The New York Adventure Part 1: Ess-A-Bagel

My wife and I are celebrating our TENTH wedding anniversary in October, and we both wanted to make a big thing of it by returning to New York City, where we spent our honeymoon in 2009.  We haven’t had a chance to return in this entire last decade, but since my wife is a college professor and I’m also in academia, October is a pretty busy time for us, and it would be impossible to get away then.  So we opted for a mid-May getaway, during the empty and quiet weeks between the spring and summer semesters, before New York starts to rival Florida’s heat and humidity.  We also had some personal and professional milestones to celebrate, so the timing was right and the stars lined up for us.  We planned to take in the sights, see shows, and eat like kings.

Just as we did on our honeymoon, we chose our hotel based on its proximity to the legendary Midtown Manhattan bagel restaurant Ess-A-Bagel (https://www.ess-a-bagel.com/), considered by many the best bagel shop in the bagel capital of the world (sorry, Montreal!).  And wouldn’t you know it — we ended up reserving the exact same hotel, just under a different name and new management, ten years later.  It was meant to be!

So here is where the magic happens, this hole-y site.  I’m always taken aback by just how small and cramped many iconic New York restaurants and businesses are, and Ess-A-Bagel is no exception.  You enter and automatically line up, make your way down the counter until someone calls you, place your entire order with them, pay at the end, and hope there’s a tiny table available for you by then.  DSC02113

Ess-A-Bagel boils and bakes some of the largest bagels I’ve ever seen, with all the classics represented: plain, sesame, onion, garlic, salt, everything, pumpernickel, and cinnamon raisin, among others.  Here’s a gigantic everything bagel, which is our favorite — coated with sesame and poppy seeds, toasted onion and garlic, and coarse kosher salt crystals.
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You have a ridiculous choice of cream cheese and tofu-based spreads, all made fresh in-house.  This is like heaven.  The choices are unlimited, but you cannot go wrong.DSC02114

In addition to all the standard cream cheeses, Ess-A-Bagel has a large selection of smoked, cured, and pickled fish, all standard Jewish fare that accompanies bagels.  Most people are familiar with nova salmon — sometimes referred to as lox, although most lox is MUCH saltier than the more familiar nova your basic brunch spot offers.  It pairs so perfectly with cream cheese.  But when you get out of Orlando, you have far more fishy options for your bagels, and these are everything to me: smoked whitefish salad, large golden smoked chubs (whitefish), pickled herring fillets in either a sweet wine-based sauce or a sour cream-based sauce (both with plenty of sweet pickled onions!), rich smoky sturgeon, and the finest of all the smoked, cured, and pickled fishies: buttery sable, which sounds far more appetizing than “black cod.”  Sable is the finest thing you can eat, and here is an article I found with a recipe and more information about it, for the uninitiated.  These are the foods of my people, and they fill me with such joy.DSC02116

You also have a wide variety of tuna, salmon, and other seafood salads.  DSC02117

And some pasta salads, potato salad, cole slaw, and additional vegetarian options, sold by the pound to enjoy as sides.DSC02118

You can also order bagel sandwiches with the sliced deli meats and cheeses of your choice, but it seemed pointless to me to come all the way to New York and Ess-A-Bagel for a turkey, roast beef, or ham and cheese sandwich.  (Despite its traditional Jewish specialties, Ess-A-Bagel is not a kosher restaurant, and I’ve never kept kosher anyway.)

The day we left for New York, we woke up at 3:30 AM to catch our 6:30 AM flight, got caught in morning rush hour traffic from Queens to Manhattan, and made it to our hotel to find out our room wasn’t ready yet.  At that point, it was 12:30 PM — nine hours since we got up, and we hadn’t eaten anything yet.  So we walked to Ess-A-Bagel just in time to join the long lunch line, and by the time we got our food and snagged one of those aforementioned tiny tables, almost an hour after that, it didn’t occur to me to take any pictures.  Mea culpa, although some long-suffering Saboscrivnerinos may be relieved.

That first day, my wife ordered a toasted and buttered everything bagel, with a quarter-pound side of whitefish salad on the side.  I wanted a bialy, that lovely cross between a bagel and a roll (baked, but never boiled!) with an indentation in the middle for baked onions, but they didn’t have any left.  (See this Food Republic article for some bialy background!)  So I got an everything bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese and my sweet, sweet sable.  I also ordered a huge, fluffy salt bagel to tear off chunks and scoop up a quarter-pound of smoked shrimp and crab salad that looked and sounded great, and tasted even better.  Everything was magnificent.  My wife had fond memories of an apple cinnamon muffin from our last visit a decade back, but that was crumbly and dry, failing to live up to her nostalgia the way the bagels and fish did.

