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Who is The Saboscrivner?

I love food.  Love eating, love cooking, love discovering, talking about, recommending, and reviewing food.  Food is everything: culture, history, art, science, politics.  In these uncertain times, I think sharing a good meal is something everyone can find common ground over, even if they’re diametrically-opposed foes on every other topic.  So here’s one more food blog that can possibly even contribute to the shared human experience in this tumultuous world.

I live in the Orlando, Florida area.  Orlando has been unfairly dismissed for far too long as being “chain restaurant hell,” a destination for theme park tourists and not much else.  But I’ve lived here since 2004, and I love our rich, diverse, multicultural city, which has a TREMENDOUS culinary scene.  We have amazing restaurants far from the gates of the parks (and a few that are closer), so the main point of this blog will reviewing my local food experiences.  I don’t make it out of town very often, but when I do, you bet I’ll review whatever I eat in more exotic locales.

I might also share recipes I create or find, or even review groceries that everyone needs to know about.  And occasionally I’ll just want to recommend or review something else: a good movie, TV show, band, comedian, book, or comic book.  I’m a librarian by trade and a lifelong nerd, so I tend to get enthusiastic about the stuff I like, and I want to share information and tell stories.

I’m a mediocre photographer with an even more mediocre phone camera, so I’ll try to share my culinary adventures with you as best I can, primarily using my words.  Hopefully you’ll read and follow this blog and feel inspired to try something new for yourself.  There’s so much good food out there, and you need to eat anyway, so why not treat yourself to something awesome?  Sometimes a good meal, or even a snack, can be the highlight of the day — either something to help you celebrate or cheer you up.  You might not always agree with me, but I look forward to hopefully building a following and a community, with all the constructive feedback that goes along with those.

Just a few warnings:
1. I don’t like hashtags.  This will be one food blog where you can always expect complete thoughts in complete sentences.
2. I don’t drink and I’m allergic to mushrooms, so don’t expect booze-and-shrooms content.
3. Nobody is paying me to do this, so everything I write is my own opinion, which I stand by with a clear conscience.

So what’s the deal with the title?  What the heck is a saboscrivner?  Well, I’m also a lifelong comic book reader (“This guy?  The hell, you say!”), and one of my favorite comics of the last decade was Chew, written by John Layman, drawn by Rob Guillory, and published by Image Comics.  The whole series is complete, and you can buy the volumes from your local comic book store or on Amazon, or check them out from your public library or on the Hoopla service.  It’s an action-adventure-crime-horror-sci-fi-comedy, set in a food-obsessed world where most of the main characters have food-related super powers.  Everyone’s powers receive a polysyllabic name and a description, and one of my favorites, a restaurant critic who is a main character in the Chew saga, served as a bit of a personal inspiration.

From her first appearance in Chew #2:  “Amelia Mintz is a saboscrivner.  That means she can write about food so accurately, so vividly and with such precision – people get the actual sensation of taste when reading about the meals she writes about.”

That saboscrivner ended up playing a key role in saving the world, but I’m just a regular guy trying to share information as a food blogger.  I hope you’ll decide to follow The Saboscrivner and turn to it for restaurant reviews and recommendations in Orlando and beyond.

Oh My Gyro

I’ll never forget a trip my wife and I were lucky enough to take to New York City while we were dating and I was working my way through library school.  Among other things, I grabbed this incredible lunch from a halal food cart near 30 Rockefeller Center.  It was so simple, but pretty perfect: gyro meat (possibly lamb, but who can really say?), rice, salad, pita bread, mysterious white sauce and painful hot sauce, eaten out of a tinfoil plate while surrounded by the excitement, adventure, and passion of the greatest city in the world (as well as our own).  When we returned for our honeymoon in 2009, I found an unrelated halal cart and tried their version of the gyro platter.  It was almost identical, but still satisfying, especially with the nostalgia factor working for it.

We were even luckier to return to Manhattan last year, a decade later, to celebrate our tenth anniversary.  (And how lucky were we that our tenth anniversary fell in 2019 and not the hell year 2020?)  We ate like kings on that trip, but one thing I didn’t seek out were the halal food vendors.  Who needed them, now that we have Oh My Gyro (http://ohmygyro.mobile-webview2.com/) to deliver the New York halal street food experience to the suburbs of Seminole County?  Oh My Gyro is owned by the Kermali family, transplanted New Yorkers who have nailed the flavors of the ubiquitous street food and bolstered their menu with some Indian dishes and a few special surprises.DSC02717

I can’t help it — I’ve been here four times (with far too much time in between each visit), but until today, I have always ordered the same thing, because it’s a flawless meal: the lamb combo platter ($9.89), with salty, garlicky gyro-seasoned lamb meat served over perfectly cooked yellow rice with pita bread, lettuce, and tomatoes.  I ask for plenty of their cool, creamy white sauce (stop giggling, you guys!), a bit of the spicy red hot sauce (like the NYC version, it’s VERY spicy, and a little goes a long way, even for those who crave the burn), and it even comes with a soda.  DSC02718

They also offer chicken and falafel on these platters, but my wife and I both love gyros — and lamb in all forms, really — so that will always be our top choice.  When I went back today, I ordered a large lamb platter for my wife (only $8.99 when it isn’t a combo with the soda, and peep that white sauce on the side).  She liked it a lot, as I always do.  ohmygyro2

I have been missing the occasional Indian buffet lunches at Moghul Indian Cuisine my co-workers and I used to enjoy pre-pandemic, and I was craving samosas.  Luckily, Oh My Gyro serves vegetarian, beef, and chicken samosas.  I’ve never tried theirs, so this time I ordered the vegetarian ($4.99) and beef ($5.99), not realizing each order would come with four adorable, perfectly folded, perfectly fried samosas.  ohmygyro4
These were very thin and crispy, in what reminded me of spring roll wrappers.  The samosas at Moghul, on the other hand, are larger and in a thicker, flakier, almost pie crust-like shell.  But these both had a lot of flavor and a surprising amount of heat, from both the ground beef in sauce and the spiced mashed potatoes in the vegetarian ones.

