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Who is The Saboscrivner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

From her character introduction in Chew #3:  “Amelia Mintz is a saboscrivner.  That means she can write about food so accurately, so vividly and with such precision – people get the actual sensation of taste when reading about the meals she writes about.”

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

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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.  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!

Paul’s Deli

My wife and I are not what you would call “Disney adults,” but I still end up at Disney Springs in Lake Buena Vista once in a while, usually meeting visiting friends out there.  The only thing that brings me further south of Disney Springs, into the city of Kissimmee, is to visit a particular location of Coliseum of Comics once or twice a year, to catch sales or look for specific items that have eluded me elsewhere.  Those are usually quick missions I perform with surgical precision, hitting the back issue bins and jumping back on I-4 East as quickly as possible.  However, I had time to kill after my last Coliseum mission, so I decided to linger in Kissimmee and grab lunch at a place I had been hearing about for years, that seemed right up my alley: Paul’s Deli, at 812 East Vine Street (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100054659730673).

Paul’s Deli had a few tables, but it generally seemed like a takeout establishment, much like Lawless Subs in Altamonte Springs and Ray’s Deli & More in Pinecastle.  Paul’s reminded me more of Lawless Subs, since it lacked the bodega/convenience store atmosphere of Ray’s, but it still had glass cases full of Boar’s Head and Citterio meats and cheeses, which they slice and sell:

Since they don’t have an official website, here is the menu.  You can order subs (the main draw), salads, pasta dishes, and a few sides and desserts.  Longtime readers know my enduring love for sandwiches, especially subs, especially Italian subs, so I had definitely chosen wisely.

I ordered two subs to go.  First up was the Italian hero, with Genoa salami, capicola, mortadella, ham, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, jalapeño peppers, and oil and vinegar on a really nice, soft sub roll.  Long-time readers know an Italian sub is one of my favorite meals in the entire world, and this one was perfectly fine.  As you can see, it sure had a lot of ham, compared to the other meats!

But even better was the Soprano sub, with sopressata salami, capicola, and fresh mozzarella, plus all the same vegetable toppings.  It had stronger, more robust flavors, and was just the better sub.  But I have no regrets about bringing both of them home.   Both of these were cold subs, by the way.  I am not a fan of my cured Italian meats served hot ‘n’ greasy.  I like the flavors and textures so much better when they are cold.

Just as I have to try onion rings whenever they are on a restaurant’s menu, I now have to try every version of macaroni salad and/or pasta salad that I encounter.  This was a pretty basic macaroni salad that was extremely light on the mayo, if they used any at all.  It had a nice, tangy flavor from little bits of cheese and a vinegary tang.  I ate this in the car in the parking lot outside of Paul’s Deli, balancing the little container on my thigh.     

While the menu only lists potato salad, they had two different kinds of potato salad the day I visited, so of course, for the benefit of this review (and my own curiosity), I had to try them both.  This one was creamier:

But this one was ultimately better, with some herbs and spices and crunchy stuff (maybe celery or pickles)?  I liked the macaroni salad better than either of the potato salads, though.

So that was my visit to Paul’s Deli, a fantastic place to get a sub in Kissimmee, except I’m never in Kissimmee.  If you live down that way or are visiting Disney, you are unfortunately nowhere near Stasio’s or LaSpada’s or any of the aforementioned delis and sub shops, so definitely check it out, and maybe try that incredible Soprano sub.  I probably won’t be back down there until the Kissimmee Coliseum of Comics has another big sale or a special guest writer or artist signing books, but I’ll make another pilgrimage to Paul’s whenever I return and probably get the Soprano again, maybe even with extra meat.

OverRice

OverRice (https://www.overricecfl.com/) started out as a food truck that serves Hawaiian and Filipino food at various locations around Orlando.  As much as I love both cuisines, I never encountered the truck in the wild.  Luckily for us all, OverRice also opened a brand-new, permanent, brick and mortar restaurant location at 1084 Lee Rd in Orlando, west of I-4, between two other restaurants I like in the immediate area: LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies to the east and Mee Thai to the west.  I attended a soft opening at the OverRice restaurant after work on March 2nd, and let me tell you, it was amazing.  I wish I had tried the food truck sooner, because the delicious food from the restaurant lived up to all the hype and praise I had been reading and hearing for years.  I can see becoming a regular there, and I won’t be alone.

OverRice has long scrolls of brown paper hanging on the wall to the right of the entrance, with the menu hand-written in huge letters.  You order and pay at the counter, take a seat, and wait for deliciousness.  Mayra was very patient as she took my order, considering I wanted to eat something there and take the rest to go.

The standard plate lunches can be ordered Filipino style (served over jasmine rice with pancit noodles and one lumpia, a crispy spring roll filled with pork), or Hawaiian style (served with two scoops of jasmine rice and one scoop of ono macaroni salad).  You can choose between braised Papa’s Filipino adobo pork spare ribs, marinated and grilled huli huli chicken thighs, or kalua pig, pork shoulder seasoned with Hawaiian sea salt and wrapped in banana leaves while it is slow-roasted for eight hours.