Our second day in the city, we wanted to take it relatively easy and eat a light lunch in our room, in preparation for seeing a show that evening.  I walked back to Ess-A-Bagel to bring everything back to our hotel, and that time I remembered to take some photos.

My wife tried my sable the previous day and understood what I had raved about on and off for the last ten years, so she asked for an everything bagel sandwich with sable (left), and I happily obliged.  I decided to try something different: a bialy sandwich (finally!) with baked salmon salad (right), at once smoky and creamy, so it didn’t need a layer of cream cheese.  DSC02120

Here’s a half of my bialy sandwich, generously stuffed with the baked salmon salad: DSC02124

And her sable bagel, with nice thick chunks of the buttery, rich fish to melt in our mouths:DSC02125

That huge everything bagel I showed you earlier came from this second visit.  I also got a quarter-pound of their smoked tuna spread to go with that, and it was another good choice.  I grew up eating canned tuna, to the point where I was shocked the first time I ever encountered rich, deep purple raw tuna in sushi in my late teens.  My wife doesn’t like the smell of canned tuna, and it’s high in mercury and unsustainable, so I haven’t bought or even ordered it in years (although I am a huge sardine aficionado, and those are super-healthy and super-sustainable).  But trying smoked tuna seemed like a worthwhile move, and it was far better than any conventional tuna salad I’ve ever had before.  DSC02123

My wife also asked for a black and white cookie, that New York deli and bakery classic.  These should be more cake-like than anything — thick and moist, never crunchy or crispy.  This one was unique for having a slight lemony flavor to the yellow cookie/cake underneath the layer of black and white icing that reminds us “We’re not so different, you and I.”DSC02122

And then we went to see Hamilton, and I think it tied with seeing Tom Waits in concert in 2006 as the greatest musical experience… no, greatest cultural experience of my life.  I love American history, and I come by it naturally.  My dad was an esteemed history and social studies teacher, and now I teach a class that incorporates some U.S. history too.  Combine that with my deep loves of musical theater (encouraged by my wife, a former child and teen actress) and hip hop, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning show always felt like it was made just for me.  I have obsessed over the original cast album for over three years, so finally being able to see it (and in the greatest city in the world, no less!), being right there in the room where it happens, was awe-inspiring.

Like I said, we ate like kings over our few days in the City, so stay tuned over the next week (or let’s face it, probably longer) for more of our culinary New York Adventures, right here on The Saboscrivner!

Chuan Lu Garden

Even though I have discovered the glory of Taste of Chengdu and Chef Wang’s Kitchen over the last few months, I always end up returning to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Orlando, Chuan Lu Garden (http://www.chuanluorlando.com/).  There are two locations: one at the heart of the Mills 50 District, Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, and a newer one in east Orlando on Alafaya Trail, closer to UCF

Like Taste of Chengdu, fewer than 15 minutes away, Chuan Lu Garden specializes in spicy Szechuan cuisine, with peppercorns that numb your mouth and make everything tingle. It’s a different kind of heat than what most hot sauce heroes and chile cheerleaders are used to, but those flavors are highlighted in several dishes throughout the lengthy menu, like la zi chicken and la zi fish (crispy fried, breaded pieces that bring the tingle). I appreciate some heat some of the time, but I tend to play it safer and stick to the delicious hand-cut and hand-pulled noodle offerings.

This review is based on several visits over the last few months:

Visit #1: We met dear friends from Gainesville who were in town with tickets to see Hamilton.  Unfortunately, I am an idiot and gave them directions to the wrong Chuan Lu Garden location.  They drove all the way to east Orlando, when we were waiting for them near downtown, chosen purposely to put them near the theater.  But they are badasses who didn’t sweat it and weren’t even mad at me.  They made it to where we were in 15 minutes flat, and I ordered some vegetarian dishes for them in the meantime.  (I treated them to dinner too, but I was planning to do that anyway, even before I almost ruined their night and put them in danger of missing the greatest musical of all time.)

I ordered myself one of my favorite dishes on the menu, cumin lamb, which is much less blurry in person:DSC01808

My wife’s noodle soup with roast duck, the dish that finally won her over after years of me hyping up Chuan Lu Garden, making her a devoted fan:
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Our glorious pan-fried pork buns (sadly not the xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, that Orlando foodies constantly crave):
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Fried tofu with vegetables and the remnants of vegetable fried rice, after the four of us mostly devoured it:dsc01811.jpg

Vegetable noodle soup:DSC01809

Visit #2: Just the two of us.

