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.

Chain Reactions: Chuy’s

Chuy’s (http://www.chuys.com/) is a Tex-Mex chain that was founded in Austin, Texas, in 1982.  I’ve been to three separate locations here in Orlando: multiple meals in Winter Park, a few times to Waterford Lakes (a location that has since closed), and down by the airport once with co-workers.  Chuy’s has a fun, funky, kitschy, irreverent vibe, and the food is always prepared fresh, from scratch.  Portions are huge, and prices are very fair.

What’s this?  Fake palm trees… “growing” in the dining room?  It’s crazy, I tell ya!DSC02761

I know some people are really skeptical of chains, but Chuy’s is always solid.  I can’t think of many other Mexican restaurants that make their corn AND flour tortillas from scratch, and you can really taste the difference.  I am NOT a fan of shelf-stable grocery store tortillas!  As far as I can tell, they make everything from scratch here.  The thin, crispy tortilla chips they bring to your table for free are freshly fried from those corn tortillas, and they come with a chilled salsa that has more heat than most restaurant salsas.  You can also request a creamy jalapeño sauce that is like a cool, slightly spicy ranch dip, but much better than ranch.

Here’s that overflowing complimentary basket of their light, thin, crispy tortilla chips, with the chilled salsa and creamy jalapeño sauce.  I love both of these because they are obviously made fresh, actually spicy, and both served chilled.  I am never as big a fan of room temperature salsa.

This is my wife’s favorite tortilla soup.  It is chicken broth-based, with lots of shredded chicken, melty white cheese, tomatoes, carrots, celery, avocado, and crispy fried strips of fresh corn tortillas.  Before Chuy’s opened a restaurant in Winter Park, sometimes she’d ask me to pick it up for her from the Waterford Lakes location.  Despite how awful traffic gets heading east on Colonial Drive in the evening, I’d still run the errand, because I love her, and she loves that soup!  (Of course, that location has since closed.)  On this last trip from early 2020, we even ended up getting a second cup to go, and I returned a few days later to bring her home a larger order.  DSC02763

This was her taco and enchilada plate from that February 2020 visit.  Knowing her, I’m guessing she got grilled steak in them, as opposed to chicken or seasoned ground beef.  You get very generous portions at Chuy’s, including that mountain of Mexican rice and that sea of refried beans.  DSC02765

And this was my chile relleno and enchilada plate.  The chile relleno is a batter-dipped and fried pepper stuffed with ground beef and covered in Tex-Mex sauce, kind of like a chili con carne.  The enchilada is stuffed with shredded chicken and covered in spicy, tangy, creamy Boom-Boom sauce, a Chuy’s specialty.  DSC02766Chuy’s used to have my favorite chile relleno.  A lot of Mexican restaurants use a batter that is too thick, heavy, and eggy, and it ends up soggy, greasy, and sloughing off the pepper.  Not so here.  This chile relleno batter always stayed crispy and didn’t disintegrate.

Unfortunately, starting around the time of the pandemic, Chuy’s cut its menu offerings back, removing many of the truly unique Tex-Mex dishes I had come to love.  The chile relleno pictured above?  GONE.  The combo platters you just salivated over?  GONE.  The chili con carne Tex-Mex sauce?  GONE.  I always meant to order the green chile fried chicken, but too bad, so sad — it’s off the menu too.  And so is the delicious carne guisada, a beef stew that was a lunch special one rare and lucky time I went, that I always hoped to get again.

We hadn’t been back in over a year, even though I’ve been ordering takeout all over town, mostly due to Chuy’s shrinking the menu.  But we recently found ourselves near the Winter Park location after a doctor appointment.  This was our first restaurant meal together in over a year — on the covered outdoor patio — since we were hungry and stressed, it was a beautiful day, and we had both been fully vaccinated.

We had never sprung for the guacamole ($7.59) before, but it was so good, and it complemented the freshly fried chips so well.

At least my wife was still able to get her favorite tortilla soup ($8.69 for a bowl, which is larger than the cup that was pictured above from our previous pre-pandemic visit):

I got the Chuychanga ($12.99), my favorite of the remaining entrees.  This shredded chicken and cheese chimichanga (essentially a deep-fried burrito) has such an amazing texture, I would love the experience of eating it even if it wasn’t quite so tasty.  But it is really damn delicious, so that makes it even better.  I’m sorry I didn’t get an interior photo, but I really tore into the thing.

I think they upcharged me a dollar because I asked for a side of Boom-Boom sauce, the spicy queso sauce.  It was great with the Chuychanga and the chips. 

I have to give Chuy’s all the credit in the world for making their own flour and corn tortillas fresh and in-house.  That really makes a huge difference for Mexican and Tex-Mex food.  We even bought a dozen flour tortillas to take home ($3.25, a real steal) because they are so damn good.  Now I’m just hoping they bring back all those much-missed menu options some day.  Orlando has no shortage of fantastic Mexican restaurants, and I always prefer to eat local, but Chuy’s never disappointed — at least not until they cut the chile relleno and so much else from their menu.

AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.

La Hacienda

La Hacienda (https://linktr.ee/lahaciendarestaurant) is a Mexican restaurant in Winter Park, on the southwest corner of Semoran Boulevard (State Road 436) and Aloma Avenue.  It has its own adjoining grocery store, similar to my old favorite near work, Tortilleria El Progreso.  I actually pass both going to and from work every day, but had only ever stopped into La Hacienda to pick up fresh tortillas and Mexican snacks.  But after so many years of always being in too much of a hurry, I recently ate at the restaurant for the first time, with my wife — one of our first post-vaccination meals out together.

My sense of blocking sucks, but here are our complimentary chips and salsa, with my large pineapple agua fresca ($2.50) nearly covering my wife’s small horchata agua fresca ($1.49).  The pineapple is one of the best aguas frescas I’ve ever had anywhere, with lots of real fruit pulp in it.  The horchata was nice and refreshing too.  Very cinnamony.  These chips desperately needed to be salted, ideally right when they came out of the fryer, as they were pretty bland.  But the salsa was terrific.  It must have been made fresh, because it was much better than most table salsas I’ve had at similar Mexican restaurants, with a roasted tomato flavor.  I would totally buy this salsa by the jar.

My wife suggested we get the Hacienda sampler platter ($7.99), but we were both a little underwhelmed by it.  You have more of the unsalted chips, covered with refried beans and molten lava-hot queso to serve as nachos in the middle, two crispy beef flautas (which she usually likes), and then a quesadilla on the right side with seasoned ground beef in a soft flour tortilla.  She wasn’t into the quesadilla at all after one bite, so I ate it.  She wasn’t really feeling the queso either, so I ate everything it touched.  It was kind of bland.  Guacamole was okay.  I would skip this sampler in the future.  The menu is huge, and there are plenty of more interesting offerings to be had here.

Whenever I’m at a new Mexican restaurant that serves traditional tacos on corn tortillas, dressed with only fresh cilantro and diced onions, with multiple meats to choose from, I like to order an assortment of those tacos to sample the different meats.  They are usually small and cheap, so I get a nice variety and a chance to gauge what the restaurant does best.  From left to right I got birria (shredded and steamed barbecue beef; a real foodie trend of the past two years), lengua (tender braised beef tongue), pescado (fried fish), al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated with pineapple juice and traditionally shaved off a spit), chorizo (crumbled spicy pork sausage), and carne asada (grilled steak). Each of these beauties was $1.79, except for the fish taco that was $3.49.  The plate came garnished with a lime wedge to squirt over each taco, soft marinated carrot slices (delicious), and crispy sliced radishes.  I ran out of steam and couldn’t eat the carne asada, but I mostly ordered that one for my wife to try, since that is usually her go-to Mexican meat.

In fact, she ordered two carne asada sopes ($2.99 each), served open-faced on thick, puffy fried corn shells that are much thicker than tortillas, that serve kind of like a shallow cup or bowl.   They were topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and crumbled cotija cheese.She always orders sopes at one of our favorite establishments, Tortas El Rey, and I think those remain the reigning champions for her.

I was so full that I was feeling ill, but my wife wanted dessert, so we ordered the helado frito, or fried ice cream ($4.99).  It was a huge portion — a big scoop of rock-hard vanilla ice cream covered in a really nice, crispy fried breading, and served in a fried flour tortilla like the kind taco salads come in.  It was drizzled with caramel sauce and served with whipped cream and sprinkles.  For some reason, she didn’t like the fried breading around the ice cream, but that was my favorite part, so that worked out well for us.  

I definitely liked our meal at La Hacienda more than my wife did, but she might have preferred it if she ordered different things.  I definitely enjoyed the birria, al pastor, chorizo, and fried fish tacos, the marinated carrots, and the salsa that came with the chips (but the chips themselves, ehhhh, not so much).  I would go back, but I think she would take a pass.  With Tortilleria El Progreso so close to work, I don’t know if I could wrangle work colleagues to grab lunch here (once we start doing that again), or even drive the extra distance to pick up takeout to eat at work.  But it would be a convenient stop to pick up takeout on my way home, now that I know what’s good and what is just so-so.  Tortas El Rey is just so far, and our other favorite, Francisco’s Taco Madness, is never open at night or on Sundays, so it could be a nice option to have solid, authentic Mexican food near home in the future.

El Santo Taqueria (Miami)

On my madcap trip to Miami in early March last year, right before the world changed forever, I spent a full day hanging out with my best friend and eating all over the city, including Cuban burgers and Cuban pizza for lunch at Polo Norte.  For dinner, we made our way down to Miami’s vibrant Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street), the center of the Cuban community, full of restaurants, bars, and vibrant nightlife.  It is so much more fun than pricey and pretentious South Beach.  While waiting for a table at our ultimate dinner destination (stay tuned, Saboscrivnerinos!), I spotted the lucha libre-themed El Santo Taqueria (http://elsantomiami.com/taqueria-home/), and begged my BFF and his lovely girlfriend to indulge me and stop in for a snack between our earlier snack and an impending huge, heavy dinner.

