Waffle House

“It is indeed marvelous.  An irony-free zone, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.  Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation, is welcomed.  Its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the South to to come inside.  A place of safety and nourishment.  It never closes.  It is always, ALWAYS faithful.  Always there FOR YOU.”

Those were the wise words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, from his Parts Unknown episode where he visited a Waffle House restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

The man did so much for broadening people’s views about food, between his brilliant books, like Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, and his fascinating food shows, like No Reservations and Parts Unknown.  He encouraged us to experiment and try new things in new places with new people, to step out of our culinary comfort zones, challenge our sensibilities, and open ourselves up to new, potentially life-changing experiences.  As a food blogger, he is one of my greatest influences, in terms of his unique voice (both his writing style and his soothing TV show narration), his curiosity and empathy, and his sense of adventure.

Bourdain knew a good meal when he saw it, whether it was five-star fine dining or some dirty, dangerous dive halfway across the globe.  I always appreciated that he spoke so highly of Waffle House (https://www.wafflehouse.com/), that ubiquitous-yet-humble chain of 24-hour Southern diners, and highlighted it on his show.

I also unironically love Waffle House.  It is practically synonymous with a “greasy spoon,” and sometimes infamous for unsavory late-night antics.  But the truth is, you can get a delicious, hearty, affordable meal there at any time of the day or night, prepared right before your eyes in an open kitchen.  I am lucky enough to live near the best Waffle House location ever — always spotless, fast, and friendly no matter when you show up, with impeccable, satisfying, soul-nourishing food.  Scoff all you want — if you’re still skeptical, that just means you’ve been denying yourself one of the greatest comfort food experiences to be had in the South.

I’ve been composing this Waffle House review and compiling photos for months, over the course of several separate visits with my wife.  But today was Anthony Bourdain’s birthday, so it felt like the right thing to do to go back tonight, to reminisce about the life and legacy of one of the greatest foodies of all, to indulge our senses and think about all the entertainment and education the man provided us over the years.  We were also joined by some members of the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, a Facebook group that has also broadened my culinary horizons and introduced me to some amazing new friends.  It felt right to commune with these fellow foodies and Bourdain fans, and to talk and laugh and share food with them, tonight of all nights.  We learned all the right lessons.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the glory of Waffle House, you may have heard of their flawless hash browns and all the different ways you can order them:

  • Smothered with grilled onions
  • Covered with melted cheese
  • Chunked with grilled smoked ham
  • Diced with grilled tomatoes
  • Peppered with pickled jalapeno peppers
  • Capped with grilled button mushrooms (more for y’all!)
  • Topped with Bert’s Chili
  • Country with sausage gravy

I am perfectly happy to eat my hash browns straight up with ketchup, but I do love them smothered and covered as a special treat.  My wife prefers hers plain, as usual.  Tonight one of our dinner companions ordered hers covered, chunked, and peppered.  (I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later!)
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The All-Star Special is a bargain and also a challenge: fried eggs (you can get them in other styles), accompanied by smothered hash browns (dig the grilled onions) and buttery white toast.  Tonight I was feeling like a big shot, so I got cheese on my eggs with a specific purpose in mind:DSC02279

A picture from an earlier visit, this time with no cheese on the eggs, and thicker grilled and buttered Texas toast, superior to the white toast:
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We both love their very crispy bacon, which is my wife’s go-to breakfast meat at any time of day:20190216_220330_resized

You can choose between bacon, sausage, and ham for this All-Star Special, or pay a slight upcharge for a large cut of rich, salty, bone-in country ham, bursting with far more flavor than the “everyday” ham.  The country ham is my new favorite.  Obviously the texture is totally different, but it always reminds me of prosciutto, one of my favorite foods in the whole world.
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As if that wasn’t enough, the All-Star Special also includes a plain waffle, which I believe is made with Golden Malted waffle and pancake mix, the best commercial mix I’ve ever found.  It isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make waffles or pancakes from scratch at home, but I buy that mix now to try (in vain) to recreate the perfection of a Waffle House waffle.  The outside is always crispy, the inside is always fluffy.  Anyway, if I ordered this one in the photo, it would soon be doused in syrup:DSC02070

Here’s a waffle topped with peanut butter chips, from another visit.  You can also get chocolate chips and even pecans.  They have even offered peach waffles in past summers, which is a pro-tier move from this Atlanta, Georgia-based company.  I’m looking forward to peach waffle season.  20190305_212120_resized

Grits!  Not my favorite, but my wife sure loves ’em.  I’m assuming these are the real deal, as no self-respecting Southerner would make instant grits.20190222_191021_resized

And she turned me onto the grilled, split, soft and buttery biscuits, which she likes instead of toast, with a little butter and jam.  You can also order a biscuit sandwich with eggs, cheese, and the breakfast meat of your choice.
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This is another one of my favorites, the Texas sausage, egg, and cheese melt, on grilled and buttered Texas toast, with added grilled onions.  I like mustard on my eggs, mmmm hmmmm.  Pure breakfast perfection at any time of day (or night), but I hate eating in the morning.  We’re much more likely to go there for dinner.DSC02252

Tonight, another one of my adventurous friends ordered something I’ve never tried before: the new Cheesesteak Melt Hashbrown Bowl, which is pretty self-explanatory: a large order of hash browns covered with melted cheese and topped with cheesesteak and grilled onions.  Everything a growing boy needs, it’s the breakfast of champions, even at 8:30 on a Tuesday night.  DSC02283

But Waffle House is about so much more than just breakfast food!  I actually love their burgers.

