Au Cheval (Chicago)

My new job sent me to Chicago twice this summer for training opportunities, and I did everything I could to explore and eat my way around the beautiful Windy City as much as I could.  I already regaled my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos with my epic excursion to Eataly, and the next really terrific meal I enjoyed in Chicago was at Au Cheval (http://auchevaldiner.com/chicago/).  It sounds like a fancy French restaurant, which is really not my thing, but instead it is a really nice, “elevated” diner.  Well, that’s how Au Cheval describes itself, anyway. 

It was a tight, crowded space with a handful of booths along the windows, and a bustling open kitchen with several barstools open for diners to sit facing the bar.  The dining room is relatively dark and full of dark leather and dark wood for a “macho,” masculine feel.  I got there in time for an early lunch, and I still waited about 20 minutes for a solo seat to open up at the farthest left corner of the busy kitchen/bar area.  I don’t drink, but I was watching expert bartenders slinging some really nice-looking cocktails the whole time I was there.

I fully admit Au Cheval wasn’t on my original dining agenda, but the first two restaurants I attempted to go to in Chicago’s West Loop (an incredible dining destination I strongly recommend to all) were closed for various reasons, so I’m really glad I wandered in there.  They don’t accept reservations for lunch or dinner, so I got lucky, all things considered.

The menu isn’t huge, but it consists of pure comfort food, of the delicious, heavy, hearty, and unhealthy variety.  They do have two salads and several egg dishes, but I was torn between two different dishes, and since I had no idea when I would be back in Chicago, I ordered both.

First up was seared, chilled, and chopped chicken liver ($14.95), one of the classic foods of my people.  It was served with rich, salted butter (almost overkill, given the fatty, savory richness of the liver) and the absolute finest toast I’ve ever had.  The bread was thick Texas toast, the kind you can get at my beloved Waffle House and so many other diners, ideal for patty melts and barbecue sandwiches.  Rather than being “toasted” in the traditional sense, it was cooked on the flattop griddle and beautifully buttered.  

As for the chopped liver, as my students used to say, IYKYK (if you know, you know).  It might look like cat food, but it is so rich and savory and tasty, I love it so much as a very rare treat.  Most of the chopped liver I’ve had from Jewish delicatessens and appetizing stores is a smooth, creamy, uniform consistency, but Au Cheval’s version was more roughly chopped for a more interesting texture.  It still spread so smoothly on the best toast ever, the butter was really kind of unnecessary… but ultimately too good to ignore.

After that, I was watching burger after beguiling burger come out of that open kitchen while I waited for my seat at the bar, so I couldn’t leave without one.  I ended up springing for the double cheeseburger ($16.95), since it was only two dollars more than the single, and this string of good decisions continued.  Constant readers, I have to tell you that this was the #1 absolute all-time best burger I’ve ever eaten in my damn life, here at Au Cheval in Chicago.  I’ve eaten burgers all around the state of Florida and elsewhere along the highways and byways of America, and this left them all in the dust.  Perfect in every way, ten out of ten, nothing comes close.It was like an ideal, iconic version of a “smash-style” diner burger, like a burger out of a Tom Waits song, but so much better than that fictional burger would have been in his sad world of late-night, lonely meals wolfed down in Edward Hopper environs.  While the menu said “double cheeseburger,” it sure looked like it had three patties to me.  What do you think, folks?

Traditionally, I have preferred thick, juicy burgers, but between Au Cheval and two restaurants here in Orlando that I haven’t had a chance to review yet, that smash style is definitely winning me over.  It had so much flavor and wasn’t overdone or dry at all — quite the opposite, in fact.  It was dressed simply, with a creamy sauce, a few scant pickle slices, and wonderfully melty American cheese between the patties, and I did put some ketchup on it.  The bun was grilled like the toast that came with my chopped liver, which is the best/only way to serve a hamburger bun.