El Santo was maybe the most famous luchador, an iconic Mexican wrestler who was like a real-life superhero in and out of the ring.  He starred in dozens of movies, was the hero of his own long-running comic book series, and never took his silver mask off in public, staying in character for decades as a hero and champion to fans of all ages, never revealing his secret identity.  While (almost) everyone knows wrestling is staged “sports entertainment” here in the United States, lucha libre is a grand tradition in Mexico, and luchadores can become folk heroes and symbols of national pride.

As for me, when I first got into watching pro wrestling around 1998, it was the high-flying luchadores in WCW’s cruiserweight division that drew me in and made me a fan.  Those guys were awe-inspiring — smaller competitors who held their own against the big brawlers, defying gravity with insane flips and hurricanranas while wearing cool masks.  I followed WCW until it was subsumed by WWE, and then stuck around until 2005, drifting away after one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Eddie Guerrero, passed away, tragically and far too young.  Over the last year, which I spent so much of at home, the new wrestling promotion AEW got me excited to watch and follow pro wrestling again.  AEW Dynamite became my Wednesday night tradition, and it is pretty much everything I always wished WWE was, back in the day: lots of action, entertaining characters, long-running story arcs with real character development, comic relief, no huge egos, no backstage politics, and everyone doing their best work and putting each other over (making their opponents look good).

I could mark out about AEW all day, but this is neither the time nor the place!  Flashing back to March 7th, 2020, I saw that sign with El Santo’s intimidating visage leaning out over Calle Ocho in three dimensions, and I knew I had to make a pilgrimage.  Tacos beckoned!DSC03026

The walls are adorned with lucha libre-themed artwork:
DSC03024

This poster caught my eye, as a Bowie fan:
DSC03025

El Santo Taqueria also displays the masks of champions:DSC03017

And even their championship belts.  (Cue my wife, who loves to say that wrestling is all about big, burly guys brawling over an accessory, but will begrudgingly admit that AEW has grown on her.)
DSC03020

My buddy and I shared an order of two carne asada tacos ($9), with marinated steak, queso fresco, chili crema, tomatoes, and cilantro on charred corn tortillas.  DSC03021

We also split an order of two al pastor tacos ($8): slow-roasted marinated pork served with charred pineapple, caramelized onions, and tomatillo salsa on the same charred corn tortillas.DSC03022

These were not giant tacos — which is fine, because we were on our way to a colossal dinner — but they were beautiful and packed with flavor.  Perfect appetizers.

I got a Jarritos mandarin soda (made with sugar cane instead of high fructose corn syrup) to wash down my tacos.  Here’s a helpful hint to improve your life — some 7-Elevens now offer Jarritos mandarin soda in the fountain, so you can fill a Big Gulp with the stuff.  I’m trying to quit soda completely, but I always enjoyed orange sodas, and this one might be the best.DSC03023

I’m so glad I spotted El Santo Taqueria, and that my friends indulged me, even on this great day of indulgence.  It wasn’t on our dining agenda, but when I see masked wrestling iconography and Mexican food, nothing is going to keep the Saboscrivner away.  As the rockabilly band Southern Culture on the Skids sang, ¡Viva el Santo!

The Pass Progressive Cuisine

Not being an influencer, I sometimes arrive a little late to the hottest foodie trends. But for a couple of months, I’ve been salivating over photos and videos of birria tacos made with braised, shredded beef brisket or goat and served with a dipping cup of rich, glistening, orangey-red consommé. Now Orlando has a few Mexican restaurants that serve birria, and today I finally tried it at one of our newest birria boutiques: The Pass Progressive Cuisine (https://www.thepassprogressive.com/), located in a nondescript industrial warehouse plaza in Altamonte Springs. It’s a little off the beaten path, but the best places often are. And you don’t want to pass on The Pass Progressive, trust me.

My wife wasn’t as psyched for birria as I was, but at all of our favorite taquerias and Mexican restaurants like Tortas El Rey and Francisco’s Taco Madness, she always requests carne asada tacos, so that’s what she wanted to try here. You get an order of three for $11.95. I took one little bite and loved what I tasted, but more importantly, so did she. The steak was tender and picked up nice flavor from being grilled, and I think I detected some lime juice in there.

You can see they are absolutely stunning, topped with a snow flurry of Oaxaca cheese, fresh cilantro, and julienned radishes on soft corn tortillas. The carne asada tacos come with guajillo chile salsa, but my wife isn’t big on salsas, sauces, or anything too spicy, so I ordered it on the side for her (so I could have it).

