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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.

Twenty-five years in the restaurant biz does an institution make, especially in this city, where longevity is usually the domain of chains and eateries catering to diners who are long in the tooth and short on taste. OK, maybe that's a little harsh, but it doesn't take away from the fact that Café Madrid, a humble family-run restaurant, has quietly evolved into a downtown dining institution. What Johnson's Diner has done for Orlando's African-Americans, Café Madrid has done for the city's Hispanics ' it's a community gathering ground where citizens come together to enjoy food and engage in a little social, political and cultural discourse under the whir of ceiling fans.

In fact, many a campaign trail has stopped through Manny Genao's Conway Plaza café, a tropically dated, down-home joint that started off as a Spanish restaurant, but has since morphed into a pan-Latin eatery. A handful of Iberian specialties were retained, including a seafood- and meat-laden paella Valenciana ($50.95) for two, an ideal dish over which to chew some political fat. The rest of the menu comprises a hodgepodge of Cuban and Puerto Rican dishes, not least of which was a bowl of sopa de frijoles rojas ($3.95), a filling mélange of white rice layered with a thick broth of red kidney beans and topped with chopped onions. Enjoying it with buttery slices of Cuban bread makes it a meal in itself. A cup of sopa de pollo ($3.50) proved too salty to enjoy, though carrots, potatoes, vermicelli and wee morsels of chicken gave it elements of comfort food.

A healthy selection of mains ensures something for everyone ' that is, unless you're a vegetarian, in which case you're better off going to the strip-mall Chinese restaurant a few doors down. Otherwise, sharpen your canines and sink 'em into the multitude of beef, chicken, pork and seafood dishes on hand, like the pescado Catalana ($10.95), a sizable slab of grouper lolling in a rich creole sauce with red and yellow peppers, onions and tangy green olives. The dish is served with a heap of fat maduros and a mound of yellow rice dotted with peas, both excellent, but it's the baked fish ' tender, fleshy, flavorful ' that makes it worth ordering. Not as gratifying was the unctuous, over-salted filete salteado ($10.95), slices of steak sautéed in Spanish wine along with peppers, mushrooms, garlic and olive oil. (And before you wonder what I expected of a dish described as 'salteado,â?� that's Spanish for sauteed, not salted.) On previous lunch visits, I thoroughly enjoyed their Cuban steak-and-onion sandwich, as well as the arroz con pollo ($6.95), a couple of well-executed staples sure to console homesick expats.

Milky, not-too-filling tres leches ($2.50) served in a sundae glass tapers off the meal quite nicely, as does the burnt-orange goodness of a beautifully caramelized flan ($1.95). At the prices for which they're offered, both are a steal. Pair one or both with a café con leche ($1.75) and you've got yourself a meal-capper of great value.

The service is deliberate but friendly, and waitresses are always keen to make recommendations. Then again, it's not so much the food or service that has kept Café Madrid in business for a quarter-century, but its patronage and the convivial atmosphere Genao has fostered inside his humble eatery. Here's to another 25.

The sleepy barrio of Guavate, in the heart of Puerto Rico's Sierra de Cayey mountain range, has become a haven for palates with a penchant for pork, particularly of the roasted variety. The rotisseried piggies are as much of an attraction as the town's pastoral expanses, so it was a surprising to see just a handful of pork dishes on the expansive menu of this restaurant named after the mountain hamlet. There were no pigs impaled over open-air spits here, but we were excitedly informed that mondongo ($5.99) was available.

Not to be confused with Puerto Rico's national dish, mofongo, mondongo is, as our charming and informative waitress put it, 'drunk food.â?� The main ingredient of the hearty Latin American soup is typically beef tripe, but Boricuas use pig stomach to create the pungent, wonderfully seasoned meal in a bowl. The soup isn't for all tastes, but if you downed a few too many Medalla beers the night before, it will certainly help you regain your sobriety. Each comforting slurp is made all the more so with chunks of taro and potatoes.

If you sour at the sight of tripe, other soupy starters can be had. Less adventurous diners will find the broth of the asopao de pollo ($7.99) just as comforting. My dining partner remarked the chicken soup was reminiscent of her Puerto Rican sister-in-law's asopao, thanks to the inclusion of pigeon peas, olives, red peppers, taro and plenty of rice. For fried beginnings, the assorted meat appetizer platter ($9.99) offers a nice representation of the island's delicacies. Achiote-tinged potato balls stuffed with ground beef and mini meat turnovers begged for a splash of house-made hot sauce. Chicharrones (chicken cracklings) were nuggets of moistness, while alcapurrias, mahogany-hued cylinders of mashed plantains, starchy yautía and ground beef, failed to arouse our appetites.