Now I made two mistakes here: I did not order bacon on the burger, because that would have been an extra $6.95, and I felt like I was being decadent enough, with these two heavy, greasy dishes.  But Au Cheval serves really thick-cut bacon like some steakhouses do, and I bet it would have been totally worth it.  Sometimes bacon on burgers is undercooked, so you can’t get a good bite without pulling out the whole strip, and sometimes it is burnt to a crisp and doesn’t end up adding much to the experience.  I’m sure this would have made the best burger of my life even better, but then again, how can you possibly improve on perfection?

Also, I did not order fries or hash browns ($8.95 each), simply because I got plenty of carbs from the perfect toast and the bun from the perfect burger, and that would be a bit insane, even for me.  But I bet they would have been spectacular from a restaurant like this.  If they had onion rings, I would have been all about those, but they didn’t, so it was a moot point.  Regardless, I give my strongest possible recommendation to Au Cheval, and if you ever find yourself in Chicago, I would encourage you to ease up on the pizza casserole and overloaded Vienna Beef hot dogs to indulge here instead.

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The Escobar Kitchen

The Escobar Kitchen (https://theescobarkitchen.com/) is one of my favorite kinds of restaurants for two reasons:

  1. It offers a really cool, creative fusion of two wildly different cuisines that you’d never think of combining, but I’m glad somebody did.
  2. It’s hidden inside a place that you wouldn’t expect, so not a free-standing restaurant where anyone can just come along and find it.  As a self-proclaimed food writer, I live for writing about restaurants like this, and I take great joy and pride in introducing people who might never find or even learn about them on their own.

In this case, The Escobar Kitchen is a food stall inside the Bravo Supermarket in Lake Nona.  Bravo is a supermarket chain that specializes in groceries from different Latin American countries, aimed at a Hispanic clientele (but anyone can, and should, shop there).  It has 71 locations throughout the United States, including several in the Orlando area.  I work near one Bravo and live near another, and I always find great stuff whenever I go, from frozen passion fruit puree to agua fresca powder mixes to fantastic tinned sardines nobody else carries to pizza empanadas a friend recommended.

But Lake Nona, a burgeoning new community all the way across town from me, has the biggest, nicest Bravo I’ve ever seen.  It took over a space that used to be an upscale Earth Fare supermarket after the location closed in 2020, at 13024 Narcoossee Road in Orlando.  Just to give you some context, all the Bravo locations I’ve ever been to have a cafeteria area where you can line up and get hot, fresh food to go — usually a mix of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican dishes, in huge portions.  You take your styrofoam box of food (kindly wrapped in plastic wrap to avoid leaks on the way home, because they fill it to capacity and beyond) and go eat it somewhere else.

But the Bravo in Lake Nona has a whole seating area, like a mall food court, and also features this business alongside their own cafeteria county.  Locally owned and operated by Chef Lewis Escobar and his brothers,  The Escobar Kitchen specializes in Latin Asian fusion — most notably sushi with a Puerto Rican twist.  That’s right, you heard it here first, true believers!

You can see from The Escobar Kitchen’s online menu that they serve dishes as diverse as “tereyaki wingz” [sic], General Tso ribs, arroz enchurrascado (a delicious-looking dish of yellow rice with skirt steak, sweet plantains, pigeon peas, and chimichurri sauce, served paella-style), and beautiful tempura-fried stuffed avocados.  They even offer familiar California rolls, spicy tuna rolls, and chicken rolls, for diners with a dearth of daring.

But the stars of the menu are the signature sushi rolls, inspired mashups of Latin and Asian flavors, presented in a way that I can only describe as sexy.  I ordered two of these rollicking rolls on my first-ever trip to Lake Nona, where I visited a cool couple at their gorgeous house to possibly buy an elliptical machine from them.  As desperately as I need to lose weight and get into better shape, of course my cross-town schlep had a culinary ulterior motive!

So here’s the hotness:
The presentation is beautiful, right?  I guaran-damn-tee that some hipster chef in Miami is going to come out with a similar menu at a hard-to-find restaurant with expensive valet parking and probably charge three times as much, if not more, and it probably won’t be as good.