But the main reason I returned to Oh My Gyro today was for a special they were only running today (Friday) — spicy, East African-style bone-in veal biryani ($12), which promised to be braised until tender.  I am a sucker for stewed and braised meats, especially when they’re cooked low and slow until they’re tender enough to fall off the bone.  I’ll take a Turkish lamb shank stewed in tomato sauce (like the ones at Cappadocia), German pork eisbein (like the ones at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe), or giant beef ribs (like the ones at Git-N-Messy BBQ) over steak.  But then again, I don’t think steak is the be-all and end-all of meats.

Anyway, this was the veal biryani, served over fluffy basmati rice with a side of pickled onions, hot peppers, and random other vegetables.  The meat was deliciously tender, and the sauce had so much flavor.  It wasn’t nearly as spicy as I expected, which is fine.  It came with a side of cool, creamy, yogurt-based raita to assuage the burn that never came, but it was so good, I was glad they included it.
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The two little orange-red balls at the top of the plate, called ladoo, came with it as a bonus.  My wife and I had never encountered these before, but they turned out to be sweet!  I researched these, and ladoo (or laddu) are made with flour, fat, and sugar, and often contain nuts — these did.  They were a pleasant surprise after our lamb platter, veal biryani, and samosassortment.  (There.  I just created a word.)

But there were more sweet balls in store!  I had to get an order of gulab jamun ($2.99), those sticky, syrupy, spongy balls that are a joy at the end of any Indian meal.  My wife had never had them before, but I was proud of her for trying one.  Of course she liked it.  What’s not to like?  But they must be REALLY sweet, because she commented on how sweet it is, and how it was too sweet for her to have more than one.  Hey, more for me!
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As a last-minute choice, I ordered a mango lassi ($2.99), hoping to save it to cut any heat from the biryani.  But anyone who knows me can predict what happened next: of course I drank it on the drive home, probably finishing it while I was still in Longwood!
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Oh My Gyro is one of those neighborhood gems that doesn’t get enough foodie love, especially being tucked away in a small, easy-to-miss strip along State Road 434 in Longwood, between 17-92 and I-4.  I highly recommend it, though.  Unfortunately the biryani was a one-day special, but if we’re all lucky, they will bring it back.  But if you’ve spent any time in New York City and romanticize the gyro, chicken, or falafel platters with rice you can buy from countless carts to eat on the street, Oh My Gyro will satisfy that craving.

Sister Honey’s Bakery

Orlando is blessed with an abundance of wonderful, locally-owned bakeries.  I’ve reviewed many of our best ones already, so please click here to see all my other bakery reviews.  But I had yet to review one of my favorites, to add it to my bakery pantheon (or pan-pantheon): Sister Honey’s Bakery (https://www.sisterhoneys.com/).

Sister Honey’s is a Black-owned bakery in the SoDo area (South of Downtown Orlando), named for owner Evette Rahman’s mother’s nickname.  Evette is a champion baker with awards and accolades to spare.  From 2014 to 2016, she took the Best in Show awards at the National Pie Championships, hosted right here in Orlando by the American Pie Council.  That’s the pie-baking equivalent of winning Best Director three years in a row at the Academy Awards!  (I had the honor of serving as a pie judge in this prestigious competition in 2018 and 2019, and wrote about it right here on this blog.)  As of 2017, Evette had won 27 blue ribbons from the National Pie Championships, including a staggering 10 alone in 2016.

So needless to say, if you haven’t been to Sister Honey’s before, knowing this now, your expectations will be pretty high.  Well, I promise that they’ll be even higher if you make it all the way through this review, and you WON’T be disappointed.

As far as I’m concerned, Evette makes the best key lime pie I’ve ever had, and key lime pie is one of my Top Five all-time desserts.  This is the whole pie, which I’ve never bought from her:
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But in all the years I’ve been going, I think I’ve eaten the equivalent of a whole key lime pie, one decadent slice ($5.99) at a time.
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Key lime pie isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make at home, and Publix even makes a damn fine one, but you have to try Sister Honey’s version at least once, to see how it stands alone.

I’ve also had the strawberry cheese pie many times, with its thick graham cracker crust, gooey cream cheese base, fresh strawberries, and fresh whipped cream.  It was the National Pie Championships Best in Show winner in 2014, and the judges chose wisely.
20200711_123803On my most recent visit, Evette brought this pie out from the back when I was already about to pay, so I was able to request a last-second slice but wasn’t able take a picture of the whole pie.  It melted a little in my car on the long drive home, but you get the idea of its pure decadent deliciousness.

My wife’s favorite delectable dessert from Sister Honey’s is the vanilla bean pound cake.  Usually the icing on the top is perfectly smooth, but I smeared it taking it out of its plastic clamshell box, so that’s on me.  It’s incredibly moist and vanilla-ey, and the icing is never heavy or greasy like the gross buttercream on a lot of supermarket cakes.
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Rear view:DSC03198

Coconut and German chocolate cakes on display.  The coconut cake is my wife’s second-favorite:DSC03190

Here’s the latest slice of coconut cake she got ($5.99).  It looks much better in person, and it is incredibly moist and rich.  The gooey coconutty filling between layers is my favorite part of this cake.20200711_123722

This was the first time I ever saw a golden pineapple cake available.  Longtime readers know how much I love anything pineappley, so I had to go for it. 20200711_112811

Here’s the slice I got ($7.99).  The cake itself and the icing were both more subtle than I expected.
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I make a mean pineapple upside-down cake that my in-laws crave, to the point where I make it for us every Thanksgiving instead of more traditional Thanksgiving desserts.  It’s also a big hit at work potlucks.  But I make it using a Duncan Hines pineapple cake box mix that smells and tastes as “pineappley” as you might expect, probably due to being so processed and artificial.  Evette’s cake has real chunks of pineapple in the icing between the cake layers and the delicious topping, and if anything, it probably has more real pineapple and pineapple juice in it than the store-bought cake mix I’m more used to.  It was another hit.

