The Saboscrivner’s Top Ten TV Shows of 2021

It’s the end of the year as we know it, so here’s another list!  Here are the Top Ten television shows I watched this year, and why.

10. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+). I almost listed the dire, depressing HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown instead of this six-episode Marvel show, because Mare of Easttown is better in almost every way. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier humanized one of the best villains to appear so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (my dude Zemo), two supposed good guys had major heel turns (one expected, and one as a huge surprise), and they introduced an important new character who will hopefully lead into a new movie or show about one of my favorite Marvel concepts.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, congratulations on not being a nerd.  Oh yeah, and Sam Wilson, one of the two biggest mensches in the MCU, Steve Rogers’ trusted friend and protégé, fulfilled his potential and rose to a well-deserved spot on the superhero A-list.  I cried happy tears.  If you haven’t watched it or haven’t been spoiled yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s a beautiful, inspiring moment that reminded me why I love superheroes, even when their stories suffer from poor pacing, weird editing, relatively low budgets, and other factors that keep them from reaching their full potential, as this show did.  Mare of Easttown had better performances and told a tighter, twistier tale, but all it did was make me depressed and hungry for hoagies, and that’s already how I feel every day of my life, baby.

9. Wynonna Earp, Season 4 (SyFy). I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this show to most people. It’s a low-budget, campy Canadian Western-fantasy-horror series that owes a great debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so if you think that sounds fun, then run, don’t walk.  And if you think that sounds awful, then run in the opposite direction.  Honestly, my least-favorite parts of this show were always the monsters of the week, and even the “big bads” of the season often disappointed.  That said, I always enjoyed spending time with the main characters as they laughed, cried, drank, banged, fell in love, shot the shit, shot some demons, and drank some more in the cursed town of Purgatory in the Ghost River Triangle.  This was the final season, and the series finale ended the only way it could have – with an adorable lesbian wedding and a little bit of happiness and hope springing from all the bleakness and blood these heroes had faced.

8. Bosch, Season 7 (Amazon Prime). Maybe the best modern detective/cop/neo-noir show, Bosch did an excellent job of telling gritty crime stories set (and filmed!) in beautiful Los Angeles, while balancing it with some good drama and much-needed comic relief to break the tension. You may have dismissed this as a “show for dads,” or “copaganda,” and you wouldn’t be completely wrong, but Bosch was always so much better than it had any right to be.  This was the final season, but we haven’t seen the last of driven, hyper-competent detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch or his smart, tough, capable daughter Maddie.  They will be returning in a brand-new series, but with a somewhat different status quo based on this series finale.  I’ll miss the wonderful supporting cast, featuring many alumni of The Wire.  I never read any of Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels that were adapted into the show, but the entire series had a sprawling, detailed, novelistic feel.  L.A. felt like another main character, and I sure hope the next Bosch series is shot on location as well.

7. AEW Dynamite (TNT). This has been airing for just over two years, and it may be the best televised wrestling show of all time. I ranked it much higher last year, only because I had a lot more going on this year and fell so far behind keeping up with All Elite Wrestling.  But there is also a staggering, overwhelming, intimidating amount of weekly content to watch: the Elevation and Dark shows on YouTube (usually featuring lesser-known wrestlers who often amaze and astonish), and the bigger cable shows that push the stars and advance the story arcs, Dynamite on Wednesdays and Rampage on Fridays.  It’s just too much to watch, so I started reading spoilers and fast-forwarding on the DVR to get to my favorite performers and the more interesting matches.  In 2021, everyone continued to work their asses off to put on a great show, people seem to still be getting along and avoiding behind-the-scenes drama and politics, long-term storytelling that built over months and even years finally paid off (World Champion Adam Page had an incredible story arc), and the return of live crowds (who are much less risk-averse than I) injected even more excitement and enthusiasm into the shows.  Also, a few high-profile hires took screen time away from some of the less-popular wrestlers who are my favorites, but it also finally made me a fan of the great C.M. Punk, who I missed out on completely during his long reign in WWE, when that company turned me away from watching wrestling for 15 years.  I am so glad there’s a real, viable alternative to WWE, especially because AEW also seems like a happy, functional workplace.

6. Snowpiercer, Season 2 (TNT). You can feel some of the nerve-wracking, edge-of-your-seat tension and drama many people loved and missed in Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones on this sci-fi series, about the survivors of an apocalyptic freeze hurtling around a dead, frozen Earth aboard a life-sustaining train (which is starting to break down). The constant class conflicts of the first season were mostly resolved, but Season 2 raised the stakes by introducing a formidable antagonist for the exhausted heroes, threatening their uneasy alliance and the safety of everyone on board.  Spoiler alert: he’s played by Sean Bean, and he’s a sadistic, pompous jerk with an amazing wardrobe who has backup plans for his backup plans and corrupts everyone he meets.  Daveed Diggs and my teenage crush Jennifer Connelly continued to anchor the show with their charisma, and Bean’s villain shook up the power dynamic on Snowpiercer just as the other two were finally having their “We’re not so different, you and I” detente.

5. Black Monday, Season 3 (Showtime). The only show from this list to also make my Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade list, this may have been the final season of the clever comedy about Wall Street weirdos who caused the biggest stock market crash in history, then got into even more complicated capers, shady business dealings, political and religious scandals, backstabbing betrayals, jazz, cocaine, sex, and their dysfunctional love-hate relationships with each other. Oh, and there was a serial killer storyline too.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be happy if the show continues a little longer because everyone involved is so funny and smart, but if it doesn’t, Black Monday ended on a perfect note, without ever faltering, slowing down, or wearing out its welcome.