The walls are brightly decorated with hand-painted art that makes you feel like you’re in the islands.  A bamboo (or fake bamboo?) wall separates the open kitchen from the small dining area.  

For the soft opening, they served everyone a lovely tropical mocktail made of pineapple juice, apple juice, and muddled mint, blended and poured over crushed ice.  It was a delightful and refreshing little surprise.

I had to try the Papa’s Filipino adobo pork dish while it was hot, especially with the pancit noodles and lumpia spring roll (the Filipino style option).  I chose wisely.  I’ve had different versions of adobo, pancit, and lumpia before, at DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart and the late, great Taglish, and I already knew I would love the flavors.

The bone-in spare ribs were fork-tender, and the bones slid right out.  The savory flavors were incredible.  The sweet, sour, sticky sauce was perfect for dipping the crispy lumpia, but I ended up stirring it into the soft, fluffy jasmine rice.  The pancit noodles were nice and tender, mixed with shreds of carrot, cabbage, and sautéed with lots of garlic. 

This is OverRice’s version of sisig, a Filipino dish of fried pork belly chunks tossed with onions and chilies in a soy and citrus sauce.  I wonder if the citrus involved is calamansi, which are kind of like limes, but smaller and rounder, and with orange flesh inside.  Regardless, the sisig was delicious.  Totally different from the version I loved so much (and miss) from Taglish, which shows a wealth of variations in Filipino cuisine, which I am still learning about.  I ended up stirring in some jasmine rice, which was included, but packaged in a separate container for my takeout order.  The rice did a great job soaking up those incredible flavors. 

OverRice offers Spam musubi, the popular Hawaiian snack of grilled Spam and rice wrapped tightly in nori (seaweed).  One of my favorite restaurants in all of Orlando, Poke Hana, also serves Spam musubi, so I’ve had several before.  But OverRice also sells chicken and kalua pig musubi, all for $3.50 each, and I couldn’t help but get a kalua pig musubi so I could try this classic Hawaiian pork dish too.  It was so good, very tender after being slow-roasted for eight hours in those banana leaves, with a subtly smoky flavor that permeated the rice.

I didn’t think my wife would care for the adobo, which is why I enjoyed that at the restaurant.  But when I brought home the rest of the food, I asked her to try the kalua pig musubi and the pork belly sisig, and she pleasantly surprised us both by liking both.  I don’t know why I was surprised, because both were really delicious, and even the sisig wasn’t spicy.  I was thrilled she was now a fellow OverRice fan!

Finally, I can’t go to any deli, sandwich shop, grocery store, or Hawaiian restaurant and not sample the macaroni salad or pasta salad, whenever they are available.  Poke Hana’s macaroni salad is absolutely the best I’ve ever had.  I found a recipe online for Hawaiian-style macaroni salad and have made it a few times before, to great success, but mine still isn’t as good as theirs.  Well, OverRice makes a very similar Hawaiian mac salad recipe (with a side order for $4 if you don’t get it in a Hawaiian-style plate lunch), so it is also pretty amazing.  The major different is that OverRice tops theirs with finely diced nori, so that added some additional tastes and textures once I stirred it into the cool, creamy, chewy mac salad.

I just wish I had tracked down the OverRice food truck sooner, so I could have tried their wonderful food years ago.  But I was waiting months for this permanent location on Lee Road to open, and I was so happy and lucky to attend one of the first soft openings.  This is a place I can see returning to again and again, and hopefully turning others onto.  If you were a fan of the food truck, don’t despair.  It will be continuing, so keep checking the website for updates as they work through their soft opening hours at the restaurant.

I don’t think OverRice is serving any desserts, at least not yet, but if you dine here and decide you want to stick to the theme for dessert, it really isn’t that far from Hanalei Shave Ice for the tropical flavors of Brandy Ford’s refreshing Hawaiian shave ice, or another sweet new addition to Orlando’s culinary scene I will be reviewing in the weeks to come, Samapaguita Filipino Ice Cream.  Until then, aloha and paalam, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

Bad As’s Burgers

Bad As’s Burgers (https://badassburgersfl.com/) is the newest restaurant venture from John Collazo, the chef and owner of Orlando’s beloved Bad As’s Sandwich.  I’ve been to Bad As’s Sandwich dozens of times and tried almost everything on the menu, to the point that my detailed review from 2019 barely scratches the surface.   But never content to sit still or rest on his laurels, Chef John launched his new burger concept on Curry Ford Road in late 2022, and my wife and I recently tried it.

