Popeyes

My readers may have heard some news a while back about a certain fried chicken sandwich controversy.  Barely three months ago, the Louisiana-based fried chicken chain Popeyes (https://www.popeyes.com/), came out with a chicken sandwich for the first time ever, upending the balance of power in fast food chicken sandwiches and making people  everywhere lose their damn minds.

Almost everyone I know either tried the Popeyes chicken sandwich and loved it (like my best friend down in Miami), or tried to, but were foiled every time by long lines and stores selling out (like me).  There were some haters too — either loyalists to the long-standing chicken sandwich champion, or people who claim to never eat fast food for any number of legitimate reasons (which is all good, but they might miss out on something tasty).  And almost as quickly as the hype grew around this sandwich for those two or three weeks in the late summer, Popeyes pulled it from their menus everywhere, and life moved on.  I ended up discovering and reviewing the greatest chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life at Winter Park’s own Swine & Sons, and those went a long way toward helping me get over my FOMO.

I was wondering if Popeyes got rid of their biggest hit ever because they weren’t prepared to deal with the insane demand.  It might have been a personnel issue — assembling sandwiches has to be more labor-intensive than boxing up the whole pieces of fried chicken, and every Popeyes restaurant I’ve ever been to is always understaffed.  It might have been a problem in the supply chain, as there was an annoying ad campaign in the weeks that followed encouraging customers to BYOB, or “Bring Your Own Bun.”  Maybe they wanted to create artificial demand through scarcity, but regardless, they listened to the people, because this game-changing chicken sandwich is back now, as of Sunday, November 3rd.  And this time, hopefully it’s here to stay.

Constant Readers, I failed you back in August.  Even though I had every intention of eating and reviewing this sandwich, I never got my hands or mouth on one in time, and then they were gone.  But there’s no way I was going to let you down you again.  I got to Popeyes on the morning of November 3rd, shortly after it opened at 10:30 AM, but as you would expect (and I kinda did expect), half of Seminole County had the same idea and was already there.

The drive-through line snaked through the huge shared parking lot at this location, so I parked far away so I wouldn’t get blocked in later, and took my chances waiting inside.  This was the smart move.  I was back home with my to-go order in just over an hour, and I didn’t have to waste half a tank of gas idling in the car.  If you go in the days and weeks to come, expect some wait, but the line definitely moves faster inside.  Eventually I got my order, and I was home in fewer than ten minutes, so everything was still hot and crispy.

This was the spicy chicken sandwich, which I loved.  The fried chicken breast was juicy and bursting with flavor.  I admit I was expecting to be disappointed, because Popeyes chicken can be quite inconsistent.  When you get a fresh batch, it’s amazing, but I’ve had far too much sad, dry chicken there.  I typically stick to dark meat, particularly thighs, which I think are more flavorful and less likely to get dried out, but this was a really fantastic fried chicken breast.  It was huge, too, and the buttermilk-based batter wasn’t just lightly crispy — it was CRUNCHY, even after steaming in its little foil pouch as I raced home.  Well-played, Popeyes.  I can’t conceive of a better fast food chicken sandwich.  I emphasize fast food because even though there are certainly better chicken sandwiches out there (like the Swine & Sons versions), those are $11 while this one is $4, almost one-third of the price.  dsc02613.jpgUnfortunately, I thought they were rather stingy with the spicy mayo, and would have loved some more on it.

This was the regular, non-spicy sandwich ($3.99 each without the combo).  It should come with mayo as well as pickles, but they left the mayo of both regular sandwiches I ordered — one for myself so I could try both versions, and one for my wife who doesn’t like anything spicy.  All three sandwiches came with two thin pickle slices, and now that I’m starting to appreciate pickles more, I would have been happy to get even more pickles on them.  By the way, the buns are brioche — soft and fluffy, buttered, and lightly toasted.  It’s a fantastic bun to serve this kind of sandwich on.  DSC02609

You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?dsc02610.jpg

Since my regular chicken sandwich didn’t have any mayo, it was a perfect opportunity to sample two different Popeyes sauces.  I cut the sandwich down the middle, making sure there was one pickle slice on each half, and applied one of these sauces to each:
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The Mardi Gras Mustard is a creamy Creole-style mustard (savory, but not spicy at all) that went well with the chicken, but the Voodoo Sauce was awesome on the other half.  It was thin and runny, sticky, sweet, and slightly spicy — extremely similar to a Thai sweet chili sauce.  And it jazzed up that sandwich just perfectly.  I should have added a schmear of my own mayo too (I only buy Duke’s), but I wanted to stick to just Popeyes own condiments for the purposes of this review.

And here is what might be the very best menu item from any fast food restaurant anywhere: Popeyes red beans and rice ($2.29 if you order the small separately, or it can be one of the sides you pick in your combo meal).  This is the perfect, quintessential version of this classic Louisiana dish.  Rich, thick, and smoky, it transcends this fast food fried chicken chain and could hold its own against high-tone versions of red beans and rice in some of New Orleans’ finest chef-driven establishments.  I know a lot of chefs agree and sing its praises, including Momofuku‘s founder and all-around cool dude David Chang.dsc02614.jpg

When I finally got up to the cashier, she kept trying to cut me off and complete my order after every item I ordered.  Our conversation went something like this:

“I’d like a spicy chicken sandwich combo, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be $6.99 plus tax.”
“Oh!  But I would also like two regular chicken sandwiches, not the combos, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be…”
“Sorry, I wanted red beans and rice as the side for my combo, and also…”
“Beans and rice, gotcha.  That’ll be…”
“Sorry, I would also like to try the bourbon fudge pie, and…”
“Adding on the bourbon fudge pie!  So your order comes to…”
“NO, WAIT!  I’d also like the pumpkin cream cheese pie!” 

