Featured

Who is The Saboscrivner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

DSC02782

On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
dsc02783.jpg

When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.

Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before starting The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” neighborhood on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.20191130_130558_resized

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location a few years ago, with much more parking.  She’s still on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  (And another one of my local favorite restaurants, Bad As’s Sandwich, has since opened in the original Se7en Bites location and has been absolutely killing it for the past two years.)

In 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (However, I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing retro-looking shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or just have dessert because we’re grown-ass adults who can do that if we want to, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone.

Unfortunately, I missed her on my most recent visit, around 1:00 on a weekend when I ordered everything to go.  She was probably already hard at work at her other restaurant Sette, Orlando’s newest Italian restaurant, which I reviewed back in March 2019 and consider the best Italian restaurant in our City Beautiful.  My poor wife was at home, grading papers while fighting off a cold, so I wanted to bring her a really nice lunch.  When we saw photos of Se7en Bites’ weekend brunch special, the Minnie Pearl, on Facebook, she told me that was exactly what she wanted.DSC02719

The Minnie Pearl ($14.75), named for the down-home hostess of Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry, comes with two mini pearl sugar waffles (GET IT???), a buttermilk-fried chicken breast, and an over medium egg, although I requested the egg be cooked over hard for my wife, who doesn’t love runny eggs.  It also comes with hot honey drizzle and the most amazing vanilla bean butter syrup, which they were kind enough to include in separate containers with lids.  You can say “HOW-DEEEEEEE!” to that.  DSC02720I’m so glad my wife shared a little bite of the pearl sugar waffle with me.  It was easily the best waffle I’ve ever tasted.  Much crisper and denser than most breakfast waffles, including the ones from my beloved Waffle House, this one made the whole house smell like butter, vanilla, and good times.

The Minnie Pearl also included cheddar chive grits, which she is much more into than I am:DSC02724

This is my favorite regular item on the menu at Se7en Bites, the meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough bread, with a mashed potato schmear ($9.25).  I’m a meatloaf lover and make a damn amazing meatloaf, if I do say so myself.  Chef Trina’s version is the only meatloaf that I think comes close to mine.  And since I don’t always feel like a huge and hearty Southern breakfast, I know I can always count on this sandwich (since I always feel like sandwiches).  DSC02725

This is the pimento cheese and bacon sandwich, also on grilled sourdough bread ($8.75).  And I opted for a crispy fried green tomato on mine, for a $2 upcharge.  Pimento cheese is something else I make well, but I feel compelled to try it whenever I see it on a menu, since everyone’s version is a little different.  The version at Se7en Bites is among my favorites.  DSC02726

Sides with the two sandwiches, creamy macaroni and cheese (a $3.25 upcharge) and the aforementioned ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries (a $2.75 upcharge).  Sadly, the fries were cold by the time I got home with everything, thanks to hitting every light on Colonial and then again on Semoran.  I’ll never order these fries with a takeout order again, but they are among my favorite fries in the city when I dine in at Se7en Bites.  DSC02723

To make the lines move along better, you order your sweets at a separate counter, where all the delicious, decadent desserts are on display under glass domes.  Feel free to ask questions — her staff is probably used to them, and they’re always happy to tell you anything you want to know.  20191130_130547_resized

20191130_131454_resized-e1575248198998.jpg

This is the aforementioned Signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pecan pie ($7), which features the finest, flakiest, most buttery pie crust I’ve ever had.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of richness.  It looks small, but it can be easily be shared by two to four people.  DSC02722DSC02730

I recently met one of my favorite Internet friends for the first time, along with his lovely girlfriend.  He is a fellow aficionado of comic books, cats, pro wrestling, and pie, and we got together for dinner at an old Disney Springs favorite, The Polite Pig.  I made sure to pick up one of Chef Trina’s signature pies for them, and I think it dazzled them the same way it always dazzles us.  That crust remains unparalleled.