4. Waffles + Mochi, Season 1 (Netflix). This is a food show. It’s also a children’s show, starring two adorable puppets who left their homeland, “The Land of Frozen Food,” to learn about fresh, delicious foods by working in a magical, fantastical supermarket.  Celebrities like Chef Jose Andres and Michelle Obama (Waffles and Mochi’s boss at the supermarket) appear to teach lessons as our heroes travel the world in a flying, talking shopping cart, learning about different foods and cultures.  It is charming, educational, good-natured, and hilarious.  Your kids will love it, and if you are child-free by choice like my wife and I, you may surprise yourself by loving it too.  I think we cried when the too-short season ended, but we were delighted when a surprise holiday special, Waffles + Mochi’s Holiday Feast, appeared on Netflix as a Thanksgiving treat.  Even better, the show never judges “healthy” versus “unhealthy” foods, or those who prefer one over the other.  But you will come away with a newfound appreciation for sancocho, pani puri, and savory Finnish pancakes made with reindeer blood.  Seriously.

3. Ted Lasso, Season 2 (Apple TV+). With the possible exception of my #2 entry, this was the show I looked forward to the most from week to week, and its positivity and optimism (two things I usually hate) kept me going from August to October, during a particularly stressful semester at work. As fun, funny, and affirming as this season was, I felt like it was a slight step down from the brilliant first season due to less focus on the genial good guy Coach Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) in favor of building up the rest of the cast, and plots that meandered a bit.  I think it lingered a little too long on the relationship between Roy Kent and Keeley – we get it, they’re adorable together, they soften each other’s rough edges, and they will eventually work all their problems out!  We also saw a major character’s slow heel turn, while Ted was distracted by his own panic attacks, PTSD, and eventual willingness to seek therapy and talk about his problems.  In a year that will leave many of us with some PTSD, I love that this show helped normalize being open and honest about mental illness, and that it showed seeking help is always a strength, never a weakness.  This is such a good show – heartwarming but never cloying, good-natured but never inspirational, and consistently funny.  I also appreciate any stories that feature kind, patient, supportive bosses (both Ted as the coach and Rebecca as the team owner, after her Ted-inspired face turn last season), because we all desperately need good bosses in our lives, and sometimes we have to settle for fictional ones.  (I am lucky to have good bosses right now, but I appreciate them so much more because I’ve had bad ones too!)

2. Hawkeye (Disney+). This was my most-awaited show of the year, based on one of my favorite comic book heroes: Clint “Hawkeye” Barton, a regular guy who stands alongside gods and giants, saving the world “with just a stick and a string.” This series was directly inspired by one of the finest comics of the past decade, the Hawkeye series by writer Matt Fraction and artists David Aja and Annie Wu.  The influences were strong, but of course any Marvel Studios project is going to take some liberties with the source material, “remixing” 80+ years of comics to make them fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  As a result, the Hawkeye of a few Avengers movies and this series wasn’t Matt Fraction’s dysfunctional himbo man-child, but a world-weary assassin who is more than ready to hang up his bow and arrows to be a full-time family man.  Similar to the comics, Clint’s new protégé, archery prodigy Kate Bishop, makes him a better man, but MCU Clint is much more mature, with his life much more together, so he doesn’t need Kate as much as Kate needs him.  Kate is a damn delight, by the way.  Hailee Steinfeld was a perfect casting choice, and I hope we see much more of her, because she was so much fun.  Also fun and delightful was Yelena Belova, the new Black Widow, played by Florence Pugh, returning after her memorable first appearance in the Black Widow movie earlier this year.  The best scene in the show was Kate and Yelena just talking, and I hope the Marvel Studios powers that be keep them together in future shows and movies, building on their crazy chemistry and growing friendship.  They are already so much more entertaining than Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson as the original Hawkeye and Black Widow!  Other terrific new characters included Deaf, Native American martial artist Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox, an actual Deaf, Native American actress!), foppish (and possibly sinister) playboy Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton from Better Call Saul), and one of the best live-action Marvel villains ever, who I was overjoyed to see back, unexpectedly.  I’ll be okay if Clint Barton finally retires from archery and avenging, but I want to spend a lot more time with all the other characters from Hawkeye.

1. Blindspotting, Season 1 (Starz). The biggest and most pleasant surprise on this list, which my wife and I didn’t watch until the final few days of 2021. Most people have probably never heard of it (because who subscribes to Starz?), but the show is a wonderful spinoff of one of my favorite movies of 2018, also called Blindspotting.  The writer-stars of the original movie, the multitalented Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, are the writer-showrunners of the series, and Casal reappears as his character from the movie, Miles, who is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in the first episode.  The main character of the show is Ashley, Miles’ loyal, resourceful girlfriend, played by the amazing Jasmine Cephas Jones (best known for playing Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the original cast of Hamilton, alongside Daveed Diggs).  Cephas Jones is such a talent!  This show should be a star-making vehicle for her.  Her Ashley does everything she can to keep the family together with Miles incarcerated, including moving herself and their precocious son in with Miles’ ex-hippie revolutionary mom in their old Oakland neighborhood.  The show is so warm, funny, and charming, with such a strong sense of place and a world that feels “lived in,” populated by real characters who have spent their lives in this community, together.  It has terrific dialogue and some truly heartwarming moments of joy.  It’s hilarious, but it’s not a straight-up comedy by any standard.  Like the movie, Blindspotting can also be heartbreaking, touching on issues of race, but especially taking a stand against the unfair prison-industrial complex, the complicit criminal justice system, the pointless “war on drugs,” and the collateral damage they inflict on innocent families.  Oh yeah, Ashley and other characters also deliver gorgeous spoken word poetry segments as asides to the audience, with lyrics that sound as much like Shakespeare as they do East Bay hip hop.  Every episode also features dreamlike interpretive dance sequences that are beautiful enough to bring you to tears.  Even a dummy like me can tell exactly what each dance sequence represents, and how they propel the plot forward.  I’m not going to keep my Starz subscription any longer than I have to, but this show was renewed for a well-deserved second season, and you bet I’ll resubscribe for it!

