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.

 

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.

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!

Bem Bom on Corrine

Bem Bom on Corrine (https://bembomfood.com) is a cute and cool restaurant in Orlando’s hip, foodie-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood that specializes in Mexican and Portuguese cuisines (but separate, not a funky fusion of the two).  Conceptualized by Chef Francisco “Chico” Mendonça, Bem Bom (Portuguese for “Good Good”) started out as a food truck before opening its brick and mortar location in 2018.  My first visit was way back in June, but since I was alone and in a hurry that night, I only ordered one dish and a drink.  DSC02215

They have a nice outdoor patio facing Corrine Drive, with some singular shops and other restaurants directly across the street.DSC02216

This drink was listed on the menu as Portuguese Sumol Passion Fruit ($2.75), and I love passion fruit-flavored anything.  I was relieved to find out it was non-alcoholic, so I treated myself.  The lightly-carbonated beverage tasted good and surprisingly natural and juicy, despite having the weird, dry aftertaste that Sucralose-sweetened drinks often have.  I probably wouldn’t order it again, but I’m glad I tried it once.DSC02211

These were my three tacos al pastor ($13), a dinner special with marinated pork in adobo sauce, pineapple, and a sauce made with arbol chiles and tomatillos, double-wrapped in soft, fresh corn tortillas.  I have a hard time turning down tacos al pastor whenever I find them on a Mexican menu, and these were excellent, garnished simply with finely-chopped cilantro, diced onion, and a lime wedge.  DSC02212DSC02213

I finally went back with two work colleagues today, so I could try more things.  We started out with excellent crispy tortilla chips, served with extremely fresh-tasting guacamole (some of the better guac I’ve had, for $9) and salsa that was actually spicy.
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I’ve been hearing great things about the pasteis de bacalhau, or cod fritters ($9.95), for a long time now, so I had to try them.  They came with a small arugula salad tossed in a light lemony dressing, and creamy, cooling jalapeño ranch for dipping (which wasn’t spicy at all).DSC02536

These were extremely hot (temperature-wise, not spice-wise), but they had a very light, crispy exterior and weren’t overly greasy.  The flaky cod on the inside wasn’t as strongly seasoned as I was hoping for (I was craving something spicy, like the devil crabs of Tampa), but at least it was pleasantly mild and not overly fishy.  They really didn’t need the jalapeño ranch, which is fine, because I used it elsewhere.DSC02537

One of my colleagues ordered frango de churrasco, half a bone-in chicken marinated in tangy piri-piri marinade and grilled ($13.95).  It was served with a beautiful small salad and hearty fries, which I ended up eating most of, dipping them in the jalapeño ranch.  I can’t let a good sauce, condiment, or dip go to waste.  Awww, dip!
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I don’t think he ate the croutons, but they looked house-made, and I probably should have asked for them.  DSC02542

My other colleague ordered the smoked chicken enchiladas ($13.95), which came with white rice and black beans.  The two enchiladas included apples and onions wrapped up with the smoked shredded chicken in corn tortillas, topped with red and green chile sauces.  I tried the tiniest morsel, and it was really good.  I would definitely order these enchiladas for myself in the future.  DSC02538

She wasn’t feeling the beans, so with complete disregard for my co-workers’ welfare later in the afternoon, I had to sample them.  They were pretty basic black beans.  DSC02540

And last, but far from least, I ordered the pork prego sandwich ($11.95): six-hour braised pork, onions, peppers, pico de gallo, radish, cilantro, and serrano sauce served on a crusty Portuguese roll.  It was an incredible sandwich.  Lots of good flavors and textures, saucy, and pleasantly spicy.  I’ve written before how much I hate overly-hard rolls that shatter when you bite into them, spewing crumbs and cutting up the inside of your mouth, but this roll wasn’t like that at all.  The delicious, spicy juices from the pork softened up the inside.  It was a juicy sandwich in the best possible way.  10/10, would order again.
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Some of Bem Bom’s other delicacies include highly-recommended queso dip to go with the chips, rock shrimp tacos, mango-“painted” fish tacos, duck meatballs, a lamb burger, and a pan-seared filet mignon topped with prosciutto, a fried egg, and a beer-based sauce.  I’ve heard about other limited-time specials, including an intriguing octopus dish that wasn’t on the menu at lunch today.  And they even serve brunch on Sundays!

