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    West Sand Lakers get their fill of South Indian staples in this stylishly decorated space. Salmon seared on a hot stone and tandoori lamb chops marinated in ginger and rum are among the more noteworthy dishes in the sea of standards. Open daily for lunch and dinner.


    Teaser: West Sand Lakers get their fill of South Indian staples in this stylishly decorated space. Salmon seared on a hot stone and tandoori lamb chops marinated in ginger and rum are among the more noteworthy dishes in the sea of standards.

    Aiming higher than the spate of casual Vietnamese eateries lining Colonial Drive, Oviedo's Saigon Flavors certainly has the sultry mood, decorative panache and intimate space that sets it apart from its downtown kin. Deep reds and cool blues with wall cutouts housing assorted objets d'art, including four beautifully painted renderings of Vietnam's four regions, lend to a mood of refined tranquility. So why mar the serenity by situating a hostess stand in the dining room? It's not so much the stand's placement as how it serves as a congregating ground for owner Charlie Tang and his staff, who use it as a forum for idle chatter. Buckling to one's boredom is commonplace in the service biz, but for a restaurant bent on raising the bar, such behavior takes a bit of shimmer off the surface. Both our meals here began with a conscious effort to turn a deaf ear to the chitchat and to nourish our senses with our eyes and mouths.

    And with corpulent gòi cuôn, we were able to do just that. Summer rolls ($3.50) of the grilled pork, lemon-chicken and meatball varieties restored some of the luster, but it was the grape leaves stuffed with marinated char-grilled beef that really shone. A slight charring of the leaves themselves only enhanced the flavors, but a dip in the homemade sweet-and-sour sauce wasn't just unnecessary, it vitiated the essence. If you must, a drop or two of the red pepper chutney provides the proper zing.

    Poring over the 50-odd 'chef's specials� and entrees, we were steered toward the canh chua cá ($12.95), a fish soup made sweet by pineapples and sour by the addition of tamarind. Our obliging server proceeded to spoon some rice into a bowl, on top of which he ladled a piping-hot broth teeming with tilapia fillets, bean sprouts, okra, tomatoes and peppermint. The surprisingly harmonious and texturally symphonic soup would be even better the next day, we were told, and sure enough, the balanced but bolder broth proved gratifying the following night.

    One of my favorite places in town to enjoy a good cheap bowl of pho is Viet Garden, and the fact that Tang owned that restaurant back in the '90s had me salivating at the thought of sampling the liquid meal here. While good, the pho ($7.50) with beef eye-round, flank and meatballs seemed deficient in fragrant star anise, and the lack of depth and complexity in the broth had us compensating by adding more Thai basil. On the noodle front, we opted for another of the chef's specialties ' an artfully presented, albeit safe, plate of crispy combo noodles ($11.95) crowned with plenty of shrimp, beef, chicken and a host of vegetables from bok choy to water chestnuts stir-fried in an unremarkable brown garlic sauce.

    If potent Viet coffee with condensed milk ($3.50) doesn't sweeten your tooth, deliciously mild and runny flan ($2.95), as well as the fried banana flambé ($4.95) served with sesame- specked coconut ice cream, certainly will.

    While you won't find the profligate aggregation of dishes at Saigon Flavors that you would in the humble eateries on Colonial Drive, you won't find the third-world prices either. But if Viet Garden was any indication, Tang will make this work. His restaurant may not even be the size of Ho Chi Minh's hothouse, but Tang's ambitions may be just as big.

    While you won't find the profligate aggregation of dishes at Saigon Flavors that you would in the humble eateries on Colonial Drive, you won't find the third-world prices either. But if Viet Garden was any indication, Tang will make this work. His restaurant may not even be the size of Ho Chi Minh's hothouse, but Tang's ambitions may be just as big.

    Sooner or later there comes a point when the old standby meals you make at home get boring. Always the same -- the chicken, the spaghetti, the macaroni and cheese. What you need is an adventure, and it's as close as the shelves of Saigon Market

    Walking through the aisles is like a trip to another culinary planet. Here you'll find red perilla, a licorice-flavored leaf eaten with sashimi, and Chinese rehmannia root (used by herbalists to treat fatigue). Bins of sapota fruit and artful strings of sataw (called stinky beans, and for a reason) share space with winter melon that gets cut open, filled with shrimp and baked. There's a whole aisle of fish sauces, and hard-to-find black rice vinegar that's sweet enough to use alone on a salad.

