Valisa Bakery

I pass Valisa Bakery (https://www.valisabakery.net/) every day on my way to and from work. It’s a Puerto Rican bakery that serves breakfast, lunch, and plenty of pastries and other snacks and sweets, and it’s another one of Orlando’s little treasures. This week, my co-worker had heard about a pulpo (octopus) sandwich they serve, so it sounded like a perfect opportunity to return, bring back takeout lunch for both of us, and finally review a place I’ve always enjoyed on my past visits.

This was her pulpo sandwich ($11.95), with chunks of tender octopus  marinated in a citrus vinaigrette, with lettuce and tomato on fresh pressed bread.  She wasn’t expecting it to be served chilled like ceviche, but it looked and sounded really refreshing, like a great summer sandwich.  

I decided to finally try a tripleta ($8.50), the Puerto Rican sandwich that is great late-night drunk food and just as good in the middle of a workday when you don’t even drink.  Tripletas can have infinite variations, as long as there are three meats on it.  This one had thin-sliced, sauteed steak, roast pork, and sliced ham, served on a soft, fluffy, fresh roll with lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce (awesome), and creamy mayo-ketchup — an awesome combination.  It was so big and heavy, I only ate half at work and finished it at home that night.  

Tripleta close-up:

I was intrigued by the daily lunch specials, especially a Thursday special called canoas.  I had to look it up, but canoas are sweet fried whole plantains, cut down the middle, stuffed with seasoned ground beef like picadillo, topped with a white cheese, and baked until it melts, so they look like little canoes.  With that in mind, I was ready to take a canoe trip.  I ordered two canoas ($3.50 each), not knowing how big they would be, but they were huge.  My co-worker and I each had one, and I loved them.  They reminded me of pastelon, my favorite Puerto Rican dish that I’ve had, which is kind of like a lasagna but with layers of sweet plantains instead of pasta sheets.  Canoas were like single servings of pastelon.

Any good Latin restaurant should have great rice that is better than the rice I can make at home, and Valisa Bakery was no exception.  I tried their yellow rice, which looked and tasted more like fried rice, rich from being cooked with pieces of pork, including rich, fatty chicharron.  I have a hard time going anywhere and not trying macaroni salad or pasta salad, so I tried an eight-ounce container of ensalada de coditos ($2) and was glad I did.  It was a creamy macaroni salad (but not runny at all), and the elbow noodles were very al dente.  Of course I shared this too!

Finally, I already knew that Valisa Bakery baked some really good quesitos -sweet, flaky pastries stuffed with cream cheese that are like the beautiful love child of a glazed croissant and a cheese danish.  I have an unimpeachable favorite destination for quesitos in Orlando, but Valisa is my second-favorite, and these quesitos ($2 each) were not disappointing.

So as you can tell, Valisa Bakery is more than just a bakery.  It’s a great bakery, but it’s also a breakfast joint, a cafeteria with rotating daily hot lunch specials, a deli with a scintillating selection of sandwiches, and a Puerto Rican restaurant where you can get tostones, mofongo, and more.  And did I mention it’s a great bakery too?  I have enjoyed it for years, so I’m a little ashamed it took me this long to return and write a long-overdue review.

Royal Castle (Miami)

A note to constant readers: I mistakenly published this review two weeks ago, while I was still working on it as a draft.  My small subset of subscribers should have subsequently seen it e-mailed to them, but I unpublished it immediately… UNTIL NOW, when it’s shined and polished for public consumption.  For those of you who have already read and reveled in my Royal Castle review, regrets for the redundancy.

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Growing up, my dad would sometimes get nostalgic about the restaurants he used to frequent in Miami that were before my time.  So many dearly-departed delis for pastrami sandwiches, Lum’s for hot dogs boiled in beer (I was so surprised to see Lum’s and those legendary hot dogs referenced in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last year!) and Royal Castle for tiny hamburgers and birch beer.  My dad doesn’t consider himself a “foodie” at all, and reads this blog with a mix of amusement and bemusement, but I feel like I became The Saboscrivner due in part to his influence.

A transplanted Brooklynite who moved to North Miami in his late teens, he always knew where to find the best hot dog carts, by-the-slice pizzerias, and all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.  He had no problem packing us in the car for the hour drive from suburban Kendall to the North Miami Beach/Aventura/Sunny Isles area to take us to the much-missed Mister Coney Island and Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House.  That entire part of Miami was magical to me from childhood through my college years, with two good comic book shops, the legendary Blue Note Records, and a Toys R Us on NE 163rd Street that always seemed to have a better selection than the ones closer to us.  But those places are all gone now, like so much of Miami’s glorious, golden past.  (Stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)

Anyway, my dad likes what he likes and sticks to the classics, but he was cool enough to step out of his comfort zone a handful of times to take us for Thai food (once; he claimed the spices made him angry), German food (once; he got weirded out when a bunch of people showed up in lederhosen and dirndls, but who could blame him?), and even a live jazz club on Miami Beach that served burgers and ribs, exponentially expanding my limited teenage horizons.  These were all big-deal formative experiences for me back then, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s.

Royal Castle always stood out to me because it sounded like Miami’s homegrown version of the White Castle and Krystal chains, much like how Orlando’s beloved and long-standing Beefy King is the last bastion of a local chain that was once poised to compete with Arby’s back in the ’70s.  There were once over 150 Royal Castles spanning Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, but only one remains.  Founded in 1958, this Royal Castle is a true family business, sold to 28-year-old James Brimberry by the previous owner, his grandfather, “the first black employee to work inside any Royal Castle restaurant as it integrated just ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  See Carlos Frias, “Miami’s last Royal Castle slings its burgers and birch beer for a new generation,” Miami Herald (June 27, 2019).

Here’s another article about Royal Castle for additional background information:

Miami Herald Archives, “Remember Royal Castle? The burger boom went bust, except for one last survivor,” Miami Herald (February 26, 2019).

By the way, Carlos Frias is one of my favorite food writers and an excellent person to follow on Twitter, whether you live in South Florida or not.  Earlier this summer, Royal Castle made his list of Black-owned Miami restaurant recommendations:

Carlos Frias, “Eat like a local at Miami-Dade’s black-owned restaurants. Here are some of our favorites,” Miami Herald (June 2, 2020).