This is the Se7en Bites coconut cream pie ($7), one of my favorite kinds of pies, even after getting a little burned out on them judging the cream pie category at the National Pie Championship last spring.  It’s another big hit in our household, to the point where after sharing small slivers when I brought our most recent takeout order home, my wife woke up very early the next morning and finished the rest of it before I got up.  But what’s mine is hers, and at least I got a taste.DSC02721DSC02728

Most recently, when I picked up the signature pie for my visiting friend, I also noticed a new pie I had never seen before: a Samoa brownie cream pie ($7)!  It looked magnificent, and I brought it home, split it evenly, and devoured it with my wife — while we were both watching each other, like something out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This pie has everything: a chocolate fudgy cookie-like crust, caramel, butterscotch, coconut, and the smoothest, coolest, creamiest filling.  It was literally my favorite Se7en Bites dessert EVER, and I hope Chef Trina will consider adding it to the permanent menu.
DSC02793

And this thicc bar came highly recommended by one of the lovely and ever-patient women of the Se7en Bites staff.  I believe it’s called I Don’t Give a Fudge, and the layers are chocolate chip cookie (bottom), rich fudge brownie (middle), smooth chocolate peanut butter (top), and then a soft cookie dough topping above all of that.  It’s about four inches thick, and once again, meant to be shared by several people (or at least for one or two people to get several portions out of it.  This one cost about $6.  DSC02727

Se7en Bites even serves special burgers on Fridays, which makes it difficult to catch them, but they have been among my favorite dishes there.  In fact, this is an older photo of my favorite burger Chef Trina has ever crafted, the Italian Stallion.  It is topped with a fried mozzarella plank, savory-sweet tomato jam, and pesto aioli, and it is one of my favorite burgers of all time.  In fact, the Italian Stallion made my Top Five favorite dishes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly20170805_103742
Anyone remember the Bennigan’s chain, so ubiquitous throughout the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s?  They had a similar burger back then, the Wheelhouse burger, topped with a fried mozzarella cheese “wheel” and marinara sauce.  That was good eatin’ back in the day, but the Se7en Bites version even leaves that fond memory behind, in the dust.

This was another special Friday burger, topped with bacon, Chef Trina’s wonderful pimento cheese, and onion rings, and I got it with a side of onion rings!  That’s right — you didn’t think this was going to be a RING THE ALARM! feature, but I sneaked it in there, right at the end.  I don’t remember the cute name this burger no doubt had, but I wish she would bring it back, and make those onion rings a regular menu item.  Look at them!  They’re the “good kind” of onion rings I always wax poetic about on this blog — beer-battered and golden brown, crispy but not crunchy, not too thin or too thick, not too greasy.  These were the onion rings that dreams are made of!  20180223_132856_resized

Anyway, Se7en Bites is a local favorite with national renown for good reason, and between this and Sette, Trina and Va’s culinary empire is pretty well-established in Orlando.  I can’t wait to see — and taste — whatever these gastronomic goddesses do next.  In the meantime, if I have co-workers or out-of-town guests who are craving brunch or sweets, Se7en Bites will remain my top choice to bring them to.  There isn’t much like it anywhere else, and we are so lucky to have it here.  Don’t miss the Minnie Pearl with those perfect pearl sugar waffles, and be on the lookout for Friday burgers and that Samoa brownie cream pie!

Bento Cafe

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
DSC01735

My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

The Saboscrivner’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

Man, it was hard to figure out ten movies I liked enough to make a Top Ten list this year!  For anyone who missed it, here’s my Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019.  Now on with the movies!

10. Always Be My Maybe — a romantic comedy starring and written by the insanely charismatic and funny Randall Park and Ali Wong, with a legendary appearance from a big-name actor you’ve probably already heard about.  I got to see Ali Wong do stand-up, opening for the great John Mulaney, before she even had a Netflix special, so I’m thrilled to have seen her explode since then.  And even though I never got into Randall Park’s sitcom, I’m thrilled he has a recurring role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is doing other things now.  This movie introduced me to the fact that he is a hell of a rapper, and I’m not joking about that.  Check this out and be amazed and astonished!  Dude has bars, and such a chill, laid-back flow that I just love.

9. John Wick 3: Parabellum — as long as they keep making these, I’ll keep going, even as they get progressively more ridiculous.  This one had kung fu, gun fu, knife fu, dog fu, and horse fu.

8. Under the Silver Lake — a trippy, meandering film about an amateur detective (or maybe just a creeper?) trying to find a missing girl in Los Angeles.  It contained one of my favorite scenes in any movie this year (guess what I think it was, constant readers!), even if the whole thing doesn’t quite come together as well as I hoped.  It would be part of an amazing L.A. neo-noir film festival alongside The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and Inherent Vice.