But here it is, the star of the show: birria tacos! These also come in an order of three for $11.95. They were also topped with cilantro, radish, onion (I asked them to hold the onion for my wife’s tacos), and a dusting of Oaxaca cheese, plus there’s that rich, flavorful consommé.

The meat was so flavorful and tender from being braised and shredded, it didn’t even need the consommé, but you can bet I dipped anyway. Things got a little drippy and greasy from there, but we were at home, so all was well.

Close-up of these beautiful birria tacos:

They must season and grill these corn tortillas, because they are some of the best corn tortillas I’ve ever had. They held up to a lot of heavy ingredients and hungry handling, and really helped make the tacos into something special.

Since this was my first visit, I couldn’t resist ordering something else for later, so I went with something completely different: the Jaeyook Korean pork burrito ($11.20), with white rice, black beans, cheese, sour crema, avocado, kimchi cabbage, perilla leaf (a plant in the mint family, related to Japanese shiso), and spicy gochujang sauce wrapped up in a huge flour tortilla. I often like burritos even more than tacos, but I wanted to try birria in its traditional taco form and get something else as a burrito.

This one was a little spicier from the gochujang sauce, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Like all the other food from The Pass, it was gorgeous, with such an eye-catching blend of colors and textures, in addition to all the flavors at play. All their burritos come with excellent fresh, crispy, salty tortilla chips that we shared, and a different salsa that was all mine.

Sauce gallery!

Here you see pickled red onions that came with something, garlic aioli that had a thinner, more crema-like consistency than I expected (50 cents), the most delicious pineapple chutney that was so sweet it could have gone on an ice cream sundae (50 cents), the guajillo chile salsa that would have come on my wife’s carne asada tacos that she asked for on the side, the salsa that came with the burrito and chips, and some tomatillo salsa. Of all of these, the pineapple chutney was the big winner for both of us, and I also loved the smoky guajillo chile salsa. I’d buy both of those by the jar or bottle.

As you might guess, The Pass Progressive Cuisine was a big hit, and I know we’re not the only people falling in love with their food. I expect the legend will only grow, so you (possibly) heard it here first, on The Saboscrivner! I can’t wait to return and try their Caribbean wings, their ancho-braised beef or chicken empanadas, their lobster tacos (with lobster consommé!), but I know I won’t be able to resist the birria, so I’ll just keep ordering multiple things. And in case you ever tire of tacos or burritos (the horror!), you can also get almost everything as enchiladas or quesadillas too.

Just remember that The Pass Progressive Cuisine doesn’t have seating, so it’s a takeout-only place — but that’s perfect during a pandemic anyway. And they are open Tuesday through Friday, 12 – 8 PM, and Saturdays 12 – 5 PM.

Francisco’s Taco Madness

I think we can all agree that 2020 is one of the worst years ever, but on a personal level, I had a pretty rotten 2017 too.  That summer, I was hospitalized with the worst pain of my life that turned out to be kidney stones (thanks for nothing, keto diet!).  Then two weeks later I got what was probably the second-worst pain of my life, which turned out to be pneumonia, which I almost certainly caught in the hospital the first time.  I missed two weeks of work recovering, and it all really shook me up and made me realize I’m getting old, and things are going to keep breaking.  (And back then, even after that one-two punch, I didn’t know the half of it!)

Toward the end of those two weeks, I was out running errands, feeling sorry for myself, and also feeling hungry.  What else is new, am I right?  Driving down State Road 17-92, I passed the Lowe’s home improvement store and saw a familiar white trailer with a red and white striped awning, a sight I had seen countless times over the years.  But this day, I was curious enough to stop, and I had all the time in the world to linger.  It smelled so good, and as I perused the handwritten menu, I knew I had chosen wisely.  The Mexican food was some of the best I’d ever tasted, and it was incredibly cheap and so satisfying.  It helped lift me out of a deep existential depression, and made me feel physically better, too.  This was a real treasure, and I felt like I had discovered it, despite them always being busy and having long lines.
DSC03179

I would later learn that taco trailer was called Francisco’s Taco Madness (https://www.facebook.com/Franciscos-Taco-Madness-Pinedo-rental-173063512788695/), and it became one of my favorite sights to see in Casselberry, whenever I drove by the Fern Park Lowe’s on State Road 17-92, just south of Semoran Boulevard.  You have to follow their Facebook page to know when they’re going to be serving, but it’s usually between Wednesday and Saturday, afternoons only, usually just between 1 PM and 6 PM.  I’ve been back many times over the last few years, but Saturdays are typically my only opportunity to visit.  And since the lines really do get long, my recommendation is to be there close to the beginning, when they’re still putting up that striped awning.

Most recently, after a few weeks of being shut down, Francisco’s Taco Madness announced their triumphant return starting this past Tuesday, June 30th.  They wouldn’t be at Lowe’s anymore, but at a new location literally two minutes away:

Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People
704 Prairie Lake Dr.
Fern Park, FL 32730

They are also asking diners to text their pickup orders to 407.865.4697, to cut down on crowds and help with social distancing.  NOW’S YOUR CHANCE, PEOPLE!

