Sunday, December 30, 2007

Restaurant Review - Old Spanish Sugar Mill, DeLeon Springs State Park, 601 Ponce DeLeon Blvd, DeLeon Springs, FL

The Old Spanish Sugar MillFor a fun, "worth a drive", breakfast place, you must try the Old Spanish Sugar Mill located inside DeLeon Springs State Park near Deland, FL. It is about an hour drive north of Orlando on 17-92, just north of Stetson University. Since it is located inside a State Park, you do have to pay a $5 fee per car to get into the park. This rustic grill and griddle house used to be a real mill and in fact the menu states that they still grind their own flour for the pancake batter.

The Old Sugar Mill serves family-style make-your-own breakfast every day exThe menu outside the doorcept Thanksgiving and Christmas. And, winter is the perfect time of year to go because the Sugar Mill has NO air-conditioning. There are a few fans going, but in the summertime, they really just move the warm air around.

The Old Sugar Mill doesn't take reservations, so the earlier you go, the better, as that will reduce your wait time for this very popular, yet small, restaurant. While you are waiting for your name to be called on the loud-speaker, you and the kids can enjoy what else the park has to offer. There is swimming available in the "always 72 degrees" spring, as well as a museum on the history of the park, a small playground, and boat rides.

As soon as I detected a name that sounded like ours, with our correct party size, we headed back to the restaurant from the playground. Hooray, it was our name! We were seated on old wooden chairs and benches surrounding a table with a long, flat griddle built into it. There are other items on the menu such as salads and sandwiches but we were there for the pancakes. When our server arrived at the table, she immediately turned the griddle on, and warned the kids that it does get hot and they should stay away from the griddle. Of course, LB didn't believe her, but figured it out when he hovered his hand about an inch from the griddle - "that's hot, Mommy!" All-you-can-eat (and make) pancakes are only $4.50 per person and you can also order mix-ins for $1.50 each such as blueberries, bananas, peanut butter, pecans, chocolate chips, apples or apple sauce . We ordered a bowl of chocolate chips and one of blueberries. To drink, LB ordered chocolate milk ($1) while BB attempted to order sweet iced tea. Our server explained that the iced tea is unsweetened and doesn't sweeten very well with the sugar. She said she would bring some hot water to mix the sugar in so we could try to get the tea sweet. I ordered a hot tea so avoided the whole sweetening issue.

LB's chocolate milk was a small carton with a juice glass on the side. I had forgotten that the restaurant is in a State Park so they don't allow straws to be served. However, our server did tell me that they don't mind if you bring your own straws in (something to remember for next time). They do have sippy cups available for the little ones but that kind of grosses me out, using a "community" sippy cup. LB made do with the juice glass. We tried to make BB's iced tea sweet but the server was right.. this must be special sweet-resistant iced tea as the hot water mixed with lots of sugar didn't work very well. Even my hot tea didn't get very sweet - strange.

Pitchers of pancake batterThe server then dropped off our bowls of chips and berries with the batter and we were ready to go. You will get two stoneware pitchers full of batter, one with a stone ground mixture of five different flours and one with an unbleached white flour. Making the pancakes are pretty simple. Spray the griddle with the provided no-sticPancakes on the griddlek cooking spray, pour a nice size dollup of batter, and then add mix-ins. When the top of the pancake starts to bubble, flip it over for a little bit and then it is done. There are several syrups provided at the table including butter, maple syrup, molasses and honey. The boys stuck mostly with chocolate chip pancakes although they tried both batters. I tried plain, blueberry, and, my favorite, blueberry and chocolate chip. We all agreed that the white flour batter was the best but that may be because it is the taste we are most used to as we thought the brown batter was a little too "wheaty".

By the way, pretty much everything at the Sugar Mill is make-your-own except the meats (sausage and bacon) and lunch items. The couple next to us were surprised when they asked for toast and scrambled eggs with their pancakes and received a few slices of bread and whole eggs. I guess you get your eggs More pancakes on the griddlethe way you want them that way! The restaurant is usually very crowded so service can be slow. That's fine if you already have your batter and are flipping away but it can take a long time to get your check so ask for it as soon as you are starting to get full. Also, a 15% gratuity is automatically added to your bill, probably so the servers don't get ripped off. I can see someone figuring, hey, I did all the work, why do I have to pay a tip? Also, you'll want to have at least two adults to make the pancakes. I took the kids by myself once and was pouring batter, flipping pancakes, or cutting food the whole time and didn't really have time to eat myself. The Old Spanish Sugar Mill is a fun place to go for down-home yummy pancakes for a very reasonable price. And, the more people that go with you, the more fun it is.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Restaurant Review - Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, Christmas at Dixie, 8251 Vineland Avenue, Orlando, FL

Update 1.8.08 - Dolly Parton's Orlando Dixie Stampede suddenly closed this weekend! Was the business doing badly? Was it for health inspection reasons? Nope, it was money. Apparently Dolly and her company were offered a boatload of money for the prime real estate that the Dixie Stampede sits on, with its prominent view of I-4. Reports say that the Dixie Stampede will return to Orlando, just in a new location. We'll see.

