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    I don't know why, but I was expecting a dive. Maybe it was the fact that R.J. Gator's seemed to be named after somebody's uncle. Maybe because it was called a "Florida sea grill." Maybe just because it was founded 20 years ago. But R.J. Gator's was far from being a dive. It was more like an efficient urban development in dive disguise. Think of it as a warehouse-sized, Everglades-themed Cheesecake Factory attached to a mall.

    We first came upon the restaurant's outdoor bar, which wraps around the building's facade. Among the few tables, the music was blaring, giving one the fleeting feeling of drinking in an outpost in the thick of a swamp. Pulling on the gator-head door handles, my friends and I stepped inside.

    The hostess started to show us to a booth near the front window when we noticed a gimmick that we had to partake of: rocking booths. "Can we sit at one of those?" I demanded, pointing to the middle of the room. She mechanically turned and led us to our very own swinging banquet, where we delighted in play as we rocked the booth with our feet, testing to see if our drinks would spill on the swaying but steady table.

    As we waited for our food, a wall of hot sauces kept us entertained. We grabbed a handful and tested them with saltine crackers, then kept our favorites and smothered our meals in them when they arrived. The menu was enormous, and we only scratched the surface of what they offered, sticking mostly to the Florida specialties and bar/grill food.

    We rocked and rocked until a dozen oysters were placed in front of us, half raw and half steamed. A few minutes later, the refuse of Hurricane Oyster left a trail of cocktail sauce, drawn butter, crackers and shells across the table. R.J. Gator's is no Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar (on Old Winter Garden Road), but the huge, delicate mollusks nestled in their shells were still completely satisfying. Next came alligator tail ($5.49), tender chunks of golden fried meat served with cocktail sauce and another thyme-laden Caribbean-style one. We also got a plate of "strings" ($6.99), a mile-high pile of thin, fried onions that had been rolled in a spicy batter before being plunged into hot fat – definitely bar food at its best. Actually, any pub fare you could dream up, R.J. Gator's touches on – nachos, quesadillas, spinach dip, wings, fingers, pizza, burgers. And they always feature a fresh Florida catch, so don't hesitate to consider a grouper sandwich, too ($8.99).

    Actually, we tried an assortment of recommendable seafood dishes. The selection of fried seafood is astounding, including platters of scallops, clams, shrimp and myriad types of fish. We munched down an order of pleasingly crunchy coconut shrimp ($13.99) that had an alluringly tropical flavor. The Florida-style crab cakes ($12.99) live up to their name: fluffy cakes seasoned with Caribbean flair and with a texture that could live up to any Maryland taste test.

    R.J. Gator's serves several dishes "Havana banana"-style, which is a grilled piece of jerk-seasoned meat (I tried mahi-mahi for $11.99) covered in orange sauce and served with black beans, rice and fried plantains.

    Skip their desserts, which tended to be gooey, over-the-top messes, except perhaps the Key lime pie. Their version was a creamy tart custard nuzzled into a graham cracker crust and finished with an unnaturally bright green lime concoction that tasted like a Now and Later candy – the kind of sauce that a true dive would dish up.

    dining@orlandoweekly.com

    I've always considered Irish food to be similar to British food in the sense that it's something you eat because you're already at the pub, have had a few pints and don't feel like driving somewhere else to get a real meal. So it's bangers and mash, maybe a shepherd's pie, to soak up the hooch and settle the stomach; not bad, but not stellar. It'll do.

    Now that I have been to Raglan Road, an Irish pub and restaurant at Disney's Pleasure Island, however, I'm going to have to reconsider that assessment. Their Irish fare is tasty enough to entice a teetotaler into a pub, and I now understand that there is no excuse for mediocre Irish food.

    My expectations of the place, frankly, were low. Given the location, I assumed they were slinging the same old Emerald Isle standards at the tourists and doubling the prices. Surely the menu would be nothing but boiled this and cabbage that, heavy on the corned beef and a crock of stew on the side.

    But once inside the place, I quickly sensed that it was not a typical Americanized Irish pub, and it turned out that it wasn't. While walking back to our table after a short wait, the chatty hostess informed us that the room we were dining in was actually an Irish estate house, disassembled there and shipped here piece by piece. The furniture is all antique, and the framed photos hanging on the dark wooden walls are authentic. The result is an amazingly cozy atmosphere for such a large restaurant.

    We started with an appetizer named "Smokie City" ($10.95) which sounded sketchy ("oven baked layers of smoked cod with mature Wexford cheddar and double cream") but turned out to be brilliant. The smoked cod, dense and lovely, was offset perfectly by the tangy cheddar sauce in which it swam. We lapped up every bite, smearing it like a spread on large slices of crusty sourdough, then turned the crock over to get the last few drops.

    Entree No. 1 was "Planxty" ($19.95), a dish that I ordered because I liked the name. What I got was roast pork shank poking up out of a bed of mashed potatoes, with a side of apple chutney. About that roast pork: When the meat falls off the bone before you can get it on the fork, it's tender. And this was tender. The chutney added a note of sweetness, and the potatoes were nice and lumpy, so no complaints at all. It was a very satisfying dish.

    Entree No. 2, "It's Not Bleedin' Chowder," was similarly expensive ($19.95) and just as good. The name is supposedly a quote from the chef when he was asked exactly what the dish was, which is a rich mix of scallops, fish, mussels and prawns, mixed in a white wine sauce infused with saffron and finished with cream. At that price it better not be bleedin' chowder, and it better not look like anything that came out of a can. It wasn't, and it didn't. The seafood was fresh, the sauce was tangy and lively, and I can't recall having tasted a better fish stew, if you can call it that.

    The only item that disappointed was the bowl of "Down the Middle" ($5.50), a hearty but bland tomato and vegetable broth soup. That was for the vegetarian in the family, because there wasn't much else on the menu she could eat.

