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    Amid a bustle of pre- and post-pubescent mallrats, a Greek man is boldly bringing a French delicacy to the masses. Some say they're wussy pancakes; some say ça c'est bon, but either way you flip it, crepes are a street-food staple and Konstantinos Chilias, aka chef Dino, is griddling at the chance to find converts in the Sunshine State. Sure, a food court isn't the most likely place to find a creperie, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Indoor street fare is essentially what food courts serve up, and Dino's brand of delicate made-to-order flappe-jacques are worthy of a traipse into the Orlando Fashion Square Mall fray.

    Leafing through the menu, I was struck at the number of sweet and savory crepes ' nearly 70 are offered. Even by Parisian standards, that's an impressive amount, but what really impresses is that quality doesn't suffer as a result. 'Mall foodâ?� and 'qualityâ?� are often thought of as being mutually exclusive, but the friendly Grecian is doing his part to alter that perception one gourmet crepe at a time.

    Ushering in this new era in food-court dining has taken chef Dino halfway 'round the globe, from humble beginnings hawking crepes on the thoroughfares of Paris in the early 1980s to owning and operating cafés on the Greek isle of Rhodes, in Long Beach, Calif., and, most recently, in Ybor City. Odd he would choose a mall in Orlando as his next conquest, though he admits his ultimate plan is to open a storefront café downtown or in Winter Park.

    Yearning for a light meal on my initial visit, I opted for 'La Creperie Special� ($8.25), a creamy mélange of mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, green peppers and caramelized onions enveloped by a slightly crisp whole-wheat crepe. Every fromage-filled bite satisfied, accompanied with Dino's fresh-squeezed, though lip-pursingly sour, lemonade ($3.75), and I couldn't help but feel sorry for the folks lining up at Sbarro and JJ's Cajun.

    Vegetarians can have a field day here, no doubt, but I have to say I enjoyed the chicken-filled 'La Parisâ?� ($8.25) even more; it balanced perfectly the flavors of feta, spinach and roasted red peppers. On another visit, I sampled the 'turkey a la brieâ?� ($7.50), which proved to be my favorite. Layered with square slivers of turkey, diced tomato and gooey brie, the dish is made magnifique by Dino's secret cream sauce.

    It took me awhile to decide on a sweet crepe, but I eventually settled on the 'Marie Antoinetteâ?� ($7.25) with Nutella, banana, strawberries and Baileys liqueur. The batter, made with fine baker's flour, is properly brushed around a hotplate, resulting in a light, ultra-thin pancake. Watching the cook prepare my indulgence, I noticed the bananas he used were overripe, the peel nearly black. Then walnuts were sprinkled into my crepe, after which I realized they weren't making a Marie Antoinette at all. What I got instead was a decent enough sweet crepe, but the miscue brought to light some of the service deficiencies apparent when Dino isn't present (usually on weekends). The staff, sans Dino, can get a bit out of sorts when serving two or more customers at a time; on this occasion they mixed up my order, forgot the 'Berry Appealingâ?� smoothie ($4) I ordered and forgot to charge me for dessert.

    On another visit, Dino himself prepared the classic crepes suzette (known here as 'Madame Suzette,� $7.75), and though a flambé failed to materialize, the crepe was everything I hoped it would be: a buttered and sugared crepe drizzled with Grand Marnier, splashed with fresh lemon and orange juice, folded into a triangle and drizzled with more Grand Marnier.

    Since the demise of Maison des Crepes in Winter Park, crepeheads haven't had a venue in which to satisfy their cravings. But chef Dino is as determined as King Leonidas to change that, and I wouldn't be surprised to see one of his stand-alone creperies open in town sooner than later.

    But for now, we dine in (mall) hell.

    The building's not much to look at, but there's no missing the brilliant color of La Granja – yellow-orange and lots of it. The only adornment is the name of the South Florida fast-food chain emblazoned in red along with the description: "Pollos y carnes a la brasa," which loosely translates into "chicken and meat on the grill."

    The parking lot is usually buzzing with cars, whether it's lunchtime or dinnertime, and on busy days, the kitchen runs out of some items. So there's obviously been a warm reception to this ethnic spot near the intersection of Semoran Boulevard and Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (where Miami Subs used to be).

    There's a drive-through window, but go inside to see what people are packing away: large plates of spit-roasted chicken, grilled steak and pork accompanied by large helpings of white rice, black or red beans and french fries. The standard "Family meal #1" ($26) includes half a chicken, half a pound each of pork and steak, large rice and beans, large french fries and four sodas. Call it Latin American comfort food (or call it a carbohydrate curse), but the meat is the star of the meal, with its "secret" Peruvian spicing permeated by the flavor of cumin (which is the main ingredient in chili powders). By contrast, the rice and beans are bland, but the fries were thick and tasty.

    The fried bananas ($1.75 small, $2.50 large) are my recommendation for dessert, though the flan ($2) is fine, too. The spare salad ($2/$3.50) is not worth the cost. Other side items are garlic potatoes and fried yuca ($1.75/$3.50). And the meat sandwiches served with fries are a good deal ($4.95). The yellow Inca Cola ($1.15), kind of like a cream soda, is refreshing, even if the Peruvian product is now owned by Coca-Cola. Don't be put off by the potential for carb-loading here – just pick up some of the spicy meat and pair it with a healthy salad at home.

    For the last 10 years, I have been conducting a secret experiment: When traveling to other cities, I seek out Vietnamese restaurants to compare with the ones in Orlando. Unwittingly, restaurants in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, New York and Washington, D.C., have been put to the test, and not one of those exalted cities had anything – be it summer rolls, pho or syrupy-sweet coffee – as good as the eateries back home. And now there's a new contender in the Vietnamese paradise on that wonderful stretch of Colonial Drive near Mills Avenue: Lac-Viêt.

