Heartsong Cookies

I try to write my massive missives about restaurants to share the love that I feel as a diner — the love that emanates from those kitchens, from the people working really hard jobs to keep us fed and happy and returning, from the savory and sweet dishes themselves.  If I encounter brusque and impersonal service, I don’t mind writing a food-focused review and accentuating the positive.  Some restaurant staff members and owners are almost comically curt and curmudgeonly as a matter of course, but if the food is good enough, I’ll keep coming back for more.  I can take it.

But I really try to shine a spotlight on the nicest, friendliest, warmest, most welcoming places and the people behind them, like Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites, Kwame Boakye of Chicken Fire, Brennan Heretick of High Tide Harry’s, George Markward of The Pastrami Project, Patrice and Terence Phillips of Something Fishy, Rafaela Cabede of Mrs. Potato, Andy and Evette Rahman of Sister Honey’s Bakery, and the famously friendly Walid Ali at Mediterranean Deli.  Every time I return to these establishments, I always feel like a special, valued regular, even when I don’t make it back to them as often as I would like, to earn my regular status.  But at these restaurants and a handful of others around town, the warmth and friendliness of the owner-operators and their staff make the whole experience even more special.

Another one of these is Heartsong Cookies (https://heartsongcookies.com/), a true mom-and-pop operation that sells Orlando’s absolute best cookies at farmer’s markets and cafes around the city.  The mom in question is a wonderful woman who I would go so far as to call Wonder Woman: Kathy Paiva.  Kathy has the kind of story I enjoy reading and sharing: a proud mother and grandmother, she has a degree in advertising (a fellow Florida Gator!) and a business background, but she got into baking because she loves it, and more importantly, because she loves to make people happy.  Her husband and business partner Mike makes most of the regular cookie dough, Kathy creates the recipes and bakes the cookies, and they have a wonderful partnership going.

Since I changed careers many years ago to find my calling, then left it earlier this year to try a new challenge, I thrill to the courage of people who gravitate toward passion projects, who are truly gifted at something and share their infectious enthusiasm and enviable talents with the world.  She is one of those people, and her creativity, care, and compassion come through in every perfect bite of a Heartsong cookie.  Note that the cookies are $3 each, or three for $8.  A regular person can easily take a couple down by him- or herself, but I always recommend buying a variety and cutting them into halves or quarters to share, so you get to try an assortment of fun flavors.

Here are some of her classics: the traditional chocolate chip, dulce de leche sea salt, M&M chocolate chip, coconut caramel chocolate chip, cookies & cream, and chocolate lava crunch, made with Nestle Toll House chocolate lava cake-flavored baking truffles.  All of her cookies are moist and pillowy-soft, but not so soft that they feel under-baked or raw in the middle.  The texture is the ideal cookie texture, as far as I’m concerned, but I’d rather eat raw cookie dough than dry cookies that shatter into a cloud of crumbs when you take your first of several disappointing bites.  Heartsong Cookies are that masterful midpoint between the two extremes, elevating cookies to a rare and glorious pinnacle.  Baked to perfection?  You bet they are.

I’m not big on nuts in my baked goods, but that toasted walnut fig cookie is really something special, let me tell you.  It helps that I love figs, and she uses chewy dried figs for a really interesting combination of textures in that one.

Come on!  Caramel apple pecan?  White chocolate cranberry pistachio?  Who else would come up with flavor combinations like these?

I’m always a little saddened when people denigrate the humble oatmeal raisin cookie.  It isn’t human, but it needs to be loved, just like anybody else does.  But if you’ve dismissed oatmeal raisin cookies before as a “consolation prize” or a marauding trickster when you’re hoping for a mouthful of chocolate chip, I implore you to give Heartsong’s version a chance.  

She always has at least two gluten free vegan flavors available, and trust me, even if you don’t eat gluten free or vegan (I surely don’t), the texture and flavor is just as good as all her other cookies.  In fact, since I love lemony desserts, her gluten free vegan lemon blueberry cookie (with chewy dried blueberries) is one of my favorites of all her creations. 

This photo is from a previous visit from April, when I ran slightly amok.  Clockwise from top, I brought home an M&M chocolate chip, a strawberry hazelnut chocolate chip with dried strawberries, an orange Creamsicle cookie with dried orange bits and white chocolate chips (one of my favorites), a coconut cream pie cookie (we both loved this one), an oatmeal raisin (like I said, forget every preconceived notion you’ve ever had about oatmeal raisin cookies), one of those gluten free vegan lemon blueberry cookies (if you’re skeptical, I assure you it was amazing), and in the center, a brown sugar sprinkles cookie.

Earlier this week, I contacted Kathy over Facebook Messenger and asked if she took requests for special orders, specifically sugar cookies.  She delivered in a major way at the Maitland Farmer’s Market earlier today, with a beautiful selection of both “drop”-style sugar cookies sprinkled with red sugar crystals and lovely glazed cut-out sugar cookies shaped like trees and leaves to symbolize fall (even though it sure still feels a lot like summer).  In the top left, you should also see an “ultimate snickerdoodle,” her classic cinnamon sugar cookie made with Nestle Toll House frosted cinnamon roll baking truffles inside.  That’s going to be a life-changing cookie, I just know it. 

Here are some more I brought home today.  Some will be for us, but I’m bringing a bunch of them to work to share with my stressed-out co-workers: a caramel apple pecan cookie made with chewy dried apples, a festive funfetti cookie, a cookies & cream cookie (very meta, but I do love Oreos and cookies and cream anything), a gluten free vegan dark chocolate espresso cookie (my wife already called dibs on that one), a gluten free vegan pumpkin spice latte cookie (reserved for a pumpkin-loving co-worker who tries to eat vegan), and a coconut caramel chocolate chip cookie. 
How can you go wrong with any of these?  You can’t.  I am looking forward to sharing the wonders of Heartsong Cookies and Kathy’s generosity, love, and artistry with the good folks at work.  These people could all use a hug, but since I wouldn’t dare make it weird, Kathy’s cookies are like hugs you can eat, and that’s much more workplace-appropriate.

She even put together a beautiful Happy Birthday bag for some of the cookies for someone I work with!  This is what she does — makes people happy.  You can tell she takes that seriously.  That’s an honorable calling and one to be proud of, now more than ever.

Kathy and Mike often set up at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and the Maitland Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings, which is where I usually catch her.  I try to visit her table early before she starts selling out of everything.  (Trust me, these cookies will go fast!)  Follow Heartsong Cookies on Facebook for their whereabouts on any given weekend, and what flavors Kathy will have available at any time and place.  Anywhere she pops up next, rest assured she will be ready to share the most delicious cookies, hugs, and some much-needed joy wherever she is. 

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Aunt Gingibread’s Bakery

Aunt Gingibread’s Bakery (https://www.auntgingibreadsbakery.com/) is a hidden gem in “downtown” Apopka, west of Altamonte Springs.  I almost never drive that far west, but I recently discovered it when I had to order ten dozen cupcakes for a function at work.  My predecessors had used a few different bakeries in the past, with mixed results, but I decided to try a new place that I had read good things about for a while.  Plus, they were surprisingly a lot cheaper than other local bakeries’ custom cupcakes.  Since I really wanted to try Aunt Gingibread’s myself and see what they had in the shop, I offered to drive out of my way to pick everything up on the big day.

I was greeted by the very friendly and welcoming Jennifer (“Aunt Gingibread” herself) and Dan, who had our ten dozen cupcakes all prepared and boxed up.  Part of me was a little worried about some complication on the day of our event, but they did everything right and were incredibly professional.  It came as no surprise that a lot of their business involves gorgeous custom cakes for special events, including wedding cakes.

But as nice as cakes and cupcakes are, while I was at the shop, I was more intrigued by the goodies in their refrigerated glass display cases, and I made some impulse buys to bring home to share with my wife later on.

Here are all the beautiful, elegant cupcakes from our work event.  I didn’t make the actual selections, but it was a good mix of flavors to please our students and staff.  A co-worker labeled the boxes, which came unmarked:

  • Chocolate cupcakes with chocolate buttercream icing,
  • Chocolate specialty cupcakes with chocolate chip cookie dough icing,
  • Chocolate premium cupcakes with Nutella buttercream icing, and
  • Vanilla cupcakes with lemon icing.  (I love citrusy desserts, so I tried a lemon-iced cupcake and can vouch for it being excellent.)
  • Carrot cake cupcakes with cream cheese icing (another big hit),
  • Red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese icing,
  • Strawberry cupcakes, and
  • Vanilla cupcakes with Funfetti icing:
  • Butter specialty cupcakes with cookies and cream icing and
  • Butter specialty cupcakes with salted caramel buttercream icing:

Like I said, everyone loved these, and I felt like a big damn hero for discovering the bakery and hand-delivering them to work.

But even better, here are the treasures I brought home from Aunt Gingibread’s for later.   Clockwise from the top:

  • Chocolate cream pie bar slice,
  • Blueberry cobbler bar slice on a shortbread crust,
  • Triple berry cobbler bar slice with blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries on a shortbread crust, and
  • Oatmeal creme pie cheesecake bar slice.   
    These were all rich and indulgent.  Long-time readers know my undying love for cheesecakes, pies, cobblers, and desserts in bar form.