    Dessert, which took almost 20 minutes to get to the table for some reason, was "Ger's Bread & Butter Pudding" ($7.99). I'm not much of a bread pudding fan, which is exactly why I ordered it. So far the meal had exceeded all my expectations. Would dessert disappoint? Not a chance. Ger, whoever he/she may be, has concocted a heavenly bread pudding. It comes out in a warm crock with tiny pitchers of butter and butterscotch that you add yourself, as much or as little as you like. The sourdough bread soaks it up, and you get a raisin-infused mush that's sweet, rich and cinnamony. Once again I upended the serving dish to coax out the last drop.

    This being Disney, there's entertainment in the form of table dancing and an Irish band. But that's just dressing. This is a pub you can come into for dinner, and maybe hang around to grab a Guinness or two or three.

    No matter how much one dreads the scorching heat of summer, there's no choice but to sweat it out. You can try a mind-over-matter approach – such as imagining yourself packed in ice and turning blue – but it's much more effective to actually pack yourself with ice. Make that finely shaved, fluffy ice doused with a sweetly flavored syrup. That's what's called a "snowball" to anyone with a taste of New Orleans in their blood, the city that's the king of the confection.

    Rainbow Sno-Cones on Corrine Drive is as New Orleans as it gets – never mind the "cone" instead of the "ball" in the name. Bob Homer bought the place about 10 years ago from two sisters from N.O. who ran the business for five years using an ice-shaving machine and syrup recipes from home. The secret to a snowball is always in the quality of the homemade syrups – sugar and flavoring cooked with a touch of magic.

    Rainbow Sno-Cones on Corrine Drive is as New Orleans as it gets – never mind the "cone" instead of the "ball" in the name. Bob Homer bought the place about 10 years ago from two sisters from N.O. who ran the business for five years using an ice-shaving machine and syrup recipes from home. The secret to a snowball is always in the quality of the homemade syrups – sugar and flavoring cooked with a touch of magic.

    A native of Orlando, Homer's a fixture in his neighborhood near Baldwin Park. Each snowball is carefully hand-crafted, so be patient if there's a line at the order window – it's worth the wait.

    A native of Orlando, Homer's a fixture in his neighborhood near Baldwin Park. Each snowball is carefully hand-crafted, so be patient if there's a line at the order window – it's worth the wait.

    Any self-respecting snowball stand carries around 50 flavors, as Homer does, including the time-honored Big Easy favorites: strawberry, chocolate, spearmint, nectar (a vanilla flavor) and wedding cake (almond). And Homer's concocted a few of his own sought-after specialties: "polar punch" (light blue raspberry) and "sour apple."

    Any self-respecting snowball stand carries around 50 flavors, as Homer does, including the time-honored Big Easy favorites: strawberry, chocolate, spearmint, nectar (a vanilla flavor) and wedding cake (almond). And Homer's concocted a few of his own sought-after specialties: "polar punch" (light blue raspberry) and "sour apple."

    There are sugar-free options, but basic snowballs have no fat or cholesterol, anyway. Prices range from kiddie cups ($1) to extra-large ($2), plus 25 cents for toppings of cream, condensed milk or marshmallow. A cherry costs 10 cents.

    There are sugar-free options, but basic snowballs have no fat or cholesterol, anyway. Prices range from kiddie cups ($1) to extra-large ($2), plus 25 cents for toppings of cream, condensed milk or marshmallow. A cherry costs 10 cents.

    Traditionally, Memorial Day kicks off snowball season, but lucky for us, Homer stays open year-round, seven days a week.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of Rainforest Cafe at Downtown Disney Marketplace.

    There's something unsettling about eating a bowl of pasta with a squawking parrot perched overhead. Or getting fanned by the flapping ears of a life-sized elephant as another round of Rainforest Rickys arrives from the Magic Mushroom organic juice-and-smoothie bar.

    Rainforest Cafe, an addition to the Downtown Disney Marketplace, is a slickly packaged, 550-seat restaurant loosely patterned after a lush jungle, with faux wildlife and vegetation, special effects and colossal fish tanks.

    Rainforest Cafe, an addition to the Downtown Disney Marketplace, is a slickly packaged, 550-seat restaurant loosely patterned after a lush jungle, with faux wildlife and vegetation, special effects and colossal fish tanks.

    Outside, there's a 65-foot spewing volcano, which generated some enthusiasm from afar, until I got closer and saw the snaking Disney-style line. At 8 p.m. on a weeknight, it took 20 minutes to get our "passports," followed by an hour's wait for our table. We headed for the retail area, which sells $30 T-shirts and semi-educational jungle knickknacks. In our estimation, hunkering down on a stool fashioned into a gazelle's hindquarters at the aforementioned Magic Mushroom was a more attractive way to bide our time.

    Outside, there's a 65-foot spewing volcano, which generated some enthusiasm from afar, until I got closer and saw the snaking Disney-style line. At 8 p.m. on a weeknight, it took 20 minutes to get our "passports," followed by an hour's wait for our table. We headed for the retail area, which sells $30 T-shirts and semi-educational jungle knickknacks. In our estimation, hunkering down on a stool fashioned into a gazelle's hindquarters at the aforementioned Magic Mushroom was a more attractive way to bide our time.

    The menu offers casual, familiar items with clever names. Best of our entrees was the seafood Galapagos ($14.95), which blended fresh sautéed shrimp and fish pieces with vegetables and pesto sauce over linguine. I also liked the rasta pasta ($11.95) -- grilled chicken, pesto, broccoli, red peppers and herbs in a garlic cream sauce. Less appealing was the marinade in the Siam stir fry ($12.95), chicken sautéed with vegetables, served on rice with wontons and sesame seeds.

