Where Tex-Mex Meets Portugal

At Cocina 214, Southwestern cuisine is open to interpretation. And the chef knows what he’s talking about.

There aren’t many cuisines as easy to dumb-down and commercialize as Tex-Mex. Honestly, so many mediocre bars and fast- food locations fly the Southwest banner that I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to venture into a place proclaiming its “contemporary interpretations of traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex favorites.” Such was the challenge of Cocina 214 in Winter Park.

The name of the restaurant—Cocina, Spanish for “kitchen,” and 214, the area code of Dallas—gives just a hint as to the bill of fare. Chef Francisco Mendonca (everyone calls him “Chico”) labels his menu Tex-Mex—in a way. “It is … and it isn’t,” he says. “There’s a little bit of everything.”

Chef Chico grew up on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, an archipelago that is part of Portugal, and he has cooked in French, Italian and Spanish kitchens in Bermuda and Dallas. Mendonca brings a taste of Portugal to the Cocina table for some dishes that are neither Mex nor Tex. Mexilhões na Cataplana ($12) simmers sweet mussels in the Portuguese style with wine, tomatoes and rich chouriço smoked pork sausage in a beautiful domed copper pot (the cataplana) for a striking and satisfying entrée. Camarão com Piri-Piri ($12) takes meaty rock shrimp and, with the help of grilled lemon and very spicy bird’s eye chilies, creates a plate of surprisingly complex flavors.

But he doesn’t abandon what he’s learned from 15 years in the Lone Star State. Burritos, fajitas, even nachos and salsa, are American inventions, dishes that can easily become second-rate. But Cocina 214 strives to elevate them to the intriguing, exciting things they once were. Everything is cooked to order, from the hand-pressed tortillas (the flour ones are particularly good) to the taco fillings. Street Tacos ($12), three corn tortillas topped with arbol chilies, roasted garlic and mouth-watering seared beef tenderloin, are elegantly simple and tender. The “El Ronnie” taco ($15) mingles lime-infused cabbage, chipotle salsa and breathtakingly good crispy duck meat; the addition of candied orange peel gave me the sensation of eating crunchy bits of potpourri, and when I order this dish again (and I will), they won’t be included.

A particular highlight is the camarones brochette ($22), succulent grilled shrimp stuffed with fresh jalapeño and gooey, stringy Oaxaca cheese, wrapped in smoked bacon and served on massive heaps of grilled onions and sweet peppers. It is a huge serving, and you’ll eat it all.
Located on Welbourne Avenue, two blocks off the busy Park Avenue mainstream, Cocina 214’s building was home to the Morse Museum in the 1970s and ’80s, and the columned patio is a charming legacy of the museum’s layout. Inside, the enormous space, with cream walls and accents of russet and burnt orange, hardly seems filled even by the large number and many styles of seats and tables. I think they’re going to need every inch of space.

Cocina 214
151 Welbourne Ave. E.,
Winter Park

Small wine list
Reservations for 12 or more

A Must Try
The Signature “214” ceviche ($10), chunks of fish “cooked” in lime
juice and jalapeño, with tart, spicy flavors that add
great variety to the firm white fish.

Categories: Reviews