Susuru

I fully admit that one hip dining trend that totally passed me by is ramen.  I subsisted on instant ramen noodles, spaghetti, and canned tuna and sardines for far too many years of my life, fueling myself through far too many degrees.  And while I still like those ridiculously salty and unhealthy noodles today, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around $10+ bowls of “fancy” ramen, after dining on 7-for-$1 Maruchan and Nissin noodles for so long.  I’ve even tried a few ramen bowls from nicer restaurants, but found them bland and disappointing, and often overloaded with those long, thin, alien-looking mushrooms with the tiny caps that ruin the whole thing for me.

But my best friend was in town recently to judge the National Pie Championships with me, and on the rare times we get to visit each other (me being in Orlando or him back in Miami), we always try to show off the newest and/or best restaurants in our home cities to each other.  One place I’ve been hearing great things about restaurant is Susuru (https://www.susuruorl.com), the new Japanese izakaya (casual pub) down near Disney World, close to where he was staying.  It’s extraordinarily easy to find if you take I-4 to exit 68 and get off on State Road 535, also known as Apopka-Vineland Road.

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Susuru features a quirky, funky, retro-hipster-otaku decor that you never see anywhere:DSC02039

As a lifelong action figure collector, I got a kick out of the view in the hallway when I left the men’s room:dsc02036.jpg

And as a cat lover with a few maneki nekos at home to hopefully bring some luck, I loved this little dude next to the bar:dsc02038.jpg

I’m sure my readers care far more about the menu, which wasn’t available on Susuru’s website when I checked, so here it is.  Note that this is a Japanese restaurant that serves no sushi.  Also note that none of the food is too expensive, so I encourage you to order several different dishes and share them:dsc02037.jpg

My buddy and I each ordered tonkotsu ramen ($10), with pork chashu, shoyu soft egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori, and tonkotsu broth.  I have to admit, I was still a little skeptical, given my limited experience with overpriced and mediocre “fancy” ramen, but this was so delicious, I can’t stop thinking about it almost two weeks later.  (“Or talking about it!”, my wife would say.)  DSC02042The broth was so rich and flavorful, almost creamy despite containing no dairy at all.  Even the bamboo shoots, which I had misgivings about, were soft and yielding, like thick al dente pasta sheets.  I’ve never been able to cook an egg to that perfect soft-boiled consistency, with the rich, runny yolk that infused the broth.  The noodles were so far beyond the instant ramen bricks of my college days, it was like graduating from your school cafeteria lunches to a gourmet feast.  And the pork!  The PORK!  It melted in my mouth.  It was sliced thin, and it was so tender and unctuous.  Once again, perfect in every way!

We also split the mentaiko fries ($6), which were McDonald’s-style fries topped with spicy cod roe mayonnaise and shredded nori (seaweed).  I love anything salty, spicy, and fishy, but these were almost like a salt overload.  Delicious, though.  I have to imagine this would be a great dish to order while drinking beer.DSC02043

Skewers, skewers, all kinds of skewers!  These skewers of meat are cut into perfect, uniform, bite-sized pieces and grilled over a charcoal flame.  From left to right, we ordered sausage, chicken hearts, short rib, chicken skin, and the two on the right are both chicken thighs.  The Kurobota (pork honey sausage) had the texture of a hot dog and didn’t taste that different, although it picked up nice flavor from the charcoal grill they used.  The short rib (in the middle) was a little tough, although still very rich and tasty.  I am drawn to sausages and short rib dishes anywhere I go and count them among my favorite meats.  That said…DSC02045I never thought I’d end up liking chicken more than sausage or short rib, but I sure did here.  All three types of chicken skewers (yakitori) were indeed better — not that I disliked the sausage or short rib!  But they were among the most delicious chicken-related items I’ve ever eaten in my life.  They had a fantastic taste they picked up from being grilled, especially those thighs.  My only disappointment was that they ran out of chicken oyster yakitori, an off-menu special for the evening.  Those two tiny, dark morsels of meat are my favorite part of the chicken, which is why I usually gravitate toward preparing thighs or roasting whole birds at home.