Dolly Parton's Dixie StampedeI have previously been to Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede "regular" dinner show in Orlando so I was curious to see what the Christmas show offered. The Dixie Stampede is located across the street from the Premium Outlet Mall (not to be confused with the new Prime Outlet Mall) in a very large Southern-style mansion and was definitely dressed for Christmas with wreaths and holly and Christmas trees everywhere. We went with my husband's family and luckily we had the first show of the day so we were able to park pretty close to the main building. Dixie Stampede times their shows so that you are getting out when the people from the other show are already waiting to get in, meaning that you have to park farther out in a later show because the first group of folks aren't even out of the building yet.

Dixie Stampede's pricing is pretty expensive which, sadly, is in line with the other dinner shows in the tourist corridor. Adult prices are around $50 and kids are $25, although you can usually find AAA or Florida Resident discounts for about half that price. The admission price includes a pre-show, and then a "four-course" dinner and main show. Pepsi products and other non-alcoholic beverages are all-you-can-drink and you are also entitled to two cups of beer or wine, but only during the main dinner. You must make reservations and/or pre-pay in advance and then you can either pay or pick up your tickets when you arrive.

Dixie Stampede recommends you arrive an hour and a half before your show to allow you to find parking, check-in, get your tickets, and find a seat for the pre-show, and it really does take that long. There is a line to get your tickets, a line to get in and take a picture, and then a line to get any drinks or snacks for the pre-show. There are large signs everywhere stating that cameras and video cameras are not allowed (shhh, don't them I snuck my camera in!) so Dixie Stampede is gracious enough to take your family's photo as you arrive... and then will sell it to you later for about $30 (yes, I bought it... I've bought it every time I've come - the kids look so cute on the little horses!). You are asked how large your party is and then you are corralled into the correct photo alcove depending on your group's size. We were a family of 10 so we were escorted into one of the larger rooms with a large Christmas tree, some rocking chairs and crates to sit on and the two cute rocking horses for the kids. The photographer arranged us, snapped our picture and then we were off to the pre-show... through a path along the gift shop where my kids pleaded with me for little stuffed buffaloes or horses. We made it to The Carriage Room without Slushies in souvenir boot mugshaving to buy anything. The Carriage Room is where the pre-show takes place and it reminds of an Old West Saloon, with lots of long narrow tables on two floors leading up to a small main stage. The Grandmas stayed with the kids while the rest of us went to the bar to get drinks and snacks. All non-alcoholic drinks, including the slushies and mixed fruit drinks, are $4 at the bar and come in a souvenir boot mug. I got myself a Sierra Mist with grenadine and then we got everyone else the strawberry slushie or the orange dreamsicle-like slushie. I also got a bowl of roasted peanuts for $2 for the kids.

The pre-show came on a little late as the kids were all getting antsy. We saw Tuey Wilson, a comic juggler. His act was very unusual with spinning balls and juggling cups and other objects but the kids really enjoyed it and ended up saying his act was their overall favorite part of the whole experience.

As soon as his act ended, we were herded (pun intended) into the main show arena. Don't know why they only have one small doorway to squeeze everyone into. For the "regular" show, you are seated on the North side or the South side of the Civil War. That's always kind of bothered me so I've always asked for the North side. The Christmas at Dixie show has a nicer theme. The premise is that Santa's toy shop has grown so big that he has expanded his operations to the South pole. So you are either representing the North Pole elves or the South Pole elves depending on where you sit. As you are seated, on hard benches in front of long tables set in rows, you meet your "elf" who will be serving you. Our elf introduced herself and then briefed us on the menu and asked what we would like to drink. I ordered a sweet iced tea, which I knew would be out of the fountain but I'm not a big fan of Pepsi products anyways. The rest of us ordered Pepsi or coffee while LB ordered water (he doesn't like soda or tea). The only "straws" at the table were really coffee stirrers; luckily, we had saved our drinks from the pre-show and ended up using those straws.

Another tip, get everyone to go to the potty before the show starts because there is no break in the show - the performers are on the whole time during dinner. The bathrooms are all at the top of the stadium and also have an Old West motif with a big trough for the sink.

The show itself is set up the same way as the non-Christmas show. The first part is Angel during Nativity sceneall about the performers and horses and the second half is a competition between the North and the South. There is an MC and a character called Skeeter for comic relief. For the Christmas show, there were some really amazing set pieces such as the ice skating and the live nativity scene. I was pretty skeptical about the Nativity scene and thought it might be cheesy but it was very well done. The three Wise Men ride in on live camels (which was exciting in itself), but the most breath-taking was went an angel floats down from the sky with full wings. Very nicely done.

During the first half of the show, our elf was very busy serving us our food. I don't know why Dixie Stampede doesn't serve a fully plated dish - instead our elf had to serve everyone in our row the first food item and then come down the row again for the next food item. And, I still can't figure out what the "four courses" were since each item was served individually. The meal Kid's meal with chicken fingersconsists of a warm buttery biscuit, a bowl of warm (not hot) creamy vegetable soup, a full (small) rotisserie chicken for the adults and chicken fingers for the kids, a slice of barbecue pork loin, a half herb-crusted baked potato, and a half corn-on-the-cob. The chicken is truly tender and juicy but it is just too Adult meal with full chickenbig of a meal for me, and a bit messy when you are trying to watch a show at the same time. I wished I could have gotten the kids' meal since the chicken fingers were also tender and looked more manageable. The creamy vegetable soup is a favorite of mine although I don't know why it is always served lukewarm. There is no spoon provided so you need to sip the soup by picking up the bowl and "drinking" it - maybe that is why the temperature is more moderate? I ate everything else except the pork loin, which I just didn't care for - I think it was too smoked or barbecued for me. LB did really good eating most of his food except for his soup (I polished it off for him). BB didn't eat anything except for the corn on the cob, because he was enthralled with the show. This can be a problem with kids - you want them to enjoy themselves and the show but you don't want them to be so mesmerized that they don't eat anything. Grandma M. wisely asked for doggie bags and our elf brought each of us one as no one had finished the full chicken.

