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    While some other Cuban kitchens tag onto the pan-Latin craze and expand their menus to include influences from Central and South America, the humble Black Bean Deli in Winter Park remains doggedly devoted to homespun Cuban food. After 18 years, it's still a prime choice for sturdy, soul-warming lunches and dinners.

    As soon as you step inside, you barely have to close the door before you're at the front counter, facing a menu board and kitchen team. If you don't know what you want, ask for help, and they'll steer you in the right direction, with a hot meal usually ready within minutes, generally in the $4 to $5 ballpark.

    As soon as you step inside, you barely have to close the door before you're at the front counter, facing a menu board and kitchen team. If you don't know what you want, ask for help, and they'll steer you in the right direction, with a hot meal usually ready within minutes, generally in the $4 to $5 ballpark.

    For dining in, there's but a cluster of bar stools lined up at the window overlooking traffic on U.S. Highway 17-92. But the Black Bean Deli is better known as a dependable takeout joint. Although it's a sweet, cozy setup, don't expect any overly friendly schmoozing from behind the counter – they're just too busy. We stopped by at 7 p.m. one recent evening, about an hour before they closed. "There are no more Cuban sandwiches today, and we're all out of empanadas," we were told by a poker-faced guy wearing an apron and a tired expression. Mindful of a new wave of customers who had come in behind us, we quickly chose from the other dinner options – and there were plenty.

    For dining in, there's but a cluster of bar stools lined up at the window overlooking traffic on U.S. Highway 17-92. But the Black Bean Deli is better known as a dependable takeout joint. Although it's a sweet, cozy setup, don't expect any overly friendly schmoozing from behind the counter – they're just too busy. We stopped by at 7 p.m. one recent evening, about an hour before they closed. "There are no more Cuban sandwiches today, and we're all out of empanadas," we were told by a poker-faced guy wearing an apron and a tired expression. Mindful of a new wave of customers who had come in behind us, we quickly chose from the other dinner options – and there were plenty.

    Side orders are an excellent place to start. Papas rellenas (two for $2.50) are mashed-potato fritters, rolled up almost as big as baseballs and fried into a kind of finger food. Inside are pockets of spicy ground beef, but I would have liked them better if there were more meat. Cuban tamales ($1.85) are classic renditions. The cornmeal is silky, sweet and highly filling, topped with a dab of pimento and a spoonful of peas. It gets better with a splash of hot sauce from the bar.

    Side orders are an excellent place to start. Papas rellenas (two for $2.50) are mashed-potato fritters, rolled up almost as big as baseballs and fried into a kind of finger food. Inside are pockets of spicy ground beef, but I would have liked them better if there were more meat. Cuban tamales ($1.85) are classic renditions. The cornmeal is silky, sweet and highly filling, topped with a dab of pimento and a spoonful of peas. It gets better with a splash of hot sauce from the bar.

    Sandwiches are long and flat, wrapped in wax paper and generally served warm. In lieu of the in-demand Cuban sandwich (sweet ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese pressed into a slice of Cuban bread), we chose the "media noche" (midnight) ($3.95), which is basically the same sandwich, only it's presented on a soft, yellow, toasted sweet roll.

    Sandwiches are long and flat, wrapped in wax paper and generally served warm. In lieu of the in-demand Cuban sandwich (sweet ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese pressed into a slice of Cuban bread), we chose the "media noche" (midnight) ($3.95), which is basically the same sandwich, only it's presented on a soft, yellow, toasted sweet roll.

    Among the dinner specials, we found a spicy pan con lechon shredded-pork entree, drizzled with "mojo" garlic sauce. At $7.25, it was a couple of dollars more expensive than some of the other platters, but it did come with ample trimmings of sweet fried plantains, salad and, best of all, the diner's signature black beans and rice, which was thick, savory and buttery tender.

    Among the dinner specials, we found a spicy pan con lechon shredded-pork entree, drizzled with "mojo" garlic sauce. At $7.25, it was a couple of dollars more expensive than some of the other platters, but it did come with ample trimmings of sweet fried plantains, salad and, best of all, the diner's signature black beans and rice, which was thick, savory and buttery tender.

    Flan de queso ($1.75) ended our dinner on a rich note. Black Bean's sinful version of the classic egg custard is sweetened up with melted cheese and caramel sauce.

    Flan de queso ($1.75) ended our dinner on a rich note. Black Bean's sinful version of the classic egg custard is sweetened up with melted cheese and caramel sauce.

    Years ago the Black Bean Deli might have been open one Saturday and closed the next, or open one weeknight until 7 p.m. and closed the next night by 5 p.m. These days the deli is consistently open from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

    When I walked into the giant pineapple housing Bongos Cuban Café, I wasn't sure what to expect. As we are all aware, the 470-seat restaurant at Downtown Disney is the brainchild of singer Gloria Estefan (there's another one in Miami), and the combination of the Mouse and the Diva made me wary.

