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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 character introduction in Chew #3:  “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 impart information as a food blogger, hoping to share the same sensory experience with my readers.  I hope you’ll decide to follow The Saboscrivner and turn to it for restaurant reviews and recommendations in Orlando and beyond.

Meng’s Kitchen

Meng’s Kitchen (https://www.mengskitchensorlando.com/) is one of my favorite kinds of restaurants: a bit of a secret because it’s a restaurant inside something else — in this case, inside another restaurant, U-Roll Sushi on East Colonial Drive, directly east of Goldenrod Road (which I really need to review some other time).

When you crave Chef AJ’s eclectic comfort food with origins in China, Thailand, and India, you have to place an online order on the website above, then pick it up from U-Roll Sushi or make a note that you’re going to eat it there, as I did recently.  I met one of my closest foodie friends here in Orlando, a true bon vivant who knows even more good local places to eat than I do, and also one of the most upstanding, civic-minded, honorable people I know.  He has been a Meng’s mark for a while now, and I was glad to finally catch up with him over lunch on a workday, to see what all the hype was about.  This guy has never steered me wrong, and he definitely helped me choose wisely this time.

This is Chef AJ’s famous Hainanese chicken and rice ($10) — poached chicken served over Hainanese style rice pilaf with the most amazing ginger, garlic and soy dipping sauce.  The online ordering system gives a choice of white or dark meat, and I will always choose dark meat, 100% of the time.  It came boneless and fully sliced, with the soft skin on.  It also came with a side of broth that I forgot to photograph.  It looked like plain broth, just like this looks like plain chicken, but looks are deceiving, because everything had so much incredible flavor, I was blown away. 

My wise and worldly friend chose the chicken, so I had to make a decision.  With so many intriguing and unfamiliar options, I chose the braised pork Hunglay curry ($10) — marinated pork belly and pork shoulder with toasted garam masala, slowly braised with Hunglay curry paste, shallots, pickled garlic, fresh mango and ginger, and tamarind paste.  It was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year, so I chose wisely too.  Every piece of pork was tender enough to cut with our plastic forks, and they just melted in my mouth.  I’m such a fan of saucy, braised meats, and this was an outstanding dish, full of strong flavors I wasn’t overly familiar with, but they all worked so well together.   

The online menu said this braised pork curry came with steamed jasmine rice, but I requested a substitution of the spiced yellow rice that came with some other dishes, and I noted that it was okay if Chef AJ couldn’t substitute it.  Well, he did, and the spiced yellow rice was triumphant as well.  I have a rice cooker at home, and I can still NEVER cook rice as well as Asian and Latin restaurants.  But both this rice and the Hainanese rice pilaf that came with the chicken were something really special.  Spooning some of the pork curry sauce, which was savory but not spicy at all, over both kinds of rice opened up whole new worlds of flavor.   

My friend ordered this cucumber salad ($4) for us to share — chunks of cucumber and tomato and thin slivers of red onion in Thai sweet and sour dressing.  It might not have occurred to me to order this, but I’m so glad he did, and I’d get it again.  It was crisp and crunchy and sweet and spicy and cool and refreshing, especially with the heavy chicken, pork, and rice and the rich sauces they came with.  The sweet and sour dressing reminded me of Thai sweet chili sauce, a beloved condiment, but not as thick, sticky, and jelly-like.  True to its name, there was also a sour, slightly pungent component in the dressing that played well with the cucumbers.

My friend also ordered tom kha gai ($5), a Thai soup made with coconut milk, curry paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and big ol’ chunks of mushrooms, which I cannot eat.  Normally I like to try everything, but I am allergic or intolerant or something.  It always ends badly for me, so I passed.  But the soup looked and smelled good, and he seemed to like it. 

So far, this was my only visit to Meng’s Kitchen, but I need to return sooner rather than later for more Hainanese chicken and rice, more of that incredible braised pork Hunglay curry, and to eventually make my way through the menu and try everything else (as long as it doesn’t contain mushrooms).  It was terrific — one of those hidden gems that are all over Orlando, if you just give them a chance.

Mia’s Italian Kitchen

It has been almost two months since my wife and I enjoyed the bottomless brunch at Mia’s Italian Kitchen (https://www.miasitalian.com/), the sprawling Italian restaurant on touristy International Drive.  Fear not, startled Saboscrivnerinos — pants were worn by all.  Bottomless brunch means that every Saturday and Sunday, from 11 AM until 3 PM, diners can enjoy unlimited, all-you-can-eat food off the brunch menu for $26 per person.  It’s an excellent deal if you come hungry, ready to beat the house.  Thirsty folks can also opt for bottomless drinks for an additional $20 per person, which includes mimosas, bloody Marys, and sparklers, but we don’t drink, so we didn’t bother with that.

And just to clarify — the bottomless brunch isn’t a buffet setup.  You can order whatever you want off the brunch menu, and dishes that have standard prices next to them on the menu just keep coming to your table, all included in the flat brunch price of $26.  I’ve written before about how I’m not a big brunch fan because I don’t like overpriced breakfast food, but I sure do love huge quantities of Italian food.

I decided to start with the Italian scramble (normally priced at $13), with scrambled eggs, pepperoni, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, basil, rustic toast.  It normally comes with mushrooms, but constant readers know that I do not partake.  Anyway, this was a delicious combination, although it could have used some cheese.  I used to make simple, filling, healthy egg dishes all the time at home until my doctor told me that eggs are not my friend.  I always thought they were some of the healthier things I ate, but I have since cut back.  Like everything else this morning, these scrambled eggs felt like an indulgence.

My wife, on the other hand, loves mushrooms, so I still cook them for her quite often.  They are one of her favorite foods, so she couldn’t resist this house-made fettuccine al funghi (normally $19).  In fact, she called it one of the best pasta dishes she’s ever had in her life!  High praise indeed.  She loves creamy pasta dishes, and we are both suckers for fresh, al dente pasta, but I didn’t even taste this one.  Better safe than sorry!

I always gravitate toward pasta in tomato-based sauces, since when I think of “Italian” cuisine, my senses and memories all go to New York/New Jersey-style Italian-American food, with mountains of pasta in red sauce.  That’s what we grew up cooking at home and ordering from Italian restaurants in Miami.  So I had every intention of ordering the rigatoni alla bolognese (normally $20), with tender pasta in a slow-braised beef bolognese “gravy” made with San Marzano tomatoes, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese.  It was terrific.  Loved it.  Whenever meats are braised until they’re tender, I’ll be there. 