    It was hard not to be a bit skeptical about Lac-Viêt, because I wasn't fond of Lemongrass Bistro, the last establishment to occupy the space that for years housed La Normandie. When we walked up to the door just after dusk and crossed under a welcoming gate with a cheerful entrance, I saw that the new occupants have more design sense than any of the previous ones.

    The dining room has been opened up and made brighter, and it smelled like fresh bamboo and steeping lemongrass. I breathed a sigh of relief. The whole room felt altogether more pleasant than it ever had in the past. With sleek wooden chairs, a traditional Vietnamese instrument motif and depictions of Vietnamese scenery adorning the walls, a sense of style has taken the place of what is usually referred to as "character."

    The food was the true test, and it passed with gold stars. We started with the old standby, garden rolls ($2.50), which were fresh and flavorful with plenty of sweet shrimp, basil and a sprinkling of fried shallot. The sweet potato shrimp cakes ($4) – a dish that was new to me – sounded alluring, so we tried those too. Starchy shreds of sweet potato mingled in a tasty batter and married well with fish sauce for dipping. Lotus salad ($9.95), a medley of tender white lotus shoots, fresh herbs and marinated pork with a garnish of fanned shrimp also was delicious. My favorite dish was the seasoned rare beef with tamarind juice ($8.95), served with crunchy shrimp chips and fresh cilantro. This creation was so moving that I am petitioning the city to start a Seasoned Rare Beef With Tamarind Juice Day.

    The pho ($6.95) was outstanding. The one I chose had eye of round, brisket and soft tendon in an exotic, hearty beef broth with tantalizing seasonings – delicate cinnamon, a spark of star anise, the gentle heat of ginger, refreshing mint – toned down and made almost creamy by a large helping of cool rice noodles. The special vermicelli ($9.95) came with a heaping amount of grilled pork, spring rolls, shrimp paste and grilled beef, all absolutely delicious.

    The meal was so exciting that we decided to go for dessert, something I rarely do at Vietnamese restaurants. Soon we were blissfully sipping our avocado fruit shake ($3) and pink jelly with coconut milk ($2.50), nodding agreeably at all the flavors we'd experienced. For days, I couldn't stop thinking about the vast menu and all I hadn't tried. So I went back two days later to test the seafood hot pot for two ($20.95) and the not-to-be-missed house specialty rice crepes ($7.95).

    Orlando is now even further ahead of the rest in my quest to find the city with the very best Vietnamese cuisine.

    Everyone talks about the plethora of Vietnamese cuisine in Orlando, the wide variety of Hispanic restaurants or the strong Indian presence. Now add to our multicultural mix the words "vareniki" and "piroshki," foods from Russia.

    The Lacomka Bakery & Deli in Winter Park is serving up potato dumplings and borscht worthy of a stay at the Summer Palace. Born in Georgia in the Ukraine (did you know that in Soviet Georgia they grow peaches and eat grits?), Luboi Vyazhvich is eager to serve up her handmade cakes or wrap up whole smoked herrings so tender that they spread like pate. Pick up a box of Csar Nicholas Royal Tea or take home some meat and cheese blintzes. The meat case holds authentic Russian sausages and homemade eggplant relish, and the taste of a "Russian melt" chicken sandwich will make you dance the "kazatski" all the way back home.

    The long-standing dim sum hot spot cools somewhat in the evening hours, but that doesn’t stop diners craving traditional Cantonese-American from indulging in the copious number of dishes offered. For freshness, look to the tanks teeming with striped bass, tilapia and lobster; otherwise, take your chances with the huge menu. Wor shu duck is a crispy, garlicky winner.


    Teaser: The long-standing dim sum hotspot cools somewhat in the evening hours, but that doesn't stop diners craving traditional Cantonese-American from indulging in the copious number of dishes offered. For freshness, look to the tanks teeming with striped bass, tilapia and lobster; otherwise, take your chances with the huge menu. Wor shu duck is a crispy, garlicky winner.

    One of my first international culinary trysts was with Mexican food. In Los Angeles, where I grew up, the lure of a taco stand was never farther away than a nearby side street. Even now, on cool, dry days when the sun is shining, I still crave the simplicity of marinated meat barely wrapped in the skin of a soft corn tortilla – eaten while standing, of course.

    It took me years of testing and trying to discover this same joy in Florida and build up a cache of Mexican places I frequent. When I hear of a new Mexican place, I can't resist checking it out for myself – especially when the owners are Mexican and have a track record, as with Las Margaritas on Semoran Boulevard (aka State Road 436). It was opened in April by Javier Martinez, a man originally from Guadalajara who migrated to the United States at age 17. Although he never worked in the restaurant biz back in Mexico, he was sucked into the chaos of restaurant life after moving here, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up. He now owns three restaurants, two in Port St. Lucie and this new location. How could you not appreciate this man's dedication and hard work?

    But how is the food? Most of it was OK – not as good as I wanted it to be and not quite good enough to live up to my favorite haunts. Still, if you're in the area, it's well worth a try.

    This saffron-colored cottage is inviting on this otherwise desultory stretch of 436. With a plethora of neon signs lighting the windows, it reminds me of a colorful piñata about to burst at the seams. The first time I stepped inside I was shocked to find it so still and silent. My friends and I were the only patrons for the first third of our meal, which was somehow unsettling. I looked around the festive room at the empty wooden chairs engraved with white lilies. The room desperately needed people to complete the scene.

    Las Margaritas claims to focus on food from Jalisco, a coastal region in the west of Mexico. Because of this, they offer more seafood dishes than your average Mexican joint. In fact, our fish and seafood selections were some of the best items we tried. Many of the shrimp dishes are gracefully seasoned and erupting with flavor, like the basic arroz con camaron ($10.95) – shrimp with rice. The subtly spiced marinade brought out the sweet, sharp taste in the delicate pink flesh, paired nicely with aromatic rice.