    I went early to avoid the inevitable theme park rush, and was seated at the only table actually under the winding concrete staircase that leads up to the second-floor lounge and live music area in the light, pineapple-themed – and at this point, nearly empty – room. I changed tables immediately, and waited for the expected disappointing meal. I waited in vain.

    I went early to avoid the inevitable theme park rush, and was seated at the only table actually under the winding concrete staircase that leads up to the second-floor lounge and live music area in the light, pineapple-themed – and at this point, nearly empty – room. I changed tables immediately, and waited for the expected disappointing meal. I waited in vain.

    To put it succinctly, dinner at Bongos is superb. Chef Quintin Larios is, if anything, conservative when it comes to his takes on Cuban cuisine. For instance, the appetizer Tostones Rellenos con Camarones ($9.50), tiny shrimp or beef in a thick and tomatoey creole sauce, presented in deep-fried cups made from green plantain. The plantain, more like potato than banana, gives a pleasant earthy taste to the mild dish. Ask for extra creole on the plate and Bongos own hot sauce to add some needed kick. For more authentic starters, order the Tamal en Hoja ($6.75), polenta with seasoned pork and wrapped in a corn husk, or ham croquettes (Croquetas de Jamon; $5.25)

    To put it succinctly, dinner at Bongos is superb. Chef Quintin Larios is, if anything, conservative when it comes to his takes on Cuban cuisine. For instance, the appetizer Tostones Rellenos con Camarones ($9.50), tiny shrimp or beef in a thick and tomatoey creole sauce, presented in deep-fried cups made from green plantain. The plantain, more like potato than banana, gives a pleasant earthy taste to the mild dish. Ask for extra creole on the plate and Bongos own hot sauce to add some needed kick. For more authentic starters, order the Tamal en Hoja ($6.75), polenta with seasoned pork and wrapped in a corn husk, or ham croquettes (Croquetas de Jamon; $5.25)

    Main courses affirm the talent in the kitchen. Mariscos Salteados ($26.95) is a simple combination of seafood in a garlic, butter and wine sauce. It had me eating with eyes closed to savor the perfectly prepared baby scallops, green mussels, mild white fish, tender calamari, grilled shrimp and a toothsome lobster tail that easily lifted out of its half-shell and was eagerly devoured. Pollo Asado ($14.95) was a tender marinated half-chicken, served with a slightly different version of the creole sauce from the appetizer – here it was more piquant and nicely set off the very juicy grilled chicken, virtually falling off the bone. Entrees come with green or sweet plantains, and the choice of rice and black beans is a good one, tasty without inauthentic seasonings and not the least bit dry, as Frijoles Negros can be at times.

    Main courses affirm the talent in the kitchen. Mariscos Salteados ($26.95) is a simple combination of seafood in a garlic, butter and wine sauce. It had me eating with eyes closed to savor the perfectly prepared baby scallops, green mussels, mild white fish, tender calamari, grilled shrimp and a toothsome lobster tail that easily lifted out of its half-shell and was eagerly devoured. Pollo Asado ($14.95) was a tender marinated half-chicken, served with a slightly different version of the creole sauce from the appetizer – here it was more piquant and nicely set off the very juicy grilled chicken, virtually falling off the bone. Entrees come with green or sweet plantains, and the choice of rice and black beans is a good one, tasty without inauthentic seasonings and not the least bit dry, as Frijoles Negros can be at times.

    There's live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from 7 to 10:30, featuring Latin bands that will make it hard to sit still. Even Desi Arnaz Jr. has played there.

    There's live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from 7 to 10:30, featuring Latin bands that will make it hard to sit still. Even Desi Arnaz Jr. has played there.

    My waiter was an attentive and helpful chap who knew the menu, checked on me at all the proper intervals, and made good suggestions, like dessert of a cortadito – a small Cuban version of espresso – and Flan de Leche. Pumpkin-pie colored and covered in sweet caramel sauce, the creamy texture of this simple custard is a delight to the mouth and one of life's simple pleasures.

    My waiter was an attentive and helpful chap who knew the menu, checked on me at all the proper intervals, and made good suggestions, like dessert of a cortadito – a small Cuban version of espresso – and Flan de Leche. Pumpkin-pie colored and covered in sweet caramel sauce, the creamy texture of this simple custard is a delight to the mouth and one of life's simple pleasures.

    Oh, and one more thing: Babaloo!

    Mildred Perez heard the lament often: There just weren't enough Puerto Rican restaurants in Orlando. Finally the island's descendant decided to take her friends' advice and do something about it. Not long ago Perez debuted Brisas del Caribe on Curry Ford Road, where she has enjoyed a steady flow of traffic ever since.

