Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alessi Bakery (Tampa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant (http://www.kohinoorindianrestaurant.com/) in Altamonte Springs is the first Indian restaurant I ever tried in Orlando, back when I had only ever had Indian food a few times in my life.  I was newly dating my wife, and I met one of her good friends for lunch there to ask her advice for some gifts to buy her — I forget if it was for our first Christmas or first Valentine’s Day together.  The food was really good, but for whatever reason, I never made it back there.  Not until recently, when after almost 13 years of marriage, I embarked on a quest to get my wife into Indian food.

You see, my wife loved the “butter chicken tikka masala” at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, where we celebrated her birthday earlier this year.  After that, it became my mission to introduce her to more delicious Indian food, and to discern the difference between butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two similar dishes that share a lot of ingredients, but are ultimately different.

This is Kohinoor’s version of butter chicken, also known as chicken makhani ($18), boneless cubes of chicken tikka cooked in a “tomato-based creamy sauce.”  She loved it!  I tried it and liked it too, but I was thrilled that I was finally getting her on board with Indian food.  That creamy, rich, almost velvety sauce is a perfect gateway dish for anyone a little skeptical or squeamish about trying Indian food.  (See also: a lot of people’s parents.)

Rather than be redundant and also order chicken tikka masala, we switched it up and ordered the bot kabab (lamb) masala ($19), so we could both compare and contrast the butter/makhani and masala sauces.  The menu described this one as “cubes of lamb cooked in a creamy butter sauce with onions, spices, and bell peppers.”  Yes, I get that they look the same, for all intents and purposes.  I know the ingredients are similar too, but I wanted her to sample both dishes, to see if one stood out as her favorite.  She liked the butter chicken better, so I was more than happy to eat the majority of this lamb masala.

This was another dish my wife chose: saag paneer ($14): “freshly chopped spinach and homemade cheese cooked in a mild sauce.”  She said she had tried this dish once or twice a long time ago, before I was in the picture, and liked it back then.  I was so proud of her for branching out and giving Indian food another chance with me.  It was also delicious, as if you couldn’t already guess.  

Back home, dishin’ it out!  I always appreciate restaurants that serve takeout food in plastic trays with removable lids that are microwave-safe, dishwasher-safe, and recyclable.  As you can probably guess, I keep a bunch of them, but the crown jewels of my takeout container collection are two round, segmented plates with lids, molded with perfect little compartments that I think came from a long-gone restaurant called Stonewood.  They were ideal for portioning out our huge lunch, especially so my wife could try everything without different dishes touching each other.  The butter chicken, bot kabab masala, and saag paneer all came with basmati rice, so I served up sample portions of all three over rice for her.    But wait — where did that samosa come from?

I couldn’t resist the allure of the Kohinoor Special Appetizer platter ($14), which includes two potato-filled samosas (the large, triangular pastries with their crispy, flaky crusts), vegetable fritters called pakoras, aloo (potato) pakoras, chicken pakoras, chicken tikka (the orangey-red meat on the right, coated in a blend of yogurt and spices), and seekh kabaab (the most delicious sausages, on top).  It is safe to say I liked all of these more than she did, but you have to try new things!  That’s what keeps life — and marriage — interesting.

I always order soft naan bread ($3.50) at any Indian restaurants, to sop up all those incredible sauces.  This is typical Indian flatbread made from refined flour and baked in a tandoor, a clay oven.  I’m sure most of my readers know exactly what it is, so I apologize for naansplaining.

I decided to try the roti ($3.50) as well, which the menu described as whole wheat bread baked in a clay oven.  Now I am used to the Malaysian-style roti from Hawkers Asian Street Fare (which is called a paratha elsewhere), as well as the two kinds of huge, fluffy roti from West Indian restaurants Singh’s Roti Shop and Vindi’s Roti Shop: the dhal puri and “buss-up shot.”  This roti wasn’t much like either of them — it was more like an oily, lightly fried version of the naan.