Boricua kitchens are judged by the quality of their mofongo, and if you're a fan of the mashed-plantain-and-meat staple, you'll have a field day with the more than 20 varieties Guavate deftly churns out. The churrasco mofongo ($16.99) blended wonderfully tender chunks of chimichurri-basted skirt steak into an impressive heap of green plantains flavored with garlic and crispy pork skin. The mofongo didn't suffer from the desiccated texture often associated with the dish, but if you opt to enjoy it with a side of yautía (included), carb bloating is virtually assured. Chillo frito (red snapper, $15.99) was as flaky as it should've been, but it was the accompanying sauces ' a garlicky salsa ajillo and a zesty creole sauce thick with green peppers, onions and capers ' that really livened up the fish.

Such uncompromisingly traditional fare calls for traditional liquid refreshments, and fresh-squeezed juices like passion fruit ($2.99) and lemon ($2.99) are standout quaffs. Desserts, on the other hand, weren't as impressive ' a cinnamon blanket on jiggly tembleque ($3.50) negated any semblance of coconut essence, and creamy flan de queso ($2.99) could've used more caramel syrup.

Still, Guavate's dishes are a notch above other Puerto Rican restaurants in town, and the restaurant has left an indelible mark on regulars. A lease disagreement led to a relocation from East Colonial Drive to South Alafaya Trail, but the drive hasn't deterred patrons. Now if they'd just get that open-air spit â?¦.

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.

Charlie Crist and Jim Davis may not have much in common, but in the midst of last year’s gubernatorial race, they did manage to find a little common ground at this Puerto Rican diner in east Orlando. Sure, their campaign stops here had more to do with vote-mongering than it did with cravings for mofongo and tostones, but even politicians courting an endorsement from the Hispanic community need to eat, and when it comes to dishes from that island commonwealth, Mi Viejo San Juan gets my vote, though it’s not a resounding one.

Finding the place is a bit of a tricky proposition – it’s tucked away off Colonial Drive’s busy thoroughfare, between Forsyth and Goldenrod – and once you’re inside, communicating with the predominantly Spanish-speaking wait staff can be just as tricky. The spacious dining room is awash in a blinding fluorescence, and the tropical orange-colored walls do little to reflect any semblance of that “Old San Juan” charm.

The grouper criolla ($11.99), on the other hand, does. Two sautéed fillets of lean, firm flesh are lathered in a rich pimiento-sweetened tomato sauce, textured with onions and peppers and sided with amarillos (fried sweet plantains) and fried yuca. The latter merits a dip in the table hot sauce, a fiery concoction with a piquancy that makes it a worthy dressing on anything from the delicately fried minced chicken–and-cornmeal poppers ($4.99) to the unremarkable salad, highlighted by withered iceberg lettuce, a few onion slivers and two dried-out tomato slices.

The blistering that beset the black bean soup ($3.99) was a disappointing sight (likely a result of cooking the beans too quickly) and made for quite the papery swallow. The same rupturing plagued the side of red beans, which lolled in a thick, smoky sauce along with chunks of potato. Upon seeing the rich mahogany broth of the chicken soup ($6.99), I couldn’t wait to dig in, but my palate was met with a mushy gumbo thanks to overdone noodles. For what it’s worth, the bone-in hunks of chicken were nicely seasoned.

The cut of churasco ($14.99) was superbly tender and soft on the tongue, but entirely devoid of moisture or flavor. A splash of chimichurri didn’t help, and I couldn’t help but think that this cut would be better served as a sandwich. The accompanying french fries were acceptable, but the yuca con mojo was much better. The cassava is blanched, thick-cut, then topped with mojo – an unctuous sauce of olive oil, garlic, onions and red peppers. The side is practically a meal in itself, but given that all entrees come with two sides, you had better gird yourself for some serious carb shock.

Unlike batter-dipped Southern fried chicken, the pollo frito ($8.99) is rubbed in adobo spices then fried to a beautiful crisp, the highlight being the lubricious glaze on the half-bird’s skin. Pairing it with savory twice-fried tostones (mashed green plantains) completed the meal, though not before some additional dips in the hot sauce.

Requisite flan queso ($2.50) was properly dense and eggy with just the right hint of bitterness to its caramel, while guava soffle ($2.50), an airy mousse-like dessert, tasted more like berries than it did guava. Assorted tropical beverages are also offered, though neither the sangria ($2.95), pina colada smoothie ($2.50) nor passionfruit juice ($2.50) impressed.

Like so many mom-and-pop restaurants, the experience here can be hit or miss, but the hits tend to outweigh the misses. I’m sure if you ask the hordes of regulars, they’ll tell you there’s no such thing as bad PR.