As you can hopefully see by now, Bem Bom has a creative and eclectic menu in fun, funky surroundings.  I would totally go back, especially because it’s only ten minutes from where we work.  Plus, you have Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream, one of my Top Two local ice cream shops, right across the street, and our first local food hall, the East End Market, moments away.  That immediate stretch of Corrine Drive also hosts some of  Orlando’s coolest establishments like Park Avenue CDs (my favorite local music store, even if I feel woefully uncool whenever I shop there), Stardust Video and Coffee*, which hosts the Audubon Park Community Market on Monday nights, and Big Daddy’s (a karaoke bar I can never get anyone to accompany me to).

* Who else used to rent videos from Stardust back in the day?  When I first moved to Orlando, the place blew my mind.  It was the first video store I had ever been to that specialized in independent, cult, and art films, and it organized them by director and/or country of origin for foreign films.  Totally warmed this nerdy librarian’s heart.

 

Hawkers Asian Street Fare

The pan-Asian restaurant Hawkers (https://eathawkers.com/) started as a small, hip, industrial-looking modern space on Mills Avenue, in what may be Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, Mills 50.  Since 2011, it has expanded into ten locations in multiple states, and for good reason: it’s terrific.  We’ve gone countless times since it opened, almost always to that original location.

Hawkers specializes in diverse street food specialties from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, and more.  Portions are relatively small, so it’s a great place to go with a group and share lots of dishes.  And very few items on the menu are over $10, so you don’t have to worry too much or feel too guilty ordering more than one dish to sample new things.

Hawkers is a real treasure, and it has emerged as one of my favorite restaurants to bring out-of-town visitors — a perfect distillation of Orlando’s multicultural culinary scene, especially its Asian influences.  It has impressed good friends from far and wide when they come to visit, and in the meantime, it has become a safe, reliable place to bring my wife when one or both of us have a hard time deciding what sounds best.  If you want something healthy or heavy, meaty or veggie, cool or spicy, noodles or rice, soups or salads, and now even a sweet treat of a brunch, Hawkers will have something you like.

For my most recent visit, I caught up with an old friend with connections to my old Miami friend group, who I then got to know better while we both studied in Gainesville.  I hadn’t seen him since 2006, which is insane.  In that time, we both met amazing women and got married, and he had kids.  It’s crazy!  Life happens.  He happened to be in Orlando for work that day and looked me up, hoping to meet for dinner and remembering I’m the guy who knows where to eat around here.  I was so glad to catch up with my old friend, and I knew Hawkers would be the perfect place to get together.  I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t amazed and astonished by it.

For this dinner, I started us out with an order of roti canai, which are buttery, flaky Malaysian flatbreads.  Think about a really good, fresh, fluffy flour tortilla getting it on with a layer you peel off a delicate French croissant, and you’ll come close to the glory and grandeur of a Malaysian roti.  An order of a single roti with a cup of curry sauce for dipping is $3, and each additional roti costs $1.50.  Count on ordering at least one roti for everyone in your party, and I guarantee you’ll want more.  Even people with the most unadventurous palates will love these, although those people might want to forego the curry sauce.  If you have kids, they will love these things too.dsc02328.jpg

I also requested an order of Korean twice-fried chicken wings ($8), which are my favorite wings anywhere, ever.  My wife agrees, and so does my best food friend (BFF) who lives in Miami.  And now, so does this old friend.  These are huge wings, with the thickest, crispiest breading, slathered in a sticky, sweet, spicy, garlicky gochujang sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and fresh cilantro.  An order of five wings costs $8, and my friend liked them so much, he ordered more.
DSC02327 These wings made my Orlando Weekly list of five favorite dishes of 2017.  They are perfect in every way.  They’re thick, meaty, juicy, crunchy, sweet (but not too sweet), and spicy (but definitely not too spicy).  I hate the tiny, dry, burnt-to-a-crisp sports bar wings that too many restaurants and bars serve, slathered in oily hot sauce designed to burn on the way in and the way out.  To me, there’s no point to even eating wings like that.  They’re just sad.  These Korean twice-fried wings are the opposite: pure happiness.