    For a restaurant that opened with the intention of bringing authentic food to Orlando, they seem to have a lot of perfunctory Americanized selections – why bother with nachos and jalapeño poppers? Or cheeseburgers? And fajitas, although a tasty addition to Mexican-American repertoire, are definitely a Tex-Mex creation.

    Among the dishes I wished I had skipped was the queso flameado ($3.75), which had both the taste and texture of Cheez Whiz, rather than billowy mounds of hot queso blanco.

    A shredded beef taco ($2) came with a stale, hard corn tortilla and was disappointing. The beef was well-seasoned, but looked like something served in a school lunchroom – small grains of meat (and sometimes gristle) clung to each other in a shallow pool of grease. Enchiladas ($8.25) fared better, with shredded beef and real cheese. The mole that smothered this dish was flavorful, but slightly sweet, lacking the spiciness and acidity of a well-balanced dish. One of my friends got the pollo combo ($13.75), which came with garlic sautéed shrimp – the best part of the meal. Unfortunately, the chicken was dry. The refried beans were a tad mealy but full-flavored.

    If you need a reason to go to Las Margaritas, it is to support a man who has worked hard to get where he is today. But don't fool yourself into thinking that this is the most authentic Mexican food available. It's just OK Mexican food served by someone who once ate authentic food on his home turf.

    'I feel like a 5-year-old!â?� says my wife, who, though certainly young, has at least graduated from kindergarten.

    Dwarfed by the epic-sized slices of pizza at Lazy Moon Pizza (12269 University Blvd., 407-658-2396), she was reminded what it's like to be a miniature person, when everything seems outsized. The wide variety of toppings make for endless flavor combinations, but it's the thin, crispy crust that allows one to devour these ridiculously mammoth pieces without exploding. (And, with the honey decanters on the table, it also makes for a cheap dessert.)

    The collegiate crowd that packs the place for said slices is able to wash down the pizza with an impressive selection of imports and microbrews, and the soups and salads on offer put Lazy Moon quite a few notches above the average pies-and-beer joints that dot college campuses. Keep in mind, however, that the median age of the UCF clientele may have some of you feeling the opposite of 'young.â?�

    When I go to a fancy French restaurant, I expect to pay a lot of money. It's part of the whole experience: Exquisite food, first-rate service, hushed atmosphere, and a bill that makes me flinch.

    So, I was taken aback when my guest and I received a relatively modest tab at Le Coq au Vin. Our dinner, including two appetizers and two entrees, plus dessert -- came down to just $52.74, including taxes. And we could have gotten off cheaper if we had ordered half-portions of entrees, which are half-priced, plus $2.

    In spite of the manageable bill, it still was an incredible dinner. We started off with a traditional onion soup, gratinee au cide ($5). It was, hands down, the most exceptional onion soup we've ever experienced. Sweetened with apple cider, cream and gruyere cheese, it had a bit of a nutty flavor.

    We also sampled a gorgeous vegetable pastry, feuilette de legumes ($5.75), a phyllo-dough affair, embedded with toasted sesame seeds, and baked with a filling of finely hopped vegetables, cheddar cheese, tarragon and basil. The whole effect was light, crispy and delicious.

    Our dinners also were enticing, particularly le grouper bronze aux dix epices ($16). This was a beautiful fillet encrusted with toasted pecans and spices, then bronzed in a cast-iron skillet and bathed in citrus beurre blanc. My guest had a black angus steak ($18) that surpassed all expectations; it was a primal experience. Center-cut for tenderness and cooked to medium perfection, there was a touch of blush to the meat, served with a potent dollop of creamy peppercorn sauce. On the side, buttery caviar potatoes were the perfect complement to both of our dinners, crowned with puffs of sour cream and dots of caviar.

    Afterward, we immersed ourselves in Grand Marnier soufflé ($5). It was the picture of grace, rising high over the dish and glazed golden brown. Drenched with liqueur it was pure heaven, enhanced by lemony undertones.

    Service was professional, but not quite as polished as we had come to expect based on previous visits. Yet our waitress seemed sincere in her desire to be thorough.

    Le Coq au Vin is a bit of an enigma. It's oddly located on a stretch of Orange Avenue that includes convenience stores and used car lots. But its saving grace is that it consistently serves some of the best country French cuisine in Orlando, if not all of Florida.

    We didn't expect to be greeted with a remote beeper and a 20-minute wait for a table when we arrived at Le Peep on a Saturday morning. But then, it was our first visit, and those who live in the Bay Hill/Dr. Phillips area were way ahead of us. In fact, Le Peep has been packing them in for 12 years at the intersection of Kirkman and Conroy/Windermere roads.

    Le Peep was originally an upscale Aspen breakfast spot, founded by a ski buff who wanted to pay the bills and hit the slopes in the afternoon. As the restaurant has expanded into a national chain, some of the individual charm has given way to formulas and concepts. The menu reads like a series of cutesy one-liners, many of them trademarked, like the "pampered eggs," "berry patch waffles," "Sir Benedict omelettes" and "proud bird" chicken sandwiches.

    Le Peep was originally an upscale Aspen breakfast spot, founded by a ski buff who wanted to pay the bills and hit the slopes in the afternoon. As the restaurant has expanded into a national chain, some of the individual charm has given way to formulas and concepts. The menu reads like a series of cutesy one-liners, many of them trademarked, like the "pampered eggs," "berry patch waffles," "Sir Benedict omelettes" and "proud bird" chicken sandwiches.

    We were won over by the muffins. "Gooey buns" ($1.95) are nothing like they sound. They're actually English muffins transformed into toasted-brown-sugar-and-cinnamon rolls, and served with a dollop of cream cheese and a side of baked apples.

    We were won over by the muffins. "Gooey buns" ($1.95) are nothing like they sound. They're actually English muffins transformed into toasted-brown-sugar-and-cinnamon rolls, and served with a dollop of cream cheese and a side of baked apples.

    The dining area is a step up from a Denny's or a Perkins, with patio seating and umbrellas over some of the tables. Every table was filled, so the waiters were on their toes. But with an ever-present crowd of people waiting in line out front, there was understandably more emphasis on turning tables than encouraging customers to linger.

