Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Orlando Lunches

Not Tres Leches – Tres Lunches, Orlando Style

You’re not going to be surprised by this one at all. There are a few new twists, as there always are when I travel and rent a car; but essentially the song remains the same. It’s a three-review combo, because I can, and because these three joints were related very closely and worlds apart.

Nutshell: Fly in to city. Rent car. Find friends at conference. Talk about food. Find not-so-safe part of town where people are mostly hard-working folks who can’t afford to spend a lot on food. Spot a joint that’s got business. Eat there. Tell the rest of the conference-goers as their eyes open…”You went WHERE?” (See: Harold’s Chicken Shack – South Side of Chicago, July 2009. Plexiglass between you and the employee and a dude selling bootlegs DVDs in from one of the three tables in the joint)

This time is was the OBT for the first two lunches. That’s Orange Blossom Trail. Local talk for Route 441 and US 17 as it winds from Noertheast to Southwest in Orlando Florida. If you get off I-4 and head north on 17 you end up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. That’s where we found Mama’s Cheesesteak. Head south back toward Universal and you hit a string of taquerias. We were heading for Taqueria Ameca Jalisco. But we stopped at El Mexicano because it happened to be the first thing we saw…and we liked what we saw.

Then there was Sunday after the conference wrapped. I was staying an extra night along with several other friends. Several folks also had late flights. There was time for lunch. There was a local who had a hankering to show off her favorite BBQ spot.

At all three spots, we ate. And we ate enough that signs like this one (actually taken from outside Friday night’s dinner spot, an AMAZING Indian restaurant) were disappointing to say the least. Swinging would have been the perfect low-impact exercise to reduce the belly-bulge-inducing feasting that occurred during…Tres Lunches!

Mama’s Cheesesteak and The Airport of Doom

Mama’s was Friday lunch. I had just picked up Karl, CassiBob, and JWilli at the airport.

And we need a tangent. I’ll preface by saying the Orlando airport was clean and the check-in to gate on the way out was perfect. But let’s talk about cell-phone waiting areas at airports. I would prefer, MCO, that yours…was actually AT THE AIRPORT. CassiBob commented that we were well on our way to Cuba by the time we got to your lot. And Parking ENFORCERS…when I tell you that I am not ‘stopping’ but am in fact picking up a person who is at that moment walking out the door from baggage claim after having called me while I waited in your cell-phone lot…put the ticket book away. I am not a threat, I am not breaking the law, I am doing exactly what your airport and TSA policies told me to do (Go to lot, wait for call, drive to arrivals, pick up traveler, move along). Thank you.

So now there’s a car full of conference goers who have 2pm meetings, got up to catch early flights to get to Orlando, and are presently quite starving. There is much hilarity in that car. And there is the rapid fire decision that ‘Yeah, this exit looks good.’

Lemme tell ya, if the recession had an epicenter, it was the OBT in Orlando. The number of boarded up restaurants and stores along this stretch of four-lane direct access was staggering. Turned the wheel a half tick at least four times into what we thought were open dive sandwich shops.

Finally, there was Mama’s. Bright orange and clearly open. Cheesesteaks. In Orlando…okay, we could see how they riffed on the Philly classic.

Curveball. Mama is clearly Chinese. And she, her husband on the register, and their daughter in the kitchen, also rock out the fried rice and chicken wings. Natch. We’re hungry.

Teriyaki Cheesesteak for me. Karl went regular cheesesteak. JWilli was bold with the Italian sausage sub. Cassi, not heeding the name of the place and instead going with the owners’ heritage, rocked the chicken fried rice with chicken wings and salad. Point of pride, I also did it right with the ‘cheese sauce’ on my fries. I know it has a list of chemicals longer than the current healthcare bill’s index, but it just seemed to be the right thing to do at the moment.

I’ll leave it to the others to talk about their food in the comments section and leave you with just a few impressions about Mama’s. The teriyaki cheesesteak was damn tasty. Since it wasn’t in Philly, it wasn’t blasphemy. The meat was chopped to a texture somewhere between Pat’s and Geno’s. Soy in a bottle for extra salty goodness was a nice touch too. Good bread but definitely not the real deal. Again, this was Orlando, cooked by a Chinese family, in the ‘hood. I’m not expecting Philly.