Next up were the chicka-rones ($6), crispy fried chicken skins tossed in jerk seasoning.  The menu says these are Filipino-style.  I loved them, especially as a nice alternative to pork rinds (AKA chicharrones, hence the clever name of this dish), which can sometimes be too hard to bite through, or so crunchy they can shred the inside of your mouth.  DSC02329For the first time ever, I recently fried up my own chicken skins at home into a crispy Jewish delicacy called gribenes, and rendered the fat (schmaltz) for cooking with later.  Fried chicken skins are so much lighter and less oppressive-feeling than pork rinds, so I’m definitely a convert.

My friend was craving something spicy, so he went with a dish I had never tried before: Kin’s prawn mee ($9), a hot noodle soup with spicy prawn broth, shrimp, chicken, wheat noodles, hard-boiled egg, yow choy (Chinese greens), bean sprouts, and fried shallots.  He was sweating, but he loved it.  I might order this in the future, since he was so enthusiastic about it.DSC02330

And I also picked a new noodle dish, knowing those are always safe bets.  This was the Yaki udon ($8.50): thick and chewy udon noodles (always a favorite), chicken, eggs, onions, spring onions, and carrots.  It comes with bean sprouts too, but I am not the biggest fan, so I asked them to hold the bean sprouts — never a problem at Hawkers.  It had pretty mild heat, but it was pleasant.  We both enjoyed this one, and I’d totally order it again.  DSC02331In the past, I have loved so many of Hawkers’ noodle dishes: curry-seasoned Singapore mei fun with chicken and shrimp, beef haw fun (with wide, flat noodles, similar to the beef chow fun I order at almost every Chinese restaurant that offers it), char kway teow, and spicy pad Thai.  Now I’m adding the Yaki udon to this all-star lineup.  The only problem in the future is what to choose: an old favorite or an exciting new possibility.  You can’t go wrong either way, trust me.

Anyway, I parted ways with my old friend after dinner, determined to keep in touch better and not let thirteen more years go by.  He seemed to really enjoy the restaurant and our menu selections, which I totally expected, but the last thing I ever want to do is recommend something that disappoints, staunch Saboscrivner subscribers included.  A bad meal always depresses me, because not only is it a bad meal, but there’s the opportunity cost of not being able to enjoy a good meal in its place.  I can safely say that Hawkers is a crowd-pleaser, and if you haven’t given it a chance yet, you won’t be sorry.

In fact, to sweeten the deal, Hawkers started serving brunch recently, but only on weekends and only at their newer, larger location in Windemere, much further from where we live.  People’s photos of the new menu items looked enticing, so my wife and I recently took the trip out there, a few weeks after they rolled out the brunch menu, figuring they would have time to work out any potential bugs.  Though we were one of the first parties to arrive when the restaurant opened that morning, it took an extraordinarily long time for us to get seated.  I normally don’t remark on things like this on my blog, but it seemed weird, given that the restaurant was completely empty after just opening for business, with lots of staff available.  We couldn’t help but be amused by one woman who (politely and diplomatically) complained about the delay before leaving.  My wife expressed a gesture of solidarity with her as she walked out, and then I figured we were going to get lousy service and would end up feeling like chumps.  But once we finally got seated, the service improved exponentially, and it was worth the wait.

I’m a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, so I marked out when I saw this brunch item called Hash Rules Everything Around Me.  How could I not order that?  Dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all!  The dish included fried pork belly, crisp tater tots, bell peppers, and onions, topped with an egg fried over easy, smothered in curry gravy.  Everything about this dish worked for me, with the runny richness of the egg cascading down and melding with the spicy gravy, forming a killer sauce for those tots.  They were the best tots I’ve ever had, and the pork belly was everything I love about pork belly — a crispy (but not crunchy) exterior, giving way to smooth, unctious, yielding deliciousness. DSC02092DSC02094

Xiao long bao, AKA soup dumplings!  On the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, people had been hyping these up for years and bemoaning their absence in Orlando before they popped up on a few local restaurants’ menus recently.  Hawkers was the first or second to offer these steamed classics in town.DSC02095

Frankly, I think they’re kind of messy to eat, and dare I say it — more trouble than they’re worth.  If you don’t eat the whole thing in one bite, the broth leaks out, and if you do eat the whole thing in one bite, you can burn a layer of skin out of your mouth.  DSC02097