7. Hustlers — this was the one about the gang of strippers seducing, occasionally drugging, and robbing Wall Street guys, based on a true story detailed in a New York Magazine article.  Though written and directed by a woman, Lorene Scafaria, it felt a lot like a Martin Scorsese movie, and makes a perfect companion piece to his similarly-structured Wolf of Wall Street.  I didn’t expect to like either movie all that much, but surprised myself by how much I enjoyed both, despite the characters’ amorality.  At least in Hustlers, you understood what drove the women to do what they did,  and probably even rooted for their “found family” until they took things too far (as characters always do in movies like this).  But the cast was great, especially Jennifer Lopez, who hasn’t been this good in anything since Out of Sight.  My only complaint was that Lizzo had a tiny cameo, and I was hoping to see much more of her in the movie.  Feel free to take that however you want.

6. Deadwood: The Movie — one of my favorite shows of all time ended abruptly 14 years ago, so to get this movie and spend a little more time in the Black Hills with these characters was a real gift.  Deadwood featured a murderer’s row of amazing character actors, so if you love Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, and John Hawkes, you owe it to yourself to start at the beginning of the series, and cap off the experience with this movie.  It was bittersweet, focusing on how much time had aged these hard-living men and women, especially since the brilliant writer and showrunner, David Milch, revealed he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease right before the movie came out on HBO.  Did I cry?  You bet I did.

5. Booksmart — a delightful and kind-hearted comedy about two overachieving best friends getting ready to graduate high school and figuring out what comes next in their lives.  So many comedies have a mean streak and love to humiliate and debase their characters, but Olivia Wilde’s film found empathy for everyone — these two girls who spent so much time planning their futures that they lost the opportunity to live as teenagers, and the other kids who somehow excelled in school while having a blast.  In the end, innocence was lost, lessons were learned, and everyone walked away better off, with new understandings about each other and themselves as well.  How often does that happen?  Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd stole the movie with every scene she was in.  I’m expecting big things from her in the future.

4. Dolemite Is My Name — another good and kind comedy, but also loud, raunchy, and hilarious.  After ruling the ’80s with the unassailable and unmatched hot streak of Saturday Night Live –> 48 Hours –> Delirious –> Trading Places –> Beverly Hills Cop –> Raw –> Beverly Hills Cop II –> Coming to America, Eddie Murphy’s career was never quite the same, after too many forgettable, family-friendly flops.  But this was a return to form for one of our most charismatic comic actors of all time, playing a lesser-known comedy legend, Rudy Ray Moore.  The story of how Moore honed his foul-mouthed stand-up persona and got the ultra-low budget Dolemite film made is heart-warming and inspiring, but you’ll be laughing the entire time, I promise.  Plus, it’s on Netflix, so it’s free!

3. Knives Out — Rian Johnson has yet to make a less-than-great movie (check out The Brothers Bloom and Brick if you haven’t!), and this whodunnit is insanely intricate, clever, and funny, with an old fashioned-feeling premise that still comes across as super-relevant in 2019.  It has a star-studded cast full of actors that even your parents will probably enjoy watching, often playing against type (Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Daniel Craig stealing the show as a character I hope we see in future movies), and it’s a star-making performance for Ana de Armas.  But that script was breathtaking, with so many twists and turns, precision gears that move in perfect clockwork.  The big reveal is another one of my favorite scenes in any movie this year, and once again, it shows that kindness and empathy can triumph over greed and selfishness.

2. Motherless Brooklyn — my favorite neo-noir since 1997’s L.A. Confidential, which is probably my third-favorite movie of all time (after Casablanca and Ghostbusters).  This was a passion project for writer/director/star Edward Norton (one of my favorite actors), who apparently made a lot of changes from the original novel.  I hated to see this movie come and go from theaters without making a big cultural impact, but I loved every minute of it.  It’s a 1950s period piece with a killer cast (including Gugu Mbatha-Raw from “San Junipero,” the only Black Mirror episode I’ve liked), but just like Knives Out, the mystery feels incredibly relevant for modern times.  (Wait for the villain to be revealed and make his big speech!  That’s what I call meta-casting!)  Also like Knives Out, it also features another protagonist who is a genuinely good guy — not an antihero, not a rogue, not a bad person who does bad things that somehow work out for the best.

