Cafe Madrid

Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine.  Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay.  I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food.  We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.

As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami.  So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day.  Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me.  I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner!  I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/).  It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.

And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant.  Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters.  They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation.  It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials.  It ended up being exactly what I… wanted?  NO.  It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.

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Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich.  I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.

The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house.  It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo.  Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant.  It was great!  DSC01800

The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself.  I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo.  You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”dsc01802.jpg

Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better.  And you know what?  It was a delicious sandwich, even cold.  I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich.  The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for).  It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.  DSC01806DSC01807

I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like.  The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche.  Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux.  But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.

In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised.  I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home.  And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.dsc01801.jpg

I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada.  (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)dsc01799.jpg

And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.DSC01803

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So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location.  If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place.  And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was.  While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.

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My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine (http://www.cappadociaturkishcuisine.com/) is mere minutes from the job I’ve been at for over a decade, but I never made it there until this year.  Better late than never, because it was outstanding both times I’ve visited so far.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Turkish food, ever since discovering Bosphorous in Winter Park, which I’ve reviewed on The Saboscrivner before. But even though the restaurant is not as fancy as Bosphorous, the food at Cappadocia is easily as good and possibly (probably) even better, and also a little cheaper.

The first time I went, it was for a festive lunch with several members of the Orlando Foodie Forum. I met a bunch of interesting, cool, funny, and smart fellow foodies with excellent taste, and I’m happy to say I’ve even become friends with some of them since that lunch. We ordered a lot of food and shared almost everything. I ordered one of the best things I ate all year, braised lamb shanks in a rich tomato sauce. These lamb shanks were fork-tender and just melted in my mouth. I cannot rave about them enough!

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I was also lucky enough to try the fluffy, puffy lavas bread, the moussaka, and soslu patlican, a dip made of sauteed eggplant, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, and red and green bell peppers.  We also passed around baklava and another dessert called kunefe, shredded phyllo dough pastry stuffed with warm, sweet cheese and topped with pistachios and sugary syrup.  Each dish I tried was better than the last. I had fallen in love with a new restaurant, literally moments from work.  And the best thing about that lunch was the friends we made along the way.

More recently, I brought home takeout so my wife could finally try Cappadocia, since she’s a fellow Bosphorous fan. I over-ordered so we’d have a few meals from everything, and we started with the “hollow bread” (like Bosphorous’ lavas bread, except this bread deflated a bit on the way home) and the “cold combo” mixed appetizer platter. That included babaganoush (smoky roasted eggplant dip), parsley-heavy tabule salad, pan-fried mixed eggplant dip, a strained yogurt curd dip called lebne, and a grape leaf, rolled and stuffed with seasoned rice. They were kind enough to substitute my favorite dip from last time, the soslu patlican, for the regular hummus. I like hummus fine, but I buy it at Publix often, and it’s usually the least-interesting item in these types of sampler platters.

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I ordered the gyro platter for my wife, since we both love gyros, and I learned that Cappadocia makes its own seasoned gyro meat, as opposed to the processed (BUT DELICIOUS) meat a lot of gyro joints use. The lamb was salty and garlicky, with a crispy crust from being cooked on a grill after being shaved off a spit. It was a little dry, and I wish it had been juicier, but it was still good.  It was served over rich, buttery rice pilaf that we both loved, and it came with a small, freshly-baked pita bread.

IMG_0022I ordered an old favorite I’ve loved before at Bosphorous, iskender kebab, sliced lamb cooked in a spicy tomato-yogurt sauce and served over pieces of crispy, buttery grilled bread that gets softer as it absorbs the sauce. It also came with rice pilaf on the side, fresh pita, and a small salad of lettuce, red onion, and delicious, crispy, tangy pickled red cabbage that I was a huge fan of, tossed in a light vinaigrette.

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As if that wasn’t enough, I also ordered us the moussaka I had enjoyed so much at the previous lunch: a baked casserole of ground lamb with layers of eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, bechamel sauce, and melty kashar cheese. It was very different from Greek versions of moussaka I’ve had before, which aren’t nearly as tomatoey, but I preferred Cappadocia’s version.

IMG_0025Needless to say, we both got several meals out of this bounty, although the hollow bread loses something over a 25-minute drive and is certainly best enjoyed at the restaurant. Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine has been one of my favorite finds of 2018, an unassuming location in a part of town you’d normally just drive through without lingering. I had attempted to try it over the years, but had the bad luck of finding it closed every time, to the point where I wondered if it was a front. It was totally worth the wait, and I can’t rave about the food enough. It’s a hidden gem on Semoran Boulevard, in a sketchy stretch between East Colonial Drive and the 408, and totally worth the drive from wherever you are.  It’s all good, but those lamb shanks I had on my first lunch there are still my favorite dish I’ve tried so far.

Dancing Pigs Deli

I’ve always heard great things about the sandwiches at Dancing Pigs Deli (https://www.dpdeli.com/), but it is way across town from me, south of downtown Orlando on South Orange Avenue.  But a few weeks ago, on a day I had an errand to run in the area, I knew I had to make a special stop to try Dancing Pigs Deli for the first time.  I tried stopping by earlier this year, but it was a weekend, and they were closed.  According to their Facebook page, their hours are Monday through Friday, 11 AM to 3 PM (which contradicts the website with Saturday hours), so plan accordingly.

