Puerto Rican in Orlando with Kid Friendly

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    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.

    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.

    New Yorkers like secrets, and (since 1936) one of the most closely kept has been the Valencia Bakery, known in Manhattan and the Bronx for a particular style of cake -- rich buttercream frosting covering super-moist white cake with three layers of real pineapple filling.

    Well, the secret is out in Casselberry, where you'll find Ray Perez's own Valencia Bakery. It is filled with sugary pasteles (pastries from Puerto Rico), including cannolilike sweets with flaky outsides and custard fillings, and turnovers filled with guava jelly. There are also pastelitos (like empanadas), but they sell out fast.

    Well, the secret is out in Casselberry, where you'll find Ray Perez's own Valencia Bakery. It is filled with sugary pasteles (pastries from Puerto Rico), including cannolilike sweets with flaky outsides and custard fillings, and turnovers filled with guava jelly. There are also pastelitos (like empanadas), but they sell out fast.

    Then, of course, there are the cakes, actually made in the original New York bakery and shipped down. Valencia has only been open since November, but more than 800 of these beauties already have graced local palates.

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