So yeah, it was a battle, and I ended up apologizing a heck of a lot, unnecessarily (which I do far too often).  But they have pie, and I love pie, and I really wanted to share them with my wife and review them for you.  But I really had to fight, just to be able to order them!dsc02611.jpg

The bourbon fudge pie ($2.49) is a small slice that we just cut down the middle.  The fudgy filling is rich, thick, and damn tasty, but the crust is completely tasteless and serves no real purpose.  We weren’t expecting much for $2.49, but it was like a cheap, knockoff version of local Chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s delicious signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pie at her beloved Orlando restaurant and bakery Se7en Bites.  And that pie has the best pie crust ever, so y’all need to make it over there and try hers, maybe even before you try these chicken sandwiches.DSC02612

The pumpkin cream cheese pie is your typical fast food turnover pie.  If you haven’t tried the very similar apple pie at Popeyes, you’ve probably had it at McDonald’s at some point in your life.  You might even remember when the McDonald’s apple pies used to be fried to a crisp, back in the ’80s! dsc02615.jpg

Here’s a cross-section: a strip of sweet pumpkin “pie” filling, and a strip of sweetened cream cheese.  The crust wasn’t anything special, but still better than the extremely bland, flavorless bourbon fudge pie crust. dsc02616.jpg

Anyway, these chicken sandwiches are so good, I went back a few days later to a different location and waited about 25 minutes, just so I could get another one.  I got another spicy boi and asked for extra spicy sauce, but the cashier said there isn’t a button on the register for extra sauce, so they couldn’t do it.  That particular sandwich didn’t come with pickles, but it was still mighty fine.  Tender and juicy, crispy breading, perfect bun (any burger would be honored to be served on a bun prepared that well), and slightly more of that spicy sauce that really brings everything together.

However, this time I asked for macaroni and cheese as the side, because I know the late, great Anthony Bourdain loved Popeyes mac and cheese, as well as their chicken.  I love mac and cheese too, so I had to try it.DSC02619

The mac and cheese was pretty standard, like what you’d get at a soul food or barbecue place.  Very similar to the mac and cheese at Orlando’s homegrown barbecue chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse and its Southern spinoff restaurant The Coop, in fact.  Not baked or anything, no bread crumbs or crispy layer of cheese — just al dente elbow macaroni in sticky, gluey, salty orange cheese.  I can see it being beloved comfort food, especially for someone like Bourdain, a world-weary traveler who sometimes craved simple tastes of home.

I am trying really hard to avoid sodas, but this second Popeyes location had an unfamiliar label on the soda fountain — a drink I had never seen before or even heard of, and I try to stay apprised of such things!dsc02618.jpg

There is precious little information about Mirinda online, but it started out as a brand from Spain, and PepsiCo bought it.  They produce many different fruit-flavored sodas, so I guess Pepsi saw it as a way to compete against Coke’s Fanta brand.  I’ve tried a few different strawberry sodas before, and they always taste more like strawberry candy than the actual fruit.  This one was no exception.  It was almost sickeningly sweet, and I was glad I only took a few sips.  I ended up refilling my cup with Popeyes sweet tea while I waited for my food, and between the Mirinda soda and strong, acidic sweet tea, I ended up with acid reflux for the first few hours of my workday, long before I even indulged with a fried chicken sandwich and macaroni and cheese.  Serves me right, I guess!

Moghul Indian Cuisine

Growing up, we never ate Indian food.  My parents generally eschewed anything with even a reputation of being spicy, so no Korean, no Indian, no Thai (we went out for Thai once, and the new flavors literally made my dad ANGRY), and nothing from a Chinese menu with a flame or pepper icon next to it.  Back in the ’90s, even Mexican was a rare treat for me, and that usually meant driving through Taco Bell — which helped sustain me through high school and college.

When more adventurous friends introduced me to Indian food, it opened me up to a whole new world of flavors and spices, but it was still a rare event to go out for Indian.  I used to eat it once a year at most, usually by myself — sometimes even when I traveled to work conferences out of town.  And I’d always seek out Indian buffets to maximize the number of different dishes I could sample and the amount of food I could eat.  All-you-can-eat buffets are not only economical, but they are a great introduction to the cuisine for unfamiliar diners.

That said, India is a huge country — a whole subcontinent! — with many different regional styles of cooking.  This really became apparent when I attended a festive weekend lunch at the Hindu Society of Central Florida’s temple earlier this year and enjoyed a vegetarian feast full of giant dosas and other unfamiliar offerings, all South Indian specialties.  With that in mind, Indian buffets are going to stick to the most popular, familiar dishes that American palates are used to, and probably nothing too intimidating or spicy.  There are a lot of lamb dishes in Indian cuisine, which is great if you love lamb like I do, but since it’s a more expensive meat, I’ve never found a buffet that offered lamb.  That’s too baaaaaaaad.

Since I started working with a particular colleague at the beginning of 2013, we’ve gone out to lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch more times than I can count.  She’s vegetarian and loves Indian food, and I’m always happy to get out of the office and hang out with her.  She is not only a legitimately good person who I’m honored to call a friend, but she’s amazing at her job, and I’ve learned so much from her over the years.  I’m a better librarian and professor because of her ideas and influence, and thanks to our occasional lunches out, I’m also way more familiar with Indian food than I would be otherwise.

That restaurant is Moghul Indian Cuisine (http://www.moghulindian.com/), located on the east side of busy Semoran Boulevard, between Aloma Avenue to the north and University Boulevard to the south.  Moghul has a very affordable lunch buffet ($8.95), but also a longer menu full of delicious dishes you can’t get from the buffet.  I have recently decided to broaden my horizons and order a new entree on each subsequent visit.