This is my standard: the $2 double “original” Angus cheeseburger that comes with two patties, melted cheese, and grilled onions on a grilled, buttered bun, with pickles and a packet of delicious WH Sauce, which is similar to chipotle mayo.  (It is a Heinz product, and I wish they sold it in bottles!)  It’s very much like an old-school diner burger, like the burger you imagine being served at a diner in a Tom Waits song.  It is better than just about any fast food burgers.  DID I MENTION IT IS $2?  It may be the best $2 you’ll ever spend on food.  20190222_190853_resized

Again, a better photo from a different visit.  I think American cheese is the ultimate cheese for burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, for how nicely it melts.  Yeah, come at me, bro.
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Here’s one adorned with that WH Sauce:DSC02251

And here’s tonight’s burger, pre-WH Saucing, side by side with one of those wondrous waffles.  Don’t worry, they don’t serve them on the same plate, but we had six people at our tiny table, so I was trying to consolidate:DSC02280

One day they were out of burger buns, so I asked if they could serve the burger on grilled Texas toast.  They happily obliged, and I think it was even better — kinda like a patty melt.  Pardon the blurriness.
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My wife swears by Waffle House’s grilled pork chops, always with her beloved hash browns.  These have supplanted eggs and bacon as her standard order, although she still loves the grits, waffles, and biscuits too.  They are surprisingly tender, juicy, flavorful, bone-in pork chops.  Ask for the “seasoning” — it is just a salt and pepper blend, but it adds a unique touch, and they aren’t the same without it.  DSC02254

Chops ‘n’ browns:
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More chops ‘n’ browns:
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And if you decide you want picante sauce for your hash browns, eggs, sandwiches, or burgers, I love that the brand is Senora Jackie’s Casa de Waffle.  This was old news to us, but our table-mates got a real kick out of it.
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Waffle House usually has good sweet iced tea, and I like my iced tea like I like my women: sweet, strong, chillin’, and with lemon.  But usually I’ll get a vanilla Coke or vanilla root beer there, on top of all those other carbs.  They actually squirt real vanilla syrup into the fountain beverage, which makes a nice difference.  I can’t speak for the coffee, since I rarely touch the stuff.

Waffle House restaurants all have another beloved feature: a jukebox, loaded up with pop hits, golden oldies, and a surprising number of novelty songs written ABOUT Waffle HouseFun fact: Waffle House even has its own record label!  I rarely indulge with the jukebox, which is odd, because I love foisting… uh, sharing my musical tastes with others.  But tonight I spared our new friends and the stalwart staff, lest I be tempted to queue up some Tom Jones on repeat.

And one more fun fact about the Waffle House I think you should know: it is often the first business up and running again after hurricanes and other natural disasters!  Because it stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refers to the “Waffle House Index” in terms of the severity and impact of the disaster.  According to this transcribed National Public Radio interview, “If a Waffle House is closed because a disaster is bad, [FEMA calls] it red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow… And a completely open, full-menu Waffle House is green.”  A Waffle House spokesman said “If we’re opening up quickly, that’s a good sign that community is going to come back quickly.  If we are on a limited menu, that’s probably because we’re – have some utilities out, so it’s going to take a bit longer for that community to come back.”  So as we edge in those scary Southern summer months that occasionally bring hurricanes, maybe pay as close attention to your local Waffle House as you do to your favorite telegenic weatherperson.

The world is certainly not the same without Anthony Bourdain, and I think about him whenever I try a new dish, a new restaurant, or a new city… and also whenever I end up at my friendly neighborhood Waffle House.  Tonight, over a late dinner with my winsome, wondrous wife — the person I love most in the world — and some really great new foodie friends, Bourdain was on our minds and in our hearts.  That fellowship, the fact that I found my way onto a local food forum on Facebook, the fact that I started this blog just over a year ago and bother writing about food at all — I can trace all of it back to him.  So on his birthday, a year after we lost him, I mourned and celebrated the man, I ate good food with good people, and I thought long and hard about how lucky we all are to be able to do that.

IKEA Midsummer Smorgasbord

For many relationships, a trip to the sprawling Swedish furniture store IKEA (https://www.ikea.com/) is a gauntlet to run, a compatibility test, or an exercise in survival.  It may be the event that seals a couple’s fate, as to whether they should move in together or even spend their lives together.  I like seeing the different room layouts and knowing there are almost infinite options when it comes to affordable, whimsically-named Swedish home furnishings and accoutrements, even though I never seem to need anything there.  So I can dig that TORMUND, that EDDARD, scope out that cute YGRITTE or consider that intriguing BRONN, but I’m pretty good at avoiding unnecessary impulse buys (except for food).  It’s just neat to browse around there.  My wife, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with it.  She trusts me to be the hunter and the gatherer, and I am happy to have the adventure and save her the schlep.

But my favorite parts of a trip to IKEA are the cafeteria at the beginning and the food market at the end.  They have lots of imported Swedish foods that are tasty and cheap, most of which you can’t get anywhere else in the Orlando area, so that’s the big draw for me.  I love exploring new grocery stores as much as I love exploring new restaurants, especially international ones.  And as my wife has learned, I can usually be counted on to come home with new treasures and wonders, as well as new stories.

Even though I’m sure you’ve heard of IKEA’s super-cheap breakfasts and controversial Swedish meatballs before, you may not realize that every December, IKEA throws a traditional Julbord, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet.  It happens to have a lot of foods I love: not just the tasty meatballs, but najad salmon (thin-sliced, marinated, smoked salmon, similar to our nova salmon but with dill added), different kinds of pickled herring, cheeses, ham, sausages, desserts, and more.  It’s one day a year, and I’ve never been able to make it.  There is always something going on at work that day that keeps me away.

But this year, I heard about IKEA hosting a Midsummer Smorgasbord this past Friday evening, probably similar to their holiday Julbord, with a lot of the same dishes.  This one was another all-you-can-eat affair, for only $16.99, or $12.99 if you’re an IKEA member (which I am not).  Heck, I could easily eat more than $16.99 worth of smoked salmon alone.  That stuff is amazing!

