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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

Trendy sushi joint is a magnet for the uninitiated, so those looking for a slightly more authentic sushi experience need look elsewhere. While flavor fizzles in such dishes as “Ra”-ckin Shrimp and “Ra”-llipops, striped-bass nigiri and octopus sashimi shine. The cocktail crowd can feast on sushi and drink specials weekdays from 4-7 p.m.
Vintage and vinyl records, coffee, pastries, and live music.

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.

Cupcake competition is fierce these days. Even narrowing the field to the dairy-free, Orlando has a surprising surfeit of places to get your pastry rocks off; it would take a big bite out of this space to name all the challengers this new bakery/coffeehouse/music and art space faces, so I won't. But few can boast such a convenient ' and charming ' location as Raphsodic, nestled on Mills Avenue near the intersection with Colonial Drive. 

Luckily, they have enough Chinese five-spice brownies and sticky cinnamon buns and dense, moist carrot-ginger spice cake (and of course, the omnipresent red velvet cupcakes) to shut down your critical faculties, so any vicarious worries you may have as to whether owners Katherine Mosher and Charles Elliott can survive and thrive will be drowned in sweet, animal-friendly baked goodness. 

The old-fashioned tile floor, glass-fronted display cases, exposed ductwork and high ceilings give the room a pleasingly industrial-cum-apothecary feel ' just right for a fix of healthy decadence. My only quibble is the weekday hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (9 p.m. Friday and Saturday), not quite early enough for a morning coffee and scone nor late enough for an after-dinner sweet.

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.

In the years since the Eagle landed on London’s Farringdon Road and spawned the gastropub phenomenon, that word’s definition has been interpreted in an increasingly liberal fashion amongst restaurateurs on this side of the pond. Case in point: the Ravenous Pig. The place in no way resembles a humble watering hole where commoners can indulge in high-quality meals; rather, it’s as sexy-cool as its clientele, and its frills are just as sophisticated as its fare. Granted, chef/owners James and Julie Petrakis (of Greens & Grille) make a point of calling their latest venture an “American” gastropub, ostensibly justifying the expansion of the definition.

The Pig, like its predecessor Popolo, is divided into three distinct rooms: the bar area; a central dining room; and an adjunct room with brick wall and kitchen view. The latter resembles a comedy club, but it was the complimentary fresh-baked gruyère biscuits that proved laughable. The three humble little lumps were decent enough, but we were politely declined when we requested for more. Evidently, they only make a limited number of these cheesy numbers, but no effort was made to accommodate us – we would’ve taken regular bread if offered.

The appetizers, thankfully, were seriously better. Succulent grilled quail and herbaceous made-in-house sausage ($13) underscored the talent in the kitchen; champagne grapes and shaved fennel provided a delicately sweet crown. But the crunch of cabbage overwhelmed the trio of lobster tacos ($13), an item off the “pub menu” that my two guests and I deemed insipid and disappointing. Being told TRP was one of only three restaurants in town to serve Nantucket Bay scallops ($14) necessitated an order of these coveted, incredibly sweet mollusks. Served in a balsamic brown butter, the glistening orbs were perfectly opaque, pillowy and moist.

In terms of portions, entrees aren’t much more substantial than the appetizers, but that didn’t mean mains like loin of lamb ($25) and steak frites ($22) didn’t satisfy. The former featured meaty, olive-crusted lamb rolls in a light basil-infused jus. My only complaint: The dish was served under the desired medium-rare, giving the lamb a slightly sinewy texture. The latter, a wonderfully tender porcini-marinated flatiron steak, may strike patrons who’ve dined at Greens & Grille as somewhat familiar (G&G offers porcini-marinated flank steak). A ramekin of deftly executed béarnaise and a beer glass of thinly cut truffle fries rounded out the dish.

For a place named the Ravenous Pig, there are surprisingly few pork dishes offered, but the roasted suckling pig ($23) will satiate those who worship that singular magical animal. Chunks of tenderloin bathed in stout come served over a bed of collards; the rye gnocchi flecked with caraway seeds drew a mixed reaction.

Chocoholics will undoubtedly rave about thick chocolate-chili pot de crème ($7) and the pig tails ($7), funnelcake-like fritters shaped like rear appendages and served with a comforting chocolate-espresso sauce. Cappuccino ($3.50) was served tepid, a likely malfunction of an inferior push-button contrivance, or else server negligence. You’re better off sampling an après-meal microbrew ($5 for a pint).

Service could use a bit more polishing; our waitress seemed somewhat distracted and inattentive – a lot of time was spent staring at the bronze ceiling tiles waiting for her eventual return. Still, my sincere hope is that the Ravenous Pig won’t succumb to the curse that plagued the space’s many predecessors, and if the gastropub’s moniker turns you off, don’t let it – it's a misnomer. The conservative portions ensure no patrons indulge in piggish behavior.

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.

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