Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Cafe Tu Tu Tango

Cafe Tu Tu Tango (https://www.cafetututango.com/) is a beautiful restaurant located in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district on International Drive, near Universal Studios and the Orange County Convention Center.  I used to take my wife there for special celebratory occasions back when we were dating, mostly between 2006 and 2008.  The restaurant is bright and bustling, its red walls strewn with lovely art that is all for sale.  There are local artists painting and sculpting all over the restaurant, dancers are often dancing, and tarot card readers will read guests for a small fee.  It’s a very bohemian place — maybe too loud to be intimate, but festive, fun, and as romantic as you want it to be.  The menu matches the vibe, with small plates featuring fusion foods from around the world, ideal for sharing.

As cool as that all sounds, we fell out of the habit of going, mostly because it is all the way across town.  But we had some wonderful meals and memories there, including two strips of photos we had taken in a photo booth, those completely obsolete but fun and beloved novelties of recent times past.

Well, my wife had a birthday coming up, so I asked her where she wanted to go out.  It had been a few months since we had dined out anywhere together, and me being me, I sent her a list of good restaurants — some old favorites, some we had yet to go to together, and a few that we loved but hadn’t been to in a long time.  She chose Cafe Tu Tu Tango, and we were both excited to return after all these years.  I even wore the same shirt and tie I wore in the photo booth photos (because I hate buying new clothes), hoping to get some updated pics and maybe frame them all together.

Best of all, like its sister restaurant Mia’s Italian Kitchen just up the road, Cafe Tu Tu Tango features an all-you-can-eat weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays for $28.22 per person.  Like Mia’s, it is not a buffet, but you just order whatever you want off the brunch menu (slightly more limited than the regular dinner menu), and as much as you want, for that fixed price.  Back in the day, before I was as gainfully employed, those small plates with their pretty presentations and puny portions could really add up.  It is a hell of a bargain to go for brunch and be able to go and sample anything and everything, so that’s exactly what we did.

We started with two “non-spirited frescos,” essentially mocktails, since neither of us drink.  My wife ordered the $6 Pollock Punch (named for the artist Jackson Pollock, of course), with pineapple, mango, and cranberry juices, passion purée, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, and almond-flavored orgeat syrup, the necessary ingredient in mai tais and so many other tropical drinks.  I ordered the $6 Lichtenstein Lemonade*, a delicious-sounding combination of house-made lemonade, muddled cucumber and basil, strawberry purée, and club soda to make it fizz.  Funny enough, once we sipped each other’s drinks, we realized we each liked the other one better.  The Pollock Punch (left) was too sour for her, while I love sour, and she preferred the fizz in my Lichtenstein Lemonade (right), so we switched them.
*The Lichtenstein Lemonade is named for the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who I DESPISE, because he swiped art from underpaid and underappreciated comic book artists, blew their panels up to giant size and got them displayed in galleries, took all the credit, and got rich and famous off their artwork.  Screw that guy, but if you want an artist who specializes in Lichtenstein’s mid-century retro pop art style but is a truly iconoclastic original, check out my all-time favorite comic book artist Mike Allred.

Anyway, we went on to order A LOT of food from our sweet and patient server Chelsea, who was absolutely slammed, but had a great attitude and personality.  The first thing to come out was the churro waffles (which would normally be $9 if we ordered a la carte) –perfect Belgian waffles with crispy exteriors and fluffy interiors, topped with cinnamon sugar, dulce de leche, vanilla cream, cinnamon  whipped cream.  There were actually two of these in the order, so we each had one.  This was my wife’s first choice, and it was a good one.

I ordered the butter chicken tikka masala (normally $13), a good-sized portion serviced over ‍fluffy basmati rice with pickled red onions, fresh cilantro, roasted corn, and creamy tikka masala sauce.  I love Indian food, but my wife is convinced she doesn’t, because most things she has tried have been too spicy for her.  I was thrilled that she loved this dish, even more than I did, since she never wants to get Indian food, and now we had a dish we know she likes.  The chicken breast meat was very tender, and it wasn’t spicy at all.  I tried a little, but was happy to keep it on her side of the table.Since this meal, I have researched butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two distinct Indian dishes that use similar ingredients, but aren’t the same.  We are going to run further tests to see which one my wife actually prefers, since Tu Tu Tango’s “butter chicken tikka masala” may not be the best example of authentic Indian cuisine.  It was good, though!

I had never ordered any of the brick oven pan pizzas on our past trips to Cafe Tu Tu Tango, because it always seemed like there were more interesting things to try.  But this time I ordered the sausage and peppers pizza (normally $9.25), with Italian sausage, hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers.  It was magnificent, and pan pizza usually isn’t even one of the pizza styles I prefer.  Perfect crispy edges and a nice, fluffy crust.  All the toppings came together beautifully.  It was relatively small, like a “personal” pizza, but I always say that if you believe in yourself, any pizza can be a personal pizza.

