Meson Sandwiches

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Meson exterior

There is a reason there’s usually a long line at the Meson Sandwiches at Florida Mall and in Kissimmee. I mean besides the fact that it serves some pretty tasty sandwiches.

It’s because a lot of the people waiting to order already know Meson. Even though it is relatively new to that area and there are only two locations here — with three more coming soon — many know the brand from Puerto Rico, where there are 37 locations around the island.

 It was founded by Felipe Pérez Sr. and is now run by his son, whose name is Felipe Pérez Grajales. He spoke with me recently from his office in Mayaguez, P.R.

Pérez Grajales told me that the Meson Sandwiches stores that the company is opening in Central Florida — the first ones on the mainland — are exactly the same as the ones in Puerto Rico. That includes the menu, which has quite an extensive array of sandwiches, some with rather curious names.

Meson all pro

Take the All Pro, which was one of the sandwiches I sampled when I was invited to visit the newest restaurant in Kissimmee. It features Virginia ham and pastrami with sautéed onions and melted swiss cheese on criollo bread, pressed in the fashion of other Caribbean style sandwiches.

It was a delicious sandwich, the best of what I sampled. There was something quite familiar about it to me, even though I’ve not been to a Meson in Puerto Rico.

Itar Bistro Market

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Itar interior

Although the name sounds like it might be the name of a far off land, Itar is actually a portmanteaux of Italy and Argentina, the two cuisines represented on the menu. It also sounds a little like Ishtar, the infamous movie that starred Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty. But that was a bomb; Itar is a hit.

I first told you that Itar Bistro Market was being planned for a space in Metro West’s Veranda Park almost exactly two years ago, in July of 12014. But it didn’t actually open until August of last year.

Itar is the project of Mariana Moya, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu who serves as the chef. Quite ably, I might add. Everything that my companion and I sampled on a recent visit was top notch, both in quality of ingredients and their preparation.

Doghouse

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Doghouse Dog

It felt like my old days as the Chow Hound. I’m back in the Doghouse.

This is little more than indoor hot dog stand. In fact, it shares a space with an ice cream shop called The Soda Fountain.

The Doghouse’s tagline is Crazy Dogs + Loaded Tots. That doesn’t mean tipsy children, although that would go a long way in explaining what made the dogs crazy.

And to be frank (ahem), the hots dogs aren’t really that wild. I had the Buffalo Dog, which consisted of a beef wiener doused with the sort of hot sauce you’d find of Buffalo wings and a heavy crumbling of blue cheese. A good dog — good boy; sit — but better in the final bites when the cheese had started to melt a bit.

The tots, of course, are the totted potatoes that are all the rage with the drunken kids these days. Actually they’re the rage of restaurant owners who like the idea of charging $3.95 for an order of little balls of shredded potatoes mixed with onions and flour. Ka-ching.

I had the Salt and Vinegar Tots, which had a lot more vinegar than salt. I still don’t get the allure, but as totted taters go, these were fine.

Doghouse Counter

It’s a quick serve operation. Place your order at the counter and pay, then wait for your food to be delivered. And here the emphasis is on the quick part. It only takes a few seconds for your toppings to be ladled on and handed over.

Like I said, an indoor hot dog stand.

The Doghouse is at 2727 Edgewater Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-412-5409.

Santiago's Bodega Altamonte Springs

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Santiago Altamonte exterior

Santiago’s Bodega, the Key West tapas restaurant that had a faltering opening in Orlando in 2013 then found its footing to the delight of hundreds of regulars, has now opened in the suburbs of Altamonte Springs.

The new restaurant, in the Springs Centre, improves on some shortcomings that the Orlando shop had to overcome — or continues to live with. It’s a larger space, including the lounge area, which has a nice, long bar. More notable, there is ample parking in the ready lot surrounding the Springs Centre, although on the evening that I visited the lot was being resurfaced and was roped off, so it was just like going to the SantiBo on Virginia Drive and having to circle around looking for a spot.

The concept is the same, though there may be a menu item or two unique to the ‘burbs. It’s a tapas concept, with myriad small plates meant for sharing.

Julie's Waterfront

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Julies sandwich

Don’t you hate it when someone moves into to the neighborhood, does some painting and landscaping and generally makes your place look like crap?

That’s sort of what happened when Vanbarry’s moved into the neighborhood where Julie’s Waterfront had been living so comfortably — and unchallenged — for so long.

Vanbarry’s became an immediate hit. And it couldn’t even boast a waterfront venue like Julie’s. It’s across busy Orange Avenue and up a hill. But you can see the little lake from there, and that apparently was enough for the scores of people who have been flocking to the beachy pub ever since it opened in 2014.

