Let me just dispel any rumors of a fat mermaid making a splash near the Sanford waterfront. No, you won't find a portly lake-songstress bearing a resemblance to Daryl Hannah, but you will find La Sirena Gorda Cabaña, an inviting restaurant whose name translates to "The Fat Mermaid's Hut," luring you in with its enchanting interior, welcoming air and promise of fresh, made-to-order south-of-the-border fare. You may even hear catchy melodies resounding from its depths, but fair warning: Should you find yourself unable to resist the outward charms of this comely little eatery off historic First Street, you may find yourself lamenting your decision, like a shipwrecked sailor dispirited by falling for a finned temptress. No, all is not as it seems at the fat mermaid's cabana.
When we heard the off-key renditions of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Yesterday" ringing from the outdoor patio, we should've left then and there, but our server – all sparkle disguise and kaleidoscope eyes – had us spellbound. So there we were, picturing ourselves in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies, when a tempest of comestibles blew itself onto our table: a flurry of salsas, appetizers and entrees all delivered at once.
Following convention, we commenced with the foursome of salsas, two of which were too garlicky to enjoy, followed by the starters: an overly thick avocado sopa ($6) that resembled guacamole more than it did a smooth creamy soup, and the oddly named fuego del mar ($8), which amounted to a crumbly ball of Mexican cheese blended with chiles de árbol and served with crackers – stale British digestives and cream crackers, that is. A rinse of fruity sangria ($6) eradicated the fusty flavors, but still we held out hope for the promise of good culinary fortune, given we'd heard such good things.
What we got instead was akin to a gastronomic fish slap to the chops. First up, the enchilada de mole amarillo ($14), described as chicken-stuffed corn tortillas "covered" in yellow mole sauce: The dish appeared to have been baked until sauceless, leaving the tortillas with a jaundiced yellow crown. The chicken was all but desiccated, with a texture that was impressively close to wet cardboard. No surprise, then, that the tacos we sampled ($10) – beef, chicken and black bean – complemented the preceding dish by actually tasting like cardboard. The unmistakable scent of stale taco shells made it next to impossible to bring them to our mouths. Upon returning the dish, our fresh-faced server apologized, noting that the chef concurred with our findings and was willing to swap hard shells for soft ones. Not wanting to make waves, we agreed, took some obligatory bites, then sat there, still dumbfounded at being served stale taco shells.
Looking at the eclectic interior, the appealing bar, the decor enlivened by art and pottery, we couldn't help but bemoan what could've been, and how the evening had held such promise. On learning the restaurant didn't employ a pastry chef, we ordered a slab of chocolate marquis cake ($7), and while it lived up to its rank, our mood remained ruefully subdued.
Like that shipwrecked sailor, I could've dreamt of yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, but I blithely set my sights to tomorrow, on the off chance the restaurant had simply had an off night. So, on a subsequent weeknight visit – wanting so badly for the restaurant to redeem itself – I found that the taco shells weren't stale, but their soft-crunch texture led me to believe they weren't exactly fresh either. Signature tamales chilangos ($14) were, regrettably, parched down to the corn husks on which they sat. Yet through it all – inexplicably, implausibly, spellbindingly – like one incapable of resisting the siren's song, I long to return.
118 S. Palmetto Ave., Sanford
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