Next up, my wife ordered the monkey bread (normally $7), a rich, sticky, super-sweet pastry with golden raisins, pecans, dulce de leche sauce, whipped cream, and enough powdered sugar to make it look like it was partying in Miami.  Funny enough, the monkey bread ended up being too sweet for her, but I ended up really loving its chewy, sticky texture.  It was heavy, and it probably sapped some of my strength and endurance mid-meal, but what a way to go.   

I ordered these breakfast tacos (normally $8), with jalapeño jack cheese, huevos rancheros, and crumbled, seasoned beef  on two soft corn tortillas.  My wife wanted no part of them, but they ended up being among my favorites of the brunch.   I really thought the beef was chorizo sausage — it was that kind of savory flavor with just a little spice.

Next up, she ordered the grilled fish tacos (normally $11), with honey-lime escabeche sauce, cotija cheese, crunchy cabbage slaw, and more pink pickled onions on the same soft corn tortillas.  We both appreciate good fish tacos, but both agreed the fish was on the “fishy” side.  I ended up eating everything except the tortillas, which she wanted for herself.  I wouldn’t get these again.  Loved the toppings, but the fish — not so much.

Anyone who knows me at all would glance at the menu and predict I would order the Cuban sliders (normally $12), two wee sandwich halves with capicola, genoa salami, pulled pork, pickles, Swiss cheese on pressed bread with a ramekin of the most delicious, vinegary mojo sauce.  I’m predictable when it comes to food.  I liked these, but the sauce was my favorite part!  I thought about how much I might have preferred chilled Italian-style sandwich sliders with the capicola and genoa salami and some pickled vegetables.   But don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy them. 

Next, I got the Tango home fries (normally $4), with sautéed red pepper and onion strips, scallions and a house spice blend.  These were delicious, but I thought the potatoes could have been crispier.  They had a pleasing amount of heat, but not so much that a person who likes things mild wouldn’t enjoy them.  I was starting to get full, so I didn’t finish these, and I still feel guilty about that.

My wife ended her meal with one of her favorite dishes of the day, shrimp and grits (normally $12), served with corn relish and scallions.  She loves grits, whereas they are not usually my favorite.  I didn’t try this, but she ate it with gusto, so it must have been good.  I’d say this, the butter chicken tikka masala, and the churro waffle were her favorites.   

Next up came the dessert that I thought was going to be my favorite: guava and sweet plantain bread pudding (normally $7), served in a sizzling skillet and topped with Nutella sauce.  I wish I had asked them to hold the sauce.  Believe it or not, I could take or leave Nutella.  Thanks to it, the whole thing ended up tasting like chocolate and muted the flavors of the guava and sweet plantains, two of my favorite things to eat anywhere.  I could only eat one of the two pieces, and she wanted nothing to do with it. 

Finally, my Southwest Caesar salad arrived (normally $10).  It contained romaine lettuce, avocado, crunchy fried tortilla strips, cotija cheese, salsa roja, and chipotle-garlic dressing .  I make salads and eat them in my work lunches almost every day, so I rarely order salads at restaurants, but this had a lot of neat-sounding ingredients, and it was included in the fixed price for brunch, so I decided to give it a try.  I’m glad I did, but I ate all the interesting stuff off the top and tapped out before I could make it through all the romaine lettuce. 

So that was it for brunch, and that was pretty much it for the two of us for the rest of the day.  But what a way to go.  This has to be one of the best values in Orlando, folks.  I crunched the numbers, and these eleven small plates we ordered would add up to $102.25 if we ordered them a la carte.  Instead, we paid $56.44 for the both of us (minus our drinks) — almost half that price for the all-you-can-eat brunch deal.

Sadly, Cafe Tu Tu Tango got rid of its photo booth at some point before Chelsea even started working there, as I had feared.  In this age of camera phones, selfies, Instagram, and “pics, or it didn’t happen” culture, a photo booth taking up space in a busy restaurant or bar seems like less of a sound and necessary investment, but there’s something about printing out those momentous moments on a little strip of paper to cherish forever, in a way that doesn’t seem the same when staring at images on screens.  But in the end, we didn’t need new photos.  We had each other, we had our memories –both old and new — and we had an epic brunch in beautiful, bohemian surroundings that would tide us over for a while.  At least until dinner that evening.

 

Ray’s Deli & More

I really drove out of my way to find Ray’s Deli & More (https://www.raysdeliandmore.com/), which is the closest thing I’ve ever found in Orlando to the bodega-delis of New York City.  It is located at 6101 South Orange Avenue in Orlando’s Pinecastle neighborhood, south of downtown (and south of the SoDo district).  Once Orange Avenue splits apart into one-way southbound and northbound streets, you’ll find Ray’s in the middle.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside — just a generic convenience store with an outdoor table and a lot of signs in the window — but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all the fresh, made-to-order sandwiches you can order there.