    The dining area is a step up from a Denny's or a Perkins, with patio seating and umbrellas over some of the tables. Every table was filled, so the waiters were on their toes. But with an ever-present crowd of people waiting in line out front, there was understandably more emphasis on turning tables than encouraging customers to linger.

    With dozens of combinations of omelets, skillet dishes, French toast, Belgian waffles and pancakes, there's something for everyone here. Some of it is original, like the "granola blues" pancakes that have crunch thanks to the blueberry granola ($4.55). But even better are the pancakes textured with sliced bananas and crumbled Southern pecans ($4.15).

    With dozens of combinations of omelets, skillet dishes, French toast, Belgian waffles and pancakes, there's something for everyone here. Some of it is original, like the "granola blues" pancakes that have crunch thanks to the blueberry granola ($4.55). But even better are the pancakes textured with sliced bananas and crumbled Southern pecans ($4.15).

    By comparison, "original French toast" ($4.50) isn't as exciting as the menu's detailed description. The thick slices of Vienna bread, soaked in custard batter and grilled until light and golden, taste like plain old French toast.

    By comparison, "original French toast" ($4.50) isn't as exciting as the menu's detailed description. The thick slices of Vienna bread, soaked in custard batter and grilled until light and golden, taste like plain old French toast.

    Many items are featured with hollandaise sauce, and a little bit of caution might be in order here. A heavy helping of the sauce weighed down an otherwise fine seafood skillet crepe ($6.15), which was filled with crabmeat, broccoli and veggies. On the side, "peasant potatoes" were a lame rendition of diced potatoes that tasted dry and flavorless.

    Many items are featured with hollandaise sauce, and a little bit of caution might be in order here. A heavy helping of the sauce weighed down an otherwise fine seafood skillet crepe ($6.15), which was filled with crabmeat, broccoli and veggies. On the side, "peasant potatoes" were a lame rendition of diced potatoes that tasted dry and flavorless.

    The "light" omelets are quite good, made with whipped egg-whites and light cheddar cheese. We liked "white lightning" ($6.15), a Southwestern version with chicken, green chiles and guacamole.

    The "light" omelets are quite good, made with whipped egg-whites and light cheddar cheese. We liked "white lightning" ($6.15), a Southwestern version with chicken, green chiles and guacamole.

    And if you're a fan of fresh-squeezed orange juice, Le Peep offers one of the best deals in town. A half-liter carafe ($2.95) easily serves two, and then some.

    And if you're a fan of fresh-squeezed orange juice, Le Peep offers one of the best deals in town. A half-liter carafe ($2.95) easily serves two, and then some.

    With its wide variety of breakfast and brunch meals, Le Peep fills a niche in the high-traffic area. But there isn't anything new going on here that would drive hungry brunchers to traveling extremes.

    Lee & Rick's is an experience; it's an event, not to mention a tradition. You go with lots of people. You dress so it doesn't matter if you drop a Tabasco-laden raw oyster down your shirt. You eat way more than you expect to, and it's all good -- even when you do things that you normally would not, like gesture wildly with a shrimp tail or eat great stacks of saltine crackers covered in horseradish and cocktail sauce.

    A restaurant doesn't stay in business for 50 years by accident, especially not one shaped like a dry-docked old boat and about as unfancy as they come on the inside, particularly not one on the far end of Old Winter Garden Road. I am told on very good authority that the place hasn't changed an iota since the early '60s, so we can probably say with some safety that it has never changed at all.

    And why should it? Not when you can order a dozen oysters (raw or steamed, $6.95), and a large plateful of the ocean's jewels are laid before you, the raw mollusks straight from Apalachicola Bay and so fresh that they're sweet. When steamed, they are cooked just enough to satisfy the squeamish, but they're every bit as good.

    The best deal is a bucket - three dozen for $14.95 - but you have to sit at the room-length oyster bar to get it. Settle in with a group at the bend of the bar, on the right side, so you can talk and watch some world-class shucking at the same time.

    A pound of shrimp (hot or cold) is $12.95, and a big helping of fresh shellfish it is - firm enough to give your teeth some resistance, steamed spicy but not overbearing.

    Fish dinner platters, like stuffed flounder ($9.95), come with a heap of fries. There's a lovingly uncomplicated piece of flounder, filled with a crabmeat (real and faux) and cracker stuffing. My companion described the fish as tasting "like my dad just took it out of the water," and I can't think of higher praise.

    Those same plump shrimp can be ordered fried ($11.95 platter) with just enough breading to satisfy your craving for carbohydrates without masking the shrimp.

    The servers don't lack from experience; this is a fast-paced atmosphere, and you've got to know your stuff to work here. So it's a pleasure to get food delivered quickly, to never have to worry about running out of beer and to be called "honey," all at the same time.

    Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar just kicked off its 50th year in the business this month. They're going to be shucking like crazy, so take along a few friends and an old shirt, and have yourself a time.

    Everyone's tastes are different, so here's a reflection of mine: I'm not in love with pasta. And when it comes to spaghetti, I'm not even in like -- blame it on too many P.T.A. spaghetti dinners. With that disclaimer in mind, I went to Lido's Italian Restaurant, a two decades-old favorite in South Orlando.

    The immediate impression was of a small, neighborhood-type of place -- 22 tables decorated with wine bottles and red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Easy listening music. Fans overhead. Plants hanging from the ceiling.

    The immediate impression was of a small, neighborhood-type of place -- 22 tables decorated with wine bottles and red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Easy listening music. Fans overhead. Plants hanging from the ceiling.

    If you're worried about others smoking, as so many seem to be these days, you probably should know that smoke inevitably drifts into the non-smoking section. Likewise, if you're worried about others overhearing your conversation, be warned that Lido's is almost like a huge family gathering with many people talking at once. (My own favorite discussion this night came from a group of four men who were pondering how founding father Thomas Jefferson would have viewed assault rifles.)