We got one little ramekin of sweet, tangy tamarind chutney and another ramekin of spicy tomato and onion chutney.  Once again, my wife impressed me by trying and liking the tamarind chutney, and she usually isn’t into condiments and sauces at all.  I was so proud of her for trying new things, and overjoyed that she liked almost everything.  But she’s not a fan of tomatoes or onions, so she wisely avoided the other chutney.

So Kohinoor was a hit!  I am thrilled that the person I love the most in the world has come around on a cuisine that I’m still relatively inexperienced with myself.  Lately I’ve been obsessed with Indian food, trying new dishes and ranking different restaurants’ versions of my tried-and-true favorites.  This isn’t our only recent Indian meal, so I promise more reviews to come over the next few weeks and months.

Ming’s Bistro

I recently met a friend at the Chinese restaurant Ming’s Bistro (https://www.mingsbistro.net/), in the heart of Orlando’s Mills 50 district, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and shops centered around the busy intersection of East Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, near downtown Orlando.  This was our first time at Ming’s Bistro, but we had both heard for years that it specialized in dim sum, and that’s what lured us out there — better late than never.

What is dim sum, you ask?  It’s a Cantonese tradition that started in teahouses that served little snacks with the tea, now most commonly served as brunch (yum cha).  A lot of restaurants push carts around the dining room, allowing diners to point and grab what they want, while other places have you check off your choices on a paper menu, like how some sushi restaurants do it.  Ming’s Bistro mostly does it the latter method, with an illustrated menu to give you ideas and a paper menu you check off next to each item.  The prices are listed, which helps, since you can get in some real trouble grabbing too many dishes off the rolling carts.  But they push some carts around too, and we picked a few random things that came by our table, just because they looked good.  And just to clarify, Ming’s also offers a whole regular menu of Chinese food to choose from, in addition to the dim sum menu.  So all your usual favorites are probably available here, too.

Ming’s opens at 10:45 AM (every day except Thursdays, when it is closed), and I was there right when it opened to grab a table.  We didn’t have to wait at all, and it was slammed by the time we left, a little after noon.  I have written many times that I’m not a brunch person, but dim sum is a unique brunch experience, where you ideally go with a group, hang out for a long time, order a bunch of small plates, and share everything, including good times.  Even though it was only two of us, we shared nine different dim sum items, and we chose wisely.  There wasn’t a dud in the whole bunch!

We started out with an order of steamed roast pork buns (top; $4.50) and an order of baked pineapple buns (bottom).  The roast pork buns are a dim sum classic for good reason.  For the uninitiated, the steamed buns are kind of like soft, bready rolls, and the pork inside is in a red sauce, savory but also slightly sweet.I love pineapple anything, and these baked pineapple buns were a subtly sweet treat that would have been ideal as a dessert, but they came out early, so we enjoyed them early in the meal.  I was expecting something more like sticky pineapple preserves in the centers, but it was creamier than I thought.  Still good, though.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos confirmed my suspicion that dim sum pineapple buns don’t contain any pineapple, but get their name from the crackly crust.  I still liked them, but thought it was odd they were generically sweet without any obvious pineapple!

We didn’t even order these, but a nice lady wheeled a cart next to our table, loaded up with several dim sum dishes already on plates, and asked if we wanted any.  These looked like jalapeño peppers stuffed with something, which is all good with me, so we went for it.  It turned out to be a shrimp filling, but the shrimp was processed into a soft, savory paste, and the peppers were lightly roasted.  I make similar roasted jalapeños once or twice a year, stuffed with light cream cheese and sometimes topped with bacon, chorizo, or prosciutto.  They are a delicious, keto-friendly snack, and these were equally delicious.  I’m not sure what the sauce on top was, but it added to the experience of flavors and textures without overpowering the shrimp or the peppers.  They weren’t very spicy at all, so don’t worry about that if you’re the type who sweats when the heat is on.

These are pan-fried pork pot stickers ($5.50), which had a wonderful crispy shell and a strong ginger flavor inside.  I always appreciate pot stickers, but my friend liked these even more than I did, so I only had one.   