A friend of mine was patient and cool enough to meet me there, and he even picked us up advance tickets.  Yes, IKEA was probably selling tickets for this buffet weeks in advance, and it got quite crowded the evening of the smorgasbord.  But my friend and I are old pros at this kind of thing.  We arrived early and lined up ahead of the growing crowd, because when it comes to buffets, early is on time, and on time is late.  We came to PLAY, to go big before we go home.

This was the bill of fare:
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My friend had survived the holiday Julbord before, and he said tables were going to be at a premium.  He offered to hold our table to give me a chance to get through the line, and then he would go when I came back.  It was a self-sacrificing move, the epitome of taking one for the team, so of course I offered to do the same and let him go first.  But he is such a mensch, he held his ground and insisted.  I took him up on his generous offer, but in retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue and said we would brave the line together and take our chance finding a table at the end of our quest.  But more on that later.

This was the Swedish cucumber salad — thin-sliced cucumbers in a vinaigrette with pickled red onions.  I always say that I’m trying to develop my palate for pickles, so I took a healthy scoop.DSC02261

I’m a sucker for potato salad — one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes.  Baked?  Boring, unless you load them with more and more unhealthy toppings!  Mashed?  Often boring.  Smashed?  Heeeey, those are just mashed, but you left the skin in there!  Fries?  Sure, but you have the shortest window to finish them before they become inedible.  Chips?  Okay, I’m always on board for chips.  Hash browns?  Perfection.  But serve them soft and chilled, tossed in some mayo or vinegar, add finely-chopped vegetables, herbs, and spices, and I’m down.  DSC02262

This was a cabbage-based salad — essentially cole slaw, both creamy and vinegary at once, with a nice coolness and a refreshing crunch.DSC02263

Hard-boiled eggs (not actually deviled eggs) topped with that wonderful thin-sliced, marinated, smoked najad salmon.  I could have happily eaten nothing but this and gotten my money’s worth.  DSC02264

More hard-boiled eggs, topped with red seaweed pearls that serve as vegetarian caviar.  In my haste of making my way through the buffet line, I took this photo but forgot to take any of these.DSC02265

Here’s that good stuff: a huge platter of the marinated, smoked najad salmon, served chilled and thin enough to melt in your mouth.  DSC02267

At this point, I had moved my tray past the cold items and was in front of the hot stuff.  There were attendants asking everyone what I wanted, so it was harder to photograph everything as I worked my way through.  But they had three different kinds of Swedish meatballs: the classic beef-based, chicken, and vegetarian.  I asked for some of all three kinds, with a bit of gravy.  DSC02268

They also had shrimp salad, boiled and mashed potatoes (I opted for boiled), and steamed vegetables, which heavily featured asparagus, one of my faves.

Then I made it to another chilled area with some cubed Swedish cheese, three different kinds of pickled herring, and four kinds of desserts.  As always, I tried to get a little bit of everything, and regular Saboscrivner readers know from my recent pilgrimage to New York’s Russ & Daughters Cafe how much I love pickled herring.  These were served straight out of the glass jars they sell in the food market downstairs, and I made a mental note to return and get some for the road if I liked it.  (Spoiler alert: of course I did!)

So this was the first heroic plate I assembled with all the cold items.  Loved the najad salmon, the three kinds of pickled herring, the potato salad, and the cole slaw.  If this was all I ate, I would have been totally content.  The cheese was sharper than I expected, which is rarely a bad thing.  The different herrings included one in a mustard and dill sauce (at 12:00), pickled with dill (at 3:00), and spiced matjes herring (at 9:00), which I tried at Russ & Daughters.
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And this was my hot plate.  The white stuff in the top right was a creamy lemon caper sauce, maybe the only thing I didn’t love, because I just don’t care for capers.  The potatoes and vegetables could have been seasoned a little better, but they were okay.  All three kinds of meatballs were great.  Very tasty, with nice textures I enjoyed.
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They were serving coffee, tea, and cola, but these were the Swedish fountain drink options.  I tried the lingonberry drink (very subtly sweet) and the sparkling lemon fruit water (quite refreshing).
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And finally, my desserts.  The angel food strawberry shortcake was a little bland, as angel food cake always is.  The chocolate dome on the top had a thin chocolate shell, covering sticky, gooey marshmallow filling.  It was just okay.  But the other two items were very good.  The wedge of chocolate cake was rich and gooey, like brownie batter.  I loved it, and I knew that even though my wife doesn’t share my love for the IKEA cafeteria, she would have loved that.  The chocolatey thing on the bottom was covered with coconut flakes and had a rich, gooey center that reminded me of cocoa, coffee, caramel, and spiced Biscoff cookies.  DSC02274

Well, as you can see, I ate like a king.  But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending because even though I made my way through the line pretty quickly, being near the front of it, my buddy who saved our table wasn’t so lucky.  When I returned, he went off to get in line, and I waited, doing my best to be polite and not eat without him.  But he came back empty-handed almost 15 minutes later, frustrated that the line hadn’t moved at all!  IKEA has two sides to its cafeteria, one on the left and one on the right.  But for this big event, which they sold advance tickets for and could have easily anticipated the turnout, they only had the left side open, leading to major slowdowns and delays.  After all that, my friend, a good enough friend to have picked up our tickets, didn’t get to eat!

Now, I offered to share all my food with him, and you can see how much I grabbed.  Hey, I always like to share my food with my friends, and I wasn’t sick or anything, but he wasn’t having it.  I offered to wait too, but he was frustrated and didn’t want to waste even more time getting into that unmoving line again.  I felt really guilty, and he tried to make me feel better by saying he had a huge lunch, but I still felt like a heel.  But it wasn’t my fault, or his.  Despite how good most of the food was, IKEA really needs to work on its organization and have enough people available to meet the demand if they’re going to host big events like this, especially when they have the perfect means of knowing how many people will be coming, and therefore, how busy they will be.

