Mexican in Winter Park Area

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    No one should have to make up their mind about lunch while listening to Pat Benatar belt out "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." But we gave it a try at the new Baja Burrito Kitchen at Colonial Marketplace. Standing in the "place your order here" spot by the counter, our attention ricocheted between burritos, enchiladas, soft tacos and quesadillas. And we hadn't even gotten to the salsa bar yet.

    Looking past the neon lighting, beach-scene murals and picture windows overlooking the parking lot, we wanted to imagine ourselves on the rugged Pacific coastline. That's where the cuisine takes its cue, from the deadly-hot chilis that grow wild in the desert and the seafood that's plucked from the surf. The menu is not that rustic but has more of a "Cal-Mex" spin: Soft tacos are stuffed with fish, burritos are packed with healthy grilled meats, and beans are stewed, not refried.

    Looking past the neon lighting, beach-scene murals and picture windows overlooking the parking lot, we wanted to imagine ourselves on the rugged Pacific coastline. That's where the cuisine takes its cue, from the deadly-hot chilis that grow wild in the desert and the seafood that's plucked from the surf. The menu is not that rustic but has more of a "Cal-Mex" spin: Soft tacos are stuffed with fish, burritos are packed with healthy grilled meats, and beans are stewed, not refried.

    After placing our orders, we chose seats and waited just a few minutes for delivery. The "Baja burrito" ($4.95) is a popular item, and it's a chunk of a meal – a steamed flour tortilla wrapped around a juicy conglomeration of char-grilled steak, black beans, onions, cilantro, cheese and sour cream. It was even better after a trip to the salsa bar, which features six ways to pack heat. Our favorite was the "fire roasted chipotle" salsa, a medium-strength version with blackened Roma tomatoes. Do heed the warnings on the labels. The formidable "habañero" salsa glows orange, and one drop is all it takes.

    After placing our orders, we chose seats and waited just a few minutes for delivery. The "Baja burrito" ($4.95) is a popular item, and it's a chunk of a meal – a steamed flour tortilla wrapped around a juicy conglomeration of char-grilled steak, black beans, onions, cilantro, cheese and sour cream. It was even better after a trip to the salsa bar, which features six ways to pack heat. Our favorite was the "fire roasted chipotle" salsa, a medium-strength version with blackened Roma tomatoes. Do heed the warnings on the labels. The formidable "habañero" salsa glows orange, and one drop is all it takes.

    We loved the grilled soft tacos so much that we plan on getting to know each and every one. The best on this day was the "fish taco Baja style" ($2.75), a grilled soft flour tortilla crimped around a fried fillet of cod, topped with shredded cabbage and drizzled with creamy cilantro-lime sauce. Running a close second, "spicy steamed shrimp" ($2.75) were mildly seasoned and fresh.

    We loved the grilled soft tacos so much that we plan on getting to know each and every one. The best on this day was the "fish taco Baja style" ($2.75), a grilled soft flour tortilla crimped around a fried fillet of cod, topped with shredded cabbage and drizzled with creamy cilantro-lime sauce. Running a close second, "spicy steamed shrimp" ($2.75) were mildly seasoned and fresh.

    Unfortunately, the "Baja Kitchen combo" ($6.25) was having a bad day – the grilled chicken strips were dry and uninspired. Had they not been overcooked, they would have set off the rest of the dish, which was a hot and flavorful collection of stewed black beans, seasoned rice and soft flour tortillas.

    Unfortunately, the "Baja Kitchen combo" ($6.25) was having a bad day – the grilled chicken strips were dry and uninspired. Had they not been overcooked, they would have set off the rest of the dish, which was a hot and flavorful collection of stewed black beans, seasoned rice and soft flour tortillas.

    While Baja Burrito Kitchen's cooking is formulaic, its freshness is without question. Everything is cooked to order. The restaurant is a welcome addition to the Colonial-Bumby area, whether for a quick pit stop after shopping or for takeout.

