Thirsty Gator

Thirsty Gator (http://thirstygator.net/) is a great dive bar and casual restaurant located on a lonely stretch of Goldenrod Road between University Drive and East Colonial Drive.  The address plants it firmly in Winter Park, but the surrounding area doesn’t look or feel like Winter Park.  To be completely honest, entering the bar feels like you’ve entered a portal that transports you to the Southern college town of Gainesville, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.  It doesn’t even matter when you knew Gainesville best — it will feel like Gainesville from “back in the day,” whenever that day was for you.

As if the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, Thirsty Gator is a Florida Gators-themed bar, so I’m sure it is a hot destination when Gator games are on or when University of Florida alumni in Orlando are feeling particularly nostalgic.  I have a few degrees from UF, but as I get older, I rarely feel that nostalgia for “bright college days, oh carefree days that fly” anymore.  I had some of the best and worst times of my life during my seven years as a UF student, but I met a lot of amazing friends there, and I’m so honored to know them and so proud of what they have all become.  Also, I fully realize I am able to lead the life I live now — educated, gainfully employed, happily married — because of what I accomplished back then, so in the end, it all worked out.  I never thought I’d feel more content and fulfilled in my 40s than I did in my late teens and 20s, but here I am.  Aw heck, when I was in my 20s, there were times I honestly didn’t think I would even make it to my 40s, but here I am, doing better than pretty much anyone expected, myself included.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, it really does get better.  I’m living proof of that.

But enough about an old man’s reflections of times past.  On to the food!

I brought home an order of ten mild wings ($15):

And an order of ten garlic wings ($15):
These are some of my favorite wings in Orlando.  I’ve written before about how I dislike typical sports bar wings that are tiny, greasy, crunchy, and dry.  These are the exact opposite — decent-sized wings that are tender, moist, juicy, incredibly well-seasoned, and barely greasy at all because they are baked, not fried.  I probably would have preferred them hot, but then my wife couldn’t enjoy them at all, and we always endeavor to share.  Thirsty Gator may be known for its seafood, but don’t sleep on these wings!  Seriously, they have to be near the top of the Top Five in Orlando.

My wife and I can never refuse the allure of a soft pretzel.  This one was $3.25, and it was pretty large, soft, and buttery.  It wasn’t as flaky and perfect as an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel (the only thing I like going to malls for anymore), but still hit the spot.  That is yellow mustard in the little plastic cup, not butter! 

I can never resist garlic rolls or garlic bread either, and this garlic bread was $3.25.  You get four pieces that are similar to the frozen loaves of Cole’s garlic bread I enjoy a little bit too much.  They had softened by the time I got everything home, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, and herbs on them.  You just can’t go wrong with garlic bread.

And the main reason I got takeout from Thirsty Gator, rock shrimp (market price; currently $21.95 per pound).  This delectable denizen of the deep rarely appears on any restaurant menus, and this is the one restaurant I know of in Orlando that specializes in the little crustaceans.  These are peel-and-eat rock shrimp, and their shells are slightly harder to pierce, penetrate, and peel than the typical shrimp we all know and love.  So they’re more work, but totally worth it.

This is what one of the rock shrimp looks like peeled.  The meat is succulent and sweet, and my wife and I agree they taste more like lobster than shrimp.   
Funny enough, one of our featured songs at our wedding was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s.  If you’ve ever had spiny lobster, AKA langoustine or langostino, those guys are the real-life rock lobsters, and I honestly think they taste more like regular shrimp than lobster.

These are a real treat, and since each one is a bit of a hassle to peel, you never take these for granted.  The peeling process may not be appealing, but you never eat rock shrimp without appreciating each sweet, tender morsel.  As a result, we took our time making our way through the pound we got.  They are served warm, but we also enjoyed them chilled out of the fridge the next day.

Aside from the rock shrimp and the wings, the other big food specialty at Thirsty Gator is the fresh raw oysters, but those aren’t great takeout food.  I’ve made no secret of my great love of oysters, so I’ll just have to go back another time to enjoy them in person.  Whether you love the Gators, hate them, or just fear them as so many do, there is so much to love at Thirsty Gator.

 

 

 

Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant

The first time I ever heard of Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant (https://www.lascarretasmexicanrest.com/), my heart filled with joy and hope, then immediate disappointment.  When I first saw a sign that the restaurant was opening soon in the Publix plaza on the corner of University Boulevard and Goldenrod Road in east Winter Park, I was overjoyed, thinking at first it meant an outpost of La Carreta, my family’s favorite Cuban restaurant chain in Miami, was coming to the Orlando area.

But I quickly noticed the sign was pluralized: “Las Carretas,” not “La Carreta,” and that it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, not Cuban.  We already have far more good Mexican restaurants here than in Miami, but I got over that initial disappointment and forgot about it for a while.  It opened earlier this year, and diners started posting really positive reviews on the Orlando Foodie Forum Presented by Tasty Chomps!, and I started paying attention all over again.

Well, I have eaten there four times now, and I can happily report that Las Carretas is an excellent Mexican restaurant, and we should be happy it’s here.  The initial fault was mine for misreading the sign and getting my hopes up.  It might not be the beloved Cuban restaurant of my past, but it is the terrific Mexican restaurant of my present and future.

The Las Carretas menu is HUGE, so I strongly suggest studying it in advance.  On our first visit, my wife and I started our first meal with a couple of aguas frescas ($4.99 each), sweet, non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverages that are much tastier and more refreshing than sodas, and much better for cutting the heat of spicy food.  I chose horchata (left), sweet, creamy rice milk seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.  My wife chose coco nuez, a rich and creamy agua fresca made with coconut milk, coconut shreds, and crushed pecans.  I’m not big on nuts, but I do love coconut, and I liked her drink even more than mine.  These are gigantic glass mugs, by the way — think German biergarten mugs.  No free refills, though!  (Yes, I asked.)

They have a self-service salsa bar!  Just use hand sanitizer before and after, and fill the little plastic cups with chilled fresh salsas and pickled vegetables (jalapeños, carrots, onions, nopal cactus strips) to your heart’s content.  They will be perfect for the fresh, crispy, thin tortilla chips about to grace your table.

Here are those chips with an assortment of salsas.  The white stuff turned out to be a tangy, creamy, cool salad dressing, but it was nice to dip the chips in, and it works well cutting the heat of some of the spicier ones.   The dark salsa next to it is a smoky chipotle salsa, blended smooth so it is thin, with no chunks in it.  That one was my wife’s favorite by far.  They’re all a little bit different, so if you’re anything like me, a self-proclaimed salsaholic, you will want to try little dabs of all of them on your chips.  One or two are extremely spicy, but I honestly don’t remember which of these were the spicy ones.  I think the orange one on the left was fiery, so be prepared!

My wife ordered table-side guacamole ($8.99), hold the jalapeños and easy on the tomatoes and onions.  It was made with care and flair by a nice lady who probably has to make guacamole in front of people all day, pushing her cart around the restaurant like teachers who wanted to show a video in class back in the day.  It was some of the freshest, nicest guac I’ve ever had.

For her meal, my wife chose the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99), a dazzling platter of grilled shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, and bacon, with grilled peppers and onions, topped with melty oaxaca cheese and sliced avocado, tomato, and radish.  She loved it, except for the cheese.  She thought it overwhelmed the more subtle seafood flavors.  I’ve never noticed alambres on a menu before, but all of the ones at Las Carretas come with five tortillas.  She chose corn tortillas with it.   
This picture barely communicates the size of the platter and exactly how much food comes on it!

I couldn’t resist an alambre either, but I chose the alambre mata hambre ($16.99), which lived up to its name as a true “hunger killer.”  It was an equally massive platter of pork loin, al pastor pork, carne asada (grilled steak seasoned with lime), chorizo, bacon, ham, grilled bell peppers, onions, pineapple, melty oaxaca cheese, and topped with sliced avocado, tomato, and radish, and served with five tortillas (flour for me):

The a la carte menu has a lot of options for people who like to sample things, like a single cheese tamale ($3.50), which we both thought was just okay:

This is an a la carte beef burrito ($3.99), served “wet” (smothered in sauce and melted cheese).  It’s a classic wet burrito, which is making me reminiscent for Taco Viva, a South Florida fast food chain that predated Taco Bell in the ’80s.  They all closed decades ago, but they gave me my first tastes of Mexican food as a kid, igniting a lifelong love affair.  I don’t even know if Taco Viva was any damn good by Mexican food standards (probably not), but you know what is?  Las Carretas and this burrito right here:

This is a huge a la carte chile relleno stuffed with cheese ($4.99).  After I was so disappointed Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s removed chiles rellenos from its menu at some point in the last year and a half, I was thrilled to discover such a good one here at Las Carretas, with a lightly crispy batter that didn’t get soggy under all that sauce, and didn’t fall or peel off.

