Taglish

Taglish (https://www.taglishfl.com/) just soft-opened a few weeks ago, and it quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  “Taglish” is clever shorthand for Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines, and English, and the name fits perfectly, because Chef Michael Collantes envisioned it as a Filipino-American fusion restaurant.DSC02696

Located in the small-but-bustling food court of one of my new favorite foodie destinations in Orlando, Lotte Plaza Market on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway in West Orlando, Taglish has filled a void that many of us didn’t even realize was there — an introduction (for many foodies) to the delicious flavors and textures of Filipino food.  Filipino restaurants are still rare in most parts of the country, especially here.  But since Taglish announced its soft opening, I’ve been twice so far, a week apart, and I fantasized about returning that whole week in between.  On my first visit, knowing Taglish opened at 11 AM and wanting to beat the rush, I arrived around 11:15 and barely had to wait in line at all.

The first thing  you might notice upon lining up are the four drinks served in “bubblers”: ube horchata, strawberry hibiscus, cucumber pear, and mango calamansi lemonade.  (The lady in front of me in line moved a bag at the exact wrong moment to cover that last sign, but trust me.)  Drinks are $2.70, except for the ube horchata, which is $3.95.  But you can always make any meal into a combo for $4, which includes a drink (plus a nominal upcharge if you want the ube horchata, which you probably will).DSC02694

On my first visit, I chose the ube horchata.  Ube is a purple yam that is popular in Filipino desserts, and horchata is one of my favorite drinks to order with Mexican food: a rice milk often flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting the heat of spicy dishes.  It was thick and rich and sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet.  Having no experience tasting ube before, it reminded me of the vanilla-scented taro milk tea my wife always orders at Vietnamese restaurants and Asian tea shops, right down to the similar shade of lavender.  dsc02680.jpg

Although the dish I ordered wasn’t spicy at all, it was one of the tastiest, most satisfying meals I’ve eaten anywhere, in a long, long time.  I asked Barbara, the extraordinarily friendly and welcoming cashier, what she recommended, because everything sounded interesting, and she recommended I try the sisig ($9.50) — a dish of crispy pork pan-seared in garlic, tomato, onion, and jalapeno, served over rice (I opted for garlic rice instead of the regular white rice), topped with a poached egg and a drizzle of garlic mayo.  I made it into a combo for an additional $4, to include the above drink and two lumpia, crispy pork-stuffed spring rolls served with sweet chili sauce for dipping (just out of frame).DSC02681

Constant readers, I can’t sing the praises of this sisig dish nearly enough, or in enough detail to honor the fictional definition of the term Saboscrivner.  It exceeded my every expectation in the best possible way.  I splashed on a bit of spicy vinegar from a glass bottle in a small condiment area next to the cash register, and that spicy sourness just brought out all the strong, rich flavors even more.  The perfectly poached egg ran richly over everything, and the bits of tomato, onion, jalapeno, and garlic added the slightest spice.  I would eat this dish every week if I could.  I felt like I was floating afterwards, and I surely bored my wife and a few acquaintances raving about it for days after the fact.  I even e-mailed Chef Collantes to gush about how much I enjoyed it, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to write me back.

By the way, you give them your phone number when you place your order, and they text you to come pick up your food on a tray when it’s ready.  This could get precarious later in the day when every seat in the food court is taken, so I encourage you to arrive with friends, or make some once you get there!

Well, after that auspicious first visit, I returned a week later, on another Saturday.  Unfortunately I got to Lotte Plaza Market around 1:30 PM that second visit, so there was already a long line at Taglish — great for them, and only the most minor of annoyances for me.  But good word has been spreading, and I only hope to spread it further.

Barbara even remembered me from the previous week, and I remembered her second-place recommendation from when she suggested the sisig.  As much as I loved it, I had to try something new, for the sake of the Saboscrivner’s subscribers.  So I ordered the chicken adobo burrito ($8.95) — a thick burrito stuffed to the bursting point with classic Filipino dish chicken adobo (also served as a bowl over rice), garlic rice, fried potatoes, and stewed mung beans, wrapped in a large flour tortilla and almost defying the laws of physics.  It was outstanding!  So many flavors, textures, and even colors to appreciate and explore.
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This was a perfect example of a fusion dish, and I loved it.  My only regret is very minor — I might have been able to analyze each component better and savor the ingredients if I had ordered this as a bowl over rice, instead of wrapped in the lightly grilled tortilla.  For example, I’ve never had monggo (stewed mung beans) before, and I still can’t really describe it, since it melded together with everything else in the burrito.  But it was all fantastic!DSC02701

