Mexican in Orlando

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    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.

    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.

    When a Mexican restaurant pours nearly $1 million into its interior (a rare occurrence in this city, and even more so in Hunter’s Creek), you know the owners aren’t out to open your average taqueria. But after growing tired of entertaining business associates at “second-class Mexican restaurants,” owner Miguel Juarez and business partner Gerardo Salazar deemed it necessary to pour mucho pesos into Los Generales in order to lend it an air of higher-class authenticity.

    In fact it took artisans in Michoacán six months to carve the beautiful wooden tables and chairs, which fit right into the restaurant’s rustic revolutionary theme, a paean to Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Walls are festooned with an assortment of knickknacks (sombreros, horseshoes, framed photographs of Mexican movie stars), but the effect never crosses the tacky line. It’s not upscale or first-class, but it is a distinct notch above other Mexican joints in town, and chefs Jose Luis Flores and Walter Acosta (both of whom cooked for the governor of Nuevo León as well as ex-President Vicente Fox), show a refreshing lightness of touch in their kitchen creations.

    First off, the complimentary chips, dusted with chili powder and served with one roasted and one wickedly peppery salsa (both served warm), are absolutely habit-forming. You never want to fill up on chips, but it’s hard to stop at just one. A delicious caldo tlalpeño ($6.99) marries the basics – celery, carrots, rice, shredded chicken and a touch of chipotle – into a messy, though a tad salty, delight. A sliced avocado half serves to balance the flavors. I ordered gorditas con guacamole ($6.99), but got cascos de papa ($7.99) instead. The bacon- and mushroom-filled potato skins layered with cheese bordered on insipid, but the side of guac, heady with lime and cilantro, injected life into the starter.

    Corn tortillas are expertly prepared on the premises and make the tacos ($9.99) a must. Moist marinated pork, mild chorizo, grilled chicken and beef burst out of the soggy-proof shells, and a squeeze of lime serves to enhance the freshness. The “burrito 30-30” ($11.99), a reference to the rifle used by Mexican revolutionaries, is also worth a shot. Seasoned chunks of steak share space with onions, red and green bell peppers and melted Mexican cheese, sided with rice, pico de gallo and refried beans. Smother it with peppery salsa and you’ll open fire.

    Other properly executed renditions include chilaquiles con pollo ($9.99), cut-up fried tortilla and strips of chicken reddened with tangy ranchero sauce, and the deep-fried comfort of the un-Mexican chimichanga ($10.99) which doesn’t suffer from that glommy texture. The heat underpins the chili-cocoa balance of the mole poblano ($10.99) poured over a succulent chicken breast, while the fajita sampler ($14.99), with chicken, shrimp and steak, offers enough savory sizzle for two.

    Quantity supersedes quality in the heavily marbled and oil-glazed Los Generales Cowboy ($25.95), a flavorful 20-ounce bone-in porterhouse far too unctuous to endorse. Furthermore, the hot plate keeps the temperature of the steak and veggies elevated, necessitating a longer-than-average wait before the food cools to an edible temperature.

    Holding up the sweet end of the bargain is arroz con leche ($4.99), studded with raisins, powdered with cinnamon and served slightly warm. Avoiding typical slip-ups, the pudding was not overly sweet and the rice didn’t degrade to mush.

    There’s no doubt Juarez and Salazar have a good thing going – let’s hope their menu maintains current levels of authenticity, innovation and “Mexi”-free labeling. Who knows, the trend could catch and start a revolution in this city.

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