Here’s a look at the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which I have ordered from countless times, but decided to forego on my most recent two visits, which I’m reviewing here:dsc02491.jpg

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Since I started ordering off the menu, I get thin and crispy pappadams served at our table, the same ones available on the buffet.  They come with spicy tomato and onion chutney, sweet and tangy tamarind chutney, and cool, creamy, and slightly spicy coriander and mint chutney.DSC02492

I love samosas, but in all my lunch visits to Moghul where I ordered off the buffet, I had never ordered them.  I decided to order the vegetable samosas ($3.95) on these two recent trips, and I realized I should have been ordering them all along.  You get two in an order, so on both of these visits, I had one and gave the other to my vegetarian co-worker.  The fried shell was very light, airy, and flaky — not greasy at all.  The lightly curry-seasoned potatoes and peas inside were tasty, and that shell was really something special.DSC02604

A look inside that samosa:dsc02605.jpg

This was a non-vegetarian friend’s trip to the buffet.  Looks like she got butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, and saag paneer (the stewed spinach in the top right), among other things — all Indian buffet classics.DSC02494

And my vegetarian colleague got all this good stuff, including eggplant, pakoras (vegetables breaded in chick pea flour and fried until crunchy), and naan bread.
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On one recent visit I ordered the Goan dish lamb vindaloo ($13.95) for the first time ever, and I was brave and ordered it HOT.  Not “Indian hot,” because I still had to go back to work, but not my usual, safe medium either.  And I am relieved to report I could handle it just fine.  Moghul’s menu describes vindaloo as “lamb marinated with vinegar, chilies and spices,” and it definitely had an acidic tang to it, no doubt from the vinegar.  DSC02495

Apparently vindaloo has Portuguese roots, and historically it called for meat to be marinated in wine and garlic.  Along the way, and especially as the dish rose in popularity in British Indian cooking, palm vinegar replaced the wine.  But I love vinegar, so it’s all good!DSC02497

On my second, more recent trip, I ordered a different lamb dish, the Kashmiri dish rogan josh ($13.95), also HOT.  Once again, it was delicious, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to handle the heat.  The menu describes this dish as “lamb cooked in curry sauce with yogurt, tomato and spices.”  This sauce was richer and thicker than the vindaloo — not as tangy, despite the addition of tomato.  I liked it so much I slurped up all the leftover sauce with a spoon after finishing the chunks of tender lamb, no additional rice required!  Despite my pledge to try new things every time, I would totally order the lamb rogan josh again.
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Since these entrees don’t come with bread, I ordered onion kulcha ($3.50) for the first time ever with my vindaloo, as an alternative to the standard naan.  Like naan, kulcha is a bread baked in a tandoor (a clay oven), and this one is stuffed with onions, cumin, and cilantro.  I loved it so much!DSC02496

Even though I am forcing myself to order a new entree every time, I had to get that onion kulcha again on my second recent visit, to accompany the rogan josh.  It was so rich and buttery and soft and fragrant.  I just love sauteed onions and soft, fluffy, buttery bread.  They probably use ghee in the kitchen at Moghul; I am happy to clarify that.
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I drive by Moghul almost twice a day on my way to and from work, and it sure is tempting to order just onion kulcha every night on my way home.  I can’t do it, but have I thought about it?DSC02607

YUP!

(What I’m really going to have to do is learn to make my own onion kulcha at home, and maybe regular naan bread too, if it can be done without a tandoor.  But I’m going to leave the rest of this deliciousness to the professionals.)

The good news is Moghul is close to work, my co-worker loves Indian food even more than I do, and I have every intention of returning often to keep expanding my palate, both in terms of new dishes and spice levels.  Just keep in mind that Moghul is closed on Mondays.

Tortas El Rey

In Orlando, we are so lucky to have amazing Mexican food in so many different styles and price ranges.  I have reviewed some of our best establishments already, like the beloved Hunger Street Tacos and MX Taco, as well as hidden gems like Tortilleria El Progreso.  But with all due respect to those wonderful restaurants, my all-time favorite might be Tortas El Rey (http://www.tortas-el-rey.com/), an unassuming drive-through establishment on Orange Blossom Trail north of the Florida Mall near Lancaster Road, almost an hour from where I live.  Maybe it’s because I’m so rarely on that side of Orlando that it’s a rare treat, but I dream about it often and recommend it even more often.

Housed in a former Checkers location, the small white and red building has a few outdoor picnic-style tables with large umbrellas providing a bit of shade, but other than that, it’s strictly a to-go operation.  Sometimes the drive-through line can get quite long, but they make all their food fresh to order, so your patience will pay off.  On top of being fresh, authentic, and amazing, it’s CHEAP.  I don’t know how they do it, but I encourage you to venture out there, arrive hungry, and over-order.  Try everything you can.  You’re not gonna regret it!

My wife is a big fan of the sopes, thick fried shells covered with the meat of her choice, crumbled queso blanco, sour cream, and shredded lettuce.  I almost never see sopes on menus elsewhere.  And she’s really partial to the carne asada, marinated, chopped, grilled steak with a distinct lime flavor from the marinade.

Here is a carne asada sope ($3.95) I brought her home this past weekend:DSC02597

A different sope from a different visit:DSC02486

Did I mention she loves carne asada?  Here’s the carne asada quesadilla ($6.25) in a soft, lightly grilled flour tortilla, served with sour cream and shredded lettuce.  It’s quite large, with big wedges camouflaged underneath the ones you can easily see here.DSC02596

The tacos are quite small, but super-cheap, at $1.80 each.  On your first visit, you might decide to try each of the meats in a different taco, and then you can branch out to other dishes once you figure out your favorite meat.  They come wrapped in two soft, lightly-grilled corn tortillas and garnished simply with diced cilantro, diced onions, and a spicy red hot sauce.

