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.

In the meantime, Fertel sent down what this person referred to as her “kitchen gestapo” to check out the Orlando store. They discovered that, among other things, ovens were not properly calibrated and general guidelines for the way Ruth’s prepared and served food were not being observed. So changes were made (though, it must be mentioned, no ad was placed acknowledging the accuracy of the original review) and Ruth’s took its place among the area’s high-end steakhouses. (Until, that is, Fertel died and the company went public and nobody gave a damn about quality anymore. But that’s another story for another time.)

I thought about that episode recently when I revisited Lime Fresh Mexican Grill at the request of John Kunkel, founder and CEO of the South Florida-based company. My first visits were less than stellar. I found both the food and the service to be lacking. And when you’re talking about a fast-casual concept -- of half-service -- it shouldn’t be that hard to provide a good customer experience. I noted that Lime seemed to want to position itself as a Chipotle contender, but Chipotle didn’t have anything to worry about.

Well, Chipotle may need to start worrying.

Kunkel, upon hearing that things may not be right in Orlando, did not dispatch his secret kitchen police to the area, he came himself. The Lime at Phillips Crossing was the first restaurant to open outside of South Florida, where it was easier for Kunkel to keep an eye on things. He found, as Fertel did those many years ago, that his standards were not being adhered to. Among other changes, he let the original manager go and set about reshaping the Lime into the restaurant he had in mind in the first place.

Instead of taking out an ad disputing my claims, Kunkel invited me to come back and see how it should have been the first time.

I have no doubts about the sincerity, which goes beyond the claims of using only “humanely raised” meats, one of those buzzword terms that is designed to make us feel better about our basic carnivorism. And frankly, most of us wouldn’t be able to tell a whit of difference between a burrito made with humanely raised meat and one made with regular you-don’t-want-to-know methods.

It’s the preparation that matters, and that’s where Lime if finally getting it right. More care is being paid to the way the dishes are assembled, and there is a strict adherence to Kunkel’s rule about freshness. How strict? According to him, everything is made fresh daily, and at the end of the evening, what hasn’t been used up is discarded.

I sampled a number of items on my recent visit, including a tangy queso for dipping, a richly flavored tortilla soup and a quesadilla chockfull of meat and cheese. A big difference from my first visit when I could’t identify any meat in my beef burrito.

The staff members were on their game, too, though you might think that Kunkel’s presence had something to do with that. Still, my experience has been that if the staff hasn’t been properly trained, they can’t fake it just when the boss is there. And to make sure there’s consistency, Kunkel is making frequent trips up the turnpike.

So consider this an updated review of Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, one that now comes with a recommendation that you give it a try. And to the extent that I had anything to do with keeping you from visiting Lime Fresh until now, Kunkel has authorized me to offer an SJO Deal to readers of Scott Joseph’s Orlando Restaurant Guide: $15 of food and drink at the Orlando Lime Fresh Mexican Grill for only $7 -- better than half price.

Update: Click here to go to the SJO Deal.

The time of the SJO Deal will be announced to recipients of my newsletter a day in advance. I’ll announce it on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin about an hour after the launch, so to ensure you get one of the limited certificates, sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t already.

Lime Fresh Mexican Grill is at Phillips Crossing (the Whole Foods shopping center), 8031 Turkey Lake Road, Orlando. It’s open for lunch and dinner daily. Here’s a link to the Lime Fresh Web site (loud music warning). The phone number is 407-370-3810.

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