Here’s a helpful hint for you steadfast Saboscrivnerinos: Amazon Prime is currently running a sale until January 4th where you can subscribe to Starz for 99 cents a month for the first two months, before the price goes back up to the $10/month range.  If you read this in time, I strongly encourage you get the subscription, at least for a month.  You’ll probably binge-watch the eight half-hour episodes of Blindspotting in a few nights, as we did, and then you can cancel.  That’s the best dollar you’ll spend this week!

For anyone who made it this far, here are my lists from previous years:

Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade (2011-2021)
Top Twenty TV Shows of 2020
Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019
Top Ten Movies of 2019
Top Ten TV Shows of 2018
Top Ten Movies of 2018

My Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 are featured in Orlando Weekly!

I am so grateful to Orlando Weekly and its illustrious Editor in Chief Jessica Bryce Young for including my list of favorite things I ate for the fifth year in a row.  Here are my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021:

https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/top-tastes-2021-the-12-best-things-we-ate-this-year/Content?oid=30546811 

I have written full, detailed reviews of eleven of these twelve top-notch local restaurants right here on The Saboscrivner.  Here are direct links to those full reviews:
Uncle Dendog’s
Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen
High Tide Harry’s
Edward’s Gourmet Confections
Bombay Street Kitchen
Pizza Bruno
Meng’s Kitchen
Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market
Yummy House
Mediterranean Deli
Chicken Fire
The Osprey (review coming in early 2022)

And here are links to all my previous annual lists of favorite local dishes for Orlando Weekly:

2017

2018

2019 (That year, three of my choices were combined with a list from Orlando Weekly‘s regular food writer, the brilliant Faiyaz Kara)

2020

 

Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster

I’m not usually a big steakhouse person, but if you ask me, Orlando’s best steakhouse is Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster (https://christnersprimesteakandlobster.com/ ), located at 729 Lee Rd, Orlando, Florida, 32810.  Christner’s is very old-school and classy, with impeccable service and prices to match, but you get what you pay for at a place like this.  When I was still just dating my wife, her parents took us all out to Christner’s, and I must admit I had never been to a restaurant like this before.  I got sticker-shock from the prices, even though her generous father, a stand-up guy, treated us all.  But the steak was the finest I’ve ever had in my life — even better than the steak at the vaunted Bern’s in Tampa — and the sides were all top-notch as well.

Well, we’ve returned to Christner’s a few times in the intervening years, but we’ve canceled just about as many reservations just due to a lot of bad luck — someone always getting sick or injured right around the time of an anniversary, a birthday, or some other event worth celebrating.  This year we decided to treat ourselves.  Our anniversary and my in-laws’ anniversary are a day apart, so a while back, we finally returned to Christner’s for the first time in quite a few years, and everyone was healthy and safe and somehow stayed healthy and safe.  It was a lovely night out with three of the best people in the world, and we ate like kings.

I have made no secret of my love for oysters on this blog, and Christner’s has the absolute best fried oysters I’ve ever had.  Seriously, I’ve never had anything this good.  They would make a fine, filling meal in and of themselves, even if we didn’t get steaks.  This sharable appetizer portion comes with tartar sauce, which is really good, and cocktail sauce, which I didn’t even bother with.  But the oysters are so plump and well-seasoned, and the breading is so perfectly crispy, that they didn’t need either.

My mother-in-law ordered lobster bisque, and she was willing to share.  I just got a spoonful, but wow, was it good.  Lobster bisque is an all-time Top Five soup, even if it’s hard to make it look exciting in a photo.  Was this the best bisque?  Best believe it’s the baddest bisque, bro!

My father-in-law ordered a Caesar salad.  I didn’t ask to try any of it, but those croutons looked pretty fantastic.

The croutons are probably made from the fresh-baked bread that is delivered to your table with soft, spreadable butter as soon as your party sits down.  The photo I got of the bread didn’t look nearly as good as it actually is, so I left it out of this review.  It is a round loaf you have to cut yourself, but it is so soft and fluffy and warm, and I challenge anyone to try it and not like it.

My in-laws aren’t used to me always playing the food photographer, so I didn’t get a chance to take pictures of everyone’s main courses.  I did capture mine, though — Russ’ USDA Prime strip, a twelve-ounce steak seasoned with a nice amount of cracked pepper and cooked to a perfect rare, just like I like it.  I regret not taking a photo of the red center, which meat lovers would salivate over.  That would have been pure “food porn,” though.   This steak is one of the cheaper ones on the menu, and I still get sticker-shock after all these years, even when someone else is generous enough to treat.  But of course, at Christner’s, even the cheapest steak is relative.  But that’s not all!  I usually choose it because it is one of the only steaks that comes with a side item; almost all the rest come a la carte.  Russ’ USDA Prime strip is accompanied by the richest, creamiest, most buttery chateau potatoes, which are just very posh mashed potatoes.  Best mashed potatoes ever, though!