The menu is on the website, but I also took photos of the menu board above the counter.  You can right-click these photos and open them in a new tab for larger images.

Here is the deli case with plenty of high-quality Boar’s Head meats and cheeses you can buy by the pound.  (The prices are also on the menu board above.)  The top shelf also includes sides of potato salad, pasta salad, egg salad, and some slices of cheesecake and red velvet cake, among other things. 

The main reason I sought out Ray’s Deli & More was to try the legendary chopped cheese sandwich ($10.99), a New York bodega classic, referred to in so many hip hop lyrics.  They aren’t popular outside the five boroughs, but I recently learned that two different convenience store sandwich counters in Orlando offer the chopped cheese.  I recently tried the one that is closer to me, but that was after five separate attempts to catch them open for business.  Ray’s is across town, but it was totally worth the 45-minute schlep to the Pinecastle neighborhood south of downtown Orlando, because they were open for business during the hours they advertised, cooking up a storm, and the food turned out to be awesome.Imagine a cheeseburger and a Philly cheesesteak hooked up after a crazy night at the club, and the chopped cheese is their beautiful, greasy, cheesy love child.  It is two angus burgers chopped up on the flattop grill with onions and peppers, then placed on a sub roll with American cheese, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo, and then pressed on a panini press until the cheese melts.  It was still warm by the time I got it home, and it was awesome.  So satisfying!  I always love a good burger, but I find Philly cheesesteaks often disappoint (except for the one at Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen, which is the best one I’ve ever had in Florida, and it made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021).  This chopped cheese sandwich lived up to all the hip hop hype and combined the best of both worlds.  I loved it!

This was the very substantial Italian combo sub ($11.99), stuffed with Boar’s Head genoa salami, prosciutto, capocollo, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, and raw onion.  I stuck it in the fridge as soon as I got home and enjoyed half that evening and the other half the next day, once it was chilled.  I liked it a lot, especially once I got home and added some peppers and a splash of balsamic vinaigrette dressing to it.  The sub roll was very soft, almost like a large hot dog bun.  I don’t like rolls that are too crusty, but a slightly crustier roll might help bring this sub over the top.  No regrets, though.  I’m always happy to order an Italian sub anywhere, and I definitely recommend it!

Both sandwiches (and I assume all the others) came with a wee bag of chips (I chose Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch Doritos for both, since I haven’t tried that odd flavor combo before) and a canned soda.  The convenience store has a huge selection of bottled and canned drinks, but the freebie choices were pretty basic: Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi, Mountain Dew.  Still, free is free!  I used to drink Mountain Dew A LOT, back in school, and a few sips from this can reminded me why I don’t drink much soda at all anymore.

Longtime readers, my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know that whenever onion rings are available, I WILL order them.  These onion rings ($3.99) were just okay.  They reminded me of the ones at Burger King, but you get a huge portion of them.  They were limp and lukewarm by the time I got them home, but heating them up in the toaster oven the next day helped them get crispier and more satisfying.  Essentially, these were condiment delivery devices.  But still, RING THE ALARM!

Anyway, Ray’s Deli & More has this huge sandwich selection, plus prepared foods like several Italian pasta dishes, another case with some fried empanadas and other goodies, and they said they also serve breakfast sandwiches all day.  This could be another source for New York transplants to track down their classic bodega bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, among other things.  It’s a full convenience store with groceries, snacks, sodas, beer, wine, and all the accessories you might want to find at a smoke shop, too.  It has a lot more character than a Wawa or 7-Eleven, and it was busy enough that plenty of people already know how good it is.  I drove all the way across town to Ray’s for a chopped cheese, an Italian sub, and onion rings, and I didn’t leave empty-handed or disappointed.  The only thing this bodega was missing was a great cat, ideally one who takes a pet like no problem!

 

Grocery Grails: Fox’s U-Bet Syrups

This week I’m taking a break from restaurant reviews to bring back my recurring Grocery Grails feature, where I review and recommend some of my favorite food products you can buy at supermarkets and grocery stores.  In the past, I’ve reviewed pickles and ramen noodles in order to highlight the best store-bought varieties I’ve ever found, as well as all kinds of potato chips under the Tight Chips banner, reviewed sardines in features called The ‘Dines List, and mustards in a recurring segment called Cutting the Mustard.  Stay tuned for more of those, sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos, but today we’re going to cool things down with something a little different.