    The menu offers casual, familiar items with clever names. Best of our entrees was the seafood Galapagos ($14.95), which blended fresh sautéed shrimp and fish pieces with vegetables and pesto sauce over linguine. I also liked the rasta pasta ($11.95) -- grilled chicken, pesto, broccoli, red peppers and herbs in a garlic cream sauce. Less appealing was the marinade in the Siam stir fry ($12.95), chicken sautéed with vegetables, served on rice with wontons and sesame seeds.

    The desserts we sampled ($4.95) were delicious: "gorillas in the mist," a chocolate-topped banana cheesecake, and "chocolate diablo," rich cake with gooey layers of pudding.

    The desserts we sampled ($4.95) were delicious: "gorillas in the mist," a chocolate-topped banana cheesecake, and "chocolate diablo," rich cake with gooey layers of pudding.

    There's a healthy selection of appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, salads and comfort foods like meat loaf and fried chicken. When asked, the server brightly informed me that I could take home a menu -- for $15. Service was adequate, but we had to hunt our server down for the check. (Attempts to call her from across the room were rendered futile by the loudly trumpeting elephant.)

    There's a healthy selection of appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, salads and comfort foods like meat loaf and fried chicken. When asked, the server brightly informed me that I could take home a menu -- for $15. Service was adequate, but we had to hunt our server down for the check. (Attempts to call her from across the room were rendered futile by the loudly trumpeting elephant.)

    As with other themed restaurants I've tried, the heavily merchandised atmosphere and slightly above-average menu at Rainforest Cafe outweigh the novelty of the overall dining experience.

    It's hard to say "basta" to the pasta when you can get a heaping plate of house-made cavatelli with zesty sauce and a garlic breadstick for less than $5. Six house-made pastas and six sauces allow for plenty of mixing and matching, but don't overlook the Tuscan rotisserie items and the grinder sandwiches. With all this and gelato too, you may need to break out the fat pants.

    Recently, I heard these startling words: "The future of American food lies in the strip mall." These words did not escape from the mouth of a Midwestern tourist on a Disney vacation, nor a fast-food junkie or any other kind of junkie. They are the opinion of Tyler Cowen, a well-respected economist and dining critic. The strip mall? I have always been a little, well, snotty about strip malls. But there was Cowen, all dressed up in a suit and tie in front of 2,000 food professionals, uttering those 10 words. Could he be right? I examined my own eating habits and saw the light. Many of my meals, actually most of them, are from places in worn-out strip malls. When I want good food at a good value, I look to the strip mall: Little Saigon, Garibaldi's, Pio Pio, O'Boys, Memories of India.

    I have a new place to add to my strip-mall list: Red Bamboo Thai Restaurant. Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. There is nothing like food that can be comforting and exotic at the same time. I crave Thai on nights when I want coziness or I'm sniffly or just want to go out alone with a good book. Red Bamboo fulfilled all of my culinary needs. Not only was the food perfectly delicious, but the atmosphere was easy and casual. It's situated in one of those run-down plazas on Kirkman Road and International Drive that's full of restaurants. Be prepared to maneuver in and out of the parking lot, going through a maze of U-turns and signage.

    I have a new place to add to my strip-mall list: Red Bamboo Thai Restaurant. Thai food is one of my favorite cuisines. There is nothing like food that can be comforting and exotic at the same time. I crave Thai on nights when I want coziness or I'm sniffly or just want to go out alone with a good book. Red Bamboo fulfilled all of my culinary needs. Not only was the food perfectly delicious, but the atmosphere was easy and casual. It's situated in one of those run-down plazas on Kirkman Road and International Drive that's full of restaurants. Be prepared to maneuver in and out of the parking lot, going through a maze of U-turns and signage.

    Red Bamboo belongs to Nikki Pantade, a close relative of someone over at Thai House. She worked at Thai House for a while, until they encouraged her to open a place of her own. She claims her restaurant is completely different from Thai House, but I saw telltale signs of her previous experience there in the fastidious service and impeccable food. Red Bamboo looks different than most strip-mall Thai restaurants. For one thing, it is enormous. Instead of being cheaply dressed or plagued with leftover-decoration syndrome, it is draped with delightful pieces here and there in an otherwise austere space.

    Red Bamboo belongs to Nikki Pantade, a close relative of someone over at Thai House. She worked at Thai House for a while, until they encouraged her to open a place of her own. She claims her restaurant is completely different from Thai House, but I saw telltale signs of her previous experience there in the fastidious service and impeccable food. Red Bamboo looks different than most strip-mall Thai restaurants. For one thing, it is enormous. Instead of being cheaply dressed or plagued with leftover-decoration syndrome, it is draped with delightful pieces here and there in an otherwise austere space.

    The food is relatively standard. It's not exceptional, but it is very, very good. Nikki suggested some dishes, such as "mango fish" (market price), that are "real Thai." We tried our standbys as a benchmark and found them all to meet our standards. We started with nam sod ($9.95), a salad of minced pork, ginger, shallots, lime juice and cashews. Not only was the dish delicious, but it came out as spicy as we'd ordered it. The tom kha ($3.95), although not the best I've tried, was still tasty enough that I finished every last spoonful of the fragrant coconut and lime-based soup. The papaya salad ($6.95), laden with a sweet and delicately acidic sauce, was excellent. For my entree, I got the phad Thai ($6.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner). It was a satisfying meal - unpretentious and unassuming, yet winning and tasty.

    The food is relatively standard. It's not exceptional, but it is very, very good. Nikki suggested some dishes, such as "mango fish" (market price), that are "real Thai." We tried our standbys as a benchmark and found them all to meet our standards. We started with nam sod ($9.95), a salad of minced pork, ginger, shallots, lime juice and cashews. Not only was the dish delicious, but it came out as spicy as we'd ordered it. The tom kha ($3.95), although not the best I've tried, was still tasty enough that I finished every last spoonful of the fragrant coconut and lime-based soup. The papaya salad ($6.95), laden with a sweet and delicately acidic sauce, was excellent. For my entree, I got the phad Thai ($6.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner). It was a satisfying meal - unpretentious and unassuming, yet winning and tasty.

