Friends Indian Cuisine

Friends Indian Cuisine (https://friendsindiancuisine.com/) is a new halal Indian restaurant on South Semoran Boulevard, just north of Curry Ford Road in South Orlando, south of State Road 408.  It opened earlier this year (2022) and is building a loyal following due to excellent word of mouth.  The location has hosted a handful of restaurants before, but hopefully Friends is here to stay.  I have dined in twice and brought home takeout another time, so I couldn’t wait on this review any longer.  The short version: Friends is fantastic.  It’s another great recommendation to Orlando’s Indian restaurant scene, which I am slowly but surely working my way through.

From my first takeout trip, I brought home the two dishes I know my wife likes: butter chicken (left; $13.99) and palak paneer (right; $12.99) — both mild, for her sake.  The butter chicken is a delicious dish that was her gateway to appreciating Indian food: shredded dark meat chicken (all leg meat) stewed in a creamy tomato sauce.  It is very similar to chicken tikka masala (also on the menu for $14.99), but I’ve brought both to my wife before, and she prefers the butter chicken.  I love it too.  The palak paneer is cubes of cottage cheese (the paneer part) cooked with spinach in a creamy sauce.  It is another great gateway dish for people unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, especially vegetarians.  I’ve ordered an extremely similar dish called saag paneer at other Indian restaurants, but I just researched the difference: palak paneer is always made with spinach, while saag paneer can be made with spinach and/or any other leafy greens, particularly mustard greens.  Mystery solved!

I ordered lamb karahi ($14.99) for myself: boneless lamb strips cooked with tomatoes, onions, and green bell peppers in a curry sauce, served over basmati rice that came on the side.  Normally I order hot lamb vindaloo at Indian restaurants, but I switched it up to try the karahi for the first time.  I still got it hot, but it was a lot less vinegary and pungent than the vindaloo.   

I brought home an appetizer portion of vegetable pakoras ($4.99), a serving of six mixed vegetable patties dipped in chickpea batter and fried until golden-brown and crispy.  I thought my wife would like them too, but I ended up enjoying them more than she did, especially with tamarind sauce for dipping.

This was an order of tandoori paratha (top; $3.49), which is whole wheat bread layered with butter, and regular butter naan (bottom; $2.49, or you can get it with your entree as an alternative to plain basmati rice).  I wanted my wife to be able to compare and contrast them, but they were very similar.  Both breads were soft and warm from having been baked in a clay oven called a tandoor, and we really enjoyed both.  I am more used to buttery, flaky Malaysian-style parathas than the Indian variety, so this tandoori paratha was much more naan-like.  But trust me — I could eat these naan-stop.

If you don’t feel like ordering off the menu, or if you’re a newer convert to the wonderfulness of Indian food, Friends Indian Cuisine offers a daily all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $12.99 on weekdays and $14.99 on weekends, from 11:30 AM until 3:30 PM.  I’ve had the lunch buffet twice now, and it is terrific.  The dishes on the buffet are all mildly spiced for a wide range of palates.

Here are all the options from my most recent visit:

You grab your plate near the naan bread, aloo pakora (crispy battered and fried potatoes that were replenished right after I took this photo, of course), a lentil soup, that I did not try, and sweet gulab jamon, a dessert dish of cake-like balls in a sugary syrup.

Here you have plain white basmati rice, palak paneer (which we have already established is awesome), mixed vegetable curry, and aloo cholay, a dish with cubed potatoes and chickpeas cooked in a spicy curry sauce.

Moving down the line, they offer vegetable rice pilaf, chicken biryani (terrific), chicken curry, chicken korma in a creamy cashew sauce, butter chicken (I love this so much), and moist and tender tandoori chicken thighs and legs.

And finally, you can get cool, creamy raita (a yogurt sauce that is perfect for neutralizing spicy dishes), green chutney, tangy-sweet tamarind sauce, intimidating-looking green chili peppers, chopped red onion, lemon and orange wedges, a green salad, and rice pudding, another sweet dish.

This was my first plate, where I sampled a little bit of everything.  The butter chicken, tandoori chicken, palak paneer, and chicken biryani were my favorites from the lunch buffet.

On my most recent trip to the buffet with two work colleagues, I got an order of vegetable samosas ($4.99) for us to share.  These were perfect potato pyramids, with seasoned potatoes and peas in lightly fried, crispy crusts.  They split one and liked it, and I was too full to try mine until the next morning at home, but it was still great then.

Since Friends Indian Cuisine is so convenient to my job, I look forward to becoming more of a regular over the months and years, even as I branch out and continue to try other Indian restaurants throughout Orlando.  My family NEVER ate Indian food when I was growing up in Miami, and I never ate it that often until the last few years, in my quest to discover the best food anywhere and everywhere and share my thoughts on it.  Now I’m making up for lost time, and I’m thrilled to recommend one more great local Indian restaurant to expand my palate and my experience.