And to accompany the rigatoni alla bolognese, I couldn’t attend bottomless brunch at Mia’s and not try the giant meatball (normally $13).  It’s a twelve-ounce, all-beef meatball stuffed with fresh mozzarella (or MOOT-sa-DELL, if you will), swimming in marinara sauce, topped with parmesan cheese, and served with more of that rustic garlic toast that I wished was a little softer.  I think everyone in the restaurant must order the giant meatball.  It makes a very dramatic appearance at people’s tables, and everyone is always shocked and awestruck by how giant it actually is.  It is a massive, monumental, mountainous meatball, indeed, and definitely meant to be shared.

There were plenty of sweeter, lighter options on the brunch menu too.  My wife ordered this berry waffle (normally $9), a pretty standard Belgian waffle topped with seasonal berry compote (we both would have liked much more of this) and a scoop of wonderful honey-marscarpone mousse, easily the best part.

She had also been very excited about the apple-ricotta doughnuts (normally $7), an order of six small cinnamon sugar-dusted doughnuts, which were really more like large doughnut holes, topped with rich crème anglaise.  We both liked these.  The texture was similar to sour cream cake doughnuts, also known as “old-fashioned” doughnuts, which are usually my favorite kind of doughnut.  They tasted like Autumn in the best possible way. 

And my choice for a dessert was something I always enjoy but almost never order: tiramisu (normally $7), the classic Italian layer cake of ladyfinger cookies, espresso, creamy mascarpone cheese, cocoa, marsala wine (I’ve never had it on its own, so I couldn’t detect it), and lemon (which I couldn’t detect either).  It was pretty great tiramisu, but even mediocre tiramisu is pretty great.

Believe me, we both felt like we had to roll out of Mia’s after that celebratory feast.  I don’t think we ate again that day.  Because it’s so decadent, we definitely don’t plan to make a habit of that bottomless brunch, but it was a nice way to spend a weekend morning.  It was also nice  to discover a new restaurant on that side of Orlando, since we’re hardly ever out that way.  I recommend it to locals and tourists alike, but think twice before indulging at Mia’s and then spending hours waiting in lines and riding crazy rides at the theme parks!

Tajine Xpress

Tajine Xpress (http://tajinexpress.com/) is a fast-casual Moroccan restaurant that opened earlier this year on Goldenrod Road on the east side of Orlando, south of East Colonial Drive.  It didn’t seem like the most propitious location until I noticed it is close to a mosque with a school, as well as a Middle Eastern grocery store and a Muslim clothing store.  It should do really well in that area, which is luckily close to my job as well.

By fast-casual, I mean you order at the front counter, then sit down and wait for it.  When I went with a work colleague for lunch a month or so ago, it wasn’t busy, and a nice lady walked our food out to our table.  But there is also a pickup area right in the corner of the glass section below.  As a double-Gator, I appreciated the orange and blue décor, and I really liked the rich royal blue color of the walls.  The chairs are large and made of metal.  They don’t fit terribly well under the tables, so I found myself literally on the edge of my seat as a whole new, unfamiliar regional cuisine presented itself to us.  My colleague has eaten at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot, but for me, it was completely new.  I was excited!

She is vegetarian, so she ordered the Moroccan salad ($3.98), with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and herbs and spices dressed in olive oil and herbs.

She also got zaalouk ($3.98), a chilled eggplant and tomato salad.  She seemed to really like both of those dishes.

It came with round bread that was crusty on the outside and softer on the inside.  It wasn’t anything like pita bread, and we both agreed it didn’t have a lot of flavor.  I imagined it would have been better if she dipped pieces of it in those two salads.

We went on a Friday, so Tajine Xpress was offering its weekend-only couscous platters.  I love lamb and couscous, so I couldn’t resist ordering the lamb couscous ($15.98).  It arrived on a platter that was absolutely HUGE, with some soft, tender vegetables: potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and a squash I wasn’t familiar with.  My research shows it might have been an acorn or kabocha squash, with the green rind and tender orange flesh inside.

Underneath the mystery squash, the lamb had been stewed until it was fork-tender, and they left some bones in there to impart even more flavor.  It was salty and oniony and so delicious.  I wish there had been a little more of the lamb atop the tender, al dente couscous, but you’ll never catch The Saboscrivner wishing a dish had less meat.

Tajine Xpress makes two kinds of spring rolls called briwates — beef and seafood — and you get two per order.  OR, you can be like me and order the briwates sampler platter, which gives you one beef briwat and one seafood briwat ($9.98).  They were served with harissa, the spicy sauce that explains it all.  The briwates looked and smelled so good, but they were both stuffed with mushrooms, my old enemy, a tasty ingredient that chefs love to cook with, but I just cannot eat. 
Undeterred, I cut these open, picked out all the mushrooms, and ate whatever was left, which was not my best idea ever.  It ended up being a very long afternoon at work.  But you have to understand, my vegetarian co-worker couldn’t eat them, and I can’t stand to waste food.  I definitely won’t order these again because of the mushrooms, but you normal, non-afflicted people reading this will probably like the briwates.

It took me a while to return, but I had really wanted to try the beef with prunes tajine ($12.98), because I love savory and sweet flavors together.  I went for lunch today and ordered it to go, so it came in a round cardboard tray with separate compartments for the huge chunks of tender braised beef topped with slivers of toasted almonds, my side order of rice pilaf (mixed with tiny bits of vermicelli and topped with peas and diced carrots), and only two prunes, sticky-sweet and covered with sesame seeds.
My wife instinctively made a face when I told her I ordered beef with prunes, but I showed her the two prunes were separated in the to-go container and offered her one.  Even she liked it, but I was a little sad we each only got a single prune.  I definitely would have liked more prunes, and it would have been interesting to taste them swimming in the meat juices.  I assumed they would be cooked and served together, but what do I know?  The beef had a lot of flavor and was so tender, I didn’t even need a knife to cut it.  A couple of the pieces had thick bones attached with some tender fat, like one of my favorite meats to eat, oxtails.  But all the meat easily pulled right off the smooth bones, which is one of the joys of braising, stewing, and slow-cooking.  The rice was a little bland, so I mixed all of it into the juices the beef came with, although I would have liked more of that rich, flavorful liquid too.