We’ve never tried her carrot cake, but for $5.99 a slice, how can you possibly go wrong?  If you see it up close, the smooth cream cheese frosting (my favorite part of any carrot cake) is sprinkled with gleaming orange and green sugar crystals.20200711_112759

Sister Honey’s also offers multiple types of cupcakes, which I fully admit aren’t usually my thing, although I’m sure hers are a cut above the rest.  Seen below: Peanut butter chocolate, German chocolate, and Very vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).20200711_112742

Seen below: Cookies & cream and Chocolate vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).
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Evette has cookies too, and the wedge-shaped shortbread cookies are rich, buttery, and quite good, but I think the pies and cakes are the star attractions at Sister Honey’s.
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Sister Honey’s is a good distance away from home, so it requires a special trip to make it there.  I always shoot for Saturdays around 11:30, to give them time to put everything out after opening at 11:00.  (You heard it here first!)  Evette’s husband Andy is always manning the front, boxing up slices, patiently answering questions, and ringing people up.  I admit I’ve never actually met Evette, but I’ve dealt with Andy so many times over the last few years that he recognizes me now, even with my mask on, and always asks how my wife is doing.  He’s a real mensch, and I hold them both in high esteem.

It is a very small bakery space with no indoor seating, so plan on getting everything to go.  But these days, that’s the safest bet anywhere, anyway.  You may want to bring a cooler if you’re planning to get perishable pies like the key lime pie and strawberry cheese pie above, or Evette’s equally exquisite coconut cream pie.  They might melt and droop a bit in this oppressive summer heat, even if you’re running the air conditioner in your car.  But the cakes are ideally left out at room temperature, as Andy advises, to avoid drying them out in the fridge.

I can’t sing the praises of this bakery and its award-winning baker enough.  Anytime anyone asks wants to know the best key lime pie in Florida, this is where I direct them.  Yeah, I said it!  Pretty much anything I photographed and discussed above is the best of its kind that you’ll find in Orlando.  Now more than ever, we need to be showing love to our small businesses, and especially Black-owned businesses.  If you’re wistfully wishing for cakes, pies, cupcakes, and cookies that transcend the Publix bakery, schlep down to SoDo for Sister Honey’s, where Evette Rahman will make your life that much sweeter.

 

Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria

My wife recently said I like pizza more than anyone else she’s ever known.  I’m not sure if that’s accurate, because even though I have strong opinions about what constitutes good pizza (and she and I often disagree on good pizza), I really don’t indulge that often.  I published my last pizzeria review back on March 1st (Tomasino’s!), and I’ve only had pizza three times in almost five months since then (two to be discussed in forthcoming reviews, and the subject of this review).  Now if she had said I like subs more than anyone she’s ever known, I wouldn’t be surprised at all, and I wouldn’t doubt the veracity of the statement either.  I like subs more than anyone I’ve ever known.  Yes, even more than YOU.  Come at me, bro.

So when I kept hearing hype and praise for an Italian restaurant that served great New York-style pizza and a great Italian sub, I paid attention.  Word on the street (by which I mean the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook) was that this place makes everything from scratch — their sub rolls, their pasta, even their fresh mozzarella!  It is Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria (https://tornatoresitalianrestaurant.com/), a beloved favorite out in the College Park neighborhood, west of Winter Park and north of downtown Orlando.

I called in a large order, figuring it would be more than enough food to last the two of us a few days.  Tornatore’s was doing very organized curbside pickup, with a table outside where a hostess greeted me.  She brought my credit card inside to charge me, I signed the receipt outside, and they had my food bagged up and ready to go in no time.  They even had a neat little disinfecting device for pens that I had never seen before, that you slide the pen through after each person touches it.  I never even made it inside the restaurant, but I gazed through the glass window into a glass case of house-made desserts (not on the online menu) right in front.  Had I but known, I might have done even more damage!

Anyway, I’ve written before about how pizza is never as good by the time you bring it home, so I ordered a single slice of cheese pizza ($1.95) to consume immediately, in the car, before even leaving Tornatore’s parking lot.  It was New York-style pizza, one of my two favorite kinds (do any sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos remember my other favorite kind of pizza?), hot and thin and crispy with gooey, melty cheese.  I’m glad I got the experience of trying a “control” slice the way it was meant to be enjoyed.tornatores1

I brought home a 14″ medium pizza, among other things.  This was Leah’s Pie ($14.95), topped with mozzarella, sausage, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers — all things I love on a pizza.  It was cut into six wide slices instead of the usual eight most places do, and I enjoyed them for the next several days after heating them up in our trusty toaster oven.  tornatores7
It was a great combination of toppings, and while I can’t call it the best New York-style pizza I’ve had in Orlando (Pizzeria Del Dio holds that title, just barely edging out Paradiso), it definitely makes my Top Five.  And that is NOT meant to be a diss.  It’s top-notch pizza in my top-notch pizza pantheon.

My wife had requested eggplant rollatini ($9.95) off the appetizers menu — thin slices of fried eggplant wrapped around parmesan herb ricotta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, and baked in the oven.  tornatores4
She usually doesn’t care for the acidity of tomato-based sauces, but she seemed to love this version of rollatini.  And for an appetizer portion, she got three meals out of it!

Meatballs are a good way to gauge any good Italian restaurant, so I got us a side order of two meatballs ($4.95), served in marinara sauce and topped with ricotta cheese.  They had a light, airy consistency and good flavor.tornatores2

And we always like to gauge every Italian restaurant and pizzeria on its garlic rolls, so I got us an order of garlic knots too, for $5.95.  You get six knots in an order, not five, but I had already given my wife one when I took this photo:
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These are probably the biggest garlic rolls we’ve had from anywhere.  They had a nice crispy, crackly exterior and were topped generously with garlic and parmesan cheese, but they weren’t as buttery as we like.  Pizza Bruno still holds the championship belt for best garlic rolls in Orlando, and it’s hard to beat Tomasino’s for sheer butteriness.

However, when I unwrapped everything at home, I was very surprised to see these soft, fresh-baked rolls in a paper bag:
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They must have come with the eggplant rollatini and the meatballs, so that was a pleasant surprise, since the menu didn’t mention them.  My wife absolutely loved these, even more than the actual garlic knots!  They were kind of like ciabatta bread on the outside, but much softer and fluffier on the inside — still warm out of the oven.  Had I known these were coming, I probably would have skipped the knots.

