It’s always a touchy thing for a restaurant critic when faced with an item on a menu that is from a recipe from the mother of the chef or owner. In the event that the dish falls short — i.e. is inedible — the critic is faced with two possibilities: either the kitchen mishandled the recipe or the mother in question was a lousy cook.
I’m loathe to tell Daunte Culpepper that his mother is a lousy cook. And if you think about it, that probably isn’t the case anyway. Because if she cooked all her food the way the Emma Lime’s Home Style Fried Chicken is presented at Culpepper’s, the restaurant that bears his name, Daunte would never have grown up to be a big football player, one who led the UCF team in the ‘90s and went on to play in the NFL and be named to its Pro Bowl three times.
So it has to be the kitchen’s fault that Ms. Culpepper’s chicken came out an unnatural over-fried brown and that the breading and even the meat underneath were full of grease. It was, as I alluded above, inedible.
So was the calamari, a $12 appetizer of rubbery ringlets and chewy, spidery squidlets, served a bit on the tepid side with tartar sauce and a spicier dipping sauce. If any of the Thai sweet chili sauce that the menu said the calamari would be tossed in was present it was undetectable.
There was slightly more promise with the burger called Daunte’s Inferno. See what they did there with the name? Cute. Creative. I like it. And with pepperjack cheese (they showed admirable restraint by not calling it Culpepperjack) and spicy mayo, as the menu also promised, you’re set up to expect something with a little heat and spice. But there was none. But then the menu also said the burger would be “grilled to perfection,” which apparently means cooked nowhere near they way you requested it. I asked for medium-rare and got well done. And I can’t explain why a fried egg was added to it, although I’m not complaining about that. But it just doesn’t go with the “inferno” theme. But since there wasn’t anything incendiary about it anyway, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
All of that said, the patty itself was pretty good. It was juicy despite the overcooked temperature and the flavors were appealing.
And it was accompanied by house made potato chips that were nicely done. Someone in the kitchen knows how to handle a fryer; perhaps he or she could also be put in charge of the calamari and the chicken. By the way, the fried chicken came with sides of creamy loose-mashed potatoes, heavy on the garlic, and corn, which was good despite not having much of the bacon flavor that the menu suggested it would.
Things do not happen quickly here. It took a half hour for the entrees to be served, even though the restaurant was largely empty. But my server was friendly and eager, and I noticed a lot of the staff doing good cross-service. It’s probably too much to expect polished training of a mostly student staff, but they seemed to be trying. An astute server, seeing that 95 percent of the chicken was uneaten, might have asked if there was something wrong with it.
The atmosphere is that of a sports bar — no surprise there — and the freestanding building is large. There are the requisite flatscreen televisions hanging about, and although there are some dining alcoves, there is virtually no separation to where the bar ends and the dining area begins. The flooring changes at one spot from ceramic tile to stained concrete, but that was probably from some renovation long ago that the new owners didn’t feel the need to change. (The building was previously, and briefly, home to an Asian restaurant called Ichiban Buffet.)
Besides Culpepper, the other owners are radio personality Tony Comas and Kyle Israel, another former UCF quarterback. Israel had previously been an owner of Terrace 390 in downtown Orlando. None of that is on Culpepper’s website (although Comas and Israel are listed as media contacts).
One recurring theme on the site, however, is tradition — it even has its own tab at the top of the home page. Essentially it says that the goal of Culpepper’s is to become a UCF tradition: “We want our guests to experience a true sense of connection with the culture of the university by celebrating its history and looking in anticipation towards its future.”
That’s a worthy goal. And for an institution like UCF, whose growth has been so rapid that traditions have scarcely had a chance to take hold, something that is needed.
But traditions happen organically. They’re rarely orchestrated or planned. That’s especially true with restaurants and sports bars. You can make it part of your mission statement, but it won’t happen unless what you offer is enough to bring people back.
Culpepper’s is at 11662 University Blvd., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily, late night until 2 a.m. except Sunday. The menu is online but does not include prices. Besides the outrageous $12 for the calamari, I paid $14 for the fired chicken and $12 for the burger. The phone number is 407-381-1999.