But as long as I was there, I had to try something else that has always caught my eye on the menu: the longaniza burger.  Longaniza is a Filipino pork sausage that is a little bit sweet, often eaten as a breakfast meat (if I’m not mistaken).  Here, the homemade longaniza sausage was crafted into a burger patty and served on a soft, buttered, grilled bun (possibly a King’s Hawaiian roll), topped with a slice of grilled pineapple, garlic mayo, and a salad of sweet, tangy, vinegary, pickled, shredded papaya called atchara, which I loved.  DSC02702Note the two included lumpia and the serving of crispy seasoned potatoes, which stayed warm and crispy throughout my meal.  I got another small cup of sweet chili sauce, but next time I will request banana ketchup for the fried potatoes, just because I love dipping sauces and condiments — especially new and unfamiliar ones.

Close-up on the slaw-like atchara, which I would love to buy a jar of and put on everything.  I really like vinegar, and I am drawn to Filipino cuisine because vinegar is such a common and important ingredient.  Also dig that wonderful grilled, buttered bun.  I wish everyone who served burgers, dogs, and sandwiches would take a lesson from this.DSC02698

A cross-section.  The slight crispiness of the atchara really balanced out the softer ingredients (the bun, grilled sausage patty, and pineapple slice).  DSC02703

On this second visit, I paid $4 for the combo again (dig the lumpia above), and tried the refreshingly tart mango calamansi lemonade.  Calamansi, also known as the Philippine lime, is a small citrus fruit used in a lot of Filipino recipes.  I had never tasted it before, but my research tells me it’s a hybrid of the kumquat and mandarin orange.  Plus, I already love mangoes in anything, and I’ll always drink lemonade when it’s an option.
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This time, I was lucky enough to meet the amiable Chef Collantes, shake his hand, and tell him in person how wonderful his food is, and how friendly, patient, and helpful his staff is.  He is the former Culinary Director of Bento, a small, local chain of pan-Asian restaurants I have been a big fan of since the first one opened in Gainesville in 2003, the last year I lived there.  I’ve eaten countless custom poke bowls, sushi rolls, bento boxes, and udon noodles at Bento’s numerous Orlando locations — even on my wedding day, ten years ago — but this reminded me to make it back there soon to write a Saboscrivner review.  The fact that Chef Collantes might have created some of my favorite dishes at Bento before opening Taglish (and subsequently blowing my mind with that sisig) makes all the sense in the world.

I wish him and his staff the best of all things, but they already have a huge hit on their hands.  For many, Filipino food will be unfamiliar and novel, but even though people will come in to try something new and different, I’m convinced they will get hooked and become regulars, like I hope to be.

Chicken Fire

There is one local foodie friend of mine, a fellow educator and fellow lover of hip hop, who I always agree with on all gustatory matters.  We haven’t met in real life yet, but she’s definitely one of my BFFs — my Best Food Friends.  Whenever she posts about trying anything new and liking it, I always pay attention, because I know it is going to be awesome.  Follow her Instagram as @Fork07, and just like I never try to steer my readers wrong, she won’t either.

One of her latest discoveries became one of mine as well: Chicken Fire (https://www.facebook.com/eatchickenfire/), a new food truck specializing in Nashville-style hot chicken, that is currently all the rage.  I’ve been obsessed with it ever since trying it at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2018, and I was thrilled to discover that Swine & Sons makes an outstanding SMOKED hot chicken sandwich, right here in Winter Park.  I gave them a glowing review a few months ago. 

Well, Chicken Fire is the new Nashville hot chicken contender, and I can assure you that the chicken is straight fire.  It tastes closer to Nashville standard Hattie B’s than Swine & Sons’ smoked hot chicken.  Don’t get me wrong, both are great, but if you’re craving that one-of-a-kind Nashville burn, do I have the truck for you.DSC02686

Chef Kwame Boakye serves up chicken tenders at four strengths: Soulful (seasoned but not spicy at all, like regular fried chicken), Mild, Medium, and Hot.dsc02689.jpg

On the recent Sunday morning I caught the Chicken Fire truck at the East End Market in Orlando’s Audubon Park neighborhood, I arrived almost 45 minutes before he opened and ended up being the sixth person in what became a very long line, wrapping around the whole front of the East End Market building.  Chef Kwame was outside his eye-catching food truck, taking orders by hand and warmly greeting every customer with a handshake and a welcome.  I had already messaged him on Facebook to ask for his whereabouts, so I was exciting to meet The Man.  He could not have been warmer or friendlier.