Next, it was time for the North Pole vs. South Pole competition and dessert - a hot apple turnover. It was The Big Man himselfa little goopy instead of flaky but tasted okay. The competition is fun to watch because there is a lot of audience participation and the performers are really talented. The kids also like to see the pig races and ostrich races. As the show is coming to an end, Dolly herself appears on the large TV screen and reminds the MC that he forgot the last person in the show... Santa Claus. Santa comes out in a sled pulled by two horses and waves to everyone.

Now comes the very awkward part of the whole experience that happens every time I have ever come to Dixie Stampede - the request for the tip. Several other dinner shows in the area, most notably at Disney, will include gratuity in your ticket price so you don't have to go through this. Our elf came around and left a card on every table saying that it was a pleasure serving us and that no gratuity has been added to our bill and that excellent service is typically rewarded with 15%. Here is why this is so bizarre. In most cases (as was with ours), our tickets were already paid for several weeks ago with a credit card. Clearly the servers are not coming around with credit card readers so any tips MUST be paid in cash. Then, exactly what 15% are we supposed to calculate? Sure, an adult ticket is $50 but that doesn't mean the meal was worth $50 - I'm sure most of the cost is for the show and we are not going to paid $8 per adult and $3 per child for the tip (plus, we don't have the cash for it). So we all scrambled our cash together and came up with $20 for the 10 of us. Then our elf came to shake all of our hands and we slipped her the $20 and then ran out of there before she noticed. I really wish they would come up with a better way to do that because I'm sure the servers get left with nothing sometimes because the group doesn't have any cash left on them.

Right now, I'd say the Dixie Stampede is one of the better dinner shows, both in terms of food and definitely entertainment, in Orlando, especially along the tourist corridors of I-Drive and US 192. I'd definitely still try and use a Florida Resident or AAA discount every time, though, as then it is a much better value.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Restaurant Review - Cheeburger Cheeburger, 504 N. Alafaya Trail, Orlando, FL

Cheeburger CheeburgerAcross from Waterford Lakes Town Center, is a new crop of stores and restaurants, including Cheeburger Cheeburger. Cheeburger Cheeburger is a chain restaurant starting to make its way across Central Florida and if you can't guess, their specialty is cheeseburgers, pretty much anyway you want them. The decor is all 1950's diner with chrome and neon everywhere, and a soundtrack to match.

The menu is very overwhelming, mostly because ofWall of Famers all the choices you can make. Pretty much anything on the menu is "invent your own" meaning you pick whatever toppings you want on your cheeseburger, you choose what flavored mix-ins you want in your drink, you choose which of over 75 flavors of ice cream you want in your shake.

Let's start with the kids' menu. For $4.99, kids get a choice of a Jr. Cheeseburger, the Cheeser Cheeser (grilled cheese), The Wedge Kid's Kiwi Shake-a-Soda(fried wedge of mac-n-cheese), chicken fingers, grilled chicken sandwich, or PB&J. The meals come with apple slices or french fries, and a choice of soft drink, apple juice or milk. For an extra $1.50, kids can get a half shake or a Shake-a-Soda. The boys both ordered the Jr. Classic Cheeseburger. LB (my picky eater) ordered it with just catsup and BB ordered it without cheese (he claims he doesn't like cheese anymore - don't know when that happened), and with tomato, onion, and pickles. I ordered fries for both of them and then a chocolate milk for LB and a Shake-a-Soda for BB. A Shake-a-Soda is soda water flavored with a choice of 14 fruity flavors such as watermelon, pineapple, mango, and lemon. The soda is shaken, not stirred, at your table and then poured into a glass. BB chose kiwi.

On the regular menu, you start with what size burger you want going from a 1/4 pounder My Southwest burger($4.99) up to a full pounder ($10.99). If you can finish your One Pounder by yourself, you get your picture placed on the Wall of Famers by the front door. Skipping that, I chose the Classic 1/4 pounder as did Grandma while Grandpa order the Semi-Serious 1/3 pounder ($5.99). Next was time to choose our cheese -- pepper jack for me, provolone for Grandma and bleu cheese for Grandpa. Then we chose from another 25+ toppings -- I went for lettuce, tomato, and guacamole to finish up my own version of a Southwest burger. Grandma chose tomato, guacamole, pickle and onion rings. Grandpa went totally over the top with lettuce, tomato, guacamole, onion, pickle, mayonnaise, and onion rings. Yeah, he really did order onion and onion rings.

Grandpa's blackberry-mango lemonadeCheeburger Cheeburger also offers some classic drinks such as floats, ice cream sodas, and egg creams, as well as regular and flavored drinks. Grandma decided on a Chocolate Cola ($2.09) while Grandpa went with a flavored lemonade ($1.99). Following his over-the-top theme, he chose a blackberry-mango lemonade. I wanted a cherry Shake-a-Soda ($2.29) but the server recommended a Cherry Sprite instead. The Cherry Sprite would only be $2.09 and it comes with free refills while the Shake-a-Soda does not. I went with her suggestion.

