Pho Cali and Quickly Boba

There’s a strip shopping center along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (in an area that feels more like Casselberry) that once housed a Publix and several other businesses.  The Publix moved to a newer location ten minutes up the road, and most of the other tenants moved out.  I thought the entire strip was dead for sure, but a gym moved in, and now some restaurants have opened in there.  One of them is essentially two restaurants in one: a new Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Cali (https://www.facebook.com/phocalialoma/menu/), connected to an interesting chain called Quickly Boba.  They share the slick, modern dining room, but Pho Cali has table service, while you order at the counter at Quickly Boba.  They just opened in late August.

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The night I stopped by to check them out, I ended up bringing home some takeout from both.  Pho Cali has a pretty typical menu for a Vietnamese restaurant, but a little more expensive than most of the restaurants in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood.  My wife asked for grilled beef with rice vermicelli, her go-to standard when she doesn’t order pho.  It even came with three spring rolls, which were a pleasant little bonus.

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I’ve been to a few other Quickly locations in Orlando, and they’re all a little bit different.  They usually offer boba teas, smoothies, and slushes with a long list of flavors, macarons, and sometimes they have food menus with spicy popcorn chicken, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on baguettes, or even poke bowls.  This location had a lot of bakery items and desserts I’ve never seen at other Quickly stores, displayed in attractive glass cases.

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This is where they customize your boba drinks, and dig the multicolored macarons on top of the glass.

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I was thrilled to see that this location had banh mi, because sometimes I crave those sandwiches, my previous favorite banh mi shop Mai Bistro closed recently, and the current reigning contender, Nha Trang, is much further from home than this place.

A good thing about banh mi sandwiches is that they’re usually cheap, like in the $5 range.  In addition to whichever sandwich filling you choose, as the crusty baguettes are typically dressed with butter or mayo, pork liver pate (similar to liverwurst or braunschweiger, but less smoky-tasting), crunchy pickled carrot and daikon radish, cucumber spears, sprigs of refreshing cilantro, and slices of fresh, crunchy jalapeno peppers, which are much hotter than the pickled jalapenos most people are used to.  I was impressed to see this Quickly had an open area where you could watch your sandwiches being made and request custom ingredients, a la Subway.  Most places just disappear into the back to make them.

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I usually get a cold cut combo sandwich, but I noticed this Quickly location had crawfish on the menu, so I decided to get one of each, have half of each when I got them home, and save the other halves for the next day.  I don’t know why I was expecting breaded and deep-fried crawfish tails, but these were chilled and marinated, like a tangy crawfish salad.  I like seafood salads, so I figured I would try it.

The cold cut banh mi:

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Both were very fresh and tasty.  They’re always much lighter and more refreshing than most subs or hoagies, and a good banh mi should taste very fresh, with a variety of textures and flavors: crunchy bread and vegetables, soft meat fillings, some tangy, some spicy, and richness from the creamy mayo and smooth pate.  I don’t know if they dethrone Nha Trang or the late, lamented Mai Bistro, but they hit the spot, the price was right, and I’m glad I have the option much closer to home.

I also picked out a bun from the Quickly bakery case, with strands of salty, soft shredded pork baked on the top.  It was a savory bun with the slightest hint of sweetness, very buttery, and much softer and lighter than you would expect.

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It’s an interesting combination, and maybe just what this desolate shopping strip needs to revitalize itself.  I’m happy to provide some good word of mouth to help send business their way, and I wish them the best over there on Aloma.  It’s a very nice, cool dining room, reminiscent of Bento, a local favorite.  I think if people check it out, they will be pleasantly surprised.  Even if Pho Cali is a little more expensive than the Mills 50 stalwarts that have been serving Vietnamese food for far longer, I suspect it will win over folks in Winter Park, Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Oviedo that don’t want to drive all the way out there.

And next time I’ll actually try the pho!

Dancing Pigs Deli

I’ve always heard great things about the sandwiches at Dancing Pigs Deli (https://www.dpdeli.com/), but it is way across town from me, south of downtown Orlando on South Orange Avenue.  But a few weeks ago, on a day I had an errand to run in the area, I knew I had to make a special stop to try Dancing Pigs Deli for the first time.  I tried stopping by earlier this year, but it was a weekend, and they were closed.  According to their Facebook page, their hours are Monday through Friday, 11 AM to 3 PM (which contradicts the website with Saturday hours), so plan accordingly.

There are a few other foodie destinations I like out that way, and I made a morning of it.  Sister Honey’s Bakery (http://www.sisterhoneys.com/) is a tiny operation with no seating, strictly a to-go bakery.  You don’t always know what they’ll have from one day to the next, but my wife loves her vanilla bean pound cake, so I picked up a slice for her.  She also has some excellent pies: coconut cream, strawberry cream cheese, blueberry cream cheese, and key lime.  Believe it or not, I try to avoid sweets, but fruity, creamy, cheesy pies are probably my favorite desserts.

My next stop was Freshfields Farm (http://www.freshfieldsfarm.com/category/orlando/), a permanent farmer’s market with fantastic prices on fresh produce (on one side of the building) and meats and cheeses (on the other side).  Each side has its own separate entrance with its own cashiers, and there is a snack bar window in the middle, where you can get giant smoked turkey legs without paying theme park admission or dealing with gaggles of tourists.  And they’re $5 each!  Let’s see Mickey’s House do that.  Did I bring home a turkey leg?  You’re wrong, fearless readers — I brought home TWO!  And I also got the biggest blueberries I’ve ever seen, and a pound of sliced Cabot American and provolone cheeses for $3.50 each.  Even Aldi can’t compete with that.