And these were also awesome: lemon pie bar slices and key lime pie bar slices, with rich, moist graham cracker crusts.  Dan wisely advised me to stick these in the freezer before enjoying, since they wouldn’t fully freeze.  I did this, and actually forgot about them for over a week, which made a huge, pleasant surprise when I finally rediscovered them waiting for me. 

Everything from Aunt Gingibread’s Bakery was such a treat.  They have a tiny little space in Apopka, which is off the beaten path for most foodies and snack-seekers, but I strongly encourage everyone to check them out and bring home some sweets and treats for yourselves.

Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/) is like heaven for foodies: a massive Italian food store that contains several restaurants, from sit-down pastarias to wine bars to counter-service bakeries to grab-and-go snack shops.  As a result, it is kind of like a massive food hall, with so much to see and do, smell and taste, experience and indulge.  But most of all, Eataly feels like a temple to Italian food — truly a place of worship — and well worth a pilgrimage at least once.  There are ten Eataly stores in Italy (the first one opened in Torino in 2007), nine in North America, and eight elsewhere in the world.   I don’t know how different they all are, since I’ve only been to the Chicago Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/us_en/stores/chicago/) — first with my wife in 2014, and again on a recent business trip to Chicago.  I had to venture back there, to make sure that first visit wasn’t just a wonderful dream, but the kind of place where dreams come true.

It had been so long since my first visit, I had to explore everything in the store before deciding on my first bit of food.  I made my way to the second floor to a familiar kiosk that beckoned: the land of cured meats and cheeses.  I felt like a weary traveler who had finally made it to my destination, yet also feeling like I was home

Since I was just staying in Chicago for two nights, I couldn’t buy anything fresh or perishable or requiring cooking, but I’m sure some fancy Chicago locals bypass the local supermarkets and buy all their meats at this gleaming butcher’s counter.  You can’t see the price labels in this photo, but take it from me: if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

Here’s a shot of huge tomahawk ribeye steaks, slowly dry-aging to perfection in a clear refrigerated case: 

The seafood counter was equally sumptuous.  On my first visit to Eataly back in 2014, I made an indulgent purchase of bottarga here: the salted, cured, pressed, and dried roe sac of a fish (usually gray mullet, but sometimes tuna).  I had read about bottarga before, and it sounded irresistible to me, as a connoisseur of the cured, a scholar of the smoked, and a professor of the pickled.  So many cultures created their own versions of this delicacy, and I’ve still never found it in Florida.  The bottarga I bought at Eataly made it back in my luggage without any problems, and it lasted months in the fridge, as I finely grated it over so many pasta dishes.  It added a salty, savory, umami flavor to everything, and pretty much melted in my mouth.  If that sounds good and not gross, I highly recommend it.

But all this browsing made me hungry, so I returned to the restaurant my wife and I dined at on our original trip to Eataly here in Chicago: the creatively named La Pizza & La Pasta.  You can’t go to a restaurant like this and not know what you’re getting!  They take reservations, but I arrived relatively late in the day, after a long training workshop and an architectural boat tour down the Chicago River, so I had my choice of seats and opted for a solitary barstool, far from any other diners.

The kind server brought out this wonderfully fresh, crusty bread with olive oil that was much sweeter and more flavorful than the kind I keep at home that regularly goes on sale at Publix.  I’m not sure if every party gets “table bread,” or if it came with the dish I ordered, but if you’re visiting Eataly, hopefully you’re not obsessed with counting carbs, so you should definitely take advantage and enjoy this brilliant bread.   

As a solo diner, I knew I couldn’t justify ordering two entrees, so it was difficult for me to choose.  My server helped me break a tie, so I went with a fresh pasta dish, tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($24), topped with real-deal parmigiano Reggiano, not the shaky-can stuff I’ve bought my entire life.   The fresh tagliatelle pasta was kind of eggy (not in a bad way, just not exactly what I expected), but the savory Bolognese sauce was awesome, with plenty of chunks of meat.  I get that this was a pretty basic choice, and I make “pasta and meat sauce” quite often at home, but it is real comfort food for me, and I wanted to see how Eataly’s kitchen would present such a timeless classic.  They knocked it out of the park, needless to say.

As an aside, here’s a photo I found of the dish I ordered here back in 2014, in those pre-Saboscrivner days: my favorite pasta dish anywhere, bucatini all’amatriciana ($21).  This thick bucatini pasta (long, hollow tubes) was not fresh like the tagliatelle I had just tried, but there’s nothing wrong with good quality dried pasta.  I think I prefer it, in fact.  All’amatriciana is served in a spicy tomato sauce with guanciale (cured pork jowl), and this version from La Pizza & La Pasta was perfect in every way, even better than the tagliatelle from this most recent visit.
I make pasta all’amatriciana at home as a treat once or twice a year, but since guanciale is hard to find, I usually substitute cubed pancetta, which you can find at Trader Joe’s, Publix, and even Aldi sometimes.  If you’re not into bucatini, pretty much any other pasta works well, except for weirdo choices like tri-color wagon wheels.  What is the deal with those, anyway?

After dinner, I wandered around the store a little more and gazed at beautiful Roman-style pizzas on display at the Pizza alla Pala kiosk.  I was tempted, but I had just eaten dinner, and I knew they wouldn’t be that great eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning.

But I saw these gorgeous foccaci farcita sandwiches, with cured speck ham, provolone, and arugula on fresh focaccia bread, and I thought “One of those would be awe-inspiring eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning!”  Maybe because I got to Eataly relatively late in the day, they charged me a much lower price for the to-go sandwich than what you see pictured, more like the price of an individual slice of pizza.   

Here’s an extreme close-up of the lovely sandwich.  Speck is very similar to prosciutto.  I could tell they brushed some olive oil on the bread, but I thought a tangy vinaigrette of some kind would have really put it over the top.  (But I think about that with most sandwiches.)

And to go with my beautiful Italian breakfast, I found an Italian brand of potato chips, San Carlo la Vita e Buona, with a flavor that was too interesting to turn down: mint and chili pepper!  If I recall, this bag was under $3.  Since I love trying new potato chip flavors and reviewing them in this very blog, I felt obligated.  I did it for YOU, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

San Carlo was a bit stingy with the flavoring, a marked contrast against many American chip manufacturers that really cake it on there, but they tasted very fresh and potatoey, and the mint subtly shined through.  They were barely spicy at all. 

I also brought home a salami from the cured meat counter that sounded amazing (elk, pork, and dried blueberries?!), but it wasn’t worth the price I paid.  I would have loved to try so many more things at Eataly, but again, I was limited by what I could safely store in my hotel room and bring back in a carry-on bag, with TSA’s continuing rules banning liquids.  That said, if you ever find yourself in a city grand and lucky enough to have its own Eataly location, I implore you to make that pilgrimage and try it for yourself.  You will be tempted by all sorts of treasures, and it is just a pleasure to wander around and explore, treat yourself in one of the many restaurants, and bring back mouthwatering mementos, succulent souvenirs, and tasty trophies from your travels.

 

Alessi Bakery (Tampa)

Alessi Bakery (https://www.alessibakery.com/) first opened in Tampa in 1912.  That is older than any bakeries in Orlando, by several decades.  Founded by Italian immigration Nicolo Alessi, it is now run by the fourth generation of the Alessi family: Phil Alessi, Jr., who expanded the bakery and started a huge catering side to the business.  I think stories like that are beautiful, and I love supporting family-owned restaurants and businesses, especially with that much history behind them.  Orlando locals might have even tried Alessi’s baked goods without knowing it, because they make all the king cakes that Publix sells around Mardi Gras, at least here in the Orlando area.

I first discovered Alessi Bakery on a brief Tampa trip in 2017 and fell in love.  You can get overwhelmed browsing the gorgeous cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, cupcakes, breads, sandwiches, snacks, and prepared foods in the glass cases.  There is even a dining room for you to enjoy things right there, rather than packing everything up to go.

Here is an assortment of coconut macaroons, rugelach cookies filled with fruit preserves, and beautiful danish pastries I brought over to a gathering of Tampa friends back in March, our first time hanging out post-pandemic:

I also brought over four beautiful sfogliatelle pastries, an Italian bakery classic sometimes called “lobster tails.”  Light and crispy and flaky, these shell-shaped beauties are dusted with powdered sugar and filled with a slightly lemony custard:

And here is an assortment of Italian tea cookies I brought home for my wife after that March visit.  She loves these little dudes.  I remember cookies like this from small, mom-and-pop Miami bakeries from my childhood in the ’80s.  My mom always loved cookies like this too. 

This is another assortment of goodies I brought home: pound cake, New York crumb cake, zucchini bread, and multicolored birthday cake.  The pound cake slice at the top was by far the biggest hit.

Remembering this, we got two more wrapped slices of the pound cake on our June trip today:

I couldn’t remember what this thing was, but one of my good friends (who is also an Alessi fan, after I introduced him and his family to it) told me it is crème brûlée bread pudding.  He said it is his favorite dessert from here.  I’m sure I liked it too, because come on, look at it!

