The Aardvark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cafe Tu Tu Tango

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Mia’s Italian Kitchen

It has been almost two months since my wife and I enjoyed the bottomless brunch at Mia’s Italian Kitchen (https://www.miasitalian.com/), the sprawling Italian restaurant on touristy International Drive.  Fear not, startled Saboscrivnerinos — pants were worn by all.  Bottomless brunch means that every Saturday and Sunday, from 11 AM until 3 PM, diners can enjoy unlimited, all-you-can-eat food off the brunch menu for $26 per person.  It’s an excellent deal if you come hungry, ready to beat the house.  Thirsty folks can also opt for bottomless drinks for an additional $20 per person, which includes mimosas, bloody Marys, and sparklers, but we don’t drink, so we didn’t bother with that.

And just to clarify — the bottomless brunch isn’t a buffet setup.  You can order whatever you want off the brunch menu, and dishes that have standard prices next to them on the menu just keep coming to your table, all included in the flat brunch price of $26.  I’ve written before about how I’m not a big brunch fan because I don’t like overpriced breakfast food, but I sure do love huge quantities of Italian food.

I decided to start with the Italian scramble (normally priced at $13), with scrambled eggs, pepperoni, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, basil, rustic toast.  It normally comes with mushrooms, but constant readers know that I do not partake.  Anyway, this was a delicious combination, although it could have used some cheese.  I used to make simple, filling, healthy egg dishes all the time at home until my doctor told me that eggs are not my friend.  I always thought they were some of the healthier things I ate, but I have since cut back.  Like everything else this morning, these scrambled eggs felt like an indulgence.

My wife, on the other hand, loves mushrooms, so I still cook them for her quite often.  They are one of her favorite foods, so she couldn’t resist this house-made fettuccine al funghi (normally $19).  In fact, she called it one of the best pasta dishes she’s ever had in her life!  High praise indeed.  She loves creamy pasta dishes, and we are both suckers for fresh, al dente pasta, but I didn’t even taste this one.  Better safe than sorry!

I always gravitate toward pasta in tomato-based sauces, since when I think of “Italian” cuisine, my senses and memories all go to New York/New Jersey-style Italian-American food, with mountains of pasta in red sauce.  That’s what we grew up cooking at home and ordering from Italian restaurants in Miami.  So I had every intention of ordering the rigatoni alla bolognese (normally $20), with tender pasta in a slow-braised beef bolognese “gravy” made with San Marzano tomatoes, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese.  It was terrific.  Loved it.  Whenever meats are braised until they’re tender, I’ll be there. 

And to accompany the rigatoni alla bolognese, I couldn’t attend bottomless brunch at Mia’s and not try the giant meatball (normally $13).  It’s a twelve-ounce, all-beef meatball stuffed with fresh mozzarella (or MOOT-sa-DELL, if you will), swimming in marinara sauce, topped with parmesan cheese, and served with more of that rustic garlic toast that I wished was a little softer.  I think everyone in the restaurant must order the giant meatball.  It makes a very dramatic appearance at people’s tables, and everyone is always shocked and awestruck by how giant it actually is.  It is a massive, monumental, mountainous meatball, indeed, and definitely meant to be shared.

There were plenty of sweeter, lighter options on the brunch menu too.  My wife ordered this berry waffle (normally $9), a pretty standard Belgian waffle topped with seasonal berry compote (we both would have liked much more of this) and a scoop of wonderful honey-marscarpone mousse, easily the best part.

She had also been very excited about the apple-ricotta doughnuts (normally $7), an order of six small cinnamon sugar-dusted doughnuts, which were really more like large doughnut holes, topped with rich crème anglaise.  We both liked these.  The texture was similar to sour cream cake doughnuts, also known as “old-fashioned” doughnuts, which are usually my favorite kind of doughnut.  They tasted like Autumn in the best possible way. 

And my choice for a dessert was something I always enjoy but almost never order: tiramisu (normally $7), the classic Italian layer cake of ladyfinger cookies, espresso, creamy mascarpone cheese, cocoa, marsala wine (I’ve never had it on its own, so I couldn’t detect it), and lemon (which I couldn’t detect either).  It was pretty great tiramisu, but even mediocre tiramisu is pretty great.

Believe me, we both felt like we had to roll out of Mia’s after that celebratory feast.  I don’t think we ate again that day.  Because it’s so decadent, we definitely don’t plan to make a habit of that bottomless brunch, but it was a nice way to spend a weekend morning.  It was also nice  to discover a new restaurant on that side of Orlando, since we’re hardly ever out that way.  I recommend it to locals and tourists alike, but think twice before indulging at Mia’s and then spending hours waiting in lines and riding crazy rides at the theme parks!

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.

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:
DSC03127

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.
DSC03119

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!
DSC03122

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.

 

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

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On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
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When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.