Bem Bom on Corrine: Goodness Multiplied
Chef Chico Mendonça’s takes on Portuguese and Mexican cuisines make Bem Bom on Corrine a must-try on the dining scene.
Life in a food truck isn’t easy. Even in the largest of rigs, cooking inside a metal box is hot, frantic and looming with the threat of mechanical disasters. Chef Francisco “Chico” Mendonça calls his seven years in the cramped, understaffed food truck called Bem Bom (a repetitive Portuguese phrase meaning “good, good”) his “hardest job ever.” And yet he still says that situation was made to order for him and led to the opening of Bem Bom on Corrine, small in stature yet impressive enough to win the readers’ choice for Best New Restaurant in this year’s Orlando magazine Dining Awards.
“Chef Chico” grew up on the volcanic island of São Miguel in the Azores, an archipelago that is part of Portugal, a land of hot springs, seafood, unique wines and the piri-piri pepper, imported from Africa since the 15th century. Mendonça has cooked in French, Italian and Spanish kitchens including Romanoff in Bermuda and the famed Voltaire in Dallas, and came to Orlando to create the kitchen at Cocina 214 in Winter Park. He started his mobile run with the 18-foot Bem Bom food truck in 2012, serving Mexican dishes and authentic Azorean cuisine.
Bem Bom on Corrine is the refined, stationary version of the truck. The regular menu features respectful takes on Mexican and Tex-Mex items like Rockin’ Tacos ($14)—flour-dusted rock shrimp, charred corn, Mexican arbol chili and tomatillo sauce, slaw and toasted coconut. The truffled mushroom quesadilla ($9.95) joins hand-selected mushrooms with pico de gallo and white truffle oil.
“There’s no fusion,” Mendonça says. “I am in love with Mexican, and I specialize in Portuguese, but they’re both separate.” Case in point: The stunning center-cut cod filet (bacalhau com batata, market price) with smashed potatoes, dressed with peppers and caramelized onions, has no connection to Dallas and everything to do with the spirit of São Miguel. Frango de churrasco ($13.95) is classically Portuguese, grilled chicken marinated in piri-piri for 24 hours, a simple yet exotic dish with rich flavors and an attention-getting heat.
Bem Bom sits on a former bank site and took an extended time to complete. “This place was a nightmare to finish,” Mendonça says, adding he signed the lease in 2015 but didn’t officially get the certificate of occupancy until this past May.
Bem Bom on Corrine
Ever conscious of the details, Mendonça makes his sauces fresh daily (he was head saucier at Voltaire, making up to 40 different ones every day). The exception is the famed piri-piri, which he has formulated with whiskey from Winter Park Distilling. “This can age for five months; there’s nothing else like it.”
And the clientele notices. “I have amazing customers,” he says. “Some come here three times a week. … I have one who came here 38 days in a row. A lot are Portuguese, and you know how they eat. It’s very relaxed—you eat, you have a drink, you talk, you eat some more, a true Portuguese way of eating.”
Mendonça looks at food as he looks at life. “I’m always shopping. I’m never completely happy with the way things are. I cook because I love the food … I think we always cook for ourselves. And that does make me happy.”
And if Chef Chico is as pleased as his customers are, he should be a very happy man indeed.
A Case of Homage
At the recent Orlando magazine Dining Awards presentation, Mendonça confessed to Dining Hall of Famer Norman Van Aken that he was a fan. “I told him that I was guilty of stealing his tamarind sauce from his cookbook. He uses it on pork; I make it with duck, a perfect combination.” Mendonça laughs. “He was very happy to hear it.”