    As any MTV-er can attest, award-winning Chipotle is Ozzy Osbourne's favorite burrito haunt. And now the Denver-based chain (there are more than 300 across the country) of sorta Tex-Mex food has moved into the area, one that already has quite a few competitors. So the Ozzy endorsement sure doesn't hurt.

    The stand-alone structure at the corner of Fairbanks and Orlando avenues has an industrial look, with rusted iron plates adorning the outside walls and lots of chrome and halogen lighting inside. The front door (in the back by the parking lot) leads directly to the pickup stations where ordering and paying occurs, and then you get to drag your humongous burrito to a table.

    The stand-alone structure at the corner of Fairbanks and Orlando avenues has an industrial look, with rusted iron plates adorning the outside walls and lots of chrome and halogen lighting inside. The front door (in the back by the parking lot) leads directly to the pickup stations where ordering and paying occurs, and then you get to drag your humongous burrito to a table.

    Did I mention the food is enormous? We're talking 20-ounce burritos, ranging from $4.95 to $5.50, also available in a "bol" without flour wrapping.

    Did I mention the food is enormous? We're talking 20-ounce burritos, ranging from $4.95 to $5.50, also available in a "bol" without flour wrapping.

    Good thing the website (www.chipotle.com) offers an interactive depiction of what they call "the line," where you pick salsas, meats and toppings, because once you're in front of the sneezeguard, there aren't any labels on things, and the constant cry of, "What's that?" gets annoying.

    Good thing the website (www.chipotle.com) offers an interactive depiction of what they call "the line," where you pick salsas, meats and toppings, because once you're in front of the sneezeguard, there aren't any labels on things, and the constant cry of, "What's that?" gets annoying.

    "That" is a choice of grilled steak, marinated in the namesake pepper (a chipotle is a smoked and dried jalape'o); hotter shredded "barbacoa" beef; braised "carnitas" (pork); or grilled chicken.

    "That" is a choice of grilled steak, marinated in the namesake pepper (a chipotle is a smoked and dried jalape'o); hotter shredded "barbacoa" beef; braised "carnitas" (pork); or grilled chicken.

    Of the filling choices that we sampled, the chicken was the worst. The all dark-meat pieces are too small to stay in the tortilla wrap for long, and so salt-laden it's hard to tell if the meat is spicy or not. Not to mention the rather high rice-to-meat ratio. A better bet is the steak, medium rare and a bit less salty, allowing the spices to take their rightful place.

    Of the filling choices that we sampled, the chicken was the worst. The all dark-meat pieces are too small to stay in the tortilla wrap for long, and so salt-laden it's hard to tell if the meat is spicy or not. Not to mention the rather high rice-to-meat ratio. A better bet is the steak, medium rare and a bit less salty, allowing the spices to take their rightful place.

    The carnitas -- a version unique to Chipotle -- comes from free-range pigs, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and is worth ordering for its blend of thyme, bay and cracked pepper.

    The carnitas -- a version unique to Chipotle -- comes from free-range pigs, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and is worth ordering for its blend of thyme, bay and cracked pepper.

    Vegetarians can have a nice meal, as the salsas, black beans, fajita veggies and guacamole are all meat-free. The guac is too smooth to make a real impression on me, but the roasted chili-corn salsa is crisp and fresh-tasting and there's a nice garlic bite to the beans.

    Vegetarians can have a nice meal, as the salsas, black beans, fajita veggies and guacamole are all meat-free. The guac is too smooth to make a real impression on me, but the roasted chili-corn salsa is crisp and fresh-tasting and there's a nice garlic bite to the beans.

    One would think that the Mexican "McPollo" sandwich is as close as McDonald's would get to Tex-Mex, and it turns out that Chipotle is another offshoot of those burger folks, as is Boston Market.

    One would think that the Mexican "McPollo" sandwich is as close as McDonald's would get to Tex-Mex, and it turns out that Chipotle is another offshoot of those burger folks, as is Boston Market.

    All in all, I'd rather go to Chipotle than a McD any day, but unless the Tex-Mex outlets start popping up on every corner, they probably won't replace the burrito spots you've already adopted as your favorite.