    Her homespun menu shares similarities with Cuban fare in the roast pork, chicken and fried-plantain staples. The difference between the two becomes clear in the flavorings, such as the extra garlic and cilantro that are rubbed into meats.

    Her homespun menu shares similarities with Cuban fare in the roast pork, chicken and fried-plantain staples. The difference between the two becomes clear in the flavorings, such as the extra garlic and cilantro that are rubbed into meats.

    And as for soups, rather than a traditional black bean, Perez favors richer stews fortified with plump, silky red-kidney beans.

    And as for soups, rather than a traditional black bean, Perez favors richer stews fortified with plump, silky red-kidney beans.

    "Puerto Rican is more European in its influence. We don't use so many hot spices, but we do use a lot of seasonings: garlic, olive oil, oregano and vinegar," explains Perez. "The island is so small that we also use a lot of seafood – it's one of our specialties."

    "Puerto Rican is more European in its influence. We don't use so many hot spices, but we do use a lot of seasonings: garlic, olive oil, oregano and vinegar," explains Perez. "The island is so small that we also use a lot of seafood – it's one of our specialties."

    Because Puerto Rican dinners are usually served in heaping portions, it's not necessary to start with appetizers at Brisas del Caribe. Many of them are included with entrees anyway. But we liked "yucca al mojo," a boiled, starchy vegetable that's fibrous like squash. All of the yucca's sweetness was brought out by a sticky garlic glaze, and it gained an entirely new character when dipped in a snappy red "mojo" sauce. It was a steal at $1.75.

    Because Puerto Rican dinners are usually served in heaping portions, it's not necessary to start with appetizers at Brisas del Caribe. Many of them are included with entrees anyway. But we liked "yucca al mojo," a boiled, starchy vegetable that's fibrous like squash. All of the yucca's sweetness was brought out by a sticky garlic glaze, and it gained an entirely new character when dipped in a snappy red "mojo" sauce. It was a steal at $1.75.

    Among entrees, my guest loved the bold freshness of pechuga al ajillo ($9.99), a boneless chicken breast that was sizzled on a grill, then smothered in a deeply flavored garlic sauce. The dish was served with red beans and rice, and fried green plantains that were golden on the edges, yet still moist and flavorful within.

    Among entrees, my guest loved the bold freshness of pechuga al ajillo ($9.99), a boneless chicken breast that was sizzled on a grill, then smothered in a deeply flavored garlic sauce. The dish was served with red beans and rice, and fried green plantains that were golden on the edges, yet still moist and flavorful within.

    Another fine choice was tripleta de mariscos ($15.99), a trio of conch, octopus and shrimp sautéed with a clean-tasting, vinegary sauce. The seafood creation had a delicate lightness that nicely contrasted against the heaviness of the fried plantains that were served on the side.

    Another fine choice was tripleta de mariscos ($15.99), a trio of conch, octopus and shrimp sautéed with a clean-tasting, vinegary sauce. The seafood creation had a delicate lightness that nicely contrasted against the heaviness of the fried plantains that were served on the side.

    As for dessert, we loved the luscious tres leches (three milk) cake ($1.75), a plain, blondish concoction served in a cup and masked by meringue. We prodded into it with a spoon, and three kinds of sweet milk spread luxuriantly over the cake, soaking into every crevice.

    As for dessert, we loved the luscious tres leches (three milk) cake ($1.75), a plain, blondish concoction served in a cup and masked by meringue. We prodded into it with a spoon, and three kinds of sweet milk spread luxuriantly over the cake, soaking into every crevice.

    Though Brisas del Caribe is too rambling and brightly lit to afford a sense of intimacy, after hours Thursday through Sunday the restaurant morphs nicely into a salsa/merengue club.

    Though Brisas del Caribe is too rambling and brightly lit to afford a sense of intimacy, after hours Thursday through Sunday the restaurant morphs nicely into a salsa/merengue club.

    Waiters take great pains to welcome newcomers, and the Perez's food is as warm and inviting as a home-cooked meal. Although dishes such as roast chicken and pork are not likely to win awards for innovation, count on leaving happy and stuffed.

    In William Least Heat-Moon's travel journal, Blue Highways, he says the best indicator of good diner food is how many calendars there are on the walls. I stipulate that the indicator of a worthwhile Cuban cafe is how long the smell stays on your clothes. And after a visit to Cindy's Tropical Cafe, the aroma of pressed Cuban sandwiches and fried plantains hung on my shirt for a solid 10 hours. Anything longer than six hours deserves a hats-off in my book.

    Cindy's "Daily Good Deals" are a welcome rendition of home-cooked comfort food. She offers a choice of thinly sliced pork, steak or chicken, white rice and black or pinto beans, fried sweet or green plantains, and a salad for a measly $5.99 -- and that's the high end of the menu.

