Girl Roamer Nicole finds an unusually delightful marriage between Asian and Latin fusion at Tako Cheena
When Pom Moongauklang opened her first Orlando restaurant, the eponymous Pom Pom’s Tea House and Sandwicheria (67 North Bumby Avenue; 407-894-0865; PomPomSteahouse.com), patrons were spooked by watercress and walked out when they realized American cheese wasn’t available.
What a difference 10 years makes. A decade along, Orlando palates have evolved enough that Pom has been able to take her fusion cuisine to the next level at a newer establishment, which she and co-owner Edgardo Guzman call Tako Cheena (932 North Mills Avenue; 321-236-7457; TakoCheenaOrlando.com).
If that name makes you think of Chinese tacos, and then makes you wonder what in the world those would taste like, you’re on the right track. Pom was born in Thailand, and Edgardo is originally from Costa Rica. At Tako Cheena, the two gleefully mash up pan-Asian and Latin flavors. A sign outside the restaurant proclaims “Dim sum good takos,” and that’s as good a summation as any. Here, flavors more often found rolling through Chinese restaurants on carts find their way into tacos, burritos, empanadas, and even hot dog buns.
Fans of Pom’s original sandwich place arrive somewhat prepared for the creative fusion that they are about to experience. I, however, am a blissfully unaware Californian, arriving jet-lagged at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday for my first non food-court meal in Orlando, and I am gob-smacked.
My first impression, formed by gazing at the blood-red exterior decorated with a gothic-script sign, is that I am more likely to emerge from this place with a tattoo than a good meal. Once inside, though, the atmosphere is all low-lit warmth and art-school chic. (The paintings are all rock-star caricatures the night I visit, but the lineup changes regularly.)
Glancing at the menu makes me think I’m either in the presence of genius or lunacy. Things that just shouldn’t go together are offered up on every page. Peanut sauce in a burrito? Yellow curry on tortillas? Apples and spring rolls? Yes, yes, and yes. And it works. Pom and Edgardo have a knack for culinary matchmaking, marrying ingredients that you wouldn’t think would have a thing to say to each other. Dishes like the butter chicken burrito blend creamy Mexican sour cream with traditional Indian flavors. Asian staples such as ginger, sriracha, and sesame add a complex kick to Latin comfort food like empanadas (the flavors of which change daily). And even good old hot dogs get an ethnic makeover with toppings like kimchi, wasabi, and pickled daikon.
The group I show up with is, candidly, itself a little pickled, as we have all just come from a show. But it doesn’t matter—this happens all the time in the bar-studded Mills 50 neighborhood, and with 80s pop music blaring, it’s almost impossible to be too loud anyway. And a little excess never actually killed anyone, right? That’s what we all tell ourselves as we order one more course, a dessert of Asian ginger apple fried spring rolls, which look something like thick-cut tortilla chips but go down like fruit-filled wontons drizzled with condensed milk. They’re sweet, crunchy, soft, pungent, unctuous, and not quite like anything I’ve ever had before.
Time has proven that Orlando is ready for this kind of culinary adventure. Fate has proven that I am, too, although I didn’t know what I was in for when I walked in the door. Are you? Well, there’s only one way to find out: Pack your sense of culinary adventure, take a break from theme-park food, and find your way to this hip corner of Orlando the next time you’re in Florida.
THE DIRTY DISH
Tako Cheena. 932 North Mills Avenue, Orlando, Florida; 321-236-7457; TakoCheenaOrlando.com.
TYPE OF RESTAURANT: Casual Asian/Latin fusion
AMBIANCE: The website describes Tako Cheena as “a cross between a food truck and a restaurant.” It’s just that informal and offbeat.
SCENE: No matter what the time of day, it always feels just a little past last call, with youthful patrons gobbling up fried treats and willing the evening not to end.
SERVICE: Servers are attentive, quick, and patient about explaining the more unusual ingredients and combos.
NOISE LEVEL: It definitely gets noisy in the evenings when buzzy crowds arrive looking for something to soak up the excess.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: The popular panko-encrusted cod tako is much like fish tacos you may have had elsewhere. But live a little! Try the Chinese BBQ Char Siu Pork Belly Tako, luscious fatty and gingery pieces of pork with spices and crunchy cabbage.
CHECK, PLEASE: $ = $10-$15
(price of average dinner/lunch/breakfast/brunch bill for an individual dinner)
THE EAT: You may never look at an all-American hot dog the same way again. In a good way.
WORTH THE NIGHT OUT? Yes, although it’s not the kind of place you tend to spend the whole night—it’s more for launching or closing out an evening.
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