Maybe the best Singapore mei fun noodles I’ve ever ordered anywhere, though curiously not very spicy compared to some others I’ve had.  These noodles were thin and ethereal, reminding me almost of cotton candy threads (although obviously neither sticky nor sweet).  I couldn’t get enough of them, and even my wife was amazed by their lighter-than-air texture and great flavor.chuan_IMG_0013

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take two:
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And a roast duck appetizer, full of tiny little bones to watch out for:chuan_IMG_0014

For the first time ever in my experiences at Chuan Lu Garden, they presented us with a separate dim sum menu.  Having been recently introduced to egg custard tarts by one of my favorite local foodies, I had to pay it forward and order them to share with my wife.  She loved them, like flaky little custard pies.chuan_IMG_0016

Visit #3: Just the two of us again.

I ordered one of my favorite dishes on the menu: dan dan noodles with spicy ground pork, served with thin-sliced cucumbers that do a great job counterbalancing the chili oil with their own crunchy coolness.DSC01827DSC01829

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take three, but this time with the wide, flat noodles:DSC01828

More of that quacktacular roast duck:DSC01832

And one of my favorite dishes here, the onion pancake, which is much more like a thick paratha or super-thick flour tortilla than an American-style pancake.  The outside is crispy, but the inside has a wonderful, rich, buttery crispness, with scallions baked into it.DSC01830DSC01831

Since I originally wrote this blog entry, I have brought her home roast duck noodle soup a few more times, often with an extra order of duck to go with it.  She loves it, and what’s not to love?

And guess what, fearless Saboscrivnerinos? Chuan Lu Garden now has a full dim sum menu, including the coveted soup dumplings! I haven’t tried them there yet, but how can you go wrong? It’s SOUP… in a DUMPLING!

Pizzeria Del Dio

In my review of Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza from earlier this year, I mentioned it is one of my top three favorite pizzerias in Orlando, alongside Pizza Bruno and a third I’m finally getting around to writing about: Pizzeria Del Dio (http://pizzeriadel-dio.com/).  Located at 3210 East Colonial Drive in Orlando (near the Maguire intersection, across from the Fashion Square Mall), Del Dio is not visible from busy Colonial.  It is still a bit of a secret after ten years in business, but it shouldn’t be.

While Anthony’s Coal Fired bakes really terrific coal oven pizza and Pizza Bruno specializes in Neopolitan-style, Del Dio quietly serves up Orlando’s best New York-style AND Sicilian-style pizzas.  However, I argue that both kinds of pizzas are best enjoyed hot, crispy, and melty right out of the oven, at the restaurant.  They’re perfectly fine if you get them to go (as I have done countless times), but any pizza loses something on the drive back home or to the office.  Trust me on this.  In this age of delivery and instant gratification, not enough people appreciate going out for pizza anymore.

So this is my regular order when I go to Del Dio, conveniently ten minutes from work: a slice of regular and a slice of Sicilian.  The regular NY-style pizza is thin and crispy, meant to be folded.  They have a wide range of toppings, and I tend to like meatballs on my pizza (sometimes sliced, sometimes crumbled), but it’s great just plain, with a dusting of parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.DSC01825

Sicilian pizza, for the uninitiated, is thick, cooked in a rectangular pan and cut into square or rectangular slices.  It’s not a “casserole” like Chicago’s deep dish so-called pizza.  Sicilian very clearly meets the definition of pizza, just different from what most people are used to.  Some are a little softer, others are crispier.  I like mine somewhere in between, and the edges of Del Dio’s Sicilian slices are always nice and crispy with the slightest char, especially when I dine in and they take it right out of the oven for me.  But once you get to the middle of the slice, it’s pillowy-soft.  The cheese is always fresh and melty, and it contains more sauce than your typical NY-style slice.  It’s a thick, hearty sauce that seems chunkier than the sauce on their regular pizza.  (I think sauce is the most underappreciated ingredient on a good pizza, almost an afterthought too often.)  But mama mia, they’re so good!  DSC01826

I’ve always heard Del Dio has really good wings, and I am hard to please when it comes to wings.  A lot of the time you get maximum mess, minimum meat.  Crunchy, greasy, dry sports bar-style Buffalo wings are my least-favorites.  But I gave Del Dio’s wings a chance recently and was pleasantly surprised.  These were mild, and they had plenty of meat and a nice, crackly crispiness to them.  They were so hot (temperature-hot, not spicy-hot), I burned my fingertips and my mouth a little.DSC01823

They also make excellent meatballs, which you can get as a side order like this, in a sub, or even as a pizza topping.  Like I said, I’ve had them show up both sliced and crumbled on my pizza in the past, but here they are whole — a lot more photogenic this way.DSC01824

They also serve surprisingly fantastic onion rings, with the golden-brown battered coating that I love.  They are totally “my type” of onion rings.  Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph or order them for this review, so it isn’t an official Ring the Alarm! feature.

