The Saboscrivner’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

Man, it was hard to figure out ten movies I liked enough to make a Top Ten list this year!  For anyone who missed it, here’s my Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019.  Now on with the movies!

10. Always Be My Maybe — a romantic comedy starring and written by the insanely charismatic and funny Randall Park and Ali Wong, with a legendary appearance from a big-name actor you’ve probably already heard about.  I got to see Ali Wong do stand-up, opening for the great John Mulaney, before she even had a Netflix special, so I’m thrilled to have seen her explode since then.  And even though I never got into Randall Park’s sitcom, I’m thrilled he has a recurring role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is doing other things now.  This movie introduced me to the fact that he is a hell of a rapper, and I’m not joking about that.  Check this out and be amazed and astonished!  Dude has bars, and such a chill, laid-back flow that I just love.

9. John Wick 3: Parabellum — as long as they keep making these, I’ll keep going, even as they get progressively more ridiculous.  This one had kung fu, gun fu, knife fu, dog fu, and horse fu.

8. Under the Silver Lake — a trippy, meandering film about an amateur detective (or maybe just a creeper?) trying to find a missing girl in Los Angeles.  It contained one of my favorite scenes in any movie this year (guess what I think it was, constant readers!), even if the whole thing doesn’t quite come together as well as I hoped.  It would be part of an amazing L.A. neo-noir film festival alongside The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and Inherent Vice.

7. Hustlers — this was the one about the gang of strippers seducing, occasionally drugging, and robbing Wall Street guys, based on a true story detailed in a New York Magazine article.  Though written and directed by a woman, Lorene Scafaria, it felt a lot like a Martin Scorsese movie, and makes a perfect companion piece to his similarly-structured Wolf of Wall Street.  I didn’t expect to like either movie all that much, but surprised myself by how much I enjoyed both, despite the characters’ amorality.  At least in Hustlers, you understood what drove the women to do what they did,  and probably even rooted for their “found family” until they took things too far (as characters always do in movies like this).  But the cast was great, especially Jennifer Lopez, who hasn’t been this good in anything since Out of Sight.  My only complaint was that Lizzo had a tiny cameo, and I was hoping to see much more of her in the movie.  Feel free to take that however you want.

6. Deadwood: The Movie — one of my favorite shows of all time ended abruptly 14 years ago, so to get this movie and spend a little more time in the Black Hills with these characters was a real gift.  Deadwood featured a murderer’s row of amazing character actors, so if you love Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, and John Hawkes, you owe it to yourself to start at the beginning of the series, and cap off the experience with this movie.  It was bittersweet, focusing on how much time had aged these hard-living men and women, especially since the brilliant writer and showrunner, David Milch, revealed he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease right before the movie came out on HBO.  Did I cry?  You bet I did.

5. Booksmart — a delightful and kind-hearted comedy about two overachieving best friends getting ready to graduate high school and figuring out what comes next in their lives.  So many comedies have a mean streak and love to humiliate and debase their characters, but Olivia Wilde’s film found empathy for everyone — these two girls who spent so much time planning their futures that they lost the opportunity to live as teenagers, and the other kids who somehow excelled in school while having a blast.  In the end, innocence was lost, lessons were learned, and everyone walked away better off, with new understandings about each other and themselves as well.  How often does that happen?  Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd stole the movie with every scene she was in.  I’m expecting big things from her in the future.

4. Dolemite Is My Name — another good and kind comedy, but also loud, raunchy, and hilarious.  After ruling the ’80s with the unassailable and unmatched hot streak of Saturday Night Live –> 48 Hours –> Delirious –> Trading Places –> Beverly Hills Cop –> Raw –> Beverly Hills Cop II –> Coming to America, Eddie Murphy’s career was never quite the same, after too many forgettable, family-friendly flops.  But this was a return to form for one of our most charismatic comic actors of all time, playing a lesser-known comedy legend, Rudy Ray Moore.  The story of how Moore honed his foul-mouthed stand-up persona and got the ultra-low budget Dolemite film made is heart-warming and inspiring, but you’ll be laughing the entire time, I promise.  Plus, it’s on Netflix, so it’s free!

3. Knives Out — Rian Johnson has yet to make a less-than-great movie (check out The Brothers Bloom and Brick if you haven’t!), and this whodunnit is insanely intricate, clever, and funny, with an old fashioned-feeling premise that still comes across as super-relevant in 2019.  It has a star-studded cast full of actors that even your parents will probably enjoy watching, often playing against type (Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Daniel Craig stealing the show as a character I hope we see in future movies), and it’s a star-making performance for Ana de Armas.  But that script was breathtaking, with so many twists and turns, precision gears that move in perfect clockwork.  The big reveal is another one of my favorite scenes in any movie this year, and once again, it shows that kindness and empathy can triumph over greed and selfishness.