For some, the thought of purchasing a meal from a trailer parked behind a dingy gas station on a busy intersection might conjure up visions of dysentery. But for others, particularly the city's Puerto Rican populace, that trailer equates to nothing short of street-food heaven. Named after a picturesque seaside hang east of San Juan, Piñones en Orlando is a popular draw for Latino club kids jonesing for a late-night/early-morning nosh, as well as the noontime crowd, many of whom resort to parking across the street because of the dearth of parking spots available behind the gas station. During busier times, it's not unusual to see three cooks manning the cramped kitchen, styrofoaming and cupping traditional P.R. fare. Pork may be the meat of choice on the Caribbean isle, but the focus here is on seafood. Named after a picturesque seaside hang east of San Juan, Piñones en Orlando is a popular draw for Latino club kids jonesing for a late-night/early-morning nosh, as well as the noontime crowd, many of whom resort to parking across the street because of the dearth of parking spots available behind the gas station. During busier times, it's not unusual to see three cooks manning the cramped kitchen, styrofoaming and cupping traditional P.R. fare. Pork may be the meat of choice on the Caribbean isle, but the focus here is on seafood. Mofongo relleno, a heap of garlic-flecked, mashed green plantains stuffed with your choice of anything from conch to lobster, is one of Puerto Rico's national dishes. It's a dense and filling concoction that won't suit all tastes, but it's made here from scratch. Lighter appetites might prefer cocktail cups called vasitos, seafood in a seasoned marinade of oil, garlic, onion and green pepper. The shrimp version ($6), with about 15-20 plumpers, is utterly refreshing on sweltering days. Asopao (a hearty gumbo with your choice of chicken or shellfish), whole fried snapper and a host of other daily specials are also offered. Mofongo relleno, a heap of garlic-flecked, mashed green plantains stuffed with your choice of anything from conch to lobster, is one of Puerto Rico's national dishes. It's a dense and filling concoction that won't suit all tastes, but it's made here from scratch. Lighter appetites might prefer cocktail cups called vasitos, seafood in a seasoned marinade of oil, garlic, onion and green pepper. The shrimp version ($6), with about 15-20 plumpers, is utterly refreshing on sweltering days. Asopao (a hearty gumbo with your choice of chicken or shellfish), whole fried snapper and a host of other daily specials are also offered. Talk about your good P.R.

What's in a name? That which we call Sazon 436 by any other name would smell as savory. Yes, I'll admit, the moniker of this little Puerto Rican eatery in unincorporated Winter Park conjured up an image that proved not to be factual. I expected a simple, casual eatery that may or may not have been defined as a 'hole in the wall,â?� but Sazon 436, as it turned out, was anything but. A spotless interior sparked by a black-and-white checkerboard floor, looked over by harmonious still lifes and candlelit tables, lent the interior a cozy parlor chic. The scene is at once simple and dignified, and much the same can be said about chef Moises Izquierdo's dishes.

After celebrating one year in business, owner Carlos Guzman and his wife Maritza Sanz decided to close for a month, partly in celebration of the anniversary and partly in celebration of their daughter's wedding. But they also spent some of that time accessorizing the dining room with black and red linens, extending the wine list and flying Izquierdo up from Puerto Rico to introduce subtly contemporary twists to a bill of fare comprised of Boricua comfort staples.

'Kingâ?� prawns ($9) drizzled in a delightful guava beurre blanc sauce lacked the regal girth, but the starter was as straightforward as it was satisfying. I just wished the king prawns were crowned with a splash more of the sauce ' it tempered the saltiness of the shrimp. Avocados stuffed with shredded chicken in tomato sauce ($7) weren't awe-inspiring, but the fruit was firm (not mushy) and the tomatoey chicken accomplished the task of whetting our appetites for the mains.

The fried red snapper ($18) will certainly elicit a visceral response from sensitive diners. The fish, served whole, is propped upright and curved mouth to tail, but it's the golden, crisp flesh flavored with minced garlic that easily made this dish the highlight of the night. Small complaint: The bed of sautéed spinach didn't look as fresh as it could've ' consider a bowl of cilantro-spiked green rice ($5) instead. 'Atti's Famousâ?� braised short ribs ($15), named for the owners' granddaughter, was yet another dish in keeping with Izquierdo's simple-yet-spirited approach. Chunks of tender, fatty meat fell off the bone effortlessly, and along with a purplish mound of mashed starchy yautía (a root vegetable similar to taro), made for a plateful of culinary consolation.

A glass of white wine passion sangria was sweet refreshment, but I had the sneaking suspicion that the grapes, pears and peaches were canned. The cinnamon stick, however, added a nice aromatic touch.

Just as aromatic was the yaya papaya ($4), a circular pound cake with hints of coconut smothered with diced caramelized papaya. If your teeth are not so sweetly inclined, chef Moises' cheesecake ($5), glazed with guava, is spot-on and begs to be enjoyed with a café con leche ($3) or, rather, leche con café ' our cordial waiter served us a cup of heated milk along with a small decanter of hot coffee. A little gimmicky, but we enjoyed the reversal nonetheless.

The 2008 menu with 'all the greasy good stuff,â?� like mofongo and fried tostones, will make its return in the coming weeks, says Guzman, after which Izquierdo will head back to Puerto Rico. Let's hope he leaves a bit of his legacy in the kitchen before taking off.

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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