In addition to all the pastries and sweets, another Alessi Bakery specialty is scachatta, a kind of bread that looks like pizza and smells like pizza, but brother, it ain’t pizza.  It is a soft, yellow, egg-based flatbread (kind of like focaccia, but softer), covered with a slightly sweet tomato sauce full of very finely ground beef, but no cheese except for a light sprinkling of parmesan.  It is then cut into squares or rectangular slices and served at room temperature.  If this sounds weird, I cannot disagree with you, but it’s a thing, and it’s so much better than it sounds or even looks.  Saveur wrote a neat article about scachatta, and so did pizza blog Slice.  

This is a half-sheet ($19) that I bought to share with my friends when I caught up with them back in March.  Everyone really liked it.

When I returned to Alessi in June, I had to do one of my Saboscrivnerrific “Dare to Compare” experiments with the Alessi Bakery scachatta and the scachatta from Tampa’s other legendary Cuban bakery, La Segunda Central Bakery, which was founded three years later, in 1915.  I reviewed La Segunda back in October 2018 and tried the scachatta then, but for the sake of good food writing, I dragged my poor, patient wife to both bakeries back-to-back today and got a few items at La Segunda too.  The sacrifices I make for the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos out there!

Here is a photo I took back at home earlier today, with a small slice from a quarter-sheet of Alessi’s scachatta ($11) on the left, and a single slice of La Segunda’s scachatta ($2.29) on the right:
I love Alessi’s scachatta, really and truly.  But I have to give a slight edge to La Segunda here!  Their version was more savory and less sweet, and it had more flavor, perhaps due to the visible green pepper chunks in the sauce.  But I’d order either again, any time.

The only place to order anything remotely similar to scachatta in Orlando is at my favorite Italian restaurant, Tornatore’s — or to be more accurate, at their Italian market next door.  They serve an upstate New York delicacy called… STEAMED HAMS!  No, no, sorry, I kid.  Tornatore’s serves tomato pie — another soft flatbread spread with tomato paste and served at room temperature or chilled, but no cheese to put it into pizza territory.  It’s interesting how different regions came up with their own pizza-adjacent specialties.

Anyway, here is another delicious treat I’ve only ever found in Tampa: devil crab, a crispy croquette full of shredded, seasoned, savory crabmeat, coated in Cuban bread crumbs and deep-fried.  I had my first devil crab on my first-ever trip to Alessi in 2017, introduced a pescatarian pal to them back in 2018, and ordered two to share with my wife before our drive home from Orlando today:

In case you’ve never had a devil crab yourself, here’s an interior shot, to show it bursting with tender crab that melts in your mouth.  

Since we were sitting down to eat in Alessi’s dining room, I decided to try their macaroni and potato salads ($2.50 each).  I might not have bothered to drive back to Orlando with those mayo-based salads, with a 90-minute drive ahead (that ended up taking over two hours due to terrible traffic in the middle of a Saturday), but I’m so glad I treated myself to them.  This was one of the two best macaroni salads I’ve ever had in my life.  IN.  MY.  LIFE.  (The other is from Poke Hana, my favorite poke spot right here in Orlando.)

Both Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery prepare fabulous sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, including Cuban sandwiches, yet another Tampa specialty, always served on Cuban bread and pressed in a plancha.  Yes, Miami people, I know Cuban sandwiches are a major Miami thing too.  I’m from down there, and I grew up eating them.  But Tampa did them first, due to an earlier Cuban population working in the cigar factories of Ybor City alongside Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants.  That’s how the original Cuban sandwich (called the “mixto” at the time) was born: a combination of Cuban roast pork marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and herbs, Spanish sweet cured ham, Italian Genoa salami, and German mustard and pickles.  (The salami is a Tampa thing, specifically — Miami people are always outraged by it, except this Miami person.)

This is the hand-carved Cuban sandwich I brought home on my trip to Alessi back in March, with really thick slices of roast pork and ham.  It was good, but almost seemed like a little much.  I’m guessing this was the 12″ sandwich ($13.95).

On my June trip with my wife, I brought home the regular Cuban sandwich (a 9″ for $8.95, which is me showing unusual restraint), and I thought it was a lot better than the hand-carved version.  The pressed Cuban bread was less well-done, and the meats had a better texture with their thinner slices.  It was so much more pleasant to sink my teeth into, literally and figuratively.  Even eating it at room temperature, standing up in my kitchen immediately after driving back from Tampa, it was an excellent Cubano.

One thing to note about both Alessi Bakery’s hand-carved and regular Cuban sandwiches: they come with both yellow mustard and mayo, which was fine with me.  Some Cubanos are too dry, even with high-quality ingredients, and I think the mayo makes a fine sandwich lubricant here.  Also, even though the menu says they contain Genoa salami (Tampa’s gonna Tampa), neither of these Cubanos, ordered on two separate trips three months apart, had any.  (The Miami people are breathing a sigh of relief here, but I was looking forward to having a little salami, as a treat.)

I also brought this Italian sub ($11.95) home from my March trip to Alessi, and it was top-notch as well.  Thrill to the sight of Genoa salami (nobody can argue it is necessary in an Italian sandwich), ham, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, awesome hot pepper relish, oil, and vinegar on nice, soft, fresh-baked Italian bread.

Backtracking to Alessi’s Cuban bread, I brought this loaf over when I visited my Tampa friends in March, and everyone ripped into it with gusto.  The Cuban bread they sell at Publix cannot compare.  It doesn’t even come close.  I don’t think any Cuban bread I’ve tried in Orlando does, and I’ve been gone from Miami for far too long.

Once again, I wanted to DARE TO COMPARE Alessi’s Cuban bread to La Segunda’s, so during this busy morning of bakery-hopping, I bought a THREE-FOOT-LONG loaf of fresh La Segunda Cuban bread (left; a real attention-getter!), a new 18″ loaf of Alessi Cuban bread (center), and some buttered Cuban toast from La Segunda (right) for my wife, since she loved it so much on our 2018 visit when I reviewed it.  As you can see, La Segunda’s bread is double the length (and also thinner and softer), and Alessi’s is thicker and has more of a crackly outer crust.  By the way, that is a six-inch Cobra Commander action figure from the G.I. Joe Classified toy line, for scale.  COBRAAAAAA!  RETREAT AND EAT!   

Boy, that’s a lot of Cuban bread, you may be thinking, and you would be right.  I already know both Alessi and La Segunda are famous for their Cuban bread for good reason, and I have already enjoyed it in plenty of their sandwiches.  I will be making several sandwiches of my own in the week ahead, and because of some other ingredients I’ll be using, you will read all about them on The Saboscrivner in the next week or two!

In the meantime, if you are ever in or near Tampa, I’d say Alessi Bakery is definitely worth a special trip.  You can feel four generations of history and love in everything you eat there.  That’s a rare thing in today’s world, especially when so many experiences and sensations are fleeting and ephemeral.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot — the fresh lemonade is exceptional as well, especially today, driving home in temperatures over 100 degrees that felt like walking through warm Jell-O between the bakery and our little car.  If you go, don’t miss that lemonade, on top of all these other treasures!

Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

We were somewhere around DeLand on the edge of I-4 East when the Beaver Nuggets began to take hold.  Luckily, Doctor Professor Ma’am and I didn’t encounter any bats on our drive to or from Daytona Beach, but we shared a truly exhausting, truly American experience at Buc-ee’s (https://buc-ees.com/), the colossal convenience store just off I-95, a unique shopping experience as vast, overwhelming, and occasionally maddening as its home state of Texas.

Imagine Wawa, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart Supercenter twisted into a sweaty, throbbing throuple, and that comes close, but still doesn’t quite capture the sensory overload of Buc-ee’s.  I counted 43 locations on the website, but there are only two in Florida, both new: off the highway in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.  We didn’t even bother to fill up the car with gas there, given the surprising crowd at lunchtime on a Friday.  Instead, we hustled inside to see what food and snacks awaited us in the sprawling superstore.

They say everything is bigger in Texas: the deserts, the hats, the trucks, the cattle, the churches, the guns, the belt buckles, and unfortunately the intolerance (see recent news for far too many examples).  Well, Buc-ee’s goes big in every way as well.  Once we made our way through sections of the store devoted to kitschy casual clothing, folksy home décor, and touristy novelties (the “schlock and awe” department), we made it to the the real draws: stacks and stacks of snacks and snacks.

Here is the wall of jerky, which is the kind of wall Texas should focus on building.  There is also a jerky counter, where you can get any of the jerky varieties you want, by the pound.  It was easier and faster to grab bags off the wall for $7.99 each.   

I chose cherry maple, Bohemian garlic, and sweet and spicy beef jerky.  So far, the cherry maple was disappointingly bland, but the Bohemian garlic was packed with strong, garlicky flavor.

Doctor Professor Ma’am is more of a fan of gummy candy, and she was faced with overwhelming options, here at the wall of gummies. 

She went with hot cinnamon gummy bears (I think that smell, taste, and texture are all gross, but more for her!) and chamoy-flavored peach rings, pictured below with three different flavors of Rice Krispy Treats she chose (regular, salted caramel, and “Fruity”), plus fried pecans.

