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.


Chain Reactions: Culver’s

Culver’s (https://www.culvers.com/) is a fast food chain that was founded in in Sauk City, Wisconsin, in 1984.  I tried it on a short trip to Wisconsin over 20 years ago, to visit the weird, wonderful, and uniquely American roadside attraction The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  Now we have multiple Culver’s locations across Central Florida, and since I am obsessed with regional restaurants and food trends, I appreciate having more options to choose from, chains or not.

Culver’s is famous for its frozen custard, “ButterBurgers,” and breaded, fried cheese curds.  But even though the ButterBurgers are above average fast food burgers, my wife and I usually return when we’re in the mood for delicious fish, hand-battered and deep-fried.  Culver’s has the best fried fish of any fast food restaurants, and better than a surprising amount of seafood restaurants and Irish and British pubs we’ve been to.

Specifically, they serve North Atlantic cod, which you can get as a sandwich or as a dinner with two or three pieces of fish.  Sometimes my wife and I will split a three-piece North Atlantic cod dinner, which comes with fries, cole slaw, and a roll, but you can select two sides of your choice if you don’t want fries (standard crinkle-cut fries) or cole slaw.  Ring the Alarm!  Culver’s has excellent onion rings, with beer batter coating similar to the battered cod filets.  They are my favorite fast food onion rings.  They are considered a Premium side, so you have to pay a small upcharge for them.  DO IT!

Here’s a close-up of the battered fish from a different visit.  It will make you say “Oh my cod!”

As great as the Atlantic cod is (and it is), Culver’s brings out a different battered, fried fish once a year for a limited time: Canadian Northwoods walleye, which is a very light, buttery fish.  Even though this sandwich is $7.99, which seems expensive for fast food, it is worth every penny.  I added the creamy, crunchy cole slaw on top of the sandwich, too:By the way, the Culver’s website says the tartar sauce includes olives, capers and sweet relish!  I would not have guessed olives or capers, but they list the ingredients right on the peel-off lid of the little dipping cup.

That walleye doesn’t look that different from the cod, but trust me, you could tell the difference in a taste test.  The sandwich comes with a bit of lettuce and tartar sauce underneath the fish, and the bun is buttered and lightly grilled like all Culver’s sandwich buns.  That’s always a nice touch.   

I already said that I think the ButterBurgers are just okay, but Culver’s amazed and astonished when they came out with this limited-time special: the “Curderburger.”  It is exactly what you think — a burger served on the typical bun (buttered and lightly grilled, thank you very much), topped with a “cheese crown.”  Yes, that is a giant breaded and fried cheese curd patty, and it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.  (Because “SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF CHEESE!”)

Here’s a cross-section, with melty, molten cheddar cheese curd leaking out of the fried patty on top of the burger.  You probably shouldn’t eat more than one of these a year, or the Curderburger could become a Murderburger.  Luckily, it is a limited-time menu item. 
I should note that back in the ’90s, my brother and I were enamored with a similar decadent burger from the late, lamented chain restaurant Bennigan’s, the “Wheelhouse burger,” topped with what was essentially a mozzarella cheese stick in patty form instead of stick form.  And I have to give a shout-out to Orlando’s beloved Se7enbites, the Southern restaurant and bakery where Chef Trina Gregory-Propst created the Italian Stallion burger, topped with tomato jam, pesto aioli, and a mozzarella cheese plank.  But I digress!

This is my wife’s favorite Signature side, the pretzel bites, which you have to pay a $1.50 upcharge for if you get them in a combo with a sandwich or a dinner.  But again, like so many things at Culver’s, they are totally worth it.  The outside crust is lightly crackly and crispy and buttery and salty, and the inside is pillowy soft.  They come with a little dipping cup of Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce for dipping, but they don’t need anything — and I say that as someone who always likes dipping things in other things. 

In fact, I tried a few of the different dipping sauces with onion rings, as you can see.  That’s the Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce on the left in the unlabeled cup.  The Boom Boom sauce is a little spicy and surprisingly thick and heavy, but the creamy, tangy Culver’s Signature sauce SLAPS.  Those are both recent discoveries from my last trip, and I would definitely get that Signature sauce again.

George’s chili is considered a Signature side too, so you have to pay a $1.50 upcharge for it as well.  I always love chili, and if it’s offered on a menu, I will always try it.  The website boasts that this is “medium-spicy” chili con carne, but keep in mind this is a chain restaurant from Wisconsin, and I found it very mild.  It is made by simmering ground beef (the same stuff the burgers are made of, naturally), diced tomatoes, dark red kidney beans, peppers, onion and celery, and a “secret blend of peppery spices.”  With Culver’s always making a big deal about its Wisconsin roots and all its great cheese, I thought the chili could really use some shredded cheese or the cheddar cheese sauce on top to melt into it. 

I appreciate fast food restaurants that don’t just offer burgers and chicken, but have all kinds of odd, offbeat options.  You may have already noticed Culver’s is cool like that, but they even have a pot roast sandwich made with hand-shredded braised chuck roast.  I have a deep, abiding love of slow-braised and stewed meats, cooked until they are moist and tender and falling apart.  Too many people under-season their pot roast and dry it out, to the point that you can chew it forever and nothing happens, but not so with this sandwich.  It was a tasty, savory alternative to the standard burgers and fried fish, and I would definitely get it again some time.

In addition to the ButterBurgers, the frozen custard is a big draw at Culver’s and a major part of its brand.  It is my wife’s favorite part — even more than the fish.  She usually opts for the chocolate custard with chunks of Butterfinger candy swirled in, but this time she got it with some chocolate syrup, pecans, and a cherry on top. 

I’ve been sitting on this review for the better part of a year, waiting for the triumphant return of Culver’s lemon ice, a summer treat that sadly disappears for the rest of the year.  Summer is my least-favorite season here in hot, humid, sticky, sweltering Florida, but I do love all the sweet, cold, refreshing drinks and treats that come out in the summer.  My favorite is Culver’s lemon ice — in this case, a strawberry-mango lemon ice cooler, which is real slow-frozen lemonade swirled with real fruit.  It is definitely a dessert, not as wholesome and nutritious as a smoothie (although smoothies are also high in calories and carbs), but I love ’em.  Culver’s actually has lemon ice smoothies as well, where they mix the lemon ice and fruit with their vanilla custard, but I like them more tangy and acidic and less creamy.  I drank a fair bit on the drive home before I could take this photo, but they really do fill the cup all the way up.  I’m trying to avoid sweets and desserts and sugary sodas, but I can see enjoying a few more lemon ice coolers before the summer of 2023 ends.

The thing on the right is a chocolate custard with M&Ms mixed in — my wife’s choice, of course.

So that’s Culver’s.  They take longer to prepare your meal than most other fast food establishments, and cost considerably more, but you pay for quality, including fresh food cooked to order every time.  I must admit I always look askance at the receipt on every trip to Culver’s and think “REALLY?”  But the two kinds of fish (the cod and limited-time walleye), the onion rings, the pretzel bites, and the lemon ices never disappoint, and my wife loves that chocolate custard too.  Anyone who has ever read my food blog knows that I don’t consider myself too cool or too sophisticated to enjoy fast food.  I am neither an elitist nor a health nut.  Culver’s is definitely well above average for fast food, so give it a try if you haven’t already.  And if you have, what are YOUR Culver’s favorites?

Four Flamingos: A Richard Blais Florida Kitchen

Four Flamingos: A Richard Blais Florida Kitchen (https://fourflamingosorlando.com/) is an upscale restaurant at the very upscale Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort hotel near Walt Disney World in Orlando.  This is not the kind of restaurant The Saboscrivner and his wife usually dine at, as constant readers can attest.  We prefer the hidden gems for affordable everyday meals, not these high-roller, baller, shot-caller spots.  It even has a Michelin recommendation!  But I offered to take Doctor Professor Ma’am, aka Señora Saboscrivner, somewhere nice to celebrate her birthday earlier this year, and as usual, I sent her a bunch of different menus to choose from.

Four Flamingos is usually only open for dinner, but they happened to have a fancy all-you-can-eat brunch on a Sunday in late February, and it sounded really good to both of us.  It was a whopping $92 per person — a huge indulgence for sure, but we live as simply and within our means as possible, so we can indulge like this once in a while with clear consciences.  However, if anyone decides to stop reading right here and now, I couldn’t even blame you.

Richard Blais is a big-time celebrity chef, a Top Chef winner, and he was even there on the day of the brunch, helping Chef de Cuisine Shelby Farrell cook (or at least helping direct things in the kitchen) and greeting some guests who were marking out in his presence.  We got the latest possible brunch reservation (quite late in the afternoon), which was a lucky break due to what a big deal this was, and I knew we were going to have a memorable experience.

