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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Restaurant Review - Black Bean Deli (a Cuban cafe), 325 S. Orlando Ave, Winter Park, FL

Black Bean DeliIn search of a good Cuban sandwich in Orlando, I heard about the Black Bean Deli in Winter Park. I wanted to try their food but there was a problem. I don't live nor work near Winter Park. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem, however Black Bean Deli has unusual hours for a restaurant - they are only open Monday through Friday from 11 am - 8 pm. No weekends. So, when I took vacation days during the week of July 4th, I paid Black Bean Deli a visit. Uh oh. Turns out the Black Bean Deli folks decided to take off as well - they were closed for the week. As I waited in the parking lot with my two boys trying to decide where to go instead, a virtual stream of hungry patrons attempted to enter the Black Bean Deli only to find a locked door and a "we are on vacation" sign. Wow, I thought, if this many people are coming by, this place must have good food. I peeked in the window to see that, really, Black Bean Deli is more like a tiny, but nice, takeout place rather than a restaurant, with only seating for about five people on stools around the counter. I decided that we would return again, next time I was on vacation.

This month, I was finally able to return to Black Bean Deli and try their food. The boys and I arrived on a Monday, around 11:30 am and there were already a few people in the small place waiting for their orders. Seeing that the small inside space was about to get crowded, I made a decision to get our food to go. The menu is pretty simple at Black Bean Deli - sandwiches are about $5; platters that come with rice, beans, plantains and salad run from $5.50 - $7.50; and then there are sides, desserts and drinks. Drinks all come in cans or bottles and are mostly domestic sodas as well as imported sodas such as Ironbeer, Materva, Jupina, Malta, and tropical juices. I considered the platters that included offerings such as picadillo, papas reBB checking out the counter at Black Bean Delillenas, and baked chicken, but ultimately chose the lunch special for all three of us. The lunch special (served daily until 3 pm) consists of a 4-inch Cuban sandwich with a cup of black beans and rice for$5. That was exactly what I wanted and I thought it would be a good size for the boys. After I ordered, I backed away from the counter to wait while the boys played on the stools. The folks running the counter are very efficient and quick - they must be used to lots of orders at one time. In about five minutes our order was ready so we hopped back in the car to take it home.

As soon as I unwrapped the meals on our kitchen table at home, I knew I should have just let the boys share one lunch special. The sandwich was a lot bigger than I expected and so was the black beans and rice. The sandwiches were done to a nice buttery crispness with a few burn marks here and there. The black beans and rice... well... looked a little too watery to me. That's when I checked the takeout menu I had grabbeCuban sandwich with black beans & riced and re-read the lunch special - 4" Cuban sandwich w/cup of black beans & rice. Hmmm. Oh, there you go - under "Soups" it says black bean & rice or soup of the day available in cup, pint, or quart. So, maybe, it is a cup of black beans and rice soup that comes with the sandwich? Either way, I strained off some of the liquid from all of our containers. The sandwich itself was still warm and the bread had a nice crunchiness to it. The first taste was of sweetness from the ham then the roast pork and swiss cheese flavors kick in. Overall, it was a pretty good sandwich, although just a little dry. Definitely tasted like the ones in Miami, though. The black beans and rice were a bit salty but once I started digging in, it didn't bother me anymore. They were very flavorful but I did wish there was a little more rice - I like a nice balance between the two. BB ate about half of his sandwich and just pecked at his beans and rice since he was full. LB didn't touch the sandwich at all and ate almost all of his beans and rice. Again a reminder that next time I need to order one special for the both of them.

I'd really like to go back and try Black Bean Deli's platters - the picadillo is one of my favorite dishes. If anyone lives in the Winter Park area, can you just pick one up and deliver to us? Thanks in advance.

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