2. Motherless Brooklyn — my favorite neo-noir since 1997’s L.A. Confidential, which is probably my third-favorite movie of all time (after Casablanca and Ghostbusters).  This was a passion project for writer/director/star Edward Norton (one of my favorite actors), who apparently made a lot of changes from the original novel.  I hated to see this movie come and go from theaters without making a big cultural impact, but I loved every minute of it.  It’s a 1950s period piece with a killer cast (including Gugu Mbatha-Raw from “San Junipero,” the only Black Mirror episode I’ve liked), but just like Knives Out, the mystery feels incredibly relevant for modern times.  (Wait for the villain to be revealed and make his big speech!  That’s what I call meta-casting!)  Also like Knives Out, it also features another protagonist who is a genuinely good guy — not an antihero, not a rogue, not a bad person who does bad things that somehow work out for the best.

1. Avengers: Endgame (as if there was any doubt!) — the culmination of eleven years and 22 movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s grand finale brought so much emotional resonance and catharsis, especially after the shocking (if you don’t read comic books) ending of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  This movie had everything: new life, tragic death, wacky time travel capers, some of the most rousing and badass action sequences we’ve seen so far, heroic self-sacrifices, true love, hope for the future, and (spoiler alert!), good triumphing over the ultimate evil.  It has been a hell of a decade, and whether you call these Marvel movies “theme park rides” or “comfort food” or “focus group-friendly popcorn entertainment” or “legitimate cinema,” they clearly tapped into the zeitgeist, gave audiences what we needed, and sent us home happy.  Not every Marvel movie nails the formula, but Endgame was the perfect culmination of everything Kevin Feige, the Russo Brothers, and other creators had built together.  I laughed A LOT.  I sure as hell cried a lot too — both sad and happy tears.  Hell, I’m getting choked up just thinking about a few of those classic moments, especially the ending.  All the characters got a chance to shine, especially my favorites.  This is probably my favorite of all the Marvel movies, and it felt like the perfect ending to all of it.  Of course we already know it wasn’t (nothing ever really ends), but I don’t know how they’re ever going to top this one.

The Saboscrivner’s Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019

Living in the age of Peak TV is exhausting, because there is almost too much quality programming to keep up with.  Television has gotten so good that former favorites from recent years like Mindhunter, Killing Eve, Big Mouth, Stranger Things, Arrested Development, and the final season of Game of Thrones didn’t even crack my Top Twenty list!

So here goes nothing.  I’ll start with my #20-11 shows of 2019:

20. I Am the Night (miniseries; TNT)
19. Barry (season 2; HBO)
18. South Side (season 1; Comedy Central)
17. Russian Doll (season 1; Netflix)
16. Wu-Tang: An American Saga (season 1; Hulu)
15. The Umbrella Academy (season 1; Netflix)
14. iZombie (season 5; CW)
13. Bosch (season 5; Amazon Prime)
12. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (season 3; Amazon Prime)
11. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (season 1; Netflix)

And now, more detailed descriptions for the Top Ten:

10. Dead to Me (season 1; Netflix) — this show makes the list for the career-best acting of Christina Applegate (who I never thought could be this good) and Linda Cardellini (who I wasn’t that familiar with, so shame on me).  The twist happens early, so what’s left is a complicated character study of two flawed and broken women and their strange bond.  It’s coming back for a second season, but even if it didn’t get picked up, I think it ended on a good note.

9. Fosse/Verdon (miniseries; FX) — I love learning the history of music and culture I missed out on, so this was an educational look at the careers of talented, troubled theater and film director/producer/writer/choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife and muse, dancer/actress Gwen Verdon.  I loved the movie version of Chicago, and this summer, my wife and saw it on Broadway, caught up in Fossemania (a Fosse frenzy?) after this miniseries gave us a look behind its scenes.  It was also some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from Sam Rockwell (one of my favorite actors) and Michelle Williams (someone else I wasn’t that familiar with, so shame on me).

8. Veronica Mars (season 4; Hulu) — a pure nostalgia bomb, bringing us back to the seedy beach town of Neptune, the tiny and tenacious blonde private eye, my favorite fictional father Keith Mars, and a lot more mysteries, quips, danger, and heartache.  It was nice to see these characters one more time, some of them for the last time… but I have a feeling (more like a hope in my heart) that we still have more cases to solve with Veronica and Keith.