I ordered a Big Box ($12) that comes with four tenders, a little container of Fire sauce (a creamy, tangy sauce that goes great with any flavor of chicken tender, similar to Hattie B’s “comeback sauce,” with more flavor going on than Alabama-style white barbecue sauce), and two slices of white bread underneath — a necessary and welcome addition for helping to cut the heat.  I asked Kwame if I could get one tender of each flavor: Soulful, Mild, Medium, and Hot.  He said he doesn’t usually do that, but he would make it happen for me.  I was grateful, because I was really looking forward to trying each one to share my thoughts.

It didn’t take long for my order to come up, and since it was crowded at the East End Market as well as being a cool, drizzly morning, I drove straight home to share my spoils with my wife.  I figured the non-spicy Soulful tender had her name on it, since she doesn’t eat a lot and avoids anything spicy.  (Hattie B’s in Nashville does something similar, with their “Southern” tender as the completely non-spicy one, even below Mild.)

From left to right: Hot, Medium, Mild, Soulful.dsc02690.jpg

Luckily, there was plenty of food for me.  These are huge white meat chicken tenders, juicy and moist and fried to crispy perfection.  But they are not for the faint of heart!  The Mild would easily be a medium at most other places, the Medium was hot enough to make my eyes water, and the Hot, in its deep, dark, intimidating red color… WOOOOOOOOO!  (Imagine more of a Ric Flair “WOOOOO!” than a Will Smith “WOO!”, and you’ll have the right idea.)  Powerful stuff.

Those slices of white bread under the tenders (from the excellent Olde Hearth Bread Company in East End Market, which provides bread and baked goods to many local restaurants) was a real lifesaver in putting out the fire on my tongue, but it could only do so much.  I was also relieved to have cold milk at home, since water would not have done much to abate the burning.

I hate the song, but these hurt so good.

I also paid $3 for an order of Kwame’s excellent, cool, creamy, crunchy cole slaw, another heat-cutter, and 50 cents for an extra container of Fire sauce, since the one that came with the Big Box wasn’t nearly enough.  If he sold Fire sauce in bottles, especially convenient squeeze bottles, I would totally buy one for myself and others to give as gifts.  “Merry Christmas!  Have some Fire sauce!”  Too bad I can’t mail these hot chicken tenders, or I’d consider doing that too.  I have friends in other cities who would love them, even in Nashville, ground zero for legendary hot chicken.

Be on the lookout for Chef Kwame popping up with his Chicken Fire truck around Orlando during what remains of November and throughout December.  Check his Facebook page for dates and times so you catch him, but it looks like he’ll be at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store on Friday evenings, Redlight Redlight in Audubon Park on Saturday evenings, and if you’re very lucky, you might also catch him at East End Market another Sunday during the day.

But best of all, starting in January, Chicken Fire will become one of the regular food trucks featured at Orlando’s centrally-located A La Cart food truck park.  2020 is going to be the year hot chicken reigns supreme in our City Beautiful, between Swine & Sons’ spicy, smokin’ sandwich and Chicken Fire’s tangy, tantalizing tenders.  Wherever that truck goes, I will follow… with plenty of bread and milk!

Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)

Popeyes

My readers may have heard some news a while back about a certain fried chicken sandwich controversy.  Barely three months ago, the Louisiana-based fried chicken chain Popeyes (https://www.popeyes.com/), came out with a chicken sandwich for the first time ever, upending the balance of power in fast food chicken sandwiches and making people  everywhere lose their damn minds.

Almost everyone I know either tried the Popeyes chicken sandwich and loved it (like my best friend down in Miami), or tried to, but were foiled every time by long lines and stores selling out (like me).  There were some haters too — either loyalists to the long-standing chicken sandwich champion, or people who claim to never eat fast food for any number of legitimate reasons (which is all good, but they might miss out on something tasty).  And almost as quickly as the hype grew around this sandwich for those two or three weeks in the late summer, Popeyes pulled it from their menus everywhere, and life moved on.  I ended up discovering and reviewing the greatest chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life at Winter Park’s own Swine & Sons, and those went a long way toward helping me get over my FOMO.

I was wondering if Popeyes got rid of their biggest hit ever because they weren’t prepared to deal with the insane demand.  It might have been a personnel issue — assembling sandwiches has to be more labor-intensive than boxing up the whole pieces of fried chicken, and every Popeyes restaurant I’ve ever been to is always understaffed.  It might have been a problem in the supply chain, as there was an annoying ad campaign in the weeks that followed encouraging customers to BYOB, or “Bring Your Own Bun.”  Maybe they wanted to create artificial demand through scarcity, but regardless, they listened to the people, because this game-changing chicken sandwich is back now, as of Sunday, November 3rd.  And this time, hopefully it’s here to stay.