I’m not really into nuts.  I just buy them for her, and I almost never snack on them myself.  But when we busted into these fried pecans back at home, all I could say was “GOOD LORD.”  Even with the hell-squirrel armed with a sharp fork on the bag, “GOOD LORD” is the appropriate response.  I couldn’t believe how good they were.  At $14.99, that was the most expensive single item we bought, but it is a good-sized bag, and they are so rich, they should last quite a while.

As an unabashed fan and collector of condiments, sauces, and preserves, Buc-ee’s had a staggering selection to tease, tantalize, and tempt me.

I went a little mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes.  I couldn’t resist (I’m your) huckleberry and blackberry preserves, peach-chipotle and mango-pineapple-habanero salsas, prickly pear cactus jam, candied jalapeños, sweet and spicy ghost pepper hot sauce, and pickled quail eggs!

I fully admit I haven’t tried most of these yet, since our fridge door has only so much space (and it is already stuffed with interesting things in bottles and jars, as one would expect from me).  But I did just bust open the pickled quail eggs, after letting the jar chill in the fridge overnight, and I liked it a lot!  Very spicy and tangy from the vinegary brine, which includes garlic and jalapeños.  “What, you egg?”  [I stabbed it.]

It was even hard to choose a soft drink, with dozens of options.  This is only one of the three huge soda fountain setups.  I grabbed an extra-large cup, avoided anything I could find elsewhere, and sampled sips of the Buc-ee’s-specific flavors.  Favorites included pineapple cream soda, piña colada soda, orange Creamsicle soda, sarsaparilla, strawberry lemonade (non-carbonated), and my big winner, the cream soda on the far right, which I ultimately filled our shared cup with for the schlep home.  Doctor Professor Ma’am said it tasted like pecan pie filling as a soda, and she wasn’t wrong.  It was too sweet to be refreshing, but a very tasty cream soda nonetheless.  We also tried the blue cream soda, which I thought tasted like banana-flavored candy.  She liked it until the chemically aftertaste hit.   We both really wished some of those sodas were sold in bottles or cans, since we would have definitely bought a few different ones to savor later, but alas, they were fountain drinks only.

There were multiple stations to get hot, fresh food, including a station with barbecue sandwiches already wrapped in foil.  I grabbed us a pulled pork sandwich that was delicious.  Doctor Professor Ma’am was tired and hungry by this point, so we split it in the car in the parking lot on the way out to keep hungry from approaching hangry.  Forgive my freestyling, but we savagely ravaged this sandwich, and its richness fixed us from being sad bitches.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, but it didn’t overwhelm the smoky savoriness of the pork. 

There were also touch-screen kiosks for ordering other food, including tacos, burritos, chicken fingers, and a few other sandwiches that get freshly assembled.  I was really hoping to get a pastrami Reuben on a pretzel roll, which came highly recommended, but they weren’t available!  I was so disappointed, which is a quintessentially American take, to bemoan the loss of one option in this land of abundance.  So I chose a “Chopping Block” sandwich that came with sliced rare roast beef, horseradish, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and I asked to add jalapeños for a 50-cent upcharge.  We had to wait a while for that one, since the sandwich-makers were slammed due to 20 busy touchscreen kiosks all beaming in constant orders, but it was worth the wait.  The roast beef was tender, flavorful, and rare, the way I like it, the hoagie roll was nice and soft, and the sandwich was still warm by the time I got it home.   To the right is a chopped brisket sandwich that was also really good — pre-wrapped in foil like the pulled pork sandwich, and mixed up with sweet sauce.  I liked it even better than the pulled pork.

She was disappointed by the fresh potato chips, but I thought they were fine.  Just plain, crispy, salty, slightly greasy chips, as expected.

A fried apple pie was yet another impulse buy.  She enjoyed it in the car (eating it over the open bag to catch the cinnamon sugar cascade), and the one bite I took was really good.  The flaky fried crust was terrific.  We hoped it would be like the bubbly, crackly McDonald’s fried apple pies of our ’80s childhoods, but it turned out to be so much better than those.

Here’s half of the brisket sandwich I saved for Doctor Professor Ma’am back at home, along with a cream cheese kolache (left), a strawberry cheese kolache (right), and a sausage, cheese, and jalapeño kolache (bottom).  Kolaches are pastries that Czech immigrants brought to Texas.  There are sweet and savory varieties, and as you can see, the sweet ones look a lot like danishes.  The sausage inside that bottom one was hot dog-shaped, but much chewier, like a Slim Jim.  It was okay.  The pastry itself is just like chewy white bread.   
I also got a boudin kolache that looked almost exactly like the one on the bottom in this photo, stuffed with the savory Cajun pork-and-rice sausage, but that one didn’t last long enough to get photographed.

They had a fudge counter with nearly 20 different varieties of fudge, all neatly divided into squares.  You could buy any combination of four and get two more free, so how could we refuse?  My wife chose the different fudge flavors, and there is a chocolate one for sure, a chocolate pecan, a “gooey pecan,” a “tiger butter” in the top left (vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter), and a blueberry cheesecake fudge (bottom left).  The sweet fudge lady would cut off little sample slivers, and I sampled key lime pie and banana pudding fudge.  Both were good, but too rich to get entire slices of, on top of everything else.  She warned me I might not like the banana pudding fudge, but I sure showed her!

Anyway, these are ridiculously rich, so I know we will make them last.  We might even freeze some, forget about them for a while, and then have a pleasant surprise when we rediscover them days or probably weeks later.

The very first thing that tempted Doctor Professor Ma’am was a box of six pecan pralines.  I suggested we do one loop around the store first to get the lay of the land before we start grabbing everything, and that’s when she found individual pecan pralines at the fudge counter.  She was thrilled to be able to just get one, rather than a six-pack, with all the other stuff we chose.  I broke off one little morsel, and it was almost cloyingly sweet and  intensely rich.

Since I regularly review chips in my series of Tight Chips features here on The Saboscrivner, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few small bags of classic, barbecue, and hot Buc-ee’s chips.  I don’t know how they’ll be, but I got ’em.   
A sample guy was giving out samples of the barbecue-flavored Baked Chees-ee Curls, the Buc-ee’s version of Cheetos, and they were good enough to bring home a small bag.  I’m surprised Frito-Lay hasn’t come out with a barbecue Cheetos flavor, in all these decades.

And we couldn’t go all the way to Buc-ee’s without grabbing a bag of Beaver Nuggets, one of the most famous (infamous?) and recommended snacks from fellow travelers.  These things are unbelievably good.  Crunchy, toffee-sweet, buttery, salty.  Imagine Corn Pops cereal, but a million times better in every possible way.  Neither of us had ever tried them before, but I figured she would love them, and I was right.  As for me, I can eat a whole bag of chips standing up in my kitchen without even thinking about what I’m doing, but the Beaver Nuggets are so much richer, heavier, and more substantial than chips, I was perfectly content after just crunching on a few of them. 
The Buc-ee’s Nug-ees on the right are a “Bold ‘n’ Spicy” version of the sweet, crunchy Beaver Nuggets.  Their texture is softer, though — more like puffy Cheez Doodles that you can easily crush between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  They are well-dusted with spicy, cheesy orange powder that is spicier than regular Cheetos or Cheez Doodles, but much less spicy than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I can only imagine combining the two varieties in a bowl as some kind of decadent snack mix.

Finally, I grabbed two large boudain [sp] sausage links from a freezer case, and I got the small package of sliced smoked venison sausage at the jerky counter.  Those were $5 and $4.40 respectively — cheaper than I expected.  I haven’t tried them yet, but my hopes are high.

Our first trip to Buc-ee’s was both physically and mentally draining.  It is a lot to process, and if you arrive hungry and like to try new foods and snacks, you can get yourself in a bit of trouble there, as we did.  But it’s such an overwhelming experience, somewhere between the food halls in cosmopolitan cities like Philadelphia or Seattle and a Southern Walmart on Black Friday.  I suspect that if we ever return, the novelty and mystery will have worn off, so we can quickly grab a few favorites and rush out, without feeling the need to see and try everything, like we did this time.  Trader Joe’s definitely feels like that now, after breaking the bank on my first-ever visit so many years ago, but now just running in and out for a few staples while dodging the mobs.  Novelty fades.  Newness wears off.  That’s why I constantly seek it out and share it here, with YOU.

But beyond the novelty of new sandwiches, snacks, and sodas, Buc-ee’s also felt like the kind of roadside attractions that used to line America’s highways and byways — bemusement parks that drew cross-sections of society away from their homes and out of their cars, those in-between places that made the journey so much more interesting (and often weirder) than the destination, before every highway exit started to feature the same corporate fast food restaurants and chain stores.

Being in a new job in academia where I no longer work directly with our diverse student body, and generally avoiding crowds and social situations for the past two years, this was the most people I had been around in a while — and such people!  There were exhausted families, bored teenagers, leather-clad bikers, swaggering cowboy types, beachgoers, retirees, active-duty military men and women in uniform, actual Goths (in broad daylight, in Daytona Beach!), a guy who looked like Gung-Ho from G.I. Joe, and so many tattoos, with a particularly large amount of spider webs on elbows.  The two of us only noticed one guy in an overtly political T-shirt, and we seemed to be the only two people still wearing masks.  Stefon would have had a field day.  But everyone was passing through Buc-ee’s on their way somewhere, fueling themselves up before or after they fueled up their cars, or stopping to use the gleaming, spotless restrooms (which are indeed glorious, living up to all the hype).