If you’re skeptical about chicken hearts, I implore you to give these a try.  I’ve bought hearts at Publix to cook at home (marinate in a vinaigrette dressing and then saute them).  I love the rich, organ-y flavor, like delicious chicken liver, but mine always come out chewy.  These were anything but chewy — far more tender than I ever expected chicken hearts could be.  Whoever is working the grill at Susuru is a master at his or her craft.

So I’m definitely a huge fan of Susuru.  If you spend time down near the theme parks or come to Orlando on vacation, venture off park property and go check it out.  Seriously, if it wasn’t an hour from home, I would become a regular for sure.  I’m already planning my next Susuru adventure!

I was a judge in the National Pie Championships! (Again!)

I like sweets and desserts as much as anyone, but I can usually stay strong in the face of  chocolate, candy, cupcakes, or cake, and turn them down without regret.  Even cookies have to be some pretty serious, next-level cookies to get me to indulge.  But one thing I will always choose and never refuse is PIE, that most humble and all-American of desserts.  Whether it’s a custard, cream, or fruit filling, a flaky dough crust or a crumb topping, hot or cold, sweet or tart or even savory, pie is everything.

There is a group called the American Pie Council that agrees with me.  From their website: “The American Pie Council Is The Only Organization Committed To Maintaining America’s Pie Heritage, Passing On The Tradition Of Pie-Making And Promoting America’s Love Affair With Pie.”  If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is.  They publish a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times (I love it!), full of tips, tricks, recipes, promotions, and networking information for bakers.

But the American Pie Council’s most visible event is hosting the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida every year — a chance for the most gifted commercial, professional, and amateur pie bakers to prove themselves in the ultimate pie arena, like Pie Thunderdome. These brave bakers descend upon Orlando from throughout the United States to compete for those blue ribbons and bragging rights, mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor of being the best.  Here is a Bon Appetit article about last year’s National Pie Championships, and here is an essay on Taste by two bakers who competed last year.  Christopher Guest really needs to write and direct a mockumentary about the world of competitive pie-baking, something like Best in Show meets Iron Chef meets… I don’t know, The Fast & the Furious.  “I live my life one quarter-stick of butter at a time.”  “If your dough isn’t out of control, you’re not in control.”  And what good is pie if you can’t share it with family (including chosen family)?

Anyway, last year, a fellow foodie friend told me that she regularly volunteers to judge the National Pie Championships, and I could apply to be a volunteer judge as well.  What the–?!!  People actually do this?  You can get chosen to sample a bunch of delicious pies from some of the best bakers in the country — for free!! — and then evaluate and rank them and offer constructive feedback?  I felt like every event in my life to date, everything I’ve ever learned and accomplished, had brought me to that point, and it could be a lifelong dream coming true.  I’m not a baker on the level of these master bakers — I have one EXCELLENT pie recipe that everybody goes crazy for — but I thought I would be a great pie judge between my two Orlando Weekly best-of-the-year food lists, blogging here as The Saboscrivner, and having pretty good taste in general.  Luckily, the American Pie Council agreed.  I volunteered and served for the first time in 2018, and just did it again last weekend, this time with my best friend, who drove all the way up from Miami.

When you are a National Pie Championships judge, you get assigned to a table in a huge hotel conference room where all the judging takes place, and each table gets one pie category the entire time.  They judge the commercial pies (think supermarket bakeries, frozen foods, and restaurant chains) on the Friday, and then professional and amateur pies on the Saturday, which is what I did both years.  On your judging application, you can choose your top six categories, and hopefully you will be placed in one of those.  You can choose among apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, nut (expect to overdose on heavy pecan pies!), peanut butter, citrus, tropical fruit, “open” fruit, “open” cream, and more.  There are 16 professional categories, and even more in the amateur division.  There is even a savory pot pie category!  Last year, the APC included a category for Hollywood-inspired pies, and this year’s unique category was for pies inspired by special and memorable vacations.