At Bad As’s Burgers, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: smash-style burgers made with high-quality Australian wagyu beef, with a variety of creative toppings on fresh-baked buns.  Just a warning to vegetarians and vegans — there are no veggie burger options at Bad As’s Burgers, at least not yet.

Similar to the menu at Bad As’s Sandwich, there are plenty of chef-created combinations to choose from, or you can build your own burger.  My wife is the opposite of me, in that she likes burgers and sandwiches very plain and free from extraneous toppings, condiments, and sauces.  She ordered a plain burger with a side of fries, and she seemed to really like it.  These fries look and taste a lot like McDonald’s fries from times past, and that is because they are fried in beef tallow, just like McDonald’s used to, at least through the 1980s.

When I placed our order at the register, she didn’t notice on the menu that you could get sautéed mushrooms as a topping, but she really likes mushrooms.  (That makes one of us.)  Luckily for her, you can also order a generous side order of the mushrooms:

I was having a hard time choosing from all of Chef John’s creations, but when I saw they had a daily special that wasn’t on the regular menu, it became an easy decision.  This was the Drew, a burger topped with French stewed onions, crispy onions, Bleu cheese, and some kind of tangy aioli.  I had actually been fantasizing about French onion soup that very day, so it was a perfect burger and a perfect decision.

Here’s an extreme close-up of the Drew:

Chef John is great at mixing up different aiolis, which I knew from Bad As’s Sandwich.  But I just love ketchup on burgers, too.  Sorry, not sorry!

I opted for sweet potato fries so we could try both kinds of fries, and they were spot-on, with nice, crispy exteriors and soft, yielding centers.  In fact, we both agreed that we preferred them to the beef tallow fries, despite our shared ’80s McDonald’s nostalgia.

My wife couldn’t resist a chocolate shake, and she said it was great.  I appreciated Bad As’s Burgers not following the milkshake trend of adding a lot of sticky, messy, drippy stuff to the outside of the cup, hoping to appeal to the Instagram crowd but creating sticky situations.

I think Bad As’s Burgers will continue to survive and even thrive in a market full of fast-casual burger joints because of Chef John Collazo’s creativity and insistence on the highest quality product.  This doesn’t feel like a corporate chain “gourmet burger” place because it isn’t.  It has that uniqueness and love that you find in the best locally owned and operated restaurants.  Is it the cheapest around?  Absolutely not, but you pay for quality.  As much as I love the cheap, tasty sliders at White Castle and Krystal, if you go to Bad As’s Burgers, you can expect top-quality beef, toppings, fries, and even fresh-baked buns.  You taste every bit of effort, care, and attention to detail with every bite, just like at Bad As’s Sandwich.  And even if you consider it a splurge, sometimes you just have to treat yo’self.

Reyes Mezcaleria

Reyes Mezcaleria (https://www.reyesmex.com/), a  Mexican restaurant in the North Quarter neighborhood near downtown Orlando, is very different from most Mexican restaurants I’ve ever been to.  It is truly upscale, to the point of being “fancy.”  The dining room is beautiful, something it has in common with the other Good Salt restaurants owned and operated by Jason and Sue Chin, like the seafood-centric Osprey (a favorite of mine for oysters) and the Southern-influenced Monroe in downtown Orlando (which I’ve been to once so far, but have yet to review).  The Chins, who are James Beard Award semifinalists, have terrific taste for concepts, décor, food, and talent, like the Executive Chef of Reyes, Wendy Lopez, who started there in 2018.

That happened to be the first year I visited Reyes Mezcaleria with my wife and my best friend — so pretty much my two best friends.  We had a lovely dinner after a long day at MegaCon, and I took a lot of pictures with my old cell phone camera that came out awful, making the stunningly plated food look as unappetizing as possible.  After some online people joked and complained about my photography, that inspired me to start this very food blog, so congratulations?  Thank you?  Or possibly, you’re welcome?

Anyway, my wife and I didn’t make it back to Reyes until this past December, after catching a matinee performance of the musical Hadestown in downtown Orlando.  We are so rarely downtown, so it worked out perfectly.  We over-ordered, but we ended up with a lot of leftovers that heated up really well at home.  We got at least three full meals out of all of this fine food.

This order of guacamole and house-made tortilla chips was $11, but the guac and chips were all excellent quality.  The guacamole was extremely fresh, and it was topped with some pickled red onions and crumbled chihuahua cheese.  The chips were dusted with a wonderful seasoning.