There were almost too many good choices for dessert, but on this first visit, my wife chose fried ice cream ($5.99).  The scoop of vanilla had a nice, thin, crackly coating she liked that reminded me of crushed corn flakes, and that was her favorite part.  I preferred the fried flour shell/”bowl,” so that worked out well for both of us.  But we had other dessert ideas that would have to wait for our second visit.

My wife and I went back for a second lunch a couple of weeks later (months ago, at this point), and met a good friend there.  I ordered the chimichanga ($9.99 on the lunch menu), sort of like a burrito wrapped in a flour tortilla, then lightly fried.  It was smothered with a sticky, thick cheese sauce and stuffed with beef tips that ended up being kind of like pot roast.  The Mexican rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream were nice, fresh accompaniments that kept the beef, sticky cheese sauce, and crispy shell from feeling too heavy.

Our friend got enchiladas rancheras ($9.99) on the lunch menu — cheese-stuffed enchiladas topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, green and red bell peppers, and enchilada sauce.  I swear there are enchiladas under there!

My wife went back to the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99) again, only asked for it without cheese this time.  She liked it even better without the melted cheese contrasting against the seafood.

This one cracked me up.  I always love tortas, Mexican sandwiches on bolillo rolls, so I ordered the one torta on Las Carretas’ menu, the torta toloqueña ($11.99 on the lunch menu), intending to split it with our friend.  The sandwich comes with chicken milanesa (a chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded, and fried), ham, oaxaca cheese, pineapple, “vinegar mixed manzano pepper,” tomato, avocado, ketchup, mayonnaise… and salchicha, which I know means sausage.  Well, I expecting more like a chorizo-like sausage, and not these hot dogs on top!  That’s my bad.  I should have known better.  All three of us had a good laugh over it, and we still shared the salty, overstuffed torta.  It was an unexpected surprise, but it was still a really decadent and satisfying sandwich.  This torta toloqueña was the only time in my life I’ve ever been okay with ketchup being anywhere near hot dogs.

We couldn’t decide between two desserts, so we got both!  These are the churros ($4.99), served with caramel and chocolate sauces:

And sopapillas ($5.99), fried flour tortilla wedges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with honey, and served with a rapidly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I couldn’t tell you which of the three desserts was my favorite, but they all involved comparable flavors.

On both of these visits, I was thinking about how much my co-workers would enjoy Las Carretas, so a few weeks later, at the first mention of a work lunch, I was quick to suggest this place.  When I returned to Las Carretas for my third time, I brought three co-workers with me.  None of them are the adventurous eaters I am, so we often end up at Chili’s, Miller’s Ale House, or Gator’s Dockside for work lunches.  But I implored them to give this new Mexican restaurant a chance, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

They weren’t.

My vegetarian supervisor and friend ordered enchiladas vegetarianas ($10.99), three enchiladas stuffed with zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, and mushrooms, topped with ranchera sauce and mozzarella cheese:

Another co-worker, my former supervisor who has since been promoted, ordered this beautiful campeche quesadilla ($13.99), with grilled shrimp, onions, bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese:

I ordered the party tacos ($14.99), because nothing says “party” like a lunch with your current and former supervisors and one other guy, where you talk all about work before having to drive back to work and not fall asleep.  Anyway, you get an order of six tacos and can try two proteins in them.  Frankly, I would have preferred an option where I could buy six individual tacos, all with different proteins, but I chose wisely: cabeza (tender, moist, fatty beef head; along the top) and al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated in pineapple juice; along the bottom).  Both were so delicious and satisfying, not dry at all like the meats occasionally are at even the best taquerias.  This is an incredible dish, and a good deal too.

And another guy got a trio of tacos, but I don’t remember which ones these are.  Carne asada would be my best guess.

On my fourth visit with one of the same co-workers, she got queso dip ($3.99) and table-side guacamole ($8.99) to go with the fresh tortilla chips:

And I tried yet another new dish, the Texas burrito ($11.99), a dry burrito (not smothered in cheese and sauce, so you can hold it and eat it), stuffed with crumbled chorizo sausage (another one of my favorite Mexican meats), rice, beans, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado sauce.  It was awesome and huge.  Look at it on this large, long plate:

And you thought it smelled good on the outside!

So that’s a massive review based on my four meals at Las Carretas, all eaten at the restaurant.  With how close it is to both work and home, I expect I will continue to be a regular at this place, especially since they have a large, covered outdoor seating area for when the weather finally cools down (and avoiding people carrying the Delta variant in the meantime).  Las Carretas may not be Miami’s La Carreta, but it is one of Orlando’s best Mexican restaurants, and now one of my favorites.  I can’t imagine anyone going out to eat here and being disappointed.  It’s a real crowd-pleaser in every way.

The ‘Dines List 2: Mission to Morocco!

Believe it or not, even though we’re finally into October, it’s still hurricane season, so this lifelong Florida Man isn’t relaxing just yet.  I usually don’t let my guard down until we get to Thanksgiving, so I still have a huge stash of shelf-stable food on hand, including plenty of my favorite quick, easy, healthy, delicious household staple, tinned sardines.

I don’t know if my first installment of The ‘Dines List, the new ongoing Saboscrivner feature where I review canned sardines and other tinned seafood, was a rousing hit among my dozens of readers back in July.  Most people come here for restaurant reviews, but because I don’t go out to eat as often as everyone thinks I do, I bolster those with reviews of other foods I enjoy and want to spread the word about in recurring features like Grocery Grails, Tight Chips, Cutting the Mustard, and now The ‘Dines List.  But the truth is, I eat a lot of sardines.  I got into them when I was a poor student, but now that I make the medium bucks in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of academia, I continue to dine on ‘dines because they’re so healthy, they’re environmentally sustainable (especially compared to most other fish), they’re cheap, they’re versatile, and I just like them.  Plus, as a lifelong collector of things like comic books, action figures, and music, I appreciate that there are seemingly infinite varieties of sardines, so I love discovering and collecting new brands and flavors and sharing information about them.

My first ‘Dines List feature, “Canned Sardines 101,” was a rundown of some of my all-time favorite sardines, meant as a guide for the unfamiliar and the skeptical, to ease new ‘dine eaters into those briny waters and introduce them to the tastiest and least-intimidating tinned ‘dines I know of.  But since there are so many more sardines out there, future ‘Dines List installments are going to have themes to them, and this one is going to be about sardines from Morocco.

Why Morocco?  Perhaps the better question is why not Morocco?  Located in the northwestern point of the African continent, Morocco borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost edge of the warm Mediterranean Sea.  This geographical area, where ocean meets sea, has a long history of fishing and trading, and there are commercial fisheries all through the region.  Morocco is right across from Spain and Portugal, and plenty of tinned sardines are products of those three countries.  I’ll cover Spanish and Portuguese sardines in future installments, but it is worth noting that due to European Union agreements regarding fishing rights, many Spanish vessels fish for sardines in Moroccan waters.

The first Moroccan sardines I found were from the Titus brand, which most Asian markets around Orlando seem to carry.  These had a very cool-looking can.  I love how sardine can graphic design tends to be “old-timey,” like they’ve had the same artwork, fonts, and colors for decades, or even longer.  You’ll never see tins emblazoned with a cartoon fish shredding on an electric guitar while riding a skateboard and wearing sunglasses and a backwards cap, because there are no focus groups warning the sardine companies they need to be more “extreme” and “totally in your face.”  And that’s just fine, really.

But the ‘dines inside weren’t the prettiest.  This was after I drained the oil, but don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.   

I just threw these over some pasta and didn’t bother to take a picture.  They were okay.  I don’t think I would get them again, but of course I bought two cans of the regular Titus and two cans of…

HOT TITUS!  I almost always gravitate toward spicy sardines, which are either packed in spicy oil or with some kind of hot peppers, or both.  They usually taste better than plain ones, at least to me.   