Think about how perfect a pizza is, and then consider the calzone — everything you love about a pizza, but the inverse.  Not bad, per se, but inside out and a little awkward to eat.  Now think about a bowl of good wonton soup.  Are you envisioning it?  So warm and comforting!  Well, the xiao long bao is the calzone version of wonton soup, with pork, crab, and broth inside the wonton, each soup dumpling its own little microcosm.  DSC02098

Even for brunch, we couldn’t go to Hawkers and not order the twice-fried Korean chicken wings.  Yes, don’t worry — many of your regular favorites are still available on the brunch menu.  Check the website to confirm, though!  These wings were as sticky, sweet, and spicy as usual.  DSC02099

This was a brunch dish that might as well have been on the dessert menu: the Hong Kong bubble waffle, stuffed with whipped cream, fresh lemon custard, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  If you’ve never had a bubble waffle, remedy that.  It is sweet and eggy with the lightest, crispiest outer shell, but so soft and fluffy inside.  This one got soggy and cool quickly due to the whipped cream, but was still tasty.  DSC02091

I can see bubble waffles being a very satisfying street food, especially if you just get handed a warm waffle and eat it by tearing bubbles off or just biting off a bubble at a time.  The whipped cream and especially the lemon custard would have been better as dips for the waffle itself, rather than being served inside of it to make the whole thing soggy.DSC02093

And this sweet brunch dish (pretty much another dessert) was called Stacks on Stacks: Japanese souffle pancakes, so trendy and Instagrammable.  The pancakes were tall, thick, and very jiggly and fluffy, served with bananas, Nutella, whipped cream, and drizzled with a housemade sesame peanut sauce.  (Fo’ drizzle.)  I didn’t think this was that fantastic.  The pancakes were kind of doughy and a little dry, even with all the toppings.  I honestly prefer IHOP and Cracker Barrel pancakes, and I’m not that big on Nutella, sesame, or peanuts.  This dish just wasn’t for me, but I suspect many of my regular readers and “brunch squad” types will love it.DSC02100

I always order a Vietnamese iced coffee at Hawkers, especially if I’m going to have anything spicy.  It’s one of the only coffee drinks I’ll drink, rich and sweet with condensed milk.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet with condensed milk, and ready to jolt me awake.  That morning, my wife ordered a “mocktail” called the Tang Dynasty, with tangy pineapple juice, orange juice, tamarind, salt, and ginger ale.dsc02090.jpg

I’m generally not a brunch fan — my regular readers know I consider it a disappointing ripoff of a meal, especially since neither of us drink — but I’m glad we experienced the new brunch at Hawkers once.  I don’t think we’ll rush back, but mostly because the Windemere location is quite far from us.  We’re still huge fans of the tried-and-true original location for lunch and dinner, especially those Korean twice-fried wings, the roti canai, and all those noodles.  And if you come to visit me from a town that doesn’t have a Hawkers location yet, we might just end up there.  So far, all the friends I’ve dragged there have emerged huge fans, so watch out!

 

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.

Hunger Street Tacos

Orlando has a plethora of fantastic Mexican restaurants, from the upscale to the cheap and casual, from Americanized to authentic.  One that is consistently in the pantheon of best Mexican food is Hunger Street Tacos (http://hungerstreettacos.com/) on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from I-4.  Brothers Joseph and David Creech, the chef-owner-operators, and Joseph’s wife Seydi, serve a unique menu of authentic street foods you would definitely encounter in Mexico City, and most of their dishes are totally singular here in Orlando.  You won’t find them on most local menus, and even if you did, you won’t find their equals.  I love the Creech Brothers’ story on the Hunger Street website that describes their formative years spent in Mexico and how they studied the local street foods and authentically recreated them here, starting with a catering business and culminating in their restaurant, in the original location of the now-legendary 4 Rivers Smokehouse.

Unfortunately, Hunger Street Tacos is too far from my job to dash off there for lunch, and since I work late and they are closed on Sundays, I don’t make it there nearly often enough.  It had been far too long since my last visit, but thankfully my wife and I recently made it back there on a Saturday at 11 AM, while they still served some special brunch menu items, but before it got too hot and before they got too crowded.

