It's a generally accepted fact that the best Cuban food is found in South Florida, not Havana, so when one of Broward County's most well-received franchises expands into Orlando, Central Floridians have cause to rejoice.
Mario and Nayade 'Cookieâ?� Padrino carry on a tradition that began in Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province in Cuba, where Diosdado Padrino ran a small market and winery. Fast-forward a few decades to the present and the Padrino clan has four restaurants in Boca Raton, Plantation, the flagship locale in Hallandale and now Hunter's Creek, all of them inspired by family matriarch Rosa Padrino's recipes. The handsome bistro, according to Cookie, is a notch above the others in terms of interior design, and the subdued tropical motif creates an air of comfort, while the faceless, 'hands-freeâ?� paintings by Dixie Miguez add a little color (and political commentary) to the dining room.
Having graduated from culinary school, Cookie oversees menu development, and the creations coming out of the kitchen are a testament to her guidance. The varied selection of criollo standards and signature dishes are remarkably consistent, if not exceptional.
Take the finely minced picadillo empanadas ($6.99), for example. Two ground-beef pastries, halved and crowned with a guava chutney, are superbly seasoned and crisp, and undoubtedly would be a top-tier tapas item anywhere in the city. Black bean soup ($2.99), a true gauge of any Cuban kitchen's worth, strikes a delicate balance of cumin to garlic, with subtle flavoring from bay leaves. Only the fiesta tostones ($7.99) failed to arouse: Pressed green plantains topped with a lackluster mishmash of cheese, chorizo sausage and a cilantro-tomato salsa resembled a gooey cross between nachos and pizza. A glass of sangria ($4.50) helped offset the parching effects of the appetizer.
For mains, I chose a traditional and a signature plate, both of which underscored the kitchen's competence and proficiency. Ropa vieja ($12.99), a Cuban staple, was simple, succulent and savory ' delightful strands of flank steak stewed in a zesty tomato sauce and served with rice, beans and caramelized plantains. Comparatively speaking, blackened mahi mahi ($15.99) was a more sophisticated offering, fusing Creole spices with a refreshing mango-pineapple chutney. The flaky fillet was served over so-so sweet-potato mash; crispy yuca fries with garlicky mojo made for a more harmonious starch.
Custards dominate the dessert menu, and when that eggy goodness is involved, trust a Cuban kitchen to get it right. Rum-chocolate crème brûlée ($5.99) was expertly prepared ' a crusty layer, a rich custard base and a nice infusion of rum. A dense wedge of flan de queso ($4.99) was enormous and filling enough to feed a family, but that still didn't preclude me from ordering a sweet, dark shot of café cubano ($2), a perfect finish to any meal.
Those lucky enough to work in the Hunter's Creek area will find some bargain lunch options, with dishes ranging from $7.49 to $11.99. And if you're bemoaning the drive to south Orlando, consider this ' Padrino's refined Cuban dishes negate the need for a three-hour trip to South Florida for the real deal.