Thirsty Gator

Thirsty Gator (http://thirstygator.net/) is a great dive bar and casual restaurant located on a lonely stretch of Goldenrod Road between University Drive and East Colonial Drive.  The address plants it firmly in Winter Park, but the surrounding area doesn’t look or feel like Winter Park.  To be completely honest, entering the bar feels like you’ve entered a portal that transports you to the Southern college town of Gainesville, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.  It doesn’t even matter when you knew Gainesville best — it will feel like Gainesville from “back in the day,” whenever that day was for you.

As if the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, Thirsty Gator is a Florida Gators-themed bar, so I’m sure it is a hot destination when Gator games are on or when University of Florida alumni in Orlando are feeling particularly nostalgic.  I have a few degrees from UF, but as I get older, I rarely feel that nostalgia for “bright college days, oh carefree days that fly” anymore.  I had some of the best and worst times of my life during my seven years as a UF student, but I met a lot of amazing friends there, and I’m so honored to know them and so proud of what they have all become.  Also, I fully realize I am able to lead the life I live now — educated, gainfully employed, happily married — because of what I accomplished back then, so in the end, it all worked out.  I never thought I’d feel more content and fulfilled in my 40s than I did in my late teens and 20s, but here I am.  Aw heck, when I was in my 20s, there were times I honestly didn’t think I would even make it to my 40s, but here I am, doing better than pretty much anyone expected, myself included.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, it really does get better.  I’m living proof of that.

But enough about an old man’s reflections of times past.  On to the food!

I brought home an order of ten mild wings ($15):

And an order of ten garlic wings ($15):
These are some of my favorite wings in Orlando.  I’ve written before about how I dislike typical sports bar wings that are tiny, greasy, crunchy, and dry.  These are the exact opposite — decent-sized wings that are tender, moist, juicy, incredibly well-seasoned, and barely greasy at all because they are baked, not fried.  I probably would have preferred them hot, but then my wife couldn’t enjoy them at all, and we always endeavor to share.  Thirsty Gator may be known for its seafood, but don’t sleep on these wings!  Seriously, they have to be near the top of the Top Five in Orlando.

My wife and I can never refuse the allure of a soft pretzel.  This one was $3.25, and it was pretty large, soft, and buttery.  It wasn’t as flaky and perfect as an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel (the only thing I like going to malls for anymore), but still hit the spot.  That is yellow mustard in the little plastic cup, not butter! 

I can never resist garlic rolls or garlic bread either, and this garlic bread was $3.25.  You get four pieces that are similar to the frozen loaves of Cole’s garlic bread I enjoy a little bit too much.  They had softened by the time I got everything home, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, and herbs on them.  You just can’t go wrong with garlic bread.

And the main reason I got takeout from Thirsty Gator, rock shrimp (market price; currently $21.95 per pound).  This delectable denizen of the deep rarely appears on any restaurant menus, and this is the one restaurant I know of in Orlando that specializes in the little crustaceans.  These are peel-and-eat rock shrimp, and their shells are slightly harder to pierce, penetrate, and peel than the typical shrimp we all know and love.  So they’re more work, but totally worth it.

This is what one of the rock shrimp looks like peeled.  The meat is succulent and sweet, and my wife and I agree they taste more like lobster than shrimp.   
Funny enough, one of our featured songs at our wedding was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s.  If you’ve ever had spiny lobster, AKA langoustine or langostino, those guys are the real-life rock lobsters, and I honestly think they taste more like regular shrimp than lobster.

These are a real treat, and since each one is a bit of a hassle to peel, you never take these for granted.  The peeling process may not be appealing, but you never eat rock shrimp without appreciating each sweet, tender morsel.  As a result, we took our time making our way through the pound we got.  They are served warm, but we also enjoyed them chilled out of the fridge the next day.

Aside from the rock shrimp and the wings, the other big food specialty at Thirsty Gator is the fresh raw oysters, but those aren’t great takeout food.  I’ve made no secret of my great love of oysters, so I’ll just have to go back another time to enjoy them in person.  Whether you love the Gators, hate them, or just fear them as so many do, there is so much to love at Thirsty Gator.

 

 

 

El Santo Taqueria (Miami)

On my madcap trip to Miami in early March last year, right before the world changed forever, I spent a full day hanging out with my best friend and eating all over the city, including Cuban burgers and Cuban pizza for lunch at Polo Norte.  For dinner, we made our way down to Miami’s vibrant Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street), the center of the Cuban community, full of restaurants, bars, and vibrant nightlife.  It is so much more fun than pricey and pretentious South Beach.  While waiting for a table at our ultimate dinner destination (stay tuned, Saboscrivnerinos!), I spotted the lucha libre-themed El Santo Taqueria (http://elsantomiami.com/taqueria-home/), and begged my BFF and his lovely girlfriend to indulge me and stop in for a snack between our earlier snack and an impending huge, heavy dinner.