Here is the menu:
DSC03175

I ordered my wife her favorite: two carne asada tacos, with cilantro, guacamole, and a splash of hot sauce, hold the onions ($2 each):
DSC03180

I got myself one chorizo taco with all of that, plus onions ($2):
DSC03181

Here are some lovely tacos from an earlier visit:
francisco's

And I got my favorite burrito in all of Orlando, Francisco’s al pastor burrito ($8).  It is huge and perfect in every way, the archetypal burrito of your dreams and mine:
DSC03182

It is so good that I included it in my list of Top Five Dishes of 2017, published in the Orlando Weekly‘s end of the year issue.

Here’s a cross-section so you can see the deliciousness wrapped inside that grilled 12″ flour tortilla: the perfectly marinated and slightly sweet al pastor pork, rice, beans, cheese, onions, peppers, guacamole, and a piquant sauce.  It’s truly unparalleled.
DSC03183

This time I treated myself to a fresh-squeezed lemonade (something I have a hard time turning down), and I got the large for $4, which just comes in a styrofoam cup.  It was really refreshing, especially after waiting outside in the early summer heat for my order to come up — probably the longest sustained period I’ve been outdoors since the quarantine started in March.  They also offer regular canned sodas and bottled Jarritos Mexican sodas, made with cane sugar, which I love and recommend.
DSC03177

You can see that Francisco’s Taco Madness also offers quesadillas (which my wife loves), hamburgers, hot dogs, a kielbasa sausage sandwich, a barbecue pulled pork sandwich, a Philly cheesesteak, and even chicken salad.  I’ve been tempted in the past by the kielbasa, which I’m imagining comes on a nice, lightly-griddled roll and covered with onions and peppers, but I always return to that al pastor burrito and one or more tacos.

Orlando is lucky to have so many outstanding Mexican options, especially for tacos.  I’ve already reviewed my other favorites, which I think are synonymous with the best in town (Tortas El Rey, Hunger Street Tacos, MX Taco), but no list of my favorites or the best would be complete without Francisco’s Taco Madness.  If you’re also driving through Fern Park and see that red and white striped awning over their white decorated trailer, stop whatever you’re doing, pull into Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People, and text your order to 407.865.4697.  You will be so happy you did, and you’ll wonder what took you so long.

Tako Cheena

My wife and I have always been huge fans of Tako Cheena (http://mytakocheena.com/), the creative and bohemian Asian-Latin fusion restaurant on Mills Avenue, north of Colonial, in one of Orlando’s finest foodie neighborhoods, Mills 50.  It used to be in a tiny space in a little strip plaza on Mills, with very few parking spaces in front, to the point where we’d often have to circle the block six or ten or twenty times, or more realistically, time our visits for when the place was just opening up.  There was a somewhat steep step up that limited the accessibility for my walker-wielding wife, and a tiny, cramped dining room that further limited her mobility inside once I helped hoist her up.  The food was always delicious, but it wasn’t the most comfortable surroundings, despite the hip, colorful, artsy decor.
DSC03091

Well, I was recently craving Tako Cheena after a rough week, and to my great joy, they recently moved into a larger building mere steps from their old location.  And it has an actual parking lot, plus a spacious outdoor patio.  I was just picking up takeout from an outside-facing window, so I didn’t linger or even peek inside to look at indoor seating.  However, the new location already looks so much more comfortable and accessible, and that is like a dream come true for us.
DSC03093

The covered patio overlooks Mills Avenue, and you can see it is steps away from the original location:
DSC03095

Since the menu on the website doesn’t have most of their newer menu additions of the last few years, or any prices, this was the best shot I could get of the posted menu.  A past favorite, Mary’s Greek Lil Lamb (a gyro in taco form) has never been on their old menu on the website, so I didn’t even think to order one this time, but I was glad to see it has been added to the new menu.  The pernil asado, slow-roasted, marinated pork, is pretty darn great too, but I didn’t order that either on my most recent visit.
DSC03096

Since I haven’t even been here since I started this blog two years ago, I ordered a bunch of our old favorites.  I got us each a panko-crusted cod “tako” ($4.50), with spicy mayo, shredded cabbage, and scallions on a soft flour tortilla.  This was the first time they asked me if I wanted flour or corn tortillas, but they could have started giving customers that choice at any point in the last two or three years.  These are my favorite fish tacos in Orlando, and I was sad to learn they were out of the usual sweet and sour onion sauce that goes on them, but they were still delicious.  My wife, who always used to love these, thought hers was too spicy, so I ended up eating most of hers too.  I love spicy mayo on anything, so they were perfect for me, as usual.
DSC03097

