Taste of Chengdu

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chengdu sign

If you hear people call Taste of Chengdu the hottest restaurant in town, you should probably know that they may not be referring to its popularity, though popular it certainly is.

It’s also serving some of the hottest, as in spiciest, food you’re likely to find in Central Florida.

Geography geeks will recognize Chengdu as the capital of China’s Sichuan province. Culinary nerds will know that Sichuan cuisine (also sometimes spelled Szechuan or Szechwan) is known for its liberal use of fiery hot peppers, particularly the Sichuan pepper, which has an initial taste that is slightly metallic but then spreads like a wildfire through tinder. It does not make your tongue tingle, it makes it throb.

And that leads, I suppose, to its popularity. Yes, there is a certain sector of the dining public with a masochistic tendency to sear their tastebuds. They’d probably lick a branding iron just out of a campfire if it was sprinkled with Sriracha. But we’re also seeing a new appreciation for authentic Asian cuisine in general and Chinese food in particular. The west side of town has become the de facto home to many of the restaurants offering more than Americanized versions of Chinese dishes.

Shiraz Market

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Shiraz counter

The last time I was at Shiraz Market it was Torterilla la Mexicana. The name is different, the cuisine has changed from Mexican to Middle Eastern, but the experience is pretty much the same.

It’s a small storefront that’s mostly store. There are shelves of Middle Eastern canned and dry goods mixed in with everyday essentials.

One one side of the shop is a counter with some refrigerated items. And behind that is a menu board displaying the few items available to order and eat at one of the rustic tables in front. There are the usual kebabs and gyros but there are a couple of more interesting items, such as the Gheymeh that I selected.

Stasio's Italian Deli & Market

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Stasio exterior

I sort of get the impression that Stasio's Italian Deli & Market is a work in progress and that the people doing the work aren't exactly sure themselves what the final product will be.

But for all the tentativeness in the air, the food that I've sampled so far is solidly good.

I dropped in for an order to go because one of the things that is still uncertain is whether Stasio's wants people to dine in. There's a marble ledge at the windows for people to eat at, and a couple of outdoor tables. But it definitely isn't a linger-over-dinner spot.

Stasio interior

The menu is mainly sandwiches, though a couple of hot items, including a baked ziti dish, were pointed out to me at the counter, which is where one places an order. I chose the sandwich named after the place and another called The Package.

Poke Hana

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Poke Hana bowl

Poke popularity proceeds apace.

Poke, pronounced poh-kay but not spelled with an accent mark, because Hawaiian, is the meal in a bowl option that usually features fresh raw fish as its prominent protein.

Poke Hana is one of the more recent entries among the the local poke providers. It occupies a rather spartan but colorful spot in a storefront on East Colonial Drive in the Mills 50 district. One supposes the decor is meant to approximate a beachside shack somewhere in Hawaii. There are long narrow tables (too narrow, really, for two people to sit across from one another) with yellow and white metal chairs that no one would ever look at and think, "Boy, those sure look comfortable." Touches of neon, ceiling fans with a rattan look, and a projector splashing a video of surfers on one of the walls completes the Maui-like mien.

Jinya Ramen Bar

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Jinya black

With the popularity of ramen at a height, it was only a matter of time before we'd see a chain noodle its way into town. It happened with Vietnamese, it's happening with poke, so why not ramen?

Jinya Ramen Bar is the company with a new franchise in Orlando, its first in Florida (oddly, the website lists the names of the cities for locations in other states but the Florida listing is Thornton Park). It took over and remodeled that space in Thornton Park Central that had briefly been Verde Cantina and, before that, a Tijuana Flats.

Jinya kitchen 1

As with many chain operations, Jinya's corporate connections bring advantages and disadvantages. It brought money to turn the space into a moody urban noodle bar with an open kitchen inside the front door, a central bar with seating on three sides, and a sunken dining room at the back.

Nothing I sampled at Jinya on my two visits was less than acceptable. Some things were delightfully better than I expected, some less so.

Muzzarella Pizza and Italian Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Muzzarella pizza

This is good pizza. No, this is very good pizza. Dare I commit to say that this is the best pizza in town? I'll need more research, but it's certainly among the best.

It's Muzzarella Pizza and Italian Kitchen on Lake Underhill Road just past Goldenrod Road on the east side of town.

Muzzarella dining

It's a small storefront operation with an open kitchen at the front where pies are displayed in clear cases, just as you might find in a New York pie shop, and a small dining area down one side of the narrow space.

I had called in an order to pick up, a pizza called Assisis, which had sausage, bacon, meatballs and pepperoni. I suppose it got its name from the saint, who also loved animals, though I don't know if he had them on pizza (though he was Italian, after all). I also ordered a Meatball Sub and a cup of Pasta Fagioli.

Bem Bom

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Bembom sign

Bem Bōm's Francisco "Chico" Mendonça is the latest chef to use his popular food truck as a conveyance to a land-bound restaurant. He recently opened a wheelless version of Bem Bōm, which features a Portuguese menu, in a freestanding building in Audubon Park.

The food truck business has proved a bumpy road for many who have tried and failed. Bem Bōm, however, has enjoyed a healthy popularity since 2012 and was once featured on Food Network's "Eat St." Heck, Bem Bōm has lasted longer than that tv show.

Tutto Caffè

Written by Scott Joseph on .

tutto caffe ext 1

Popped into Tutto Caffè one recent morning for liquid and solid fuel.

Tutto Caffè is an unassuming little coffeeshop in downtown Baldwin Park. It's set up as a sort of gathering space to sit and sip, read or work, perhaps at the stone-topped counter in the center of the room.

I was taking a day off from work and was wandering the neighborhood with my dog. I tied Toby to one of the outside tables and went inside to order, all the while keeping an eye on Tobe, who's still very much a puppy and not used to being tied up outside of strange places.

Selam Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Selam interior

If you were looking for further validation that Central Florida's culinary scene is becoming more diverse, consider this: Not only do we have an Ethiopian restaurant, Nile, in its second decade of operation, we now have a second one operating simultaneously. What's more, the new restaurant, Selam, features the cuisines of Ethiopia and Eritrea. (Though that's a fine line; more on that in a moment.)

Like Nile, Selam is situated in the Tourist World part of town. That's a pretty smart choice. Nile was not the first Ethiopian restaurant in the area. Two or three others tried to introduce the foods from the Horn of Africa over the past 25 years or so but never lasted more than a few months. Location, I assumed, had something to do with it. They had opened in a location next to the 33d Street jail and on a sketchy stretch of South Orange Blossom Trail. But an argument could also be made that the dining public wasn't yet quite ready to be more adventurous.

American Kitchen Bar & Grill

Written by Scott Joseph on .

American Kitchen dining room

Magical Dining Month is over for another year, but that doesn't mean there aren't any great dining deals out there. Just look at what American Kitchen Bar & Grill is offering.

They're calling it, maybe just a tad tongue in cheekily, Enchanted Dining Month and offering a $35 three-course prix fixe menu. Sound familiar?

Executive chef Venoy Rogers explained that American Kitchen, which is the signature restaurant at B Resort, missed the cutoff date to sign up for Magical Dining Month. The restaurant didn't want to run a competing offer at the same time, so instead they decided to run it after MagDinMo was over, so you can now consider the entire month of October to be EnDinMo at American Kitchen.

Rogers invited me to come in and sample the menu choices. I had already known there was good culinary talent at the resort. I had experienced Rogers' cuisine in the past, and his sous chef Jacob Rios recently won my Sous Chef Challenge cooking competition at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Show. So I was pretty sure I was going to like what I tasted, and I did.