Jr Tropical Ice Cream

I think by now, we have established that I’m the “food guy” at work.  I’ve never been a fan of the word “foodie,” or anything else that sounds like baby talk, but I’ve embraced my role as the food guy, quick to make restaurant recommendations, show up with delicious snacks to share, or try to wrangle people to go out to lunch somewhere new and different.

My colleagues don’t always take my advice, especially when it comes to picking a place to go out to lunch, but today they did.  I drove three of them to a great, relatively new restaurant that none of us had been to before, but I had been reading good things about, that I had been wanting to try for a while.  That review is coming soon, but when we were almost back to work, someone mentioned ice cream, I mentioned I had heard about a new ice cream place that sounded good, and then they all demanded I keep driving and take them there next.

So we ended up at Jr Tropical Ice Cream (https://www.facebook.com/JrTropicalicecream), a small establishment on Goldenrod Road, in a little shopping plaza just south of East Colonial Drive.  I had driven by this place a couple of times, but never had a chance to stop and explore.  I saw in the window that Jr Tropical serves a bunch of unique flavors of ice cream, including several tropical fruits (my favorite, Miami boy that I am) and some Puerto Rican and other Latin flavors.  I was so excited my co-workers were on board, trusting me even though I hadn’t even been here yet myself.

Jr Tropical Ice Cream instantly reminded me of my favorite ice cream parlor I’ve ever been to, Azucar Ice Cream Company in Miami, which offers a lot of unique flavors based on tropical fruits and Cuban desserts.  I hope to make it back to Azucar some day to write a proper review, but in the meantime, I am thrilled that we have Jr Tropical Ice Cream here in Orlando.

Well, everyone loved it, I’m pleased to report.  It’s a delightful little place with a huge variety of ice cream flavors, all made in-house.  The young man and woman who worked there were extremely friendly and welcoming, and you could tell they took a lot of pride in their ice cream.  Not only do they have so many interesting flavors, but the prices are definitely right.

Everyone except me ordered a small, for a very reasonable $2.99.  You can try up to two different flavors in a small.  Me being me, I asked how many flavors you could try in a medium for $4.50, expecting three, but you can get *four*.  They had me at four! 

You can also upgrade to a small waffle cone for $3.75, a large waffle cone for $4.90, a waffle bowl for $5.60, or get a banana split for $5.57.  What isn’t listed on these TV menus is that you can also get ice cream in half of a fresh coconut, which they cut in half right then and there.   I don’t even know why I didn’t get my ice cream in half of a coconut.  Even though we all knew we had to go back to work, I would have totally felt like I was on vacation.  Next time!

So the next four slides are my less-than-perfect photos of all the flavors of the day.  I’ll type them out to make it easier:
Tamarindo/tamarind
Acerola/West Indian cherry
Parcha/passion fruit
Guayaba/guava
Almendra/almond
Mango piña/mango pineapple

Piña/pineapple
Guanabana/soursop
Arroz con dulces/rice pudding
Guava piña/guava pineapple
Maiz/corn
Piña colada/pineapple coconut

Fresa/strawberry
Vainilla/vanilla
Birthday cake
Panky (we asked about this one, and Panky is a popular Puerto Rican wafer cookie, so this is chocolate ice cream with crumbled chocolate Panky wafers mixed into it)
Chocolate
Anis/anise (the flavor of black licorice)

Coco/coconut
Ron con pasas/rum raisin
Tres leches (literally “three milks,” a traditional Latin American dessert that is one of the richest, creamiest, most decadent and delicious desserts ever, made from a sponge cake swimming in a combination of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream)
Nutella
Cookies and cream
Chocolate chip

And here are all the toppings and syrups that are available.  None of us opted to get any toppings or syrups on our maiden voyage, but when I return, I may add some sweetened condensed milk to whichever ice cream flavors I choose.  It’s so good, a lot of the time I’d rather just spoon or pour some condensed milk out of a can than eat a conventional dessert like cookies, cake, or a lesser ice cream.

