Almost a year and a half after starting The Saboscrivner, I can’t say this blog has become a big breakthrough success. I choose to not use Instagram, always preferring a thousand words to a single picture. I don’t use that website that rhymes with “help,” and I’ll never become “help” elite. I’m the furthest thing from an influencer, since nobody wants to look at photos of me posing, trying to look cute while holding up the delicious foods I eat, trust me. I have literally DOZENS of followers, but at least I’ve made a mint off my food writing — one night, I got a single peppermint after paying my bill.
But my life is still better for it, because now when old friends pass through Orlando, they are much more likely to send me a Facebook message, inviting me to catch up over dinner, figuring I’ll pick a good restaurant. At least my reputation has grown that way, and I’ve been able to see and reconnect with good people I miss, who I haven’t seen in far too many years. Best of all, we can go to nicer places than I could afford back in the day.
This past week, I heard from an old friend from my college days in Gainesville. We hadn’t seen each other in over 15 years, and probably closer to 20. Back then he was one of the coolest people I had ever met, and he helped change my life for the better when I played in a band with him (and another friend I caught up with over a similar dinner at Chuan Lu Garden early this year). I always looked up to this guy as a fascinating punk rock poet and general badass, and now he’s even cooler as a tireless advocate and activist for the homeless in Gainesville. He was in town for a conference and staying down near International Drive, so I made a list of restaurants near there that I thought he might like, that I’ve also been wanting to try. That’s all the way across town from me, and I don’t make it down there very often.
So we decided on Makani (https://www.facebook.com/makaniorlando/), an Egyptian restaurant on International Drive, tucked into a truly international shopping plaza with an upscale steakhouse, a Chinese buffet, a traditional Japanese restaurant, a 24-hour Turkish restaurant/lounge, and a dinner theater that performs an interactive murder mystery every night. With no shortage of choices, I think we made the best possible one. I always love any Middle Eastern food, but had never tried Egyptian before. Needless to say, we feasted like the pharoahs of old, both of us having come a long way from feeling uncomfortable ordering anything at Taco Bell that wasn’t on the extra value menu. It’s nice to go out to eat with people who are up for trying and sharing almost anything.
This was the hawawshi ($17.99), sort of a meat pie with seasoned ground beef, onions, and parsley in a crispy pastry crust, almost like a lightly fried stuffed pita (although it was possibly just baked). I loved it. It came with a metal pitcher of a very hot hot sauce that we learned to treat with caution and apply sparingly. I would happily order this dish every time I return, I liked it that much.
I’ve written before about how I can take or leave fries, but these fries are among the best I’ve ever had. Crispy, crunchy, firm, flavorful, just salty enough — not limp or starchy. Top-notch fries!
I was intrigued by photos I had seen of this dish online, so I had to try it. This was mombar ($12.99), chewy, savory sausages of seasoned rice, vegetables, and herbs, stuffed into cow intestines, fried in oil, and festooned with chewy, sweet sultanas. I loved these, too! They reminded me of dolmas (or dolmades), grape leaves stuffed with tangy seasoned rice, one of my favorite side dishes in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, only these were much richer and meatier-tasting. They might sound weird, but I think most people would like them, if you get past the “cow intestine” dread. They were an unlikely favorite of mine, in fact.
This mixed grill ($29.99) arrived at our table on a fancy golden platform billowing hot smoke. It looked a little bit like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of my Top Five favorite movies of all time, but you don’t want to shield your eyes from this smoke show. It came with a beef and lamb kofta skewer, a beef kabob skewer, a chicken kabob skewer, and a lamb chop, all char-grilled and expertly seasoned. I don’t know which one I preferred more, the kofta or the beef kabob. I like my lamb chops a little more on the rare side, but it still had so much flavor from the char-grilling process, something I just can’t do with meat at home, without a grill. There was plenty for two of us to share everything, especially since we had ordered so many other dishes.
The mixed grill came with a side order of rice that turned out to be a heaping mound of buttery rice pilaf, with vermicelli mixed in.
This intriguing mountain of deliciousness is the koshari ($14.99), a combination of rice pilaf (maybe fried?), lentils, spaghetti and elbow macaroni, topped with tomato sauce and crispy, fresh-fried onions (you could tell they were fresh and not just shaken out of the French’s canister). It would be a dream dish for vegetarians or anyone trying to carb-load, and it worked much better than you might be thinking. It was a wonderful blend of textures, as well as flavors. It also reminded me how much I love lentils, and how I should cook them at home far more often.
The menu said it also included chickpeas, but ours didn’t have any, and I was perfectly fine with that. I love falafel and usually like hummus, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of plain ol’ chickpeas. It also came with a side of garlic vinegar in a small metal pitcher, but we didn’t figure that out until we had already eaten most of it without it.
We were there a while and ordered a lot of stuff, so the friendly General Manager came by to check on us and very generously provided us with this dessert sampler (normally $13.99), completely free! It was an unnecessary gesture, but certainly a welcome and appreciated one.
Most of these desserts were reminiscent of baklava, but the top right and bottom left are kunefe (here called konafa), a Middle Eastern pastry made of finely-shredded dough (almost like more vermicelli) soaked in a sugar syrup over sweet cheese, then baked. It is buttery, crispy, rich, and very, very sweet. The ones in the middle may have been basbousa, which my research tells me is a semolina cake sweetened with simple syrup made with rosewater. And the rolls had the thin, crispy dough I associate with baklava, although I don’t know what this particular dessert is called. We devoured all of it with gusto, though.
This was a great night out, let me tell you. Not only did I get to try an amazing new restaurant (new to me and relatively new to Orlando), but I got to do it with an old friend who I had some real adventures with back in the day. Back then, being in a band with him and four other guys, I went from being a shy and sheltered introvert to a more confident performer. We played gigs all over Florida and as far out as New Orleans, and even recorded in multiple music studios. That was more than half my life ago, but I’ll never forget the excitement of being in a band with my friends, pretty much living my dream. I haven’t played music in far too many years and I miss it terribly, but I owe those five guys a debt I can never repay. I draw on those skills I learned every day, since teaching is just another kind of performing. I looked up to this guy, and I’m glad to say I still do now, just for different reasons. I was so glad to catch up and hear all about his wife, his kids, his continued education, and his heroic work on behalf of the homeless, as the founder and Executive Director of GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville. It’s an organization that could use your support, for anyone interested in donating to a truly worthy cause.
And in the meantime, whether you’re a local or a tourist, visiting our City Beautiful for a conference, convention, or vacation, Makani is one of your best bets along busy International Drive. Why not eschew the usual chains and try delicious Egyptian food, prepared with care and love? One of their signs calls it “Good Mood Food,” and I don’t see how you could eat at Makani and not be in a better mood.