El Santo was maybe the most famous luchador, an iconic Mexican wrestler who was like a real-life superhero in and out of the ring.  He starred in dozens of movies, was the hero of his own long-running comic book series, and never took his silver mask off in public, staying in character for decades as a hero and champion to fans of all ages, never revealing his secret identity.  While (almost) everyone knows wrestling is staged “sports entertainment” here in the United States, lucha libre is a grand tradition in Mexico, and luchadores can become folk heroes and symbols of national pride.

As for me, when I first got into watching pro wrestling around 1998, it was the high-flying luchadores in WCW’s cruiserweight division that drew me in and made me a fan.  Those guys were awe-inspiring — smaller competitors who held their own against the big brawlers, defying gravity with insane flips and hurricanranas while wearing cool masks.  I followed WCW until it was subsumed by WWE, and then stuck around until 2005, drifting away after one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Eddie Guerrero, passed away, tragically and far too young.  Over the last year, which I spent so much of at home, the new wrestling promotion AEW got me excited to watch and follow pro wrestling again.  AEW Dynamite became my Wednesday night tradition, and it is pretty much everything I always wished WWE was, back in the day: lots of action, entertaining characters, long-running story arcs with real character development, comic relief, no huge egos, no backstage politics, and everyone doing their best work and putting each other over (making their opponents look good).

I could mark out about AEW all day, but this is neither the time nor the place!  Flashing back to March 7th, 2020, I saw that sign with El Santo’s intimidating visage leaning out over Calle Ocho in three dimensions, and I knew I had to make a pilgrimage.  Tacos beckoned!DSC03026

The walls are adorned with lucha libre-themed artwork:
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This poster caught my eye, as a Bowie fan:
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El Santo Taqueria also displays the masks of champions:DSC03017

And even their championship belts.  (Cue my wife, who loves to say that wrestling is all about big, burly guys brawling over an accessory, but will begrudgingly admit that AEW has grown on her.)
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My buddy and I shared an order of two carne asada tacos ($9), with marinated steak, queso fresco, chili crema, tomatoes, and cilantro on charred corn tortillas.  DSC03021

We also split an order of two al pastor tacos ($8): slow-roasted marinated pork served with charred pineapple, caramelized onions, and tomatillo salsa on the same charred corn tortillas.DSC03022

These were not giant tacos — which is fine, because we were on our way to a colossal dinner — but they were beautiful and packed with flavor.  Perfect appetizers.

I got a Jarritos mandarin soda (made with sugar cane instead of high fructose corn syrup) to wash down my tacos.  Here’s a helpful hint to improve your life — some 7-Elevens now offer Jarritos mandarin soda in the fountain, so you can fill a Big Gulp with the stuff.  I’m trying to quit soda completely, but I always enjoyed orange sodas, and this one might be the best.DSC03023

I’m so glad I spotted El Santo Taqueria, and that my friends indulged me, even on this great day of indulgence.  It wasn’t on our dining agenda, but when I see masked wrestling iconography and Mexican food, nothing is going to keep the Saboscrivner away.  As the rockabilly band Southern Culture on the Skids sang, ¡Viva el Santo!

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
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But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

Fiddler’s Green Irish Pub

I don’t drink anymore, but I always appreciate an atmospheric pub or bar that serves warm, hearty fare.  Pub grub is some of the ultimate comfort food, especially when the temperature finally drops a bit (which in Florida means a few days in the 50s and nights in the 40s).  I miss the old Fox’s Sherron Inn in South Miami, a dimly lit dive bar straight out of a Tom Waits song, jukebox and all, that served surprisingly good food.  It has been gone for over a decade, and it makes me sad that there’s no trace remaining, and too many people will never even know it was there.

But on a happier note, ever since I moved to Orlando in late 2004, I’ve been a huge fan of the great Irish pub in Winter Park, Fiddler’s Green (https://fiddlersgreen.pub/).  It feels like it was teleported here directly from Ireland — full of dark wood, no windows, a cozy little hideout near Park Avenue and Rollins College.  Luckily almost everyone knows the place, and those who know it love it.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve eaten countless meals at Fiddler’s Green that nourished the body and the soul, always accompanied by my wife or friends or co-workers, and good times were had by all.  Once, on one of their rare visits up here, I even brought my parents to Fiddler’s Green.  These are people who like what they like and don’t always like trying new things, but they loved it.  Years later, they still talk about the dinner we had — certainly nothing fancy, but one of those “perfect in every way” meals that just hit the spot for everyone.

