College Park Cafe

I’ve written a lot about being from Miami and growing up eating the best Cuban food in the country.  If there’s one thing I hope I’ve shown the world on The Saboscrivner, it’s that Orlando has an exciting, burgeoning culinary scene, one that allows us to hold our own against other midsize-to-large cities.  We even have Cuban restaurants, but even though some of them are good, very few compare to the plethora of excellent Cuban dining options four hours south of us in Miami.  And nowhere is that more clear than with the legendary Cuban sandwich, AKA the Cubano.  Plenty of good ones, but nothing that matches the iconic Versailles restaurant, the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban community and a can’t-miss destination for locals and tourists alike.  Versailles’ Cuban sandwich is even featured in Jon Favreau’s delightful movie Chef, one of the best food-related movies ever made, which I strongly recommend to all my readers (most of whom have probably seen it already).

Well, dear readers (all those bakers’ dozens of you), I think I’ve finally located Orlando’s finest Cuban sandwich, one that can stand alongside los mejores en Miami, in large part because it’s larger than many of them.  It’s at College Park Cafe (https://collegeparkcafe.com/), a humble diner in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, a place just far enough out of my regular radius that I rarely venture out that way.  I’ve been seeing Facebook posts from them and from foodie friends, singing the praises of the Cuban sandwich and other food, so I had to try it for myself, and I’m so glad I did.  A sign outside the diner advertises “The Best Cuban Sandwich In Town!”, and they ain’t kidding.

(Picture credit: Barbara Martinez/College Park Cafe.)

College Park Cafe is open from 6:30 AM until 2:00 PM, so I planned to get lunch from here, knowing they aren’t open for dinner.  I called in my takeout order and spoke to Barbara’s son Juan, who was very friendly and patient.  I had to make a few stops on my way there, and Juan called me back to let me know they were out of something I ordered, and called back a second time when I was about five minutes away, to let me know my order was ready.  I appreciated the communication.  Later, I spoke to cook and owner Barbara Martinez over Facebook Messenger while I was writing this review, and she said her family moved to Orlando from South Florida a year ago and took over the diner in August of 2019.  That’s when they added Cuban dishes to the large menu full of American breakfast and lunch classics.

Of course I ordered the Cubano ($10.50) for myself, and I chose one of my lifelong favorite foods, sweet plantains (maduros) as the one side the sandwich comes with. DSC03125

Opened up to show off all the shredded, marinated, roast pork, thin-sliced sweet ham, melty Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, sliced pickles, and crunchy potato sticks on this sandwich.  Potato sticks aren’t typical, but they were a nice touch — says the guy who likes to put chips in almost any sandwich.DSC03126

And a cross-section, so you can see just how thick this sandwich really is:
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Sweet plantains with black beans (more about them below):DSC03121

I also got a side order of onion rings ($2.50) because this was my first visit to the College Park Cafe, and whenever I see onion rings on a menu, I have to try them.  That’s why this review gets a [AIR HORN!] RING THE ALARM! [/AIR HORN!] tag.  It was a great value for a generous order of small, mostly uniform onion rings that were still warm by the time I got them home.  Served with some ketchup I keep chillin’ in the fridge for such rare occasions, they were a nice accompaniment to that awe-inspiring Cubano.
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My wife wanted palomilla steak ($11.50), a thin, marinated, grilled Cuban-style steak, which came with rice, beans (she chose black beans), and salty fried plantains (tostones), which she always prefers to the sweet ones.  I always plate the food when I come home with takeout, especially in these pandemic days, and that means I always try a little bite of whatever she ordered.  She likes and orders steaks far more than I do, but WOW, I was in heaven after one bite of this thin, flat, tender palomilla.  My eyes rolled back in my head, and I was reeling from the excellent seasoning.  There was garlic, cumin, maybe the sour orange juice of a mojo criollo marinade.  It was an explosion of deliciousness, all from one bite.  And because my wife hates onions and I love them, I slid all the grilled, seasoned onions off the top of her steak to enjoy myself.  DSC03120

Tostones!
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When I got there, I saw they had a rich-looking chocolate cake under a glass dome, as any good diner should.  My wife always loves chocolate, so I got her a slice of that too.  It looked like they have flan as well, but I had to save some stuff for future visits.
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I would have ordered the Cuban frita sliders, small burgers made with a blend of ground beef and chorizo sausage, usually served on buns pressed in a plancha like the Cuban bread of a Cubano sandwich, and topped with potato sticks and onions.  But unfortunately they were out on this visit.  I discovered frita burgers relatively late in my life, on my most recent trip back home to Miami in early March, right before the pandemic struck, and I have a review of that restaurant written and ready to run on a week I don’t have anything new to report on locally.  I don’t know of anyone in Orlando serving fritas aside from College Park Cafe, so I’ll definitely return to try those.  I don’t think anything could keep me from ordering another one of those perfect, overstuffed Cubanos, though.  That thing would be a bargain at twice the price.  It really is that damn good, and not just by Orlando standards either.

