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Mu Restaurant’s pan-Latin menu eases guests out of their comfort zones | Review

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 1/27/2022 Amy Drew Thompson, Orlando Sentinel
Guava oozes from decadent bread pudin. © Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Guava oozes from decadent bread pudin.

Many moons ago, on a summer road trip through Maine, I was tickled to see that, much in the way the McDonald’s locations in Hawaii offer Spam and Portuguese sausage at breakfast and haupia pies for dessert, those in our northeastern corner carry lobster rolls.

Arepitas de pernil. © Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Arepitas de pernil.

I didn’t try one, but I remember thinking that maybe one day, I might scratch “lobster at McDonald’s” off my list. Now, I have.

Sort of.

Mu Restaurant (“It’s the sound a cow makes,” owner Claudio A. Dominguez tells me. “Just in Spanish.”) is a ridiculously cute little blip of trendy that he and his partners have installed in a former gas-station McDonald’s.

Cuter on the inside! Mu hosts live musicians Tuesday through Thursday and again on Sunday, for its new brunch. © Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Cuter on the inside! Mu hosts live musicians Tuesday through Thursday and again on Sunday, for its new brunch.

Outside, it doesn’t look like much. But inside? It’s pretty surprising.

Distressed wood. A green wall. A lovely bar. Brown paper and cactuses on the tables. Its menu spans the cuisine of Latin America, and its music permeates the place at lunchtime (be warned, they play it pretty loud). There’s live music on nights most places don’t have it — Colombian, Spanish jazz, Bohemio and reggaeton.

A gas station exterior belies the cuteness within. © Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS A gas station exterior belies the cuteness within.

Mu is tucked into the back of a Kissimmee Shell station. And though many locals have discovered the place, I am almost certain that plenty of others who drive past it every day don’t even know it’s there.

The Mu Burger. Juicy stuff. © Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS The Mu Burger. Juicy stuff.

It almost wasn’t.

“We signed the lease one week before COVID-19 hit,” Dominquez tells me. “But I didn’t think about it too much. The original plan was to run it for a year or two and then sell it.”

Though this was his first restaurant, the 34-year-old was no stranger to entrepreneurial pursuits. A health crisis, however, was something new. And when it happened, it hit hard.

“We were renovating and one day I felt weird.”

In the ER the next day, his world unraveled.

“I had to have emergency open-heart surgery,” he says. “It was scary. Two weeks after the operation I died for 45 seconds in the hospital. I was there a whole month. I went down to 120 pounds. All of it in the middle of prime COVID.”

Upon release, he had to relearn to walk, to breathe, “but I just had the drive to keep pushing forward.”

Nine months into their lease, they still hadn’t opened. They were over budget. His friends told him not to open.

“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s open on Friday and if it goes bad the way everyone thinks it will, we’ll cut it off at the neck and stop losing money.’”

That first weekend was what they expected: lots of friends and family.

“But the next week, more came. Another week, more. People we didn’t recognize. All kinds of people: American, Asian, Black, Hispanic. I was in shock. After the first month, our friends and family were gone and I felt positive, but not over confident. There had to be a fall away at some point.”

Then out-of-towners began showing up. Melbourne. Sebring. Winter Park. That was when Dominguez, a foodie who travels well outside his own St. Cloud bubble, started feeling really good.

“Though we take inspiration from all the restaurants in Kissimmee, those Winter Park restaurants were what made us want to do the really nice American gourmet plating we do,” he says.

The Mu Burger — an incredibly juicy, beautifully seasoned puck of chuck with its mild blue cheese — is reminiscent of the Ravenous Pig’s pub burger, I tell him.

“That’s my favorite in town!” he says. His sister and business partner, Koralis, is a veteran of both the Pig and Cask & Larder. “It’s definitely inspired by that.”

Mine came medium, leaning toward medium-well, but was positively — and surprisingly — dripping with each bite.

“We recommend it medium, but Hispanics love well-done burgers and meat,” he says, laughing. “So, we were looking for a way that even if you’d ask for it that way, the meat would still be juicy.”

The soft sun-dried tomatoes and bacon gastrique bring the flavor along with the cheese. Housemade pickles offer sharp contrast. The 7-ounce patty comes on a brioche bun with truffle fries. Solidly tasty. This from someone who orders medium-rare anywhere she’s permitted.

Elsewhere on the menu, it’s a tour of Latin America. Monfonguitos ($11), toothy plantain cups filled with garlic shrimp, salute Puerto Rico. Arepitas de pernil ($14) rep co-owner Osmar Albornoz’s Venezuela with an artful skewer of fried cheese on top. Both dishes were made for the ‘gram with intention, but you won’t get a sexy cheese pull — queso fresco doesn’t melt that way.

I’m sorry to have missed out on La Espetada ($35/58), one or two 16-ounce skewers of picanha with pineapple, onions and peppers. It’s a customer favorite, says Dominguez.

Pricey for gas station food, I say, even if once inside you forget that’s where you are.

“Some customers have expressed they think our prices are a little high on some things,” he admits. “We try to get the prices the lowest we can, but sometimes, with some things — and in this market — you just can’t.”

The Mar de Mama is a nice seafood dish — shrimp, mussels and a few bites of shell-ensconced lobster tail in a tomato reduction. But at $36, I’d pass and head right to that Mu Burger for $16. Or try that picanha. Or the ceviche ($14), their simple, sexy tribute to Peru featuring corvina, mango, onion, jalapeño, lime and cilantro, served with tostones. It was inspired by Dominquez, an avid fisherman known for his simple, five-minute ceviche, prepped right on the boat with fresh catch.

Lighter choices might allow room for the house bread pudin ($10), dense and sticky with pockets of guava and served with vanilla ice cream. Definitely shareable.

This is what Dominguez wants for his customers — a sharing of Latin culture across the board.

“Not a lot of people around here come out of their bubble,” says Dominguez, whose background is Dominican but whose palate enjoys cross-cultural cravings.

“So, with a small menu, maybe one dish per country, we force them out,” he jokes. “We just do it in a way that they don’t realize we’re forcing them.”

If you go

Mu Restaurant: 3092 Michigan Ave. in Kissimmee; 407-483-8778; facebook.com/pages/Mu-Restaurant-and-Grill/100998541774727

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