Anyway, we hung out and caught up, I ate, and then we headed downstairs to the market.  You can see they have four different kinds of pickled herring in small jars for a very affordable $2.99, including three of the ones I enjoyed at dinner.  DSC02256DSC02257

I picked two out of the refrigerated case, SILL INLAGD and SILL MATJES.
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These were the two desserts I liked, including the gooey brownie-like thin chocolate cake.  Apparently KAFFEREP is memorable moments with laughter and cake and/or pastries.DSC02277

I also got a bag of frozen PANNKAKOR, Swedish pancakes that are more like crepes.  I made these for my wife on Saturday morning and served them with some good bacon, ricotta cheese, and blackberry preserves.  (PANNKAKOR totally sounds like a forgotten minor character from Masters of the Universe, which was not one of my favorite childhood cartoons.)DSC02278

My whole IKEA market haul:
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So after years of trying and failing to make it to the IKEA all-you-can-eat buffet, I finally got to eat all I could eat, while my poor friend didn’t get any food at all.  It was good, but I don’t think I’ll rush back next Midsummer or lose any sleep when I inevitably can’t make it to the December Julbord.  I got it out of my system.  But if you go on a normal day, they really do serve some surprisingly good and cheap food at IKEA.  If you go with your significant other and eat first, you might forestall one of those infamous IKEA passive-aggressive fights.  And if you’re brave enough to attend one of the all-you-can-eat events, even after reading this, buy your tickets in advance, arrive early with your entire party, go through the line together, and take your chances getting a table.  The alternative is far, far worse.

Golden Krust

My intro to Jamaican culture came when I attended the University of Florida in the latter half of the ’90s.  I used to joke that every new UF student got a free copy of Bob Marley’s Legend CD and a Marley poster for their dorm rooms when they enrolled, because they were so ubiquitous on campus.  (Of course, college students today probably wouldn’t even know what to do with a CD.)  During my Gainesville days, I gravitated toward a different kind of Jamaican music: ska.  The mid-to-late ’90s era was the “third wave” of ska, when high school band geeks combined the traditional Jamaican dance music (usually much faster than reggae, with an emphasis on guitar upstrokes) with the speed and anarchic energy of punk rock.  So there were a lot of thrift store suits, skinny ties, retro-looking bowling shirts, and even a pair of black and white Doc Martens brogues in my checkered past (no pun intended), and I even played in a ska-punk band myself.

But as for the cuisine, I was poor as hell back then and definitely hadn’t developed the love for food and desire to try new things that drives me, over half my life later.  I don’t know how I developed my great love of Jamaican food.  My family certainly never ate it growing up in the suburbs of Miami.  However, along the way, I finally got exposed to the classic Jamaican dishes, and it was love at first bite.  I’m crazy about tender, juicy braised oxtails, brown stew chicken, jerk chicken and pork, and delicious spicy beef patties in their yellow, flaky crusts.  And my favorite local restaurant for getting my Jamaican fix is Golden Krust (http://www.orlandogoldenkrust.com/), particularly the location on Alafaya Trail near the 408 in East Orlando, across from Waterford Lakes.  There are three Orlando locations in all, plus a fourth in Clermont.

First, a little background.  Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill was founded by the late Lowell Hawthorne in The Bronx, New York.  The corporation distributes its perfect patties and other retail products to grocery stores around the U.S. (including our very own Publix, at least in Florida), and has over 120 restaurant franchise locations in nine states: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.  The restaurants all carry lots of Jamaican groceries and baked goods, in addition to the cafeteria-style hot food menu.

Here’s the menu, posted above the counter.  Everything is very affordable, and the portions are gargantuan:
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This is one of my favorite dishes from any cuisine, any culture: braised oxtails, served here with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and my beloved sweet plantains.  This is one of my ultimate comfort foods.  I think I would rather eat oxtails than a steak!  I’ve made them at home before, but nothing ever comes out this well.  The meat is so tender, moist, juicy, unctious, yielding, flavorful.  It is NOT a spicy dish.  There is even a subtle sweetness to it, but don’t go in thinking all Jamaican food is breathe-fire spicy.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.IMG_0033
There is a lot of soft, chewy gelatin left on the irregularly-shaped bones, and that’s always worth sucking or gnawing off every morsel.  This is not a meal to order on a job interview or a first date (well, maybe a first date), but I’ve still eaten it at work, dressed in a full suit, always worried about a saucy piece of meat slipping out of my fingers and splattering me.  It’s a risk worth taking.

Here is a smaller, lunch-sized portion of brown stew chicken, also served with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and sweet plantains.  This is some of the most tender and flavorful chicken I’ve ever had.  I’ve attempted to recreate this dish too, but they are the masters.  IMG_0035

Really good baked macaroni and cheese, which I had somehow never tried at Golden Krust before:IMG_0034.jpg

On a second, more recent trip, I got a spicy, flaky beef and cheese patty in their signature golden crust (Krust).  It is pictured on top of soft, fluffy coco bread, which you eat like a sandwich — meat wrapped in carbs wrapped in more carbs.
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This was my first time trying the traditional breakfast dish of saltfish: flaky, sauteed salt cod, which was cooked with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and spices.  It had a nice spiciness, but nowhere close to as hot as you might be thinking.  It is Jamaica’s national dish.  Here it was served alongside spinach-like greens called callalou.  I liked the callalou even more than the usual stewed cabbage, and I would definitely order this combination again.  There are rice and peas underneath the saltfish and greens.DSC02233