In 2018, I got moved away from my top choice at the last minute and placed at the Comstock apple pie table.  Comstock is one of the National Pie Championships sponsors, the company that makes canned apple, cherry, peach, strawberry, and blueberry pie fillings that you can buy at most supermarkets.  I was skeptical, but I got to taste some really solid apple pies that day.  I was definitely burned out on apple pie by the end, but luckily we then got to judge the Comstock “Best in Show” pies — the best apple pie from our table (a maple praline apple pie), plus the winners from the other Comstock categories: a chocolate-covered cherry pie, a raspberry peach bellini pie, a classic, old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie, and the delightful blueberry lemon cream pie that we crowned the winner.  I still remember this one fondly, over a year later:
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This year, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of the National Pie Championships, my buddy and I made sure to fill out the same six categories, and I asked the powers that be to seat us at the same table so we could hang out.  And we were lucky enough to get placed at the Professional cream pie table, a highly-desirable category that was one of my top choices.

The way it works is volunteer pie servers pass the unsliced pie around our round table so we can all ooh and ahh and photograph it if we wish, to evaluate each pie in its uncut state.  Then the server returns with one slice removed, so we can evaluate how the slice holds up on its own, as well as how the pie looks with a slice taken out.  Then we pass the one slice around the table and cut off small slivers for ourselves, so everyone just gets a tiny taste.  Believe me, we don’t each eat an entire slice from each of these pies.  That would be ill-advised.  Each pie judge fills out an anonymous scoring worksheet as we evaluate each pie, with our judging number and the pie’s identification number.  There is even math involved!

We ended up sampling 14 pies in all:

The first of many coconut cream pies:DSC02000DSC02001

The first banana cream, which included some pineapple and crispy banana chips:DSC02004DSC02003

A chocolate-mint brownie cream pie, which was a big hit at our table:DSC02006DSC02005

Another coconut cream:DSC02008DSC02009

This lovely coconut cream was extremely thick and firm, and it was my favorite of the many coconut cream pies we tried.DSC02010DSC02011

I felt so bad for this baker, because this beautiful berry cream pie was damaged when the slicers tried to slice it.  However, it was delicious, and I would totally buy one if I ever saw it for sale or on a menu:DSC02012

I think everyone lost their minds over this Oreo cookies ‘n’ creme cream pie.  I know it was my friend’s favorite.DSC02014DSC02016

WHO DAT?  This was a New Orleans Saints-themed banana cream pie.  It would have been a nice touch if the baker went full N’awlins and made it a Bananas Foster cream pie.  I still don’t know if the fleur-de-lis was edible.DSC02017DSC02018

I don’t even remember if this one was banana cream, coconut cream, or something else entirely, but it was good, because how could it not be?  Those things around the crust might have been candied nuts, so maybe banana walnut?DSC02019DSC02020

This hypnotically beautiful cinnamon roll cream pie won our superlative award for Prettiest Pie at our table.DSC02021DSC02023

Another coconut cream:DSC02024DSC02025

This strawberry cream pie was far and away my favorite, and the only one I gave a perfect score to.  It was a cross between a strawberry cream pie and a strawberry cheesecake.DSC02026DSC02027

I forget what this one was:DSC02028DSC02029

And this was a heaven-themed coconut cream pie to end our judging, with edible golden sugar “glitter” and sparkling whipped cream.DSC02030DSC02032

We probably each ate the equivalent of 2-3 slices of pie, passing all of those around the table and cutting off tiny tastes from each slice — but that’s still a lot of rich cream pie for a regular person.  We were the first table to finish, and it came as a relief.

The second-place winner from our Professional Cream Pie table was the “Sunsational Islandtime Coconut Cream Pie,” baked by Avon Park, Florida’s own Amy Freeze.  I don’t remember which coconut cream pie that was, so apologies to the talented Ms. Freeze, but I enjoyed every single coconut cream pie we tried that day.

The winner, as you might have guessed, was the “Double the Good Stuff Cookies and Cream” pie, baked by Michele Stuart, who traveled all the way from Norwalk, Connecticut and entered several pies, with a grand total of FIVE winning either first or second place in different categories!  Ms. Stuart is a PIE BAWSS.

When each table of judges is finished, the scores are tallied to select first and second-place winners in each category.  Then each of those first-place pies compete against each other for the Best in Show, in both professional and amateur categories.

