Red Mug Diner

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Red Mug interior

It’s nice to see Red Mug Diner open in downtown Orlando, and not just because it replaced a perfectly dreadful restaurant that occupied the same space for a mystifyingly long time.

Red Mug brings an old timey style diner to the area’s urban core. It serves basic hash house type items as well as more chef styled entrees in a polished tile and Formica countered decor. And it is open 24 hours a day every day of the week (though just between you and me, don’t expect that to last very long; I doubt that there’s enough business to sustain that model).

The menu stops just short of being overwhelming. It features a section of egg dishes, another with waffles, then sandwiches, then soups and salads, followed by entrees and desserts. Then there are 14 items listed as sides or small plates.

Stefano's Trattoria

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Stefanos dining room

What is Stefano’s without Stefano?

Or Marie? Or Antonella and Frank and Lenny?

Stefano’s Trattoria in Winter Springs was sold by the LaCommare family last year. Stefano and his wife, Marie, wanted to retire. Their son, Lenny, and daughter Antonella, and her husband, Frank Paradiso, wanted a smaller place, so they opened Antonella’s Pizzeria in Winter Park.

But Stefano’s went on being Stefano’s, but under the new ownership of F. Alejandro Martinez. It’s very possible that nothing has changed in the decor or the food. In fact, I’m pretty sure nothing has changed in the decor — it’s still a sort of cheesy plaster walls with faux cracks painted in, fake block doorways and elaborate painted murals of Italian coastal scenes that never make you think they’re the real thing.

But now there is no Marie or Antonella to welcome guests. And Stefano won’t come out of the kitchen in his stained apron to walk among the tables and chat with the customers.

Was it the LaCommares who made the food taste a little better?

Looking back at my previous review, from 2006, I pretty much said that.

Pearson's Cafe

Written by Scott Joseph on .


Next up for the cozy space at 807 N. Orange Ave. is Pearson’s Cafe. Pearson’s takes over from Green Day Cafe, which took over from Virgin Olive Market, which took over from the Daily Grind Coffee house and Cafe.

Pearson’s is a pleasant little cafe, and it appears that perhaps the space has been spiffed a bit since the last time I visited, during Green Day’s short tenancy.

I was heartened when I spotted a meatloaf sandwich on the menu. This neighborhood was once the home of he Lunch Basket Sandwich Shop, just a block and a half away at the corner of Marks Street and Magnolia Avenue. I’m certain the LB had other things on its menu, but I never knew anyone who went there for anything but the meatloaf sandwich. Lunch Basket closed a decade ago leaving the area meatloafless. (It closed before the Orlando Sentinel began thinning its staff, many of whom no doubt kept the lunch spot in business, so that wasn’t the cause.)

So of course I ordered the Pearson’s Meatloaf, which is listed under the heading “Handhelds.” That’s meant to indicate that it is a sandwich and not that you’re in for a very messy meal. I also ordered a cup of Dan’s Chili without fully investigating who Dan is.

Txokos (Not Exclusively) Basque Kitchen

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Txokos marrow

When it opened, just over two years ago, Txokos Basque Kitchen was one of the most anticipated new restaurants of 2014 (partly because it was expected to open in 2013). It was the first inland project by respected New Smyrna Beach restaurateurs Michele Salgado of Spanish River Grille and her husband, the James Beard Award nominated chef Henry Salgado.

And despite a confusing tongue-twister of a name (say CHO-kohs) and a focus on the cuisine of Spain’s Basque region, it became a hit. The restaurant, the only full-service venue at East End Market, was often filled to capacity as guests dined on pintxos, listened to music and watched the entertainment of the open kitchen and the separate wood-fired grill in the main dining area.

Then, in September of 2015, the Salgados sold the restaurant, saying at the time that they wanted to focus on their first restaurant and new projects in New Smyrna Beach.

And in the few short months since that sale, Txokos has been sold again. Armando Castelluci and Ricardo DiSilva have owned the restaurant for about five months, and less than two months ago, Gina Bugayong signed on as the chef. Bugayong had previously owned Fresh cafe on New England Avenue in Winter Park, where Mynt currently resides.

In a message, Bugayong said that she has been making changes to the menu, mostly to focus on regions beyond Basque country (which makes having a Basquian name less necessary). I stopped in recently to see how the restaurant was doing, my first visit since the Salgados departed.

The most startling difference was that the restaurant was not full, even on a Friday evening during the 8 p.m. dining hour. Indeed, as I entered the parking lot I wondered if I would need to use the valet parking service. But I found ample available spaces. And in fact there was no valet parking service offered.

Dexter's of Windermere

Written by Scott Joseph on .

dexter pie

Dexter’s is certainly one of the area’s most enduring concepts. And one of the more adaptable ones, too.

It started with a single location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, a cramped-quarters operation that was one half wine bar and one half wine shop. It was always my guess that founder Dexter Richardson preferred to focus more on the retail side than the bar side. But the patrons preferred it the other way around, and it became known more as a place for young professionals to hang out. (And make no mistake, no one cared about how tightly packed the bar area was.)

