It’s all bueno. Just not super bueno.
When I was just a wee Chew-Chew, my family’s go-to Mexican restaurant was called Hermanos; a labyrinthine brick affair that sat dangerously close to the shoulder of a busy North Carolina highway. The restaurant’s namesakes (the hermanos) were a pair of elderly Mexican twins who greeted guests at the door wearing identical baby blue suits. I’m almost certain that their only knowledge of English was the phrase, “have some bubble gum!” which they shouted maniacally at departing diners while hurling handfuls of Super Bubble at their children. Hermanos was where I first summoned the courage to taste guacamole (back when tortilla chips were exotic), it was creepy dark, frequented by local bikers, and the entire freak show danced to a samba loop that came courtesy of an unmanned Casio synthesizer. It was glorious. Fantasia flooded with queso. The mesmerizing Blue Velvety vibe aside, what kept us coming back was the distinctive salsa. To this day I have no idea how Hermanos achieved the flavor – maybe black pepper, maybe white pepper, maybe MDMA. Regardless, with one hand navigating a parade of nachos, chili, and forearm-sized burritos, my other would be endlessly shoveling the tomato-crack into my mouth. For years, Hermanos remained fixed at the tippy top of my personal salsa pyramid, and I’d yet to find a similar fix until now.
Cocina 214 is not Hermanos. It sits just off tony Park Avenue in Winter Park and has an antiseptic polish that I instinctively mistrust. It’s big, clean, and comfortable in a way the tastiest Mexican restaurants typically aren’t. Picture a tequila-fueled BRIO. I’ve eaten at Cocina several times and fellow patrons have been a hodge podge of sundressed and baseball-capped brunch boozers, tourists, date-nighters, and young, local families texting and glaring. Fairly representative of the surrounding barrio. Service is friendly and carried out efficiently – if not a tad stiffly – by waitstaff uniformed in black. While dredging chips through queso and slurping on skinny margaritas, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking you’d stumbled into an upscale, Darden-run, Tex-Mex franchise. You’d be wrong – Cocina 214 is independently owned with a second location in Daytona Beach – but you wouldn’t feel wrong. Despite dramatically different environments, what bizarro Hermanos (Cocina 214) shares with the Hermanos of my childhood is its salsa. It’s damn-near identical. Smooth and with a peppery piquancy that pulls you deep, deep under. Like marinara at an Italian restaurant, or hummus at a Middle Eastern, the quality of salsa (and chips) sets the stage for how seriously a Mexican kitchen is about its food. The basic salsa at Cocina 214 is fantastic, so that – of course – means that . . . well, let’s tap the brakes a bit.
Spanish super-chef Ferran Adrià – he of the molecular tilt-a-whirl that was elBulli – has a quote about the interplay of emotion and taste that serves as a valuable reminder; “I say all the time that [my mother’s Spanish potato and egg tortilla] is my favorite because it conveys a point: that sentimental value comes before all else.” It’s true. We taste with our hearts before our tongues. Who knows if the salsa at Cocina 214 merits this bizarre, long-winded homage? I’m certain it’s over seasoned with my wistful nostalgia. But it still sets up certain expectations, and the food that follows it is undeniably good. It’s just not undeniably great. The kitchen at Cocina 214 has knocked out reliably consistent Tex-Mex eats for many years and the hallway to the baños is dripping with industry accolades in case you had any doubt. Nothing I’ve ever eaten here has been bad: It’s good grub at great-grub prices.
Chips are fresh, flavorful, and just thick enough to carry Cocina 214’s tasty traditional guacamole. The drinks are thoughtful and strong. We tried lots of them to make sure. The current crop of cocktail pixie isn’t going to scavenge for secret passwords and queue outside Cocina’s doors to sample the specialties, but the Orange Blossom ($13 and driven by Pavan Orange Blossom Liquer) and Caliente Casamigos (spiked with serranos and also $13) might distract them long enough to find a drink elsewhere that features more shrubbery. Margaritas come in various shapes and sizes – frozen, spicy, skinny, and with pop rocks – and are potent. A few of us ordered tequila shots to doctor our drinks if need be, but no need at all (and lesson learned). Bonus points for having a selection of Mexican beer on tap as well.
Our most recent meal kicked off with the Cocina Trio ($7); a dip sampler featuring fire-roasted salsa (very good), the aforementioned guac, and some melty white queso that is satisfying in the dirtiest kind of way. The 214 Ceviche ($13) was ordered as a counter balance – a traditional prep with avocado and tomato, sharpened by the bite of red onion and buoyed by lots of lime. Although bits of the mahi tasted a smidge strong, it’s a well-worn preparation that I appreciate and it went down a treat when forked onto chips.
“I say all the time that [my mother’s Spanish potato and egg tortilla] is my favorite because it conveys a point: that sentimental value comes before all else.”
For many, tacos are religion – there is nothing on the planet that doesn’t benefit from being wrapped in a tortilla. I too worship at the house of masa harina and at Cocina 214 I tried both the Don Carlos (blackened mahi, coastal slaw, sliced avocado, red bell pepper, jalapeños, citrus dressing) at $16, and the Brisket (beef brisket, pico de gallo, sautéed onions, Monterrey Jack cheese, and fire-roasted salsa) at $15. Tacos come three to a plate, are substantial, and although far from disappointing, they also weren’t wow-inducing. Brisket was flavorful but a bit dry, thirsting for the fire roasted salsa which accompanied it. The blackened seasoning on the mahi works well as does the interplay of crisp and creamy textures, but the mahi was a tad overcooked. Tacos were followed by Carne Asada ($28) and Huevos Rancheros ($13). The former plate featured a well-cooked, yummy-yummy piece of meat with just the right amount of chimichurri. Is it $28 good in the way the Steak Frites at Ravenous Pig are $29 good? No, mam. Is it $21 good? Yes, sir.
Huevos Rancheros were super-meh. A crisper-than-typical tasting ranchero sauce was the star of what was an indistinct muddle. I’ve had far better versions a few blocks away and at places that don’t claim a Mexican pedigree. A disappointing undercurrent throughout various meals was blandly seasoned rice and black beans, a bored combo which makes an appearance in a number of dishes. Be forewarned. It’s purely filler – a waste of plate real estate. Although the rice and beans may be a traditional pairing, the Carne Asada in particular would have benefited from a touch more kitchen ingenuity in terms of thoughtful sides; something with roasted poblanos or corn for instance.
With the not-so-recent local boom in inventive and authentic south-of-the-border options, the entire experience at Cocina 214 can feel slightly tired, but in a comforting sort of way. The odds are good that you will enjoy your meal, the surroundings are pleasant, you’ll likely return, but you also won’t feel compelled to recommend it to your ‘foodie’ friend who’s looking for the best Mexican eats in Orlando. Cocina’s sort of the cool aunt that’s not quite as cool as she used to be; never been the same since the hip dysplasia and she stopped baking you edibles, but you can still trust her for a warm reception, friendly ear, and damn decent batch of old-fashioned brownies.
For now, comfy digs, the salsa of my childhood, and the lure of occasional turn-your-brain-off dining will keep me coming back to Cocina 214, where it’s all bueno – just not super-bueno.