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Photo by Rob Bartlett

Latin-Asian fusion joint Zero Degrees is the coolest, and hottest, chain in Orlando 

Ice & fire

The eastward expansion of Zero Degrees had many a right-coaster drooling at the prospect of slurping the colorful, fruit-filled slushy drinks the Latin-Asian chain has built its reputation on. Clearly the bev-loving folk of Orlando could barely contain their thirst – lines inside the Westside Crossings slushery reached the front door on both my visits, with many a frugivore zombie gawking at the menu screens and giddily mouthing the ingredients of the fleshy refreshments. "Maaaango chunks ... lycheeee crush ... non-dairy creamerrrr."

The fruit drinks, teas and coffees here are much ballyhooed, and rightfully so. The spicy watermelon ($6) is now a fave potable of mine, and it's really because of the addition of two simple ingredients: Tajín, the zingy spice blend of lime, chili peppers and sea salt; and chamoy, the sweet, tangy, mildly spicy pickled fruit condiment. The Mexican ingredients play into the "fusion" aspects of Zero Degrees' menu, which go way beyond the liquid, but back to those bevs for a moment. The aforementioned spicy watermelon, a chunky slush laced with the racy powder, and the mangonada (the same but with mango, also $6), aroused an Anton Ego-style reverie in me – the mangonada in particular. As a child, on our frequent visits to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, my street snack of choice was slightly underripe mangos dipped in a mix of chili powder, salt and citric acid. A sip of the Zero Degrees slush in all its tangy, salty, spicy splendor vortexed me back to those sweltering childhood summers spent in Africa; of seaside walks on Oyster Bay and a requisite stop to pay the man a pittance for the pleasure of biting into a peppered pulp of perfection.

"NUMBER 52!" If the server's bellow didn't rouse me back to the world of West Colonial Drive, the unnatural hue of the "XXTRA Flamin Hot Chilotes" ($7.50) certainly would have. This is street-snack fusion at its streetiest – cheesy elotes topped with a crush of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and garnished with perfectly fried chicharrones. The day-glo-red dust also makes appearances on the menu atop cheese fries and in "Mac & Cheetos." Eating it kinda had me wishing I was sloshed, or at least mildly buzzed. Popcorn chicken ($5.50) won't exactly burst your kernel, but honey-barbecue and salt-and-pepper versions won't disappoint either. I liked the fries, which are somewhere between a shoestring and a standard cut, and I also liked stealing sips from my dining mate's minty cucumber-lime ($5) drink, which helped temper the heat.

On that first visit, we absolutely couldn't get enough of the chicken wings ($7.50) flavored with garlic, butter and salt – so much so that we vowed to return soon to enjoy them again (with more fruity drinks, of course). But that second order yielded wings with a shrimpy taste, clearly a result of a very indiscriminate fry station. Even the fries tasted like shrimp. What didn't taste like shrimp was the shrimp in the so-so garlic noodles ($9.50).

Another issue I had was that none of the straws (apart from the tamarind straws you can request for $1 more) or plastic cups here are plant-based. For a chain that goes through the quantity of drinks that Zero Degrees does, well, that's just unconscionable. So if you're going to be a regular, and there's a good chance you will, get yourself one of their branded mason jars ($3) and bring your own metal straw. Short of that, you might want to give Zero Degrees the third degree.

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