    When ordering in a Thai restaurant, you're likely to be asked, "Do you like spicy?" My husband does like spicy, and I often catch him on the verge of tears at the end of a Thai meal. He had this to say about his red curry with beef ($10.95). "Their food is just spicy enough to get the juices flowing, but not so spicy that it ruins my taste buds." The cooks at Red Bamboo are masterful with spice - they don't turn the threshold for heat into a pissing contest.

    When ordering in a Thai restaurant, you're likely to be asked, "Do you like spicy?" My husband does like spicy, and I often catch him on the verge of tears at the end of a Thai meal. He had this to say about his red curry with beef ($10.95). "Their food is just spicy enough to get the juices flowing, but not so spicy that it ruins my taste buds." The cooks at Red Bamboo are masterful with spice - they don't turn the threshold for heat into a pissing contest.

    Of particular note is Red Bamboo's wine list. At many Thai restaurants, wine drinkers are subjected to something that tastes like Kool-Aid mixed with rubbing alcohol. It was obvious that there was some careful thought put into the wine choices, selecting the ones that bring out the best in Thai food. For instance, Merlot is too strongly tannic for spicy food; instead, Red Bamboo offers Beaujolais. As for the white-wine selection, I would go back just to enjoy another glass of spicy Gewürztraminer or a refreshing Riesling with my meal.

    Of particular note is Red Bamboo's wine list. At many Thai restaurants, wine drinkers are subjected to something that tastes like Kool-Aid mixed with rubbing alcohol. It was obvious that there was some careful thought put into the wine choices, selecting the ones that bring out the best in Thai food. For instance, Merlot is too strongly tannic for spicy food; instead, Red Bamboo offers Beaujolais. As for the white-wine selection, I would go back just to enjoy another glass of spicy Gewürztraminer or a refreshing Riesling with my meal.

    Maybe restaurants like Red Bamboo are the future of American dining - enjoyable everyday food at everyday prices, a great wine list and a comfortable atmosphere. That's enough to keep me coming back, strip mall or not.

    Hero, hoagie, wedge, bomber, grinder, po' boy, torpedo, submarine, zep -- whatever you call them, the problem with a takeout sandwich is that by the time you get it home, the bread is all soggy and limp.

    So plan on staying when you order any variety at Rhino Subs, the yellow building at 805 Lee Road, and then get comfortable at the umbrella-covered tables. Because fresh from the oven is the best way to appreciate the hot sandwiches that are the high point of this new endeavor from the experienced owner of Straub's Seafood.

    So plan on staying when you order any variety at Rhino Subs, the yellow building at 805 Lee Road, and then get comfortable at the umbrella-covered tables. Because fresh from the oven is the best way to appreciate the hot sandwiches that are the high point of this new endeavor from the experienced owner of Straub's Seafood.

    Step up to the window and order steamy varieties like the "explorer," with smoked turkey, sautéed mushrooms and Swiss cheese, or the "outfitter," with roast beef, ham and turkey. On the cold front, several concoctions are offered, and even though the sign still offers it, ice cream is, alas, no longer available.

    An inordinately long period of time passed before the space that once housed the widely lauded Trastevere Ristorante in Winter Park finally found itself another tenant. It had seemed Jasmine's would be that place, but cost overruns and other factors shut it down before it even opened. So Rocco Potami, who has more than 30 years experience in the restaurant business, and international restaurateur Enrico Esposito took over the space, dumped $600,000 into remodeling the interior and built a brand-new kitchen to bring it up to code. That's a hefty investment for a place that isn't exactly conspicuously located, though a recently mounted marquee and additional signage should help catch the attention of commuters driving along busy Orlando Avenue.

    Nevertheless, the duo's commitment is a testament to their dedication in establishing Rocco's on the city's dining scene. 'You only get out what you put in,â?� so the saying goes, and Potami and Esposito have put a lot into making their trattoria as soothing and inviting as (lots of) money can buy. By that I mean polished travertine tile floors bathed in a hushed luminescence, laundered white tablecloths, modern art on cappuccino-colored walls and all the dark-wood trimmings and furnishings a 170-seat restaurant will allow. Arched brick-framed windows looking out into the courtyard are a nice Etruscan touch and give the place an air of comfortable modesty ' a tone the pair of expressive cheek-peckers take pride in setting.

    Another source of pride is chef Juan Mercado, a protégé of noted chef Massimo Fedozzi, whose creative Ligurian dishes had locals flocking to Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel. Under Fedozzi's tutelage, Mercado honed the art of preparing regional Italian fare.

    Coastal regions of Italy, particularly Veneto, are well-represented in the insalata di frutti di mare ($12), plump curls of shrimp, rounds of calamari and moist slices of scallops washed in a 'secret marinadeâ?� of lemon juice, garlic and flecks of Italian herbs and served inside a large sea-scallop shell. Aesthetically, it's as though Mercado is paying homage to Botticelli; culinarily, the dish is worthy of being served to a goddess.

    Another Venetian delicacy, carpaccio con arugula ($12), wasn't as worthy. The gossamer-thin slices of beef drizzled with truffle oil are artfully arranged, but just too bland on the whole. A topping of refreshing rocket salad, capers, shaved parmesan and lemon vinaigrette completed the dish.

    Pasta e fagioli ($6) is done in the Neopolitan style, its hearty broth of cannellini beans and chewy rounds of pasta served in an oversized bowl. The soup had the desired consistency ' thick, not mushy ' but it could've used a little more garlic and seasoning to elevate the flavors.