Miami kid that I am, I have a hard time turning down empanadas, those crispy-fried half moon-shaped pastries stuffed with a variety of savory or sometimes sweet fillings, sealed with a crimped edge.  Different cultures make different empanadas, but I always prefer a deep-fried, crispy flour pastry shell, and those are the ones they make here.  Tako Cheena always offers different beef, chicken, and vegan empanadas of the day ($3.25 each), always rotating creative fusion ingredients in each one.  I asked what the beef empanada of the day was, and this one had seasoned ground beef like picadillo with mashed potatoes and sweet plantains.  Yes please!  I could have easily eaten two of more of those crispy fried pastries, especially since sweet plantains are a top ten favorite food for me, but I stuck to one.
DSC03098

The empanadas come with a very small plastic dipping cup of salsa.  When I placed my phone order, the guy asked if I wanted sweet or spicy.  I asked if I could try both, and he said yes.  Well, my bill had a “GG” next to the empanada at no charge, and an “HJ” that I was charged 50 cents for, so that’s how I learned additional salsas come at a cost.  I don’t mind, because I always love trying new salsas.  I could be wrong, but looking at Tako Cheena’s website and the menu above, I’m guessing the “GG” refers to ginger guava salsa, and the “HJ” is probably habanero jackfruit salsa, even though they list it as “jackfruit habanero.”

The website advertises “BURRITOS THE SIZE OF BABY’S [sic] ARMS,” and they aren’t exaggerating.  I ordered the Korean burrito ($10.75), stuffed to almost bursting with sweet and savory marinated beef bulgogi, kimchi fried rice with mixed vegetables, crema, sriracha, ginger scallion oil, and cilantro.  It was a really interesting blend of flavors and textures wrapped in that huge, straining flour tortilla, which is one reason I prefer burritos to tacos.  (GASP!)  It’s so huge, I saved half for the next day, and even the half is a generous portion.  That isn’t something I normally order at Tako Cheena, but I wanted to present more of a variety of options for my baker’s dozens of readers.

Look at how much room it takes up on our now-familiar green plates!
DSC03101

Here’s a shot with burrito and empanada interiors:
DSC03102

Another one of our long-time favorites isn’t listed on the menu on the website, but Tako Cheena has incredible arepas, sweet corn patties stuffed with a variety of ingredients.  Our favorite is the four-cheese arepa ($7.50) with a big fried cheese patty, topped with pickled shredded carrots and other vegetables (maybe jicama or daikon radish?  Although it looks similar to Filipino atchara, or pickled papaya salad), and spicy mayo.
DSC03099

Picking a favorite item on the whole menu feels like being forced to pick a favorite child, for those who have more than one child, but this arepa might be it:DSC03100

Cross-section.  I should note that the cheese is lightly fried on its exterior, but not battered or breaded like my beloved mozzarella sticks.  It’s more like halloumi cheese that way, with a similar texture.DSC03104

One thing you probably noticed by now, that I definitely appreciated, was how they packed all our takeout food either wrapped in foil wrappers or placed in cardboard boxes.  It was nice to see some eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam.

Even though some restaurants are reopening for dining in, my wife and I are in no hurry to start doing that again anytime soon.  But now that Tako Cheena has a parking lot of its own and that convenient walk-up window, I’ll probably order more takeout from them in the weeks and months to come.  I’m glad an old favorite is more accessible than ever before, and as good as ever.

Tortas El Rey

In Orlando, we are so lucky to have amazing Mexican food in so many different styles and price ranges.  I have reviewed some of our best establishments already, like the beloved Hunger Street Tacos and MX Taco, as well as hidden gems like Tortilleria El Progreso.  But with all due respect to those wonderful restaurants, my all-time favorite might be Tortas El Rey (http://www.tortas-el-rey.com/), an unassuming drive-through establishment on Orange Blossom Trail north of the Florida Mall near Lancaster Road, almost an hour from where I live.  Maybe it’s because I’m so rarely on that side of Orlando that it’s a rare treat, but I dream about it often and recommend it even more often.

Housed in a former Checkers location, the small white and red building has a few outdoor picnic-style tables with large umbrellas providing a bit of shade, but other than that, it’s strictly a to-go operation.  Sometimes the drive-through line can get quite long, but they make all their food fresh to order, so your patience will pay off.  On top of being fresh, authentic, and amazing, it’s CHEAP.  I don’t know how they do it, but I encourage you to venture out there, arrive hungry, and over-order.  Try everything you can.  You’re not gonna regret it!

My wife is a big fan of the sopes, thick fried shells covered with the meat of her choice, crumbled queso blanco, sour cream, and shredded lettuce.  I almost never see sopes on menus elsewhere.  And she’s really partial to the carne asada, marinated, chopped, grilled steak with a distinct lime flavor from the marinade.