But one thing I couldn’t bring myself to skip was the Italian sub ($10.95 for a whole).  As I said earlier, I love subs, especially Italian subs, those choruses of cured meats, cheeses, vegetables, and some kind of vinegar-based sauce on a good roll.  I’ve championed the best Italian subs Orlando has to offer: the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie from LaSpada’s, the namesake Stasio from Stasio’s, the Rocco from Manzano’s, and the Capone, that recurring special guest star from Bad As’s Sandwich.  Well, I can clearly say I have a Top Five of local Italian subs, because the one from Tornatore’s rounds out that quintet.
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Forgoing ham (which can be so good when it’s good quality ham, but too many sub places use the cheap, slimy stuff), Tornatore’s Italian sub uses three of the best cured meats: salami (almost certainly Genoa salami), capicola (spicy ham), and prosciutto (one of the finest cured hams of all, especially when it’s sliced paper-thin like they do, and streaked with rich, creamy fat).  Instead of industry standard provolone cheese, they use fresh, house-made mozzarella rounds (most impressive!), and finish it off with lettuce, tomato, thin-sliced red onion, pickled banana pepper rings, oil and vinegar, and… black olives.

If I had remembered the menu says black olives come standard, I would have asked them to hold them.  As it is, I ate them on the first half of the sub, but picked them off the second half for the following day.  It wasn’t listed on the menu, but they added a pesto spread on the wonderful fresh-baked sub roll, which was crackly on the outside (but not too crackly!) and pillowy soft on the inside.  A little harder than the soft Cusano’s brand rolls at LaSpada’s, but softer than the crusty rolls at Manzano’s, it was a damn fine roll for a damn fine sandwich.

And finally, I have to

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

Because Tornatore’s offers onion rings ($4.95), and I’m pleased to report you get a generous order of A-list onion rings, similar to the aforementioned Pizzeria Del Dio and Paradiso.  For some reason, when Italian restaurants have onion rings on the menu, they’re almost always this really good beer-battered kind, the kind I always crave.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I can never resist trying and comparing onion rings wherever I find myself, and I was very happy with these.
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So that was my whirlwind tour of Tornatore’s.  I don’t make it out to College Park that often, but I was glad the place had ample parking, further north on Edgewater Drive from that cluster of restaurants  with minimal parking, mostly along the street.  I appreciated the efficient curbside pickup and especially the really terrific food.  I’m impressed they make so much from scratch, even those desserts I spied through two layers of glass.  The pizza was very good, but that Italian sub was a (cold) cut above.  Whenever I make it back, I’d be tempted to get another one of those, but I wouldn’t mind trying their grilled sausage, pepper, and onion sub on that same delicious fresh-baked roll, with more of that fresh mozzarella.  I’d also get some pasta next time, which is also made from scratch.

Grocery Grails: Sprouts Potato Co. Kettle Style Chips – Limited Edition flavors

Anyone who knows me know how much I love grocery shopping, as well as how much I love trying new flavors of potato chips and tortilla chips.  Sure, most of the time they’re disappointing and weird, but it’s always worth trying them because you never know if you’ll get another chance.  Kind of like new life experiences in general, I guess.

I’m a big fan of the supermarket Sprouts (http://www.sprouts.com), which has two Orlando-area locations, in Winter Park and Oviedo.  It’s an “upscale” grocer in the sense that Whole Foods and Fresh Market are — lots of high-end products, and unfortunately high-end prices to match.  But if you check the weekly ads, Sprouts runs excellent deals and sales every week, especially on produce.  They also have a lot of neat store-brand products and things you can’t find elsewhere, and I love their Dietz & Watson deli meats and cheeses, which are much better than the Boar’s Head products carried at Publix.

As far as chips go, Sprouts carries their own potato chips in multiple flavors — all the classics you might expect, plus some curveballs like Hatch green chile.  They have regular potato chips that are thinner like Lay’s (the industry standards, as far as I’m concerned), and thicker, crunchier kettle chips.  On my first trip to Sprouts since the pandemic started, back on July 1st, I found two new “Limited Edition” kettle chip flavors, for $2.50 each.  Both had summer cookout themes, and I couldn’t say no to them:

  • Burger Toppings: Ketchup, Mustard, and Pickle
  • Aloha BBQ: Pineapple and Sweet Onion

I would soon learn that one was just okay and one was really good, but they were not the ones I expected!sprouts1

Here are the nutrition info (ha!) and ingredients for the Burger Toppings chips:
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These were outstanding potato chips, with intense, strong, clear, obvious flavors.  They tasted like ketchup, mustard, and pickle, as promised.  Unlike some lesser potato chip brands, Sprouts didn’t skimp on the flavor powder.  They had a nice crunchy consistency without being rock-hard gum-shredders like so many other kettle chips.  I almost ate them all before remembering to take a picture:sprouts3

I guess I must really like tomato seasoning on my chips.  One of my all-time favorite flavors was Lay’s Garden Tomato and Basil, which was unfortunately discontinued a few years ago.  I also really like that Canadian favorite, ketchup-flavored potato chips.  Herr’s (a Pennsylvania-based company that goes hard on interesting chip flavors and doesn’t skimp on the seasoning powder) makes ketchup chips that I sometimes find at Wawa convenience stores and enjoy about once a year.  I’m adding these to the pantheon of really good tomatoey chips.

Here are the nutrition info (like I said, HA!) and ingredients for the Aloha BBQ chips:
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I was looking forward to these, because I like barbecue-flavored chips a lot (that sweet-tangy-salty-smoky-sometimes-spicy combo always works for me), and I love onions and onion-flavored things, as well as pineapple and pineapple-flavored things.  But these didn’t taste that different from most other barbecue chips.  They were better than some (once again, they were generous with the seasoning), but they weren’t terribly oniony, and the pineapple was more of a mental suggestion than an actual flavor coming through.sprouts5

I returned to Sprouts last night, since I found an old raincheck they gave me when Rao’s pasta sauce had been on sale for $5 but they were out of it.  Anyway, I noticed both of these flavors of chips were now marked down to 99 cents each, so I figured now was as good a time as any to publish this Grocery Grails review so my dozens of Saboscrivner readers could be on the lookout.  I’m sure these flavors were launched with Independence Day cookouts in mind, but maybe they were a bust this summer, when the need for social distancing outweighed the desire to cook out with family and friends.  And frankly, it’s just too hot to spend much time at all outside, even without the looming airborne dangers of COVID-19.  But you know what can sometimes soothe that sense of disappointment and dread?  New chip flavors being clearanced for 99 cents!  Sprouts is offering a bargain which could only be described as “all that and a bag of chips.”