Then I drove a few miles further south on Orange to Dancing Pigs Deli, which is in a nondescript and easy-to-miss strip of shops.  It’s a small place and definitely not fancy, but don’t be daunted.  If you’re reading The Saboscrivner, you probably already know those restaurants can be hidden gems and are always worth taking a chance on.  The first thing I noticed when I walked in was some shelves of groceries:

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The menu is on the wall above the counter, but I had already studied it online (which you should probably do, due to this image quality):

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This was a Friday, but on Monday through Thursday, they have different specials, all made in-house, including meatballs on Mondays, roast leg of lamb on Wednesdays and roast turkey breast on Thursdays.  I’m sure the leg of lamb sandwich is not baaaaaaad.

Since I couldn’t decide, I chose to order the Steer sandwich to eat there, and a Muffaletta to bring home for later.  Typically I’ll gravitate toward Italian cured meats like salami and prosciutto when given the choice, but I’ve been on a real roast beef kick lately.  The Steer ($7.50) contains rare roast beef, sautéed onions, goat cheese, horseradish, and au jus on a French roll, and if you ask me, a roast beef sandwich without sauteed/grilled/caramelized onions and horseradish just isn’t a roast beef sandwich.  Moreso than salami, roast beef goes well with almost any cheese, from provolone to pepper jack to underappreciated American, but I was excited to try it with goat cheese.

I chose wisely.  So wisely.  It was delicious; definitely one of the better roast beef sandwiches I’ve had anywhere.  It came with the cup of au jus and potato salad that was just okay.  I’m honestly not a fan of “wet” or “dipped” or even open-face soggy sandwiches you have to eat with a knife and a fork, but I did dip some chunks of beef and bread in the au jus, and it was like a rich broth that would make a perfect French onion soup.  It was good enough to drink, and I did sip whatever was left.  (Don’t judge me!)

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The goat cheese was very soft and spread onto the lightly-toasted roll, which was the perfect way to do it.  I never thought of spreading cream cheese on a roast beef sandwich, but it would actually be great (especially combined with horseradish and onions).  The goat cheese had the same soft, creamy texture with a little bit of funkiness that worked well with the other ingredients.

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I had the muffaletta sandwich ($8.50 for a half-muff) at home the next day, and it was very good too.  It contains Genoa salami, mortadella, pepperoni, ham, Swiss cheese, olive-giardiniera salad, and is served on “Sesame Jazz bread.”  I am not an olive lover, but I’ll always try the chopped olive salad on a muffaletta.  My gold standard remains the one at Central Grocery on Decatur Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, which is served cold instead of hot.  This one was originally served hot, but since I ate it cold out of my fridge, I think it was even better, after the flavors had a chance to mingle and marinate for 24 hours.  The Sesame Jazz bread was still crispy even after its time chilling overnight, which was a nice touch.

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For this sandwich, I got a side of macaroni salad, which was better than the potato salad, but not quite as good as my homemade one or Poke Hana’s.

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I have no idea when I’m going to be back down that way again, but I hear that “Chili Daddy” sets up inside of Dancing Pigs Deli and sells different kinds of chili when the weather cools down, so that sounds worthy of a return trip.  If you ever find yourself in the SoDo region or with any business south of downtown Orlando, drive the extra few miles and check the place out.  I’m glad Orlando is experiencing a sandwich shop renaissance over the last few years, with so many exquisite and unique contenders like Bad As’s Sandwich, Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market, and Manzano’s Deli joining stalwarts like LaSpada’s and Pom Pom’s, and Dancing Pigs Deli is one more worthwhile destination.  I promise I’ll never Steer you wrong.  (Seriously, try the Steer!)

Kai Asian Street Fare

It’s rare we get an exciting new restaurant in my neighborhood, but Kai Asian Street Fare (http://www.kaistreetfare.com/) started out strong when it opened earlier this year in a small, nondescript shopping strip on Semoran, just south of Howell Branch, and it has been improving exponentially since then.

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My first trip was back in early April, and my wife and I ordered and shared several of Kai’s eclectic dishes:

The “Dude Where’s My Ca” fish taco was very different from my favorite Asian fusion fried cod taco at Tako Cheena, but it was nice and crispy, not greasy at all, and had a good blend of flavors going on.

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They had three different varieties of Korean fried chicken wings, but since my wife doesn’t like spicy, we went with a safe soy-garlic flavor:

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I appreciate clever names, especially puns, so “I’m in Love with the Pho Pho” earned bonus points from me right away.  It wasn’t my favorite bowl of pho I’ve ever had, but it the broth was rich and fragrant, and it came with tender slices of beef and chewy meatballs.  I just have a TENDON-cy to want beef tendon in my pho, and that wasn’t an option at Kai.

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The “Legendary” garlic noodles with shrimp were one of the best noodle dishes I have ever tasted, and will surely make my list of favorite dishes of 2018.

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Finally, the “On Fleek” pork and shrimp wontons were as tasty as they were pretty, especially rolled around in the leftover garlic noodle drippings:

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Well, life gets in the way, and I had a few really hectic and stressful months since then, so I didn’t make it back to Kai for a while, all while positive reviews kept rolling in.  Two weeks ago, I finally returned on a weekend, just intending to get some takeout for lunch, when I ran into a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum, who was there meeting another friend for lunch.  They graciously allowed me to join them, so that was super-fun, and of course we ordered and shared even more wonderful food.  Everything I tried on this second visit in October was even better than my first trip.  Plus, they had some interesting weekend-only specials which we took advantage of, so I’m so glad I went.