Constant Readers, I failed you back in August.  Even though I had every intention of eating and reviewing this sandwich, I never got my hands or mouth on one in time, and then they were gone.  But there’s no way I was going to let you down you again.  I got to Popeyes on the morning of November 3rd, shortly after it opened at 10:30 AM, but as you would expect (and I kinda did expect), half of Seminole County had the same idea and was already there.

The drive-through line snaked through the huge shared parking lot at this location, so I parked far away so I wouldn’t get blocked in later, and took my chances waiting inside.  This was the smart move.  I was back home with my to-go order in just over an hour, and I didn’t have to waste half a tank of gas idling in the car.  If you go in the days and weeks to come, expect some wait, but the line definitely moves faster inside.  Eventually I got my order, and I was home in fewer than ten minutes, so everything was still hot and crispy.

This was the spicy chicken sandwich, which I loved.  The fried chicken breast was juicy and bursting with flavor.  I admit I was expecting to be disappointed, because Popeyes chicken can be quite inconsistent.  When you get a fresh batch, it’s amazing, but I’ve had far too much sad, dry chicken there.  I typically stick to dark meat, particularly thighs, which I think are more flavorful and less likely to get dried out, but this was a really fantastic fried chicken breast.  It was huge, too, and the buttermilk-based batter wasn’t just lightly crispy — it was CRUNCHY, even after steaming in its little foil pouch as I raced home.  Well-played, Popeyes.  I can’t conceive of a better fast food chicken sandwich.  I emphasize fast food because even though there are certainly better chicken sandwiches out there (like the Swine & Sons versions), those are $11 while this one is $4, almost one-third of the price.  dsc02613.jpgUnfortunately, I thought they were rather stingy with the spicy mayo, and would have loved some more on it.

This was the regular, non-spicy sandwich ($3.99 each without the combo).  It should come with mayo as well as pickles, but they left the mayo of both regular sandwiches I ordered — one for myself so I could try both versions, and one for my wife who doesn’t like anything spicy.  All three sandwiches came with two thin pickle slices, and now that I’m starting to appreciate pickles more, I would have been happy to get even more pickles on them.  By the way, the buns are brioche — soft and fluffy, buttered, and lightly toasted.  It’s a fantastic bun to serve this kind of sandwich on.  DSC02609

You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?dsc02610.jpg

Since my regular chicken sandwich didn’t have any mayo, it was a perfect opportunity to sample two different Popeyes sauces.  I cut the sandwich down the middle, making sure there was one pickle slice on each half, and applied one of these sauces to each:
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The Mardi Gras Mustard is a creamy Creole-style mustard (savory, but not spicy at all) that went well with the chicken, but the Voodoo Sauce was awesome on the other half.  It was thin and runny, sticky, sweet, and slightly spicy — extremely similar to a Thai sweet chili sauce.  And it jazzed up that sandwich just perfectly.  I should have added a schmear of my own mayo too (I only buy Duke’s), but I wanted to stick to just Popeyes own condiments for the purposes of this review.

And here is what might be the very best menu item from any fast food restaurant anywhere: Popeyes red beans and rice ($2.29 if you order the small separately, or it can be one of the sides you pick in your combo meal).  This is the perfect, quintessential version of this classic Louisiana dish.  Rich, thick, and smoky, it transcends this fast food fried chicken chain and could hold its own against high-tone versions of red beans and rice in some of New Orleans’ finest chef-driven establishments.  I know a lot of chefs agree and sing its praises, including Momofuku‘s founder and all-around cool dude David Chang.dsc02614.jpg

When I finally got up to the cashier, she kept trying to cut me off and complete my order after every item I ordered.  Our conversation went something like this:

“I’d like a spicy chicken sandwich combo, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be $6.99 plus tax.”
“Oh!  But I would also like two regular chicken sandwiches, not the combos, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be…”
“Sorry, I wanted red beans and rice as the side for my combo, and also…”
“Beans and rice, gotcha.  That’ll be…”
“Sorry, I would also like to try the bourbon fudge pie, and…”
“Adding on the bourbon fudge pie!  So your order comes to…”
“NO, WAIT!  I’d also like the pumpkin cream cheese pie!” 