But these were not lesser ice creams, constant readers!  They all had a thick, rich texture with a nice “mouth feel” — no gritty iciness from freezer burn, no weird mouth-coating fattiness like you notice from some cheaper, low-quality ice creams.  We lingered to enjoy them inside the shop because it was so hot outside, and I appreciated nobody asking if we could eat them in my car on the short drive back to work.  That’s how you get ants!

One colleague sampled the West Indian cherry and thought it was a little sour.  He ended up getting a small with the parcha (passion fruit) and the rum raisin, and he raved about how terrific the rum raisin was.  That’s an underrated ice cream flavor, if you ask me.  Rum Raisin isn’t flashy or sexy, it doesn’t have half of a candy store mixed into it, kids would probably think it is gross, but it’s kind of sophisticated and adult, and you could pretend you were on vacation trying it, or at least pretend your workday was already over.

And what about my four flavors?  I started with the passion fruit myself, then asked for guava, then mango piña, and topped it all off with the corn flavor.  I’ve had a sweet corn ice cream before at Wondermade in Sanford (another fantastic local ice cream shop), so I wanted to try this one.  It tastes a lot like sweet corn, but it was a uniform consistency with no kernels or anything.  It was good, but the fruit flavors were the real draw.  I loved them all, but I am obsessed with pineapple, mango, guava, and passion fruit and anything with those flavors.  I was an easy mark, but they didn’t disappoint at all.

Another colleague got the tres leches and let me sample a taste of it.  It was so good, I preferred it to my top layer of maiz ice cream.  It definitely had cinnamon in it, so it reminded me almost more of horchata, that sweet Mexican rice milk flavored with cinnamon, than tres leches.  But unlike most of the other ice creams that were a uniform consistency without chunks, this one had the texture of little pieces of chewy cake.  It was great.

When I return to Jr Tropical Ice Cream, I will try some new flavors.  Even growing up in Miami and developing a taste for tropical fruits, I don’t think I’ve ever had guanabana, the fruit also known as soursop, despite being a popular juice and milkshake flavor at Cuban restaurants.  Next time I’ll try that, and also the straight-up pineapple and coconut flavors… and also the rum raisin my co-worker raved about so much.

This is a great little place that everyone should stop into and support.  And if the location on Goldenrod, just south of Colonial, isn’t convenient, there is a second location of Jr Tropical Ice Cream down in Kissimmee.  It might be September now, but we all know it’s going to be hot and humid up until Thanksgiving here in Orlando.  I hate the heat and humidity, but say what you will about it, it remains perfect weather to cool down and treat yourself with some ice cream.

If you feel like ice cream is too much of an indulgence and too “dangerous” or “naughty” to keep around, then don’t buy it at the supermarket to fill your freezer — just go out and treat yourself here once in a while!  A trip out to an ice cream parlor, especially a locally owned one like Jr Tropical Ice Cream with so many unique flavors, will make it seem so much more special than going through a pint (or a gallon) of mass-produced, corporate ice cream without even thinking about it, while binge-watching your favorite shows at night.

And when you go, remember to ask for your ice cream in the coconut, for the truest tropical experience.  Learn from my mistake, a mistake I will not be making a second time!

Mofongo (Miami)

I always remember March 7th, 2020, a date that shall live in infamy.  I took my first trip down to Miami in over two years to attend an old friend’s funeral, visited my family for the first time in far too long, and got to hang out with my best friend on an epic foodie adventure day.  As you might remember (because it was a year ago today, but also feels like a decade ago, and possibly also last week), this was right before so much of the country started quarantining before the COVID-19 pandemic, so March 7th was the last day I ate any meals in a restaurant.  But I went out in style, because we ate at FIVE restaurants that day.  I have already shared my reviews of Polo Norte and El Santo Taqueria from that same legendary day, along with my review of the Fort Lauderdale Skyline Chili from earlier in the same trip.  But my last Miami visit and my last hurrah going out to dinner with friends culminated at Mofongo (https://www.mofongoscalle8.com/), a popular Puerto Rican restaurant on Miami’s festive, fun, and iconic Calle Ocho, the center of the expatriate Cuban and Cuban-American community.

