Chicago Dog & Co

As much as I love food and restaurants and cooking, I’ve never worked a day in the food service or hospitality industries.  For me, eating, cooking, and even grocery shopping are necessities I’ve turned into hobbies.  We have to eat to survive, so I do what I can to make the experiences enjoyable, but I’ve never had to work at it.  As a result, I have nothing but admiration and awe for everyone who works in restaurants.  It’s a hard, hot, and dangerous job, and too many people take it for granted when we get delicious food we didn’t have to make ourselves.  Even I have been guilty of this in the past, but I have so much appreciation, and I always try to show it, including by writing this food blog.  I hope it comes across in my words, as I try to boost the signal for local restaurants here.

This past week my wife and I binge-watched a new show called The Bear, which consists of eight half-hour episodes streaming on Hulu.  The Bear is about Carmy, a world-renowned chef who returns to his family’s divey restaurant in Chicago after his brother commits suicide and leaves Carmy the restaurant in his will.  Most of the show takes place inside the restaurant’s cramped, chaotic kitchen, and the writing, acting, directing, and editing work in perfect tandem to create a feeling of unhinged uneasiness — a “sense of urgency,” as Carmy calls it.  All the restaurant people I know who have been watching it say they get the details almost too perfect, to the point where it is too real, too uncomfortable to enjoy.  But it’s really good, so you should watch it if you’re looking for a new show you can knock out in a weekend.

Anyway, the main specialty of Carmy’s family restaurant is a real Chicago classic: Italian beef sandwiches.  We watch them preparing hundreds of “beefs,” and before the end of the intense first episode, I was craving one here in Orlando.  The Chicago/Italian beef isn’t as ubiquitous a sandwich as the Philly cheesesteak, but there are a few places around town to find them.  My favorite local food writer, a woman who serves as a constant inspiration to me, who I am honored to think of as a friend (albeit one I have yet to meet in real life), Amy Drew Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, wrote a guide to Italian beef sandwiches in Orlando earlier this year, which pointed me to the subject of my latest restaurant review.

Chicago Dog & Co (https://www.chicagodogandco.com/) is located in Altamonte Springs, Florida, west of I-4, close to where Altamonte starts blending into Apopka.  Sandra (a practicing attorney!) and Monica, two Chicago-born sisters raised in Central Florida, opened the restaurant just over a year ago, in April 2021, and they have been going strong ever since.  Open every day except Monday, Chicago Dog & Co has covered outdoor seating, but no indoor seating.  You walk up to order at a window, and they call your name when your order is ready.  They specialize in Vienna Beef hot dogs on steamed poppy seed buns, and you can get them with a number of toppings, including the Chicago way, “dragging it through the garden,” with yellow mustard, diced onion, sliced tomato, neon green relish, a pickle spear, “sport” peppers, and celery salt.

But as much as I enjoy a good hot dog, I’m more of a devotee of a garlicky New York-style dog, as typified by Sabrett, Nathan’s, and Boar’s Head, topped with spicy mustard and sauerkraut.  I have no doubt the Vienna Beef hot dogs are bringing back happy Chicago memories for thousands of Central Floridians, but I went there for a different reason: to get my post-Bear Italian beef fix.  And did I ever!

This was the Italian beef ($8) I brought home for myself, the tender sliced beef topped with sweet peppers and spicy giardiniera vegetables, a blend of carrots, onions, and green peppers.  (The more traditional Chicago version has carrots, celery, and cauliflower!)  It is served on a soft Gonnella roll, either dry (no au jus, or au jus served on the side), wet (au jus poured over the sandwich), or dipped (the entire sandwich, roll and all, dipped in au jus to create a real fork-and-knife experience).  Since I was bringing it home, I opened for au jus on the side.  I thought it was really good, and better once I poured the jus over the meat and bread.  The actual beef in an Italian beef isn’t super-moist or fatty, so the jus helps lubricate the sandwich, in the best possible way.  It was definitely a WAS (wet-ass sandwich) by the time I was through, and it definitely fulfilled my Italian beef craving.

Knowing my wife the way I do, she isn’t into toppings, condiments, sauces, or even sandwiches all that much, so I ordered her a plain beef ($8) with jus on the side, and also giardiniera on the side (since I knew I would get to eat hers).  Here’s the unadorned, unadulterated beef:

Since they serve chili dogs and I love chili, I asked if I could try a little side order of chili, and they were kind enough to fill a small cup for me.  Here it is with the side of spicy giardiniera. 

In addition to the dogs and beefs, Chicago Dog & Co also serves burgers.  I haven’t had a tasty burger in quite a while, so I couldn’t resist this double smash ($6) — a very reasonable price for two beef patties smashed thin with sautéed onions and melty American cheese on a soft bun.  The bun got steamed in the aluminum foil wrap on my 20-minute drive home, but I imagine it would be a lot less wrinkly if you enjoy yours at the restaurant.The burger had a great “fresh off the grill” taste, and I’m a sucker for American cheese and sautéed or grilled onions on my burger.  I added a bit of the chili once I ate about half of it at home, but it didn’t need any other adornments to improve it.

Finally, I brought home an Iltaco Pizza Puff ($4) for my wife to try.  These things are awesome — another Chicago snack that is like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever had, or more like a small, flat, pizza-filled chimichanga or empanada.  

The crispy, bubbly, fried shell is like a flour tortilla — hence the chimichanga comparison — and it is stuffed with tomato sauce, melty mozzarella cheese, and sausage or pepperoni.  I love these things.  My wife wasn’t interested in trying it, so I ate both halves myself.

So if you also watched The Bear and have been asking “Where’s the beef?” ever since, Chicago Dog & Co is the place for you.  Since I started this blog in 2018, I’ve tried (and reviewed) two other Italian beef sandwiches in and around Orlando: Rosati’s Pizza (a Chicago chain) in Winter Park, and Christo’s, the diner in Sanford.  There are one or two other options I’m aware of, thanks in part to Amy Drew Thompson and the good people of The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, but as you might have realized by now, they aren’t nearly as easy to find around here as other sandwiches.  I’m happy I had time on a lazy Sunday to finally check out a new(ish) local restaurant owned by two women who deserve our community’s support.  Hopefully their kitchen is a lot more copacetic than the one in the show!  But if you go for a beef or even a Chicago hot dog, don’t forget that Pizza Puff too — trust me on that.  That thing is magical.

Grocery Grails: BarbaCuban Sauces

Longtime readers of this humble food blog, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know I am obsessed with condiments and sauces, to the point that I will plan entire meals around certain ones and check grocery stores wherever I am for new condiments I might not be able to find back at home.  I occasionally take breaks from restaurant reviews on this blog to occasionally highlight  grocery store finds in a recurring feature called Grocery Grails, and that got a spinoff of its own, another recurring feature called Cutting the Mustard, where I review different mustards.

Earlier this year, I was introduced to a whole new line of sauces I’ve never seen for sale before, and I was actually encouraged to review them on my blog.  A foodie friend with impeccable taste and a job in marketing gave me the sauces to try.  He told me that if I like them, they would be grateful if I reviewed them, but if I don’t like them, I’d be under no obligation.  No money changed hands, just a few bottles of sauce.  I’ve always taken pride in maintaining the independent status of this food blog, not taking any kind of quid pro quo in exchange for good reviews, and I’m not about to start now.  I’m no influencer-for-hire, just a guy who loves to try new foods and tell people what I think of them.  As a result, I was stoked to sample some new sauces, free from any conflicts of interest or ethical worries, and even more stoked that they were good enough to feature in a Grocery Grails segment.  (In fact, two of them are mustard-based, so this is also an official Cutting the Mustard column!)  So here we go!

