Ring the Alarm! Cooper’s Hawk

My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while.  It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before.  I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.

But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little.  Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing.  If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out.  It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there.  But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.

It was seriously hard to choose.  The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices.  There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more.  I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.

I’ve never been a pork chop fan.  Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.

But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.

When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen!  She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me.  Pure perfection, dear readers.  She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor.  And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all.  It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side.  (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)ch1.jpg

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As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender.  I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should).  Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes)! and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes.  When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos.  It makes a difference!  Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold.  And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did.  To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.

It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings.  The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.ch3

I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish.  I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them.  But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them.  And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings.  She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big.  They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts!  If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.

The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all.  I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold.  They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty.  I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning.  Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.  ch4

Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert!  I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake.  It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house.  I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great.  The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel.  My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.ch5

A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place.  Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.”  They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater.  Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods!  (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!)

But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would.  So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!

My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish).  She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day.  It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.DSC01836

My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.DSC01834

My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese.  She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint.  They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler.  (She asked and they answered!)DSC01835

And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando.  The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.

I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues.  It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners.  It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all.  I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can.   I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time.  Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!

I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera.  Sorry.  Mea culpa.  I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
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My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday.  This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle.  She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:DSC01837

After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:

The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
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Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
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And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust.  Very sweet, rich, and heavy.  I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious.  I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.DSC01840

Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it,  speaks volumes right there.  Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them.  It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes.  It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits.  And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!  If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board).  My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.

Ring the Alarm! Boston’s Fish House

I crave seafood pretty much all the time.  I don’t think it’s a shellfish impulse, but I like to say I’m on a seafood diet — if I see food, I’ll eat it, especially if it’s seafood.

While Orlando isn’t swimming in an abundance of seafood restaurants like our neighboring cities on Florida’s two coasts, we have a few local favorites.  Shortly after we started dating back in 2006, my wife and her parents introduced me to Boston’s Fish House (http://www.bostonsfishhouse.com/Home).  Modeled after the coastal seafood establishments of New England rather than beachy, tropical Florida seafood shacks, Boston’s specializes in fried favorites: shrimp, scallops, fresh fish (usually cod and/or haddock, but also farm-raised catfish), oysters, and clams.  But if you don’t want your denizens of the deep deep-fried, they also offer broiled salmon, pan-seared mahi, and even a chilled Maine-style lobster salad sandwich, which you probably know better as a lobstah roll.

However, my in-laws always opt for the seafood combo platter, which comes with a mountain of fried shrimp, scallops, fish, onion rings, and a choice of oysters, clam strips, or whole belly clams, a rare treat that you rarely see at any Florida seafood restaurants.  Oh, and you get two sides with it too! This platter comes in two sizes, the smaller Mate’s Platter and the larger Captain’s Platter.  You get more than enough food for two hungry people to share if you order the Captain’s Platter, so it’s just a question of everybody being on the same page.  For example, my mother-in-law doesn’t like scallops so she asks them to substitute extra fish.  My wife and I agree that the fish is the blandest part, so I’ll usually ask if we could get clams AND oysters but no fish.  They are always really cool and patient regarding these substitutes.

Be warned in advance: Boston’s gets REALLY crowded in the evening, especially on Fridays and weekends, especially with the “early bird crowd.”  Most of the time, I’ll call in a takeout order and pick it up, bypassing the long lines that queue up.