    Haute-Texican cuisine with Portuguese flourishes gives cause to visit this industrial-chic Park Avenue-area resto. From shrimp piri-piri to pollo pibil to duck confit tacos, chef Chico employs traditional and contemporary methods to skillfully render his dishes. If ordering Mexican doughnuts, it's possible you may get lemony Portuguese malassadas instead, sans cinnamon.

    One of my first international culinary trysts was with Mexican food. In Los Angeles, where I grew up, the lure of a taco stand was never farther away than a nearby side street. Even now, on cool, dry days when the sun is shining, I still crave the simplicity of marinated meat barely wrapped in the skin of a soft corn tortilla – eaten while standing, of course.

    It took me years of testing and trying to discover this same joy in Florida and build up a cache of Mexican places I frequent. When I hear of a new Mexican place, I can't resist checking it out for myself – especially when the owners are Mexican and have a track record, as with Las Margaritas on Semoran Boulevard (aka State Road 436). It was opened in April by Javier Martinez, a man originally from Guadalajara who migrated to the United States at age 17. Although he never worked in the restaurant biz back in Mexico, he was sucked into the chaos of restaurant life after moving here, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up. He now owns three restaurants, two in Port St. Lucie and this new location. How could you not appreciate this man's dedication and hard work?

    But how is the food? Most of it was OK – not as good as I wanted it to be and not quite good enough to live up to my favorite haunts. Still, if you're in the area, it's well worth a try.

    This saffron-colored cottage is inviting on this otherwise desultory stretch of 436. With a plethora of neon signs lighting the windows, it reminds me of a colorful piñata about to burst at the seams. The first time I stepped inside I was shocked to find it so still and silent. My friends and I were the only patrons for the first third of our meal, which was somehow unsettling. I looked around the festive room at the empty wooden chairs engraved with white lilies. The room desperately needed people to complete the scene.

    Las Margaritas claims to focus on food from Jalisco, a coastal region in the west of Mexico. Because of this, they offer more seafood dishes than your average Mexican joint. In fact, our fish and seafood selections were some of the best items we tried. Many of the shrimp dishes are gracefully seasoned and erupting with flavor, like the basic arroz con camaron ($10.95) – shrimp with rice. The subtly spiced marinade brought out the sweet, sharp taste in the delicate pink flesh, paired nicely with aromatic rice.

    For a restaurant that opened with the intention of bringing authentic food to Orlando, they seem to have a lot of perfunctory Americanized selections – why bother with nachos and jalapeño poppers? Or cheeseburgers? And fajitas, although a tasty addition to Mexican-American repertoire, are definitely a Tex-Mex creation.

    Among the dishes I wished I had skipped was the queso flameado ($3.75), which had both the taste and texture of Cheez Whiz, rather than billowy mounds of hot queso blanco.

    A shredded beef taco ($2) came with a stale, hard corn tortilla and was disappointing. The beef was well-seasoned, but looked like something served in a school lunchroom – small grains of meat (and sometimes gristle) clung to each other in a shallow pool of grease. Enchiladas ($8.25) fared better, with shredded beef and real cheese. The mole that smothered this dish was flavorful, but slightly sweet, lacking the spiciness and acidity of a well-balanced dish. One of my friends got the pollo combo ($13.75), which came with garlic sautéed shrimp – the best part of the meal. Unfortunately, the chicken was dry. The refried beans were a tad mealy but full-flavored.

    If you need a reason to go to Las Margaritas, it is to support a man who has worked hard to get where he is today. But don't fool yourself into thinking that this is the most authentic Mexican food available. It's just OK Mexican food served by someone who once ate authentic food on his home turf.

    There are far more nuances to Mexican cuisine than many people realize. Here in Central Florida, in particular, we're so removed from the border that the term "Mexican food" generally means basic chimichangas, burritos, tacos and enchiladas.