1. Avengers: Endgame (as if there was any doubt!) — the culmination of eleven years and 22 movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s grand finale brought so much emotional resonance and catharsis, especially after the shocking (if you don’t read comic books) ending of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  This movie had everything: new life, tragic death, wacky time travel capers, some of the most rousing and badass action sequences we’ve seen so far, heroic self-sacrifices, true love, hope for the future, and (spoiler alert!), good triumphing over the ultimate evil.  It has been a hell of a decade, and whether you call these Marvel movies “theme park rides” or “comfort food” or “focus group-friendly popcorn entertainment” or “legitimate cinema,” they clearly tapped into the zeitgeist, gave audiences what we needed, and sent us home happy.  Not every Marvel movie nails the formula, but Endgame was the perfect culmination of everything Kevin Feige, the Russo Brothers, and other creators had built together.  I laughed A LOT.  I sure as hell cried a lot too — both sad and happy tears.  Hell, I’m getting choked up just thinking about a few of those classic moments, especially the ending.  All the characters got a chance to shine, especially my favorites.  This is probably my favorite of all the Marvel movies, and it felt like the perfect ending to all of it.  Of course we already know it wasn’t (nothing ever really ends), but I don’t know how they’re ever going to top this one.

The Saboscrivner’s Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019

Living in the age of Peak TV is exhausting, because there is almost too much quality programming to keep up with.  Television has gotten so good that former favorites from recent years like Mindhunter, Killing Eve, Big Mouth, Stranger Things, Arrested Development, and the final season of Game of Thrones didn’t even crack my Top Twenty list!

So here goes nothing.  I’ll start with my #20-11 shows of 2019:

20. I Am the Night (miniseries; TNT)
19. Barry (season 2; HBO)
18. South Side (season 1; Comedy Central)
17. Russian Doll (season 1; Netflix)
16. Wu-Tang: An American Saga (season 1; Hulu)
15. The Umbrella Academy (season 1; Netflix)
14. iZombie (season 5; CW)
13. Bosch (season 5; Amazon Prime)
12. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (season 3; Amazon Prime)
11. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (season 1; Netflix)

And now, more detailed descriptions for the Top Ten:

10. Dead to Me (season 1; Netflix) — this show makes the list for the career-best acting of Christina Applegate (who I never thought could be this good) and Linda Cardellini (who I wasn’t that familiar with, so shame on me).  The twist happens early, so what’s left is a complicated character study of two flawed and broken women and their strange bond.  It’s coming back for a second season, but even if it didn’t get picked up, I think it ended on a good note.

9. Fosse/Verdon (miniseries; FX) — I love learning the history of music and culture I missed out on, so this was an educational look at the careers of talented, troubled theater and film director/producer/writer/choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife and muse, dancer/actress Gwen Verdon.  I loved the movie version of Chicago, and this summer, my wife and saw it on Broadway, caught up in Fossemania (a Fosse frenzy?) after this miniseries gave us a look behind its scenes.  It was also some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from Sam Rockwell (one of my favorite actors) and Michelle Williams (someone else I wasn’t that familiar with, so shame on me).

8. Veronica Mars (season 4; Hulu) — a pure nostalgia bomb, bringing us back to the seedy beach town of Neptune, the tiny and tenacious blonde private eye, my favorite fictional father Keith Mars, and a lot more mysteries, quips, danger, and heartache.  It was nice to see these characters one more time, some of them for the last time… but I have a feeling (more like a hope in my heart) that we still have more cases to solve with Veronica and Keith.

7. The Good Place (seasons 3 and 4; NBC) — we got the last few excellent episodes of Season 3 in January, and then the majority of Season 4 this fall.  I feel like they spent a lot of time treading water so far in the final season, especially introducing some unlikable new characters near the end, taking time away from the core six we have come to know and love.  But this smart, sweet, clever, hilarious, hopeful, good-natured show has earned plenty of goodwill from me, and I look forward to the last few episodes when it returns in January 2020.  I have no doubt it will stick the landing and give us an unforgettable tearjerker of a finale, while still teaching us college-level philosophy and making us think about becoming better people.

