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photo by Rob Bartlett

Master the margaritas and more at Winter Park's Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant 

I usually steer clear of restaurants with lengthy menus. To my mind, there's no way the kitchen could possibly cook all of it well, not to mention the logistics involved in storing and rotating so many different ingredients. Something's gotta give. But Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant challenged my paradigm and has me rethinking that assumption. The menu at the East Orlando Mexican restaurant, which has garnered somewhat of a cult following since opening a few months ago, is really, really, really long (really). But everything I tried on my recent visit had me longing to return. I recommend previewing the seven-page menu online to narrow down your choices, lest you find yourself speechless and overwhelmed when the friendly, attentive waitstaff come to take your order. This happens to me regularly, even at restaurants with shorter menus. At Las Carretas, where the menu requires second or third flip-throughs, it's almost guaranteed.

Did I mention that the menu is long?

The best way to get the fiesta started at Las Carretas is with a cocktail. The restaurant takes its 19 margaritas very seriously: All are available in small, medium and pitcher sizes. My companion opted for the Tamarindo (medium, $14.99), and enjoyed the balance of silver tequila with tart tamarind puree and agave nectar. I can't resist a michelada ($9.99) — beer mixed with tomato juice, hot sauce, Maggi sauce, lime and Tajin seasoning — and the one at Las Carretas knocked my calcetines straight off.

With the festive interior decorated with sugar skulls and ofrendas among the vintage Mexican travel posters and colorful papel picado flag garlands, starting with the ceviche vuelve la vida ($12.99), which translates to "raise the dead," seemed appropriate. The appetizer combines shrimp, octopus and fish with diced tomatoes, cucumber and red onion served with saltine crackers, sliced avocado, mango and jicama sprinkled with Tajin seasoning. I dined with my Peruvian husband, a verifiable ceviche expert, and we both remarked at the masterful balance of flavors in the dish — the seafood shined, accented (not overpowered) by the lime juice.

Because they're so work-intensive, tamales ($8.99) aren't often a menu staple. At Las Carretas, not only are they on the menu permanently, the dish comes with three different tamales — cheese, pork and chicken — served side-by-side with their accompanying sauces, all of which are spellbindingly good. The cheese tamale is topped with ultra-creamy white queso and the pork tamale sports tart salsa verde, foiling the unctuous braised pork shoulder. But it's the chicken tamale, or more specifically, the mole it's covered in, that steals the show. It's chocolatey and complex, just as a mole should be.

Las Carretas offers a dozen different Mexican street-style tacos, served with fluffy rice tinted by tomato sauce and some of the best charro beans I've tried — creamy and comforting. You won't just find chicken or beef, either. The first time I tried tacos de lengua, made from cow's tongue, was at a taco stand in Ciudad Chihuahua in northern Mexico. Seeing them alongside other fillings like tripe, beef cheek and borrego (braised lamb), brought me right back there. We sampled the tacos de cabeza ($11.99) full of braised beef cheek, perfectly fatty and flavorful, and topped with cilantro and diced onion. I loved how the warm, fresh corn tortilla filled my olfactory nerves with the earthy, pleasant aroma of maize even before the taco touched my lips. Heaven.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • photo by Rob Bartlett

Under the Favoritos menu section, the torta Toluqueña ($14.99) caught my eye with its kitchen-sink description. The sandwich is filled with: a breaded, fried chicken cutlet; salchicha (Mexican-style hot dogs, lighter on the smoke than the American version); plus ham, stringy Oaxaca cheese, pineapple, pickled peppers, mayo, ketchup, tomato and avocado. How could I resist? The giant sandwich came wrapped in aluminum foil and, upon unwrapping, does not look as delicious as it is. The salchichas stick out from the sides like pudgy fingers, but a quick nudge back into the puffy bread fixes that. The bread has a crispy crust but pillowy interior — a remnant of the brief French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s — and pineapple elevates the whole combination, cutting through the richer components and surprising the palate with sweetness.

We took our server at his word that the tres leches cake and the chocoflan (both $5.99) are patrons' favorite desserts. They're both well worth the calories. Instead of sitting in a pool of cream, the tres leches was soaked, but not soggy, the center lined with thinly sliced strawberries to provide a bit of freshness. Chocoflan is one of my all-time favorite desserts anywhere — the flan custard is carefully poured on top of chocolate cake batter and sinks as the cake cooks, so the flan ends up on the bottom and the cake on top, switching places and giving the dessert its colloquial name, "pastel imposible," or impossible cake. Las Carretas' version is excellent, with the dark caramel topping cooked almost to bitterness, adding complexity to the treat.

Las Carretas' menu features more than 100 items we didn't get to try, not including the lunch specials (all $9.99), kids menu and all the a la carte sides and add-ons. If you suffer from decision paralysis, preparation is key. Fortunately, the food and experience at Las Carretas is so good, I'll be returning repeatedly, aiming to try everything on the menu by 2085.

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