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    Don't expect to hear the latest pop tune being pumped over the speakers at Adita's Cuban Bakery on University Boulevard. The music that fills the tiny space is pure, classic salsa, and the food is pure, classic Cuban.

    Forget those pressed sandwiches with pork so finely shredded it resembles pate;. Adita's medianoche sandwich ($5.99) is overflowing with full-fledged hunks of marinated pork, pressed just enough that the cheese overflows the sides of the sweet bread. Don't be tempted by the croquetas ($2 for two), though. The finger-sized fried pork bits and cornmeal are gummy and end up fixed stubbornly to the roof of your mouth. If you must have a side, the papas rellenas ($1.50) are a go-to treat.

    Along with that medianoche to die for and the transcendental empanadas – full of spicy chicken and peppers in a fluffy crust – lunch specials ($4.99), served in gargantuan portions, change daily. For a true taste of the Caribbean, try a Coco Loto ($1), subtly sweet green-coconut juice with coconut shreds suspended in the viscous liquid. It goes down a little awkwardly the first time, so if adventure isn’t on the menu, try a Coco Rico soda ($1) instead.

    The pastries are exuberant concoctions screaming with flavor. Strawberry cake ($2) is moist and with a thin layer of tangy lemon icing, it’s perfect for summer. Each flaky morsel of the pastelitos ($1) is packed with cheese, guava or strawberry, and they pair perfectly with a café con leche straight from the old-school espresso machines that face the counter.

    The bakery is tucked away in an unassuming back corner of the shopping plaza, so finding it may be as much of a chore as battling the engineers from Siemens that flood the place around noontime. But it will be worth it.

    When looking for more than "a good loaf," you'll definitely find it at Au Bon Pain (pronounced ah-bahn-pahn). The high-end bakery-cafe chain with an outpost on every other corner in Manhattan has established its first local site in tourist territory in the Club Hotel at DoubleTree.

    The polished, Art Deco-styled bakery is stocked with its fresh-baked loaves including the famous tomato-basil variety, as well as consistently delicious roast-beef and brie sandwiches, soups in bread bowls, croissants stuffed with chocolate and raspberries, and a killer Boston clam chowder. Vegetarian, low-fat and low-sodium versions are available, too.

    The polished, Art Deco-styled bakery is stocked with its fresh-baked loaves including the famous tomato-basil variety, as well as consistently delicious roast-beef and brie sandwiches, soups in bread bowls, croissants stuffed with chocolate and raspberries, and a killer Boston clam chowder. Vegetarian, low-fat and low-sodium versions are available, too.

    Prices are high – 99 cents for a focaccia bagel, for instance. But there are plush sofas, laptop ports, televisions and plenty of reading material. Other sites in central locations are a strong possibility.

    Upon gazing at Brianto's stark white walls, ornamented with memorabilia and photographs of every Philadelphia Phillies baseball player that ever donned a red-pinstriped uniform, I asked the good-natured lad behind the counter a question that no patron had ever dared to ask, let alone in deadpan fashion: 'Why no photos of Joe Carter?â?�

    Record screech.

    In the moments that ensued, his bulging gaze met my squinting glare for what seemed like minutes, but when the hoagie virtuoso's eyes eventually regained focus, we were all able to (thankfully) laugh the moment off. 'You should've said that after you got your food,â?� he joked ' at least I think he was joking. Carter's home run off Phillies closer Mitch Williams to win the '93 World Series for the Blue Jays isn't exactly a high point in the city's sports history. So in a place where even the logo is a facsimile of their beloved Phillies', I was happy to have all my teeth after uttering the cheeky quip: teeth I needed in order to chomp down on their huge hoagies and cheesesteaks.

    They take their cheesesteaks seriously here ' I'm talking Amoroso's hearth-baked rolls and sliced rib-eye steak, flown straight in from the City of Brotherly Love. And they don't skimp on the chopped meat in the cheesesteak supreme ($5.99 for 6-inch; $8.99 for 12-inch; $12.99 for 18-inch), a beefy sub with the requisite onions, green peppers and mushrooms oozing with sharp provolone and Cheez Whiz. Be sure to Whiz it up, as the cheesesteak borders on bland without it, likely due to the meat not being seasoned ' or not strongly enough.