As usual, we arrived hungry and over-ordered, so we could try a bunch of different dishes and end up with delicious leftovers for later:

Sauteed mushroom quesadilla ($4.75) for my wife, and vegetarian tinga quesadilla ($4.75) for me, on crispy grilled flour tortillas.  I love the vegetarian tinga, with sauteed onion, garlic, cabbage, and chipotle peppers that made it the spiciest dish I tried (but not too spicy, for those who fear the heat).  Both quesadillas include Chihuahua cheese (which, I must clarify, comes from the Chihuahua state in Mexico, not from actual chihuahuas).DSC02060

Campechano taco with pulled brisket and crumbled chorizo ($3.75) and fried avocado taco ($3.75).  This brisket is crispy from being cooked in a hot griddle after being slow-cooked, and the fried avocado is the perfect consistency — light and crispy outside, warm and soft on the inside.  DSC02061

Hibiscus and guacamole taco ($3.00).  Yes, they are actual hibiscus flowers, and they are so delicious.  They remind me a little of one of my favorite vegetable dishes, braised red cabbage, with their look and texture underneath that delicious fresh guacamole and tomatoes, but it’s hard to fully describe their unique flavor.DSC02062

Rib taco ($4.75), a current special that will eventually be added to the regular menu.  It is a bone-in pork rib, and the meat is so tender, you can simply squeeze the rib inside the tortilla to pull out the bone.  DSC02063

I was so excited to try the al pastor taco ($3.75, I believe), but it wasn’t ready when we arrived at 11 AM on a Saturday!  Luckily, they had it ready before we left, so I had to go back inside to order one.  It was totally worth the wait — one of the best al pastor dishes I’ve ever had, and that is one of my favorite dishes to order anywhere.  The marinated pork is sliced fresh off a vertical trompo (think of how gyro meat or shawarma is often sliced off a rotating spit), and I don’t think anyone else in the city does it this way.  The taco came simply garnished with onions, cilantro, a nice piece of fresh pineapple, and squeezing a lime wedge over it made it pure perfection.
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This is Hunger Street’s chicharron de queso ($8.00), a house specialty that you cannot order to go, since it wouldn’t be the same when it isn’t hot, fresh, and perfectly crispy.  Yes, this is gouda cheese, melted, stretched, and fried until it has almost a potato chip consistency.  It comes with guacamole and spicy red salsa, and my advice (really Chef David Creech’s advice) is to use the crispy cheese to scoop up some of both, so you get all the flavors and textures in one bite.  This would be a fantastic dish for low-carb and keto dieters who want something crispy and salty and are in chip withdrawal.  Been there, done that!DSC02064The chicharron de queso was so huge, we couldn’t finish it at the restaurant, so we ended up bringing a lot of it home.  Wisely, I didn’t put it in the refrigerator, where it might have turned soggy.  I left it on our kitchen counter on an uncharacteristically cool April day, so it was still mostly crispy later that evening.

And finally, this is one of their Saturday brunch dishes, churro French toast ($7.90), created from English muffin bread from Orlando’s own Olde Hearth Bread Company.  Light and eggy and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, this is what convinced my wife to have an early lunch here, and she absolutely loved it.  It was beautiful to behold, and its taste lived up to its looks!  DSC02065

I can’t say enough good things about Hunger Street Tacos or the warm and welcoming Super Creech Bros.  While geography and timing keep me from going as often as I would like, it is one of those Orlando restaurants that is constantly experimenting, improving, and impressing.  It never disappoints.  That al pastor is my new gold standard, and if you’re a vegetarian or have vegetarian friends, I can’t recommend it highly enough, with dishes like the hibiscus taco, chicharron de queso, vegetarian tinga quesadilla, mushroom quesadilla (more for you!), or the squash blossom quesadilla, which we didn’t even order this time.

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!

Teak Neighborhood Grill

Teak Neighborhood Grill (http://teakorlando.com/) is an underrated gem of a restaurant that opened near us in 2017. Teak already had a location across town in the MetroWest area, but the second location in Maitland is much more convenient for us.

