Tortilleria El Progreso

Orlando is full of hidden treasures, and my latest discovery is Tortilleria El Progreso (https://www.tortilleriaelprogreso.com/), nestled in a nondescript strip shopping center in the shadow of a Home Depot, along a busy, industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive, west of the 417 and east of Semoran Boulevard.  It is a bustling Mexican restaurant and a full Mexican grocery store with a butcher shop, a bakery, an ice cream counter, and more.  This is real Mexican food, authentic and pure — the kind of place that makes its own tortillas, chips, and everything else from scratch.  The menu is huge, the service is friendly, the prices are cheap, the portions are large, and the colorful, welcoming dining room with hand-painted chairs makes you feel transported away from Orlando, to a vacation destination south of the border.

20180927_130931_resized

20180927_130926_resized

20180927_132736_resized

I went for lunch with a professional colleague who trusts my restaurant-choosing judgment and was kind enough to treat.  We started out with complimentary chips and salsa, and we could tell the chips were fresh, made from actual tortillas not long before our arrival:

20180927_123321_resized

Whenever I see tortas on a menu, I go for it.  If there’s one thing I love more than a good taco, it’s a good sandwich, and tortas are the best of both worlds: Mexican ingredients on a soft bolillo or telera roll, with meat, a schmear of refried beans, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, sometimes peppers, and a dab of mayo or sour cream.  I got a barbacoa torta, with tender, oven-braised beef.  It even came with unexpected fries, but the fries weren’t anything special, and I didn’t dare fill up on them.  20180927_124658_resized

But I couldn’t visit a new Mexican restaurant and not sample two of my favorite meats, so I got a chorizo (spicy crumbled sausage) taco on a flour tortilla and an al pastor (marinated pork) taco on a corn tortilla, so I could try both kinds of tortillas too.  All the tacos came simply garnished with diced raw onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges on the side.  I am pleased to say everything was delicious.  20180927_124836_resized

My colleague ordered three tacos: shredded chicken and sauteed beef, hold the onions.20180927_124704_resized

We were also offered a choice of red or green salsas for the table, so of course I asked for both.  The green tomatillo salsa was medium-spicy, and the red had quite a bit of heat.  These were homemade as well:
20180927_130921_resized

We also decided to try a side order of the Mexican rice, which was soft, fluffy, even a little buttery.  I have a rice cooker at home because my rice never comes out right from a pot, but I still never get it as perfect as all the restaurant rice I enjoy.  I stirred a little of the salsas into the rice, to make a good thing even better.20180927_131138_resized

I was overjoyed to see aguas frescas on the menu, which is one of my tests for how authentic and good a Mexican restaurant is going to be.  These refreshing drinks are sweet, but not as sweet as high fructose corn syrup-laden sodas, they aren’t carbonated, and they’re ideal for cutting the heat of spicy Mexican food.  I ordered a piña agua fresca because I will always try anything pineappley, and I recommended another one of my favorites to my colleague: horchata, which is a sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.  I didn’t snap photos of those, but they were both terrific.

I can’t wait to return to Tortilleria El Progreso and try some more menu items, including some of those other aguas frescas, and some of the paletas (popsicles) and helados (ice creams) in the big case at the front of the restaurant.  It looked like the market side had bolillo rolls in the bakery section for tortas, fresh tortillas, sodas, snacks, and other groceries worth exploring.  I love grocery shopping at new places almost as much as I love trying new restaurants, so I will definitely be back to this newly-discovered hidden treasure that plenty of other people surely already knew about.

Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market: Opening Day review!

Well, after tracking its progress for what seems like a year, Orlando’s first Italian deli and market, Stasio’s, finally opened for business today, as a soft opening.  (https://www.facebook.com/Stasios-Italian-deli-194418224503776/)  I love Italian delis and markets — Mazzaro’s Market in St. Petersburg is one of my favorite destinations in all of Florida (and I don’t just mean restaurants), and DeLaurenti inside Pike Place Market in Seattle and Eataly in Chicago are two of the coolest places I’ve ever been.  Needless to say, I had to make a pilgrimage to Stasio’s on its opening day, and I’m so glad I did, because they are filling a void in Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  The family that owns Stasio’s also founded the venerable and much-missed Louie and Maria’s Italian restaurant, as well as the Pizzeria Valdiano location in Waterford Lakes, so they aren’t new to Orlando or to delicious Italian food.