This is a carne asada taco (slightly higher at $1.89, unless that was a typo in the printed menu), hold the onions and hot sauce (for my wife, of course):DSC02489

I almost always drive through and get my food to go, but this past weekend, I lingered at one of the tables just to get this shot of taco nirvana to share with my Saboscrivner Squad.  I ordered three tacos ($1.80 each) with the works (cilantro, onions, and hot sauce): chorizo (crumbled Mexican sausage) at the top, cabeza (tender, braised beef head) on the left, and al pastor (pork marinated in pineapple juice with a slight sweet taste) on the right.  These tacos are everything tacos should aspire to be.  If these sound a little intimidating, fear not, because they also offer grilled chicken, carnitas (fried pork), and that old faithful, carne asada.DSC02595

I’ll almost always order al pastor when I see it on a menu, and I’ve tried it several ways at Tortas El Rey.  This was an al pastor burrito I ordered on a previous visit.  The burritos ($6.99 each) are huge — soft flour tortillas stuffed with the meat of your choice, seasoned rice, refried beans, and cheese, then lightly cooked on the griddle.  By the time you unwrap them from their foil wrapper, they are soft, chewy, gooey, melty pillows of deliciousness.  It’s almost too big and heavy to eat in one piece, especially since it will start to sag as you get deeper into it.  DSC02488

And this is a beautiful torta al pastor from my most recent visit, which I brought home after enjoying those three tacos al fresco.  Tortas ($7.25 each) are Mexican sandwiches served on bolillo rolls, and at Tortas El Rey, they come with refried beans, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced pickled jalapenos, avocado, and sour cream.  DSC02598DSC02600

I always love tortas, and I’ve tried several of them here.  They even serve a Milanesa torta with steak pounded flat, breaded in cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy.  I associate Milanesas more with Cuban food than Mexican (as in my Rey’s Cuban Cafe review), but I always love a good crossover — or fusion, since we’re talking about food and not comic books!

All orders should come with tiny plastic cups of house-made red and green hot sauces (I prefer red, but do try both), and little plastic baggies tied up with some pickled carrots, grilled onions, and lime wedges inside.  I rarely use the limes, but I’m always happy to add the onions and carrots to my torta.  Make sure you ask for these, so they don’t forget to give them to you!

I didn’t photograph the large styrofoam cup of a pineapple-flavored agua fresca I gulped down in the unseasonable October heat and humidity, but trust me, grab an agua fresca when you come here.  (A medium is $2.65, but be a big shot and pay $3.50 for the large; you will happily drink it all.)  They are some of my favorite soft drinks ever, non-carbonated and often made with real fruit and other fresh ingredients.  They are cool and refreshing and sweet, but never as sickly-sweet as sodas made with high fructose corn syrup.  They also offer a tangy limonada (limeade), horchata (sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting through the heat of spicy food), and jamaica, a fruity, tropical-tasting red drink made from hibiscus flowers.  Especially because I don’t drink, I always treat myself to an agua fresca when I visit a Mexican restaurant that offers them, and they pair perfectly with any dish I’ve ever encountered.  I’m also a sucker for anything pineappley.

I am smiling just thinking back to how amazing this food tasted and smelled, and I’m smelling it now as I write up this review at 1 AM on a work night.  It’s funny how closely our sense of smell is tied to memory.  Tortas El Rey is definitely one of my favorite places to eat in all of Orlando.  If it was closer, I’d go far more often, but maybe it’s a good thing it’s all the way across town.  It makes my infrequent visits that much more special, especially since I have to plan my errands to make it the last stop before heading back home.  If you’re looking for fancy, upscale, indoor seating, air conditioning — keep driving.  But if you want authentic Mexican food, cooked from scratch, made with love, full of flavor, and so very cheap, it’s worth venturing out of your proverbial and physical comfort zone onto OBT and looking for the tiny white and red building.  Tell the nice ladies behind the heavily fortified window that I sent you… and they’ll have no idea who or what you’re talking about.  But if you like tacos (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), you really need to experience the humble majesty of Tortas El Rey for yourself.

Makani

Almost a year and a half after starting The Saboscrivner, I can’t say this blog has become a big breakthrough success.  I choose to not use Instagram, always preferring a thousand words to a single picture.  I don’t use that website that rhymes with “help,” and I’ll never become “help” elite.  I’m the furthest thing from an influencer, since nobody wants to look at photos of me posing, trying to look cute while holding up the delicious foods I eat, trust me.  I have literally DOZENS of followers, but at least I’ve made a mint off my food writing — one night, I got a single peppermint after paying my bill.

But my life is still better for it, because now when old friends pass through Orlando, they are much more likely to send me a Facebook message, inviting me to catch up over dinner, figuring I’ll pick a good restaurant.  At least my reputation has grown that way, and I’ve been able to see and reconnect with good people I miss, who I haven’t seen in far too many years.  Best of all, we can go to nicer places than I could afford back in the day.

This past week, I heard from an old friend from my college days in Gainesville.  We hadn’t seen each other in over 15 years, and probably closer to 20.  Back then he was one of the coolest people I had ever met, and he helped change my life for the better when I played in a band with him (and another friend I caught up with over a similar dinner at Chuan Lu Garden early this year).  I always looked up to this guy as a fascinating punk rock poet and general badass, and now he’s even cooler as a tireless advocate and activist for the homeless in Gainesville.  He was in town for a conference and staying down near International Drive, so I made a list of restaurants near there that I thought he might like, that I’ve also been wanting to try.  That’s all the way across town from me, and I don’t make it down there very often.