Itamae Densho

I just recently learned about the existence of Itamae Densho (https://itamae-densho.square.site/), a Japanese restaurant affiliated with local favorite (and Saboscrivner favorite) Swine & Sons inside The Local Butcher & Market, a gourmet butcher shop and market in Winter Park.  Local chef Denni Cha set up there a week ago, creating beautiful donburi, bowls of sushi-seasoned rice topped with stunningly gorgeous arrays of raw fish, fresh and pickled vegetables, actual flowers, and so much more.  I’m a huge fan of poke and sushi, but I’m used to very casual build-your-own poke bowl places, and I’ve never done a full-on omakase dinner experience.  So even though these donburi look almost too pretty to eat, I wanted to destroy something beautiful.

I placed my online order on the above website late last night and paid in advance with my credit card.  The automated e-mail told me my order would be ready after 5:50 PM today, and since I grew up in a home where “Early is on time and on time is late,” I was there right on the dot.  I met Denni, who said they would just need some time to assemble everything so it would be at its freshest, and I appreciated that he didn’t have it already made, sitting there waiting for me.  I was out the door with three bowls packed in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe containers in about ten minutes.

This is the Salmon Oyako donburi ($16) that my wife ate most of.  The website describes it as including “Wild King Salmon Tataki, House Cured Salmon Roe, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182329

Note the little yellow flowers and the beautiful green romanesco cauliflower, which has fascinating fractal patterns.  It looks like sci-fi food, and I always remember Rey actually eating some in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  The salmon roe popped lightly in our mouths like delicate, salty, fishy bubbles, and the salmon was incredibly fresh.

This was the “Tuna x Tuna” donburi ($15), with “Tuna Sashimi, Tuna, Densho-Style Tuna, Yuzu-Kosho Aiolo, Tobiko, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182309

I love tuna, so I was in tuna heaven with this one.  I also liked the seaweed salad, which had a nice crunch and a subtle saltiness from soy sauce.  The leafy green surrounding the roe in the above photo had an interesting bitter taste.  But those thin slices of pepper are serrano peppers with the seeds and ribs intact, so they are no joke.  I’m used to jalapeños, which are further down the Scoville scale, heat-wise.  Plus, I usually remove the seeds and ribs when I prepare jalapeños at home, always while wearing disposable gloves (a lesson learned the hard way, after one horrific incident I won’t go into in this space, in mixed company).  Anyway, before too long, we were like a couple of kids: her picking out the serrano slices for me, and me picking the tiny flowers off with my chopsticks for her.  (I don’t think they added much in the way of flavor, but damn, were they cute!)

And this was the Densho-Style chirashi donburi ($18), with “Chef’s Selection of sashimi grade fish with various garnished flavor profiles, house-cured salmon roe, unagi, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”
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Aside from tuna, salmon, and the roe, I think I recognized hamachi (yellowtail) in this bowl, plus more of the other ingredients.  The sushi rice was excellent, and even my wife, who normally doesn’t like the sweet rice vinegar flavor in sushi rice, enjoyed it.  My wife was the first one to discover that all three bowls had crispy fried onions near the bottom, underneath the rice.  She doesn’t normally like onions at all, but she enjoyed what these brought to the table.  As for me, I love onions, so I was very content.

I’m sure there is a grand tradition of this beautiful presentation in Japanese cuisine, but we usually don’t go to those high-end sushi restaurants.  However, my wife and I were both reminded of the award-winning restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark.  No, we’ve never been there either, but it has been featured in many food and travel shows, including the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil.  Those are all awesome shows that any Saboscrivner reader would love, if you don’t already.  Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, prepares these picturesque plates of fancy food that look like tiny terrariums, or dioramas for fairies and elves to live in.  He uses lots of edible flowers and plants to build a little scene, and that’s what Denni Cha’s lovely donburi bowls made us think of.  As long as he’s set up at The Local Butcher & Market, preparing these dishes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, I encourage all of you to place some preorders on his website.  But do it early, because I have a feeling he may only make so many of these every day, and you don’t want to miss out.

Francisco’s Taco Madness

I think we can all agree that 2020 is one of the worst years ever, but on a personal level, I had a pretty rotten 2017 too.  That summer, I was hospitalized with the worst pain of my life that turned out to be kidney stones (thanks for nothing, keto diet!).  Then two weeks later I got what was probably the second-worst pain of my life, which turned out to be pneumonia, which I almost certainly caught in the hospital the first time.  I missed two weeks of work recovering, and it all really shook me up and made me realize I’m getting old, and things are going to keep breaking.  (And back then, even after that one-two punch, I didn’t know the half of it!)

Toward the end of those two weeks, I was out running errands, feeling sorry for myself, and also feeling hungry.  What else is new, am I right?  Driving down State Road 17-92, I passed the Lowe’s home improvement store and saw a familiar white trailer with a red and white striped awning, a sight I had seen countless times over the years.  But this day, I was curious enough to stop, and I had all the time in the world to linger.  It smelled so good, and as I perused the handwritten menu, I knew I had chosen wisely.  The Mexican food was some of the best I’d ever tasted, and it was incredibly cheap and so satisfying.  It helped lift me out of a deep existential depression, and made me feel physically better, too.  This was a real treasure, and I felt like I had discovered it, despite them always being busy and having long lines.
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I would later learn that taco trailer was called Francisco’s Taco Madness (https://www.facebook.com/Franciscos-Taco-Madness-Pinedo-rental-173063512788695/), and it became one of my favorite sights to see in Casselberry, whenever I drove by the Fern Park Lowe’s on State Road 17-92, just south of Semoran Boulevard.  You have to follow their Facebook page to know when they’re going to be serving, but it’s usually between Wednesday and Saturday, afternoons only, usually just between 1 PM and 6 PM.  I’ve been back many times over the last few years, but Saturdays are typically my only opportunity to visit.  And since the lines really do get long, my recommendation is to be there close to the beginning, when they’re still putting up that striped awning.

