Audubon Park eatery does its own thing and does it well
We’re not a proud bunch at Orlando Eats. When being poured wine, Munch suggests servers stop ‘when it enters the atmosphere.’ To keep competing mouths at bay, Go-Kart Romeo once barricaded himself in a bathroom with a baby and a pizza. Yours truly? I showered with AXE Charcoal and Wintermint body wash over the weekend and I liked it. No. I loved it. In sum, we’re collectively inept when it comes to the protocol of polite society. Example? On the heels of reading a very solid review of Audubon Park’s Bem Bom in the Orlando Sentinel, and Orlando Magazine awarding it ‘Best New Restaurant’ in its Reader’s Choice Dining Awards, we said – what the hell – let’s review it too. Hop on the bandwagon. Join the parade. Sing a bit of backup. Heck, what we lack in pride, we’ll make up for with honesty.
Bem Bom sits on the northern side of Corrine Drive between temple o’ hops Redlight Redlight and the vibrating hum of what’s-happening that is East End Market. It’s a low-slung curiosity of a building with an al fresco front patio and signage touting its Portuguese Mexican Cuisine. The Portuguese part has always beckoned. The Mexican part has kept us away. We love both but appending any Latin or Iberian cuisine with -Mexican is often a sign of hedging. The last thing we want is a milquetoast or bastardized version of either.
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
Not all credit is due Orlando Mag and the Sentinel for pushing us through Bem Bom’s front door. The resto was far from a new consideration – it’d been frequently considered and frequently dismissed. We’d glanced at the menu online and said nope. We’d ignored the budding chorus of critical praise lest it be another siren song pulling us into culinary crags. We’d even recently received a message from an old friend in Lisbon asking if we’d found any faves for Portuguese eats in O-town. Nope, nada. Nothing comes to mind. It wasn’t until we oddly found ourselves driving behind a van with Bem Bom vanity plates that we finally said, “fuck you, universe, we’ll go.”
For starters, our chief assumption was correct. Bem Bom is a bit of gastronomic bric-à-brac – there’s some very distinctive Portuguese bites, some semi-distinctive Mexican bites, and some fusion stuff happening that has pinches of Thai, French and Italian. Not normally a recipe for success. For many restaurants, this would be a wishy washy, all-things-to-all-people warning bell. Run away. However, after enjoying several excellent meals we can confidently say this isn’t the case at Bem Bom. Its menu diversity is far from a weakness and, more importantly, it’s a genuinely direct reflection of its talented chef; Francisco “Chico” Mendonça or Chef Chico. Chef Chico is Portuguese born, has been run through Spanish and French kitchen grinders, and spent quality Texas time honing his Tex-Mex chops. Mash this all up and you get, well, Bem Bom.
Before visiting any Orlando eatery, we research. This typically involves drinking wine. We sip and sip until we’ve drunkenly concocted an irrational rationale – a conspiracy or cockeyed angle to explore. But in this case, we only needed navigate a Côtes du Rhône shadow zone to Bem Bom’s Facebook page where – lo and behold – we found it had once whipped up a francesinha at the request of a customer. A francesinha. A fat bastard of a sandwich we enjoyed in Porto but had yet to see anywhere in Florida; linguiça, cured ham, and sausage between bread, covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick beer and tomato sauce. Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. Between the vanity license plate and the possibility of special requesting our way to happiness, we were ready Eddie. Us purple tongues had a plan.
Cod, cod everywhere a cod
One of the most charming squares in Lisbon is Largo do Carmo. Set into the historic heart of the city, it’s thick with Jacarandas, the serenade of street musicians, and the occasional pomp and pageantry of la Guarda Nacional Republicana. It’s here, at Carmo, where I first fell in love with the comfiest of comfort foods; bacalhau à brás or salt cod hash. Think of it as Portuguese soul food – an often-stacked mashup of shoestring potatoes, egg, and salt cod topped with olives. All it took was a quick note to Chef Chico and we had a Bem Bom date with my ole’ Lisbon love. We couldn’t have been happier.
There’s a Portuguese saying that roughly translates to, “there are 365 recipes for bacalhau, one for each day of the year.” I’m sure it sounds more lyrical in the native tongue. Regardless, it speaks to how important salt cod is to Portugal’s culture and the starring role it plays in much of the cuisine. Let’s just quickly get this out of the way: Bem Bom excels at bacalhau.
In the beginning, there was cod. Pastéis de bacalhau (cod fritters, $ 9.95) arrived neatly plated and when torn open revealed an interior thick and stringy with meat – a well prepared, adequately tasty but inauspicious start. We enjoyed them and we’d order them again. We would’ve also preferred them hotter and with a crispier exterior. A small complaint.
Then there was more cod. Despite its limited range of ingredients, Bacalhau à Brás reveals itself in infinite permutations. Bem Bom’s version ($26) of our special request was as soul-satisfyingly good as it was different. Chef Chico had expected us earlier in the day so apologized for the slightly browned potatoes (which we scantly noticed and that he had cut by hand). We promised to only eat with our mouths, which found a moister style than most with ingredients melded in olive oil. An observation, not a criticism. It was friggin’ fantastic. Every bite a direct injection of warm blanket and mommy hugs.