The restaurant was pretty crowded for a late lunch on a Sunday so our food took a little longer than I would have liked. Our drinks came out quickly although there was a mix-up with Grandpa's flavored lemonade - he was served a blackberry-mango Shake-a-Soda insGrandpa's onion-loaded burgertead. He tKid's burger in a Chevyhought it was okay, but really liked his lemonade when the server corrected the mistake. BB loved his green kiwi soda. The food finally arrived and the kids' meals were served in cardboard 3D versions of a '57 Chevy. The onion slices were very thick so I had to laugh at Grandpa's burger as he could barely pick it up without it falling apart. My meal tasted great with the burger cooked to medium like I asked and the guac and pepper jack imparting the tangy southwest flavor I was looking for. We were too full for a shake or ice cream for dessert but we will definitely return to Cheeburger Cheeburger.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Restaurant Review - Pei Wei Asian Diner, 3011 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando, FL

Pei Wei Asian DinerPei Wei (pronounced "Pay Way") is P.F. Chang's foray into the fast casual restaurant market. There is only one Pei Wei restaurant currently in the Orlando area but I heard from a server that more are coming soon. Also, if you are a fan of P.F. Chang's (see my review here), then you will recognize several of the same dishes on the menu at Pei Wei, such as Dan Dan Noodles and Ginger Broccoli.

The decor inside Pei Wei will also remind you of P.F. Chang's but is a bit more "casual". Menu boards are listed, sedately, on the left as soon as you walk in, and a sign directs you to please order at the counter to the left before proceeding to a table in the dining area ahead. Every time we visited Pei Wei, it was pretty crowded so that is probably to ensure that those who have already ordered have seating available to them. The menu is broken out into appetizers, entree salads, noodle and rice dishes, and signature dishes. Salads and noodle/rice dishes are from $6.50 to $7.50 and the signature dishes run from $7 to $9 depending on what kind of meat you choose. Kids meals are $3.95 with a drink ($3.45 without) and offer a choice of a chicken dish (teriyaki, honey seared or lo mein) and accompaniment (white rice, brown rice, or egg noodles).

On our first visit, I ordered an appetizer of crab wontons (4 for $3.95), chicken lo mein for my boys, and Mongolian chicken for me ($7.50). One interesting thing at Pei Wei is that almost half of the dishes are marked spicy... and apparently most cannot be changed to mild. [Strangely, the Pad Thai is marked as spicy too and cannot be changed. I've never heard of a spicy version of Pad Thai. I ordered it on a subsequent visit and it was more mild/medium than really spicy. My biggest complain with the Pad Thai was with the very large hunks of tofu in it, not the spiciness.] I guess that the sauces are prepared in advance and cannot be made morePei Wei's Pad Thai - a bit too much tofu mild? Such is the sacrifice of eating in a fast casual restaurant rather than a full-service one.

After ordering, I was handed a round red disk with a number on it and was told to attach it to our table. I then went up to get our drinks at the self-serve fountain. LB asked for fruit punch while BB asked for sweet iced tea. Pei Wei offers up some unusual fresh-brewed iced tea flavors. One was Mandarin Orange Green Tea and the other was Vanilla Spice Chai Tea. I got myself and BB the Green Tea. There were even slices of orange to place in your tea which I thought was a nice touch. BB gave the tea a thumbs down so he ended up with fruit punch as well. I very much enjoyed the green tea - it was very light and almost floral tasting.

Pei Wei does a really nice job in the dining room area. Each table is prepped by a server as soon as the previous occupants leave. They completely clean the table and floor area and then restock theTwo remaining pieces of Crab Wontons wooden chopsticks, appetizer plates, and napkins. It was nice to see so much commitment to cleanliness. Situated at the top of the chopstick holder is a clip for your numbered disk so the servers can find you and unite you with your food. Pretty much as soon as we sat down, a server came by with our crab wontons. These are really crab rangoons - crispy fried wonton wrappers filled with crab and cream cheese. The wontons were served on a sea of very spicy red sauce, again a surprise as I've usually had them with something similar to sweet & sour sauce. However, after I scraped the sauce off the bottom of the wontons, the boys ate them up, especially BB. In fact, both boys ate two each before I got to try any so I sent BB up to order some more. That order came quickly as well and I was able to try the crab wontons.Pei Wei Mongolian Chicken Very creamy but with a Pei Wei Kids Chicken Lo Meindefinite crab presence as well and the wrapper was perfectly crisp.

Soon our meals were delivered to the table. The boys received a very nice size portion of grilled chicken with the lo mein noodles. They did very well and almost finished their meals. My Mongolian chicken was fantastic with a slightly sweet garlic sauce and large chunks of mushrooms with the white meat chicken. We've already been back to Pei Wei several times and each time our meals have been delicious. This is a great place for a quick, high quality Asian-style meal.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Restaurant Updates for Winter Garden Village at Fowler's Grove

I've been spending a lot of time at the new mall in Winter Garden, now that Target and several other stores have opened already. As for restaurants, only McDonald's and Quizno's have opened so far. However, it looks like they are putting the finishing touches on the Chili's, Macaroni Grill, Longhorn, Mimi's Cafe, and First Watch (a breakfast/brunch restaurant). I also just discovered signs that say a Bonefish Grill will be opening here soon, next to where the Barnes & Noble is going to be. The directory also said an Urban Flats (a flatbread restaurant) will be coming.