This is the fish and chips ($17.95) that won my parents over, and also my wife’s go-to order at Fiddler’s Green.  You get three huge beer-battered Atlantic cod filets, fried to crispy golden-brown perfection — never too greasy, always tender, with just the right level of crunch to the batter.  The batter stays on and maintained that ideal crispness even after transporting my most recent order home.  The fish is served with a cool, creamy remoulade sauce, with the slightest tangy zip to it. 

Here’s a close-up of that gorgeous fried fish.  It’ll make you moan “Oh my cod!”

And here are the chips, delicious potato wedges.  I figure anyone reading this review knows that with British and Irish fish and chips, the “chips” refer to fries, and if you want thinner, crunchier potato chips, those are “crisps.”  So much for a common language, eh wot?  As far as fries/chips go, I’m often skeptical of potato wedges because they are rarely crispy, and if I wanted a baked potato (which I never do), I’d just order a baked potato.  But these are firm on the outside and soft on the inside, but not flaking apart either. 

You might expect an Irish pub would serve potatoes using multiple masterful methods, and you’d be right.  These are the ceili chips ($4.95), which are actually the potato chips most of us know and love… so in Irish pub parlance, they are crisps.  Don’t expect the hard crunchiness of store-bought kettle chips — these are thinner and crispier, and thankfully never soggy from grease.  We can’t go to Fiddler’s Green and not order a round of these. 

Longtime Saboscrivner subscribers know I am obsessed with condiments, so whenever we would go to Fiddler’s Green, I would request a bottle of HP Sauce for the table and dunk the ceili chips (crisps) and potato wedges (chips) in it.  It’s a British condiment that’s a dark reddish-brown, savory and tangy, with a superficial similarity to our A1 sauce, but a million times better.  I asked for a few dipping cups of HP Sauce with this takeout order, and they were kind enough to oblige, but I really should just buy a bottle at our local British Shoppe in Orlando’s Mills 50 district.

I am especially obsessed with mustards, and Fiddler’s also has glass bottles of sinus-clearing Coleman’s prepared English mustard that they will bring to the table upon request.  A little of that stuff goes a long way, but it’s totally worth trying a dab, especially if you are congested.

But after all this talk of fried potatoes and far-flung condiments, I ordered myself an entree that was also really good: Irish stew ($16.95), a thick, rich, heavy concoction of lamb, potatoes, carrots, “and a hint of thyme,” according to the website.  Lamb is one of my favorite meats and thyme is one of favorite herbs, and you can definitely taste them in a perfect melange in this stew.  Of course they top it with a dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and some scallions.  Some people might mix it into the stew like it’s a container of hummus with a little island of sun-dried tomatoes in the middle, but I prefer to get a little morsel of the mash in every spoonful of stew. 

This is one of those ultimate cold weather comfort foods for me, like chili and lasagna.  If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, I’d love to sit down to another bowl of Irish stew inside Fiddler’s Green the next time we get a cold (for Florida) day.  It just feels good — the warmth, the familiarity, the surroundings, the Irish music playing in the background or sometimes performed live by wonderful local musicians.

On other visits, I have also enjoyed the corned beef and cabbage (the best thing to add a dab of the Coleman’s mustard to), bangers and mash with these delicious caramelized pearl onions I would eat by the bowlful, and rich potato leek soup, topped with bacon and cheddar cheese.  I think of these as fall and winter foods, even though we don’t really get a fall here, and our winter consists of random days that add up to about two weeks out of the year.

Long before COVID, I was at a point where I don’t hang out at bars and pubs anymore unless I’m eating or going out of my way to catch live music.  That said, Fiddler’s Green has always felt warm and welcoming, like a piece of home.  I love that it’s a little dark inside with no windows.  On a sweltering, humid Florida summer day, it can transport you to the old country, even if Ireland was never your people’s old country.  And on our rare days of jacket weather, it feels like a safe, comforting cave in the best possible way.  Maybe some day soon, we can all feel safe and comfortable huddling in there again, over pints and chips (crisps) with family and friends.  In the meantime, I’ll keep ordering takeout from here, and hopefully we have a few more chilly days this season for maximum enjoyment of it.

Cowboy Dips & Chips at Brooklyn South Bar at Aloma Bowl

I’m not a great bowler, so because I’m not great at it, I never really enjoyed the experience of bowling.  I remember going to kids’ birthday parties at bowling alleys and slinking off to play video games in the arcades, to spare myself some public humiliation at a formative age where everything felt like public humiliation.  This was my usual schtick at even more depressing parties at the roller skating rink when we were a few years older, back when Miami booty bass and freestyle music blared from the speakers, the soundtrack to everyone (except me) starting to kiss.