When we entered the busy dining room, there was a singer-guitarist who was quite loud, making it difficult to carry on a conversation.  Thankfully, at least he was good.  As I get older, even though I still love going to concerts, I find live music at restaurants tends to be oppressively, unpleasantly loud, to the point of detracting from the overall experience.

The brunch menu featured five small plates from the kitchen, and they were all on display as we walked to our table in a glass-enclosed atrium-like dining room.  However, each guest could only select two, and they all looked so good.  The “Floribbean” influences of Four Flamingos were strong in each of these dishes, featuring flavors that are native to our strange Southern state and its island neighbors in the Caribbean Sea.

The sweet tea short rib was served on a bed of grits, with squash and an orange glaze.  I love short ribs, so I ended up selecting this one.

Even though I’m not typically an eggs benedict fan (or a brunch fan in general), I also selected this mangu benny, a Dominican twist on the iconic brunch dish, with mashed plantains, a poached egg, Portuguese-style linguica sausage as a higher-end version of the classic Dominican salami, and datil pepper hollandaise sauce.

My wife wisely chose the SBLT, with swordfish bacon (holy moley, this was incredible), local lettuce and tomato, and peppercorn aioli on grilled Olde Hearth Bakery sourdough bread.  She loved it, and she was kind enough to give me the tomato and pink pickled onions, as well as a taste of the smoky swordfish bacon.  We both love swordfish as well as any kind of smoked fish.  What a brilliant idea this was!

She also chose the guava and goat cheese tart, with chevre (goat cheese) panna cotta, guava jam, and preserved lemon in a flaky little crust.  I usually like guava a lot more than she does, but she ended up really loving this one too. 

Sadly, neither of us got a chance to try the chicken & the egg, the fifth and final small plate — a Scotch egg made with chicken sausage cradling a soft-boiled egg, served with coconut white barbecue sauce.

Beyond the small plates, there were all kinds of decadently delicious options to choose from, including tiny WiAnno oysters from Cape Cod, venus clams, and house-made cured salmon gravlax, dyed purpley-red with beet juice.

There were also poached, peeled shrimp and cracked stone crab claws, a real delicacy.

Needless to say, I went to town on these paper-thin slices of “Southern Smash” salami, bresaola (air-cured salted beef, kind of like beef prosciutto), and sumptuous duck pastrami.

There were fancy cheeses to choose from, including an olive oil goat cheese in that glass bowl.

I really liked the port wine pate mousse, since my mom introduced me to the wonders of liverwurst when I was a little kid, and I also love Jewish-style chopped liver like crazy.  (This was good, but honestly, good chopped liver is so much better!)

I had to photograph this gorgeous antipasto salad with multicolored cauliflower, grape tomatoes, and Brazilian sweety drop peppers.  It tasted good too, but there were more exciting things to sample.

Pardon the mediocrity of this photo, but this wagyu beef tenderloin with a chimichurri rub was one of the only letdowns, sitting under the hot lights of this carving station.  My wife and I both prefer our steak juicy and rare, and these pre-sliced pieces were all more done than we like, and dryer, too.  But realizing this in advance, I only took a couple of small pieces, so I could say I tried it.

Some of the tastiest things I tried were the sauces.  Every sauce was magnificent, including the California red barbecue sauce, jalapeño chimichurri, and Richard Blais steak sauce.  Each one was better than the last, and they helped add dimension and excitement to the overdone tenderloin. 

And this isn’t a monster from a Final Fantasy game at this carving station, but rather a whole marinated and fried black grouper.  Grouper is one of our favorite fish, and it is so hard to find on menus in and around Orlando.  Usually we have to schlep out to Florida’s western Gulf Coast for buttery, flaky grouper around St. Petersburg and Clearwater, but this guy was pretty great.  Unlike the cauliflower salad, this tasted a lot better than it looked. 

Anyway, here is my actual sweet tea short rib, which was cooked to tender perfection, soft enough to cut or shred with the side of a fork.  For a lifelong Florida Man, I admit that I have never been into grits and probably never will get into them, but these were far better grits than anything else I’ve ever had.

The mangu benny was perfectly fine.  I loved the linguica sausage, the perfectly poached egg (a reminder of why I never poach eggs at home), and the datil pepper hollandaise sauce, but the mangu mash was a little bland.  Maduros (sweet fried ripe plantains) are one of my favorite things to eat in the entire world, but mangu is one plantain dish I will probably continue to pass on.

And this was the gorgeous SBLT up close, with the swordfish bacon on full display.  It was a hit.

Unfortunately, my wife wasn’t feeling fantastic on the day in question, and she was feeling worse and worse throughout the meal (through no fault of the restaurant or the food).  After all that anticipation, we left much earlier than we would have liked, and definitely did not get to eat as much or for as long as we hoped.  I feel like I performed valiantly, doing what I could to “beat the house,” as I do in any buffet setting, but could have fought harder and gone on longer.

In the end, we paid a hell of a lot of money for some fancy foods that I love — cured meats, oysters, smoked and cured fish, cheese, grouper, interesting sauces — but I don’t think we would return to Four Flamingos for another one of these brunches.  Not for that price, at least.  My wife agreed.  I’m glad we did it, and my only regret was that I didn’t put away more.  But there are better values to be had, even if you’re looking for luxury, seeking swankiness, or on an odyssey for opulence.  I remember the Sunday jazz brunch at the Boheme restaurant at the Grand Bohemian Hotel had a lot of similar things back in the day, but was cheaper and closer to home for us.  I wonder if they’re still doing that.  I wonder if I can “beat the house” there like I used to.  Stay tuned, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos.

But Four Flamingos recently had another one of these all-you-can-eat brunches for Mother’s Day, and I’m sure they will do more in the future, so be on the lookout.  Did anyone attend either this one from late February or the Mother’s Day one?  What did you think?  What were the high points for you, and were there any low points at all?  For those who have eaten dinner there, how would that compare to a brunch like this?  Let us know!

Maya Café Lounge & Gallery

Doctor Professor Ma’am and I recently visited Maya Café Lounge & Gallery (https://www.instagram.com/mayacafelounge/), located at 1980 Howell Branch Road, at the edge of where suburban Casselberry blends into Winter Park.  The pink building beckons, promising beauty and hope in the midst of suburban sprawl, like a rose stretching sunward, strong and tall, from a crack in a concrete sidewalk.  Maya Café opened in December of 2022, so it has been around for six months now, but we only recently learned of its existence — late bloomers for life.

You have to love any restaurant with a handwritten chalkboard sign outside, advertising its specials.

Inside, another chalkboard listed some of the sweet coffee drinks available at the cafe, accompanied by a golden maneki neko (lucky cat).

Those waving cats, ubiquitous at so many Asian restaurants, are supposed to be Japanese bobtails.  They are supposed to bring good luck and fortune, but I love cats so much, if I meet any cat at any time, I consider myself lucky.  Just to clarify, this adorable maneki neko statue was the only cat I glimpsed at the restaurant.

And yet another chalkboard listed the hot coffee drinks and several other menu items. 

We were immediately dazzled and overwhelmed by the stunning surroundings.  Maya Café is an eclectic, eccentric, artsy space with strong feminine energy, which makes sense, as it is run by three generations of women.  After we sat down and placed our orders with Celeste, we took in the beautiful, unique décor that elevates this family restaurant above others.All these flowers on the fall behind us?  Actually three-dimensional, with petals popping off the wall.

Behind this counter, around this woman’s beckoning glance, were song lyrics like “How deep is your love,” “I wish I was special,” and “The winner takes it all.”

On the other side of the dining room we saw a beautiful chandelier made of ropes and hanging light bulbs, a ceiling of leaves, a gorgeous classic Corvette, and lots of art and some clothing for sale.  

There is so much to look at here, and it doesn’t feel like those corporate chain restaurants that say “Hey, look at all this crazy crap on the walls!” like Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag.  Everything is one of a kind, and much of it is for sale. 

The Corvette actually forms unique booths surrounding glass coffee tables.

I can no longer drink coffee at all, for multiple reasons, but this was my wife’s beautiful iced mochacchino, served in a mason-style jar.  She loved how rich and chocolatey it was, and how good the whipped cream on top was.

She ordered the eggplant dip for herself, but it was so much food (especially with all those pita bread wedges), she ended up taking most of it home.

It was nothing like babaganush (which we love so much from Zeytin Turkish Cuisine), but still really good.  This eggplant dip contained balsamic glaze, pomegranate seeds, sesame seeds, olives, walnuts, and Greek yogurt (I think), among other things.   

