11768 E. Colonial Drive | 407-203-0801 | keshrestaurant.com | $
’Kesh is one of those restaurants that you want so badly to succeed that you can’t help but pity the joint when you see it as barren as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard – especially at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night. The fact that the restaurant is cornered by the DMV and a nail salon in an aging strip mall hardly makes it an attractive option to passers-by, but it’s the food – “unpretentious, unpredictable and always made-to-order” – that grabs your attention by showing a little leg and flashing its pearlies.
On the chalkboard above the counter, we eyed a mishmash list of snacks, milkshakes, street food, hot dogs, sandwiches and home cooking. As he went to work on our orders, owner Jerry Helminski, a CIA-trained chef who’s as industrious and dedicated a cook as you’ll find anywhere, spoke of his eclectic little restaurant and how he came to it after many years in the hospitality industry. Evidently, he’s cooked for big-name celebs and politicos at big-name hotels and resorts all over the country, but the sudden end of a job in Amelia Island led him back to Orlando, specifically to Alafaya Trail and Colonial Drive.
Here, Helminski continues to hone his craft, albeit within considerably more humble environs. He still wears a proper chef’s coat to serve his clientele – who, understandably, are predominantly UCF students. As he chatted, I gazed behind the counter and noticed the lack of grills, ranges or ovens. It seems Helminski is starting off small with portable cooktops, griddles and deep fryers before expanding operations, but he nevertheless manages to muster maximum flavor from those wee appliances. Sample his grilled cornbread ($4) and you’ll be duly impressed – the drizzle of faux-maple and honey notwithstanding.
Helminski changes his menu daily, but makes it a point to note, “The only things I don’t make are the breads and the Vienna hot dogs.” Seeing as how he originally hails from Chicago, we had to sample a plump Chicago hot dog ($6) with the requisite relish, sport peppers and celery salt, and it was … daaa best. Keeping with the Second City-themed eats, we next ravaged the Taylor Street beef sandwich ($7.50), one of the best sandwiches you’ll have in the City Beautiful. The beef is superbly moist and the pickled hot-pepper relish will stiffen even the broadest of shoulders. The sandwich is served with the same hand-cut and kettle-cooked potato chips that accompanied the hot dog.
From the “street food” section of the menu, the soft tacos ($7) were another remarkable rendition: tender pulled pork, cabbage, cheese crumbles, house-made pickled onions and mole that just added to the pork’s succulence. On the sweet side, you’ll feel the burn in the back of your throat after one sip of the spicy chocolate almond milkshake ($2.50), and while none of ’Kesh’s highly regarded made-from-scratch doughnuts were available, the fresh-baked brownie was a real treat.
In case you’re wondering, ’Kesh is short for Marrakesh – one of Helminski’s favorite cities (his wife is also Moroccan) – but apart from the decorative tagines on the tables, there wasn’t anything Moroccan about the menu. He has served harira soup and chicken stewed with preserved lemons in the past, but of late, he’s more focused on giving his loyal customers what they want. In this competitive, resto-heavy sector, that’s never a bad idea.