Rey’s Cuban Cafe

My wife and I love Cuban food, and I’m from Miami, so I grew up eating some of the best Cuban food in the world.  My parents definitely weren’t into exploring new cuisines, but we often feasted on Cuban delicacies, and as a result, I feel like my standards are high.  I’m always on a quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando, and my latest discovery has been Rey’s Cuban Cafe (https://www.reyscubancafe.com/), a small and unassuming restaurant in Fern Park, not too far from where we live.  Rey’s has about eight indoor tables and a few more on an outdoor patio, but I’ve only ever brought home takeout from there.  It’s ten minutes away, so the food is always nice and hot by the time I get it home.  I went three times before writing this review.

My wife’s favorite dish from any Cuban restaurant is bistec empanado (which I’ve seen as empanizado on other restaurants’ menus): tender steak pounded flat, breaded, and deep-fried ($9).  This is served over white rice with fried yuca.DSC02311

Here’s her bistec empanado from our second visit.  This time it came with garlicky boiled yuca, which she prefers:
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I am a sucker for liver dishes, which are rare enough on most menus, but Rey’s has two different versions.  This is higado Italiano ($10.99), strips of tender beef liver sauteed with onions and green and red bell peppers in a tangy tomato sauce.  I usually order yellow rice instead of white when there is a choice, and I can never refuse maduros, sweet fried plantains, which are one of my favorite foods in the whole world.  The onions are from my wife’s steak, since I love them and she most definitely does not.  DSC02312

This past weekend, my wife was craving bistec empanado again, and I had just donated blood, as I try to do every eight weeks.  Liver sounded awesome, probably to help replace some of the iron I had just gladly given up, so I ordered the regular bistec de higado, liver steak ($9.99).  It was very thin and tender — a perfect consistency.  I wish they had really slathered it in onions, like gone to town with cebollas.DSC02566

I always like to get red beans when I have a choice between black and red.  Rey’s red beans are served like a stew, with chunks of potatoes and little bits of onions and pork.  I wish they had a little more smoky flavor and spice, but I’ve always gotten takeout, so I add my own hot sauce at home.  I realize Cuban food is rarely spicy.DSC02569

I am a huge fan of Jon Favreau’s wonderful movie Chef, about an L.A. chef who finds new inspiration for cooking after a trip to Miami.  He buys a food truck and drives back home with his buddy and his son, selling Cuban sandwiches and bonding as they drive cross-country.  I can’t believe I never saw it until this past summer, so I was a little obsessed with Cuban sandwiches that particular weekend in July.  I remember stopping by Rey’s for the first time for my own inspiration as I prepared to marinate and roast my own pork shoulder for homemade Cubanos.  (That ended up being the best thing I ever cooked.)

But before I made my own, I enjoyed Rey’s Cuban Deluxe ($7.99), with the usual sliced roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, plus the additions of salami, Spanish sausage, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo.  Did I add one of the many mustards from my collection when I got this sandwich home?  Long-time Saboscrivnerinos will know the answer is YES.  DSC02313(My homemade Cuban sandwich was better, but this wasn’t bad at all.  I’d skip the lettuce and tomato next time, for sure.)

You can’t go wrong with buttery Cuban toast on the side of any meal:
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One of these times I brought home takeout, I was in the mood for good empanadas (although as comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada).  I ate them too quickly to take pictures of their fillings, but two of them were stuffed with picadillo, or seasoned ground beef, and the other was a pizza empanada, stuffed with hearty tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.
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There are many kinds of empanadas, with many Latin-American countries specializing in their own versions.  However, Cuban empanadas, with their flaky fried flour crusts, have always been my favorites.