But it was his June 2019 article I linked above that inspired me to seek out the last remaining Royal Castle on a quick overnight work trip to Miami last fall.  I had one free afternoon to grab lunch on the way down, so I decided to storm the Castle for myself.  Since they don’t have a website with a full menu, I was surprised to see they had a large diner-like menu with breakfasts, sandwiches, and sides — way more variety than I expected from a fast food burger place.  It’s definitely more like a diner than fast food as we all think of it.DSC02630

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I already love li’l slider burgers (see my Krystal review from last summer), and despite the other menu options that I wasn’t expecting, I made the special trip out of my way to Royal Castle to try their famous sliders.  I grabbed a stool at the counter and ordered this 6-Pack combo with cheese added to the burgers, crinkle-cut fries, and a lemonade, which was a reasonable $12.25.  (Unfortunately they were out of their famous birch beer, which I had really been looking forward to.)DSC02634

Close-up to see that nice melty American cheese, still the perfect burger cheese (and grilled cheese cheese).  I had just driven almost four hours and was starving and in a hurry to get to my destination, so I apologize for not taking more or better photos.  Rest assured there were steamed onions and pickle slices underneath the thin burger patties, and I made sure to apply plenty of ketchup to those fries and a dab on each slider.  DSC02635

In retrospect, I wish I had ordered more food, but I didn’t have the time to savor it or a fridge in my hotel room to safely store it.  They were perfectly fine little sliders that hit the spot and got me through a bunch of work schmoozing, but for me, it was all about making that pilgrimage, feeling that Miami history, and eating where my dad ate when he was probably half the age I am now.

The Northwest Miami neighborhood has seen better days, and the restaurant probably has too, but heck, so have I.  After this year, I think we can all say we’ve seen better days.  But it’s a testament to the Brimberry family that the last Royal Castle is still standing after 62 tumultuous years, still in the family, still proudly Black-owned, and still serving filling, flavorful fast food and a lot of local flavor as well.

Nikki’s Place

It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive.  Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining.  But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody.  I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.

That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday.  It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant.  It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952.  Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins.  An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.

So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort.  I know I do.  Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed.  When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind.  Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays.  (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)

As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service.  When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance.  (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!)  They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready.  I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour.  This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway.  Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike.  I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived.  This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first.  We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.

Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them.  I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version.  Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite.  They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes.  They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
DSC03192All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food.  The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before.  I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.

My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25).  I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus.  Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had.  As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time.  Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere.  It was a nice-sized fillet, too.DSC03195My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides.  I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top.  It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it.  The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended.  It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before.  I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.

Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later.  As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings.  Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them.  She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample!  I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.

As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013.  They weren’t at all what I expected.  They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari?  And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all.  I liked it and would totally order it in the future!

But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me.  They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone.  They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.  DSC03194

I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today!  I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic.  Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli.  I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful.  This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad.  It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute.  It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.

My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables.  It was so soft and tender.  Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could.  It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.

You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos.  All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome.  Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread.  I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet.  On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home.  It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.

But wait, there’s more!  Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert.  A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!DSC03196Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie.  This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie).  It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.

As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite.  It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit!  Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.

You’re probably hungry now.  I hope so.  That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner!  But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years.  Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore.  Restaurants come and go.  It’s a tough business.  The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both.  I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD.  After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.

That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy.  It nourishes the body, mind, and soul.  It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future.  I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything.  It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does.  Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades.  It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today.  Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food.  Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!

 

College Park Cafe

I’ve written a lot about being from Miami and growing up eating the best Cuban food in the country.  If there’s one thing I hope I’ve shown the world on The Saboscrivner, it’s that Orlando has an exciting, burgeoning culinary scene, one that allows us to hold our own against other midsize-to-large cities.  We even have Cuban restaurants, but even though some of them are good, very few compare to the plethora of excellent Cuban dining options four hours south of us in Miami.  And nowhere is that more clear than with the legendary Cuban sandwich, AKA the Cubano.  Plenty of good ones, but nothing that matches the iconic Versailles restaurant, the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban community and a can’t-miss destination for locals and tourists alike.  Versailles’ Cuban sandwich is even featured in Jon Favreau’s delightful movie Chef, one of the best food-related movies ever made, which I strongly recommend to all my readers (most of whom have probably seen it already).

Well, dear readers (all those bakers’ dozens of you), I think I’ve finally located Orlando’s finest Cuban sandwich, one that can stand alongside los mejores en Miami, in large part because it’s larger than many of them.  It’s at College Park Cafe (https://collegeparkcafe.com/), a humble diner in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, a place just far enough out of my regular radius that I rarely venture out that way.  I’ve been seeing Facebook posts from them and from foodie friends, singing the praises of the Cuban sandwich and other food, so I had to try it for myself, and I’m so glad I did.  A sign outside the diner advertises “The Best Cuban Sandwich In Town!”, and they ain’t kidding.

College Park Cafe is open from 6:30 AM until 2:00 PM, so I planned to get lunch from here, knowing they aren’t open for dinner.  I called in my takeout order and spoke to Barbara’s son Juan, who was very friendly and patient.  I had to make a few stops on my way there, and Juan called me back to let me know they were out of something I ordered, and called back a second time when I was about five minutes away, to let me know my order was ready.  I appreciated the communication.  Later, I spoke to cook and owner Barbara Martinez over Facebook Messenger while I was writing this review, and she said her family moved to Orlando from South Florida a year ago and took over the diner in August of 2019.  That’s when they added Cuban dishes to the large menu full of American breakfast and lunch classics.

