Orlando’s base of fine vegan restaurants includes Garden Cafe.

ORLANDO – Those who are not inclined to think of vegan eating as being healthy, nutritious and a precursor to a long lifespan may be quick to write it off with one common word: boring.

Or maybe two words: hopelessly boring.

I mean, it’s all just vegetables, right?  How much can you really do with a bunch of veggies?  If you’ve tried one carrot or piece of celery, you’ve gone the distance, right?

Isn’t the vegan lifestyle pretty much the same as committing yourself to eating a salad every day, and discovering by day three that you absolutely hate lettuce, no matter how much dressing your pour on it?  Doesn’t the whole vegan/vegetarian lifestyle eventually lead you to crave meat, even if it means breaking into the local Burger King after hours for a mad run on their Whoppers?

That’s probably a fairly common misconception about vegan food – that the best you can do with vegetables is either serve them raw or steam them in a hopeless attempt at variety.  If you’ve lived in Orlando long enough, you probably know this is a great city for living the vegan lifestyle, because there are so many different vegan restaurants to pick from.  Even better: the restaurants themselves are as diverse as McDonald’s is from Ruth’s Chris’ Steak House.

A good example: if you’ve ever stopped in at Ethos on Orange Avenue, or gone to The Loving Hut on Colonial Avenue near Bumby, you know these two vegan restaurants are radically different in terms of what they serve you – but in both cases, the emphasis is on non-meat dishes that are both healthy and delicious.   Neither one fits into my view of a dull place to eat because … well, those vegetarian dishes are too bland to waste your time with.

Are vegan meals all boring? Not at Garden Cafe.

Another fine example of this region’s ability to attract first rate vegan restaurants is the Garden Café at 810 W. Colonial Drive (considering that there’s also a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant at 4678 E. Colonial Drive, near Semoran Boulevard, I’m starting to think Colonial may be becoming the true vegetarian strip in this growing city.) 

Garden Cafe advertises its "natural, healthy" menu.

Every time I visit Garden Café, which is close to Orange Blossom Trail, I think less about it being a vegetarian restaurant than a Chinese one – because it looks just like most other local Chinese restaurants.  And the menu isn’t all that different, either.

The soups include Egg Drop, Wonton, Hot and Sour and Miso.  The appetizers include a Spring Roll, String Beans in Five Spices, or Dumplings.

The regular lunch and dinner entrees (Garden Café is closed on Mondays, and open Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 9:30 p.m.) sound familiar as well –Moo Shu Vegetables ($7.50), or Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables ($7.95), Seafood Tofu Pot ($11.95), or Sweet and Sour Taro Fish ($9.25).

Like many other Chinese restaurants, there are also chicken dishes (Mandarin Chicken for $12.95, Sesame Chicken for $8.95), pork dishes (Pork in Canton Style or Double Fried Pork, both $8.25), Lamb meals (Satay Lamb, $9.95, or Lamb Stew Tofu Pot for $10.95), and even Garden Café specialties like Fried Oysters ($9.50) or Beef Stew ($11.95).  Toss in some Ginseng Tea and a side order of Lo Mein ($6.95), and Garden Café sounds like the perfect Chinese restaurant to visit.

The difference, though, is in this restaurant’s philosophy, so proudly stated on the menu: “Forgo the meat without giving up the taste,” or their mission, “To create a vegetarian restaurant which can be enjoyed by both vegetarian and non-vegetarian friends.”

How do you do that?  The same way as The Loving Hut and other vegan restaurants serving “meat” dishes: ditch the meat.  Instead, offer meat substitutes – the Fried Oysters, for example, are made from Portobello mushrooms.

I used to look at meat substitute dishes with a sky high degree of skepticism – kind of like drinking Diet Coke when you really crave the genuine original, or buying one of those awful “low fat” cakes that strips out all the stuff that makes it taste good to begin with, even as it adds to your grief when you get on the scale the next morning, but which tastes like stale bread.

Garden Café cured me of that skepticism, though.  Their meat dishes taste like … well, meat, or seafood, or whatever else it’s supposed to resemble.  At least, I can’t notice a difference, and I will say that this restaurant which advertises “natural, healthy Chinese cuisine with meat substitutes” lives up to its billing.  The meals are delicious, the servings generous.  The service is fast, and if the restaurant’s overall décor isn’t flashy, it doesn’t need to be.  It’s another happy addition to Orlando’s growing number of fine vegan establishments, and there’s nothing about these meals that cry out “boring.”

To learn more about Garden Café, call 407-999-9799 or log on to www.gardencafevege.com.

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Blessing or boondoogle: supporters and critics of a high speed bullet train await Gov. Scott’s decision.