I requested to add chapulines, since the menu said we could do that for a $2 upcharge, but we were charged $4.  Whatever.  $2 is nothing, but it’s uncharacteristic for a restaurant of this caliber, and the people have a right to know.  I got a generous portion of crispy fried grasshoppers that had a really nutty flavor.  I’ve tried chapulines once before, at an upscale Mexican restaurant in San Jose, California, and didn’t like them much, but they were much better at Reyes.  I didn’t know if we were meant to sprinkle or stir them into the guacamole, but we just munched on them like nuts, or Chex Mix.  Yes, my wife tried a few!  She always makes me proud whenever she tries new foods. I recently attended a lecture about the future of food, and one scholar discussed how farm-raised insects are going to be a major protein source in the future, and we had better get on board, because it’s going to have to happen as global resources diminish and current animal husbandry methods rapidly become unsustainable.  I have to admit that I feel a little smug that I liked this particular batch of grasshoppers, so now I can be like “Have you embraced eating insects, the protein of the future?  I have, and now I’m part of the solution, not part of the problem!”

This was a “shroom” tamal ($12) that my wife ordered, because she loves mushrooms, one of the only foods I can’t eat.  The masa corn shell is wrapped around cultivated mushroom, squash blossoms, and poblano peppers, and topped with red onions, salsa verde, and what looked like micro-greens.  I ended up trying some of this after she ate all the fungus out of it, and had a really terrific flavor, especially from the poblanos, which I always enjoy in things.  I think those poblanos and the salsa verde made the tamal a little too spicy for her, so we both got to enjoy it after all.

This was an order of two Sonoran crispy fish tacos ($14), featuring red snapper, beer-battered and fried to absolute perfection.  The fresh corn tortillas were topped with shaved red cabbage for a different kind of crunch, spicy serrano pepper aioli, more pickled red onions, and cilantro.  I always appreciate good fish tacos (except for mahi; I just don’t like the texture and never have), and these were excellent.  Totally worth the price too, in case you were wondering.

Next up was the esquites ($9), Mexican street corn, served off the cob.  This would have been another great dish to share with a group, but I liked it more than my wife did, so I ended up having most of it.  The Florida sweet corn kernels were accompanied by hominy, more poblano peppers, pearl onions, lime aioli to give it some creaminess and some citrusy sour tang, and cotija cheese for a parmesan-like umami funkiness.  There was a lot going on, but I liked it all.

At this point, we were so full we could barely even touch the main attraction, which I realized was what I ordered way back on our first visit, back in 2018: duck enchiladas de Michoacan ($29).  Luckily, this photo and all the rest came out a lot better after this visit to Reyes.  We enjoyed this one at home, with slices of seared duck breast over the queso fresco and chihuahua cheese enchiladas (they are underneath, I swear!), accompanied by chile rojo and surprisingly spicy carrot escabeche, with a vinegary kick I loved and my wife wanted nothing to do with.  This is a quack-tastic dish, but both of us are fiends for any dishes involving duck.  The flaming (hot) carrots were a big hit with me, too.

The creative, gourmet dishes at Reyes Mezcaleria are a feast for the senses.  Enjoying them in the lush dining room, maybe with a cocktail or two, would be a true treat for anyone.  While I fully admit I prefer my Mexican food “downscale” (bring on the street tacos, burritos, and tortas), I’m so glad there are multiple options across Orlando, with a chef like Wendy Lopez pushing the boundaries of what people think of as Mexican cuisine and challenging them to accept upscale takes on traditional dishes.  Price-wise, Reyes remains a “special occasion” restaurant in my book, but I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for something special near downtown and are tired of the same old options.  There is no reason Mexican food can’t be luxurious, and Reyes is proof of that.

Polombia at Time Out Market (Chicago)

I’ve been meaning to write this review for a long time because it was one of my favorite finds from my work trips to Chicago last summer.   I love interesting fusion cuisine, like The Escobar Kitchen in Orlando’s Lake Nona, which expertly combines Puerto Rican food with sushi.  My wife and I used to love a Casselberry pizzeria called Del Dee’s, which served excellent New York-style pizzas along with Thai food (and one of the best Thai iced teas ever), due to the Italian husband and his Thai wife who owned and operated the restaurant.  Alas, it did not last.

Chicago is arguably a bigger food city than Orlando, and one of the few places that could honestly be called even more diverse.  That’s how we ended up with a restaurant as cool as Polombia (https://www.polombiachi.com/), a Polish-Colombian fusion restaurant located in the Time Out Market Chicago, a sprawling food hall with plenty of diverse dining options, from fresh pasta to barbecue, Greek to Indian, Southern to Korean, baked goods to bars.  The Time Out Market sounded like a great place to drag two work colleagues in a Lyft for lunch, and I already knew I had to try the most unique cuisine combo of all.  I definitely over-ordered at Polombia, a joint venture by visionary chefs Cynthia Orobio and Phillipe Sobon, but I wanted to try everything, so I regret nothing. 

I started with meatless emparogi ($12), a lovely quintet of empanada-pierogi hybrids.  These beautiful little pockets of dough were stuffed with potatoes, caramelized onions, chives, sofrito (a classic Latin seasoning blend of garlic, onions, sometimes tomatoes, olive oil, and other aromatic herbs, spices, and vegetables), and a swirl of aji crema, blending elements of a spicy Colombian hot sauce with cool cream to balance out all the acidic ingredients.  There was also a version of these emparogi with all the same fillings, plus short rib, but I held off on that, at least for this dish.

