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Zaza New Cuban Diner (Orlando, FL)

Much of my recent business travel has been to Florida, and that generally gives me a chance to get one of my favorite cuisines: Cuban food. However, while Orlando is a relatively short drive from Miami (which is loaded up with Cuban places), it only has a smattering of Cuban places itself, but there’s at least one small, local chain (~3 restaurants) that’s attempting to remedy that… enter Zaza New Cuban Diner.

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The Gnarly Barley (Orlando, FL)

My work has had me traveling a lot to Daytona Beach to meet with a collaborator at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and it’s always a bit enjoyable traveling down there (usually via Orlando), since while I’m not always the biggest fan of large metro areas, the greater Orlando area has a lot of things going for it. First of all, it’s a distinctly different climate (half of the year, that’s an advantage). Second, it has a relatively good selection of ethnic restaurants, especially for things like Cuban food and Southern food that aren’t really around in NH. And, on this trip, it was also a good opportunity to meet up with fellow traveler, in this case Leslie from My Adventure Bucket. While she’s often away touring the world in the way only a retired funeral home director with a random number generator can, for our visit, she was still in town prepping for an extended trip to Sri Lanka. So, after arriving in the early evening, we decided to meet with Leslie at a nearby joint: The Gnarly Barley.

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De La Vega (Deland, FL)

You know, I get a lot of odd requests in life. One of the odder ones in recent history was, “Hey, can you send me a bunch of photos I can use for a training funeral?”. Since yes, among the various colorful people I know are not only legislators, lawyers, professors, Lords, and actual rocket scientists, but funeral home directors as well. My answer was, of course, sure. I assembled an eclectic selection of photos of myself (you know, like the one with the horse mask, or the bathtub one, or the creepy cowboy one) and thus, the legend of Paul Crawford was born, a man who bears a shocking resemblance to myself, but, alas, departed this world late last year. Sniff. It’s like I know the guy. In any case, part of the deal was that I would get pie (dutifully delivered via Fedex), and, if I found myself in Florida, dinner. Thus, on a somewhat recent trip to Daytona for testing at Embry-Riddle, I found myself with an opportunity to meet up with my friend Leslie, have a nice dinner at De La Vega with her and her husband, and raise a glass in memory of poor Paul Crawford.

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Versailles Cuban Restaurant (Miami, FL)

If there’s one good piece of advice about dining in the greater Miami area, it’s “you can’t have too much Cuban food.” While previously dining on Cuban food twice this trip at Latin American Bayside Cafe and Puerto Sagua, I was still craving one of the classic Cuban dishes: Vaca Frita (literally “fried cow”, it’s a shredded twice-cooked flank steak heavily marinated with citrus and cooked to a crisp). However, one of the better places for a good vaca frita is Versailles Cuban, on 8th Street (Calle Ocho) in Little Habana, which was, unfortunately, a bit of a haul from our hotel in Miami Beach. Luckily, TivoCommunity.com’s EddyJ (a genuine Cuban!) and Hot4Bo agreed that this was a great excuse for a mini-gathering, and EddyJ graciously offered to drive us to Versailles.

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Front Porch Cafe (Miami Beach, FL)

Like any good vacation, ours needed at least one seriously righteous breakfast. After consulting several online sources (Chowhound, Yelp, etc), we decided that Front Porch Cafe was a good place to try (and it had looked good as we passed it the day before). I’m glad we did. Situated on the north end of South Beach (i.e. the mellower and more-relaxed end of the beach), inside the Penguin Hotel (one of the apparently older Art Deco boutique hotels, albeit one that’s obviously been refurbished recently), the Front Porch is well named, since the vast majority of their seating is, well, on the front porch, or the sidewalk in front.

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Puerto Sagua (Miami Beach, FL)

Cuban food has several signature dishes. In addition to the previously discussed Ropa Vieja, plantains, puerco, and such that we had at Latin American Bayside cafe, both roasted pork and ham served on a Cuban-style French roll (slightly more airy and less crusty than a traditional French baquette), served with cheese and, most importantly, pickle, all pressed and toasted to perfection. Unfortunately, while South Beach used to be a pretty good area for Cuban Sandwiches, most of the Cuban places I used to frequent in the early 90s are gone. However, Puerto Sagua is still there, and still good, so while enjoying the sites and sounds of a friday night in South Beach, we stopped by Puerto Sagua for a late-night snack…

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Mattarello Bakery Cafe (Miami Beach, FL)

he one thing about getting back from a 4-day cruise is that you’re not terribly hungry. After several days of heavy dinners and the like, Carol and I were ready to tone it down a little bit, and go explore South Beach while finding a nice snack to tide us over to dinner. Luckily, South Beach has no shortage of restaurants, pizza joints, and food stands, so it was mostly a matter of wandering around until we found something that tickled our fancy. What we found was Mattarello Bakery Cafe…

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Key West Key Lime Shoppe (Key West, FL)

It’s hard to find a good Key Lime pie. Seriously, while the city of Key West is choc-a-bloc with stores making and selling key lime pie, often with “factory” in the name, there’s a lot of bad pie out there. A lot of it is chalky. The crusty is soggy (although that is a well-known hazard of the climate). The lime and sugar levels are off, leaving you with something that’s acidic and metallic, or sticky sweet. Really, the best key-lime pies aren’t the ones the tourists easily find, they are made by local residents in their own kitchens, for their own consumption. However, there are a number of places that do decent mass-produced pies. One I found (on a recommendation from a local kayak guide) was the Key West Key Lime Shoppe, which was recommended with a simple “There are better pies, but this is one of the best ones on the tourist strip.” Located across from Conch Republic’s bar, it’s pretty much one of those “all things Key Lime and/or lime green” stores, but they do have good pie.

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Conch Republic Seafood (Key West, FL)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the problems with cruise ship tourism is that you get off the ship with several thousand other people, which really tends to swamp the local economy. And it also allows all sorts of lousy t-shirt shops, bad bars, and really bad restaurants to flourish. We were looking for a place to eat that (a) wouldn’t be overly busy, and was (b) good. We asked a few locals, including our kayaking tour guide, and they recommended Conch Republic.

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The Daily Creative Food Company (Miami, FL)

Before our cruise, we spent a few nights at the Doubletree Grand Biscayne Bay Hotel, which is located just north of the Venetian Causeway. However, this part of town is being redeveloped, and there just aren’t a lot of restaurants. However, one notable place we did find was The Daily Creative Food Co on Biscayne Avenue, about two blocks from the apartment. The Daily is a breakfast and lunch joint that sports an exhaustively large menu of sandwiches, salads, and breakfast items, most named after various newspapers. They also have a nice assortment of juices, smoothies, and coffee drinks.

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