So that’s College Park Cafe, a friendly neighborhood diner with all your timeless diner classics: Reubens, patty melts, Greek omelettes, country-fried steak, eggs Benedict, chili cheeseburgers, anything you can picture in your diner dreams.  They even have an unlimited salad for $8.99 (for dine-in only), or $11.99 when paired with a few different entrees.  But the Cuban food is the real star of the show, and it’s definitely some of the best Cuban food to be had in Orlando, good enough to hold its own in Tampa or Miami.  The Martinez family is so incredibly nice, and I shouldn’t have to remind you that they could really use every bit of support.  Plus, normally parking along Edgewater Drive in College Park is kind of a nightmare, but it wasn’t bad at all on a Saturday afternoon during a pandemic.  Trust me — if you and the people you’re comfortable being within six feet of can’t decide between breakfast, diner food, and Cuban cuisine, have I got the place for you.

Trevi Pasta

This was a stressful week, but it ended well.  I was able to pick up my wife from her job on Thursday evening (after an unexpected emergency that ended up working out).  That was nice, because I almost never get to do that.  As usual, I suggested going out to dinner to decompress, and as usual, I offered her a bunch of options.  She is a much pickier eater than I, and too often, her catch phrase when trying to choose a restaurant or even a type of food to eat is “Nothing sounds good.”

But that night, she was craving fresh pasta, ideally squid ink pasta.  I’m not typically the biggest fan of going out for pasta because let’s face it — restaurant pasta dishes are expensive, and I buy good-quality DeCecco pasta, cook it perfectly al dente at home in well-salted water (with no oil, ever!), and either make my own sauces or doctor up a good commercial sauce like Mezzetta or Rao’s.  But I’m not hardcore enough to make fresh pasta from scratch, so it’s a rare and worthwhile indulgence.  There was only one possible place to go: Trevi Pasta in Orlando’s hip College Park neighborhood near downtown.  https://www.trevipasta.com/

Trevi Pasta is a very small, family-owned operation famous for fresh, homemade pastas and sauces.  They also have delicious gelato and other Italian desserts, and some Italian groceries.

Get this — they didn’t have squid ink pasta that night, but they told me they would have it this weekend.  But the chef had a very small amount in the kitchen, and he brought it out for us to try, just to be a cool and good guy!  It was served simply, with olive oil and herbs, and it was black as the night, briny, and al dente AF:20180906_190157_resized

Trevi Pasta regularly changes their offerings, so don’t be like us and ask what they have, since they post a huge menu right near the entrance:
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Here’s another version of the menu:
https://www.facebook.com/TreviPasta/app/1637598386514901/

My wife chose the potato gnocchi, usually a favorite of both of ours, but this gnocchi blew away the starchy store-bought kinds we usually get.  She got hers with alfredo sauce and a huge, soft looking blob of burrata, that smooth, soft blend of fresh mozzarella cheese and cream.

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I went with the spicy “inferno” pasta, and I chose tagliatelle — wider than fettuccine, not as wide as papardelle.  I paired it with amatriciana sauce, my favorite pasta sauce, which I often make at home from scratch with San Marzano tomatoes, pancetta, onions, and lots of crushed red pepper flakes.  I opted to get mine with meatballs too, and I ended up with four delicious little meatballs with a dense, spongy consistency and lots of flavor.

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We both agreed they were the best bowls of pasta we’ve had in a very long time.

The only thing that didn’t blow us away were the rolls, which were on the hard side:

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Then for dessert, we went back to look at some of those beautiful gelato flavors, and the nice lady at Trevi Pasta allowed us to sample a few.

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My wife chose two scoops: panna cotta and cookies and cream (sorry about not having a photo), and I went with pineapple (I’ll always try anything pineappley) and passion fruit.  Both were rich and intensely-flavored and refreshing.  Passion fruit is not a fruit or a flavor I usually try, but it was so good — maybe even better than the pineapple!

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Each gelato came with a tasty wafer cookie stamped with “Buon Appetito,” which was a nice touch.