This can only included three large ‘dines, and in my experience, the bigger ones rarely taste as good as the smaller ones.  They tend to be drier and flakier in texture than smaller brisling sardines.   These Hot Titus ‘dines came packed with some very hot peppers (dry and full of spicy seeds) in addition to the bright orange spicy vegetable oil.

I made the Hot Titus ‘dines into one and a half sandwiches on delicious Deutsche Kuche soft pretzel sticks from my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” because I am easily amused.  The pretzel sticks are imported from Germany, and I just bake them in the toaster oven at 350 for nine minutes.  They come out with perfect crispy, crackly exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors, ideal for salvaging sardines (or sampling mustards, as in my Cutting the Mustard feature from earlier this summer).I left off the condiments to get their full flavor… which wasn’t much to speak of, even with the two peppers they had been canned with.  I drained the oil, as I always do, but it didn’t impart much flavor either.  That could have been because it was vegetable oil instead of the superior olive oil.  A schmear of mustard and some fresh and pickled vegetables would have helped turn these into superior sandwiches, even with mediocre ‘dines, but I wanted the full, unadulterated Hot Titus experience.

Earlier this year, I found these Brother and Sister sardines at Tima’s House, a Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, which has some neat stuff.  I don’t think they would have cost more than $3, or I would not have bought them.  You don’t usually see sardines in sunflower oil, but I’m a mark for spicy ‘dines with peppers, so I had to try them.  Plus, they were from Morocco!

They were pretty typical-looking large sardines with dark skin, packed in a deep orange spicy oil that didn’t actually impart much flavor. 

I had these four Brother and Sister ‘dines over a simple salad, since I pack a salad in my lunches for work almost every day.  This salad looks like it was more simple than usual, since I just see lettuce and cucumber on it, but I probably splashed on a bit of a vinaigrette dressing.  They were okay.  I’ve made better salads and eaten better sardines, that’s for sure.  The little peppers aren’t very tasty, and they are full of seeds, so I tossed them after taking this picture. 

I don’t remember if I got these Baraka sardines at Tima’s House or at one of Orlando’s many Middle Eastern grocery stores.  Once again, they are products of Morocco, and they are packed in soy oil with chili peppers, so I was on board.  The price was definitely right on these, but sometimes you don’t want the absolute cheapest canned seafood out there. 

I instinctively drained the orange oil before taking this photo, so they weren’t just sitting in a completely dry can:

And I enjoyed them on some marble rye toast with a schmear of neufchatel cheese (like cream cheese, but low-fat, so the cheese and your life are both less enjoyable) and everything bagel seasoning.  The tin ended up having just three large sardines plus the long chili pepper that didn’t taste very good on its own.

The next Moroccan ‘dines I tried were from the Sultan brand.  First I tried spicy Sultan sardines, in oil with chili peppers.  I believe I found these at the Walmart Supercenter, of all places, in the small Middle Eastern food section.  They were cheap, so I figured “Why not?  I’m already in Walmart.  How much worse can things get?”

They were pretty large ‘dines, as all the Moroccan ‘dines tend to be.

I had these on Ritz crackers (the BEST crackers for any purpose), with dabs of my homemade tzatziki sauce underneath each one — Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, and a dash of dill.  These spicy Sultans weren’t bad at all.  They were very meaty ‘dines, with decent flavor from the spicy oil and some subtle heat.  The chili peppers, as usual, were barely edible.  

I also bought a can of plain Sultan sardines at the same time, and my hopes for these weren’t as high, especially after the relative disappointment of the plain, non-hot Titus ‘dines compared to the Hot Titus.

These were even larger fish:

But I worked some magic, following a Sicilian recipe for pasta con le sarde, a dish that includes onions, garlic, fennel bulb, golden raisins soaked in wine, seasoned bread crumbs, the plain Sultan sardines, and pasta — in this case, some perciatelli, which is essentially the same as bucatini (long, hollow tubes).  Of course I didn’t have any wine to soak the golden raisins in since neither my wife nor I drink, so I just threw them in there unaltered, thinking the sweetness and chewiness would bring something nice to the experience.  It was a tasty pasta dish, especially with that fragrant fennel, which is a truly underrated ingredient.  But I felt like it could be better.

In my first ‘Dines List write-up, I sang the praises of Norway’s King Oscar brand, some of the best sardines you can buy in terms of quality, variety, and value.  King Oscars are readily available at most major supermarkets, and I mentioned last time that they are terrific “gateway sardines” for the uninitiated.  Most King Oscar sardines are products of Poland despite being caught in Norwegian waters.  However, these skinless and boneless Spanish Style ‘dines, packed in olive oil and seasoned with chili peppers and tiny slices of carrot and pickle, are products of Morocco, hence their inclusion here.

In that previous installment, I warned about avoiding boneless and skinless sardines.  That’s just a personal preference, but I felt obligated to try these for a more complete feature on the different varieties of Moroccan sardines.  These King Oscars are perfectly good sardines, but they never look right to me without the silvery skin.  And I think the bones add some interesting texture (plus calcium).

I decided to attempt pasta con le sarde again, to do something more exciting with these boneless, skinless ‘dines.  I started sautéing diced onions, garlic, and more of that awesome fennel bulb in extra virgin olive oil, then added a can of Cento anchovies, which I always stock up on at Trader Joe’s, because they are so good in recipes.  (They are also products of Morocco!)  I mashed up the salty anchovies and their oil in the aromatics and kept sautéing until the anchovies completely dissolved.  That added some saltiness and savory umami flavor, which is good because all boneless, skinless sardines are very mild.  (Although these Spanish Style King Oscars are the best boneless, skinless sardines I’ve ever tried, both flavor- and texture-wise.)

Once the aromatics were translucent and soft, I added sultanas (golden raisins) that I had been soaking in white wine vinegar as a substitute for wine, since I learn from my mistakes.  Then I stirred in the King Oscar ‘dines, their oil, and the tiny sliced vegetables straight out of the can, then some seasoned Italian bread crumbs and red pepper flakes, and let everything continue to sauté.  I tossed it all together with some al dente fettuccine pasta, threw some diced tomatoes on top, and boom: new and improved pasta con le sarde!  This was by far the better attempt, between the higher-quality King Oscar sardines that brought their own flavors, plus the can of anchovies, the red pepper flakes for some necessary heat, and the white wine vinegar-soaked golden raisins for sweetness and tartness.  I’ve never seen this pasta dish on a restaurant menu anywhere, but I am  obsessed with it now.

A long time ago, I bought a can of Alshark sardines from a Middle Eastern grocery store and thought they were pretty good, so I tracked down another can for the purposes of this review, since they are also Moroccan.  

This was the only sardine can I had trouble fully opening, but I was still able to get the four large ‘dines out.  

I ate them plain to really experience the flavor.  These were meaty and pleasantly spicy, moreso than any of the other so-called spicy ‘dines in this review.  I’d definitely get these Alshark ‘dines again.

Last but not least, I decided to try Wild Planet’s “Wild” white anchovies, another product of Morocco.  These are totally different from the salt-cured anchovies most people are familiar with, like the Cento anchovies shown above, which are one of my secret weapons when cooking.  These are more like typical tinned sardines than super-salty brown anchovy filets.  

White anchovies like this are popular in tapas dishes in Spain, where they are called boquerones.  I ate these straight out of the can after draining the oil because I had never had boquerones before, and they were okay.  Pretty plain and bland, like Wild Planet sardines I’ve tried before.  Despite the name of the company, there wasn’t much “wild” about their flavor.  Unfortunately I bought these at Costco, so I have four more cans to get through.  I will definitely jazz them up with more exciting recipes and serving methods to make them more interesting in the future.

So here ends our Mission to Morocco, the second of hopefully many ‘Dines List features right here on The Saboscrivner.  Expect to learn all about sardines from Spain, Portugal, and other parts unknown in the months (and years) to come, but at least I got this one out before hurricane season is over, just in case it inspires anyone to stock up on some sardines.

As always, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, let me know what you try and if you like them or not, and if there are other sardines or tinned seafood you recommend.  I’m always happy to take requests and accept freebies, especially if any of you jet-setters travel to Europe, where grocery stores have mythical aisles of nothing but fancy tinned seafood.  But in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt (or more accurately, gone fishin’) in Orlando’s many supermarkets and international grocery stores as a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, the dean of sardines.