My one concern is parking for the restaurants. While the larger stores like Target, Best Buy and Lowe's appear to have lots of parking, the restaurants look like they will have very few spots. In fact, the Bonefish Grill is located in the "historical walk" section of the outdoor mall with no dedicated parking - I foresee that will be a problem. One curious thing is the non-existent development of the Cracker Barrel restaurant. While the other restaurants have all been at least started, the space where the Cracker Barrel is supposed to go is still an empty field. It hasn't even been cleared. However, it is still listed on the mall directory so I don't know what the delay is.

In other Winter Garden new restaurant news, construction of a small retail center has started at the southwest corner of 545 and Hartwood Marsh (due west of the new mall). Signs indicate a Caribbean, Japanese, and NYPD Pizza restaurant are coming soon. The owners of the NYPD Pizza restaurant contacted me and said they hope to be open in December.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Restaurant Review - Chipotle, 10149 West Colonial Drive, Ocoee, FL

Chipotle in OcoeeI decided to try Chipotle again, despite having a bad experience about 2 years ago at the Florida Mall location. Why was it bad? I found that most of Chipotle's food was very spicy and that there was no children's menu even though Chipotle was started by McDonald's and was a fast-casual restaurant. However, a new Chipotle opened in Ocoee and, they sent me a free burrito coupon in the mail.

Unfortunately, nothing has changed at Chipotle since my previous experience. I knew I was in trouble when I looked up at the menu board upon entering and still saw no children's menu. As I waited in line to get to the counter, I quickly scanned the menu for something my kids could eat. BB announced that he wanted a beef taco while LB said he just wanted beef and cheese. The menu is very simple at CGuacamole with salty chipshipotle. All pricing is calculated by what kind of meat you want: chicken $5.70, steak $5.80, carnitas (pork) $5.85, barbacoa (shredded beef) $5.85, and vegetarian (guacamole and black beans) $5.25. Then, you choose how you want it: burrito with rice, beans, your chosen meat, salsa, cheese or sour cream; fajita burrito which is the same as the regular burrito except you substitute sauteed peppers and onions for the beans; burrito bol which is everything in a bowl instead of a tortilla; tacos - three soft or four crispy; or salad which is like the bol but on lettuce.

When I got to the front of the line, I asked if they had a children's menu. The server handed me a card that said "Parent's Menu" which was not a good sign. Here is what it said, "We don't really have a kids' menu, but we'll put together anything your child will eat. Just gaze down our serving line, look at the ideas below, and then get creative." Listed below were ideas such as quesadillas, single tacos, bols, and chips & guacamole. By the way, none of these items had prices by them and most of them are not on the menu. It also had a "heat index" that showed that the ONLY items on the menu that were not at all spicy were the pork, rice, beans, and chips. Wow, so most of the menu items are spicy. Next up on the heat scale was the chicken, shredded beef, and, get this, mild salsa (!). So I guess the mild salsa isn't that mild! I asked how much a single taco was and the cashier said they were $1.95. BB came over to me at this point and reminded me he wanted a beef taco. I told him he couldn't because the steak was one of the spiciest things on the menu. This started an argument between me and my 8-year-old and I finally told him we were getting this all to gChicken Burritoo and that he would be happy with a chicken taco (they had run out of the mild pork and were making more but it wasn't done yet). Next, I had to figure out what to get my youngest one. I decided to get him a children's bol as it had suggested on the "Parent's Menu". I asked the cashier how much those were. She replied that they didn't really have children's bols - she would just ring up everything I chose as a side dish. This was getting more and more complicated and I could tell the crowd behind me was giving me looks so I just said, "Fine, we'll just have a side order of rice and black beans." As the server opened up the rice coSingle chicken tacover, I knew I was in trouble. The rice is actually cilantro rice and has strips of shredded cilantro all throughout. I knew my picky eater would never eat that and asked if I could get plain rice without the cilantro. The server called over to the cook in the back to make the plain rice. I quickly decided on a chicken burrito for me with rice, black beans, cheese, mild salsa, and sour cream.

As the server was packaging up our order to go, I asked the cashier some other prices for all of you readers. A side order of rice or beans is 65 cents. A small cheese quesadilla is 85 cents (I assume on a taco tortilla) while a large quesadilla is $2.25. I also decided to get an order of guacamole and chips ($2.25) with our order. Heading out of the restaurant, I noticed that the decor looks the same as the Florida Mall location with corrugated steel and light woods everywhere. However, there were also quite a lot of the very high tables with high stools that had no foot rests - another thing that wasn't very kid-friendly, I thought.

When we got home and unpacked the food, I discovered that they had forgot to add the beans to the serving of plain white rice for LB. Luckily, he decided he wasn't that hungry when we got home so I just made him mac-n-cheese. BB attempted to eat his chicken taco and finally had to ask for milk to cool down his mouth. I tried my chicken burrito and I couldn't even finish it since it was so spicy hot. I can't imagine how hot the other meats are if the chicken was this hot and it was supposed to be one of the least spicy. Also, we found out that guacamole was very spicy as well and the chips were over-salted. I looked closely and saw that they had used sea salt flakes on the chips, that's probably why they tasted so salty.