7. The Good Place (seasons 3 and 4; NBC) — we got the last few excellent episodes of Season 3 in January, and then the majority of Season 4 this fall.  I feel like they spent a lot of time treading water so far in the final season, especially introducing some unlikable new characters near the end, taking time away from the core six we have come to know and love.  But this smart, sweet, clever, hilarious, hopeful, good-natured show has earned plenty of goodwill from me, and I look forward to the last few episodes when it returns in January 2020.  I have no doubt it will stick the landing and give us an unforgettable tearjerker of a finale, while still teaching us college-level philosophy and making us think about becoming better people.

6. Doom Patrol (season 1; DC Universe) — one of two comic book adaptations in my Top Ten, this show is about people with super powers, but instead of gifts or talents, they are presented as disabilities.  The Doom Patrol members aren’t heroes by choice, but trauma survivors, broken and damaged people who form a “found family” and deal with existential threats to reality itself.  It was a remarkably accurate adaptation of Grant Morrison’s classic Doom Patrol comics of the late ’80s and early ’90s, with excellent production value and fun acting by Diane Guerrero (another pleasant surprise as Crazy Jane, a woman with 64 alternate personalities, each with their own powers), Timothy Dalton, Brendan Fraser (we missed him!), Matt Bomer (this dude should have played Superman), and the always-great Alan Tudyk as one of the most entertaining, most terrifying villains in a long time.

5. Fleabag (season 2; Amazon Prime) — first of all, I really don’t care for British comedy.  I often find it either too dry, smug, or mean-spirited.  Yes, including that one that you love.  But I enjoyed the first season of Fleabag well enough, and really liked the first season of Killing Eve, written by Fleabag’s creator, writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  But after Fleabag Season 2 won all these awards and accolades, I gave it a chance here, at the very end of 2019, and binged the all six episodes in one night — the very night I’m writing this Top Ten list.  (Luckily they’re only about 25 minutes each.)  It was outstanding — streets ahead of the first season.  So funny, sad, clever, and cathartic, even ending with a bit of hope.  Waller-Bridge is so incredibly talented and funny (she even salvaged the usually execrable Saturday Night Live this season), and I’ll be on board for whatever she does next.  Hopefully it will have more asides and knowing looks to the audience.

4. Sherman’s Showcase (season 1; IFC) — this is a high concept comedy, cats and kittens: Sherman’s Showcase (a show within a show) is a loving homage to Soul Train and other musical variety shows, and it has been running continuously since the 1970s, hosted by the mysteriously ageless Sherman McDaniels.  The Sherman’s Showcase we watch is a collection of clips highlighting the fake show’s almost 50-year history, featuring hilarious musical homages that stand on their own as great, catchy songs that SLAP (including a weirdly prophetic song called “Time Loop” that might have deeper significance to the narrrative).  There are also interview segments, fake commercials, movie and TV parodies, surreal sketches, and plenty of running gags.  Co-creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle (who also created the great new Comedy Central sitcom South Side, which made my Top Twenty) are brilliant, drawing their influence from those old Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime specials I have very vague childhood memories of, as well as half a century of popular music and variety shows.

3. Ken Burns’ Country Music (miniseries; PBS) — I doubt this eight-part documentary miniseries will end up on many other “Best TV Shows of 2019” lists, but I loved it.  I’ve spent most of my life listening to, playing, and learning everything I could about rock and jazz music, got deep into hip hop later in my life, but made it pretty far without ever giving country, that other major American musical genre, much of a fair chance.  There’s so much awful country music, especially now, but to be fair, there is plenty of awful rock and hip hop too — especially now.  This documentary took us back to the early 20th Century and introduced me to a lot of the names and songs I’ve heard my whole life, only with more historical context and framework to better appreciate the songwriting, the musicianship, and the evolution of the sounds and styles.  I’ve always loved Johnny Cash, but now I’ve embraced Patsy Cline, Hank Williams (not Junior!), the Western swing of Bob Wills, and lots of other twangy crooners, honky tonk angels, and outlaw poets.  My favorite decades of country music are the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but even now, there are great modern artists to be discovered, like Margo Price, Orville Peck, and Kacey Musgraves (and that’s not even getting into the virtuoso musicians in folk, bluegrass, and Americana).  I feel like I just audited a brilliant college course on country music, and I have more of an appreciation for it than I ever dreamed possible.  Plus, the documentary introduced me to this bit of pure sunshine: a young Dolly Parton performing “Mule Skinner Blues”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fwc1FkkWulc
Even if you think country music sucks (like I once did, not having been exposed the really cool old stuff), I think this would be awfully hard to not fall in love with.