Have you ever eaten too much, or too much of the wrong things?  I have.  Sometimes you get that feeling where you’re too full and bloated, or you’re an anhedonic altacocker like me and suffer from a bit of acid reflux.  In that case, allow me to recommend the perfect solution for your indigestion: an egg cream!  You’ve probably heard of these delightful, deli-derived digestive drinks before, and I’ve even mentioned them in some of my past reviews.  An egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream, but three perfect ingredients to help you feel better after a heavy meal, and to leave a sweet, creamy, refreshing taste in your mouth: seltzer water, milk, and a flavored syrup.  And folks, if you make your egg creams with anything but Fox’s U-Bet Syrups, you’re not living right!

Fox’s is one of those beloved, old-school New Yawk products that is harder to find these days, and costs a little more, but is totally worth every penny.  Founded in Brooklyn in 1895 by H. Fox & Company, the Fox’s U-Bet brand is now owned by the Gold’s Horseradish company.  They do not contain high fructose corn syrup, unlike many comparable brands, and they are kosher for Passover.  The thick, rich chocolate syrup with the yellow label is the standard for egg creams, but I would strongly recommend it for any of your chocolate syrup needs: making chocolate milk, hot chocolate, ice cream sundaes, milkshakes, or anything else.  It tastes better than any other chocolate syrups, and definitely any powder mixes I’ve ever tried.Personally, I like the U-Bet vanilla and coffee syrups even more than the chocolate, which speaks volumes about how good they are.  Both of these are thinner than the thick, sticky chocolate syrup, but they are so good. They are harder to find around here, though.  I found the coffee syrup once at a “bougier” Publix than my normal location, and last fall, I was lucky enough to find some vanilla U-Bet bottles marked down for clearance after Yom Kippur at another swankier Publix, so I grabbed them all.  Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood also sells the chocolate and vanilla syrups.

With any of the three, squirt some U-Bet syrup into a tall glass, fill it about halfway with the milk of your choice and stir well, making sure it doesn’t all stick to the bottom and sides of your glass.  Fill the rest with seltzer, stir some more, and enjoy an effervescent, foamy, sweet, creamy, classic beverage that goes so well at the end of any meal as both a dessert and a digestive aid. 

Our plastic glasses have seen better days, after going through the dishwasher for 13 years, but here’s one of the many vanilla egg creams I’ve made to relax after work.  Hey, as a non-drinker, I take my simple pleasures where I can find them.

Last year I discovered a game-changing new product that completely changed my egg cream game, and it can change yours too.  The Polar brand makes several calorie-free flavored seltzers with all-natural ingredients, no sugar, and no gross artificial sweeteners added.  Sprouts Farmers Market grocery stores in Orlando and Oviedo (but interestingly, not Winter Park) sell a toasted coconut flavor of Polar seltzer that is absolutely delicious on its own, but elevates chocolate, vanilla, or coffee-flavored egg creams to the next level.  Think about how good a toasted coconut flavor would be when combined with any of those flavors, but especially my absolute favorite, the vanilla.  Combine that with 1% or 2% milk (which still taste so luxurious to me, after growing up in a house with skim milk, or vaguely milk-flavored water), and your egg cream will taste so much richer and more decadent than it really is.   I buy every bottle of Polar toasted coconut seltzer on the shelf every time I see them at Sprouts, just so we never run out!

Last year, a really good friend visited Rhode Island and brought me back this huge bottle of Autocrat coffee syrup, completely unknown here in Florida, but a standard shelf staple in Rhode Island, where everyone drinks “coffee milk.”  (Yes, it’s essentially the same thing as chocolate milk, just made with coffee syrup.  And I knew about it because I am obsessed with regional foods, especially anything I can’t easily find around here.)   I despise autocrats in real life, and there are far too many of them these days with too much power and control, but I sure did like the coffee syrup named after them.I almost never drink coffee due to the aforementioned acid reflux, but I like the taste of a sweet, creamy, chilled, coffee-flavored beverage.  Naturally, I enjoyed comparing it to the Fox’s U-Bet coffee syrup and using it in some coffee egg creams with plain and toasted coconut seltzer.  I decided the Autocrat works great for coffee milk, but nothing can touch the flavors of the Fox’s U-Bet products for egg creams.

If you read through this review and still have no idea what I’m talking about, treat yourself to a bottle of Fox’s or find a deli or a bagel shop willing to mix you up an egg cream.  You’re not gonna regret this!

QuesaLoco

I just got home from Orlando’s newest Mexican restaurant, QuesaLoco (https://quesaloco.com/), which opened for business TODAY, Saturday, January 15, 2022.  I was the fifth person in line, about half an hour before it opened at 2:00, and they had a mariachi band playing festive, deafening music to make it a truly special, memorable occasion.  But today wasn’t my first experience with QuesaLoco.  Flash back with me to the fall of 2021, if you will — an era when some of us had received our boosters and were feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time in a while, in the era before we had ever heard of the Omicron Variant.

