Au Cheval (Chicago)

My new job sent me to Chicago twice this summer for training opportunities, and I did everything I could to explore and eat my way around the beautiful Windy City as much as I could.  I already regaled my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos with my epic excursion to Eataly, and the next really terrific meal I enjoyed in Chicago was at Au Cheval (http://auchevaldiner.com/chicago/).  It sounds like a fancy French restaurant, which is really not my thing, but instead it is a really nice, “elevated” diner.  Well, that’s how Au Cheval describes itself, anyway. 

It was a tight, crowded space with a handful of booths along the windows, and a bustling open kitchen with several barstools open for diners to sit facing the bar.  The dining room is relatively dark and full of dark leather and dark wood for a “macho,” masculine feel.  I got there in time for an early lunch, and I still waited about 20 minutes for a solo seat to open up at the farthest left corner of the busy kitchen/bar area.  I don’t drink, but I was watching expert bartenders slinging some really nice-looking cocktails the whole time I was there.

I fully admit Au Cheval wasn’t on my original dining agenda, but the first two restaurants I attempted to go to in Chicago’s West Loop (an incredible dining destination I strongly recommend to all) were closed for various reasons, so I’m really glad I wandered in there.  They don’t accept reservations for lunch or dinner, so I got lucky, all things considered.

The menu isn’t huge, but it consists of pure comfort food, of the delicious, heavy, hearty, and unhealthy variety.  They do have two salads and several egg dishes, but I was torn between two different dishes, and since I had no idea when I would be back in Chicago, I ordered both.

First up was seared, chilled, and chopped chicken liver ($14.95), one of the classic foods of my people.  It was served with rich, salted butter (almost overkill, given the fatty, savory richness of the liver) and the absolute finest toast I’ve ever had.  The bread was thick Texas toast, the kind you can get at my beloved Waffle House and so many other diners, ideal for patty melts and barbecue sandwiches.  Rather than being “toasted” in the traditional sense, it was cooked on the flattop griddle and beautifully buttered.  

As for the chopped liver, as my students used to say, IYKYK (if you know, you know).  It might look like cat food, but it is so rich and savory and tasty, I love it so much as a very rare treat.  Most of the chopped liver I’ve had from Jewish delicatessens and appetizing stores is a smooth, creamy, uniform consistency, but Au Cheval’s version was more roughly chopped for a more interesting texture.  It still spread so smoothly on the best toast ever, the butter was really kind of unnecessary… but ultimately too good to ignore.

After that, I was watching burger after beguiling burger come out of that open kitchen while I waited for my seat at the bar, so I couldn’t leave without one.  I ended up springing for the double cheeseburger ($16.95), since it was only two dollars more than the single, and this string of good decisions continued.  Constant readers, I have to tell you that this was the #1 absolute all-time best burger I’ve ever eaten in my damn life, here at Au Cheval in Chicago.  I’ve eaten burgers all around the state of Florida and elsewhere along the highways and byways of America, and this left them all in the dust.  Perfect in every way, ten out of ten, nothing comes close.It was like an ideal, iconic version of a “smash-style” diner burger, like a burger out of a Tom Waits song, but so much better than that fictional burger would have been in his sad world of late-night, lonely meals wolfed down in Edward Hopper environs.  While the menu said “double cheeseburger,” it sure looked like it had three patties to me.  What do you think, folks?

Traditionally, I have preferred thick, juicy burgers, but between Au Cheval and two restaurants here in Orlando that I haven’t had a chance to review yet, that smash style is definitely winning me over.  It had so much flavor and wasn’t overdone or dry at all — quite the opposite, in fact.  It was dressed simply, with a creamy sauce, a few scant pickle slices, and wonderfully melty American cheese between the patties, and I did put some ketchup on it.  The bun was grilled like the toast that came with my chopped liver, which is the best/only way to serve a hamburger bun.

Now I made two mistakes here: I did not order bacon on the burger, because that would have been an extra $6.95, and I felt like I was being decadent enough, with these two heavy, greasy dishes.  But Au Cheval serves really thick-cut bacon like some steakhouses do, and I bet it would have been totally worth it.  Sometimes bacon on burgers is undercooked, so you can’t get a good bite without pulling out the whole strip, and sometimes it is burnt to a crisp and doesn’t end up adding much to the experience.  I’m sure this would have made the best burger of my life even better, but then again, how can you possibly improve on perfection?