BarbaCuban sauces (https://barbacuban.com/) are the creation of the BarbaCuban himself, Jose Juarez.  Back in 2015, he appeared on the Live with Kelly and Michael show and won the title of “America’s New Grill Star,” a nationwide contest sponsored by the show.   The secret to his BarbaCuban Sandwich success was his 455 Sauce, a tangy, creamy blend of three “M”s: mustard, mayo, and mojo criollo, the marinade that brings citrus and garlic flavors to so many Cuban pork and chicken dishes.  Now you can buy it, along with all of his other condiments and sauces, on the website.

The BarbaCuban website showed me that 455 Sauce is named after the engine block of Jose’s GTO convertible, which was a mystery to me until just now.  But I have been enjoying both the regular and hot 455 Sauces for months now, using them for everything from chicken marinades to dips for fries to the base for chicken salad, cole slaw, and honey mustard salad dressing.  As I’ve shown in my previous Cutting the Mustard columns, I consider myself a mustard aficionado and connoisseur, and BarbaCuban 455 Sauces have been a terrific, versatile addition to my condiment collection and my mustard museum.

Here are the ingredients for the hot 455 Sauce.  I finished the bottle of the regular version a while back and recycled it already, but I’m sure it is very similar, minus the smoked ghost pepper powder:

Here is the hot 455 Sauce accompanying a platter of chicken salad sandwiches I made on nice, fresh Cuban bread from the legendary Alessi Bakery in Tampa, the subject of my review from last week.  I pulled every morsel of meat off one of those gigantic mutant Costco rotisserie chickens and mixed it with chopped cornichons, pepperoncini peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, a good bit of hot 455 Sauce (where I would normally use mayo and some other kind of mustard), worcestershire sauce, and pretty much every herb and spice in my spice drawer. 

Here’s that hot 455 Sauce again, served with a grilled cheese sandwich with homemade pickled onions on sourdough bread, with chicken sausages on the side.  It’s a ridiculously versatile condiment — definitely the spiciest of the six BarbaCuban sauces I sampled, but creamy enough to be a great ingredient and/or dip for anything, in a way most conventional mustards aren’t unless you mix them up with mayo or something like that.  Mr. Juarez has already done that mayo-mixing for you!

Ketchup might be the most popular condiment in the United States, but it still has a polarizing reputation.  People either like ketchup or hate it.  I like it fine, but only for certain applications: burgers, fries, onion rings, and making a glazed crust for meatloaf.  I do most of my grocery shopping at Aldi, so I have no problem buying private labels and store brands, but for ketchup, I must admit I’ve always been a Heinz loyalist.  Nothing else ever tastes or feels quite right.  I’ve been to some restaurants that serve “house-made” ketchups, and I always steel myself for something that tastes like Christmas — chefs going hard with cinnamon and cloves, either too thick or too thin and never quite right.

But anyway, BarbaCuban makes Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup, and it immediately won me over: a non-Heinz ketchup I have been using exclusively for months.  Having these new sauces in my life, and especially this spicy ketchup, has inspired me to order more fries than I ever did before, and to bring them home from restaurants, untouched, just so I could reheat them in my toaster oven and use them as a Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup delivery system.  I also make a legendary meatloaf, so of course I have been brushing it on to form that sweet, tangy, sticky glazed crust.  Even if Heinz is the industry standard, this is the disruptor everyone has been waiting for without ever realizing it: a more complex flavor than Heinz with a pleasing amount of heat, but simple enough that it will still enhance all your old favorites without overpowering them.

Here are some Sidewinder fries (maybe my favorite kind of fries) that we brought home from St. Johns River Steak and Seafood earlier this summer, just so I could enjoy them with the Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup.

These are the ingredients, which include orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime juices, Spanish olive oil, smoked salt, smoked paprika, and smoked ghost pepper powder.  Yowza yowza yowza!

Here are some onion rings and fried avocado nuggets from two different restaurants we visited on a recent trip out of town, which I have yet to review.  If you can guess where we got these, I’ll be impressed, and I may have to think of some kind of prize for the sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino.  But as good as they were at their respective restaurants, they were even better heated back up with BarbaCuban condiments:

My absolute favorite of all the BarbaCuban sauces was the 4 Barrel BBQ Sauce (below left).  I always love barbecue sauce as a condiment, and not just on barbecued meats.  I know Mr. Juarez, the BarbaCuban himself, is a grill-master, but I don’t even own a grill!  It’s too damn hot and humid to spend any time outside nine months out of the year, so I know I wouldn’t get my money’s worth.  But that didn’t stop me from pouring that 4 Barrel BBQ Sauce on anything and everything over the last couple of months, while trying to make my one bottle last.

It is thinner than a lot of sticky, thick, gloopy commercial barbecue sauces, but so much more complex-tasting.  It has the most inspired ingredients I’ve ever seen in a barbecue sauce, including bourbon, Cuban coffee, tamarind extract, worcestershire sauce (bringing some nice umami funk from anchovies), ghost pepper, and guava, mango, pear, pineapple, lemon, and lime juices.  All those amazing ingredients and NO high fructose corn syrup?  Now that’s what I call barbecue sauce!

The BarbaCuban 4 Barrel Barbecue Sauce is so delicious, you could put this on vanilla ice cream!  I didn’t, but I would have if I ever kept vanilla ice cream in the house.

Next up, the BarbaCuban Havana Gold Barbecue Sauce is a combination of the mustard and mayo-based 455 Sauce and the brilliant 4 Barrel Barbecue Sauce.  It was sweet, tangy, a little spicy, a little creamy, and so good.  While I dipped plenty of things in it (see two photos above), I decided to use it to glaze a bone-in, spiral-sliced ham I bought on sale at Aldi after Easter.  I only ever treat myself to whole hams when they are discounted after holidays, which makes me both a good Jew and a bad Jew at the same time!  I’m here all week, folks!  Tip the veal!  Try your waitress!

Here’s the before picture:

Here it is, post-slatherin’ with BarbaCuban Havana Gold BBQ Sauce:

And here it is, hot and sweet and sticky and crackly, right out of the oven.  Our home smelled like heaven, and this ham tasted like it too.  Since I’m the only one here who eats ham, I froze a lot of it to save for later, specifically for the next time I make Cuban sandwiches at home. 

So that is an excellent segue to the last, but definitely not least, the BarbaCuban 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade, Mr. Juarez’s excellent version of mojo criollo, that citrusy, garlicky Cuban marinade so perfect with chicken and pork.  I follow a long, involved, labor-intensive Binging With Babish recipe to make my own mojo criollo from scratch when I want to make roast pork for homemade Cuban sandwiches, inspired by the delightful movie Chef.  It yields one of the most delicious meals ever, but it’s quite a process.  As a result, I’ve tried several store-bought mojo marinades over the decades, and most of them are pretty lousy.  In fact, I’ve only ever found two I liked, and this 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade is one of them.  Here are the ingredients:

I took this photo today, in fact — oven-roasted chicken thighs, marinated overnight in 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade, and served with seasoned black beans and homemade pickled red onions.

I do a lot of meal prep for the week on Sundays, and these are going to be my work lunches for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, alongside salads and fruit.  They are going to be great.  The whole house smells so good!  I made sure to save plenty of the 90 Miles to Mojo for the next time I bring home a pork tenderloin to make Cuban sandwiches.  Here’s hoping it will save me a ton of money and prep time, compared to making my own scratch mojo criollo.  And I already have sliced ham ready to thaw, with that BarbaCuban Havana Gold glaze on it.

Over the last few months, since my friend introduced these sauces to my life, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled to find them at retail.  I shop for groceries at a lot of different stores in and around Orlando, but I have yet to see them at Publix, Aldi, Winn-Dixie, Fresh Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Walmart.  Right now, my advice is to take the plunge, treat yourself, and order them on the BarbaCuban website: https://barbacuban.com/.  If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written about food before, you know I’m a nerd who gets enthusiastic about recommending things I have enjoyed.  I wouldn’t tell you to seek these out if I didn’t like them, trust me.  I did, so now I’m tellin’ you.  Call me a saucy boy if you must, but your meats, your carbs, your friends, and your mouth will thank you if you trust me!

