Latin American in Orlando

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    It's a generally accepted fact that the best Cuban food is found in South Florida, not Havana, so when one of Broward County's most well-received franchises expands into Orlando, Central Floridians have cause to rejoice.

    Mario and Nayade 'Cookieâ?� Padrino carry on a tradition that began in Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province in Cuba, where Diosdado Padrino ran a small market and winery. Fast-forward a few decades to the present and the Padrino clan has four restaurants in Boca Raton, Plantation, the flagship locale in Hallandale and now Hunter's Creek, all of them inspired by family matriarch Rosa Padrino's recipes. The handsome bistro, according to Cookie, is a notch above the others in terms of interior design, and the subdued tropical motif creates an air of comfort, while the faceless, 'hands-freeâ?� paintings by Dixie Miguez add a little color (and political commentary) to the dining room.

    Having graduated from culinary school, Cookie oversees menu development, and the creations coming out of the kitchen are a testament to her guidance. The varied selection of criollo standards and signature dishes are remarkably consistent, if not exceptional.

    Take the finely minced picadillo empanadas ($6.99), for example. Two ground-beef pastries, halved and crowned with a guava chutney, are superbly seasoned and crisp, and undoubtedly would be a top-tier tapas item anywhere in the city. Black bean soup ($2.99), a true gauge of any Cuban kitchen's worth, strikes a delicate balance of cumin to garlic, with subtle flavoring from bay leaves. Only the fiesta tostones ($7.99) failed to arouse: Pressed green plantains topped with a lackluster mishmash of cheese, chorizo sausage and a cilantro-tomato salsa resembled a gooey cross between nachos and pizza. A glass of sangria ($4.50) helped offset the parching effects of the appetizer.

    For mains, I chose a traditional and a signature plate, both of which underscored the kitchen's competence and proficiency. Ropa vieja ($12.99), a Cuban staple, was simple, succulent and savory ' delightful strands of flank steak stewed in a zesty tomato sauce and served with rice, beans and caramelized plantains. Comparatively speaking, blackened mahi mahi ($15.99) was a more sophisticated offering, fusing Creole spices with a refreshing mango-pineapple chutney. The flaky fillet was served over so-so sweet-potato mash; crispy yuca fries with garlicky mojo made for a more harmonious starch.

    Custards dominate the dessert menu, and when that eggy goodness is involved, trust a Cuban kitchen to get it right. Rum-chocolate crème brûlée ($5.99) was expertly prepared ' a crusty layer, a rich custard base and a nice infusion of rum. A dense wedge of flan de queso ($4.99) was enormous and filling enough to feed a family, but that still didn't preclude me from ordering a sweet, dark shot of café cubano ($2), a perfect finish to any meal.

    Those lucky enough to work in the Hunter's Creek area will find some bargain lunch options, with dishes ranging from $7.49 to $11.99. And if you're bemoaning the drive to south Orlando, consider this ' Padrino's refined Cuban dishes negate the need for a three-hour trip to South Florida for the real deal.

    In theory, it's an interesting concept ' offer diners the very best street food the Americas have to offer, and do so in a place where most of your patrons are from other countries. That's the thought behind Pleasure Island's boisterous Paradiso 37, the latest initiative by E-Brands, the restaurant conglomerate that brought us Timpano Chophouse, the Samba Room and Salsa Taqueria. The '37â?� in the restaurant's appellation is a reference to the 37 countries in the Americas, though that figure may or may not be entirely accurate. And if you're expecting to find at least one dish from each of the 37 nations, better lower your expectations. It was difficult to hide my disappointment when my beloved Canadian poutine was nowhere to be found on the menu. If French fries lathered in gravy and cheese curds is too exotic for Downtown Disney, then any hopes of finding Trinidadian bake-and-shark, Puerto Rican bacalaítos or Jamaican beef patties in coco bread are all but dead.

    Still, the restaurant's menu did pose some interesting options, like Central American 'crazy cornâ?� ($7.99). The quartered cobs of sweetness were made muy loco with melted cheese, spicy yellow pepper sauce and zesty lime. I surprised myself by polishing off the whole dish. Also decent (though not spicy as advertised) were the chorizo-and-beef skewers ($14.99), a starter big enough for a meal and nicely flavored with cherry tomatoes, caramelized mushrooms and onions, served with doughy rolls of chimichurri pita bread.

