Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before starting The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” neighborhood on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.20191130_130558_resized

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location a few years ago, with much more parking.  She’s still on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  (And another one of my local favorite restaurants, Bad As’s Sandwich, has since opened in the original Se7en Bites location and has been absolutely killing it for the past two years.)

In 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (However, I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing retro-looking shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or just have dessert because we’re grown-ass adults who can do that if we want to, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone.

Unfortunately, I missed her on my most recent visit, around 1:00 on a weekend when I ordered everything to go.  She was probably already hard at work at her other restaurant Sette, Orlando’s newest Italian restaurant, which I reviewed back in March 2019 and consider the best Italian restaurant in our City Beautiful.  My poor wife was at home, grading papers while fighting off a cold, so I wanted to bring her a really nice lunch.  When we saw photos of Se7en Bites’ weekend brunch special, the Minnie Pearl, on Facebook, she told me that was exactly what she wanted.DSC02719

The Minnie Pearl ($14.75), named for the down-home hostess of Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry, comes with two mini pearl sugar waffles (GET IT???), a buttermilk-fried chicken breast, and an over medium egg, although I requested the egg be cooked over hard for my wife, who doesn’t love runny eggs.  It also comes with hot honey drizzle and the most amazing vanilla bean butter syrup, which they were kind enough to include in separate containers with lids.  You can say “HOW-DEEEEEEE!” to that.  DSC02720I’m so glad my wife shared a little bite of the pearl sugar waffle with me.  It was easily the best waffle I’ve ever tasted.  Much crisper and denser than most breakfast waffles, including the ones from my beloved Waffle House, this one made the whole house smell like butter, vanilla, and good times.

The Minnie Pearl also included cheddar chive grits, which she is much more into than I am:DSC02724

This is my favorite regular item on the menu at Se7en Bites, the meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough bread, with a mashed potato schmear ($9.25).  I’m a meatloaf lover and make a damn amazing meatloaf, if I do say so myself.  Chef Trina’s version is the only meatloaf that I think comes close to mine.  And since I don’t always feel like a huge and hearty Southern breakfast, I know I can always count on this sandwich (since I always feel like sandwiches).  DSC02725

This is the pimento cheese and bacon sandwich, also on grilled sourdough bread ($8.75).  And I opted for a crispy fried green tomato on mine, for a $2 upcharge.  Pimento cheese is something else I make well, but I feel compelled to try it whenever I see it on a menu, since everyone’s version is a little different.  The version at Se7en Bites is among my favorites.  DSC02726

Sides with the two sandwiches, creamy macaroni and cheese (a $3.25 upcharge) and the aforementioned ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries (a $2.75 upcharge).  Sadly, the fries were cold by the time I got home with everything, thanks to hitting every light on Colonial and then again on Semoran.  I’ll never order these fries with a takeout order again, but they are among my favorite fries in the city when I dine in at Se7en Bites.  DSC02723

To make the lines move along better, you order your sweets at a separate counter, where all the delicious, decadent desserts are on display under glass domes.  Feel free to ask questions — her staff is probably used to them, and they’re always happy to tell you anything you want to know.  20191130_130547_resized

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This is the aforementioned Signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pecan pie ($7), which features the finest, flakiest, most buttery pie crust I’ve ever had.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of richness.  It looks small, but it can be easily be shared by two to four people.  DSC02722DSC02730

I recently met one of my favorite Internet friends for the first time, along with his lovely girlfriend.  He is a fellow aficionado of comic books, cats, pro wrestling, and pie, and we got together for dinner at an old Disney Springs favorite, The Polite Pig.  I made sure to pick up one of Chef Trina’s signature pies for them, and I think it dazzled them the same way it always dazzles us.  That crust remains unparalleled.