Most recently, after a few weeks of being shut down, Francisco’s Taco Madness announced their triumphant return starting this past Tuesday, June 30th.  They wouldn’t be at Lowe’s anymore, but at a new location literally two minutes away:

Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People
704 Prairie Lake Dr.
Fern Park, FL 32730

They are also asking diners to text their pickup orders to 407.865.4697, to cut down on crowds and help with social distancing.  NOW’S YOUR CHANCE, PEOPLE!

Here is the menu:
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I ordered my wife her favorite: two carne asada tacos, with cilantro, guacamole, and a splash of hot sauce, hold the onions ($2 each):
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I got myself one chorizo taco with all of that, plus onions ($2):
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Here are some lovely tacos from an earlier visit:
francisco's

And I got my favorite burrito in all of Orlando, Francisco’s al pastor burrito ($8).  It is huge and perfect in every way, the archetypal burrito of your dreams and mine:
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It is so good that I included it in my list of Top Five Dishes of 2017, published in the Orlando Weekly‘s end of the year issue.

Here’s a cross-section so you can see the deliciousness wrapped inside that grilled 12″ flour tortilla: the perfectly marinated and slightly sweet al pastor pork, rice, beans, cheese, onions, peppers, guacamole, and a piquant sauce.  It’s truly unparalleled.
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This time I treated myself to a fresh-squeezed lemonade (something I have a hard time turning down), and I got the large for $4, which just comes in a styrofoam cup.  It was really refreshing, especially after waiting outside in the early summer heat for my order to come up — probably the longest sustained period I’ve been outdoors since the quarantine started in March.  They also offer regular canned sodas and bottled Jarritos Mexican sodas, made with cane sugar, which I love and recommend.
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You can see that Francisco’s Taco Madness also offers quesadillas (which my wife loves), hamburgers, hot dogs, a kielbasa sausage sandwich, a barbecue pulled pork sandwich, a Philly cheesesteak, and even chicken salad.  I’ve been tempted in the past by the kielbasa, which I’m imagining comes on a nice, lightly-griddled roll and covered with onions and peppers, but I always return to that al pastor burrito and one or more tacos.

Orlando is lucky to have so many outstanding Mexican options, especially for tacos.  I’ve already reviewed my other favorites, which I think are synonymous with the best in town (Tortas El Rey, Hunger Street Tacos, MX Taco), but no list of my favorites or the best would be complete without Francisco’s Taco Madness.  If you’re also driving through Fern Park and see that red and white striped awning over their white decorated trailer, stop whatever you’re doing, pull into Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People, and text your order to 407.865.4697.  You will be so happy you did, and you’ll wonder what took you so long.

Mason Jar Provisions

Mason Jar Provisions (https://www.masonjarprovisionsorlando.com/) is a brand-new Southern restaurant that just opened in the space recently vacated by Big Time Street Food, which I reviewed earlier this year after my one and only visit (before a KRS-One concert, which was one of the last fun things I did pre-pandemic).  Located in the Thornton Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, it’s a very small space with a few seats at a counter, but the restaurant is attached to Burton’s Bar next door (and now owned by the same people).  Diners can take their food through a doorway over to Burton’s and walk back and forth between the establishments.  By the time people read this, their hours will be 12 noon to 10 PM.

Before continuing my review, you have to check out this menu.  Everything looked so delicious and tempting, I had a hard time choosing between six or seven different things.  I had to go back to edit this review after first publishing it because I belatedly learned Mason Jar Provisions is co-owned by chef A.J. Haines, who used to cook at one of our favorite, long-gone, much-missed Italian restaurants, Wolfie’s PizzaMia, and he used to work magic and miracles in that kitchen.  Burton’s General Manager Jeff Darnell is the other co-owner.  But because Thornton Park is pretty far from us and parking is difficult around there, I called in a pretty big order on a weekday afternoon I had off, and was lucky enough to be able to park right in front to pick it up.  That probably would not have happened in the evening or on a weekend.

My wife likes her food relatively plain and unadorned, without any condiments or sauces.  So I ordered her the regular beef burger ($9) with its lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, ketchup on the side.  It’s the kind of burger that is smashed flat on the griddle, cooked to medium well.  It was served on a lightly-griddled brioche bun with a huge order of seasoned fries.  masonjar1

You may have also noticed two huge chicken tenders, which I also ordered for her, because she was intrigued by both.  She doesn’t eat a lot, so we both figured she’d probably get three or four meals out of the big burger and the tenders (which actually come in an order of three for $9).  She thought the burger was a perfectly okay burger, but LOVED the tenders.  These were mild, but they also come in medium, hot, inferno, blackstrap (molasses) barbecue, or dry rub flavors.  We were given a choice of a cup of ranch or blue cheese (she never wants either, so I chose blue cheese for myself), and they also came with a cup of buffalo sauce and four celery sticks.

I had been reading hype and praise for the titular Mason Jar burger ($13), so that’s what I had to get… well, one of the things I had to get.  It contained TWO beef patties, tasso ham (such a nice alternative to bacon!), creamy and tangy remoulade sauce, melty American cheese (longtime Saboscrivnerinos know it’s one of my favorite cheeses to put on a burger), plus the usual lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles.  I like pickles now, so these were all welcome toppings for me.  masonjar2
The burger was juicy and flavorful, despite my initial skepticism about it being cooked to medium well, the grilled brioche bun was rich and perfect, and everything held together for an intoxicating melange of flavors, colors, and textures without threatening to slip and slide apart as I enjoyed it at home.  And despite the schlep back to the Casselberry suburbs, the fries were still warm by the time I got home!

Maybe the most curious thing on the menu was the collard melt sandwich ($12), featuring braised collard greens, house-made smoked pimento cheese, chow chow (a Southern cabbage-based relish that is sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, but always tangy), and balsamic reduction, all on grilled sourdough bread.  These are all flavors I love that I never thought of combining into a sandwich, so I’m glad someone more creative than I did.  It came with even more fries.masonjar4I didn’t even eat this until the following day, after warming it up in the toaster oven.  It was a winner.  I seriously love collards, pimento cheese, anything cabbagey, and anything smoky, so it was a killer-diller, no-filler, thriller goriller of a sandwich for me.  Vegetarians, rejoice!  As long as you allow yourself to experience the joy of cheese, here’s a new sandwich every vegetarian in Orlando should seek out.