Pizzeria Valdiano

I have reviewed most of my favorite pizzerias in Orlando, but one of my oldest favorites that I hadn’t been back to in a while is Pizzeria Valdiano (http://www.pizzeriavaldiano.com/) in the Winter Park Village shopping center, right next door to my favorite movie theater.  I hadn’t been to a movie in over a year and a half thanks to the pandemic, but back in July, I finally broke down and saw a new release I’ve been looking forward to for over a year.

Unfortunately the movie (Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins) was a colossal disappointment for this lifelong G.I. Joe fan and collector, but you know what wasn’t disappointing?  A quick lunch before the movie at Pizzeria Valdiano!

Here is one of the best slices of New York-style pizza in Orlando ($3.85), nice and crispy with melty cheese and garlicky, oregano-ey tomato sauce, the perfect New Yawk slice:

And one of my favorite slices of Sicilian pizza ($4.35), perfectly thick,  crunchy and fluffy at the same time.  Could this be the best Sicilian pizza in the city?  Top two or three, without a doubt!

Pizzeria Valdiano is the only pizzeria I know of in Orlando that serves a “Grandma” pizza — a Sicilian pizza without mozzarella cheese on top, just parmesan.  This is a single Grandma slice ($4.35), with the same blend of fluffy and crunchy attributes, and even more robust sauce.

Look, people have strong opinions about pizza, I get it.  I do too.  There are definitely trendier pizzerias, some of which I just love.  If you want Chicago-style deep dish or a fancy double-decker pizza, Brad’s Underground Pizza (now in a permanent location!) has you covered.  If you want Neapolitan-style, you can’t do better than Pizza Bruno.  But for the two kinds of pizza that are closest to my heart due to nostalgia, New York and Sicilian, there are only a few worthy options, especially if you prefer to order by the slice, as I do: Del Dio, Antonella’s, Paradiso, and right here at Pizzeria Valdiano.

Being next to the movie theater brings me even more nostalgia and warm feelings.  I’ve always loved going to the movies, especially catching an early weekend matinee and following it with a nice lunch out.  For so long, this theater was my tradition, to be followed by either a hoagie from nearby LaSpada’s or a couple of slices from Valdiano right next door.  I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable enough to return to seeing movies in the theater, minus this one unfortunate miscalculation, but at least the pizza was as good as ever.

 

 

 

Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar

After discovering the delicious new world of West Indian food with my review of Singh’s Roti Shop earlier this year, I craved more.  The Trinidadian and Guyanese flavors were similar to Jamaican dishes I had always loved, with with some Indian influences too.  After posting my review of Singh’s on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, a lot of people recommended Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar (https://www.facebook.com/VindisRotiShopAndBar/), formerly known as Annie’s Roti Shop, located at 805 S Kirkman Road, Suite 106, Orlando, FL 32811, mere minutes away from Singh’s on Old Winter Garden Road.  I visited Vindi’s a while back and ordered a bunch of different dishes to sample, enough for three or four meals, so I could compare and contrast them.

First of all, since Vindi’s doesn’t have a menu online or paper menus to take with you, I took photos of the menu screens on their large TVs:

I ordered:

An oxtail meal ($14.50), which comes with stewed potatoes, curried chickpeas called channa, and a choice of either rice or a choice of huge, fluffy, soft flatbreads called roti.  My trip to Singh’s clued me in to the two different kinds of roti, so I chose my favorite, the “buss up shot,” like a big, chewy paratha, named for the “busted-up shirt” it resembled when torn into pieces to scoop up the tender stewed meat and vegetables.  Because my wife and I both loved the buss up shot so much at Singh’s, I ordered a second one for $3.

The buss up shot, which unrolls and unfolds to become an absolutely huge blanket of soft, fluffy wonderfulness:

This was the boneless curry/stew chicken meal ($10), also served with stewed potatoes and channa.  I love Jamaican-style brown stew chicken, which is usually cooked until tender with the bones, but this chicken being boneless made it easier to scoop up with roti.  This is after I transferred it to a microwavable plastic container for later.  I realize it might not look appetizing in this photo, but it smelled so delicious and tasted even better.

I decided to go with the other roti variety with this meal, the dhal puri, which is more of a golden color and stuffed with seasoned chickpea particles that add texture.  I can’t seem to find that photo, but it looked very similar to the dhal puri I got at Singh’s and photographed in that review back in March.

Vindi’s came highly recommended for its doubles ($1.50), a beloved Trinidadian street food with channa sandwiched between two fried paratha-like patties.  This doubles had a slight sweetness to it, and I liked the flavor and texture even more than Singh’s version of the doubles.

A peek inside the doubles:

Similar to how saltfish is a popular breakfast food in Jamaica (and the national dish when served with a local fruit called ackee), Vindi’s serves smoke herring as a breakfast dish, stuffed into a fried bread called fried bake (sometimes “fry bake” or just “bake”).  I am all about smoked fish at any time of day, whether it’s delicate, luxurious sable on a bagel, whitefish salad on a bialy, saltfish with ackee or stuffed into a golden fried patty, or even good sardines or sprats out of a can.  I loved this fried bake with smoke herring ($6.50), which was mashed up, served warm, and mixed with some spicy vegetables.  I ate half for lunch and half for dinner, but I can only imagine it would be a breakfast of champions.  The thing on the left above is an extra plain fried bake ($2) that I ordered for my wife, since I knew she wouldn’t be into the smoke herring.

I also got two aloo pies ($2 each), one for me and one for my wife — a soft, fluffy fritter stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes.  It was very good, and very similar to the aloo pie I tried at Singh’s.  I couldn’t tell any major difference between the two.

Finally, I got a Solo brand cream soda for myself, and a Solo sorrel drink for my wife.  (Solo is a Trinidadian brand, and these were $2.50 each.)  I asked what sorrel tasted like, and a helpful guy waiting in line next to me said it tasted like hibiscus.  My wife loves jamaica (hibiscus-flavored) aguas frescas from Mexican restaurants, so I knew she would appreciate that.  I tried a sip, and it had an aftertaste that included cloves and possibly cinnamon — not my thing, but she seemed to like it.  The cream soda reminded me a little of a bubble gum flavor, maybe banana, possibly cotton candy, but it didn’t have the vanilla flavor I’m used to from American cream sodas.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it, and I’m glad I tried it.  I’m trying really hard to drink less soda, but I always like to try different root beers, cream sodas, and orange sodas.

Anyway, Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar was awesome.  I can’t tell you if it is better than Singh’s, but I loved both, and I’d be a regular at both if they weren’t so far across town.  My recommendation, whether you’re familiar with the delicacies of Trindad and Guyana or not, is to visit both Singh’s and Vindi’s on the same trip to compare and contrast similar dishes, since they’re so close to each other.  Singh’s has the West Indian takes on Chinese food to set itself apart a bit, but both restaurants serve up the standard West Indian dishes.  They are delicious and ridiculously cheap, for the quality and quantity of food you get.  It has been a while since I went to Vindi’s and wrote the bulk of this review, so I think I’ve inspired myself to schlep out there for a return trip very soon.  Maybe I’ll see you there… except I probably won’t recognize you, since hopefully you’ll be masked, and I definitely will be.

Kombu Sushi Ramen

Sushi is one of my favorite foods, but I rarely eat it because you pay for quality, and that means decent sushi isn’t cheap, and next-level sushi is expensive.  Plus, it takes so much sushi to fill me up, it isn’t a cost-effective meal for me (excluding my beloved all-you-can-eat Mikado in Altamonte Springs, which I still contend is one of the best bangs for your buck anywhere).

A few weeks ago, my wife and I agreed that sushi sounded good for dinner, and I asked her to choose one of three sushi restaurants near us to order takeout from: two we hadn’t been to, and one we hadn’t been to in a few years.  She looked at all three menus online and chose one of the new ones that opened earlier this year, not far from us: Kombu Sushi Ramen (https://www.facebook.com/KombuSushiRamen/) on Aloma Avenue in a less-traveled part of Winter Park.  We went a little bit nuts with ordering, but the sushi ended up being just what we dreamed of for far too long.  (The last time I had sushi was earlier this year, while we both spent 30 days together in the hospital.  That sushi was one of the best things I ate from the hospital cafeteria, but I was looking forward to something far better, in more pleasant surroundings.)