Of course I ordered the Cubano ($10.50) for myself, and I chose one of my lifelong favorite foods, sweet plantains (maduros) as the one side the sandwich comes with. DSC03125

Opened up to show off all the shredded, marinated, roast pork, thin-sliced sweet ham, melty Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, sliced pickles, and crunchy potato sticks on this sandwich.  Potato sticks aren’t typical, but they were a nice touch — says the guy who likes to put chips in almost any sandwich.DSC03126

And a cross-section, so you can see just how thick this sandwich really is:
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Sweet plantains with black beans (more about them below):DSC03121

I also got a side order of onion rings ($2.50) because this was my first visit to the College Park Cafe, and whenever I see onion rings on a menu, I have to try them.  That’s why this review gets a [AIR HORN!] RING THE ALARM! [/AIR HORN!] tag.  It was a great value for a generous order of small, mostly uniform onion rings that were still warm by the time I got them home.  Served with some ketchup I keep chillin’ in the fridge for such rare occasions, they were a nice accompaniment to that awe-inspiring Cubano.
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My wife wanted palomilla steak ($11.50), a thin, marinated, grilled Cuban-style steak, which came with rice, beans (she chose black beans), and salty fried plantains (tostones), which she always prefers to the sweet ones.  I always plate the food when I come home with takeout, especially in these pandemic days, and that means I always try a little bite of whatever she ordered.  She likes and orders steaks far more than I do, but WOW, I was in heaven after one bite of this thin, flat, tender palomilla.  My eyes rolled back in my head, and I was reeling from the excellent seasoning.  There was garlic, cumin, maybe the sour orange juice of a mojo criollo marinade.  It was an explosion of deliciousness, all from one bite.  And because my wife hates onions and I love them, I slid all the grilled, seasoned onions off the top of her steak to enjoy myself.  DSC03120

Tostones!
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When I got there, I saw they had a rich-looking chocolate cake under a glass dome, as any good diner should.  My wife always loves chocolate, so I got her a slice of that too.  It looked like they have flan as well, but I had to save some stuff for future visits.
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I would have ordered the Cuban frita sliders, small burgers made with a blend of ground beef and chorizo sausage, usually served on buns pressed in a plancha like the Cuban bread of a Cubano sandwich, and topped with potato sticks and onions.  But unfortunately they were out on this visit.  I discovered frita burgers relatively late in my life, on my most recent trip back home to Miami in early March, right before the pandemic struck, and I have a review of that restaurant written and ready to run on a week I don’t have anything new to report on locally.  I don’t know of anyone in Orlando serving fritas aside from College Park Cafe, so I’ll definitely return to try those.  I don’t think anything could keep me from ordering another one of those perfect, overstuffed Cubanos, though.  That thing would be a bargain at twice the price.  It really is that damn good, and not just by Orlando standards either.

So that’s College Park Cafe, a friendly neighborhood diner with all your timeless diner classics: Reubens, patty melts, Greek omelettes, country-fried steak, eggs Benedict, chili cheeseburgers, anything you can picture in your diner dreams.  They even have an unlimited salad for $8.99 (for dine-in only), or $11.99 when paired with a few different entrees.  But the Cuban food is the real star of the show, and it’s definitely some of the best Cuban food to be had in Orlando, good enough to hold its own in Tampa or Miami.  The Martinez family is so incredibly nice, and I shouldn’t have to remind you that they could really use every bit of support.  Plus, normally parking along Edgewater Drive in College Park is kind of a nightmare, but it wasn’t bad at all on a Saturday afternoon during a pandemic.  Trust me — if you and the people you’re comfortable being within six feet of can’t decide between breakfast, diner food, and Cuban cuisine, have I got the place for you.

Bagel King

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
–Omar Little, from The Wire (the greatest show of all time)

It’s no secret your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner loves bagels.  They are, after all, the food of my people.  I grew up eating bagels with my family on Sunday mornings in Kendall (one of Miami’s more staid suburbs) from a series of bagel shops and delis that are all decades gone.  On this very blog, I’ve waxed poetic about some of New York City’s best bagels, from the extraordinary Ess-A-Bagel and the rapturous Russ & Daughters Cafe.  I’ve sung the praises of Pickles Delicatessen in nearby Longwood, where their bagels are shipped frozen from New York, and they are almost as good as the real things, hot and fresh when you’re right there.

But if you want freshly baked bagels in the Orlando area, your best option is Casselberry’s Bagel King (https://www.bagelking.net/).  I’ve been going to Bagel King since I moved here in 2004, first with one of my good friends and former roommates, and then with my wife, ever since we started dating in 2006.  It’s a “friendly neighborhood” place too, with a wide open dining room and plenty of natural light streaming in, a gleaming glass case full of pastries baked in house, and a floor-to-ceiling rack of different freshly baked bagels behind the front counter.  You can order takeout at the counter (as everyone has to do these days), but in happier, safer times, it was a great place to grab a table for a leisurely breakfast or lunch.

This was the bagel selection on a recent busy weekend after the takeout lunch crowd came and went, but they still had everything I wanted:
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I can’t tell you how many times I ordered the “Fresh Fish Fantasy” ($10.99) over the last 15 years, where you can choose a bagel with cold-smoked nova salmon (what most people think of as “lox”) or much saltier belly lox, along with cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers on the side.  Almost as many times as I would belt out “Well it’s just a fresh fish fantasy, baby!” in my head over that bouncy Tom Tom Club sample, to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “Well it’s just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby!”  I would always opt for an everything bagel, thick and fluffy with that shiny exterior that only comes from boiling, dusted with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, or a crustier, non-boiled bialy roll with its oniony center.

Close-up of a bialy, for the uninitiated:
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Sometimes I’d switch up the Fresh Fish Fantasy formula and instead opt for smoked whitefish salad on a toasted everything bagel or bialy ($10.99), or sometimes I’d indulge and get Tinamarie’s stuffed potato knish ($8.99): pastrami, corned beef, roast beef, or turkey (I would NEVER get turkey) with provolone, caramelized onions, and dusseldorf mustard, served on a homemade potato knish, split open like a sandwich.  For those of you who have been deprived, a knish is a pastry made of a thin layer of dough wrapped around seasoned mashed potatoes.  You can buy delicious Gabila’s brand knishes in the frozen case at Publix (they are fried and made in New York), but a lot of bagel shops and delis bake theirs, including Bagel King.  You can buy a mini-knish for 99 cents or a full-sized one for $2, and your life will be so much better if you do.

However, my wife never deviates from her formula: a toasted, buttered everything bagel ($1.99) with a side order of pastrami ($4.49), always sliced into strips and cooked on the grill until it was slightly crispy, like bacon.  Bagel King isn’t a kosher restaurant, by the way — you can get applewood-smoked bacon with your eggs, cheddar cheese on your burger (on a pretzel roll), or provolone on any number of thick, meaty, overstuffed sandwiches.  But they also offer turkey sausage and turkey ham.

Most bagels are $1 each, or you can get a baker’s dozen (13) for $10.  Bagels freeze exceptionally well, especially if you slice them first, seal them in plastic bags, squeeze all the air out, and freeze them immediately.  Then they warm up perfectly in a toaster oven… or you can microwave them for 30 seconds before the toaster oven, if you always forget to slice them before freezing, like I usually do.