This is the Tropical Sexy Salmon Roll ($14), with salmon, avocado, pineapple, cucumber, fried onions, and scallions, topped with marinated salmon and Escobar sauce.  You see?  It’s not just me that thinks these are sexy!  It’s even in the name.  Holy guacamole, this was a treat.  I could seriously eat this every day.   But ultimately, you could probably get a roll like that at any number of good sushi restaurants.  I wanted something with salmon or tuna to contrast with the next one, which is a better example of The Escobar Kitchen’s Latin-Asian fusion.  And the Tropical Sexy Salmon Roll tasted as good as it looks, so no regrets here, no shame in my game.

But get a load of the Paisa Roll ($15), a magnificent mélange of yellow rice, thin-sliced grilled churrasco steak, chorizo sausage, avocado and cream cheese, wrapped in sweet plantains and topped with chimichurri, honey wasabi, and a crunchy, crackly pork rind on the top.  This isn’t light, like so many sushi rolls are.  This is heavy in every possible way, but also awesome in every possible way.  Again, the presentation is killer-diller!

Here is a close-up of the two ravishing rolls I ordered, so you can really see the detail, all the ingredients, and the artful way everything was combined:

I hate that The Escobar Kitchen is literally across town from me, because this is the kind of restaurant I would try to drag local and visiting friends and work colleagues to, first to tempt them with the novelty and then to hook them on artful, creative fusion cuisine that satisfies, that isn’t just some Instagram-worthy hype.  It doesn’t get much more out of the way for me than Lake Nona, but this is definitely a reason to return, and for all my constant readers, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, to plan a Lake Nona mission of their own.  Tell me you’re not tempted!  Convince me you’re not considering it.  Maybe next time you need some groceries, skip your basic neighborhood Publix and bring your Bravo Team down to the Lake Nona Bravo, where shopping and dining can be a true pleasure.

(P.S. I made it back to Lake Nona over a month later with a rented U-Haul and bought the very cool couple’s elliptical machine, but didn’t have time to stop at The Escobar Kitchen again.  I’ll just have to return another time!)

Ziggie’s Pizza

Today I tried Ziggie’s Pizza (https://www.ziggiespizza.com/) for the first time.  It is in the Ivanhoe Village district of Orlando, at 603 Virginia Avenue, not far from the Mills 50 neighborhood with some of our best restaurants in the city.  Ziggie’s is named for its owner-operators, brothers Christian and Floyd Ziegler, who opened it in 2021.  Their pizzeria shares space with a very hip bar, The Thirsty Topher, that specializes in really good beer and wine.  You can hang out on either the bar side or the pizzeria side and bring your food and drinks back and forth.

I expected to have a hard time parking, as I do at most of the hyped, hipster establishments in Orlando, but it was very quiet on the Sunday afternoon I visited, with plenty of parking and no wait inside.  I expect that would be very different most evenings, so plan accordingly.

The menu on the website doesn’t make this clear, but all the pizzas at Ziggie’s are 12″ personal size, and they are all wonderful thin crust style.  You order at the front counter, and they have plenty of laminated menus to browse through.  Pizzas with a variety of creative and high-quality toppings range from $10 to $16, and you have the option to build your own, starting at $10.  There are also salads, if you don’t feel like a pizza, or if you want a salad with your pizza.

I can tell a lot about a restaurant by the kind of music they play, and these were the songs I heard while I waited for my order:

  • Jurassic 5 – “What’s Golden”
  • The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
  • Mark Morrison – “Return of the Mack”
  • A Tribe Called Quest – “Award Tour”
  • Skee-Lo – “I Wish”
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message”

All classics, all straight fire.  Not booming loud, which is never necessary, just impeccable taste.  (I might suffer from impostor syndrome and depression, but I know I have good taste, hence this blog!)  At least someone at Ziggie’s is probably around my age, with impeccable taste too.  It definitely made me realize I was choosing wisely.

They even decorate the walls with some sweet vinyl, including the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Madvillain, Czarface, and the legendary debut album of the Wu-Tang Clan:
NOTE: After publishing my review, Christian Ziegler himself sent me the link to the Ziggie’s Pizza Spotify playlist, which is nothing but bangers.