On our most recent visit, I ordered two platters but decided to experiment a little, beyond the fried standards.  No matter what, the clams and oysters are served fried, along with the onion rings.  Here they are:DSC01785

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the onion rings, since this is a recurring Saboscrivner feature we like to call RING THE ALARM!  [Insert AIR HORN NOISE! here.]  A lot of people go ga-ga over Boston’s thin, crispy onion rings, sporting the same batter as their fried seafood.  I like them, I certainly enjoy eating them (usually dipped in their tartar sauce or ketchup), but I just can’t rank them among my favorite onion rings, which are generally more of a beer-battered style.DSC01790

But moving past the fried stuff, you have some options with the shrimp and scallops, beyond just getting them dipped in the same old batter and fried.  One of our favorites is to get them broiled in butter and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, which happen to be my favorite crackers and the not-so-secret ingredient in my favorite pie recipe.  Here are those beautiful, buttery, broiled mollusks from my wife’s order:dsc01788.jpg

I happened to be craving pasta this particular evening, so I thought I’d get the food home and make some fettuccine really quickly, then toss it with my shrimp and scallops that were broiled in garlic butter and white wine:DSC01789They came out great, needless to say.

Since we ordered two platters, we got four sides between them, and my wife and I both love the broccoli salad they make at Boston’s: crispy, fresh broccoli florets tossed in a sweet, creamy dressing with bacon, golden raisins, and pumpkin seeds.  It’s delicious and refreshing, and it makes us feel like we are eating slightly healthier, because broccoli.DSC01786

But who are we kidding?  Between the plethora of fried foods, rich shellfish, and all that butter, they also make really nice garlic bread, which I can never refuse when we indulge at Boston’s:dsc01787.jpg

So that’s pretty much it.  I don’t even remember the last time we ate at the actual restaurant, but we live just close enough to Boston’s that the food is still hot by the time I get it home.  Always hot, and always good.  Stop by, just for the halibut.

And now I feel like I’m floundering, so I will clam up.

Pho 88

Well, before it got hot in Orlando again, it was remarkably chilly for a little while there.  I look forward to those brief blasts of winter all year, every year.  I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, which I guess makes me a true Florida Man.  I hate our humid, oppressive, sticky summers and eagerly anticipate the few weeks a year where we can walk outside, eat outside, and see the one coat or jacket everyone owns.  We don’t have to shovel snow or drive on icy roads, so our cold is a novelty, and we know it won’t last.

Winter is also perfect soup weather, and there are few soups finer than phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup that so many Orlando restaurants have perfected.  I have yet to get into the trend of fancy bowls of ramen, after so many years of subsisting on seven-for-$1 bricks of instant ramen noodles.  On the other hand, pho (which I was taught to pronounce “fuh,” although I hear “foe” all the time) is so warm and rich and hearty that it is a welcome meal year-round, not too heavy or hot to enjoy in warmer months.  But nothing beats a steaming bowl in 40-degree winter weather.

Slow-simmered broth is flavored with spices including cinnamon and star anise, and it includes rice vermicelli and different cuts of meat.  Thin slices of rare beef eye round are the most common, but other bowls of pho may also include beef brisket or flank steak, chewy beef meatballs (completely different from the meatballs you’d get with spaghetti or in a sub), tendon, and tripe.  Pho usually contains paper-thin slices of onion and diced green onions as well.  Then lucky diners can continue to customize their pho with sprigs of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts (I’ve never been a fan, sorry), fresh slices of jalapeno peppers, and fresh lime wedges, which come on a separate plate.  Hoisin sauce, sriracha, and sambal oelek (chili garlic sauce) are common condiments that are always available on Vietnamese restaurant tables.  No two bowls of pho end up alike, which is part of its charm.

Anyway, we are very lucky to have a large Vietnamese population in Orlando, and plenty of delicious Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, mostly centered in the Mills 50 district near downtown.  I’ve tried most of them at least once, but I always return to two favorites: Saigon Noodle and Grill or the subject of this review, Pho 88 (http://www.pho88orlando.com/).  My wife and I had our first date at yet another local Vietnamese restaurant, Lac Viet, but we’ve been going to Pho 88 for many years.  Located on Mills Avenue, just north of busy Colonial Drive in the heart of our foodie-friendly Mills 50 district, Pho 88 also has more parking than a lot of the other nearby restaurants, which is one more reason we end up there as often as we do.  Not only do we like it a lot and seek it out, it often becomes our fallback choice when we can’t park near anywhere else.