I can’t say this was a cheap meal, but it was one of the more delicious restaurant meals either of us have had in a long time, and I don’t mind paying for very high quality.  Trevi Pasta’s pasta, sauce, meatballs, and gelato were all masterful, and I have zero regrets.  They will also sell any of their fresh pastas by the pound so you can prepare them at home.

In fact, I went back earlier today and picked up some freshly-cut squid ink fettuccine pasta, since we only got a tiny taste the other night.  It was beautiful, delicious, and the same perfect texture after cooking for three and a half minutes in boiling water as salty as the sea.

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Jade Sushi & New Asian

For a guy who writes about food, I rarely leave work to go out to lunch, even though I work near some of our city’s best restaurants.  Nope, I pack mostly-healthy lunches in a lunch box with baked chicken, sometimes cans of sardines, hard-boiled pickled eggs I pickle myself, big salads, vegetables, berries.  Everyday stuff.  Boring stuff.  And I eat alone in our break room and usually choke it all down quickly  so I can get back to work.  Not festive, folks.  Not blog-worthy.  This Onion article hits really close to home for me: https://local.theonion.com/man-brings-lunch-from-home-to-cut-down-on-small-joys-1819577433

But today was a rarity, because not only did I go out to a nice lunch, but I met a lot of super-cool people from the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/orlandofoodieforum/), the community that keeps me in the loop and eating well in the first place.  If I’m any kind of authority on local food (and I am, at least for friends, co-workers, and students), it’s thanks to that place.

Seven of us assembled at Jade Sushi & New Asian (http://jadenewasian.com/) in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando: myself, Foodie Forum and Tasty Chomps food blog (http://tastychomps.com/) founder Ricky Ly (who I’ve known online for years but never met), and other super-cool people who probably don’t want me to list their full names: Krystle (another fellow blogger, of http://www.theorlandogirl.com/ fame), Monica, Mia and Aranya, and Lani (who I owe a debt of gratitude to, for welcoming me into the world of pie championship judging earlier this year).  I always feel awkward in social situations, like I’m not going to belong, but this was a very friendly and welcoming group, and I like to think I clicked with them.*

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*Speaking of “clicked,” I’m sure at least one careful Foodie Forum reader at this gathering was like “Really?  This is the guy who elected to take the group picture?”

We ordered lots of food, and everyone was very generous and laid-back about sharing.  We tried fried chicken wings in spicy-sweet Korean red sauce, pork belly bao, and they brought out thin slices of hamachi (a fish similar to amberjack) for us all to sample, which was really nice.

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A few of us ordered spicy tan tan men, which is thin, ramen-like noodles served with ground beef in a spicy, oily red sauce.  I love a similar dish at Chuan Lu Garden with ground pork, but this might have even been better because it also came with soft-boiled egg halves like “fancy” ramen (to me, that’s any non-instant ramen), beautiful chili threads as a garnish, and I opted for a bit of sliced cha shu pork with mine as well.

I’m pretty sure Ricky took this picture with my camera phone:

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And here’s my terrible photography again!

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Ricky has been promising to give me a food photography tutorial, so today was our chance.  I felt extremely relieved and vindicated when he quickly concluded that my phone camera is just the worst, rather than my eye or my talent as a photographer.  Hey, it’s not a fancy phone, but you would plotz if you knew how little it cost, and how little I pay for my plan per month.  That allows me to go out to eat slightly more often and write about my experiences here.  The downside, dear readers, is you have to look at my blurry-ass food photos from time to time.

Well, I can never resist a deal on sushi, and Jade has some great lunch specials, including two rolls for $11.  I opted for two standards, intending to share them: a spicy tuna roll and a bagel roll with smoked salmon and cream cheese, because that is the food of my people.  I haven’t had sushi in a long time, and they totally hit the spot.

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Other people ordered some beautiful-looking bento boxes and ramen bowls.  Jade Sushi & New Asian has a huge menu (http://jadenewasian.com/menu/), so take your time looking it over so you can make the best choices.  Better yet, go with a bunch of friends (or friendly Internet strangers) and share everything!

I have been to Jade twice before, and from those prior visits, I strongly recommend the “sizzling evil ribs” (great name, even greater dish) and the Stormtrooper roll, with smoked salmon, asparagus, and fried jalapeno, wrapped with escolar, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.

So today was better than most days.  I left work, ate a terrific lunch at a restaurant I love, and hung out with some friendly fellow foodies for the first time.