I have been sitting on this review for a week, waiting for the American Pie Council to release a formal announcement of all the winners, and here they are.  The Professional Best in Show pie was Iceland’s Café Loki-Inspired Rye Bread Cream Pie, baked by David Eaheart from Kansas City, Missouri.  “Layered with a cream filling, toasted rye bread, piped meringue and a caramel sauce drizzle, this pie is based on Café Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream, which Eaheart discovered on a walking food tour of Reykjavik.”  I didn’t get to try this pie, but I would have awarded it a perfect score for creativity.

On our way out of the judging room, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this gorgeous apple pie.  It has been over a year, so maybe I can start eating apple pies again, while taking a break from cream pies.  DSC02033

Being an official pie judge in the National Pie Championships two years in a row has been a great experience, and even a great responsibility, for which I have no regrets.  I’ll probably volunteer again, because it’s such a treat to sample so many delicious pies from bakers at the top of their game.  I’m just glad it only happens once a year!  DSC02046

EDIT (4/22/19): The American Pie Council posted hundreds of photos from the event, so feel free to spend some hours scrolling through beautiful pies.

Luke’s Kitchen and Bar

Luke’s Kitchen and Bar (http://eatatlukes.com/) is in a beautiful, modern, comfortable location along 17-92 in Maitland, nestled between Winter Park and Casselberry, and easily accessible via I-4.  The restaurant location has been a few other things over the years, including a Steak & Ale location for the longest time.  However, Luke’s owner/operator Brandon McGlamery (who also runs the tony Luma and Prato on Park Avenue in nearby Winter Park) has the business skills and culinary talent to make Luke’s a success.

I recently visited Luke’s for the first time with some colleagues, just in time for happy hour.  Fun was had by all, and I would definitely return.  Dear readers, please keep in mind I did not order nor eat all of this food.  This was everything that five people shared.

Fresh potato chips served with a high-class version of French onion dip (that might have had a bit of bleu cheese blended in).  These were a crowd-pleaser.  The chips were thin, light, and crispy; not greasy at all, and not too crunchy like kettle chips.DSC01850

French fries with thyme, rosemary, and sea salt.  I didn’t order these.  They were perfectly okay, but I will always choose chips over fries.DSC01852

A mid-Atlantic take on a chilled shrimp cocktail, with the shrimp seasoned with Old Bay:DSC01851

This was my wee little fried oyster po’boy.  It was on the happy hour menu for the shocking price of $4, so I figured “How could I go wrong?”  Well, it was delicious, but it was the size of a slider.  Maybe I should not have been surprised, but it was so tasty I wasn’t disappointed.  DSC01853

Following the trend of wee foods, Luke’s supposedly has amazing deviled eggs.  I didn’t feel like a whole order of them, so I was overjoyed when our patient server said I could order just one, to try it.  It was one of the better deviled eggs I’ve ever had, garnished with excellent crispy shallots and tasty shishito pepper jam that was the shi-shit.DSC01857

Roasted eggplant dip (AKA babganoush), served with cucumber, mint, and multigrain toast.  I don’t think I even tried this one, but my babaganoush-loving co-worker was really happy with it.DSC01854

A very good and very thicc cheeseburger, from the happy hour menu.  Served simply with lettuce, tomato, PICKLED onion (niiiice), and I think there were pickles on it too (which I’m getting better at eating and enjoying).  It came out a perfect medium-rare, and was extremely juicy.  I offered my friends a chance to try this one, but it ended up being all mine.DSC01855

I ordered these for the group, because I am a class act: outstanding fluffy Parker House rolls, served with the most delicious caramelized honey butter (spread onto the wooden serving board in the background).  You can never go wrong with Parker House-style yeast rolls. DSC01858

And the coup de grace: mussels, which I ordered to share with everyone, but these were most decidedly NOT on the happy hour menu, so they cost around $20.  They did, however, come garnished beautifully with tomato, fennel, purple basil, and grilled, oil-rubbed sourdough bread.  They were great, but we all would have been fine without them.DSC01859

So Luke’s is definitely a solid choice for happy hour, or lunch or dinner if you prefer.  It could be a great destination if you’re planning to catch a movie afterwards in Winter Park or at the Enzian, our beloved art-house movie theater right near the restaurant in Maitland.  Luke’s location is perfect if you’re considering a romantic after-dinner stroll around lovely Lake Lily, essentially across the street.  Happy hour would be ideal for that, since the park stays open until sunset.