It didn’t take long for my pizza to be ready.  Believe it or not, I don’t want my pizza to be loaded with toppings, especially when I’m first trying a new pizzeria.  I’d rather let the crust, the sauce, and the cheese speak for themselves, so I can best assess the strengths of the pizza.  As a result, I ordered The O.G. ($10), with red sauce, low-moisture mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella, AND aged pecorino romano cheeses.  I loved that they garnished the pizza with fresh basil leaves.  That’s a really nice touch, as it is one of my favorite pizza toppings in general, and one that never overwhelms the overall balance of the pie.
Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, this was SUPOIB.  A perfect pizza in every way.  If you don’t like thin crust, you may be disinclined to agree, but I sure do.  It wasn’t as crisp as a New York-style slice, but not as soft and floppy as a Neapolitan-style pizza.  I’d describe it as a perfect middle ground between those two beloved pizza styles.  As you can see, it was cut into six large slices rather than eight smaller ones (which I prefer, for no real reason), and I wolfed it down in no time flat.  (It was my first meal of the day, you see, after spending hours cleaning the garage in the sweltering heat.)

Since I don’t drink, I didn’t bother exploring The Thirsty Topher in the adjoining space, but I hear it is an awesome place for beer lovers.  Ziggie’s has a small refrigerator full of nice bottled sodas, but they are also kind enough to have a jug of chilled water available for free, so that’s all I had with my pizza at the time.

That said, The O.G. was so good that I had to bring some pizza home to share with my wife.  As much as we are soulmates who are completely in sync throughout life, one thing we rarely agree on is pizza.  She does like thin crust, though, so I figured she would appreciate Ziggie’s.  I ordered two pies to go:

This is half of the Gabagool ($16), since I put two slices on a plate for her and devoured a third before remembering to photograph it.  That’s a rookie mistake that I rarely make these days, but it was still warm by the time I got home, and I didn’t want to linger any longer.  The Gabagool is topped with red sauce, a three-cheese blend, pepperoni, crumbled Italian sausage, smoked slab bacon (probably the highest quality bacon I’ve ever had on a pizza), and pickled red onions, which I requested on the side, because my wife hates onions as much as I love them.
It was awesome, and I was thrilled she agreed.  She even suggested her parents would like this pizza, and they (in)famously don’t like trying any new things.  I will have to introduce them to Ziggie’s and the Gabagool some time soon.

And this was the other pizza I brought home: the Killa Beez hot honey pizza ($16).  I would have been tempted to try it for the Wu-Tang Clan reference alone, even if I didn’t love all the toppings on it: low-moisture mozzarella, pepperoni, prosciutto, crumbled goat cheese, fig jam, and house-made hot honey (which I requested mild for my wife, even though I’m among the some who like it hot).
We both like sweet and savory combos, and this was another hit.  I would totally order this again, even though ultimately, the O.G. might have been my favorite of the three.  In the future, I might just build my own pizza and get the smoked slab bacon, pickled red onions, and Calabrese peppers on it.

But I absolutely loved Ziggie’s Pizza, and the chill, laid-back vibe, and the sweet-ass hip hop they played, and I will definitely return.  If you haven’t been there yet, I encourage you to go.  That stretch of Virginia Drive between Mills and Orange Avenues has several hipstery bars and breweries on it, which many of my readers are probably already familiar with.  Make sure you add Ziggie’s and The Thirsty Topher to your Sunday Funday drinking and dining agenda ASAP, and enjoy what might be the best thin crust pizza in Orlando.

Sanguich De Miami (Miami)

My oldest, closest friend is a fellow food-lover and blogger, and since he still lives in Miami, the city of my birth and first 18 years on this big blue ball o’dirt, I defer to him on all things worth eating in South Florida.  He is an authority on croquetas and writes a semi-regular Croqueta Diaries column on his blog.  On the rare chances we get to visit each other, we try to introduce each other to our cities’ local favorite restaurants — not just our personal favorites, but the ones we are proudest of, that we think the other will appreciate the most.