If it seems like I brought home a lot of food, I did.  I wanted to order a few different things because I was trying a new place, because it’s hard to get over to Thornton Park, and because I wanted to give myself a break from cooking and avoid even being tempted to leave the house again for the next few days.  And with all of this in mind, I also ordered the hot chicken sandwich.  (My parents must be so proud.)  I’ve been very obsessed with hot chicken ever since eating at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2017, and I’m thrilled that Orlando has so many wonderful hot chicken options now, including Swine & Sons (a smoked thigh sandwich), Chicken Fire (tenders in or out of a sandwich), and Git-N-Messy BBQ (not covered in my review, but his hot half chicken may rule them all).

Mason Jar Provisions’ menu says their hot chicken sandwich ($13) says it’s a smoked, breaded, and deep-fried chicken thigh served with hot sauce, bread and butter pickle slices, and cole slaw, served on a grilled brioche bun with even more fries on the side.
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As you can see, the sandwich included two smaller breaded thighs, but it wasn’t dripping in the intense oily, spicy seasoning of Nashville hot chicken like the aforementioned restaurants.  It was incredibly tender and juicy meat, but it wasn’t really hot either.  Like a couple of kids, I traded my wife the not-really-hot thighs from the sandwich for her burger patty — each missing a bite, so it was a very fair trade.   They were thoughtful enough to pack the cole slaw in a separate cup with a lid, to avoid creating a mess that would have ruined the crispiness of the chicken and soaked through the bun and fries on my way home.

As much as I enjoyed my Mason Jar burger and the collard melt sandwich and would probably order them again in the future, I probably wouldn’t get the chicken sandwich again.  Not when they offer a braised barbecue short rib hoagie with pickled onions and pickles (the Dave Dog).  Why didn’t I get that instead?  However, my wife gives the chicken tenders her Saboscrivner Spouse Seal of Approval, and she knows tenders because she is the most tender person there is!

Folks, it’s an unknowable, scary, and outright dangerous time right now.  The restaurant business was hard enough already before COVID-19 pandemic struck, and we’ve seen too many beloved local eateries struggling and shuttering over the last few months.  I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be opening up now, in late June, as infection rates are increasing almost exponentially here in Orlando.  But we still have to eat, and restaurants are still considered essential businesses that are staying open to serve the rest of us.  Most people are going to venture out of their bunkers for takeout food eventually.  I implore you all to choose wisely and eat locally when you do, to support local restaurants that rely on your business and will appreciate your business.  So consider paying a visit to Mason Jar Provisions, one of Orlando’s newest restaurants, for some Southern comfort food at a time when we can all use some comfort in our lives.  Check out these drool-worthy photos and treat yourselves to something tasty and satisfying.  It might just be the highlight of your week, as it was of mine.

Something Fishy

This past weekend, I brought home takeout from another excellent Black-owned restaurant that I want more people to know about: Something Fishy (https://www.somethingfishyapopka.com/), located in Apopka, just west of Altamonte Springs on Semoran Boulevard.  I hardly ever make it that far west, but now I have a reason to!  Something Fishy is a casual seafood restaurant that is the very definition of a family business, opened by husband and wife Terence and Patrice Phillips two years ago.  This is their first restaurant, and they both had other careers before, but one of their sons graduated from culinary school and has helped guide them, their daughter is a graphic designer who designed their logo and flyers, and their youngest son works at the Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt location next door that the Phillipses also own.
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Terence, who is also the chef, took my order over the phone, and I got to meet him and Patrice when I showed up to pick up our lunch order.  They were really nice — warm, welcoming, and wearing masks — and I knew immediately that the food was going to be great.

I’ve joked before that my wife and I are on seafood diets: if we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  Longtime Orlando residents know our local seafood options are scant and slim, especially for more casual, non-bank-breaking choices, so I’m thrilled to report that Something Fishy will satisfy your cravings, especially if you may already be a fan of places like Boston’s Fish House.  Now, I’ve been going to Boston’s since I first met my wife and her parents in 2006, but everything she and I tried today was a different style of seafood, maybe more Southern and less New Englandy.  There’s no point in trying to rank them, but I do think Something Fishy has bolder flavors. I encourage you to try it for yourselves, ideally as soon as possible.

“When marimba rhythms start to play,
Dance with me, make me swai”

My wife has lived in the Orlando area since she was three, which I guess makes her a Southern gal, at least geographically.  She loves catfish and grits, so she perked up when she saw fish and grits (together at last!) on the menu.  She asked me to order her the fried swai (Asian catfish) and grits ($9.99), but you can also choose tilapia, Atlantic cod, salmon, unicorn fish (AKA naso; a new one to us), or a fresh catch of the day.  It’s nice to have options, but she wanted swai!  The fish came in two thin fillets, fried in a light and crispy batter that looked cornmeal-based, and she devoured them with gusto.  It was a different style from the catfish she enjoyed from Nikki’s Place last weekend, but she was super-enthusiastic about both.
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She just wanted butter on her grits, which came in a separate container (one of those good plastic reusable containers that are dishwasher- and microwave-safe), but you can also get green onions and cheese on them, in addition to the butter.  Not being the biggest grit guy, I asked if these grits were better than our beloved Waffle House, and she said yes.  I’m guessing Something Fishy serves real grits, because as we all learned from My Cousin Vinny, “No self-respecting Southerner serves instant grits!”
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I was torn between multiple options, but narrowed it down to two and decided to get both, figuring she would want to try them anyway.  I got an appetizer order of fried oysters for myself ($8.99), because I always love oysters in any form, whether they’re raw on the half-shell, battered and fried, or pretty much anything else.  These twelve oysters had a completely different breading than the swai fish, darker and crispier, with savory seasoning — a little peppery.  They came with a small dipping cup of creamy, tangy remoulade sauce that I would love to be able to spread on anything or dip anything into, from roast beef sandwiches to potato chips to falafel, from fried chicken to grilled vegetables to roasted corn.  My wife also liked the fried oysters, since we share everything here.
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My other choice was the lobster roll, which is listed as “market price” on the menu, but today that came out to $16.99.  We always love lobster rolls, and it’s rare to find such a hearty and delicious sandwich that also manages to be refreshing, rather than heavy.  This was a different kind of lobster roll.  Instead of the rich lobster meat being served chilled in mayonnaise, this one was served warm, after being sauteed in butter with the most delicious sauteed, seasoned cabbage.  We chose wisely.  It was a beautiful sandwich, and after I cut it in half for us to share, it was a big hit.  My wife always “deconstructs” her sandwiches (just like a professor to do that!) and usually gives me her bread or roll, but this soft bun was so soaked through with butter and the lobster juices and seasoning that she even wanted that.
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The sandwich came with one side, and since my wife had her grits, I asked Chef Terence if they happened to serve onion rings, even though they weren’t on the website menu.  I was pleasantly surprised that he said they did, so I asked for those, and now this is a