So yeah, it was a battle, and I ended up apologizing a heck of a lot, unnecessarily (which I do far too often).  But they have pie, and I love pie, and I really wanted to share them with my wife and review them for you.  But I really had to fight, just to be able to order them!dsc02611.jpg

The bourbon fudge pie ($2.49) is a small slice that we just cut down the middle.  The fudgy filling is rich, thick, and damn tasty, but the crust is completely tasteless and serves no real purpose.  We weren’t expecting much for $2.49, but it was like a cheap, knockoff version of local Chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s delicious signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pie at her beloved Orlando restaurant and bakery Se7en Bites.  And that pie has the best pie crust ever, so y’all need to make it over there and try hers, maybe even before you try these chicken sandwiches.DSC02612

The pumpkin cream cheese pie is your typical fast food turnover pie.  If you haven’t tried the very similar apple pie at Popeyes, you’ve probably had it at McDonald’s at some point in your life.  You might even remember when the McDonald’s apple pies used to be fried to a crisp, back in the ’80s! dsc02615.jpg

Here’s a cross-section: a strip of sweet pumpkin “pie” filling, and a strip of sweetened cream cheese.  The crust wasn’t anything special, but still better than the extremely bland, flavorless bourbon fudge pie crust. dsc02616.jpg

Anyway, these chicken sandwiches are so good, I went back a few days later to a different location and waited about 25 minutes, just so I could get another one.  I got another spicy boi and asked for extra spicy sauce, but the cashier said there isn’t a button on the register for extra sauce, so they couldn’t do it.  That particular sandwich didn’t come with pickles, but it was still mighty fine.  Tender and juicy, crispy breading, perfect bun (any burger would be honored to be served on a bun prepared that well), and slightly more of that spicy sauce that really brings everything together.

However, this time I asked for macaroni and cheese as the side, because I know the late, great Anthony Bourdain loved Popeyes mac and cheese, as well as their chicken.  I love mac and cheese too, so I had to try it.DSC02619

The mac and cheese was pretty standard, like what you’d get at a soul food or barbecue place.  Very similar to the mac and cheese at Orlando’s homegrown barbecue chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse and its Southern spinoff restaurant The Coop, in fact.  Not baked or anything, no bread crumbs or crispy layer of cheese — just al dente elbow macaroni in sticky, gluey, salty orange cheese.  I can see it being beloved comfort food, especially for someone like Bourdain, a world-weary traveler who sometimes craved simple tastes of home.

I am trying really hard to avoid sodas, but this second Popeyes location had an unfamiliar label on the soda fountain — a drink I had never seen before or even heard of, and I try to stay apprised of such things!dsc02618.jpg

There is precious little information about Mirinda online, but it started out as a brand from Spain, and PepsiCo bought it.  They produce many different fruit-flavored sodas, so I guess Pepsi saw it as a way to compete against Coke’s Fanta brand.  I’ve tried a few different strawberry sodas before, and they always taste more like strawberry candy than the actual fruit.  This one was no exception.  It was almost sickeningly sweet, and I was glad I only took a few sips.  I ended up refilling my cup with Popeyes sweet tea while I waited for my food, and between the Mirinda soda and strong, acidic sweet tea, I ended up with acid reflux for the first few hours of my workday, long before I even indulged with a fried chicken sandwich and macaroni and cheese.  Serves me right, I guess!

Moghul Indian Cuisine

Growing up, we never ate Indian food.  My parents generally eschewed anything with even a reputation of being spicy, so no Korean, no Indian, no Thai (we went out for Thai once, and the new flavors literally made my dad ANGRY), and nothing from a Chinese menu with a flame or pepper icon next to it.  Back in the ’90s, even Mexican was a rare treat for me, and that usually meant driving through Taco Bell — which helped sustain me through high school and college.

When more adventurous friends introduced me to Indian food, it opened me up to a whole new world of flavors and spices, but it was still a rare event to go out for Indian.  I used to eat it once a year at most, usually by myself — sometimes even when I traveled to work conferences out of town.  And I’d always seek out Indian buffets to maximize the number of different dishes I could sample and the amount of food I could eat.  All-you-can-eat buffets are not only economical, but they are a great introduction to the cuisine for unfamiliar diners.

That said, India is a huge country — a whole subcontinent! — with many different regional styles of cooking.  This really became apparent when I attended a festive weekend lunch at the Hindu Society of Central Florida’s temple earlier this year and enjoyed a vegetarian feast full of giant dosas and other unfamiliar offerings, all South Indian specialties.  With that in mind, Indian buffets are going to stick to the most popular, familiar dishes that American palates are used to, and probably nothing too intimidating or spicy.  There are a lot of lamb dishes in Indian cuisine, which is great if you love lamb like I do, but since it’s a more expensive meat, I’ve never found a buffet that offered lamb.  That’s too baaaaaaaad.

Since I started working with a particular colleague at the beginning of 2013, we’ve gone out to lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch more times than I can count.  She’s vegetarian and loves Indian food, and I’m always happy to get out of the office and hang out with her.  She is not only a legitimately good person who I’m honored to call a friend, but she’s amazing at her job, and I’ve learned so much from her over the years.  I’m a better librarian and professor because of her ideas and influence, and thanks to our occasional lunches out, I’m also way more familiar with Indian food than I would be otherwise.