Alessi Bakery (Tampa)

Alessi Bakery (https://www.alessibakery.com/) first opened in Tampa in 1912.  That is older than any bakeries in Orlando, by several decades.  Founded by Italian immigration Nicolo Alessi, it is now run by the fourth generation of the Alessi family: Phil Alessi, Jr., who expanded the bakery and started a huge catering side to the business.  I think stories like that are beautiful, and I love supporting family-owned restaurants and businesses, especially with that much history behind them.  Orlando locals might have even tried Alessi’s baked goods without knowing it, because they make all the king cakes that Publix sells around Mardi Gras, at least here in the Orlando area.

I first discovered Alessi Bakery on a brief Tampa trip in 2017 and fell in love.  You can get overwhelmed browsing the gorgeous cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, cupcakes, breads, sandwiches, snacks, and prepared foods in the glass cases.  There is even a dining room for you to enjoy things right there, rather than packing everything up to go.

Here is an assortment of coconut macaroons, rugelach cookies filled with fruit preserves, and beautiful danish pastries I brought over to a gathering of Tampa friends back in March, our first time hanging out post-pandemic:

I also brought over four beautiful sfogliatelle pastries, an Italian bakery classic sometimes called “lobster tails.”  Light and crispy and flaky, these shell-shaped beauties are dusted with powdered sugar and filled with a slightly lemony custard:

And here is an assortment of Italian tea cookies I brought home for my wife after that March visit.  She loves these little dudes.  I remember cookies like this from small, mom-and-pop Miami bakeries from my childhood in the ’80s.  My mom always loved cookies like this too. 

This is another assortment of goodies I brought home: pound cake, New York crumb cake, zucchini bread, and multicolored birthday cake.  The pound cake slice at the top was by far the biggest hit.

Remembering this, we got two more wrapped slices of the pound cake on our June trip today:

I couldn’t remember what this thing was, but one of my good friends (who is also an Alessi fan, after I introduced him and his family to it) told me it is crème brûlée bread pudding.  He said it is his favorite dessert from here.  I’m sure I liked it too, because come on, look at it!

In addition to all the pastries and sweets, another Alessi Bakery specialty is scachatta, a kind of bread that looks like pizza and smells like pizza, but brother, it ain’t pizza.  It is a soft, yellow, egg-based flatbread (kind of like focaccia, but softer), covered with a slightly sweet tomato sauce full of very finely ground beef, but no cheese except for a light sprinkling of parmesan.  It is then cut into squares or rectangular slices and served at room temperature.  If this sounds weird, I cannot disagree with you, but it’s a thing, and it’s so much better than it sounds or even looks.  Saveur wrote a neat article about scachatta, and so did pizza blog Slice.  

This is a half-sheet ($19) that I bought to share with my friends when I caught up with them back in March.  Everyone really liked it.

When I returned to Alessi in June, I had to do one of my Saboscrivnerrific “Dare to Compare” experiments with the Alessi Bakery scachatta and the scachatta from Tampa’s other legendary Cuban bakery, La Segunda Central Bakery, which was founded three years later, in 1915.  I reviewed La Segunda back in October 2018 and tried the scachatta then, but for the sake of good food writing, I dragged my poor, patient wife to both bakeries back-to-back today and got a few items at La Segunda too.  The sacrifices I make for the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos out there!

Here is a photo I took back at home earlier today, with a small slice from a quarter-sheet of Alessi’s scachatta ($11) on the left, and a single slice of La Segunda’s scachatta ($2.29) on the right:
I love Alessi’s scachatta, really and truly.  But I have to give a slight edge to La Segunda here!  Their version was more savory and less sweet, and it had more flavor, perhaps due to the visible green pepper chunks in the sauce.  But I’d order either again, any time.

The only place to order anything remotely similar to scachatta in Orlando is at my favorite Italian restaurant, Tornatore’s — or to be more accurate, at their Italian market next door.  They serve an upstate New York delicacy called… STEAMED HAMS!  No, no, sorry, I kid.  Tornatore’s serves tomato pie — another soft flatbread spread with tomato paste and served at room temperature or chilled, but no cheese to put it into pizza territory.  It’s interesting how different regions came up with their own pizza-adjacent specialties.

Anyway, here is another delicious treat I’ve only ever found in Tampa: devil crab, a crispy croquette full of shredded, seasoned, savory crabmeat, coated in Cuban bread crumbs and deep-fried.  I had my first devil crab on my first-ever trip to Alessi in 2017, introduced a pescatarian pal to them back in 2018, and ordered two to share with my wife before our drive home from Orlando today:

In case you’ve never had a devil crab yourself, here’s an interior shot, to show it bursting with tender crab that melts in your mouth.  

Since we were sitting down to eat in Alessi’s dining room, I decided to try their macaroni and potato salads ($2.50 each).  I might not have bothered to drive back to Orlando with those mayo-based salads, with a 90-minute drive ahead (that ended up taking over two hours due to terrible traffic in the middle of a Saturday), but I’m so glad I treated myself to them.  This was one of the two best macaroni salads I’ve ever had in my life.  IN.  MY.  LIFE.  (The other is from Poke Hana, my favorite poke spot right here in Orlando.)

Both Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery prepare fabulous sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, including Cuban sandwiches, yet another Tampa specialty, always served on Cuban bread and pressed in a plancha.  Yes, Miami people, I know Cuban sandwiches are a major Miami thing too.  I’m from down there, and I grew up eating them.  But Tampa did them first, due to an earlier Cuban population working in the cigar factories of Ybor City alongside Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants.  That’s how the original Cuban sandwich (called the “mixto” at the time) was born: a combination of Cuban roast pork marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and herbs, Spanish sweet cured ham, Italian Genoa salami, and German mustard and pickles.  (The salami is a Tampa thing, specifically — Miami people are always outraged by it, except this Miami person.)

This is the hand-carved Cuban sandwich I brought home on my trip to Alessi back in March, with really thick slices of roast pork and ham.  It was good, but almost seemed like a little much.  I’m guessing this was the 12″ sandwich ($13.95).

On my June trip with my wife, I brought home the regular Cuban sandwich (a 9″ for $8.95, which is me showing unusual restraint), and I thought it was a lot better than the hand-carved version.  The pressed Cuban bread was less well-done, and the meats had a better texture with their thinner slices.  It was so much more pleasant to sink my teeth into, literally and figuratively.  Even eating it at room temperature, standing up in my kitchen immediately after driving back from Tampa, it was an excellent Cubano.

One thing to note about both Alessi Bakery’s hand-carved and regular Cuban sandwiches: they come with both yellow mustard and mayo, which was fine with me.  Some Cubanos are too dry, even with high-quality ingredients, and I think the mayo makes a fine sandwich lubricant here.  Also, even though the menu says they contain Genoa salami (Tampa’s gonna Tampa), neither of these Cubanos, ordered on two separate trips three months apart, had any.  (The Miami people are breathing a sigh of relief here, but I was looking forward to having a little salami, as a treat.)

I also brought this Italian sub ($11.95) home from my March trip to Alessi, and it was top-notch as well.  Thrill to the sight of Genoa salami (nobody can argue it is necessary in an Italian sandwich), ham, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, awesome hot pepper relish, oil, and vinegar on nice, soft, fresh-baked Italian bread.

Backtracking to Alessi’s Cuban bread, I brought this loaf over when I visited my Tampa friends in March, and everyone ripped into it with gusto.  The Cuban bread they sell at Publix cannot compare.  It doesn’t even come close.  I don’t think any Cuban bread I’ve tried in Orlando does, and I’ve been gone from Miami for far too long.