Today has been a dark, dreary, drizzly day, which is a perfect day for soup.  At the last minute, I also ordered the harira soup, with tomatoes, onions, lentils, chickpeas, vermicelli, and beef ($3.98).  It was a tasty twist on a tomato-based vegetable beef soup, as I expected.

The harira came with another round piece of bread, which I made sure to dip in the soup to add some flavor and soften it up.  But I already consumed some carbs from the rice, so I realized I’m just not into this bread and didn’t have to eat all of it.

The menu at Tajine Xpress isn’t huge, but now I’ve covered the two dishes that sounded the best to me: the lamb couscous (available Friday through Sunday only) and the beef with prunes tajine.  I would recommend both of those for sure.  As I said, I wish you got more meat with both of dishes, especially because the meats are so good.  I don’t love that round bread, and I’m wondering if the other side order options of fries and beans would be better than the rice I got today.  I think they would have to be.  I just figured fries would be cold by the time I got them home, but if you go and try the fries, let me know how they were!

Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen

At this point in my food writing, I keep an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the restaurants I want to try — and so I can always quickly send menu links to the people I eat with the most, my wife and my co-workers.  One restaurant that had been at the top of my list for far too long is Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen (https://www.cavosbar.com/) in Thornton Park, a neighborhood near downtown Orlando that I recently called “Thornton No-Park,” due to the lack of parking spaces.  I dragged three co-workers down to Cavo’s for lunch on a relatively quiet Friday not that long ago, and we definitely had to drive around a bit before we could park, but it was worth the wait.

I’ve been reading so many raves about Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13), so I had to try it, even though I often find cheesesteaks disappointing.  Usually the meat is relatively low-quality and dissolves into a pool of boiling lava-hot grease and melted cheese that never cools down, making it literally painful to eat, on top of being messy.  But this was easily the best cheesesteak I’ve tried in Orlando, and probably the best one I’ve had outside of Philadelphia.  The freshly baked soft roll, adorned with sesame seeds, held up to the heavy load inside — tasty thin-sliced ribeye (the king of steaks as far as I’m concerned), melty white American cheese, and plenty of sautéed onions, although if you ask me, you can’t ever put enough sautéed onions on anything.  It lived up to the hype and made me realize I still do like cheesesteaks; I just hadn’t had a worthy cheesesteak in a long time.

One co-worker ordered a gorgeous-looking Reuben sandwich ($13), with the usual suspects: corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing (not Russian dressing, but still good) on grilled marble rye.  I know her to be a fan of Reubens, as am I, and she looked content.

My vegetarian co-worker got the vegetarian sandwich ($13), with fried eggplant, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and roasted garlic basil vinaigrette on a fresh baked hoagie roll.  It looked good and smelled even better.  I didn’t ask her to try it, but even as a non-vegetarian myself, that looked like something I would really like.

Another co-worker who tries to eat healthy got the Cavo salad ($13), with spinach and romaine mix, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, artichokes, roasted red peppers, charred vidalia onions, garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, tossed with Cavo’s house vinaigrette dressing.  He added chicken for an additional $5.   He seemed to like it, and that’s what I call a salad!   

I got this plate of curly fries ($4) intending to share it with everyone.  They were awesome — maybe my favorite kind of fries, with a crispy seasoned coating and soft on the inside.  My beloved Arby’s serves fries like this, and so does Checkers.  But two of my colleagues ordered their own plates of tater tots ($4 each), leaving me with more fries than I expected.  It wasn’t a problem, though!

That night, when I got home from work, I enjoyed half of the classic Italian hoagie ($13) after it chilled in the fridge for a few hours, allowing the flavors to meld.  This beautiful sandwich included tavern ham, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, sweet Italian peppers, pickles, and oregano vinaigrette dressing on the same kind of soft seeded roll.  Years ago, the pickles might have ruined the sandwich for me, and even though I normally wouldn’t order them on an Italian sub, my growing tolerance for pickles has turned into an obsession, so I thought I would try them.  They only added; they did not detract.  It was an excellent Italian hoagie — maybe not reaching the great heights of the Stasio sub, the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie, the Rocco from Manzano’s Deli, or incredible new hoagies from Pizza Bruno, but it is still a top-tier Italian sandwich here in Orlando. 

I liked the space and loved the food.  If only it was easier to park at Cavo’s, I would want to be a regular for sure.  As it is, it will have to be a rare treat when I’m in Thornton No-Park, along with other local favorites Mason Jar Provisions and Benjamin French Bakery.  But rare treats may be the best, because if you treat yourself too often, the ritual starts to feel more commonplace, and less special as a result.  But that cheesesteak… wow.  That was totally worth driving laps around Thornton No-Park, or maybe even taking a Lyft down there in the future.

Build My Burgers

Build My Burgers (https://www.buildmyburgers.com/) sounds like something an old-timey Southern lady would say, as an expression of surprise or exasperation: “Well, build mah burgers!”  But no such phrase exists, although maybe it should.  Instead, Build My Burgers is a new fast-casual burger restaurant that opened in a small shopping plaza on University Boulevard, just a few minutes west of the University of Central Florida.  It is an independent, locally owned restaurant, and it could really use your support, because Build My Burgers will build you a tasty burger to your exact specifications, with dozens of options to customize it.  You can have a lot of fun here.  I sure did.

The burgers themselves are Black Angus beef, served as thin, “smashed” patties.  They might not be as thick or juicy as the patties from a burger joint like Fuddruckers or Teak, but they pack a lot of flavor and are clearly high-quality beef.  You can also choose regular or spicy fried chicken, a veggie burger, or an Impossible Burger if you don’t feel like beef.  Brioche is the standard bun, but you could also get your burger or sandwich on a thicker pretzel bun for a $2 upcharge or a lettuce bed for no additional cost, for the keto dieters out there.  (I did keto for five miserable months in 2017, and let’s just say it did not end well.)

But best of all about Build My Burgers, at least in my book, is the voluminous list of burger toppings and condiments to choose from.  I know some people’s brains short-circuit and shut down when faced with too many choices, but I love being able to choose so many different flavors and textures to make a one-of-a-kind meal, whether I’m customizing a poke bowl, a sandwich, a burrito, or a burger, in this case.