On this most recent trip, I stocked up with bagels to freeze: nine everything bagels and nine bialys.
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They were even kind enough to throw in these sweet treats: a raspberry danish pastry and a huge, dense cinnamon roll.
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Bagel King also makes their own flavored cream cheeses, which you can order on your bagel or get to-go tubs.  The savory veggie, bruschetta, chunky nova, and smooth lox cream cheeses are all outstanding, but they have sweet ones too, like strawberry, Nutella, and almond amaretto.  I just wouldn’t recommend those sweet ones on an everything bagel or a bialy!DSC03059

So that’s Bagel King, another old stalwart, and your source for the best fresh bagels in Orlando.  I’m so lucky to live near the one in Casselberry, but there are also locations in Winter Park, Lake Mary, Debary, and a wholesale location in Orlando.  Now more than ever, I know we’re all seeking comfort food.  To me, few meals are as comfortable as a good bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.  If that sounds the least bit good to you, come at the king, and don’t miss.

 

Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before starting The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” neighborhood on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.20191130_130558_resized

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location a few years ago, with much more parking.  She’s still on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  (And another one of my local favorite restaurants, Bad As’s Sandwich, has since opened in the original Se7en Bites location and has been absolutely killing it for the past two years.)

In 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (However, I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing retro-looking shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or just have dessert because we’re grown-ass adults who can do that if we want to, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone.

Unfortunately, I missed her on my most recent visit, around 1:00 on a weekend when I ordered everything to go.  She was probably already hard at work at her other restaurant Sette, Orlando’s newest Italian restaurant, which I reviewed back in March 2019 and consider the best Italian restaurant in our City Beautiful.  My poor wife was at home, grading papers while fighting off a cold, so I wanted to bring her a really nice lunch.  When we saw photos of Se7en Bites’ weekend brunch special, the Minnie Pearl, on Facebook, she told me that was exactly what she wanted.DSC02719

The Minnie Pearl ($14.75), named for the down-home hostess of Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry, comes with two mini pearl sugar waffles (GET IT???), a buttermilk-fried chicken breast, and an over medium egg, although I requested the egg be cooked over hard for my wife, who doesn’t love runny eggs.  It also comes with hot honey drizzle and the most amazing vanilla bean butter syrup, which they were kind enough to include in separate containers with lids.  You can say “HOW-DEEEEEEE!” to that.  DSC02720I’m so glad my wife shared a little bite of the pearl sugar waffle with me.  It was easily the best waffle I’ve ever tasted.  Much crisper and denser than most breakfast waffles, including the ones from my beloved Waffle House, this one made the whole house smell like butter, vanilla, and good times.

The Minnie Pearl also included cheddar chive grits, which she is much more into than I am:DSC02724

This is my favorite regular item on the menu at Se7en Bites, the meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough bread, with a mashed potato schmear ($9.25).  I’m a meatloaf lover and make a damn amazing meatloaf, if I do say so myself.  Chef Trina’s version is the only meatloaf that I think comes close to mine.  And since I don’t always feel like a huge and hearty Southern breakfast, I know I can always count on this sandwich (since I always feel like sandwiches).  DSC02725

This is the pimento cheese and bacon sandwich, also on grilled sourdough bread ($8.75).  And I opted for a crispy fried green tomato on mine, for a $2 upcharge.  Pimento cheese is something else I make well, but I feel compelled to try it whenever I see it on a menu, since everyone’s version is a little different.  The version at Se7en Bites is among my favorites.  DSC02726

Sides with the two sandwiches, creamy macaroni and cheese (a $3.25 upcharge) and the aforementioned ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries (a $2.75 upcharge).  Sadly, the fries were cold by the time I got home with everything, thanks to hitting every light on Colonial and then again on Semoran.  I’ll never order these fries with a takeout order again, but they are among my favorite fries in the city when I dine in at Se7en Bites.  DSC02723

To make the lines move along better, you order your sweets at a separate counter, where all the delicious, decadent desserts are on display under glass domes.  Feel free to ask questions — her staff is probably used to them, and they’re always happy to tell you anything you want to know.  20191130_130547_resized

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This is the aforementioned Signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pecan pie ($7), which features the finest, flakiest, most buttery pie crust I’ve ever had.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of richness.  It looks small, but it can be easily be shared by two to four people.  DSC02722DSC02730

I recently met one of my favorite Internet friends for the first time, along with his lovely girlfriend.  He is a fellow aficionado of comic books, cats, pro wrestling, and pie, and we got together for dinner at an old Disney Springs favorite, The Polite Pig.  I made sure to pick up one of Chef Trina’s signature pies for them, and I think it dazzled them the same way it always dazzles us.  That crust remains unparalleled.

This is the Se7en Bites coconut cream pie ($7), one of my favorite kinds of pies, even after getting a little burned out on them judging the cream pie category at the National Pie Championship last spring.  It’s another big hit in our household, to the point where after sharing small slivers when I brought our most recent takeout order home, my wife woke up very early the next morning and finished the rest of it before I got up.  But what’s mine is hers, and at least I got a taste.DSC02721DSC02728

Most recently, when I picked up the signature pie for my visiting friend, I also noticed a new pie I had never seen before: a Samoa brownie cream pie ($7)!  It looked magnificent, and I brought it home, split it evenly, and devoured it with my wife — while we were both watching each other, like something out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This pie has everything: a chocolate fudgy cookie-like crust, caramel, butterscotch, coconut, and the smoothest, coolest, creamiest filling.  It was literally my favorite Se7en Bites dessert EVER, and I hope Chef Trina will consider adding it to the permanent menu.
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And this thicc bar came highly recommended by one of the lovely and ever-patient women of the Se7en Bites staff.  I believe it’s called I Don’t Give a Fudge, and the layers are chocolate chip cookie (bottom), rich fudge brownie (middle), smooth chocolate peanut butter (top), and then a soft cookie dough topping above all of that.  It’s about four inches thick, and once again, meant to be shared by several people (or at least for one or two people to get several portions out of it.  This one cost about $6.  DSC02727

Se7en Bites even serves special burgers on Fridays, which makes it difficult to catch them, but they have been among my favorite dishes there.  In fact, this is an older photo of my favorite burger Chef Trina has ever crafted, the Italian Stallion.  It is topped with a fried mozzarella plank, savory-sweet tomato jam, and pesto aioli, and it is one of my favorite burgers of all time.  In fact, the Italian Stallion made my Top Five favorite dishes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly20170805_103742
Anyone remember the Bennigan’s chain, so ubiquitous throughout the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s?  They had a similar burger back then, the Wheelhouse burger, topped with a fried mozzarella cheese “wheel” and marinara sauce.  That was good eatin’ back in the day, but the Se7en Bites version even leaves that fond memory behind, in the dust.