ORLANDO – It’s a project that could help transform Central Florida’s economy, bringing thousands of badly needed construction jobs to the area, while relieving traffic congestion on Ilocal highways and creating a network of alternative transportation options …

No, it’s a costly and wasteful boondoggle, one that will saddle Florida taxpayers with expensive long term maintenance costs that the state can’t afford, all for a train that nobody will bother riding …

As 2011 starts, the debate over a high speed bullet train from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and then on to Tampa rages on, and it’s going to be up to new Gov. Rick Scott to make the final decision on the project.  Scot was a skeptic of the high speed rail system during his gubernatorial campaign last year, and his political supporters are counting on the governor to kill a project they view as costing far too much money, while offering too little in the way of a payback.

“We do not want him to be endorsing the rail program,” said Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, which endorsed Scott in last year’s Republican primary.  Scott, a South Florida businessman, defeated former state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the August 2010 primary.

Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, thinks most people want the freedom their cars offer, and won't ride a high speed train.

Doug Guetzloe, host of The Guetzloe Report radio talk show and a longtime critic of the train, said the governor may have no choice but to kill the high speed rail project, since the state is facing a huge budget deficit due to declining tax revenues.

“Scott’s got an estimated $3.5 billion budget deficit in this fiscal year,” Guetzloe said.  “He’s either got to cut spending or raise revenues, that’s all you can do.”

Since the governor has pledged not to raise taxes and to look for ways to cut them further to help spur the economy, Guetzloe said that means steep cuts in state spending.

“Our Constitution requires a balanced budget,” he said.   “Where do you get the money without raising taxes? He says he won’t raise taxes, but those are very serious cuts. He could start by turning down money for rail.”

In 2009, the Obama administration signed on to the construction of a high speed line between Orlando and Tampa, using funding from the federal stimulus bill. After announcing the administration’s support for the project, the Federal Railroad Administration granted Florida $1.25 billion to help build the train route.

But critics say Florida will still have to fund the rest of the construction costs, along with the long term maintenance bill as well.

“There’s no source of funding for the operating costs,” Dunmire said.  “And we’re getting this money from the federal government – which doesn’t have the money to begin with.”

Dunmire and Guetzloe noted that last November, voters in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties voted down ballot referendums that would have raised taxes to pay for road building projects or new or expanded public transportation systems.  While those votes could simply be viewed as an anti-tax message, Dunmire said, it also signals skepticism about people giving up their cars to take a train on a fixed route to their jobs, health care providers or shopping needs.

“It’s the wrong technology,” she said.  “Americans like their cars.  We like to decide when to go, and where.”

But the project’s supporters think Scott will ultimately get behind it.

Paul Senft, director of the Economic Development Council in Haines City and a strong supporter of the high speed train, said new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio came to the Sunshine State’s rescue by turning down federal money for rail projects.  That freed up more than a billion dollars in federal stimulus money, and shortly afterwards, the White House diverted another $342 million to Florida.

Paul Senft, Haines City's economic development director, thinks cities across Central Florida can boost their economic prospects if residents have easy access to a commuter train.

“The fact that some other states reejected the funds and Florida picked up a tremendous amount of extra money, that helped a lot because the local investment became smaller,” Senft said. “The construction cost has become smaller and smaller as the federal government has given us more and more money. I think we’ll be in good shape on the high speed rail.”

Senft has been supporting the rail line because it would include stops at Walt Disney World, about 20 minutes from Haines City, and in Lakeland, the largest city in Polk County.  He believes communities like Haines City can sell themselves to businesses interested in relocating to the region by reminding employers of the easy access workers would have to rail.

“There’s not any regions in the world that are truly economic regions that don’t have mass transit,” Senft said.  “It will help us, image-wise, and with higher wage jobs.”

But Guetzloe countered that the high speed train will ultimately cost the state far more in the long run than the federal investment suggests, and he said Scott risks burdening the state with a massive long term price tag if he signs on to the project. 

Doug Guetzloe thinks Gov. Rick Scott needs to stick to his opposition to a high speed train from Orlando to Tampa.

“It’s an unfunded liability,” Guetzloe said.  “We don’t have $17.6 billion in the next 20 years to operate the train. I think he (Scott) will be hard pressed to flip on that one.”

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

Orlando church offers its views on “The Truth about Political Islam.”

Encounter Church in Orlando has a copy of The Koran next to the American flag and some literarture on Islamic terrorism.

ORLANDO – Born and raised in Egypt, Usama Dakdok believes he knows a lot about the Koran and its teachings.  He’s studied the religious text of Islam, which Muslims hold is the divine guidance and moral direction for mankind, and the final revelation of God.