    For my entree, I opted for a northern Italian delicacy, and one of Mercado's signature dishes, the lombata di vitello alla Milanese ($29). The bone-in veal chop is first flattened like a cartoon character, then brought to life with a light, crisp golden-brown breading. Diced tomatoes, arugula, radicchio, lemon juice and balsamic vinaigrette provide the requisite zing.

    Seeing that Rocco's is billed as an Italian 'grille,â?� it seemed appropriate to sample some meat seared over an open flame, like the pollo alla griglia con erbette ($15). This simple dish of herb-marinated chicken breast served over mashed potatoes is impeccably executed, each succulent morsel nicely complemented with intermittent bites of caramelized shallots.

    Desserts are, in a word, heavenly. If you're a fan of tiramisu ($6.50), the lady fingers served here will roll your eyes to the back of your head. The glass of divine indulgence is rich, creamy and an exquisite ending to your meal. If you're so inclined, a chocolate version is also offered. I also savored a scoop of luscious milk gelato ($2.50), the deliciously dense ice cream being ideal for diners who d

    When two of the best Cuban restaurants in town get together under one roof, expect a lot of spicy, savory, delicious things to happen. That's what's going on at Rolando's Cuban Restaurant in Casselberry -- easily the best Cuban on the east side. And as the eatery enters into its second decade, it's in no danger of losing its reputation after a recent ownership change. There's a new partnership between longtime Rolando's chef Faufto Rodriguez and his wife, Maria, and Numero Uno proprietors Isidro and Carmen Paulina, who will maintain their other restaurant on Orange Avenue, south of downtown Orlando.

    Outwardly, none of the changes are evident. Rolando's is looking a little more formal and dressed up these days, but that's about it. Tables are draped with flowing cloths and decorated with vases of roses. Wait staff are friendly but reserved and decorous. More importantly, the food remains terrific.

    Outwardly, none of the changes are evident. Rolando's is looking a little more formal and dressed up these days, but that's about it. Tables are draped with flowing cloths and decorated with vases of roses. Wait staff are friendly but reserved and decorous. More importantly, the food remains terrific.

    Something as simple as a Cuban tamale gets impact from spicy beef picadillo on top; it's silky and scented with sweet cornmeal, and the meat topping is spiced so expertly that it resembles finely crumbled chorizo. Topped with a bright-yellow pepper, it's beautiful and delicious ($1.95).

    Something as simple as a Cuban tamale gets impact from spicy beef picadillo on top; it's silky and scented with sweet cornmeal, and the meat topping is spiced so expertly that it resembles finely crumbled chorizo. Topped with a bright-yellow pepper, it's beautiful and delicious ($1.95).

    True to Cuban tradition, there's a heavy representation of seafood. Everything from lobster to shrimp to king fish are sautéed in wine sauces and garlic sauces. Red snappers are fried and served whole, too. We passed on that variation and opted instead for a snapper fillet that was breaded and fried, then topped with crisp onions and multicolored bell peppers ($10.25). The fish was clean, odorless, firm and sweet, just the way seafood should be at its prime.

    True to Cuban tradition, there's a heavy representation of seafood. Everything from lobster to shrimp to king fish are sautéed in wine sauces and garlic sauces. Red snappers are fried and served whole, too. We passed on that variation and opted instead for a snapper fillet that was breaded and fried, then topped with crisp onions and multicolored bell peppers ($10.25). The fish was clean, odorless, firm and sweet, just the way seafood should be at its prime.

    Game entrees range from lamb to rabbit fricassee ($9.25), and there's even Havana-style fried rice with corn fritters. Though there are only three pork selections, at least one of them is excellent. Fried pork chunks are brushed with garlic sauce and garnished with onions ($9.25). The results are flavorful through and through, vaguely salty and quite juicy.

    Game entrees range from lamb to rabbit fricassee ($9.25), and there's even Havana-style fried rice with corn fritters. Though there are only three pork selections, at least one of them is excellent. Fried pork chunks are brushed with garlic sauce and garnished with onions ($9.25). The results are flavorful through and through, vaguely salty and quite juicy.

    Entrees come with a choice of side items, the best of which are a deep yellow rice that is boosted by a whisper of garlic and a shot of white wine. Also not to be missed: Fried plantains, especially the ripened ones, which are much sweeter than the green plantains.

    Entrees come with a choice of side items, the best of which are a deep yellow rice that is boosted by a whisper of garlic and a shot of white wine. Also not to be missed: Fried plantains, especially the ripened ones, which are much sweeter than the green plantains.

    We counted nine dessert choices, including grated coconut concoctions and papaya sweets. But we opted for a tres leches sponge cake that was soaked with three kinds of milk for a heavy, succulent effect that contrasted nicely with a fluff of meringue on top ($2.95).

    We counted nine dessert choices, including grated coconut concoctions and papaya sweets. But we opted for a tres leches sponge cake that was soaked with three kinds of milk for a heavy, succulent effect that contrasted nicely with a fluff of meringue on top ($2.95).

    Across Orlando, there are dozens of options for good Cuban food, but remember: Rolando's is in a whole other league.

    We were waiting for a table at Romano's Macaroni Grill, and we had plenty of company. Flurries of customers milled around the front door and lined up in groups on the sidewalk outside, prepared for one hour waits. We had chosen to bide our time in the bar, lulled into complacent resignation by Peroni beers and frozen Bellinis. We stifled hunger pangs as we watched a full house chowing on pastas, grilled meats and wood fired pizzas that came from the bustling exhibition kitchen.

    And then something happened that really got our attention. Five tables opened up right in the middle of the restaurant. Then they stayed open -- for five minutes, then 10. It was excruciating to watch them go unclaimed in the middle of a restaurant where people were clamoring to be seated. When our mobile "Macaroni" beeper never signaled us, we went back to the hostess to ask if anyone was going to be seated at the empty tables. But she told us our turn would come soon, and directed us back to the bar.