This is bigos, or hunter’s stew ($8), rich with shredded beef, Colombian chorizo sausage, and sauerkraut in a tomato-based stew.  I have loved bigos at Polish and Ukrainian restaurants, and this was a unique take that added Latin American flavors.  It lacked the sweet, tangy touch I remember from the bigos I savored at Veselka in New York City, but this was a very different version of the classic dish.  I think I might have also enjoyed it more in the winter than a particularly hot day in July, but don’t get me wrong, I liked it, and I’m very glad I tried it.   

I couldn’t stop myself from getting an order of two arepa-ski ($14), cornmeal patties topped with ricotta cheese blended with honey, shredded pickled beets and carrots, and the protein of our choice.  Those choices included mojo-roasted chicken, vegetarian lentils, and coffee-braised short rib, so this time I opted for the short rib.  The order came with aji sauce that reminded me of a thicker chimichurri, bringing some acid and spice to contrast against the richness of the meat and the sweet creaminess of the ricotta.  I was so excited to order all this food, I didn’t notice on the menu that I could pick two separate proteins, or else I would have.  But I have no regrets.  These were some of the more creative arepas I’ve ever tried, and the short rib was incredible.  I always love short ribs, and these were so well-seasoned with the coffee rub and braised to ideal tenderness, I didn’t think twice about missing out on the chicken and the lentils.

These were a beauty to behold:

And for dessert, I got kolaczki ($4), six light rolled pastries filled with guava and fig preserves and dusted with powdered sugar.  I might not have bothered with desserts, but I couldn’t turn down two of my favorite fruits for pastry fillings.  The sticky sweetness of the guava and fig worked so perfectly with the light, buttery pastries, and I was so glad to have those flavors to choose from.   

Since this is an Orlando-based food blog, I try to space out my out-of-town reviews, and I’ve been saving this one for a while.  Orlando only has one Polish restaurant that I haven’t been to yet, but my wife and I dearly loved another restaurant, Polonia, that closed several years ago.  That really introduced me to Polish flavors and dishes that I now love and crave and dream about.  Being from Miami, I’m also familiar with all kinds of Latin food, and very fond of it too.

I’m always excited to try chefs’ interesting takes on fusion cuisine, blending together ingredients and dishes and entire cultures, creating something unique and new that pays homage to the original inspirations and influences.  While Chicago certainly has some traditional Polish restaurants due to its large Polish population, I absolutely had to try Polombia while I was there.  I couldn’t schlep all the way up there and leave without trying it.  This was the exact kind of meal that I started this blog to write about, and I’m so glad I was able to visit and work my way through the beautiful, singular menu that Cynthia Orobio and Phillipe Sobon created.

Gully – An Urban Indian Eatery

Last month I visited a new Indian restaurant that opened in late 2022 on South Orange Blossom Trail, a long stretch of Orlando that is far from home but always worth the drive for good food.  Gully – An Urban Indian Eatery (https://www.gullyfl.com/) has an incredible menu inspired by the street foods of Mumbai.  It is full of fascinating-looking dishes that most Indian restaurants around here do not offer, but fear not, they also have plenty of familiar favorites that you can order a la carte, or off an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Gully is mere blocks from my favorite Indian restaurant in Orlando, Bombay Street Kitchen, which also has a huge and unique menu that puts them streets ahead of competitors.  Well, folks, I am pleased to say that Gully delivered a similar experience.  I just wish they both weren’t such a schlep for me, but hopefully you will find yourself closer, so you can check either one out for yourself.

For my first and only visit to Gully (so far), there were so many things I wanted to try, but I am just one man.  A man who can easily eat as much as two hungry men in a single sitting, but one man just the same (who is middle-aged and paying the price for my heroic appetite).  I was so lucky that a dear friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a wonderful Facebook group I have been a member of for many years, organized a weekend lunch at Gully on a day I was able to join in.  I met a few lovely people, all fellow foodies with adventurous appetites and generous spirits, and we had a legendary lunch and shared everything with each other — the perfect way to take in a new restaurant as exciting as Gully.  Members of the Orlando Foodie Forum organized several group meals before the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which I was lucky to attend, but this was my first of these since 2019.  Even though the threat of COVID is far from over and we can’t act like it is, people are getting more comfortable venturing out in public and starting to enjoy things like group meals with friends and even strangers again.  Even I am.  I missed it.