We also ordered the skillet potatoes and onions for everyone to share.  This is one of the best potato dishes I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Sliced thin and fried, these aren’t crispy-crunchy like potato chips, but more like thin, disc-shaped steak fries, seasoned with lots of good cracked pepper.  As a notorious onion fan, the onions are practically caramelized and so, so perfect.  Everyone loves the skillet potatoes and onions, even my onion-averse wife!

And speaking of onions, I finally got to try Christner’s legendary onion rings, which I had only stared at longingly on our previous (rare) visits.  I always hesitate to request extra stuff when someone else is being generous enough to treat, but onion rings are kind of my thing.  I even have a whole category on this blog called RING THE ALARM! (no air horn sound effects this time, because this is a very upscale restaurant), so here are Christner’s huge, thick, mountainous onion rings, at long last.   At least my father-in-law tried some, which made me feel less guilty for asking, and even my wife (yes, the onion-averse wife again!) tried one and really liked it.  You can get these rapturous rings in orders of five or nine, and I was glad everyone was okay with getting nine.  These were definitely opulent, ostentatious onion rings!

Everyone enjoyed their dinners, but we all ended up with plenty of leftovers to box up and enjoy the next day.  By now, we knew enough to save room for one of the most delicious, decadent desserts I’ve ever encountered: mandarin orange cake.  My photo doesn’t communicate the size of the slices nearly well enough, but each one is gigantic.  The icing is a “tropical pineapple-orange whipped cream icing,” and the cake is always moist and rich, with a subtle citrusy tang.  It is served a la mode with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream (quality stuff) and a little ramekin of chilled orange sauce that might be my favorite part, because it tastes like melted orange sherbet with chunks of actual orange in it.  I always pour it over the ice cream and eat it first, because I’m usually pretty full at this point.  
Fruity desserts are my absolute favorites, especially anything with citrus or tropical fruit.  I believe Christner’s mandarin orange cake is an all-time favorite restaurant dessert anywhere, and you can easily get two or three servings out of each stupendous slice of cake.

Well, after not doing anything at all last year due to the pandemic, this year my wife and her parents were (relatively) healthy and fully vaccinated, so it was so nice to celebrate our back-to-back anniversaries with this sumptuous feast at Christner’s.  Everything felt normal for a little while, and everyone left very full, satisfied, and happy.  I think all the time about how lucky I am to be married to such an amazing woman, and to have amazing in-laws too, who I love and get along with, and vice versa.  I know not everyone has that privilege and good fortune.  And to be able to enjoy a fancy meal like this at a fancy restaurant like Christner’s speaks to our privilege and good fortune too.  We rarely come here — only every few years — but each time we do, we are all reminded of how consistently excellent it is, and how lucky we are.

The Saboscrivner’s Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade (2011-2021)

Because this is the kind of content you come to a food blog for, right?  Well, the year is ending, and I usually publish some kind of best-of-the-year lists, so here’s my first one: my Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade, spanning from 2011-2021.  A few of them started airing in the previous decade, and I account for that below.  I’d love to know what my dozens of readers think about my choices, and what yours would be!

20. Parks and Recreation (NBC; 7 seasons; 2009-2015).
I used to love this show. It was hilarious, but also kind (most of the time, except for the characters’ horrible treatment of their harmless co-worker Jerry, which I always found off-putting). But I rank it at the bottom of the list because the first season was bad, and the second season didn’t get really good until two important characters were added at the very end. Also, it seems like such a time capsule of the Obama era now, with hard-working people in government like Leslie Knope going above and beyond for their unappreciative constituents, and also people like the rugged individualist Ron Swanson, on the surface her polar opposite, but ultimately an honorable man who could learn to be better and be persuaded to do the right thing and care about others. I don’t feel as confident in our government now, and I haven’t in a long time. This show may not have aged super-well, but I still think about all the times I laughed my ass off, and the handful of times I teared up (the proposal and the series finale).

19. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim; 7 seasons plus a few specials; 2003-2018).
The only animated series on my list, it was almost entirely the work of two people, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, so there were delays of a year or more between seasons. We only got two longer specials, followed by seasons 5-7, in the past decade. Arguably, some of the finest moments of the show had already occurred, so they can’t count here, but there were still plenty of good gags, deep-cut nerd references, and complex additions to the show’s mythology in those last few years. This show could have run forever, and I would have been thrilled, but I think it ended on a good note, and I worry that any longer might have been bad for Mr. Publick and Mr. Hammer’s sanity and health. Still, Go Team Venture!

18. Warrior (Cinemax; 2 seasons; 2019-2020, but renewed to hopefully return).
A show I discovered after it ended, it was a badass martial arts-Western-historical drama from Jonathan Tropper (creator of a show that will rank higher on this list) and Justin Lin (director of Fast and Furious 3-6 and 9), so you know it’s going to be fun. Based on a concept created by Bruce Lee himself, it is the story of Ah Sahm, a skilled fighter who travels from China to San Francisco in search of his sister and gets caught up in Tong warfare. Along the way, he becomes a protector of innocent people and a folk hero in the oppressed Chinese immigrant community. Andrew Koji is terrific as Ah Sahm, who occasionally cracks jokes, letting his stone-faced persona slip. The fight choreography was always excellent – some of the best I’ve ever seen on television. Despite the ongoing plotline, my two favorite episodes were both stand-alone stories: a Western homage in Season 1, and a martial arts tournament in Season 2. But I cannot in good conscience recommend you just watch those out of context, so give it a chance from the beginning.

