It's a restaurant peeve that happens more than I care to recall, but it happened yet again at Saint Anejo Mexican Kitchen and Tequileria: I got comfortably seated, reached for the bill of fare, and just as I unfolded it, those maddeningly mechanical words, "Do you know what you'd like to drink?" sprang from the server's mouth. I beg you, dear servers of Orlando, to dispense with this pointless request and replace it with a more practical set of words, like: "I'll give you a minute to look over the menu. In the meantime, would you like some water?"
This wouldn't be as much of an issue if it weren't for the sizable selection of beverages (margaritas, sangrias, cervezas and cocteles) offered here at Saint Anejo – way too many to choose from with a cursory glance. Saint Anejo's environs are the result of a thorough refurb to the old Stonewood Grill & Tavern space, an interior that's at once vintage, slick and vibrant (I've placed a self-imposed moratorium on the words "rustic," "modern" and "festive") and very much the opposite of the starkly cool-blue environs of sister restaurant Agave Azul in MetroWest. But like Agave Azul, the fare swings right in the populist Tex-Mexeria wheelhouse, and it connects.
I'm a sucker for Mexican street corn ($7), and I managed to beat my dining comrades to the proverbial punch by swooping a halved ear into my yap before the plates were even handed to us. The corn itself wasn't the freshest (deflated kernels were the giveaway), but a mess of toppings on the cob – crema (sour cream) and cotija cheese mixed with peppery seasonings and cilantro – left a gratifying smear on our kissers.
Oh, and about those missing plates – our server didn't seem to be in any hurry to bring them. He even stopped to join the rest of the staff in singing "Happy Birthday" to a guest. After a crackling-hard candied walnut in the "Cancun" summer salad ($11) had me feeling for a broken tooth, I pictured him doing his best Steve Martin and belting out "Dentist!" to my face. The rest of the salad – grilled shrimp, diced pineapple, grapes, mandarin oranges, goat cheese and all – was, thankfully, far easier on the bridgework.
At just $16, the two superbly flavored (and flattened) ribeyes in the carne asada were had for a song, sided with the obligatory (if ho-hum) Mexican rice, refried beans and dollop of guac. Chicken in mole rojo ($14) was a sweet and smoky surprise, but not too sweet and not too smoky. The essence of toasted sesame seeds gave the silken chocolate-chili sauce an enticing allure, so much so that we dunked tubular taquitos ($7.50) stuffed with habañero-spiked braised beef into it, instantly elevating the worth of that forgotten starter.
I couldn't get enough of Saint Anejo's flan ($5), which reminded me of the dense and addicting crème caramel fashioned by my non-Mexican aunt. My less-impressed companions made quick work of the churros ($6.50) served with dips of dulce de leche, raspberry and Abuelita chocolate, a staple in every Mexican household.
Not something you'd see in a Mexican household? A framed poster like the one hanging on the wall of the restaurant that reads, "Visit Mexico." But in Winter Springs, this might be as close to Mexico as it gets.