I wondered where that sea of sweaty people was off to, and how many had made the pilgrimage to Buc-ee’s as their ultimate destination, as we had, rather than just a rest stop along the way to someplace else.  Well, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, I can tell you that Buc-ee’s is definitely worth a stop — at least once — but don’t expect to get any rest there.

Dochi

Sometimes you just have to have a doughnut, but not all doughnuts are created equal.  There’s something to be said for a fresh, warm Krispy Kreme when you’re driving by one of those shops and the “HOT DONUTS NOW” sign is lit up.  There are plenty of elevated, artisanal takes on doughnuts, which sometimes hit the spot, but occasionally you just want something sweet, sticky, and a little nasty.

And then there’s Dochi (https://www.dochicompany.com/), which serves a completely different kind of doughnut than you’ve ever tried before.  There are two Dochi locations in Washington state, one in Denver, and we are lucky to have two right here in Orlando (although the one in East End Market, Orlando’s small food hall in the Audubon Park neighborhood, is temporarily closed due to construction).  These are lighter and chewier than any conventional doughnuts, and not as greasy and heavy.  They are inspired by mochi, the sweet, chewy Japanese rice dessert, and they have beautiful “bubble ring” shapes, allowing you to easily pull pieces off to share, or just to save some for later… if you have the willpower.

They usually have five or six flavors available on any given day — some regulars and occasional new ones to keep things exciting.  They will always mark which flavors are available:

And since these are my wife’s favorite doughnuts, I will usually bring her home an assortment of six, which she makes last for a while, despite my dipping into them.  Six Dochi doughnuts cost $13, by the way.  Here are the attractive cardboard boxes, which will not leak grease upon your car upholstery, I’m relieved to report:

On this visit, I brought her home two strawberry Pocky (mostly because that one appealed to me the most), and one each of the rest: matcha Oreo, chocolate M&M, taro Pebbles (like the Fruity Pebbles cereal), and cinnamon-covered churro.

Well, today she was feeling like something sweet, and I was feeling like a hoagie from Hinckley’s Fancy Meats, so I headed out to the East End Market before it got too crowded to bring her home some more Dochi doughnuts.  This is when I found out that location was temporarily closed, so I got my delicious hoagie and headed off to the newer Dochi location in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and shops, just about ten minutes from East End Market.

Today they have six flavors: coffee red velvet, caramel Twix, strawberry Pocky, matcha Oreo, ube glaze, and taro Pebbles:

So I got my wife one of each:

Remember how I told you how easy it is to divide these up for sharing, or creating smaller portions?  We each tried every flavor by tearing off one little bubble from each doughnut for a delightful sampler of flavors, colors, and that unique chewy texture:

Now I like these fine, but my favorite doughnut that I’ve ever had in my life remains Edward Hawk’s citrus-glazed croissant doughnut.  I’ve still never had anything even close to it.  But if you ask my wife what kind of doughnut she would crave or recommend at any point, she will always return to Dochi, and encourage you to do the same.

Benjamin French Bakery

My wife and I have always loved Benjamin French Bakery (https://www.benjaminfrenchbakery.com/), the cute bakery-cafe in Thornton Park, a picturesque neighborhood near downtown Orlando.  We don’t go as often as we would like, because it is extremely difficult to park around there.  I figure the local hipsters can easily walk to the restaurants and bars in their neighborhood, but they ought to rename the place “Thornton No-Park” for everyone else.

Well, after a recent morning doctor’s appointment, we found ourselves in the area in the morning on a weekday, so we figured we had a chance to park nearby and enjoy a relaxing brunch at Benjamin.  Luckily, my plan worked.  It had been so long since our last visit, we ran slightly amok, but we are a fun couple who knows how to party, so we ordered food with reckless abandon.

While we sat at an indoor table and waited for our meals, we couldn’t resist tearing into some of our bounty of baked goods.  The plain croissants from Benjamin French Bakery ($2.89 each) are the finest I’ve ever had.  So rich and buttery, so flaky and crispy, so many soft inner layers.  Granted, I’ve never been to France, or even the France part of Epcot, but these are pretty mind-blowing.  To quote Run the Jewels, “Ooh, la la, ah, oui oui!”
In addition to the two plain croissants, my wife picked an almond croissant ($3.99; the triangle in the bottom left), I got a blueberry pastry ($3.99; center), and we split the gorgeous apple turnover ($3.69; cut in half in the bottom right).  The turnover was magnificent, but I still give the plain croissants the nod for being the best in this box.  The other two pastries were fine, but they look like they’ve been partying in Miami, don’t they?

Then our beautiful food arrived.  My wife got the Bordeaux sandwich ($9.95) on a fresh baguette, although you can choose any of the sandwiches as a pressed panini as well.   The sandwich contains brie cheese, apple, grapes, and mixed greens, plus tomato and balsamic vinegar, but she asked them to hold those.  Brie is one of the only cheeses  my wife likes, and one of the only cheeses I don’t like, which is one of those weird little things about life.  They were very generous with the brie on the sandwich, and the baguette was warm, perfectly crusty on the outside, while soft and yielding inside.

I had a hard time choosing between two sandwiches, but ended up with the Bastia sandwich ($9.95) on a fresh baguette.  It contains paper-thin slices of prosciutto (one of my favorite meats), mozzarella cheese, mixed greens, tomato, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.  It’s a very different vibe from the Italian subs and hoagies that are my favorite meals, with the baguette so much smaller and crustier than most soft sub rolls.  But still, I felt so continental, enjoying what is essentially a fancy ham and cheese sandwich for brunch at this nice little cafe on a weekday.  Hey, I might not be a Francophile, but at least you know I know where France is.There is another really terrific baguette sandwich I love here, the St. Tropez, with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumbers, but my love of prosciutto won out this day.

Still, smoked salmon sounded good too — doesn’t it always? — so I took a chance and also ordered the Oceanne quiche ($8.20) for us to split.  This lovely quiche contains smoked salmon, spinach, cherry tomato, lemon, feta cheese, and in addition, according to Benjamin’s website, “cheese.”  Which cheese?  Mozzarella?  Gruyere?  I would have liked to know, but it doesn’t matter, because it was so delicious!

The Oceanne with a slice already cut out:

I hate that quiche was a stupid punchline among lowest common denominator sitcoms and hacky stand-up comics in the ’80s and ’90s — a food that “real men” wouldn’t dare eat because it’s fancy and French, hon hon hon!  How ignorant and xenophobic can you get, with a little misogyny and homophobia baked in?  What is quiche, but eggs, cheese, and often some kind of meat baked into a savory pie, in a buttery, flaky pie crust?  If that isn’t a manly meal, I don’t know what is!  Fictional manly man Ron Swanson would probably love quiche!  But that’s stupid too, just like any “battle of the sexes” humor.  Everyone would probably like quiche, unless they hate eggs or pie crust.  I don’t understand why quiche isn’t the official meal of the United States of America — cheese-and-egg pie, to be enjoyed any time of the day or night.  Maybe, just like socialized medicine, quiche just desperately needs to be rebranded to reach the audience that would embrace it if they gave it a chance.  Patriot Pie, anybody?

Well, that’s my review of Benjamin French Bakery, one of my favorite breakfast and brunch spots in Orlando, as well as one of my favorite bakeries.  The croissants and baguettes are second to none around here.  I wish I could say the same for the parking situation, but going at an off-time (not around 11 AM on a weekend) seemed to help.  And don’t forget to treat yourself to a quiche, capisce?

Christo’s (Sanford)

Sometimes I find out about a restaurant, read everything I can about it, and pore over the menu months or even years before I’m able to go.  This usually happens when a place is far from both home and work, when I can’t just jet off there whenever I want, and when takeout or delivery are unrealistic due to distance, so I need to plan a special trip to go.  Sometimes those trips end in disappointment, and other times they end in unbridled joy and obsession.  The following review is based on two separate visits to a restaurant, one for dining in and one for takeout, and it definitely runs the gamut of emotions.

Longtime readers know how much my wife and I both love diners, and any Orlando residents know that truly good diners like the ones they have up north are extremely rare down here.  So when I first heard about Christo’s (https://christossanford.com/) in quaint, historic downtown Sanford, it had my curiosity.  Then I began to study the voluminous menu online, and it had my attention!  It was a huge menu full of classic American food, along with the Italian and Greek dishes that many northern diners boast among their offerings, and a huge selection of freshly-baked desserts.  To quote Stefon, “This place has everything!”

There aren’t enough restaurants where you can get burgers, pizza, gyros, barbecue ribs, fish and chips, pasta, Italian subs, all kinds of fried apps, wings, breakfast (only on Sundays), pies, and a cheesecake of the day.  Some people might look suspiciously at a restaurant like that, where the menu’s ambition may exceed the kitchen’s reality, where they spread themselves too thin instead of focusing on and perfecting a few core dishes.  But the allure of the diner is that variety, where you can get waffles, a Reuben sandwich, spanikopita, calzone, or even lobster, at any time of day, and you know they’ll all be good.  And at Christo’s, rest assured, they are gonna be GOOD.  (Editor’s note: Christo’s does not have lobster, but they do have crab cakes!)