Here is a carne asada sope ($3.95) I brought her home this past weekend:DSC02597

A different sope from a different visit:DSC02486

Did I mention she loves carne asada?  Here’s the carne asada quesadilla ($6.25) in a soft, lightly grilled flour tortilla, served with sour cream and shredded lettuce.  It’s quite large, with big wedges camouflaged underneath the ones you can easily see here.DSC02596

The tacos are very small, but super-cheap, at $1.80 each.  On your first visit, you might decide to try each of the meats in a different taco, and then you can branch out to other dishes once you figure out your favorite meat.  They come wrapped in two soft, lightly-grilled corn tortillas and garnished simply with diced cilantro, diced onions, and a spicy red hot sauce.

This is a carne asada taco (slightly higher at $1.89, unless that was a typo in the printed menu), hold the onions and hot sauce (for my wife, of course):DSC02489

I almost always drive through and get my food to go, but this past weekend, I lingered at one of the tables just to get this shot of taco nirvana to share with my Saboscrivner Squad.  I ordered three tacos ($1.80 each) with the works (cilantro, onions, and hot sauce): chorizo (crumbled Mexican sausage) at the top, cabeza (tender, braised beef head) on the left, and al pastor (pork marinated in pineapple juice with a slight sweet taste) on the right.  These tacos are everything tacos should aspire to be.  If these sound a little intimidating, fear not, because they also offer grilled chicken, carnitas (fried pork), and that old faithful, carne asada.DSC02595

I’ll almost always order al pastor when I see it on a menu, and I’ve tried it several ways at Tortas El Rey.  This was an al pastor burrito I ordered on a previous visit.  The burritos ($6.99 each) are huge — soft flour tortillas stuffed with the meat of your choice, seasoned rice, refried beans, and cheese, then lightly cooked on the griddle.  By the time you unwrap them from their foil wrapper, they are soft, chewy, gooey, melty pillows of deliciousness.  It’s almost too big and heavy to eat in one piece, especially since it will start to sag as you get deeper into it.  DSC02488

And this is a beautiful torta al pastor from my most recent visit, which I brought home after enjoying those three tacos al fresco.  Tortas ($7.25 each) are Mexican sandwiches served on bolillo rolls, and at Tortas El Rey, they come with refried beans, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced pickled jalapenos, avocado, and sour cream.  DSC02598DSC02600

I always love tortas, and I’ve tried several of them here.  They even serve a Milanesa torta with steak pounded flat, breaded in cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy.  I associate Milanesas more with Cuban food than Mexican (as in my Rey’s Cuban Cafe review), but I always love a good crossover — or fusion, since we’re talking about food and not comic books!

All orders should come with tiny plastic cups of house-made red and green hot sauces (I prefer red, but do try both), and little plastic baggies tied up with some pickled carrots, grilled onions, and lime wedges inside.  I rarely use the limes, but I’m always happy to add the onions and carrots to my torta.  Make sure you ask for these, so they don’t forget to give them to you!

I didn’t photograph the large styrofoam cup of a pineapple-flavored agua fresca I gulped down in the unseasonable October heat and humidity, but trust me, grab an agua fresca when you come here.  (A medium is $2.65, but be a big shot and pay $3.50 for the large; you will happily drink it all.)  They are some of my favorite soft drinks ever, non-carbonated and often made with real fruit and other fresh ingredients.  They are cool and refreshing and sweet, but never as sickly-sweet as sodas made with high fructose corn syrup.  They also offer a tangy limonada (limeade), horchata (sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting through the heat of spicy food), and jamaica, a fruity, tropical-tasting red drink made from hibiscus flowers.  Especially because I don’t drink, I always treat myself to an agua fresca when I visit a Mexican restaurant that offers them, and they pair perfectly with any dish I’ve ever encountered.  I’m also a sucker for anything pineappley.

I am smiling just thinking back to how amazing this food tasted and smelled, and I’m smelling it now as I write up this review at 1 AM on a work night.  It’s funny how closely our sense of smell is tied to memory.  Tortas El Rey is definitely one of my favorite places to eat in all of Orlando.  If it was closer, I’d go far more often, but maybe it’s a good thing it’s all the way across town.  It makes my infrequent visits that much more special, especially since I have to plan my errands to make it the last stop before heading back home.  If you’re looking for fancy, upscale, indoor seating, air conditioning — keep driving.  But if you want authentic Mexican food, cooked from scratch, made with love, full of flavor, and so very cheap, it’s worth venturing out of your proverbial and physical comfort zone onto OBT and looking for the tiny white and red building.  Tell the nice ladies behind the heavily fortified window that I sent you… and they’ll have no idea who or what you’re talking about.  But if you like tacos (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), you really need to experience the humble majesty of Tortas El Rey for yourself.