This review is based on our two most recent visits to Pho 88.  My wife tends to crave pho even more often than I do, and during our most recent cold snap, she demanded it two nights in a row.  So like a good husband, we went two nights in a row!

The first night, we both ordered pho.  She likes the simple pho tai, with thin-sliced rare beef eye round.  I prefer the pho dặc biệt combination with the rare beef slices plus fatty brisket, well-done flank steak, dense and chewy meatballs, and soft, chewy, rich tendon.  Tendon and book tripe almost always come together, and while I must admit the texture of tripe doesn’t do much for me, I never ask them to hold it.  Here is my bowl, after I tore up several basil leaves and added them in.  These are HUGE bowls, by the way.  20181129_185826_resized

Instagram-hip foodies love to get the shot of pulling perfect noodles out of a perfect bowl of pho.  Most of you are already acquainted with the limitations of my phone camera, so apologies in advance for this action shot:
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On our second visit the next evening, my wife ordered her favorite pho tai again, but I decided to switch it up and get something spicy for the chilly night: a different kind of noodle soup called bún bò huế.  It contains thicker rice noodles than the vermicelli in pho, pork roll (similar to bologna, but chewier and cut thicker), well-done flank steak, lemongrass, and white and green onion in a rich, spicy, orangey-red broth.  It cleared up my sinuses and warmed my body from head to toe.20181130_184243_resized

Bun bo hue action shot:20181130_184359_resized

I am also a fan of banh mi sandwiches, which demonstrate the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine.  Served on a crusty baguette, my favorite banh mi includes a variety of pork-based cold cuts and is served with a spread of butter and liver pate on each side of the roll, cool, shredded pickled carrot and daikon radish, refreshing sprigs of fresh cilantro, and spicy slices of fresh (never jarred) jalapeno peppers.  Best of all, these sandwiches are usually quite cheap, often $4 or $5.  Pho 88 is one of the few Orlando Vietnamese restaurants that serves banh mi as well as pho, so I’ll often order a banh mi as an appetizer, devour half there, and save the other half for later.  I did NOT order a banh mi with my soup two nights in a row, just that first night.  20181129_184836_resized

Well, we’re over halfway into February and our local weather is already back into the 80s, but like I said, pho hits the spot year-round at Pho 88.

Tin & Taco

As much as I love going to concerts, I don’t attend many of them anymore, because they make me feel old.  Especially at the venues in downtown Orlando, I get stressed out finding convenient parking, get annoyed paying for parking, and dread standing still in the same spot for hours at general admission venues.  Of course I always end up having a great time, even if I’m stiff and sore later.  I might be an altacocker, but I’m not dead yet!

Anyway, I decided to grab dinner before the last show I attended: the incredible singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Neko Case, a prolific artist I have adored for over 15 years and seen live once before.   I arrived early (as usual), parked in a lot around the corner from the club, and had a nice and easy pre-show meal at Tin & Taco (http://tinandtaco.com/), one of Orlando’s many newer taco joints that have sprung up over the last few years.

The downtown Tin & Taco restaurant is a small, tight space.  You order at the counter, move down to pay and choose your drinks (a wide assortment of beers and Stubborn brand sodas), and then take a seat at one of the indoor high-top tables or the lower outdoor tables on the patio.  There isn’t much of a view on Washington Avenue, and I was flying solo, so I opted to sit inside.  My order was ready in mere minutes, and they brought it right over to me.

But I have jumped ahead!  You have several options to choose from, most of which cost a very reasonable $8:

  • two tacos (you can mix and match them),
  • a bowl with rice,
  • a burrito with rice (these looked huge),
  • a salad,
  • a wrap (the menu clarifies the wrap as “a salad in a tortilla,” so I guess a burrito minus rice plus greens), or
  • in a small bag of Doritos, kind of like the “Frito pies” that are a popular outdoor food in Texas.