I opted for a double-patty burger ($8.99) with two slices of American cheese (75 cents each) on the standard brioche bun.  From there, I asked them to add ketchup, spicy mustard, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, pickles, roasted red peppers, crunchy potato sticks (making their second appearance in a row on The Saboscrivner blog), and guacamole.  Our food arrived on metal trays,  with the burgers wrapped up, fast food-style, already assembled.  Good grief, that was an insanely beautiful, messy, and delicious burger!

My wife likes to keep things simple, so she ordered a single burger ($6.49) on the pretzel bun (a $2 upcharge), and only opted to add thousand island dressing, which was a really good condiment pairing.  She ended up thinking the pretzel bun was just okay, but probably would have preferred the brioche.  I thought the denser, thicker pretzel bun would have been balanced better with a thicker, two-patty burger and more toppings and condiments. 
Next time she’ll get a burger on a brioche bun with guacamole, and next time I’ll probably get something very similar to what I got this time, but add thousand island.  We both thought the crinkle-cut fries, dusted with a peppery seasoning, were just okay.

What really sold me on finally trying Build My Burgers were people’s photos of the onion rings.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I am an onion ring aficionado, and I’ll try onion rings anywhere I find them.  Those inevitable onion ring reviews get a special tag: RING THE ALARM!  And these onion rings ($4.99) are “my type,” with their golden brown batter.  Perfect size, shape, color, consistency, and taste.  Flawless onion rings, worth ringing the alarm for. 

My wife was really craving a chocolate shake ($5.99), but also asked me if I had any interest in sharing an order of fried Oreos ($5.99).  That’s a decadent double dessert right there, but I realized neither of us had ever had fried Oreos before, so why not?  Anything the Scots love has to be pretty good, right?  Well, she seemed to really like the shake, and I enjoyed the obligatory sip I took. 
Does anyone remember Pulp Fiction, one of the biggest movies to come out in 1994?  I was in 11th grade at the time, and I was absolutely obsessed with it.  Anywhere, there was a whole discussion about how a cheesy ’50s diner-themed restaurant in L.A. served five-dollar milkshakes, and what a ripoff that was.  I always think of that moment in the film whenever I encounter milkshakes, because over 25 years later, five dollars is pretty standard, and many places cost far more.  Vincent Vega would have lost his damn mind if he saw the $15.99 “freaky shakes” on the Build My Burgers menu, but those are huge, opulent, towering structures meant to be photographed and shared (but not picked up, because all kinds of stuff is stuck to the outside of the glasses).  This standard chocolate milkshake in a standard plastic cup suited my wife just fine.

And because you were wondering, here’s a cross-section of the fried Oreos.  They were actually better than I expected, in that the batter was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and the Oreo still had some crunch to it.  I was expecting a sad, greasy mess that would make me feel guiltier than usual, and also a little disappointed.  Well, they weren’t greasy or disappointing at all, I’m happy to report!

I don’t end up on the east side of Orlando near UCF to eat very often, but if you’re out there, you can definitely count on a tasty burger from Build My Burgers.  Any of my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I value freedom of choice, and how much I love being able to customize and trick out my meals with a variety of options.  This is the perfect place for that.  Even vegetarians would be very content.  I look forward to returning and improvising some new crazy burger combination, but in the meantime, I wanted to spread the word about a relatively new restaurant that could use every bit of support.

Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.

Tasty Wok BBQ & Noodle House

Tasty Wok BBQ & Noodle House (http://www.tastywok.net/) is the first Chinese restaurant I fell in love with in Orlando — before Chuan Lu GardenPeter’s Kitchen, and Taste of Chengdu opened.  Add in Yummy House in Altamonte (the others are all clustered around the Mills 50 district, with Taste of Chengdu recently relocated to Baldwin Park), and that rounds out my official Top Five Orlando Chinese restaurants.  I’m sorry I haven’t been back to review Tasty Wok sooner, but better late than never.

The Tasty Wok website I linked to above definitely does not include the full menu.  You could click through that website that rhymes with “help” and hope to find photos posted by randos that may not even be up to date, but I took the liberty of scanning the most recent “New” Tasty Wok menu, updated as of July 2021.  If you right-click on each image and select “Open image in new tab,” you should be able to see much larger, more legible versions.

For my first trip back in far too long, I ordered all of our old favorites to bring home to share with my wife.  From the Appetizers page, I got the three BBQ combination ($18.95), with generous portions of tender roasted duck with crispy, delicate skin, sweet char siu (sliced roasted pork), and roasted pork with fatty belly and deliciously crispy skin.  I don’t think any of the Chinese restaurants in Orlando, as much as I love some of the others, do these meats better than Tasty Wok.

This is the masterful roasted duck, which you can also order as a separate appetizer portion for $7.95, or with steamed white rice for $11.95.  Look at how beautiful it is!  My wife and I both love duck — it is one of our favorite meats.   

This is the sweet, tender char siu pork, which is also available as an appetizer portion for $7.95 or over steamed white rice for $10.95:

And I really should have turned some of these over to get a glamor shot of that crackly golden skin, but this is the fattier barbecue pork with crispy skin, also available as an appetizer portion for $7.95 or over steamed white rice for $11.95. 

I’ve been to a few local Chinese restaurants where these meats were served swimming in pools of congealing grease, or worse yet, bland and dry, like they were chopped and sliced hours ago and just sitting under heat lamps.  That’s just sad, and I never bothered to review those places because I didn’t have much nice to say after that.  But Tasty Wok has never done us wrong.  Since we love all three meats, we always get the three BBQ combination and choose these three.  (There is a fourth option, soy sauce chicken, which is probably also outstanding, but we’ve never tried it in all these years!)

We also got my go-to dish at pretty much any Chinese restaurant, beef chow fun ($14.95), with tender beef and wide rice noodles with the most pleasing chewy texture that I just love, plus onions and green onions.

This ended up being a lot of food for two people, and we had enough left over that my wife got to have the rest for lunch the following day.

Someone once described Tasty Wok to me as “Chinese soul food,” and I never forgot that description.  All the dishes I tend to like to order — these very dishes — are on the greasy side, and nobody would ever confuse them for health food.  But they are made with skill, care, and love, and they are satisfying, delicious comfort food.  They are some of the best examples of roasted and barbecued meats and wok-fried noodles around, and I recommend them all highly.  if you are a Tasty Wok regular, let me know what your go-to dishes are, since I’m always looking to expand my palate.  Run, don’t wok, to Tasty Wok!

