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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pan-Latin potpourri

Comfort-food staples for homesick expats

Posted on Thu, Mar 26, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Twenty-five years in the restaurant biz does an institution make, especially in this city, where longevity is usually the domain of chains and eateries catering to diners who are long in the tooth and short on taste. OK, maybe that's a little harsh, but it doesn't take away from the fact that Café Madrid, a humble family-run restaurant, has quietly evolved into a downtown dining institution. What Johnson's Diner has done for Orlando's African-Americans, Café Madrid has done for the city's Hispanics ' it's a community gathering ground where citizens come together to enjoy food and engage in a little social, political and cultural discourse under the whir of ceiling fans.

In fact, many a campaign trail has stopped through Manny Genao's Conway Plaza café, a tropically dated, down-home joint that started off as a Spanish restaurant, but has since morphed into a pan-Latin eatery. A handful of Iberian specialties were retained, including a seafood- and meat-laden paella Valenciana ($50.95) for two, an ideal dish over which to chew some political fat. The rest of the menu comprises a hodgepodge of Cuban and Puerto Rican dishes, not least of which was a bowl of sopa de frijoles rojas ($3.95), a filling mélange of white rice layered with a thick broth of red kidney beans and topped with chopped onions. Enjoying it with buttery slices of Cuban bread makes it a meal in itself. A cup of sopa de pollo ($3.50) proved too salty to enjoy, though carrots, potatoes, vermicelli and wee morsels of chicken gave it elements of comfort food.

A healthy selection of mains ensures something for everyone ' that is, unless you're a vegetarian, in which case you're better off going to the strip-mall Chinese restaurant a few doors down. Otherwise, sharpen your canines and sink 'em into the multitude of beef, chicken, pork and seafood dishes on hand, like the pescado Catalana ($10.95), a sizable slab of grouper lolling in a rich creole sauce with red and yellow peppers, onions and tangy green olives. The dish is served with a heap of fat maduros and a mound of yellow rice dotted with peas, both excellent, but it's the baked fish ' tender, fleshy, flavorful ' that makes it worth ordering. Not as gratifying was the unctuous, over-salted filete salteado ($10.95), slices of steak sautéed in Spanish wine along with peppers, mushrooms, garlic and olive oil. (And before you wonder what I expected of a dish described as 'salteado,â?� that's Spanish for sauteed, not salted.) On previous lunch visits, I thoroughly enjoyed their Cuban steak-and-onion sandwich, as well as the arroz con pollo ($6.95), a couple of well-executed staples sure to console homesick expats.

Milky, not-too-filling tres leches ($2.50) served in a sundae glass tapers off the meal quite nicely, as does the burnt-orange goodness of a beautifully caramelized flan ($1.95). At the prices for which they're offered, both are a steal. Pair one or both with a café con leche ($1.75) and you've got yourself a meal-capper of great value.

The service is deliberate but friendly, and waitresses are always keen to make recommendations. Then again, it's not so much the food or service that has kept Café Madrid in business for a quarter-century, but its patronage and the convivial atmosphere Genao has fostered inside his humble eatery. Here's to another 25.

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