20180723_131821_resized

My co-worker and I arrived around 1 PM, and I was glad to see the place busy and bustling.  We immediately got in line to order sandwiches at the deli counter, where we were presented with a laminated menu.  For me, choosing the Stasio sandwich was an easy choice: prosciutto, hot capicola, mild soppressata, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, red onion, and white balsamic vinaigrette on a sub roll, for $11.  That’s my idea of a good time!  My vegetarian co-worker ordered the Melenzani sandwich, with eggplant, spinach, roasted red peppers, marinated tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and balsamic reduction, which only came as a panini, for $11.  (Editor’s note: she e-mailed and said it came on a sub roll after all, despite the menu saying it would be a panini.)

20180723_132733_resized

They were slammed on their first day, so it gave us time to browse around.  At the deli, I ordered some sliced Italian beef brisket and porchetta, both made in-house, while my co-worker picked up some beautiful fresh sfogliatelle (flaky, shell-shaped pastries) from their bakery counter.  They had plenty of other meats and cheeses, huge square slices of pizza ($4.95 for a gigantic slice), deli salads and vegetables, including broccoli rabe, multicolored roasted peppers, stuffed cherry peppers, and sundried tomatoes glistening in oil, marinated imported anchovies that looked like actual silvery fish and not the salty brown fillets that everyone except me dreads on their pizza, and prepared Italian meatballs and sausage.  Shelf-stable groceries included all kinds of fancy pasta you will NOT find at Publix, and plenty of cans, jars, and bottles of delicious Italian delicacies.

20180723_132053_resized

20180723_132100_resized

Stasio’s does not have tables, but the store is lined with a long counter for people to enjoy their food while sitting on stools.  We brought ours back to work, though.  They also have an espresso counter near the cash registers at the front, and it looks like you can also order wine by the glass there, but I could be wrong.  (Don’t drink, wasn’t paying that close attention.)

Upon returning to work, I couldn’t be more pleased to say how great the sub was.  The melange of meats worked together in perfect harmony with the fresh “mutsadell” (I promise I’ll never do that again), and roasted red peppers are a welcome addition to almost any sandwich.  I’m sure someone is wondering how the sub roll was, and I’m happy to report it was the perfect amount of chewy with an exterior that wasn’t too crusty — just how I like them.  The rolls were also baked in-house, of course.  I would have liked more toppings on the sub — lettuce, tomato, maybe some of the long hot peppers they advertised on other sandwiches — but ordering was a bit of sensory overload today, and I didn’t even ask.  Next time!

20180723_140335_resized

I also impulse-bought a Manhattan Special espresso soda in a glass bottle, because even though I’m not much of a coffee drinker, I sure love trying new and interesting soda flavors.  It was good, although I think a cappuccino/latte version with some creaminess would have been much better.  All they had were regular and diet version of the espresso soda, though.

20180723_140347_resized

Well, I am very happy Stasio’s is finally open, and so close to my work!  I’ll definitely add it to my regular restaurant rotation, and I suggest my dozens of loyal readers (bakers’ dozens?) give it a try at your earliest convenience.  I wish them the best and welcome them to the neighborhood!

ADDENDUM: My co-worker gave me one of her shell-shaped sfogliatelle pastries, and it was delicious.  The crispy outer dough is very flaky and fragile, able to be peeled apart in thin, spiral-like layers.  The inside is kind of like a thick, lightly-sweetened cheese (not creamy or runny at all, more like the filling of a cheese danish but not nearly as sweet), speckled with tiny, chewy bits of candied lemon for a subtle fresh citrus taste and scent.

20180723_152427_resized

20180723_152601_resized

Just in time for July 4th, let’s talk about favorite groceries.

Here’s some food for thought (heh) for Independence Day, when some of us may be off work and possibly cooking with our families and friends.  Have fun, stay hydrated, and definitely stay safe, whether you’re grilling over an open flame or blowing stuff up.

I write a lot about restaurants, but I don’t eat out all the time, I assure you.  I do love grocery shopping, though.  I go to multiple supermarkets to find the best deals and best things to eat.  It’s the only kind of shopping I enjoy.

But I gots to know: What groceries do YOU strongly recommend? What do you buy that you love, that’s better than anything else? What have you discovered recently that you don’t know how you lived without? And where do you find it?

Some examples:

Hot dogs: I grew up in a Hebrew National household, then I became a Sabrett loyalist when I moved out and started shopping and cooking for myself, but the Boar’s Head all-beef hot dogs that come clumped and tightly shrink-wrapped together in a package of seven are even better. Similar garlicky flavor, but these have the perfect snap of a natural casing. I only buy hot dogs once or twice a year, but now I always go for these.  I might have to get some today!

Mustard: BaTampte for a good everyday deli mustard (easily available at Publix), and Beaver jalapeno mustard for something delicious that’s hotter (but is unfortunately much harder to find locally). I was surprised by how good the Grey Poupon Deli Mustard and Mild and Creamy Mustard were, last time Publix had a BOGO deal, since I’m not big on regular dijon. I’d definitely get more of those.*

*I have every intention of writing more about mustard, since I love it so much.  Expect a new recurring feature on this blog called Cutting the Mustard.  You heard it here first, faithful foodie followers!