Gully is located in Laxmi Plaza, a small shopping center with several Indian businesses, including House of Spices, a huge Indian grocery store that we all visited after our lunch.  It is awesome “one-stop shopping.”  The restaurant itself has two separate dining rooms, with the all-you-can-eat buffet set up in the second dining room, off to the side.  There is a lot of artwork featuring the legendary Indian actor Sanjay Dutt (who may have inspired the professional wrestling personality Sonjay Dutt, of AEW fame).  While I consider myself a cinephile, I admit to not being well-versed at all in Indian films, and I don’t think I’ve seen any Sanjay Dutt movies yet.  But my favorite movie to come out in 2022 was the big-budget, Telugu-language epic RRR, from India’s “Tollywood,” and it was awesome.  A historical epic drama, an over-the-top action movie that practically turned into a superhero spectacular, a bromance, and a musical (with an Academy Award-nominated song), RRR has something for everyone.  But I digress, and to bring things back around, Gully also has something for everyone.

For me, it is always a treat to order lassi with Indian food, those sweet, thick, creamy yogurt-based drinks that are refreshing and ideal for cutting the blistering spices.  Most Indian restaurants offer plain or mango lassi, but Gully offered a lassi flight of four different flavors, and that sounded right up my alley.  I was expecting little shot glasses, but the glasses were much larger than I expected.  It was more than worth it to get guava, plain, strawberry, and mango lassi, and I loved them all.  I sipped them throughout the meal, and it was almost like dessert in a glass (or four).

Of the six of us, one woman ordered the weekend lunch buffet, and everyone else ordered two or three dishes off the menu to share.  A very nice and cool couple I met for the first time ordered this dish, the Gully samosa chaat ($8), with potato turnovers underneath a blanket of onions, chilies, tomatoes, crispy chickpea noodles, a drizzle of yogurt, and zesty spice dust.

I ordered this favorite for the table, knowing it would be a crowd-pleaser everyone would love to share: chole batura ($15) — a dish of curried chickpeas (chole) served with a puffy, fluffy, fried bread everyone can rip apart to scoop up the rich and savory chole.  It was a hit in our group, as it will be in yours.   

My friend ordered this mutton sukha ($12), a relatively small appetizer portion, which consisted of tender mutton, caramelized shallots, desiccated coconut, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime zest.  I tried a piece that was so delicious, I would have been happy eating the whole plate.  

These are lamb samosas ($10), but I’m pretty sure people snagged one or two before I could snap this shadowy photo.   They are crispy fried turnovers stuffed with ground lamb shoulder, peas, and nutmeg, and served with mint yogurt tahini sauce.  They were smaller than some potato-filled samosas I’ve ordered elsewhere, but this way, there were more than enough to share. 

I didn’t remember what these were, so I had to reach out to the diner who ordered them.  Thanks to Instagram user, local foodie, and new friend @meetmethroughfood for telling me these were called crispy onion blooms, even though those aren’t listed on the menu on Gully’s website.  They were onion fritters fried in chickpea batter, similar to the onion bhaji I tried at Bombay Street Kitchen down the road.

I had a hard time deciding on a main dish for myself, so I made a last-minute, game-time decision of Parsi goat salli boti ($22), a curry made of tender goat meat, apricots, caramelized onions, poppy seeds, and slivered crispy potatoes (according to the menu, but I didn’t notice any potatoes).  It was a little bit sweet from the apricots, but I love savory and sweet flavor combinations.  It wasn’t spicy at all, for the benefit of sharing it with anyone interested, but I would have liked a little more heat.  I’ve found that I can handle “hot” dishes at most local Indian restaurants just fine, but haven’t worked my way up to “Indian hot” yet.

I didn’t order this, but it was paneer methi chaman ($16), a vegetarian (but not vegan) curry dish of slivered paneer cheese in creamy fenugreek sauce with fried spices.  I don’t think I tasted it.

Two people ordered butter chicken ($19), that beloved classic dish, but the photo I took was so blurry that it made the beautiful dish of pulled tandoori chicken in creamy, orangey tomato sauce look unappetizing, so I spared you.  All these curries in the metal serving dishes came with fragrant basmati rice, as one would expect.

This was a basket of beautiful garlic naan bread ($4) we all shared, baked and seasoned to perfection.

As if the food and company weren’t great enough, our dishes were delivered to the table by a ROBOT!  I understand a few Orlando restaurants are using serving robots, but this was the first time I’ve ever seen one in action.  Folks, I am so sorry I couldn’t get a good picture of the robot.  Believe me, I am still kicking myself, because I am an ’80s kid who grew up loving friendly, helpful robots, and still has a major soft spot for them.