Also, I did not order fries or hash browns ($8.95 each), simply because I got plenty of carbs from the perfect toast and the bun from the perfect burger, and that would be a bit insane, even for me.  But I bet they would have been spectacular from a restaurant like this.  If they had onion rings, I would have been all about those, but they didn’t, so it was a moot point.  Regardless, I give my strongest possible recommendation to Au Cheval, and if you ever find yourself in Chicago, I would encourage you to ease up on the pizza casserole and overloaded Vienna Beef hot dogs to indulge here instead.

Ziggie’s Pizza

Today I tried Ziggie’s Pizza (https://www.ziggiespizza.com/) for the first time.  It is in the Ivanhoe Village district of Orlando, at 603 Virginia Avenue, not far from the Mills 50 neighborhood with some of our best restaurants in the city.  Ziggie’s is named for its owner-operators, brothers Christian and Floyd Ziegler, who opened it in 2021.  Their pizzeria shares space with a very hip bar, The Thirsty Topher, that specializes in really good beer and wine.  You can hang out on either the bar side or the pizzeria side and bring your food and drinks back and forth.

I expected to have a hard time parking, as I do at most of the hyped, hipster establishments in Orlando, but it was very quiet on the Sunday afternoon I visited, with plenty of parking and no wait inside.  I expect that would be very different most evenings, so plan accordingly.

The menu on the website doesn’t make this clear, but all the pizzas at Ziggie’s are 12″ personal size, and they are all wonderful thin crust style.  You order at the front counter, and they have plenty of laminated menus to browse through.  Pizzas with a variety of creative and high-quality toppings range from $10 to $16, and you have the option to build your own, starting at $10.  There are also salads, if you don’t feel like a pizza, or if you want a salad with your pizza.

I can tell a lot about a restaurant by the kind of music they play, and these were the songs I heard while I waited for my order:

  • Jurassic 5 – “What’s Golden”
  • The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
  • Mark Morrison – “Return of the Mack”
  • A Tribe Called Quest – “Award Tour”
  • Skee-Lo – “I Wish”
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message”

All classics, all straight fire.  Not booming loud, which is never necessary, just impeccable taste.  (I might suffer from impostor syndrome and depression, but I know I have good taste, hence this blog!)  At least someone at Ziggie’s is probably around my age, with impeccable taste too.  It definitely made me realize I was choosing wisely.

They even decorate the walls with some sweet vinyl, including the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Madvillain, Czarface, and the legendary debut album of the Wu-Tang Clan:
NOTE: After publishing my review, Christian Ziegler himself sent me the link to the Ziggie’s Pizza Spotify playlist, which is nothing but bangers.

It didn’t take long for my pizza to be ready.  Believe it or not, I don’t want my pizza to be loaded with toppings, especially when I’m first trying a new pizzeria.  I’d rather let the crust, the sauce, and the cheese speak for themselves, so I can best assess the strengths of the pizza.  As a result, I ordered The O.G. ($10), with red sauce, low-moisture mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella, AND aged pecorino romano cheeses.  I loved that they garnished the pizza with fresh basil leaves.  That’s a really nice touch, as it is one of my favorite pizza toppings in general, and one that never overwhelms the overall balance of the pie.
Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, this was SUPOIB.  A perfect pizza in every way.  If you don’t like thin crust, you may be disinclined to agree, but I sure do.  It wasn’t as crisp as a New York-style slice, but not as soft and floppy as a Neapolitan-style pizza.  I’d describe it as a perfect middle ground between those two beloved pizza styles.  As you can see, it was cut into six large slices rather than eight smaller ones (which I prefer, for no real reason), and I wolfed it down in no time flat.  (It was my first meal of the day, you see, after spending hours cleaning the garage in the sweltering heat.)

Since I don’t drink, I didn’t bother exploring The Thirsty Topher in the adjoining space, but I hear it is an awesome place for beer lovers.  Ziggie’s has a small refrigerator full of nice bottled sodas, but they are also kind enough to have a jug of chilled water available for free, so that’s all I had with my pizza at the time.