This is the Se7en Bites coconut cream pie ($7), one of my favorite kinds of pies, even after getting a little burned out on them judging the cream pie category at the National Pie Championship last spring.  It’s another big hit in our household, to the point where after sharing small slivers when I brought our most recent takeout order home, my wife woke up very early the next morning and finished the rest of it before I got up.  But what’s mine is hers, and at least I got a taste.DSC02721DSC02728

Most recently, when I picked up the signature pie for my visiting friend, I also noticed a new pie I had never seen before: a Samoa brownie cream pie ($7)!  It looked magnificent, and I brought it home, split it evenly, and devoured it with my wife — while we were both watching each other, like something out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This pie has everything: a chocolate fudgy cookie-like crust, caramel, butterscotch, coconut, and the smoothest, coolest, creamiest filling.  It was literally my favorite Se7en Bites dessert EVER, and I hope Chef Trina will consider adding it to the permanent menu.
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And this thicc bar came highly recommended by one of the lovely and ever-patient women of the Se7en Bites staff.  I believe it’s called I Don’t Give a Fudge, and the layers are chocolate chip cookie (bottom), rich fudge brownie (middle), smooth chocolate peanut butter (top), and then a soft cookie dough topping above all of that.  It’s about four inches thick, and once again, meant to be shared by several people (or at least for one or two people to get several portions out of it.  This one cost about $6.  DSC02727

Se7en Bites even serves special burgers on Fridays, which makes it difficult to catch them, but they have been among my favorite dishes there.  In fact, this is an older photo of my favorite burger Chef Trina has ever crafted, the Italian Stallion.  It is topped with a fried mozzarella plank, savory-sweet tomato jam, and pesto aioli, and it is one of my favorite burgers of all time.  In fact, the Italian Stallion made my Top Five favorite dishes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly20170805_103742
Anyone remember the Bennigan’s chain, so ubiquitous throughout the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s?  They had a similar burger back then, the Wheelhouse burger, topped with a fried mozzarella cheese “wheel” and marinara sauce.  That was good eatin’ back in the day, but the Se7en Bites version even leaves that fond memory behind, in the dust.

This was another special Friday burger, topped with bacon, Chef Trina’s wonderful pimento cheese, and onion rings, and I got it with a side of onion rings!  That’s right — you didn’t think this was going to be a RING THE ALARM! feature, but I sneaked it in there, right at the end.  I don’t remember the cute name this burger no doubt had, but I wish she would bring it back, and make those onion rings a regular menu item.  Look at them!  They’re the “good kind” of onion rings I always wax poetic about on this blog — beer-battered and golden brown, crispy but not crunchy, not too thin or too thick, not too greasy.  These were the onion rings that dreams are made of!  20180223_132856_resized

Anyway, Se7en Bites is a local favorite with national renown for good reason, and between this and Sette, Trina and Va’s culinary empire is pretty well-established in Orlando.  I can’t wait to see — and taste — whatever these gastronomic goddesses do next.  In the meantime, if I have co-workers or out-of-town guests who are craving brunch or sweets, Se7en Bites will remain my top choice to bring them to.  There isn’t much like it anywhere else, and we are so lucky to have it here.  Don’t miss the Minnie Pearl with those perfect pearl sugar waffles, and be on the lookout for Friday burgers and that Samoa brownie cream pie!

Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

One of Orlando’s culinary highlights is its burgeoning Vietnamese restaurant scene.  The Mills 50 neighborhood near downtown Orlando (the intersection of Mills Avenue, AKA Highway 17-92, and Colonial Drive, AKA State Road 50) might be the best part of town for dining out, period.  We have the most Vietnamese restaurants centered around there, plus lots of Vietnamese and other Asian markets.  Vietnamese cuisine carries some French influences, from delicate pastries to banh mi, sub sandwiches with various cured meats and pickled vegetables on perfect crisp baguettes.  Even Vietnamese iced coffee, or cà phê sữa đá, is a strong dark roast served over ice with sweetened condensed milk — ooh la la, hon hon hon!  So rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.

Amid all our other Vietnamese options, we have a new choice that just opened recently and is getting plenty of well-deserved foodie buzz: Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery (https://parisbanhmicafebakery.com/).  It’s not a full-service, sit-down restaurant, but a casual cafe, wide open with modern decor, specializing in banh mi sandwiches, baked goods, and tasty beverages.  You order at the counter, but first you have to run the gauntlet of all those beautiful, fresh-baked pastries on display.  DSC02305

I arrived after the lunch rush on Independence Day, after treating myself to a mid-morning showing of the new Spider-Man sequel on a day off work.  The baked goods were picked over, but there was still plenty to choose from:DSC02304

When you enter, grab a tray and a pair of tongs, because you can start serving yourself on your way up to the counter.  A hungry or sweet-toothed person can do a lot of damage, but at least these pastries aren’t expensive, so you can make some choices and have a good time with a mostly-clear conscience.DSC02301

