Antojitos preview at Universal CityWalk

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2014 has just begun, but Universal Orlando is already well underway in their ambitious agenda to make over their CityWalk dining venue before Harry Potter's Diagon Alley expansion opens this June. The new Red Oven Pizza Bakery was the first of 8 new restaurants to open, and is recieving respectable reviews. The next to debut will be Antojitos, a replacement for the former Latin Quarter restaurant, where I (along with 3 other journalists) was invited on Thursday (1/9/14) for an exclusive Antojitos preview tour and taste-test of their authentic Mexican cuisine and tequila.

My visit began with a tour of the completely-rebuilt building, whose aesthetic is summed up by Modesto Alcala (our guide and VP of Revenue Operations at CityWalk) as if a Mexican church were taken over by urban hipsters. That combination is obvious from the outside, where the Spanish Mission facade (complete with a working bell circa 1893 that weighs 16,000 lbs) looks like it's been tie-dyed with psychedelic primary colors.

The courtyard in front of the restaurant will have a "street" atmosphere, with full-service al fresco table dining, along with vendor carts and a bar fashioned from a vintage VW mini-bus. The first floor "marketplace" features an extensive bar, and even more extensive open kitchen, where diners can still at the stainless steel counters. The dining room decor is an ecclectic mix of polished concrete, aged woods, courragated metal, all covered with bold graffiti and neon that balances between of-the-moment edgy and over-the-top ironic. The "seating pods" tat resemble giant wooden tubs ensnared in a nest steel cables should be a talking point. Upstairs, the "hacienda" has a more intimate, upscale feel; there is a private dining room, and covered outdoor terrace with a killer view, along with a separate kitchen and slightly more expensive menu.

After admiring the aesthetics -- which include a wall of Luchador-painted kewpie dolls and a display of Dia de los Muertos skulls -- we settled in for crash course in agave with David Grapshi. He's a national sales manager for Genini Spritis & Wine and an internationally-recognized tequila expert, who has been conducting "tequila 101" training sessions with the Antojitos staff. I learned that only liquor distilled and bottled in Mexico from 2 specific agave plants can legally called true tequila (mescal can be from any of 29 plants); that anejo is aged at least 1 year in used bourbon barrels; and that the proper way to drink tequila is to sniff it open-mouthed from a wide glass, then press the tequila to the roof of your mouth with your tongue, sipping a shot slowly over 15 to 20 minutes.

Finally, it was time to put theory into practice with a five-course lunch, paired with a few of the 200 tequilas Antojitos will serve. For appetizers, we sampled equites asado (roasted corn with queso fresco and jalapeño mayo in a minature cast iron pot) paired with Casamigos Blanco; and corn tamale fritters with guajillo pepper aioli, paired with Corazon George T. Stagg Anejo. Both apps were excellent, with a perfect balance of spice and savory; and sipped properly, the tequilas opened up the palette like a fine white wine, with none of the eye-watering burn I associate with Jose Cuervo Gold.

Entrees were a roasted chicken with chile pineapple sauce on cornbread, paired with Siete Leguas Reposado; and bacon-wrapped shrimp over manchego corn pudding, again with Corazon George T. Stagg Anejo. The proteins were well seasoned, but both slightly dry, while the starches (especially the polenta-like pudding) were the stars of the main courses. Desert was another high point, with a decadent caramel molten cake balanced by a terrifically tart sour cream ice cream, and both enhanced by a Siete Leguas Anejo.

Entrees downstairs will mostly be under $20 (upstairs $24) and a cocktail like their signature top-shelf margarita (made with agave nectar and daily made sour mix) will run about $9. The restaurant will open nightly at 5:00 p.m., closing at 11 on Sunday through Thursday, midnight on weekends. The lower level sports a stage where a DJ may perform late nights, and there will be strolling entertainment, but no cover charge will be levied. No opening date is set yet, but when they start taking reservations you'll be able to make them through It's too early to say for sure, but Antojitos may end up dethroning Epcot's La Cave de Tequila, my current favorite theme-park agave-slinging spot.



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