This was another special Friday burger, topped with bacon, Chef Trina’s wonderful pimento cheese, and onion rings, and I got it with a side of onion rings!  That’s right — you didn’t think this was going to be a RING THE ALARM! feature, but I sneaked it in there, right at the end.  I don’t remember the cute name this burger no doubt had, but I wish she would bring it back, and make those onion rings a regular menu item.  Look at them!  They’re the “good kind” of onion rings I always wax poetic about on this blog — beer-battered and golden brown, crispy but not crunchy, not too thin or too thick, not too greasy.  These were the onion rings that dreams are made of!  20180223_132856_resized

Anyway, Se7en Bites is a local favorite with national renown for good reason, and between this and Sette, Trina and Va’s culinary empire is pretty well-established in Orlando.  I can’t wait to see — and taste — whatever these gastronomic goddesses do next.  In the meantime, if I have co-workers or out-of-town guests who are craving brunch or sweets, Se7en Bites will remain my top choice to bring them to.  There isn’t much like it anywhere else, and we are so lucky to have it here.  Don’t miss the Minnie Pearl with those perfect pearl sugar waffles, and be on the lookout for Friday burgers and that Samoa brownie cream pie!

Pickles Delicatessen

Pickles Delicatessen (http://www.picklescatering.com/) is one of my favorite destinations in Longwood, on State Road 434 right off I-4 exit 94.  It is located in the same little shopping center where the Longwood location of 4 Rivers Smokehouse is.  In a town sorely lacking authentic New York-style delis, Pickles is the closest we have to the great delicatessens of New York City and its boroughs (and parts of South Florida).  Of course there is the Toojay’s chain, but I greatly prefer Pickles for its authenticity, quality, and selection.

They have all kinds of cookies and pastries brought in fresh from New York.  My wife loves some of the Italian-style cookies, like the ones with sprinkles, and pistachio cookies shaped like red and green leaves.  My mom used to buy cookies like that at a little bakery in Miami back when I was a kid in the ’80s.DSC02195

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The bagels at Pickles are maybe the best you can get in Orlando, especially the everything bagels my wife and I both like.  Pickles serves the Just Bagels brand from The Bronx, and they are extremely high quality.  I’d rather have a really good frozen and toasted authentic New York bagel than a mediocre fresh-baked bagel.  The other morning, I was overjoyed to find two of these saved in my freezer from our last trip to Pickles, and I happened to have nova salmon and cream cheese.  It’s rare when the universe lines up so perfectly.DSC02198

On my last takeout order, I brought home terrific latkes (potato pancakes).  Even after the drive home, they were still nicely crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with tastes of onion, garlic, and pepper.  They are served with sour cream and applesauce.  Some people prefer one over the other with their latkes, but I like both.  If you haven’t had them that way, you don’t know what you’re missing!DSC02199

I don’t have a photo, but if you like potato knishes, Pickles serves Gabila’s, a commercially-available knish that is definitely my favorite.

Here’s their pastrami sandwich on rye bread with caraway seeds.  My wife especially loves their pastrami.  It is sliced thin, and not too lean or too fatty.  I wish it was hand-sliced a little thicker like New York’s iconic Katz’s Deli, but this is the Orlando ‘burbs, not the Lower East Side.  It’s definitely a solid and generously-stuffed pastrami sandwich.DSC02202

This is a very small sampling of my mustard collection at home, perfect for pastrami.  In recent months, I was lucky enough to stock up on a dozen bottles of the Grey Poupon Mild & Creamy Dijon when Publix put it on clearance, AND five jars of the Sir Kensington’s Spicy Brown (which has a bit of maple syrup) when Lucky’s Market recently did the same.  Not bad — usually those aren’t the cheapest brands, but I have mustard to last me years (months?) for a buck and change each.  But I still take risks with new, exciting, and fancy varieties, like the Kozlik’s Hot Russian mustard, an indulgence that wasn’t cheap, but was totally worth every penny.DSC02203

Pickles has really terrific vinaigrette pasta salad, which I always love as a side item with their sandwiches.DSC02206

If you don’t feel like a Jewish deli classic like pastrami, corned beef, brisket, or chopped liver, Pickles also serves some great Italian hoagies and other deli-style sandwiches.  I’m a huge fan of their Italian Combo, with cappicola, sopresata, Genoa salami, mozzarella,  Italian peppers, lettuce, tomato, balsamic, and parmesan.  I swear I took a picture of it at some point in the past, but it would have been on my lousy phone camera, so people probably would complain more if I included a photo of this sandwich than if I didn’t.

They serve breakfasts, burgers, salads, and wraps as well.

But WAIT!  What’s this?DSC02196

It’s true, dear readers — Pickles carries Junior’s cheesecake from Brooklyn, which might be the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.  I sang its praises in my review of Junior’s, when we went to New York this past May and ended up eating at both of its Times Square locations.

Here’s a slice of their plain cheesecake, which I’ll take over Publix or the Factory any day:dsc02201.jpg

And here’s the chocolate cake-layered cheesecake.  I can normally take or leave chocolate cake, or anything chocolate, but this was on a whole other level, and I loved it.  dsc02200.jpg
On top of the cheesecake being awe-inspiring, the chocolate cake was rich, dense, moist, fudgy — almost like a gooey brownie, but still clearly cake.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such good chocolate cake.  As you can probably guess, this was very rich, and even the two of us working together got four portions out of this one generous slice.

Since Pickles has so many authentic New York products and ingredients, imagine my surprise after our New York trip to find Fox’s U-Bet VANILLA syrup, after I had the best vanilla egg cream at Veselka in the East Village.  I’ll argue to anyone that Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup is the best commercially-available chocolate syrup, especially if you’re making an egg cream with milk and seltzer water.  Nothing else tastes right.  Luckily most Publix stores carry Fox’s U-Bet chocolate in their kosher sections, but I had never seen the vanilla syrup for sale anywhere locally until noticing it at Pickles.  Needless to say, I had to buy a bottle, and now my homemade vanilla egg cream game is strong.  dsc02205.jpg
Since the trip I photographed for this review, we used up this one bottle, and I returned to Pickles to buy three more.  Imagine the deliciousness of a vanilla milkshake, only thinner, lightly carbonated, surprisingly helpful with digestion, and with much less guilt, and you’ve got it.  This stuff has been a game-changer at Casa de Saboscrivner!