    Walking through the aisles is like a trip to another culinary planet. Here you'll find red perilla, a licorice-flavored leaf eaten with sashimi, and Chinese rehmannia root (used by herbalists to treat fatigue). Bins of sapota fruit and artful strings of sataw (called stinky beans, and for a reason) share space with winter melon that gets cut open, filled with shrimp and baked. There's a whole aisle of fish sauces, and hard-to-find black rice vinegar that's sweet enough to use alone on a salad.

    And grab a can of my favorite sweet, gelatinous, mutant coconut balls -- just to say you have 'em.

    As mainstream tastes grow more adventurous, perhaps it was inevitable that a swanky sushi restaurant would arrive on east Aloma Avenue, next door to a bowling alley.

    Despite sounding like a play on the word "psycho", Saikyo Sushi Bar and Grill takes its name from a combo of "Saigon" and "Tokyo," a reflection of the owners' backgrounds. Eventually Vietnamese cuisine will join the menu, but for now it's all Japanese. And there's a varied selection to satisfy palettes that prefer raw or cooked dishes. Friday and Saturday nights are busy but lunch hasn't quite caught on, as we discovered on a weekday visit.

    Despite sounding like a play on the word "psycho", Saikyo Sushi Bar and Grill takes its name from a combo of "Saigon" and "Tokyo," a reflection of the owners' backgrounds. Eventually Vietnamese cuisine will join the menu, but for now it's all Japanese. And there's a varied selection to satisfy palettes that prefer raw or cooked dishes. Friday and Saturday nights are busy but lunch hasn't quite caught on, as we discovered on a weekday visit.

    One of the owners formerly worked as an architect in Vietnam, and his designs have transformed the place impressively from its previous lives. An arched wooden footbridge leads from the parking lot to the front door, and a garden pond is on the way. Inside, the feng shui is enhanced by soft colors, subdued lighting, a small "tatami" seating area and a gleaming sushi bar.

    One of the owners formerly worked as an architect in Vietnam, and his designs have transformed the place impressively from its previous lives. An arched wooden footbridge leads from the parking lot to the front door, and a garden pond is on the way. Inside, the feng shui is enhanced by soft colors, subdued lighting, a small "tatami" seating area and a gleaming sushi bar.

    There is nothing complicated about the menu; it's a to-the-point collection of sashimi (fish served raw) and sushi (vinegared rice garnished with seafood and/or vegetables), with some sukiyaki, teriyaki and tempura entrees thrown in.

    There is nothing complicated about the menu; it's a to-the-point collection of sashimi (fish served raw) and sushi (vinegared rice garnished with seafood and/or vegetables), with some sukiyaki, teriyaki and tempura entrees thrown in.

    Sushi rolls are plumply sliced. The "French roll" ($6.95) is wrapped in a crepe that covers shrimp, crab, avocado, cucumber and cream cheese. Dabbed with tingling wasabi paste, it has a lot of impact. We also loved the crunch of fried soft-shell crab, deliciously blended with asparagus and onions in the "spider roll" ($8.95). Inside there was an unexpected orange blaze of smelt eggs.

    Sushi rolls are plumply sliced. The "French roll" ($6.95) is wrapped in a crepe that covers shrimp, crab, avocado, cucumber and cream cheese. Dabbed with tingling wasabi paste, it has a lot of impact. We also loved the crunch of fried soft-shell crab, deliciously blended with asparagus and onions in the "spider roll" ($8.95). Inside there was an unexpected orange blaze of smelt eggs.

    Tempura fans will find territory to explore in the deep-fried "Sanibel roll" ($6.95) with salmon and asparagus bonded by cream cheese. The vegetable tempura dinner ($8.95) is a filling assortment of sliced sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, broccoli tips and mushrooms. The dish is oily, which weighs down the otherwise light presentation.