I ordered the Maya burger, which I was a little skeptical about, because we were in such an artsy, hipstery, vegetarian-friendly café and not what I think of as a burger joint, but it was such a pleasant surprise.  I was blown away from the first bite, and I quickly devoured it after giving some of the patty and the perfectly cooked bacon to my wife to try.  I will go out on a limb and say it is one of the best burgers in Orlando, and almost certainly the most underrated and slept-on burger.  The patty is a blend of beef and chorizo sausage, and they cooked it to an ideal medium rare — juicy, not smashed flat.  It was topped with lettuce, cheese, unobtrusive pickle slices, French’s fried onions (I love these things and eat them as a snack sometimes; they aren’t just for green bean casserole anymore!), and that great bacon, all on a brioche bun.   
That Maya burger was a beautiful combination of flavors, textures, and colors, not unlike the Maya Café itself.  Perfect in every way.

The burger came with fries that were just okay, but some seasoning or even some more salt would have improved them a lot.

We were all in at that point, so I ordered fried chicken tacos for us to share.  We got two in our order, and they came with flour tortillas and street corn dip, which you can also order as a dip of its own.

Close-up of the street corn dip, which included bacon, sour cream, cotija cheese, jalapeños, red onion, garlic, and cilantro.  We both thought the chicken tacos were just okay, but the street corn dip was the standout.  I would order it separately in the future.

After staring at this glass display case of Argentinian-style empanadas throughout our meal, I couldn’t help but ask about them.

I ended up ordering a beef empanada:

It had seasoned ground beef inside, similar to Cuban picadillo, but less tomatoey.  The shell was flaky baked pastry, rather than fried like the Cuban empanadas I grew up eating in Miami (okay, Kendall).  I’m very glad I tried it.

This was a guava empanada.  I love guava, but my wife usually doesn’t.  Still, she was so intrigued by the beautiful, golden pastry crust, she ended up eating most of this one, and she really enjoyed the guava.  All I wanted was the tiniest morsel, just so I could say that I also approved.  I do.  

For dessert, my wife wanted to try a Nutella-filled croissant.  I didn’t even think she liked Nutella, but she did that day!  I didn’t have any, but it sure looked and smelled good.  She took a bite at the restaurant but enjoyed most of it for breakfast the following day.

And after all that food, normally I would never have ordered dessert, but they had lemon pie on the menu, and that is one of my favorite desserts of all time, particularly the version I make — a creamy filling of fresh-squeezed lemon or other citrus juice, swirled into sweetened condensed milk, chilled and set in the fridge, in a buttery, salty-sweet Ritz cracker crust.  It’s the perfect summertime dessert, and I am obsessed with it.  The version at Maya Café was very similar to mine, except it had a soft, yielding graham cracker crust instead of my saltier Ritz crust — perfect with this pie, as it would have been with key lime pie or cheesecake.  It was less tangy than my pie, but it was still wonderful.  It was the perfect end to this eclectic, multicultural meal full of surprises and wonders.

We will definitely return to Maya Café Lounge & Gallery, especially because it is so close to home, and so damn cool, and that Maya burger is a modern masterpiece.  I want to spread the word and boost the signal to support such a unique, woman-owned business, also because it is in an area people may not venture to.  But it’s really not that far out of the way.  It is just around the corner from some local favorites like Kai Asian Street Fare and Bagel King, and people drive all the way to those from every corner of Orlando (as well they should).  Well, here’s one more stop for your next trip to Casselberry, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos.  You heard it here first… or at least you heard it here.

And if that wasn’t enough, there is a super-cool taco trailer right outside Maya Café: La Patrona, run by Celeste’s stepfather.  I have every intention of trying that soon as well!

Twenty Pho Hour

Twenty Pho Hour (https://www.twenty-pho-hour.com/) is a new “fast casual Asian fusion” restaurant that opened in the shopping center at 11951 International Drive, down by Sea World, in a part of Orlando I rarely venture to.  My wife and I recently went there because a dear friend from college was in town briefly, staying nearby.  I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years, but we lived down the hall from each other in the dorm our freshman year, and had caught up on Facebook, where he is as witty and insightful and as good a dude as ever.  This guy (who shares a name with an infamous TV news reporter and an infamous cartoon character) had even befriended some of my completely unrelated Facebook friends, and my wife really wanted to meet him, so we had a great lunch at the eye-catching Twenty Pho Hour.

Normally you order at the counter, but since my wife and I arrived before my friend, the patient server allowed us to sit down at a table, and she took all of our orders on a tablet when my friend joined us.  Then we wandered around the space, since there is a lot to look at.  Twenty Pho Hour bills itself as “America’s first 2D noodle bar,” and that is due to the striking interior design and theming of the restaurant.  Everything is white surfaces with black outlines, giving it the look of two-dimensional artwork that messes with your eyes and your brain by suggesting three dimensions.  Generation Xers and elder Millennials, you have probably (hopefully!) seen the classic “Take On Me” music video by Norwegian band A-ha, and that is the best way to describe the Twenty-Pho Hour decor.  Plus, the song is a synth-pop bop that can transport you straight back to 1985, for better or for worse.

All the books had funny, punny titles on their spines:

The “pho booth” is a popular picture-taking spot, as one could guess:

So it’s a hip, cool, ‘Grammable place, but what about the food?  Well, it’s perfectly fine, especially on that touristy side of Orlando, far from the super-authentic Asian restaurants clustered around the Mills 50 district.  I’m guessing many who venture here, this could be their first taste of pho, the iconic Vietnamese beef noodle soup that lends the restaurant its name, so I decided to try a classic: pho dac biet ($13).  This is the combination pho that comes with thin slices of rare eye round steak, beef brisket, chewy beef meatballs, tender tendon, and tripe (which has an odd texture that isn’t always my favorite), in addition to soft rice noodles, onions, and green onions in a complex, fragrant, slow-simmered beef broth.  I’ve slurped, scarfed, sipped, and supped on pho dac biet all over Orlando, so I wanted to try this as pure and unadulterated as possible.  I didn’t add any sambal oelek, sriracha, or hoisin sauce to my pho, just the fresh basil, fresh jalapeño slices, and a healthy squirt of lime.  And it was perfectly fine.  It didn’t capture the majestic magnificence of my other 2023 discovery, Pho Huong Lan, which I would still consider the best pho in Orlando by far.  But it was refreshing, the way only pho can be, compared to having other hot soups during most of the hot, humid year in Florida.  Later, I would describe it to my wife as “baby’s first pho,” but you know what?  There’s nothing wrong with that.

My friend ordered the Trifecta ($13), a soup of beef brisket, chicken, shrimp, and udon, a thick and chewy Japanese style of noodle, in beef broth.  He seemed to really enjoy his, but I did not get a picture of it.  Sorry!

My wife ordered pad Thai ($13), a dish of stir-fried rice noodles with egg, peanuts, carrots, scallions, cilantro, and lime in a sweet and tangy sauce.  She chose tofu as her protein, but you could also choose steak tips, brisket, chicken, shrimp, or vegetables.  Note that even the plates and bowls stick to the visual theming of white with black borders, to continue the illusion and make the food pop visually even more.   I’ve always felt that pad Thai is a great dish for judging a new and/or unfamiliar Thai restaurant, along with my personal go-to Thai dish, pad kee mao, sometimes known as drunken noodles.  I think my wife chose wisely, because she really loved Twenty Pho Hour’s version of pad Thai.  She let me try a taste, and I liked it too.

My wife also adores summer rolls at most of our favorite Vietnamese restaurants like Little Saigon and Pho 88, so she wanted to try the Twenty Pho Hour version.  These were tofu summer rolls ($5) — transparent, chewy rice paper stuffed with fried tofu, mixed greens, rice vermicelli (the same noodles that were in my pho), carrots, zucchini chips, fried onion, and fried garlic.   She seemed to like them a lot, but she didn’t dig on the sweet chili sauce they came with.  She greatly prefers the sweet peanut sauce that most other Vietnamese restaurants serve their summer rolls with.  Little did we realize, Twenty Pho Hour also serves more traditional summer rolls with that peanut sauce, but oh well, lesson learned.

My wife ordered a taro milk tea ($5) with some strawberry-flavored popping boba added (a $1 upcharge), and she really liked that.  Taro bubble tea is her standard drink at any Asian tea shop or Vietnamese restaurant, but they had a few flavors to choose from.   Taro always tastes like vanilla to me, but with a slightly earthy undertone that is pleasant.   

And my old pal ordered an adult beverage that came with an adorable Twenty Pho Hour-branded rubber duckie, complete with the restaurant’s logo and matching color scheme.  This was the spicy Tokyo mule ($12), with jalapeño-infused sake, ginger beer, simple syrup, lime juice, and fresh basil.  It sounded really interesting and refreshing, and he seemed to really like it.  Unfortunately, he forgot to bring the duck with him, but you can keep them.  

