Following in the tire tracks of Joe and David Creech (Hunger Street Tacos), Thomas Ward (Pig Floyd's) and John Collazo (Bad As's Sandwich), Francisco "Chico" Mendonça not only went brick-and-mortar with his mobile food operation, but his Audubon Park restaurant – Bem Bom on Corrine – is generating the same sort of buzz that made destinations out of the others. It's a sure sign of our city's gastronomic health – not the opposite, as some wrongly claim – when food truck operators get into the restaurant game. It's merely a conversion of kinetic energy to potential energy and, in the case of Bem Bom (Portuguese for "very good"), the potential is contained within the sweltering confines of its kitchen.
There, Portuguese and Mexican dishes, much like the ones Mendonça fashioned at Winter Park's Cocina 214 many years ago, are fired up – dishes like the famous frango de churrasco (or barbecued chicken) done in the piri piri ($11.95) style. The chicken, marinated in a sauce made from the African bird's-eye chili pepper (piri piri) then grilled over hot coals, is colonial fusion at its best and its succulence is unmatched. But if you're expecting a piri piri sauce akin to the one served at global chicken chain Nando's, know that Bem Bom's is a lot more vinegary.
On one occasion, the piri piri sauce never materialized, and we really had no problem with that. We gladly greased up our digits tearing into the chicken and picking at the truffle-y fries, so much so that the barcode label still adhered to a wedge of lemon almost went unnoticed. Bem Bom's servers, it seems, are still finding their bearings – some appear well-informed and seasoned; others pay no notice when drink glasses sit empty, or feel napkins are a gratuitous privilege. It's all good, though – getting our hands dirty chomping into a lamb burger ($13.95) ground to order, with feta and a pepper relish, or carnitas tacos ($10.95) with fiery salsa de arbol, brought an enjoyably messy intimacy to the meal.
But it's in the daily specials where Mendonça, who grew up in the Azores, really showcases the fare of his native Portugal. There's the dense and porky grilled chouriço ($15), a filling sausage served with three sauces: piri piri with a swirl of mustard, a sweet pineapple salsa, and a smoky salsa pasilla with a burn that arrives later than sooner. Eating it with shreds of rustic pão da avó (literally "grandmother's bread") under an umbrella on the inviting patio amid the sounds of sputtering Vespas and foreign tongues lent a very European flair to our meal, and that's hard to come by in this town.
More specials we relished al fresco: A refined center-cut salted cod ($28) topped with caramelized onions and peppers drizzled in Portuguese olive oil and served with punched potatoes was simply magnificent. Carne asada ($28) with chimichurri was just as superb – you'd be hard-pressed to find a more tender grilled skirt steak in this town. It comes with rice and beans, though our server insisted we order the "Bomb" ($6) – fries mixed with Thai basil, Thai chilies, truffle oil and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Enjoy it all with a glass or two of Ánnosa ($7), a Mexican-style lager brewed specially for Bem Bom by neighbors Redlight Redlight.
In the coming weeks, new items will be introduced to the menu: Portuguese pork butt sandwiches; grilled sardines with cabbage curtido; and pastel de bacalhau, or cod baked in puff pastry tarts, to name just a few.
After enduring 33 months of struggles and budget overruns just to get their restaurant open, Mendonça and co-owner A.J. Campofiore have shown a resolute commitment to seeing their vision through, no matter the cost. It's clear Bem Bom's eats will be of the authentic – not diluted – kind and that's, well, bem bom.