That said, The O.G. was so good that I had to bring some pizza home to share with my wife.  As much as we are soulmates who are completely in sync throughout life, one thing we rarely agree on is pizza.  She does like thin crust, though, so I figured she would appreciate Ziggie’s.  I ordered two pies to go:

This is half of the Gabagool ($16), since I put two slices on a plate for her and devoured a third before remembering to photograph it.  That’s a rookie mistake that I rarely make these days, but it was still warm by the time I got home, and I didn’t want to linger any longer.  The Gabagool is topped with red sauce, a three-cheese blend, pepperoni, crumbled Italian sausage, smoked slab bacon (probably the highest quality bacon I’ve ever had on a pizza), and pickled red onions, which I requested on the side, because my wife hates onions as much as I love them.
It was awesome, and I was thrilled she agreed.  She even suggested her parents would like this pizza, and they (in)famously don’t like trying any new things.  I will have to introduce them to Ziggie’s and the Gabagool some time soon.

And this was the other pizza I brought home: the Killa Beez hot honey pizza ($16).  I would have been tempted to try it for the Wu-Tang Clan reference alone, even if I didn’t love all the toppings on it: low-moisture mozzarella, pepperoni, prosciutto, crumbled goat cheese, fig jam, and house-made hot honey (which I requested mild for my wife, even though I’m among the some who like it hot).
We both like sweet and savory combos, and this was another hit.  I would totally order this again, even though ultimately, the O.G. might have been my favorite of the three.  In the future, I might just build my own pizza and get the smoked slab bacon, pickled red onions, and Calabrese peppers on it.

But I absolutely loved Ziggie’s Pizza, and the chill, laid-back vibe, and the sweet-ass hip hop they played, and I will definitely return.  If you haven’t been there yet, I encourage you to go.  That stretch of Virginia Drive between Mills and Orange Avenues has several hipstery bars and breweries on it, which many of my readers are probably already familiar with.  Make sure you add Ziggie’s and The Thirsty Topher to your Sunday Funday drinking and dining agenda ASAP, and enjoy what might be the best thin crust pizza in Orlando.

Mr. Dunderbak’s (Tampa)

One of my closest friends lives in Tampa, and many years ago, he introduced me to a terrific German restaurant near his home called Mr. Dunderbak’s (https://dunderbaksbeer.wordpress.com/).  There used to be multiple locations, many of which were in malls, but this location moved out of Tampa’s University Mall and into its current location near the University of South Florida a long time ago, long before I discovered it.  There is also a completely separate, unaffiliated restaurant of the same name in Daytona Beach, with its own website and menu, but I’ve never been there.  The Tampa location, however, is near and dear to my heart.

I’ve ended up there a few times, visiting  dear friends from high school who had families and escaped Miami, just as I did, only they ended up in Tampa instead of Orlando.  On past visits, I would order a variety of wursts (sausages) and apply a variety of different mustards to them.  Mr. Dunderbak’s sells a variety of German groceries, including mustards, and I could never leave empty-handed.  The dining room is a bit crowded, and it’s dark inside, which I love.  Even though there are shelves of groceries, racks of candy, a full deli counter, a busy and bustling bar, and lots of tuba-heavy German music being piped in, it feels like an intimate experience.

At some point along the way, I brought my wife to Mr. Dunderbak’s, and she fell in love with the food and atmosphere too, as I knew she would.  We were lucky enough to return for two lunches earlier this summer, just the two of us — once on our way back from a quick getaway to St. Pete Beach, and again on our way to a concert in Tampa.  We had the same server both times, the lovely and patient Victoria, who made us feel like welcome regulars, even though these had been our first visits in far too many years.  She is the greatest!

Mr. Dunderbak’s serves the best pork rinds ever ($4.99 for this very generous portion).  They are so light and crispy, not like some others that are hard enough to break your teeth or your jaw crunching into them.  They aren’t greasy or overly salty, and they are covered with a light glaze of honey, making them sticky and sweet and salty all at the same time.  They are a delicious appetizer and snack, and the leftovers stayed crispy after we drove home from Tampa.