Of course, this was still during a golden age of arcade video games, back when nobody thought twice about touching things in public places that everyone else had been touching, and there were no hand sanitizer or wipes anywhere.  So as a result of arcades falling out of vogue and being a grown-ass man who avoids awkward social situations as a matter of course, I haven’t been to a bowling alley in over a decade.

Well, I am also a grown-ass man who loves sandwiches and potato chips, as stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know too well.  I recently learned of the existence of Cowboy Food & Drink, a restaurant in the perhaps-tellingly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio, that serves barbecue and American food.  They spun their concept off into Cowboy Dips & Chips (https://www.cowboyfoodanddrink.com/dips-and-chips), which serves a selection of sandwiches with au jus dip and fresh, house-made potato chips at bowling alleys, including two right here in Orlando.  They even donate a portion of the proceeds to charities!  I was intrigued, so last night I went to Aloma Bowl in nearby Winter Park on my way home from work.  Here is the menu for the Brooklyn South Bar, the snack bar at Aloma Bowl, which includes the new Cowboy Dips & Chips: https://www.alomabowlingcenters.com/aloma/food-drinks/.

As you can see, they offer two kinds of sandwiches on “butter-toasted rolls”: pastrami and roast beef.  Of course I had to try them both, and because I am a good husband, I brought one of each home for my wife as well.  They were both a good value, with lots of meat.  Of the two, the pastrami ($10) was much better, with lots of delicious fatty marbling, but not too much.  Here was mine.  I paid a 75-cent upcharge for grilled onions to try theirs, even though I had some at home, and I got creamy hot mustard on the side, to compare it to the multitude of mustards in my mustard collection.

My wife had her plain pastrami sandwich for lunch today.  It heated up well in our little toaster oven, and she enjoyed it:

I also got us each a roast beef sandwich ($8), and I paid a 75-cent upcharge for Swiss cheese on mine, and got pickles and creamy horseradish sauce on the side.  It was honestly just okay, and I wouldn’t get it again.  I love a good roast beef sandwich, but I would have preferred the roast beef to be a lot more rare, with more seasoning. 

My favorite deli roast beef is Dietz & Watson London broil, which you can buy at the deli counters at Winn-Dixie and Sprouts.  That stuff is the best, and I highly recommend it to all.  My wife and I are also suckers for a classic roast beef sandwich from Arby’s or our local legend Beefy King.  This looked more like “real” shaved roast beef than Arby’s or Beefy King, but didn’t have as much flavor.  It wasn’t as salty as those, and it was sliced thicker, so it wasn’t as tender as I would have liked either.

As much as my wife agreed with me that the pastrami was good, she didn’t care for the roast beef either, so we ended up with a spare(Bowling!)  I finished her plain sandwich for lunch today, warmed in the toaster oven with muenster cheese and onions I had sauteed myself, then doctored up with some of my favorite mustard and pickles.  That improved it immensely.  But here it was last night, still warm when I got it home:

Each of the four sandwiches came with a large plastic cup of au jus.  I’m not usually a fan of a WAS (wet-ass sandwich), and probably wouldn’t choose to dip if I was eating at the bowling alley, just to avoid making a mess.  I tried dipping the roast beef sandwich last night after changing out of my work clothes, but it didn’t add much to the flavor aside from salt, and made those good rolls wet and gushy.  But I can’t bear to dump these out — I am totally going to figure out something to do with the au jus.

I also got three orders of the house-made chips ($2 each), since they had three flavors to choose from: salted, BBQ, and salt and vinegar, which I always call “salty Vinnies.”  My wife only likes plain chips, but she really enjoyed these.  They had a fantastic texture, a good crunch without being too hard, and weren’t greasy at all.  I was a little worried because the BBQ and salty Vinnies didn’t look like they were covered with much flavor seasoning, but they tasted great.  The salty Vinnies in particular were delicious, and I would love to get some of that vinegar powder to use for different things at home, since I already have a huge vinegar collection to rival my mustard collection.

Finally, since I was already buying four sandwiches and three orders of potato chips at a bowling alley after a long day of work, I got an order of funnel cake fries from the regular snack bar menu ($5).  They were a little crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, warm, and sweet, just like you would expect and hope for.  They reminded us both a lot of the old Burger King French toast sticks from their breakfast menu in the ’90s (and possibly still; I haven’t gone to Burger King in many years).

It might seem counterintuitive to go to a bowling alley snack bar in search of good food, but if you’ve been reading my blog or anything I’ve ever written about food, you know I’m on the lookout for a good meal anywhere, and it’s amazing where you can find it if you’re willing to look.  Some of my favorite tacos and Nashville hot chicken come from local food trucks, my absolute favorite barbecue came from a gas station convenience store up until very recently (stay tuned for an update on that!), and one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando is a stall in a food court inside a Korean supermarket.  So why not a bowling alley snack bar?