We often order Del Dio at work, either for pizza parties for our staff or to reward the students in the evening classes I occasionally teach.  We are inside their regular delivery range, but for our latest staff luncheon, I picked them up:

Plain cheese:DSC01848

Pepperoni:DSC01847I have thoughts and feelings about pepperoni on pizza.  If you’re gonna get it, get it from a place like Del Dio that is generous with the pepperoni, laying out lots of flat slices like on the above pie.  I don’t love it when pepperoni slices curl up into crunchy little grease traps.  Honestly, I like pepperoni best served cold, salami-style, sliced thin in an Italian hoagie alongside its cured meat brothers and sisters, adding a bit of pleasant spiciness.  But if you’re gonna put pepperoni on pizza, this is definitely the way to do it.

But this was the crowd-pleasing favorite: thin-sliced, breaded eggplant cutlet and roasted red peppers!  People grabbed slices before I could even take this photo.  It was fabulous, and almost everyone agreed we’d order this again in the future.  I was thinking the only thing that could possibly improve it (aside from eating it at the restaurant for maximum crispness) was to add some ricotta.DSC01846

And the obligatory salad that some people shared (actually quite good):DSC01849

So yeah, that’s Del Dio.  I crave that Sicilian pizza far too often, and don’t indulge often enough.  But just FYI, if you are ordering pizzas for a large group, they will “double-cut” the pizzas to turn a classic NY-style from 8 large slices into 16 thinner ones, or to subdivide the Sicilian from 8 large, rectangular slices into 16 smaller squares.  Your family, friends, co-workers, and students will thank you.  And if you really want to enjoy Pizzeria Del Dio as it should be enjoyed, venture forth to the actual pizzeria and eat your pizza right there, at the scene.  The difference is night and day!

Hinckley’s Fancy Meats

I’ve been hearing about Chef Matt Hinckley and his cured culinary creations for carnivores for a while now.  After focusing on mail-order charcuterie sales, he recently opened Hinckley’s Fancy Meats (https://www.hinckleymeats.com/), a storefront inside Orlando’s East End Market, a small but great foodie destination in the hip-but-family-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood.  You can buy his meat masterpieces by the pound there — think bacon, sausages, pastrami, mojo-marinated pork, tasso ham, porchetta (slow-cooked, boneless pork roast), and rustic pâtés, terrines, and rillettes, all on display in a nice glass deli case.  But now, you can also order sandwiches featuring that marvelous multiude of meats.  If that’s not fancy, I don’t know what is!
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(By the way, if you aren’t sure of the differences between pâtés, terrines, and rillettes, as I originally wasn’t, or if you’ve never even tried them, Food Republic has a very helpful guide.)

Last month, I met a group from the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook for lunch at the East End Market, and many of us visited Hinckley’s for the first time.  I studied the menu in advance, as I always do, but still couldn’t decide, so I ordered two sandwiches.  Because I meant to share and let my new foodie friends sample the goods — yeah, that’s the ticket!  (Don’t worry, Constant Readers — I got two meals out of them.)

I ordered the porchetta sandwich, which is hard to find anywhere in Florida, as well as Chef Hinckley’s take on the banh mi, those French-inspired Vietnamese sandwiches I love so much.  DSC01988

The porchetta sandwich ($14) includes salsa piccante, broccoli rabe (one of my favorite vegetables, especially cooked with sausage or other rich, salty meats), and roasted peppers on a crusty ciabatta roll.  I would have preferred a softer roll, but it was still very tasty, with a lot going on in the sandwich.  DSC01984

The porchetta wasn’t quite as juicy as I was expecting, but it was still very flavorful and tender.  All the ingredients worked very well together.DSC01986

But even though the porchetta sandwich was good, the banh mi (also $14) was GREAT.  Banh mi sandwiches are usually served on a French baguette and may be spread with some combination of butter, mayo, or pate, with a variety of pork-based cold cuts, grilled beef or chicken, or other kinds of meat, topped with pickled vegetables (usually cucumber, carrot, and daikon radish), fresh cilantro, and fresh jalapeños or other hot peppers.  Hinckley’s Fancy version of the banh mi normally features country pâté and duck liver pâté with pickled carrot, daikon radish, and hot peppers and cilantro on the toasty grilled baguette.

But on the day I went, Hinckley’s offered a special kind of thick-sliced, coarse Cajun terrine of pork, confit duck gizzard and hearts, tasso ham, and smoked turkey sausage as an alternative to put in the banh mi.  (I sent them a Facebook message to verify all of this deliciousness, to make sure I got it right.)  Here’s a better photo from Hinckley’s Instagram account.  How could I refuse, with all the recognizable chunks of different meats to sample?  It was AWESOME.DSC01985

A new friend was magnanimous enough to order this charcuterie board ($22) for the group to share.  It came with sliced porchetta di testa (boneless pig head), thick and rich chicken liver pâté (the jar on the right), and chilled spuma di lardo (the jar on top), which is creamy whipped pork fat, sea salt, and honey.  It also included toasted baguette rounds to spread the spreads on, and a Dijon-style mustard.  So fancy for lunch on a workday!  I’d love to see Lunchables (which are essentially charcuterie boards for children) create a culinary masterpiece like this.  DSC01987

We are lucky to have some incredible sandwich shops in Orlando, most of which only opened within the last two years.  I’ve already reviewed several of my favorites —  LaSpada’s, Stasio’s, Manzano’s — and that’s on top of all the places that serve banh mi sandwiches.  A review of another big sandwich joint, maybe the biggest and best of them all is coming, I promise.  But Hinckley’s Fancy Meats is doing things nobody else is, curing its own meats and reinventing the classics with creative new twists.  It’s a great addition to our local sandwich scene, and all carnivores should check it out.

