Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen

I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans four times between 1998 and 2001, with different groups of friends every time.  Back then, as a young guy in college, I never had much money, but I sure liked good food, good music, history, architecture, culture, adventure, and romance, so New Orleans was the perfect destination for all of those things.  (Never did find any romance there, though.)  I played an unforgettable gig with my old band once, went to an epic bachelor party with a bunch of my closest friends in the world (and we were all on remarkably good behavior, believe it or not), and even descended on Mardi Gras one time, which was actually too crazy, crowded, and chaotic to be as much fun as it should have been.  New Orleans is a legendary party town pretty much any weekend, but even as a senior in college, I thought Mardi Gras was just too much.

Obviously the city has changed a lot over the last 19 years, and especially since Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005.  I’d love to make it back to see how the city has bounced back and been revitalized, but have no idea when and if that’ll happen.  But in the meantime, when I crave the food of New Orleans — Cajun and Creole cuisine — we have a very good option right here in Orlando: Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen (https://tibbys.com/), a locally-owned restaurant with locations in Winter Park and Altamonte Springs.  On my most recent visit, I went with two former co-workers who I grew very close to during my first years at my job.  Those were some tough times then, and we all found strength in numbers and looked out for each other.  We were long overdue to get together and catch up, so in true Sabsocrivner fashion, I sent them a list of multiple restaurants where we could have a leisurely lunch and hang out for a while, without feeling crowded or rushed.  I was relieved and excited when they chose Tibby’s, since I hadn’t been in a few years.

In fact, the last time I had been to Tibby’s was long before I started this food blog, so I realized I had never ordered the onion rings before.  That’s right, they offer onion rings as an appetizer ($6.50), which means I had to try them for a little recurring onion ring review feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!

[AIR HORN!]

This was a generous order of thick onion rings (or thicc, as the kids say), with a nice texture from their light, crispy breading.  They came with an excellent remoulade sauce for dipping, one of the best condiments to accompany onion rings at any local restaurant.  These rings seemed particularly salty, but I still liked them a lot.  DSC02870

My wife and I are huge fans of a wonderful, hilarious comedian named Tig Notaro, who had a short-lived and much-missed show on Amazon Prime called One Mississippi.  The theme song was “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” which I only recently found out was written by the legendary, prolific songwriter and country music legend Hank Williams back in 1952.  That song always makes me hungry due to the lyric “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo.”  (I have a real soft spot for songs about food in general, and there aren’t enough of them.)  So when I saw Tibby’s sampler consists of jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo ($14.25), I knew it was meant to be.DSC02871

The jambalaya rice, stewed in a mildly spicy tomato sauce with onions, bell peppers, celery, andouille sausage, and tasso ham, is a classic dish I always love.  In college, I ate a lot of Zatarain’s jambalaya made from a box of rice with dehydrated vegetables and salty seasonings, and I’d mix in cheap sausage, chicken, canned sardines, you name it, plus any vegetables I could afford to stretch it out.  Even that was tasty back in the day, but real jambalaya with quality ingredients is a delicious meal.  The crawfish pie was essentially a crawfish empanada with tail meat in a crispy fried pastry shell.  The filé gumbo was on the salty side, but still very tasty, made with chicken and sausage.  Filé powder is made from grinding dried sassafras leaves, and it is used as a thickener for the hearty stew and other Creole dishes.  The other primary gumbo recipe uses okra to thicken the stew instead.

My one friend ordered shrimp Creole ($12.25), a tomato-based stew with a little island of rice in the middle.  She seemed to love it. DSC02872

My other friend wanted fried shrimp and fried oysters, but not necessarily in a po’boy.  Our server was very accommodating, and allowed her to order side orders of both ($12 for the oysters, $6 for the shrimp).  I tried one of her fried oysters, and it was delicious… but it’s really hard to go wrong with fried oysters.  DSC02873

She also ordered the sweet potato fries for us to share ($4), and they were a treat — salty and sweet at the same time.DSC02874

We couldn’t leave without a plate of beignets for dessert ($4.25).  These crispy-on-the-outside, soft and flaky-on-the-inside fried pastries are a New Orleans specialty.  I’ve had them at the legendary Cafe Du Monde, and nothing really equals that experience of sitting outside, listening to street musicians play incredible jazz and people-watching in the French Quarter… but Tibby’s beignets come close.  DSC02876

I’m really hoping to return to New Orleans for my profession’s big conference this summer, 19 years after my last visit.  It’s staggering to think of everything that city has endured in the meantime, especially the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  But it’s an incredible place, like nowhere else in America, with some of the greatest food in the country.  If you can’t make it, Tibby’s is like a little piece of the Big Easy right here in Winter Park.  You should go there and laissez les bon temps rouler, especially as we celebrate Mardi Gras this coming Tuesday!

 

 

Bento Cafe

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

I got restaurant reviews in the Orlando Weekly again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lechonera El Barrio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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