That restaurant is Moghul Indian Cuisine (http://www.moghulindian.com/), located on the east side of busy Semoran Boulevard, between Aloma Avenue to the north and University Boulevard to the south.  Moghul has a very affordable lunch buffet ($8.95), but also a longer menu full of delicious dishes you can’t get from the buffet.  I have recently decided to broaden my horizons and order a new entree on each subsequent visit.

Here’s a look at the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which I have ordered from countless times, but decided to forego on my most recent two visits, which I’m reviewing here:dsc02491.jpg

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Since I started ordering off the menu, I get thin and crispy pappadams served at our table, the same ones available on the buffet.  They come with spicy tomato and onion chutney, sweet and tangy tamarind chutney, and cool, creamy, and slightly spicy coriander and mint chutney.DSC02492

I love samosas, but in all my lunch visits to Moghul where I ordered off the buffet, I had never ordered them.  I decided to order the vegetable samosas ($3.95) on these two recent trips, and I realized I should have been ordering them all along.  You get two in an order, so on both of these visits, I had one and gave the other to my vegetarian co-worker.  The fried shell was very light, airy, and flaky — not greasy at all.  The lightly curry-seasoned potatoes and peas inside were tasty, and that shell was really something special.DSC02604

A look inside that samosa:dsc02605.jpg

This was a non-vegetarian friend’s trip to the buffet.  Looks like she got butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, and saag paneer (the stewed spinach in the top right), among other things — all Indian buffet classics.DSC02494

And my vegetarian colleague got all this good stuff, including eggplant, pakoras (vegetables breaded in chick pea flour and fried until crunchy), and naan bread.
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On one recent visit I ordered the Goan dish lamb vindaloo ($13.95) for the first time ever, and I was brave and ordered it HOT.  Not “Indian hot,” because I still had to go back to work, but not my usual, safe medium either.  And I am relieved to report I could handle it just fine.  Moghul’s menu describes vindaloo as “lamb marinated with vinegar, chilies and spices,” and it definitely had an acidic tang to it, no doubt from the vinegar.  DSC02495

Apparently vindaloo has Portuguese roots, and historically it called for meat to be marinated in wine and garlic.  Along the way, and especially as the dish rose in popularity in British Indian cooking, palm vinegar replaced the wine.  But I love vinegar, so it’s all good!DSC02497

On my second, more recent trip, I ordered a different lamb dish, the Kashmiri dish rogan josh ($13.95), also HOT.  Once again, it was delicious, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to handle the heat.  The menu describes this dish as “lamb cooked in curry sauce with yogurt, tomato and spices.”  This sauce was richer and thicker than the vindaloo — not as tangy, despite the addition of tomato.  I liked it so much I slurped up all the leftover sauce with a spoon after finishing the chunks of tender lamb, no additional rice required!  Despite my pledge to try new things every time, I would totally order the lamb rogan josh again.
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Since these entrees don’t come with bread, I ordered onion kulcha ($3.50) for the first time ever with my vindaloo, as an alternative to the standard naan.  Like naan, kulcha is a bread baked in a tandoor (a clay oven), and this one is stuffed with onions, cumin, and cilantro.  I loved it so much!DSC02496

Even though I am forcing myself to order a new entree every time, I had to get that onion kulcha again on my second recent visit, to accompany the rogan josh.  It was so rich and buttery and soft and fragrant.  I just love sauteed onions and soft, fluffy, buttery bread.  They probably use ghee in the kitchen at Moghul; I am happy to clarify that.
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I drive by Moghul almost twice a day on my way to and from work, and it sure is tempting to order just onion kulcha every night on my way home.  I can’t do it, but have I thought about it?DSC02607

YUP!

(What I’m really going to have to do is learn to make my own onion kulcha at home, and maybe regular naan bread too, if it can be done without a tandoor.  But I’m going to leave the rest of this deliciousness to the professionals.)

The good news is Moghul is close to work, my co-worker loves Indian food even more than I do, and I have every intention of returning often to keep expanding my palate, both in terms of new dishes and spice levels.  Just keep in mind that Moghul is closed on Mondays.

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.

 

Swine & Sons

So, has anyone heard about any good chicken sandwiches lately?