JWilli’s hoagie looked solid, and he destroyed it quickly enough that I believe it tasted good. CassiBob does not think dill pickle slices belong on top of a salad. I concur. There was also a small loss in the translation on the wings. While most Chinese take out joints have added fried chicken wings to their menu (though truth be told the Chinese proprietors are more likely to eat chicken feet than deep fried wings), Mama’s added an attempt at a Buffalo-style sauce that didn’t hit the right notes for our intrepid crew. Nothing wrong per se, just too sweet to be hot sauce and too Chinese-hot to be Buffalo.

Karl ate a sandwich. There was little comment. This is a good sign if you own the place that made said sandwich.

I don’t know that we’d go back to Mama’s if we came back to Orlando, but only because it’s a bit out of the way for the conference-gong set, and we like to hit different spots. If you live near the laundry next door or somewhere off the OBT in that part of town, you have a tasty neighborhood sandwich shop run by an extremely pleasant family. Be thankful and go give them some business.

El Mexicano – The Taqueria that Google Forgot

Flash forward past meetings, cocktail hour(s) at the conference, more meetings, budgets, late nights, breakfasts of Starbuck’s dubious quality, yet more meetings, and a quick round up of usual suspects and you get me dropping the word ‘taqueria’ into the Urbanspoon app on the trusty iPhone. I hit on Taqueria Ameca Jalisco. I recognized the directions. Head back to the OBT and head south instead of north. Just a few short blocks from the interchange. Perfect. Let’s roll.

“Where are we going?”

“A taqueria.”


“A taqueria.”

“What’s that?”

“A place that sells tacos.”

“Spell it?”


“Oh, I’ve been there.”

Welcome Scott to the Foodie Caucus. He will be welcome to join us at all future meetings. Where Scott goes, hilarity soon follows.

We didn’t make it to Taqueria Ameco Jalisco. Mostly because we saw a lovely painted shack before we got to our intended destination. There were cars in the lot (it was open), there was a 6-foot tall anthropomorphized jalapeno painted on the wall (inferred tacos and deliciousness), there were people of Hispanic decent entering and exiting with bags of food (people who know better want to eat here).

$1.25 Tacos. The friggin’ rice pudding popsicle was more expensive than the taco, which could be filled with carnitas, al pastor, carne asada, pollo, cabeza, tripa, lengua, and mixed. Gulp…did get in car wreck? Is this taco heaven? There are $3 tamales too? With pork?

A small salad bar set up in the dining room with multiple salsas, cilantro, and onions. We can go get a small cup of the brown beans and pork while we wait for our food to arrive? Ok, that sounds good.

Ceviche? Not sure about that here…oh that was it that just went by that looked really good. AS will have two.

Quick conference with the kitchen staff…we’re out…drat…two pollo tostadas then? Ok. One carnitas, one cabeza, and two al pastor for me. And a tamale. Scotty-Boy went two carne asada and one carnitas. Karl was a carne asada, pollo, cabeza guy. Jwilli went carne asada and pollo. No lengua or tripa this time. S’okay. I didn’t want to press my luck after the PERFECT lengua at La Fundita. And tripa is just…well guts that I’m not down with.

I was mighty disappointed that while they served Menudo Saturday and Sunday, they only had Pozole on Sundays…and I wouldn’t be back. Food was good enough that I was MORE disappointed at the end of the meal, because I knew it would have been stunning.

The tamale was simple corn masa studded with chucks of carnitas served still wrapped in the husk in which it was recently steamed to a tender perfection. Sweet masa and piquant slow-roast pork is never going to be a bad combination.

Steady stream of dudes on lunch break wandering in for a togo lunch. A family of 6 was at the large table across the dining room from us. One girl worked the room well. One other helped her out with deliveries but only to the tables where Spanish was a clear language choice. Which meant every table but ours. Like I said, authentic.

Head up to the bar for salsa and toppings. Which did not include lettuce, cheese, or tomatoes.