Another foodie friend introduced me to rice paste dim sum during a feast at another great local Chinese restaurant, Peter’s Kitchen, a few years ago.  I probably never would have tried them on my own, but now I recommend them to everyone else.  This is beef rice paste ($4.75), where the rice paste itself is kind of a slippery, chewy crepe wrapped around a filling — almost like a thicker and more slippery manicotti pasta.  I’m not a fan of things that are too chewy and starchy, like certain bao buns and Jamaican boiled dumplings, but these are terrific, especially swimming in the soy-based sauce.  It’s a challenge to keep them from sliding out of your chopsticks, but we both persevered like the functional adults we are!

We also randomly picked these off a later cart that came by our table.  Some kind of fried dumplings that are both crispy and chewy.  I think they are crispy taro dumplings ($4.75), and they were yet another pleasant surprise.

Here’s a cross-section of one of them.  They were stuffed with shrimp and green vegetables, and we joked that these were the healthiest part of our dim sum brunch, despite obviously being fried.  
EDITOR’S NOTE: A sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino informed me these might have been pan-fried chive dumplings ($5.50).

I always like beef short ribs — I rank them up there near oxtails on a list of favorite meats.  This was beef short ribs with black pepper ($5.80), which I enthusiastically ordered, despite not knowing exactly what to expect.  It was great.  It was a relatively small portion, like so many of these diverse dishes, but still plenty for two people to share.  The short ribs came chopped into tiny chunks of rich, succulent, moist, fatty meat, braised until they were very soft and easy to pull off the shards of bone.  They were extremely flavorful and easier to eat than I expected.  I wished I had saved some of the doughier buns and dumplings to dip into the short ribs’ sauce.

I ordered us the pan-fried sticky rice ($5.50) because the couple at the table next to us got it, and it looked good.  That was another pro move on my part.  It was sticky and savory, with maybe the tiniest bit of subtle sweetness you get from Chinese five-spice powder, a blend of Chinese cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, cloves, and peppercorns (or sometimes ginger).  It also would have been good to soak up some of the short rib sauce, but the rice was so flavorful, we ate it on its own. 

The last dim sum dish we ordered was another winner: fried meat dumplings ($4.75).  I can’t tell you if the meat was beef or pork, or maybe a combination of both, or something else entirely.  It was ground, spiced (but not spicy), and saucy, and served in these awesome dumplings that reminded me of Indian batura, Native American fry bread, hand pies, lightly fried empanadas, or even funnel cakes at a fair.  That perfect flaky dough that is lightly crispy but mostly soft, that leaves your fingers greasy and your soul happy.  

Like I said, not a bad dish in the bunch.  It was a great meal, and while we probably could have done more damage, it was the perfect amount of food for two people, with some leftovers at the end.  I’m guessing most of my readers are already familiar with the joy of a communal dim sum brunch, and many know the wonders of Ming’s Bistro.  But if you don’t know, now you know!  I hated crowds and lines long before there was a pandemic, so in addition to recommending all these delicious dishes we tried, I also strongly suggest getting to Ming’s early — ideally in that golden half hour between 10:45 and 11:15 AM — to beat the lunch rush and avoid having to wait.

Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria

Way back in December 2005, chef-owner Pom Moongauklang founded Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria (http://pompomsteahouse.com/), located in Orlando’s Milk District neighborhood, not too far from downtown Orlando.  Pom studied as a pastry chef, and she cooked in several trendy and high-end New York City restaurants (including the famous Nobu and also an infamous BDSM-themed French restaurant that no longer exists, but sounds fascinating) before striking out on her own here in Orlando, serving up some of the city’s most creative sandwiches and eclectic tea drinks for over 15 years.  That was about a year after I first moved to Orlando, and right when I was changing careers and going back to school.  Things seemed really hopeful at the time, and all food tasted better to me.  I remember Pom Pom’s being one of our first really hip and cool locally owned restaurants.  For me, it was love at first sight… and first bite.

The restaurant is a hip, funky space, full of artwork by local artists that is rotated regularly.  All the art is displayed on consignment, so if you fall in love with a piece of artwork, you can buy it.  Pom Pom’s is open until 4 AM on Fridays and Saturdays, making it an oasis for hungry and restless partiers, back when it was safe to be out partying.  In addition to the sandwiches, salads, and tea drinks, there is also a breakfast menu, only available Friday night through noon on Saturday, and then Saturday night through 4 PM on Sunday.