I had been warned to not miss these flaky round pastries stuffed with savory seasoned ground beef.  They were kept in a separate glass case on top of the front counter, being kept warm.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I would have chosen one anyway.  I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially at only $2:DSC02300

I selected an assortment of five pastries to bring home to share with my wife, but a kind gentleman who worked there advised me of their special deal of buying five and getting a sixth free.  How could I refuse?  So I walked out with a flaky margherita pastry with tomato filling (top left; $3), a cheese croissant that was much more like a cheese danish (top middle; $2), a sweet cheese blueberry croissant (top right; $2.80), the warm, meat-stuffed pastry that rang up as a pate chaud (bottom left; $2), a mozzarella and tomato sauce-filled pastry that was kind of like a really good pizza Hot Pocket (bottom; $3), and a sweet, buttery, flaky kouign amann (the round one on the right; $2.80).
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Here is the banh mi menu, at last!  These are a bargain at $5 each, and they are extremely high-quality, especially the fresh-baked baguettes, so crispy outside and so soft inside.  I’ve had some banh mi served to me on stale baguettes that shatter when you bite into them, and a couple you could use as baseball bats, but I can’t conceive of such a thing at Paris Banh Mi.  dsc02307.jpgI ended up choosing a B1 special combination, with several different cold cuts (served cold), and a B2 grilled pork (served warm), both to go.

Here they are, unwrapped back at home.  I’d definitely rank them among the best banh mi in a city blessed to have lots of good ones to choose from.
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Here is the drink menu, also posted above the counter.  The Paris By Night latte looked beautiful, and you can never go wrong with iced coffee or Thai iced tea, but I chose a drink I’ve been hearing about for months but haven’t had a chance to try yet: milk tea with cheese foam ($5).  dsc02306.jpg

This was my cool, creamy milk tea with cheese foam.  It’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise.  The milk tea is sweet and refreshing, and never tastes too much like tea to me, but I’m okay with that.  The foam at the top is kind of like a sweetened cream cheese, but not thick and solid like cheesecake.  It’s sticky and frothy and a little salty — more like thicker, sticky, salty whipped cream.  Go ahead and giggle — get it out of your system — but I swear it works.  I enjoyed this drink and would totally order it again.  DSC02298

On my way out, I took some more photos of the beautiful cakes, eclairs, napoleons, macarons, tarts, and other pastries in their glass cases up front.  Things like this never tempt me that much, but I have no doubt each one would be wonderful.  My parents, who are definitely not adventurous eaters, go gaga over French pastries like these, so I’d love to take them here if they ever make it up from Miami to visit us.  No pressure, though!  (I know they read my blog and wonder how I got this way.)

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Best of all, on this visit — my first visit — someone called my name, and it was three friendly and delightful regulars from the Orlando Foodie Forum, the Facebook group that inspires my food blogging, and hopefully I inspire some of them with my recommendations right here.  Even on a national holiday and a day off work, after seeing Spider-Man and picking out delicious food to bring home, the biggest treat of all was meeting Rasha, Brian, and Yousuf.  They were warm and welcoming — fellow foodies I had never met before, but they recognized me and were kind enough to introduce themselves and make that connection.  This was their second time getting food from Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, and I think they’ve even returned since last week.  I can’t blame them.  I already knew they had impeccable taste, and this place is GOOD.

When you make it to Mills 50, it’s hard to choose where to eat.  You can have spicy Szechuan Chinese at Chuan Lu Garden, cool and refreshing Hawaiian poke at Poke Hana, or endless Vietnamese restaurants like Pho 88 — all reliable recipients of the Saboscrivner Seal of Approval.  But no matter where you go for lunch or dinner, consider saving some room for a sweet dessert, a snack to go, or some frothy milk tea (and don’t forget the cheese foam!) at Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, or make a special trip there for some of the best banh mi in Orlando.  It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I’d be shocked if anyone visited and couldn’t find something to love.

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 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!

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!

Cafe Madrid

Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine.  Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay.  I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food.  We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.

As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami.  So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day.  Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me.  I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner!  I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/).  It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.

And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant.  Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters.  They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation.  It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials.  It ended up being exactly what I… wanted?  NO.  It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.

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Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich.  I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.