Let me rewind for a bit.  This week the Internet went insane over chicken sandwiches, something I rarely order anywhere.  When there’s a burger available, I never give the chicken sandwich a second look.  At fast food places, even if I’m not in the mood for a burger, I’m more likely to order the fish sandwich than the chicken sandwich!  Even when I go to a fried chicken joint, I’ll usually get a couple of crispy fried thighs, rather than a sandwich.  Too often, the classic fried chicken sandwich contains a dry chicken breast, or worse yet, a dry tender or two.  I’ve been burned by dry, bland white meat too often, and don’t get me started ranting about dry, bland, boring-ass Thanksgiving turkeys.  I always prefer dark meat, and thighs usually hide my favorite morsels of meat on the entire chicken: the oysters, tucked away under a bone, two little perfect bites per bird.

But people are losing their damn minds over this chicken sandwich, which gave me a serious case of the FOMO.*  I had to venture forth to see what the hype was about, and so I could blog about it and get some external validation before everyone moves onto the next foodie fad.  Wait, did I just write that?

Well, to none of my regular readers’ surprise, I ordered two different chicken sandwiches: spicy and extra-spicy.  And I’m happy to report they were the best damn chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had!  But they didn’t come from that chain.  Nope.  And not that chain either.  They came from a a beloved local restaurant that just happens to be located in a butcher shop.  Not that one; the other one!

Swine & Sons (https://swineandsons.com/) started out as the third restaurant in James and Julie Petrakis’ locally-grown empire, following their flagship Winter Park gastropub The Ravenous Pig and their upscale Southern restaurant Cask & Larder.  With Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak in charge, Swine & Sons opened in a small space next door to the old Cask & Larder location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, and I made sure my wife and I were there on the very first day they opened for business.  We were some of their first customers through the door on Day One, and they had a good thing going from the onset.  It was always meant as a more casual restaurant compared to the others, a quick-service place with sandwiches, house-cured charcuterie, and lots of prepared takeout options.  And despite having limited seating and parking, it became a hit, like the Petrakis’ other establishments.

But the only constant is change.  In recent years, Cask & Larder moved to the Southwest Airlines terminal at Orlando International Airport, and The Ravenous Pig moved into the space Cask & Larder vacated on Fairbanks, which is much nicer and larger than the old Ravenous Pig location, with more parking.  The Gawlaks bought Swine & Sons from the Petrakises, and in March 2019, they moved across the street, into The Local Butcher & Market, an upscale full-service butcher shop.  (Da Kine Poke, one of Orlando’s best poke places, also has a counter location inside The Local Butcher.)  There are still tables to enjoy the Gawlaks’ delicious food in there, don’t worry.  And luckily, there are a lot more parking spaces!  Just keep in mind that it closes at 4:00 PM every day, so you’d have to be a real early bird to have dinner there.

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Anyway, Swine & Sons is one of the only Orlando restaurants I know of that serves Nashville-style hot chicken, which I was first introduced to at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year.  After the chicken is marinated (often in seasoned buttermilk), breaded or battered, and fried, it is covered in a spice paste that’s heavy on the cayenne pepper, so every surface is spicy.  It was amazing, and very different from the popular new fast food spicy chicken sandwich where any heat comes from a spicy mayo-based sauce. At Hattie B’s, I ordered a medium thigh and a hot thigh. They were crispy and crunchy and set my mouth ablaze, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
(To avoid any confusion, this photo is from Hattie B’s in Nashville, just in case the cup and the above paragraph didn’t give it away.  That’s medium on the left and hot on the right, and the hot was HOT.)
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I tried the Nashville hot chicken at Cooper’s Hawk when I reviewed it earlier this year, and even though I liked that restaurant quite a bit, the hot chicken wasn’t that hot or that crunchy.  So my quest continued, and I’m so glad that the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 led me to Swine & Sons in search of a truly singular spicy chicken sandwich experience.

In fact, maybe with all the chicken sandwich hype and debating, Swine & Sons recently debuted a hotter hot chicken sandwich.  Their current menu showed the classic version, referred to as the “Party,” and the newer, hotter model called the “Rager.”  The very patient woman working the counter told me they use the same spice blend, but the Rager contains three times the cayenne pepper.  They use Bell & Evans all-natural chicken breasts, and she explained that they first brine them, then they smoke them, and then they fry them.  I was already on board even before she mentioned smoking, but that would have pushed me over the edge.  I love any smoked foods — meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, you name it.  I was ready for a life-changing flavor sensation, so of course I ordered one of each ($11 per sandwich), intending to eat half the Party and half the Rager there and save the other halves for later.

