Jaleo (https://www.jaleo.com/location/jaleo-disney-springs/) is an upscale Spanish restaurant, founded by the successful celebrity chef, restauranteur, and humanitarian Jose Andres. When he’s not feeding people in international crisis zones with his World Central Kitchen charity, he runs several other restaurants, including China Chilcano, the Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese restaurant in Washington, D.C., which I ate at and reviewed in 2019. But Jaleo, featuring the tastes of his native Spain, is probably his most famous, with locations in D.C., Chicago, Las Vegas, and right here in Orlando.
The two-story Jaleo location at Disney Springs is absolute huge and beautiful. It is almost like sensory overload in there, with so much to look at even before your senses are overwhelmed by the tapas coming your way.
The design really is busy, but stunning.
Peep these gorgeous hanging hams. As Michael Jackson might have said, “JAMON!”
This location opened in March 2019, and I had been wanting to go since the beginning. But with COVID, major medical stuff, a job change, and lots of other life stuff getting in the way, I finally made it to Jaleo earlier this year, back in May, which seems like a lifetime ago. I went for a leisurely lunch with three colleagues from work, all top-notch librarians I don’t get to work directly with anymore, but I think the world of them. None of us had ever been here before, so we shared almost everything, which is the best way to do Jaleo — in a group with friends who understand sharing is caring. Each of us ordered a few dishes and paid our own way, so I will present our epic meal more of less in order of how things came out from the kitchen.
Two colleagues shared this pitcher of sangria, which they seemed to like. I don’t know how much it cost and didn’t try it because I don’t drink, but it’s Spanish red wine mixed with fruit, so I’m sure you can’t go too wrong.
This is pan con tomate ($14), toasted slices of bread rubbed with fresh tomato, which sounds too simple to be good, and definitely too simple to be worth $14. But it was worth it, even split four ways. Better than tomato-rubbed toast has any right to be! It was so good, another person in my party ordered a second portion for the table.
This was the coca Idiazabal ($10), a handmade rosemary and olive oil cracker topped with membrillo (a jelly-like paste made of the quince fruit, so rich, sticky, and sweet!) and Idiazabal cheese, grated into soft, silky strands. I had never had quince before, but it reminded me of the guava paste that is ubiquitous in pastelitos and other Cuban desserts from growing up in Miami. We cracked the coca cracker into quarters as best we could and enjoyed the blend of sweet and salty, crunchy and gooey.
This was my vegetarian colleague’s manzanas con hinojo y queso Manchego ($13), a salad of sliced apples, fennel, Manchego cheese (a Spanish cheese made from sheep milk), walnuts, and sherry dressing. I don’t remember much about the bite I got, but I do love fragrant fennel (I like to use it in pasta con la sarde, a dish of pasta and sardines) and salty Manchego. It would be a great palate cleanser to take bites of between heavier, richer, meaty dishes.
I definitely ordered this dish, which I swear looked a lot more appetizing in person: the cebolla asada ($11), a huge roasted sweet onion topped with pine nuts and funky-but-delicious Valdeón blue cheese. Everyone knows how much I love onions, especially when they are marinated and/or caramelized. This was magnificent, especially with the blue cheese on top. Part of me imagined enjoying a gigantic, juicy burger topped with this bad boy, but that wouldn’t be Jaleo’s style.
So many months have passed, I think this soup my one vegetarian colleague ordered is the gazpacho de remolacha con queso de cabra ($11), red beet gazpacho with goat cheese, oranges, and pistachios. It was the only thing on the table I did not sample, but if that’s indeed what it is, it sounds good enough to even win over Lisa Simpson’s gazpacho-mocking family at that one cookout.
Me being the connoisseur of cured meats, I couldn’t go to Jaleo and not order the jamon Serrano ($13), a platter of the most delicious Serrano ham, cured for 24 months. These paper-thin slices were served with these delightful little crispy bread twists to wrap them around. Like the best prosciutto, this jamon was salty and unctuous and could melt away in your mouth. My one male colleague seemed to like it; the ladies wanted nothing to do with it, so more for me!
This was the espinacas a la Catalana ($14), sautéed spinach with pine nuts, raisins and apples. Once again, I can’t take credit for ordering such a healthy, wholesome dish, but it was so amazing. I think we had leftovers of a few things at the end of our lunch, including this, and I took them all home because I am shameless. My wife tried it and loved it, and I attempted a copycat recipe not long after that was okay, but not nearly as good as this. I mean, look at this! I do love cooked greens, and the slight sweetness from the fruit made such a difference, especially with the tender crunch of the apples and the chewiness of the raisins (“Nature’s candy,” as my mom would say, trying desperately to convince my brother and I as little kids, and probably herself as well.)