So that’s Twenty Pho Hour.  Despite the name, the restaurant is not open twenty-four hours, so that is misleading, but I understand the need for some logical leaps in service of a pun.  At least it remains open until 2:00 AM Thursday through Saturday.  If you find yourself down near Sea World and don’t want to schlep toward downtown Orlando for pho or other Asian food, it would be a pretty safe bet.  It’s already quite popular, and I expect its popularity with increase exponentially in the weeks and months to come, so plan your visit accordingly.

Apparently it is up for some kind of Michelin dining award in 2023, to be announced later this summer.  I’m assuming a Bib Gourmand award, which “recognizes great food at a great value,” or a “Recommended Restaurant.”  But I’m not expecting a restaurant that has you fetch your own chopsticks and plastic utensils will get a Michelin star.  Personally, I am skeptical about the entire Michelin process, and about getting restaurant recommendations from a tire company with delusions of grandeur, but here you are, getting restaurant recommendations for the past five years from an ex-librarian writing from a home office filled with action figure displays.

The Whiskey

Orlando’s “Restaurant Row” is a cluster of upscale restaurants — some chains and some locally owned and operated — along Sand Lake Road in the toney Dr. Phillips area, east of I-4 Exit 74, close to touristy International Drive and the Orange County Convention Center.  I honestly try to avoid this side of town, but I end up  out there from time to time, between catching up with visiting friends staying near the theme parks and my annual trips to nerd Mardi Gras, also known as MegaCon Orlando.

Years ago, I visited one of the more casual restaurants on Restaurant Row and thought it was just fine, but never reviewed it or returned… until recently.  My oldest friend and I staggered out of the busiest day of MegaCon 2023, famished, exhausted, and feeling very middle-aged.  He wanted to get a late lunch somewhere with table service, where we could sit down and be served and relax.  He specifically requested comfort food and a refreshing cocktail, but I would have been content with free refills on soft drinks in air conditioning.  That restaurant immediately came to mind as the perfect choice, and I was excited to give it another chance after all these years.  So we went to The Whiskey (https://www.downatthewhiskey.com/), which specializes in gourmet burgers and cocktails and boasts one of the largest whiskey selections in Orlando.

We were hungry, so we started out with Whiskey chips ($11.50): house-made potato chips topped with chunky smoked blue cheese sauce, smoked blue cheese crumbles, bacon crumbles, balsamic glaze, diced tomatoes, and scallions.  I think I must have tried this on my earlier visit years ago with my wife, because it seemed very familiar.  It was awesome, though.  Totally hit the spot.  I always appreciate fresh potato chips, and I love balsamic glaze and good blue cheese.

All the burgers at The Whiskey are eight ounces, and they are a blend of chuck, brisket, and short rib.  My friend and I were talking about how we each make tasty burgers at home, but we both use ground chuck, and that can’t compare to the blend of different cuts of beef that you get at steakhouses and upscale burger joints like this.  Sometimes it seems like a cop-out to order a burger when there are all kinds of interesting dishes on a menu, but when you see that blend of chuck, brisket, and short rib, you know it’s going to be a next-level burger.  And when you’re at a dedicated burger joint, you just can’t go wrong.

My friend ordered the black n’ bleu burger ($16), a house burger patty cooked to medium, seasoned in blackened seasoning, and topped with arugula, tomato, whiskey onions, smoked applewood bacon, and more of that great chunky smoked blue cheese sauce.  He wolfed it down with gusto.The fries that are the default side that come with the burgers are awesome at The Whiskey.  They are battered, so they have a lightly crispy outer coating, making them one of my favorite kinds of fries.  The menu warns they are not gluten-free, for those who need to know such things.

I’m almost positive I ordered this same burger on my earlier visit years ago: the Southerner ($18.25), a house patty cooked to medium rare on a bed of whiskey onions and arugula, topped with bacon, pimento cheese, and two fried green tomato slices, and drizzled with balsamic glaze.  It’s a perfect combination of things I love — creamy, melty, smoky, crunchy, tangy.  I laid waste to it.

Did I mention how good the brioche-style buns are?  They are lightly toasted on the grill, as all burger buns should be.

I upgraded my side from fries (even though the fries are really damn good) to Whiskey onion rings for $3.25, because I am The Saboscrivner, and I must try onion rings anywhere that serves them.  I even have a recurring feature in these reviews called RING THE ALARM!, where I go into detail about the onion rings I encounter.  I am pleased as punch to say that these are “the good kind” of onion rings — battered, not breaded — that I search for everywhere.  Perfect thickness, consistency, crispness, color, and everything.  When people ask me to recommend restaurants that have good onion rings, I will definitely add The Whiskey to the top of my list.

By the way, my friend loved his old fashioned ($12.50), Don Draper’s favorite cocktail.  The Whiskey makes its version with Single Barrel Jack Daniels whiskey, orange bitters, rhubarb bitters, raw cane sugar, fresh orange, a Traverse City black cocktail cherry, and a rock candy stir stick.  He is an aficionado, so I take his word for such things.

I am now convinced that I was in a bad mood on my first trip to The Whiskey, all those years ago with my wife.  I don’t know what my problem was that day, but I spend too much time in a bad mood, and I deal with depression too, which doesn’t help.  I don’t think I had started this blog yet, but I’m glad I didn’t write a half-hearted review way back then.  Instead, I’m thrilled to write an extremely positive review now, and I really do recommend this place to all.  Even vegetarians can get an Impossible burger here, and there are plenty of vegetarian-friendly apps, sides, and even a few salads.

Even though I try to avoid the International Drive and Dr. Phillips/Restaurant Row area, I would happily return to The Whiskey whenever I find myself down this way.  As tempted as I would be to get that terrific Southerner burger again, I would try other options on the menu, including a smoked brisket grilled cheese sandwich that tempted me, and a camel burger made with actual ground camel meat.  That is one animal I’ve never eaten, but I might have to make a special trip back for it on some future Wednesday.

Because Wednesday is “hump day,” and I would be eating camel.

And we all know that nothing makes a joke funnier than having to explain it, so I guess I’ll stop here.

Crocante Restaurant

I’ve been to Crocante Restaurant (https://crocantekitchen.com/) three times now — twice dining in and most recently for takeout — since it opened in late 2022 in the old Fuddruckers location on East Colonial Drive.  I have been a Fuddruckers fanboy ever since I was about twelve years old, and I was overjoyed when that franchised location opened near my work back in 2017.  Then I was crushed when it closed in 2022, but I hoped whatever opened in its place would be halfway decent.

Well, I am extremely pleased to report that chef/owner Yamuel Bigio’s second Crocante location is far beyond “halfway decent.”  It is the best Puerto Rican cuisine I’ve ever had, and it will enrich the neighborhood and the city of Orlando.  Since I started composing this review, the original Crocante location in Kissimmee, which was apparently much smaller and more casual, has closed.  I get that Chef Bigio might want to focus on this newer, larger space, and anyone who tries it will be able to see the plan paid off.

I went with a friend and co-worker on my first visit, back in December.  This friend appreciates good food on the level I do, and I knew we would make wise choices.  He ordered carne frita encebollada ($17), fried pork chunks covered with sautéed onions.  At the time, it came with two “house sides,” so he chose boiled yuca in mojo sauce and a “specialty side” for a $2.50 upcharge, arroz con gandules, or rice with pigeon peas. 

I’ve never seen a restaurant plate its rice so nicely!  This deserved another photo from a different angle, along with a special shout-out.

I ordered what I had heard was the best thing on the menu, the porchetta de pernil ($18), also known as pork leg porchetta, slow-roasted with garlic and herbs and served with crispy, crackly skin.  I had already seen some diners’ photos of a big, beautiful, thick, round slice of porchetta, but mine came chopped into chunks.  I thought nothing of it, because it was one of the best things I had eaten in a long time.  In fact, it made my list of Top Ten Tastes of 2022 in Orlando Weekly.For one of my sides, I chose the arroz blanco con habichuelas rosadas, white rice and pink beans, which were awesome.  Again, the rice was plated beautifully, and the stewed beans were rich and meaty.  I could have made a filling and satisfying meal of just those.  They seemed to use short grain rice, which I associate more with sushi than Latin food, and it was so buttery.  Latin restaurants always make better rice than whatever I make in my Aroma rice cooker at home.  Could butter be the actual secret ingredient?  It does make everything better!

For my other side, I chose a “specialty side” for a $2.50 upcharge: ensalada de coditos, or pasta salad.  I’m on a kick of trying pasta salad or macaroni salad whenever I find them on menus, and this one did not disappoint.  It was a mayonnaise-based macaroni salad with chunks of cheese and ham, a very pleasant surprise.  I could have also made a meal of this!

