Restaurant >AS GOOD AS THE MOVIES
I owe many of my favorite meals to my husband's penchant for monster movieplexes with stadium seating. For months, our friend, who happens to be Cuban, had been trying to get us down to his part of town to eat at his favorite Latin place, Pio Pio. The problem was, he lives in a southern part of town I generally refer to as the BFE the Bad Food Extravaganza. Snobbishly and repeatedly, we refused the invitation.
Then one night, we were leaving the Cinemark Festival Bay Theater after watching a loud movie in which humans outsmarted aliens, natural disasters abounded and everything else blew up and, suddenly, I was hungry. And there it was Pio Pio (which translates into "Chick Chick"), sequestered in a wasteland of deserted shopping malls off a six-lane highway. Later, I realized my friend was right about this place, to which I would return again and again, like a sequel junkie.
Pio Pio, a Peruvian and Colombian restaurant, opened its first Orlando location in October 2000. After successfully running four restaurants in New York, the Diego family decided to try their luck here and opened close to a dollar theater near Kissimmee (11236 S. Orange Blossom Trail; 407-438-5677). Months later, another family member opened a location on International Drive near Kirkman Road, strategically situated on our driving route home from the movieplex. This past summer, another site popped up on the southeast side (2500 S. Semoran Blvd., 407-207-2262). Let's hope they have a Godfather-sized family, so they can keep them coming.
The menu choices are the same at all the Pio Pios, and they are limited; but in my experience, this is exactly what makes them so appealing, because everything is good. The "pollo Pio Pio a las brasas" ($8) is some of the most exquisite rotisserie chicken that has ever crossed my lips; consistently tender and moist, its crispy, herbed skin is the treasure. Juan Diego, owner of Pio Pio on I-Drive, claims the secret is a family recipe. But he agreed that the original marinade, a mixture of spices, vegetables and herbs, does make the difference.
Their beans and rice ($4) are a homemade Colombian-style mainstay. The beans are plump and supple, seasoned with just the right amount of pepper and garlic, in a brackish broth of their own flavorful juices. I've never tasted rice so consistently tender, devoid of the starchy mushiness that so many restaurants try to pass off as rice. Orders of tostones, maduros and yuca ($3 apiece) are best when dipped in the worship-worthy sauces that come with every meal: tangy garlic, and a green-tinged hot sauce made with jalapeños and habañeros.
Although chicken is the star at Pio Pio, they serve a very decent grilled steak with french fries for a mere $9.50. Also on the menu: pork chops ($9.50), empanadas ($1), posole-style chicken soup ($3) and saffron rice ($3).
Tucked away behind a curved bar littered with chicken statues, wine bottles and plants is the giant rotisserie. There is a row of wall hangings at eye level on the bright-orange walls letters from customers and New York Times reviews that we had to lean into awkwardly in order to read. The atmosphere is comfortable and complete in its family modesty.
For dessert, the exceptionally tasty flan ($4) and the tres leches ($4), both made in-house, are recommended. A good flan has no air bubbles and is doused in deep-amber caramelized sugar, and Pio Pio's is flawless. My favorite dessert, by far, is tres leches, dense yellow cake soaked in three milks (condensed, evaporated and half-and-half). Please, skip the crème brûlée you're at a Latin restaurant, after all, and a good one.
It's a rare movie never mind the bombs and brains that isn't worth a try, when there's Pio Pio waiting afterward.