Hunger Street Tacos

Orlando has a plethora of fantastic Mexican restaurants, from the upscale to the cheap and casual, from Americanized to authentic.  One that is consistently in the pantheon of best Mexican food is Hunger Street Tacos (http://hungerstreettacos.com/) on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from I-4.  Brothers Joseph and David Creech, the chef-owner-operators, serve a unique menu of authentic street foods you would definitely encounter in Mexico City, and most of their dishes are totally singular here in Orlando.  You won’t find them on most local menus, and even if you did, you won’t find their equals.  I love the Creech Brothers’ story on the Hunger Street website that describes their formative years spent in Mexico and how they studied the local street foods and authentically recreated them here, starting with a catering business and culminating in their restaurant, in the original location of the now-legendary 4 Rivers Smokehouse.

Unfortunately, Hunger Street Tacos is too far from my job to dash off there for lunch, and since I work late and they are closed on Sundays, I don’t make it there nearly often enough.  It had been far too long since my last visit, but thankfully my wife and I recently made it back there on a Saturday at 11 AM, while they still served some special brunch menu items, but before it got too hot and before they got too crowded.

As usual, we arrived hungry and over-ordered, so we could try a bunch of different dishes and end up with delicious leftovers for later:

Sauteed mushroom quesadilla ($4.75) for my wife, and vegetarian tinga quesadilla ($4.75) for me, on crispy grilled flour tortillas.  I love the vegetarian tinga, with sauteed onion, garlic, cabbage, and chipotle peppers that made it the spiciest dish I tried (but not too spicy, for those who fear the heat).  Both quesadillas include Chihuahua cheese (which, I must clarify, comes from the Chihuahua state in Mexico, not from actual chihuahuas).DSC02060

Campechano taco with pulled brisket and crumbled chorizo ($3.75) and fried avocado taco ($3.75).  This brisket is crispy from being cooked in a hot griddle after being slow-cooked, and the fried avocado is the perfect consistency — light and crispy outside, warm and soft on the inside.  DSC02061

Hibiscus and guacamole taco ($3.00).  Yes, they are actual hibiscus flowers, and they are so delicious.  They remind me a little of one of my favorite vegetable dishes, braised red cabbage, with their look and texture underneath that delicious fresh guacamole and tomatoes, but it’s hard to fully describe their unique flavor.DSC02062

Rib taco ($4.75), a current special that will eventually be added to the regular menu.  It is a bone-in pork rib, and the meat is so tender, you can simply squeeze the rib inside the tortilla to pull out the bone.  DSC02063

I was so excited to try the al pastor taco ($3.75, I believe), but it wasn’t ready when we arrived at 11 AM on a Saturday!  Luckily, they had it ready before we left, so I had to go back inside to order one.  It was totally worth the wait — one of the best al pastor dishes I’ve ever had, and that is one of my favorite dishes to order anywhere.  The marinated pork is sliced fresh off a vertical trompo (think of how gyro meat or shawarma is often sliced off a rotating spit), and I don’t think anyone else in the city does it this way.  The taco came simply garnished with onions, cilantro, a nice piece of fresh pineapple, and squeezing a lime wedge over it made it pure perfection.
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This is Hunger Street’s chicharron de queso ($8.00), a house specialty that you cannot order to go, since it wouldn’t be the same when it isn’t hot, fresh, and perfectly crispy.  Yes, this is gouda cheese, melted, stretched, and fried until it has almost a potato chip consistency.  It comes with guacamole and spicy red salsa, and my advice (really Chef David Creech’s advice) is to use the crispy cheese to scoop up some of both, so you get all the flavors and textures in one bite.  This would be a fantastic dish for low-carb and keto dieters who want something crispy and salty and are in chip withdrawal.  Been there, done that!DSC02064The chicharron de queso was so huge, we couldn’t finish it at the restaurant, so we ended up bringing a lot of it home.  Wisely, I didn’t put it in the refrigerator, where it might have turned soggy.  I left it on our kitchen counter on an uncharacteristically cool April day, so it was still mostly crispy later that evening.