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

special review.  These were excellent onion rings, not too greasy, not dark and burned to a crisp, not falling apart, fried to golden brown in what I always default to calling the “good kind” of batter.  And once again, this was a completely different batter than the swai fish and the fried oysters, so their batter game is strong at Something Fishy.  I dipped some of them in the remaining remoulade sauce that came with the fried oysters, and had ketchup on hand for the rest.
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Something Fishy was a great catch in Apopka, which rarely shows up on Orlando foodies’ radar as a hot hub of gustatory goodness.  But it’s worth the 10-15 minute drive west when you get off I-4 on exit 92 in Altamonte.  Terence and Patrice were kind hosts who run a tight ship, and they definitely aren’t shellfish with the portions.  It’s a brightly-lit space with plenty of seating, for those brave enough to dine in restaurants these days.  It’s not a dive; you and your grouper won’t feel packed in like sardines.  Everything we ordered was reely good, so if you like what you’re herring, stop floundering.  Mullet over and swim by Something Fishy some time, just for the halibut.  It’ll have you exclaiming “Oh my cod, it’s so good!”

Grocery Grails: Whole Foods 365 sandwich-flavored potato chips

I’ve been meaning to review more of the random grocery purchases I’ve tried, when I discover something worth recommending.  Sometimes little treats and new discoveries are enough to get us through the day.  But that should be a special Saboscrivner feature that deserves a special name, so I went with Grocery Grails because I love alliteration and assonance as much as Silver Age Stan Lee.

As one of the biggest lovers of sandwiches and new chip flavors, I recently made my first post-quarantine trip to Whole Foods to track down these new sandwich-flavored potato chips from their 365 house brand.  I rarely shop at Whole Foods (more like “Whole Paycheck,” am I right?), but these were on sale for a very reasonable $2.39 each, and let’s face it, I probably would have paid more for them and been happy to do it.DSC03184

Cuban Press ingredients:DSC03185

Italian Hoagie ingredients:DSC03187

Pastrami on Rye ingredients.  Vegetarians, take note of the beef stock in these chips:DSC03188

Here are the chips.  All three flavors look exactly the same, so there was no purpose to posting three nearly-identical pictures:
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They are thinner potato chips like Lay’s, not super-thick, crunchy kettle chips.  I actually prefer this consistency.  They are easier on my gums, too.

Unfortunately, none of them tasted much like the sandwiches that inspired them.  I definitely picked up the flavors of pickles, mustard, and a smoky flavor reminiscent of ham in the Cuban Press chips (and seriously, has anyone ever called a Cuban sandwich or Cubano a “Cuban Press”?).  The Pastrami on Rye chips reminded me of smoke, pepper, and the vinegary tang of sauerkraut, but unfortunately the Italian Hoagie chips were the least like their inspiration, with a subtle taste of Italian herbs, maybe a bit of tomato and vinegar.  They were all exceedingly salty, even by potato chip standards, to the point where I was thinking “Enough, already!”

So if you’re anything like me and you love to try new and novel chip flavors, I highly recommend them for that purpose.  But go in with tempered expectations and don’t expect them to rock your tastebuds or change your life for the better.  My best advice is to seek out the actual sandwiches and pair them with some of your favorite chips, no matter what they are.  (What are your favorites, anyway?  The Saboscrivner is always interested in what other people are eating.)  But for sandwiches in the Orlando area, I recommend Italian hoagies from LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (specifically the LaSpada’s Famous), Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market (the Stasio), and Manzano’s Deli (the Rocco).  You can get a great pastrami on rye from Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood, and the biggest and best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had in Orlando is from one of my recent discoveries, College Park Cafe.

Nikki’s Place

It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive.  Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining.  But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody.  I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.

That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday.  It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant.  It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952.  Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins.  An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.

So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort.  I know I do.  Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed.  When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind.  Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays.  (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)

As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service.  When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance.  (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!)  They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready.  I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour.  This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway.  Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike.  I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived.  This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first.  We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.

Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them.  I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version.  Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite.  They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes.  They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
DSC03192All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food.  The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before.  I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.

My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25).  I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus.  Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had.  As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time.  Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere.  It was a nice-sized fillet, too.DSC03195My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides.  I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top.  It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it.  The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended.  It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before.  I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.

Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later.  As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings.  Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them.  She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample!  I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.

As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013.  They weren’t at all what I expected.  They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari?  And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all.  I liked it and would totally order it in the future!

But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me.  They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone.  They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.  DSC03194

I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today!  I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic.  Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli.  I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful.  This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad.  It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute.  It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.

My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables.  It was so soft and tender.  Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could.  It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.

You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos.  All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome.  Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread.  I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet.  On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home.  It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.

But wait, there’s more!  Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert.  A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!DSC03196Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie.  This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie).  It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.

As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite.  It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit!  Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.

You’re probably hungry now.  I hope so.  That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner!  But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years.  Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore.  Restaurants come and go.  It’s a tough business.  The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both.  I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD.  After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.

That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy.  It nourishes the body, mind, and soul.  It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future.  I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything.  It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does.  Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades.  It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today.  Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food.  Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!