Kombu is in a little building that looks like a house, and it probably used to be a house a long time ago.  Once I arrived, I only had to wait a few more minutes for my takeout order to be ready.  The dining room was very nice, modern, and clean.  It was busy on an early weekend evening, always a good sign.  The sushi chefs were definitely hustling behind the sushi bar, and the hostess was kind enough to offer me a glass of water while I waited.  It was a nice place I would like to see succeed.

Always health-conscious, my wife gravitates toward sashimi, thin slices of fresh, raw seafood without the usual rice, to avoid some carbs (or preferably, to save the carbs for dessert).  She ordered this sashimi dinner ($24.95), with 20 assorted pieces of fresh fish and shellfish slices selected by the chef.  This lovely arrangement included tuna, salmon, escolar (AKA white tuna or butterfish), surimi (AKA “krab,” white fish processed to look and taste like crab), and one of her favorite seafoods, tako (AKA octopus, at the 12:00 position).  She really loves octopus, whether it is grilled, fried, or served like this (not raw but actually cooked; thanks to a sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino for correcting me on this).   

Below on the left, you can see my order of mackerel sashimi ($4.50 for the three shimmering silver pieces of fish).  I always love saba (mackerel) because it tastes like pickled herring, with a little bit of sweetness and a light, vinegary tang.  Next to that, in the back, is my wife’s extra escolar sashimi ($5 for the three white pieces), and our bagel roll ($5.95), a favorite of mine, with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and avocado. 

Here are two more rolls we shared, a crunch roll ($5.50) and a crunchy spicy salmon roll ($6.95).  The crunch roll (left) included krab, spicy mayo, avocado, and tempura “chips” on the top, and it is drizzled with kabayaki sauce, a sweet soy-based glaze, similar to eel sauce. 
The crunchy spicy salmon roll (right) was a delicious blend of strong flavors and interesting textures, with spicy salmon, tempura chips on the inside, and drizzled with one of my favorite condiments (and not just for sushi, but especially for sushi), spicy mayo.

And this is one of my favorites anywhere, the volcano roll ($12.95).  This majestic mountain was built around a sushi roll containing tuna and cream cheese, topped with avocado, “baked krab special,” tempura chips, spicy mayo, kabayaki sauce, and tobiko, the tiny, salty, delicate orange pearls that are flying fish roe.  My wife liked this too, but I had been craving sushi for so long, it hit the spot so perfectly.   

Here’s another angle of the volcano roll, so you can see the rolls themselves.  All sushi is painstakingly prepared, with a lot of effort that goes into a beautiful presentation.   

The artful presentation is part of the price of admission right there, but I thought the prices at Kombu were all very reasonable for the good quality of this sushi and sashimi.  There are definitely fancier sushi places that are also more “authentic,” with less krab, less spicy mayo, fewer rolls in general.  There’s a time and a place for those upscale and authentic restaurants, at least for some, but this is the kind of sushi I know the best and love the most.  I’d consider Kombu more of an “everyday luxury,” and I mean that in the best possible way.  It isn’t exclusive or precious or snooty — it’s wonderful, fresh food made with precision and care, that you can enjoy whenever you want to do something really nice for yourself.  For me, believe it or not, that isn’t often enough.

Because Kombu has sushi and ramen in its title, I felt like I had to sample the ramen too, in order to write a worthy review.  I defaulted to my old favorite, tonkotsu ramen, but chose the mayu tonkotsu ramen here ($13.50) and asked them to hold the kikurage, those skinny little alien-looking mushrooms.  Note the noodles, two chashu pork slices, two ajitama egg halves, menma (AKA seasoned bamboo shoots), green onions, and lots of crunchy fried diced garlic.  The fried garlic and black garlic oil are what makes the mayu tonkotsu different from the regular tonkotsu, which comes with shredded red ginger instead.  As any restaurant packing up soup in a takeout order should, they packaged the tonkotsu broth in a separate container so the noodles wouldn’t get soggy on my way home.

Here is the mayu tonkotsu ramen with the broth added.  It was delicious, because you can’t ever go wrong with tonkotsu ramen (unless of course you’re a vegetarian or strictly kosher or halal, due to the broth being made from pork bones simmering for days).  My only issue with this takeout feast from Kombu is that the broth wasn’t the rich, creamy, opaque pork bone broth I’m used to from tonkotsu ramen.  This was more of a watery broth than I was expecting.  It was still tasty, salty, and porky, but not thick or creamy like I’ve gotten spoiled by.

So that’s my long-overdue review of Kombu Sushi Ramen.  I would happily return anytime for the sushi, but for ramen, tonkotsu or otherwise, I would probably sooner return to Ramen Takagi, just five minutes east on Aloma, still my favorite ramen spot.  Hey, that would be a great double feature dinner right there!

Jr Tropical Ice Cream

I think by now, we have established that I’m the “food guy” at work.  I’ve never been a fan of the word “foodie,” or anything else that sounds like baby talk, but I’ve embraced my role as the food guy, quick to make restaurant recommendations, show up with delicious snacks to share, or try to wrangle people to go out to lunch somewhere new and different.

My colleagues don’t always take my advice, especially when it comes to picking a place to go out to lunch, but today they did.  I drove three of them to a great, relatively new restaurant that none of us had been to before, but I had been reading good things about, that I had been wanting to try for a while.  That review is coming soon, but when we were almost back to work, someone mentioned ice cream, I mentioned I had heard about a new ice cream place that sounded good, and then they all demanded I keep driving and take them there next.

So we ended up at Jr Tropical Ice Cream (https://www.facebook.com/JrTropicalicecream), a small establishment on Goldenrod Road, in a little shopping plaza just south of East Colonial Drive.  I had driven by this place a couple of times, but never had a chance to stop and explore.  I saw in the window that Jr Tropical serves a bunch of unique flavors of ice cream, including several tropical fruits (my favorite, Miami boy that I am) and some Puerto Rican and other Latin flavors.  I was so excited my co-workers were on board, trusting me even though I hadn’t even been here yet myself.

Jr Tropical Ice Cream instantly reminded me of my favorite ice cream parlor I’ve ever been to, Azucar Ice Cream Company in Miami, which offers a lot of unique flavors based on tropical fruits and Cuban desserts.  I hope to make it back to Azucar some day to write a proper review, but in the meantime, I am thrilled that we have Jr Tropical Ice Cream here in Orlando.

Well, everyone loved it, I’m pleased to report.  It’s a delightful little place with a huge variety of ice cream flavors, all made in-house.  The young man and woman who worked there were extremely friendly and welcoming, and you could tell they took a lot of pride in their ice cream.  Not only do they have so many interesting flavors, but the prices are definitely right.

Everyone except me ordered a small, for a very reasonable $2.99.  You can try up to two different flavors in a small.  Me being me, I asked how many flavors you could try in a medium for $4.50, expecting three, but you can get *four*.  They had me at four! 

You can also upgrade to a small waffle cone for $3.75, a large waffle cone for $4.90, a waffle bowl for $5.60, or get a banana split for $5.57.  What isn’t listed on these TV menus is that you can also get ice cream in half of a fresh coconut, which they cut in half right then and there.   I don’t even know why I didn’t get my ice cream in half of a coconut.  Even though we all knew we had to go back to work, I would have totally felt like I was on vacation.  Next time!

So the next four slides are my less-than-perfect photos of all the flavors of the day.  I’ll type them out to make it easier:
Tamarindo/tamarind
Acerola/West Indian cherry
Parcha/passion fruit
Guayaba/guava
Almendra/almond
Mango piña/mango pineapple

Piña/pineapple
Guanabana/soursop
Arroz con dulces/rice pudding
Guava piña/guava pineapple
Maiz/corn
Piña colada/pineapple coconut

Fresa/strawberry
Vainilla/vanilla
Birthday cake
Panky (we asked about this one, and Panky is a popular Puerto Rican wafer cookie, so this is chocolate ice cream with crumbled chocolate Panky wafers mixed into it)
Chocolate
Anis/anise (the flavor of black licorice)

Coco/coconut
Ron con pasas/rum raisin
Tres leches (literally “three milks,” a traditional Latin American dessert that is one of the richest, creamiest, most decadent and delicious desserts ever, made from a sponge cake swimming in a combination of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream)
Nutella
Cookies and cream
Chocolate chip

And here are all the toppings and syrups that are available.  None of us opted to get any toppings or syrups on our maiden voyage, but when I return, I may add some sweetened condensed milk to whichever ice cream flavors I choose.  It’s so good, a lot of the time I’d rather just spoon or pour some condensed milk out of a can than eat a conventional dessert like cookies, cake, or a lesser ice cream.