I can appreciate upscale luxury, but I don’t always feel comfortable paying for it (especially since I’m still not dining in at any restaurants anytime soon), and I’d always rather take a gamble on something delicious, casual, and cheap, especially when it’s off the beaten path.  Those treasures that require a little hunting are often the most satisfying to find.  And while the roast beef sandwich was just okay, my wife (a tougher food critic than I) agreed with me that the pastrami sandwich and the chips were quite good, better than some standard restaurants.  The staff was great too — friendly, fast, all masked.  Just knowing there’s one more place in Orlando to get a decent pastrami sandwich and some house-made chips in different flavors makes me feel like all hope is not lost.

Big Time Street Food

NOTE: Big Time Street Food closed in May 2020, just months after I wrote this review.

Big Time Street Food (https://www.bigtimestreetfood.co/) was on my list of newer places to try for the longest time.  Located in hip and pretty Thornton Park, near downtown Orlando, it is connected to Burton’s Bar and even shares a door with the neighborhood watering hole.  But I emphasize neighborhood, because both places really are meant for residents of the immediate neighborhood due to a major lack of nearby parking spaces.  Over the last year or so, I’ve done several “drive-bys” of Big Time Street Food, hoping to find a nearby parking space so I could finally try the food, to no avail.

But back in early January, I had a chance to see hip-hop legend KRS-One perform at The Abbey, a downtown concert and event venue located a few blocks away from Big Time.  I made sure to park in a convenient garage located between the two and headed to Big Time first, to eat a giant, heavy meal before a long and late concert.  (I’ve been to hundreds of concerts and totally know better, but this was my best chance to finally make it here, Saboscrivenerinos.  You’re welcome!)

Big Time Street Food is a very small and casual space.  You order at the counter and can then sit on one of the few stools at a counter, or go next door to Burton’s, and they bring you your order when it’s ready.  I studied the menu in advance, but couldn’t decide between two things.  My Constant Readers can take a wild guess as to what I did next — yes, I ordered both!

This is the Holy Chicken sandwich ($7.99).  You’re staring at an extra large, fresh-fried chicken thigh, a generous amount of dill pickle slices (after a long quest, I finally like most pickles!), and lightly spicy “gochu-mayo” on a soft, lightly-griddled sweet potato roll.  It’s like an artisanal version of the beloved Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich, and yes, it’s better.dsc02835.jpg

Despite knowing I was going to have to stand in the same place for several hours, and despite knowing how gross club restrooms can be (especially when you’re in desperate need of one), I couldn’t stop myself from also ordering the Chorizo Montoya burger ($7.99).  This beauty contains a “smash burger” patty, chorizo sausage, oaxaca cheese, avocado, grilled onion, roasted tomato aioli on the same soft, lightly griddled bun.  It was a damn fine burger I’d rank alongside Orlando’s finest.  dsc02837.jpg

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Believe it or not, I had every intention of eating half of the chicken sandwich and half of the burger, and putting the other halves back in my car, because luckily it was a cool evening.  But in true Saboscrivner fashion, I devoured both while they were at their hottest and freshest.  I have no regrets now, and luckily I didn’t have any regrets during the concert either.

It ended up being a really fun night.  I arrived early enough to get right up next to the stage to see several opening rappers, followed by the trailblazing teacher KRS-One, who exploded out of the Bronx in the late ’80s as the star of Boogie Down Productions, before becoming a vaunted solo MC throughout the ’90s.  I suspect many Saboscrivnerinos might recognize KRS-One from the closing rap verse on REM’s “Radio Song,” the first track off their 1991 album Out of Time, or maybe as the subject of Sublime’s respectful tribute to the master himself, “KRS-One.”  A socially-conscious, spiritual, and political rapper, he concerned himself with educating and empowering his listeners, spitting cautionary tales that warn against crime, violence, and police brutality.  I highly recommend the compilation album A Retrospective as the perfect gateway to his finest work.  And I’m thrilled to report he is still teaching lessons today (when we need his voice more than ever), without slowing down or missing a beat.

And after wolfing down two delicious sandwiches from Big Time Street Food directly before the show, I was relieved to not have miss a beat either.

Domu

I can’t believe Orlando’s super-hip Japanese restaurant Domu (http://domufl.com/) opened in November 2016, and it took me over three years to make it there!  Located in the East End Market in the hipsterrific Audubon Park neighborhood, the very limited parking spaces fill up quickly, and I had been warned about infamous long waits, even during less busy times.  Plus, I work late during the week, and Domu doesn’t accept reservations or even allow takeout orders!  That’s their prerogative, I guess.  I figured being difficult to get into only added to the hype and made it a hotter foodie destination, but considering my wife and I don’t go out to eat as much as we used to, and she often prefers takeout at home, we stayed away, not wanting to deal with the aggravation.