On a visit a while back, the special tea (heh, “specialty”) of the day was strawberry-kiwi, so I impulsively ordered an iced version for $3.  I’m not a big tea drinker, although I sometimes appreciate a good, strong, sweet Southern-style iced tea.  I am not into hot beverages at all, but you can order any of Pom Pom’s teas hot or iced.  The strawberry-kiwi was sweet, but not overly sweet, and very refreshing.  I was glad that it tasted like real fruit juice, not artificial or chemically. I’m not a big tea drinker in general, but I’ve had the chocolate cream tea there before, and that’s always really good.

One one particular visit, I ordered two sandwiches, just so I could write a more comprehensive review here.  I’ve been going to Pom Pom’s since shortly after Pom opened the place, and I have my favorites, so I decided to choose an old favorite and try something new too.  This was my old favorite, the Woody ($9.95), with hot pastrami, Swiss cheese, honey mustard, Thousand Island dressing, Southern slaw, and red onion on pressed pumpernickel bread.  I always love pastrami, and the pumpernickel goes so well with it.  (You can choose sourdough, whole wheat, or rye with caraway seeds as the other bread options.)  All the sandwiches at Pom Pom’s are pressed, so they’re served hot.  Especially with the Woody, you get the crispiness of the pressed bread and the melty, crunchy, meaty, creaminess of all the other ingredients, warm and sliding around.

This was the new sandwich I hadn’t tried before, the Billy Chang (also $9.95).  It sounded a little weird, but just weird enough to work: sliced smoked beef brisket, blue cheese, red onion, and strawberry jelly, and I got it on pressed sourdough bread.  This sandwich had everything: salty, smoky, pungent, sweet, funky, crispy. 
I love savory and sweet flavors together, but I think the smoky brisket and sweet jelly would have worked together with something spicy uniting them, like a pepper jelly instead.  I would have also preferred goat cheese or cream cheese to the crumbly and funky blue cheese, and it also would have made for a more cohesive sandwich that held together better.  But those are my own personal hang-ups, not meant to take away from the sandwich at all.  There was a lot going on, flavor-wise, and it was also the messiest sandwich I’ve ever eaten, on one of the very rare days I ate lunch in my office at work.  It had already soaked through the paper wrapping by the time I got it back to my desk, and eating the half I tackled at work was a multiple-paper towel job.  Would I get it again?  I don’t think so, not that it was bad!  There are just so many other sandwiches at Pom Pom’s I either like more, or that I still have yet to try.

On a more recent visit, I got my old favorite sandwich, the smoked salmon ($11.25), with thin-sliced nova salmon, bacon, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, arugula, tomato, and and lemon caper aioli.  This is an intense rush of strong, smoky flavors, and I just love it.  I ordered it on pumpernickel and it came on sourdough, but I couldn’t complain because it was still awesome.

On my previous visit, I tried the daily special sandwich, a spicy mac tuna melt.  I grew up eating tuna salad sandwiches, but never buy canned tuna anymore, and rarely order it out anywhere.  Pom’s regular melt includes capers, celery, red onions, lemon zest, and your choice of a domestic cheese, which sounds good on its own.  But I loooooove the macaroni and cheese here (more on that shortly), and I figured adding it to any sandwich would take it to another level — like hipster tuna noodle casserole, only a thousand times better.  I didn’t think the combination would disappoint, and it definitely did not.

Putting their delicious macaroni and cheese in a sandwich is a recurring theme at Pom Pom’s, because here is a special from this very weekend, the Chez G, with spicy crumbled chorizo sausage and mac and cheese on sourdough.  I took this one home, so the bread wasn’t crispy anymore, but it was still really good.