Thirsty Gator

Thirsty Gator (http://thirstygator.net/) is a great dive bar and casual restaurant located on a lonely stretch of Goldenrod Road between University Drive and East Colonial Drive.  The address plants it firmly in Winter Park, but the surrounding area doesn’t look or feel like Winter Park.  To be completely honest, entering the bar feels like you’ve entered a portal that transports you to the Southern college town of Gainesville, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.  It doesn’t even matter when you knew Gainesville best — it will feel like Gainesville from “back in the day,” whenever that day was for you.

As if the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, Thirsty Gator is a Florida Gators-themed bar, so I’m sure it is a hot destination when Gator games are on or when University of Florida alumni in Orlando are feeling particularly nostalgic.  I have a few degrees from UF, but as I get older, I rarely feel that nostalgia for “bright college days, oh carefree days that fly” anymore.  I had some of the best and worst times of my life during my seven years as a UF student, but I met a lot of amazing friends there, and I’m so honored to know them and so proud of what they have all become.  Also, I fully realize I am able to lead the life I live now — educated, gainfully employed, happily married — because of what I accomplished back then, so in the end, it all worked out.  I never thought I’d feel more content and fulfilled in my 40s than I did in my late teens and 20s, but here I am.  Aw heck, when I was in my 20s, there were times I honestly didn’t think I would even make it to my 40s, but here I am, doing better than pretty much anyone expected, myself included.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, it really does get better.  I’m living proof of that.

But enough about an old man’s reflections of times past.  On to the food!

I brought home an order of ten mild wings ($15):

And an order of ten garlic wings ($15):
These are some of my favorite wings in Orlando.  I’ve written before about how I dislike typical sports bar wings that are tiny, greasy, crunchy, and dry.  These are the exact opposite — decent-sized wings that are tender, moist, juicy, incredibly well-seasoned, and barely greasy at all because they are baked, not fried.  I probably would have preferred them hot, but then my wife couldn’t enjoy them at all, and we always endeavor to share.  Thirsty Gator may be known for its seafood, but don’t sleep on these wings!  Seriously, they have to be near the top of the Top Five in Orlando.

My wife and I can never refuse the allure of a soft pretzel.  This one was $3.25, and it was pretty large, soft, and buttery.  It wasn’t as flaky and perfect as an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel (the only thing I like going to malls for anymore), but still hit the spot.  That is yellow mustard in the little plastic cup, not butter! 

I can never resist garlic rolls or garlic bread either, and this garlic bread was $3.25.  You get four pieces that are similar to the frozen loaves of Cole’s garlic bread I enjoy a little bit too much.  They had softened by the time I got everything home, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, and herbs on them.  You just can’t go wrong with garlic bread.

And the main reason I got takeout from Thirsty Gator, rock shrimp (market price; currently $21.95 per pound).  This delectable denizen of the deep rarely appears on any restaurant menus, and this is the one restaurant I know of in Orlando that specializes in the little crustaceans.  These are peel-and-eat rock shrimp, and their shells are slightly harder to pierce, penetrate, and peel than the typical shrimp we all know and love.  So they’re more work, but totally worth it.

This is what one of the rock shrimp looks like peeled.  The meat is succulent and sweet, and my wife and I agree they taste more like lobster than shrimp.   
Funny enough, one of our featured songs at our wedding was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s.  If you’ve ever had spiny lobster, AKA langoustine or langostino, those guys are the real-life rock lobsters, and I honestly think they taste more like regular shrimp than lobster.

These are a real treat, and since each one is a bit of a hassle to peel, you never take these for granted.  The peeling process may not be appealing, but you never eat rock shrimp without appreciating each sweet, tender morsel.  As a result, we took our time making our way through the pound we got.  They are served warm, but we also enjoyed them chilled out of the fridge the next day.

Aside from the rock shrimp and the wings, the other big food specialty at Thirsty Gator is the fresh raw oysters, but those aren’t great takeout food.  I’ve made no secret of my great love of oysters, so I’ll just have to go back another time to enjoy them in person.  Whether you love the Gators, hate them, or just fear them as so many do, there is so much to love at Thirsty Gator.

 

 

 

Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant

The first time I ever heard of Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant (https://www.lascarretasmexicanrest.com/), my heart filled with joy and hope, then immediate disappointment.  When I first saw a sign that the restaurant was opening soon in the Publix plaza on the corner of University Boulevard and Goldenrod Road in east Winter Park, I was overjoyed, thinking at first it meant an outpost of La Carreta, my family’s favorite Cuban restaurant chain in Miami, was coming to the Orlando area.

But I quickly noticed the sign was pluralized: “Las Carretas,” not “La Carreta,” and that it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, not Cuban.  We already have far more good Mexican restaurants here than in Miami, but I got over that initial disappointment and forgot about it for a while.  It opened earlier this year, and diners started posting really positive reviews on the Orlando Foodie Forum Presented by Tasty Chomps!, and I started paying attention all over again.

Well, I have eaten there four times now, and I can happily report that Las Carretas is an excellent Mexican restaurant, and we should be happy it’s here.  The initial fault was mine for misreading the sign and getting my hopes up.  It might not be the beloved Cuban restaurant of my past, but it is the terrific Mexican restaurant of my present and future.

The Las Carretas menu is HUGE, so I strongly suggest studying it in advance.  On our first visit, my wife and I started our first meal with a couple of aguas frescas ($4.99 each), sweet, non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverages that are much tastier and more refreshing than sodas, and much better for cutting the heat of spicy food.  I chose horchata (left), sweet, creamy rice milk seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.  My wife chose coco nuez, a rich and creamy agua fresca made with coconut milk, coconut shreds, and crushed pecans.  I’m not big on nuts, but I do love coconut, and I liked her drink even more than mine.  These are gigantic glass mugs, by the way — think German biergarten mugs.  No free refills, though!  (Yes, I asked.)

They have a self-service salsa bar!  Just use hand sanitizer before and after, and fill the little plastic cups with chilled fresh salsas and pickled vegetables (jalapeños, carrots, onions, nopal cactus strips) to your heart’s content.  They will be perfect for the fresh, crispy, thin tortilla chips about to grace your table.