It had been over two years since my last trip down to Miami to visit this guy (and also my family), thanks to the pandemic making social calls more fraught and long trips seem like less of a priority.  But I missed everyone, so back in July, I schlepped down south from Orlando and tried to make the most of it.  For my buddy and I, that usually meant hitting a few different restaurants to try to sample the best stuff in a limited amount of time.

Our ridiculous foodie day got off to the best possible start at one of Miami’s finest establishments, Sanguich De Miami (https://sanguich.com/).  It has become famous in a relatively short time for featuring some of the finest Cuban sandwiches in the city that specializes in them — no, not Tampa, the other one!  But my friend isn’t the only person who vouches for Sanguich — it earned a prestigious Michelin Bib Gourmand Award earlier this year, which is a huge honor for any restaurant.  Several of my Orlando favorites won Bib Gourmands in 2022 as well, and the Michelin website explains it best: “What Bib restaurants do have in common is their simpler style of cooking, which is recognisable, easy-to-eat and often something you feel you could attempt to replicate at home. A Bib restaurant will also leave you with a sense of satisfaction, at having eaten so well at such a reasonable price.”  My regular readers know I’m not the biggest fan of “fine dining,” so these Bib Gourmand-rated restaurants appeal to me a lot more.

Anyway, this is the beautiful, fragrant, flawless pan con bistec sandwich ($13.59) that we split in the car.  It contains thinly sliced sous vide steak, mojo rojo sauce, fried string potatoes, and Swiss cheese on pressed Cuban bread.  I’ve had several similar sandwiches at Cuban restaurants in Miami over the decades, but I can tell you that I’ve never had its equal.  Look at that cheese pull!  I just wish you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos could smell it.

We also ordered the pan con lechon ($10.99) to eat later.  This elevated take on another classic Miami sandwich contains shredded pork, pickled mojo onions, and garlic cilantro aioli on Cuban bread.  I hate to even put this in print, but sometimes the pork in these pork sandwiches is on the dry side, and sometimes it is sliced so thick that you take one bite and pull huge chunks out of the sandwich, destroying the structural integrity.  Well, that was not the case with this pan con lechon!  Look at it! 

Here’s the half I heated up back home, and it was glorious.  The pork was so flavorful, and all the elements sang together in perfect harmony.  Shredding the meat made it such a pleasant textural experience to eat, and everything held together, as it should.  Of course the bread was pressed to perfection, even surviving a four-hour drive and a trip through the toaster oven. 

Of course we didn’t leave well enough alone!  We ordered a third sandwich too, but my friend is such a mensch, he sent me packing with the whole thing, since he could return to Sanguich de Miami a heck of a lot sooner than I could.  We opted for a slight variation on the classic Cubano, for only 30 cents more: the croqueta preparada ($12.79).   

It contains all the same ingredients as the Cubano: city ham, lechon (the same pork that’s on the pan con lechon), Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on pressed Cuban bread, BUT there is one more ingredient that is probably obvious by now: two croquetas de jamon!  Yes, that’s right.  For a double dose of delectable decadence, Sanguich added two of those crispy, cracker crumb-coated croquettes stuffed with finely chopped ham and creamy bechamel sauce, deep fried and then pressed onto the sandwich so they turn warm and melty and gooey, almost like a super-savory Cubano condiment.  This wasn’t the biggest Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (that was from the former owner-operators of Orlando’s College Park Cafe), but it was easily one of the best.  Top Five, for sure.  Top two or three, absolutely.  Of course, the croquetas added a whole new dimension of deliciousness to the classic Cubano, just like how Tampa Cuban sandwiches (like the ones at Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery) add genoa salami.  But I’ve never had anything like the croqueta preparada sandwich from Sanguich.

So this place is worth every bit of praise and hype, trust me (or hey, trust a tire company that also rates restaurants, which makes about as much sense).  Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana is full of wonderful, iconic restaurants, and I’m sure it is pretty hard to get a bad meal there.  I’ve written about a couple of those establishments before, and I have one more Little Havana review from my most recent trip that I’m working on.  But next time you’re in Miami, you’ll avoid a lot of damage and anguish if you practice your Spanish and manage to order a sandwich from Sanguich (or two, or three).