Bem Bom on Corrine

Bem Bom on Corrine (https://bembomfood.com) is a cute and cool restaurant in Orlando’s hip, foodie-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood that specializes in Mexican and Portuguese cuisines (but separate, not a funky fusion of the two).  Conceptualized by Chef Francisco “Chico” Mendonça, Bem Bom (Portuguese for “Good Good”) started out as a food truck before opening its brick and mortar location in 2018.  My first visit was way back in June, but since I was alone and in a hurry that night, I only ordered one dish and a drink.  DSC02215

They have a nice outdoor patio facing Corrine Drive, with some singular shops and other restaurants directly across the street.DSC02216

This drink was listed on the menu as Portuguese Sumol Passion Fruit ($2.75), and I love passion fruit-flavored anything.  I was relieved to find out it was non-alcoholic, so I treated myself.  The lightly-carbonated beverage tasted good and surprisingly natural and juicy, despite having the weird, dry aftertaste that Sucralose-sweetened drinks often have.  I probably wouldn’t order it again, but I’m glad I tried it once.DSC02211

These were my three tacos al pastor ($13), a dinner special with marinated pork in adobo sauce, pineapple, and a sauce made with arbol chiles and tomatillos, double-wrapped in soft, fresh corn tortillas.  I have a hard time turning down tacos al pastor whenever I find them on a Mexican menu, and these were excellent, garnished simply with finely-chopped cilantro, diced onion, and a lime wedge.  DSC02212DSC02213

I finally went back with two work colleagues today, so I could try more things.  We started out with excellent crispy tortilla chips, served with extremely fresh-tasting guacamole (some of the better guac I’ve had, for $9) and salsa that was actually spicy.
DSC02534

DSC02535

I’ve been hearing great things about the pasteis de bacalhau, or cod fritters ($9.95), for a long time now, so I had to try them.  They came with a small arugula salad tossed in a light lemony dressing, and creamy, cooling jalapeño ranch for dipping (which wasn’t spicy at all).DSC02536

These were extremely hot (temperature-wise, not spice-wise), but they had a very light, crispy exterior and weren’t overly greasy.  The flaky cod on the inside wasn’t as strongly seasoned as I was hoping for (I was craving something spicy, like the devil crabs of Tampa), but at least it was pleasantly mild and not overly fishy.  They really didn’t need the jalapeño ranch, which is fine, because I used it elsewhere.DSC02537

One of my colleagues ordered frango de churrasco, half a bone-in chicken marinated in tangy piri-piri marinade and grilled ($13.95).  It was served with a beautiful small salad and hearty fries, which I ended up eating most of, dipping them in the jalapeño ranch.  I can’t let a good sauce, condiment, or dip go to waste.  Awww, dip!
DSC02541

I don’t think he ate the croutons, but they looked house-made, and I probably should have asked for them.  DSC02542

My other colleague ordered the smoked chicken enchiladas ($13.95), which came with white rice and black beans.  The two enchiladas included apples and onions wrapped up with the smoked shredded chicken in corn tortillas, topped with red and green chile sauces.  I tried the tiniest morsel, and it was really good.  I would definitely order these enchiladas for myself in the future.  DSC02538

She wasn’t feeling the beans, so with complete disregard for my co-workers’ welfare later in the afternoon, I had to sample them.  They were pretty basic black beans.  DSC02540

And last, but far from least, I ordered the pork prego sandwich ($11.95): six-hour braised pork, onions, peppers, pico de gallo, radish, cilantro, and serrano sauce served on a crusty Portuguese roll.  It was an incredible sandwich.  Lots of good flavors and textures, saucy, and pleasantly spicy.  I’ve written before how much I hate overly-hard rolls that shatter when you bite into them, spewing crumbs and cutting up the inside of your mouth, but this roll wasn’t like that at all.  The delicious, spicy juices from the pork softened up the inside.  It was a juicy sandwich in the best possible way.  10/10, would order again.
dsc02539.jpg

Some of Bem Bom’s other delicacies include highly-recommended queso dip to go with the chips, rock shrimp tacos, mango-“painted” fish tacos, duck meatballs, a lamb burger, and a pan-seared filet mignon topped with prosciutto, a fried egg, and a beer-based sauce.  I’ve heard about other limited-time specials, including an intriguing octopus dish that wasn’t on the menu at lunch today.  And they even serve brunch on Sundays!

As you can hopefully see by now, Bem Bom has a creative and eclectic menu in fun, funky surroundings.  I would totally go back, especially because it’s only ten minutes from where we work.  Plus, you have Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream, one of my Top Two local ice cream shops, right across the street, and our first local food hall, the East End Market, moments away.  That immediate stretch of Corrine Drive also hosts some of  Orlando’s coolest establishments like Park Avenue CDs (my favorite local music store, even if I feel woefully uncool whenever I shop there), Stardust Video and Coffee*, which hosts the Audubon Park Community Market on Monday nights, and Big Daddy’s (a karaoke bar I can never get anyone to accompany me to).

* Who else used to rent videos from Stardust back in the day?  When I first moved to Orlando, the place blew my mind.  It was the first video store I had ever been to that specialized in independent, cult, and art films, and it organized them by director and/or country of origin for foreign films.  Totally warmed this nerdy librarian’s heart.