Once again, I wanted to DARE TO COMPARE Alessi’s Cuban bread to La Segunda’s, so during this busy morning of bakery-hopping, I bought a THREE-FOOT-LONG loaf of fresh La Segunda Cuban bread (left; a real attention-getter!), a new 18″ loaf of Alessi Cuban bread (center), and some buttered Cuban toast from La Segunda (right) for my wife, since she loved it so much on our 2018 visit when I reviewed it.  As you can see, La Segunda’s bread is double the length (and also thinner and softer), and Alessi’s is thicker and has more of a crackly outer crust.  By the way, that is a six-inch Cobra Commander action figure from the G.I. Joe Classified toy line, for scale.  COBRAAAAAA!  RETREAT AND EAT!   

Boy, that’s a lot of Cuban bread, you may be thinking, and you would be right.  I already know both Alessi and La Segunda are famous for their Cuban bread for good reason, and I have already enjoyed it in plenty of their sandwiches.  I will be making several sandwiches of my own in the week ahead, and because of some other ingredients I’ll be using, you will read all about them on The Saboscrivner in the next week or two!

In the meantime, if you are ever in or near Tampa, I’d say Alessi Bakery is definitely worth a special trip.  You can feel four generations of history and love in everything you eat there.  That’s a rare thing in today’s world, especially when so many experiences and sensations are fleeting and ephemeral.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot — the fresh lemonade is exceptional as well, especially today, driving home in temperatures over 100 degrees that felt like walking through warm Jell-O between the bakery and our little car.  If you go, don’t miss that lemonade, on top of all these other treasures!

Kabuto Sushi & Grill

Kabuto Sushi & Grill (https://www.kabuto-sushi.com) is the closest sushi restaurant to our house, but it took us a while to try it.  It used to be a different sushi restaurant years ago, which we only ever went to once.  Once was enough.  It was really expensive and just okay, but Kabuto has a completely different menu, different management, different décor, different everything.  I ordered takeout, but the dining room was gorgeous — very modern and sexy, especially for a sushi restaurant in uber-suburban Winter Springs, next door to our regular Publix where everyone knows me.

I ordered takeout for that first visit to Kabuto, starting with a pretty typical eel roll ($10), with baked eel and cucumber inside the sushi rice and a little dipping cup of sticky, sweet eel sauce on the side:

My wife thought the Kabuto’s summer roll ($16) sounded interesting, with tuna, salmon, a krab stick, avocado, and mango, wrapped in spring mix leaves and rice paper, with house-made raspberry wine sauce on the side.  It was an interesting combination, especially with the sauce, that was like a sweet and sticky vinaigrette dressing, and no rice to speak of.

I ended up using the sauce as dressing on a homemade salad a few days later, since she isn’t into sauces and dips anyway.  It was perfectly fine, but I like my sushi rolls with rice, so I probably wouldn’t order this one again.

I’m glad I ordered a spicy tuna crunch roll and a spicy salmon crunch roll ($8 each; below left and center), both with tempura flakes inside to give them that gentle crunch, and we really enjoyed both of those.
But there were two highlights, even though these other rolls were solid.  One was the mango passion roll that my wife chose ($16; on the right side in the above photo), with yellowtail, salmon, and avocado inside, topped with more yellowtail and salmon, plus mango salsa.  It was AWESOME.  What a great combination.  I always order mango in my poke bowls with tuna and/or salmon when it is available, and it worked so well here.

My personal favorite wasn’t a roll at all, but a selection from the “cold small plates” part of the menu: spicy tuna crispy rice ($12), with cubes of deep-fried rice topped with spicy tuna, avocado, masago, scallions, sesame seeds, and a sweet glaze.  It came with four pieces, which we split evenly, but I could have eaten two hundred of them, seriously.

I love ramen almost as much as I love sushi, but my wife doesn’t always share my love of ramen (aside from the instant stuff).  I was surprised when she suggested we order a bowl of the tonkotsu ramen ($13) to split, since I figured she wouldn’t be interested, but I was half-considering ordering one just for myself.  In the end, I liked it more than she did and ended up eating most of it, which was fine with me, but I was relieved she suggested it in the first place.

I really liked how rich and creamy the pork bone broth was, how tender the thin slices of chashu pork and bamboo shoots were, and how springy and chewy the noodles were.  I always think I’m going to hate the bamboo in tonkotsu ramen, expecting it to be tough and fibrous like a cross between chewing on celery sticks and saxophone reeds, but it is more like al dente lasagna noodle sheets.  The soft-boiled egg halves were cooked to gooey perfection as well, although I chomped them both rather than letting the yolks mix into the tonkotsu broth.  The broth was served on the side in our takeout order, which was the ideal way to do it, to keep those great noodles from getting soggy.

I had no idea Kabuto also has a happy hour menu, since it wasn’t on the website.  If you dine in between 4:30 and 7:00 PM, you could get much cheaper sushi rolls, and if I had known, we might have done that instead of ordering takeout.  Here’s a photo, because the people need to know about this great deal!
In fact, we returned two weeks later to dine in and take advantage of happy hour, since the food was so good.

My wife started out with two pieces of escolar sashimi ($4) and two pieces of tako (octopus) sashimi ($4):

Then we went hard on those happy hour rolls!  I got the same spicy tuna crunch roll and spicy salmon crunch roll we liked so much at home ($5 each; right center and bottom), as well as the full-priced mango passion roll we loved (top left):

We also got the Philly roll ($4; top right), the fire dragon roll ($5, bottom left), and the lobster sensation roll ($5, center).  I always gravitate toward “Japanese bagel” rolls, with smoked salmon and cream cheese (the food of my people!), but the Philly roll was regular (non-smoked) salmon with cream cheese.  Still very pleasing.  This was my first fire dragon roll, with salmon, asparagus, and avocado inside, and topped with yellowtail, thin-sliced serrano peppers, and dollops of “house-made kobachi sauce,” as the menu said.  It looked and tasted more like sriracha to me.

Finally, the lobster sensation roll isn’t listed on the regular menu, but it contained lobster mixed with cream cheese and was lightly fried in tempura batter.  Really good stuff.  I’m sorry I didn’t take more close-ups of this beautiful sushi tray.

There are also daily specials at Kabuto that we didn’t order, but I snapped a photo of the menu from the day we went, since they aren’t on the website either:

There is no shortage of good sushi restaurants in and around Orlando, but Kabuto Sushi & Grill is definitely the closest to us.   It may not be super-upscale, but that isn’t The Saboscrivner’s style anyway, and it is still a really nice place with fresh, delicious, unpretentious sushi and ramen, tucked away in Winter Springs, where foodies rarely dare to venture.  Please dare.  In the meantime, we will keep enjoying this friendly neighborhood restaurant moments from our home.

Thai Singha

Thai Singha (https://thaisingha.net/) is the first Thai restaurant I ever visited in Orlando, shortly after meeting my wife and starting to date her, back in 2006.  It is out in the sprawling Waterford Lakes shopping center in East Orlando, south of the University of Central Florida.  The area is full of restaurants, but not many stand out and draw attention.  Thai Singha definitely does, or at least it should.

We realized it had been years since we had gone together, especially after discovering newer favorites like Mee Thai and Naradeva Thai, both wonderful places.  But you never forget your first, especially since Thai Singha is where I discovered my favorite Thai dish that is now my benchmark order at any new Thai restaurant, to compare and contrast them all.

My wife started with hot ginger tea ($2.95), which smelled really good and came in a neat-looking receptacle:

Then she ordered one of her favorite dishes, that she also introduced me to at Thai Singha over 15 years ago: mee grob ($6.95).  Some restaurants call it mee krob or meekrob, but many around Orlando don’t serve it at all.  It is a veritable mountain of crispy rice noodles, shrimp, pork, and tofu, tossed in a tangy sweet sauce and garnished with scallions and bean sprouts.  It is awesome, folks.  It is very sticky, crunchy, sweet, salty, and sour — a feast for all the senses.  The shrimp is fried so nicely that you can even crunch and swallow the crispy tails.  It is one of the only places where I like tofu, but I fully admit I haven’t had enough tofu to discount it completely.  Maybe everyone is already wise to the joys of mee grob, but if ya don’t know, now you know.