17. Person of Interest (CBS; 5 seasons; 2011-2016).
This looked like the kind of “dad show” I avoid – a CBS procedural about two guys who use a machine to find people in trouble or people about to cause trouble, and then swoop in to either rescue or stop them. The first season began kind of slow, but by the seventh episode, there was a twist that promised more interesting things to come, and it didn’t take too much longer for that promise to come true as enemies became allies, allies became enemies, and newer characters joined the mix. Even though the show kept the procedural aspect with a new number/person every week, it set up elaborate, ongoing story arcs, intense dramatic moments, huge action set-pieces, and became straight-up cyberpunk by the end. I like to think some fuddy-duddy CBS executives were pissed that their “dad show” evolved into something deeper and darker, but it was always fun. If you can get through the first handful of episodes, you’ll encounter major payoffs by staying patient. Also, creator Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher) would go on to create Westworld with his wife Lisa Joy, and he’d revisit some themes about all-powerful artificial intelligences and free will on the later show.

16. iZombie (The CW; 5 seasons; 2015-2019).
Extremely loosely based on a comic book co-created by my favorite artist, Michael Allred, the iZombie show jettisoned almost everything about the comic and improved the concept in every possible way. Rose McIver pulled off a memorable performance as Liv Moore, a woman who was bitten and turned into a zombie at a doomed boat party. In this show, zombies have pale skin and white hair, but they can retain their mental functions as long as they consume one human brain per week. To keep from going feral, Liv (a medical school dropout) gets a job as an assistant medical examiner to have easy access to brains, then discovers they temporarily give her flashes of the recently deceased people’s memories and aspects of their personalities. She uses this newfound ability to help a detective solve their murders, so it’s a case-of-the-week (or “brain-of-the-week”) procedural. However, the show also establishes some pretty complex, intertwining plots for every season. The brain-eating may not work for squeamish viewers, but it is the central conceit of the plot, and the show is all about plot rather than shock value gore. iZombie was a CW show, so everyone in the cast is ridiculously hot, and every character has multiple opportunities to be the best character.

15. Atlanta (FX; 2 seasons so far; 2016-present).
This brilliant show, co-created by actor-writer-comedian-singer-rapper-musician Donald Glover, is so exciting because you never know what it’s going to be from one episode to the next. It can be a dark, stark slice of urban life, an absurdist comedy, an exploration of race and racism, or a brutal, horrific nightmare. With director Hiro Murai around to set a strong visual element, Atlanta packs one of the best casts on television: Glover as hapless, passive underachiever Earn, Brian Tyree Henry as his cousin, up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, Zazie Beetz as Earn’s love interest Van, and LaKeith Stanfield – maybe one of the best actors working today – as spaced-out, sagelike Darius. Atlanta has been on hiatus for what seems like forever, but Season 3 should be out in 2022, and they are already hard at work on Season 4. Whatever comes next, it will be worth watching, because there won’t be anything else like it, before or after.

14. Daredevil (Netflix; 3 seasons; 2016-2018).
This show is close to my heart because Daredevil is my favorite Marvel superhero, and I earned tenure because of a law review article I wrote about Daredevil in 2019 (download it for free at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3389544)… so I can say without exaggeration that a superhero literally saved my career. But also, the show was terrific, with excellent casting and outstanding fight choreography. Each season had one memorable fight sequence that probably blew a chunk of the budget, but you could always see where all that money and expertise went. Just think of “hallway fight,” “stairwell fight,” or “hospital fight,” and it may come rushing back to you. The show borrowed liberally from Frank Miller’s legendary noir-tinged comics, while remixing key moments and going its own way with a lot of them. Sometimes this worked (Punisher), and other times, not so much (Bullseye). My biggest complaint about Daredevil and the other Marvel shows on Netflix were that the seasons were too long, leading to a lot of slow pacing and filler. I think it would have ended with an even better reputation if seasons were eight episodes long, or even ten, rather than 13. But I remain hopeful and optimistic that we haven’t seen the last of these characters, or the perfectly cast actors who played them, in other live-action Marvel projects. And Daredevil has been the most consistently written Marvel comic for the past 20 years, with so many more classic stories by the best writers in comics to adapt.

13. The Americans (FX; 6 seasons; 2013-2018).
A show that shifted between slow, methodical pacing and breakneck, stressful intensity (often in the same episode), The Americans may be the least-flashy show on this list, but it was always a master class in acting. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell played two Soviet spies, living deep undercover as an all-American family in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the 1980s, raising unwitting kids while committing acts of espionage (and occasionally straight-up murdering people), all under the nose of their next-door neighbor and “friend,” an FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich. Like I said, intense. There are a lot of dangerous missions (aided by fascinating analog technology and fabulous wigs), close calls, horrible betrayals, and the highest of stakes. A final standoff in a parking garage in the series finale featured some of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and it led to a heartbreaking conclusion. But no spoilers from me! You probably didn’t watch this show (not nearly enough people did), so what are you waiting for?

12. Black Monday (Showtime; 3 seasons; 2019-2021).
Another ‘80s period piece, this one is a comedy – ostensibly a sitcom – about Wall Street iconoclasts who engineered the biggest stock market crash in history. But as silly as it often was, it was also a smart and clever show, with intricate plotting, full of twists and turns and plenty of brutal betrayals. The ‘80s references were a treat to pick out, and the snappy wordplay was unparalleled. Plus, you had a terrific cast anchored by Don Cheadle, with some of the funniest people around: Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, June Diane Raphael, and Ken Marino playing TWO of the slimiest characters ever. Black Monday could surprise me by returning for another season, but if not, it ended on a perfect note. Unfortunately, because it was broadcast on Showtime, I suspect that kept a lot of people who would have loved it from discovering it.