Party:
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Rager:
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Both of the sandwiches were served on identical white sandwich rolls, with plenty of sliced pickles and little dipping cups of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based sauce I have come to really like with my chicken.  I’m usually not a pickle person, but I’ve been trying to develop more of an appreciation for pickles, and these were great.  Definitely some of the best pickles I’ve ever tried.  Surely they were house-made.  The chicken breasts with their crunchy breading and oily, spice-laden exterior coating were balanced perfectly with the soft roll and the crispy pickles (not overly sour or “dilly”).  I left the cool, creamy white sauce on the side for dipping random bites, lest it overpower the other flavors or cut the heat too much.  I would have preferred a soft, rich buttery brioche bun for these sandwiches, which would have both contrasted and cut the heat more than the plain white roll, but it still worked very well.

These chicken sandwiches were CRON-CHY!  Each bite had a satisfying crunch that is missing from too much fried chicken.  Under the breading, they were also juicy and moist.  Even beloved fried chicken establishments have let me down too often — even places I’ve given good reviews to in the past.  But these were everything you wish fried chicken sandwiches could be in terms of texture and consistency.

Party:
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And what of the heat, you ask?  The Party had a pleasant heat that would certainly be too much for my in-laws, my parents, and my wife, but anyone who enjoys spicy food will be fine with it.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Rager, but I’ve been pushing my limits with spicy food lately, maybe trying to feel more alive in this scary and unknowable world.  My eyes were watering, and I had to blow my nose more than once, but my body reacts like that whenever I eat anything spicy, so those weren’t new and unfamiliar reactions to this heat.  Despite all that, I was expecting it to be hotter, to maybe push into a place of unpleasant heat, but it was fine.  It was better than fine; it was awesome.  And through the heat, you could taste the smoky flavor.  They didn’t clash or overpower each other — smoke and fire burning together in crackling harmony.

Rager (see it through my tears!)
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I definitely like the oil-based spice rub on Nashville-style hot chicken compared to most other kinds of spicy chicken.  Don’t get me started on typical sports bar buffalo wings, which never do anything for me.  It might be the funkiness of the vinegar-based hot sauce, but those wings are often too crunchy, whether they are breaded or not, and they’re simultaneously dry and greasy.  And even though I couldn’t begin to identify the spices in the Swine & Sons chicken sandwiches (aside from the obvious cayenne pepper), at least they don’t have to increase the heat to ludicrous levels for macho bragging rights, with ridiculous names like “Atomic Hellfire,” “Habanero Apocalypse,” and “Ass-Blaster 5000.”

There was a slight sweetness emerging from the heat in both of these sandwiches, making me wonder if there was some sugar in the spice blend.  I loved it.  They were exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had been craving and chasing since hitting Hattie B’s in April 2018.  The smoky flavor made it through, so there were a lot of unique tastes and textures going on at once.  I have to say I preferred both of these chicken sandwiches to the two thighs I had back in Nashville.  Were they the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had?  In a week where people are getting passionate about chicken sandwiches, I’m going to do the same and say YES, yes they were.  As I write this review, far too late on a work night, I am so excited that I still have the other halves in my fridge, waiting for me… maybe even taunting me.

While I was there, I also ordered Swine & Sons’ macaroni and cheese, which I hadn’t had in several years.  It was $4 for a decent-sized side order, and it was very rich.  The cheeses (cheddar and fontina) were melty and the pasta was al dente, so I was more than content.  There was also a nice crumb topping made from cheddar-chive biscuit crumbs.  A lot of places bake their mac and cheese so the whole thing comes out dry, sacrificing that nice meltiness for overly-crispy edges and noodles you can barely chew anymore, but that was definitely not the case here.  DSC02509

I’ve ordered other sandwiches at Swine & Sons on my handful of previous visits over the years, including a good Southern-inspired take on the classic Cuban sandwich.  I think I even had a house-made hot dog there once, although it has been so long, I don’t even remember how they served it.  But today, in my first visit to their new location inside The Local Butcher & Market, Swine & Sons showed me the great heights a fried chicken sandwich could reach in the right hands, from the right kitchen.  It was hot, but all that heat was pure flavor, not just burning, tingling pain and regret.  It was crunchy, but not so hard that I felt like I was going to break a tooth.  It wasn’t dry, and it sure wasn’t bland.  It was a chicken sandwich all others should aspire to be.

I don’t know if they could serve a non-spicy version of the sandwich for the some who don’t like it hot, but right now I’m convinced Swine & Sons can do anything.  And while it is more expensive than the fast food chicken sandwiches making headlines and stirring up strong feelings, you get what you pay for.  I think these were dramatically, exponentially better than any chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had, and I hope my readers will feel the heat sooner rather than later.  The Gawlaks are like culinary royalty in Winter Park and Orlando, and this place isn’t exactly a secret.  But despite all that, you shouldn’t have to worry about long lines and sandwiches selling out, as transcendent as they are.

*Fear Of Missing Out.

I’m so ashamed.