But Domu now opens for brunch at 11 AM on weekends, with mostly the same menu.  I knew I could finally try it if I got there right when it opened, so on a recent Sunday morning, I was the first person to arrive, right around 10:30 — already having to park in an overflow lot for the East End Market.  (And because it rained and all the enthusiastic Domu diners went to wait under an overhang, about a dozen people got in before me once the doors finally opened.)  But I got seated at the bar, had very friendly service from Leah, and I’m glad to report what many of my faithful readers already knew — Domu was worth the wait.

The things I would hear the most about are Korean fried chicken wings and ramen, so in true Saboscrivner style, I ordered both.  The wings (an order of six for an extremely reasonable $9) came out quickly, and they were absolute units, thicc with crispy breading that wasn’t heavy or greasy.  They were covered with a sweet, sticky, slightly spicy sauce that was a little thinner than the sauce on the huge and crispy Korean wings my wife and I love so much at Hawkers.  But these wings lived up to all the hype.dsc02752.jpg

I ate three of them and still had ramen coming, but I was relieved to find out that even though Domu doesn’t allow takeout orders, they will still provide you with a box to bring your leftovers home.  (If not, those three wings were coming home in my guayabera pockets, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that.)  I happily packed up the remaining wings for my wife, and they were still warm by the time I got them home to her.  (This story has a bittersweet ending: she took one bite and immediately decreed them to be too spicy, so I finished them a little later!)

And then my ravishing, rapturous, radical ramen arrived.  All the ramen options all sounded good, but I picked a popular favorite, the Richie Rich ($13), named after a hokey old comic book that helped me learn how to read when I was two years old.  It comes with fresh, house-made ramen noodles in a miso-shoyu pork bone broth, with chashu pork, an ajitama brulee egg (half a hard-boiled egg, but with a rich, deep orange, almost custard-like yolk, caramelized on its surface with a blowtorch), scallions, fried garlic, black garlic oil, and domudana.  (I’m afraid I have no idea what domudana is.)  I am very lucky that I mentioned being allergic to mushrooms, because another ingredient, kikurage, is actually the wood ear or “Jew’s ear” mushroom, and Leah was kind enough to warn me and promise they would leave it out.  That was a close one.  That Jew’s ear would have destroyed this Jew’s stomach!DSC02753

I am still new to traditional/”fancy” ramen, after subsisting on cheap Nissin and Maruchan instant ramen noodles for so many years.  However, I loved the ramen I tried at Susuru earlier this year, and Domu’s Richie Rich was my latest foray into the exciting world of Big Ramen.  It was so delicious, I slurped it all up in record time, even after demolishing those three wondrous wings, and I’ve been craving more ever since.  The broth was so creamy! The pork melted in my mouth!  That egg was magical!  The noodles were streets ahead of any ramen I’ve ever had before (which amounts to the good stuff at Susuru and lots of cheap, unhealthy, instant crap).  I don’t know if anyone else in Orlando goes to the trouble of making their own fresh ramen noodles, but Domu is doing something really amazing in that open kitchen.  And like I said, I’m late to this party, but many of you already knew that.
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The Domu website says its name translates as slang for “a dream come true,” and I’m sure that is true for owner Sonny Nguyen, who is starting his own culinary empire here in Orlando.  There is now a second, brand-new Domu location in Dr. Phillips, plus the fast-casual Domu Chibi in Waterford Lakes.  His new izakaya pub Tori Tori in the Mills 50 district impressed me when I was there recently, and I know that has quickly become another local hit.  After waiting three years, hearing raves about the ramen and whispers about the wings, I had an extremely pleasant and positive experience there myself, without any of the nightmarish waits I had read about.  (Saboscrivner Sage Suggestion #1: GET TO RESTAURANTS WHEN THEY OPEN!)  So you could say my dream came true at Domu as well.

 

Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)

Prohibition Kitchen (St. Augustine)

This past weekend, my wife and I ventured out to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, for my first time in almost 20 years and her first visit since elementary school.  We were going to a concert on Saturday night, but we decided to get a motel, stay the night, and use the day to explore a bit of the Historic District and grab a late lunch somewhere good.  Prohibition Kitchen (https://pkstaug.com/) came highly recommended, and it looked very much like our kind of place — a gastropub with an eclectic menu and a unique retro aesthetic.

Our motel was a real dump (I booked it online), and parking near the Historic District was a nightmare, but we were charmed by the beautiful old buildings and laid-back, touristy vibe of the Historic District once we finally got there and found a parking space.  Driving from Orlando, we had definitely built up an appetite, so we arrived at Prohibition Kitchen just in time, on our way to hangry.