But as much as I love Doritos, the bags looked really tiny (like those “fun-size” bags for little kids’ lunches or the sad vending machines when you’re trapped at a mechanic or a police station), so I went with tacos to capitalize on the variety and sample Tin & Taco’s tortillas.  In fact, they let you get three tacos for $11, so I saved a dollar!  I’m always trying to find bargains and share them with you, Saboscrivnerinos!

So my three tacos were:

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Al Pastor Style (left): slow and low braised shredded pork with shredded lettuce, pineapple pico de gallo, mango pineapple vinaigrette, and cotija cheese.  This one was my first choice because I love tacos al pastor (even though I realize this wasn’t real, authentic al pastor sliced off a spit), but I ate it last.  It was delicious, but rather sweet from the pineapple chunks in the pico and the mango pineapple vinaigrette.  It was almost like a dessert after the other two tacos, but I’m not complaining, because I love salty, spicy, and sweet flavors combined together.

Mac Attack (center): angus ground beef with craft beer queso macaroni and cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and green onions.  Delicious, with good quality, creamy mac and cheese and nice, crispy bacon pieces.  The seasoned ground beef was much more flavorful than I expected — this isn’t Taco Bell!

Tacosaurus (right): angus ground beef with shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, shredded jack and cheddar cheeses, cotija cheese, crushed Doritos, and Southwest sauce.  I’m still not sure what the Southwest sauce was, since I ate it in such a hurry, but I liked it a lot.  And I am always a fan of putting chips in sandwiches, so I was happy about the flavor, color, and especially the crunchy texture from the crushed Doritos.

Close-ups:

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They also have several more variations with the angus ground beef and braised shredded pork, even more shredded chicken taco options (but chicken is usually blander and dryer than beef and pork, from my taco experiences elsewhere), as well as a vegetarian option with black beans, corn, and quinoa.

These were definitely flour tortillas, but I could tell they were fresh and not some gross shelf-stable tortillas out of a bag from the supermarket.  I contacted Tin & Taco the next day to confirm, and they told me “We use a local supplier so that our tortillas can be as fresh/tasty as possible.  We then grill a blend of grated cheese on the shell in house to give it a range of flavors as well as support for the heavy amount of ingredients.”  I noticed the crispy, crunchy shredded cheese on the bottoms of the tortillas, which I thought was just a happy accident for me and not part of their master plan.  Well played, Tin & Taco!

And by the way, the tacos were served on metal (tin) trays, hence the name.  I think it’s a little weird when people online complain about metal trays in restaurants.  What’s the problem?  They can keep washing them and using them forever, and it beats having more plastic around.  Someone online once compared them to prison food trays, but all I know is that if shit ever jumps off at Tin & Taco, we’ll all be ready for it!

I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect from Tin & Taco.  I chose it out of convenience and because people on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook had good things to say about it, but I wondered if it was just going to be greasy, mediocre “drunk food,” meant for snack-outs before or after black-outs.

But I was impressed by the amount of food I got for my eleven bucks, the blends of flavors, textures, and colors, and how well everything worked together.  I ended up liking all three of my tacos a lot.  I CHOSE WISELY!  At $3.66 each, they were a decent value, but much larger than the more traditional tacos at more authentic taquerias, which are usually served on smaller corn tortillas with just some diced onions and cilantro as toppings.  These are very American tacos, which goes without saying, but as a pre-concert meal, they totally hit the spot.  I don’t know if I’d rush back to Tin & Taco and pay $10 to park next to it, but it’s a fantastic, fast, fresh, and affordable option if you’re hanging out downtown.  And if I hung out downtown more, I’d definitely work it into my regular restaurant rotation.

P.S.  As I expected and feared, I ended up standing in one place the whole time at the concert, so I was stiff and sore as I wrote this review later that night.  On top of that, a burly bouncer threatened to kick me out for having my phone out, and this was before the opening act even came to the stage!  They were nuts about phones that night, and you could tell the crowd was becoming ill at ease, not wanting to get in trouble but feeling that FOMO feeling and desperately wanting to check our phones (again, before the opening act and between the acts, not during the performances like sociopaths!).  But it was all worthwhile, because the legendary Neko Case amazed and astonished as always, and I got to try new tacos!