And hey, if you were expecting a Friends reference since I always make pop culture references in my restaurant reviews, sorry to disappoint you, but I always hated that show.

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Lam’s Garden

Lam’s Garden (https://www.lams-garden.com/) is a respected and venerated Chinese restaurant in Orlando, on the border of two of the city’s best foodie neighborhoods, Mills 50 and the Milk District.  It is in the shopping plaza with iFresh Market (a really good Asian grocery store, not to be confused with Fresh Market) and my beloved Chicken Fire, on the northeast corner of East Colonial Drive and Bumby Avenue.

But me being a lifelong late bloomer, I only recently visited Lam’s Garden for the first time.  (I told an older man that after my meal, and he said “How?  We’ve been here since 1975!”)  Well, better late than never, because it was really good.

I thought it was very old-school to get a bowl of crunchy fried noodles to snack on while we waited for our orders to come out.  This took me right back to all the Chinese restaurants my dad took me to in Miami, growing up in the ’80s, where he knew all the owners and they all knew him because he taught their children and grandchildren. 

At first, they just presented us with a laminated menu of lunch specials, but I asked for a longer menu if they had one.  They brought us two additional menus, with standard Americanized Chinese food favorites and another with Chinese “home cooking,” as the server described it.  Whenever you go, make sure they give you all the different menus to maximize your choices!

My vegetarian colleague ordered Buddha’s delight off the lunch specials menu ($9.95), and got a huge plate of broccoli, crisp snow peas, bok choy, baby corn, onions, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, in a brown sauce.  Her white rice was served on the side.

The lunch specials came with plenty of other stuff she couldn’t eat, so like a good friend, I volunteered to eat everything, like this small bowl of wonton soup:

A crispy eggroll:

And a little dish of fried rice:

I had a really hard time making a decision, since this was our first time here, so I went with a dish that never disappoints, and definitely didn’t disappoint at Lam’s Garden: Singapore curry rice noodles ($15.95), served with chicken, pork, and shrimp.  It was kind of medium-spicy and so flavorful, with the thin, tender noodles.

I would be tempted to order this again and again, but after finally visiting Lam’s Garden, I definitely want to start working my way through the large menu on future trips.  Lam’s might very well be the oldest Chinese restaurant in Orlando, and since it has been proven to have staying power, I look forward to trying other dishes, making up for lost time.

Pig Floyd’s Urban BBQ

Pig Floyd’s Urban BBQ (https://www.pigfloyds.com/) is a beloved, locally owned and operated restaurant in Orlando’s Mills 50 district, filled with some of our best local dining options.  A lot of people credit it as being the best barbecue place in the city, despite not being the most traditional barbecue style.  Proprietor Thomas Ward has combined Latin, Caribbean, and Asian culinary influences with delicious meats smoked low and slow, and that sets Pig Floyd’s apart from the crowd.

Earlier this year, I met a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum out there for lunch on a weekend, which was admittedly my first visit to Pig Floyd’s in several years.  I was happy to see there was a large, covered outdoor patio, which made me feel more at ease hanging out to eat there.

My friend ordered the banh mi sandwich ($11.99), which comes with a choice of oakwood-smoked pulled pork, tender char-grilled chopped chicken thighs, or deep fried pork belly with “lucky dragon” sauce, pickled vegetables, jalapeño, and garlic ginger aioli on a toasted baguette.  It is about double the price of the excellent, traditional banh mi sandwiches available at so many great Vietnamese restaurants in Mills 50 district, but you get what you pay for, since none of those other places are serving meats of this quality.
His banh mi came with a side order of apple fennel slaw that he raved about.

I ordered the Mills 50 sandwich ($12.99), with oakwood-smoked brisket, house-made pimento cheese, caramelized onions, and red peppers served on a hoagie roll.  It was a terrific choice, full of ingredients and flavors I love.  The side order of sticky-sweet maduros (sweet fried plantains, one of my favorite dishes) was a perfect accompaniment to the rich, heavy sandwich.

Despite getting a sandwich featuring beef brisket, I couldn’t help myself from ordering a pork al pastor taco ($3.99), featuring pulled pork with roasted pineapple, onion, cilantro, and tomatillo sauce.  It was so good — even better than it looks below. 

I couldn’t believe I had stayed away from Pig Floyd’s for so long.  It was even better than I remembered, so I intend to make my next visit a heck of a lot sooner, and to eventually work my way through Thomas Ward’s meat-centric menu.