It’s a long restaurant that stretches pretty far back, with a long bar along the right side.  It was pretty busy when we go in, with a huge crowd gathered for the Florida Gators game.  We waited about half an hour for a table, but after how long it took us to park and find the place, we didn’t mind waiting.  Luckily, we arrived late in the fourth quarter, and the bar crowd cleared out when the UF game ended and the UCF game began.

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There is a stage to the right of the entrance for live music (which they feature many evenings).  This is a happening place!
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Stairs up to second floor loft section:
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We started out with a cup of beer cheese soup ($4), garnished with toasted pretzel crumbles.  It was excellent, with a nice texture that wasn’t too sticky or goopy, and not too smooth and uniform like most queso dips.  It even had the slightest bit of spice.  I would make this at home if I could find a similar recipe; it was that good.DSC02552

This was the German-style pretzel, served with beer cheese dip ($10).  It was light, fluffy, and buttery, with the slightest crispness to the outer crust.  I have nothing but love for Auntie Anne’s pretzels — in fact, they are the only thing that redeems my rare trips to malls — and this was similar to those, but on a much grander scale.  We have a hard time saying no to any kind of soft pretzels.DSC02553

However, the beer cheese dip, included in the price, was identical to the separate cup of beer cheese soup I ordered, and the same size, too.  Could our server have warned me that if I wanted to try the soup, I’d get a cup with the pretzel, to save me $4?  Sure, she could have, and it would have been appreciated.  And $4 isn’t going to break the bank for us, but it would have been a perfect opportunity to give me a heads-up.  Did I need two cups of beer cheese soup and/or dip?  Nope.  But did I slurp down two cups?  I sure as hell did, since I paid extra for one of them!

My wife made the best choice at this lunch, ordering the Maine lobster roll ($21), which actually came out as a pair of lobster rolls, both on grilled, buttered, New England-style split-top buns.  The lobstah meat was in big chunks, cool and refreshing, dressed with mayo, diced celery, chervil leaves, and Old Bay seasoning.  She gave me a delicious bite, and because she doesn’t dig on sandwiches, I ended up eating most of both buns, fan of buttered toast that I am.  DSC02554

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Having studied the menu in advance, I figured I would go with the Prohibition Kitchen signature burger ($16): a half-pound blend of sirloin, short rib, and brisket, served medium-rare with red onion bacon jam, a fried egg, and Red Dragon cheese, along with the typical lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles.  Red Dragon isn’t just a Hannibal Lecter novel anymore, but a Welsh cheddar made with whole grain mustard seeds and Welsh brown ale.  I’ve only ever had it once or twice ever, but as a fan of cheeses with stuff in them, and especially as a mustard aficionado, I figured I was choosing wisely.  I love onion jam and/or bacon jam as burger toppings, too.  I even ate all my pickles, and they weren’t bad!  DSC02556

Like BurgerFi, they brand the buns — in this case a fluffy brioche bun, which you can never go wrong with.DSC02557

The burger was perfectly fine.  Greasy, juicy, lots of flavors going on.  But on a humid day of walking around pushing my wife in her wheelchair over the cobblestone streets of St. Augustine’s Historic District, and especially with a concert to look forward to that night, I would have preferred the cool, refreshing lobster rolls she ordered to a heavy burger.  But I always say she’s the smart one, and that was one more example of why.

For the record, the fries were very forgettable, and neither of us ate very many of them.  I could have gotten a cup of beer cheese soup instead of the fries for a $2 upcharge, which would have at least saved me $2 (or gotten me a third cup of beer cheese soup), but I really need to let this go.

Anyway, that was the one meal we got to eat in St. Augustine, although after lunch, my wife bought two kinds of fudge and a big bag of different flavors of saltwater taffy at one of the many ubiquitous candy shops along St. George Street, one of the main drags.  We were both charmed by the touristy Historic District and swore to return together, when we didn’t have a concert to take up our evening.  We might even stay there next time to explore the history, culture, architecture, and food more, since we sure as hell are never going back to that dingy, decrepit, desolate dive of a motel, and it would be nice not to fight for a parking space every time we wanted to come and go.  And while we’d probably seek out other local eateries on a future visit, I’d still recommend Prohibition Kitchen to any St. Augustine newcomers.  The lobstah rolls, giant pretzel, and beer cheese soup were all well worth it.