    From the list of mains, I bypassed the burgers from North America and settled on the Colombian-style whole crispy hen ($17.99), which was about the size of my fist. The skin was crisp, to be sure, but the meat, marinated with onions, garlic and lemon, wasn't as flavorful as I'd hoped. The accompanying arepa and roasted vegetables were fine. From the Mexican section, be sure to skip the trio of soggy enchiladas ($13.99) stuffed with beef and weighted down by a guajillo sauce that tasted like it came out of a can. The only redeeming item on this platter was the cilantro rice. You're better off downing a pint of the world's coldest beer ' a temperature gauge reading '30.1°F� dangled above the beer kept below, and I was assured it would get down to a frigid 29 degrees. Those with a predilection for tequila will be impressed by the towering display of tequila bottles behind the bar; needless to say, margaritas are a specialty here.

    On the sweet side, the chocolate stack ($7.99) felt like it weighed five pounds, and cutting into it required some modicum of effort. This is one dense, thick wedge of chocolate overload, not to mention that it sits on a bed of warm caramel sauce and is crowned with vanilla ice cream and rainbow-sprinkled whipped cream. A trio of tres leches ($5.99) towers was more thick and spongy than milky, which is the way I like it. The meringue topping was a nice touch, though, as was the serving of finely diced seasonal fruit.

    Sadly, Paradiso 37 is but one of many restaurants on Disney property that are decent enough to visit once, but not offering a compelling reason to return.

    I owe many of my favorite meals to my husband's penchant for monster movieplexes with stadium seating. For months, our friend, who happens to be Cuban, had been trying to get us down to his part of town to eat at his favorite Latin place, Pio Pio. The problem was, he lives in a southern part of town I generally refer to as the BFE – the Bad Food Extravaganza. Snobbishly and repeatedly, we refused the invitation.

    Then one night, we were leaving the Cinemark Festival Bay Theater – after watching a loud movie in which humans outsmarted aliens, natural disasters abounded and everything else blew up – and, suddenly, I was hungry. And there it was – Pio Pio (which translates into "Chick Chick"), sequestered in a wasteland of deserted shopping malls off a six-lane highway. Later, I realized my friend was right about this place, to which I would return again and again, like a sequel junkie.

    Pio Pio, a Peruvian and Colombian restaurant, opened its first Orlando location in October 2000. After successfully running four restaurants in New York, the Diego family decided to try their luck here and opened close to a dollar theater near Kissimmee (11236 S. Orange Blossom Trail; 407-438-5677). Months later, another family member opened a location on International Drive near Kirkman Road, strategically situated on our driving route home from the movieplex. This past summer, another site popped up on the southeast side (2500 S. Semoran Blvd., 407-207-2262). Let's hope they have a Godfather-sized family, so they can keep them coming.

    The menu choices are the same at all the Pio Pios, and they are limited; but in my experience, this is exactly what makes them so appealing, because everything is good. The "pollo Pio Pio a las brasas" ($8) is some of the most exquisite rotisserie chicken that has ever crossed my lips; consistently tender and moist, its crispy, herbed skin is the treasure. Juan Diego, owner of Pio Pio on I-Drive, claims the secret is a family recipe. But he agreed that the original marinade, a mixture of spices, vegetables and herbs, does make the difference.

    Their beans and rice ($4) are a homemade Colombian-style mainstay. The beans are plump and supple, seasoned with just the right amount of pepper and garlic, in a brackish broth of their own flavorful juices. I've never tasted rice so consistently tender, devoid of the starchy mushiness that so many restaurants try to pass off as rice. Orders of tostones, maduros and yuca ($3 apiece) are best when dipped in the worship-worthy sauces that come with every meal: tangy garlic, and a green-tinged hot sauce made with jalapeños and habañeros.

    Although chicken is the star at Pio Pio, they serve a very decent grilled steak with french fries for a mere $9.50. Also on the menu: pork chops ($9.50), empanadas ($1), posole-style chicken soup ($3) and saffron rice ($3).

    Tucked away behind a curved bar littered with chicken statues, wine bottles and plants is the giant rotisserie. There is a row of wall hangings at eye level on the bright-orange walls – letters from customers and New York Times reviews – that we had to lean into awkwardly in order to read. The atmosphere is comfortable and complete in its family modesty.

    For dessert, the exceptionally tasty flan ($4) and the tres leches ($4), both made in-house, are recommended. A good flan has no air bubbles and is doused in deep-amber caramelized sugar, and Pio Pio's is flawless. My favorite dessert, by far, is tres leches, dense yellow cake soaked in three milks (condensed, evaporated and half-and-half). Please, skip the crème brûlée – you're at a Latin restaurant, after all, and a good one.

    It's a rare movie – never mind the bombs and brains – that isn't worth a try, when there's Pio Pio waiting afterward.

