La Fogata

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Lafogata exterior

La Fogata saved my Friday night recently.

My destination was another restaurant in the complex on the southwest corner of South Orange Blossom Trail and West Sand Lake Road, across from the Florida Mall. It was an obscure place, but when you write about restaurants you look for the obscure finds, listen for leads, go hunting on a hunch.

This time it didn’t work out. My companion and I walked into the intended restaurant and were greeted with a glare by a staff member holding a microphone and tending to a very large party just inside the front door. His look made it clear that if we weren’t part of this group we didn’t really belong there that night. Although another staff member offered to show us to a booth — just a few feet away from the party and its amplified host — we said we’d come back another time and left.

Just across the way, I saw the sign for La Fogata and said, Let’s give it a try. It was delightful.

Soco 2019

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Soco Patio

It hardly seems possible that Soco Thornton Park is approaching its fifth anniversary. The upscale casual restaurant, whose name means Southern contemporary, opened in fall of 2014 in the space that for many years had been Hue restaurant.

Much has happened with restaurants in the Thornton Park area in those years. Soco opened under the aegis of the then newly formed Thornton Park Restaurant Group, which had incorporated its existing Cityfish a few doors down into the group. In that time, Cityfish closed, TPRG opened and closed Baoery in that space, and Jax Thornton Park has moved in.

Around the corner, the Tijuana Flats became Verde Cantina and is now Jinya Ramen Bar. A block away, Mucho Tequila and Tacos became Muddy Waters and is now Menagerie. That’s a lot of change and turnover in a relatively short amount of time.

But Soco has remained a constant.

Orlando Classic: Shakers American Cafe

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Shakers wide soup

It’s official: Shakers American Cafe is a bonafide Orlando Classic. The College Park breakfast and lunch diner will celebrate its 26th anniversary next month.

But there’s more to Shakers than just longevity; it’s become a local institution for being a go-to place for friends and business associates to meet, but with a more casual agenda in mind.

What’s the opposite of a power lunch? It certainly isn’t powerless. Look around the room during a busy lunch hour (which is to say just about daily) and you’ll spot community and business leaders at several tables.

But here the agenda is less about the deal and more about the meal.

Venture Into the Unknown

Written by Brittney Coutts on .

Editor's note: This is the first of a series of wine columns by Brittney Coutts, wine expert at Viines + Forks, the Wine Barn in Winter Park.

Brittney Coutts

As a very young person in the wine industry here in Orlando, I feel the demographics of most areas in Orlando follow the same trend. We have various subcultures that blend well together, but there is always the “pedestrian palate,” or so we call it on the sales side of things. People are attracted to what they know, and persuading them to venture out is not for the faint of heart. Being a twenty-five year old in this industry is difficult. I’m the youngest in every group and it’s just assumed by looking at me that I know absolutely nothing. I am well aware I am nowhere close to done with my learning, in this industry fads come and go like seasons and everyone is constantly learning, even your friendly neighborhood master sommelier and master of wine.

Saporito Italian Restaurant & Bakery

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Saporito interior

For some reason the name Saporito sounds like it would be Japanese takeout place.

But, no, it’s an Italian restaurant, and a very pleasant one at that.

Or should I say a tasty one, for tasty is the translation of Saporito.

Remember the Slow Food Movement? It was buzzphrase about a dozen years ago. I wrote about it becoming a trend in Central Florida in 2007, though its origins can be traced back to 1986. In Italy, to be exact.

There is still a Slow Food organization and an Orlando convivium, or chapter, though the last entry on its Facebook page was in 2016. My guess is that people embraced the farm-to-table as their preferred buzzphrase.

But Saporito proudly embraces the Slow Food philosophy. And it’s not like we’re comparing organic apples to locally-grown oranges. A well-crafted red sauce by any other name would taste as luscious.

Felipe Rodriguez Tequila House + Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Felipe door

Of all the restaurants that have occupied the space at the corner of Washington Street and Hyer Avenue in downtown’s Thornton Park, Felipe Rodriguez Tequila House + Kitchen feels the most permanent.