Luke’s has a large menu, attentive staff, and my colleagues who ordered cocktails seemed over-the-moon pleased with them.  Chef McGlamery and his crew seem to be doing everything right.  Whether you’re there to hang out with friends, celebrate with family, impress a hot date, or just decompress after a long work week, I think you will agree.  I hate to be the guy that says this, but Luke’s, the Force will be with you… always.

Chain Reactions: Maple Street Biscuit Company

Despite living not too far from Oviedo, I almost never drive all the way east to head out there.  Every time I do, I’m always amazed by how much the area has been developed, with so many new restaurants popping up.  One of Oviedo’s newest neighbors is the Maple Street Biscuit Company (https://maplestreetbiscuits.com), a small chain that was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, and has since expanded into six Southern states (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas).  Despite being a chain, it has a very “down-home” Southern feeling, with everything in the bright, spacious dining room made of wood (or wood veneers).

Maple Street Biscuit Company specializes in fried chicken sandwiches made with fresh, white meat chicken breasts on fresh-baked biscuits, but they have lots of other options.  They make their jams and jellies from scratch too, which is not that common anymore.

I ordered the Squawking Goat sandwich, which includes fried chicken breast, a fried goat cheese medallion, and house-made pepper jelly on one of those fantastic biscuits.  I loved it.  It was awesome.  They were generous with the pepper jelly, ladling it on all over the plate, so it was definitely a sandwich to eat with a knife and fork.  I thought the goat cheese “medallion” was quite small, but it was so delicious, coated in seasoned bread crumbs, that I craved more.

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My wife ordered the Sticky Maple sandwich, with a fried chicken breast and pecanwood smoked bacon on a biscuit, with real maple syrup from the Bissell Family Farm served on the side.  (They usually pour it right on.)

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We had meant to share the Smoky Mountain Mac n Cheese, a $4 side of macaroni and cheese made with three different types of cheese and topped with a crunchy cheese cracker crumble, but then I think my wife remembered she isn’t the hugest mac and cheese fan.  More for me, I thought!  But the portion was very small, so it wasn’t that much more for me after all.  Still, it was rich and cheesy and gooey and tasty, so how can I complain?

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Also pictured above is the iced cinnamon pecan biscuit they were gracious enough to include with our order because it was our first visit.  It was delicious — much more of a dessert that something you should eat for breakfast, but I feel that way about most breakfast pastries (muffins, doughnuts, danishes, Pop-Tarts, and their ilk).  The icing was very fresh and very thin, like you would find on a cinnamon roll or a good cheese danish.  

My wife studied the menu in advance, and she knew she wanted the house-made ganache hot chocolate with steamed milk.  She tasted cinnamon and said it reminded her of Mexican hot chocolate, which she always loves.

I rarely drink coffee, but I love anything with vanilla and maple flavors, so I couldn’t turn down an iced maple vanilla latte.  Of course it was more like a dessert than anything else, but that’s how I like my coffee (like my women): sweet, smooth, and cool.

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And finally, because we didn’t have enough carbs and sugar already, they had fresh-baked cookies near the cash register, where you place your order, and we couldn’t resist trying the lemon blueberry cookie.  I was surprised my wife suggested it, since I love anything with lemon and with berries, and she usually doesn’t, opting for chocolatey sweets instead.  And I think she liked it, but I definitely liked it more.  It was obviously very freshly-baked, extremely soft, still warm, and delightfully lemony.  We ripped into it so quickly, I almost forgot to photograph it, as you will be able to tell:

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Maple Street Biscuit Company closes at 2:00 most days and stays closed on Sundays, so it isn’t the easiest place for us to get to.  Still, I’m glad we were finally able to try it.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I definitely would return to get that Squawking Goat again, and maybe I’ll ask for extra fried goat cheese next time.  I’d get that cookie again, too!