About a month later, I returned to Crocante with another friend, an intrepid diner who is usually the first person I know to try any new restaurant, but this was his first visit.  We started out sharing empandillas de bistec encebollado ($9), an order of two steak and onion turnovers.  Of course we each ate one, and they were wonderful.  Comedian Jim Gaffigan once said there is no such thing as a bad empanada, and I tend to agree, even if this particular menu calls them “empanadillas.”  (If that translates to “little empanadas,” they were still a very good size, and delicious.)
I love the attention to detail at Crocante.  The creamy, herby dipping sauce was excellent, and even the garnish of arugula was dressed with a tangy vinaigrette, making it a legit side salad.

For this lunch, my friend and I had both figured out that to get the big, beautiful slice of porchetta — tender pork loin and unctuous, melty pork belly with crispy skin — we had to order the somewhat misleadingly named la kan kan rotisserie, also known as the boneless rotisserie pork chop ($34).  What I got last time was the chopped porchetta de pernil, but this here, at twice the price, is the real house specialty. 
Like most entrees at Crocante at that time, it came with two “house sides,” and my friend chose the same white rice and pink beans I enjoyed so much last time, plus boiled yuca with mojo sauce (and peppers).

I opted for different sides with my la kan kan rotisserie/porchetta, as much as I loved the sides from my first visit.  This time I got maduros (sweet fried plantains; one of my favorite foods of all time), and the “specialty side” of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) that my co-worker raved about last time, for a $2.50 upcharge.

Here are two sauces that our server brought us.  The one on the left was a slightly spicy, tangy vinaigrette with chili peppers floating in it, and the one on the right was creamy, a little spicy, and extremely garlicky.   

I want to show you these huge rolled porchettas on display in their raw state, before being roasted to tender, juicy perfection:

And here is one with that crispy, crackly skin, just waiting to be sliced and served.   

Most recently, I finally ordered morcilla when bringing home a takeout order on St. Patrick’s Day, because I had been wanting to try Crocante’s version of blood sausage.  It sounds gross, but I always love sausages and organ meats.  It might be offal, but it was far from awful!  In fact, it was delicious, with a crispy casing and soft, savory, yielding interior.  It was a lot less crumbly and sticky than other versions of morcilla I’ve had before.  This was a half-pound portion that didn’t come with any sides, but you can also order it by the pound.   

I also brought la kan kan rotisserie home for my wife to finally try, after I’ve spent the last two months raving about it being one of the finest pieces of meat you can eat in Orlando.  She loved it, which did not surprise me at all.  We have both eaten plenty of dry roast pork from all kinds of restaurants, including other Puerto Rican restaurants’ versions of the “chuleta kan kan” that were fried until they were dried out.  We’ve also ordered too many chicharrones that were too crunchy and hard to chew, that made us feel like our teeth were in danger.  But this was a masterpiece, even finer than the ones my buddy and I enjoyed dining at Crocante not that long ago.  It was still warm and perfect, even after driving it home to Casselberry.  And the two of us barely made a dent, so it was just as good the next day. This time, it came with a small corn muffin, that was moist and sweet and delicious — one more pleasant surprise and great little detail from Crocante.  I like sweet cornbread, but it is dry and crumbly at a lot of places, including some Southern restaurants and barbecue joints that should know better.

I ordered the arroz con gandules again for my wife to try, since she always likes rice and pigeon peas.  We both marveled at how much meat was in it, so vegetarians beware.  (Unfortunately, Crocante would not be a fantastic restaurant for vegetarians in general, with how meat-centric it is.)

I also ordered maduros, but when I arrived and saw the printed receipt, I noticed I had been charged $4.50 for them.  When they brought me my takeout order, I pointed out that the menu online said that the la kan kan rotisserie came with two sides, not just one.  Furthermore, the person I spoke to on the phone didn’t tell me there would be a charge for the second side.  They argued and said the new policy is entrees come with one side plus the little corn muffin.  Very politely, I said that I looked at the menu on their website when I called it in, and it was the same as it ever was, showing entrees came with two sides.  They said they would let the owner know to change the menu on the website, but they did not offer to refund me the $4.50.  Dear readers, as much as I love this restaurant and still recommend it, that pissed me off.  Not cool, Crocante.  $4.50 isn’t a huge amount of money, but it would have been such an easy thing for them to make right.  It’s the principle of the thing, and it left a bad taste in my mouth, after all my previous praise.  They did not handle that well.

Crocante is five minutes from my work, and the food has been terrific every time.  Despite that one annoying lapse, I would still go back because it is the best Puerto Rican restaurant I’ve ever been to.  Please check it out for yourself, especially if you like pork and want to try what might be the best pork dish ever.  Just remember to order only one side, despite what the menu on the website still says, a whole month after that interaction.

Mr. J Hand-Pulled Noodle

A month or two back, I found myself in Ocoee, an area of West Orlando I never end up in, so I invited a work colleague who lives out there to meet me for lunch at Mr. J Hand-Pulled Noodle (https://www.mrjhandpullednoodle.com/).  I had heard lots of praise about the new Chinese restaurant, one of the only ones in Florida to offer Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles called lamien, served in halal Chinese Muslim beef noodle soup.  I was excited to try it, and so was my foodie friend.

Mr. J (which I can only hear in Arleen Sorkin’s New Jersey-inflected Harley Quinn voice) opened next to a Publix in a little shopping plaza at 1688 East Silver Star Road in Ocoee.  The sign for the previous restaurant, Crab & Wings, was still up when we visited.  It is a relatively small dining room, with are four tables for parties of four, three tables for parties of two, and a counter in the back with four additional seats (stools), where we sat.  You order at the counter, and they bring your food to you when it is ready.

There are eight different noodle shapes to choose from, all made by the chef-owner, Jiqing “James” Meng: flat, thin, small flat, normal, triangle, leek leaf, thick, and thicker.  I half-expected him to be putting on a show for the diners, pulling and twisting and whipping and winding noodles, like a scene out of Kung Fu Hustle, but all the action was taking place in the kitchen, out of sight.  You should definitely come to Mr. J for an awesome lunch or dinner, but don’t expect a show.  That was fine with us — it should end up getting hype and praise for the awesomeness and authenticity of the food, not for any kind of performative aspect.   

The Mr. J’s Hand-Pulled Noodle Soup ($15.95) was a clear, consomme-style beef bone broth that reminded me more of Vietnamese pho than the familiar wonton soup I have ordered countless times at countless Chinese restaurants in Orlando, Miami, and Gainesville.  I could not begin to identify all the herbs and spices that gave it its complex yet subtle flavors, but I know coriander and garlic leaves are involved.  It was not as spicy as I was expecting or hoping, despite knowing a bit of chili oil was in there, but that allowed me to focus more on the thin slices of tender beef and the perfectly soft and chewy “small flat” noodles I ordered.   

Here’s one of those noodle-pull action shots all food bloggers try to do.  I always try to be a cool man of the world and eat my noodle soups with chopsticks, but that just means I splash my shirts, no matter how cool I try to look.  The noodles were much softer than Italian “al dente” pasta, and because they are made with wheat flour, they were also softer than the rice vermicelli in bowls of pho.  But even when I couldn’t finish all of mine and took some home, they kept their shape and firm, springy chewiness.  Note the thin slice of crunchy white daikon radish in the bowl with all the diced leeks, a nice addition.

I figured the noodle soup would not travel well, so I also ordered stir-fried hand-pulled noodles to go ($16.95), to share with my wife at home.  This dish included more of the sliced beef, stir-fried with either “thick” or “thicker” noodles.  I chose “thicker,” because I love ’em thick, and the only thing better could be thicker.  Onions, green and red bell peppers, tomato, and even pumpkin (according to the menu) are stir-fried in the mix too, although I admit I couldn’t identify the pumpkin in with all that other goodness.  The red sauce was tangy and mildly spicy, and it was topped with fresh cilantro.This was another tasty dish, but I would definitely advise first-time diners to go with the soup if they are dining in, if they have to choose between the soup and the stir-fried noodles.  The soup is definitely the house specialty, and it is the most unique dish.  You also have more noodle shape choices if you go with the soup.

I neglected to take a close-up, but in the background, you can see the tea eggs I ordered for my colleague and I to try ($1.50 each), since I had never had a tea egg before.  They were delectable hard-boiled eggs dyed a rich brown hue from tea once we shelled them, and they took on some of that unique flavor.  I eat hard-boiled eggs a lot at home and in my boring work lunches, and the tea eggs inspired me to do more exciting things with them in the future, like this.  There were also “thousand-year-old eggs” on the menu, another kind of egg I’ve never tried before, but I figured I would not push my luck.

Like I said, I am never this far west in Orlando, so I have no idea when I will return to Mr. J, so I’m glad I tried everything I did when I did.  If you make it to Ocoee more than I, you owe it to yourself to try it for yourself.  Chef Meng is a master of his craft, elevating noodles to an art form.  I can safely say you have never tried noodles like these or soup like this in Orlando.  Even though it feels like 2023 has skipped spring and gone straight to summer, get some of his beef noodle soup with these fresh, hand-pulled lamian noodles before it gets even hotter out there, and don’t let the heat and humidity stop you even in the epicenter of August’s armpit.

