Pepe's Cantina

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Pepes Cantina exterior

Mi Tomatina, the paella place in Winter Park’s Hannibal Square, is now Pepe’s Cantina. While Spanish may still be spoken here, the dialect is more Mexican than Catalan. And there’s a distinct Texas accent, as well.

Pepe’s Facebook page (the website is still “under construction) states that chef Jose Baranenko’s menu “puts a new twist on traditional Mexican cuisine.” Inasmuch as fajitas and nachos — and burgers, for that matter — are Mexican it’s only because they migrated from the country to the north.

But I’ll not quibble about authenticity. I had a pleasant visit to Pepe’s recently, and if the cantina vibe isn’t quite in sync with such neighbors as Chez Vincent, Mynt and Armando’s — Pepe’s Facebook page is promoting an event called Cinco de Drinko — it isn’t any more out of place than, say, Dexter’s down the block.

And to be honest, the place was fairly subdued when I visited, even though it was a Friday evening. The small dining room was all but empty, but the sidewalk tables out front were filled. My guest and I didn’t want to be inside (and alone) so one of the staffers asked us if we’d like to check out the tables by the bar in the back. If the bar was there when it was still Mi Tomatina, it had escaped my notice. We grabbed one of the high-top tables across from the bar and looked over the menu.

STP - Sloppy Taco Palace

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STP tacos

You might expect one thing from a place that refers to itself as STP. You’d definitely expect another once you knew that the initials stand for Sloppy Taco Palace. You get both at this fun little place in South Orlando. The walls are covered with assorted signage, some of which would bring to mind the motor oil company, and the menu filled with tacos, sloppy or otherwise.

You won’t get a palace, that’s for certain. STP is decidedly a bar. Think Johnny’s Fillin’ Station but with tacos instead of burgers. There are some hightop tables, but this is the sort of place that if you walk in and there are places to sit at the bar and no one sitting at tables you’d be considered odd not to hop onto a barstool.

Which is what I did on my recent lunchtime visit.


Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chuys hubcapsWhen it was announced, in January, that Austin-based Chuy’s would be opening a restaurant in Central Florida, fans of the Tex-Mexery were enthusiastic. Many of the commenters were ex-Texans (extans?) who bemoaned the lack of good, authentic Tex-Mex food in Central Florida.

As someone who moved to the area from the Southwest, I can understand the disappointment with some of the restaurants that foist what they call Tex-Mex -- or worse, “authentic Mexican -- food but which is really no more than some tortillas with refried beans and melted cheese. It’s the equivalent of a cook boiling up some pasta, dumping some tomato sauce on it and proclaiming, “That’s Italian!”

But in the 25 years since I moved here, restaurants have moved beyond Flori-Mex and learned the nuances of Tex-Mex. Amigo’s under the original owners is one example; Cocina 214 in Winter Park would be a more recent one.

Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar

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Rocco wallIt took four visits to Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar before I was able to sample the food. The first time I didn’t even make it out of my car. The restaurant had announced its grand opening -- and the promise of free food -- and the Sand Lake Road complex where Rocco’s is located was so jam-packed that there weren’t any parking space even at the neighboring strip mall. I don’t need free food that badly.

Taqueria del Sol

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sol bar“Low Country” Southern-fried chicken isn’t the sort of thing you expect to see on the menu of a restaurant with a Mexican name. And you don’t expect to see a full bar in a fast casual concept.

But there they both are at Taqueria del Sol, a new restaurant brought to town from Atlanta by local Five Guys burger franchise owners BRMGRP LLC. TdS opens today (Monday, Oct. 1, 2012) in a space that was originally occupied by the now defunct O’boys barbecue on South Orange Avenue.

I stopped in a few days ago to have a look and a nibble, and I liked what I saw and tasted.

Taqueria del Sol was started, in 2000, by Atlanta restaurateur Mike Klank and chef Eddie Hernandez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, who had collaborated previously on a restaurant called Sundown Cafe, a full-service, dinner-only restaurant. The Taqueria was a response to requests that the two serve a casual lunch. There are now four TdS locations in Georgia, and franchises are opening in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

Azteca d'Oro

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It's shredded lettuce, not hair, on the chest of the Macho Burrito.
OK, I admit it. One of my favorite pig-out foods is Tex-Mex. I can visit just about any other type of restaurant and no matter how good it is control myself from eating too much. But after a meal at Tex-Mex restaurant, I leave stuffed and bloated.