I also ordered a roti, which is a chewy, soft, tortilla-like wrap that is served with your choice of meat.  You can tear off pieces of the roti and use them to scoop up the meat or sauce.  It was prepared to order, folded into several layers, and stuffed with a crumbly, curry-flavored filling that was a pleasant surprise.  DSC02235

Of course I had to choose oxtail as my meat again, and between the roti and my rice and peas, I took care of every drop of that rich gravy.DSC02234

I usually order a pineapple soda to accompany Jamaican food whenever I have it, or occasionally a refreshing grapefruit soda called Ting.  But this time I tried something new: a vanilla-flavored drink called Irish Moss, which is really thick and heavy from carageenan (red seaweed, a surprisingly common thickening ingredient in a lot of drinks and dairy products).  It tasted exactly like store-bought eggnog, and between being cool, creamy, and having that rich mouth-feel, it was perfect for cutting the heat.  You have to shake it really well, because otherwise you’ll end up with small, chewy chunks!
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Upon conducting some post-meal research (only the best for The Saboscrivner’s baker’s dozens of readers!), I learned that these Irish Moss soft drinks are marketed as an aphrodisiac, particularly for men.  I guess the brand name “Big Bamboo” should have been a big damn clue.  I wasn’t feeling particularly amorous after such a large and heavy meal, or especially after such a thick and heavy beverage, but I thought it was ironic that it was vanilla-flavored, and I’m only into vanilla when it comes to food and drinks.

Yeah, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!

The New York Adventure Part 6: Katz’s Delicatessen

I promise my wife and I didn’t schlep all the way to New York to just eat Jewish deli food for our tenth anniversary trip, although that remains a huge part of The City’s culture and history, as well as its appeal for both of us.  I might be a secular, non-practicing Jew, but that food fills me with nostalgia for my childhood, as well as for early-to-mid 20th Century Jewish big city experiences I feel and relate to strongly, despite not being born yet.  Does that make sense?

I’ve written before about how food embodies our shared human experiences: our history, our politics, our economics, art, science, even religion.  And while I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere, I feel a sense of belonging to something larger and greater than myself when I nosh on a knish, a bagel with pickled fish, or a pastrami sandwich.  My wife indulges me, and she appreciates the food as well.  It might not feel like as big a deal if we could get all the same food at the same quality level at home, but we can’t, so going to the iconic originals, the legendary landmarks, the places that have survived a century because they’re that damn good, is a big damn deal.

My family was not what you might call “of the travelers.”  My parents, both teachers in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, were (and still are, in retirement) hard-working, patient, generous, and awesome, but we never took many trips when I was younger.  That’s why when we went to New York in the summer of 1991, it was the most profound and transformative experience of my life thus far.  My dad is from Brooklyn — specifically the East New York neighborhood that hasn’t been gentrified and hipsterized like so many other parts of the borough — so I feel like New York is in my blood, despite never having lived there.

That was a whirlwind trip, indulgent for all of us.  My brother and I had never even flown before.  We stayed near Central Park (and even took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Park, which I do not recommend), visited family in Brooklyn, took in museums, made a pilgrimage to the legendary comic book store Forbidden Planet (much larger back then than it is now, enough to blow my middle school mind with its two floors).  On top of that, we ate at great Jewish delis of decades past that have long since closed their doors: the Stage Deli, the Carnegie Deli, and Lindy’s in Manhattan, and Grabstein’s in Brooklyn.  Despite everything in the City feeling more decrepit and dangerous back then, it was an awe-inspiring and unforgettable trip that made a huge impact on my life.  I had always romanticized New York from my dad’s stories about growing up, my lifelong obsession with DC and Marvel Comics, and my teenage love affairs with jazz and punk music.  But after seeing, feeling, and tasting it for myself that summer, New York changed me forever.  I desperately wanted to go to NYU for film school, but obviously that never happened.  I spent the next 15+ years fantasizing about a return trip and everything I would do, see, and eat there.

Even though my parents would never consider themselves “foodies” (and often wonder how the hell I ended up like I did), I think our original New York trip sowed the seeds of my own desire for culinary capers and appetizing adventures.  I finally made it back to New York with my wife while we were just dating, and the post-9/11 City felt much cleaner and safer than it did in 1991.  That time we took in my first real Broadway shows and visited maybe the most iconic New York delicatessen of all, Katz’s Delicatessen (https://katzsdelicatessen.com/).  And we returned again, to the City and to Katz’s, for our honeymoon a few years later, in 2009.  Finally, a decade later, we were back once more.

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Katz’s feels chaotic when you’re a laid-back Floridian.  When you go in, you get a ticket, and then you can either get in line with one of the meat cutters behind the counter, or wait for a table with a waiter, who is usually cartoonishly brusque and rude (and yet, strangely charming).  I told my wife to grab an open table outside of the waiters’ section, and I lined up.  As you can see, it’s kind of a free-for-all.  They’ve been doing this for over a hundred years, but could there possibly be a better way to get everyone in and out?DSC02186When you finally get to the front of the line, if you order pastrami, the cutter will cut you a small slice on a plate, for you to sample.  Make sure you have a buck on hand for the customary tip.  Keep in mind, because they hand-slice the meat at Katz’s, it comes out much thicker and juicier than most sandwich shops with thin, machine-sliced pastrami.  Normally I prefer my deli meats sliced thin, but there’s nothing like this.