And on our last visit, pastelitos (pastries) were two for the price of one, so I brought home a quesito filled with sweet cream cheese and a pastelito with guava and cream cheese.  These were perfectly fine, but not on the level of Versailles and La Carreta from back home in Miami (also known as “The 3-0-5”).  I was also craving croquetas de jamon, crispy fried croquettes stuffed with a soft, yielding filling of diced ham and bechamel sauce.  Those always hit the spot!
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I don’t think Rey’s Cuban Cafe is elevating Cuban food to new levels or putting gourmet twists on anything.  It’s comfort food, pure and simple — hearty food that reminds me of home (even though the food was one of the only things I liked about growing up in Miami).  My quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando certainly continues, but you could do a lot worse than Rey’s.  You can see the generous portion sizes and extremely reasonable prices.  Everything is fresh and tasty, and they accomplish everything they set out to do.

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Naradeva Thai

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s going to the mall.  The only kinds of shopping I like are grocery shopping and comic book shopping.  However, once or twice a year I end up near Orlando’s upscale Mall at Millenia, rarely for anything I need.  At least there’s a very welcoming and well-stocked Coliseum of Comics location near that mall, along with one of my favorite Thai  restaurants anywhere, ever: Naradeva Thai (http://naradevathai.com/).

In the middle of a sprawling retail district, in the shadow of a Super Target, Naradeva feels like an oasis.  It’s definitely one of the best restaurants in that part of Orlando, but because it’s tucked into a little strip of shops (a musical instrument store, a GameStop, a Subway, and the aforementioned Coliseum of Comics), it is easy to miss.  But once you get inside, you will see what I mean about the sense of calm, relaxation, and beauty that will wash over you.  It’s one of the prettiest dining spaces anywhere in the city, on top of serving top-notch Thai food.  It is a sanctuary.DSC02472

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Going there recently with my wife, we both bemoaned the fact that Naradeva is across town from us, or otherwise we would be regulars for sure.  Even in the blistering August heat and sweltering humidity, it feels cooler inside, with the calming sounds of a little waterfall soothing us after weaving through the unknowable weekend traffic on I-4.

We both started our lunch with sweet, rich, creamy Thai iced coffees (one of the few kinds of coffee I like):dsc02476.jpg

After stirring it up (little darlin’):dsc02477.jpg

Back when I reviewed the wonderful Mee Thai last fall, I mentioned that I don’t eat enough Thai food and would like to try more dishes and even experiment with upping the heat levels.  Sadly, I haven’t done that enough.  On a rare trip to Naradeva, I defaulted to my favorite Thai dish: pad kee mao, also known as drunken noodles.  I feel like I need to try every Thai restaurant’s version of this, since everyone makes it a little different, and even a mediocre version is still going to be good.  Naradeva’s pad kee mao was above and beyond.  It was exactly what I wanted and needed, with nice chewy rice noodles, ground pork, crispy bell peppers and green beans, scallions, Thai basil, and bamboo shoot strips all stir-fried together.  I used to be skeptical about bamboo shoots, but they’re great — chewy and inoffensive.  One reason I love pad kee mao is the slight sweetness that cuts through the spice, probably from the basil leaves.  DSC02481I wish the noodles they used were thicker and wider, but those super-thick and wide noodles are pretty hard to find around here.  I tried the “hot” version for the first time, up from my usual medium heat.

This is Naradeva’s Thai red barbecue pork fried rice, which we ordered to split because we both love it so much.  It’s definitely my favorite fried rice dish anywhere.  The char siu-style pork is juicy, sweet, and tender.  It pretty much melts in your mouth.  They add eggs and scallions, plus the cilantro garnish on top, keeping it pretty simple but never boring or bland.  It’s amazing, and as long as you eat pork, I would strongly recommend any visitors to Naradeva try this dish.DSC02480

And my wife, who always has impeccable taste, selected the boneless duck in sweet and sour sauce, which was as gorgeous to look at as it was delectable to eat.  Naradeva serves their duck in a very light batter that comes out crispy from deep-frying, but never too crunchy or heavy with batter, and never dripping with grease.  You can choose from three sauces: tangy sweet and sour, pad kaprow Thai basil sauce (that probably would have been similar to the sauce on my pad kee mao), or red curry sauce.  But I know she doesn’t like curry or anything spicy, so she chose wisely and regretted nothing.  The sweet and sour sauce includes onions (which I dutifully picked out for her, like a good husband), tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber and pineapple chunks.