There are a few other foodie destinations I like out that way, and I made a morning of it.  Sister Honey’s Bakery (http://www.sisterhoneys.com/) is a tiny operation with no seating, strictly a to-go bakery.  You don’t always know what they’ll have from one day to the next, but my wife loves her vanilla bean pound cake, so I picked up a slice for her.  She also has some excellent pies: coconut cream, strawberry cream cheese, blueberry cream cheese, and key lime.  Believe it or not, I try to avoid sweets, but fruity, creamy, cheesy pies are probably my favorite desserts.

My next stop was Freshfields Farm (http://www.freshfieldsfarm.com/category/orlando/), a permanent farmer’s market with fantastic prices on fresh produce (on one side of the building) and meats and cheeses (on the other side).  Each side has its own separate entrance with its own cashiers, and there is a snack bar window in the middle, where you can get giant smoked turkey legs without paying theme park admission or dealing with gaggles of tourists.  And they’re $5 each!  Let’s see Mickey’s House do that.  Did I bring home a turkey leg?  You’re wrong, fearless readers — I brought home TWO!  And I also got the biggest blueberries I’ve ever seen, and a pound of sliced Cabot American and provolone cheeses for $3.50 each.  Even Aldi can’t compete with that.

Then I drove a few miles further south on Orange to Dancing Pigs Deli, which is in a nondescript and easy-to-miss strip of shops.  It’s a small place and definitely not fancy, but don’t be daunted.  If you’re reading The Saboscrivner, you probably already know those restaurants can be hidden gems and are always worth taking a chance on.  The first thing I noticed when I walked in was some shelves of groceries:

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The menu is on the wall above the counter, but I had already studied it online (which you should probably do, due to this image quality):

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This was a Friday, but on Monday through Thursday, they have different specials, all made in-house, including meatballs on Mondays, roast leg of lamb on Wednesdays and roast turkey breast on Thursdays.  I’m sure the leg of lamb sandwich is not baaaaaaad.

Since I couldn’t decide, I chose to order the Steer sandwich to eat there, and a Muffaletta to bring home for later.  Typically I’ll gravitate toward Italian cured meats like salami and prosciutto when given the choice, but I’ve been on a real roast beef kick lately.  The Steer ($7.50) contains rare roast beef, sautéed onions, goat cheese, horseradish, and au jus on a French roll, and if you ask me, a roast beef sandwich without sauteed/grilled/caramelized onions and horseradish just isn’t a roast beef sandwich.  Moreso than salami, roast beef goes well with almost any cheese, from provolone to pepper jack to underappreciated American, but I was excited to try it with goat cheese.

I chose wisely.  So wisely.  It was delicious; definitely one of the better roast beef sandwiches I’ve had anywhere.  It came with the cup of au jus and potato salad that was just okay.  I’m honestly not a fan of “wet” or “dipped” or even open-face soggy sandwiches you have to eat with a knife and a fork, but I did dip some chunks of beef and bread in the au jus, and it was like a rich broth that would make a perfect French onion soup.  It was good enough to drink, and I did sip whatever was left.  (Don’t judge me!)

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The goat cheese was very soft and spread onto the lightly-toasted roll, which was the perfect way to do it.  I never thought of spreading cream cheese on a roast beef sandwich, but it would actually be great (especially combined with horseradish and onions).  The goat cheese had the same soft, creamy texture with a little bit of funkiness that worked well with the other ingredients.

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I had the muffaletta sandwich ($8.50 for a half-muff) at home the next day, and it was very good too.  It contains Genoa salami, mortadella, pepperoni, ham, Swiss cheese, olive-giardiniera salad, and is served on “Sesame Jazz bread.”  I am not an olive lover, but I’ll always try the chopped olive salad on a muffaletta.  My gold standard remains the one at Central Grocery on Decatur Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, which is served cold instead of hot.  This one was originally served hot, but since I ate it cold out of my fridge, I think it was even better, after the flavors had a chance to mingle and marinate for 24 hours.  The Sesame Jazz bread was still crispy even after its time chilling overnight, which was a nice touch.

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For this sandwich, I got a side of macaroni salad, which was better than the potato salad, but not quite as good as my homemade one or Poke Hana’s.

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I have no idea when I’m going to be back down that way again, but I hear that “Chili Daddy” sets up inside of Dancing Pigs Deli and sells different kinds of chili when the weather cools down, so that sounds worthy of a return trip.  If you ever find yourself in the SoDo region or with any business south of downtown Orlando, drive the extra few miles and check the place out.  I’m glad Orlando is experiencing a sandwich shop renaissance over the last few years, with so many exquisite and unique contenders like Bad As’s Sandwich, Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market, and Manzano’s Deli joining stalwarts like LaSpada’s and Pom Pom’s, and Dancing Pigs Deli is one more worthwhile destination.  I promise I’ll never Steer you wrong.  (Seriously, try the Steer!)