So we decided on Makani (https://www.facebook.com/makaniorlando/), an Egyptian restaurant on International Drive, tucked into a truly international shopping plaza with an upscale steakhouse, a Chinese buffet, a traditional Japanese restaurant, a 24-hour Turkish restaurant/lounge, and a dinner theater that performs an interactive murder mystery every night.  With no shortage of choices, I think we made the best possible one.  I always love any Middle Eastern food, but had never tried Egyptian before.  Needless to say, we feasted like the pharoahs of old, both of us having come a long way from feeling uncomfortable ordering anything at Taco Bell that wasn’t on the extra value menu.  It’s nice to go out to eat with people who are up for trying and sharing almost anything.

This was the hawawshi ($17.99), sort of a meat pie with seasoned ground beef, onions, and parsley in a crispy pastry crust, almost like a lightly fried stuffed pita (although it was possibly just baked).  I loved it.  It came with a metal pitcher of a very hot hot sauce that we learned to treat with caution and apply sparingly.  I would happily order this dish every time I return, I liked it that much.

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I’ve written before about how I can take or leave fries, but these fries are among the best I’ve ever had.  Crispy, crunchy, firm, flavorful, just salty enough — not limp or starchy.  Top-notch fries!DSC02576

I was intrigued by photos I had seen of this dish online, so I had to try it.  This was mombar ($12.99), chewy, savory sausages of seasoned rice, vegetables, and herbs, stuffed into cow intestines, fried in oil, and festooned with chewy, sweet sultanas.  I loved these, too!  They reminded me of dolmas (or dolmades), grape leaves stuffed with tangy seasoned rice, one of my favorite side dishes in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, only these were much richer and meatier-tasting.  They might sound weird, but I think most people would like them, if you get past the “cow intestine” dread.  They were an unlikely favorite of mine, in fact.  DSC02578

This mixed grill ($29.99) arrived at our table on a fancy golden platform billowing hot smoke.  It looked a little bit like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of my Top Five favorite movies of all time, but you don’t want to shield your eyes from this smoke show.  It came with a beef and lamb kofta skewer, a beef kabob skewer, a chicken kabob skewer, and a lamb chop, all char-grilled and expertly seasoned.  I don’t know which one I preferred more, the kofta or the beef kabob.  I like my lamb chops a little more on the rare side, but it still had so much flavor from the char-grilling process, something I just can’t do with meat at home, without a grill.  There was plenty for two of us to share everything, especially since we had ordered so many other dishes.DSC02581

The mixed grill came with a side order of rice that turned out to be a heaping mound of buttery rice pilaf, with vermicelli mixed in.
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This intriguing mountain of deliciousness is the koshari ($14.99), a combination of rice pilaf (maybe fried?), lentils, spaghetti and elbow macaroni, topped with tomato sauce and crispy, fresh-fried onions (you could tell they were fresh and not just shaken out of the French’s canister).  It would be a dream dish for vegetarians or anyone trying to carb-load, and it worked much better than you might be thinking.  It was a wonderful blend of textures, as well as flavors.  It also reminded me how much I love lentils, and how I should cook them at home far more often.  DSC02582
The menu said it also included chickpeas, but ours didn’t have any, and I was perfectly fine with that.  I love falafel and usually like hummus, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of plain ol’ chickpeas.  It also came with a side of garlic vinegar in a small metal pitcher, but we didn’t figure that out until we had already eaten most of it without it.

We were there a while and ordered a lot of stuff, so the friendly General Manager came by to check on us and very generously provided us with this dessert sampler (normally $13.99), completely free!  It was an unnecessary gesture, but certainly a welcome and appreciated one.
DSC02583Most of these desserts were reminiscent of baklava, but the top right and bottom left are kunefe (here called konafa), a Middle Eastern pastry made of finely-shredded dough (almost like more vermicelli) soaked in a sugar syrup over sweet cheese, then baked.  It is buttery, crispy, rich, and very, very sweet.  The ones in the middle may have been basbousa, which my research tells me is a semolina cake sweetened with simple syrup made with rosewater.  And the rolls had the thin, crispy dough I associate with baklava, although I don’t know what this particular dessert is called.  We devoured all of it with gusto, though.

This was a great night out, let me tell you.  Not only did I get to try an amazing new restaurant (new to me and relatively new to Orlando), but I got to do it with an old friend who I had some real adventures with back in the day.  Back then, being in a band with him and four other guys, I went from being a shy and sheltered introvert to a more confident performer.  We played gigs all over Florida and as far out as New Orleans, and even recorded in multiple music studios.  That was more than half my life ago, but I’ll never forget the excitement of being in a band with my friends, pretty much living my dream.  I haven’t played music in far too many years and I miss it terribly, but I owe those five guys a debt I can never repay.  I draw on those skills I learned every day, since teaching is just another kind of performing.  I looked up to this guy, and I’m glad to say I still do now, just for different reasons.  I was so glad to catch up and hear all about his wife, his kids, his continued education, and his heroic work on behalf of the homeless, as the founder and Executive Director of GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville.  It’s an organization that could use your support, for anyone interested in donating to a truly worthy cause.

And in the meantime, whether you’re a local or a tourist, visiting our City Beautiful for a conference, convention, or vacation, Makani is one of your best bets along busy International Drive.  Why not eschew the usual chains and try delicious Egyptian food, prepared with care and love?  One of their signs calls it “Good Mood Food,” and I don’t see how you could eat at Makani and not be in a better mood.

Git-N-Messy BBQ

I figure most Saboscrivner readers are aware that barbecue is more than just slathering meat with sweet, sticky sauce.  It’s the whole process of smoking meat for hours at a time over the right wood, low and slow.  When people talk about having a backyard barbecue and grillin’ hamburgers and hot dogs, I cringe, because that’s a cookout.  That’s grillin’.  And that’s super-cool and good, but that ain’t barbecuing.