    If you're worried about others smoking, as so many seem to be these days, you probably should know that smoke inevitably drifts into the non-smoking section. Likewise, if you're worried about others overhearing your conversation, be warned that Lido's is almost like a huge family gathering with many people talking at once. (My own favorite discussion this night came from a group of four men who were pondering how founding father Thomas Jefferson would have viewed assault rifles.)

    A young woman greeted us immediately and cheerfully, and told us to pick any table we wanted. She quickly brought us our drink orders, a bottle of Peroni beer ($2.50) and a half-carafe of Chianti (very reasonable $5.25).

    A young woman greeted us immediately and cheerfully, and told us to pick any table we wanted. She quickly brought us our drink orders, a bottle of Peroni beer ($2.50) and a half-carafe of Chianti (very reasonable $5.25).

    A glance at the menu made it obvious even to a beer-drinker that Lido's has a surprisingly wide variety of often-inexpensive wines -- particularly for such a small neighborhood place.

    A glance at the menu made it obvious even to a beer-drinker that Lido's has a surprisingly wide variety of often-inexpensive wines -- particularly for such a small neighborhood place.

    We found our bread sticks were hot and filling, albeit somewhat ordinary. The salad of greens was served, a la Olive Garden, in one big bowl (though that restaurant's has more variety). The homemade Italian dressing could have used more bite.

    We found our bread sticks were hot and filling, albeit somewhat ordinary. The salad of greens was served, a la Olive Garden, in one big bowl (though that restaurant's has more variety). The homemade Italian dressing could have used more bite.

    My companion picked one of the 10 veal dishes, veal Marsala ($11.95), with a side-order of (shudder) spaghetti. The veal, properly thin, had a rich sauce of mushrooms, butter and Marsala wine. Feeling bold, I had a few bites of the spaghetti, which was mildly pleasing.

    My companion picked one of the 10 veal dishes, veal Marsala ($11.95), with a side-order of (shudder) spaghetti. The veal, properly thin, had a rich sauce of mushrooms, butter and Marsala wine. Feeling bold, I had a few bites of the spaghetti, which was mildly pleasing.

    I had the day's special, an un-Italian 8-ounce filet mignon ($8.95). It was cooked to the right degree of requested well-doneness, and was as good as you would find at most steakhouses.

    I had the day's special, an un-Italian 8-ounce filet mignon ($8.95). It was cooked to the right degree of requested well-doneness, and was as good as you would find at most steakhouses.

    Dessert was spumoni ice cream, which was creamy and rich. The menu said the cannoli had "homemade filling," which was fine, but perhaps they should have done the same with the rest of the dish, because the shell was thick and hard.

    Dessert was spumoni ice cream, which was creamy and rich. The menu said the cannoli had "homemade filling," which was fine, but perhaps they should have done the same with the rest of the dish, because the shell was thick and hard.

    On a return visit for lunch, I ordered a $3.75 Italian cold cuts and cheese sub. The meat was nicely lean meat, but the sub made even higher grades for the crunchy, crusty bread and the dressing that was sweet and tart.

    On a return visit for lunch, I ordered a $3.75 Italian cold cuts and cheese sub. The meat was nicely lean meat, but the sub made even higher grades for the crunchy, crusty bread and the dressing that was sweet and tart.

    Of course, the true test of a restaurant is whether you will go back. In this case, I will, not only for the atmosphere but also to try some of the pasta dishes (the vegetarian lasagna looked good) and maybe even have a few bites of someone else's spaghetti.

    Though Peruvian food hasn’t quite made it to the haute cuisine circuit, restaurants offering the South American fare have cropped up all over Orlando; Limeña Chicken in the Winter Park area offers one of the most exhaustive all-Peruvian menus in Central Florida.

    Selections cover the gamut of Peruvian food, from aguaditos ($7), a hearty cilantro-based soup brimming with chicken or fish, to a melting amber-hued tamale ($4), stuffed with earthy black oil-cured olives and shreds of spiced chicken, to the ubiquitous Peruvian lomo saltado ($8.75), a stir-fry of thinly-sliced beef, tomatoes and scallions piled atop French fries. Limeña’s lomo left much to be desired – it was served lukewarm and the meat was tough. The accompanying rice, however, was aromatic and perfectly portioned.

    It’s advisable to prime your digestive system for a few days prior to visiting if you plan to order the jalea ($13), a heaping mound of deep-fried fish and shellfish. It’s not exactly diet food, either, so if you’re counting calories, head instead for one of the ceviches ($10 for fish, $12 for mixed seafood).

    Finish the meal with a small cup of lucuma ice cream ($2), apricot-colored with the fragrance of raisins and honey and a radiant aftertaste that lingers long after the ice cream has been demolished.

    Limeña Chicken is quiet on the weekdays, but Friday and Saturday the band walks in and plays until 2 a.m. The service is friendly, though a bit leisurely. Be prepared to remain flexible: On any given day they may not have what you order, but rest assured, whatever your order, it will be Peruvian.

    You know a restaurant must be doing at least one thing right when it lays claim to being the oldest family-owned steakhouse in Orlando. That one thing would be steaks, and you'll definitely find beef on the menu -- if not a lot of other attractions -- at Linda's La Cantina Steakhouse, which dates back to 1947. It's been in the same location for more than half a century at 4721 E. Colonial Drive.

    In the old days it was called Al and Linda's La Cantina. But it's Linda Seng who runs the place after all these years (she prefers not to discuss the particulars behind the name and ownership transition), and her family joins her in running the restaurant.

    In the old days it was called Al and Linda's La Cantina. But it's Linda Seng who runs the place after all these years (she prefers not to discuss the particulars behind the name and ownership transition), and her family joins her in running the restaurant.