Of course I couldn’t resist trying Mr. Dunderbak’s onion rings ($8.99 for this huge portion) for the first time ever.  RING THE ALARM!  (That’s how I celebrate reviewing any onion rings, which I do whenever and wherever I find them on a menu.)  These were beer-battered, golden brown, lightly crispy, not greasy, not too crunchy, not too soft, not falling apart.  They were just right — my favorite kind of onion rings anywhere. 

I took a risk and chose the paprikasch pork gulasch ($13.99), even though it was a hot June day — less than ideal for a rich, meaty, spicy, tomato-based stew thick with pork, carrots, tomatoes, and twisty egg noodles.  I normally enjoy goulash in all of its forms, and even though it was tasty, I would have been better off with something a little less heavy and hearty in the thick of a Tampa summer. 

My gulasch came with two sides, so I got what I’ve had at my handful of previous visits to Mr. Dunderbak’s: both kinds of potato salad, since I’m such a mark for potato salad.  The one on the left is the German potato salad, served warm, in a sweet, thick, vinegary sauce.  The one on the right is a cold potato salad, also a bit sweet from vinegar, and served with crumbled bacon. 

My wife ordered a pork wiener schnitzel ($13.99) — a pork cutlet pounded flat, breaded with cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy.  You may notice a trend developing, but I am pleased to say it wasn’t greasy at all, not overly crunchy, the breading stayed on, and the meat inside was tender, juicy, and flavorful. 

Her schnitzel came with two sides, so she chose spaetzle (the most delicious little dumplings made from semolina flour and egg, sautéed in lots of butter), and homemade applesauce.  She loved both of these.

In fact, my wife loved all of this food so much, she ordered the same thing when we passed through again, a week later.

As for me, I had to try something different on our second visit, when we were lucky enough to have Victoria as our server again.  She even recognized us, and she helped me choose my next lunch: kassler rippchen ($19.99), two thin pork chops that were brined, cured, smoked, and served in an apricot, brown sugar, and Riesling reduction sauce.  They were outstanding.  I’ll rarely seek out pork chops on a menu or make them at home, but these were next-level delicious.  They were more like really good ham than any pork chops I’ve had before, due to the preparation method.  I loved them! 

In addition to a little round pretzel roll, this time I broke my pattern and ordered two different, slightly lighter and healthier sides: vinegary cucumber and dill salat (so perfect to cut the richness of the pork chops, and also crunchy, cool, tangy, and sweet), and a wonderful wilted spinach salat with shaved gruyere cheese and warm sweet and sour bacon dressing.  I shared both of these sides with my wife, and this one inspired her to start making spinach salads for herself at home, it was that good.

Since we were on our way to check into a hotel room in Ybor City before an evening concert, I wanted to get something to eat in our room so we wouldn’t have to schlep out into the night after the show.  My wife had plenty of leftovers, but I ordered a sandwich that I knew would travel well: Dunderbak’s French Connection sub ($11.99), with Genoa salami, smoked German Westphalian ham, German bologna, garlic chive cream cheese spread, Swiss cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a sub roll.  It was really good, but I should have asked Victoria to have them apply one of their many mustards to it to spice it up.  It was a good sub, and it came with a dill pickle spear and some Ruffles-style ridged potato chips, but I could have probably picked something more unique.  That said, I wanted something I could easily eat in a hotel room at night when I was tired, that didn’t require heating up in case we didn’t have a microwave oven.  

And this is the vaguely automobile-shaped thick slice of apple strudel ($8.99) we brought to our hotel room in Tampa.  The crust was very delicate, almost like a pie crust but softer and not as rich or flaky.  The strudel was heavily spiced with cinnamon, and it also contained raisins and walnuts.  I just had the tiniest taste, but my wife really enjoyed it.  She also had me buy a lot of candy, including some marzipan and Haribo gummies.