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Since my first visit, they have added a few more wing flavors, so each of us ordered a different one.  One friend ordered mango habanero wings, which were succulently sticky, sweet, and spicy.  I love mangoes in any shape and form, and I’m cool with spicy food, but habanero peppers are usually a little much for me, and I tend to avoid them.  Not these — they had such a great flavor, instead of just doubling down on ass-kicking heat like a lot of lesser wings at terrible sports bars and other awful wing chains.

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Another friend ordered the Szechuan dry-rub wings.  I’m developing a palate for Szechuan cuisine, which has a different kind of heat, a tingling and numbing heat that can be weirdly addictive (and sometimes has a slight metallic aftertaste).  These wings weren’t as strongly numbing as some Szechuan seasonings I’ve had at Orlando’s Chuan Lu Garden, and they seemed to be balanced by some sugar in the dry rub that cut the heat.  Since I was on my way to work after this lunch, I wisely avoided the peppers themselves.

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Those were both weekend specials, but I ordered the spicy tang wings off the regular menu, which I didn’t get to try on my first visit.  They were the most like the Korean fried chicken wings at Hawkers, which have been my favorite and gold standard so far:

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All of Kai’s wings are absolutely huge, meaty, and tender, with nice crispy breading that stays on, and never soaking in puddles of oil or grease.  I don’t know how they do it!  I am definitely a convert.  Not to take away from Hawkers’ wonderful wings, but these are easily as good — just different, and well worth trying if you already like Hawkers (or anyone else’s, really).

That day, they also had two varieties of freshly-made ho fun noodles, which are wide, flat, chewy noodles that I love.  I ordered the dan dan noodles with spicy ground chicken in chili oil, and my friend ordered the seafood ho fun noodles with shrimp, squid, beef, and rich XO sauce, a luxurious thick sauce from Hong Kong traditionally made with dried scallops, shrimp, ham, chilies, and spices.  Well, I’m here to tell you that the only way Kai could have beaten its own Legendary garlic noodles was with these two ho fun noodle dishes.  Wow.  Two weeks later and I still smile and salivate, thinking about them.  I don’t know if I’ve ever ordered other Asian noodle dishes this good.  I implore my readers to try them on a weekend, but with any luck, Kai will add them to the regular daily menu.

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This is my spicy chicken dan dan noodle bowl.  It was outstanding, folks.  It had an interesting visual flourish: the flakes on top are dehydrated bonito (fish) flakes, and when added to a steaming hot dish, they appear to dance or move!  We were all a little surprised by that, but it was a cool effect.  IT’S ALIVE!  (Not really, though.)  I didn’t get a picture of my friend’s seafood ho fun, but trust me, it looked almost as good as it tasted, which was really good.

We were all fanboying and fangirling out, chatting up the chef and our cool server throughout the meal, and the chef brought us one more thing to try, on the house: dry pho noodles, served with farm-raised chicken, crunchy chicharrones, and broth on the side.  The chicken was chewier than most chicken I’m used to, I guess from the bird actually being able to walk around freely and build up muscles.  The chicharrones weren’t like styrofoamy store-bought pork rinds, but actual crispy, crunchy chunks of rich, fatty pork.  The noodles (which were probably also house-made) stood on their own when we mixed a good sauce into them, and then we only drizzled on as much broth as we wanted for our own portions.  I love pho, but I have to be in the mood for it, and this was a nice alternative to wanting the flavors and textures but not sitting down to a steaming bowl of soup on a hot, humid day.  It was definitely better than the traditional pho I tried back in April.  I apologize for not having a photo of that either (although some patient, bleary-eyed Saboscrivner readers may be relieved!)

Well, I’m shocked and saddened it took me so many months to return to Kai Asian Street Fare and even longer to write a proper review, but I give it my highest recommendation.  If you follow the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, you will see it has emerged as a popular local favorite for good reason, and a godsend for those of us who don’t feel like schlepping down to Mills 50 for the city’s best Asian restaurants.  Kai definitely belongs in that rarified group, so don’t hold its suburban location against it.  I wish them the best of luck and all the success in the world, although they are already achieving it.  I just beg them to make those ho fun noodles a daily thing!  Also, as a music nerd, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention they were playing an incredible selection of ’90s hip hop and R&B the entire time, taking me right back to some of the more tolerable parts of high school.  Mad props to our server, who took credit for the bangin’ playlist.

 

 

Tampaversary Part 2: La Segunda Central Bakery

Our original plan was to have lunch somewhere after checking out of our Tampa hotel, then to visit another nearby local landmark, La Segunda Central Bakery, to get some pastries and possibly sandwiches to go, before driving back to Orlando.  But when we woke up, my wife was hungry, ready to get home sooner, and didn’t want to wait for most restaurants to open at 11.  We decided to go straight to La Segunda and then take off, and to save other restaurants for other trips, when we have more time and could make plans with local friends.

