Orlando’s: An East End Oasis
by Jo-Ann McLean
In a world overshadowed by negativity, racism, and controversy, one place can be counted on, a sort of egalitarian DMZ, where rich weekenders, working poor, legal, undocumented, Christian, Jew, Muslim and dare I say, Republican and Democrat, can come together in complete parity. It’s a place where Spanish is as prevalent as English and where anyone with fifty cents can partake in the most delicate and delicious zeppolis on the planet. The place is Orlando’s Cafe in Hampton Bays and Orlando, himself, is the catalyst of this harmony.
Goodwill emanates from the man standing behind the counter taking orders, his long, dark wavy hair held back by a Carlos Santana-style bandana, a guitar sitting in a flower pot to his right. One might suspect Orlando Garbanzo to be a one-time rocker, a rolling stone whose hippie zeitgeist landed him behind some proprietor’s counter in the Hamptons. But, one would be wrong. The college educated, 57-year old chef, waiter and counter person, owns this place, and judging by the rakish twinkle in his eye and devilish grin, he is happy with his lot.
As he adds up a customer’s bill, out loud in Spanish, he sways to Jose Feliciano’s rendition of “Light My Fire,” which emanates from the radio behind him. Orlando seems to live that philosophy do what you love.
Orlando loves food and not just for the taste of it.
Born the eighth child of a shoemaker in a tiny Costa Rican village, he soon learned to sweep for his supper. His father borrowing money from the Chinese restaurant owner in their tiny hamlet, cut a window into their family’s kitchen so that his mother, Juanita, could serve tourists and locals the family’s specialty foods.
By the age of nine, Orlando was sweeping floors in the house that became the family restaurant, emulating not only his mother’s cooking, but her easy, friendly way with customers.
“I learned that, to be successful, you have to be very welcoming, open minded. I saw this with my mother,” he says.
But Orlando revealed more of himself when relating the story of an Italian customer: “the man cried eating one of my zeppolis. It reminded him of the last time he saw his grandmother,” Orlando said. Getting emotional, Orlando excused himself, then continued, “It made me feel good that I could do that for him. Food is like music… like writing, or whistling… it’s all the same, a part of our skin, part of who we are.”
Upon earning a degree in archaeology from the University of Costa Rica, Orlando took a job on a Carnival cruise ship, where, he says with a smile, “I polished my friendly personality and my English, serving cocktails poolside.”
And later, at the exclusive Playa Flamingo Resort in Costa Rica, he was influenced by the owners’ willingness to “cook, run the casino, and entertain the clientele.”
As for ending up in the Hamptons, in 1996 he followed a girl who bought him a cookbook. The rest, as they say, is history.
He simply could not get enough, purchased hundreds of books on cooking, food, spices, herbs, chocolate, wanting to understand and master not only how to cook but how foods complement each other, their historic origins, the latest trends.
He developed and perfected his skills working in several Hamptons kitchens: Crazy Dog in Westhampton, East Hampton’s The Laundry, where he was a cook, and Watermill’s The Station Bistro where, for two years, he studied pastry with chef Tim Smith. A stint at 75 Main where he was chef de cuisine led to chef at The Paradise Café in Sag Harbor, before buying a deli in Hampton Bays and turning it into Orlando’s Café, where today, following the examples of his youth, he does it all.
“Delicious,” “fresh,” “plentiful” and “inexpensive” are the operative words among customers. You can count on paper plates, plastic forks, and takeaway tins with plastic tops for leftovers. And on weekend mornings it’s hard to get one of the only 16 seats in the casual café, where Post-It notes stuck to the wall serve as the reservation book for Friday and Saturday night, live music dinners.
But once seated, you will find unacquainted customers talking across tables to each other while “regulars” talk about the “hometown” feel and Orlando shuttles back and forth serving delicacies. And, although one regular complained about the wall color and the artwork, clearly an expression of Orlando’s particular eclectic esthetic, she finished with, “But, I come every day for the French toast! Every day!”
Orlando’s fried French toast, made from a Costa Rican holiday challah bread called “pancasero” melts in your mouth like custard.
The lighter-than-air zeppolis are legendary.
“I only make the zeppolis on weekends because they are a little celebrations,” he confides. He serves some of his family specialties, including black bean soup, gallo pinto, beans and rice, huevos rancheros, and casado, specialty egg sandwiches with pico, salsa verde, and home fries; avocado with egg and egg white selections; as well as fried oysters, salmon, and chicken soup.
Chris, Dawn and Lynn, three friends who frequent Orlando’s daily after exercise class and hang out at the round table in the window until lunchtime, exclaimed, “We love Orlando! He is unique!”
Orlando is unique in the sense of being authentic. His authenticity plays out in what he does and how he treats people.
So, besides the great grub, and playful scene, his humanity is the charm that draws and keeps customers coming.
“In the beginning the customers did not believe I was the owner,” he says, gesturing to his customary uniform: denim coveralls, white mock turtleneck, white apron and bandana. Then he smiles and laughs. It is clear that Orlando is pleased with his place in the world.
Orlando’s Café is a lesson in hospitality for restaurateurs. People don’t just come for the food. They come for the experience. And it’s a lesson in life for all of us. When we celebrate our similarities, our differences melt away, like confectioner’s sugar on hot zeppolis.
Jo-Ann Santora McLean is a born and bred Long Islander who discovered and fell in love with the East End about 40 years ago and has lived here full time for about 15 years. She holds graduate degrees in Anthropology/Archaeology and Museum Studies from NYU and Creative Writing from Stony Brook. She runs her own archaeological consulting company and writes plays, screenplays and articles for the Beacon in between digging holes.