The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house.  It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo.  Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant.  It was great!  DSC01800

The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself.  I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo.  You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”dsc01802.jpg

Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better.  And you know what?  It was a delicious sandwich, even cold.  I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich.  The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for).  It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.  DSC01806DSC01807

I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like.  The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche.  Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux.  But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.

In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised.  I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home.  And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.dsc01801.jpg

I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada.  (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)dsc01799.jpg

And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.DSC01803

Braza gitana!dsc01805.jpg

So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location.  If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place.  And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was.  While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.

Pho Cali and Quickly Boba

There’s a strip shopping center along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (in an area that feels more like Casselberry) that once housed a Publix and several other businesses.  The Publix moved to a newer location ten minutes up the road, and most of the other tenants moved out.  I thought the entire strip was dead for sure, but a gym moved in, and now some restaurants have opened in there.  One of them is essentially two restaurants in one: a new Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Cali (https://www.facebook.com/phocalialoma/menu/), connected to an interesting chain called Quickly Boba.  They share the slick, modern dining room, but Pho Cali has table service, while you order at the counter at Quickly Boba.  They just opened in late August.

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The night I stopped by to check them out, I ended up bringing home some takeout from both.  Pho Cali has a pretty typical menu for a Vietnamese restaurant, but a little more expensive than most of the restaurants in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood.  My wife asked for grilled beef with rice vermicelli, her go-to standard when she doesn’t order pho.  It even came with three spring rolls, which were a pleasant little bonus.

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I’ve been to a few other Quickly locations in Orlando, and they’re all a little bit different.  They usually offer boba teas, smoothies, and slushes with a long list of flavors, macarons, and sometimes they have food menus with spicy popcorn chicken, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on baguettes, or even poke bowls.  This location had a lot of bakery items and desserts I’ve never seen at other Quickly stores, displayed in attractive glass cases.

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This is where they customize your boba drinks, and dig the multicolored macarons on top of the glass.

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I was thrilled to see that this location had banh mi, because sometimes I crave those sandwiches, my previous favorite banh mi shop Mai Bistro closed recently, and the current reigning contender, Nha Trang, is much further from home than this place.

A good thing about banh mi sandwiches is that they’re usually cheap, like in the $5 range.  In addition to whichever sandwich filling you choose, as the crusty baguettes are typically dressed with butter or mayo, pork liver pate (similar to liverwurst or braunschweiger, but less smoky-tasting), crunchy pickled carrot and daikon radish, cucumber spears, sprigs of refreshing cilantro, and slices of fresh, crunchy jalapeno peppers, which are much hotter than the pickled jalapenos most people are used to.  I was impressed to see this Quickly had an open area where you could watch your sandwiches being made and request custom ingredients, a la Subway.  Most places just disappear into the back to make them.

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I usually get a cold cut combo sandwich, but I noticed this Quickly location had crawfish on the menu, so I decided to get one of each, have half of each when I got them home, and save the other halves for the next day.  I don’t know why I was expecting breaded and deep-fried crawfish tails, but these were chilled and marinated, like a tangy crawfish salad.  I like seafood salads, so I figured I would try it.

The cold cut banh mi:

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The crawfish banh mi:20181022_204138_resized

Both were very fresh and tasty.  They’re always much lighter and more refreshing than most subs or hoagies, and a good banh mi should taste very fresh, with a variety of textures and flavors: crunchy bread and vegetables, soft meat fillings, some tangy, some spicy, and richness from the creamy mayo and smooth pate.  I don’t know if they dethrone Nha Trang or the late, lamented Mai Bistro, but they hit the spot, the price was right, and I’m glad I have the option much closer to home.

I also picked out a bun from the Quickly bakery case, with strands of salty, soft shredded pork baked on the top.  It was a savory bun with the slightest hint of sweetness, very buttery, and much softer and lighter than you would expect.

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It’s an interesting combination, and maybe just what this desolate shopping strip needs to revitalize itself.  I’m happy to provide some good word of mouth to help send business their way, and I wish them the best over there on Aloma.  It’s a very nice, cool dining room, reminiscent of Bento, a local favorite.  I think if people check it out, they will be pleasantly surprised.  Even if Pho Cali is a little more expensive than the Mills 50 stalwarts that have been serving Vietnamese food for far longer, I suspect it will win over folks in Winter Park, Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Oviedo that don’t want to drive all the way out there.

And next time I’ll actually try the pho!