Knishes: Pickles Deli in Longwood used to be the only place I could get a good potato knish in the area. They serve Gabila’s knishes, which are the best — made in New York, of course, but became rare a few years ago after a factory fire. Yes, there was a nationwide knish shortage! Well, I’ve found them in the frozen case at Publix now, and I highly recommend them, whether you’re a knish maven or some kind of n00b. Make sure you have some good mustard on hand for them!

Macaroni and potato salads: I’ve tried them all, I’ve made them with all kinds of different recipes, but I always go back to Publix for my favorite versions. The New York and Southern potato salads are both excellent.

Pasta sauce: After growing up with nasty Ragu as a kid and begging my mom to switch to Prego like my friends’ moms, I made my own for many years — first from doctoring a jar of Prego with a can of tomato paste and all kinds of other ingredients, and now by using canned San Marzano tomatoes and making it from scratch. But if I’m in a hurry, nothing beats Rao’s Arrabbiata sauce. It’s a little pricey, but you can occasionally find sales at Fresh Market or Target, and it is perfect in every way. I’ve been to many Italian restaurants whose red sauces aren’t nearly as good as Rao’s.

Hot sauce: Minorcan Mayhem datil pepper sauce. They have it on the tables at 4 Rivers Smokehouse, so you can try it there before buying it, and of course they sell the bottles. So tasty, with a lot of flavor rather than pure ass-kicking heat (which I hate). There’s even a subtle sweetness. I highly recommend it.
https://www.minorcanmayhem.com/

Whisps: these tiny, crispy crackers are made of 100% parmesan cheese, so they’re a life-changer if you’re on a low-carb diet but are craving salty, crunchy snacks and don’t feel like pork rinds. (The story of my life for the last year and a half.) I’ve seen tiny bags at Publix, or you can stock up on a larger bag at Costco for about $10. They are awesome.

Salami: Aldi is my new favorite supermarket, and they sell pre-sliced dry salami in regular (similar to genoa) and spicy (similar to pepperoni) varieties, at $5.99 per pound. They are great. The slices aren’t paper-thin, so they have a nice chewiness, and the spicy one is delicious. I always keep it on hand for snacks, along with Aldi’s sliced provolone cheese, which is usually $1.89 for an eight-ounce package with 12 slices.

By the way, If you haven’t been to Aldi, check it out. Bring a quarter for a shopping cart and bring your own bags, but you’ll find so much high-quality food that’s often the same stuff you could buy anywhere else, for a fraction of the price. I’m a convert. And they get new, random, often fascinating stuff all the time — I got a really rad record player that transforms into a briefcase there two weeks ago — so it’s worth making regular visits to see what they have.

What do the rest of you recommend?

Bravo Supermarket

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of grocery stores and grocery shopping.  It’s the only kind of shopping I enjoy, in fact.  I regularly stop at multiple stores to pick things up: Aldi (my favorite), Publix, Costco, occasionally Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, and Target if I’m near them.

We recently had a Bravo Supermarket open near us, which is aimed at the Latinx community and specializes in groceries and prepared foods from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.  (https://www.bravosupermarkets.com/)

The prices are fantastic, and as you would expect, they carry all kinds of stuff Publix doesn’t.  I got my wife an assortment of coconut waters, since they have over a dozen different brands and varieties: some with pulp and some without pulp, some roasted, some “young” coconut, etc.

The hot foods counter is set up like a cafeteria line, where you can get a styrofoam box stuffed to bursting with the rice of your choice (white, yellow with pigeon peas, or a specialty rice) with an entree and a side, for $7 and change.  I’ve been twice so far.  Last week, I brought home roast pork over yellow rice with tostones (crispy-fried plantains) for my wife and stewed goat over fried rice with maduros (sweet plantains) for myself.  Today being a Friday, I remembered they had rabo (oxtail) as a special of the day, and I always love oxtail.  I got mine over moros rice (white rice stewed with black beans and onions) with maduros.

bravo_oxtails

It was really good oxtail, but nothing beats when I get it at the Jamaican restaurant Golden Krust, one of my favorites.  I’ll have to go back soon and review it.

The prepared foods counter also has quesitos, empanadas, pastellitos, Jamaican beef patties, some desserts, and they will make you Cuban coffee, too.  Their quesitos (pastries stuffed with sweetened cream cheese) are very tasty, but much doughier and chewier than I’m used to.  The quesitos from the Cuban restaurants back home in Miami were usually made of a flakier, crispier, almost croissant-like dough that often shattered when you bit into them.  Both are good, though.