Pom Pom’s offers a few sides, including my absolute #1 favorite macaroni and cheese in Orlando, the spicy turkey mac and cheese (on the right; $2.25), with cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, scallions, and that most overrated of hot sauces that nevertheless works so perfectly here, sriracha.  There are always nice cubes of tender turkey in it too.  When I make mac and cheese at home, this is the consistency I aim for — not a liquidy, cheesy soup, and not barely-melted cheese shreds that look like they came straight out of a bag.  It’s the ideal “middle way.”  Melty, not soupy, not greasy, not dry.  I love it, and I would happily eat a much larger portion of it.  On the left, you can see Pom Pom’s German potato salad ($2.25), which is different from most American-style potato salads, which are usually mixed up with mayo and served cold.  This potato salad is served warm with crumbled bacon, scallions, and vinegar, and it’s so, so good if you’ve never had it before.  I love potato salad.  In fact, it’s probably my second-favorite thing to do with potatoes, after chips, and just edging out fries.  That’s my spicy hot take on potato salad, that underrated side order.  And as much as I love the mayo-based varieties (especially Southern-style potato salad with chopped hard-boiled eggs, pickles, and yellow mustard added), German potato salad is a nice change of pace, especially as a rich side dish in the fall and winter.

Pom Pom’s also has soups of the day that I rarely order, but I’m usually happy with the ones I try.  Waaaaay back in December 2020, Pom had cooked up a pot of dark chocolate duck chili, and there was no way I was going to miss that.  They were selling it by the cup for $5 or by the bowl for $7.  I ordered a bowl for myself and a cup to bring home to my wife, who doesn’t like my chili at all, but sometimes surprises me by liking professional chefs’ better versions of chili.  Both were served in coffee cups as part of my takeout order, and mine was topped with scallions and smoked gouda cheese.  It was a rich, hearty chili with at least two different kinds of beans and plenty of shredded, stewed duck. 

You can get a better view of everything here, after I caused a stir.  It was quacktacular!

When I returned today, I tried Pom’s beef lasagna soup, which sounded perfect on a cooler day leading into a very cold night.  It was a savory tomato broth with crumbled, seasoned ground beef, lasagna noodle sheets cut into squares, floating pools of melted mozzarella cheese, lots of garlic, and a surprising amount of chunks of zucchini and yellow squash.

So this is a review after at least three separate visits to Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, even though I’ve lost count of the many times I’ve been here over the past 16 years.  Follow Pom Pom’s Instagram page for daily specials, and time your visit so you can try something new that may never be seen again.  But the old classics stick around for a reason — because they are loved and treasured throughout Orlando.

Banh Mi Boy

Banh Mi Boy (https://www.facebook.com/banhmiboyorlando) is a counter in the back of Tien Hung Market Oriental Foods, a Vietnamese grocery store in Orlando’s Mills 50 district, at 1112 E Colonial Drive, Orlando, FL 32803 (directly southeast of the major intersection of Colonial and Mills Avenue.  There is no shortage of places to get delicious banh mi, French-inspired Vietnamese sub sandwiches on crusty baguettes, in the Mills 50 district, but I had been hearing good things about this place for a while.  As much as I love Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery and always sing its praises to anyone who asks (and plenty who don’t), I also love branching out and trying new restaurants to discover different takes on favorite foods or brand-new favorites.

You may notice immediately that the Banh Mi Boy Facebook page I linked to above doesn’t include any information, or even a menu, so I took the liberty of photographing the menu above the counter.  Make sure you right-click both photos and open them in a new tab for larger images.

On my first visit, I bought two sandwiches.  For $6.99 each, you can’t go wrong.  They aren’t exactly foot-longs, but they are substantial enough (no pun intended) to get two meals out of one sandwich — although I usually eat a whole banh mi in one sitting.  The top one is the #1 Tien Hung Special (banh mi đặc biệt), usually the “special combination” with a variety of cured meats: pork roll, pork belly, head cheese, and pate (I’m assuming; I could be missing one or be wrong on one of the others).  If you’ve never had a banh mi before, this is the one I’d recommend, for the most interesting blend of flavors, textures, and colors.  The meats may be unfamiliar to American diners, but if you like deli meats and cold cuts, these really aren’t that different from various hams, salamis, bolognas, and other porky cured delicacies.The bottom one is the #3, cured pork belly, which was also really good.  You can see how they both come dressed with sliced fresh cucumbers and jalapeño peppers, fresh cilantro, and pickled shredded carrot and daikon radish, making everything taste very cool, refreshing, and crunchy.  What you can’t see are the smears of creamy mayo (or possibly even butter?) that lubricate the inner baguette surfaces, plus the rich, savory pate (think liverwurst, but better).  I would definitely order both in the future.