And finally, this is one of their Saturday brunch dishes, churro French toast ($7.90), created from English muffin bread from Orlando’s own Olde Hearth Bread Company.  Light and eggy and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, this is what convinced my wife to have an early lunch here, and she absolutely loved it.  It was beautiful to behold, and its taste lived up to its looks!  DSC02065

I can’t say enough good things about Hunger Street Tacos or the warm and welcoming Super Creech Bros.  While geography and timing keep me from going as often as I would like, it is one of those Orlando restaurants that is constantly experimenting, improving, and impressing.  It never disappoints.  That al pastor is my new gold standard, and if you’re a vegetarian or have vegetarian friends, I can’t recommend it highly enough, with dishes like the hibiscus taco, chicharron de queso, vegetarian tinga quesadilla, mushroom quesadilla (more for you!), or the squash blossom quesadilla, which we didn’t even order this time.

Susuru

I fully admit that one hip dining trend that totally passed me by is ramen.  I subsisted on instant ramen noodles, spaghetti, and canned tuna and sardines for far too many years of my life, fueling myself through far too many degrees.  And while I still like those ridiculously salty and unhealthy noodles today, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around $10+ bowls of “fancy” ramen, after dining on 7-for-$1 Maruchan and Nissin noodles for so long.  I’ve even tried a few ramen bowls from nicer restaurants, but found them bland and disappointing, and often overloaded with those long, thin, alien-looking mushrooms with the tiny caps that ruin the whole thing for me.

But my best friend was in town recently to judge the National Pie Championships with me, and on the rare times we get to visit each other (me being in Orlando or him back in Miami), we always try to show off the newest and/or best restaurants in our home cities to each other.  One place I’ve been hearing great things about restaurant is Susuru (https://www.susuruorl.com), the new Japanese izakaya (casual pub) down near Disney World, close to where he was staying.  It’s extraordinarily easy to find if you take I-4 to exit 68 and get off on State Road 535, also known as Apopka-Vineland Road.

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Susuru features a quirky, funky, retro-hipster-otaku decor that you never see anywhere:DSC02039

As a lifelong action figure collector, I got a kick out of the view in the hallway when I left the men’s room:dsc02036.jpg

And as a cat lover with a few maneki nekos at home to hopefully bring some luck, I loved this little dude next to the bar:dsc02038.jpg

I’m sure my readers care far more about the menu, which wasn’t available on Susuru’s website when I checked, so here it is.  Note that this is a Japanese restaurant that serves no sushi.  Also note that none of the food is too expensive, so I encourage you to order several different dishes and share them:dsc02037.jpg

My buddy and I each ordered tonkotsu ramen ($10), with pork chashu, shoyu soft egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori, and tonkotsu broth.  I have to admit, I was still a little skeptical, given my limited experience with overpriced and mediocre “fancy” ramen, but this was so delicious, I can’t stop thinking about it almost two weeks later.  (“Or talking about it!”, my wife would say.)  DSC02042The broth was so rich and flavorful, almost creamy despite containing no dairy at all.  Even the bamboo shoots, which I had misgivings about, were soft and yielding, like thick al dente pasta sheets.  I’ve never been able to cook an egg to that perfect soft-boiled consistency, with the rich, runny yolk that infused the broth.  The noodles were so far beyond the instant ramen bricks of my college days, it was like graduating from your school cafeteria lunches to a gourmet feast.  And the pork!  The PORK!  It melted in my mouth.  It was sliced thin, and it was so tender and unctuous.  Once again, perfect in every way!

We also split the mentaiko fries ($6), which were McDonald’s-style fries topped with spicy cod roe mayonnaise and shredded nori (seaweed).  I love anything salty, spicy, and fishy, but these were almost like a salt overload.  Delicious, though.  I have to imagine this would be a great dish to order while drinking beer.DSC02043

Skewers, skewers, all kinds of skewers!  These skewers of meat are cut into perfect, uniform, bite-sized pieces and grilled over a charcoal flame.  From left to right, we ordered sausage, chicken hearts, short rib, chicken skin, and the two on the right are both chicken thighs.  The Kurobota (pork honey sausage) had the texture of a hot dog and didn’t taste that different, although it picked up nice flavor from the charcoal grill they used.  The short rib (in the middle) was a little tough, although still very rich and tasty.  I am drawn to sausages and short rib dishes anywhere I go and count them among my favorite meats.  That said…DSC02045I never thought I’d end up liking chicken more than sausage or short rib, but I sure did here.  All three types of chicken skewers (yakitori) were indeed better — not that I disliked the sausage or short rib!  But they were among the most delicious chicken-related items I’ve ever eaten in my life.  They had a fantastic taste they picked up from being grilled, especially those thighs.  My only disappointment was that they ran out of chicken oyster yakitori, an off-menu special for the evening.  Those two tiny, dark morsels of meat are my favorite part of the chicken, which is why I usually gravitate toward preparing thighs or roasting whole birds at home.