“I read the Koran, I studied the Koran, and I learned about Islam,” Dakdok said.

Dakdok was raised in a Christian household in a heavily Muslim country, and now lives in the United States, where he runs the Straight Way of Grace Ministry, a traveling church committed to preaching the glory of Jesus Christ as mankind’s savior – and, he noted “to tell the truth about Islam.”

It’s a truth, he said, that very few Muslims around the world truly understand, because in Dakdok’s view, not many actually bother to read the Koran and fully comprehend what it says. More often, he said, they blindly follow their political and religious leaders’ interpretations.

“My people are destroyed by a lack of knowledge,” Dakdok said.  “We all need to be educated.”

On Wednesday, Dakdok was the guest speaker at the Encounter Church, which opened its doors last August in a building at the corner of E. Robinson Street and Bumby Avenue in downtown Orlando.   The pastor, Blake Lorenz, said the new church welcomes guest speakers, particularly those who can help them spread the message that Christianity, not Islam, represents the true word of God. The church believes these are the end times, and the conflict between Christianity and Islam is going to grow even greater in the coming years.

“We need to get educated, don’t we?” Lorenz said. “We need to get educated – and act.”

As part of that, Encounter Church is starting a five week course, beginning next week, called “Behind The Veil.”

“It will talk about the historic truth that we’ve got a book written on Christianity, rather than the false message of Islam,” Lorenz said.

On Wednesday, Encounter Church also hosted Alan Korman, the Orlando chapter coordinator ACT! For America, a nonprofit organization that aims to educate Americans about what it sees as the threat of Islamic terrorism, and what its literarure calls the “tyranny of Islamofascism.”

ACT! believes a Jihad (Holy War) has been declared on America, and the people of this nation need to unite and fight back.

It was Korman who sponsored Dakdok’s speaking program at the church.

“We run the (Orlando) ACT! chapter and we’re trying to have speakers once a month,” Korman said.  “Usama was born in Egypt, and he understands the Muslim brotherhood and what they mean and how they are a threat to us in America.’

Dakdok said anyone can understand the message of the Koran if they simply read the book, which he has done.  But very few people, he said, take the time to do this, so the actual message of the Koran gets lost to millions.

“Islam is not what somebody claims, but what is written in the Koran,” he said.  “We get two completely separate versions.  Some say Islam is a peaceful and loving religion – ‘I love my neighbor.’  Some would say Islam is the most barbaric religion. Which one is right?”

He noted that in Indonesia, there are “210 million Muslims who have never read the Koran. You go to where they worship and they are chanting, and I say, ‘Do you know what you just said?’ They have no clue.”

The same is true of Muslims in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries, he said.

“None of these people know about Islam. They never learned it,” he said.

Dakdok said he and his church have adopted this mission themselves, “revealing the truth about Islam.  Why is it the truth?  That’s because it is in the book.  As long as this stuff is there, I’m going to teach it.”

Dakdok said the message is one of oppression, not a free exchange of ideas, cultures and religious and political differences.  This is particularly true in Europe today, he said, where cities are confrotning painful cultural and religious clashes as the Muslim population there grows.

“People like me 40 years ago spoke in churches in Europe, and 30 years later, Europe is crying out for help, and there is no help,” he said.  “The signs of protestors read ‘Democracy Go to Hell, Freedom Go to Hell.’  In Islam – no democracy. In Islam – no freedom.”

Christians, he said, need to understand their values and beliefs are being challenged, even threatened, by Islam.

“Jesus said ‘I will die and I will rise again,’ “ Dakdok said.  “Do Muslim people believe Jesus rose again? No. Muslims believe Jesus is a bad person, a blasphemer.” 

A parishioner at Encounter Church in Orlando demonstrates the message that Jesus is the true savior.

Korman said this is more than just an academic question for religious scholars.  He noted the case of Rifqa Bary, a teenager who fled her home in Ohio after claiming she had converted to Christianity, and her parents had threatened to kill her for it.

The case became a cause celebre, until Oct. 13, 2009, when Orange County Judge Daniel P. Dawson ruled that he would return Bary to Ohio. She was temporarily placed in the custody of the Franklin County (Ohio) Children Services. In June 2010, Bary graduated from high school and on Aug. 10, she turned 18 and her custody with Franklin County Children Services ended.

Korman said the case showed that Islam tolerates no dissension, and does not preach personal freedom.

“You have three chances to go back to Islam,” he said.  “She pretended to go back – and she didn’t. This is where political Islam impacted a life here in America.”

Encounter Church is at 2320 E. Robinson St.  To learn more, call 407-858-0351 or email info@encounterfl.com.

To learn more about ACT! For America, call 407-497-3541 or email actorlando1@gmail.com.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

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