    Some of the best-kept dining secrets are hidden in the crevices of huge, obnoxious shopping plazas. Pollo Rico is a delicious example. Sitting in a corner of the Lake Fredrica Shopping Plaza on State Road 436, the restaurant's tiny storefront gives no indication of the treasures within.

    Inside, the humble eatery's off-white walls are adorned with colorful Peruvian tapestries, crafts and dolls. But the festive decorations barely hint at the feasts that await.

    Inside, the humble eatery's off-white walls are adorned with colorful Peruvian tapestries, crafts and dolls. But the festive decorations barely hint at the feasts that await.

    The bountiful cuisine of Peru -- a country with a high poverty rate but a wealth of good cooking -- is characterized by lots of hot peppers and root crops like yams, yuca and countless varieties of potatoes. It bears strong resemblance to Cuban food but has an unexpected Chinese influence. The flavors and textures are surprisingly comforting.

    The bountiful cuisine of Peru -- a country with a high poverty rate but a wealth of good cooking -- is characterized by lots of hot peppers and root crops like yams, yuca and countless varieties of potatoes. It bears strong resemblance to Cuban food but has an unexpected Chinese influence. The flavors and textures are surprisingly comforting.

    On this particularly cold and rainy night, the "caldo de pollo" ($4.50), Peruvian-style chicken soup, was the perfect remedy. Big enough to be a meal itself, it's loaded with noodles and large chunks of carrots and potatoes in a rich, deeply seasoned broth.

    On this particularly cold and rainy night, the "caldo de pollo" ($4.50), Peruvian-style chicken soup, was the perfect remedy. Big enough to be a meal itself, it's loaded with noodles and large chunks of carrots and potatoes in a rich, deeply seasoned broth.

    Next came the "yuca a la huancaina" ($5), which are thick, hearty slices of yuca (a root crop similar to a potato but denser, with more of a bite), deep fried and served on a plateful of spicy cheese sauce.

    Next came the "yuca a la huancaina" ($5), which are thick, hearty slices of yuca (a root crop similar to a potato but denser, with more of a bite), deep fried and served on a plateful of spicy cheese sauce.

    Meat-and-potato people -- which I am -- will enjoy the "lomo saltado" ($9), tender strips of beef stir-fried with tomatoes, onions and french fries in a savory brown sauce with a Chinese flair.

    Meat-and-potato people -- which I am -- will enjoy the "lomo saltado" ($9), tender strips of beef stir-fried with tomatoes, onions and french fries in a savory brown sauce with a Chinese flair.

    Hot peppers, or aji, are a Peruvian staple. The "aji de gallina" ($7) is a delectable blend of shredded chicken and thick potato slices in a creamy sauce with tantalizing specks of red aji. The texture is like a very thick chicken and dumplings -- perfect on a cold night.

    Hot peppers, or aji, are a Peruvian staple. The "aji de gallina" ($7) is a delectable blend of shredded chicken and thick potato slices in a creamy sauce with tantalizing specks of red aji. The texture is like a very thick chicken and dumplings -- perfect on a cold night.

    The high point of the meal was the "papa rellena" ($3), so amazing, I'd throw down a sumo wrestler for one. This is without a doubt the best rellena I've ever had: a huge mashed-potato ball stuffed with ground beef, sliced egg, olives and raisins, and then quickly fried until the outside is crispy. The potato pocket is served with thinly sliced lime-marinated onions and a very hot sauce made from green aji.

    The high point of the meal was the "papa rellena" ($3), so amazing, I'd throw down a sumo wrestler for one. This is without a doubt the best rellena I've ever had: a huge mashed-potato ball stuffed with ground beef, sliced egg, olives and raisins, and then quickly fried until the outside is crispy. The potato pocket is served with thinly sliced lime-marinated onions and a very hot sauce made from green aji.

    I don't believe any meal is complete without dessert. My server, who was friendly and eager to help, suggested "alfajor" ($1.20), a "sandie" cookie with a dulce de leche filling -- totally to-die-for. An Inca Kola (which tastes a bit like red cream soda) made the perfect chaser.

    I don't believe any meal is complete without dessert. My server, who was friendly and eager to help, suggested "alfajor" ($1.20), a "sandie" cookie with a dulce de leche filling -- totally to-die-for. An Inca Kola (which tastes a bit like red cream soda) made the perfect chaser.

    Peruvian fare is famous in South America, but I predict its popularity will steadily grow on this one. It's the new "Southern comfort" food. And with Pollo Rico on the map, the South will rise again.

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