We easily found La Segunda Central Bakery (https://www.lasegundabakery.com/), but what I didn’t realize was that it was just a takeout operation with no dine-in seating.  They have a second location that is more of a cafe setup, but leave it to me to want to visit the original.  We are already huge fans of Tampa’s other historic bakery, Alessi (http://www.alessibakery.com/), which was founded in 1912.  La Segunda had been described as very similar, and it was founded in 1915.  I wanted to compare the legendary bakeries, and I can safely say they are both great, and if you like one, you’ll certainly like the other and ought to give it a chance too.

Since they didn’t have tables, we just decided to get stuff to go, and to have a mini-picnic in the car on our way out of town.  My wife ordered buttered Cuban toast with a side of crispy bacon, made on the absolutely gigantic loaves of Cuban bread people were carrying out by the armful.  These loaves were several feet long; my wife is five feet tall, and they very well could have been her height!  La Segunda’s website purports to be “the world’s largest producer of authentic Cuban bread,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is true.  We were both a little distracted by sensory overload in that bakery, and it didn’t occur to me to order one of those giant loaves to go.  Oh well, another time.  I grew up in Miami, so I’ve had A LOT of Cuban bread.  It’s great the first day, but by the second day, Harley Quinn cosplayers could definitely use it as a prop baseball bat.  But I digress!

I don’t eat breakfast and don’t like to eat a heavy meal before a long drive, so I just ordered stuff to enjoy later on.  I ordered two of La Segunda’s sandwiches: the Medianoche and the Patrinostro.  Growing up in Miami, my typically non-adventurous family loved Cuban food, and we had some of the best Cuban food in the country to choose from, all within a small radius of our suburban home.  My mom instilled in me a love of the medianoche (midnight) sandwich over the traditional Cuban sandwich, and I stand by it to this day.  Both contain the same ingredients: roast pork marinated in mojo criollo (with onion, garlic, and sour orange juice), sweet sliced ham, swiss cheese, mustard (typically yellow mustard, one of the only times this mustard aficionado is A-OK with the plain yellow stuff), and sliced pickles.  I’m trying to make myself like pickles more, but one of the rare times I’ve always been a fan is on medianoche and Cuban sandwiches.

Anyway, whether you get the sandwich on Cuban bread or the sweet, yellow medianoche roll (similar to challah), it is then pressed flat (sometimes buttered first), to warm the ingredients, melt the cheese, and get the bread super-crispy.  Miami people may recoil in shock and disappointment (and I know my best friend will be pissed), but I actually love the Tampa version of these sandwiches.  Due to the Italian influence, Tampa Cubans and medianoches also include genoa salami with the roast pork and sweet, smoky ham, and one could argue that anything with genoa salami is better than the same thing without.  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!  And when I finally tried it at home, it was an excellent example of a medianoche.  Perfect confluence of ingredients on that wonderful sweet, crispy-yet-yielding yellow bread.  La Segunda advertises a “special sauce” instead of mustard.  I couldn’t pick up on what it was (probably a remoulade or some kind of Mustardayonnaise), but it was a great sandwich regardless.

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And since I had to experience La Segunda’s Cuban bread for myself, my second sandwich order was the Patrinostro, an Italian sandwich with ham, capicola, mortadella, pepperoni, provolone cheese, onions, oil, and vinegar.  I asked for it hot because I wanted the pressed Cuban bread, and asked them to leave the lettuce and tomatoes off, since I wouldn’t be eating it for two hours and didn’t want them to get slimy on a hot sandwich.  I was conflicted, because I don’t like my Italian cured meats hot, but everything was still delicious by the time we got home, and the bread was still crispy.  It looked naked without the lettuce and tomatoes, so I added my own tomatoes, as well as hot cherry pepper relish and a drizzle of balsamic glaze at home.  It was good, but it would have been better fully dressed and eaten immediately, with cold ingredients served on bread that had already been pressed and warmed by itself.

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I also ordered two slices of scachatta, which I was delighted to see at La Segunda.  I first read about scachatta on Saveur’s website years ago, a pizza-like bread served only at Tampa’s historic Italian-influenced Cuban bakeries.  It is served cold or at room temperature on soft bread tinted yellow by egg yolks, with a savory-sweet tomato sauce containing very finely-ground beef, and no cheese melted on top like any pizza you’re envisioning.  Alessi’s scachatta has a dusting of parmesan like the lightest snowfall, and La Segunda’s didn’t seem to have any cheese at all.  It might sound weird, and if you’re expecting traditional pizza, you may be a little disappointed.  But think of it as its own delicious hybrid and give it a fair chance.  I love the stuff and wish I could get it anywhere in Orlando, but maybe that’s for the best.  I can’t tell you whose scachatta is better, but they are both damn fine.

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My wife also ordered a selection of cookies that were weighed by the pound.  I think of them as “tea cookies” — little things with sprinkles and powdered sugar coatings and shaped liked red and green leaves.  Bakeries of my Miami youth used to carry those, and my mom loved them too.  They have never really been my thing — if I’m going to eat a cookie, I want it to be soft and chewy… or an Oreo in their latest weird flavors.

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I couldn’t leave this beautiful bakery without getting myself something sweet too, so I gambled and chose a little square of pineapple crumb cake, since I love anything pineappley, as well as crumb cake.  When I finally got home and tried it, it was superb.  Moist, rich cake with the most delicious sticky-sweet pineapple glaze and streusel-esque topping.  It only cost $1.95, and it put any of the extravagant, expensive, and somewhat disappointing desserts from Bern’s to shame.

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So La Segunda was awesome.  Would I go back?  Honestly, I think we’d probably return to Alessi Bakery instead, where you can at least sit down and eat a meal.  But everything we tried was just as good here, don’t get me wrong.