Last fall was when I first discovered QuesaLoco, in its original incarnation as a food truck, which I noticed while randomly driving by.  The QuesaLoco food truck had been setting up in front of the Lotto Zone convenience store at 4550 North Goldenrod Road in Winter Park, between Aloma Avenue and University Boulevard, on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons and evenings.  Unfortunately, I was thwarted by a ridiculously long line on that first attempt to stop.  Always seeking the new and novel and figuring anyone lined up at an unfamiliar food truck knows what’s up, I went home and looked it up, and made a plan to visit the truck as soon as I was able — ideally when the line was shorter.

I headed straight there after work on a Friday evening in the fall, planning to get there 20 minutes before it opened at 6:00.  I was the sixth person in line, and many more people queued up behind me.  Of course it started to pour rain, but nobody ran for cover or got frustrated and left.  Once the truck opened for business, they took orders very quickly and efficiently, and I think only about 15 minutes passed before I, lucky number six, got served.  The truck had a crew of five people, and they were all hustling like crazy to get everyone’s food ready.  I figured it was going to be good, but had no idea exactly what treasures I would be unboxing once I got home to my wife.

On that first visit, I started with a simple chorizo taco ($2.50), with crumbled spicy sausage, raw onions, and chopped cilantro on a very fresh, handmade corn tortilla.  It was a triumphant taco, everything you hope a chorizo taco will look, smell, taste, and even feel like.  The only thing you could do to improve this taco would be to increase its size, but this wasn’t the only thing I ordered.

Birria is a very trendy item in Mexican food these days — slow-braised shredded beef (or sometimes goat), served in tacos and other Mexican dishes (and sometimes even in ramen noodle soup!), usually accompanied by a dipping cup of rich consomme broth.  QuesaLoco offered birria in several different ways, so I opted for the most unfamiliar, a mulita ($6).  This was similar to a quesadilla, except instead of a flour tortilla, it was served as two fried corn tortillas stuffed with shredded birria beef, cheese, onion, and cilantro, dunked in consomme, and topped with sprinkles of cotija cheese before being wrapped up for me.   I’ve never noticed mulitas on any other Mexican menus around here, but consider me a card-carrying convert to the mulita militia.  (If only I still had my mullet!)
The extra cup of consomme on the side is a $1 upcharge, but I strongly recommend it, even if you aren’t ordering birria!  Unlike some other birria consomme I’ve seen and tried elsewhere, this one wasn’t bright orange with oil, but a legitimate broth that was rich and flavorful, perfect to dip things in, but probably just as good to sip on a cool day.

Finally, the coup de grace: a torta, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a sandwich full of al pastor (pork marinated in spices with pineapple and usually sliced off a rotating spit called a trompo), which is one of my favorite meats, period.  This sensational, stupendous sandwich was $12, and worth every penny.  It’s a truly titanic torta, the fresh, soft, lightly grilled roll stuffed with plenty of al pastor, melted cheese, cotija cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro,  and crema.  I have always been a huge fan of the tortas from the venerable Tortas El Rey, and I think this torta can easily stand alongside them in the sandwich pantheon.  After the small chorizo taco and the birria mulita, I got two additional meals out of this torta!

I ordered this carne asada quesadilla ($10) for my wife, and we were both blown away by how huge, heavy, and delicious it was.

Here’s a different angle.  Like everything else, they were extremely generous with the meat, cheese, and cilantro.  (She doesn’t like onions, so I always ask places to hold the onions for her.  Me, I love onions, but I love her more.)

This outstanding limon (lime) agua fresca ($4.50 for a large) was so cold,  refreshing, and delicious.  It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying, and did not taste artificial at all.  The sweetness was balanced perfectly by the acidic tang of real lime juice and the sweet, spicy chamoy and Tajin seasoning around the rim of the cup (a 50-cent upcharge).  It splashed around in my cupholder on the drive home because they couldn’t put a lid on it for obvious reasons, but it was worth it.   

I have been following QuesaLoco’s social media ever since that first visit, and they promised their long-awaited permanent restaurant location  would be opening soon.  Well, constant readers, that day was today, and the new location is open for business and already awesome.

The brick and mortar location of QuesaLoco is up and running at 971 West Fairbanks Avenue, a few doors down from Mediterranean Deli, home of the best gyro in Orlando and one of my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021

After the staff cut the ribbon right at 2:00, they let us inside.  The interior walls are covered with beautiful, colorful murals inspired by Mexican folk art, especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery.

Even the restroom doors are painted:

The six-piece mariachi band was tearing it up!  I had to shout my order over their brassy serenade (and through my unflattering-but-necessary N95 mask), but Silvia on the cash register rang everything up correctly.   