But these were not lesser ice creams, constant readers!  They all had a thick, rich texture with a nice “mouth feel” — no gritty iciness from freezer burn, no weird mouth-coating fattiness like you notice from some cheaper, low-quality ice creams.  We lingered to enjoy them inside the shop because it was so hot outside, and I appreciated nobody asking if we could eat them in my car on the short drive back to work.  That’s how you get ants!

One colleague sampled the West Indian cherry and thought it was a little sour.  He ended up getting a small with the parcha (passion fruit) and the rum raisin, and he raved about how terrific the rum raisin was.  That’s an underrated ice cream flavor, if you ask me.  Rum Raisin isn’t flashy or sexy, it doesn’t have half of a candy store mixed into it, kids would probably think it is gross, but it’s kind of sophisticated and adult, and you could pretend you were on vacation trying it, or at least pretend your workday was already over.

And what about my four flavors?  I started with the passion fruit myself, then asked for guava, then mango piña, and topped it all off with the corn flavor.  I’ve had a sweet corn ice cream before at Wondermade in Sanford (another fantastic local ice cream shop), so I wanted to try this one.  It tastes a lot like sweet corn, but it was a uniform consistency with no kernels or anything.  It was good, but the fruit flavors were the real draw.  I loved them all, but I am obsessed with pineapple, mango, guava, and passion fruit and anything with those flavors.  I was an easy mark, but they didn’t disappoint at all.

Another colleague got the tres leches and let me sample a taste of it.  It was so good, I preferred it to my top layer of maiz ice cream.  It definitely had cinnamon in it, so it reminded me almost more of horchata, that sweet Mexican rice milk flavored with cinnamon, than tres leches.  But unlike most of the other ice creams that were a uniform consistency without chunks, this one had the texture of little pieces of chewy cake.  It was great.

When I return to Jr Tropical Ice Cream, I will try some new flavors.  Even growing up in Miami and developing a taste for tropical fruits, I don’t think I’ve ever had guanabana, the fruit also known as soursop, despite being a popular juice and milkshake flavor at Cuban restaurants.  Next time I’ll try that, and also the straight-up pineapple and coconut flavors… and also the rum raisin my co-worker raved about so much.

This is a great little place that everyone should stop into and support.  And if the location on Goldenrod, just south of Colonial, isn’t convenient, there is a second location of Jr Tropical Ice Cream down in Kissimmee.  It might be September now, but we all know it’s going to be hot and humid up until Thanksgiving here in Orlando.  I hate the heat and humidity, but say what you will about it, it remains perfect weather to cool down and treat yourself with some ice cream.

If you feel like ice cream is too much of an indulgence and too “dangerous” or “naughty” to keep around, then don’t buy it at the supermarket to fill your freezer — just go out and treat yourself here once in a while!  A trip out to an ice cream parlor, especially a locally owned one like Jr Tropical Ice Cream with so many unique flavors, will make it seem so much more special than going through a pint (or a gallon) of mass-produced, corporate ice cream without even thinking about it, while binge-watching your favorite shows at night.

And when you go, remember to ask for your ice cream in the coconut, for the truest tropical experience.  Learn from my mistake, a mistake I will not be making a second time!

Smokemade Meats + Eats

Sometimes my parents joke that they have no idea why I like so many different kinds of food that my family never ate when I was growing up.  I got curious and wanted to try new things once I was on my own, out of their house, taking the advice of cultured, worldly friends or the Internet hive-mind.  Not my dad, though!  He likes what he likes, he’s set in his ways, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t on a constant quest for the best too!  Just today I reassured my dad that he is a big reason I appreciate food as much as I do.  He used to drive all over Miami to find the best Chinese buffets, hot dog carts, New York pizza (by the slice!), bagels, Cuban bistec milanesa, and pastrami sandwiches.  He’d schlep up to an hour for a good meal, so that’s where I get it from.  We had a heartfelt conversation where I told him that I love all the same foods he loves, but along the way, I just figured out I like to eat other things too.  We had one of those “We’re not so different, you and I” moments over the phone.

Well, another kind of food my dad actually likes is barbecue… as long as it is not too saucy or spicy, that is!  He got me into barbecue at the legendary Shorty’s in Miami, and we ate there together countless times.  Barbecue is a reliable crowd-pleaser and a timeless and true American art form, like jazz, blues, and comic books.  Most people have strong opinions and great loyalty to barbecue, but even when we find a ‘cue joint we like, we’re always scanning the sky for scintillating smoke signals, seeking something equally good or even better.  And today I think I found that place.

Smokemade Meats + Eats (https://www.smokemade.com/) is a pop-up restaurant that started pitching a tent and serving up Texas-style barbecue at local breweries around Orlando earlier this year.  I’m back at work with a heavy teaching load, so between that and the pandemic worsening in Florida, I’ve been laying low, avoiding crowds, and not exploring as much as I would like.  But after several months of frustration, I finally made to a Smokemade pop-up at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store in Orlando’s Milk District and met Tyler Brunache, the sorcerer supreme of smoke and mystical maven of meat.  Tyler, an FSU graduate (which I’ll forgive) started barbecuing in Washington D.C. before returning home to Orlando, and we should all be glad he made that decision.  You have to follow Smokemade on Facebook or Instagram and find out where he’ll next appear, so you can try this delicious food for yourselves.

I hated crowds and long lines before social distancing was cool, so I was smart and made it to Whippoorwill Beer House on the early side, before it got overrun with Milk District hipsters.  I parked right in front of the establishment (a very pleasant surprise), and Smokemade was already set up in a tent in the parking lot with Tyler, three associates, and a very tenacious bee flying around inside the tent, occasionally landing on them but going unnoticed.  Everyone was friendly as they were taking and assembling orders, and nobody seemed perturbed about the bee, even though I warned two of the guys to watch out for it.  Those guys are nonchalant AF.  I would have gotten the hell out of that tent until the bee got bored and took off.  He must have been there because of all the positive buzz online.

Anyway, even with the curious bee, I was one of the first in line, so I was able to order and get my food packed up within ten minutes.  Keep in mind that proper barbecue is smoked low and slow — low temperatures for hours at a time.  Tyler’s beef brisket is smoked for 16 hours, his pulled pork is smoked for ten hours, his pork spare ribs are smoked for six hours, and his scratch-made sausages are cold-smoked for four hours.  Then all the meats have to rest for hours before serving to be at their best, kind of like me.  So even though I got my order quickly, it took over 24 hours to get ready behind the scenes.  What looks like a pop-up to us takes days of planning, prepping, and perfecting.  And looking at drool-worthy photos of Smokemade’s food online over the past few months, it sure looks like Tyler Brunache has perfected his process.

So what did I get?

Well, whenever I try any new restaurant, I always like to order something where I can sample as many different flavors as I can.  Here, that was the Texas Trinity Platter ($29), featuring a half-pound of beef brisket, a half-pound of pork spare ribs, and two sausages.  Keep in mind, I was bringing all of this home to share with my wife!

When I got home with this massive takeout order, I opened the heaviest box first to reveal the Texas Trinity Platter, and this is what we saw.  WOW.  But you’re not even seeing all of it here!

The first thing I did was remove that half-pound slice of brisket to portion it out.  Look at that gorgeous color, that bark, that marbling!  My photo fails to describe just how thick and substantial it is.  But it’s magnificent, masterful meat.  I asked for our brisket to be a little more moist and fatty, rather than lean.  Trust me, it’s better.  Texas-style barbecue is never served drenched in sauce, but even though we got several small cups of barbecue sauce, none of the meats really needed it.  This brisket stands on its own just fine.

By the way, you can also order a brisket sandwich on a roll for $15, and they look huge.