2. Star Trek: Discovery (season 2; CBS All Access) — I admit it, I’ve never been the biggest Star Trek fan.  Sure, Captain Kirk was a cool dude, and William Shatner used to be pretty amusing.  And Picard was awesome, but the shows in general left me cold.  I wanted to be a Trekkie; I WISHED I was a Trekkie.  But now, I finally found the Star Trek that made it all click for me: Discovery.  I subscribed to CBS All Access for a month and binge-watched both seasons of Star Trek: Discovery over the course of two weeks.  Last year’s Season 1 (co-created by the great Bryan Fuller, the creative genius behind Hannibal) looked gorgeous, with the nicest production value I’ve ever seen on a Star Trek show, and it introduced us to a compelling cast of characters and an interesting status quo, set shortly before the events of the original series from the ’60s.  I also appreciated that it was a serialized narrative, which I’m not used to from Star Trek, but perfect in this age of prestige television.  This year’s Season 2 was even better, improving on the first season in every way.  It introduced my favorite Star Trek captain ever, who is probably my fictional boss of all time.  (I’ve worked for a few toxic, bullying bosses, so I honestly get choked up whenever I see a capable, competent, courageous, patient, kind, loyal boss in any media.)  The show had so many twists and turns, a surprising amount of tension-relieving humor, and so much empathy, heroism, and heart.  My wife and I laughed a lot and cried far more than we ever would have expected.  In a year full of ups and downs, dizzying highs and terrifying lows, Discovery was the show I had no idea how much I needed.

1. Watchmen (season 1; HBO) — who watches the Watchmen?  There was no reason for it to exist.  The twelve issue series by legendary writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons is often considered the greatest comic book of all time.  It already got one adaptation back in 2009, a pretty, but flawed, movie directed by Zack Snyder.  While Watchmen really required a long-form TV adaptation on a channel like HBO to do it justice, it didn’t seem necessary, and fans were skeptical.  I was skeptical!  But I should have had more faith in showrunner Damon Lindelof, co-creator of two of my favorite shows of all time, Lost and The Leftovers.  He didn’t give us a straight adaptation of the comic, but an audacious sequel, set 35 years after the events of the graphic novel (which was set in 1985).  It ended up a brilliant and ambitious epic about America’s fraught history of racism (starting with the Tulsa massacre of 1921, which I never learned about in school, even as the son of a history teacher), generational trauma, the dangers that come from vigilantism and self-appointed saviors and people wearing masks, and how the sins of our ancestors continue to affect us and threaten the world itself.  We caught up with some old faces from the original comic, but our point of view character in this strange alternate 2019 was the unforgettable Sister Night, aka Angela Abar, played by the great Regina King.  Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Hong Chau, and Jeremy Irons were also excellent in their roles.  This series included the single best TV episode of the year: the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being.”  (But don’t you dare watch it out of order!)  I was blown away by how good Watchmen turned out to be, defying any and all expectations and truly surprising everyone with what we were going to see on our screens every week.  In this age of binge-watching everything, with entire seasons of shows dropping on streaming services at once, Watchmen reminded us of the joy of watching a new episode every week, giving us time to ruminate and analyze and read reviews and craft theories about what the hell is going on.  It was a very nice touch to have supplemental readings available every week on the HBO website, fleshing out the world of Watchmen after each episode with additional world-building details.  Up above, I mentioned that Star Trek: Discovery was the show I didn’t realize how much I needed.  Well, Watchmen was the show I didn’t realize how much I wanted.  Ultimately, it edged out Discovery on my list because it was so unpredictable, in the best possible way.  If this is the only season we ever get (and it might be), it more than accomplished everything it set out to do, and the ending really satisfied.

And since you made it to the end, here are my Top Ten Movies of 2019.

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro (https://peterskitchencb.business.site/)  opened in late 2017, and quickly made a splash on the Orlando Foodie Forum.  It developed a loyal following for its orange chicken, of all dishes — that syrupy-sweet, Americanized comfort food synonymous with mall food courts and greasy take-out places.  But Peter’s elevated the orange chicken and made it sing.  That’s what they do at this comfortable sit-down spot on East Colonial Drive, a former “cursed location” that they took over and made into a beloved local success over the last two years.