Refresher course. Real Tacos? Corn tortilla, small. 3-4 Tablespoons of ‘stuff’ you ordered (carne asada, pollo, carnitas, etc.). Add a pinch of cilantro, a small bit of diced onion, and a quick splash of fresh salsa (tomatillo with HEAT for the carnitas, some of the smoky red chipotle for the cabeza). That’s it.

Of course because there was the ‘go get it yourself bar’ we felt empowered to explore the rest of the dining room. Which led to dessert in the form of several Mexican-inspired popsicle flavors. There was mango, coconut, lime, and strawberry. And then there was Rice. Yes…Rice Popsicles. I did what any sensible me would do. I had Karl grab one for me. JWilli stopped the train at Mango-Chile. Uh-Huh, I knew I liked him. Mango popsicle studded with real fruit and containing the heat of chiles throughout. Read those ingredients. Milk, rice, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, salt. NOTHING ELSE. #WINNERWINNERCHICKENDINNER.

These were handmade in Florida. I know this because there was a Florida address on the label and because the sticks were not all uniform in the center, nor were they completely perpendicular to the popsicle. There are real people mixing these recipes and setting sticks in molds by hand somewhere in central Florida so people can have food they remember from home. You know me, this place got 3 stars just for that fact.

The post-script to this is a sad one. We made sure CassiBob, who had a meeting at 12 and couldn’t leave the hotel, got a carne asada burrito and an order of rice and beans. Hand delivered to her meeting at the hotel. There was a flurry of activity going on around the conference during that part of the schedule. CassiBob left her unopened togo container and her conference schedule on her chair to check on something at the conclusion of her meeting (one of the best sessions of the conference and I was only able to see about 30 minutes of it) and the very friendly (but very fast) hotel staff had snatched the box so the room would be clean for the next session. Sadly, it kept CassiBob’s belly clean for the next session too…

Yellow Dog and the Gentrification of the Foodie Caucus

After several more hours of meetings and dinners and late night shenanigans, we wrapped up the conference and headed out for one last big meal as a group before the late night folks took their flights and the Monday flight folks got in one more night of hangin’ with people from across the country you see for three days three times a year. No pictures here as the iPhone was the only camera in sight.

Ms. Natalie is a local, and was sorely disappointed we weren’t able to hit her favorite BBQ joint the night before. Too much going on. This time, we were going to get there. Promise. Off we go. To Windemere, Florida. You may have heard of it recently.

Yellow Dog BBQ is best described as what happens when there’s just enough hippy, hard wood, and proximity to north Florida for a handsomely decorated and homey ‘house-style’ restaurant to serve sweet, tangy sauced pork with tongue in cheek menu names like the ‘White Trash’ (on white bread with cole slaw, gouda, and applewood smoked bacon).

The display case up front showed off homemade pasta salad, cherry tomatoes with boccocini, and a mound of potato salad that almost tempted me…almost.

The joint was charming. The staff was super-friendly. The food was delicious. And there was a back patio with picnic table that let the cold-weather state peeps enjoy one last bit of Florida sun before heading home.

The only negative I could find is that gouda, while good, does not have enough to get past tangy sauce on pulled pork with slaw and crumbled bacon. Waste of cheese.

But sitting on that patio with $1 Bud Lite and Coors Lite cans on a sunny Sunday afternoon was a brilliant call. Yellow Dog has an easy charm and a ready comfort that would quickly make it one of my favorites for a lazy weekend afternoon all year round.


Jake Weissmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jake Weissmann said...

Ok, in NOLA I'm just following you and eating...sounds goooooooood

Karl S. Johnson said...

And he didn't mention the Indian food or the tapas, which were both DAMN good meals! One small correction...I had a cabeza taco, not a carnitas.

kitchengeeking said...

@Jake - Find us near lunch or dinner time. Don't let us leave your sight. We will stand and wait for any length of time and then bolt in the blink of an eye.

@Karl - I'll get posts on Tabla and Cafe Tu Tu Tango soon enough. Remember, there's S-to-the-H and JWilli flamenco video...and Tabla's going to be seared in my mind for a while. That was stunning Indian food. This may have been the best overall restaurant weekend we've put together. Equal parts awesome (taqueria and Tabla) and random (Mama's and the Latin Quarter dance show with Mr. Ferrarri et al).