There are regional barbecue styles in different parts of the country: Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina.  And different areas focus on different meats: beef brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and more.  Florida doesn’t have its own famous barbecue style, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, because it allows us to draw from the best of everywhere else.  That’s a major positive aspect of Central Florida: it’s a real melting pot — an interesting place to live, and a great place to eat.

That said, while we have some perfectly fine barbecue chains around Orlando (some of which used to be better than they are now), I’ve tried a few of them in recent months and haven’t been enthusiastic about writing reviews.  I have been searching for a while for some next-level barbecue worth shouting about from the virtual rooftops, restaurants that combine meat, sauce, smoke, time, and even ambiance to create something truly special.  And I found one the other day in an unassuming Shell gas station in suburban Sanford.

Git-N-Messy BBQ (https://www.facebook.com/gitnmessybbq/) opened recently in the Express convenience store at the Shell station on West Lake Mary Road, just west of 17-92.  Chef Chuck Cobb previously ran an omakase-style sushi restaurant, Zoetic Sushi, that I never got to try, but people on the Orlando Foodie Forum were singing its praises.  But after Zoetic closed, Chef Chuck’s next move was to return to one of his prior loves: barbecue.  I knew of him from the Foodie Forum, but in person, he is a jovial, jocular personality, happy to chat as he prepared my order. dsc02585.jpg

Inside this convenience store, Chef Chuck has his open food prep area, with three high-top tables and a small bar set up with a few stools.  There are four different local beers on tap: two from Sanford Brewing Company and two from Central 28 Beer Company.  Yes, you can even get a pint of beer with your barbecue, if you dine in the convenience store!  Party boy that I am, I just got a hard-to-find strawberry-kiwi Gatorade to go.  I had planned to bring home my food to share everything with my wife, but a guy was hanging out at a table, just chillin’, enjoying the best pulled pork sandwich of his life (his words), after he had just stopped by to fill up his car with gas.  I knew I had to try that sandwich, but as usual, I wanted to try everything.

The Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($8) comes with slow-smoked pork that Chef Chuck further chopped into smaller pieces, house-made cole slaw, lots of sliced pickles (which I’m really okay with these days), and a Carolina-style mustard-based barbecue sauce I asked him to leave on the side.  The sandwich was huge, and a huge value for that price.  Here it is, back at home on a too-familiar plate:DSC02593

I also got an order of smoked beef brisket ($16), which consisted of four large and generous slices.  There was no need to chop them up further or drench them in sauce to obscure the rich-looking marbling or the dark, spicy outer bark.  At some restaurants, the brisket is too dry and tough, and at others, it seems like you just get served a pile of greasy fat.  Here, it was a perfect blend of tender meat and unctious fat, just perfect.
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And then I also got an order of smoked sausage ($8.50), a barbecue item that tends to be underrated, but I always like sausage in any forms.  The large link was chopped up into smaller segments, and once we got it home, we especially liked the rich snappiness of the outer casing — something missing in far too many sausages and hot dogs.  Even my wife liked the sausage, something she can usually take or leave.  It was a generous order, and probably my favorite smoked sausage that I’ve had, at least in a really long time.
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The sides I brought home included more of that cole slaw (which I might have gone without, since the giant pork sandwich had so much on it), very good baked beans, and excellent collard greens, of course cooked with meat.  I love collards, and I’ve tried to make them at home many times, but mine NEVER come out as good as these barbecue joints, even after spiking them with pepper vinegar.
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Chef Chuck loaded me up with five house-made sauces: sweet, mild, hot, mustard-based, and an Alabama white sauce that goes so perfectly with chicken — which is great, because I have a really bland chicken breast in the fridge that desperately needs something to salvage it.  That will teach me to stick to buying chicken thighs, the superior cut of chicken!  Anyway, they were all good sauces.
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I would have loved to try the St. Louis-style spare ribs, but those would not have been ready for another hour, and I couldn’t hang around that long.  But I’ll totally go back for them, because everything else was so amazing.  I learned that Chef Chuck can also make a Tampa-style Cuban sandwich with his own slow-smoked pulled pork in a house-made mojo marinade, Genoa salami, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, so that’s also intriguing.  Too often, the pork is the weak link in many Cuban sandwiches, either dry or not very flavorful.  I know it would be the star in his version of the Cubano.

I really liked everything I tried from Git-N-Messy BBQ, and immediately liked Chef Chuck Cobb, who is working meat miracles in this most unlikely of settings.  My readers know by now that too much extravagance and expense make me uncomfortable, and I’m much happier when I’m discovering humble hidden gems, casual restaurants that would be hard to find without a push in the right direction.  It doesn’t get much more humble or hidden than some of Central Florida’s best barbecue in a Sanford gas station, so consider this your push and the Saboscrivner your friendly neighborhood pusher.  Where else can you fill up your car and your belly at the same time?  (Costco, I guess, but Git-N-Messy is really something special!)  Just as a final note, Git-N-Messy is closed Sundays and Mondays, as even Chef Chuck needs some time off from smoking and slicing.

Texas de Brazil

Back in the day, when we all could eat more than we can now, my dad was a huge fan of all-you-can-eat restaurants, especially the many Chinese buffets around Miami in the ’80s and ’90s.  He knew each one’s strengths and weaknesses: which ones had the best spare ribs, the best fantail shrimp, the best house special fried rice, and so forth.  He was a beloved regular at a lot of those places, and even though he wouldn’t consider himself a foodie, it was his quest for the best versions of a dish and the best bargains around South Florida that started your Saboscrivner on my persistent path as a culinary explorer, reporter, and reference librarian.