The dining room appears to be built inside of an old bank, with the area where the vault used to be in the very back of the long room.  It is a little dark in there, which I appreciate.  I hate feeling blasted with light in restaurants, like we’re being examined on a slide on a giant microscope.  Christo’s had a homey, relaxing feeling, like a restaurant my parents would have taken us to when I was a kid in the ’80s, without feeling like a Southern “down-home-cookin’-corn-pone-y’all” kind of diner.  I liked it immediately, and my wife and I both liked our server Arielle, who was so sweet and patient and welcoming, despite being super-busy.  I keep reading stories about service in restaurants being bad due to the pandemic, and places being short-staffed due to staff quitting for more lucrative jobs and due to abuse from customers.  I’m sure that all happens, and anyone who is rude to hard-working people in the service industry is deplorable and worthy of the deepest contempt and merciless social consequences.  But I digress.  I just meant to say that Arielle was slammed, but she provided us the best service I’ve experienced in a restaurant in a year and a half, since before COVID-19 changed everything forever.  (I know some people will be interested, so I mention it here: none of the staff members were wearing masks on either of these visits.)

One thing I had been excited about trying at Christo’s was the fresh-baked pepperoni bread.  It isn’t a stromboli (because they have those too), but just fresh, fluffy, crusty bread with pepperoni slices and cheese baked into it sounded delightful.  Guess what, folks: it was.  I usually don’t like bread that is too crusty, where the crust shatters into shards when you bite it, occasionally carving up your gums like a ninja on the rampage.  This was an ideal crust that was crackly, but not overly hard or crunchy.

I was tempted by other apps, but I feel like I made the best possible choice in Greek nachos ($11.49), a Herculean portion of crispy, fresh-fried pita wedges (definitely not those rock-hard, bone-dry, bagged pita chips) smothered and covered with a veritable Mount Olympus of sliced gyro meat, crumbled feta cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, thin-sliced red onions, kalamata olives, and chopped pepperoncini peppers, then topped with a layer of creamy, tangy tzatziki sauce.  Folks, this was legendary, or at least mythical.  If only Homer was still around to write about these Greek nachos… or maybe they should have called them Natchios.  (Any other Daredevil fans reading this?  If so, make your presence known!)
Much to my pleasant surprise, my wife liked these Greek nachos too, but I loved them.  Fearless readers, I might go out on a limb and say that this is one of my favorite restaurant appetizers of all time, and not just in the Orlando area either.  I can’t recommend or rave about these enough!  And the portion really is huge, so a group could happily share it, or someone could easily make it into a filling, fulfilling meal.

My wife always appreciates a nice sweet breakfast, so we made sure to go on a Sunday, the one day Christo’s opens earlier than 11 AM and serves a breakfast menu until it closes at 3 PM.  She ordered white chocolate French toast ($10.99), which came with six thicc slices of fresh-baked challah, dipped in white chocolate egg batter and grilled until it was golden.  She loved it, as I suspect most people would, but everything was so filling, she could only eat two of the smaller slices then and there.  Everything heated up very well back at home, which is a bonus.

I couldn’t decide between a burger and a sandwich, so Arielle recommended Christo’s Chicago beef sandwich ($9.95), which she said would be “more festive than a burger.”  Folks, I’ll take any festivities where I can get them, especially these days!   The sandwich includes thin slices of bottom round topped with sauteed onions (and mushrooms, which I asked her to hold), baked on a crusty roll with mozzarella and brick cheeses and served with au jus.

“AU JUUUUUUUUS!
AU JUUUUUUUUUS!
Do you hate him, ’cause he’s PIECES OF YOU?
(Nobody will get or appreciate that, but I only write this blog to amuse myself, so mission accomplished.)

Anyway, it was a fine sandwich, but really could have used a vegetable and something spicy.  The pickled giardinera vegetables that go on an authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich would have brought this one over the top.So what’s all the other stuff on the plate, you ask?  Well, at Christo’s, sandwiches and burgers come with chips and a pickle, OR for an additional $4.49, you can get it Fat Boy Style.  I have nothing but love for the Fat Boys (RIP, Buff Love and Prince Markie D!), but Christo’s had the ingenious idea to include a single onion ring, a firecracker fried cheese ball (with firecracker sauce!), and either fries or potato salad in their Fat Boy Style option, and how could I refuse?  Yes, this is a Ring the Alarm! feature because I ate a single onion ring, and it was a fine one — hand-dipped into homemade beer batter and fried to perfection.  You know this onion ring was made with care, pride, and love, and didn’t come frozen in an industrial-sized bag from somewhere.  The firecracker fried cheese ball was a blend of five cheeses dipped in batter and fried into a perfect little golden globe (don’t sue me, please).  The firecracker sauce was creamy and tangy, barely spicy at all — definitely not as spicy as spicy mayo that comes with sushi and poke.  Anyway, you can get a full appetizer order of the firecracker fried cheese balls for $8.49, a full order of the onion rings for $6.99, or a smaller “entree side” order of the onion rings for $3.99, which is good to know for next time.

And because you can get fries almost anywhere but I was already eating plenty of fried stuff, and also in a Greek diner, I chose the potato salad, and I was so glad I did.  Greek-style potato salad is served chilled, but instead of mayonnaise, it includes vinegar, and I love vinegary salads.  It was so delicious, I just loved it.  (As an aside, German potato salad is also awesome and vinegary, but it is served warm and includes bacon.  Get some down the street at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, our favorite restaurant in Sanford.)

Like the diners of my dreams, Christo’s had a long glass refrigerated display case near the front, full of freshly baked pies and cakes.  It looked like a birthday-style cake with rainbow sprinkles baked in and more on top, a key lime pie, and a blueberry cream pie in the front.  It’s harder to tell exactly what wonders were on the lower level.

Moving on down, there was one slice remaining of a gorgeous flaky apple pie, a slice of blueberry cheesecake in the back, and the cake on the top right was either a carrot cake or a hummingbird cake, topped with nuts and cream cheese icing.  On the lower deck, there was a cake with cherries on it, some kind of chocolate cake, and an intriguing-looking orange cake I made a mental note of.

Further down, there were freshly baked cookies and pastries, as well as chocolate-dipped wedges of baklava in the top left there!

My wife usually gravitates toward anything chocolatey, so she really surprised me by expressing interest in that beautiful blueberry cream pie ($6.99), which would have been my top choice anyway.  It wasn’t overly sweet, and the crust had a nice saltiness to it, to offset the tangy cream and tart berries.  I liked it more than she did, but we both liked it.

Since it’s summer and blueberries are in peak season, at least somewhere, I made a case that we had to compare the cream pie to the blueberry cheesecake ($7.99) too.  This one wasn’t overly sweet either.  It almost reminded me of yogurt, in that it had a subtle tangy tartness that wasn’t just from the berries.  The graham cracker crust was more crumbly than firm, but it wasn’t moist or buttery like the graham cracker crusts on some cheesecakes and key lime pies, and wasn’t salty either.  I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but everything about the blueberry cream pie was better than the cheesecake.

Funny enough, my wife’s favorite desserts were the freshly baked cookies we brought home: snickerdoodles and sugar cookies ($2.50 each).  Back at home, she said they were soft, but not like raw cookie dough either — they were nicely chewy, but still had a bit of a crumble, just like you hope for.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Christo’s, and I really wanted to write a review while it was all fresh in my mind, so I returned after work today and brought home a large takeout order, using a very generous UberEats gift card a sweet friend had given us.  This way, I figured my wife and I would have enough leftovers to last through most of the weekend.

Christo’s makes much of their pizzas, and my wife asked me to bring her a personal pizza with Italian sausage, mushrooms, and green peppers ($11.99).  I splurged and took the 417 (a toll road) home from Sanford to ensure the food would still be as hot as possible, and the pizza was still warm!  I had a slice after picking most of the mushrooms off it, and it was a pretty chewy crust, but had a good flavor from the sauce, cheese, and toppings.  I prefer a crispier crust, though, whether it’s thin New York-style pizza or thick, rectangular Sicilian-style.  My wife thought it was okay, but her favorite pizzas in town are from Pizza Bruno and that rare bird, Brad’s Underground Pizza.

Most people who know me or read The Saboscrivner know that Italian subs are pretty much my favorite meal.  I had to try Christo’s version, the Italian Lunch Box ($9.99) to compare it to my favorite subs and hoagies in Orlando.  It was okay, with salami, pepperoni, ham, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions on a soft hoagie roll, but no roasted peppers or drizzled Italian dressing, as promised on the menu.   I think the roasted peppers and Italian dressing would have helped it immensely.  I’m kind of a sub aficionado, and I think they need the tanginess of peppers — either roasted reds or something spicy, like hot pickled cherry peppers, or both.  Subs also require the lubrication from a condiment, like some kind of oil and vinegar, or better yet, a vinaigrette dressing.  As it is, I’ll leave the Italian subs to the experts, but props to Christo’s for offering one in the first place.

