Hours: 11am-10pm Monday-Thursday, 11am-11pm Friday and Saturday, noon-9pm Sunday
You can almost visualize the board meeting:
Senior restaurant chain exec: "We've done steak. We've done barbecue. We've done diners. We've done Mexican. We've done Italian. Lord, have we done Italian! What the hell's left?"
Junior restaurant chain exec, timidly: "Cuban?"
Senior restaurant chain exec: "What'd he say, Reubens? A restaurant that just serves Reubens? That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard. You're fired."
Junior restaurant exec, a little louder: "No, sir. I said 'Cuban.'"
Senior restaurant exec: "Hmmm. Cuba. In the news. Exotic. Colorful. Good food. Politics are problematic, but I like it! Let's do Cuban!"
OK, the newest incarnation of Don Pepe's probably didn't spring to life in exactly this manner. It only feels that way. That's because the place is expressly designed to be the genesis of a new chain of Cuban restaurants called Don Pepe's Habana Grill. Argue the pros and cons of chains all you want and I'll be the first to say that sometimes it's nice to know exactly what you're in for but they're popular. And if the food is right, they work.
Don Pepe's works because it's a collaboration between Ruben Perez, owner of the original and much-loved Don Pepe's in Altamonte Springs, and area gastro-entrepreneur Manny Garcia. Perez handles the food, Garcia does the marketing. It's a marriage made for the strip mall.
You walk into Don Pepe's new location, on Aloma Avenue in Winter Park where Pebbles (another Garcia creation) used to be, and you'll find muted earth tones, faux-cobble on the floor and faux-stucco on the walls. There's a photo mural of Havana on one wall, and things even get political with a propaganda-type painting of Cuban author/revolutionary Jose Martí on another wall.
The menu will be familiar to Don Pepe's fans: Caribbean fare with a South American influence and a killer list of Spanish wines. We started with the ceviche rojo ($7.95), a martini-glass-sized appetizer of shrimp, red onions, garlic and lime juice in a red cocktail sauce that was only disappointing because I was expecting it to be more ceviche than shrimp cocktail. We also tried the queso fundido a la Madrilena ($7.95), a long name for a dish of gooey, melted cheeses that you scoop up with tiny pieces of toast. It was supposed to include artichokes, but I don't recall seeing any.
Somewhere between the appetizer and entrées, I ordered a mojito and was immediately sorry; it tasted like toothpaste. No good mojito has ever been born of mojito mix, but mixes are expedient and most don't know the difference.
For entrées we ordered ropa vieja classica ($9.95), a shredded-beef dish that was tender and generously sized. The sauce green peppers, onions and tomato sauce stood out with a hint of spice. With a side of rice and black beans, and maduros (sweet plantains), there's a lot of food for the money.
(A note on those beans: Black beans are a staple in Cuban food and something of a bellwether besides. If the beans don't pin your ears back, it's likely nothing else on the plate will. Don Pepe's beans were middle-of-the-road, tender, but on the bland side.)
We also tried the zarzuela de mariscos ($21), a seafood stew that wasn't enough food for the money. The menu specified shrimp, scallops, red snapper, mussels and clams in a tomato broth, served with a side of yellow rice and maduros. We mostly got mussels and shrimp in the stew, however. On the plus side, the broth was sharp with garlic and nicely complemented what seafood was there.
Entrée No. 3 was the Don Pepe's famous Cuban classic ($14.95), a king-sized sampler plate of boliche (eye of beef stuffed with chorizo sausage), lechon classico (roast pork), pollo mojo rico (roast chicken) and a Cuban tamale. All the meat was good the pork stands out as smoky, moist and excellent but I couldn't finish the tamale. Maybe it was the red sauce or maybe it was the recipe, but it was too mushy for my taste.
So the question remains: Will Don Pepe's Habana Grill do to Cuban food what the Olive Garden did to Italian? Given the atmosphere, the marketing and the novel cuisine, I'd say the odds are good.
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