    And then something happened that really got our attention. Five tables opened up right in the middle of the restaurant. Then they stayed open -- for five minutes, then 10. It was excruciating to watch them go unclaimed in the middle of a restaurant where people were clamoring to be seated. When our mobile "Macaroni" beeper never signaled us, we went back to the hostess to ask if anyone was going to be seated at the empty tables. But she told us our turn would come soon, and directed us back to the bar.

    When a restaurant can flubs the seating arrangements like that and still remain so filled with customers, it's obviously doing something right. And Romano's Macaroni Grill is the kind of Italian restaurant that lots of people like. It's noisy, fun, fast-paced and filled with lavish Italian food at neighborhood prices. The setting is spacious, rustic and casual with stone walls, lights strung overhead, fresh flowers all around, waiters who occasionally belt out "Happy Birthday" serenades in Italian, and wine that flows. Jugs of house wine are on the honor system at $3.29 a glass. Bread is limitless too, and it's always hot, crusty, and plentiful, served with a dipping plate of olive oil, shredded parmesan and pepper.

    When a restaurant can flubs the seating arrangements like that and still remain so filled with customers, it's obviously doing something right. And Romano's Macaroni Grill is the kind of Italian restaurant that lots of people like. It's noisy, fun, fast-paced and filled with lavish Italian food at neighborhood prices. The setting is spacious, rustic and casual with stone walls, lights strung overhead, fresh flowers all around, waiters who occasionally belt out "Happy Birthday" serenades in Italian, and wine that flows. Jugs of house wine are on the honor system at $3.29 a glass. Bread is limitless too, and it's always hot, crusty, and plentiful, served with a dipping plate of olive oil, shredded parmesan and pepper.

    The kitchen doesn't stint on portions, either. "Fonduta Gamberi" ($6.99) is just what the name suggests in Italian: A ravishing fondue of shrimp, artichoke hearts and spinach, roasted into a melted mess with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. It's appetizer heaven with a heap of garlic toast wedges.

    The kitchen doesn't stint on portions, either. "Fonduta Gamberi" ($6.99) is just what the name suggests in Italian: A ravishing fondue of shrimp, artichoke hearts and spinach, roasted into a melted mess with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. It's appetizer heaven with a heap of garlic toast wedges.

    "Pizza di Pollo Barbacoda" is another winning choice: A wood-fired pizza on a thin, chewy crust with vigorous toppings of barbecued chicken, pecorino and mozzarella cheese ($7.49). It manages to be light and filling at the same time.

    "Pizza di Pollo Barbacoda" is another winning choice: A wood-fired pizza on a thin, chewy crust with vigorous toppings of barbecued chicken, pecorino and mozzarella cheese ($7.49). It manages to be light and filling at the same time.

    "Scaloppine di Salmone" salmon fillet ($12.99) is a winning entree that leaves a citrus impression, sauteed with fresh lemon butter. It's adorned with capers, tomatoes and fresh bright basil. But on the night we visited, the accompanying bowl of linguine had no flair whatsoever. It looked and tasted like someone had dumped it out of a pot to get it out to the table in a hurry. And the "Ravioli Formaggi" only hinted at the asiago, parmesan cheeses that were stuffed into the pasta, because the roasted garlic cream sauce had been drenched with a heart-stopping dose of salt.

    "Scaloppine di Salmone" salmon fillet ($12.99) is a winning entree that leaves a citrus impression, sauteed with fresh lemon butter. It's adorned with capers, tomatoes and fresh bright basil. But on the night we visited, the accompanying bowl of linguine had no flair whatsoever. It looked and tasted like someone had dumped it out of a pot to get it out to the table in a hurry. And the "Ravioli Formaggi" only hinted at the asiago, parmesan cheeses that were stuffed into the pasta, because the roasted garlic cream sauce had been drenched with a heart-stopping dose of salt.

    Popularity notwithstanding, Romano's Macaroni Grill doesn't belong in the big leagues of Italian restaurants. It's so busy being sought after that when customers start flooding in, the kitchen stops sweating the details. Best to try this restaurant when it's not quite so busy, and the heady flavors of Tuscany are more dependable. In the meantime, if you're looking for ultimate Italian breads and grilled Tuscan meats, your search has ended.

    It's a Tuesday ritual for spaghetti junkies on the south side of town: Hefty, homestyle dinners for about $3 at Rossi's. This mom-and-pop restaurant is celebrating nearly 34 years in the same location by slashing prices on a special anniversary menu.

    The deals are outrageous -- roughly half-price for some of the most popular items. A spaghetti dinner, plus salad and grilled garlic bread, starts at $2.75. Thick, toasted submarine sandwiches packed with deli meats start at $2.50. Ten-inch cheese pizzas are just $2.95.

    The deals are outrageous -- roughly half-price for some of the most popular items. A spaghetti dinner, plus salad and grilled garlic bread, starts at $2.75. Thick, toasted submarine sandwiches packed with deli meats start at $2.50. Ten-inch cheese pizzas are just $2.95.

    The only catch is that you must eat in and don't expect anything fancy. Service is casual; the amenities are low ceilings, dim lighting and lumpy seats. It's truly a south-side dive -- and a well-loved one, judging from its staying power.

    If someone said, "Let's go to Roy's for dinner," you might think they were referring to a chicken shack. But you should hope they're talking about Roy's Restaurant, the latest entry in fine dining along the amazingly fertile Sand Lake and Dr. Phillips intersection.

    Restaurants and shops are springing up like weeds along this stretch of land that was formerly filled with, well, weeds. Roy Yamaguchi, cookbook author, TV host and restaurateur, has opened the latest branch of his empire on it.