Next up we have the gambas al ajillo ($19), or according to the menu, “The very, very famous tapa of shrimp sautéed with garlic.” I don’t really care how famous they are, but they were some of the tastiest shrimp I’ve ever had. I can’t rave enough about how perfectly every dish in this epic lunch was seasoned, and the gambas were no exception.
My mighty colleague ordered this paella of the day for himself, and our patient server warned us it would take about 45 minutes. It came toward the end of the meal, when we were all visibly fatigued, but I honorably and dutifully helped him get through it. Constant readers, I wish I could tell you what this exact paella of the day was, but that memory is lost in time, like tears in the rain. The menu narrows down the kind of rice to “Bomba rice from Valencia or Calasparra from Murcia,” and it definitely included tender chicken, some kind of pork, and also shrimp, with a swirl of garlic aioli on the plate, as if it wasn’t rich enough already. Not everything is worth the wait, but this paella was.This is where I admit I’ve had bad experiences with paella elsewhere. Usually you pay a lot and wait a long time, and the rice comes out underdone. Just disheartening experiences overall, which is why I didn’t order a traditional rice-based paella for myself, even in this temple of Spanish cuisine, with a menu created by one of the greatest chefs in the world. Because the rice was tender and everything came together, it was probably the best paella I’ve ever had.
This was the last dish I ordered myself: rossejat negra ($32), a different kind of paella made with toasted Catalonian fideos pasta instead of rice, head-on shrimp, squid ink, calamari sofrito, and dollops of creamy, garlicky aioli. The picture isn’t great, because it looks like some burnt crud on the pan, but that was actually pasta dyed black with squid ink, a gourmet treat that always impresses my wife and me whenever we see it, maybe because we are goths at heart. I cannot vouch for the placement of the huge shrimp in this dish, but I’m sure there was no ill intent. The pasta was al dente in places, but the edges that touched the pan were crispy like pegao, the crispy rice from the bottom of the rice cooker that some people dismiss but others (like my wife) love. The dollops of creamy, garlicky aioli stood out against the blackness of the pasta and the blackness of the pan, reminding me of a line Alan Moore wrote in the comic book Top Ten #8, later plagiarized by Nic Pizzolatto in the first season finale of True Detective, about seeing stars shining in the night sky, and how there is so much darkness out there, but just to see any light at all means the light is winning. Well, nobody else wanted anything to do with my rossejat negra, which means I was definitely winning!
My colleague who is a huge Disney fan ordered this dessert, and I honestly don’t remember if I tried a bite or not. It is the Selva Negra ($14), created to celebrate Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary, lasting throughout 2022 and into March 2023. The menu describes “a decadent mousse made of Manjari 64% chocolate atop a crunchy feulletine base with black cherry chocolate sponge cake and topped with a chocolate glace.” That’s pretty impressive to me, considering my favorite dessert is a creamy citrus pie in a crust made of crushed Ritz crackers. This right here is some serious gourmet… stuff.
I don’t know why it has taken me over half a year to finish writing this review. Needless to say, the four of us ate like royalty this day. But the fact that it was four generous and mostly adventurous people made it the ideal situation at Jaleo. The tapas-style portions aren’t gigantic, but most are bigger than you think, definitely big enough to share with a group this size. And that’s the way to do tapas correctly — to order a bunch of different things and share them. Share with friends, with family, with dates and mates, even with former co-workers. A meal like this lends itself to sharing, so as many people as possible can experience the majestic flavors of Spain and the creative brilliance and love of Chef Jose Andres and his talented kitchen staff. You could go alone and order a couple of dishes, but I don’t know if that experience would be the same. That’s why it took me so long to finally make it to Jaleo, and why I won’t return until the circumstances are right, and I can bring more people I care about to share with. Sharing food (and even information about food) is one of my love languages for sure (you’re welcome!), and one of Chef Andres’ too, as he continues to lead World Central Kitchen to feed people at disaster sites and war zones around the world. He’s a true mensch, and he deserves our support. You can donate to World Central Kitchen, AND you can also enjoy a sumptuous, unforgettable meal at Jaleo next time you’re down near Disney.