11. The Leftovers (HBO; 3 seasons; 2014-2017).
This was certainly a polarizing show, especially since Season 1 is full of unpleasant subject matter and is difficult to get through. But there are plenty of great moments along the way, and then the series was retooled for a very different second season that led to even more unforgettable television. The general concept of the show is that 2% of the world’s population instantly, randomly disappeared during a moment that would be referred to as the “Sudden Departure,” and the survivors were forced to deal with grief and loss, along with reexamining everything they thought they knew about religion, science, life, and death. Some of The Leftovers is brutally sad, but I think there is a lot of hope there too. Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston, and especially Carrie Coon and Regina King are incredible in this, and there are a few dreamlike episodes that come later that will fill you with awe for their audacity and ambition.

10. Hannibal (NBC; 3 seasons; 2013-2015).
People (including me) always say that it’s a wonder this show existed at all, much less on NBC for three seasons. Bryan Fuller’s artsy take on Thomas Harris’ novels redefines the relationship between sophisticated, multitalented psychiatrist/surgeon/gourmet chef/snappy dresser/cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter and sensitive, vulnerable FBI profiler Will Graham. Each man is fascinated by the other, and they have a bizarre mentor/mentee relationship where they constantly hunt and hurt each other, while being the only people who could possibly understand each other. Every aspect of the show is gorgeous, from sets to costumes to elaborate feasts designed by food stylist Janice Poon. Even the murder scenes staged by Lecter and competing serial killers (there sure are a lot of them in this beautiful nightmare reality) are elaborate tableaux that fascinate as much as they repulse. This show is definitely not for the squeamish, but it is so much better than it had any right to be. Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Lecter makes Anthony Hopkins’ award-winning portrayal from earlier movies seem like hammy community theater by comparison; when Eddie Izzard appears in the show as a killer who is far more vile and depraved than the refined Lecter, he is doing a straight-up Hopkins impression.

9. Justified (FX; 6 seasons; 2010-2015).
Another crime show, and another show that could be hilariously funny. It achieved greatness on the strength of the two leads in the roles of their lifetimes, Timothy Olyphant as trigger-happy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as backwoods crime lord Boyd Crowder, two men who grew up in abusive, poverty-stricken homes in the hollers of Harlan, Kentucky, dug coal together, and then went in very different directions in their lives. Raylan and Boyd spend almost the entire series as “frenemies” – they hate each other and wouldn’t mind killing each other, but often find themselves in uneasy alliances against common threats and more dangerous foes. Raylan isn’t as upstanding as he appears and Boyd is much smarter than he appears, but both men are formidable adversaries and incredible fun to watch. Based on source material by the late, great novelist Elmore Leonard (who also wrote Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, which Quentin Tarantino adapted into Jackie Brown), Justified always had clever, snappy tough-guy dialogue, memorable performances from the “big bads” of each season, and a real sense of place that made it feel different from every other show on television. You’ll never leave Harlan alive, but you’ll want to watch these guys try.

8. The Good Place (NBC; 4 seasons; 2016-2020).
I think this Michael Schur sitcom will age better than Parks and Recreation, due to balancing jokes with philosophical exploration of what it means to be a good person and lead a good life. Four deeply flawed people die and find themselves in “The Good Place,” an afterlife that is not what it appears to be, and this kicks off an epic saga with some major plot twists, status quo shakeups, extremely high stakes, ongoing mysteries, noble sacrifices, and more aspects that you would expect from big-deal prestige dramas, not scrappy, hilarious, underdog network sitcoms. It’s a funny show, and a feel-good show with heart, but it’s also a seminar in philosophy and ethics with a strong point of view. You will be a better person if you watch it, and not just because it’s a good TV show that I’m recommending.

7. Childrens Hospital (Adult Swim; 7 seasons; 2010-2016).
This parody of medical dramas like E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy started out as eight-minute “webisodes” that aired during the writers’ strike of 2008, then launched as 15-minute episodes on Adult Swim that got more ambitious and high-concept as the show continued, against all odds. It features so many beloved names in comedy, very few of whom would be considered “stars” or household names, but they were all amazing here, usually playing it completely straight, which made it even funnier. Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Ken Marino again, Rob Huebel, Megan Mullally, Henry Winkler, Rob Corddry, and Malin Akerman played the core cast, but some of the recurring characters, like Nick Offerman’s Detective Chance Briggs and co-creator David Wain’s Rabbi Jewy McJewJew, filled me with delight whenever they showed back up. And later on, we’d find out that the ”Childrens Hospital” we were watching this whole time was a show within a show, and we’d spend time with the actors playing the characters on that show, which somehow had been running for decades. It all makes sense. Kind of. Or maybe not. But it was brilliant, inspired, chaotic comedy that included everything from direct parodies to slapstick to wordplay to callbacks to gimmick episodes to changes to the entire status quo of the show. Oh yeah, and it was all set in a hospital in Brazil. Which was where they were the entire time.