Underneath, you can see what is essentially a double-order of spare ribs, since I added on an extra half-pound ($9).  Hey, my wife and I both love ribs, and I knew she wouldn’t want any of the sausages.  The ribs are magnificent.  The sweet, sticky, peppery glaze adds tremendous texture and fabulous flavor.  These ribs are so tender, not only do they fall off the bone, but I swear I chewed up part of one of the bones, since it was as tender as the meat surrounding it!   Today, Tyler offered two different kinds of sausages, his popular cheddar jalapeño sausage, and a hot gut sausage.  I requested one of each in the Texas Trinity Platter, and they are both coarsely ground in natural casings (hence the “hot gut” moniker) that give you a satisfying crispy crunch sensation when you bite into them.  They were both heavy and dense sausages, and with everything else we tried, I could only eat a small segment of each.  The cheddar jalapeño was my favorite of the two, with pockets of oozing orange cheddar and a pleasant heat throughout.

Since I can’t always make it to these ephemeral pop-ups around town, I ordered what I could, while I could.  This here is a half-pound portion of pulled pork ($10), not included in the Texas Trinity Platter, but well worth trying.  It is much more understated than the brisket, ribs, and sausages, but I’d still totally recommend it.  You can also order a pulled pork sandwich on a roll for $11.  They were generous with the scratch-made barbecue sauce, which is thin and vinegary, not the usual thick slurry of ketchup, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial smoke flavor like too many sauces.

Barbecue focuses on the meats, but sides are part of the experience.  I couldn’t leave without trying three of Smokemade’s sides: coleslaw made with red cabbage and apples, jalapeño dill potato salad, and pinto beans that are spicier and more savory than the typical sweet “barbecue” baked beans served with Southern BBQ.  Each of these sides cost $3.50.  I liked the beans the most, but the meats are the real reason to chase down Smokemade.
Honestly, my favorite among all these pictured sides were the pickle slices and pink pickled onions in the top left corner of the box, and those actually came with the Texas Trinity Platter!  I already love pickled onions (I make my own), and I am starting to consider myself more of a pickle aficionado, but I really liked these.  Their puckery, pungent punches complemented the salty, smoky meats very well — even better than the actual separate side items, in my opinion.  I asked Tyler, and he said they make everything from scratch except for the slices of white bread that came with the platter.  I don’t know if he would consider selling his pickles and pickled onions in larger portions in the future, but if he offers them, run, don’t walk.

Finally, I couldn’t come home to face my wife without a dessert, so I chose bread pudding over key lime pie (I love it but she doesn’t) and banana pudding.  Each of the three desserts costs $4.  This was a nice-sized chunk of sugary-sweet, soft, moist bread pudding, featuring cinnamon and caramel flavors.  We thought it might have been made with challah bread, as it did taste somewhat eggy.  We each had a nice-sized portion earlier tonight, and there is still some bread pudding left for tomorrow (with my wife’s name on it).  I’d love to try the banana pudding and key lime pie on a future visit.

You might have noticed this was a lot of food for two people, but I fully expected we would get multiple meals out of it, especially with me packing lunches for work to wolf down between classes and reference interviews, and her being home for the time being.  And it was all so good, neither of us will mind eating amazing Texas-style barbecue for another couple of days.

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to attend an annual conference for my professional organization in Dallas, Texas.  Of course I had to try the local barbecue, so I sought out the famous and highly recommended Pecan Lodge.  It was amazing — easily some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten.  Maybe the best.  I’ve never had anything quite like it in Florida, until now.  I never forgot that meal, but I can tell you that Tyler Brunache’s food from Smokemade Meats + Eats looks, smells, and tastes just like that real-deal Texas ‘cue I enjoyed so much in Dallas and dreamed about ever since.

Seriously, don’t sleep on Smokemade, and don’t write it off as a logistical nightmare just because there isn’t a permanent, brick-and-mortar location.  Follow the social media, figure out where Smokemade Meats+ Eats will pop up next, get there early so they don’t sell out of what you want, and go with friends so you can sample a little bit of everything on the menu.  But be careful out there, and drink responsibly at all these breweries!

Back in 1996, the great singer/songwriter/actor/Texan Lyle Lovett sang “That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.”  Well, I’m not from Texas, and neither is Tyler, and statistically, most of you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos probably aren’t either.  But take it from The Saboscrivner: you want this Texas barbecue anyway!  Heck, even my dad would.

Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe

EDIT on 10/18/2021: Lombardi’s Seafood posted this announcement on Facebook:
“As of today we are closing the cafe at Lombardi’s seafood. We are expanding our retail market offerings to include more prepared items, salads, produce, meats and grocery items that compliment our seafood. In order to accomplish this, we need the space that is currently occupied by the cafe. We appreciate all the love and support everyone has shown to the cafe over the years. We are excited for you to see what new changes are coming to the Market!”

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Lombardi’s Seafood, located on Fairbanks Avenue on the Winter Park side of I-4, has been the premier place to purchase fresh seafood in the Orlando area since opening in 1961.  That’s a 50-year culinary tradition, which is in itself rare in our young city.  Rarer still, the seafood market remains a family business, now owned by a third generation of Lombardis.  That’s a special thing, worthy of recognition and support.  Lombardi’s Seafood relocated to its current location in 2015 and opened a casual restaurant inside the nicer-than-ever surroundings, Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe (https://lombardis.com/#cafe).  I ate there once, shortly after it opened, but hadn’t been back for a while.

Well, my wife and I had both been craving seafood the entire month we spent in the hospital, so within the first four weeks we were back home this summer, I ate at Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe a whopping three times, including twice with her.  And despite finding a flawless favorite fish early on, I made sure to order something different every time, for the purpose of constructing a more compelling and comprehensive composition of comparisons and contrasts.  You’re welcome, constant readers!  Just keep in mind that even though you can always buy fine fresh fish for festively feeding family and friends, the cafe is closed on Sundays, even though the market is open.

On my first recent visit, I was alone, and I was hungry.  Figuring I would have leftovers, I started out with the smoked fish dip as an appetizer ($8).  It arrived with a beautiful presentation: a substantial scoop of the smoky stuff surrounded by a refreshing rainbow of various vegetables: crunchy carrot and celery sticks, cool cucumber slices, piquant pickled jalapeños, and my absolute favorites, crunchy pickled onions in a shade I can only describe as “Barbie Dream House pink.”  These things are so tangy and sweet and delicious, I make them at home in massive quantities and put them on everything.  The smoked fish dip was good, but the pickled onions, adding that vinegary tang and crunch to the smoky, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth coolness, elevated it to a next-level app.

As much as I love my cured, smoked, and pickled fish, as well as raw fish in sushi and poke and canned fish like sardines, I don’t eat nearly enough cooked fish.  I’ve never dared to buy or cook my favorite fish, grouper, but I jumped at the opportunity to try Lombardi’s grouper sandwich ($18), served simply with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce on the side on an excellent brioche bun.  I ordered it blackened (the other options were grilled and fried), and it was perfect in every way.  Easily in the Top Two grouper sandwiches I’ve eaten in my life, and the other was at a place we love in Clearwater Beach that I plan to return to and review in February 2022.  (Let’s all try to make it that far!)Sandwiches and baskets come with two sides, so I chose the collard greens (stewed with slices of sausage; allegedly andouille) and sweet corn fritters that I forgot to photograph, but you’ll see them a little later.  Anyway, I can’t recommend this sandwich highly enough.  It was everything a fish sandwich should be, and the blackened seasoning imparted terrific flavor without overpowering the taste of the fish, and didn’t make it too spicy either.  Apparently a lot of restaurants sneakily sell other, lesser fish that they label as grouper and price accordingly, but this is the real deal, and you don’t see it on many menus around Orlando.

Flash forward a week, and after my regular raves and habitual hype, I brought my wife to Lombardi’s to give it another try, years after our first visit.  She surmised the Saboscrivner wouldn’t steer her askew and settled on the same sandwich for herself, this time with hush puppies (she didn’t care for these, but I sure did) and sweet corn fritters (I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t like these).  She was a blackened grouper sandwich convert too — another grouper groupie, if you will.

As much as I could eat that grouper sandwich all the time, I was feeling shellfish, so I ordered a dozen oysters for myself at a very reasonable $1 each.  For too many years, I trusted in the antiquated advice that you can’t safely eat oysters during months that don’t have an “R” in their names — namely, the sweltering summer.  But I’ve been researching that rebop (dig my day job), and oyster harvesting methods have changed so much in modern times, it is quite safe.   These briny beauties were plump, cool, luxurious, and perfectly shucked, unlike some other restaurants that don’t completely separate the oyster from the half-shell, those shuckers.  No ill effects or stomach wrecks, I’m relieved to report.