Chef Wang’s Kitchen

On my recent trip to Orlando’s Chinatown, on West Colonial Drive west of downtown, I stopped by Zero Degrees for a snack and some sweet drinks, and then I went on to bring home some takeout from Chef Wang’s Kitchen (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Chef-Wangs-Kitchen/1957726267879134), a well-regarded Chinese restaurant in the same shopping center as Zero Degrees.  Once again, this was a whole new area I was exploring, too far from work to jet off to for lunch, but it came highly recommended.

I ordered beef chow fun, one of my favorite Chinese dishes anywhere, with tender beef, onions, scallions, and wide, flat, chewy noodles.  After including the beef chow fun from Peter’s Kitchen, another fantastic local Chinese restaurant, in my Orlando Weekly Top Five Dishes of 2017 column, I am always on the lookout for other restaurants’ versions of this classic.  Chef Wang’s did not disappoint.  Now I always ask to hold the bean sprouts in everything, as I’ve never been that big a fan of those crunchy little things, and it makes a hugely positive difference for me.

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My wife requested cashew chicken for herself, stir-fried with onions and bell peppers in a thick, sweet-ish sauce.  I’m not big on nuts in anything, but this was much tastier and more satisfying than I expected, considering I finished it for her a few days later.  (She is not big on leftovers, whereas I live for them.)

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I also ordered us a very generous portion of pan-fried pork dumplings, which were terrific.

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And after almost a year of hype, what finally made me drop everything and schlep across town to Chef Wang’s: the BEEF KNISH.  Yes, dear readers, you heard it here first.  There’s a stereotype that American Jews love Chinese food, and many of us do.  For me and so many family members and friends, a Jewish Christmas involves going out to see a movie and getting Chinese food on Christmas Day.  My family and I have never kept kosher, but despite the prevalence of pork and shellfish in Chinese food, I have often wondered why there isn’t more crossover between Americanized Chinese and American Jewish cuisines.  But now there’s a BEEF KNISH.

The order comes with two knishes, made fresh to order.  Each one is about four inches diameter and a good inch thick, with a soft, chewy, doughy shell and a filling of hot (not spicy) tender beef seasoned with some chives, onions, and garlic.

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Here’s one of them after I took a bite.  I gotta tell you, at first I was shocked by how much liquid came pouring out when I bit into it.  It drenched my plate and hand!  At first I was wondering if these would be like xiao long bao, the infamous soup dumplings that apparently nobody in Orlando serves, but so many local foodies lust after.  But no, this was not exactly a soup shower, but a grease geyser!  Don’t get me wrong, these cross-cultural delights were delicious, and also an engineering marvel in how the perfectly-sealed baked dough shell didn’t allow for any leaking liquid.

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I have to say, Orlando absolutely kills it with Chinese food.  We have Chef Wang’s Kitchen and Taste of Chengdu (really creative and spicy Szechuan cuisine) both west of downtown on Colonial, my old favorites Chuan Lu Garden (also Szechuan) and Peter’s Kitchen east of downtown on Colonial along with old stand-by Tasty Wok, and Yummy House in Altamonte Springs.  They’re all worthwhile and worth visiting, and all a cut above your shopping plaza storefronts or mall food court Chinese places.  Chef Wang’s is great, and in great company.

Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe

For Orlando residents in the know, even though we have hot and hip foodie neighborhoods like Mills 50, the Milk District, and Winter Park, one of our most up-and-coming areas is Sanford, about half an hour north of downtown Orlando, in Seminole County.  Sanford boasts a quaint, picturesque, historic downtown area of its own, with plenty of exciting restaurants, bars, and breweries along its cobblestone streets to tempt and tantalize anyone who appreciates good meals and tasty beverages.

