Earlier in the summer I received an intriguing invitation from an assistant to U.S. Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy: "Congresswoman Murphy would like to offer an invitation for you to tour downtown Sanford's exciting restaurants," the note read. "She would be honored if you would join her on this food tour." The honor would be mine, I replied, and we set up a date.
Murphy, a Democrat representing Florida's 7th Congressional District, is the first Vietnamese-American woman -- and only the second Vietnamese-American -- elected to Congress. Her family fled Communist-controlled Vietnam when she was six months old. She, her parents and brother were rescued by the U.S. Navy when the boat they were on lost power. She defeated the 23-year Republican incumbent, John Mica, in the 2016 election.
Murphy, 39, lives in Winter Park with her husband, Sean, and two children. But she wanted to showcase the burgeoning restaurant scene in Sanford, so we arranged to meet at The Corner Cafe near her Sanford office.
"My husband and I are huge foodies," she told me when we first met. "I've been having a lot of fun exploring Central Florida and particularly local places like this."
The Corner Cafe is owned by Michael O'Brien, Sr., and his partner, Jody Hill. O'Brien, who is also the chef, told us he was most proud of his Cuban Sandwich and French Onion Soup, so that's what he prepared for us.
Well, he prepared it for me. Murphy follows a gluten-free diet, and not because it's a fad. She has a legitimate intolerance to gluten, to the extent that a hospital visit might be required should she ingest any.
So she nibbled on a salad while I tore into the Cuban, which O'Brien stuffs with pork that he roasts for eight hours and house-made pickles. A very nice Cuban.
The onion soup definitely would have involved a trip to the ER for Murphy because it's served in a boule, a hollowed-out ball of French bread. This used to be a thing but I hadn't seen a soup served in a bread bowl in a long time. I don't really miss it, and it really just got in the way of O'Brien's well-crafted beef broth with caramelized onions -- "Not a speck of salt," he said. There was more than a speck of melted Muenster cheese, however, which made each spoonful a stringy affair.
We left Corner Cafe and walked a block to Zorba's Greek Restaurant. (I wonder how many Greek restaurants have the name Zorba's?) Here, a server was ready with a mezze platter that included Octopus, Gyro meat, Dolmades, a very large and elaborately sliced tomato with cheese and olives stuffed in it, and Spanakopita.
The octopus was especially good, a sizable but still tender tentacle with a smoky note from chargrilling. The spanakopita had a very nice flaky crust and plenty of spinach and feta cheese inside, plus a hint of dill.
Our final stop was just around the corner (behind the Corner Cafe, in fact) at Mattie's Delectable Desserts, a cupcakery. You'd think such a place would be off limits to a gluten-intolerant diner, but Murphy was in heaven.
That's because many of the featured cakelets are duplicated without the gluten. So someone like Murphy doesn't have to settle for one or two token pastries -- she had quite an array from which to choose.
I had the Marvelous Mango, which had a fresh, moist cake under a creamy, fruity icing. A couple of bites were all I could manage after all the food before.
I enjoyed seeing some places I hadn't visited before, and I enjoyed the company of the congresswoman. We tentatively made plans to do it again in another area of her district. But a few days after our dinner, she was back in Washington for the beginning of the session.
The Corner Cafe is at 101 W. 1st St., Sanford. It is open for lunch Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-322-3779.
Zorba's Greek Restaurant is at 115 E. 1st St., Sanford. It is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. 407-951-6082.
Mattie's Delectable Desserts is at 110 S. Park Ave., Sanford. It is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-878-4761.