I first went there in December 2017, shortly after it opened, and met some new friends from the Foodie Forum there for lunch.  We ordered a veritable feast and shared everything, including that awe-inspiring orange chicken ($10.95) and lots of dim sum.
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I also introduced these new friends to one of my favorite Chinese-American dishes: beef chow fun ($13.50) — tender strips of beef and the greatest chewy wide noodles, stir-fried with onions, green onions, bean sprouts (not my favorite, so I ask them to hold the bean sprouts), and a soy-based sauce (I’m assuming) with the slightest bit of sweetness to it.  It’s a little greasy, but a truly perfect dish.  It is the best version of beef chow fun in Orlando, and I even listed it among my Top Five favorite dishes in Orlando in 2017, in the Orlando Weekly.20180604_171352_resized

In addition to the regular menu, Peter’s features a dim sum menu that’s available daily, except they only push the dim sum carts around the restaurant on weekends.  On that first visit, a Foodie Forum friend introduced me to some of the wonders of dim sum, including slippery, chewy rice paste, here served with shrimp and drizzled with soy sauce (which I think had something else mixed into it):
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Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor!  From a later visit with my wife, this is the butter lobster (the dreaded market price) — a self-explanatory name for a truly rich and special dish, worthy of celebrations.  The lobsters are alive, furtively pacing around in tanks, perhaps contemplating their fates.  The unlucky crustacean is served fresh, broken apart, easy to spear and slide the meat out of the shell.  It is shiny with garlic and butter, easily one of my favorite lobster dishes I’ve ever had anywhere (not that I’m some fancy boy who eats lobster all the time; I can count the times I’ve sat down to a meal of lobster on my fingers and still have some left over).*  20180604_171945_resized*Fingers left over, not lobster.

On my most recent trip, I brought home takeout.  My wife had requested orange chicken from somewhere, and despite the ubiquity of this sweet, sticky, greasy dish in storefront Chinese restaurants and mall food courts everywhere, I remain convinced Peter’s Kitchen serves the best version of orange chicken anywhere.

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I can’t go to Peter’s without ordering beef chow fun.  I also won my wife over on this dish, and we split this portion over the course of two or three days.DSC02740

On this last takeout trip, I brought home some more dim sum too:

She requested and loved sesame balls ($3.25), filled with a subtly sweet red bean paste:DSC02743
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I’ve ordered these baked roast pork pies ($4.95) before, but the last photo I had of them was really blurry, and I know people already think I’m a crummy photographer.  I ordered them again for YOU, constant readers:DSC02744

The crust is flaky like an traditional American-style pie crust, and the roast pork is sweet, sort of like char siu.
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My wife also wanted these crispy taro dumplings ($3.85), which were stuffed with ground pork, surrounded by the soft, light-purple taro layer and then a crispy exterior, but neither of us loved them.  They reminded me a bit of Cuban papas rellenas, the crispy fried mashed potato balls stuffed with seasoned ground beef called picadillo.  But I like my papas rellenas much better than these.DSC02741

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Oh well, you can’t win them all, but at Peter’s Kitchen, chances are you’re going to like almost everything on the menu, if not everything.

I almost always end up with baked egg custard tarts ($3.85) for dessert, and got my wife hooked on them:
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So these photos were taken over a handful of visits over the last two years, but mostly from a recent takeout order that fed us for days.  I’m so glad Peter’s Kitchen is serving some of Orlando’s best Chinese food, and that they’ve turned a “cursed location” into a can’t-miss culinary destination.  And it’s so close to my job as well, which is a bonus for me.

I got restaurant reviews in the Orlando Weekly again!

For the third year in a row, I was honored to submit some of my favorite dishes of the year to the Orlando Weekly, which got published in its final issue of 2019:

https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/the-eight-best-orlando-dishes-of-2019/Content?oid=26523651

It was an even bigger honor for my picks to be mixed in with favorites of the Orlando Weekly‘s regular food writer Faiyaz Kara, who is my favorite food writer in Orlando, period.  They didn’t credit who wrote which ones, but I had three contributions, all from longer reviews I wrote on The Saboscrivner this year:

  • The Nashville hot chicken sandwiches from Swine & Sons.
  • The paccheri amatriciana pasta from Sette.
  • The pork sisig over garlic rice from Taglish.

This means the world to me, to see that some people have actually responded to my food writing, enough so that I can even reach beyond this blog.  I especially want to thank the Orlando Weekly‘s tireless Editor, Jessica Bryce Young, for offering me these opportunities.

And here are links to my favorite dishes from 2018 and 2017, also published in the Orlando Weekly.

Lechonera El Barrio

Maybe the best lunch value to be found in the Orlando area is at Lechonera El Barrio (https://www.facebook.com/Lechonera-El-Barrio-Restaurant-1519366968315699/), a small, modest cafeteria on Semoran Boulevard, located at 435 North Semoran, on the east side, between East Colonial Drive and State Road 408.  They serve huge, hearty, heaping helpings of heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban food at extremely low prices — perfect to pop into for a quick lunch to go, that can usually be turned into two or even three meals.  There are a few tables there, but I’ve never lingered.  It’s so close to work, I’m usually in and out, often picking up additional food for other co-workers to turn them into enduring fans of the place.  Even President Obama ate there, during a visit to Orlando for his 2012 campaign, and there is a photo on the wall to prove it, alongside several other (much) lower-profile celebrity guests.