Maybe downtown Sanford’s most beloved culinary destination is the German restaurant Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe (https://www.hollerbachs.com/).  Theo Hollerbach has expanded his empire into a very good German market and deli (Magnolia Square Market), and even a clothing store for all your lederhosen and dirndl needs.  But the restaurant is the main draw, a place to drink giant beers (if that’s your thing) and eat heaping plates of hearty, delicious food in a fun, festive, casual atmosphere.

Ze Germans have so many polysyllabic words that fit very specific situations and feelings, and the one they all take to heart at Hollerbach’s is gemütlichkeit, “a sense of well being one feels when enjoying the company of friends and family while savoring good food and drink.”  You might not be able to pronounce it, especially after one of those aforementioned giant beers, but you will definitely feel it.

It doesn’t get much more fun or festive than this huge, soft, fresh Bavarian pretzel, which is served with with delicious sweet mustard (remember, the Saboscrivner is a mustard aficionado!) and savory, spicy beer-cheese spread called obadza.  The two of us didn’t finish the whole thing, although we easily could have.  Luckily, my wife isn’t into condiments, dips, sauces, or spreads, so more mustard and obadza for me!dsc01773

At Hollerbach’s, I will usually order some combination of wurst (sausages), which are often just a mustard delivery system for me.  But for our most recent lunch, I tried something new, and I’m so glad I did.  This is eisbein, a skinless, bone-in pork shank, roasted to rich, tender perfection.  The bone slid right out with no meat attached to it, and I could practically cut it with my fork!  It made me so happy.dsc01775

All the sides at Hollerbach’s are terrific, but I got mine with excellent sauerkraut (served warm with bacon, onions, and apples, and sweeter than what you’re used to on hot dogs) and potato salad (also served warm, with applewood smoked bacon, onions, pickles and vinegar, and sweeter and tangier than most potato salad you’ve had before).  Obviously the sides were very complementary, and both worked well with the rich pork.  This German mustard was quite spicy and helped open up my sinuses!

My wife always orders her favorite dish at Hollerbach’s: pork schnitzel, pounded flat and tender, coated in a cracker crumb breading, and pan-fried.  She loves it with spätzle, which are buttery, cheesy, chewy homemade dumplings.  For the uninitiated, they are kind of like tiny, uneven-textured, golden, buttery, pan-fried gnocchi.  dsc01774

They have a huge covered patio, and on cool, sunny days, we love to sit outside to eat, people-watch, and especially dog-watch.  They almost always feature live music — usually a singing guitarist on the patio when we go for lunch on weekends, and a traditional German musical duo, Jimmy and Eckhard, that performs in the evenings, when people hoist their enormous beer steins and the place becomes a lot more raucous.

Hollerbach’s has beautiful cakes and other desserts that always tempt us, but this time, we walked directly across the street for my favorite ice cream in the Orlando area at Wondermade.  I will have to review them some other time, but trust me — they have damn fine ice cream.  But I really need to make it back, because my wife was too full and tired to head back around the corner to Hollerbach’s Magnolia Square Market, one of the best places around to buy sausages, salami, and other cured meats, as well as baked goods and other German groceries.  An ethnic market with cured meats?  That’s Saboscrivner heaven, friends.

The Coop

John Rivers has built a successful restaurant empire from right here in the Orlando area, starting with his first, tiny 4 Rivers Smokehouse location in Winter Park that grew into an empire throughout Florida and even beyond.  We love 4 Rivers for barbecue, and I will get around to reviewing it here eventually, even though we’ve been there countless times over the last decade.

Mr. Rivers founded The Coop (https://asouthernaffair.com/), his Southern home-cookin’ restaurant, back in 2014, also in Winter Park.  I made it our goal to be there on opening day, and my wife and I were within the first 20 or so people lined up for lunch that first day.  At some point they started serving breakfast, and one morning a few years back, we met John Rivers, the man himself.  We had to gush a bit over how much we love 4 Rivers and The Coop, and I can tell you he could not have been friendlier, more down-to-Earth, more humble, or more welcoming.  He even treated us to breakfast that morning, which he did NOT have to do.  He does a lot of charitable work with these restaurants as well, and is an all-around mensch.