Mediterranean Deli

My wife doesn’t share my fascination with certain foods. Sandwiches, cured meats, cheeses, anything in tomato sauce, flavored chips, dips, sauces, condiments, spicy stuff — I love all that, and she leaves them to me.  That said, she is way more into chicken wings, chocolate, and other sweets than I am, generally.  But one thing we can always agree upon is a good gyro.  We love gyros, and we’re always on the lookout for good ones, since it’s almost impossible to duplicate that salty, garlicky gyro meat at home, whether it’s beef, lamb, or a processed blend of both.  I buy ground lamb and make it into a gyro-flavored meatloaf of sorts, but it still isn’t the same as that salty, garlicky meat sliced off a spit.

(FYI, the father of processed gyro meat was a Jewish guy named John Garlic.  I love that so much.)

Well, after hearing about its wondrous gyros on the Orlando Foodie Forum for years, we finally sought out the Mediterranean Deli, west of I-4 at 981 West Fairbanks Avenue, OrlandoFL 32804, but this one was not easy to find.  I drove by it twice since it’s a small location in a tiny plaza that was half under construction, and there was no sign easily visible from the road.  I always panic a bit when I can’t find what I’m looking for, but we eventually figured it out.  I am so glad we didn’t get frustrated and give up on this mission, because it is my new favorite gyro spot in town.

For the purposes of this review, I went twice, a few weeks apart, and ate pretty much the same stuff, because all of my photos came out horribly the first time.  (I only had my terrible phone camera on me, and not my halfway-decent camera.)  To help get people enthusiastic about trying Mediterranean Deli instead of inadvertently turning them off to it, all of these photos are from my second visit, when I brought everything home to share with my wife.

This was my huge gyro, sliced off a spit and served on soft, warm, lightly grilled pita bread with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and red onion, and cool, creamy, garlicky tzatziki sauce.  It is stuffed beyond belief, and a smart person might keep it wrapped in its paper and foil wrap, unpeeling just enough for a few bites at a time to avoid it falling to pieces.  But to get a proper photo just for you, dear readers, I opened it up.  No regrets.img_0067.jpg

My wife’s equally enormous gyro, hold the tomatoes and onions.  She got three meals out of it!img_0066.jpg

The gyro meals come with a side salad for something like $8, including a free canned drink.  My wife said she didn’t want any sides, so I picked two for myself: a vinaigrette-based pasta salad (left) and an absolutely delicious mayo-based seafood pasta salad, with imitation crabmeat and medium-sized, perfectly al dente shell pasta.  I always love any kinds of pasta or macaroni salad, but the seafood version will become my new go-to side.  They also offer fresh Greek and Mediterranean-style salads, hummus, and tabouleh as options, but I make green salads all the time at home, buy hummus often, and don’t like parsley enough to get into tabouleh.img_0065.jpg

This is a nice rectangular slice of spinach pie, AKA boreeka, with sheets of flaky dough layered with sauteed, tender, perfectly-seasoned spinach and feta cheese, then baked to a golden brown.  It is soft, warm, crispy, flaky perfection.  I could easily and happily eat the entire large pan my slice was cut out of.IMG_0068

I love stuffed grape leaves, often called dolmas or dolmades.  Sometimes they are stuffed with ground meat and rice and served warm, but I honestly prefer the vegetarian versions that are just stuffed with seasoned rice and served cold, marinated in oil and occasionally vinegar.  These are the latter, and I could eat dozens of them, too.  The side order comes with a generous helping of extra tzatziki sauce, which is very thick and perfect for dipping them.img_0069.jpg

Mediterranean Deli is a tiny little restaurant in a tiny little strip that looks like it has seen better days.  The restaurant isn’t fancy at all, but it is awesome, and locals know it.  I never even drove west of I-4 on Fairbanks before until I heard this place existed, but I’m so glad I went a little out of my way to discover it for myself.  I will argue they serve the absolute best gyro in Orlando, and everything else I ate was awesome as well.  It’s a real bargain too, for the amount and quality of food you get.  With any luck, you will meet the owner, warm and welcoming Walaid, who greets everyone as “My friend.”

By the way, Mediterranean Deli doesn’t have a website, but the phone number is listed online as 407-539-2650.  There are also photos of the menu on that inexplicably popular review site that rhymes with “help” and occasionally provides some.