Southern/Soul in Orlando with Kid Friendly

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    To celebrate their third birthday, House of Blues has strayed a bit from its Southern menu, introducing dishes that might be based on Delta traditions but have taken a few detours.

    First, some HOB dining secrets. After listening to the "30-minute wait" speech and getting a beeper from the hostess, you should stroll around back to the Voodoo Garden. It overlooks the lake, there's live music, and – best of all – there's often an empty table. Second: The Voodoo Garden music ends at 10 p.m., when it becomes a very peaceful place to dine. The last secret? Order extra rosemary corn bread – even at $3.95 – since it's moist, crunchy and satisfying.

    First, some HOB dining secrets. After listening to the "30-minute wait" speech and getting a beeper from the hostess, you should stroll around back to the Voodoo Garden. It overlooks the lake, there's live music, and – best of all – there's often an empty table. Second: The Voodoo Garden music ends at 10 p.m., when it becomes a very peaceful place to dine. The last secret? Order extra rosemary corn bread – even at $3.95 – since it's moist, crunchy and satisfying.

    The staple "seafood gumbo" ($3.95 a cup) has a flavorful soup base, which takes a lot of concentration to notice, since the slightly burnt taste of blackened seasonongs masks everything. With almost none of the promised ingredients showing up (andouille sausage, shrimp, oysters and crawfish are listed, but you couldn't prove it by me), it's not the enjoyable dish it could be.

    The staple "seafood gumbo" ($3.95 a cup) has a flavorful soup base, which takes a lot of concentration to notice, since the slightly burnt taste of blackened seasonongs masks everything. With almost none of the promised ingredients showing up (andouille sausage, shrimp, oysters and crawfish are listed, but you couldn't prove it by me), it's not the enjoyable dish it could be.

    Options for appetizers include "Caribbean jerk chicken wings in Pickapepper sauce" ($8.95) and "seared Gulf shrimp with Blackened Voodoo Beer" ($10.25). For the latter, six decent-sized shrimp come coated in a dark, spicy sauce, the deep flavor accented by a mound of radish sprouts. It's a good precursor of the interesting combinations of textures and flavors to follow.

    Options for appetizers include "Caribbean jerk chicken wings in Pickapepper sauce" ($8.95) and "seared Gulf shrimp with Blackened Voodoo Beer" ($10.25). For the latter, six decent-sized shrimp come coated in a dark, spicy sauce, the deep flavor accented by a mound of radish sprouts. It's a good precursor of the interesting combinations of textures and flavors to follow.

    For the "ahi tuna salad" ($10.95), rare slices of quickly seared tuna are wound around a heap of red cabbage and topped in a drizzle of wasabi mayonnaise. The fish is sushi-grade and splendid, and while the cabbage is a bit too oversoyed, the crisp texture offsets the buttery feel of the fish.

    For the "ahi tuna salad" ($10.95), rare slices of quickly seared tuna are wound around a heap of red cabbage and topped in a drizzle of wasabi mayonnaise. The fish is sushi-grade and splendid, and while the cabbage is a bit too oversoyed, the crisp texture offsets the buttery feel of the fish.

    Some of the so-called "Southern specials" come from South Elsewhere. I don't think any bayou cook has ever rustled up a mess of "chicken and penne pasta with wild mushroom cream sauce and Gouda cheese" ($14.95). The "grilled rosemary chicken" ($14.95) comes nicely charcoaled and juicy, along with mashed potatoes that are richly creamy and wonderfully lumpy at the same time, and perfect, tender sautéed asparagus.

    Some of the so-called "Southern specials" come from South Elsewhere. I don't think any bayou cook has ever rustled up a mess of "chicken and penne pasta with wild mushroom cream sauce and Gouda cheese" ($14.95). The "grilled rosemary chicken" ($14.95) comes nicely charcoaled and juicy, along with mashed potatoes that are richly creamy and wonderfully lumpy at the same time, and perfect, tender sautéed asparagus.

    Our attentive server recommended the "white chocolate banana bread pudding" (all desserts $5.95). CrÈme anglaise and dark-chocolate drizzles accent the muffinlike pudding, but by the time we got to the car I felt several pounds heavier. Try the "sweet potato cheesecake" for something lighter.

    Our attentive server recommended the "white chocolate banana bread pudding" (all desserts $5.95). CrÈme anglaise and dark-chocolate drizzles accent the muffinlike pudding, but by the time we got to the car I felt several pounds heavier. Try the "sweet potato cheesecake" for something lighter.

    HOB will always be a theme restaurant, but this theme has the food to back it up.

    What do you make of a restaurant that beckons to customers with the hand-painted words "grapeleaves, hot wings, falafel, Greek salad, french fries and fried chicken" on its front window? And what if the restaurant has been in your periphery for about a decade, as the items were added to the window like a roster of star attractions? Eventually, you might want to try it – so that's what I did, finally stopping into Theo's, a shanty on Michigan Street with a willy-nilly menu of Greek, Syrian and fried Southern specialties.

    Theo's has managed to be a subtle, steady spot for regulars to pop in to pick up a family-pack chicken meal with hummus on the side. Inside it's awash in bright-blue booths and decorated with Greek Orthodox paraphernalia; it's been around for so long it feels lived-in and homey but not in an accommodating sort of way.

    The woman behind the counter will take your order then proceed to the kitchen to make your food. Her young daughter will watch you. It's that kind of place. I took a haphazard approach to ordering, getting one of just about everything. The gyro ($4.29), a standard pita wrapped around compressed lamb meat, was better than the shawarma ($4.49), a tahini-laden sandwich, or the less-than-spectacular but good-value hummus ($2.99).

    Surprisingly, what made my multinational meal stand out was the fried chicken, which was superbly seasoned then fried in peanut oil. Chicken selections range from a two-piece snack for $2.35 to a 21-piece family dinner for $25.99. Even the chicken livers ($4.49) are great. Forget KFC – Theo's is much better. And you can finish off with a toothsome baklava ($1.99).

    So, what to make of Theo's? Stick with the fried chicken at this Syrian/Greek establishment, and you can't go wrong.

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