Zero Degrees

The other day I drove further west than I’ve ever driven before, in my almost 15 years in Orlando.  There’s a whole “Chinatown” west of downtown, even past Taste of Chengdu, with lots of Asian markets and restaurants, as well as a Caribbean supermarket.  It felt like I unlocked a new level in a video game, venturing to an unfamiliar new area and discovering all kinds of exciting, even legendary places to eat and explore in the future.

I went out that way on a quest for a certain kind of hot sauce, after coming up empty at three much closer Asian markets.  I finally found it at the Tan Tien Oriental Market, and a few doors down from it, I stumbled upon Zero Degrees (https://zerodegreescompany.com/).  It immediately felt like a Southern California sort of place due to a lot of Mexican and Asian fusion food and beverages, and the website confirmed it was founded in (that other) Orange County.

Zero Degrees has an eclectic menu full of frosty, sweet, refreshing (non-alcoholic) drinks, including fruit slushes, sweet shakes, limeades, milk teas (including Thai iced tea), green teas, Vietnamese iced coffee (with sweetened condensed milk, so good!), and Mexican horchata (sweetened rice milk), which can all be ordered with or without chewy boba pearls made from tapioca.  They even have a Splitcup: a cup split down the middle into two separate compartments, so you can order two drinks in the same cup without having them mix together, for $5.50.

The food menu is snack-focused, featuring different variations of fries, nachos, elotes (Mexican street corn), chicharrones (pork rinds), and macaroni and cheese with a variety of toppings, including cheese, carne asada beef, and crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I knew carne asada fries is a real L.A. thing.  They also have wings and crispy popcorn chicken bites, in salt and pepper or honey barbecue flavors.

I was in a hurry and had a hard time deciding, but I went with the garlic noodle dish (a larger entree, but still only $6), stir-fried in butter and garlic, with melty Cotija cheese and topped with grilled carne asada beef (a $3.50 upcharge).  You can also get it with shrimp (also $3.50) and/or an egg ($1.50).  It was great.  Really rich, probably horrible for me, but it hit the spot.  The beef had a hint of lime to it, and I’m sure it would be great over the other items on the menu, like the fries.

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I also ordered Zero Degrees’ signature drink, the Mangonada ($6), a fresh mango slush with chamoy (a salty-sweet-sour sauce made from pickled plums or apricots that made its way to Mexico from China), Tajin (a spicy chili-lime spice powder that is popular sprinkled on fruit in Mexico), and topped with chunks of fresh mango.  They asked me if I wanted my Mangonada spicy or not spicy, and I chose spicy.  It has a lot of nice flavor, but it wasn’t “burn your tongue” spicy in the least.  We have a bottle of Tajin at home, and we’ve found it is great on certain fruit, especially melons.  It worked beautifully with the mango in the drink.  And this was my first experience trying chamoy, so now I want to try it in other things, too!  20190107_152742_resized

If that straw looks weird, it’s because it is coated with spicy-tangy-fruity-sweet-sour-salty-chewy tamarind candy, making a unique sensory and taste experience.  The tamarind candy straw was also a $1 upcharge, but I figured “Why not?”, especially since I live so far from this place.  I admit the straw was more hassle than it was worth, especially since it didn’t extend past the plastic lid when touching the bottom of the cup.  Also, it was messy, sticky, and hard to bite the chewy candy off the plastic, especially while driving.  I don’t think I’d bother to get that straw again, but I’m glad I tried it.

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I returned to Zero Degrees a few days later, even though it’s quite a distance away, because I wanted to explore the Chinatown area further.  (Stay tunes, Saboscrivner Society of America!)  I also really wanted to try the strawberry limeade and strawberry horchata, so the SplitCup was the perfect solution to my dilemma.  Apologies for the pic, dear readers — it was an unseasonably hot January afternoon, and I drank most of the limeade before I got it home to take a (not even that) decent photo.  They used fresh strawberries in both beverages that tasted just like my homemade strawberry smoothies do, with no extra sugar or sweet syrup added to them.

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I also brought my wife an ube milkshake.  The purple yam, popular in Filipino desserts, tasted more like vanilla to both of us, but it was a beautiful purple color (her favorite color), so I knew (hoped) she would like it.  It came garnished with a toasted marshmallow (she loves those), some rainbow-colored sour belt chewy candy, and glittery purple sugar.  If I actually used Instagram like a normal food blogger in 2019, this would be the kind of thing I’d be ‘Gramming about.  But instead, you’re hearing it here first!

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I don’t know when I’ll return to Zero Degrees because it’s literally across town, but I’m so glad I accidentally discovered it and took the time to try it twice in the same week.  I’d love to go back  and get the mac and cheese covered with Flamin’ Hot Cheeto dust, but I’ve done enough damage for this week.  Eating healthy in 2019, yea yea!

MX Taco (soft opening!)

Happy New Year, Sabo-bots and Sabo-cons!  Here’s hoping that 2019 brings us all health, happiness, and some truly memorable meals.

Yesterday I attended the soft opening of Orlando’s newest taco spot, MX Taco.  Chef-owner Ryan Manning started out cooking in kitchens across Mexico, and his specialty is cuisine from the Yucatan region.  He was the chef of the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C. before he brought his expertise with authentic Mexican cuisine to our city.