So that was my first Gully experience, but I hope to return when I can and work my way through the voluminous menu.  Everything was top-notch.  I just wish my two favorite Indian restaurants weren’t so far away, but I’ll just have to plan special trips in the future.  But I can’t recommend going with friends highly enough, so you can share and maximize the delicious dishes you can all try.  It’s the best way to experience a restaurant like Gully, as opposed to flying solo.  That Orlando Foodie Forum has changed my life for the better over the last several years, including introducing me to some legitimate great friends and fellow culinary explorers and risk-takers.  That’s where I was first inspired to start my own food blog, after some kind compliments on my writing and complaints about the quality of my photography.  And since then, it has been a hell of a ride for me and my dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

Pho Huong Lan

Well, we’ve had another chilly few days, and when the weather gets cool, my thoughts turn to hot, hearty soups.  Pho Huong Lan (https://www.facebook.com/people/Pho-Huong-Lan/100063544778514/) is my new favorite restaurant in Orlando for the two Vietnamese noodle soups I love so much: pho and bun bo hue.  For the uninitiated, pho is a hearty beef noodle soup featuring rare beef that cooks in the hot broth, as well as meaty add-ons like sliced brisket, chewy beef meatballs (nothing like Italian or Swedish meatballs), tender and unctuous beef tendon, and tripe.  Bowls of pho are infinitely customizable, as they come with basil leaves, bean sprouts, sliced fresh jalapeño peppers (much hotter than the standard pickled variety you get in jars), lime wedges to squeeze into the broth, and condiments like hoisin sauce and spicy sriracha.

Bun bo hue is a spicy red broth that usually contains thicker noodles and different cuts of beef and pork, and it also comes with fresh herbs, vegetables, and lime wedges to make every bowl unique.  I’ve tried them all over town, and Orlando is blessed with many Vietnamese restaurants that serve excellent bowls.  I can’t think of many disappointing experiences I’ve had with either kind of soup.  They warm your body and soul — perfect for chilly weeks like this one — but pho is one of the only soups I seek out to enjoy in the summertime, because it is so light and surprisingly refreshing.  But that said, of all the restaurants I’ve tried these two soups at, Pho Huong Lan makes the souperior versions of both.

Here are photos of the menu.  Pardon the contrast — yellow text on a white background is not the greatest combination.  You may want to right-click on the menu images and open them in new tabs for larger images.   

This really cool mural livens up the dining room, where hot pots simmer off to the side.  

Lucky maneki neko cats decorate the front counter, greeting customers.

For our first takeout order, I ordered pho for both my wife and myself.  Like any good Vietnamese restaurant, they package the fragrant broth separately in takeout orders, so the tender rice noodles don’t turn to mush before you get to enjoy it.  Mine is on the left, and it doesn’t look as clear as my wife’s broth on the right because it has oxtails (one of my favorite meats!) swimming in it.  

My wife ordered pho tai dap, with rare flank steak.  That’s her usual, but most local Vietnamese restaurants serve it with small, paper-thin slices of rare beef.  Pho Huong Lan surprised us both by serving it with a large piece of tender rare flank steak, served like chopped steak — not exactly in the form of loose ground beef, but close.  It cooked perfectly well in the hot broth at home, so don’t worry about that one bit. The rice noodles were thicker and more tender than the rice vermicelli most local restaurants served.  We both liked them a lot.

Here’s a close-up of the rare flank steak we both got.  I preferred this a lot to the slices of rare beef we are used to.  It was a lot more tender than those slices once it hit the broth.

I got a smaller portion of the rare flank steak because I chose the pho dac biet, my usual at most restaurants, with rare flank steak, brisket, beef tripe, tender beef tendon, and beef meatballs (which were also floating in the broth with the oxtails I added on for an upcharge).

Here is my beautiful bowl of pho, fully assembled at home, as perfect as such a thing can be:

On my second visit, I tried the bun bo hue, which came with thicker, chewier rice noodles and a different assortment of meats than the pho: “rough” flank steak, beef shank, the chewy and unctuous tendon I love, congealed beef blood, and a round slice of pork bologna.   I also paid the upcharge for beef short rib, another fatty and tender meat I love.  I am so happy that Pho Huong Lan offers oxtail and short rib options, which I don’t mind paying extra for.   
(In addition to the short rib and oxtail add-ons for the pho and bun bo hue, you can also add ox pennis [sp] to your noodle soup for an upcharge, something I’ve never noticed on any other local Vietnamese menus.  But as many times as people have told me to “Eat a dick,” I’m just not there yet in my development as an adventurous eater.)

Here is the assembled bun bo hue, which was so warm and comforting and refreshing on a chilly day.  It was spicy, but not nearly as spicy as other dishes I’ve had from other cuisines, and not even quite as spicy as other versions of bun bo hue I’ve had in Orlando.  Here, the heat complimented all the fresh flavors without overwhelming any of them.

Pho Huong Lan only serves pho and bun bo hue, with multiple options in multiple sizes.  If you’re looking for rice dishes, grilled meats, summer rolls, banh mi sandwiches, or any other Vietnamese specialties, the good news is you have many other great options in Orlando, especially in the same Mills 50 district.  I have reviewed plenty of them, and I remain a fan.  But if you’re in the mood for these two iconic noodle soups, I argue that Pho Huong Lan makes the absolute best versions in Orlando.  I’ve tried most of them, and this restaurant is streets ahead of its competitors.  Your mileage may vary, and I would love to hear what my dozens of readers think, but I feel pretty confident recommending Pho Huong Lan as the best I’ve ever had.