Anyway, here it is, the finest pastrami sandwich known to man, hand-sliced right in front of me.  I asked for a little fattier, juicier pastrami — none of that lean stuff for us.  A little helpful hint from your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner: When you’re at Katz’s, pay the $1 upcharge and get your sandwich on a CLUB ROLL, dig me?  The rye bread they use is essentially an edible napkin, because it barely holds up under the weight and greasy juices of the copious amounts of cured and smoked meats.  The club roll is delicious, and it supports the meat and condiments better.  Rye is for suckas.  DSC02183

This was a $23 sandwich, but two healthy, hungry people can easily split it and be satisfied.  I added some of their mustard to my half and even dabbed a bit in a small plastic cup of Russian dressing, meant for their Reubens, but my wife would do no such thing.  DSC02184

Pickles are included.  Just as I did on my previous visit, ten years ago on our honeymoon, I tried both kinds, but just couldn’t get into them.  I am truly trying to develop a taste for pickles, but kosher dills and half-sours just don’t tickle my pickle.  DSC02185

Anyway, leaving is a whole big production, because you have to present your ticket when you leave, then weave through the hangry crowd to get to the front.  But here’s another helpful hint: If you’re paying with a credit card, pay in the back.  We went to the front and waited to check out, only to find out they only accept cash up there.  Rather than force my wife to hustle back through the hungry, hangry hordes, I was lucky I had some sock money on hand (or in sock, to be accurate), so we settled up and escaped.

Katz’s can be an exhausting experience — I definitely wouldn’t go there for a chill, relaxing meal — but there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had in New York, which means there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had anywhere else.

The New York Adventure Part 5: Russ & Daughters Cafe

Russ & Daughters Cafe (http://www.russanddaughterscafe.com/) opened for business in 2014, but it still feels like a time capsule of old-school Jewish New York, particularly representative of the early 20th Century Lower East Side.  And it should, because the original Russ & Daughters “appetizing store” is still going strong after opening over 100 years ago, in 1914.  The sit-down cafe appropriately opened a full century later, with gleaming retro interiors, luxurious booths, and tantalizing displays, reminiscent of the original.  dsc02160.jpg

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This was another pilgrimage for me.  My wife and I have been to New York more than once before and even hung out in the Lower East Side, but never made it to the original Russ & Daughters storefront.  The more accessible and comfortable Cafe didn’t even exist when we were last there for our honeymoon in 2009.  So I studied the menu in advance, determined to do it right.

I started us out with two mini potato knishes, which came with some good deli mustard.  I’m much more of a knish guy than my wife, and since I didn’t indulge in knishes at Ess-A-Bagel or Junior’s, I figured it was now or never.  They did not disappoint.  They were very soft, with a nice oniony flavor in the potato filling and a soft, yielding dough shell I could cut with the side of my fork.  If you don’t know from knishes, those baked (or occasionally fried) pockets of dough stuffed with potatoes or other fillings, I highly recommend them, especially if you’re anything like me and sometimes crave a mustard delivery device.  Publix has started carrying the Gabila’s brand in the frozen food section, and those are some of my favorites.  But these were no slouches.
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My wife ordered the Shtetl platter: an everything bagel with smoked sable, after I turned her onto it at Ess-A-Bagel.  While she said it was all very good, the bagel was smaller than Ess-A, and they skimped on the sable.  You can see the thin slices they served her, whereas Ess-A packed their much larger bagel with thicker slices and chunks of the good stuff.  I ended up with all her tomatoes and onions, as well as the goat cream cheese, which was a little funky for her tastes, despite how much she loves goats.  It wasn’t baaaaaaaaad.DSC02165

As the self-proclaimed Dean of Sardines, I am also a lifelong fan of pickled herring.  My family used to bring in bagels on Sunday mornings at our suburban Miami home, always with cream cheese, nova salmon, and a jar of Vita or Skansen brand pickled herring, and I have loved it ever since.  The most common kinds that you can even buy at Publix are boneless herring fillets, shiny and silvery, either in a wine and vinegar sauce or a sour cream sauce, both sweetened and packed with onions.  Definitely not something to serve or eat on a hot date, but way more delicious than they sound.  I guess they would have to be, right?

I was overjoyed to order a sampler platter with four different kinds of pickled herring to try: regular pickled (along the top), roll-mops (two long, thin fillets wrapped around pickled onions), schmaltz (fat) herring on the bottom left (cured in salt and sugar), and matjes herring on the bottom right (mature schmaltz herring cured for a longer period of time, tinted red by sandalwood).  The matjes herring was juicy but incredibly salty, sour, and tangy, even by pickled fish standards, and even by my own standards.  It was a bit much — still worth trying, but I definitely wouldn’t order it again.  DSC02167
Anyway, the platter came with a mound of sweet, vinegary pickled onions, surprisingly tasty pickled beets, and a sprig of fresh dill.

But wait, there’s more!  My herring platter also came with slices of soft, fresh-baked pumpernickel bread and three different dipping sauces: a creamy mustard sauce with dill (top), a thicker and sweeter mustard (left), and a sweet cream sauce (right).  I cleaned my plate, eating everything as a careful ritual: tear off a piece of pump, dip one side lightly in one of the sauces, add a piece of fish (never mixing the different kinds), top with pickled onions, repeat.  I think they brought just enough bread to cycle through all the different possible combinations and permutations.  It was good pumpernickel, and I have been craving more ever since.  In fact, I bought some upon returning home, but wouldn’t ya know it?  It was better in New York.  (Must be the water!)DSC02169

We left with these delightful little coffee-flavored hard candies from the Netherlands, a nice alternative to a mint (although after eating all that fish, a mint might have been better for my breath).dsc02173.jpg

Oh, here’s a bonus shot of the original Russ & Daughters appetizing store, the one that opened in 1914.  It was a short walk from the much newer Cafe, and an even shorter walk from the equally legendary Katz’s Delicatessen (which is coming, Saboscrivnerinos!).  I went inside just so I could have the experience, but it was a mad mob scene.  I took a number — 446 — but they had only just called 404.  There are no tables to eat anything there, and whatever I would have wanted to buy was perishable and would never have survived the voyage home, so I left empty-handed.DSC02191

I was very sad that the timing of our New York adventure occurred before June 12th, the start of the New Catch Holland Herring season at Russ & Daughters.  These are supposedly the best herrings in the world, and you eat them standing up, holding them by the tail and lowering them down into your mouth, like cartoon cats.  Back in that more innocent time when it was cool to like Louis C.K., he brought Parker Posey to Russ & Daughters on a date in an episode of Louie, and they ate the New Catch Herrings together.  Just like when he showcased Veselka on another episode of the show, I have wanted to go to there ever since.  Mission accomplished!