All in all, I had a very bad family food experience at Chipotle. If you take your kids there on a regular basis, please let me know what you order for them because I can't figure out anything that my kids will like there. I'm probably not going back.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Restaurant Review - P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 4200 Conroy Road, Mall of Millenia, Orlando, FL

P.F. Chang's at Mall of MilleniaP.F. Chang's China Bistro is a "nouveau" Chinese restaurant, typically located near malls. While they do have some traditional Chinese dishes on their menu, they usually put a unique twist on each one. The decor inside the Mall of Millenia location is dark with dark wood on floors and tables, burgundy and brown walls, large golden moon-like lights in the ceiling with a spot light on each table - the feeling is very muted and subdued. In fact, there is not much natural light in the Mall at Millenia location; if you visit the Winter Park Village location, it is much brighter inside due to the large windows.

There is also usually a wait for a table at P.F. Chang's although you can call ahead to be put on a virtual waiting list. So, if you are going during normal eating hours, be sure to have some games and toys for your kids to play with while you are waiting for a table.

'Hello' kitty!There is no children's menu at P.F. Chang's but there is enough on the menu that you should be able to share with your kids or get them an appetizer. My kids have eaten just one of the appetizers as their meal before such as steamed dumplings or spring rolls or even just an order of fried rice. What is nice is that even though they don't have a children's menu, they do have children's cups with lids and straws with a "good luck waving cat" on it.

As soon as the server arrives, they will bring a condiment Nice sauces to complement your mealtray with soy sauce, hot mustard, chili sauce, vinegar, and chili oil. They will also prepare a special sauce for you using the condiments on a tray based on whether you request a mild, medium, or hot sauce. We usually request the medium sauce -- you can add heat with more chili sauce or chili oil, or take some away with the vinegar. This is great to use on your own food to make it a little hotter while still leaving the main dish mild for the kids.

My Tropical Green teaI also like to order the hot teas at P.F. Chang's ($2.50). There are several to choose from including green teas, oolongs and flavored herbal teas. On my last trip, I tried the Tropical Green which comes out as a nice honey golden color and had some citrus and orange hints in the light green tea. My favorite part is how it is presented - in a cast iron tea pot on a circular pot holder.

We always order the wonton soup to start at P.F. Chang's because everyone in the family likes it and it feeds everyone in theHUGE bowl of wonton soup for all family. For $6, you get a HUGE bowl of wonton soup that includes water chestnuts, spinach, big chunks of chicken, shrimp, green onions, mushrooms, and pork wontons. It can easily feed four people with almost two bowls of soup a piece. The broth is a very light chicken stock which is nice for the kids but I like to add the special soy sauce mixture prepared by our server to add some kick to it. I always know to make sure LB's bowl only contains the wontons and chicken because he doesn't like anything else - especially the green stuff.

Beef Lo MeinPortions at P.F. Chang's are big enough that we usually order one less dish than the number of people. So, for a party of six, we'd order five dishes and share. We order the chicken or beef Ginger Chicken with Broccolilo mein ($8 at lunch) for the boys to share. My favorite dish is the Ginger Chicken with Broccoli ($11.50). Big chunks of white meat chicken are covered in a delicious brown ginger sauce and are served with crisp, green broccoli stalks that taste very fresh and crunchy.

On our most recent trip, we tried dessert. Two of the desserts sounded very intriguing - the Banana Spring Rolls ($6) with pineapple-coconut ice cream and vanilla caramel sauce, and the Lucky Eight ($8) which is eight chocolate creme filled sticks with The Lucky Eight dessertpeanut butter caramel dipping sauce and toffee bits. The boys outvoted me and chose the Lucky Eight - I'll have to try the Banana Spring Rolls another time (I'm a sucker for anything with coconut in it). The Lucky Eight ended up being a lot bigger than I expected. It could easily be shared by four adults and because of the individual sticks is an easy dessert to share as well. Chocolate creme, which tasted like chocolate fondue (yeah, that rich), was rolled, stick-like, inside a long wonton wrapper and then fried. Those were scooped into a mug and were set next to a small bowl with the warm peanut butter caramel sauce. On the plate were the bits of toffee that we were supposed to roll the dipped sticks into. My only complaint - I wish the toffee pieces were much smaller. Some were pretty big and they didn't stick since they were so heavy. Man, this is a rich dessert... and very good! Both boys loved it although they got to the point where they were only eating the chocolate rolls and ignoring the sauce and toffee.

Since P.F. Chang's isn't a traditional Chinese restaurant, there are lots of options for those that don't like Chinese food and lots of options for kids as well.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

My Other Blog - Musings from a Restaurant Maven

I think I might be crazy. I started another blog. Not because I had extra time on my hands - far from it. I got the idea from Scott Hume, editor-in-chief for Restaurants & Institutions magazine, who wanted to know if I could do a restaurant blog that didn't have reviews but had thoughts and experiences about restaurants. So, I started Musings from a Restaurant Maven. I got the "maven" from the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. Several people I knew read the book and then came to me and said I was a "maven". Apparently, according to Mr. Gladwell, a maven is a person who likes to learn and then is motivated to educate others. So, I can see that - I like to find new restaurants, try them out, and then tell others about them. Let me know what you think of my new site. Again, there are no reviews, it is just thoughts (and sometimes rants) of whatever pops into my head as I am eating out or thinking about restaurants. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Restaurant Review - Manny's Original Chophouse, 35496 Hwy 27, Haines City, FL

Manny's Original ChoPhouseOn a recent Sunday, Grandpa called up to say he had heard about a really good steak restaurant way down south on US Hwy 27 in Haines City. He had heard it could get pretty crowded so we decided to head down around 4 pm figuring we would beat the crowd. Around 4:45 pm, we had arrived in Haines City and it wasn't too hard to find Manny's Original Chophouse on the west side of US 27 - just look for the big sign with a cleaver as the "p" in Chophouse. We were able to sit right down at one of the last open tables. For the rest of our dinner, there was a constant crowd of people waiting to be seated so I figured we had gotten really lucky with our table.