If you’re skeptical about chicken hearts, I implore you to give these a try.  I’ve bought hearts at Publix to cook at home (marinate in a vinaigrette dressing and then saute them).  I love the rich, organ-y flavor, like delicious chicken liver, but mine always come out chewy.  These were anything but chewy — far more tender than I ever expected chicken hearts could be.  Whoever is working the grill at Susuru is a master at his or her craft.

So I’m definitely a huge fan of Susuru.  If you spend time down near the theme parks or come to Orlando on vacation, venture off park property and go check it out.  Seriously, if it wasn’t an hour from home, I would become a regular for sure.  I’m already planning my next Susuru adventure!

I was a judge in the National Pie Championships! (Again!)

I like sweets and desserts as much as anyone, but I can usually stay strong in the face of  chocolate, candy, cupcakes, or cake, and turn them down without regret.  Even cookies have to be some pretty serious, next-level cookies to get me to indulge.  But one thing I will always choose and never refuse is PIE, that most humble and all-American of desserts.  Whether it’s a custard, cream, or fruit filling, a flaky dough crust or a crumb topping, hot or cold, sweet or tart or even savory, pie is everything.

There is a group called the American Pie Council that agrees with me.  From their website: “The American Pie Council Is The Only Organization Committed To Maintaining America’s Pie Heritage, Passing On The Tradition Of Pie-Making And Promoting America’s Love Affair With Pie.”  If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is.  They publish a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times (I love it!), full of tips, tricks, recipes, promotions, and networking information for bakers.

But the American Pie Council’s most visible event is hosting the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida every year — a chance for the most gifted commercial, professional, and amateur pie bakers to prove themselves in the ultimate pie arena, like Pie Thunderdome. These brave bakers descend upon Orlando from throughout the United States to compete for those blue ribbons and bragging rights, mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor of being the best.  Here is a Bon Appetit article about last year’s National Pie Championships, and here is an essay on Taste by two bakers who competed last year.  Christopher Guest really needs to write and direct a mockumentary about the world of competitive pie-baking, something like Best in Show meets Iron Chef meets… I don’t know, The Fast & the Furious.  “I live my life one quarter-stick of butter at a time.”  “If your dough isn’t out of control, you’re not in control.”  And what good is pie if you can’t share it with family (including chosen family)?

Anyway, last year, a fellow foodie friend told me that she regularly volunteers to judge the National Pie Championships, and I could apply to be a volunteer judge as well.  What the–?!!  People actually do this?  You can get chosen to sample a bunch of delicious pies from some of the best bakers in the country — for free!! — and then evaluate and rank them and offer constructive feedback?  I felt like every event in my life to date, everything I’ve ever learned and accomplished, had brought me to that point, and it could be a lifelong dream coming true.  I’m not a baker on the level of these master bakers — I have one EXCELLENT pie recipe that everybody goes crazy for — but I thought I would be a great pie judge between my two Orlando Weekly best-of-the-year food lists, blogging here as The Saboscrivner, and having pretty good taste in general.  Luckily, the American Pie Council agreed.  I volunteered and served for the first time in 2018, and just did it again last weekend, this time with my best friend, who drove all the way up from Miami.

When you are a National Pie Championships judge, you get assigned to a table in a huge hotel conference room where all the judging takes place, and each table gets one pie category the entire time.  They judge the commercial pies (think supermarket bakeries, frozen foods, and restaurant chains) on the Friday, and then professional and amateur pies on the Saturday, which is what I did both years.  On your judging application, you can choose your top six categories, and hopefully you will be placed in one of those.  You can choose among apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, nut (expect to overdose on heavy pecan pies!), peanut butter, citrus, tropical fruit, “open” fruit, “open” cream, and more.  There are 16 professional categories, and even more in the amateur division.  There is even a savory pot pie category!  Last year, the APC included a category for Hollywood-inspired pies, and this year’s unique category was for pies inspired by special and memorable vacations.

In 2018, I got moved away from my top choice at the last minute and placed at the Comstock apple pie table.  Comstock is one of the National Pie Championships sponsors, the company that makes canned apple, cherry, peach, strawberry, and blueberry pie fillings that you can buy at most supermarkets.  I was skeptical, but I got to taste some really solid apple pies that day.  I was definitely burned out on apple pie by the end, but luckily we then got to judge the Comstock “Best in Show” pies — the best apple pie from our table (a maple praline apple pie), plus the winners from the other Comstock categories: a chocolate-covered cherry pie, a raspberry peach bellini pie, a classic, old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie, and the delightful blueberry lemon cream pie that we crowned the winner.  I still remember this one fondly, over a year later, so enjoy the recipe and this photo:
Image may contain: dessert and food

This year, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of the National Pie Championships, my buddy and I made sure to fill out the same six categories, and I asked the powers that be to seat us at the same table so we could hang out.  And we were lucky enough to get placed at the Professional cream pie table, a highly-desirable category that was one of my top choices.