    For the same price, you can opt to make the very same cheesesteak a 'cheesesteak hoagie,â?� which means adding lettuce, tomato, raw onions and a splash of oil, vinegar and mayo. The hoagie comes without green peppers or mushrooms, but I was surprised at how much better it was than the cheesesteak supreme. Everyone at the table agreed that this was the best sandwich of the lot, and we picked the 18-inch behemoth clean. Also good was the Liberty Bell ($5.99, 6-inch; $8.99, 12-inch; $12.99, 18-inch), a cold hoagie stuffed to the hilt with ham, turkey and roast beef, and plenty of sweet and hot peppers to pack a punch. The hot meatball hoagie ($4.49, 6-inch; $7.49, 12-inch; $11.49, 18-inch) was endorsed by one of my Italian dining companions ' not so much for the sub itself, but for the well-seasoned meatballs. You'll also find other Keystone State faves such as crackling Herr's potato chips (59 cents, small; 99 cents, medium; $1.59, large), refreshingly crisp Hank's birch beer ($1.99) and sugary Tastykakes ($1.29). Junk food connoisseurs may disagree, but to me, the Tastykakes tasted just like Hostess cupcakes/Ding Dongs/Ho Hos.

    Brianto's may not satisfy pangs for the legendary cheesesteaks and hoagies cooked up at Pat's or Geno's in Philadelphia, but the guys here make every effort to bring a little Philly flavor to Central Florida. If they focused a bit of that effort in seasoning the beef, transplanted Philadelphians might flock to Avalon Park for some of their griddled gourmandizing.

    Then, like Joe Carter off a Mitch Williams fastball, they'll be sure to hit it out the park.

    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.

     

    UCF-area café-deli caters to a diverse clientele, many of whom come for the all-halal menu and cut-rate prices. Don’t pass up the amazing hummus. Spit-fired shawarmas and gyros keep the college set content, and meaty platters offer more bang for your buck. End with Turkish coffee and baklava fragrant with orange-blossom water. Closed Sundays. 


    Teaser: UCF-area café-deli caters to a diverse clientele, many of whom come for the all-halal menu and cut-rate prices. Don't pass up the amazing hummus, though fat kibbeh make worthy starters too. Spit-fired shawarmas and gyros keep the college set content, and meaty platters offer more bang for your buck. End with Turkish coffee and baklava fragrant with orange-blossom water. Closed Sundays.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Chipotle in Winter Park.

    When we first started business 10 years ago at Church Street," says Oscar Lagos, owner of Choo Choo Churros, "we had a small cart that we sold fried pastries from – churros. And since there was the train there, my wife named it Choo Choo Churros."

    From that small cart the Lagos moved to a little coffeeshop on Bumby Avenue, and then four years ago to Lake Underhill, always keeping the name. "Argentinean people and American people, they both ask, what does this name mean?" Lagos says. Well, to anyone who asks, in the universal language of food it translates into "good."

    From that small cart the Lagos moved to a little coffeeshop on Bumby Avenue, and then four years ago to Lake Underhill, always keeping the name. "Argentinean people and American people, they both ask, what does this name mean?" Lagos says. Well, to anyone who asks, in the universal language of food it translates into "good."

    Choo Choo has an affinity for small spaces, and there are barely nine tables in the room, with three more outside on a patio. Renovation is going on, but nothing will change the fact that Lake Underhill Road and the East-West Expressway are right outside. That seems to be the only negative Ã? unless you're a vegetarian.

    Choo Choo has an affinity for small spaces, and there are barely nine tables in the room, with three more outside on a patio. Renovation is going on, but nothing will change the fact that Lake Underhill Road and the East-West Expressway are right outside. That seems to be the only negative Ã? unless you're a vegetarian.

    Much of the food of Argentina and Brazil can be summed up in four letters – meat. Lots of meat, delicious big slabs of it, served in styles and from parts of beasts that some people, even carnivores, would rather not think about. So unless you know Spanish or aren't afraid to ask, you could order "morcilla" and end up with blood sausage, or be served a big order of lemon- grilled sweet breads because "molleja" is such a lovely word.

    Much of the food of Argentina and Brazil can be summed up in four letters – meat. Lots of meat, delicious big slabs of it, served in styles and from parts of beasts that some people, even carnivores, would rather not think about. So unless you know Spanish or aren't afraid to ask, you could order "morcilla" and end up with blood sausage, or be served a big order of lemon- grilled sweet breads because "molleja" is such a lovely word.

    What you might want to start with is "churrasco" ($12.95), a word that usually refers to an open-flame style of cooking rather than a cut of meat, but which in this case is a two-inch-thick skirt steak that is tender, juicy and unadorned. Here is a chef who doesn't have to season, flavor, dress up or disguise a piece of meat, but knows how to cook for the best effect. The mixed grill, or "parrillada" ($15.95 to $32.95, depending on the number of people) is a popular dish that features a little sample of everything on a sizzling platter.