Tampaversary Part 1: Bern’s Steak House

Trigger warning for extreme bougie content: WE DO NOT EAT LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME.

For years, my wife and I have been talking about going to the legendary Bern’s Steak House (https://bernssteakhouse.com/) in Tampa to celebrate a special occasion.  It’s a long way to travel for a meal, but from all accounts, Bern’s is THE meal,  the ultimate destination for foodie high-rollers or one-time wannabes like us.  It doesn’t help that my wife doesn’t fare well on long car rides, but Bern’s actually owns its own hotel right across the street, the Epicurean Hotel (https://epicureanhotel.com/), to help break up the trip and give weary, stuffed travelers a chance to rest and digest.

Neither restaurant nor hotel are cheap, but we’ve been putting this off for years, we both celebrated some milestones at work recently, we had our ninth wedding anniversary to celebrate, and best of all, neither of us ended up hospitalized this year, after we both did in the summer of 2017.  So for the first time ever, I was able to use some saved Marriott points and bought the rest of the points to cover a night at the Epicurean, for far less than it would have cost out of pocket.  (I think I can best describe the regular room rate as “far out of our price range” or “What the hell is this, midtown Manhattan?”)  And two months ago, I made a reservation at Bern’s, which gets booked up almost that far in advance.  I can’t speak for my wife, but I can say I looked forward to it for weeks, fastidiously studying Bern’s voluminous menu in the meantime.

The menu is pretty much a treatise on steaks, which are the house specialty.  Bern’s brags about serving dry-aged steaks, which I had never had before.  With all honesty, I’m not a big steak eater, and I’d always prefer a good burger to a good steak, for reasons of taste, customizability, and value.  But my wife LOVES a good steak, especially after I turned her onto ribeyes.  This menu has pages and pages of steak descriptions, describing cuts of meat, cooking temperatures, thickness, aging, and so forth.  I felt like I was researching engagement rings again!

But I’m jumping ahead.  When we first arrived at Bern’s, the nondescript white building looked like it could have been anything but a fancy steakhouse: maybe an industrial warehouse or a factory.  But stepping inside was like entering a different world, or at least a different century.  The lobby looked like a set from Moulin Rouge: all red walls, dark wood, gold, giant portraits, and dim lighting, giving it all an anachronistic and otherworldly feeling, like 19th Century French brothel meets David Lynch’s Black Lodge.  I was definitely feeling sensory overload, and my eyes had trouble adjusting to the low lights and everything there was to look at.

Our reservation was at 5:00, since we’re the youngest early bird diners you’ll ever meet.  We met our server, Erhan, who was the best guy ever.  He was our wise, patient, helpful guide through this extravagant evening, and we have never experienced better service anywhere.  If we had a question, Erhan was there to answer it like the best reference librarians I’ve ever worked with (and I would know, since I am one).  Apparently servers at Bern’s train for a year before they start out on the floor, and that painstaking training showed. You get the impression the man had seen and heard it all, and knew it all.

The appetizers beckoned.  I love oysters, and I heard Bern’s oysters were among the best you can have anywhere.  Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t care for oysters at all, and it would have felt wrong to order something she couldn’t enjoy too.  Now that our weather is FINALLY getting cool, some $1 oyster nights are going to be on my agenda.

However, there was something even fancier, even rarer, even more celebratory that intrigued us both: CAVIAR.  The menu has a whole page of caviar selections, ranging from semi-reasonable ($25) to ridiculous ($190).  Over a decade ago, we attended the wedding of dear friends we never get to see anymore, and they had a caviar bar at their reception.  I’m not sure how many of the other guests partook, but my wife and I went crazy, like cartoon cats at an all-you-can-eat bird buffet.  We still talk about their storybook-perfect wedding and that caviar bar to this day, and this was our first opportunity to recreate the experience.  Hey, this was a convergence of multiple special occasions, and I don’t think any Orlando restaurants even offer caviar.  None of the places we go, anyway! The closest we get is masago on our spicy poke bowls.

My wife chose the very moderate (for caviar) black hackleback sturgeon, and Bern’s serves it with so many accoutrements, which I love.  It came with the traditional Russian accompaniments of sour cream and the most finely-diced red onions, egg whites, and egg yolks I have ever seen, with the most perfect brioche toast points ever.  It also came with six flavored foams as additional condiments, each one adding its own dimensions to the buttery, briny black pearls.  I wish I could remember each one of the foams, dear Sabo-Squad, but there was definitely an avocado one (the green one), a potato and bacon foam (fourth one down), a curry foam (yellow), and a blue cheese foam (the one on the bottom, with blue cheese crumbles on top).  I’m forgetting the first and third ones.  Now, I am a sucker for any condiments and sauces, and they were neat, but the traditional sour cream, onions, and eggs went much better with the caviar.

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This was so good, our eyes were rolling back in our heads. “Like a sturgeon! Touched for the very first time!”

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What really completed the whole caviar ritual was a plate of six Yukon Gold potato blinis, perfectly soft potato pancakes that are nothing like the crispy, greasy, fried latkes I think of as potato pancakes.  These blinis were lighter than air, soft and creamy, the ideal little pillows to top with a dollop of sour cream and a smaller dollop of black pearls.  I am totally going to recreate them at home.  They were too good, and they’d be great in place of traditional breakfast pancakes too.  Imagine “silver dollar flappies” that just melt away in your mouth, and you have these blinis.