Here are those chips with an assortment of salsas.  The white stuff turned out to be a tangy, creamy, cool salad dressing, but it was nice to dip the chips in, and it works well cutting the heat of some of the spicier ones.   The dark salsa next to it is a smoky chipotle salsa, blended smooth so it is thin, with no chunks in it.  That one was my wife’s favorite by far.  They’re all a little bit different, so if you’re anything like me, a self-proclaimed salsaholic, you will want to try little dabs of all of them on your chips.  One or two are extremely spicy, but I honestly don’t remember which of these were the spicy ones.  I think the orange one on the left was fiery, so be prepared!

My wife ordered table-side guacamole ($8.99), hold the jalapeños and easy on the tomatoes and onions.  It was made with care and flair by a nice lady who probably has to make guacamole in front of people all day, pushing her cart around the restaurant like teachers who wanted to show a video in class back in the day.  It was some of the freshest, nicest guac I’ve ever had.

For her meal, my wife chose the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99), a dazzling platter of grilled shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, and bacon, with grilled peppers and onions, topped with melty oaxaca cheese and sliced avocado, tomato, and radish.  She loved it, except for the cheese.  She thought it overwhelmed the more subtle seafood flavors.  I’ve never noticed alambres on a menu before, but all of the ones at Las Carretas come with five tortillas.  She chose corn tortillas with it.   
This picture barely communicates the size of the platter and exactly how much food comes on it!

I couldn’t resist an alambre either, but I chose the alambre mata hambre ($16.99), which lived up to its name as a true “hunger killer.”  It was an equally massive platter of pork loin, al pastor pork, carne asada (grilled steak seasoned with lime), chorizo, bacon, ham, grilled bell peppers, onions, pineapple, melty oaxaca cheese, and topped with sliced avocado, tomato, and radish, and served with five tortillas (flour for me):

The a la carte menu has a lot of options for people who like to sample things, like a single cheese tamale ($3.50), which we both thought was just okay:

This is an a la carte beef burrito ($3.99), served “wet” (smothered in sauce and melted cheese).  It’s a classic wet burrito, which is making me reminiscent for Taco Viva, a South Florida fast food chain that predated Taco Bell in the ’80s.  They all closed decades ago, but they gave me my first tastes of Mexican food as a kid, igniting a lifelong love affair.  I don’t even know if Taco Viva was any damn good by Mexican food standards (probably not), but you know what is?  Las Carretas and this burrito right here:

This is a huge a la carte chile relleno stuffed with cheese ($4.99).  After I was so disappointed Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s removed chiles rellenos from its menu at some point in the last year and a half, I was thrilled to discover such a good one here at Las Carretas, with a lightly crispy batter that didn’t get soggy under all that sauce, and didn’t fall or peel off.

There were almost too many good choices for dessert, but on this first visit, my wife chose fried ice cream ($5.99).  The scoop of vanilla had a nice, thin, crackly coating she liked that reminded me of crushed corn flakes, and that was her favorite part.  I preferred the fried flour shell/”bowl,” so that worked out well for both of us.  But we had other dessert ideas that would have to wait for our second visit.

My wife and I went back for a second lunch a couple of weeks later (months ago, at this point), and met a good friend there.  I ordered the chimichanga ($9.99 on the lunch menu), sort of like a burrito wrapped in a flour tortilla, then lightly fried.  It was smothered with a sticky, thick cheese sauce and stuffed with beef tips that ended up being kind of like pot roast.  The Mexican rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream were nice, fresh accompaniments that kept the beef, sticky cheese sauce, and crispy shell from feeling too heavy.

Our friend got enchiladas rancheras ($9.99) on the lunch menu — cheese-stuffed enchiladas topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, green and red bell peppers, and enchilada sauce.  I swear there are enchiladas under there!

My wife went back to the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99) again, only asked for it without cheese this time.  She liked it even better without the melted cheese contrasting against the seafood.

This one cracked me up.  I always love tortas, Mexican sandwiches on bolillo rolls, so I ordered the one torta on Las Carretas’ menu, the torta toloqueña ($11.99 on the lunch menu), intending to split it with our friend.  The sandwich comes with chicken milanesa (a chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded, and fried), ham, oaxaca cheese, pineapple, “vinegar mixed manzano pepper,” tomato, avocado, ketchup, mayonnaise… and salchicha, which I know means sausage.  Well, I expecting more like a chorizo-like sausage, and not these hot dogs on top!  That’s my bad.  I should have known better.  All three of us had a good laugh over it, and we still shared the salty, overstuffed torta.  It was an unexpected surprise, but it was still a really decadent and satisfying sandwich.  This torta toloqueña was the only time in my life I’ve ever been okay with ketchup being anywhere near hot dogs.

We couldn’t decide between two desserts, so we got both!  These are the churros ($4.99), served with caramel and chocolate sauces:

And sopapillas ($5.99), fried flour tortilla wedges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with honey, and served with a rapidly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I couldn’t tell you which of the three desserts was my favorite, but they all involved comparable flavors.

On both of these visits, I was thinking about how much my co-workers would enjoy Las Carretas, so a few weeks later, at the first mention of a work lunch, I was quick to suggest this place.  When I returned to Las Carretas for my third time, I brought three co-workers with me.  None of them are the adventurous eaters I am, so we often end up at Chili’s, Miller’s Ale House, or Gator’s Dockside for work lunches.  But I implored them to give this new Mexican restaurant a chance, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

They weren’t.

My vegetarian supervisor and friend ordered enchiladas vegetarianas ($10.99), three enchiladas stuffed with zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, and mushrooms, topped with ranchera sauce and mozzarella cheese:

Another co-worker, my former supervisor who has since been promoted, ordered this beautiful campeche quesadilla ($13.99), with grilled shrimp, onions, bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese:

I ordered the party tacos ($14.99), because nothing says “party” like a lunch with your current and former supervisors and one other guy, where you talk all about work before having to drive back to work and not fall asleep.  Anyway, you get an order of six tacos and can try two proteins in them.  Frankly, I would have preferred an option where I could buy six individual tacos, all with different proteins, but I chose wisely: cabeza (tender, moist, fatty beef head; along the top) and al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated in pineapple juice; along the bottom).  Both were so delicious and satisfying, not dry at all like the meats occasionally are at even the best taquerias.  This is an incredible dish, and a good deal too.