After how much I loved the limon agua fresca from the food truck a few months ago, I was excited that they had so many flavors available here at the restaurant:

I ended up choosing pineapple and fresa (strawberry), which were $4 each.  The strawberry surprised me by being very creamy, almost like melted strawberry ice cream.  I drank a little on the way home, but saved plenty for my wife because I knew she would like it too.  Pineapple is my go-to agua fresca flavor, and this one did not disappoint, but next time I’ll get different ones.

Once I got home, the first thing I tried was the taco de cecina ($4), a traditional taco from Tampico, Mexico.  It features fried skirt steak (arrechera), chopped into small pieces and wrapped in two soft, fried corn tortillas, with diced onion and cilantro, sliced avocado, and crema, with grilled onions and a whole grilled, blistered jalapeño toreado on the side.

My wife usually likes sopes from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey, so I ordered her a sope from QuesaLoco ($5.50).  Sopes are a fried masa corn disc (sometimes puffy, sometimes flatter like this one), topped with the al pastor pork I liked so much in my torta last time, refried beans, crumbled cotija cheese, and crema.  I asked them to hold the lettuce, tomato, and onions, since the lettuce would have wilted on the drive home, and my wife isn’t into tomatoes or onions anyway.

Because I loved that beautiful torta so much on my visit to the food truck, I thought I might order another torta today, but wasn’t sure which meat I would choose.  My decision was made for me when I saw QuesaLoco’s brand-new, expanded menu, with the option of the torta de la Barda ($15).  This classic street sandwich from Tampico has everything: sliced ham, shredded beef, crumbled chorizo, pork jam, stewed chicharrones (pork skins), crumbled cotija cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and salsa verde on another perfectly soft Mexican roll.  It is huge, but I put it away.

As I said earlier, birria is one of the house specialties at QuesaLoco.  But since I had already sampled tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and the birria itself in my first-ever mulita, this time I couldn’t resist a new menu item: birria ramen ($12).  Yes!  They serve ramen noodle soup made with the consommé broth, onions, cilantro, and sliced radishes.  I guess they must have larger bowls for customers who dine in, since my takeout order was divided into two smaller styrofoam cups.  But that was fine with me, because it automatically divided it into two portions for me for later.

This is so unbelievably good.  Better than it looks, better than you’re probably even thinking.  It is the best kind of fusion cuisine — a dish that combines flavors and cultures, without detracting from either. 

I’m so glad I was one of the first people in line at QuesaLoco on its opening day, because the line was pretty long when I left.  People were wrapped around the side of the small plaza’s parking lot, and a few shot me dirty looks as I left with two large bags and two colorful cups.  But just like going to the doctor’s office, you want to try to get to a hot new restaurant early, because the longer you wait, the more they might be slowed down.  No matter when you go, rest assured that QuesaLoco will be worth the wait.  If you loved the food truck, you’ll only find more to love in their beautiful dining room, with its lovely artwork and expanded menu.  And if you never got to try the food truck (which is going on hiatus for a while), then you are in for such a treat.  You can’t go wrong trying anything I ordered on either of my visits, but I don’t think anything on the new menu could possibly disappoint.  Even though you won’t get the opening day experience with live mariachis blowing the roof off the place, you’re going to have an incredible meal… or two or three, if you order like I did.

Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar

After discovering the delicious new world of West Indian food with my review of Singh’s Roti Shop earlier this year, I craved more.  The Trinidadian and Guyanese flavors were similar to Jamaican dishes I had always loved, with with some Indian influences too.  After posting my review of Singh’s on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, a lot of people recommended Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar (https://www.facebook.com/VindisRotiShopAndBar/), formerly known as Annie’s Roti Shop, located at 805 S Kirkman Road, Suite 106, Orlando, FL 32811, mere minutes away from Singh’s on Old Winter Garden Road.  I visited Vindi’s a while back and ordered a bunch of different dishes to sample, enough for three or four meals, so I could compare and contrast them.

First of all, since Vindi’s doesn’t have a menu online or paper menus to take with you, I took photos of the menu screens on their large TVs:

I ordered:

An oxtail meal ($14.50), which comes with stewed potatoes, curried chickpeas called channa, and a choice of either rice or a choice of huge, fluffy, soft flatbreads called roti.  My trip to Singh’s clued me in to the two different kinds of roti, so I chose my favorite, the “buss up shot,” like a big, chewy paratha, named for the “busted-up shirt” it resembled when torn into pieces to scoop up the tender stewed meat and vegetables.  Because my wife and I both loved the buss up shot so much at Singh’s, I ordered a second one for $3.