Just so you know, Pickles is open 8:00 to 4:00, Monday through Saturday.  That means they aren’t open for dinner hours or on Sundays, and those are times when I tend to want their food the most.  But go there when you can for a little slice of New York deli heaven right here in Seminole County, Florida.

Krystal (the all-you-can-eat adventure)

When it comes to food, almost everyone has a guilty pleasure.  Maybe yours is Cadbury Creme Eggs (wisely bought on sale after Easter and saved in the depths of your freezer so you can enjoy one every month of the year that follows when nobody else has any), or trashy frozen French bread pizzas that remind you of hanging out at your friends’ houses in high school, or possibly even intimidating sandwiches you painstakingly assemble using two of those French bread pizzas in place of a sub roll, like a true sandwich artiste (particularly going for that self-destructive streak too many artists share).  It might be something as simple as ice cream, or fries, or fries dipped in said ice cream.  You might have a love-hate relationship with these foods.  Indulging might make you feel bad physically after the initial rush of excitement and joy, but you can’t help yourself.  Or they might bring you to a happy and comfortable place at the time, but then you feel shame or depression later on, like so many dysfunctional relationships.

After a disastrous attempt at the keto diet back in 2017, I now firmly believe we should eat whatever we want, just maybe a little bit less of it at each sitting, and maybe not indulge quite as often.  But life is full of pain and suffering and misery and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.  I say we should just take our pleasures where we can find them — ideally with some modicrum of moderation — and not feel too guilty.

Of course, that’s easier said than done when when of your (by which I mean my) guiltiest food pleasures are cheese Krystals, tiny little cheeseburgers served with mustard, onions, and a pickle slice on soft steamed buns.  Krystals (sometimes colloquially referred to as “sliders”) are the signature item from the fast food chain Krystal (https://krystal.com/).  If this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of White Castle, a fast food chain located throughout the Northern U.S.  We don’t have White Castle here (and I’ve never had a chance to go to one), but Krystal is the Southern equivalent.  Founded in 1932 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Krystal’s website claims it is the second-oldest fast food restaurant.  Locations are decorated in white and red and have a bit of a retro feel to them, and they’re usually sparkling clean and bright.

As you might guess, the Krystal burgers are very cheap (being a product of the Great Depression), remaining one of the better fast food values today.  They are meant to be consumed in mass quantities, and as you might also guess, they are not exactly health food.  I usually only go to Krystal once or twice a year, and luckily I have to drive out of my way to go to one, keeping it a rare indulgence.  When I go, I usually order a dozen cheese Krystals, and each soft little slider is lovingly tucked into a cardboard sleeve with one open side.  I’ll reach into the bag on my passenger seat and wolf down several of them before I even make it home.  Hey, I’m not proud.

But perhaps in an attempt to reach out to people like me, Krystal recently instituted an all-you-can-eat deal, offering unlimited Krystals and fries for $5.99.  (This deal is for dining in only.  You can’t get it to go, and you can’t leave and come back later and hope to get more.)  I had to try it, for the sake of this food blog and my dozens of vaguely-interested readers.  I figured I would live-blog my experience as I ate more and more sliders, perhaps chronicling my physical and mental decline, and to see how long I could stay in the restaurant, how many they would be willing to serve at a time, whether I could beat my previous Krystal record of eating twelve, and whether or not I’d wear out my welcome before I tapped out.  I love the state of journalism in 2019, don’t you?

Here’s a twist: I don’t think Krystal’s fries are anything special, so perhaps for the first time in the very short history of their all-you-can-eat deal, I asked them to hold the fries and just give me cheese Krystals.  (The incredulous cashier said “Are you sure?  The fries are included!”)  Just so ya know, the cheese is a $2 upcharge, but I think it’s totally worth it, as long as we’re indulging.  I also ordered a drink, a Sprite slushie for $1.  Hey, big spender!

So instead of giving you a tray laden with a precarious leaning tower of burgers like an old Jughead comic book cover, they start you out with four at a time.  If I had wanted fries, they would have given me a regular order of fries to begin with as well.DSC02469

Well, these sliders slide down real easy, so it wasn’t long before I went back to the counter and asked for a re-up.  Luckily they weren’t busy.  You can tell some time has passed because I drank about a third of the Sprite slushie with the first round.  Here’s round two: four more cheese Krystals.  DSC02470

I took my time with those soft, squishy, oniony, mustardy, cheesy little monsters, but I wasn’t ready to surrender to the sweet embrace of oblivion yet.  Like I said, my record for Krystals consumed had been twelve — sadly my usual order for the once or twice a year I drive through.  Whatever happened, I wanted to at least top that.  Why, you ask?  I couldn’t really tell you, dear Saboscrivnerinos.  Bragging rights?  I hardly think this is anything to brag about.

So I asked the nice lady for an order of five more, just so I’d have thirteen in all, and I could reevaluate my options after that.  She didn’t even argue with me.  I was clearly a man who came to play, who meant business, who could hold his sliders with the best of them.  Here they are, the Furious Five with no Grandmaster Flash in sight, and one-third of the slushie remaining.  DSC02471

In case there was any doubt remaining, I inhaled them.

And you know what?  After that, I made what might have been the smartest move I made that day — I called it a day.  Walked away while I was still on top (so to speak), quit while I was ahead (arguably), didn’t foolishly try to hit some arbitrary new Krystal milestone like 20, or doubling my old record with 24.

I ate thirteen of those things, and they were delicious, and I got it out of my system (pun very much intended).  I don’t need to return to Krystal for a while now — I’m good!  By the time I make it back, this dangerous all-you-can-eat deal will probably be over, and that’s fine with me.  I did the unthinkable that day, fearless readers, and lived to tell about it.  It was an intense 15 minutes that afternoon, let me tell you!

Waffle House

“It is indeed marvelous.  An irony-free zone, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.  Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation, is welcomed.  Its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the South to to come inside.  A place of safety and nourishment.  It never closes.  It is always, ALWAYS faithful.  Always there FOR YOU.”