So that’s Mr. Dunderbak’s.  It’s somewhat off the beaten path for those traveling to Tampa, nestled in the New Tampa suburbs close to USF, and not exactly close to the more hip, happening, and tourist-friendly parts of town.  But if you like German food (including Sanford’s beloved Hollerbach’s, which we are also big fans of), you have to try Mr. Dunderbak’s too.  Next time, I’m sure I’ll go with my Tampa friends again, but these two lunches with my wife felt like romantic getaways, even with all the “oom-pah” march music in the background.

The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen

At this point in my food writing, I keep an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the restaurants I want to try — and so I can always quickly send menu links to the people I eat with the most, my wife and my co-workers.  One restaurant that had been at the top of my list for far too long is Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen (https://www.cavosbar.com/) in Thornton Park, a neighborhood near downtown Orlando that I recently called “Thornton No-Park,” due to the lack of parking spaces.  I dragged three co-workers down to Cavo’s for lunch on a relatively quiet Friday not that long ago, and we definitely had to drive around a bit before we could park, but it was worth the wait.

I’ve been reading so many raves about Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13), so I had to try it, even though I often find cheesesteaks disappointing.  Usually the meat is relatively low-quality and dissolves into a pool of boiling lava-hot grease and melted cheese that never cools down, making it literally painful to eat, on top of being messy.  But this was easily the best cheesesteak I’ve tried in Orlando, and probably the best one I’ve had outside of Philadelphia.  The freshly baked soft roll, adorned with sesame seeds, held up to the heavy load inside — tasty thin-sliced ribeye (the king of steaks as far as I’m concerned), melty white American cheese, and plenty of sautéed onions, although if you ask me, you can’t ever put enough sautéed onions on anything.  It lived up to the hype and made me realize I still do like cheesesteaks; I just hadn’t had a worthy cheesesteak in a long time.

One co-worker ordered a gorgeous-looking Reuben sandwich ($13), with the usual suspects: corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing (not Russian dressing, but still good) on grilled marble rye.  I know her to be a fan of Reubens, as am I, and she looked content.

My vegetarian co-worker got the vegetarian sandwich ($13), with fried eggplant, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and roasted garlic basil vinaigrette on a fresh baked hoagie roll.  It looked good and smelled even better.  I didn’t ask her to try it, but even as a non-vegetarian myself, that looked like something I would really like.

Another co-worker who tries to eat healthy got the Cavo salad ($13), with spinach and romaine mix, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, artichokes, roasted red peppers, charred vidalia onions, garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, tossed with Cavo’s house vinaigrette dressing.  He added chicken for an additional $5.   He seemed to like it, and that’s what I call a salad!   

I got this plate of curly fries ($4) intending to share it with everyone.  They were awesome — maybe my favorite kind of fries, with a crispy seasoned coating and soft on the inside.  My beloved Arby’s serves fries like this, and so does Checkers.  But two of my colleagues ordered their own plates of tater tots ($4 each), leaving me with more fries than I expected.  It wasn’t a problem, though!

That night, when I got home from work, I enjoyed half of the classic Italian hoagie ($13) after it chilled in the fridge for a few hours, allowing the flavors to meld.  This beautiful sandwich included tavern ham, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, sweet Italian peppers, pickles, and oregano vinaigrette dressing on the same kind of soft seeded roll.  Years ago, the pickles might have ruined the sandwich for me, and even though I normally wouldn’t order them on an Italian sub, my growing tolerance for pickles has turned into an obsession, so I thought I would try them.  They only added; they did not detract.  It was an excellent Italian hoagie — maybe not reaching the great heights of the Stasio sub, the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie, the Rocco from Manzano’s Deli, or incredible new hoagies from Pizza Bruno, but it is still a top-tier Italian sandwich here in Orlando. 

I liked the space and loved the food.  If only it was easier to park at Cavo’s, I would want to be a regular for sure.  As it is, it will have to be a rare treat when I’m in Thornton No-Park, along with other local favorites Mason Jar Provisions and Benjamin French Bakery.  But rare treats may be the best, because if you treat yourself too often, the ritual starts to feel more commonplace, and less special as a result.  But that cheesesteak… wow.  That was totally worth driving laps around Thornton No-Park, or maybe even taking a Lyft down there in the future.

Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.

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:
DSC03024

This poster caught my eye, as a Bowie fan:
DSC03025

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.)
DSC03020

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.