I've said it before, but I love sandwiches. Not just any old sandwich, though – great bread, creative filling combinations and superior ingredients are a must. So I'm thrilled by the recent wave of sandwich spots opening in Orlando. To Greens ¶ Grille, Pom Pom's Sandwicheria and Lola's Gourmet-to-Go, we can now add downtown's Java Lava Coffee Shops. (That's right, "Shops," plural. Unless there's a secret back room or something, there's just the one shop, but we can assume that they're planning to open more. Good old Orlando. Why have one restaurant when you could have a chain of them?)
Java Lava offers meals-on-bread of every stripe: sandwiches on regular bread, ciabatta or baguette; panini; wraps; open-faced "smorbrod." (There's also a small selection of salads and soups for those die-hard carb avoiders.) The room is pleasant if somewhat sparely furnished with rows of light-wood tables and chairs with a utilitarian, '70s-Swedish vibe. At the height of the lunch hour, a forest of tall number placards beckon food runners carrying loaded trays. Java Lava serves lunch on china, with stainless-steel flatware, instead of the ubiquitous paper plates and plastic cutlery ' a posh touch and much appreciated. (The takeout boxes are pretty, too ' black with an embossed Art Deco pattern instead of plain old white styrofoam.)
Over the course of a week, I sampled five sandwiches, but the menu offers many more, each unique. My first pick was the mojo pulled pork ($6.65): juicy chunks of falling-apart-tender pork mixed with a sweetish Caribbean sauce and mild grilled red onions, covered with Monterey Jack cheese and served on a baguette. The bread ' the basis of every sandwich ' was nicely crunchy but not so hard that it made biting into it difficult. It was a glorious lunch, the kind that makes you forget any vows of moderation, and it was the best thing I tried at Java Lava.
The crab-cake panini ($7.65) and the "California Star" ($6.65) – a veggie sandwich on pita – were tasty contenders as well. Two crab cakes, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and tartar sauce slid around on chewy ciabatta, necessitating knife-and-fork action. Messy, but yummy. The California Star comprised hummus, cucumbers, slices of ripe avocado and a cloud of alfalfa sprouts, stuffed into a whole-wheat pita that wasn't up to the task of containing these multitudes. The feta'pine nut sauce served on the side was appetizing but somewhat beside the point.
Not so successful was the Asian-spicy chicken panini ($7.65). The bean sprouts were beyond their prime, to put it mildly, and the black-bean cilantro spread was not a happy combination.
The open-face sandwiches are a nifty twist not often encountered at lunchtime. Here, they're offered as an eat-in item only, as the chef doesn't feel the presentation can be satisfactory in a to-go box. The smoked salmon smorbrod (a deal at $3.65) was a delicate feast of oily pink fish draped over herbed-cream-cheese-spread baguette, with capers and red onions and slices of hard-boiled egg and lemon artfully arranged on the plate.
About the coffee: There's a whole host of caffeinated mixtures, from the Coca Mocha Joy to the Nutty Irish Lady (ranging from $3.55 to $4.35), any of which would no doubt provide an excellent afternoon pick-me-up for nearby Bank of America or courthouse employees. I find the trend of espresso drowned in whipped cream and sugary syrup to be an oddly infantile one, like a sundae disguised as grownup fuel. But I took along my coffee-snob pal to help me judge the offerings. She pronounced the latte ($3.25) adequate, if bitter – no competition to Starbucks or Panera. The snob declined to choose from the long list of confectionery concoctions, because she's also a purist.
One thing about Java Lava: When they say they close at 3 p.m., they mean it. I walked in with a friend at 2:45 and though the cashier took our order, it precipitated a tiff with the back-of-house staff that had already shut down the kitchen. This spot is best visited midday, when the bustle of hungry businesspeople and the strains of always-on-play opera warm up the room. As for parking, don't even try. Java Lava is a walking destination for downtowners.
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