Well, I might not have returned so soon, but I forgot to photograph the menu on my first visit, and since there are no menus online, I wanted this review to be useful.  And as long as I was there, I decided to get two more banh mi sandwiches for two more meals!

This was the #8, the fried fish roll.  It contained slices of a processed cold cut made of fish, almost like a fish bologna.  It didn’t smell or taste overwhelmingly fishy in a bad way, and had an interesting chewy texture that I didn’t expect, but liked.  But then again, I’ve made no secret on this blog of my love of cured, smoked, pickled, and processed seafood.   

And this was the #14, the pate banh mi.  Pate is usually my favorite ingredient on just about any banh mi, but I rarely see it offered alone.  I figured that if I like the pate so much, why not finally try a sandwich with just that?  Honestly, I was hoping for a lot more pate because the usual meats on the đặc biệt weren’t there to accompany it, but it wasn’t spread on very thick.  It still tasted good — that rich, almost livery taste that I appreciate.

So yeah, that’s Banh Mi Boy.  They offer some other prepared Vietnamese snacks and foods that are unfamiliar to me — things I have yet to try — but when you go to a sandwich place, you probably want to try the sandwiches.  I know I do.  Like I said, I liked it enough to go two times, relatively close together, and I would definitely return again.  Tien Hung Market Oriental Foods may not be Orlando’s nicest or more inviting Asian market (that would be Lotte Plaza Market on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway, which has an entire food court), but it’s worth a visit to try some of the great banh mi sandwiches here.  And I’m always a fan of restaurants “hidden” inside other businesses, from grocery stores to convenience stores, office buildings to bowling alleys.

 

Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster

I’m not usually a big steakhouse person, but if you ask me, Orlando’s best steakhouse is Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster (https://christnersprimesteakandlobster.com/ ), located at 729 Lee Rd, Orlando, Florida, 32810.  Christner’s is very old-school and classy, with impeccable service and prices to match, but you get what you pay for at a place like this.  When I was still just dating my wife, her parents took us all out to Christner’s, and I must admit I had never been to a restaurant like this before.  I got sticker-shock from the prices, even though her generous father, a stand-up guy, treated us all.  But the steak was the finest I’ve ever had in my life — even better than the steak at the vaunted Bern’s in Tampa — and the sides were all top-notch as well.

Well, we’ve returned to Christner’s a few times in the intervening years, but we’ve canceled just about as many reservations just due to a lot of bad luck — someone always getting sick or injured right around the time of an anniversary, a birthday, or some other event worth celebrating.  This year we decided to treat ourselves.  Our anniversary and my in-laws’ anniversary are a day apart, so a while back, we finally returned to Christner’s for the first time in quite a few years, and everyone was healthy and safe and somehow stayed healthy and safe.  It was a lovely night out with three of the best people in the world, and we ate like kings.

I have made no secret of my love for oysters on this blog, and Christner’s has the absolute best fried oysters I’ve ever had.  Seriously, I’ve never had anything this good.  They would make a fine, filling meal in and of themselves, even if we didn’t get steaks.  This sharable appetizer portion comes with tartar sauce, which is really good, and cocktail sauce, which I didn’t even bother with.  But the oysters are so plump and well-seasoned, and the breading is so perfectly crispy, that they didn’t need either.

My mother-in-law ordered lobster bisque, and she was willing to share.  I just got a spoonful, but wow, was it good.  Lobster bisque is an all-time Top Five soup, even if it’s hard to make it look exciting in a photo.  Was this the best bisque?  Best believe it’s the baddest bisque, bro!

My father-in-law ordered a Caesar salad.  I didn’t ask to try any of it, but those croutons looked pretty fantastic.