    There's a wide array of small and large subs (meatball, "Midnight," Cuban and vegetarian), that cost from $2.99 to $6.59, all of which can be pressed. And Cindy's is open for breakfast, too. The only thing missing is picadillo, but there is a great "relleno de papa" ($1.25) that satisfies the spiced-ground-beef craving.

    Overall, Cindy's serves excellent no-frills food that's extremely light on the wallet. Stop in for deliciously aromatic Cuban dishes, and look elsewhere for your motor oil and TP.

    On a trip to Medina's Restaurant I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Arthur Hoppe, longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The corollary to that is: "Never let the restaurant get in the way of a good dinner."

    I enjoyed Medina's, and so do many others who frequent this local landmark. Medina's specializes in hearty Cuban and Puerto Rican home-cooking, and that alone brings 'em back for more -- from businessmen on cell phones to college couples in jeans and flip-flops.

    I enjoyed Medina's, and so do many others who frequent this local landmark. Medina's specializes in hearty Cuban and Puerto Rican home-cooking, and that alone brings 'em back for more -- from businessmen on cell phones to college couples in jeans and flip-flops.

    But Medina's counters its word-of-mouth popularity with spotty service. The pace was glacial on a recent evening, but nobody appeared to mind, maybe because it's such a humble setting. The dining area is festooned with homey touches, almost like it's set up for a birthday party. Murals of Latin beaches are framed by twinkling Christmas lights. Crêpe streamers are twirled across the ceiling. A board lists "especialidades de dia."

    But Medina's counters its word-of-mouth popularity with spotty service. The pace was glacial on a recent evening, but nobody appeared to mind, maybe because it's such a humble setting. The dining area is festooned with homey touches, almost like it's set up for a birthday party. Murals of Latin beaches are framed by twinkling Christmas lights. Crêpe streamers are twirled across the ceiling. A board lists "especialidades de dia."

    An array of side-orders make good appetizers, like the empanada (99 cents), a succulent meat turnover, the pastry neatly crimped and fried until crispy and dry. Tamal preparado ($2.39) was a variation on the traditional tamale, with soft, sweet corn dough topped with thin-sliced roast pork and melted white cheese. Even better was the croquetta ($2.39), a tubular roll of minced, seasoned ham, breaded and deep fried.

    An array of side-orders make good appetizers, like the empanada (99 cents), a succulent meat turnover, the pastry neatly crimped and fried until crispy and dry. Tamal preparado ($2.39) was a variation on the traditional tamale, with soft, sweet corn dough topped with thin-sliced roast pork and melted white cheese. Even better was the croquetta ($2.39), a tubular roll of minced, seasoned ham, breaded and deep fried.

    While waiting -- and waiting -- for our entrees, we dallied over bottles of Polar Beer ($2.39), a South American import that tastes a lot like Old Milwaukee. Finally the waitress returned with a delicious plate of bistec de palomilla, steak Cuban-style ($4.89), a simple cut of beef pounded thin, lightly seasoned and slightly charred. Arroz blanco was proof that white rice never need be bland. The grains were pearly and plump, glistening with a bit of oil. Black beans were stewed until tender in a thick, natural gravy. My friend's lechon adado, or roast pork ($5.89), was a lean cut of meat, yet juicy. He had more of the beans and rice, and sweet, firm platanos maduros, or ripened plantains (99 cents).

    While waiting -- and waiting -- for our entrees, we dallied over bottles of Polar Beer ($2.39), a South American import that tastes a lot like Old Milwaukee. Finally the waitress returned with a delicious plate of bistec de palomilla, steak Cuban-style ($4.89), a simple cut of beef pounded thin, lightly seasoned and slightly charred. Arroz blanco was proof that white rice never need be bland. The grains were pearly and plump, glistening with a bit of oil. Black beans were stewed until tender in a thick, natural gravy. My friend's lechon adado, or roast pork ($5.89), was a lean cut of meat, yet juicy. He had more of the beans and rice, and sweet, firm platanos maduros, or ripened plantains (99 cents).

    We were there about 45 minutes longer than necessary, but it was a pleasant stay. We might have been there even longer, except my friend ventured past the door that warned "Waitress Only" to ask for dessert and the check. But I did enjoy the flan con coco ($1.39), a rich custard with sweet coconut meat.

    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.

    The second Yaya's location (later renamed Zaza) should prove to be just as popular as their first, serving the same classic renditions of Cuban comfort food. A tiny '70s-style building houses affordable, bountifu dinner plate (the lechon asado proves pork can be lean and still juicy) and high-octane cafe con leche, some of the best Cuban cofee north of Key West. Flaky, buttery homemade guava-and-cream cheese pastries make a sweet finish.

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