My wife ordered her favorite entree as well: late night noodles with a combination of shrimp, scallops, and squid ($16.95).  You can choose any of the options from the “Favorite Dishes” section of the menu to come with mixed vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, or pork for $11.50, shrimp for $14.50, or a meat combo or this seafood combo for $16.95.The late night noodles are soft, chewy rice noodles stir-fried to perfection, then tossed in a light soy sauce with eggs, the shrimp, the buttery little bay scallops, and the tender squid, and served over a bit of lettuce.  She loves it.

And this is my favorite Thai dish, made with the same flat, wide, perfectly chewy rice noodles: drunken noodles, also known as pad kee mao or pad kee mow.  I got mine with tender pork for $11.50, and I always wish the portion was bigger here, because it is so incredibly delicious.  Drunken noodles are stir-fried with onions, green bell peppers, fresh Thai basil leaves, and a sweet chili paste sauce.  It is always sweet and spicy at once, which I just love in any cuisine, and the Thai basil brings such a unique herby flavor — very different than the typical basil in Italian recipes.  Despite the name, there is no alcohol in this dish, but it is a common, beloved Thai street food for drunken revelers.  I’m sure the late night noodles have a similar origin story from nocturnal hawkers and their grateful post-partying clientele.

So that’s our first Thai restaurant we were able to share with each other, Thai Singha.  I am pleased to report we enjoyed it as much as ever after being away for far too long.  I was just sad to see it dimly lit and not busy, despite it always bustling during our past visits, too long ago.  We got there in the late afternoon on a recent Friday, too early for the dinner hour, but we were the only diners in the place, while others popped in and out to pick up sporadic takeout orders.  It is difficult to get to Waterford Lakes, and we rarely end up on that east side of Orlando anyway, but it remains a treasure well worth braving UCF-area traffic to return to from time to time.  Over the years we’ve been together, we have ordered other dishes on the menu that are always solid, but we are always a little disappointed when we don’t go with our favorites here.  Now you’ve seen our go-to dishes, so pay it a visit, decide on your own favorites, and let me know what they are!

Grocery Grails: Cutting the Mustard II: The Quest for More Mustard

Well, it’s the summer, and that means we’re getting some sequels.  Movie sequels always try to top the originals by being BIGGER, LOUDER, and LONGER, so that’s what I’m trying to do with the sequel to my original mustard review feature from last summer, Cutting the Mustard.  I reviewed seven different mustards, just in time for Memorial Day weekend, when people tend to eat a lot of hot dogs and burgers.  Well, it’s Memorial Day weekend again, so here’s our sequel: Cutting the Mustard II: The Quest for More Mustard!  And if you think I only reviewed eight mustards this time, then go jump in a lake, jabroni.  I only offer the best content to my dozens of readers, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, so I have raised the stakes and reviewed TEN mustards right here!  Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for mustard mishegas!

The first two new mustards I reviewed were from iconic mustard company French’s, famous for its standard yellow mustard.  But since nothing I write about on this blog is standard, I tried two of French’s deeper cuts, if you will.  The first one was French’s Brown Sugar Bourbon stone ground mustard, which comes in a relatively small glass jar.  Just like in the first Cutting the Mustard, I sampled it on a Deutsche Kuche (pronounced “douche cooch”) Bavarian soft pretzel stick from Aldi, imported from Germany, a place that knows something about pretzels and mustard.  This was a winning combination.  The Brown Sugar Bourbon added a subtle sweetness that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.  I thought it would go great with hot dogs to cut their extreme saltiness, and would also go well with most deli meats like turkey, roast beef, or ham, as long as the ham isn’t overly sweet already.

I chased that with French’s Roasted Garlic stone ground mustard, which comes in the same kind of glass jar, at the same price point.  I found both of these at Winn-Dixie, by the way.  The garlic flavor was a lot more subtle than I expected.  It reminded me of a standard Dijon mustard, but not as spicy in your nose, and definitely not as “bright”-tasting as a classic yellow mustard.  It would go really well on a sweeter ham sandwich, and it would be fabulous with roast beef or on a nice rare burger.  I could also see mixing it with mayonnaise and honey as the base for a slightly garlicky honey mustard dressing.   I was pleased that despite being labeled as “stone ground,” neither of these French’s mustards had whole crunchy seeds in them.  As I’ve remarked before, I am not a fan of eating mustard and feeling like I’m crunching away on a mouthful of Nerds candy.

I found my next two mustards at Clemons Produce, a wonderful locally owned and operated produce market at 3325 Curry Ford Road, Orlando, Florida, 32806.  It is on the northwest side of the intersection of Curry Ford Road and Crystal Lake Drive, in a great foodie neighborhood known as the Hourglass District.  I am a recent convert to Clemons Produce, but in addition to carrying some of the finest, freshest fruits and vegetables in town, they also have a great selection of groceries, including lots of Amish products: jams and preserves, pickles and other pickled veggies, pies, and even bottled sodas I haven’t found anywhere else in Orlando.  They also have an Amish deli counter that features meats and cheeses from the Troyer brand.  I recommend trying the Lebanon bologna and farmer’s cheese, if you’re in the area. 

And while you’re there, you can pick up some mustards from the Woeber’s brand!  I picked out two of Woeber’s Sandwich Pal mustards: Hot & Spicy and Sweet & Spicy.  The Hot & Spicy mustard had a fair bit of heat.  The Aldi pretzel sticks may have been out of season, so I don’t have a photo of it on one of those, but this was around the time during the pandemic when I was trying to engineer the perfect breakfast sandwich, and I used plenty of it on those experiments.  I love mustard on eggs and breakfast sandwiches.  I even love McDonald’s Sausage McMuffins With Egg, a nostalgic childhood treat that has aged better than anything else at McDonald’s, as far as I’m concerned.  As an adult, I always take them straight home so the American cheese has a chance to melt, and I can apply my own mustards.

Here is one of my most beautiful breakfast sandwich creations with the Woeber’s Sandwich Pal Sweet & Spicy mustard.  This is on Wonder brand Texas Toast (far superior to any other white bread due to its thiccness), and it is topped with a perfectly fried egg (cooked in a ring mold, the way McDonald’s does its McMuffin eggs), American cheese, lap xuong Chinese sausage (much chewier and sweeter than typical breakfast sausage), sautéed onions, Peppadew peppers, and of course the Sweet & Spicy mustard.  The Texas toast is spread with Duke’s mayo, after I chopped up an entire HEAD of garlic and added it directly to the Duke’s jar, so I always have garlic aioli at the ready.  Then I grilled the entire sandwich in a pan like a big ol’ grilled cheese.  Brilliant, and the different kinds of sweetness from the mustard, the sausage, and the Peppadews really sent this one over the top.

My next two mustards are Russian mustards, which I bought months before Russia invaded Ukraine, committed war crimes, and threatened to start World War III.  I found them at another terrific grocery store that specializes in Eastern European products, Green Hills Supermarket, at 1140 East Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs, Florida, 32701.

This first one is Zakuson Russian Standard mustard.  It was extremely spicy, the kind of spicy that burns your sinuses more than your tongue.  It reminded me of the hot Chinese mustard that comes in little plastic packets with takeout Chinese food — great for clearing clogged sinuses when you have a cold.  I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite, but I bravely made my way through the jar.

Here is the Zakuson mustard on a toasted bagel with delicious smoked sable (aka black cod, one of the finest smoked fish you can eat), also purchased at Green Hills Supermarket.  I also added sliced tomatoes and my homemade pickled onions, which are sweet and crispy.  In the future, I would stick to cream cheese for a decadent sandwich like this, rather than a strong and pungent mustard.