Sampaguita Filipino Ice Cream

Right before the end of 2022, my wife and I were lucky enough to attend a soft opening preview of Sampaguita Filipino Ice Cream (https://www.sampaguitausa.com/), the newest sweet spot in Orlando’s Mills 50 district, one of our most diverse dining destinations.  Located mere steps from previous Saboscrivner favorites like Poke Hana, Tasty Wok, and across the street from bb.q.Chicken, Sampaguita opened in an ideal central location in a neighborhood that features dozens of awe-inspiring Asian restaurants, tea and dessert shops, grocery stores, and other businesses.

I will note, as usual, that parking can be tricky around Mills 50, depending on your timing, but there is a convenient parking lot behind the Sampaguita/Tasty Wok/Poke Hana/Mamak/Moderne plaza on East Colonial and Shine, along with convenient back entrances to most of those, including Sampaguita.  If you can’t find street parking in the front along Colonial, don’t despair.

The inside of Sampaguita is something to behold.  The décor is gorgeous tropical paradise, inspired by the Philippines and also Miami.  I found it very comforting and relaxing inside, almost like we were on vacation at an island resort.  There are comfortable tables and booths, so you can linger with your ice cream in lovely surroundings.  The entire staff was friendly and welcoming, explaining flavors at the counter up front, offering us free samples, and checking up on us once we were seated.

Who wouldn’t want to hang out here?  I am not one of those food bloggers obsessed with ambience, being an “anti-influencer” and all (hey, that’s what they say on Reddit!), but I call ’em like I see ’em, and Sampaguita is a lovely and photogenic place.

They had 16 ice cream flavors available during the soft opening.  Here are the first twelve:

The last four flavors are all vegan:
Buko pandan
Mango float
Rotating sorbet (that means they will rotate different sorbet flavors in and out)
Coffee & biskwit
They also offered two additional flavors of soft serve ice cream (softcream) in both dairy and vegan varieties: vanilla and ube, a purple yam common in Filipino desserts, with a taste similar to vanilla or taro, if you’ve ever tried that.  You can also opt for the vanilla and taro to come swirled together, which my wife was all about.

We sampled several.  Banoffee — a banana/toffee flavor — was excellent, and so was peach mango pie, which I figured was a playful tribute to the hand-held desserts from Jollibee, the beloved Filipino fast food chain, which finally opened in Orlando earlier this year.

If you click the Sampaguita website link above (or here, for your convenience), the menu page offers much more detailed descriptions of every flavor.

You can get a variety of toppings, as well as fresh waffle cones that smell so good, or classic cake cones.

Ultimately, I went with a triple, with a scoop of three different tropical fruity flavors — my Miami upbringing coming through.  I got mango float (a vegan flavor), pineapple cake (similar to pineapple upside-down cake, with chewy cherries in there), and keso guava cheesecake, a very Miami-influenced flavor, recalling all the guava and cream cheese pastelitos you can get everywhere down there.  I opted to have my three scoops topped with a drizzle of pineapple caramel sauce, and I was in heaven.

My wife opted for a triple as well.  She asked if she could get a scoop-sized swirl of the vanilla and ube soft serve as one of her three flavors, and they kindly agreed.  Then she got choco peanut (milk chocolate ice cream with a peanut sauce swirl, a Filipino twist on the classic chocolate peanut butter combo) and the namesake Sampaguita flavor, an almond vanilla bean ice cream base with lychee jelly and a hint of jasmine, based on a favorite childhood snack of Marie Mercado, Sampaguita’s founder and co-owner.  It looked like it would be a good plain, basic flavor, but it was actually quite intense and delicious — far more almond than vanilla.

Marie visited our table to check on us, and she told us, “The Greenery Creamery [her other Orlando ice cream parlor] is an exploration of her self expression; Sampaguita is an exploration of her self identity.”  Marie wants to validate all the Asian-American kids who were teased and isolated for bringing home-cooked meals in their school lunches, rather than standard American kid foods.  The flavors of Sampaguita are a love letter to her family, her life, and her culture as a Filipina-American.  That love really comes through in every taste, every interaction, and every moment spent in Sampaguita.

It took us too long, but we returned again recently.  My wife was so enamored with the softcream that she got the vanilla and ube swirl again, this time in a fresh waffle cone that tasted better than any other ice cream cone ever, probably.  

I opted for another triple with three new flavors, even though I really loved the first ones I tried.  That top orange scoop is peach mango pie, the yellow-orange scoop on the right is soy sauce butterscotch, and the pale green is creamy buko pandan, with young coconut (buko) and pandan, a tropical plant that smells and tastes a bit like floral vanilla.  As usual, Eater wrote a really good article explaining more about the pandan plant and its place in Filipino desserts.Since you are dying to know, the soy sauce butterscotch, it tasted sweet and buttery, but there was a salty umami quality that cut through.  If it sounds like a weird or unpleasant combination, you couldn’t be more wrong.  Just think about how sea salt started getting combined with caramel all the time a few years ago, and you’ll be close to this magical combination.

I am so happy Sampaguita exists.  Marie Mercado’s ice cream dream that she shared with our city is already a smashing success, and I’m so happy to see it happening.  From the moment my wife and I first wandered in, I knew people would embrace the concept, unfamiliar flavors and all.  This is, without a doubt, my favorite ice cream parlor in Orlando, and I recommend it strongly.  Whether you crave the conventional or have an adventurous palate and live for trying new things, you will find something cool and sweet to love here — and I don’t just mean Marie and her lovely, patient staff.


The ‘Dines List 3: Postcards from Portugal

It has been a long time since my last installment of The ‘Dines List, the recurring Saboscrivner feature where I review different tinned sardines and other tinned seafood.  Before you recoil in disgust or make that “Flehmen Response” face that is so funny when cats do it, I want to once again extol the virtues of the humble sardine.  These tiny fish are near the bottom of the food chain.  They are extraordinarily healthy, full of omega-3 fatty acids, no mercury like so much canned tuna, pure protein, and mostly environmentally sustainable, although I have been reading articles recently about sardines being the victim of overfishing, both in the Pacific Ocean and near the setting of this latest ‘Dines List.

Plus, now sardines are trendy “hot girl food,” so even though I am the furthest thing from a hot girl (not a girl, not hot unless you have a thing for bear types, and then the jury is probably still out), I am pleased that a thing I like is finally being appreciated and enjoying a moment in the cultural zeitgeist, just like how the last 20+ years of superhero movie mania has validated another one of my lifelong loves.  So now, on to the ‘dines!

Beautiful Portugal, the westernmost country in Europe, lies on the western coast of the Iberian peninsula, next door to Spain.  Historically, Portugal was responsible for a lot of seafaring, trading, and fishing, and to this day, fish and seafood are a major part of the typical Portuguese diet.  Only Japan and Iceland consume more fish per capita than Portugal!  Many of the locally caught sardines, tuna, and other fish are processed (tinned) and exported all around the world.

After my last ‘Dines List feature, where I reviewed sardines from Morocco, Portugal’s neighbor across the sea, I decided to do a round-up of all the Portuguese sardines I could find, to review them all and point out the good, the bad, and the stinky.

I discovered these Nuri spiced Portuguese sardines at Lotte Plaza Market, the fantastic and huge pan-Asian supermarket in West Orlando, a super-fun place for local foodies to shop and eat.  You can have a delicious meal at one of the many Asian restaurants in the food court and then stock up on groceries and snacks, but don’t forget the Nuri ‘dines!

These had a really nice heat from piri-piri peppers, and they also included carrot, cucumber, laurel(!), and clove in the seasoning.

Since I had never tried the Nuri sardines before, I ate them plain, but for some reason I plated them instead of devouring them straight out of the tin.  Note the single carrot slice, single pepper, and single cucumber slice, which was more like a thin pickle slice at this point.  I really liked these and would get them again.  They were surprisingly, pleasantly spicy!

I must have bought these Bela sardines a long time ago, maybe at Fresh Market.  This brand tends to cost more than other sardines, so I must have gotten the can on sale.  Unlike the Nuris above, these were lightly smoked, and the label makes clear they were packed in organic extra virgin olive oil.  Like the Nuris, they were also seasoned with piri-piri peppers, which is a delicious, piquant pepper that adds a nice kick to foods without being overwhelmingly hot. 

These Belas were much nicer-looking than most other tinned sardines, still retaining their iridescent silvery skin (which is perfectly tasty, don’t worry).  I typically avoid boneless, skinless ‘dines, because the bones give a nice, light crunch and are packed with calcium, and ‘dines with skin are more attractive and taste better, at least to me.

