Cuban in I-DriveUniversal

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    When the pair of cordial thick-necked bruisers requested I remove my hat before entering this brassy two-story behemoth of a restaurant, I'll admit I was a little nonplussed. Would they rather I dine in their establishment with a severe case of hat-head? I mean, this is Pointe Orlando, not Park Avenue, and the restaurant, with all its kitschy details, seems like it could've been Epcot's lost Cuban pavilion. Not to mention the fact that in all my culinary travels in Cuba, not once was I ever asked to remove any headwear. So I found it somewhat ironic and a little pretentious that a restaurant named 'Cuba Libreâ?� would bar me from entering their establishment for not removing my hat. Free Cuba? Whatever.

    I made sure my cabeza was free of any gorras on my second visit, and irony of ironies, they sat me outside. Yes, the ghost of Fulgencio Batista was undoubtedly chuckling from beyond the grave, yet after sampling an overly diluted mojito ($8.50) and cuba libre ($9.50), I got a few laughs in myself (unfortunately they were of the snickering variety). But after being seated by my blasé hostess, things got remarkably better thanks in large part to former James Beard award-winner Guillermo Pernot ' the chain's concept chef and a maestro of Nuevo Latino cuisine. I knew restitution was at hand after sampling the subtly crunchy papas rellenas ($9.50). The deceptively light potato croquettes came filled with luscious beef picadillo laced with a smoky guajillo pepper sauce, and each subsequent dish maintained the same level of quality. Heavenly cuts of pulled braised duck inside the cool, crisp and refreshing pato roll ($11) made double-dipping into peanut and ponzu sauces a delight. The spring roll was equally herbaceous and sweet, thanks to watercress, cilantro, candied papaya and mango.

    An inordinate amount of time passed before our entrees arrived ' despite a phalanx of waiters and ear-pieced managers patrolling the 20,000 square-foot space, efficiency seemed to be compromised. No matter, I was giddy at the sight of the sea bass a la plancha ($25) when it finally arrived, and not one flaky bit of that chile/citrus/sesame-brushed fish failed to rouse. A nod to Havana's bustling Chinatown came in the form of a side of glistening 'Chino-Cubanoâ?� rice, colored with red peppers, okra, baby cauliflower, peas and carrots. Moros y Cristianos (literally 'Moors and Christiansâ?�), a blend of white rice and black beans, was the centerpiece in the plato cuba libre ($29.50), a platter of standard ropa vieja, succulent churrasco and an outstanding chicken infused with guajillo peppers. The trio of signature dishes in the platter changes nightly, but you're sure to get a representative sampling of traditional Cuban fare no matter what the night.

    You'd expect desserts to have tropical leanings and, sure enough, all comprise a fruity component. Tres leches de banana ($8) was wonderfully milky ' being soaked in three banana-flavored milks will do that, though I didn't know three banana-flavored milks even existed. Roasted pineapple accompanies the warm soufflé torte ($8), a pleasing capper layered with dulce de leche and served with dulce de leche gelato.

    Like the neighboring Capital Grille and Oceanaire Seafood Room, prices here aren't exactly recession-friendly. Passing the cost of running a grand establishment to the consumer isn't a novel tactic, but at least diners at Cuba Libre are treated to dishes of worth.

    And for that, I offer a tip of my forbidden cap.

    Among the glut of fast-food joints and chain restaurants of every conceivable category littering the thoroughfares of the attractions area, there’s a smattering of mom-and-pop eateries freeing jaded locals (and quite a few perspicacious tourists) from the bonds of culinary mediocrity. Case in point: Nacho’s Grill. The outlet mall–area venue is attracting a loyal patronage for its pan-Latin delicacies, the majority of which fall in the categories of Cuban and Mexican cuisine. It may not be in the most prominent locale (look for the end unit of a small strip mall next to the Outback Steakhouse), but that just brings it all the closer to hidden-gem status.

    Application of the keep-it-simple principle is always a beneficial trait, and owner Gerardo Muñoz’s uncluttered menu allows his able all-Mexican kitchen staff to execute dishes with skill and alacrity. No sooner had I ordered the maduro relleno ($4.99) than a plate of sweet caramelized plantains atop Creole-sauced ground sirloin had me chowing down. Sopa de pollo ($5.99) had all the properties of a comforting soup – invigorating broth, morsels of flaky chicken breast, potatoes, pasta, cilantro and fresh onion – it almost seemed a shame I wasn’t feeling under the weather. Also good was the empanada ($1.99); the seasoned beef turnover with a thick crust resembled a Jamaican beef patty more than it did its South American cousin. Be sure to ask for the house hot sauce made with fiery “Japanese” peppers, or so they’re known in Chihuahua.

    In the “Puerto Vallarta” ($12.99), a liberal dose of that hot sauce is a must. The combo dinner comprises a gooey cheese enchilada, chicken taco and beef tostada, along with a heap of pinto beans and yellow rice flecked with corn, peas and green beans. The taco started off crispy but quickly disintegrated into a soggy mush. The tostada held up to the meaty heft and was by far the best of the three.

    Miamians in town hitting the theme parks will appreciate the tang of the bistec de palomilla ($12.99), a top-round cut pounded flat, marinated in citrus and slathered with grilled onions and cilantro. The beef was juicy and tender, but finishing the immense portion tests intake abilities. No matter – take the leftovers home and make a sandwich.

    The kitchen also will prepare seafood paella for two ($44.99) – just enjoy a good 20 minutes of conversation over a carafe of sangria ($22) while you wait. And you can be sure that Muñoz and his wife, Adela, will come by to tend to any needs – they’re a pleasant pair and know the importance of customer service.

    Muñoz prepares the two house desserts from scratch, and while the slab of creamy tres leches ($5.99) proved too sweet for my tooth, the flan ($4.99), with plenty of sugary nectar to soak every bite, was outstanding. In fact, the custard was so completely infused with caramel that it took on a burnt orange-brown hue.

    Just as colorful are the restaurant’s digs. Papaya- and teal-colored walls mix with an equally vibrant display of caricatures, celeb photographs, travel posters and some truly surreal paintings. Then again, when the food is this dreamy, that’s hardly a surprise.

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