The New York Adventure Part 4: Xi’an Famous Foods

One of the restaurants I researched for our New York trip, after reading raves for years, was Xi’an Famous Foods (https://www.xianfoods.com/), a family-owned Chinese restaurant specializing in spicy noodle dishes, with eleven Manhattan locations, three in Queens, and one in Brooklyn.  From its humble beginning in a tiny mall basement food stall in Flushing, Queens, in 2005, Xi’an has grown into a familiar New York City institution.

According to the website, the city of Xi’an in northwestern China created a unique cuisine incorporating Middle Eastern influences and lots of spices, including mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns.  I have reviewed some of Orlando’s own Szechuan-influenced restaurants, Taste of Chengdu and Chuan Lu Garden, and I’m always a noodle fan, so I had to try Xi’an Famous Foods while I could.  Luckily, while we were touring our favorite museum, the always illuminating Museum of Modern Art, I looked out a second-floor window and saw a Xi’an location directly across the street!  It was meant to be.

Unfortunately, this location wasn’t the most accessible for my walker-wielding wife, who courageously climbed down a few steps to enter.  We took note of all of our “adventures in accessibility” in New York and realized how lucky we are that most buildings and businesses in Orlando are accessible for people with disabilities, compared to larger, older cities.  New York is still rad, but that was an ongoing issue throughout our trips, past and present.  But I digress.

Anyway, Xi’an Famous Foods posted its full menu on the wall inside, with photos — something we really appreciated, that I wish more restaurants would do.  DSC02149

My wife was a little intimidated by the promised spiciness, and the place was hopping with the lunch rush, so we compromised with me ordering my meal to go, to enjoy back in our room.  Chili oil leaked in the bag on the way back to our hotel and made a huge mess, which made photography difficult, but I did my best.

This was the dish I fantasized about in advance: hand-ripped wide biangbiang noodles with stewed oxtails.  Everyone warned me to order the noodles with the cumin lamb, and I do love cumin lamb, but oxtails win out.  DSC02152
That’s a dish I crave almost constantly, especially from Jamaican restaurants, despite indulging only once or twice a year.  I’ve made slow-braised oxtails at home too, but since she doesn’t care for them, it almost seems like more trouble than it’s worth.  Needless to say, these oxtails were much spicier than the Jamaican recipes I am used to, and I even ordered it mild (better safe than sorry, I figured).  They were tender and unctious, though, just as they should be from the slow stewing or braising process.  The noodles were delicious, with a great chewiness.

But since I’m also a cumin lamb fanboy, I had to try it too.  Luckily, Xi’an offers a spicy cumin lamb burger, a sandwich on a crispy flatbread bun that was like a cross between a pita and an English muffin, in terms of texture.  The bun didn’t do much for me, but the lamb was tender, flavorful, and very, very spicy.  I wimped out with the noodles, but felt I owed it to myself and to the cook to try something at maximum strength.DSC02156

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaaal!DSC02154Final thought on the famous cumin lamb: NOT BAAAAAAAD.

I wish I had more to say, but I just wish I could have tried more things.  I don’t think you can go wrong with anything atop these biangbiang noodles: not just oxtails or cumin lamb, but also spicy ground pork (like the dan dan noodles I love so much), stewed pork, spicy and sour pork belly, bone-in dark meat chicken, vegetables, and even plain noodles tossed in chili oil.  You can get most of the noodle dishes in soup as well, plus dumplings stuffed with spicy and sour lamb or spinach and vermicelli noodles, with or without soup.  Everything was very affordable, and as we could tell from the midday crowd, Xi’an Famous Foods must be a hot lunch spot for New Yorkers around the city (no pun intended).  I’m glad I finally got to feel the heat for myself.

The New York Adventure Part 3: Junior’s

One thing New Yorkers and well-traveled foodies always warn people about is to NEVER EAT IN TIMES SQUARE.  It’s tourist trap central, featuring comically-large, multi-story versions of national and worldwide chain restaurants.  That’s where you have your oversized Olive Garden, your astronomical Applebee’s, your stupendous S’barro (someone once said they have the best pizza in New York!), and I swear we passed some kind of combination prodigious Planet Hollywood and Brobdingnagian Buca Di Beppo.  (“I’M AT THE PLANET HOLLYWOOD!  I’M AT THE BUCA DI BEPPO!  I’M AT THE COMBINATION PLANET HOLLYWOOD AND BUCA DI BEPPO!”)

But when we took a cab down to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to see Hamilton (only the greatest musical of all time!), my wife and I both clocked Junior’s (https://www.juniorscheesecake.com/), another one of those legendary, old-school Jewish New York restaurants.  I was a little surprised to see it, because I thought Junior’s was a Brooklyn thing, and I knew we weren’t going to make it into Brooklyn on this trip.  I barely gave it a second thought, because on the rare times we go to concerts, plays, and stand-up performances at home, my wife is usually too tired to go out for a bite afterwards.  When I lived in Gainesville (go Gators!), I loved going out for food with my friends after a show.  To this day, food always tastes the best to me at night, after doing something fun.

But after being completely blown away by the awesomeness of Hamilton, my wife said she could eat, and we both immediately thought of how close we were to Junior’s.  It turns out there are two separate Junior’s locations in the Times Square/Broadway area, and they’re open late to accommodate the after-show crowd.  Little did we know that we would end up taking in a second Broadway show on this trip, or that we would end up at both Junior’s locations!  I’m so glad we did, though.  Since this was the only restaurant I didn’t research in advance, it ended up being the most pleasant surprise.