The other Russian mustard I bought at Green Hills Supermarket was Uncle Vanya, a small bottle that called out to me because it cost under $2.  How could I go wrong?  It was less intense than the Zakuson, which was a relief.

I decided to use it on the last batch of Cuban sandwiches I made at home, after making my own mojo criollo marinade for some pork tenderloins.  I used a loaf and a half of fresh Cuban bread, and I used up the entire jar of Uncle Vanya mustard, spreading it on both sides of the bread.  

These turned out to be some fine Cubanos!  Of course I used Grillo’s pickles, which I reviewed back in 2020.

Next up, I did a scientific taste test of four more mustards: three I like quite a bit, and one that was new to me.  I call this segment DARE TO COMPARE.

First up is Burman’s horseradish mustard, a pretty standard and budget-priced selection available at Aldi, great on hot dogs and most sandwiches.  It might be a rebranded private label version of Gulden’s horseradish mustard, given the similar shape of the bottles:

Next up is Ba-Tampte delicatessen style mustard, a classic and one of my all-time favorite mustards.  This is available at most Publix supermarkets for $2.99.  Just be aware that they keep it near the deli and not in the mustard section in the condiment aisle.  It is so delicious on anything, and I always recommend it highly.   As good as it is on hot dogs and conventional sandwiches, you might weep if you can get your hands on some good corned beef, pastrami, or tongue and apply a liberal schmear of Ba-Tampte.   Of course rye bread would be the industry standard here, but if you know someone who can hook you up with club rolls, you’ll never want your pastrami on rye again.

I also highly recommend Boar’s Head delicatessen style mustard, which is made with white wine and horseradish.  It is also available near the deli at Publix, and one of my favorite local delis in the Orlando area, Pickles New York Delicatessen in Longwood, is classy enough to put bottles of this on every table.  It is like a cross between a standard deli mustard and a dijon, and it’s absolutely delicious — tangy with a subtle acidic sweetness I attribute to the white wine.  Bottles usually cost around $4 because Boar’s Head products aren’t cheap, but I think I grabbed this one on sale for $3.50. 

And the new one (at least for me) was Kosciusko original spicy brown mustard.  I actually bought this one at Green Hills Supermarket too, despite it being an American product (and not Australian, as the name would have made me guess).  It is actually owned by mustard mega-conglomerate Plochman’s!   
Kosciusko is very similar to the Gulden’s spicy brown mustard my dad always kept in our house growing up, but maybe a touch creamier?  Despite “spicy” being in the description, it probably had the least zing of the four.  Still good, though.  I would consider it a solid all-purpose, everyday mustard.

I had these with a Gabila’s potato knish, which are my favorite knishes.  For the uninitiated, knishes are seasoned mashed potatoes that are baked — or in Gabila’s case, fried — in a pastry crust.  There was a fire at the Gabila’s factory back in 2013, and  I still remember multiple articles being written about the cataclysmic knish shortage, stirring up tsuris among fellow fressers and affiliated altacockers alike.  But luckily, just like the Fox’s U-Bet syrup empire, Gabila’s bounced back.  A lot of delis serve these knishes because they are such a high-quality product with a lot of history, but now you can buy a box of four frozen Gabila’s knishes at Publix, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.  They are one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes, and considering I also write potato chip reviews, I don’t say that lightly.

Here are the frozen knishes:

I very scientifically heated up one knish, cut it into quarters, and enjoyed it with each of the four mustards.  I am pleased to say that unlike sports, where there is generally always a winner and a loser, in this DARE TO COMPARE even, all of these mustards were winners, and I was the biggest winner of all.   
I would strongly recommend any of these four mustards for any of your dipping, spreading, or seasoning needs, especially if you’re mostly used to plain yellow mustards or just standard dijon when you’re feeling fancy.

So when you’re grilling out on Memorial Day weekend (please don’t call it “barbecuing” unless you’re smoking meats low and slow; that’s a pet peeve of mine), please consider some of these magical mustards for your condiment needs, and you too will conclude that they cut the mustard!

Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

We were somewhere around DeLand on the edge of I-4 East when the Beaver Nuggets began to take hold.  Luckily, Doctor Professor Ma’am and I didn’t encounter any bats on our drive to or from Daytona Beach, but we shared a truly exhausting, truly American experience at Buc-ee’s (https://buc-ees.com/), the colossal convenience store just off I-95, a unique shopping experience as vast, overwhelming, and occasionally maddening as its home state of Texas.

Imagine Wawa, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart Supercenter twisted into a sweaty, throbbing throuple, and that comes close, but still doesn’t quite capture the sensory overload of Buc-ee’s.  I counted 43 locations on the website, but there are only two in Florida, both new: off the highway in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.  We didn’t even bother to fill up the car with gas there, given the surprising crowd at lunchtime on a Friday.  Instead, we hustled inside to see what food and snacks awaited us in the sprawling superstore.

They say everything is bigger in Texas: the deserts, the hats, the trucks, the cattle, the churches, the guns, the belt buckles, and unfortunately the intolerance (see recent news for far too many examples).  Well, Buc-ee’s goes big in every way as well.  Once we made our way through sections of the store devoted to kitschy casual clothing, folksy home décor, and touristy novelties (the “schlock and awe” department), we made it to the the real draws: stacks and stacks of snacks and snacks.

Here is the wall of jerky, which is the kind of wall Texas should focus on building.  There is also a jerky counter, where you can get any of the jerky varieties you want, by the pound.  It was easier and faster to grab bags off the wall for $7.99 each.   

I chose cherry maple, Bohemian garlic, and sweet and spicy beef jerky.  So far, the cherry maple was disappointingly bland, but the Bohemian garlic was packed with strong, garlicky flavor.

Doctor Professor Ma’am is more of a fan of gummy candy, and she was faced with overwhelming options, here at the wall of gummies. 

She went with hot cinnamon gummy bears (I think that smell, taste, and texture are all gross, but more for her!) and chamoy-flavored peach rings, pictured below with three different flavors of Rice Krispy Treats she chose (regular, salted caramel, and “Fruity”), plus fried pecans.

I’m not really into nuts.  I just buy them for her, and I almost never snack on them myself.  But when we busted into these fried pecans back at home, all I could say was “GOOD LORD.”  Even with the hell-squirrel armed with a sharp fork on the bag, “GOOD LORD” is the appropriate response.  I couldn’t believe how good they were.  At $14.99, that was the most expensive single item we bought, but it is a good-sized bag, and they are so rich, they should last quite a while.

As an unabashed fan and collector of condiments, sauces, and preserves, Buc-ee’s had a staggering selection to tease, tantalize, and tempt me.

I went a little mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes.  I couldn’t resist (I’m your) huckleberry and blackberry preserves, peach-chipotle and mango-pineapple-habanero salsas, prickly pear cactus jam, candied jalapeños, sweet and spicy ghost pepper hot sauce, and pickled quail eggs!

I fully admit I haven’t tried most of these yet, since our fridge door has only so much space (and it is already stuffed with interesting things in bottles and jars, as one would expect from me).  But I did just bust open the pickled quail eggs, after letting the jar chill in the fridge overnight, and I liked it a lot!  Very spicy and tangy from the vinegary brine, which includes garlic and jalapeños.  “What, you egg?”  [I stabbed it.]

It was even hard to choose a soft drink, with dozens of options.  This is only one of the three huge soda fountain setups.  I grabbed an extra-large cup, avoided anything I could find elsewhere, and sampled sips of the Buc-ee’s-specific flavors.  Favorites included pineapple cream soda, piña colada soda, orange Creamsicle soda, sarsaparilla, strawberry lemonade (non-carbonated), and my big winner, the cream soda on the far right, which I ultimately filled our shared cup with for the schlep home.  Doctor Professor Ma’am said it tasted like pecan pie filling as a soda, and she wasn’t wrong.  It was too sweet to be refreshing, but a very tasty cream soda nonetheless.  We also tried the blue cream soda, which I thought tasted like banana-flavored candy.  She liked it until the chemically aftertaste hit.   We both really wished some of those sodas were sold in bottles or cans, since we would have definitely bought a few different ones to savor later, but alas, they were fountain drinks only.