    Tempura fans will find territory to explore in the deep-fried "Sanibel roll" ($6.95) with salmon and asparagus bonded by cream cheese. The vegetable tempura dinner ($8.95) is a filling assortment of sliced sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, broccoli tips and mushrooms. The dish is oily, which weighs down the otherwise light presentation.

    Pork teriyaki ($12.95) benefits from the sauce -- light, never clingy -- that's washed over the grilled strips of tenderloin, dusted with sesame seeds. Entrees come with steamed rice and a choice of soup or salad. Go for the miso soup; it's satisfying and aggressive, spiked with scallions and tofu cubes.

    Pork teriyaki ($12.95) benefits from the sauce -- light, never clingy -- that's washed over the grilled strips of tenderloin, dusted with sesame seeds. Entrees come with steamed rice and a choice of soup or salad. Go for the miso soup; it's satisfying and aggressive, spiked with scallions and tofu cubes.

    Service was professionally low-key. We had a sense of space, yet our requests were met in a timely manner. Saikyo Sushi Bar and Grill may just go the distance in a location that's been a revolving door for Asian restaurants.

    The first mall food experience I remember is slurping down an Orange Julius after buying my very first pair of pegged, zipper-on-the-bottom jeans. My obsession with the jeans didn't last, but I can't say the same for the fabulous string of selections I discovered thereafter at the mall: bubblegum-flavored popcorn, See's gourmet lollipops, bourbon chicken … the list goes on.

    Nothing, however, compares to what's cooking in a corner of the Florida Mall: Salsa Taqueria and Tequila bar. Here, I sipped my very first glass of amaretto-infused tequila for dessert, which blew the pineapple Julius away for best beverage at the mall.

    But let's rewind. Before I even entered the colorful and cavernous restaurant, I sampled the chips the hostess was giving out at the entrance. Hungry shoppers were lured in by the dozens, and I could see why. As the homemade chips delicately crackled between my teeth, I knew I had to have more – a lot more. In fact, I didn't stop until three bowls of guacamole ($3.95) were polished off. It was creamier than usual and tingled the tongue with fresh lime, serrano pepper and hints of cilantro.

    Queso fundido ($6.50), a rich blend of manchego, asadero and Monterey Jack cheeses, was swaddled in fresh handmade flour tortillas and was proof that bread and cheese is a universally adored pairing. Tortilla soup ($4.95), creamy from the blending of corn tortillas with hearty chicken broth, was bright and refreshing. Among the flavors to shine in this soup were guajillo chiles, a common dried pepper in Mexico, but a difficult-to-find ingredient in American markets.

    The taco sampler ($10.95) was an array of flavor and texture. If one were eating a spectrum of color, this is what it would taste like; it started with a light citrus-marinated chicken, then moved through marinated beef, roasted pork with pineapple and sweet onions, grouper with fruity pico de gallo and slaw, roasted mushrooms, and poblano peppers with queso fresco. I was overwhelmed with the mixture of surprise as the tastes ran from sweet and fruity to fragrantly spicy to pleasantly mellow to creamy and back again.

    One of the best things about Salsa Taqueria is the just representation of capsicums on the menu. Look no further to expand your knowledge of peppers: bell, smoked jalape'o, chipotle, serrano, guajillo and poblano, to name a few.

    The Mexico City enchiladas ($11.95) are a mix-and-match of choices: There's chicken, beef or shrimp, but also be prepared to choose from yellow, poblano, guajillo or tomatillo mole, all spectacularly delicious. My favorite, the guajillo, seemed heavy at first, but woke the mouth with a little zing and a lot of tang after the first bite. Among three sandwich selections, we tried "torta Havana" ($8.50), thinly sliced pork loin, ham and avocado on pleasantly light, toasted bread. The addition of chipotle sauce made the flavors come alive.

    For dessert we ordered the tres leches ($3.95), of course. Tres leches is one of my current kitchen experiments, and I made one the other day that looked like a deflated balloon. Luckily, Salsa Taqueria's fared better, but was more like a tiramisu drenched in fruit puree than the silky, milk-soaked genoise that captures my recent affections. (Note: I invite … no, beg those with good tres leches recipes to please step forward and share.) So, after our delicious meal, I was ready to go try on some jeans – no zippers on the bottom this time.

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