And Julie’s, which had had a loyal clientele for many years, suddenly found that its parking lot was all but empty while up the hill people were circling the much bigger lot looking for a space.

So Julie’s did what most neighbors do when the newcomer shows them up — it spiffed up the outside with a new paint job.

The Peppy Bistro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Peppy interior

It could be peppier.

The Peppy Bistro has taken over the College Park space that for several years was the Mexican restaurant Paxia. And just to clear things up right away, the name does not connote an emotion but rather the name of the owner, Jerry Peppy.

It wants to be known as a fusion restaurant but we’ve discussed this before and I won’t go into it again. Suffice to say that it has Italian, Mediterranean and American dishes with a fajita thrown in for good measure and none of it fused.

The Pantry

Written by Scott Joseph on .

pantry counter

There are so few restaurants in the area that offer a kosher dining experience that when I hear of one I’m anxious to check it out.

So when I heard that Northview, a new off-campus housing complex at UCF, would feature a food service facility that would offer foods prepared following kosher dictates, I headed out to visit The Pantry at Northview.

Well, not right away. I learned a long time ago that one doesn’t just hop in the car and drive to the other side of Central Florida without first verifying that the destination restaurant is actually open. And especially as UCF’s semester came to an end. There are plenty of eateries on and around campus that close down for the summer session when there are fewer students to feed.

And indeed, many of my initial calls to the Pantry went directly to an answering device, and messages I left were not returned. The restaurant’s Facebook page offered no clues either because it was not regularly updated.

But then, last week, I finally got a live answer to a phone call and was assured that the restaurant was indeed open.

But barely.

Yappy Hour Brunch at TR Fire Grill

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Yappy doggies

I’m thinking this Sunday will be busier for brunches than most other Sundays. For one thing, most people have Monday off so they won’t mind lingering over a meal with a few extra mimosas or bloodies with friends.

And this is a particularly good Sunday for you to try the brunch at TR Fire Grill with your best friend. That is, your dog.

That’s because this Sunday, and every last Sunday of the month, is a special version of TR’s Yappy Hour Sunday Brunch. Dogs are welcome on the patio of the Winter Park restaurant at all times, but on the last Sunday of the month the folks from Judy’s Pet Rescue set up next to the patio and bring along some of their adorable adoptables.

So if you go to brunch for a little hair of the dog, as they say, you could wind up with the whole hound.

And even if you go and leave dogless, the brunch at TR Fire Grill will certainly have you wagging your own tail.

Heber's Cuban Cafe East Orlando

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Heber interior

Heber’s Cuban Cafe in East Orlando was my destination, but apparently I was the only one seeking it out..

That is, I was the only customer in the place while I ordered my food — and then asked for it to go so I wouldn’t be sitting in the big space all by myself.

It’s not like other people weren’t out dining at the time. As I approached the restaurant in a plaza on Chickasaw Trail, I heard a lot of commotion just a few doors down at a Mexican restaurant. It felt as if all of those people knew something I didn’t. Maybe they’d already tried Heber’s and decided to eat elsewhere that night.

Looking for Vacation Restaurant Recommendations? There are No Guarantees

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Cognac front

As a restaurant critic, I’m used to being asked by locals and visitors for recommendations on where to dine, whether in my home area of Central Florida or in the various cities I’ve visited on my own travels.

(And no, to answer a question I’m often posed, I don’t mind being asked for recommendations. In fact, I’ll mind it very much when people stop asking.)

Especially when we travel, we want to know that a restaurant will be as close to a “sure thing” as possible. I’m no different. Yes, I enjoy the thrill of finding an out of the way place that no one else has written much about that delivers an extraordinary dining experience. But if I’m vacationing in, say, France, I don’t want to waste a meal on mediocre food. I want all of my meals to be exceptional.

So then, how does a restaurant critic find new places to visit when traveling? Well, sometimes I do the same thing others do: consult my counterparts in the cities I’m visiting. I also do other research, reading online reviews, though being careful to take extreme praises and condemnations with the proverbial grain of salt, and looking through articles and comments.

I also look for more oblique clues.

Such an indirect clue led me to Brasserie Cognac in New York recently. I cancelled a reservation I had for an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side and made one at Cognac all because of an interview with Eric Ripert that was published in the New York Times earlier in the month.

Ripert is the celebrated chef of the much lauded Le Bernadin just a few blocks away. (I also revisited Le Bernadin on the recent visit and will share my experience there with you soon.) In the opening sentences of the interview, by reporter Jeff Gordinier, Ripert is described as sliding into a banquette and ordering without even opening a menu. If Ripert, a native of France, finds the restaurant so classically French, and an exceptional place to be interviewed in, I’m there.

What a huge disappointment it was.