There were multiple stations to get hot, fresh food, including a station with barbecue sandwiches already wrapped in foil.  I grabbed us a pulled pork sandwich that was delicious.  Doctor Professor Ma’am was tired and hungry by this point, so we split it in the car in the parking lot on the way out to keep hungry from approaching hangry.  Forgive my freestyling, but we savagely ravaged this sandwich, and its richness fixed us from being sad bitches.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, but it didn’t overwhelm the smoky savoriness of the pork. 

There were also touch-screen kiosks for ordering other food, including tacos, burritos, chicken fingers, and a few other sandwiches that get freshly assembled.  I was really hoping to get a pastrami Reuben on a pretzel roll, which came highly recommended, but they weren’t available!  I was so disappointed, which is a quintessentially American take, to bemoan the loss of one option in this land of abundance.  So I chose a “Chopping Block” sandwich that came with sliced rare roast beef, horseradish, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and I asked to add jalapeños for a 50-cent upcharge.  We had to wait a while for that one, since the sandwich-makers were slammed due to 20 busy touchscreen kiosks all beaming in constant orders, but it was worth the wait.  The roast beef was tender, flavorful, and rare, the way I like it, the hoagie roll was nice and soft, and the sandwich was still warm by the time I got it home.   To the right is a chopped brisket sandwich that was also really good — pre-wrapped in foil like the pulled pork sandwich, and mixed up with sweet sauce.  I liked it even better than the pulled pork.

She was disappointed by the fresh potato chips, but I thought they were fine.  Just plain, crispy, salty, slightly greasy chips, as expected.

A fried apple pie was yet another impulse buy.  She enjoyed it in the car (eating it over the open bag to catch the cinnamon sugar cascade), and the one bite I took was really good.  The flaky fried crust was terrific.  We hoped it would be like the bubbly, crackly McDonald’s fried apple pies of our ’80s childhoods, but it turned out to be so much better than those.

Here’s half of the brisket sandwich I saved for Doctor Professor Ma’am back at home, along with a cream cheese kolache (left), a strawberry cheese kolache (right), and a sausage, cheese, and jalapeño kolache (bottom).  Kolaches are pastries that Czech immigrants brought to Texas.  There are sweet and savory varieties, and as you can see, the sweet ones look a lot like danishes.  The sausage inside that bottom one was hot dog-shaped, but much chewier, like a Slim Jim.  It was okay.  The pastry itself is just like chewy white bread.   
I also got a boudin kolache that looked almost exactly like the one on the bottom in this photo, stuffed with the savory Cajun pork-and-rice sausage, but that one didn’t last long enough to get photographed.

They had a fudge counter with nearly 20 different varieties of fudge, all neatly divided into squares.  You could buy any combination of four and get two more free, so how could we refuse?  My wife chose the different fudge flavors, and there is a chocolate one for sure, a chocolate pecan, a “gooey pecan,” a “tiger butter” in the top left (vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter), and a blueberry cheesecake fudge (bottom left).  The sweet fudge lady would cut off little sample slivers, and I sampled key lime pie and banana pudding fudge.  Both were good, but too rich to get entire slices of, on top of everything else.  She warned me I might not like the banana pudding fudge, but I sure showed her!

Anyway, these are ridiculously rich, so I know we will make them last.  We might even freeze some, forget about them for a while, and then have a pleasant surprise when we rediscover them days or probably weeks later.

The very first thing that tempted Doctor Professor Ma’am was a box of six pecan pralines.  I suggested we do one loop around the store first to get the lay of the land before we start grabbing everything, and that’s when she found individual pecan pralines at the fudge counter.  She was thrilled to be able to just get one, rather than a six-pack, with all the other stuff we chose.  I broke off one little morsel, and it was almost cloyingly sweet and  intensely rich.

Since I regularly review chips in my series of Tight Chips features here on The Saboscrivner, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few small bags of classic, barbecue, and hot Buc-ee’s chips.  I don’t know how they’ll be, but I got ’em.   
A sample guy was giving out samples of the barbecue-flavored Baked Chees-ee Curls, the Buc-ee’s version of Cheetos, and they were good enough to bring home a small bag.  I’m surprised Frito-Lay hasn’t come out with a barbecue Cheetos flavor, in all these decades.

And we couldn’t go all the way to Buc-ee’s without grabbing a bag of Beaver Nuggets, one of the most famous (infamous?) and recommended snacks from fellow travelers.  These things are unbelievably good.  Crunchy, toffee-sweet, buttery, salty.  Imagine Corn Pops cereal, but a million times better in every possible way.  Neither of us had ever tried them before, but I figured she would love them, and I was right.  As for me, I can eat a whole bag of chips standing up in my kitchen without even thinking about what I’m doing, but the Beaver Nuggets are so much richer, heavier, and more substantial than chips, I was perfectly content after just crunching on a few of them. 
The Buc-ee’s Nug-ees on the right are a “Bold ‘n’ Spicy” version of the sweet, crunchy Beaver Nuggets.  Their texture is softer, though — more like puffy Cheez Doodles that you can easily crush between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  They are well-dusted with spicy, cheesy orange powder that is spicier than regular Cheetos or Cheez Doodles, but much less spicy than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I can only imagine combining the two varieties in a bowl as some kind of decadent snack mix.

Finally, I grabbed two large boudain [sp] sausage links from a freezer case, and I got the small package of sliced smoked venison sausage at the jerky counter.  Those were $5 and $4.40 respectively — cheaper than I expected.  I haven’t tried them yet, but my hopes are high.

Our first trip to Buc-ee’s was both physically and mentally draining.  It is a lot to process, and if you arrive hungry and like to try new foods and snacks, you can get yourself in a bit of trouble there, as we did.  But it’s such an overwhelming experience, somewhere between the food halls in cosmopolitan cities like Philadelphia or Seattle and a Southern Walmart on Black Friday.  I suspect that if we ever return, the novelty and mystery will have worn off, so we can quickly grab a few favorites and rush out, without feeling the need to see and try everything, like we did this time.  Trader Joe’s definitely feels like that now, after breaking the bank on my first-ever visit so many years ago, but now just running in and out for a few staples while dodging the mobs.  Novelty fades.  Newness wears off.  That’s why I constantly seek it out and share it here, with YOU.

But beyond the novelty of new sandwiches, snacks, and sodas, Buc-ee’s also felt like the kind of roadside attractions that used to line America’s highways and byways — bemusement parks that drew cross-sections of society away from their homes and out of their cars, those in-between places that made the journey so much more interesting (and often weirder) than the destination, before every highway exit started to feature the same corporate fast food restaurants and chain stores.

Being in a new job in academia where I no longer work directly with our diverse student body, and generally avoiding crowds and social situations for the past two years, this was the most people I had been around in a while — and such people!  There were exhausted families, bored teenagers, leather-clad bikers, swaggering cowboy types, beachgoers, retirees, active-duty military men and women in uniform, actual Goths (in broad daylight, in Daytona Beach!), a guy who looked like Gung-Ho from G.I. Joe, and so many tattoos, with a particularly large amount of spider webs on elbows.  The two of us only noticed one guy in an overtly political T-shirt, and we seemed to be the only two people still wearing masks.  Stefon would have had a field day.  But everyone was passing through Buc-ee’s on their way somewhere, fueling themselves up before or after they fueled up their cars, or stopping to use the gleaming, spotless restrooms (which are indeed glorious, living up to all the hype).

