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DINING

Hot corner: Locals flock to Rincon Cubano for down-home cooking

Photo: Photo by Jason Greene, License: N/A

Photo by Jason Greene

Cuban Gooding Jr.: Small but bustling café serves stellar renditions of classic Cuban dishes


Rincon Cubano Cafeteria

3327 N. Forsyth Road,

Winter Park

407-679-5600

$

We have Che Guevara to thank. If the revolutionary icon hadn't fought that final battle in Maria Alfonso's home town of Santa Clara, Cuba, back in 1958, there might never have been a mass exodus of Cubans to the United States, and our palates would never have been privy to Alfonso's down-home Cuban cooking.

Everything happens for a reason, or so goes the saying, and after one meal here, there are plenty of reasons to return. The facade is nothing to marvel at and the interior consists of a simple dining area with photographs of Cuban landmarks, but it's Alfonso - as exuberantly hospitable a proprietress you'll find - that makes the place come alive. She'll chat you up like she does the scores of patrons who make the drive down Forsyth Road's forlorn drag pining for traditional breakfasts and meaty lunch platters. They come during daytime hours (the diner shuts its doors at 4 p.m., 2 p.m. on Saturdays) to peek at the steam table at the end of the counter and hear Alfonso expound on the daily specials.

We took our seats late one Saturday morning, enjoying cups of café con leche ($1.50), fresh-squeezed orange juice ($3) and freshly made empanadas ($1.50), which seem to sell out very quickly. After biting into the thick-crusted fritters - one beef and one chicken - we understood why. Enjoying them with Alfonso's homemade hot sauce made them all the better, and we didn't hesitate to dab a bit of that piquant salsa onto the pernil sandwich ($5.99) as well. Moist and pliant shreds of pork (5.99) had my dining comrade declaring the sandwich's superiority over the one his grandmother makes, but don't expect stringy strands of white meat here. Alfonso's pulled pork sandwich, like many Latin-American variations, has a fair bit of chunkiness, along with a healthy mix of onions, peppers and garlic. A traditional huevos sandwich ($4.99) was quite the garlicky pre-noon rouser with egg, ham and Swiss cheese. Nothing particularly mind-blowing about it, but the bread was good and the sandwich served its purpose.

Garlic is the primary ingredient in mojo, the tangy sauce/marinade served as a skirt-steak chaser in the case of the churrasco ($10.99). The supple slabs glistened in the morning light, with a mess of caramelized onions adding a crowning sheen. Of particular note was the accompanying arroz congri - white rice and black beans cooked together, sometimes referred to as moros y cristianos ("Moors and Christians") - and the crisp tostones, which didn't suffer the dry, mealy texture I so ?often encounter.

Like everything here, desserts like flan, tres leches and bread pudding are also homemade, but we had the pleasure of securing the last piece of flan cocho ($2.50), a half-flan/half-cake wedge drizzled with syrup. It begged to be enjoyed with a demitasse of café cubano, but the food and drink we'd already ingested had us sufficiently perked up.

Alfonso left Cuba for the sunny climes of Massachusetts more than 30 years ago, before setting up her rincon (or "corner") eatery in the space that once housed Elijah's Grill in unincorporated Winter Park. Regulars frequenting her "cafeteria" appear to know a good thing when they taste it, and the small but perpetually busy parking lot speaks to that. After our meal here, we walked out the door oblivious to the surroundings and wary of just one thing: our return trip down Forsyth Road.

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