    What you might want to start with is "churrasco" ($12.95), a word that usually refers to an open-flame style of cooking rather than a cut of meat, but which in this case is a two-inch-thick skirt steak that is tender, juicy and unadorned. Here is a chef who doesn't have to season, flavor, dress up or disguise a piece of meat, but knows how to cook for the best effect. The mixed grill, or "parrillada" ($15.95 to $32.95, depending on the number of people) is a popular dish that features a little sample of everything on a sizzling platter.

    If you need a break from beef, the sweet corn or ham-and-cheese empanadas – small and dense deep-fried turnovers ($1.50) – are great. There are a couple of chicken dishes "milanesa" (breaded) and a wonderful "Sierra fish" cross-cut steak (usually white fish, but on this occasion, salmon) that was firm but still juicy in a slightly spicy lemon and wine sauce.

    If you need a break from beef, the sweet corn or ham-and-cheese empanadas – small and dense deep-fried turnovers ($1.50) – are great. There are a couple of chicken dishes "milanesa" (breaded) and a wonderful "Sierra fish" cross-cut steak (usually white fish, but on this occasion, salmon) that was firm but still juicy in a slightly spicy lemon and wine sauce.

    Entrees come with a simple salad, good bread and the sounds of vintage tangos in the background, including some recordings that customers bring in to share from their own collections. (Mention Astor Piazzolla, and you're golden.) The owners are charmingly friendly. Mix in their well-prepared meals and cozy atmosphere and you have a winning combination, regardless of language.

    The smell of bacon wafts out the front door and hits your nose if you’re within a 100-foot radius of Chubby’s Family Restaurant in east Orlando. It’s the kind of place you don’t mind eating alone in; there’s always a friend willing to sit down across the booth from you and take your order. Almost everyone is greeted by name as they walk through the door, along with a compliment about their current haircut or shirt color. It’s a comfortable place, and the food exponentially accentuates that comfort.

    Breakfast is the main meal, I find out, as my “Sherry’s skillet” ($6.50) is slid in front of me. Crispy potatoes and sautéed onions line the bottom of the bowl, followed by savory sausage, two eggs, cheddar cheese and white sausage gravy. Beside it is a biscuit so buttery and soft that jam is rendered unnecessary. I load a heaping pile of breakfast onto my fork and I’m in heaven. When I take a sip of coffee and my mouth is set aflame, I realize that my cup has been refilled under the radar in the 3.5 seconds I was digging in my purse for a pen. That’s the way Chubby’s does things: unceremoniously and swiftly. Like a good doo-wop group, each part harmonizes to create a proficient unity of service, food and ambience.

    As I chew blissfully, the man with the full-white beard and the Harley-Davidson shirt in the booth behind me orders a mushroom cheeseburger ($5.95) at 10:30 a.m. I smile inwardly as he skips the french fries. The ones I had yesterday were in dire need of salt, making them useless starch vehicles. But the Chubby’s Burger ($5.95), a 6-ounce beef patty piled with white American cheese and more than a few slices of smoky ham, garnered a jealous gaze from the kimono-clad Betty Boop on the wall opposite me.

    The menu at Chubby’s Family Restaurant is filled with sandwiches, salads and a whole host of side dishes, from fried okra to Spam. The pancake special is possibly the best deal in town; for $5 you get two enormous, fluffy pancakes, two eggs any style, and either bacon or sausage.

    As long as you pass on the fries, you’ll be satisfied. Glancing up at the print of Lucy and Ethel’s jam-packed faces at the chocolate factory will be like looking in a mirror, but at least you’ll be smiling.

    If T.S. Eliot had been around to take in the concrete scrap heap of East Colonial Drive and its brutal environs, he might have been prompted to pen a variant of 'The Waste Landâ?�: June is the cruelest month, breeding bahia out of the dead land; what are the roots that clutch Highway 50? What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?

    The strip, particularly at the 417 junction, is pretty much devoid of any life, and yet there stands a café in contrarian glory, a simple structure carrying on a culinary tradition that has seen two others like it move or pass on. And the Courtesy Collision gives no shelter, the cricket no relief; and the dry stone no sound of water. Come in under the shadow of the transmission tower and I will show you something different �

    Its name, Delightful Island Café, is fittingly defiant. Its interior is awash in yellow ' a beaming room overseen by an equally beaming Carron Bartley, as pleasant a proprietress as you'll meet, and her industrious son. The kitchen is manned by chef Garth, a former resort chef who now plies his craft in the kitchen once commanded by Millie Parker (of Mama Millie's Jamaican Café). 