I wondered where that sea of sweaty people was off to, and how many had made the pilgrimage to Buc-ee’s as their ultimate destination, as we had, rather than just a rest stop along the way to someplace else.  Well, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, I can tell you that Buc-ee’s is definitely worth a stop — at least once — but don’t expect to get any rest there.

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant (http://www.kohinoorindianrestaurant.com/) in Altamonte Springs is the first Indian restaurant I ever tried in Orlando, back when I had only ever had Indian food a few times in my life.  I was newly dating my wife, and I met one of her good friends for lunch there to ask her advice for some gifts to buy her — I forget if it was for our first Christmas or first Valentine’s Day together.  The food was really good, but for whatever reason, I never made it back there.  Not until recently, when after almost 13 years of marriage, I embarked on a quest to get my wife into Indian food.

You see, my wife loved the “butter chicken tikka masala” at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, where we celebrated her birthday earlier this year.  After that, it became my mission to introduce her to more delicious Indian food, and to discern the difference between butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two similar dishes that share a lot of ingredients, but are ultimately different.

This is Kohinoor’s version of butter chicken, also known as chicken makhani ($18), boneless cubes of chicken tikka cooked in a “tomato-based creamy sauce.”  She loved it!  I tried it and liked it too, but I was thrilled that I was finally getting her on board with Indian food.  That creamy, rich, almost velvety sauce is a perfect gateway dish for anyone a little skeptical or squeamish about trying Indian food.  (See also: a lot of people’s parents.)

Rather than be redundant and also order chicken tikka masala, we switched it up and ordered the bot kabab (lamb) masala ($19), so we could both compare and contrast the butter/makhani and masala sauces.  The menu described this one as “cubes of lamb cooked in a creamy butter sauce with onions, spices, and bell peppers.”  Yes, I get that they look the same, for all intents and purposes.  I know the ingredients are similar too, but I wanted her to sample both dishes, to see if one stood out as her favorite.  She liked the butter chicken better, so I was more than happy to eat the majority of this lamb masala.

This was another dish my wife chose: saag paneer ($14): “freshly chopped spinach and homemade cheese cooked in a mild sauce.”  She said she had tried this dish once or twice a long time ago, before I was in the picture, and liked it back then.  I was so proud of her for branching out and giving Indian food another chance with me.  It was also delicious, as if you couldn’t already guess.  

Back home, dishin’ it out!  I always appreciate restaurants that serve takeout food in plastic trays with removable lids that are microwave-safe, dishwasher-safe, and recyclable.  As you can probably guess, I keep a bunch of them, but the crown jewels of my takeout container collection are two round, segmented plates with lids, molded with perfect little compartments that I think came from a long-gone restaurant called Stonewood.  They were ideal for portioning out our huge lunch, especially so my wife could try everything without different dishes touching each other.  The butter chicken, bot kabab masala, and saag paneer all came with basmati rice, so I served up sample portions of all three over rice for her.    But wait — where did that samosa come from?

I couldn’t resist the allure of the Kohinoor Special Appetizer platter ($14), which includes two potato-filled samosas (the large, triangular pastries with their crispy, flaky crusts), vegetable fritters called pakoras, aloo (potato) pakoras, chicken pakoras, chicken tikka (the orangey-red meat on the right, coated in a blend of yogurt and spices), and seekh kabaab (the most delicious sausages, on top).  It is safe to say I liked all of these more than she did, but you have to try new things!  That’s what keeps life — and marriage — interesting.

I always order soft naan bread ($3.50) at any Indian restaurants, to sop up all those incredible sauces.  This is typical Indian flatbread made from refined flour and baked in a tandoor, a clay oven.  I’m sure most of my readers know exactly what it is, so I apologize for naansplaining.

I decided to try the roti ($3.50) as well, which the menu described as whole wheat bread baked in a clay oven.  Now I am used to the Malaysian-style roti from Hawkers Asian Street Fare (which is called a paratha elsewhere), as well as the two kinds of huge, fluffy roti from West Indian restaurants Singh’s Roti Shop and Vindi’s Roti Shop: the dhal puri and “buss-up shot.”  This roti wasn’t much like either of them — it was more like an oily, lightly fried version of the naan.

We got one little ramekin of sweet, tangy tamarind chutney and another ramekin of spicy tomato and onion chutney.  Once again, my wife impressed me by trying and liking the tamarind chutney, and she usually isn’t into condiments and sauces at all.  I was so proud of her for trying new things, and overjoyed that she liked almost everything.  But she’s not a fan of tomatoes or onions, so she wisely avoided the other chutney.

So Kohinoor was a hit!  I am thrilled that the person I love the most in the world has come around on a cuisine that I’m still relatively inexperienced with myself.  Lately I’ve been obsessed with Indian food, trying new dishes and ranking different restaurants’ versions of my tried-and-true favorites.  This isn’t our only recent Indian meal, so I promise more reviews to come over the next few weeks and months.

St. Johns River Steak & Seafood

A while back, we met one of my wife’s best friends for lunch at St. Johns River Steak & Seafood (https://stjrss.com/), a lovely restaurant near where she lives in Sanford.  My wife and I had never been there before, but the biggest draw was being able to sit outdoors on the huge covered patio overlooking picturesque Lake Monroe on a glorious spring day.

My wife and I shared a bowl of gumbo ($9), which looks very small due to the large bowl they served it in, with just a small space in the middle.  The  rich, thick, spicy, tomatoey stew contained chicken, shrimp, crawfish, and andouille sausage, and I think I liked it a lot more than my wife did. 

I also ordered gator bites ($15) for the three of us to share.  Gator is almost a novelty food.  I don’t know anyone who loves it, but when people see it on menus, especially in casual seafood restaurants in places like Louisiana and Florida, we feel obligated to order it, I gar-ron-tee.  Maybe it’s an “eat them before they eat you” defense mechanism, or a way to prove our local “Florida Man” bona fides.  Anyway, these were chewy and chickeny, as gator bites usually are.  I think we got them grilled, but you can also get them fried or blackened.

All three of us were in the mood for grouper, which is one of the finest fish you can eat.  A surprising amount of local seafood restaurants don’t offer grouper on their menus, and some others sneakily serve other, lesser fish, even when they advertise grouper.  We figured we were coming to a place that would treat us grouper groupies right.

Our friend ordered a Caesar salad ($9) with grouper added on (I can’t find my receipt, but some of the other protein add-ons were $9, or it might have been whatever “market price” was that day).

My wife ordered the fried grouper sandwich ($18.50) and upgraded to a side of Sidewinder fries (an extra $2).  The regular sides that come with sandwiches are house-made chips or cole slaw, but we both love Sidewinder fries.  They might be some of my favorite fries ever.  It came with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on a lightly grilled brioche bun, but since I love sandwiches and my wife doesn’t, I took her bun and vegetables to turn my own grouper (see below) into a sandwich. 

And I got a blackened grouper entree ($27) with two sides: rich and creamy macaroni (really penne pasta) and cheese, and terrific onion rings.  RING THE ALARM!

Sadly, all three of us thought our grouper was a little dry.  Mine reminded me more of a denser fish like mahi, and was less flaky and buttery than grouper I’ve had elsewhere.  But the two sides were top-notch, and I really enjoyed them.

Sanford’s food scene is really blowing up with wonderful restaurants and hip bars and breweries in the quaint downtown area.  There are so many choices, it can be hard to choose.  We used to always end up at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, and last summer I discovered Christo’s wonderful diner and their legendary Greek nachos.  But it is nice to know about a seafood option too, moments away from that main drag on First Street, and with that gorgeous patio and lake view.  I can’t decide if I would give the grouper another try when I inevitably return to St. Johns River Steak & Seafood or branch out to another favorite like soft shell crab or even jambalaya.  However, I would definitely get the onion rings, mac and cheese, and Sidewinder fries again… and probably leave the gator to first-timers.

The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.