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Tuesday, October 19, 1999

Don of a new day

Posted on Tue, Oct 19, 1999 at 4:00 AM

For years, Don Pepe's Cuban Cafe has had a loyal band of followers who flock to the shop-worn setting in a Kmart plaza for home-style Cuban food that's cheap, delicious and filling. The restaurant's new setting is more of a match for the new menu.

Both have been dramatically restyled. The dining area is now twice as large as it used to be, with a Spanish Colonial stucco treatment, tropical plants and murals. The menu has expanded beyond Cuban fare to include more Latin American influences, from Guatemalan to Dominican and Argentinean. With more than 80 labels on the wine list, they may have the largest Spanish wine cellar in Central Florida. Don Pepe's is now a major port of call for pan-Latin cuisine on the north side of town.

Every appetizer on the combo platter ($3.95) is a reminder of why this restaurant has succeeded for so long. They have the basics down pat, taking clichéd ingredients and giving them a fresh, vigorous treatment. Papa relleno potato fritters are stuffed with a savory picadillo of beef, onions, olives and raisins. A classic empanada (meat pastry) is fried crisp and is so greaseless that it crackles when you take a bite. Ham croquettes and nuggets of fried chicken chicharrones are enticing as well.

Former specials are now permanent menu entries, including a robust "Argentine grille" ($11.95): Strips of traditional flat steak come together with a splash of soy sauce and a pile of onions and peppers. With the chimichurri sauce of olive oil, garlic and chopped herbs, this meat couldn't be juicier.

The "famous Cuban classic" ($12.95) offers some of Cuba's greatest contributions: A boliche of slow-roasted beef is stuffed with chorizo, and roast pork is finished with a garlic-infused mojito sauce that brings out the mildness of this meat. A third offering of pollo frito (fried chicken) is a tender cut of chicken that's been marinated overnight then flash-fried.

Don Pepe's excels in desserts with a seasonal twist, as in the current Spanish pumpkin flan special. But on a regular basis, flan de queso ($2.75) leads the way with its rich, airy blend of cream cheese.

Service is unfailingly polite, but our waiter took our orders by memory, which resulted in some confusion. But diners looking for a quiet dinner might want to reconsider, as this is a noisy restaurant.

In the old days, Don Pepe's wasn't trying to make a culinary statement, and it still isn't. But the updated Don Pepe's is more in tune with the times. And in general, the changes reflect the diversity in Orlando's Latin population, and yet another restaurant's move to satisfy a variety of tastes.

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