I made a Bela sandwich on a toasted bialy, with some sliced onion, fresh cilantro, Trader Joe’s piri-piri hot sauce (the orange sauce on the left), and crispy French-fried onions over the ‘dines themselves, with cream cheese beneath them.  Thankfully I’m still wearing a mask in public three years into the pandemic, which allowed me to eat a stanky sandwich like this with a clearer conscience.  It was delicious, though.  All the flavors went well with these beautiful Belas.

I believe I found these Bon Appetit Portuguese sardines at Green Hills Supermarket, a wonderful Eastern European grocery store in Altamonte Springs, Florida, which is heaven for tinned fish aficionados.  They stock all kinds of pickled herring, smoked Latvian sprats, and countless brands of tinned and bottled ‘dines from around the world, particularly European brands.  

After draining the “hot olive oil,” these weren’t that much to look at either, and to be completely frank, I barely remember them.  I think they had kind of a dry taste, like you could chew them forever and not much would happen (like too many people’s mamas’ pot roast).

I served the Bon Appetit sardines on homemade potato blinis, fancy little savory pancakes I learned how to make after first trying them at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa.  The blinis were definitely better than the ‘dinis.

I always see this Porthos brand at Fresh Market, usually priced higher than most supermarket ‘dines — maybe even $6 or $7 per can?  I know myself, and I know I would not have bought this unless it was on sale for $5 or under.  What I didn’t catch was that the ‘dines were packed in brine rather than some kind of oil, so caveat emptor.

Not very pretty, are they?  I would have expected more from the fancy-pants Porthos brand.  They were smellier than most canned ‘dines just because they were packed in brine rather than oil.  I grew up in a house where we ate canned tuna packed in water as a regular staple food, and I ate it throughout college and grad school, pretty much until I met my wife and the smell emanating from a can I opened made her throw up immediately, with no warning whatsoever.  I never bought canned tuna in water again, and while she might not share my love of canned sardines, the smell never nauseates her either.  But these were fishy and funky, and I wouldn’t buy this bougie brand again.  I probably mixed them with Duke’s mayonnaise and one of the many mustards in my collection to make sardine salad, a tribute to the tuna salad that sustained me through far too many bachelor pads and degrees.   

I think I found these Tome sardines at Enson Market, another Asian supermarket at 5132 W Colonial Dr, Orlando, FL 32808, maybe five minutes west of the aforementioned Lotte Plaza Market.

The picture on the box shows little sliced vegetables, including what looks like a pickle slice and maybe a red pepper.  I think these ‘dines had a bit of a sour, pickley note, but I must admit, I don’t recall the vegetables coming in the can.  I would have mashed these up into sardine salad with a dollop of mayo, and I chopped some Grillo’s Pickles into it (my favorite brand, from my Plethora of Pickles review).

The Tome sardines in spicy olive oil with chili were better, but still pretty standard.

They looked more appealing in the can with their shimmering silvery skin attached.

I recall these being good enough to eat straight up, after draining the oil (never down the drain, folks!).  

Trader Joe’s Wild Caught Sardines in Olive Oil with Smoke Flavor are a terrific value for Portuguese sardines, and surprisingly tasty on their own or in anything.  That little bit of smokiness helps immensely.

Like so many of the others, I ate these plain, straight out of the can after draining most of the oil, probably standing over the sink at home.  They definitely aren’t the prettiest ‘dines, but I would get them again. 

This is my most recent ‘dine discovery: the Angelo Parodi brand, which I found for the first time visiting Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in San Diego’s Italian Village, a wonderful old-school Italian-American restaurant attached to an equally old-school Italian grocery store.  You have to walk through the tiny market to get to the restaurant in the back, with red and white checkered tablecloths, candles melted into chianti bottles, the whole deal.  I had great pizza and a good Italian sub (which I should really get around to reviewing), but I couldn’t walk through an Italian market without bringing home some edible souvenirs, so I grabbed two tins of the Angelo Parodi ‘dines in olive oil with chili peppers.  Despite the brand name and the source, they are also products of Portugal, not Italy. 

I already drained the orange oil in this photo, but they looked beautiful — nice and meaty, silvery skin intact, packed tightly, definitely pleasing to the eye.

And here they are.  Thrill to my half-assed plating with some fresh, house-made Ceili chips (potato chips) from Fiddler’s Green, our favorite Irish pub in Winter Park, Florida.  Tonight I brought my wife home her favorite chicken tenders and the chips, but I knew I was having the Angelo Parodi ‘dines so I could finally finish this mega-review of Portuguese sardines.  They were surprisingly spicy, even drained of the oil, but very firm, meaty, and on the salty side, especially paired with the potato chips.  That was not the best choice — some crusty Italian bread would have been better, but crusty Italian bread would make almost anything better. As usual, the included chili peppers were sad sacks of seeds, not really worth trying to eat.   But even though I’ve never seen Angelo Parodi products for sale in Florida (not even at Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Petersburg or Doris Italian Market in South Florida, two wonderful places I desperately need to revisit and review), I would definitely get these sardines again.

Finally, this isn’t a can of sardines at all, but rather Cole’s smoked rainbow trout that happens to be from Portugal, so I’m including it.  My wife loves trout, and I often pan-fry pecan-crusted (fresh) trout filets for her.  She does not share my love of sardines, but this is one of the very few canned fish she will actually eat.  It is absolutely freakin’ delicious, and I include it here to go along with the Portuguese theme, and to for the sardine skeptics who might be open to other tinned treats.  If any canned fish is going to win over the masses, this is the one. 

While the canned rainbow trout filet doesn’t look like much, it flakes apart beautifully, and it is tender and moist and lightly smoky, and not “fishy” at all.  Here is the before pic:

And the after pic is below.  I enjoyed this tin with a Gabila’s frozen potato  knish, thawed in the microwave and then heated until crispy in the toaster oven.  I usually use these frozen Gabila’s knishes as mustard delivery devices, as in my last Cutting the Mustard mega-review, where I went into more detail on the brand and its storied history.  But the knish went so well with the smoky, flaky, oily, rich trout, I refrained from adding mustard or any other condiments.  It didn’t need them.  Trout, trout, let it all out, this is the fish I can’t do without!

I worry now about the reports of the entire Portuguese sardine fishing industry being in danger, because they are such a major part of the Portuguese diet, as well as the national economy.  I always thought eating sardines was morally superior to consuming larger fish that are higher up in the food chain, but now it sounds like we all need to get used to cutting back.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch website even says Moroccan-caught sardines are a good alternative, but it is better to avoid Portuguese-caught sardines.  Of course, I started writing this ‘Dines List column well almost two years ago, and I fully admit I had no idea when I started.  I strive to sustain a sundry sardine stash at the Sabo-Shelter, but once I eat my way through those, I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Zeytin Turkish Cuisine

Let’s face it — dining out is usually an impersonal, almost mechanical experience where you pay for food, you get your food, you eat, you leave, and you go on with your life.  That’s the bare minimum of what we expect, and sometimes that’s what we crave.  But how often do any of us visit a restaurant where you feel a warm welcome, like you’ve stepped into someone’s home and they are legitimately happy to see you?  There are a few places like that around Orlando — Mediterranean Deli and Se7enbites immediately come to mind.

Another one is Zeytin Turkish Cuisine (https://www.facebook.com/ZeytinTurkishCuisine), a restaurant that has been around for eight years, but I only recently discovered it for myself.  I’ve been a late bloomer throughout my life, but finally trying this wonderful food, prepared with skill and love and accompanied by some of the kindest, warmest hospitality I have ever encountered, I wished I had made to this College Park eatery long ago.

This was the lavas bread ($4.95), which you have to order at any Turkish restaurant, and especially at Zeytin.  It usually arrives to your table in a dramatic fashion, huge and round, puffed up with hot air, which you then pierce with forks and knives to deflate.  Then you tear off pieces of the warm, soft bread (kind of like a pita, but so much better) and dip it into various dips.  It was packed in a brown paper bag and mostly deflated by the time I got home, but still just as good as we’ve had before, from elsewhere. 

The main reason I went to Zeytin was because my wife was craving babaganush, that smoky, creamy dip made from roasted eggplants, sometimes with garlic, tahini paste, and olive oil added to it.  She asked me to find the best babaganush in Orlando, and I received several helpful suggestions on the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, the burgeoning community of local foodies founded by the civic-minded mensch Ricky Ly.  One suggestion stood out to me, from Michele Bourassa, a familiar name from the Foodie Forum.  She was the co-owner of Zeytin, and she invited me out to finally try her restaurant.  How could I refuse such an offer?  I had read great reviews for years and always meant to try it, but I’m rarely out in the College Park area.  I called in my order on the way there, and it was all ready by the time I arrived.  Michele could not have been nicer, and the babaganush ($8.50) could not have been better.  Seriously, I’ve never had its equal, and my wife was over the moon with happiness.