The way it works is volunteer pie servers pass the unsliced pie around our round table so we can all ooh and ahh and photograph it if we wish, to evaluate each pie in its uncut state.  Then the server returns with one slice removed, so we can evaluate how the slice holds up on its own, as well as how the pie looks with a slice taken out.  Then we pass the one slice around the table and cut off small slivers for ourselves, so everyone just gets a tiny taste.  Believe me, we don’t each eat an entire slice from each of these pies.  That would be ill-advised.  Each pie judge fills out an anonymous scoring worksheet as we evaluate each pie, with our judging number and the pie’s identification number.  There is even math involved!

We ended up sampling 14 pies in all:

The first of many coconut cream pies:DSC02000DSC02001

The first banana cream, which included some pineapple and crispy banana chips:DSC02004DSC02003

A chocolate-mint brownie cream pie, which was a big hit at our table:DSC02006DSC02005

Another coconut cream:DSC02008DSC02009

This lovely coconut cream was extremely thick and firm, and it was my favorite of the many coconut cream pies we tried.DSC02010DSC02011

I felt so bad for this baker, because this beautiful berry cream pie was damaged when the slicers tried to slice it.  However, it was delicious, and I would totally buy one if I ever saw it for sale or on a menu:DSC02012

I think everyone lost their minds over this Oreo cookies ‘n’ creme cream pie.  I know it was my friend’s favorite.DSC02014DSC02016

WHO DAT?  This was a New Orleans Saints-themed banana cream pie.  It would have been a nice touch if the baker went full N’awlins and made it a Bananas Foster cream pie.  I still don’t know if the fleur-de-lis was edible.DSC02017DSC02018

I don’t even remember if this one was banana cream, coconut cream, or something else entirely, but it was good, because how could it not be?  Those things around the crust might have been candied nuts, so maybe banana walnut?DSC02019DSC02020

This hypnotically beautiful cinnamon roll cream pie won our superlative award for Prettiest Pie at our table.DSC02021DSC02023

Another coconut cream:DSC02024DSC02025

This strawberry cream pie was far and away my favorite, and the only one I gave a perfect score to.  It was a cross between a strawberry cream pie and a strawberry cheesecake.DSC02026DSC02027

I forget what this one was:DSC02028DSC02029

And this was a heaven-themed coconut cream pie to end our judging, with edible golden sugar “glitter” and sparkling whipped cream.DSC02030DSC02032

We probably each ate the equivalent of 2-3 slices of pie, passing all of those around the table and cutting off tiny tastes from each slice — but that’s still a lot of rich cream pie for a regular person.  We were the first table to finish, and it came as a relief.

The second-place winner from our Professional Cream Pie table was the “Sunsational Islandtime Coconut Cream Pie,” baked by Avon Park, Florida’s own Amy Freeze.  I don’t remember which coconut cream pie that was, so apologies to the talented Ms. Freeze, but I enjoyed every single coconut cream pie we tried that day.

The winner, as you might have guessed, was the “Double the Good Stuff Cookies and Cream” pie, baked by Michele Stuart, who traveled all the way from Norwalk, Connecticut and entered several pies, with a grand total of FIVE winning either first or second place in different categories!  Ms. Stuart is a PIE BAWSS.

When each table of judges is finished, the scores are tallied to select first and second-place winners in each category.  Then each of those first-place pies compete against each other for the Best in Show, in both professional and amateur categories.

I have been sitting on this review for a week, waiting for the American Pie Council to release a formal announcement of all the winners, and here they are.  The Professional Best in Show pie was Iceland’s Café Loki-Inspired Rye Bread Cream Pie, baked by David Eaheart from Kansas City, Missouri.  “Layered with a cream filling, toasted rye bread, piped meringue and a caramel sauce drizzle, this pie is based on Café Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream, which Eaheart discovered on a walking food tour of Reykjavik.”  I didn’t get to try this pie, but I would have awarded it a perfect score for creativity.

On our way out of the judging room, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this gorgeous apple pie.  It has been over a year, so maybe I can start eating apple pies again, while taking a break from cream pies.  DSC02033

Being an official pie judge in the National Pie Championships two years in a row has been a great experience, and even a great responsibility, for which I have no regrets.  I’ll probably volunteer again, because it’s such a treat to sample so many delicious pies from bakers at the top of their game.  I’m just glad it only happens once a year!  DSC02046

EDIT (4/22/19): The American Pie Council posted hundreds of photos from the event, so feel free to spend some hours scrolling through beautiful pies.