Charlie Crist and Jim Davis may not have much in common, but in the midst of last year’s gubernatorial race, they did manage to find a little common ground at this Puerto Rican diner in east Orlando. Sure, their campaign stops here had more to do with vote-mongering than it did with cravings for mofongo and tostones, but even politicians courting an endorsement from the Hispanic community need to eat, and when it comes to dishes from that island commonwealth, Mi Viejo San Juan gets my vote, though it’s not a resounding one.
Finding the place is a bit of a tricky proposition – it’s tucked away off Colonial Drive’s busy thoroughfare, between Forsyth and Goldenrod – and once you’re inside, communicating with the predominantly Spanish-speaking wait staff can be just as tricky. The spacious dining room is awash in a blinding fluorescence, and the tropical orange-colored walls do little to reflect any semblance of that “Old San Juan” charm.
The grouper criolla ($11.99), on the other hand, does. Two sautéed fillets of lean, firm flesh are lathered in a rich pimiento-sweetened tomato sauce, textured with onions and peppers and sided with amarillos (fried sweet plantains) and fried yuca. The latter merits a dip in the table hot sauce, a fiery concoction with a piquancy that makes it a worthy dressing on anything from the delicately fried minced chicken–and-cornmeal poppers ($4.99) to the unremarkable salad, highlighted by withered iceberg lettuce, a few onion slivers and two dried-out tomato slices.
The blistering that beset the black bean soup ($3.99) was a disappointing sight (likely a result of cooking the beans too quickly) and made for quite the papery swallow. The same rupturing plagued the side of red beans, which lolled in a thick, smoky sauce along with chunks of potato. Upon seeing the rich mahogany broth of the chicken soup ($6.99), I couldn’t wait to dig in, but my palate was met with a mushy gumbo thanks to overdone noodles. For what it’s worth, the bone-in hunks of chicken were nicely seasoned.
The cut of churasco ($14.99) was superbly tender and soft on the tongue, but entirely devoid of moisture or flavor. A splash of chimichurri didn’t help, and I couldn’t help but think that this cut would be better served as a sandwich. The accompanying french fries were acceptable, but the yuca con mojo was much better. The cassava is blanched, thick-cut, then topped with mojo – an unctuous sauce of olive oil, garlic, onions and red peppers. The side is practically a meal in itself, but given that all entrees come with two sides, you had better gird yourself for some serious carb shock.
Unlike batter-dipped Southern fried chicken, the pollo frito ($8.99) is rubbed in adobo spices then fried to a beautiful crisp, the highlight being the lubricious glaze on the half-bird’s skin. Pairing it with savory twice-fried tostones (mashed green plantains) completed the meal, though not before some additional dips in the hot sauce.
Requisite flan queso ($2.50) was properly dense and eggy with just the right hint of bitterness to its caramel, while guava soffle ($2.50), an airy mousse-like dessert, tasted more like berries than it did guava. Assorted tropical beverages are also offered, though neither the sangria ($2.95), pina colada smoothie ($2.50) nor passionfruit juice ($2.50) impressed.
Like so many mom-and-pop restaurants, the experience here can be hit or miss, but the hits tend to outweigh the misses. I’m sure if you ask the hordes of regulars, they’ll tell you there’s no such thing as bad PR.