    After starting with a beef patty ($1.75), served quartered and toothpicked for ease of eating, we knew our dinner would ultimately give us gratification. Sure, the patties weren't made in-house, but still, we knew. Cooyah wraps ($2.50) amounted to stuffed soft tacos, but the luxuriant, turmeric-infused chicken curry ladled inside had us swooning. Thanks to a liberal pour of Scotch bonnet sauce into the tacos, beads of sweat materialized on my dining partner's depilated dome. Scotch bonnets, scotty bons, habañeros ' anyway you call 'em or cut 'em, these peppers are infernal. Knowingly eating one, at best, allows you to gird the proverbial loins. Unwittingly biting into one, as I did when enjoying the snapper escoveitch ($12), issues a delayed, not an immediate, gustatory siren. When I found myself suddenly gasping for relief in mid-sentence, my sweaty-headed comrade couldn't help but chuckle. 

    A side of rice and peas proved palliative, and we even half-joked that a handful of rice could sop up the perspiration streaming down the napes of our necks. The snapper, it should be noted, was exquisitely fried, and the vinegar-based dressing didn't overpower the flavor of the fish. Again, beware camouflaged slices of Scotch bonnets amid the julienned carrots. The jerk chicken ($7) could've benefited from Mama Millie's savvy ' the fact that it required a dip into a cold (albeit amazing) jerk sauce to get the full flavor made the dish a bit unwieldy. The chicken itself was decent, but the dish as a whole didn't win me over. But fatty, lush and pliant goat meat was, in a word, delightful, especially when wrapped in a soft Jamaican-style roti ($8).

    An on-site bakery is planned in the coming months, which should help the fledgling café build its customer base and further elevate its offerings. Businesses in the area help sustain it, as does Mama Millie (a close friend of Bartley's) who lends encouragement, guidance and love. So while the Delightful Island Café may sit in the heart of an urban wasteland, its kitchen aroused our palates and we responded, gaily to the hand expert with knives and spices.

    Looking at the various dining options in and around the University-Alafaya corridor, then thinking back on how French fries and gravy purchased from a white truck sustained me for most of my university years in Toronto, I can't help but feel a tad resentful of UCF students, who seem to have an array of dining options in close proximity to their campus. Not that those French fries lathered in thick, dark gravy were bad, mind you ' in fact, just thinking about them elicits a salivary response ' but UCF collegians have it good.

    El Corral is one chicken joint that knows how to properly roast pollo in the Peruvian style. And while the owners of El Corral happen to be Colombian, the comida served up at this former Pizza Hut comprises the best South America has to offer. The basket of empanadas ($8) alone is worth the visit: lightly fried, freshly made shells enveloping cheese along with ground beef, chicken and guava. The beef and chicken pockets were superbly crisp and savory, while gooey guava empanadas could've been saved for dessert. Arepitas ($5), mini corn-flour fritter discs, needed a salsa or chunky chutney to complete them ' unfortunately, neither the salty hot sauce (a derivative of Peruvian aji sauce) nor the saltier yellow-green 'secretâ?� sauce added anything to the Venezuelan corn cakes.

    But we came specifically for the chicken, and as far as their pollo a la brasa is concerned, it passed the ultimate test. The white meat attained a balanced succulence ' not desiccated, not exceedingly juicy. A variety of combos are available for less than $9, all of which come with a heaping serving of rice (yellow or white), beans (red or black) and a side. I opted for their half-chicken combo ($8.45) with sweet plantains. Apart from the slightly overdone black beans, everything on this plate was palate-perfect, particularly the rub on that spit-fired bird. The plantains, it should be noted, were nicely caramelized, yet not overcooked. Estofado ($10.40), a hearty beef stew blending lima beans, yuca, peas, carrots, corn and green beans, is a comfort dish that, once mixed with white rice, yields a gumbo-like consistency. The dish is well-seasoned without being spicy; the side of fried yuca, regrettably, was a dry and mealy failure. At first blush, the arroz con pollo ($8.95) resembled a dense Puerto Rican mofongo, but the sofrito-tinged hillock easily gave way in fluffy forkfuls of zesty chicken and rice. 'Tropical potato,â?� the side of choice, featured roasted potatoes topped with shreds of cheese and pico de gallo.