Anyway, The Coop serves some of the best fried chicken in Orlando and all kinds of down-home Southern sides and other dishes.  Chicken and waffles?  Chicken and dumplings?  Roasted chicken?  Shrimp and grits?  Fried seafood?  Pimento cheese?  Biscuits?  Cornbread?  Delicious breakfasts?  Decadent desserts?  You name it, they have it.

I have lost count of the times we’ve been there since it opened five years ago.  I have also brought my best friend from Miami there, and lots of co-workers as well.  This review is based on our two most recent visits.

Even though I love a good fried chicken thigh, The Coop’s roasted chicken is quite good, so I’ve been ordering it more often.  You can get a quarter- or half-chicken a la carte, or with two or three sides and a biscuit or cornbread.  I always get collard greens at The Coop and 4 Rivers.  Theirs are some of the best greens I’ve ever had.  They are slow-cooked with smoked pork, and I always add some generous dashes of pepper vinegar to them.  I can even drink the juice when I finish those greens, it is that delicious.  That square thing below is actually a biscuit, and it is flaky and rich.  Feel free to add butter, jam, syrup, or dip it in your meat juices or barbecue sauce, but it doesn’t need anything.coop1

Thighs and legs are my favorite parts of any bird, so I always go for the dark meat quarter chicken (or sometimes the half, if I’m hungry enough).  The skin is attached, brushed with barbecue sauce or some kind of sweet glaze but not smoked like the chicken at 4 Rivers.  It is always moist, juicy, and tender.  I asked for it with a side of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which might look like ranch and smell like ranch, but BROTHER, it ain’t ranch.  It is creamy, peppery, tangy, and subtly sweet, so it goes well with any kind of chicken, especially with that skin.  coop2

I also chose the side called “Hoppin’ John,” a Southern stew of rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra.  It is always okay, never quite as good as I think it’s going to be, but some people go gaga over this dish.  coop3

My wife loves fried catfish more than anyone I’ve ever met, so she vacillates between ordering fried chicken and catfish at The Coop.  She ordered catfish both of our last two visits, which comes with grits and hush puppies.  These are grits cooked the real, traditional way, as “NO SELF-RESPECTIN’ SOUTHERNER USES INSTANT GRITS.”  The Coop takes pride in its grits!

This was from one visit:coop4

And this was from a different visit.  This time, the hush puppies came out later, hot, crispy, and fresh.  She’s not so big on hush puppies, which is great, because I ate them, dipping them in the remoulade sauce that came with the catfish.  (She has never been into condiments or sauces or dipping things in other things, whereas I obsess over that.)20190103_125257_resized

As for me, I switched things around and created a new dish.  I’m not wild about grits, believe it or not, which is ironic because I love the way shrimp is prepared in shrimp and grits, that classic Low Country cuisine dish from the Carolinas and Georgia, stewed with salty, smoky andouille sausage and sometimes tasso ham.  Totally kosher, am I right?

I had a crazy idea, but I didn’t know if they would let me get away with it.  I asked if I could get the shrimp with something other than grits, and the patient girl told me that some people get the shrimp ladled over white rice.  I had other plans that day, and asked if I could get the shrimp over macaroni and cheese!  (The Coop has really nice, creamy macaroni and cheese, by the way.  It is never dried-out.)  She indulged me, and this is something they should seriously add to the menu, because it was forking amazing.  In fact, inspired by my bravado and culinary creativity, the older gentleman in line behind me requested the same thing!  Dear readers, have I become a dreaded “influencer”?  Say it ain’t so!20190103_124811_resized

And they always have beautiful cakes there, so my wife got this piece of chocolate cake wrapped up to go, which she loved.coop5

So yeah, come to The Coop for the excellent fried chicken, but stay for everything else!  Just don’t bother showing up on Sundays, because it is closed.  Of course, now I have incepted the idea into your heads that you will crave Coop food on Sundays, as we too often do.