The decor at Manny's Original Chophouse is eclectic roadside steakhouse. There are license plates from around the country used as wall-hangings as well as road signs, hubcaps, and a lot of neon. It's also very loud. I had to shout a few times so that Grandma, sitting just across the round table from me, could hear me. The tables are covered with white butcher paper and there are crayons for the kids (and adults) to color with and decorate their space. The menu is surprisingly extensive with chicken, fish, ribs, and burgers, but we decided to stick with the house specialty and get steak.

I ordered the 12 oz Prime Rib for $14.79. All entrees come with the bottomless salad bowl, yeast rolls, and a choice of a potato, veggies, or black beans & rice. I chose the garlic mashed potatoes and was asked if I wanted gravy on them. I thought that would ruin the garlic flavor so I said no - that ended up being a mistake that I'll get into later. Grandpa ordered the 16 oz T-bone steak ($16.99) with sweet potato and Grandma asked for the bacon-wrapped filet ($14.98) with a baked potato. The kids' menu runs from $3-$4 and includes the standards like mac-n-cheese, cheeseburger, pepperoni pizza, chicken fingers, grilled cheese, corn dog, as well as "steak-on-a-stick". BB ordered the corn dog and LB, no surprise to me, ordered the mac-n-cheese. Kids' entrees come with just fries, not a drink, which ended up being another issue. Inexplicably, Manny's does not have child-sized drink cups so both of my kids got their drinks in the same very large plastic cups as the adults did. BB ordered a sweet iced tea like I did and LB ordered a chocolate milk. Our server had to go check on the chocolate milk when she brought the other drinks to our table because apparently the chocolate milk came from the bar (?).

Service was kind of slow but I suspected that would be the case in this crowded restaurant Manny's delicious tossed saladalthough the kids seemed happy making drawings on the table. A little while later, our bottomless salad bowl arrived along with yeast rolls with cinnamon butter. Our server tossed our salad in a large stainless steel bowl tableside and then pHot yeast rollsrovided plates for us to serve ourselves. Seriously, this was one of the best tossed salads I have ever tasted. It just had your standard salad ingredients in it - iceburg lettuce, thinly sliced carrots, radishes, shredded cheese - so it had to be the dressing that was so amazing. The menu listed it as a garlic ranch dressing but it was incredibly flavorful and was a great accompaniment to the crisp lettuce. The yeast rolls were soft and still hot from the oven which made it even better to put on the sweet cinnamon butter.

It was at this point that we had a "fly" issue. For some unknown reason, there were a few flies buzzing around Manny's that day and even the server commented that was unusual - she figured maybe someone had left a back door open or something. Unfortunately, one particular fly was apparently as big a fan of chocolate milk as LB is. Luckily, LB had been guarding his chocolate milk and notified me immediately when he discovered the intruder. When we caught our server again, she quickly replaced LB's chocolate milk and all was well after that.

Kid's mac-n-cheeseWhen our food arrived, I was pleased to see that the maKid's Corn Dogc-n-cheese came with garlic toast and that the corn dog was pretty big - a good value for the money. All of the adults' food looked fantastic. My prime rib was incredible - done perfectly to medium with dipping sauces of au jus and creamy horseradish on the side. It was so flavorful and tender... until I tried Grandpa's T-bone. Wow, the T-bone was well-seasoned and juicy with great meaty flavor. Grandma's filet was also very good so Manny's main dishes got the "thumb's up" all the way around. While Grandma and Grandpa had Manny's Prime Ribequally good side dishes, my garlic mashed potatoes were... dry. Darn, I should have listened to the server and gotten the gravy! At this point, though, I was getting pretty full and we coManny's T-bone Steakuldn't find the server for a while so I was fine just leaving the side dish alone.

LB had picked at his mac-n-cheese and, of course, eaten all of his garlic toast. BB had done really well and finished his complete corn dog and then started helping Grandpa eat his T-bone steak. In all, it was a really great meal, except for one last surprise when we received the check. While all of the soft drinks and iced teas were $1.99 a piece, LB's one chocolate milk was $3.45! That actually turned out to be more than his entire meal. When I asked the server about this, she said she was sorry but that's because it came from the bar. So, LB will be getting lemonade next time we come to Manny's Original Chophouse.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Orlando's Magical Dining Month - September