Ribs?  At a DINER?  Yep, “Need-A-Bib” ribs were on the menu, so I ordered a full slab ($19.99), just for the heck of it, knowing we could share them and they would last us a few meals.  These were substantial spare ribs, not tiny little baby backs, uncut and fall-off-the-bone tender (which most barbecue pitmasters would argue isn’t ideal).  They definitely weren’t smoked — most likely par-boiled and finished on the grill, then brushed with a sticky, sweet, and slightly smoky barbecue sauce.  But they were still tender and tasty, despite not being traditionally smoked, and weren’t fatty or greasy at all.   

I got a choice of two sides with the ribs, so I opted for those really good onion rings as well as fried macaroni and cheese, because why not, right?  The fried mac and cheese came in the form of two large, thick triangles, covered with crispy brown breading and dusted with parmesan cheese.   

Here’s a cross-section of the fried mac and cheese and one of the firecracker fried cheese balls that come with the Fat Boy Style orders:

We went a bit nuts on desserts as well.  Restaurants, take note: if you want to tempt us, put pies and cakes in a glass display case, or better yet, under glass domes, like they always have in diners in old movies.  We are suckers for seeing them up close and on display like that!

Continuing the blueberry dessert trend from our previous visit, it looks like we got a double slice of a blueberry cake ($7.99, but it’s a large portion that needs to be shared).  The cake itself was on the dry side, and we both wished it had more blueberries, but the cream cheese icing was a real winner.  It was much better after we left it in the fridge to chill for a while.  I like my cake chilled, and usually my pie as well.

I am also a mark for any orange desserts, so after seeing it on our last visit, I brought home a slice of orange cake ($7.99), intending to make it last a while.  The cake itself was slightly more moist than the blueberry cake, but it had a good subtle orange flavor, and once again, cream cheese icing.  Not bad, but one of these days I’m going to have to return to Christner’s, the really nice steakhouse that serves a mandarin orange cake that is one of my all-time favorite desserts.  I haven’t been there in many years, so I’ve never written a review.

And finally, Christo’s apple pie is so pretty, I had to get us a slice of that too ($6.99).  This is one that looked better than it tasted, I must admit.  Do you remember reading how I wished the Chicago beef sandwich had some spicy marinated giardinera vegetables and the Italian Lunch Box sub had some hot peppers and a vinaigrette dressing?  They would have been much better sandwiches with some spicy elements added.  Well, you know what WAS spicy, but we both wished it wasn’t?  This apple pie.  It had a lot of cinnamon in it — like, a ridiculous amount of cinnamon that had a hot, spicy bite to temper the tartness of the apples.  It wasn’t overly sweet either, which was fine, especially after I overdosed on apple pie judging the 2018 National Pie Championships here in Orlando, but mama mia, that was a spicy pie!
So that’s Christo’s, one of the best diners I’ve found in Florida.  We tried a lot of stuff because I got all swept up in the excitement of discovering a new diner with a big ol’ menu, and I wanted to write a thorough, exhaustive review after all the anticipation of finally getting out there.  Some things were terrific (I can’t rave enough about those Greek nachos!), others were fine, and some were a little disappointing, but that’s diners for ya, and that’s life as well.

Since Sanford is half an hour away from home and even further from work, I don’t see myself returning all that often.  But it is definitely worth a try for anyone hanging out in Sanford, especially among all the other trendier restaurants and hip breweries and wine bars along First Street.  It’s a family restaurant — not cutting-edge or foodie-hipsterish in any way — but that’s part of Christo’s charm.  I think it’s cool just by being an unpretentious, old-school diner with a huge, ambitious menu.  I think any diners would have a difficult time going there and not finding something good to eat, especially if you’re dining with a party of people with strong opinions.  If you’re anything like me, you might feel a little overwhelmed by all the choices, but overwhelmed in the best possible way.  And if we’re lucky, life can feel a little like that too.

Caribbean Sunshine Bakery

Jamaican food is one of my favorite kinds of food.  For many years, I was loyal to the Golden Krust location in East Orlando, and that’s because it is awesome.  But when I started branching out, I discovered Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill last year, and that was pretty good too (even if they left the roti I paid for out of my order; I have a long memory).  My most recent Jamaican discovery is Caribbean Sunshine Bakery, a restaurant with two locations in west Orlando and one in Winter Garden.  I have paid two visits to the location on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway.

I was surprised to see they had multiple small restaurants on the inside: the Jamaican place (the main attraction) taking up the left side of the space, and small soul food and Haitian restaurants off to the right, along with a T-shirt shop.  I went straight to the thatched hut to place my order, then waited for it along the left side, so I didn’t get to check out the menus of the Soul Food Cafe or the Haitian restaurant.

But since the website listed on the door and the website listed on the paper menu are different, and neither work, I took the liberty of scanning the paper menu:

I always love spicy beef patties, but that’s what I almost always get.  I even have a frozen Golden Krust spicy beef patty in my freezer right now!  So when I saw Caribbean Sunshine Bakery offered a salt fish patty ($2.35), I had to try that.  First I asked for an ackee and salt fish patty, to represent the national dish of Jamaica, but they were sold out of those.  I’m glad they still had regular salt fish patties available when I got there in the afternoon, since that is traditionally a Jamaican breakfast dish.  Because Caribbean Sunshine is a bakery, I decided to get my patty wrapped in coco bread ($1 additional) to try their version of the soft, fluffy bread.  Carbs on carbs!

The crispy golden patty had a nice flakiness and tasted very fresh.  The fish inside was suitably salty, surprisingly smoky, and seasoned well with some red pepper — maybe pimiento?  It wasn’t spicy, for those who fear Jamaican food might be too spicy for them.  This sandwich, laden with carbs, salt, and grease, had a nice blend of textures, and everything was fresh and delicious.  Salt fish patties, where have you been all my life?

This is the large oxtail meal ($11.95), served over rice and peas with steamed cabbage, sweet fried plantains, and a round fried dumpling with the very festive moniker of festival.  Oxtail and maduros are two of my favorite foods in the entire world, together or separately, and these were awesome.  I wish I could cook rice and peas and cabbage like this!  The rice has the slightest coconutty flavor, and I wish I could duplicate the magical recipe that most Jamaican restaurants use at home.   

I almost never order jerk chicken, but I don’t know why that is, because I feel more comfortable eating meat when I know the animal had been a jerk.  Also, I usually prefer brown stew chicken, but I asked the friendly woman at the counter which one of the two she recommended, and she said to go with the jerk.  I didn’t want to be a jerk after asking for her recommendation, so I went for it.  This was another large meal ($11.95), and it was great.  I forgot to specify I always prefer dark meat chicken, so I was disappointed to see breast meat when I got it home.  But even though some restaurants overcook their white meat chicken, this was very moist, tender, juicy, and full of incredible flavor.  The jerk seasoning had a little bite, but wasn’t overwhelmingly spicy at all.  I loved it.   

I returned to Caribbean Sunshine about a month back, to pick up lunch for myself and three co-workers.  One woman ordered the jerk chicken I enjoyed so much last time, and two others ordered the brown stew chicken.  This was a small brown stew chicken meal ($9.75), with rice and peas, cabbage, and festival:I traded a piece of my jerk pork for a piece of her brown stew chicken, and all three of us who tried it agreed how good it was.

Oh yeah, the jerk pork!  I ordered a small meal ($10.85) and really liked it.  There were a few large bone fragments to pick out, but the meat was so tender, it was easy to pull the bones out cleanly, with no shreds of meat sticking to them.  Never mind the chicken wing on top of the cabbage in the picture above — you won’t get that in a jerk pork meal unless you trade some food with your friend.

I had to get another salt fish patty on this takeout trip, but this time I also tried my old standard, the spicy beef patty ($2.35).  These are much larger patties than you get at other Jamaican restaurants, convenience stores, and random Cuban restaurants and pizzerias.  You can tell they are made fresh here at Caribbean Sunshine Bakery.  After taking this first taste, I ended up eating the patties the next day.  They were still nice and flaky after a quick trip through the microwave.  (Not at work; I don’t microwave fish at work because I am not a sociopath.)  The salt fish was nice and smoky like last time, and the beef patty was quite spicy, which was what I hoped for.  It made my tongue tingle for a while afterwards!

I really love Jamaican and Caribbean food, and I’m glad to discover new restaurants around Orlando all the time.  If you haven’t been to Caribbean Sunshine Bakery, definitely make a special trip to one of the three locations some time.  The West Colonial one is directly across the street from Lotte Plaza Market, the sprawling Asian supermarket that houses another one of my favorite restaurants in its food court, the Filipino-American fusion restaurant Taglish.  That whole stretch of West Colonial Drive has some of Orlando’s best Caribbean and Asian grocery shopping and dining options, so don’t sleep on it, even though it isn’t a toney or touristy part of town.  You’ll be missing out on some real shining gems, like Caribbean Sunshine.

Deli Desires

I try to spare my readers too many similar reviews in a row, plus I like to switch up my cuisines up to keep this blog as interesting as possible.  My readership is low enough as it is, am I right?  But even though I discovered The Pastrami Project two weeks ago and made it the subject of my most recent review, I have since discovered another delicatessen in Orlando, mere minutes away from the Pastrami Project food truck.  It’s a brand-new restaurant called Deli Desires (https://delidesires.com/), located one block north of Colonial Drive on Ferncreek Avenue.