This is the 45th Street Junior’s location, at 1515 Broadway.  It looks old, but it was founded in 2006.  (The original location in Brooklyn was founded by Harry Rosen in 1950.)DSC02130

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Like so many of the iconic Jewish delis of decades past, Junior’s served us free cole slaw (good) and dill pickles (meh) for the table.DSC02132

My wife’s chocolate milkshake was good enough to bring anyone to the yard.  Dig that Junior’s glasses have instructions for mixing up the perfect egg cream, with seltzer, milk, and chocolate syrup (go Fox’s U-Bet or go home).dsc02134.jpg

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting anything special when I ordered onion rings, but I am an onion ring aficionado, this is The Saboscrivner, and we have a little recurring feature on here called

[NEW YORK POLICE SIREN SAMPLE!]

RING THE ALARM!

And these were godly onion rings.  I didn’t know what to expect from their thick batter coatings, but they were crispy-yet-yielding on the outside, and soft on the inside, with a slight sweetness.  If I had to describe them, it was almost like a funnel cake-style batter, or like a really good old-fashioned sour cream cake doughnut, but with a crunchier outer layer — and of course not that sweet.  I’ve never had their equal and doubt I ever will again.DSC02136

This was the combination corned beef and pastrami Reuben sandwich we ordered to share in our post-Hamilton afterglow, and it was a winner.  The rye bread was buttered and lightly grilled to perfection, as opposed to too many Reubens where the bread is toasted hard to the point of being burned, and you can’t even take a bite without the sandwich flopping apart.  Both meats were sliced thin and lean, but this would not be our only pastrami experience on this trip, fear not.  DSC02137They served the Russian dressing on the side, which was great because my wife is always hesitant around sauces and condiments, whereas I generally love them, and I feel like we ended up with more this way.  Needless to say, some of my onion rings took a dip.

And finally, the piece de resistance — a slice of Junior’s famous blueberry cheesecake.  We both love cheesecake, and we both agreed this was the best cheesecake of our little lives — so much better than Florida mainstay Publix, and streets ahead of the Cheesecake Factory.  It was perfect in every way, to the point where I almost feel guilty posting this pic and raving about it, knowing my dozens of readers (baker’s dozens?) can’t just pop off to Junior’s to score a slice for themselves.  DSC02138

Our last day in New York, we realized we didn’t have any set plans for the evening, so we decided to see Chicago, a musical we had never seen live before.  We love the 2002 Best Picture-winning movie, though.  Since the Chicago revival is the longest continuously-running show in Broadway history (since 1996), it didn’t have the hype that Hamilton did, and were were lucky to score excellent and affordable fifth-row orchestra tickets.  It razzle-dazzled us, especially Desi Oakley, whose adorably sexy and hilarious lead performance as coquettish murderess Roxie Hart, blew away the A-list actress from the award-winning film.  Plus, we’ve been digging Fosse/Verdon, the FX miniseries about the mercurial director-choreographer and his dancer-actress-muse, and they aired their making-of-Chicago episode mere days before our New York arrival.  Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, but I believe that everything happens for a reason!

Our luck just kept improving, because the Ambassador Theatre, where we saw Chicago, is right next to the other Times Square-area Junior’s location, 1626 Broadway at 49th Street, which opened in the summer of 2017.  And after how much we loved it the previous night, my wife was more than up for an encore performance.  This one featured the mid-century “space-age” design I love so much, that was so popular from the postwar years into the early 1960s.  It was cool to see this new version of the rotating “Junior’s” sign that the original location in Brooklyn has.  DSC02175

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My wife ordered something I probably never would have gone with, but it knocked our proverbial socks off: a brisket sandwich served on crispy-fried potato latkes, served with au jus and some of the freshest, chunkiest applesauce ever.  This thing was huge!  The brisket was pretty good (we’re both too used to smoked barbecued brisket, and this could have been improved by being a little fattier), but the latkes (AKA potato pancakes, goys and girls) were among the best we’ve ever had.  And yes, you eat them with applesauce.  DSC02180

I spend so much of my life thinking “What am I, chopped liver?” that along the way I became a big fan of the stuff.  I had yet to try chopped liver at any of our other NYC deli destinations, so tonight was the big night.  It came served simply, two big scoops with some thin slices of bread, which could have been toasted or grilled to hold up better to the weight and creamy richness of the chopped liver.  And as much as I love onions, raw red onion is a little much for me, so I left those alone.  DSC02181

I asked my wife if we were going to indulge in another slice of Junior’s heavenly cheesecake, but she was already enchanted by seeing a slice of red velvet cake being walked out to a nearby table.  She loves red velvet cake far more than I do, but hey, anniversary trip, and who am I to stand in the way of her continuing good times?  She loved it, and even I liked the bite I had.  Fear not, fearless readers — even the two of us, together at this late hour, couldn’t finish the whole supersized slice.  DSC02182

So that was Junior’s.  I hadn’t planned it into our schedule at all, but fate intervened, and we ended up there twice — two different nights, two separate locations.  And Times Square or not, tourist trap or not, everything we ordered transcended our expectations.

And here’s a helpful hint from your old pal The Saboscrivner: Orlando denizens, you CAN treat yo’selves to Junior’s cheesecake locally, at Pickles Deli in Longwood, on State Road 434 right off Exit 94.  They ship it in from New York and serve plain, raspberry swirl, chocolate “skyscraper,” and carrot cake “skyscraper” cheesecakes by the slice.  So forget the Factory and try Junior’s for yourselves.  Plus, Pickles is pretty great too.  Expect a review at some point this summer!