This evening was the first time I had met my best friend’s girlfriend, who is just the coolest person, and a damn delight.  I was so happy to be out with both of them, at last.  She started out with some nice sangria:
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We shared alcapurrias de carne ($9.50).  These are crispy, crunchy fritters made out of either mashed green plantains, grated yuca, or both, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, and deep-fried.  They were really heavy, but good.  This was my first alcapurria experience!DSC03029

This was the star of the show: mofongo de carne frita ($16).  Mofongo, the restaurant’s namesake dish, is a concoction of green plantains, which are sliced, then fried, then mashed up with garlic, salt, and crunchy chicharrones (pork rinds) in a wooden mortar.  Here at Mofongo (the restaurant), they serve mofongo (the dish) in tall wooden mortars that make attention-grabbing centerpieces for every table.  The mofongo itself is sculpted into a dome, its apex artfully adorned with awe-inspiring alimentary accoutrements.  This was A LOT of food for the three of us to share, especially since my friend and I had been eating literally all day.  Somehow our trio made it work. DSC03030

A close-up of the top of Mount Mofongo, with thick chunks of rich, salty carne frita (fried pork shoulder), translucent pink marinated onions, and colorful herbs over the golden dome.   DSC03032

Finally, the arroz mamposteao ($4.50) ended up being my favorite thing we had at Mofongo!  This side order of buttery yellow rice, stewed red beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bell peppers was one of my favorite rice dishes I’ve ever had.
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Almost a full year after this legendary night out in Miami, I finally found a restaurant that serves arroz mamoposteao in Orlando: Cafe Madrid, which I reviewed right here, almost two years ago.  It was good there too, so now I have a local hook-up.

This meal was the culmination of one of my favorite days ever — definitely my favorite day of the last 365, right before the way we had to live our lives changed forever, to protect ourselves and the people around us.  That’s why I’ll always remember the date of March 7th, along with the festive surroundings, the beautiful live music (my best friend’s girl knew all the Puerto Rican songs and explained them to us), the good food, and the wonderful company.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do something like this again safely, sooner rather than later, and we can remind our friends how much we love them and missed them over another delicious meal (or five).

Valisa Bakery

I pass Valisa Bakery (https://www.valisabakery.net/) every day on my way to and from work. It’s a Puerto Rican bakery that serves breakfast, lunch, and plenty of pastries and other snacks and sweets, and it’s another one of Orlando’s little treasures. This week, my co-worker had heard about a pulpo (octopus) sandwich they serve, so it sounded like a perfect opportunity to return, bring back takeout lunch for both of us, and finally review a place I’ve always enjoyed on my past visits.

This was her pulpo sandwich ($11.95), with chunks of tender octopus  marinated in a citrus vinaigrette, with lettuce and tomato on fresh pressed bread.  She wasn’t expecting it to be served chilled like ceviche, but it looked and sounded really refreshing, like a great summer sandwich.  

I decided to finally try a tripleta ($8.50), the Puerto Rican sandwich that is great late-night drunk food and just as good in the middle of a workday when you don’t even drink.  Tripletas can have infinite variations, as long as there are three meats on it.  This one had thin-sliced, sauteed steak, roast pork, and sliced ham, served on a soft, fluffy, fresh roll with lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce (awesome), and creamy mayo-ketchup — an awesome combination.  It was so big and heavy, I only ate half at work and finished it at home that night.  

Tripleta close-up:

I was intrigued by the daily lunch specials, especially a Thursday special called canoas.  I had to look it up, but canoas are sweet fried whole plantains, cut down the middle, stuffed with seasoned ground beef like picadillo, topped with a white cheese, and baked until it melts, so they look like little canoes.  With that in mind, I was ready to take a canoe trip.  I ordered two canoas ($3.50 each), not knowing how big they would be, but they were huge.  My co-worker and I each had one, and I loved them.  They reminded me of pastelon, my favorite Puerto Rican dish that I’ve had, which is kind of like a lasagna but with layers of sweet plantains instead of pasta sheets.  Canoas were like single servings of pastelon.