6. Breaking Bad (AMC; 5 seasons; 2008-2013).
I don’t think any shows have built tension better than Breaking Bad. I’m talking edge-of-your-seat, pit-in-your-stomach, heart racing, teeth chattering tension. It makes you feel real fear for the characters, all various shades of bad people who bring their worst problems upon themselves. It’s a show about one brilliant man’s hubris, and how he poisoned his own life and the lives of everyone he interacted with. It’s a pulpy, violent, brutal show about criminals – some of the worst people you’ve ever seen – and a sad tale about how the American health care system fails people. If we had Medicare For All, this public school teacher who developed cancer could have gotten the care he needed without embarking on a life of crime that would cause untold suffering for thousands of people, and so much death and destruction. But a show about a man getting health care would not have provided the gripping drama we got. The only reason I didn’t rank this show higher was because only seasons 4 and 5 aired during this decade. But then we got a prequel/spinoff that surpassed it in some ways, so stay tuned for that!

5. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime; 1 season; 2017).
I was too young to watch the two seasons of Twin Peaks when they first aired from 1990 to 1991, and I would definitely have been too young to fully understand or appreciate them. But when I finally binge-watched the show in 2009, it quickly became one of my all-time favorites, and it made me a huge fan of the works of co-creator and visionary filmmaker/visual artist/musician/avuncular weirdo David Lynch. Still, it always saddened me that Twin Peaks ended on a maddening cliffhanger. When it returned for a new season of 18 episodes on Showtime in 2017, each one directed by Lynch himself, it felt like a dream come true – a chance to revisit the town, see some old friends, and get some closure. Well, as you might expect from Lynch, the dream was often more like a nightmare. It was often darker, drearier, and more dreamlike than the earlier episodes. Some things never made sense. Others contradicted things we thought we knew or dashed our hopes for happy endings. As nice as it was to reconnect with some beloved characters, the actors were so much older, so frail and infirm. Some died before this season went into production, and a few passed during production or shortly after it aired. The methodical pacing made me think a lot about the passage of time, and how time ravages us all, one way or another. But even when Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost gave us a bit of comic relief or a few happy moments, I found that a lot of the show still frustrated me, and it didn’t give me the ending I hoped for so badly. In the end, I should have known better. Lynch’s works often belie explanation, and he never gives audiences easy answers, catharsis, or finality. Why did I rank this show so high on my list, even when it ultimately left me disappointed? Because it was a gift, because it was the uncompromised vision of an auteur, and because I don’t need to love everything to realize what a damn fine work of art it was. And maybe we’ll see Lynch and his characters and the town of Twin Peaks again… just hopefully not in 25 more years.

4. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC; 4 seasons; 2014-2017).
Some people might have read a blurb about this show and thought it sounded boring. Some might have dismissed it as “Mad Men, but in the home computer industry in Texas in the early ‘80s.” Many probably never heard of it at all. But give it a chance, and I promise you’ll be impressed. You will never believe how much you’ll care about five people working in the home computer industry in Texas in the early ‘80s, or how much you’ll both love and hate them at various times, and how deeply you’ll care about all of them relatively early on. I’ve already written about shows that are “master classes in acting,” and here’s another one. None of the leads are household names, but that’s a shame, if not a crime. You should get to know Lee Pace, Scoot [not a typo] McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishe, and Toby Huss, because they deserved to become big stars after this show, which should have made more of a cultural impact. It’s not too late for any of that to happen. Just like Mad Men showed this advertising agency as a microcosm of the vast societal changes of the 1960s, Halt and Catch Fire shows how much these five characters in their 1980s setting pioneered the technological advances that made our world the way we know it today, allowing you all to be reading my list right now. Watch it. I promise you’ll bawl your eyes out at least once. And they introduce a character in the final season who I really wanted to get a spinoff – let’s see if the dozens of fellow Halt and Catch Fire fans can guess who that was.

3. Banshee (Cinemax; 4 seasons; 2013-2016).
Really? He liked it that much? Yes, I did. This little-seen Cinemax series by Jonathan Tropper (who would later co-create Warrior) is on HBO Max now, so you have no excuse. The show is pure id – pulpy action drenched in sex and violence, with plenty of nudity and blood. A criminal tracking down a woman from his past finds himself in a small Pennsylvania town and finds himself thrust into the position of impersonating the new sheriff, who conveniently, nobody had met or even seen yet. He gets together with his old crew, pulls some jobs, makes a few friends and a lot of new enemies, and realizes that outrunning his past is impossible. We meet an incredible villain in the form of the local crime boss, a former Amish man who was cast out of the pacifist community and now rules the town with an iron fist (and a really scary henchman), keeping everyone in fear… except the new impostor sheriff. Like Justified, Banshee is a saga of small-town badassery that often feels like a modern-day Western, but while Justified has it beaten for cleverness and wit, Banshee wins with brutal fight choreography, hot women, and dangerous people doing very bad things to each other. The show is so audacious in what it gets away with, it almost becomes transgressive, and I love and respect it for that.

2. Better Call Saul (AMC; 5 seasons with one coming next year; 2015-2022).
With one season remaining to wrap everything up, I can say with certainty that this prequel/spinoff surpassed its original source material, Breaking Bad – at least for me. Both shows were about the criminal rises and downfalls of flawed but good men, full of potential for greatness in their fields. Walter White could have been a successful chemist, but he could never get along with others. Jimmy McGill did become a successful attorney, but he had the heart of a con artist, and he had a better time doing things the wrong way — taking shortcuts, skirting the law. He identified more with his criminal clients than the polished, pompous lawyers who stood in his way and set him up to fail when he was trying so hard to be good, until he realized he didn’t have to do things their way. Sadly, we still don’t know how Jimmy’s hubris and bad choices as Saul Goodman are going to affect his (and our) beloved Kim Wexler, the best woman on television, played by one of the best actresses on television, Rhea Seehorn. Oh yeah, Mike from Breaking Bad is in this too, and we see the origin story of how both men got involved with the cartel. This show has some of the most gut-churning, intense drama since Breaking Bad aired, but it can also be one of the funniest shows on TV. That balance is necessary to break all the tension, and there is a lot of tension.

