He's been a grillmaster at Henry Salgado's long-closed Txokos Basque Kitchen, chef de cuisine at Jamie McFadden's Cuisiniers Catered Cuisine, and executive chef at Café Linger, where he served dishes that went above and beyond your standard coffeehouse fare. Now, after 22 years in the biz, Alex Diaz has settled into more humble digs – a snug little neighborhood breakfast-and-lunch joint he owns and operates with his mother in a nondescript Casselberry strip mall. To have a chef-driven diner in these chain-filled parts is a bit of an anomaly, but there Diaz is in the kitchen, behind the dining room's cutesy Hobby Lobby decor, tam on backward and working the grill and fry station with great abandon.
The redolence of garlic and onion that walloped our senses one morning all but assured that home fries would be the side of choice with Alex's fluffy pancakes ($9), and fluffy they were. The home fries were tops too, but for a place with "fresh kitchen" in its name, I would've expected – oh no, here he goes again! – maple syrup to be served instead of the cloying manufactured swill that is table syrup. The real stuff is, evidently, offered for an upcharge though there's no mention of it on the menu. There's a vanilla-infused table syrup served with the mini chicken and waffles ($11) and while the goop went largely untouched, the rest of the dish – the crispy, seasoned chicken; the fat, airy waffles; even the drizzle of vanilla sauce – lent mouthfuls of soul.
The heady waft of bacon, not garlic and onion, that smacked us in the face on a lunchtime visit all but assured that the smoked turkey club ($11) would be a part of our midday repast. The wheat bread, toasted yet soft and spread with an arugula aioli, held additional fillings of avocado, white cheddar, butter lettuce and heirloom tomatoes nicely. The sammie comes with hand-cut fries served in a fry basket, a small but differentiating detail that just adds to the diner's charm. In your face, Denny's. Those fries came with the chicken cheesesteak ($10), too. The special may not convert chopped steak purists, but a gratifying lunch it certainly did make. The onions and red peppers were expected; the white cheddar and garlic aioli were pleasant surprises. And it's served on a roll from the Olde Hearth Bread Co. – no argument here. Can't say the vegan burger ($11) hit similar levels of satisfaction – slapping Morningstar's spicy black bean patty into a hamburger bun won't leave discerning meat-spurners swooning – but Diaz does serve a homemade patty fashioned from corn, potatoes, chipotle peppers, garlic, onion and cauliflower. Just not on this particular day.
Diaz's mom, Deb, is a bit of a savant when it comes to gluten-free baking – the chocolate banana cake ($5) and red velvet cupcake ($2) being prime, and very moist, examples. And while the pumpkin cheesecake brownie ($2) may draw mixed reactions, you'll agree that a new indie diner in Casselberry, well now, that is sweet.Stay on top of Orlando news and views. Sign up for our weekly Headlines newsletter.