6. Doom Patrol (season 1; DC Universe) — one of two comic book adaptations in my Top Ten, this show is about people with super powers, but instead of gifts or talents, they are presented as disabilities.  The Doom Patrol members aren’t heroes by choice, but trauma survivors, broken and damaged people who form a “found family” and deal with existential threats to reality itself.  It was a remarkably accurate adaptation of Grant Morrison’s classic Doom Patrol comics of the late ’80s and early ’90s, with excellent production value and fun acting by Diane Guerrero (another pleasant surprise as Crazy Jane, a woman with 64 alternate personalities, each with their own powers), Timothy Dalton, Brendan Fraser (we missed him!), Matt Bomer (this dude should have played Superman), and the always-great Alan Tudyk as one of the most entertaining, most terrifying villains in a long time.

5. Fleabag (season 2; Amazon Prime) — first of all, I really don’t care for British comedy.  I often find it either too dry, smug, or mean-spirited.  Yes, including that one that you love.  But I enjoyed the first season of Fleabag well enough, and really liked the first season of Killing Eve, written by Fleabag’s creator, writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  But after Fleabag Season 2 won all these awards and accolades, I gave it a chance here, at the very end of 2019, and binged the all six episodes in one night — the very night I’m writing this Top Ten list.  (Luckily they’re only about 25 minutes each.)  It was outstanding — streets ahead of the first season.  So funny, sad, clever, and cathartic, even ending with a bit of hope.  Waller-Bridge is so incredibly talented and funny (she even salvaged the usually execrable Saturday Night Live this season), and I’ll be on board for whatever she does next.  Hopefully it will have more asides and knowing looks to the audience.

4. Sherman’s Showcase (season 1; IFC) — this is a high concept comedy, cats and kittens: Sherman’s Showcase (a show within a show) is a loving homage to Soul Train and other musical variety shows, and it has been running continuously since the 1970s, hosted by the mysteriously ageless Sherman McDaniels.  The Sherman’s Showcase we watch is a collection of clips highlighting the fake show’s almost 50-year history, featuring hilarious musical homages that stand on their own as great, catchy songs that SLAP (including a weirdly prophetic song called “Time Loop” that might have deeper significance to the narrrative).  There are also interview segments, fake commercials, movie and TV parodies, surreal sketches, and plenty of running gags.  Co-creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle (who also created the great new Comedy Central sitcom South Side, which made my Top Twenty) are brilliant, drawing their influence from those old Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime specials I have very vague childhood memories of, as well as half a century of popular music and variety shows.

3. Ken Burns’ Country Music (miniseries; PBS) — I doubt this eight-part documentary miniseries will end up on many other “Best TV Shows of 2019” lists, but I loved it.  I’ve spent most of my life listening to, playing, and learning everything I could about rock and jazz music, got deep into hip hop later in my life, but made it pretty far without ever giving country, that other major American musical genre, much of a fair chance.  There’s so much awful country music, especially now, but to be fair, there is plenty of awful rock and hip hop too — especially now.  This documentary took us back to the early 20th Century and introduced me to a lot of the names and songs I’ve heard my whole life, only with more historical context and framework to better appreciate the songwriting, the musicianship, and the evolution of the sounds and styles.  I’ve always loved Johnny Cash, but now I’ve embraced Patsy Cline, Hank Williams (not Junior!), the Western swing of Bob Wills, and lots of other twangy crooners, honky tonk angels, and outlaw poets.  My favorite decades of country music are the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but even now, there are great modern artists to be discovered, like Margo Price, Orville Peck, and Kacey Musgraves (and that’s not even getting into the virtuoso musicians in folk, bluegrass, and Americana).  I feel like I just audited a brilliant college course on country music, and I have more of an appreciation for it than I ever dreamed possible.  Plus, the documentary introduced me to this bit of pure sunshine: a young Dolly Parton performing “Mule Skinner Blues”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fwc1FkkWulc
Even if you think country music sucks (like I once did, not having been exposed the really cool old stuff), I think this would be awfully hard to not fall in love with.