Is there a new, somewhat expensive, restaurant in town that you have been dying to try? Then try them this September! For the second year in a row, the OOCCVB (that's Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau to those in the know) has established September as Orlando's Magical Dining Month. Selected restaurants throughout the area have agreed to provide a special 3-course prix fixe dinner menu for the month for only $29 per person ($19 per person for more casual restaurants). This does not include beverages, tax or tip, but still sounds like a great deal - especially if you've been hesitant to try a restaurant because of the cost. I did not participate last year but it looks like some good restaurants on the list this year. Find out more information at the Orlando's Magical Dining Month home page. Some of the restaurants for Upscale restaurants include Emeril's Tchoup Chop, The Oceanaire Seafood Room, House of Blues Orlando, Jeffrey's Restaurant & Piano Bar, and Tommy Bahama's Tropical Cafe. The Casual Dining list includes Rice Paper (a favorite Vietnamese restaurant of mine), Kahuna Grill, The Grape, Buca de Beppo at Florida Mall, and Punjab Indian Restaurant. Report back if you do try out some of these places!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Restaurant Review - Joe's Crab Shack, 10 Blake Blvd, Celebration, FL

A fruity little drink from Joe'sSince Joe's Crab Shack is right around the corner from where I work, I often go there for lunch during the week. About six months ago, I noticed that Joe's completely changed their menu - both in look and in food items. They went away from the very flashy "Eat at Joe's" designed menu with mostly fried foods to a beach-scene look with more "healthy" items. (Too bad their interior decor stayed the same - a junky garage sale mounted on the ceiling and walls of the place). Also, while perusing their children's menu, I saw they has some really fun new items. The boys and I have eaten there several times recently for dinner, with the boys inviting friends with them.

Joe's Crab Shack has a playground outside their dining patio which draws the kids in like a magnet. My boys are no exception and they typically run there first and I have to remind them that we need to get seated at a table first. On two recent occasions we were able to get a table on the patio right by the playground. However, Joe's does allow smoking on the patio so keep that in mind. The last time we went, it was about 100 degrees out so we opted for an inside table with the promise that the kids could go on the playground after dinner.

A note (warning?) about the playground. For some unknown reason, Joe's decided to use small pebbles on the ground around the play area. They post several signs that say "Don't throw the rocks" but EVERY SINGLE time I have been to the playground, kids are throwing the pebbles at each other. Also, there is one "swing-out" bar that the older kids like to fly out on. The last time we went, a friend's 2-year old got tackled as she walked by the area from an older kid swinging out on it. So, I definitely recommend watching your kids while they are playing here.

Joe's Crab Shack did a good job with their new kids' menu. I like that they have a little cartoony picture oJoe's new kids menuf each of the entrees so that even little kids can pick out what they want Joe's Kids Popcorn Shrimp dishby pointing at it. For $4.99, kids get a choice of chicken fingers, mac-n-cheese, popcorn shrimp, grilled chicken, mini beach burgers, pizza, or cheese quesadilla. Each meal comes with a side item such as fries, mandarin oranges, corn-on-the-cob, or rice, as well as a drink - soda, lemonade, or milk/chocolate milk. On our latest trip, BB ordered the popcorn shrimp and LB ordered the mini burgers, with cheese.

The regular menu now has some nice salads - the Aruba salad comes with a choice of chicken or coconut shrimp mixed with field greens, bacon, tomatoes, candied nuts, and bleu cheese, topped with a strawberry vinaigrette ($10.49). The mix of flavors is really tasty, as well as the variety of textures. I ordered the chicken, trying to be healthy, and then wished I had gone foAruba Salad with chicken - go for the coconut shrimp insteadr the fried coconut shrimp. The chicken Joe's Kids Mini Cheeseburgerscubes were very bland and even the tangy-sweet dressing couldn't help them. My new favorite item is the Pacific Coast Wrap - fried fish wrapped in a spinach tortilla with black bean & corn relish and a jalapeno ranch sauce ($7.99). The crispy fish is warm and crunchy and contrasts nicely with the cool relish. The jalapeno ranch sauce is not too spicy at all and just adds a very small bit of heat - nice! Plus, the spinach tortilla gives the illusion that you are actually eating something healthy when in reality you know you are eating a fried fish sandwich. And, my old favorite is still there - the lobster bisque soup - although you have to ask if it is the soup of the day. Seriously, this is the best lobster bisque soup I have ever tasted. I don't know how much real lobster is in it, or if it is just langostino, but all I know is it is good! The broth is very creamy, but not too thick, with a rich lobstery, buttery flavor. And it is loaded with meat so you get a taste in every bite.

One strange (annoying) thing about dining at Joe's Crab Shack at night is that the servers have to stop periodically to dance. Yes, it's true. The disco ball in the ceiling will start to spin, and a song will come on such as the Macarena, and all of the servers stop what they are doing and go to the edges of the restaurant and start doing a choreographed dance. This can be fun if you already have your food but it is very frustrating when your server is about to bring you drink refills and then tells you that she has to go dance and will bring them after. Luckily, this does not happen during lunch hours.
Kids can paint a crab for dessert!
The kids did very well finishing their meals so we decided to get them dessert. We ordered each of them the new Paint-a-Crab. For a very reasonable kids' dessert price ($1.79), each kid gets a Rice Krispies Treat in the shape of a crab along with a paint brush and three "paints". The paints are strawberry sauce, chocolate sauce, and wildberry sauce. The kids had a blast with this and got very serious about their artwork. Then they had a good time eating the crabs afterwards.

Now, Joe's Crab Shack is certainly not a relaxing dinner out with the kids. But for a fun, slightly hectic, and loud night out, it does fit the bill.

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