For some years now, Spanish River Grille has been one of Central Florida's best restaurants. But since it is extreme East Central Florida, i.e. New Smyrna Beach, it wasn't the sort of place those of us in the Greater Orlando area just popped in to.
So when chef Henry Salgado and his wife, Michele, announced that they would be opening a restaurant in Orlando — at East End Market, no less — food fans got very excited. The anticipation abated only slightly when it was learned that the restaurant wouldn't be Spanish River Grille West. Curiosity was the next stage when the name was revealed. "What's a Txokos?" people wondered, silently because they didn't know how to pronounce it. And then everyone moved on to waiting as the restaurant, which involves a new structure that abuts the existing East End Market building, was erected, finished and permitted.
The final stage is enjoyment, because Txokos Basque Kitchen was worth the wait.
The pleasures begin before you even enter the restaurant, which is attached to the market building but stands apart from it. Exit your car and you're greeted by the sweet smell of hardwood smoke and perhaps some grilling meats, as well. It sets the stage for an enjoyable meal.
Let's get the business about the name out of the way. It's pronounced CHO-kohs and it refers to the name for gastronomic societies in Northern Spain. A txoko is a members-only social club where people gather to cook and eat and keep Basque recipes alive.
Salgado, a multiple James Beard Award nominee, is doing his bit to not only keep the cuisine going but to introduce it to a new audience in Central Florida. The menu might be as lexicologically challenging as the restaurant's name. You'll find such words as Pintxos, Xixario, Piperrada and anchoa. Pintxos, or pinchos, is the Basque equivalent of tapas, so small plates. The piperrada is a pintxos of peppers stewed with tomatoes, onion and jamon and topped with an egg fried sunny-side up. This was one of the best things I had at Txokos — it was so good I had it on both of my visits.
I also liked the pulpo de Gallego, or grilled octopus. It's rather a minimalist dish with just a couple of bites of octopus along with potato and onion, but the flavors are big.
Marrow bones were offered on one of my visits. Instead of the cross-section disks that you would normally be presented, Txokos' version was a "canoe cut," which presented the long bone with the top cut away. Much better to get at the creamy, fatty goodness inside.
The oxtail "Matador" was one of the entrees I enjoyed. Served atop stone-ground grits infused with Drunken Goat cheese, the braised meat and carrots looked very much like a beef stew but with a more flavorful cut of meat. (I'm not sure what the matador in the name refers to — do they have ox fights in the Basque region?)
That Xixario dish I mentioned is a whole fish presentation, snapper on the evening I visited, that is cooked over the special wood grill in the open kitchen, the source of that wonderful aroma that greets you outside. Presented with the head and tail intact, a pearlescent dot where the eye would be, the fish would probably put off a less adventurous diner. But if you're not adventurous, what are you doing here? And if you get over your queasiness of learning that the food you eat has a face, you'll find wonderfully sweet flesh beneath the beautifully charred scales. (Be careful of bones.)
One of the more unusual items was the cobia "ribs." The fish was broken down in such a way that a section of the cheek and jaw joins with the rib-section meat. It was served charred with a Basque barbecue sauce and al dente calyso beans. (I compared notes with a friend who was dining the same evening and she said she had enjoyed the ribs but was utterly perplexed when I told her they were from a fish.)
Morcilla, or blood sausage, was rather mundane, even for blood sausage, but my guests and I loved the platter of Spanish anchovies, which were layered with pulpy tomoatoes and sprinkled with a bit of sea salt.
The restaurant bustles, helped by the open kitchen and food bar, which is also the drink bar. The next time I go in — and there will likely be several next times — I'm going to sit at the food bar overlooking the grill station so I can watch the cook operate the elaborate device, which has an elevator platform that can raise and lower the food over the flames for the proper temperatures. And so I can be closer to that wonderful aroma.
Txokos Basque Kitchen is at East End Market, 3201 Corrine Drive, Orlando. It is currently open only for dinner Tuesday through Sunday but plans lunch and brunch hours soon. The website's menu does not include prices. I paid $8 for the piperrada and $15 for the octopus. The oxtail was $21 and the whole fish was market priced. Reservations are not accepted, but you may call ahead to put your name on the waiting list. The phone number is 321-972-8852.