Those were the wise words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, from his Parts Unknown episode where he visited a Waffle House restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

The man did so much for broadening people’s views about food, between his brilliant books, like Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, and his fascinating food shows, like No Reservations and Parts Unknown.  He encouraged us to experiment and try new things in new places with new people, to step out of our culinary comfort zones, challenge our sensibilities, and open ourselves up to new, potentially life-changing experiences.  As a food blogger, he is one of my greatest influences, in terms of his unique voice (both his writing style and his soothing TV show narration), his curiosity and empathy, and his sense of adventure.

Bourdain knew a good meal when he saw it, whether it was five-star fine dining or some dirty, dangerous dive halfway across the globe.  I always appreciated that he spoke so highly of Waffle House (https://www.wafflehouse.com/), that ubiquitous-yet-humble chain of 24-hour Southern diners, and highlighted it on his show.

I also unironically love Waffle House.  It is practically synonymous with a “greasy spoon,” and sometimes infamous for unsavory late-night antics.  But the truth is, you can get a delicious, hearty, affordable meal there at any time of the day or night, prepared right before your eyes in an open kitchen.  I am lucky enough to live near the best Waffle House location ever — always spotless, fast, and friendly no matter when you show up, with impeccable, satisfying, soul-nourishing food.  Scoff all you want — if you’re still skeptical, that just means you’ve been denying yourself one of the greatest comfort food experiences to be had in the South.

I’ve been composing this Waffle House review and compiling photos for months, over the course of several separate visits with my wife.  But today was Anthony Bourdain’s birthday, so it felt like the right thing to do to go back tonight, to reminisce about the life and legacy of one of the greatest foodies of all, to indulge our senses and think about all the entertainment and education the man provided us over the years.  We were also joined by some members of the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, a Facebook group that has also broadened my culinary horizons and introduced me to some amazing new friends.  It felt right to commune with these fellow foodies and Bourdain fans, and to talk and laugh and share food with them, tonight of all nights.  We learned all the right lessons.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the glory of Waffle House, you may have heard of their flawless hash browns and all the different ways you can order them:

  • Smothered with grilled onions
  • Covered with melted cheese
  • Chunked with grilled smoked ham
  • Diced with grilled tomatoes
  • Peppered with pickled jalapeno peppers
  • Capped with grilled button mushrooms (more for y’all!)
  • Topped with Bert’s Chili
  • Country with sausage gravy

I am perfectly happy to eat my hash browns straight up with ketchup, but I do love them smothered and covered as a special treat.  My wife prefers hers plain, as usual.  Tonight one of our dinner companions ordered hers covered, chunked, and peppered.  (I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later!)
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The All-Star Special is a bargain and also a challenge: fried eggs (you can get them in other styles), accompanied by smothered hash browns (dig the grilled onions) and buttery white toast.  Tonight I was feeling like a big shot, so I got cheese on my eggs with a specific purpose in mind:DSC02279

A picture from an earlier visit, this time with no cheese on the eggs, and thicker grilled and buttered Texas toast, superior to the white toast:
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We both love their very crispy bacon, which is my wife’s go-to breakfast meat at any time of day:20190216_220330_resized

You can choose between bacon, sausage, and ham for this All-Star Special, or pay a slight upcharge for a large cut of rich, salty, bone-in country ham, bursting with far more flavor than the “everyday” ham.  The country ham is my new favorite.  Obviously the texture is totally different, but it always reminds me of prosciutto, one of my favorite foods in the whole world.
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As if that wasn’t enough, the All-Star Special also includes a plain waffle, which I believe is made with Golden Malted waffle and pancake mix, the best commercial mix I’ve ever found.  It isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make waffles or pancakes from scratch at home, but I buy that mix now to try (in vain) to recreate the perfection of a Waffle House waffle.  The outside is always crispy, the inside is always fluffy.  Anyway, if I ordered this one in the photo, it would soon be doused in syrup:DSC02070

Here’s a waffle topped with peanut butter chips, from another visit.  You can also get chocolate chips and even pecans.  They have even offered peach waffles in past summers, which is a pro-tier move from this Atlanta, Georgia-based company.  I’m looking forward to peach waffle season.  20190305_212120_resized

Grits!  Not my favorite, but my wife sure loves ’em with some butter and salt.  We all know that no self-respecting Southerner would make instant grits, but I’m not sure if these are “real” or instant.20190222_191021_resized

And she turned me onto the grilled, split, soft and buttery biscuits, which she likes instead of toast, with a little butter and jam.  You can also order a biscuit sandwich with eggs, cheese, and the breakfast meat of your choice.
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This is another one of my favorites, the Texas sausage, egg, and cheese melt, on grilled and buttered Texas toast, with added grilled onions.  I like mustard on my eggs, mmmm hmmmm.  Pure breakfast perfection at any time of day (or night), but I hate eating in the morning.  We’re much more likely to go there for dinner.DSC02252

Tonight, another one of my adventurous friends ordered something I’ve never tried before: the new Cheesesteak Melt Hashbrown Bowl, which is pretty self-explanatory: a large order of hash browns covered with melted cheese and topped with cheesesteak and grilled onions.  Everything a growing boy needs, it’s the breakfast of champions, even at 8:30 on a Tuesday night.  DSC02283

But Waffle House is about so much more than just breakfast food!  I actually love their burgers.

This is my standard: the $2 double “original” Angus cheeseburger that comes with two patties, melted cheese, and grilled onions on a grilled, buttered bun, with pickles and a packet of delicious WH Sauce, which is similar to chipotle mayo.  (It is a Heinz product, and I wish they sold it in bottles!)  It’s very much like an old-school diner burger, like the burger you imagine being served at a diner in a Tom Waits song.  It is better than just about any fast food burgers.  DID I MENTION IT IS $2?  It may be the best $2 you’ll ever spend on food.  20190222_190853_resized

Again, a better photo from a different visit.  I think American cheese is the ultimate cheese for burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, for how nicely it melts.  Yeah, come at me, bro.
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Here’s one adorned with that WH Sauce:DSC02251

And here’s tonight’s burger, pre-WH Saucing, side by side with one of those wondrous waffles.  Don’t worry, they don’t serve them on the same plate, but we had six people at our tiny table, so I was trying to consolidate:DSC02280