    Creamy tumbao ($2.50) is an absolute must. The sweet blend of passion-fruit pulp and milk neared empty by the time the food arrived, and I just as well could've ordered another if I didn't need to eat. Whether you opt for mango, soursop, pineapple or strawberry, just know it's an irresistibly refreshing beverage. I did resist ordering tres leches cake ($2.50), only because they were fresh out, but the flan ($2) was spot-on creamy and rich, with enough caramel to sip once the custard was gone.

    Expectations are often lowered when it comes to counter-service restaurants, but the service here was quick, friendly and helpful. The flat-screens airing soccer and ESPN Deportes give life to a nondescript interior conducive to fast turnarounds. But given the quality of the El Corral's fare, those fast turnarounds will only result in quick returns.

    If there's one thing I'm sure to bring along before entering an Orlando-area Mexican restaurant, it's a bellyful of lowered expectations. It's not an elitist posture, but rather one founded on experiential forays into Tex-Mex hotbeds out West. Everything from their access to the finest chili peppers to their masa preparation reeks of superiority, resulting in indisputably toothsome dishes. So, with hopes not yet dashed, I headed out to El Palenque in East Orlando anticipating another ho-hum dining affair, and though in many ways that's precisely what I got, a few pleasant surprises were thrown in the mix to make the trip an all-round pleasant outing.

    The restaurant is named after the Mayan archeological site as well as a cockfighting ring (El Palenque's logo incorporates a fighter cock). A large mural of the Mayan ruins dominates the interior, but a series of smaller paintings created by the assistant cook are also worth a look, each illustration depicting a scene of a cockfight and the ancillary goings-on.

    From the looks of the sopa azteca ($4.99), it didn't seem the ol' rooster put up much of the fight. Shreds of chicken with corn, celery, carrots, queso and crunchy tortilla strips satisfied. Ask for two spoons, as the bowl is big enough for sharing. The red sauce staining the antojito-sized ground beef enchilada ($2.99) added enough zest to justify ordering it again. Carnitas, a popular filling for many dishes offered here, is made with pork that's roasted out back in a marinade of mojo, oranges and Coke. Stuff it inside a thick corn gordita ($3.99) and you've got yourself a substantial starter. Grilled beef, conversely, made for an insipid nosh, needy of some of their homemade serrano pepper hot sauce. If you're especially famished, doughy, crispy chimichangas ($8.99) will gratify. The two bloated rolls fried in peanut oil ooze with cheese and are served with refried beans and particularly flavorful yellow rice cooked in chicken broth.

    The real star of the meal was the three-pepper ranchero sauce slathered all over the bisteck ($12.99). The beef was a little tough, but the internal heat and savory smack generated by the sauce brought back memories of meals at Café Pasqual's in Santa Fe. The steak itself is a considerable slab, but I can only imagine how wondrous a meal this would've been with a better cut of beef.

    Considering they're made in-house, desserts didn't live up to expectations. Flan Napolitano ($2.99) had the proper consistency, but the custard was largely flavorless and lacked a deep caramel infusion. Tres leches cake ($5) wasn't very creamy at all and was too dense and heavy to resemble traditional three-milk cake. The flavor, in fact, bore a resemblance to Publix birthday cake.

    A bar in the middle of the restaurant is a draw for thirsty UCF students ' then again, the entire restaurant is a popular destination for college students and their families. If you're up for a beverage of the traditional, nonalcoholic kind, try a glass of homemade tamarindo. The tart liquefied tamarind is combined with sugar for an unexpectedly palatable and refreshing drink. So while it may be true that I came here with a bellyful of lowered expectations, I wound up leaving with a bellyful of optimism.

    College students and cheap, ethnic eateries seem to go hand in hand. Where there's a school of higher learning, you'll usually find a stable of offbeat, funky restaurants where the young and impoverished can chart untried culinary territory.

    For sure, the University of Central Florida area needs more of these type of restaurants. But for the last nine years, while the surrounding area exploded with cookie-cutter subdivisions and food chains, the low-key Falafel Cafe has been dishing out a taste of the Middle East to students and others hooked on the culture's culinary favors.

    Falafel Cafe is quite small, with less than two dozen tables. There's no view to speak of, but an enormous painting dominates the entrance, capturing a scene from the Beirut waterfront. Back in the 1970s, that's where chef Hind Dajani perfected her recipes as a mother of four. Piped-in Middle Eastern music enhances the cuisine. And while service isn't always fast, it's usually friendly.

