The scene along East Washington Street in Thornton Park really has changed since the days Dexter's drew see-and-be-seensters to its bastion of upscale-casualdom. Other restaurants — Midnight Blue and La Fontanella di Nino come to mind — moved into the burgeoning grub street, all with a similar aesthetic, all distant memories. That's just how it goes. I'm not waxing nostalgic or anything — to be honest, I never held Dexter's in the same sentimental regard as others — but the restaurant, situated in a building that was Orlando's first Publix, was an indelible part of the city's culinary history.
Nevertheless, this is not your grandfather's Thornton Park. Not anymore. It's a whole lot younger, and if the restaurants lining the cobblestoned street are any indication, a whole lot more laid back. Ball caps and T-shirts are the norm at Graffiti Junktion, Island Time, Mason Jar Provisions and Cavo's, and their menus aren't too different. Wings, burgers, sandwiches and handhelds appear to hit the sweet spot for the neighborhood's residents (and the financial sweet spot for restaurateurs). So don't come looking for eggplant napoleons or bacon-wrapped meatloaf or any other vestigial remnants from the Dexter's days.
In fact, the Dexter's space is now the 808, a casual Hawaiian-inspired bar-eatery by Todd Ulmer (Stardust Lounge, Aku Aku Tiki Bar) and Wendy Connor (The Abbey), so if it's poke you crave, pop in for a bowl ($15). We took a seat outside on the front patio one lovely evening and dug into a bowl with tobiko-crowned spicy tuna. Not bad. Not my favorite, either (I'm preferential to Island Fin, Poke Hana and Da Kine Poke), though I liked it that a charred red onion graced the bowl alongside a wakame salad, crushed macadamia nuts, edamame and avocado slices drizzled in sambal aioli. I would've hoped for a charred Maui onion but, hey, any kind of onion is good in my book.
- Photo by Rob Bartlett
What really gave sway to the hula dance in our mouths were the kalua pork sliders ($11). Unfortunately, there's no pig being cooked by lava rocks in a pit out back (those darned city ordinances), yet the juicy shreds served on a trio of King's Hawaiian rolls piled high with bracing pineapple salsa and a five-spice barbecue sauce "broke da mouth" just the same. That's how tasty dishes are described in the Aloha State, and chef Daniel Weber applies that "broke da mouth" label to his chicken sandwich ($11) — his sweet chicken sandwich. No, no peppery fire in this one, but the slather of huli-huli sauce on that crispy chicken lent it a nice teriyaki-like kick.
By now you're probably wondering about Hawaiian steak, aka Spam®. Well, of course they serve it here — in rice bowls, on top of burgers, in plated lunch meals. It comes seared and glazed atop an ingot of compressed rice in the nori-wrapped musubi ($6 for two). Now that's my kinda protein bar, though the double cheeseburger ($11) is a perfectly fine whopper too.
The 808's bill of fare doesn't aim unnecessarily high, nor does it get mired in pretense and frill. The same can be said for a cocktail menu that consciously targets the fruity and refreshing notes patrons would expect of a Hawaiian joint — the Waikiki sunrise ($9) with Tito's, guava nectar and passion fruit liqueur being a prime example. Inside, the restaurant plays up the relaxed Hawaiian motif with surf boards and an impressive photo mural of Kauai on the wall behind the bar.
Oh, in addition to being a part of the restaurant's address, "808" also happens to be the area code of Honolulu, and the 808 celebrated its grand opening on 8/08 (Aug. 8) with hula dancers, the mayor and all. So if you're wondering whether or not the 808 will have the same lasting power as its predecessor, let me say this: Brah, just chill, have a drink, and don't worry about it.