But beyond the Chinese buffets, the height of luxury was the all-you-can-eat Brazilian churrascaria, Texas de Brazil (https://texasdebrazil.com/), a decadent steakhouse where uniformed gauchos walk a never-ending parade of grilled meats to your table, impaled on giant swords, for you to enjoy until you slip into a meat coma.  This was our destination for the most special of special occasions, our most rare and revered restaurant.  There were multiple steaks, including filet mignon (some wrapped in bacon!), Brazilian picanha, and flank steak, parmesan-crusted chicken and pork, Brazilian sausage, lamb chops, leg of lamb, and a star player I’m saving for last because it is the best.

Beyond the meats is a sumptuous salad bar, if one could even call it that — one of the most bountiful, bombastic, breathtaking buffets imaginable, where the actual salad is a mere afterthought alongside fancy salami and prosciutto, fresh mozzarella orbs, spreadable Boursin cheese, fancy Spanish manchego (sheep-milk cheese), cold-smoked salmon, chilled marinated shrimp, California rolls, roasted peppers, caramelized garlic cloves, and other roasted, grilled, marinated, and pickled vegetables.  You also help yourself to luscious lobster bisque, and the gauchos also grace your table with soft Brazilian cheese buns, mashed potatoes (I usually ignore both of those), and fried bananas served with cinnamon and sugar (big fan here).

Note that all this decadence doesn’t come cheap.  The all-you-can-eat dinner is normally $49.99, or you can opt for just the salad bar (which is honestly my favorite part of Texas de Brazil, and would be a fine, full meal on its own) for $24.99.  Monday through Friday, lunch is somewhat discounted at $34.99.  Still, it’s way too extravagant for us more than once a year (and believe me, we don’t even do this once a year).

But we did last year, and we did again this past weekend, thanks to a very special month in Orlando called Magical Dining.  Every September, our official tourism association Visit Orlando sets up Magical Dining with dozens of participating restaurants all over the city, generally mid-to-upscale establishments.  Each restaurant announces a prix fixe menu with a few options to choose from: appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and the price is $35.  This is a real bargain at most of these restaurants, and it gives people who might not normally treat themselves a chance to try some delicious dishes at new, unfamiliar, and highly vaunted restaurants around town at a discounted price.  And best of all, $1 from each Magical Dining bill goes to a number of worthy local charities!

My wife and I rarely take part in Magical Dining.  As you can tell from this blog, we generally gravitate toward more casual restaurants, and very few of those participate.  At these higher-end places, sometimes there isn’t an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert on the Magical Dining menu that appeal to both of us, and we figure we’d rather hold out for a special occasion and order our top choices off the full menu, not a small, curated list of options.  (Of course, you can still order off the regular menu at any of these places during Magical Dining.)

But Texas de Brazil might be the best deal of all, because you get the full salad bar, the full unlimited meats, AND a dessert (which normally costs extra) for the excellent discounted price of $35 (plus tip, of course).  That’s a bargain, for all the same stuff plus a dessert!  My wife loves steak, we’re both crazy about lamb, and I go nuts for sausages and that spectacular, stupendous, sublime… sensual salad bar.  We squeezed in a reservation for the last weekend of Magical Dining, which I strongly recommend you do next year.

We arrived before our 5:00 reservation, in time to hit the salad bar buffet early, before it would be ravaged by ravenous rubes.  Dig the artful presentation of beautiful cured meats:DSC02570

Some of the Saboscrivner’s greatest hits on this buffet plate, even chilled couscous salad in a vinaigrette and some of the best potato salad ever.  I am careful not to fill up on carbs, but I can’t make a rare visit to TdB and not load up a plate with these wonders.  Rest assured, dear readers — I was a member of the Clean Plate Club.  DSC02571

Meanwhile, the gauchos were coming around, so I was building up a supply of meat to last me some time, while going through my buffet items.  This plate includes medium-rare flank steak (left), two lamb chops (top), two slices of picanha (right), part of a sausage (bottom, next to the fried banana).  GO AHEAD, TAKE THESE BANANAS!DSC02572A lot of the meats tend to be more done than we both like, so we always ask for as rare as possible, and end up content with medium rare.  I find all of Texas de Brazil’s meats to be extremely salty, so keep that in mind too.

But here’s the star of the show, both of our favorite meat: BRAISED BEEF RIB, sliced right off the giant bones in front of us.  If you go to Texas de Brazil, it’s very possible you might not even realize this was one of the meats being walked around.  It doesn’t circulate often, probably because it’s an expensive cut that takes a long time to prepare.  And as far as I can tell from having had two or three TdB lunches, they don’t offer it at lunch time!  Last year for Magical Dining, we learned to very politely request it as soon as we were seated, and then to get at least two slices once it makes its way to us.  I love braised, stewed, and other slow-cooked meats even more than grilled steaks, and this beef rib is fork-tender.  It seriously shreds apart with just the side of your fork, and then completely melts in your mouth.  DSC02573

I’m proud to say that neither of us wasted any food, but I was stuffed after finishing everything you saw above, and my wife got equally stuffed from a lot less (but she didn’t mess with the buffet like I did, minus a couple of those spicy marinated chilled shrimp).  I had ladled us each a bowl of lobster bisque at the beginning, but ended up having hers at the end of my meal, because it’s too good, and it would have been a shanda to waste a drop.

And after all that, we were still entitled to desserts, included in the Magical Dining deal!  We got our desserts boxed up to take home, because we couldn’t eat another bite.  There were two selections, and we each chose the one you would expect us to choose, if you know us.