Whether you’re eating in or taking out, food is served in styrofoam to-go boxes, with a medium costing $5 or a large costing $8.  I usually spring for the large, just because the leftovers heat up well, and I know my leftovers will never go to waste.  I never understand people who let their leftovers rot in our tiny break room fridge at work, or worse yet, “forget about them” at home.  To me, ignoring your restaurant leftovers is the equivalent of having a night of steamy romance and passion with a very hot partner of your preferred gender, but losing all interest in seeing them again for another tryst the following day.  WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?  But I digress.

First, you start out choosing your rice for the foundation of your giant food box: white (which is always more tender, fluffy, and buttery than the white rice I make at home in a rice cooker), yellow (even more buttery) with gandules (pigeon peas), or moros (white rice mixed with black beans; you’ll never be morose if you try it).
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I always try to time my rare visits for Fridays, because I know that’s when they’ll serve paella-style yellow rice mixed with seafood — bits of fish, shrimp with tails on, and even small bay scallops and mussels still in the shell, all stewed together with red bell peppers and peas.  That’s what I always go for.  Pardon the blurriness of this photo, taken through glass.  dsc02654.jpg

Then you can choose black or red beans, and while I like black beans (good Miami boy that I am), I almost always choose red beans, because they were never an option at the Cuban restaurants I grew up going to, and I like them even more.  I usually opt for my beans on the side in a separate container, even though I often pour them over my rice once I reach my final destination (usually our sad little break room at work, although I guess I made it sound more ominous than that).  You choose an entree after that, and then a side, which may include boiled yucca, tostones (crispy fried slices of unripe plantains), or maduros (sweet and sticky fried ripe plantains, one of my favorite foods in the world).

Entree choices include quartered or halved roasted rotisserie chickens marinated in garlicky mojo criollo, pernil (tender roast pork, often with delicious crispy bits of skin attached), pepper steak, costillas (ribs), and different stewed beef, chicken, pork, and even fish dishes.  Most people I know opt for white meat chicken, which occasionally disappoints due to sitting out a little too long and being dry.  I have much better luck with dark meat, but I rarely order the chicken here.  Pernil pork is almost always awesome, and I always ask (in my best awful Spanish) for pieces of that crispy skin.  I think once they had rabos (stewed oxtails), and I was in heaven, because I always love oxtail, whether it’s in Jamaican, Latin, or Asian recipes.
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But on my most recent visit, I was craving pastelon, a dish that’s kind of like Puerto Rican lasagna: layers of sweet plantains and seasoned ground beef, topped with a bechamel sauce and white cheese (mozzarella?), then baked into a casserole and served in large slices the size of Rubik’s cubes.  I got my pastelon with a large order of seafood paella rice, red beans on the side, and maduros, so I ended up with plantains and more plantains, and definitely engaged in some carb-loading.  It was a ton of delicious food for only $8.  DSC02658

Because I try to be a stand-up guy, on my way out the door, I asked three co-workers if they wanted anything, and two actually did.  Someone wanted a Cuban sandwich, which I was pleased to see they used the fresh pernil pork in, before pressing it on a sandwich press with the usual ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles.  It was a nice-sized sandwich for only $5, and I guarantee the pork was a lot fresher and higher-quality than it would be at lots of places that specialize in Cubanos.dsc02655.jpg

My other colleague asked for “mofongo and chicken,” and I failed to press for additional details, in my haste.  The mofongo — a mountain of mashed plantains mixed up with bits of chicharrones (pork fat and skin), garlic, and other seasonings — was prepared to order, so that took about ten minutes.  They served it with what looked like a quarter of the rotisserie chicken, most likely white meat, and only charged $6 for all of that!  I will now admit I’ve only ever had mofongo once, at a different restaurant, and wasn’t blown away.dsc02657.jpg

But our Friday only improved from there, because when I brought our food back to work, we did what I always hope my dining companions will want to do — we shared everything.  I got to sample the super-solid Cuban sandwich as well as the mofongo, which was much better from Lechonera El Barrio, helped immensely by pungent, vinegary, almost creamy, ridiculously good garlic sauce.  My one colleague who requested the mofongo joked that it’s pretty much an excuse to eat the garlic sauce, and I can totally see where she’s coming from with that.  Make sure you ask for it.  I’m going to request it from now on, even if I don’t order mofongo!  I also shared my pastelon, which seemed to go over well, and both ladies were brave enough to sample the morcilla sausage I asked for on the side, and seemed to like that too.