Raglan Road

This past weekend, my wife and I journeyed to Disney Springs to see the ridiculously talented singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/actress Janelle Monae perform at the House of Blues.  Needless to say, she was incredible.  I’ve been a fan of her Afro-futuristic feminist funk-soul-pop-hip hop-R&B for almost a decade, and this was our first opportunity to see her live.  If you ever get the chance to see her, DO IT.  You won’t regret it.  She might be the most talented and culturally relevant female musician out there right now, and yes, I did consider your favorite artist.  I would be thrilled to introduce my readers to her best material, but here’s her song “Americans” off her new album Dirty Computer, which I think serves as an anthem and rallying cry for the progressive, inclusive, empathetic resistance in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY

Anyway, we’ve had good, bad, and plenty of so-so experiences dining at Disney Springs, so we opted to return to an old favorite, the boisterous Irish pub Raglan Road.  Sprawling, loud, and crowded, you can always count on a festive atmosphere, solid food, and friendly service.  This evening, they had a three-piece Irish band playing Celtic folk music, along with winsome Irish dancers clogging away on a central stage. Sometimes it can be too loud to have a conversation, but we were seated a decent distance from the stage, ironically in the “Music Room,” where we could hear and enjoy the music perfectly without it drowning out each other’s voices.

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It’s hard to not get caught up in the welcoming old-country vibe and party atmosphere of the place, and I’ve never been to Ireland and don’t think I have any Irish in me. But when I listen to the Pogues, I feel a strong kinship with Irish culture, and when I set foot in a good pub, I feel the same.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even drink!

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Of course, every meal at Raglan Road starts with slices of rich, brown Irish soda bread, served with a masterful dipping sauce that is Guinness stout ale reduced with sugar and mixed with olive oil.  It is so good, and it sets the tone for everything to follow.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture this time.

On previous visits, we have defaulted to Irish pub classics like fish and chips, bangers and mash, or bacon loin and cabbage (much more traditional than the 19th Century New York City substitution of corned beef and cabbage).  Once we arrived early enough on a Sunday for them to offer a full Irish breakfast option, which I had to go for (much to the chagrin of my body).  My favorite part is always the black pudding (AKA blood sausage), and I’m 100% serious.  It is delicious, and I wish it was a regular menu item.

This time, the menu had several new options since the last time we were there (maybe two years ago), so we decided to split two entrees that were new to us.  My wife loves sea scallops, pork belly, and gnocchi, those chewy, potatoey dumplings, so she had a hard time saying no to the “Gnocchi See, Gnocchi Do,” with handmade potato gnocchi, seared Georges bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce.  She was kind enough to share some of it with me, although she gave me one whole scallop and the dish only came with three!  That’s true love, folks.

They were really big scallops, perfectly seared, sweet and buttery.  But I almost hate ordering scallops at restaurants because you can usually end up counting them on one hand.  The tomatoes were halved grape tomatoes.  She’s not a tomato fan and I got too full to finish them.  I would have preferred regular diced tomatoes, or better yet, sun-dried tomatoes, which would have added another nice texture and a little sweetness.

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I asked what her second choice was, so I could order that and share it with her.  We both love game meats, or any gamier meat, so we were both tempted by the Boaring Burger, a grilled wild boar burger with Cashel blue cheese, crispy onion strings, arugula, port and pear chutney, and herb aioli, served on a floury potato bun.  We both thought the wild boar was a little dry, but at least it had a nice flavor (much more interesting than most pork, which I find almost as bland as boneless, skinless chicken breasts).  There was nothing “boaring” about it!

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The burger had a lot of contrasting tastes and textures that worked well together, and the bun held it all in place well.  It even came with a nice little side salad, and a crunchy sweet pickle garnish.  Believe it or not, I’m not generally a fan of pickles, but I am working on developing more of an appreciation for them.

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And since I had a choice of side and the fries/chips walking out of the kitchen looked a little light and unappealing, I opted for onion rings.  That’s right, folks, this ended up being a RING THE ALARM! feature!  (Cue the air horns!)

I must admit, these are not my favorite kinds of onion rings.  They were huge, and the batter was thick, heavy, and crunchy, but at least not overly greasy.  I suspect it may be the same kind of batter they use for their fried fish, but despite being referred to as “beer battered onion rings” on the menu, they aren’t the golden-brown beer battered rings I’m on a never-ending quest for.  But for a change, my wife actually liked them — or at least the crunchy batter.  She peeled a few of them and left the onions behind for me!

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Raglan Road has one of my all-time favorite desserts, a rich bread and butter pudding that almost defies explanation, especially because I haven’t had it in a few years.  But we were both very full, she had already had mini-cupcakes from the nearby Sprinkles bakery, and we had a concert to go to at a sold-out venue with limited restrooms, so I figured “Why tempt fate?”  Get to be my age, you Millennials, and you’ll start enjoying the same interior monologues with every meal YOU eat.

Sláinte!