But Michele (a true ray of sunshine and the perfect “front of house” person any restaurant would be grateful to have) and her husband, chef and co-owner Zeynel (everyone calls him “Z”), threw in some extras for us, which they did not have to do!  Despite just ordering babaganush, they sent us home with the equivalent of their mixed appetizer platter, with multiple dips to accompany our lavas bread.  (I tipped above and beyond, the least I could do for her unheralded generosity.)

This container held their two creamy, yogurt-based dips: cacik, yogurt blended with cucumbers, garlic, dill, and fresh mint, and haydari, thicker yogurt blended with crushed walnuts, garlic, and dill.  Both were so refreshing, but I personally preferred the haydari.The word “Zeytin” is Turkish for olive, a favorite delicacy of Chef Z, and we noted that each dip was topped with a kalamata olive.  I made sure my wife ended up with all of those.

This container held two separate dips as well: esme on the left, a spicy melange of tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, onions, cornichons, parsley, garlic, crushed walnuts, lemon juice, and olive oil, and soslu patlican on the right, my personal favorite Turkish dip, with sauteed eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and garlic.  My wife isn’t into anything spicy or overly tomatoey, so I got to enjoy both of these myself — and let me tell you, I enjoyed them.  That was such an unexpected and unnecessary bonus, and we were both so grateful.

Because I wanted to try a meat dish and see how Zeytin handled one of my  favorite Turkish dishes from elsewhere, I also ordered the Iskender kebab ($24.95), ground lamb mixed with seasonings, shaped into a loaf, broiled, and served as thin slices.  Unlike the more common doner kebab, which uses the same meat, the slices in the Iskender kebab are served over cubes of sautéed, buttered bread so the juices and spices saturate the bread.  Normally it is topped with tomato sauce and yogurt, but I figured that might make the dish a soggy mess by the time I got it home.

I asked for both the tomato sauce (see above) and the yogurt (see below) on the side, so I could apply my own, and also my wife could enjoy the sliced lamb plain, free of tomato-based sauces, as she always prefers.  The yogurt was cool and creamy, and they gave us so much of it!  Back at home, the cubes of bread crisped back up very nicely in our toaster oven, and I chopped some pickles and sprinkled some Penzey’s Turkish seasoning blend into the yogurt.  Whatever yogurt I didn’t use with three separate servings of the Iskender kebab, I enjoyed with some chicken later in the week.

I asked if the Iskender kebab came with rice, and it does not, because of the crouton-like cubes of crispy bread underneath.  But I figured the rice would be really good at Zeytin, so I asked for a side order of rice.  As my wife and I both hoped, it was a buttery rice pilaf with chewy orzo pasta, much like the rice from the dearly departed Beyti Mediterranean Grill, our friendly neighborhood Turkish restaurant that opened in 2020 and closed in 2022.  Even when my wife didn’t feel like eating meat, she would send me to Beyti to bring home lavas bread, babaganoush, and that rice.  This takeout meal from Zeytin was like revisiting some old friends who were a little different, but had become even better.

Michele also included four pieces of freshly made pistachio baklava for us, a truly sweet and unexpected treat that wowed us in every way possible.  It was some of the best baklava we’ve ever had, and not just in Orlando, either.

The following weekend, I took my wife to see an awe-inspiring stage production at Orlando’s Renaissance Theatre, Josephine, a one-woman show about the incredible life of American icon Josephine Baker, starring a local icon, triple-threat (actress-singer-dancer) Tymisha Harris.  Afterwards, we headed on to dinner at Zeytin, a mere week after bringing home that bountiful takeout order.  I had forgotten that you need to make a reservation for the small dining room, but we were so lucky a table was available, and Michele was able to seat us right away.  I introduced Michele to my wife, who quickly and rightfully pointed out that she loved Michele’s kind heart.  The only reason you wouldn’t agree is because you haven’t met her yet.

The dining room was pretty full when we arrived that Sunday evening.  It seemed like a lot of the crowd was made up of regulars, and we could both understand why.  Natural light streamed in and reflected off the beautiful hanging lights made of multicolored glass mosaics, which Chef Z had gotten from Istanbul.  There was a fish tank near the entrance, close to our table, and we entertained ourselves throughout our dinner watching the aquatic antics of a tiny turtle.

Michele asked her husband to get our lavas bread ready even before we placed our order.  As great as our feast was at home the previous week, most restaurant food is so much better consumed hot and fresh in the dining room itself, and Zeytin was no exception.  Here was the steaming, soft lavas bread, fully puffed and fluffed up, ready to be deflated, dipped, and devoured.  

We had to order the finest babaganush in Orlando all over again:

And Michele was kind enough to hook us up with small sample dishes of haydari, esme, and smooth, creamy hummus (which I always try to say in a sexy voice like Gal Gadot, but it sounds more like an old man with phlegm caught in his throat, coming from me). 

I suggested we order moussaka ($21.95) to share, figuring we would have leftovers that would heat up well.  The baked casserole of sliced eggplant, ground lamb, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and garlic was topped with a bechamel sauce and molten-hot, melty mozzarella cheese.  It was very similar to lasagna, but with layers of eggplant instead of pasta sheets.  For this reason, I like the tomato-based Turkish version of moussaka better than Greek versions that don’t have the tomatoes.  And while I’ve had a similar version of moussaka at Cappadocia, another Turkish restaurant, Zeytin’s version is definitely my favorite in the city.  The moussaka came with a mountain of that wonderful buttery rice pilaf with orzo, which we both loved.

Since we were dining here on a Sunday evening, I couldn’t resist ordering one of my favorite Turkish dishes: lahmacun ($19.95), a throuple of soft baked flatbreads topped with ground lamb, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices.  I figured I would end up with plenty of leftovers that would heat up well in the microwave at work, but they were so good, they never made it into my workday lunches.  I loved the lahmacun (pronounced “llama-JUNE,” but with a soft “j,” as in “bougie”) from Beyti while it was open, and I have even made it from scratch before.  But Zeytin’s version blew me away, filling a hole in my heart and staving off my regular Sunday evening despondence for a while.   I was impressed that it essentially came with a whole side salad, with chopped romaine lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, and parsley tossed in a very light vinaigrette dressing, which you can roll up inside the lahmacun to eat, like a veggie wrap with meat on the inner wrapping.  But there was so much salad, that even after eating all three lahmacun pieces with it, I was able to pack the rest in my work lunch the following Monday.  (I also ate the lemon wedges like orange wedges, which is what I usually do with lemon wedges.)

Here’s a close-up of one of those decadent discs.  I just loved them.  The thin outer crust was nice and crispy, but not overly crunchy, and the lahmacun dough got pleasantly soft underneath the cooked lamb and vegetables. 

If you put a gun to my head (please don’t) and forced me to name my five favorite world cuisines (excluding regional American foods like barbecue, Jewish-style delicatessens, and Hawaiian), Turkish would definitely make my top five, along with Italian, Mexican, and probably Japanese and Cuban.  That’s a hard decision to make.  What about Indian?  What about Chinese, in all its varieties?  Greek?  Vietnamese?  I love them all, and so many more, but the local restaurants in Orlando made me a true devotee of Turkish flavors, and Zeytin reminded me what I love so much about them.

On top of that, I can’t get over how kind and sweet Michele was.  I didn’t get to meet Chef Z, but he sounds like a pretty amazing person too.  The fact that she reached out to me to invite me to their restaurant was such a nice gesture.  I had been meaning to visit for far too long, but that personal touch is what finally made it happen.  They hooked us up on that first takeout trip — I would be impugning whatever journalistic integrity I have if I failed to admit this — but they did it because they are such nice people, not asking for anything in return except for us to return.  And it only took a week for us to do so, because it was that damn good.

Some Turkish restaurants may have expanded too much in recent years and aren’t as consistent (or as good) as they used to be.  You may find others closed at random times throughout the week when they’re supposed to be open.  But I can’t imagine Zeytin disappointing in any way, not after our recent experiences.  All of their meats are halal, and everything is prepared from scratch — fresh produce, fresh everything.  I am thrilled to consider myself a Zeytin convert now, and the next step is to become a regular.  Please join me in doing the same!

So much of College Park has minimal parking (ironic), especially the stretch of Edgewater Drive closer to Princeton, but this is the north end of College Park, and Zeytin has its own parking lot.  The restaurant is located at 4439 Edgewater Drive, just off Fairbanks Avenue, and very convenient to access via I-4.  It is only open for dinner, and if you intend to dine in, definitely call 407-988-3330 to make a reservation.  Plan your next date night or family dinner here.  The extroverted, effervescent Michele and her  husband, Chef Z, will make you feel like family, or probably even more welcome, depending on what your family is like.

I swore I wouldn’t end with this, but I can’t resist: HAIL ZEYTIN!