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We already have plenty of taco joints and Mexican restaurants to choose from, and some of my favorites include Tortas El Rey, Francisco’s Taco Madness, and Hunger Street Tacos.  But the good news is that they provide something to satisfy everyone.  None of these restaurants are exactly alike, and they all have unique specialties, strengths, and weaknesses, so there is room for all.  Besides, tacos are tasty!

MX Taco is a tiny little spot on Bumby Avenue, near Lou’s Lounge and Saigon Noodle and Grill, with Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market across the street.  There are only four tables (three of which are high-tops), and you order and pay at the counter.  For the soft opening, Chef Manning wasn’t offering every single item on their exciting menu, but most of them were available, and I tried everything I could.

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I absolutely love that MX Taco’s menu is a map of Mexico, showing you which region each individual dish comes from.  I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Mexico, but I love geography and how food influences and is in turn influenced by geography, economics, and culture at large.  It’s rare when you can order food at a restaurant and learn something at the same time.

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Prices are extremely reasonable, since you order tacos and other items individually — everything I ordered was either $3, $3.25, or $3.50.

At the restaurant, I ordered the cochinita pibil taco (pulled pork with bitter orange and pickled onion from the Yucatan region), the bistec en salsa roja taco (braised steak with pepper sauce and avocado from the Sonora region), the quesadilla con chorizo (Oaxacan cheese and crumbled chorizo sausage from Mexico City), and a piña (pineapple) agua fresca, a sweet, cold, refreshing drink made with fresh pineapple and surely plenty of sugar.  The food came out quickly, and everything was delicious.

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I love cochinita pibil (sometimes referred to on menus as puerco pibil) and order it whenever Mexican restaurants offer it, which isn’t often.  I always think back to the cheesy action movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, where Johnny Depp’s corrupt CIA agent ordered puerco pibil everywhere he ate, in a quest for the best version of the dish.  When he finally found it, he went into the kitchen and shot the chef to “consecrate the moment.”  It’s a good thing that was a fictional movie (and even better that the real Johnny Depp is somewhere far, far away from us), or otherwise Chef Manning might have been in danger!  It was so fresh and so good.  The chorizo in the quesadilla was excellent as well, and I’m a big chorizo fan too.

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They have three housemade hot sauces available in bottles on the tables.  From left to right: a medium arbol chile sauce that is orange, a mild guajillo pepper-based sauce that is thick and dark red, and a fiendishly-hot habanero sauce.  The Guajillo was my favorite.  Habanero is usually too much for me, but I had to try it, and I appreciated that it packed a lot of flavor (a bit fruity, in fact!), rather than just painful heat like too many sadistic sauces.

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I placed a takeout order to bring some food back home to my wife, and while I waited, Chef Manning insisted I try his avocado ice cream.  It was very smooth, soft, and creamy — not icy or chunky at all.  It tasted so much better than you’d ever expect avocado ice cream to taste, and I say this as someone who loves ice cream and avocados.  It was topped with pepitas (pumpkin seeds, possibly lightly toasted?), toasted shredded coconut, and dark chocolate shavings.  It was a small cup, but I highly recommend it to anyone who dines at MX Taco, as it was a nice palate cleanser and worked well for cutting any lingering heat.

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My wife insisted on letting me sample all the food I brought home for her: a carnitas taco (confit pulled pork, onion, and cilantro from the Michoacan region), a bistec con sikil pak taco (steak, avocado, pickled onion, and pumpkin seed sauce, which I asked for on the side, from the Yucatan region), a quesadilla (with Oaxacan cheese and chipotle crema, from Mexico City), and an order of totopos (chips) and guacamole.  The guacamole was excellent, I have to say.  Extremely fresh — some of the best I’ve had anywhere around here, including more upscale Mexican restaurants that make a big production of “tableside guac.”  It was a nice-sized serving of guacamole, too.

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Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner followers will probably recognize our green plates by now:

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I also got her an horchata con coco agua fresca, rice water sweetened with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and coconut — some of her favorite flavors in one drink, and an ideal heat-cutter.  It was the thickest and richest horchata I’ve ever sampled, that’s for sure.  I love aguas frescas, but a lot of them are made from sugary powdered mixes, not that dissimilar from Kool-Aid.  I could tell both my pineapple drink and her horchata were very fresh.

It should go without saying that everything is made fresh in-house.  The only exception are the tortillas, corn tortillas Chef Manning told me he gets from a tortilleria in Atlanta.  I almost hate to admit it, but I prefer flour tortillas, and I’ve never had quesadillas on corn tortillas before.  The totopos looked like they might have been made from the same corn tortillas.  I thought they could have used some salt, but the guac was good enough to offset that.

Orlando taco lovers, I encourage you to make it over to MX Taco sooner rather than later, to try the newest taqueria in town and see how it stacks up to your established favorites.  I guarantee it will be different enough from the tried-and-true taco joints that you’ll appreciate having it as one more option.  Just FYI, Chef Manning told me he will be closed today (Friday, January 4th) and open for limited hours over the next week: 4:00 to 8:00 PM, starting tomorrow, Saturday the 5th.

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.

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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:

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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

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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:
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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.