1. Mad Men (AMC; 7 seasons; 2007-2015).
Maybe this is recency bias, because I never watched this series as it aired, but binged the entire thing with my wife earlier this year. I was skeptical, fully expecting to hate it, but it surpassed all the hype. For me, it completely lived up to its reputation as the pinnacle of prestige TV, alongside The Wire (my favorite show of the previous decade). Only seasons 5-7 aired during this decade, but those were still three impeccable seasons of television. Sometimes Mad Men was inscrutable, sometimes it was frustrating, sometimes it was funnier than most actual comedies, but it always delivered the best writing and acting on television, to say nothing of incredible sets, costumes, and general production design, as you can imagine for a show that spanned the tumultuous era of 1960 to 1970s. Jon Hamm’s mysterious, suave, and deeply flawed Don Draper is an unforgettable character, but the entire ensemble was important, with Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy Olsen as the closest we ever had to an audience point of view character (and poor Ted Chaough emerging as my favorite character). I never expected I would “mark out” at so many legendary moments during what I expected would be an understated drama, or laugh so much, or be shocked, or saddened, or pissed. This show had everything. It was a carousel through one of the most important, turbulent decades in history, and it could only ever have been crafted with this much care, attention, wit, and art during these past two decades. Plus, Mad Men brought us Vincent Kartheiser’s perfectly emphasized reply while his life was falling apart and someone asked how he was doing: “NOT GREAT, BOB!”

Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

Meng’s Kitchen

Meng’s Kitchen (https://www.mengskitchensorlando.com/) is one of my favorite kinds of restaurants: a bit of a secret because it’s a restaurant inside something else — in this case, inside another restaurant, U-Roll Sushi on East Colonial Drive, directly east of Goldenrod Road (which I really need to review some other time).

When you crave Chef AJ’s eclectic comfort food with origins in China, Thailand, and India, you have to place an online order on the website above, then pick it up from U-Roll Sushi or make a note that you’re going to eat it there, as I did recently.  I met one of my closest foodie friends here in Orlando, a true bon vivant who knows even more good local places to eat than I do, and also one of the most upstanding, civic-minded, honorable people I know.  He has been a Meng’s mark for a while now, and I was glad to finally catch up with him over lunch on a workday, to see what all the hype was about.  This guy has never steered me wrong, and he definitely helped me choose wisely this time.

This is Chef AJ’s famous Hainanese chicken and rice ($10) — poached chicken served over Hainanese style rice pilaf with the most amazing ginger, garlic and soy dipping sauce.  The online ordering system gives a choice of white or dark meat, and I will always choose dark meat, 100% of the time.  It came boneless and fully sliced, with the soft skin on.  It also came with a side of broth that I forgot to photograph.  It looked like plain broth, just like this looks like plain chicken, but looks are deceiving, because everything had so much incredible flavor, I was blown away. 

My wise and worldly friend chose the chicken, so I had to make a decision.  With so many intriguing and unfamiliar options, I chose the braised pork Hunglay curry ($10) — marinated pork belly and pork shoulder with toasted garam masala, slowly braised with Hunglay curry paste, shallots, pickled garlic, fresh mango and ginger, and tamarind paste.  It was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year, so I chose wisely too.  Every piece of pork was tender enough to cut with our plastic forks, and they just melted in my mouth.  I’m such a fan of saucy, braised meats, and this was an outstanding dish, full of strong flavors I wasn’t overly familiar with, but they all worked so well together.   

The online menu said this braised pork curry came with steamed jasmine rice, but I requested a substitution of the spiced yellow rice that came with some other dishes, and I noted that it was okay if Chef AJ couldn’t substitute it.  Well, he did, and the spiced yellow rice was triumphant as well.  I have a rice cooker at home, and I can still NEVER cook rice as well as Asian and Latin restaurants.  But both this rice and the Hainanese rice pilaf that came with the chicken were something really special.  Spooning some of the pork curry sauce, which was savory but not spicy at all, over both kinds of rice opened up whole new worlds of flavor.   

My friend ordered this cucumber salad ($4) for us to share — chunks of cucumber and tomato and thin slivers of red onion in Thai sweet and sour dressing.  It might not have occurred to me to order this, but I’m so glad he did, and I’d get it again.  It was crisp and crunchy and sweet and spicy and cool and refreshing, especially with the heavy chicken, pork, and rice and the rich sauces they came with.  The sweet and sour dressing reminded me of Thai sweet chili sauce, a beloved condiment, but not as thick, sticky, and jelly-like.  True to its name, there was also a sour, slightly pungent component in the dressing that played well with the cucumbers.

My friend also ordered tom kha gai ($5), a Thai soup made with coconut milk, curry paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and big ol’ chunks of mushrooms, which I cannot eat.  Normally I like to try everything, but I am allergic or intolerant or something.  It always ends badly for me, so I passed.  But the soup looked and smelled good, and he seemed to like it. 

So far, this was my only visit to Meng’s Kitchen, but I need to return sooner rather than later for more Hainanese chicken and rice, more of that incredible braised pork Hunglay curry, and to eventually make my way through the menu and try everything else (as long as it doesn’t contain mushrooms).  It was terrific — one of those hidden gems that are all over Orlando, if you just give them a chance.