    A casual observer would never guess the restaurant's history: It looks virtually new. That's because the old La Cantina burned to the ground three days after Christmas 1994 and rebuilt by the following summer. The spiffy updated digs include a bilevel dining area and a gleaming new bar that is built around a distinctive "water-fire" fountain -- a pool of water that has an undulating flame as its centerpiece. The whole effect is that of a typical, dimly lit family steakhouse, but more upscale.

    A casual observer would never guess the restaurant's history: It looks virtually new. That's because the old La Cantina burned to the ground three days after Christmas 1994 and rebuilt by the following summer. The spiffy updated digs include a bilevel dining area and a gleaming new bar that is built around a distinctive "water-fire" fountain -- a pool of water that has an undulating flame as its centerpiece. The whole effect is that of a typical, dimly lit family steakhouse, but more upscale.

    We weren't expecting a revolutionary dining experience, so we weren't disappointed. We enjoyed expertly prepared steaks, with the exception of one appetizer -- the too-chewy "bourbon bites" ($5.95) tinged with whiskey and brown sugar. The shrimp cocktail ($6.25) featured a half dozen Gulf shrimp that were simply presented on a bed of greens with chilled, tangy marinara sauce. But for an opener, we preferred the toasty, warm baguette that came with the bread basket.

    We weren't expecting a revolutionary dining experience, so we weren't disappointed. We enjoyed expertly prepared steaks, with the exception of one appetizer -- the too-chewy "bourbon bites" ($5.95) tinged with whiskey and brown sugar. The shrimp cocktail ($6.25) featured a half dozen Gulf shrimp that were simply presented on a bed of greens with chilled, tangy marinara sauce. But for an opener, we preferred the toasty, warm baguette that came with the bread basket.

    My guest's huge "surf and turf" dinner ($28.95) was fantastic and flawless. A 14-ounce snapper fillet was blanketed in Cajun spices (chosen by Seng after excursions to New Orleans). There also was an 8-ounce filet mignon that was sizzled outside and deep-red inside with a silky texture throughout. Juicy, succulent and tender, with hints of smokiness, the mammoth T-bone steaks ($23.45) cover the better part of an oversized dinner plate.

    My guest's huge "surf and turf" dinner ($28.95) was fantastic and flawless. A 14-ounce snapper fillet was blanketed in Cajun spices (chosen by Seng after excursions to New Orleans). There also was an 8-ounce filet mignon that was sizzled outside and deep-red inside with a silky texture throughout. Juicy, succulent and tender, with hints of smokiness, the mammoth T-bone steaks ($23.45) cover the better part of an oversized dinner plate.

    Among the side items, skip the spaghetti; it's lackluster next to such a fabulous cut of meat. Dinners like this call for jumbo baked potatoes smothered with all the trimmings and a simple house salad ladled with freshly made Roquefort "blue cheese" dressing.

    Among the side items, skip the spaghetti; it's lackluster next to such a fabulous cut of meat. Dinners like this call for jumbo baked potatoes smothered with all the trimmings and a simple house salad ladled with freshly made Roquefort "blue cheese" dressing.

    Despite the high-end prices, you won't find any waiters putting on airs here. Service is strictly casual. Linda's La Cantina Steakhouse is just the place to thoroughly relax over a fine steak dinner.

    A true diner serving the classics: chili omelets, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, bottomless cups of coffee. Service is on point and you can't beat the location - the perfect place to get a jump on your weekend errands.


    Teaser: A true diner serving the classics: chili omelets, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, bottomless cups of coffee. Service is on point and you can't beat the location - the perfect place to get a jump on your weekend errands.

    Not a great place to make a good first impression; definitely a great place to soak up Cajun flavors while getting drenched in garlic butter. The place is stiflingly hot, probably due to the industrial steamer, but the food is first-rate, especially the creamy Creole jambalaya. Fresh shellfish combos -- crab, shrimp and crawfish steamed with spices and sided with corn and potatoes -- are more than generous.

    As the midweek rush-hour traffic was crawling alone outside on Colonial Drive, the tables were filling up at Little Saigon. After 12 years in the same location just west of Mills Avenue, they've built a faithful downtown clientele.

    The noise level rose as more customers were seated and conversation picked up. To the left, a father was instructing his toddler on how to use chopsticks. To the right, a woman was telling her companion about the difference between America and the Azores, from where she had immigrated. And across the room, another woman was pontificating at a healthy decibel about the sexual peccadilloes of Frank Lloyd Wright, as detailed in the recent PBS series.

    The noise level rose as more customers were seated and conversation picked up. To the left, a father was instructing his toddler on how to use chopsticks. To the right, a woman was telling her companion about the difference between America and the Azores, from where she had immigrated. And across the room, another woman was pontificating at a healthy decibel about the sexual peccadilloes of Frank Lloyd Wright, as detailed in the recent PBS series.

    With all of that background stimulus, it was hard for the menu to compete for our attention. We didn't know where to begin. There are 144 choices in bold Vietnamese print with translations in English. After a few minutes of poring over the fine print, we were experiencing sensory overload: rice noodles, rice noodle beef soups, noodle entrees, rice dishes, rice vermicelli dishes, rice plates, appetizers and additional appetizers.

    With all of that background stimulus, it was hard for the menu to compete for our attention. We didn't know where to begin. There are 144 choices in bold Vietnamese print with translations in English. After a few minutes of poring over the fine print, we were experiencing sensory overload: rice noodles, rice noodle beef soups, noodle entrees, rice dishes, rice vermicelli dishes, rice plates, appetizers and additional appetizers.

    We decided to start at the beginning, with the No. 1 Vietnamese pancake ($4.95), a fried crepe, doubled over and filled with shredded pork, shrimp and glassy noodles and sprouts. It was delicious and filling enough for a meal for one.

    We decided to start at the beginning, with the No. 1 Vietnamese pancake ($4.95), a fried crepe, doubled over and filled with shredded pork, shrimp and glassy noodles and sprouts. It was delicious and filling enough for a meal for one.