Morcilla is rich and savory blood sausage with a nice crispy casing and an interesting — but not unpleasant — gritty-but-soft texture.  Here it is in my little sampler with mofongo and part of the Cuban sandwich:dsc02659.jpg

Some foodies joke that they don’t always want to share their favorite spots because then everyone will go to them, but as a librarian, a nerd, and your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, I’m all about sharing information — and also sharing the love.  This is a small, locally-owned business you may have driven by dozens or hundreds of times and never thought to stop there.  You may be intimidated to go there if you don’t speak much Spanish.  (My Spanish is laughably bad, but I understand it much better than I can speak it, and I’m always able to end up with what I want by pointing, smiling, and nodding, when all else fails.)  They don’t even have a website or a menu online.  But Lechonera El Barrio is another one of those hidden treasures in Orlando.  It is not upscale, romantic, or hipster-cool.  It isn’t deconstructing, reinventing, or challenging cuisine.  It’s a cafeteria, and a very good one at that.  What it lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in value, quantity, and quality.  This is simple, tasty food, and you get so much of it.  Plus, you can be out the door quickly with enough food for two or three meals, for under $10.  That is a rare and wonderful thing.

Beefy King

Beefy King (http://beefyking.com/) is an Orlando legend and also a time capsule.  The sandwich shop was founded in 1968 and still stands proudly on Bumby Avenue, just south of Colonial Drive, in the “Milk District” neighborhood east of downtown Orlando.

The hours are:
Monday – Friday: 10:00 AM  – 5:30 PM (but the dining room closes at 3:00, so it’s drive-through only from 3:00 – 5:30)
Saturday: 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM
Sunday: Closeddsc02711.jpg

It was originally a local chain of six restaurants, but this is the only one that remains.  Three generations of owners later, they’re still doing things very much the same way after 50+ years: serving sandwiches of roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, barbecue beef and pork, turkey, and ham on soft, steamed kaiser rolls, alongside their legendary Beefy Spuds (think tater tots), onion rings, delicious chili, and more.DSC02707

Beefy King survived an arson attempt in November, so this feels like the right time to sing its praises, now that it has reopened for business.  It didn’t seem worse for the wear when I met a one of my favorite fellow foodie friends there for lunch the week after it had reopened.  This is why YOU COME AT THE KING, YOU BEST NOT MISS!

Here’s a roast beef sandwich ($4.55) served with steamed, diced onions — the classic sandwich around here.
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As you can see, it’s very juicy roast beef — much juicier and much less salty than Arby’s.  I added some creamy horseradish sauce, which comes in squeeze bottles and is delicious on anything and everything, but especially roast beef sandwiches.  dsc02071.jpg

Here’s another roast beef sandwich with spicy barbecue sauce.  (They have mild barbecue sauce too; don’t worry!)  The steaming process makes the kaiser rolls nice and soft too, which really works well.  DSC02074

This is an extra-large two-meat sandwich with pastrami and corned beef, plus melty white American cheese and steamed onions ($8.50).  I ended up adding some of that creamy horseradish to it, too.  They have mustard, but only the yellow kind, and this sandwich is too good for yellow mustard, if you ask me.  dsc02709.jpg

I’m a huge fan of Beefy King’s chili, full of meat, beans, tomatoes, onions, and peppers.  I always opt to get it with a slice of white American cheese that melts into it so nicely.  If you’ve had Wendy’s chili before, this is similar, but a hundred times better.DSC02075

RING THE ALARM!  Beefy King has onion rings that just cry out to be dipped in the mild or hot barbecue sauces or creamy horseradish sauce.
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And here are the golden-brown Beefy Spuds, also perfect for dipping.DSC02708DSC02076

Save room for a hand-spun milkshake!  Beefy King offers vanilla, chocolate, cherry, and my personal favorite, orange.  I skipped the orange shake this time, but I either regret ordering it or regret not ordering it.

Beefy King isn’t just a time capsule, despite being a real piece of classic Orlando that doesn’t have anything to do with “Mickey’s House.”  It’s even more than a great place to grab a quick, affordable lunch in Orlando’s Milk District (although between Beefy King, Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market, Bad As’s Sandwich, and Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I argue the city should officially rename it The Sandwich District).  It’s also a survivor.  To be the last remaining location from a small chain, and to have made it all these decades unchanged, even emerging like the proverbial phoenix after an arson attempt after 51 years, means it’s a living legend, an inimitable institution, the kind of restaurant all Orlando locals should experience for themselves.  When even culinary luminary Alton Brown and late-night laughing boy Jimmy Fallon know to seek it out, you know the word on the street is good.