Of course, I could blame the (usually) complimentary chips and salsa that are the custom of Tex-Mexeries. And I do. But that doesn’t explain the utter loss of constraint i’m somehow able to maintain at other types of restaurants with, say, a mere bread basket. I just keep shoving those little triangles into my face.

But that doesn’t stop me from going whole hog on the entree, hog being the operative word. More often than not I’ll get a combination platter, something that will include rice and refried beans, because I don’t get enough carbs from the chips, not to mention the flour tortillas that are more common than the corn variety at most T-M’s. I think the reason I enjoy Tex-Mex so much is that I don’t have to think too hard. There is very little nuance. Heck, most of the items on any menu are the same four or five ingredients just presented in different order. For a critic, there isn’t a whole lot to do.

Cocina 214

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Here’s one of the things I like about Cocina 214 -- and there are several things to like here: it doesn’t make apologies for being a Tex-Mex restaurant. Yes, it claims on its website that it is “a contemporary Mexican kitchen,” but in defining that term it explains the food is “creative, gourmet interpretations of traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex favorites.” The first thing I look for when I visit a restaurant that claims to be authentic Mexican is the number of non-Mexican dishes, such as fajitas, nachos and the like.

You’ll find such items on the menu here, too, but Cocina 214 doesn’t try to pass them off as something you’d find south of the border. In fact, it places them squarely within Texas. The 214 in the restaurant’s name is not its address on Welbourne Avenue -- that’s 151. Instead, it denotes the area code for Dallas. Dallas isn’t the city that comes to mind when I think of Tex-Mex -- San Antonio, Austin, even Amarillo seem more likely -- but there you go.

Agave Azul

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Agave_AzulI was in the area of Kirkman and Conroy Roads recently during the lunch hour and scanned the area for a place to eat. Agave Azul caught my eye. Actually, so did Zorba’s Greek Tavern across the parking lot, but I was suddenly hungry for Mexican, so stuck with AA (I’ll tell you about my subsequent trip to Zorba’s soon).

I’m thinking Agave Azul might be a more attractive restaurant in the evening. During the day, the bright sunlight streams in through the front windows and makes everything in the restaurant look as though it’s in shadows. Seated at a table in the back of the restaurant, I felt as though the power had gone out.

I know for certain there was no electricity in the food. I had the enchiladas rancheras, two enchiladasEnchiladas_Rancheros with a soupcon of pork, chopped onions and bell peppers. They were topped with melted cheese, which had actually started to recongeal, and sauce. It was accompanied by a bit of rice, lettuce, sour cream and guacamole. And there wasn’t a thing that was memorable about it.

Service was perfunctory. Agave Azul calls itself an authentic Mexican restaurant. Why, then, I wonder, does it feature so many Tex-Mex items on its menu? Oh, well, at least it doesn’t call itself a Mexican gastropub.

Agave Azul is at 4750 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here’s a link to the restaurant’s website (uncontrollable music warning!). The phone number is 407-704-6931.


Gringos Locos

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gringos_locosIt’s interesting that Gringos Locos would use two self-derogatory terms as its name. First you’ve got Gringos, a disparaging term that Mexicans use to describe pretty much all non-Mexicans but especially Americans. And just to twist it a bit, add the Spanish word for crazy.

And the owners, Rob Bair and Jay Clark, admit in a note on the restaurant’s website that they are a couple of gringos, although they don’t say anything about being nuts (then again, they decided to go into the restaurant business, so assumptions may be made). They also say in their note that despite being gringos “we know Mexican food.”

I won’t go that far. What is served in this little eatery in downtown Orlando has a lot more in common with Tex-Mex than Mexican, with a definite leaning to the, uh, gringo side of the border. But they do serve some decent food in a delightfully grungy atmosphere.

Lime Fresh Mexican Grill Redux

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Lime_FreshThis review is about Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, but I have to start out with a story about Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Sometimes, well-known and respected restaurant brands moving into a new area hit a bump or two. I was reminded recently of the troubles Ruth’s Chris had when it first came to town. Do you remember? I was just over 20 years ago, in late 1990, and it moved into the second level of the Interior Decor Center in Altamonte Springs. It took over a space that had been occupied, ever so briefly, by another steakhouse, Bob Ruby’s.

The reputation of Ruth’s Chris preceded it into town, and the upscale restaurant out of New Orleans was highly anticipated. But when I reviewed it, in October of that year, I found a steakhouse that didn’t seem to know how to cook a steak or anything else for that matter. My review was not a positive one.

CEO Ruth Fertel, someone associated with the home office told me, went ballistic. She took out a half-page ad in the Sentinel disputing my review. The ad found fewer kind things to say about me than I did about the steakhouse.

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