When Dexter’s opened it Thornton Park location, just over 20 years ago (!), it was still keen on being known as a wine retailer. And even more, the Washington Street space attempted to offer produce and some grocery items to the neighborhood, which had no easily accessed grocery store at the time. That didn’t work.

And in fact the wine shop concept was eventually scrapped for all Dexter’s.

In 1999 he original Winter Park Dexter’s moved to the then-emerging Hannibal Square neighborhood west of Park Avenue. (In fact, in the early days of regentrification, the city was branding the area as the West End.) The wine shop didn’t move with it.

Jungle Skipper Canteen

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The Walt Disney World culineers have opened a new full-service restaurant within the gates of the Magic Kingdom, which previously had only a few table service restaurants, including Liberty Tree Tavern, the Plaza, Tony’s Town Square and Cinderella’s Royal Table. Be Our Guest opened three years ago with waiter service only at dinner.

Now comes Jungle Skipper Canteen, or as it’s known by its full name, the Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen.

It occupies a space that had opened with the theme park as Adventureland Veranda. That restaurant closed years ago, and the space has been used for mainly for administrative offices.

Although its name refers to the Jungle River Cruise ride, known for the punacious pilots who keep eyes rolling on the river, the Canteen isn’t next to the ride, so, no water view of the boats gliding by a la San Angel at the Mexico pavilion at Epcot.

But the servers at the restaurant will make you feel as though you’re on the river ride — their patter is packed with puns, so whatever you decide to order, expect it to come with a heaping side of corn.

Torterilla la Mexicana

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Torterilla enchilada

Torterilla la Mexicana in Longwood is about as bare bones as you get with a restaurant.

As we’ve been discovering recently, some of the better, more authentic Mexican food can be found being served in small grocery markets in corners set aside as makeshift cafes. Torterilla la Mexicana seems to have started that way. But now the market side of the business is all but vacant, and many of the store shelves look as though Longwood were under threat of a hurricane.

And the dry goods part of the operation hasn’t been downsized to build up the restaurant end. Three card tables with folding chairs comprise the dining room and are set up between the market’s checkout counter and the kitchen window, which is next to a wall with the menu hanging on it.

When I stopped in recently and entered the market, which is in a small strip of businesses, I wasn’t even sure the place was open for customers. And the two staff people looked at me as though perhaps I had wandered into the wrong place.

But when I asked if they were still serving lunch, they smiled and said of course. So I sat myself down at one of the tables and looked over the menu.

Supper Club Redux: Tapa Toro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

tapatorosc flamenco

We had a terrific meeting of Scott Joseph’s Supper Club at Tapa Toro recently. The food, the cocktail and wine pairings, and the attentive service just reinforced my previous notion that TT is a restaurant that locals should visit.

Besides the gracious owners, Katerina and Vassilis Coumbaros, we were tended to by executive chef Wendy Lopez and manager and beverage director Alex Attart. As we gathered in the bar area of the I-Drive 360 restaurant, which sits below the Orlando Eye Ferris wheel, we sipped a refreshing gin and tonic cocktail while some of the servers passed hors d’oeuvres.

We were shown to our private dining room for the evening, a glass-walled rotunda separated from the lounge by billowing red curtains.

Venetian Chop House

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Venetian Chop House dining room

Breathe a sigh of relief.

If you were concerned, as I was, that the recent rebranding of the Venetian Room to the Venetian Chop House would mean that Orlando was losing yet another fine dining venue you can relax.

The signature restaurant at the Caribe Royale is still an elegant dining room, the service is still first rate, and, perhaps most importantly, the food is as high quality and well prepared as ever.

In fact, except for some tweaks to the menu, now under the direction of chef de cuisine Luis Taborda, working with the Caribe’s executive chef, Vincent Posada, and a more forward focus on steaks and chops and their accoutrements, you’d be hard pressed to find any substantive changes.

Herman's Loan Office

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Hermans sign

Recently, I found myself rather comically trying to locate a new bar I’d heard of in downtown Orlando.

I couldn’t quite remember the name but I knew that it had “Loan Office” in it. And I knew that it was a sister bar to another place with “Shoe Repair” in its name. It’s pretty difficult to do a Google search for those businesses if what you want is a drink. They’re fine if you need financial help or if your footwear is worn.

Even funnier is that I was pretty sure that the Loan Office bar was on West Pine Street, which meant that it was probably confined to one block of buildings before the railroad tracks — putting a bar beyond there didn’t seem like a reasonable business plan.

But walking along the block,my friend and I couldn’t spot the bar. We asked someone outside another bar if he knew where the bar called Something Loan Company was, but he looked at us like we were crazy.

I knew where the shoe repair bar was, so we walked the block and a half there to, oh,yeah, now I remember, Hanson’s Shoe Repair. Hanson’s is a speakeasy kind of place, so you’re not supposed to know it’s a bar, even though there was a bouncer out front talking to another employee. And neither looked like cobblers. I politely asked where the loan company was, and it seemed to throw them both for a minute. “You mean Herman’s?” one of them asked.

Oh yeah, that’s it, Herman’s.