    Next we had No. 119, a combo platter featuring "tiny rice stick." We were visualizing compressed rice, formed into crunchy little sticks, but no, it was actually a form of rice-noodle vermicelli, only smaller and more threadlike in texture. This was topped with charbroiled pork cubes and "shrimp paste," which is a ground shrimp patty. It was a good deal at $7.95, including two pork spring rolls with hoisin sauce. During dinner, our waiter was very accommodating, checking back with us several times.

    Next we had No. 119, a combo platter featuring "tiny rice stick." We were visualizing compressed rice, formed into crunchy little sticks, but no, it was actually a form of rice-noodle vermicelli, only smaller and more threadlike in texture. This was topped with charbroiled pork cubes and "shrimp paste," which is a ground shrimp patty. It was a good deal at $7.95, including two pork spring rolls with hoisin sauce. During dinner, our waiter was very accommodating, checking back with us several times.

    On our next visit, at lunchtime, we had less success. The restaurant was full and our waiter was so rushed that he almost took off before we could place our full order. We requested the No. 107 appetizer, which the menu described as charbroiled pork with "rice papers," a translucent wrapper used around meats and vegetables ($6.95).

    On our next visit, at lunchtime, we had less success. The restaurant was full and our waiter was so rushed that he almost took off before we could place our full order. We requested the No. 107 appetizer, which the menu described as charbroiled pork with "rice papers," a translucent wrapper used around meats and vegetables ($6.95).

    When he brought it to our table moments later, we questioned whether it was even what we had ordered. There were no rice papers included with the dinner plate filled with vermicelli, pork meatballs, iceberg lettuce and cucumbers. The waiter, meanwhile, was busily juggling so many tables that it was impossible to get his attention until he delivered our entree -- the No. 81 stir-fried shrimp with rice ($5.50) that skimped on the most important ingredient of all. There were just five undersized shrimp on a mass of white rice, caramelized onions and veggies.

    When he brought it to our table moments later, we questioned whether it was even what we had ordered. There were no rice papers included with the dinner plate filled with vermicelli, pork meatballs, iceberg lettuce and cucumbers. The waiter, meanwhile, was busily juggling so many tables that it was impossible to get his attention until he delivered our entree -- the No. 81 stir-fried shrimp with rice ($5.50) that skimped on the most important ingredient of all. There were just five undersized shrimp on a mass of white rice, caramelized onions and veggies.

    It wasn't until the end of the meal that our waiter finally brought the rice papers for the appetizer, with no apology or explanation for the delay.

    It wasn't until the end of the meal that our waiter finally brought the rice papers for the appetizer, with no apology or explanation for the delay.

    We enjoyed most of the food we sampled on two visits. No doubt, this restaurant is a worthy choice for anyone who craves Vietnamese cuisine. But newcomers should pay close attention to the menu, ask lots of questions and avoid the dining rush hour.

    Tea for kids that adults like, too! Bubble tea at Lollicup. The very thought reminds me of simpler days when I worried about such things as having tea parties with my stuffed animals. What is bubble tea? A drink invented in Taiwan in the early 1980s by pushcart tea vendors who competed for sales outside of elementary schools. One clever vendor added fruit flavors to tea and vigorously shook, creating bubbles. How totally kid. Another vendor took the idea a step further, adding tapioca pearls, thus creating the illusion of big bubbles sitting on the bottom of each cup.

    Today, bubble tea is still shaken and the imbiber merrily sips "boba," those characteristic dark tapioca pearls 6mm in diameter, through an uncharacteristically large straw. Orlando has a delicious little bubble-tea hut of its own called Lollicup. Owners Quang Vu and Angela Vu have just opened their third location in Central Florida on the corner of Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, which is many a tea party in kid talk. The space is small and colorful, just a place to stop in for a moment or two, but not to lounge.

    Tea makers busy themselves mixing and stirring and shrink-wrapping customer selections with a special Lollicup closed-seal-to-go system. No need for a lid, just pop a straw through the shrink-wrap and you're good to go. Neat-O. I couldn't decide on just one, so I tried three: almond coconut milk with boba ($3.50); avocado smoothie with boba (4.50); and a baffling concoction of "four-color pudding chocolate, eggnog, milk and taro" mixed together, poured in a cup, studded with boba and other candied fruit jewels, shrink-wrapped and handed to me by Quang, who promptly said, "Wow. You're really adventurous," which translates into, "Wow. You're really overdoing it."

    Four-color pudding ($4.50) was the mudpie of the tea party, for sure. The other two drinks were nothing short of delicious and fun. The almond coconut milk was subtly tannic, and mellowed into a fragrant, creamy blend. My favorite, and the one I was most skeptical about, turned out to be the avocado smoothie, a sweet shake made with real Haas avocados. I wish they had this around when I was a kid.

    A friend from Los Angeles had barely settled into his temporary home here when we called to see if he wanted to have dinner. But as soon as we pulled up at Los Charros in Altamonte Springs, I started to second-guess my decision. What was I thinking, taking a Pacific Coaster to eat Mexican on his first day in Orlando? How could it ever live up?

    The surrounding neighborhood isn't much to look at, but Los Charros itself sits like a bastion of warmth in an empty strip mall parking lot. The orange building, covered with bright blue awnings, seems quaint. I was hoping for something more glamorous to impress our guests from La La Land, but cozy would do.

    We walked inside and I was relieved to smell authentic Mexican spices simmering away – chili peppers, cilantro, onion and tangy tomato. The room was decorated with a hodgepodge of still-life paintings and knickknacks. The hostess greeted us with a huge smile and pleasantly showed us to a table the size of Texas. We sat staring at each other over the vast divide, looking jaundiced because of the harsh fluorescent lighting. (The décor looked a little dingy, too.) Our server was as friendly as the hostess, and she dropped off a basket of chips and salsa and took our drink order. I grabbed a freshly fried tortilla chip, dunked it in cilantro-rich liquid salsa, and turned my attention to the enormous menu.