The buss up shot, which unrolls and unfolds to become an absolutely huge blanket of soft, fluffy wonderfulness:

This was the boneless curry/stew chicken meal ($10), also served with stewed potatoes and channa.  I love Jamaican-style brown stew chicken, which is usually cooked until tender with the bones, but this chicken being boneless made it easier to scoop up with roti.  This is after I transferred it to a microwavable plastic container for later.  I realize it might not look appetizing in this photo, but it smelled so delicious and tasted even better.

I decided to go with the other roti variety with this meal, the dhal puri, which is more of a golden color and stuffed with seasoned chickpea particles that add texture.  I can’t seem to find that photo, but it looked very similar to the dhal puri I got at Singh’s and photographed in that review back in March.

Vindi’s came highly recommended for its doubles ($1.50), a beloved Trinidadian street food with channa sandwiched between two fried paratha-like patties.  This doubles had a slight sweetness to it, and I liked the flavor and texture even more than Singh’s version of the doubles.

A peek inside the doubles:

Similar to how saltfish is a popular breakfast food in Jamaica (and the national dish when served with a local fruit called ackee), Vindi’s serves smoke herring as a breakfast dish, stuffed into a fried bread called fried bake (sometimes “fry bake” or just “bake”).  I am all about smoked fish at any time of day, whether it’s delicate, luxurious sable on a bagel, whitefish salad on a bialy, saltfish with ackee or stuffed into a golden fried patty, or even good sardines or sprats out of a can.  I loved this fried bake with smoke herring ($6.50), which was mashed up, served warm, and mixed with some spicy vegetables.  I ate half for lunch and half for dinner, but I can only imagine it would be a breakfast of champions.  The thing on the left above is an extra plain fried bake ($2) that I ordered for my wife, since I knew she wouldn’t be into the smoke herring.

I also got two aloo pies ($2 each), one for me and one for my wife — a soft, fluffy fritter stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes.  It was very good, and very similar to the aloo pie I tried at Singh’s.  I couldn’t tell any major difference between the two.

Finally, I got a Solo brand cream soda for myself, and a Solo sorrel drink for my wife.  (Solo is a Trinidadian brand, and these were $2.50 each.)  I asked what sorrel tasted like, and a helpful guy waiting in line next to me said it tasted like hibiscus.  My wife loves jamaica (hibiscus-flavored) aguas frescas from Mexican restaurants, so I knew she would appreciate that.  I tried a sip, and it had an aftertaste that included cloves and possibly cinnamon — not my thing, but she seemed to like it.  The cream soda reminded me a little of a bubble gum flavor, maybe banana, possibly cotton candy, but it didn’t have the vanilla flavor I’m used to from American cream sodas.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it, and I’m glad I tried it.  I’m trying really hard to drink less soda, but I always like to try different root beers, cream sodas, and orange sodas.

Anyway, Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar was awesome.  I can’t tell you if it is better than Singh’s, but I loved both, and I’d be a regular at both if they weren’t so far across town.  My recommendation, whether you’re familiar with the delicacies of Trindad and Guyana or not, is to visit both Singh’s and Vindi’s on the same trip to compare and contrast similar dishes, since they’re so close to each other.  Singh’s has the West Indian takes on Chinese food to set itself apart a bit, but both restaurants serve up the standard West Indian dishes.  They are delicious and ridiculously cheap, for the quality and quantity of food you get.  It has been a while since I went to Vindi’s and wrote the bulk of this review, so I think I’ve inspired myself to schlep out there for a return trip very soon.  Maybe I’ll see you there… except I probably won’t recognize you, since hopefully you’ll be masked, and I definitely will be.

Little Saigon

On my first real date with my wife back in August 2006, I took her to a Vietnamese restaurant (Lac Viet, which closed several years ago), followed by a gelato place in downtown Orlando (also long gone), and we ended the night at Tatame in Winter Park for boba tea (sadly gone as well, but now Manzano’s Deli and Tin & Taco are in its old location).  Since then, we have shared countless meals at Orlando’s many Vietnamese restaurants.

Our longest-standing favorite is Little Saigon (https://www.littlesaigonfl.com/), located on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Thornton Avenue, one block west of Mills Avenue, right in the Mills 50 District.  After getting vaccinated, Little Saigon was one of the first restaurants my wife and I returned to in April, finally dining out after strictly getting takeout for over a year.

My wife couldn’t decide between two old Little Saigon favorites after all our time away from restaurants during the pandemic, so I advised her to order both dishes so she could enjoy leftovers the next day.  (We are a fun couple who knows how to party because of life decisions like this.)  This was grilled beef over rice vermicelli ($9.95), a light, fresh favorite of hers.  The beef is served with incredibly thin, tender slices that were marinated in something that makes them sweet, salty, and absolutely delicious.  I know fish sauce is involved, and probably sugar.  The rice vermicelli beneath doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but it soaks up so much flavor from everything it touches.  This dish is topped with crushed peanuts and shredded lettuce and cilantro, adding a bit of crunch and coolness.  This is what she opted to take home to eat the following day, because the noodles and grilled beef microwave so well.