And another guy got a trio of tacos, but I don’t remember which ones these are.  Carne asada would be my best guess.

On my fourth visit with one of the same co-workers, she got queso dip ($3.99) and table-side guacamole ($8.99) to go with the fresh tortilla chips:

And I tried yet another new dish, the Texas burrito ($11.99), a dry burrito (not smothered in cheese and sauce, so you can hold it and eat it), stuffed with crumbled chorizo sausage (another one of my favorite Mexican meats), rice, beans, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado sauce.  It was awesome and huge.  Look at it on this large, long plate:

And you thought it smelled good on the outside!

So that’s a massive review based on my four meals at Las Carretas, all eaten at the restaurant.  With how close it is to both work and home, I expect I will continue to be a regular at this place, especially since they have a large, covered outdoor seating area for when the weather finally cools down (and avoiding people carrying the Delta variant in the meantime).  Las Carretas may not be Miami’s La Carreta, but it is one of Orlando’s best Mexican restaurants, and now one of my favorites.  I can’t imagine anyone going out to eat here and being disappointed.  It’s a real crowd-pleaser in every way.

The ‘Dines List 2: Mission to Morocco!

Believe it or not, even though we’re finally into October, it’s still hurricane season, so this lifelong Florida Man isn’t relaxing just yet.  I usually don’t let my guard down until we get to Thanksgiving, so I still have a huge stash of shelf-stable food on hand, including plenty of my favorite quick, easy, healthy, delicious household staple, tinned sardines.

I don’t know if my first installment of The ‘Dines List, the new ongoing Saboscrivner feature where I review canned sardines and other tinned seafood, was a rousing hit among my dozens of readers back in July.  Most people come here for restaurant reviews, but because I don’t go out to eat as often as everyone thinks I do, I bolster those with reviews of other foods I enjoy and want to spread the word about in recurring features like Grocery Grails, Tight Chips, Cutting the Mustard, and now The ‘Dines List.  But the truth is, I eat a lot of sardines.  I got into them when I was a poor student, but now that I make the medium bucks in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of academia, I continue to dine on ‘dines because they’re so healthy, they’re environmentally sustainable (especially compared to most other fish), they’re cheap, they’re versatile, and I just like them.  Plus, as a lifelong collector of things like comic books, action figures, and music, I appreciate that there are seemingly infinite varieties of sardines, so I love discovering and collecting new brands and flavors and sharing information about them.

My first ‘Dines List feature, “Canned Sardines 101,” was a rundown of some of my all-time favorite sardines, meant as a guide for the unfamiliar and the skeptical, to ease new ‘dine eaters into those briny waters and introduce them to the tastiest and least-intimidating tinned ‘dines I know of.  But since there are so many more sardines out there, future ‘Dines List installments are going to have themes to them, and this one is going to be about sardines from Morocco.

Why Morocco?  Perhaps the better question is why not Morocco?  Located in the northwestern point of the African continent, Morocco borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost edge of the warm Mediterranean Sea.  This geographical area, where ocean meets sea, has a long history of fishing and trading, and there are commercial fisheries all through the region.  Morocco is right across from Spain and Portugal, and plenty of tinned sardines are products of those three countries.  I’ll cover Spanish and Portuguese sardines in future installments, but it is worth noting that due to European Union agreements regarding fishing rights, many Spanish vessels fish for sardines in Moroccan waters.

The first Moroccan sardines I found were from the Titus brand, which most Asian markets around Orlando seem to carry.  These had a very cool-looking can.  I love how sardine can graphic design tends to be “old-timey,” like they’ve had the same artwork, fonts, and colors for decades, or even longer.  You’ll never see tins emblazoned with a cartoon fish shredding on an electric guitar while riding a skateboard and wearing sunglasses and a backwards cap, because there are no focus groups warning the sardine companies they need to be more “extreme” and “totally in your face.”  And that’s just fine, really.

But the ‘dines inside weren’t the prettiest.  This was after I drained the oil, but don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.   

I just threw these over some pasta and didn’t bother to take a picture.  They were okay.  I don’t think I would get them again, but of course I bought two cans of the regular Titus and two cans of…

HOT TITUS!  I almost always gravitate toward spicy sardines, which are either packed in spicy oil or with some kind of hot peppers, or both.  They usually taste better than plain ones, at least to me.   

This can only included three large ‘dines, and in my experience, the bigger ones rarely taste as good as the smaller ones.  They tend to be drier and flakier in texture than smaller brisling sardines.   These Hot Titus ‘dines came packed with some very hot peppers (dry and full of spicy seeds) in addition to the bright orange spicy vegetable oil.

I made the Hot Titus ‘dines into one and a half sandwiches on delicious Deutsche Kuche soft pretzel sticks from my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” because I am easily amused.  The pretzel sticks are imported from Germany, and I just bake them in the toaster oven at 350 for nine minutes.  They come out with perfect crispy, crackly exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors, ideal for salvaging sardines (or sampling mustards, as in my Cutting the Mustard feature from earlier this summer).I left off the condiments to get their full flavor… which wasn’t much to speak of, even with the two peppers they had been canned with.  I drained the oil, as I always do, but it didn’t impart much flavor either.  That could have been because it was vegetable oil instead of the superior olive oil.  A schmear of mustard and some fresh and pickled vegetables would have helped turn these into superior sandwiches, even with mediocre ‘dines, but I wanted the full, unadulterated Hot Titus experience.

Earlier this year, I found these Brother and Sister sardines at Tima’s House, a Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, which has some neat stuff.  I don’t think they would have cost more than $3, or I would not have bought them.  You don’t usually see sardines in sunflower oil, but I’m a mark for spicy ‘dines with peppers, so I had to try them.  Plus, they were from Morocco!

They were pretty typical-looking large sardines with dark skin, packed in a deep orange spicy oil that didn’t actually impart much flavor. 

I had these four Brother and Sister ‘dines over a simple salad, since I pack a salad in my lunches for work almost every day.  This salad looks like it was more simple than usual, since I just see lettuce and cucumber on it, but I probably splashed on a bit of a vinaigrette dressing.  They were okay.  I’ve made better salads and eaten better sardines, that’s for sure.  The little peppers aren’t very tasty, and they are full of seeds, so I tossed them after taking this picture. 

