Meza isn't anything like Cafe Annie, but it's that late lamented eatery from downtown Orlando that gave rise to this Baldwin Park mediterranean newcomer.
In fact, although there is still a Facebook page for Cafe Annie, the address it gives is the one for Meza in Baldwin Park.
You remember Cafe Annie, don't you? If you worked in downtown Orlando over tha past three decades it was probably one of your reliable lunch spots. If you partied there, you may have included a stop at Annie for sustenance to carry on. It occupied a space on North Orange Ave. for nearly 29 years before closing in the final days of 2016. (It wasn't a continuous run; Annie closed for a time when the building on the corner was renovated for a car dealership. That's where Orange County Brewers is now.)
Lease issues, not to mention the announcement that Hubbly Bubbly, a falafel franchise, would be moving in next door, prompted owner Nabil Sebaali to look elsewhere.
He found a space on Jake Street just off the main thoroughfare of New Broad Street. Why he named it Meza instead of Cafe Annie is not known. (If you want to dive deeper into the history, Sebaali bought a restaurant called Cafe Fareed and renamed it Cafe Annie. Ironically, Cafe Fareed served American food. Sebaali named the restaurant after his wife figuring it would make her want to come in and help out. "It didn't work," he told me.)
Meza is bigger and brighter than the old place, and the menu is more ambitious. And it's all wonderfully delicious.
Watch a video of this review here.
On my first visit I had an appetizer of Meza Hummus, the chickpea puree topped with hunks of beef and pine nuts, served with a basket of pita bread. It reminded me of the meated hummus I had recently at Feinberg's in Berlin.
I really could have left that as my entree, but I also had the Beef Kabob, meatier cubes of filet mignon alternating with onions, served with a timbale of rice and a medley of sauteed vegetables. The meat was grilled perfectly medium-rare, though the rice longed for a bit of sauce.
On another visit, I started with the Lentil Soup, a large bowl of pebbly legumes, well seasoned and filling.
My companion began with the Arnabeet, baked cauliflower with tahini sauce. It looked as enticing as it sounded, but ultimately cauliflower needs more seasoning to go it alone.
We also had the Makanek, short fat beef sausages, and Eggplant Caponata, pulpy cool and tasty.
My friend chose the Lamb Tagine, which, though not served in the actual tagine cooking vessel, had all the infused flavors from the tender hunks of lamb stewed with onions, potatoes and chickpeas. The stew surrounded a mound of jasmine rice, and it was all wonderful when mixed together.
I had already been two times, but I had to return for a third visit. How could I not have the Falafel?
It was every bit as good as I remembered from my days working in downtown Orlando. The chickpea fritters were moist and well seasoned, wrapped in a lavosh instead of pita bread, with onions, tomatoes and fresh parsley, plus a touch of tzatziki. Still the best falafel sandwich in town. And it came with a very nicely constructed salad with balsamic vinaigrette, to boot.
The vast space is largely undecorated, the high walls a plain white. There is a bar at the far end of the room, next to a large wine cooler.
Service was really quite good on all of my visits. Good training has occurred here.
I was sorry when I heard that Cafe Annie was closing because it was one of the early restaurants of my reviewing career. I'm glad to have it back, even though it's not Cafe Annie, and even though the menu is more varied. Just as long as that falafel sandwich is there, all is right in the world.
Meza is at 1780 Jake St., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Sunday. The phone number is 407-440-3603.