When I drove to New Smyrna Beach, in 2002, to check out a new restaurant I’d heard about called Spanish River Grill, I pulled up in front of the place and almost didn’t go inside. It was in a corner of a nondescript strip mall and nothing about the outside made me want to go inside. But go inside I did – it was a long drive back to Orlando – and of course I ended up eating at one of Central Florida’s best restaurant, one where the chef would eventually be nominated for a James Beard Foundation award multiple times.
I was reminded about all this recently when I visited Mu Restaurant & Grill in Kissimmee. Its location and exterior might also cause you to raise an eyebrow. It shares a building with a Shell gas station and its mini mart, occupying a space accessed at the rear. Don’t turn around, don’t drive away, because inside you’ll find charming surroundings and a most gracious and welcoming staff.
You’ll also find some pretty excellent food.
Mu is owned by Claudio Dominguez and its chef is Nibaldo Urdaneta. Pronounce the restaurant's name moo, as a cow would do, and you have a clue to the focus of the menu.
The menu also pays homage to multiple Latin American cuisines, including Peruvian, Colombian, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican and others.
My dinner companion and I sampled a number of dishes. We started with the pork chicharron, pork belly bites bathed in a tangy tamarind and chipotle sauce, served with crispy plantain chips. I could have been happy just eating these all night. (But if I’d known how much more food was coming I wouldn’t have had as many as I did.)
We also had the mofonguitos, a variation of mofongo where the mashed plantains are formed into cups instead of presented as a flat platform. Into the cups was crammed shredded chicken, which was dressed with a creamy sauce and sprinkled with feta cheese and pickled jalapeños.
The ceviche was a cool and citrusy treat, with bits of corvina tossed with onions, peppers, jalapeños and fresh cilantro.
Arepitas de pernil had a base of cornmeal arepas topped with Yucatan style pulled pork, dressed with cabbage and a Venezuelan tartar sauce and finished with triangles of fried cheese spiked through.
The Mu burger was quite impressive. It’s a seven-ounce patty, almost as thick as it is wide, with a well-charred exterior but juicy and red center, as requested. It was served on a frilly leaf of butter lettuce and topped with sun-dried tomato and bacon gastrique plus a few blue cheese crumbles. Tomatoes and housemade pickles were served on the grilled bun. Wonderful flavors. The basket of truffle fries that accompanied was almost superfluous.
Even more impressive than the burger, La Espetada was a knockout. It was served on a swordlike skewer on a stand that towered over the table. A sort of churrascaria without the roaming gauchos. It had four huge hunks of picanha steaks (top of the rump), alternated on the blade with bell peppers, onions and pineapple.
It was served with truffle fries, bite-sized arepas, tostados, and various sauces, plus a tossed salad.
And get this: the market price was $47. Four hungry adults could easily make a meal of this one dish.
And then finish with the bread pudin, the squares of custardized bread deep fried and served with a sweet panela glaze.
Our server was helpful and had excellent menu knowledge.
The space that Mu occupies, according to Dominguez, was once a McDonald’s and has been other restaurants, including one called La Hacienda. The interior features a wall covered with salvaged wood planks and corrugated steel in various stages of rusting. Another wall is covered with faux grass, and clusters of exposed-bulb light fixtures hang about the dining space and over the small bar at the front of the restaurant. Tables are covered with brown butcher paper but the napkins are cloth. A glass door leads to an outdoor dining area with a raised patio.
In the restroom – there’s just one; it’s a small place – is an elaborate painting of a cow (shown at top), and a sign there reads, “Wash your hands as if there’s a pandemic.” That gains more meaning when you know that Mu opened two years ago at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But it persevered despite the trying times. And it bears noting that while many restaurants are still struggling and trying to cope by cutting corners, reducing portions and compromising on quality, Mu Restaurant serves excellent food in huge portions at bargain prices.
Mu Restaurant is at 3092 Michigan Ave., Kissimmee (map). (It’s just a couple of blocks off the turnpike if you’re coming from downtown Orlando.) It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-483-8778.