We especially like going for an early lunch on weekends, right when they open at 11 AM.  That’s when they have their brunch menu as an alternative to the regular menu, and my wife loves their chicken and waffles.  The waffles are thick, Belgian-style, with the slightest bit of caramelization around the edges, making them a perfect consistency of crispy outsides and soft, chewy insides.  The chicken breasts are buttermilk-dipped and hand-breaded, always moist, never dry or greasy.  They also include bacon and some very nice, crispy breakfast potatoes.

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I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Teak and not ordered a burger, though.  They have 18 different burgers listed on their website menu (plus the $45 “Teak Challenge” burger, which is the last thing I need), but if you go, ask for their “secret burger menu,” and you’ll get a long, laminated list of about 20 more varieties.  Their burgers are among the best in town, and I usually try to pick a different one every time, to keep things from getting stale.  I always ask for them medium-rare, and they always cook them to perfection.

This time, I ordered the caprese burger off the secret menu, which comes with melty provolone cheese, fried mozzarella, pesto sauce, balsamic glaze, spring mix, and tomato on a ciabatta roll.  The only thing that gave me pause was the ciabatta, since I sometimes find those rolls a little too crusty and hard, and I’d much rather have a burger on a potato bun, brioche, or pretzel roll.  But I’m glad I put my faith in Teak’s system, as it was  a very good roll that held everything together.  It looks hard to eat, but I was able to squish it down pretty flat, and all the flavors worked very well together.  I really love balsamic glaze, and I’m a sucker for fried mozzarella — when my students ask me if I can recommend any apps, I will go into dad mode and blurt out “Mozzarella sticks!”  Every.  Time.

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You get a choice of sides, including good fries and decent onion rings, but since I discovered Teak has excellent chili, I always get a cup of chili as my side.  Hey, it cuts the carbs a little, plus I love chili, and everyone always has a completely unique version that is worth trying.  (See also: meatloaf, pimiento cheese, and of course onion rings.)  Theirs is a thick, beanless, red chili that has a lot of flavor, but not much in the way of heat.  I actually brought it home and ate it the next day mixed with a little bit of leftover pasta shells.  Yes, my family ate chili over pasta long before we learned it was a whole thing in Cincinnati.  We called it “Cowboy Spaghetti,” and I’ll defend it to the death.  But I digress.

That caprese burger again:

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Looking through the starters (appetizers), we have tried Teak’s OMG Chips before (housemade potato chips topped with blue cheese crumbles and maple bacon drizzled with balsamic reduction), as well as their soft pretzel rolls, and both are great.  But this time, we inquired about ordering a mysterious-sounding side item called Sidewinders as an app, and our server assured us we would love them.  Hey, we’re fun, daring people who live on the edge!  Why not?  I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.

The Sidewinders were twisty potato slices, fried until they had crispy outsides and soft insides, like really great steak fries, but almost as thin as kettle chips.  They were tossed in a “garlic bistro” seasoning with lots of herbs, and the seasoning really made them.  I’m a big weirdo who can take or leave a lot of fries, but these were delicious, and I’m glad we gave them a chance.

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As you can see, they came with a sauce that, to quote Homer Simpson, “It looks like ketchup, it tastes like ketchup, but brother, it ain’t ketchup!”  I thought it was some kind of fancy barbecue sauce, so when I asked, our server told us it was…

Wait for it…

Their housemade ketchup.

Normally it’s Heinz or the highway for me, as I’ve sampled some weird ketchups that taste too much like Christmas, but this was really good.  Make sure you order something you can dip in ketchup when you go to Teak!

The restaurant is a huge dining room with ample seating on the outside patio, with a welcoming, casual vibe.  For weekend brunches, they put out a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar, which I suspect is a huge selling point for most people.  You can add all kinds of marinated and pickled vegetables (pickles, banana pepper rings, cocktail onions), cheese cubes, over a dozen different hot sauces, and more to your Bloody Mary, but some of us don’t need any help with getting acid reflux.

I suspect not enough people are aware of Teak, but it’s a fantastic option if you’re in Maitland, Winter Park, Casselberry, or anywhere near the MetroWest location, which is nowhere near us.  Especially if you like a tasty burger, I’d say they serve some of the better burgers in Orlando.  Service is always great, prices are reasonable, and the menu has something for everyone.  I asked them once if they served their burgers as veggie burgers, and they confirmed that they can make anything as a black bean burger, so that may also help some of you come to a decision.