2. Star Trek: Discovery (season 2; CBS All Access) — I admit it, I’ve never been the biggest Star Trek fan.  Sure, Captain Kirk was a cool dude, and William Shatner used to be pretty amusing.  And Picard was awesome, but the shows in general left me cold.  I wanted to be a Trekkie; I WISHED I was a Trekkie.  But now, I finally found the Star Trek that made it all click for me: Discovery.  I subscribed to CBS All Access for a month and binge-watched both seasons of Star Trek: Discovery over the course of two weeks.  Last year’s Season 1 (co-created by the great Bryan Fuller, the creative genius behind Hannibal) looked gorgeous, with the nicest production value I’ve ever seen on a Star Trek show, and it introduced us to a compelling cast of characters and an interesting status quo, set shortly before the events of the original series from the ’60s.  I also appreciated that it was a serialized narrative, which I’m not used to from Star Trek, but perfect in this age of prestige television.  This year’s Season 2 was even better, improving on the first season in every way.  It introduced my favorite Star Trek captain ever, who is probably my fictional boss of all time.  (I’ve worked for a few toxic, bullying bosses, so I honestly get choked up whenever I see a capable, competent, courageous, patient, kind, loyal boss in any media.)  The show had so many twists and turns, a surprising amount of tension-relieving humor, and so much empathy, heroism, and heart.  My wife and I laughed a lot and cried far more than we ever would have expected.  In a year full of ups and downs, dizzying highs and terrifying lows, Discovery was the show I had no idea how much I needed.

1. Watchmen (season 1; HBO) — who watches the Watchmen?  There was no reason for it to exist.  The twelve issue series by legendary writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons is often considered the greatest comic book of all time.  It already got one adaptation back in 2009, a pretty, but flawed, movie directed by Zack Snyder.  While Watchmen really required a long-form TV adaptation on a channel like HBO to do it justice, it didn’t seem necessary, and fans were skeptical.  I was skeptical!  But I should have had more faith in showrunner Damon Lindelof, co-creator of two of my favorite shows of all time, Lost and The Leftovers.  He didn’t give us a straight adaptation of the comic, but an audacious sequel, set 35 years after the events of the graphic novel (which was set in 1985).  It ended up a brilliant and ambitious epic about America’s fraught history of racism (starting with the Tulsa massacre of 1921, which I never learned about in school, even as the son of a history teacher), generational trauma, the dangers that come from vigilantism and self-appointed saviors and people wearing masks, and how the sins of our ancestors continue to affect us and threaten the world itself.  We caught up with some old faces from the original comic, but our point of view character in this strange alternate 2019 was the unforgettable Sister Night, aka Angela Abar, played by the great Regina King.  Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Hong Chau, and Jeremy Irons were also excellent in their roles.  This series included the single best TV episode of the year: the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being.”  (But don’t you dare watch it out of order!)  I was blown away by how good Watchmen turned out to be, defying any and all expectations and truly surprising everyone with what we were going to see on our screens every week.  In this age of binge-watching everything, with entire seasons of shows dropping on streaming services at once, Watchmen reminded us of the joy of watching a new episode every week, giving us time to ruminate and analyze and read reviews and craft theories about what the hell is going on.  It was a very nice touch to have supplemental readings available every week on the HBO website, fleshing out the world of Watchmen after each episode with additional world-building details.  Up above, I mentioned that Star Trek: Discovery was the show I didn’t realize how much I needed.  Well, Watchmen was the show I didn’t realize how much I wanted.  Ultimately, it edged out Discovery on my list because it was so unpredictable, in the best possible way.  If this is the only season we ever get (and it might be), it more than accomplished everything it set out to do, and the ending really satisfied.

And since you made it to the end, here are my Top Ten Movies of 2019.

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro (https://peterskitchencb.business.site/)  opened in late 2017, and quickly made a splash on the Orlando Foodie Forum.  It developed a loyal following for its orange chicken, of all dishes — that syrupy-sweet, Americanized comfort food synonymous with mall food courts and greasy take-out places.  But Peter’s elevated the orange chicken and made it sing.  That’s what they do at this comfortable sit-down spot on East Colonial Drive, a former “cursed location” that they took over and made into a beloved local success over the last two years.