Chain Reactions: Krispy Krunchy Chicken

Krispy Krunchy Chicken (https://krispykrunchy.com/) is a unique fried chicken chain with a distinct Cajun accent, founded in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1989.  It is a unique chain because most of the locations are inside gas station convenience stores, but anyone who reads my blog knows you can often find great food in the most humble-looking and unlikely of places.

Take, for example, the Citgo station at 3025 East Colonial Drive, 32803, in Orlando, on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Maguire Road.  This is on the edge of a couple of the best foodie neighborhoods in the city: the Milk District and Mills 50.  I’ve been driving past this gas station for years, and only recently noticed a sign that it offered Krispy Krunchy Chicken inside.  I had to try it, for the sake of journalism and a librarian’s desire to share information.  I’m not sorry I did.

When you place your order, you ask for the chicken you want from under the heat lamps, and a nice lady will bag it up for you.  It was all very fresh.

The sides are self-serve (you just grab them yourself).  This sign lists prices for single pieces of chicken:
Breast: $3.19
Wing: $1.89
Thigh: $2.09
Leg: $2.09
Tender: $1.89

Here’s a close-up of that bottom shelf, which includes honey butter biscuits, boneless chicken tenders, corn dogs, and egg rolls.  Sauces are 50 cents each (original, buffalo, honey mustard, ranch, tartar, sweet and sour, and barbecue), but as much as I love sauces and condiments, I was trying this chicken for the first time, so I didn’t want to overwhelm my palate or distract from the main mission with too many variables.

I ordered a two-piece meal ($7.99) with a leg, a thigh, a side (see below), and a honey butter biscuit, and had a little picnic in my car.  Totally worth it.  The chicken was juicy and the breading was thick and crunchy, but not as Cajun-spicy as I was hoping.  Still, you can’t ask for much more than that, especially from a gas station convenience store setup!  The biscuit was a real standout.  Not in the same league as Se7en Bites, Orlando’s beloved Southern bakery and restaurant moments away, which is home of the best biscuits ever, but perfectly fine to accompany this chicken.

I couldn’t resist getting an order of fried chicken gizzards too.  (I don’t remember how much this was.)  Now I LOVE chicken livers (chopped liver is one of the foods of my people!) and hearts, but I didn’t remember ever trying gizzards before.  They were REALLY chewy.  That’s the most I can say about them.

The macaroni and cheese tasted a lot better than it looks here, flattened down by the lid on this styrofoam cup.  But I don’t even think it looks bad.  It looks and tastes like typical macaroni and cheese you would get as a side at any number of barbecue joints or Southern restaurants.  So maybe not Orlando’s best (for that, check out Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, nearby in the Milk District, and also Se7en Bites again!), but very pleasing nonetheless.

Since this was my first visit to a Krispy Krunchy Chicken location, I got two additional sides while I was there.  These red beans and rice were suitably smoky, salty, and creamy, but you just can’t beat Popeyes red beans and rice.  That’s the quintessential version right there, the one that even chefs (like David Chang) cite as the best.

But my favorite side was the jambalaya, saucy rice with chunks of (andouille?) sausage and ham.  I always like jambalaya, whether it’s from an old restaurant in the French Quarter or a box from Zatarain’s.  This was somewhere in between, quality-wise, but closer to the French Quarter than the box.   I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was.

Would I go back?  Absolutely I would.  As much as I generally like Popeyes for bone-in fried chicken, they can be hit-or-miss with both food quality and service.  And this particular Krispy Krunchy Chicken gas station location is a lot more convenient for me than the always-excellent Theo’s Kitchen.  This was solid fried chicken, but I think the thing I liked the most was the jambalaya.  It was so tasty and hearty and full of meat, I could happily make it the centerpiece of a meal some other day, when I’m in the mood for such a thing again.

Ceylon Roti Hut

Ceylon Roti Hut (https://www.facebook.com/ceylonrotihutt/) is one of Orlando’s newest food trailers, located at A La Cart, a food truck gathering place that’s ten minutes from my job, but somehow I had never been there before.  I had never even turned down the street it’s on, but I sought it out just to try Sri Lankan food for my first time.  Sri Lanka is a diverse and multicultural island country in the Indian Ocean, southeast of the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.  Due to geography and demographics, I expected the food might be similar to Indian food I’ve had before.  It shared some surface-level similarities that would certainly appeal to fans of Indian cuisine, but was still very much its own thing.

This is the lovely Ceylon Roti Hut food trailer, owned by husband and wife team Gavin and Shehara Parys.  They own another food truck, Ceylon Hut, which I’ve never had the pleasure of finding, so this is actually their second mobile kitchen.  Chef Gavin was on duty when I went there, and he was very friendly and welcoming, quick to answer my questions and make recommendations, and he had fresh, flavorful food in front of me in about five minutes. 