I don’t remember if I got these Baraka sardines at Tima’s House or at one of Orlando’s many Middle Eastern grocery stores.  Once again, they are products of Morocco, and they are packed in soy oil with chili peppers, so I was on board.  The price was definitely right on these, but sometimes you don’t want the absolute cheapest canned seafood out there. 

I instinctively drained the orange oil before taking this photo, so they weren’t just sitting in a completely dry can:

And I enjoyed them on some marble rye toast with a schmear of neufchatel cheese (like cream cheese, but low-fat, so the cheese and your life are both less enjoyable) and everything bagel seasoning.  The tin ended up having just three large sardines plus the long chili pepper that didn’t taste very good on its own.

The next Moroccan ‘dines I tried were from the Sultan brand.  First I tried spicy Sultan sardines, in oil with chili peppers.  I believe I found these at the Walmart Supercenter, of all places, in the small Middle Eastern food section.  They were cheap, so I figured “Why not?  I’m already in Walmart.  How much worse can things get?”

They were pretty large ‘dines, as all the Moroccan ‘dines tend to be.

I had these on Ritz crackers (the BEST crackers for any purpose), with dabs of my homemade tzatziki sauce underneath each one — Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, and a dash of dill.  These spicy Sultans weren’t bad at all.  They were very meaty ‘dines, with decent flavor from the spicy oil and some subtle heat.  The chili peppers, as usual, were barely edible.  

I also bought a can of plain Sultan sardines at the same time, and my hopes for these weren’t as high, especially after the relative disappointment of the plain, non-hot Titus ‘dines compared to the Hot Titus.

These were even larger fish:

But I worked some magic, following a Sicilian recipe for pasta con le sarde, a dish that includes onions, garlic, fennel bulb, golden raisins soaked in wine, seasoned bread crumbs, the plain Sultan sardines, and pasta — in this case, some perciatelli, which is essentially the same as bucatini (long, hollow tubes).  Of course I didn’t have any wine to soak the golden raisins in since neither my wife nor I drink, so I just threw them in there unaltered, thinking the sweetness and chewiness would bring something nice to the experience.  It was a tasty pasta dish, especially with that fragrant fennel, which is a truly underrated ingredient.  But I felt like it could be better.

In my first ‘Dines List write-up, I sang the praises of Norway’s King Oscar brand, some of the best sardines you can buy in terms of quality, variety, and value.  King Oscars are readily available at most major supermarkets, and I mentioned last time that they are terrific “gateway sardines” for the uninitiated.  Most King Oscar sardines are products of Poland despite being caught in Norwegian waters.  However, these skinless and boneless Spanish Style ‘dines, packed in olive oil and seasoned with chili peppers and tiny slices of carrot and pickle, are products of Morocco, hence their inclusion here.

In that previous installment, I warned about avoiding boneless and skinless sardines.  That’s just a personal preference, but I felt obligated to try these for a more complete feature on the different varieties of Moroccan sardines.  These King Oscars are perfectly good sardines, but they never look right to me without the silvery skin.  And I think the bones add some interesting texture (plus calcium).

I decided to attempt pasta con le sarde again, to do something more exciting with these boneless, skinless ‘dines.  I started sautéing diced onions, garlic, and more of that awesome fennel bulb in extra virgin olive oil, then added a can of Cento anchovies, which I always stock up on at Trader Joe’s, because they are so good in recipes.  (They are also products of Morocco!)  I mashed up the salty anchovies and their oil in the aromatics and kept sautéing until the anchovies completely dissolved.  That added some saltiness and savory umami flavor, which is good because all boneless, skinless sardines are very mild.  (Although these Spanish Style King Oscars are the best boneless, skinless sardines I’ve ever tried, both flavor- and texture-wise.)

Once the aromatics were translucent and soft, I added sultanas (golden raisins) that I had been soaking in white wine vinegar as a substitute for wine, since I learn from my mistakes.  Then I stirred in the King Oscar ‘dines, their oil, and the tiny sliced vegetables straight out of the can, then some seasoned Italian bread crumbs and red pepper flakes, and let everything continue to sauté.  I tossed it all together with some al dente fettuccine pasta, threw some diced tomatoes on top, and boom: new and improved pasta con le sarde!  This was by far the better attempt, between the higher-quality King Oscar sardines that brought their own flavors, plus the can of anchovies, the red pepper flakes for some necessary heat, and the white wine vinegar-soaked golden raisins for sweetness and tartness.  I’ve never seen this pasta dish on a restaurant menu anywhere, but I am  obsessed with it now.

A long time ago, I bought a can of Alshark sardines from a Middle Eastern grocery store and thought they were pretty good, so I tracked down another can for the purposes of this review, since they are also Moroccan.  

This was the only sardine can I had trouble fully opening, but I was still able to get the four large ‘dines out.  

I ate them plain to really experience the flavor.  These were meaty and pleasantly spicy, moreso than any of the other so-called spicy ‘dines in this review.  I’d definitely get these Alshark ‘dines again.

Last but not least, I decided to try Wild Planet’s “Wild” white anchovies, another product of Morocco.  These are totally different from the salt-cured anchovies most people are familiar with, like the Cento anchovies shown above, which are one of my secret weapons when cooking.  These are more like typical tinned sardines than super-salty brown anchovy filets.  

White anchovies like this are popular in tapas dishes in Spain, where they are called boquerones.  I ate these straight out of the can after draining the oil because I had never had boquerones before, and they were okay.  Pretty plain and bland, like Wild Planet sardines I’ve tried before.  Despite the name of the company, there wasn’t much “wild” about their flavor.  Unfortunately I bought these at Costco, so I have four more cans to get through.  I will definitely jazz them up with more exciting recipes and serving methods to make them more interesting in the future.

So here ends our Mission to Morocco, the second of hopefully many ‘Dines List features right here on The Saboscrivner.  Expect to learn all about sardines from Spain, Portugal, and other parts unknown in the months (and years) to come, but at least I got this one out before hurricane season is over, just in case it inspires anyone to stock up on some sardines.

As always, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, let me know what you try and if you like them or not, and if there are other sardines or tinned seafood you recommend.  I’m always happy to take requests and accept freebies, especially if any of you jet-setters travel to Europe, where grocery stores have mythical aisles of nothing but fancy tinned seafood.  But in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt (or more accurately, gone fishin’) in Orlando’s many supermarkets and international grocery stores as a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, the dean of sardines.