One day they were out of burger buns, so I asked if they could serve the burger on grilled Texas toast.  They happily obliged, and I think it was even better — kinda like a patty melt.  Pardon the blurriness.
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My wife swears by Waffle House’s grilled pork chops, always with her beloved hash browns.  These have supplanted eggs and bacon as her standard order, although she still loves the grits, waffles, and biscuits too.  They are surprisingly tender, juicy, flavorful, bone-in pork chops.  Ask for the “seasoning” — it is just a salt and pepper blend, but it adds a unique touch, and they aren’t the same without it.  DSC02254

Chops ‘n’ browns:
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More chops ‘n’ browns:
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And if you decide you want picante sauce for your hash browns, eggs, sandwiches, or burgers, I love that the brand is Senora Jackie’s Casa de Waffle.  This was old news to us, but our table-mates got a real kick out of it.
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Waffle House usually has good sweet iced tea, and I like my iced tea like I like my women: sweet, strong, chillin’, and with lemon.  But usually I’ll get a vanilla Coke or vanilla root beer there, on top of all those other carbs.  They actually squirt real vanilla syrup into the fountain beverage, which makes a nice difference.  I can’t speak for the coffee, since I rarely touch the stuff.

Waffle House restaurants all have another beloved feature: a jukebox, loaded up with pop hits, golden oldies, and a surprising number of novelty songs written ABOUT Waffle HouseFun fact: Waffle House even has its own record label!  I rarely indulge with the jukebox, which is odd, because I love foisting… uh, sharing my musical tastes with others.  But tonight I spared our new friends and the stalwart staff, lest I be tempted to queue up some Tom Jones on repeat.

And one more fun fact about the Waffle House I think you should know: it is often the first business up and running again after hurricanes and other natural disasters!  Because it stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refers to the “Waffle House Index” in terms of the severity and impact of the disaster.  According to this transcribed National Public Radio interview, “If a Waffle House is closed because a disaster is bad, [FEMA calls] it red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow… And a completely open, full-menu Waffle House is green.”  A Waffle House spokesman said “If we’re opening up quickly, that’s a good sign that community is going to come back quickly.  If we are on a limited menu, that’s probably because we’re – have some utilities out, so it’s going to take a bit longer for that community to come back.”  So as we edge in those scary Southern summer months that occasionally bring hurricanes, maybe pay as close attention to your local Waffle House as you do to your favorite telegenic weatherperson.

The world is certainly not the same without Anthony Bourdain, and I think about him whenever I try a new dish, a new restaurant, or a new city… and also whenever I end up at my friendly neighborhood Waffle House.  Tonight, over a late dinner with my winsome, wondrous wife — the person I love most in the world — and some really great new foodie friends, Bourdain was on our minds and in our hearts.  That fellowship, the fact that I found my way onto a local food forum on Facebook, the fact that I started this blog just over a year ago and bother writing about food at all — I can trace all of it back to him.  So on his birthday, a year after we lost him, I mourned and celebrated the man, I ate good food with good people, and I thought long and hard about how lucky we all are to be able to do that.

Maple Street Biscuit Company

Despite living not too far from Oviedo, I almost never drive all the way east to head out there.  Every time I do, I’m always amazed by how much the area has been developed, with so many new restaurants popping up.  One of Oviedo’s newest neighbors is the Maple Street Biscuit Company (https://maplestreetbiscuits.com), a small chain that was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, and has since expanded into six Southern states (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas).  Despite being a chain, it has a very “down-home” Southern feeling, with everything in the bright, spacious dining room made of wood (or wood veneers).

Maple Street Biscuit Company specializes in fried chicken sandwiches made with fresh, white meat chicken breasts on fresh-baked biscuits, but they have lots of other options.  They make their jams and jellies from scratch too, which is not that common anymore.

I ordered the Squawking Goat sandwich, which includes fried chicken breast, a fried goat cheese medallion, and house-made pepper jelly on one of those fantastic biscuits.  I loved it.  It was awesome.  They were generous with the pepper jelly, ladling it on all over the plate, so it was definitely a sandwich to eat with a knife and fork.  I thought the goat cheese “medallion” was quite small, but it was so delicious, coated in seasoned bread crumbs, that I craved more.

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My wife ordered the Sticky Maple sandwich, with a fried chicken breast and pecanwood smoked bacon on a biscuit, with real maple syrup from the Bissell Family Farm served on the side.  (They usually pour it right on.)

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We had meant to share the Smoky Mountain Mac n Cheese, a $4 side of macaroni and cheese made with three different types of cheese and topped with a crunchy cheese cracker crumble, but then I think my wife remembered she isn’t the hugest mac and cheese fan.  More for me, I thought!  But the portion was very small, so it wasn’t that much more for me after all.  Still, it was rich and cheesy and gooey and tasty, so how can I complain?

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Also pictured above is the iced cinnamon pecan biscuit they were gracious enough to include with our order because it was our first visit.  It was delicious — much more of a dessert that something you should eat for breakfast, but I feel that way about most breakfast pastries (muffins, doughnuts, danishes, Pop-Tarts, and their ilk).  The icing was very fresh and very thin, like you would find on a cinnamon roll or a good cheese danish.  

My wife studied the menu in advance, and she knew she wanted the house-made ganache hot chocolate with steamed milk.  She tasted cinnamon and said it reminded her of Mexican hot chocolate, which she always loves.

I rarely drink coffee, but I love anything with vanilla and maple flavors, so I couldn’t turn down an iced maple vanilla latte.  Of course it was more like a dessert than anything else, but that’s how I like my coffee (like my women): sweet, smooth, and cool.

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And finally, because we didn’t have enough carbs and sugar already, they had fresh-baked cookies near the cash register, where you place your order, and we couldn’t resist trying the lemon blueberry cookie.  I was surprised my wife suggested it, since I love anything with lemon and with berries, and she usually doesn’t, opting for chocolatey sweets instead.  And I think she liked it, but I definitely liked it more.  It was obviously very freshly-baked, extremely soft, still warm, and delightfully lemony.  We ripped into it so quickly, I almost forgot to photograph it, as you will be able to tell:

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Maple Street Biscuit Company closes at 2:00 most days and stays closed on Sundays, so it isn’t the easiest place for us to get to.  Still, I’m glad we were finally able to try it.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I definitely would return to get that Squawking Goat again, and maybe I’ll ask for extra fried goat cheese next time.  I’d get that cookie again, too!