Here is the menu.  There are only five dishes, all featuring chicken or pork, and all priced very reasonably, between $12 and $14.

I ordered chicken kottu ($13) to eat there, inside the covered portion of A La Cart.  I sat on a stool at a long, otherwise-empty table, cooled by fans on a hot Friday afternoon in July, and enjoyed this delicious, spicy dish of stir-fried chicken curry, eggs, vegetables, and shredded parata roti, a tortilla-like flatbread that would be familiar to anyone who has tried Indian, Trinidadian, or Guyanese food.  Chef Gavin made it seem like he could easily adjust the spice level for anyone who prefers turning down the heat to mild levels. 

It was so good, I had to try something else, so I asked for the roti with pork stir-fry ($12), packed up to go.  It was still hot by the time I got home, so even though I intended to save it for dinner, I ate it almost immediately.  As great as the chicken kottu was, I think this was even better.  The pork was spicy, but so flavorful, and the roti was a perfect neutral flavor to scoop it up and contrast against it.  It was soft and flaky and very lightly crispy from being fried. 

I’m sure most of my regular Orlando readers are already familiar with A La Cart, but if you haven’t been in a while, get there ASAP to enjoy spicy Sri Lankan street food, courtesy of Gavin and Shehara Parys and their newest business venture, Ceylon Roti Hut.

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

JAM Hot Chicken

JAM Hot Chicken (https://www.jamhotchickenfl.com/) opened in Winter Park in late 2021, with a walk-up window location previously occupied by The Sausage Shack, a hot dog place I loved for its huge selection of mustards.  Sadly, it did not last there, but JAM is a welcome addition to the Winter Park landscape.  There is no indoor seating — you order at the window and then enjoy your food at the picnic tables or benches outside on picturesque New England Avenue, in the Hannibal Square area.  On a day that isn’t too hot or humid, an outdoor lunch in this scenic setting can feel like heaven, even when the delicious hot chicken sets your tongue ablaze.

This was my “sando” ($14, but worth every penny).  The HUGE chicken sandwich contains a Bell & Evans chicken breast, fried and seasoned to perfection, topped with crunchy pickle slices (I think they were my beloved Grillo’s), crispy slaw made with cabbage, red onion, apple cider vinegar, and no mayo, creamy comeback sauce (I would slather this on anything!), and served on a great buttered bun.  It was a magnificent chicken sandwich, up there with the best Nashville-style hot chicken I’ve ever had… and I’ve been to the legendary Hattie B’s IN Nashville.  
I ordered mine Hot, which is actually the middle level of heat.  Plain means no heat (for people like my wife), then Mild has “just a touch” of heat, and the next levels are Hot, Hotter, and JAM (marked on the menu with “You’ve been warned”).  I think next time I’ll tempt fate and try the JAM.   I love Nashville hot chicken because you don’t just get your ass kicked by pure heat; there is always so much delicious flavor, and that’s spicy food should deliver.  There is usually a touch of sweetness too, to help offset the spice.  It’s a delicate balance that I now crave, and JAM’s sando perfectly straddles that fine line.

Since I was driving home, I opted against ordering fries, knowing they would be cold by the time I returned.  I’ll have to return, because they looked good.  Instead, I got the cheddar bob mac ($5), which is in the Top Two best macaroni and cheese dishes I’ve had in Orlando.  It was really that incredible, knocking my socks off after the chicken sando already did that.  (Good thing I was wearing two pairs of socks!) The dark stuff on top was perfectly crispy, crunchy, buttery — maybe cracker crumbs?  It added a lot of terrific texture to the mac and cheese.  I also loved that the mac and cheese was cheesy and sticky, but not overly creamy.  Of course I could be wrong, but I don’t think this cheddary concoction was based on a bechamel sauce.  I find bechamel-based mac and cheese doesn’t always impart the cheesy texture and flavor I’m looking for.

The JAM Hot Chicken website also boasts an outstanding playlist that features a lot of choice ’90s and ’00s hip hop and R&B, making it even cooler — or hotter, if you will.  Wu-Tang Clan and several of its members’ solo projects, Beastie Boys (stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know I love ’em), Outkast, The Pharcyde (Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is an all-time Top Ten hip hop album as far as I’m concerned), Souls of Mischief, and the late, great MF Doom — all aces in my book.

We already have some great hot chicken in and around Orlando, including Chicken Fire (which made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 list) and Swine & Sons (which made my 2019 list, that I was honored to be included on alongside Orlando Weekly’s regular food writer Faiyaz Kara).  JAM Hot Chicken is the newest entrant into this growing field, and I was thrilled to discover it in this unassuming location, because it was awesome.  In fact, just like I say whenever “Poison,” “Motownphilly,” or “This Is How We Do It” come on the radio, THAT’S MY JAM!

Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”