She also ordered her favorite beef noodle soup anywhere — phở tai ($9.95), a rich beef broth flavored with beef bones, onions, scallions, ginger, star anise, and other aromatics.  It comes with rice vermicelli noodles and thin slices of rare beef that cook in the hot broth.  You can see thin-sliced onions floating around, but I always fish those out and happily add them to my own bowl of phở, because she hates onions and I love them — one more reason we are so perfectly matched.  And this was the dish she enjoyed in the restaurant, while it was hot, fresh, and at its best.   

I was also craving phở, but I always go with phở dac biet ($9.95), the same beef broth and rice noodles served with thin-sliced rare beef as well as brisket, beef meatballs (much denser and chewier than Italian-style meatballs), chewy, tender tendon, and usually tripe.  This time I asked them to hold the tripe and give me extra tendon instead, and I’ve decided I like it much better that way. Any Vietnamese restaurant will serve phở with a plate of several fresh herbs and additional ingredients to add, so diners can customize their soup to their hearts’ content.  I always tear up fragrant fresh basil leaves and crunchy sliced jalapeño peppers (these are fresh; much spicier than the pickled kind from a jar, so don’t touch your eyes!), but I prefer to leave the crispy bean sprouts out of my phở.  If I get lime wedges, I’ll usually squeeze some lime into my phở and some more into my glass of water.  Then there are condiments: hoisin sauce, sriracha (overrated hot sauce), and sambal oelek (thicker, chunkier hot sauce).  I’ll usually add just a tiny spoonful of sambal too, but only after tasting the pure, unadulterated  broth first.  As you might have guessed, my wife prefers plain phở, just as it comes out of the kitchen… but with as many onions fished out as possible.

My wife also loves boba tea drinks, especially the ones that are served up like slushies, full of chewy tapioca balls called boba.  I like the drinks quite a bit myself, but I’m not into the boba itself.  This time I passed, but she got her favorite, taro boba tea ($4.25), which always comes in a purple color but tastes more like vanilla to me than anything else.  It was icy and creamy and velvety and refreshing, but since my wife is only five feet tall, she had to stand up just to take a sip from this tall straw and taller glass. 

More recently, a dear old friend of my wife’s brought us some Little Saigon takeout after we had just returned home from being away for a while.  She brought my wife her usual favorite, the grilled beef with rice vermicelli, as well an order of two summer rolls ($4.25) as an appetizer.  I totally forgot to take a photo when she ordered them on our last visit to the restaurant, but I got ’em this time!  These are thin, sticky rice paper wraps stuffed with chilled pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and herbs, and served with a thick, sweet peanut dipping sauce.  I must admit I’m not the biggest fan, but she just loves them.

This friend of my wife’s asked me what I wanted, and I decided to try something I love, but hadn’t ordered before at Little Saigon: a hot and spicy beef noodle soup ($9.95), also called bún bò huế.  At Pho 88, their version of bún bò huế includes pork as well as beef, but this was its own unique thing.  I appreciated that the thin slices of beef were fattier, with more marbling, than the usual thin slices of beef eye round in the standard phở , and I liked them much more as a result.  The rice noodles in the hot and spicy soup were definitely thicker than the typical rice vermicelli in phở, too.

Whenever you order phở to go, any good Vietnamese restaurant serves the broth in a separate container from everything else, so the rice noodles don’t turn to mush and the rare beef doesn’t overcook before you get it home.  Little Saigon packaged the deep red, oily bún bò huế broth separately from everything else, which is the ideal way to do it for takeout orders.

Here is the assembled bún bò huế, with plenty of cilantro and green onions.  It came with the typical phở accompaniments, so I squirted in some lime juice but didn’t feel the need to add anything else.  The soup is definitely spicy, but if you’re worried about the heat, I can promise you it looks much spicier than it actually is.  You may need to blow your nose while eating it (I sure did), but your lips and tongue shouldn’t burn afterwards, and you shouldn’t have any other distress or discomfort from it.

It might sound a little weird to order hot soup during so much of the year in steamy hot central Florida, but I find phở and bún bò huế very refreshing, even in the peak of the summer months.  Keep in mind that Vietnam has a humid, tropical climate too!  But I think I appreciate phở the most during our weeks of winter when the temperature in Orlando drops below 70 degrees, and sometimes down into the 40s for a few precious days.  It doesn’t matter, though — Vietnamese food is delicious any time of year, and Little Saigon is one of our favorite restaurants to order it.  And my wife says the summer rolls here are the best ones anywhere.