    You'll find all of those fine standards at Margarita's Grill, a new arrival at Chickasaw Trail and Lake Underhill Road. But you'll also discover a sophisticated Central Mexican spin on the menu, thanks to a trio of partners from Mexico City. We're talking sweet mahi-mahi fillets blackened with crushed chili spices, sizzling sirloin steaks served with corn-dough tamales and a tangy shot of green tomatillo sauce, and much more. It's these kinds of combinations, along with skilled preparation, presentation and service, that make this pleasant restaurant in developing east Orlando a real find.

    You'll find all of those fine standards at Margarita's Grill, a new arrival at Chickasaw Trail and Lake Underhill Road. But you'll also discover a sophisticated Central Mexican spin on the menu, thanks to a trio of partners from Mexico City. We're talking sweet mahi-mahi fillets blackened with crushed chili spices, sizzling sirloin steaks served with corn-dough tamales and a tangy shot of green tomatillo sauce, and much more. It's these kinds of combinations, along with skilled preparation, presentation and service, that make this pleasant restaurant in developing east Orlando a real find.

    On two lunch visits, we sampled a bit of everything. One favorite was sopa tortilla ($2.50), a bright-red chicken-tomato soup served almost scalding hot, which played up its spicy flavors to the hilt. Taken one sip at a time, the broth revealed an intriguing tapestry of spices that teased the nostrils as well as the taste buds. It was swimming with ribbons of fresh fried tortillas, still crispy, and topped with avocado and melted cheese.

    On two lunch visits, we sampled a bit of everything. One favorite was sopa tortilla ($2.50), a bright-red chicken-tomato soup served almost scalding hot, which played up its spicy flavors to the hilt. Taken one sip at a time, the broth revealed an intriguing tapestry of spices that teased the nostrils as well as the taste buds. It was swimming with ribbons of fresh fried tortillas, still crispy, and topped with avocado and melted cheese.

    Even something as standard as nachos ($5.95) took on superior tones. Delicately pale tortilla chips were layered with strategically placed pockets of shredded beef, melted cheese, sour cream and assorted peppers. It was lovely and inviting.

    Even something as standard as nachos ($5.95) took on superior tones. Delicately pale tortilla chips were layered with strategically placed pockets of shredded beef, melted cheese, sour cream and assorted peppers. It was lovely and inviting.

    Mole poblano ($8.50) made a vivid impression, featuring half of a chicken simmered in a seductive combination of 20 Mexican spices, including the defining chocolate. This deep, dark, sweet sauce was simply outstanding, dusted with a trail of sesame seeds.

    We also gave the flautas ($6.50) a whirl and found everything in order. Crunchy little taco tubes were rolled up with spicy minced beef and shredded chicken, for a sweet and smoky taste anchored by scoops of guacamole, refried beans and spicy rice.

    For dessert, crepas con cajeta ($2.95) featured spongy pancakes drenched in caramel sauce, topped with almonds and vanilla-bean ice cream. And someone here definitely knows how to brew a satisfying cup of traditional Mexican coffee ($1.25), zipped up with cinnamon and brown sugar -- almost dessert in itself.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of Moe's Southwest Grill on Sand Lake Road.

    Typical Tex-Mex fare plus specialties like blackened shrimp fajitas served amid pinatas, beer banners and boozy graffiti. When a train rumbles by, tequila shots sell for cheap.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Tijuana Flats in Downtown Orlando.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Tijuana Flats in Downtown Orlando.

    What can you say about a restaurant that makes a hot sauce called "Smack My Ass and Call me Sally"? When it's a successful, locally-birthed chain like Tijuana Flats, I guess you grab your burrito and assume the position.

    If you've already attained that grand and potentially jobless title of "graduate", Tijuana Flats will take you right back to your sophomore days in college; just knowledgeable enough to be relaxed and too stupid to know your carefree days are numbered (if you are still a sophomore, my deepest sympathies). And as we all know, a major contributor to that blissful condition is massive quantities of soul-burning hot sauce.

    If you've already attained that grand and potentially jobless title of "graduate", Tijuana Flats will take you right back to your sophomore days in college; just knowledgeable enough to be relaxed and too stupid to know your carefree days are numbered (if you are still a sophomore, my deepest sympathies). And as we all know, a major contributor to that blissful condition is massive quantities of soul-burning hot sauce.