    A half-hour later our table was a jumble of enchiladas, tacos, burritos and rice dishes. The enchiladas were hit and miss – the bean variety ($1.75) lacked an assertive seasoning, and the cheese one ($1.75) was surprisingly dull, even with the ineluctable fat dripping from the end. The best were the house enchiladas ($7.99), a full plate loaded with chicken-stuffed corn tortillas, topped with melted cheese; the savory sauce hidden in the tortilla brought out the flavor of the fresh chicken, although the meat tended to be tough.

    Two disappointing dishes were the greasy chiles rellenos ($7.99), which were on the overcooked side and had not been fully purged of their bitter seeds. And the queso fundido ($5.50) was standard, but didn't have the usual bite needed to cut through the cheese.

    Skip the hard tacos ($1.75), which mostly tasted like cumin-laced Beefaroni in a stale shell. The soft tacos, however, are stunning in their ability to please. The tacos de carne asada ($7.50) were a trio of pliable corn tortillas filled with piquant marinated steak complemented by homemade tomatillo sauce. The carnitas soft taco ($2) was equally as satisfying, with each morsel of braised pork both tender yet crispy.

    On the upside, anything that isn't pleasing at Los Charros can be covered in spicy guacamole ($2.75). Theirs was some of the best I've had, balancing the creaminess of ripened avocado with lime and salt and a peck of intense herbs.

    For dessert, skip the medicinal-tasting churros ($3.75), and instead order the billowy sopapillas ($3.50), a fried flour concoction drizzled with honey and dusted in cinnamon.

    There is authenticity at Los Charros, but most of the dishes seem to lack something. Perhaps what it needed was the regular cook, since we later found out that he was out of town visiting family in Mexico. I asked my Californian friend what he thought.

    "It ain't California," he mused. But we knew that.

    We didn't make the connection at first, but anytime you visit Heathrow, the community where frozen-pizza baron Jeno Paulucci has played such a pivotal role for more than a decade, you can assume he's somehow involved. Luigino's Pasta and Steak House is indeed Paulucci's brain child, taking its title from his formal name. (Jeno's Pasta and Steak House definitely would not suit this upscale restaurant.)

    Even though it's set in a shopping plaza and mini-office park, Luigino's initially strikes you with the look and tone of a country club. Enter through the polished glass doors into the mahogany-accented foyer to be led to table in the dining room, which is dominated by expansive waterfront views of palatial homes and golf-course links. Add to that the Continental menu with entrees that top out at $29.95, and this restaurant would seemingly qualify as a selection for special occasions.

    Even though it's set in a shopping plaza and mini-office park, Luigino's initially strikes you with the look and tone of a country club. Enter through the polished glass doors into the mahogany-accented foyer to be led to table in the dining room, which is dominated by expansive waterfront views of palatial homes and golf-course links. Add to that the Continental menu with entrees that top out at $29.95, and this restaurant would seemingly qualify as a selection for special occasions.

    But we quickly got over the imposing setting and relaxed when we found the mood to be lively and casual, with diners dressed in khakis and oxfords. And the couple at the next table felt comfortable enough to engage us in a friendly conversation about what another table had ordered.

    But we quickly got over the imposing setting and relaxed when we found the mood to be lively and casual, with diners dressed in khakis and oxfords. And the couple at the next table felt comfortable enough to engage us in a friendly conversation about what another table had ordered.

    The menu is up to par, as we discovered, beginning with our appetizers. My guest's "antipasto misto" ($8.95) was a delicious presentation of a platter of the best cuts of tender, salty prosciutto, salami slices, ham and mozzarella. A luscious, marinated artichoke was carved open to reveal a firm, meaty center. We also enjoyed "calamari fritti," priced rather low at $5.95. The calamari rings were curiously narrow and slender, but the fried batter was light-tasting with a hint of "pomodoro" sauce.

    The menu is up to par, as we discovered, beginning with our appetizers. My guest's "antipasto misto" ($8.95) was a delicious presentation of a platter of the best cuts of tender, salty prosciutto, salami slices, ham and mozzarella. A luscious, marinated artichoke was carved open to reveal a firm, meaty center. We also enjoyed "calamari fritti," priced rather low at $5.95. The calamari rings were curiously narrow and slender, but the fried batter was light-tasting with a hint of "pomodoro" sauce.

    There is a substantial pasta menu that includes primavera versions of penne dishes and a delicious lobster ravioli ($18.95) that's seasoned with saffron and topped with a pink sauce of shiitake mushrooms. But my guest raved about the frutti di mare ($23.95), which included a sautéed jumble of lobster, shrimp, clams, scallops, mussels and calamari. These were served over a bed of linguine with a surprisingly delicate marinara sauce. We also enjoyed "filet Guiseppe" ($24.95), a dish reminiscent of beef Wellington. The filet mignon was stuffed with prosciutto and cheeses that were a bit too salty, but it was baked in a towering puff pastry and served with bordelaise and béarnaise sauce.

    There is a substantial pasta menu that includes primavera versions of penne dishes and a delicious lobster ravioli ($18.95) that's seasoned with saffron and topped with a pink sauce of shiitake mushrooms. But my guest raved about the frutti di mare ($23.95), which included a sautéed jumble of lobster, shrimp, clams, scallops, mussels and calamari. These were served over a bed of linguine with a surprisingly delicate marinara sauce. We also enjoyed "filet Guiseppe" ($24.95), a dish reminiscent of beef Wellington. The filet mignon was stuffed with prosciutto and cheeses that were a bit too salty, but it was baked in a towering puff pastry and served with bordelaise and béarnaise sauce.

    The wait staff was watchful throughout the meal; water goblets and coffee cups stayed full, and leftovers were discreetly boxed up and presented with the check. Luigino's Pasta and Steak House may not break new culinary ground, but on the north side of town, it stands out for its consistently delicious menu and picturesque setting.

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