Unfortunately, my wife’s chocolate cake was very dry and disappointing:DSC02574

My Brazilian cheesecake was pretty good, because even bad cheesecake is pretty good, but it was a small sliver:DSC02575

Bonus pictures of the desserts we took home back in 2018, the last time we were here (also for Magical Dining Month):

Key lime pie that was much better than either of this year’s dessert options:
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Bananas Foster pie that was incredible, that I was wishin’ and hopin’ they would offer again this year:DSC01685

Coconut chess pie that was also spectacular:
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I don’t remember which two were included, and which one we paid extra for just to try it, but all three of these were awesome, and far better than this year’s two dessert choices.  But then again, I’m a pie guy.

So here are your takeaways:

  1. Magical Dining is a wonderful thing, and you should totally treat yourself next September, whether it’s here or one of Orlando’s other great participating restaurants.
  2. Texas de Brazil is an incredible indulgence, a sensational splurge, a truly unique and celebratory destination for carnivores, gourmands, and just plain old hungry people.  Heck, if you’re doing a low-carb diet, it could be a great restaurant to cut loose in, since meat and most salad bar offerings are the star attractions and carbs are supporting players.  My wife and I love it, but now we’re good for another year, or probably far longer.  We got it out of our systems for a while, and no, that wasn’t a colon-related joke.
  3. Or was it?

Rey’s Cuban Cafe

My wife and I love Cuban food, and I’m from Miami, so I grew up eating some of the best Cuban food in the world.  My parents definitely weren’t into exploring new cuisines, but we often feasted on Cuban delicacies, and as a result, I feel like my standards are high.  I’m always on a quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando, and my latest discovery has been Rey’s Cuban Cafe (https://www.reyscubancafe.com/), a small and unassuming restaurant in Fern Park, not too far from where we live.  Rey’s has about eight indoor tables and a few more on an outdoor patio, but I’ve only ever brought home takeout from there.  It’s ten minutes away, so the food is always nice and hot by the time I get it home.  I went three times before writing this review.

My wife’s favorite dish from any Cuban restaurant is bistec empanado (which I’ve seen as empanizado on other restaurants’ menus): tender steak pounded flat, breaded, and deep-fried ($9).  This is served over white rice with fried yuca.DSC02311

Here’s her bistec empanado from our second visit.  This time it came with garlicky boiled yuca, which she prefers:
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I am a sucker for liver dishes, which are rare enough on most menus, but Rey’s has two different versions.  This is higado Italiano ($10.99), strips of tender beef liver sauteed with onions and green and red bell peppers in a tangy tomato sauce.  I usually order yellow rice instead of white when there is a choice, and I can never refuse maduros, sweet fried plantains, which are one of my favorite foods in the whole world.  The onions are from my wife’s steak, since I love them and she most definitely does not.  DSC02312

This past weekend, my wife was craving bistec empanado again, and I had just donated blood, as I try to do every eight weeks.  Liver sounded awesome, probably to help replace some of the iron I had just gladly given up, so I ordered the regular bistec de higado, liver steak ($9.99).  It was very thin and tender — a perfect consistency.  I wish they had really slathered it in onions, like gone to town with cebollas.DSC02566

I always like to get red beans when I have a choice between black and red.  Rey’s red beans are served like a stew, with chunks of potatoes and little bits of onions and pork.  I wish they had a little more smoky flavor and spice, but I’ve always gotten takeout, so I add my own hot sauce at home.  I realize Cuban food is rarely spicy.DSC02569

I am a huge fan of Jon Favreau’s wonderful movie Chef, about an L.A. chef who finds new inspiration for cooking after a trip to Miami.  He buys a food truck and drives back home with his buddy and his son, selling Cuban sandwiches and bonding as they drive cross-country.  I can’t believe I never saw it until this past summer, so I was a little obsessed with Cuban sandwiches that particular weekend in July.  I remember stopping by Rey’s for the first time for my own inspiration as I prepared to marinate and roast my own pork shoulder for homemade Cubanos.  (That ended up being the best thing I ever cooked.)

But before I made my own, I enjoyed Rey’s Cuban Deluxe ($7.99), with the usual sliced roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, plus the additions of salami, Spanish sausage, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo.  Did I add one of the many mustards from my collection when I got this sandwich home?  Long-time Saboscrivnerinos will know the answer is YES.  DSC02313(My homemade Cuban sandwich was better, but this wasn’t bad at all.  I’d skip the lettuce and tomato next time, for sure.)

You can’t go wrong with buttery Cuban toast on the side of any meal:
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One of these times I brought home takeout, I was in the mood for good empanadas (although as comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada).  I ate them too quickly to take pictures of their fillings, but two of them were stuffed with picadillo, or seasoned ground beef, and the other was a pizza empanada, stuffed with hearty tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.
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There are many kinds of empanadas, with many Latin-American countries specializing in their own versions.  However, Cuban empanadas, with their flaky fried flour crusts, have always been my favorites.

And on our last visit, pastelitos (pastries) were two for the price of one, so I brought home a quesito filled with sweet cream cheese and a pastelito with guava and cream cheese.  These were perfectly fine, but not on the level of Versailles and La Carreta from back home in Miami (also known as “The 3-0-5”).  I was also craving croquetas de jamon, crispy fried croquettes stuffed with a soft, yielding filling of diced ham and bechamel sauce.  Those always hit the spot!
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I don’t think Rey’s Cuban Cafe is elevating Cuban food to new levels or putting gourmet twists on anything.  It’s comfort food, pure and simple — hearty food that reminds me of home (even though the food was one of the only things I liked about growing up in Miami).  My quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando certainly continues, but you could do a lot worse than Rey’s.  You can see the generous portion sizes and extremely reasonable prices.  Everything is fresh and tasty, and they accomplish everything they set out to do.