That may be because for the first time the main dining part of the restaurant has an actual hard roof. Before that it had an elaborate tent-like structure to keep out the elements, and before that it had nothing. The elements were everywhere.

But there’s more to the commitment of a real roof and all the other cosmetic and structural redesigns inside. It shows a dedication to this concept. Even more, the people involved in the restaurant seem to understand that the food needs to be more than an afterthought. On my two visits to the restaurant, I was surprised to find the food as good as it was.

I don’t mean for that to be a backhanded compliment. But let’s face it: Any place in downtown Orlando that calls itself a tequila house isn’t a place you’d expect to spend much time on food. Fortunately, that’s not the case here.

Pop in at Pizza Ponte

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Ponte pop

I was at Disney Springs one recent sweltering day — I know, that doesn’t narrow it down much — so I decided to pop in to Pizza Ponte for a pop.

I’d say I stopped in for a popsicle, but Popsicle® is actually a brandname. The generic term is ice pop, though I’ve never heard anyone say, “Hey, I could sure go for an ice pop right about now.” But the brand became so identified with the genre that they’re interchangeable. Sort of like, “Hand me a Kleenex®, would you? This Popsicle® is running down my arm.”

But in any event, I stopped eating popsicles a long time ago. Ice pops, too.

But a frozen device on a wooden stick fashioned out of sangria can certainly get my attention. So that’s what I was at Pizza Ponte to try.

Negril Jamaican Restaurant

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Negril exterior

I had originally gone to the west side of town for a completely non-eating reason — it happens every now and then — but when I saw Negril Jamaican Restaurant I immediately changed course.

Negril is a fast-casual restaurant, more casual than it is fast and it’s pretty fast: most of the food is already prepared and in a steam table set behind glass.

The menu has Oxtail, Brown Stews, Jerked dishes and Jamaican Fried Chicken. But every menu listing for a curried dish — available in goat, chicken and shrimp — included the line “Best Curry in Town.” How could I not go with that?

Chefs de France

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chefs de France placesetting

I took advantage of a complimentary day at Epcot recently to pay a return visit to Chefs de France, the big brasserie on the first level of the France pavilion. True, the upstairs bistro, Monsieur Paul, offers a more sedate dining experience, at least relatively so, but Chefs de France can be as equally enjoyable, as was the case on my latest visit.

My companion ducked into the restaurant just ahead of a massive downpour and were shown to a table by the window where we could watch the crowds scurry.

Shula's Steak House

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Shula room

Shula’s Steak House made quite an impression when it first opened at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in late 1995. High-end steakhouses featuring huge hunks of USDA prime meat were, um, rare. Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster, which was originally known as Del Frisco’s, was a couple of years old. But Morton’s — then called Morton’s of Chicago — wouldn’t open an Orlando location until 1996, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House didn’t enter the area until 2000.

I liked Shula’s immediately. It was classy, service was first rate, and the food, though pricey, was excellent. In 2000, I even awarded it my Critic’s Choice Foodie Award for Best Restaurant Overall.

The upscale brand was founded, of course, by Don Shula, the legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins. (It has always been easy to remember which hotel the steakhouse is in because why would anyone put Shula’s into the Swan hotel?)

The first Shula’s was in Miami Lakes and the second, if I remember correctly, opened in Tampa. Orlando’s was third. Even after all these years, the company, Shula’s Restaurant Group, has only eight steakhouses, though it also operates other more casual brands, including Shula’s 347 Grill, which has a location in Lake Mary.

The company, now based in Ft. Lauderdale, has a new CEO, Bill Freeman, who previously ran the MINA Group of restaurants. So it may be that the brand is ready to take on the Ruths and Dels and Mortons of the world. Perhaps that’s the reason Shula’s Steak Houses are undergoing a brand-wide overhaul with a refreshed decor and a revamped menu from new corporate culinary director, Demetrio Zavala.

Orlando’s Shula’s is the first to be redesigned. I was invited to a media opening and then was asked to join a small group to have dinner with Don Shula and his wife, Mary Anne, who was the previous CEO and is the current chair of the board.