Any good Latin restaurant should have great rice that is better than the rice I can make at home, and Valisa Bakery was no exception.  I tried their yellow rice, which looked and tasted more like fried rice, rich from being cooked with pieces of pork, including rich, fatty chicharron.  I have a hard time going anywhere and not trying macaroni salad or pasta salad, so I tried an eight-ounce container of ensalada de coditos ($2) and was glad I did.  It was a creamy macaroni salad (but not runny at all), and the elbow noodles were very al dente.  Of course I shared this too!

Finally, I already knew that Valisa Bakery baked some really good quesitos -sweet, flaky pastries stuffed with cream cheese that are like the beautiful love child of a glazed croissant and a cheese danish.  I have an unimpeachable favorite destination for quesitos in Orlando, but Valisa is my second-favorite, and these quesitos ($2 each) were not disappointing.

So as you can tell, Valisa Bakery is more than just a bakery.  It’s a great bakery, but it’s also a breakfast joint, a cafeteria with rotating daily hot lunch specials, a deli with a scintillating selection of sandwiches, and a Puerto Rican restaurant where you can get tostones, mofongo, and more.  And did I mention it’s a great bakery too?  I have enjoyed it for years, so I’m a little ashamed it took me this long to return and write a long-overdue review.

Lechonera El Barrio

Maybe the best lunch value to be found in the Orlando area is at Lechonera El Barrio (https://www.facebook.com/Lechonera-El-Barrio-Restaurant-1519366968315699/), a small, modest cafeteria on Semoran Boulevard, located at 435 North Semoran, on the east side, between East Colonial Drive and State Road 408.  They serve huge, hearty, heaping helpings of heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban food at extremely low prices — perfect to pop into for a quick lunch to go, that can usually be turned into two or even three meals.  There are a few tables there, but I’ve never lingered.  It’s so close to work, I’m usually in and out, often picking up additional food for other co-workers to turn them into enduring fans of the place.  Even President Obama ate there, during a visit to Orlando for his 2012 campaign, and there is a photo on the wall to prove it, alongside several other (much) lower-profile celebrity guests.

Whether you’re eating in or taking out, food is served in styrofoam to-go boxes, with a medium costing $5 or a large costing $8.  I usually spring for the large, just because the leftovers heat up well, and I know my leftovers will never go to waste.  I never understand people who let their leftovers rot in our tiny break room fridge at work, or worse yet, “forget about them” at home.  To me, ignoring your restaurant leftovers is the equivalent of having a night of steamy romance and passion with a very hot partner of your preferred gender, but losing all interest in seeing them again for another tryst the following day.  WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?  But I digress.

First, you start out choosing your rice for the foundation of your giant food box: white (which is always more tender, fluffy, and buttery than the white rice I make at home in a rice cooker), yellow (even more buttery) with gandules (pigeon peas), or moros (white rice mixed with black beans; you’ll never be morose if you try it).
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I always try to time my rare visits for Fridays, because I know that’s when they’ll serve paella-style yellow rice mixed with seafood — bits of fish, shrimp with tails on, and even small bay scallops and mussels still in the shell, all stewed together with red bell peppers and peas.  That’s what I always go for.  Pardon the blurriness of this photo, taken through glass.  dsc02654.jpg

Then you can choose black or red beans, and while I like black beans (good Miami boy that I am), I almost always choose red beans, because they were never an option at the Cuban restaurants I grew up going to, and I like them even more.  I usually opt for my beans on the side in a separate container, even though I often pour them over my rice once I reach my final destination (usually our sad little break room at work, although I guess I made it sound more ominous than that).  You choose an entree after that, and then a side, which may include boiled yucca, tostones (crispy fried slices of unripe plantains), or maduros (sweet and sticky fried ripe plantains, one of my favorite foods in the world).