The croutons are probably made from the fresh-baked bread that is delivered to your table with soft, spreadable butter as soon as your party sits down.  The photo I got of the bread didn’t look nearly as good as it actually is, so I left it out of this review.  It is a round loaf you have to cut yourself, but it is so soft and fluffy and warm, and I challenge anyone to try it and not like it.

My in-laws aren’t used to me always playing the food photographer, so I didn’t get a chance to take pictures of everyone’s main courses.  I did capture mine, though — Russ’ USDA Prime strip, a twelve-ounce steak seasoned with a nice amount of cracked pepper and cooked to a perfect rare, just like I like it.  I regret not taking a photo of the red center, which meat lovers would salivate over.  That would have been pure “food porn,” though.   This steak is one of the cheaper ones on the menu, and I still get sticker-shock after all these years, even when someone else is generous enough to treat.  But of course, at Christner’s, even the cheapest steak is relative.  But that’s not all!  I usually choose it because it is one of the only steaks that comes with a side item; almost all the rest come a la carte.  Russ’ USDA Prime strip is accompanied by the richest, creamiest, most buttery chateau potatoes, which are just very posh mashed potatoes.  Best mashed potatoes ever, though!

We also ordered the skillet potatoes and onions for everyone to share.  This is one of the best potato dishes I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Sliced thin and fried, these aren’t crispy-crunchy like potato chips, but more like thin, disc-shaped steak fries, seasoned with lots of good cracked pepper.  As a notorious onion fan, the onions are practically caramelized and so, so perfect.  Everyone loves the skillet potatoes and onions, even my onion-averse wife!

And speaking of onions, I finally got to try Christner’s legendary onion rings, which I had only stared at longingly on our previous (rare) visits.  I always hesitate to request extra stuff when someone else is being generous enough to treat, but onion rings are kind of my thing.  I even have a whole category on this blog called RING THE ALARM! (no air horn sound effects this time, because this is a very upscale restaurant), so here are Christner’s huge, thick, mountainous onion rings, at long last.   At least my father-in-law tried some, which made me feel less guilty for asking, and even my wife (yes, the onion-averse wife again!) tried one and really liked it.  You can get these rapturous rings in orders of five or nine, and I was glad everyone was okay with getting nine.  These were definitely opulent, ostentatious onion rings!

Everyone enjoyed their dinners, but we all ended up with plenty of leftovers to box up and enjoy the next day.  By now, we knew enough to save room for one of the most delicious, decadent desserts I’ve ever encountered: mandarin orange cake.  My photo doesn’t communicate the size of the slices nearly well enough, but each one is gigantic.  The icing is a “tropical pineapple-orange whipped cream icing,” and the cake is always moist and rich, with a subtle citrusy tang.  It is served a la mode with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream (quality stuff) and a little ramekin of chilled orange sauce that might be my favorite part, because it tastes like melted orange sherbet with chunks of actual orange in it.  I always pour it over the ice cream and eat it first, because I’m usually pretty full at this point.  
Fruity desserts are my absolute favorites, especially anything with citrus or tropical fruit.  I believe Christner’s mandarin orange cake is an all-time favorite restaurant dessert anywhere, and you can easily get two or three servings out of each stupendous slice of cake.

Well, after not doing anything at all last year due to the pandemic, this year my wife and her parents were (relatively) healthy and fully vaccinated, so it was so nice to celebrate our back-to-back anniversaries with this sumptuous feast at Christner’s.  Everything felt normal for a little while, and everyone left very full, satisfied, and happy.  I think all the time about how lucky I am to be married to such an amazing woman, and to have amazing in-laws too, who I love and get along with, and vice versa.  I know not everyone has that privilege and good fortune.  And to be able to enjoy a fancy meal like this at a fancy restaurant like Christner’s speaks to our privilege and good fortune too.  We rarely come here — only every few years — but each time we do, we are all reminded of how consistently excellent it is, and how lucky we are.

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.

Benjamin French Bakery

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oceanne with a slice already cut out:

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

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

Christo’s (Sanford)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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