A Lake Eola neighborhood is back in business as a dining destination.
The bright, bold décor hints at the wild times to be had at Mucho.
Photo By Norma Lopez Molina
The downtown microneighborhood called Eola Square consists of the 101 Eola and Sanctuary condominium buildings on South Eola Drive, between Pine and Church streets. Anchored by the new Abbey performance space in the Sanctuary, it has fostered a “Restaurant Block” where previously several eateries have tried, and failed, to attract downtown diners. Four restaurants are revitalizing the scene with offerings that span from
casual hang to adventurously ambitious bistro.
Mucho Tequila & Tacos
Originally, Mucho Tequila & Tacos was supposed to be named The Worm, but thankfully its owners thought better of that idea.
The first part of the name pretty much says it all about the restaurant’s concept. Rough wood décor, a menu of 130 tequilas, a “shot chair” in the corner (a barber chair where you can get a tequila shot poured into your mouth for your birthday), and an adjoining speakeasy-like Mucho Liquor where tequila is available for tasting and comparison all add up to what will probably be a wild night out.
Food is fast and Tex-Mex-ish, but surprisingly good, the “we dare you to eat it” deep-fried habanero peppers notwithstanding (eat three and you get a shirt, and a heart attack). Fresh ingredients help, as does an attention to flavors. The slow-roasted pork present in al pastor tacos really stands out, even dressed with onions, salsa and pineapple. The appetizer menu is appealing, consisting of many mini versions of Muchos tacos, empanadas and black bean and corn-stuffed egg rolls. The ample enchiladas ($6.95-$9.95) are an ideal match for a night of tequila samplings, with spicy beef, chicken, pork or steak wrapped in a fresh tortilla and loaded with cheese and house-made salsa. 101 S. Eola Drive. 407-843-9676; muchoorlando.com
Nick’s Italian Kitchen
Nick’s pesce arosto is superb.
The new endeavor from the owners of the Funky Monkey restaurants and Bananas diner is in the space formerly occupied by Fifi’s Diner, which became Sanctuary Diner, which became closed after only four months in 2009. The long, thin space is decorated in deep reds and sparkly tile, but it is brought to life by family recipes courtesy of Funky Monkey co-owner Nicholas Olivieri. Dishes range from simple penne with vodka sauce to an inspired espresso-crusted strip steak with caramelized onion marmalade.
You could lean back and peruse the menu as a travelogue of the foods of Italy. Soups from Genoa, hand-crafted pasta from Bologna, eggplant from Calabria, risotto from Milan and good old Italian-American meatballs make their appearances. The kitchen’s touch with seafood is extraordinary: Toothy Mediterranean clams highlight a very enjoyable linguini vongole; and the pesce arosto ($27), roasted fish served with olives and lemon artichoke sauce, is a classic and superbly done cucina ebraica dish that could grace the best tables in Rome.
100 S. Eola Drive. 407-781-0724; nicksitaliankitchen.com
Sonoma Draught House
The big cheese at Sonoma is the white pizza.
Located directly across the street from Mucho in the Sanctuary building, the Northern California-influenced Sonoma Draught House opened in September and features a laid-back atmosphere. Its décor includes recycled steel seating around the tables and bar with 49 beers on tap, and there’s a large patio space directly on Pine Street. The Draught House kitchen allows Chef Larry Brown, who came from the corporate kitchens of TGIF and Copper Canyon, to stretch into some very well-executed cookery.
His kitchen turns out casual meals—pressed sandwiches, Black Angus burgers, interesting salad combinations. The wide variety of choices on the cheese plate starter is a very California touch. In the kitchen, a Fire Deck oven blazes at 800 degrees, perfect for a thin, crisp pizza.
“I can cook a pizza in four minutes in this,” Brown says, and the result, such as the blisteringly hot white pizza ($12.95), topped with roasted garlic and fontina, whole milk mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, is worth searching for a parking spot near Lake Eola. Plus, it’s the only place I know of downtown that serves draft root beer. 100 S. Eola Drive. 407-730-3400
The combo of tilapia, jalapeño and lime makes the sunfish burger a winner.
Another concept from the owners of Funky Monkey, the Prickly Pear occupies the corner of the Sanctuary building that formerly held the upscale Graze. The first synagogue in Orlando was built on this exact spot 86 years ago; now it holds a temple to Southwest cookery. The kitchen takes its cues from the hybrid cuisines of New Mexico and the Arizona borderlands. The phrase “Tex-Mex” isn’t in evidence anywhere here, proven by the presence of atypical items like elk chops and hickory-smoked duck on the menu. Servers wear embroidered cowboy shirts, water is served in handled Mason jars, and there’s a big lit cactus on the deep orange wall.
Quesadillas, tostadas and a vibrant “black and white” soup, made with long-cooked black beans and spicy jalapeno cheeses, reflect the Southwest’s Spanish influence, while bison burgers and coffee-rubbed cowboy steaks evoke the Wild West. But Prickly Pear’s inventiveness stretches any definition, introducing calamari, mussels and clams to chili, and chopping succulent tilapia with jalapeño and lime to make an enticing sunfish burger ($13) worth many more visits. 100 S. Eola Drive. 407-781-2539; pricklypearorlando.com