I also got a sandwich with the fish of the day ($10), which happened to be black tip shark!  I’ve never had shark before, so of course I had to try it, to report back to my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos about what it was like to devour the most dangerous, deadliest denizen of the deep.  As a result, I ordered the shark grilled rather than blackened, to fully savor the flavor.  I thought it was blander than the grouper (ordering it blackened would have probably helped), and it was a firmer fish — less buttery than the grouper, but not flaky either, like most white fish.  I’d equate it to swordfish, as a point of comparison, although I think swordfish is more flavorful.  I’m glad I  wrapped my jaws around this shark sandwich, but I don’t know if I’d attack the apex predator again, as long as there are other fish in the sea.     Note the hush puppies and collard greens as my two sides here.  Still good!

I wrote this review on the eve of my third recent visit to Lombardi’s, again with my wondrous, winsome wife.  You thought we were done?  No, son, we’re just getting started!

Instead of raw oysters, this time we started out with an app we could both enjoy: a platter of fried clam strips ($10), served in a very light and crispy batter, not greasy at all.  My wife preferred these clam strips to the ones at her family’s old seafood standard, another Winter Park landmark, Boston’s Fish House.

Since the clam strips were a platter, we chose fries (pretty standard fries) and cole slaw (nice and crunchy and cool, and not too much mayo) as the two sides.  The hush puppies and corn fritters are the superior sides, for certain.

My wife’s first choice, the whole fried snapper, wasn’t available, so she opted for a platter of her own, with fried mahi ($13) and a double order of the corn fritters.  These heat up remarkably well in the toaster oven, so fear not — we didn’t eat all the fried stuff in one sitting.  Now I’m not a big mahi fan, but she likes it well enough, or thought she did.  This mahi would probably have been better blackened or grilled, given that flaky texture that is kind of dry.  It’s a generous portion of fish, that’s for sure, but it just isn’t the fish for me. 

And me, despite the grouper’s gravitational pull, I opted to order the fried oyster po’boy ($15), with a handful of huge fried oysters on an excellent Cuban roll with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade sauce.  I remembered to request a ramekin of those perfectly pink pickled onions to place on the po’boy.  It was a sensational sandwich, with such a breathtaking blend of flavors, textures, and colors.  Fried oysters are always good, and remoulade sauce is an ace accompaniment for them.  But Lombardi’s sandwich game is so strong, right down to the radical rolls.  The breathtaking brioche rolls from the other sandwiches really complete them, and so did this Cuban roll — so soft, yet lightly grilled for an ideal texture.  It wasn’t just some tasteless white bread for pointless extra carbs, but a crucial component of this peerless po’boy.

So as you can see, 30 days in the hospital necessitated my wife and I go on seafood diets for a little while: when we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  I was saddened that we stayed away from Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe as long as we had, especially because it wasn’t for any real reason.  Three for three, these were excellent meals, and so reasonably priced by seafood standards.  It is worth noting that the cafe menu proudly proclaims that almost all seafood is caught locally, and even off their own boat, the F/V Bottom Line, out of sunny St. Petersburg on Florida’s west coast (y’all know it’s the best coast).

Also, for a $4 upcharge, you can purchase any of the fresh fish and shellfish available in the glass display cases and ask the friendly fishmongers to have the Seafood Cafe prepare it for you — even things that aren’t on the menu!  How cool is that?

Orlando may be nestled inland, which may afford us some protection from  hurricanes and flooding, but we don’t have immediate access to our state’s beaches and warm waters here.  Luckily for us we have Lombardi’s, with their 50 years of seafood experience, a true mom-and-pop shop where you can buy the freshest Florida fish and cook it yourself, or seat yourself in the Seafood Cafe and leave the grilling, blackening, and frying to the experts.  The Lombardi family runs a tight ship, so mullet over and give them a try, just for the halibut.

Benjamin French Bakery

My wife and I have always loved Benjamin French Bakery (https://www.benjaminfrenchbakery.com/), the cute bakery-cafe in Thornton Park, a picturesque neighborhood near downtown Orlando.  We don’t go as often as we would like, because it is extremely difficult to park around there.  I figure the local hipsters can easily walk to the restaurants and bars in their neighborhood, but they ought to rename the place “Thornton No-Park” for everyone else.

Well, after a recent morning doctor’s appointment, we found ourselves in the area in the morning on a weekday, so we figured we had a chance to park nearby and enjoy a relaxing brunch at Benjamin.  Luckily, my plan worked.  It had been so long since our last visit, we ran slightly amok, but we are a fun couple who knows how to party, so we ordered food with reckless abandon.

While we sat at an indoor table and waited for our meals, we couldn’t resist tearing into some of our bounty of baked goods.  The plain croissants from Benjamin French Bakery ($2.89 each) are the finest I’ve ever had.  So rich and buttery, so flaky and crispy, so many soft inner layers.  Granted, I’ve never been to France, or even the France part of Epcot, but these are pretty mind-blowing.  To quote Run the Jewels, “Ooh, la la, ah, oui oui!”
In addition to the two plain croissants, my wife picked an almond croissant ($3.99; the triangle in the bottom left), I got a blueberry pastry ($3.99; center), and we split the gorgeous apple turnover ($3.69; cut in half in the bottom right).  The turnover was magnificent, but I still give the plain croissants the nod for being the best in this box.  The other two pastries were fine, but they look like they’ve been partying in Miami, don’t they?

Then our beautiful food arrived.  My wife got the Bordeaux sandwich ($9.95) on a fresh baguette, although you can choose any of the sandwiches as a pressed panini as well.   The sandwich contains brie cheese, apple, grapes, and mixed greens, plus tomato and balsamic vinegar, but she asked them to hold those.  Brie is one of the only cheeses  my wife likes, and one of the only cheeses I don’t like, which is one of those weird little things about life.  They were very generous with the brie on the sandwich, and the baguette was warm, perfectly crusty on the outside, while soft and yielding inside.

I had a hard time choosing between two sandwiches, but ended up with the Bastia sandwich ($9.95) on a fresh baguette.  It contains paper-thin slices of prosciutto (one of my favorite meats), mozzarella cheese, mixed greens, tomato, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.  It’s a very different vibe from the Italian subs and hoagies that are my favorite meals, with the baguette so much smaller and crustier than most soft sub rolls.  But still, I felt so continental, enjoying what is essentially a fancy ham and cheese sandwich for brunch at this nice little cafe on a weekday.  Hey, I might not be a Francophile, but at least you know I know where France is.There is another really terrific baguette sandwich I love here, the St. Tropez, with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumbers, but my love of prosciutto won out this day.

Still, smoked salmon sounded good too — doesn’t it always? — so I took a chance and also ordered the Oceanne quiche ($8.20) for us to split.  This lovely quiche contains smoked salmon, spinach, cherry tomato, lemon, feta cheese, and in addition, according to Benjamin’s website, “cheese.”  Which cheese?  Mozzarella?  Gruyere?  I would have liked to know, but it doesn’t matter, because it was so delicious!

The Oceanne with a slice already cut out:

I hate that quiche was a stupid punchline among lowest common denominator sitcoms and hacky stand-up comics in the ’80s and ’90s — a food that “real men” wouldn’t dare eat because it’s fancy and French, hon hon hon!  How ignorant and xenophobic can you get, with a little misogyny and homophobia baked in?  What is quiche, but eggs, cheese, and often some kind of meat baked into a savory pie, in a buttery, flaky pie crust?  If that isn’t a manly meal, I don’t know what is!  Fictional manly man Ron Swanson would probably love quiche!  But that’s stupid too, just like any “battle of the sexes” humor.  Everyone would probably like quiche, unless they hate eggs or pie crust.  I don’t understand why quiche isn’t the official meal of the United States of America — cheese-and-egg pie, to be enjoyed any time of the day or night.  Maybe, just like socialized medicine, quiche just desperately needs to be rebranded to reach the audience that would embrace it if they gave it a chance.  Patriot Pie, anybody?

Well, that’s my review of Benjamin French Bakery, one of my favorite breakfast and brunch spots in Orlando, as well as one of my favorite bakeries.  The croissants and baguettes are second to none around here.  I wish I could say the same for the parking situation, but going at an off-time (not around 11 AM on a weekend) seemed to help.  And don’t forget to treat yourself to a quiche, capisce?