Entree choices include quartered or halved roasted rotisserie chickens marinated in garlicky mojo criollo, pernil (tender roast pork, often with delicious crispy bits of skin attached), pepper steak, costillas (ribs), and different stewed beef, chicken, pork, and even fish dishes.  Most people I know opt for white meat chicken, which occasionally disappoints due to sitting out a little too long and being dry.  I have much better luck with dark meat, but I rarely order the chicken here.  Pernil pork is almost always awesome, and I always ask (in my best awful Spanish) for pieces of that crispy skin.  I think once they had rabos (stewed oxtails), and I was in heaven, because I always love oxtail, whether it’s in Jamaican, Latin, or Asian recipes.
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But on my most recent visit, I was craving pastelon, a dish that’s kind of like Puerto Rican lasagna: layers of sweet plantains and seasoned ground beef, topped with a bechamel sauce and white cheese (mozzarella?), then baked into a casserole and served in large slices the size of Rubik’s cubes.  I got my pastelon with a large order of seafood paella rice, red beans on the side, and maduros, so I ended up with plantains and more plantains, and definitely engaged in some carb-loading.  It was a ton of delicious food for only $8.  DSC02658

Because I try to be a stand-up guy, on my way out the door, I asked three co-workers if they wanted anything, and two actually did.  Someone wanted a Cuban sandwich, which I was pleased to see they used the fresh pernil pork in, before pressing it on a sandwich press with the usual ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles.  It was a nice-sized sandwich for only $5, and I guarantee the pork was a lot fresher and higher-quality than it would be at lots of places that specialize in Cubanos.dsc02655.jpg

My other colleague asked for “mofongo and chicken,” and I failed to press for additional details, in my haste.  The mofongo — a mountain of mashed plantains mixed up with bits of chicharrones (pork fat and skin), garlic, and other seasonings — was prepared to order, so that took about ten minutes.  They served it with what looked like a quarter of the rotisserie chicken, most likely white meat, and only charged $6 for all of that!  I will now admit I’ve only ever had mofongo once, at a different restaurant, and wasn’t blown away.dsc02657.jpg

But our Friday only improved from there, because when I brought our food back to work, we did what I always hope my dining companions will want to do — we shared everything.  I got to sample the super-solid Cuban sandwich as well as the mofongo, which was much better from Lechonera El Barrio, helped immensely by pungent, vinegary, almost creamy, ridiculously good garlic sauce.  My one colleague who requested the mofongo joked that it’s pretty much an excuse to eat the garlic sauce, and I can totally see where she’s coming from with that.  Make sure you ask for it.  I’m going to request it from now on, even if I don’t order mofongo!  I also shared my pastelon, which seemed to go over well, and both ladies were brave enough to sample the morcilla sausage I asked for on the side, and seemed to like that too.

Morcilla is rich and savory blood sausage with a nice crispy casing and an interesting — but not unpleasant — gritty-but-soft texture.  Here it is in my little sampler with mofongo and part of the Cuban sandwich:dsc02659.jpg

Some foodies joke that they don’t always want to share their favorite spots because then everyone will go to them, but as a librarian, a nerd, and your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, I’m all about sharing information — and also sharing the love.  This is a small, locally-owned business you may have driven by dozens or hundreds of times and never thought to stop there.  You may be intimidated to go there if you don’t speak much Spanish.  (My Spanish is laughably bad, but I understand it much better than I can speak it, and I’m always able to end up with what I want by pointing, smiling, and nodding, when all else fails.)  They don’t even have a website or a menu online.  But Lechonera El Barrio is another one of those hidden treasures in Orlando.  It is not upscale, romantic, or hipster-cool.  It isn’t deconstructing, reinventing, or challenging cuisine.  It’s a cafeteria, and a very good one at that.  What it lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in value, quantity, and quality.  This is simple, tasty food, and you get so much of it.  Plus, you can be out the door quickly with enough food for two or three meals, for under $10.  That is a rare and wonderful thing.