For the last several months, Deli Desires ran a delivery-only business model over Instagram, similar to recent sensation Brad’s Underground Pizza, but started a soft opening in their new brick and mortar location last weekend and is continuing the soft opening this weekend.  I don’t believe they are doing phone or online orders yet, but since I couldn’t find a menu online, I went in person to pick up an early lunch on Friday, not knowing how crowded it would be or what they would have available.  Luckily, when I arrived around 11:45, there was no line, but a line grew by the time I left with my food.  Just so you all know, at least during the soft opening, Deli Desires is open for breakfast and lunch only, and just on Friday through Sunday.  It’s a small space with no seating — strictly a takeout operation for now, which is just fine with me.  And I’m always pleased to see the full staff of a restaurant wearing masks at all times, and wearing them the right way, covering their noses.  Wearing your mask with your nose hanging out totally defeats the purpose, like walking around with your schmeckle sticking out of your pants.  And yet you see it all the time!  (The noses, that is.  During a pandemic, consider it just as bad.)

There’s a lot to look at inside Deli Desires, with large shelves on each side with gourmet groceries — local honey, hot sauce, fancy canned seafood, giant jars of Duke’s mayo (the only kind of mayo I will buy), T-shirts, and a whole rack of Herr’s potato chips, which are excellent, especially the ketchup chips.  Directly in front, they have a display of Dr. Brown’s canned sodas (good root beer and cream soda, but I can’t recommend the Cel-Ray soda) and boxes of kosher salt.

You know what else is fine?  All the food.  Damn fine deli fare.  Here’s the menu, since they didn’t have a website up at the time I wrote this review, just the Instagram page.  It’s very unique for a deli menu — some classics, but definitely modern interpretations of the classics.

When I told my co-worker, a regular member of our Friday “lunch bunch” that I was going to a new deli and asked if she wanted anything, she asked if the menu was online, and I said I couldn’t find it and had no idea what they would have.  She told me she likes Reubens, in case they have one.  (Who doesn’t like Reubens?)  Well, they didn’t have a Reuben, but they did have a different kind of corned beef sandwich ($10) — a “Big Mac”-style corned beef sandwich with shredded lettuce and pickles (in place of the sauerkraut on a Reuben), special sauce (already very similar to the Russian or thousand island dressings that accompany Reubens), and served on a soft, fresh-baked sesame seeded roll.  I didn’t taste this sandwich I brought back for her, but she said it all worked well together.  When I placed the order with the very patient and welcoming Tyson at the counter, he told me they make everything from scratch, including curing their own corned beef.

My regular readers know how much I love delis, especially all the smoked, cured, and pickled meats and fish.  I saw a whitefish salad sandwich on the menu ($10) and had to have it.  Whitefish is a large fish that is often smoked whole, until the skin turns a beautiful golden color.  Then the flaky, oily, smoky flesh is scooped and scraped out, mixed with mayonnaise, dill, usually chopped celery, and other herbs and spices.  I just love it, and I’m already overjoyed on the rare occasions I can find a whole smoked whitefish or “chub” in a store and make my own whitefish salad.  But it’s a labor-intensive process, making sure to remove all the inedible hair-thin bones that look like clear plastic and can really get caught in your throat.  That’s why it is even more pleasing when the professionals do the work.  This was delicious whitefish salad on the same kind of soft seeded roll — big chunks of fish mixed with mayo (Duke’s!) and lots of dill.  It was topped by crispy “celery salad,” with long, paper-thin strands of celery and red radish that must have been sliced with a razor-sharp mandoline slicer.  They topped it with a slice of muenster cheese too, almost making it like their version of a tuna melt, that diner classic.  Of course the sandwich was served cold, as it should be.

While I was there for the soft opening, I wanted to try a second sandwich, so I could eat a little of both at work and finish them for dinner.  I decided to go with the scrapple sandwich ($8), although it was a difficult decision.  This was an excellent breakfast sandwich that would be a welcome meal at any time of day, not just in the morning.  For those that don’t know, scrapple is a breakfast meat that is made by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid-Atlantic states, kind of like a sausage or meatloaf, but a looser consistency.  It is often made with pork scraps, herbs, and spices, and then some fillers like flour and other grains, and served sliced and pan-fried.  I’ve had it before from one of the Amish food stands in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite places in the entire world.  I don’t know what Deli Desires puts into their scrapple, but I definitely tasted sage, making it reminiscent of a more crumbly pork breakfast sausage.  (Hey, they have a BLT on the menu too, so they never claimed to be a kosher deli!)  They also included a perfectly fried over-medium egg that held up perfectly until I got back to work and tried cutting the sandwich in half with a plastic knife, when it started to run.  But it was nice dipping the bialy in the warm, rich, runny yolk. 

What’s a bialy, you ask?  They are similar to bagels, but unfortunately, a lot less popular.  I love ’em, though.  Bagels have that smooth, shiny outer coating because they are boiled in huge kettles of water before being baked.  Bialys aren’t boiled, just baked, so they have more of a traditional outer crust, but are still soft, chewy, and fluffy on the inside like bagels.  They lack the holes that help make bagels bagels, but they do have an indentation that usually contains diced cooked onions and poppy seeds.  Deli Desires makes a very good bialy, and they are few and far between.  (Bagel King, our regular standard place for bagels, much closer to home, also bakes their own bialys.)

But I had to get two bialys to enjoy later: a standard one with caramelized onions in the center (left) and a smoked jalapeño and muenster bialy (right), the same kind the scrapple and egg sandwich came on.  These bialys were $3 each.

I saw they had potato salad ($3), so as long as I was already running amok with carbs (glorious carbs!), I wanted to try that too.  These were small redskin potatoes, very tender with some nice texture from the skins, mixed with mayo and lots of dill, for almost a Scandinavian style of potato salad.  But I have remarked before that the Scandinavians and the Jews share some culinary traditions — the aforementioned smoked, cured, and pickled fish, dark rye bread, lots of dill, and potato salad too, apparently.  This was a generous helping of potato salad that I finished in two sittings, but probably could have made last even longer.  It was just too good, though.   

And even though I had no intention of ordering dessert, Deli Desires had an assortment of fresh-baked desserts under glass domes on the counter.  There’s something about a pie under a glass dome, like at a diner, that makes it even more tempting to me than a pie in a fridge or sitting on a windowsill, like in old-timey cartoons.  It’s kind of like putting a statue on a pedestal… or putting a very attractive person on a pedestal, for that matter.

One of the daily desserts was right up my alley — a cara cara orange pie on a graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream and a chewy, sticky dried orange slice.  Conceptually, it is very similar to Florida’s beloved key lime pie, and very close to my all-time favorite dessert, a tart and creamy “Atlantic Beach pie” that I make with fresh-squeezed citrus juices on a buttery, salty crust made from crushed Ritz crackers.  This slice was $6, but I just had to try it, for science — to compare it to my Atlantic Beach pie recipe and see how I stacked up to a seasoned baker. 

Needless to say, it was good.  Firmer and less runny than my similar pie, and I’ll have to figure out how they do that.  However, it was served at room temperature, and I think it would have been even tastier served chilled, like how I serve my pie and pretty much any key lime pie from anywhere.  Of course I could have stuck it in the fridge for an hour, but even after eating everything else I ate, once I opened the box and tasted my first tiny taste of the slice, I couldn’t wait.  Also, cara cara oranges are more tart than our standard, familiar navel oranges, but the pie didn’t have that acidic tartness I love so much in citrusy desserts.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it!

I considered waiting a week or two after my Pastrami Project review to publish this one and running a different piece in its place.  But since Deli Desires is still in its soft opening phase, I wanted to get the word out that Mills 50 district has an exciting new deli in a permanent location, and it’s open for business and excellent, right out of the gate.  Check with them first, in case their hours change in the days and weeks to come, but everything I tried was terrific, and I look forward to returning and working my way through the menu.

Many of their offerings are fresh, new takes on traditional New York/Jewish delicatessen fare.  You could almost call it “hipster deli,” but I don’t want that to sound like a diss in any way.  Delis have long been an endangered species among restaurants, decades before this pandemic started threatening the entire restaurant industry.  It breaks my heart to read about these august culinary landmarks closing down in big cities around the country, sometimes after half a century or longer in business.  But I get it — neighborhood demographics change, urban rents skyrocket, and a Jewish deli might seem stodgy and stale compared to some of the hot new food trends, especially for those who didn’t grow up in a family that loved that kind of food, as mine did.  But there is always hope!  Over the last decade or so, even as some of the iconic delis have baked their last bagels, cured their last corned beef, and plated their last pastrami, a young, hip, adventurous group of chefs has started revitalizing and rejuvenating the entire concept of the deli, reaching out to younger, hipper, more adventurous diners, offering some twists on the old standards, elevating and reinventing classic dishes while still paying homage to the old ways.  That’s what chef-owner Hannah Jaffe is doing here with her delicious, delectable, decadent Deli Desires, and it it’s going to catch on here in Orlando.  We’ve needed this for a long time, and now it’s here — and not that far from my day job either.  *I* need this.  Don’t let me down, people.  You will desire this deli, take it from me.