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After we inhaled every single morsel of everything (my wife, to her credit, didn’t indulge in the condiments at all), Erhan returned to counsel us on steaks.  At Bern’s, a party of two can split a larger steak if they want the same cut, which they recommend over each person ordering their own.  We both wanted the Delmonico, which is their ribeye, and we chose a whopping 16-ounce steak to share, that is 1 3/4″ thick.  Luckily, we both like our steaks rare, after a lifetime of restaurants and parents overcooking them.  At Bern’s, they are so exacting that they have varying degrees of rare, but we opted for a warm red center and a slight outer crust.  Erhan said they would even trim the outer fat and serve it on two separate plates, which was nice.  These are all U.S.D.A. Prime steaks, by the way.  You can occasionally find this highest quality meat at Costco, but rarely at supermarkets.

Best of all, all of Bern’s steaks come with a plethora of side orders, which is a million times better than most upscale steakhouses that serve everything a la carte and nickel-and-dime you to death with expensive sides (another reason I’m not a steakhouse fan).  As pricey as Bern’s is (and it is), it is also a bargain if you just want a good steak dinner and some sides.  The included sides are French onion soup, a house salad with a choice of housemade dressings, a baked potato that can be dressed with any combination of butter, sour cream, crumbled bacon, and chives, thin and crispy fried onion straws, and fresh vegetables from Bern’s own farm.  What I didn’t realize was that ordering the larger steak for two meant we would get two of every side.  I honestly thought we’d get one of each side and have to split them or decide who got what.  Rube alert!

I already love French onion soup, and this was easily the best I’ve ever had.  It was so rich and beefy and decadent, and came with garlic toast and spelt toast, a kind of grain we were both unfamiliar with.  My wife really impressed me by digging into her soup.  I love onions (and caramelize them all the time at home), but she really, really doesn’t like them (and hates the smell when I cook them).  I thought it was cool that she not only took a risk by trying it, but that she ended up liking it.  How could you not?  Incredible French onion soup. My wife thought the spelt toast was like “teething biscuits,” and it was quite hard, but softened up nicely when dunked in the soup.

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Next came the colorful house salads, with vegetables from Bern’s farm.  I was very impressed that they peeled the tomatoes.  WHO DOES THAT!?! I am always on a quest for good salad dressings to liven up my own salads, and I was excited by the list of Bern’s housemade dressings.  My wife chose one of my top picks, a macadamia nut vanilla bean vinaigrette.  I asked the ever-patient Erhan if I could sample two different dressings, and he hooked me up.  Grateful, I chose maple dijon (I love mustards and anything mapley) and creamy white balsamic Italian.  The salad was fine, but those three dressings were without a doubt the best salad dressings I’ve ever had, with the creamy white balsamic Italian in first place, then the vanilla bean vinaigrette.  They each came in fancy little metal pitchers, and even when we were finished with our salads, I asked to keep the dressings to dip the forthcoming onion straws into.  I wish Bern’s sold these salad dressings in bottles.  Ken’s Steak House can do it, Bern’s! Why can’t you?

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Finally, the steaks arrived, accompanied by the baked potatoes, onion straws, and two vegetables of the day, the most delicious, rich, buttery green beans and shredded carrots served with almonds.  I’m not a baked potato guy, so I pretty much just ate the top part that was loaded with all the toppings.  The steaks were superb, though.  Cooked to absolute perfection, as you can see.  Like I said, I’ve never had a dry-aged steak before, so I’m not enough of a connoisseur to tell a major difference in taste or texture.  What I can say is that it was one of the finest steaks of my life.  Top two, maybe, with only Christner’s right here in Orlando coming close.

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I’ll also RING THE ALARM, even though the thin onion straws aren’t exactly onion rings.  They were well-seasoned, crispy, not greasy at all, not overly salty, and held up to dipping in the remaining maple dijon dressing.

Well, at this point, we were pretty stuffed, but part of the iconic Bern’s experience is to go upstairs to finish your meal in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, “built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms.”  I get it — they want to clear tables in the main dining room, so ushering folks upstairs to a separate dessert room is genius.  I paid our check (holy crap!), and we thanked Erhan profusely before heading off.  Observant regular readers already know my wife and I don’t drink, but the bill could easily have been doubled if we did.  As a result, we opted to skip the tour of Bern’s vaunted wine cellar, housing one of the largest collections of wine in the United States. To oenophiles, “cellar tour” might be the most beautiful-sounding phrase in the English language.

That said, we accepted their invitation to take a tour of Bern’s busy, bustling kitchen.  (It’s not like we’re special people; they offer both tours to all diners.)  The kitchen was where my wife really felt sensory overload, but the short behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating to me.  I’ve never worked in restaurants even though so many of my friends did, but I’m fascinated by the process, of peering behind the curtain and seeing how the sausage is made (figuratively, in this case, as there is no sausage on the menu, nor even an awe-inspiring burger made from cuts of Bern’s fabulous steaks.  What’s up with that?).  The kitchen was HUGE — much larger than either of us could have ever imagined — with a gigantic, tireless staff.

Next, we took the elevator up to the Dessert Room, and they really aren’t kidding about the private rooms, except they’re more like booths.  You really feel like you’re eating dessert inside of a phone booth made out of a giant wooden barrel.  The quarters were tight, but intimate, and the dessert menu is also something to behold.  This is where I feel like we both chose poorly (of course, we were no longer under Erhan’s protection up there), and they were the only disappointments of the evening.  We heard so much hype about the housemade macadamia nut ice cream sundae, so that’s what my wife ordered.  It was fine, I guess.  I’m not into nuts or chocolate as much as she is, but I think even she thought it was just okay.

