CHAVO GUAC & TEQUILA
1541 International Parkway, Lake Mary | 407-732-7671 | chavo-lm.com | $$$
After seeing more than a few less-than-notable Asian bistros (Jinja, Shan, Rikka) come and go at the Park Place at Heathrow, it was heartening to hear of a food-focused urban-Mexican joint moving into the cavernous corner space. Judging from early feedback and the tasty shots being posted on Chavo’s Instagram feed, executive chef Carlos Vazquez was doing some very special things in Seminole County – things like lamb barbacoa, seared mahi with a coconut-espresso broth, octopus ceviche with a habañero vinaigrette, vegetarian fondue and a rib-eye with bone-marrow salsa. Even house-pickled jalapeños were served. But Vazquez soon left, to be replaced by sous-chef Anthony Cruz.
Now, Cruz was mentored by Matthew Cargo and Brandon McGlamery at Prato, so it seemed the kitchen was in capable hands and that patrons would continue to enjoy Chavo’s bold and modern dishes. But when we took a look at the menu on our visit, the dishes seemed a lot more sedate than we’d hoped – as of this printing, the old menu’s still posted online. Our sweaty and harried server made it a point to inform us (in conciliatory tones, no less) that “the menu is a lot more Tex-Mex now,” like we were supposed to be appeased by the fact there were fewer annoyingly innovative and creative dishes to be had. It said a lot about ownership’s stance, what we were about to experience and, for that matter, which way palates lean in Lake Mary.
After a few tequila-based cocktails, we faced the dumbed-down menu and selected those remnants we could find from the original bill of fare, like the appetizer of pork belly with pineapple-jalapeño marmalade and a breaded soft-boiled egg ($13). More meaty than fatty, the wonderfully done belly offered redemption. Why redemption? The appetizer was the last dish to arrive at our table (some vague excuse was tendered as to why they forgot the order), but it was the best of everything we had sampled up to that point. Yes, we happily scooped every bit of the picante guacamole ($9) blended with roasted jalapeños, cumin and charred scallions, but everything after that was just disappointingly ordinary.
Flavorless carne and carnitas tacos (two for $11; three for $15) gave way to overly salted butter-poached lobster tacos (two for $16; three for $24). Chiles rellenos ($17) stuffed with shrimp and queso were also way too salty. They skimped on the shrimp, but the heavy-handed use of salt was the bigger issue. Further, the gooey stuffing neutralized the flavor of the pepper, and the topping of salsa ranchero and melted cheese eradicated any semblance of texture. You wouldn’t know there were two poblanos under there. Then came an overdone serving of chimichurri skirt steak ($18) to top it all off.
We were told that they were out of many desserts (it was 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night), but that tres leches cake ($6.50) and assorted ice creams ($5) were available. We ordered the perfectly serviceable tres leches along with too-sweet roasted banana ice cream. When I glanced at the receipt a few days later, I noticed we’d been charged $6.50 for the cake, not $5 as stated on the menu. Lesson learned: Always check your check.
It seems that Chavo had a good thing going, but somewhere along the way, they lapsed into gastronomic recidivism. With Cruz at the helm, it’s certainly not too late to turn things around, but as it stands, no quiero Chavo.