    Restaurants and shops are springing up like weeds along this stretch of land that was formerly filled with, well, weeds. Roy Yamaguchi, cookbook author, TV host and restaurateur, has opened the latest branch of his empire on it.

    From the hype, I expected someplace fancier. The decor varies: a bistro feel with quilted copper panels above an open kitchen and a smattering of small tables; upscale diner with booths and bare wood tables against a beautiful river-rock wall; and a section of wine-cellar gone mad, with enormous glass-walled wine racks. A key ingredient in the Roy's experience is wine. The chain (there's more than a dozen) has partnerships with wineries that put the "Roy's" label on select bottles and sell him truckloads of premium vintages. The guy buys 1,100 cases of Pinot Gris at a time, so you'll have lots of choices.

    The food also gives you choices. The menu reads like a primer in Hawaiian and Asian cooking and combinations thereof. Inamona sauce (candlenut kernels from the island of Hana) is served with ahi tuna. Shutome swordfish is basted in Thai curry sauce. I had a lovely serving of hebi (Hawaiian spearfish), a dark, oily meat that's firmer and more pronounced in taste that tuna, nicely grilled with cilantro leaves ($25). My companion had the "surfah" combination ($25), seared mahi with macadamia lobster sauce along with triple tails with Parmesan crab sauce. Unfortunately, it was presented with the two fish stacked on each other, and the sauces sort of blended around them. They were damn good sauces, even though the fish seemed a bit too bland to carry them.

    Appetizers were beautiful in presentation but ordinary in taste. Coconut shrimp sticks weren't any better than standard Chinese-restaurant fare. The topping on the "dynamite" oysters reminded me of broiler-browned mayonnaise.

    Certain desserts take 20 minutes to prepare. If you're like me (and of course you are), you probably can't think about dessert so far in advance, so just order the "haupia," coconut pudding in a chocolate shell that looks like a little coconut.

    Certain desserts take 20 minutes to prepare. If you're like me (and of course you are), you probably can't think about dessert so far in advance, so just order the "haupia," coconut pudding in a chocolate shell that looks like a little coconut.

    Roy's prides itself on "aloha service." In this case, "aloha" must be the island word for "waiter hovering over you at alternate mouthfuls." Maybe I'm getting curmudgeonly in my old age. Maybe that's why Roy's has so much wine.

    Once upon a time, indulging in Thai cuisine was an exotic foray into the unknown, but now Thai restaurants can be found on just about every main drag in town. What's next? McThai drive-throughs with satay nuggets and curry value-meals?

    drive-throughs with satay nuggets and curry value-meals?

    Thankfully, much more originality and attention to detail are in evidence at Royal Thai, which opened in 1997, making it an early entry in the Thai trend. When we visited shortly after the restaurant opened, near the busy crossroads of Semoran Boulevard and Colonial Drive, we found some aspects of the menu and service lacking.

    Thankfully, much more originality and attention to detail are in evidence at Royal Thai, which opened in 1997, making it an early entry in the Thai trend. When we visited shortly after the restaurant opened, near the busy crossroads of Semoran Boulevard and Colonial Drive, we found some aspects of the menu and service lacking.

    But Royal Thai has only improved with age. Two recent revisits offered a delicious presentation of the prowess of chef Jintana Bant, who hails from northern Thailand. Service was more efficient, too -- we were in and out within an hour.

    But Royal Thai has only improved with age. Two recent revisits offered a delicious presentation of the prowess of chef Jintana Bant, who hails from northern Thailand. Service was more efficient, too -- we were in and out within an hour.

    The simple dish param ($8.95) was handled with such a deft touch that it caught us off guard. The traditional stew of meat (which we declined in lieu of tofu) and spinach is nothing too fancy. But then we spooned some of the light peanut sauce over the pan-seared tofu cubes and vegetables, and took a taste. The hot, spicy flavors revealed themselves quietly and successively, like the trail of glitter in the aftermath of fireworks. It was at that moment we knew we were in the hands of a pro.

    The simple dish param ($8.95) was handled with such a deft touch that it caught us off guard. The traditional stew of meat (which we declined in lieu of tofu) and spinach is nothing too fancy. But then we spooned some of the light peanut sauce over the pan-seared tofu cubes and vegetables, and took a taste. The hot, spicy flavors revealed themselves quietly and successively, like the trail of glitter in the aftermath of fireworks. It was at that moment we knew we were in the hands of a pro.

    We had a more delayed reaction to the formidable "Thai beef stew" ($8.95), which is prepared in a red curry paste, backed up by a chorus of onions, peanuts and potatoes. Halfway into it, we realized we had crossed into extremely hot territory. We set this dish aside to be later enjoyed a few bites at a time and moved on to the next delight.

    We had a more delayed reaction to the formidable "Thai beef stew" ($8.95), which is prepared in a red curry paste, backed up by a chorus of onions, peanuts and potatoes. Halfway into it, we realized we had crossed into extremely hot territory. We set this dish aside to be later enjoyed a few bites at a time and moved on to the next delight.

    The "golden squid" ($5.95) was a refreshing antidote; these were jumbo rings of tender, chewy meat flash-fried into golden fritters. Left alone, they were fine, but when the appetizers were lightly whisked into a dish of chili-plum sauce -- as light and sweet as a glass of wine -- the taste was much more intriguing.

    The "golden squid" ($5.95) was a refreshing antidote; these were jumbo rings of tender, chewy meat flash-fried into golden fritters. Left alone, they were fine, but when the appetizers were lightly whisked into a dish of chili-plum sauce -- as light and sweet as a glass of wine -- the taste was much more intriguing.

    Our only disappointment was the mee grob ($4.95), which could have used more than four shrimp. Otherwise, it was an able rendition of crispy rice noodles sautéed in a sweet-and-sour sauce, garnished with bean sprouts.