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I guess we had a bit of miscommunication, because I ordered the Taste of Bern’s, a sampler that includes five desserts, expecting my wife would want to try all of them.  It comes with Macadamia Decadence Cake, King Midas (a carrot nut cake topped with more freakin’ macadamia nut ice cream), banana cheese pie, chocolate cheese pie, and vanilla cheesecake.  Little did I know that the five desserts would be literally mouse-sized portions, or that my wife would be too full to care about sampling all of them at that late point in the evening, almost three hours after we arrived.  I liked the banana cheese pie morsel quite a bit (fourth one) and probably would have preferred a full serving of that.  None of the others did much for me, I must admit.  I love cheesecake like crazy, but I’ve had better.  Oh well, we still had the experience.

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Also, the Dessert Room barrel-booths all come equipped with a telephone and a series of buttons that play different music through a speaker: jazz, Broadway standards, pop, and live music from a piano player stationed somewhere on the premises.  The phone is to call the piano player with requests.  Well, most of the buttons didn’t work, and we didn’t want to try playing “stump the piano player” with contemporary requests, although I still wonder if he would have known any Tori Amos (for my wife), Tom Waits (for me), or St. Vincent (for both of us).

We practically rolled back to our hotel across the street, which was a godsend, and crashed for the night much earlier than usual.  Aside from dessert being underwhelming for both of us, we have absolutely no regrets about going, spending the money, and finally getting the full Bern’s Steak House experience.  But I asked my wife if she would ever want to go back, and she said no, it was fine, she had a great time, but she got it out of her system completely.  I have to agree.  I was, and am, content.

We were celebrating being married for nine years, being relatively healthy (especially compared to the last year), and feeling mostly stable and safe at our respective jobs, so it was worth a step out of our comfort zones for a night like this.  I’m so grateful I was in the financial position to treat my wife to this little weekend anniversary getaway, but leaving Bern’s and checking out of the Epicurean Hotel the next morning felt like a return to reality, snapping out of this swanky fantasy and back to real life.

For better and for worse, Bern’s is a real time capsule — a piece of luxurious mid-Century Americana, at once tacky (the decor) and classy (pretty much everything else).  I’m glad they have withstood the test of time and bravely doubled down on what they have always done, rather than submitting to trends, modernizing, and going more casual.  This is the kind of place the Rat Pack would go if they went to Tampa back in the day, or where Henry Hill would have taken his wife (or possibly his mistress) if Goodfellas had a little side story set in Tampa.  I’m imagining the interior monologues, sweeping Steadicam shots, and Scorsese’s swingin’ ’70s song choices even now.  Bern’s does everything with the utmost care and the highest quality, and you get what you pay for.  They certainly go out of their way to put you at ease (even though decadence and luxury make me uncontrollably uncomfortable every time) and give you an unforgettable evening.

But I promise you, fearless readers: my next restaurant review will feel more like classic Saboscrivner, with a trip to one of Tampa’s legendary bakeries that is over a century old.  Stay tuned for TAMPAVERSARY PART 2!

Manzano’s Deli

Anyone who knows me knows I love a few things: my wife, comic books, lounge acts with girl singers, cats, and Italian deli sandwiches.  Here in Orlando, LaSpada’s has always been my favorite spot for an Italian hoagie bursting at the seams with cured Italian meats, sharp provolone cheese, and crispy fresh vegetables and pickled peppers.  In 2017, Bad As’s Sandwich changed the game with their limited-time special, the Capone, which made my list of the year’s top five dishes.  (Yeah, I’m probably gonna be citing that forever.)  Then Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market opened this summer, and I reviewed it right here, on its opening day.

We are lucky to have one more great sub shop in town now: Manzano’s Deli (http://manzanowinterpark.com/), on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from Park Avenue and Rollins College, and directly next door to the Little Blue Donut Co.  Manzano’s already has two beloved locations in DeLand and New Smyrna Beach, which I’ve never been to, but you can bet I checked their menus as soon as I heard one was opening here.  Well, they finally opened for business in September, and my first visit lived up to all the expectations and hype.

You see, most sub shops will offer ONE Italian hoagie-type sandwich if you’re lucky, with salami, ham, and other cured, sliced deli meats, served cold.  (I’ve never been a fan of sandwiches like this served hot, with the meats crispy and greasy.)  Manzano’s has SEVERAL, and they’re all a little bit different.  Looking at their menu, you must choose between the Italian Stallion, the Balboa, the V, the Pauly, the Rocco, and the Goodfella, and their ingredients aren’t listed in any specific order, making it a little difficult to compare and contrast when you’re hungry and in a hurry.

So for the benefit of my Saboscrivner Squad, I have created the Manzano’s Matrix, to help you choose the best possible Italian sandwich at a glance:
manzanos_matrix As you can see, the Rocco is the sandwich with the most ingredients.  The Italian Stallion and the Goodfella are the same, except the Stallion has pepperoni, so I can’t imagine ordering the Goodfella unless you hate pepperoni.  The Balboa and the V are the two with fresh mozzarella, but no overlapping meats, so that presents a difficult choice.  But yeah, I like to maximize my sandwich experience, so I chose the Rocco… and I chose wisely.