The King is back.

Long live the King.

Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria

I’ve started going to a new pizzeria recently — or at least a new one for me.  I found out Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria (https://paradisorestaurantandpizzeria.com/) had been open for four years, and I had been driving past it almost every day, on Semoran Boulevard north of Colonial Drive.  (There is another, unrelated Paradiso somewhere else, but this is definitely the one at 1502 North Semoran, with the phone number 407-745-4226.)  It’s very close to where I work, and I’m glad to say it’s great.  I’ve been three times in the last two months, and will certainly keep returning and help spread the word.  If you crave large, thin, crispy, melty, gooey slices of New York-style pizza, Paradiso serves one of the best versions in Orlando.DSC02558

I brought home takeout on my first visit, and I couldn’t wait to get some of those slices ($2.25 each) back to share with my wife.  A lot of the time, pizza is never the same once you get it back home, because it steams in the box and loses that crispiness.  Not so with these beauties.  I always like ordering a few slices because the two of us definitely can’t finish a whole large pizza in one sitting, and it’s never as good the next day, even after a trip through the toaster oven.  The slices were fantastic.  Definitely one of the best examples of New York pizza in the city.
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I had to try Paradiso’s Sicilian pizza as well, since that is a lifelong favorite of mine, and far too rare.  These slices ($2.99 each) were crispy too, but they didn’t have the doughy softness I look for, in combination with the crispiness.  Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed these immensely, but I still give Pizzeria Del Dio the edge for best Sicilian pizza in Orlando.DSC02543

This was a deluxe stromboli, with pepperoni, sausage, onions, and cheese — hold the mushrooms for me.  This was the small ($8.99), and it was still huge.  My wife surprised me by loving it, and what’s not to love?  Apologies for not photographing a cross-section of it.  DSC02544

On my most recent visit, I brought home the same stromboli, but a large ($16.99), which I carved a piece out of before remembering to photograph it.  That’s diagonal through a box made for 20″ extra-large pizzas, keep in mind.
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Excellent garlic knots ($3.99) that were soft and fluffy, not dense and hard like baseballs.  You get a nice-sized order for the price, and they don’t skimp on the garlic:DSC02546

At one point, I convinced a co-worker to order Paradiso with me on a workday, and I picked it up and brought it back to the office.  My co-worker ordered a cheese calzone for her dinner that night (I’m assuming this is the small for $7.99):DSC02559

And for her lunch, a 10″ white pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses and garlic ($9.99) with mushrooms and black olives added ($1.25 each).  She is from New Jersey, so she has high standards for pizza that are hard to meet around here.  I got her into Del Dio, as one of the best local pizzerias that New York and New Jersey transplants appreciate, and I believe she liked this as well.  DSC02560

I couldn’t go without getting another perfect slice for myself:DSC02561

But I also decided to try a 12″ chicken parmesan sub ($7.99).  This thing was a BEAST!  It was huge, and I could barely eat half at work.  I asked them to add onions and peppers, which was a good call.  It was fine, but the chicken breast was a little dry, and I probably would have been happier with a meatball parm or sausage, onions, and peppers sub instead, or a cold Italian hoagie.  But don’t get me wrong, I had the whole thing eaten by the next day.  DSC02563DSC02564

And there was indeed a next time!  On my third and most recent visit, I got the meatball sub ($7.99) with onions and peppers, and I liked it as much as I expected to.  More, even!dsc02715.jpg

Also, it has been a while, but I have to RING THE ALARM! for Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria, because they have really good onion rings ($3.99).  These are the kind I’m always searching for, with a beer-battered coating.  They are very similar to the onion rings at Pizzeria Del Dio, in fact.  It might not be the most obvious choice to order onion rings at a pizzeria, but I love the rings at both places.  That’s ketchup in the little cup, though — not marinara sauce.  Mental note: next time, ask for marinara sauce too.  Just don’t dip my sub or pizza crust in the ketchup, because that would be nasty.DSC02562

Believe it or not, I don’t eat pizza a lot.  Seriously!  But we have so many wonderful locally-owned pizzerias that I don’t see any point to ordering from the big national chains and wasting calories and carbs on mediocre, depressing, mass-produced pizza.  I know I’ve compared Paradiso to Del Dio more than once in this review, but it’s a blessing that we have two outstanding New York-style pizzerias in the same part of Orlando, and so close to where I work.  If you like Del Dio, I implore you to try Paradiso too.  I don’t think you’ll be sorry.  I just wish I had tried them sooner, but better late than never.DSC02714