    Our only disappointment was the mee grob ($4.95), which could have used more than four shrimp. Otherwise, it was an able rendition of crispy rice noodles sautéed in a sweet-and-sour sauce, garnished with bean sprouts.

    On two visits, we never saw more than a dozen customers in the dining area, which resembles a cool, dimly lit garden cottage. But they do a busy takeout business here. If Royal Thai is still uncharted territory, be assured that two years after opening, it is a worthy destination for sophisticated Thai classics.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Winter Park.

    It's not that we weren't given a thoroughly warm welcome. And sure, at least half of the customers that night were women. Even the restaurant is named after a woman. But my girlfriend and I agreed: Ruth's Chris Steak House has the definite vibes of a "guy" restaurant.

    The whole place is steeped in masculine energy. It's all clubby and private, with lustrous mahogany woods, low lighting, starched white linens on the tables, and secluded booths with swinging doors. The portions are massive, and the prices will hit you in the wallet big time, unless, of course, you're there with an important client on a business expense account. Although dinner for two can easily climb upward of $100, it's a carnivore's dream, steak at its very finest.

    The whole place is steeped in masculine energy. It's all clubby and private, with lustrous mahogany woods, low lighting, starched white linens on the tables, and secluded booths with swinging doors. The portions are massive, and the prices will hit you in the wallet big time, unless, of course, you're there with an important client on a business expense account. Although dinner for two can easily climb upward of $100, it's a carnivore's dream, steak at its very finest.

    This New Orleans-based chain deals only with corn-fed Hereford cows. Meats are aged several weeks for added flavor and tenderness. Each cut is seared on an 1,800-degree grill, hot enough to fire pottery, which quickly seals the meat and locks in juices. They arrive at your table sizzling in butter. The results are sometimes so tender that a steak knife isn't necessary to dig in; a mere fork will do.

    This New Orleans-based chain deals only with corn-fed Hereford cows. Meats are aged several weeks for added flavor and tenderness. Each cut is seared on an 1,800-degree grill, hot enough to fire pottery, which quickly seals the meat and locks in juices. They arrive at your table sizzling in butter. The results are sometimes so tender that a steak knife isn't necessary to dig in; a mere fork will do.

    Our waiter greeted us by our party's name, which he evidently got from the host at the front door. It was a small touch that helped us to relax. He steered us through the menu, making informed suggestions. We had an excellent barbecued shrimp appetizer ($8.95), which was sautéed in a sauce of reduced white wine, butter, garlic and spices. We also had a dish that was generously loaded with escargot and hearts of artichoke ($8.25) sautéed in white wine with heaps of scallions and mushrooms.

    Our waiter greeted us by our party's name, which he evidently got from the host at the front door. It was a small touch that helped us to relax. He steered us through the menu, making informed suggestions. We had an excellent barbecued shrimp appetizer ($8.95), which was sautéed in a sauce of reduced white wine, butter, garlic and spices. We also had a dish that was generously loaded with escargot and hearts of artichoke ($8.25) sautéed in white wine with heaps of scallions and mushrooms.

    Our waiter described the "cowboy rib-eye special" ($29.95) in such tempting detail that we couldn't resist. It weighed in at a jaw-dropping 22 ounces and was indeed extremely flavorful, drawing some of its impact from the bone, which was left intact. It was seared to medium-cooked perfection with a bright pink center, just as we requested. We also ordered a trio of lamb chops ($29.95), which were delicately marbled and extremely juicy, served with a pot of "emerald mint" dressing.

    Our waiter described the "cowboy rib-eye special" ($29.95) in such tempting detail that we couldn't resist. It weighed in at a jaw-dropping 22 ounces and was indeed extremely flavorful, drawing some of its impact from the bone, which was left intact. It was seared to medium-cooked perfection with a bright pink center, just as we requested. We also ordered a trio of lamb chops ($29.95), which were delicately marbled and extremely juicy, served with a pot of "emerald mint" dressing.

    There are eight ways to have potatoes at Ruth's, from mashed with roasted garlic to au gratin. We went with the Lyonnaise treatment ($4.50), sliced and sautéed with onions. Back home, we call them fried potatoes, but Ruth's version was handled skillfully. The tenderly steamed asparagus is another good choice, served with a delicate Hollandaise sauce ($6.95).

    There are eight ways to have potatoes at Ruth's, from mashed with roasted garlic to au gratin. We went with the Lyonnaise treatment ($4.50), sliced and sautéed with onions. Back home, we call them fried potatoes, but Ruth's version was handled skillfully. The tenderly steamed asparagus is another good choice, served with a delicate Hollandaise sauce ($6.95).

    Among the killer assortment of desserts, crème brûlée ($5.95) is a favorite with the clientele. Served with a handful of berries, it was eggy yet feather light, and the sugar crystals on top were torched into a glassy, crisp coating. Ice-cream freezes are a house specialty, made with Haagen Dazs and top-shelf liqueurs such as creme de cacao and brandy that go into the "velvet hammer" ($5.25).

    Among the killer assortment of desserts, crème brûlée ($5.95) is a favorite with the clientele. Served with a handful of berries, it was eggy yet feather light, and the sugar crystals on top were torched into a glassy, crisp coating. Ice-cream freezes are a house specialty, made with Haagen Dazs and top-shelf liqueurs such as creme de cacao and brandy that go into the "velvet hammer" ($5.25).

    Although we didn't sample the wine, there is a well-crafted menu that includes dozens of choices by the bottle or glass. We tried to find at least one thing about our entire dinner that wasn't perfect but came up empty-handed. We had to admit that Ruth's Chris Steak House has earned its reputation as a landmark restaurant worthy of visiting on special occasions -- or better yet, when you're on someone else's expense account.

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