    Descriptions of each dish make the menu reader-friendly. And if you can't commit to any one item, skip the entrees and fill up on tapas-style appetizers, which are in the $2 to $5 range.

    Vegetarian dishes are a Middle Eastern strength, and Dajani is particularly deft with the namesake falafels ($3.99) – fried croquettes made with crushed garbanzo and fava beans, onions and a mixed bag of seasonings. They're delicious by themselves or dipped in the accompanying tahini sauce, a thick paste of ground sesame seeds. Kibbe balls ($4.99) are similar, except they're made with bulghur wheat and seasoned ground beef.

    Falafel Cafe's hummus ($2.49) is creamy and tempting, made with pureed garbanzo beans, sesame sauce, olive oil and garlic. A splash of lemon brings out the naturally nutty flavors. Baba ghanoush ($2.49) gets a similar treatment, made of eggplant mashed to a pulp and mixed with yogurt. Use it as a dip for pita bread, or better yet, ask for the garlic bread pita ($1.99), which is brushed with butter and minced garlic.

    The success of the simple "cedar salad" ($7.99) is in the fresh ingredients. Bright greens are topped with herb-crusted chicken kababs, olives and peppers. Pickled turnips add hot-pink color.

    When you're in the mood for warm, hearty Middle Eastern cooking, you'll find it here.

    Sad to say, there's not much of anything around lately that qualifies as genuine. Oranges are artificially colored, desserts are "naturally" sweetened, and don't get me started with the whole genetically altered deal. So finding an authentic eating place like Garibaldi's Mexican Restaurant is a treat.

    The restaurant is named after Plaza Garibaldi, both a tourist center and local gathering place in Mexico City, alive with an almost perpetual fiesta. Garibaldi's isn't quite that frenetic, but the constant traffic on North Semoran (near the corner of Colonial Drive) brings a steady flow of diners. By all means, even if the inside dining area is free, sit outdoors (since they opened a couple of years ago, they've added an oversized fountain that muffles the noise) on a balmy night and fantasize about even sunnier climes.

    The restaurant is named after Plaza Garibaldi, both a tourist center and local gathering place in Mexico City, alive with an almost perpetual fiesta. Garibaldi's isn't quite that frenetic, but the constant traffic on North Semoran (near the corner of Colonial Drive) brings a steady flow of diners. By all means, even if the inside dining area is free, sit outdoors (since they opened a couple of years ago, they've added an oversized fountain that muffles the noise) on a balmy night and fantasize about even sunnier climes.

    It's probably a credit to the research department of a certain fast-food chain that you will recognize many of the terms on Garibaldi's extensive menu: gordita, chimi-changa and chalupa all make an appearance. These ain't no Madison Avenue inventions but real food done in the traditional way. And perhaps that's the problem with "authentic" – it's generally not very flamboyant or exciting.

    "Fajitas de camerón" ($14) is just grilled shrimp, onions and peppers served with rice, beans, guacamole and tortillas for wrapping – not fancy but certainly tasty. "Flautas verdes" is nothing but corn tortillas rolled tightly around seasoned beef or chicken, then deep fried and topped with cheese and green salsa; it doesn't have fireworks or talking dogs, but it's $6.50 well spent.

    "Fajitas de camerón" ($14) is just grilled shrimp, onions and peppers served with rice, beans, guacamole and tortillas for wrapping – not fancy but certainly tasty. "Flautas verdes" is nothing but corn tortillas rolled tightly around seasoned beef or chicken, then deep fried and topped with cheese and green salsa; it doesn't have fireworks or talking dogs, but it's $6.50 well spent.

    Original dishes that do stand out are "fajitas Garibaldi" ($11), which adds chorizo sausage to a combination of chicken and beef on a sizzling iron pan, and "chile Colorado" ($7.95), a spicy beef and chili sauce platter. (And yes, it is served with beans – on the side). The selection of specialties is wide, but if you'd be happier with the standbys of tacos, burritos and enchiladas, there are 30 different combinations of same, along with chile rellenos and chalupas (all $6.50-$7).

    Mexico's Plaza Garibaldi is also known for strolling mariachi bands, and we were quite thrilled to see a band tuning up in the parking lot when we drove up. The band is there several nights a week (call ahead). Be aware that they don't "stroll" but, like their compatriots in Mexico City, charge $15 a song if you want them to play. If you enjoy the authentic, ask for a real folk song (I suggest "La Negrita"), the experience is unique and worth the price just as the food is worth the trip.

    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?¦.

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