I first went there in December 2017, shortly after it opened, and met some new friends from the Foodie Forum there for lunch.  We ordered a veritable feast and shared everything, including that awe-inspiring orange chicken ($10.95) and lots of dim sum.
peters_20171211

I also introduced these new friends to one of my favorite Chinese-American dishes: beef chow fun ($13.50) — tender strips of beef and the greatest chewy wide noodles, stir-fried with onions, green onions, bean sprouts (not my favorite, so I ask them to hold the bean sprouts), and a soy-based sauce (I’m assuming) with the slightest bit of sweetness to it.  It’s a little greasy, but a truly perfect dish.  It is the best version of beef chow fun in Orlando, and I even listed it among my Top Five favorite dishes in Orlando in 2017, in the Orlando Weekly.20180604_171352_resized

In addition to the regular menu, Peter’s features a dim sum menu that’s available daily, except they only push the dim sum carts around the restaurant on weekends.  On that first visit, a Foodie Forum friend introduced me to some of the wonders of dim sum, including slippery, chewy rice paste, here served with shrimp and drizzled with soy sauce (which I think had something else mixed into it):
20180809_130711_resized

Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor!  From a later visit with my wife, this is the butter lobster (the dreaded market price) — a self-explanatory name for a truly rich and special dish, worthy of celebrations.  The lobsters are alive, furtively pacing around in tanks, perhaps contemplating their fates.  The unlucky crustacean is served fresh, broken apart, easy to spear and slide the meat out of the shell.  It is shiny with garlic and butter, easily one of my favorite lobster dishes I’ve ever had anywhere (not that I’m some fancy boy who eats lobster all the time; I can count the times I’ve sat down to a meal of lobster on my fingers and still have some left over).*  20180604_171945_resized*Fingers left over, not lobster.

On my most recent trip, I brought home takeout.  My wife had requested orange chicken from somewhere, and despite the ubiquity of this sweet, sticky, greasy dish in storefront Chinese restaurants and mall food courts everywhere, I remain convinced Peter’s Kitchen serves the best version of orange chicken anywhere.

DSC02739

I can’t go to Peter’s without ordering beef chow fun.  I also won my wife over on this dish, and we split this portion over the course of two or three days.DSC02740

On this last takeout trip, I brought home some more dim sum too:

She requested and loved sesame balls ($3.25), filled with a subtly sweet red bean paste:DSC02743
DSC02745

I’ve ordered these baked roast pork pies ($4.95) before, but the last photo I had of them was really blurry, and I know people already think I’m a crummy photographer.  I ordered them again for YOU, constant readers:DSC02744

The crust is flaky like an traditional American-style pie crust, and the roast pork is sweet, sort of like char siu.
DSC02746

My wife also wanted these crispy taro dumplings ($3.85), which were stuffed with ground pork, surrounded by the soft, light-purple taro layer and then a crispy exterior, but neither of us loved them.  They reminded me a bit of Cuban papas rellenas, the crispy fried mashed potato balls stuffed with seasoned ground beef called picadillo.  But I like my papas rellenas much better than these.DSC02741

DSC02747

Oh well, you can’t win them all, but at Peter’s Kitchen, chances are you’re going to like almost everything on the menu, if not everything.

I almost always end up with baked egg custard tarts ($3.85) for dessert, and got my wife hooked on them:
DSC02742

So these photos were taken over a handful of visits over the last two years, but mostly from a recent takeout order that fed us for days.  I’m so glad Peter’s Kitchen is serving some of Orlando’s best Chinese food, and that they’ve turned a “cursed location” into a can’t-miss culinary destination.  And it’s so close to my job as well, which is a bonus for me.

I got restaurant reviews in the Orlando Weekly again!

For the third year in a row, I was honored to submit some of my favorite dishes of the year to the Orlando Weekly, which got published in its final issue of 2019:

https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/the-eight-best-orlando-dishes-of-2019/

It was an even bigger honor for my picks to be mixed in with favorites of the Orlando Weekly‘s regular food writer Faiyaz Kara, who is my favorite food writer in Orlando, period.  They didn’t credit who wrote which ones, but I had three contributions, all from longer reviews I wrote on The Saboscrivner this year:

  • The Nashville hot chicken sandwiches from Swine & Sons.
  • The paccheri amatriciana pasta from Sette.
  • The pork sisig over garlic rice from Taglish.

This means the world to me, to see that some people have actually responded to my food writing, enough so that I can even reach beyond this blog.  I especially want to thank the Orlando Weekly‘s tireless Editor, Jessica Bryce Young, for offering me these opportunities.

And here are links to my favorite dishes from 2018 and 2017, also published in the Orlando Weekly.