Look at this thing!

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Look at it!

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That’s the whole sandwich (15″ for $16.99), and it is enormous.  I think most hungry people can easily make do with a half ($10.49).  Yes, it’s more expensive than Subway, Wawa, and even Jersey Mike’s, but you pay for quality, and this was an extremely high-quality sandwich.  On top of being huge, the crusty bread was very fresh (flown in from New York), and the meats and cheeses were all from Boar’s Head, so you know they’re good.  The Rocco comes with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, roasted red peppers (love ’em!), oil and vinegar, and two ingredients I asked them to hold, because I don’t think they belong on an Italian sub: black olives and mayo.  No thank you!  Mayo has its place, but not here.

I did ask them to add the sun-dried tomato spread that is a option on some of their other sandwiches, and they were kind enough to oblige.  The sun-dried tomatoes are marinated in oil, so by the time I got this sandwich back to our little break room at work, it was quite soggy and messy to eat, but probably even more delicious.  In fact, chilling it in the fridge for a few hours might have made it even better (and probably necessitated eating it with a fork and knife), but it was great as is.

If you aren’t into Italian deli meats, they still have plenty for you, don’t worry: turkey, chicken, roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, tuna salad, egg salad, etc.  Manzano’s also serves paninis in addition to their giant subs, as well as salads and breakfast sandwiches in the morning.  They can even craft you a custom sandwich with your choice of ingredients if their menu options aren’t tempting enough.

I look forward to returning, even though I think I’ve already figured out what their best sandwich is, and I’ll no doubt order it again.  It’s a rough location there on Fairbanks, with very limited parking nearby.  The location used to house Tatame Tea and Sake Lounge, one of the spots I took my wife on our first date back in 2006, but even someplace that cool couldn’t last.  That’s the only drawback I can see, but hopefully Manzano’s will stay busy with lots of walk-in traffic from Rollins students, faculty, and staff.  And if you ever feel like an amazing sandwich and a doughnut, you have this place and the Little Blue Donut Co. right next door.  How can you go wrong with that?  YOU CAN’T.

Tortilleria El Progreso

Orlando is full of hidden treasures, and my latest discovery is Tortilleria El Progreso (https://www.tortilleriaelprogreso.com/), nestled in a nondescript strip shopping center in the shadow of a Home Depot, along a busy, industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive, west of the 417 and east of Semoran Boulevard.  It is a bustling Mexican restaurant and a full Mexican grocery store with a butcher shop, a bakery, an ice cream counter, and more.  This is real Mexican food, authentic and pure — the kind of place that makes its own tortillas, chips, and everything else from scratch.  The menu is huge, the service is friendly, the prices are cheap, the portions are large, and the colorful, welcoming dining room with hand-painted chairs makes you feel transported away from Orlando, to a vacation destination south of the border.

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I went for lunch with a professional colleague who trusts my restaurant-choosing judgment and was kind enough to treat.  We started out with complimentary chips and salsa, and we could tell the chips were fresh, made from actual tortillas not long before our arrival:

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Whenever I see tortas on a menu, I go for it.  If there’s one thing I love more than a good taco, it’s a good sandwich, and tortas are the best of both worlds: Mexican ingredients on a soft bolillo or telera roll, with meat, a schmear of refried beans, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, sometimes peppers, and a dab of mayo or sour cream.  I got a barbacoa torta, with tender, oven-braised beef.  It even came with unexpected fries, but the fries weren’t anything special, and I didn’t dare fill up on them.  20180927_124658_resized

But I couldn’t visit a new Mexican restaurant and not sample two of my favorite meats, so I got a chorizo (spicy crumbled sausage) taco on a flour tortilla and an al pastor (marinated pork) taco on a corn tortilla, so I could try both kinds of tortillas too.  All the tacos came simply garnished with diced raw onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges on the side.  I am pleased to say everything was delicious.  20180927_124836_resized

My colleague ordered three tacos: shredded chicken and sauteed beef, hold the onions.20180927_124704_resized

We were also offered a choice of red or green salsas for the table, so of course I asked for both.  The green tomatillo salsa was medium-spicy, and the red had quite a bit of heat.  These were homemade as well:
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We also decided to try a side order of the Mexican rice, which was soft, fluffy, even a little buttery.  I have a rice cooker at home because my rice never comes out right from a pot, but I still never get it as perfect as all the restaurant rice I enjoy.  I stirred a little of the salsas into the rice, to make a good thing even better.20180927_131138_resized

I was overjoyed to see aguas frescas on the menu, which is one of my tests for how authentic and good a Mexican restaurant is going to be.  These refreshing drinks are sweet, but not as sweet as high fructose corn syrup-laden sodas, they aren’t carbonated, and they’re ideal for cutting the heat of spicy Mexican food.  I ordered a piña agua fresca because I will always try anything pineappley, and I recommended another one of my favorites to my colleague: horchata, which is a sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.  I didn’t snap photos of those, but they were both terrific.

I can’t wait to return to Tortilleria El Progreso and try some more menu items, including some of those other aguas frescas, and some of the paletas (popsicles) and helados (ice creams) in the big case at the front of the restaurant.  It looked like the market side had bolillo rolls in the bakery section for tortas, fresh tortillas, sodas, snacks, and other groceries worth exploring.  I love grocery shopping at new places almost as much as I love trying new restaurants, so I will definitely be back to this newly-discovered hidden treasure that plenty of other people surely already knew about.