Wa Sushi

Wa Sushi (https://www.facebook.com/WaSushiCasselberry/) is a real treasure in the Seminole County suburb of Casselberry, 20 minutes north of downtown Orlando.  The small, serene location is located in a nondescript shopping plaza between an Ollie’s Bargain Outlet and a store called Sports & Pokemon (the two genders?), but it boasts some of the finest sushi and Japanese food in the Orlando area.

Wa Sushi used to be in another, even less auspicious location elsewhere in Casselberry, pretty far out of the way and hard to find, and our very cool next-door neighbors invited us there once.  It was good, but for whatever reason, we didn’t return until recently — our first visit in years, and the first to this new location.

You can find Wa Sushi’s menu on the Facebook page above, but they had a menu of specials when I took my wife there recently, for our first real date night in a while:

This was one of the last evenings of 2022, and we saw Wa was offering another special of toshikoshi soba, or “year-crossing noodles,” traditionally meant to be eaten on New Year’s Eve to let go of the hardships of the past year (since soba noodles are so soft and easily cut).  Well, we figured we could both use some of that.

Rather than try the version in broth, we ordered the toshikoshi ten zaru soba ($16), cold soba noodles served with a dashi soy dipping sauce and a side order of tempura-battered and fried shrimp and vegetables.  It was beautifully plated, and really good too, although I probably would not have ordered it if the dish wasn’t associated with the tradition of letting go of the hard times of the past year.

Close-up of the tempura shrimp and vegetables.  My wife ate the tempura sweet potato, and I had the onion and shishito peppers.

Here are the cold soba noodles, made from buckwheat and topped with some fine shreds of nori (seaweed).  They didn’t have much flavor at all, kind of like eating plain, cold spaghetti, but earthier.  The dashi dipping sauce helped immensely, as did the finely-diced scallions that also came on the side.   

Something we ordered came with the obligatory wee house salad with sesame dressing and miso soup, which I enjoyed:

This was ika geso ($11), a small plate of deep-fried squid legs from the Hot Tasting section of the menu.  After how tender and fried to perfection the shrimp were, we thought we would double down on the tempura shellfish.  These were chewier than a lot of fried calamari we have ordered around town, but I have a feeling this squid was a lot fresher, as opposed to some restaurants that may use frozen calamari.  They definitely tasted fresh.

My wife always loves a good selection of sashimi, or in this case, a beautiful portion of chirashi ($33) — select cuts of raw fish, selected by the chef.  There was salmon in here, ebi (shrimp), tako (octopus, one of her favorites, whether raw or cooked), ikura (orange globes of salmon roe), tamago (perfectly cooked and sliced egg), and unagi (eel).  I always love eel in sushi, but this was her first time trying it, and she liked it.  I’m always impressed by her willingness to try almost anything.

And we ordered three beautiful rolls to share:

In the foreground, you can see the ultimate tuna roll ($16): spicy tuna and cucumber inside the rice, topped with  tuna, wasabi-infused tobiko (fish eggs), and sweet chili sauce.  This one was awesome, but I’m always a fan of spicy tuna in any form. 

Here you can see the inferno roll ($14) in the front, and the mango tango roll ($13) in the back.  In the very front are slices of escolar sashimi ($2.50), just for her — a big fan of the butterfish.  The inferno roll features spicy salmon and cucumber topped with yellowtail, spicy mayo, and paper-thin slices of fresh jalapeño pepper.  Awesome combination.   
The mango tango roll in the back features tempura-battered and fried shrimp, mango, and cucumber, topped with crab salad.  I believe this was real crabmeat and not surimi (processed fish sometimes called “krab,” even though I like that stuff too).

I was really impressed by Wa Sushi, once again, all these years later, in a much more convenient location.  Last summer I wrote a review of Kabuto Sushi & Grill, another friendly neighborhood sushi spot close to our home, just on the Winter Springs side rather than the Casselberry side.  I even listed one of Kabuto’s dishes in my Top Ten Tastes of 2022, which came out in the last Orlando Weekly issue of the year.  Sadly, that very week, the last week of 2022, Kabuto announced it was closing permanently.  That’s when I resolved to get us back to Wa, to support them as much as we could moving forward, to help spare it a similar fate.  I know lots of local foodies already know how fine Wa Sushi is, and common consensus is that it is one of the best sushi establishments in the greater Orlando area.  It absolutely is, and to have it so close to home, a true treasure in Casselberry, of all places, means we have to protect it, support it, and shout our praise from the rooftops, both real and virtual.  So here’s my praise and my protection.  Let’s support all of our favorite restaurants as much as we can this year, especially those friendly neighborhood favorites we are lucky to have so near and dear to us.