    As I said, Tijuana Flats markets their own line of pepper sauces with the label "Smack My Ass", but they carry more than 200 others, including " Don't Be Chicken Sh!t", "Great Bowels of Fire", "Crazy Jerry's Mustard Gas" and "Endorphin Rush" ("Experience the sensation that you would get by hitting your thumb with a hammer"... mmm, where do I sign up?). There's a lot of emphasis on posteriors -- ass is a big favorite, butt a close second -- and there's also some interesting variations on the pepper theme, like Thai garlic pepper sauce, Georgia peach Vidalia onion and three pepper lemon.

    As I said, Tijuana Flats markets their own line of pepper sauces with the label "Smack My Ass", but they carry more than 200 others, including " Don't Be Chicken Sh!t", "Great Bowels of Fire", "Crazy Jerry's Mustard Gas" and "Endorphin Rush" ("Experience the sensation that you would get by hitting your thumb with a hammer"... mmm, where do I sign up?). There's a lot of emphasis on posteriors -- ass is a big favorite, butt a close second -- and there's also some interesting variations on the pepper theme, like Thai garlic pepper sauce, Georgia peach Vidalia onion and three pepper lemon.

    Owner Brian Wheeler came up with the idea for the restaurants while still a student at UCF and opened his first in Winter Park in 1995. Now there's 6, including one in Jacksonville, with more on the way. He's one of the largest hot sauce distributors in the Southeast, and the restaurants claim to use nothing frozen or microwaved.

    Owner Brian Wheeler came up with the idea for the restaurants while still a student at UCF and opened his first in Winter Park in 1995. Now there's 6, including one in Jacksonville, with more on the way. He's one of the largest hot sauce distributors in the Southeast, and the restaurants claim to use nothing frozen or microwaved.

    Built along the lines of a hip cafeteria -- order, wait, sit down with the tray -- the new downtown location offers a view of Heritage Square and the library at either indoor or outdoor tables. Don't look for anything out of the ordinary on the menu; burritos rule the day. What you're getting here is basic Tex-Mex, something to stuff meat and beans in and pour some "Heinie Hurtin' Hot Sauce" on. The chicken is okay, usually coated in red sauce and best when combined with cheese and beans like the Tijuana burrito for $4.75. Quesadillas with chicken or beef are griddle cooked instead of fried so the tortilla is crispy rather than greasy ($3.25 to $5.25). The best deal is probably the combos, putting together tacos, burritos and enchiladas for less than 8 bucks.

    Built along the lines of a hip cafeteria -- order, wait, sit down with the tray -- the new downtown location offers a view of Heritage Square and the library at either indoor or outdoor tables. Don't look for anything out of the ordinary on the menu; burritos rule the day. What you're getting here is basic Tex-Mex, something to stuff meat and beans in and pour some "Heinie Hurtin' Hot Sauce" on. The chicken is okay, usually coated in red sauce and best when combined with cheese and beans like the Tijuana burrito for $4.75. Quesadillas with chicken or beef are griddle cooked instead of fried so the tortilla is crispy rather than greasy ($3.25 to $5.25). The best deal is probably the combos, putting together tacos, burritos and enchiladas for less than 8 bucks.

    Along with the fiery condiments are "dressings" like chili, con queso and salsa, and I'd recommend getting one or two because the items by themselves are somehow... the best word is ho-hum, if that's a word. I guess with all that capsicum floating around, you don't really need taste buds anyway. But it's a relatively cheap meal, and for the fire-breathers in the audience, a way to sample some of the world's tastiest torture.

    Along with the fiery condiments are "dressings" like chili, con queso and salsa, and I'd recommend getting one or two because the items by themselves are somehow... the best word is ho-hum, if that's a word. I guess with all that capsicum floating around, you don't really need taste buds anyway. But it's a relatively cheap meal, and for the fire-breathers in the audience, a way to sample some of the world's tastiest torture.

    Now who is this Sally and why is she getting smacked?

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