, industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive, west of the 417 and east of Semoran Boulevard.  It is a bustling Mexican restaurant and a full Mexican grocery store with a butcher shop, a bakery, an ice cream counter, and more.  This is real Mexican food, authentic and pure — the kind of place that makes its own tortillas, chips, and everything else from scratch.  The menu is huge, the service is friendly, the prices are cheap, the portions are large, and the colorful, welcoming dining room with hand-painted chairs makes you feel transported away from Orlando, to a vacation destination south of the border.

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I went for lunch with a professional colleague who trusts my restaurant-choosing judgment and was kind enough to treat.  We started out with complimentary chips and salsa, and we could tell the chips were fresh, made from actual tortillas not long before our arrival:

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Whenever I see tortas on a menu, I go for it.  If there’s one thing I love more than a good taco, it’s a good sandwich, and tortas are the best of both worlds: Mexican ingredients on a soft bolillo or telera roll, with meat, a schmear of refried beans, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, sometimes peppers, and a dab of mayo or sour cream.  I got a barbacoa torta, with tender, oven-braised beef.  It even came with unexpected fries, but the fries weren’t anything special, and I didn’t dare fill up on them.  20180927_124658_resized

But I couldn’t visit a new Mexican restaurant and not sample two of my favorite meats, so I got a chorizo (spicy crumbled sausage) taco on a flour tortilla and an al pastor (marinated pork) taco on a corn tortilla, so I could try both kinds of tortillas too.  All the tacos came simply garnished with diced raw onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges on the side.  I am pleased to say everything was delicious.  20180927_124836_resized

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We were also offered a choice of red or green salsas for the table, so of course I asked for both.  The green tomatillo salsa was medium-spicy, and the red had quite a bit of heat.  These were homemade as well:
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We also decided to try a side order of the Mexican rice, which was soft, fluffy, even a little buttery.  I have a rice cooker at home because my rice never comes out right from a pot, but I still never get it as perfect as all the restaurant rice I enjoy.  I stirred a little of the salsas into the rice, to make a good thing even better.20180927_131138_resized

I was overjoyed to see aguas frescas on the menu, which is one of my tests for how authentic and good a Mexican restaurant is going to be.  These refreshing drinks are sweet, but not as sweet as high fructose corn syrup-laden sodas, they aren’t carbonated, and they’re ideal for cutting the heat of spicy Mexican food.  I ordered a piña agua fresca because I will always try anything pineappley, and I recommended another one of my favorites to my colleague: horchata, which is a sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.  I didn’t snap photos of those, but they were both terrific.

I can’t wait to return to Tortilleria El Progreso and try some more menu items, including some of those other aguas frescas, and some of the paletas (popsicles) and helados (ice creams) in the big case at the front of the restaurant.  It looked like the market side had bolillo rolls in the bakery section for tortas, fresh tortillas, sodas, snacks, and other groceries worth exploring.  I love grocery shopping at new places almost as much as I love trying new restaurants, so I will definitely be back to this newly-discovered hidden treasure that plenty of other people surely already knew about.