Then there was more, more cod. Bacalhau com Batata à Murro (market price, $30) is a 12-ounce piece of cod atop fantastically fruity olive oil, topped with sautéed peppers and onions and served with garlicky punched potatoes. It is undoubtedly among the best fish dishes we have had in Orlando. No hesitance in stating this. No exaggeration. Moist as moist can be, delicately flavored, oozing good. The fresh baked Portuguese bread (papa seco) that accompanies it is equally stellar and when used to spoon and dip it takes this dish beyond beyond. This is a destination dining dish. Something we will return for. As an aside, punched potatoes are exactly as described. Potatoes that are literally ‘punched’ after cooking to pop ‘em open.
Codded-out, we returned several days later to sample more of Bem Bom’s lunchy, snacky bites.
The other stuff
Prego sandwiches (prego no pão) can be found everywhere in the streets of Portugal. Thank God. They’re most often packed with garlic-studded beef, frequently eaten as a dessert (yes), and are wonderful at soaking up the ginjinha (cherry liqueur) that little old ladies ply you with from ramshackle stands. The same wonderful papa seco rolls served with the cod feature in Bem Bom’s pregos; the soft crumb perfect for drinking up juices with the crispy crust locking them into a container of sorts.
Bem Bom’s Pork Prego Sandwich ($11.95) is packed with 6-hour braised pork, onions, peppers, radish, cilantro and serrano sauce on that wonderful Portuguese roll. It’s a bit of delicious, the pork perfectly tender, the saucing working well.
A very simple salad of fried rock shrimp ($12) with tart dressing was straight-ahead and enjoyable. Fry good rock shrimp up and it’s hard to go wrong.
The French-fried Frankenstein that is Bem Bom’s Bomb Fries ($6) were a treat; what we’re guessing were hand-cut taters covered with thai basil and chiles, truffle oil, and parmesan. Happy we had them. Enjoyed them. Not sure we’d order them again.
Finally, the lamb burger. The lamb burger. Like the Bacalhau com Batata à Murro, Bem Bom’s lamb burger is reason alone to pay the restaurant a visit. We had it twice. On the last visit, we watched as the eyes of our teenage dining companion, The Talented Mr. Doggione, rolled into the back of his head and failed to return for a hard five count. It’s $13.95 and features grass-fed lamb ground in house with feta, pico, an apple ginger BBQ sauce, lemon mustard and piri piri. Can’t really go wrong here. Make sure they cook it pink.
So… you may be noticing a theme. No Mexican. All of the above are Portuguese, Portuguese-influenced or defy culinary specificity. We ran the euro-fyuzie gauntlet before pointing our sights South of the Border. The Mexican food at Bem Bom is good, but – in our eyes – not go out of your way good. It’s not on the same level as its other bites and there are better places a stone’s throw away to get your Mexi on.
An exception is the excellent housemade chips and salsa ($3.95). It may just be that they are the doppleganger of the chips and salsa of my childhood go-to, but they’re a great counter to craft draft sipping and a wonderful prime for menu perusal. Oddly enough, we learned later that Chef Chico did time at Cocina 214, which makes a spot-on similar and equally outstanding salsa. The dots … the dots … they’re connecting.
Tacos (fish on one occasion, carnitas on another) are perfectly tasty, but we found them fussy with ingredients. The “mango painted” fish tacos ($11.95) served with slaw, avocado, mango sauce, serrano and piri piri was a flavor riot in which the mahi played a distant second fiddle. Carnitas tacos fared a bit better, but if Bem Bom were tacos only, we’d be hard pressed to repeat visit. Were they good? Sure.
But, the thing? The thing? The thing is that you shouldn’t feel restricted by the menu. Want less fuss? Order less fuss. We’ve quickly learned that the menu is far from fixed and the kitchen far from inflexible. Leave your rules at the door. The kitchen may hate us for saying this, but order what you want. They seem to riff as well as any resto in Orlando.
Staff regaled us with stories of Chef Chico and his zeal for experimentation. It’s clear he loves what he does. On a whim, he sent us out a small plate of madeira sauce to sample and – wow – whatever we order next visit will have this on top. Methinks green peppercorn, thyme, butter, madeira (and stuff). Methinks lovely, lovely, lovely.
The whole Bem Bom scene exudes a hyper-casual come hitherness that quickly draws you in. The blue and white tile, the accent wall paneled with wooden wine boxes, the interplay of indoor/outdoor, the laid back, friendly and food-savvy staff. It’s a healthy dose of laissez-faire that typically requires air travel to find.
So, a pu-pu platter of final observations; Bem Bom is working on a liquor license but has a solid, focused wine list and rotating drafts on tap. There’s Mexican Coca-Cola. They’re keeping the source of their wonderful bread a secret, despite our frequent interrogations. Order a pastel de nata, or Portuguese egg custard tart, after your meal with an espresso. You can get two for $5.5. The combo will set you sailing. What else? We’ll be going back. Soon and a lot.
We’ve long craved a real-deal Portuguese eatery in Orlando. Something akin to Nuno Mendes’ now defunct Taberna do Mercado in London or the amazing Bar Douro in its Borough barrio. Bem Bom gets us halfway there. Do we wish it was exclusively Portuguese? Sure. But that’s our greedy bellies speaking. Bem Bom is its own thing and that’s perfectly OK. It’s not Portuguese. It’s not Mexican. It’s Chef Chico. It’s kitchen jazz – culinary bebop – an upbeat blend of kitchen virtuosity and flair for improvisation. It’s very unscripted – very real – and so, so very good.