I can’t get over this plating!DSC02482

The duck comes with white jasmine rice, which neither of us paid much attention to, not with that perfect fried rice there between us.  But I took it home and made it into my own (not nearly as good) fried rice a day or two later.

On past visits to Naradeva, we have treated ourselves to puffy fried Thai doughnuts served with coconut custard dip, but we had more errands to run and were pretty full after this particular meal.  We will definitely return, though.  I’m sure our blood pressure and stress levels drop every time we visit that gorgeous restaurant, as we transport ourselves to a serene jungle oasis.  It’s even worth braving the bougie mall if I can stop at Naradeva on the way in or out.  And after that luxurious lunch, I found a comic I had been looking for forever at the shop a few doors down, and I even had a coupon for a $5 discount.  As my man Cube once said, “I gotta say it was a good day.”

Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

One of Orlando’s culinary highlights is its burgeoning Vietnamese restaurant scene.  The Mills 50 neighborhood near downtown Orlando (the intersection of Mills Avenue, AKA Highway 17-92, and Colonial Drive, AKA State Road 50) might be the best part of town for dining out, period.  We have the most Vietnamese restaurants centered around there, plus lots of Vietnamese and other Asian markets.  Vietnamese cuisine carries some French influences, from delicate pastries to banh mi, sub sandwiches with various cured meats and pickled vegetables on perfect crisp baguettes.  Even Vietnamese iced coffee, or cà phê sữa đá, is a strong dark roast served over ice with sweetened condensed milk — ooh la la, hon hon hon!  So rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.

Amid all our other Vietnamese options, we have a new choice that just opened recently and is getting plenty of well-deserved foodie buzz: Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery (https://parisbanhmicafebakery.com/).  It’s not a full-service, sit-down restaurant, but a casual cafe, wide open with modern decor, specializing in banh mi sandwiches, baked goods, and tasty beverages.  You order at the counter, but first you have to run the gauntlet of all those beautiful, fresh-baked pastries on display.  DSC02305

I arrived after the lunch rush on Independence Day, after treating myself to a mid-morning showing of the new Spider-Man sequel on a day off work.  The baked goods were picked over, but there was still plenty to choose from:DSC02304

When you enter, grab a tray and a pair of tongs, because you can start serving yourself on your way up to the counter.  A hungry or sweet-toothed person can do a lot of damage, but at least these pastries aren’t expensive, so you can make some choices and have a good time with a mostly-clear conscience.DSC02301

I had been warned to not miss these flaky round pastries stuffed with savory seasoned ground beef.  They were kept in a separate glass case on top of the front counter, being kept warm.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I would have chosen one anyway.  I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially at only $2:DSC02300

I selected an assortment of five pastries to bring home to share with my wife, but a kind gentleman who worked there advised me of their special deal of buying five and getting a sixth free.  How could I refuse?  So I walked out with a flaky margherita pastry with tomato filling (top left; $3), a cheese croissant that was much more like a cheese danish (top middle; $2), a sweet cheese blueberry croissant (top right; $2.80), the warm, meat-stuffed pastry that rang up as a pate chaud (bottom left; $2), a mozzarella and tomato sauce-filled pastry that was kind of like a really good pizza Hot Pocket (bottom; $3), and a sweet, buttery, flaky kouign amann (the round one on the right; $2.80).
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Here is the banh mi menu, at last!  These are a bargain at $5 each, and they are extremely high-quality, especially the fresh-baked baguettes, so crispy outside and so soft inside.  I’ve had some banh mi served to me on stale baguettes that shatter when you bite into them, and a couple you could use as baseball bats, but I can’t conceive of such a thing at Paris Banh Mi.  dsc02307.jpgI ended up choosing a B1 special combination, with several different cold cuts (served cold), and a B2 grilled pork (served warm), both to go.

Here they are, unwrapped back at home.  I’d definitely rank them among the best banh mi in a city blessed to have lots of good ones to choose from.
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Here is the drink menu, also posted above the counter.  The Paris By Night latte looked beautiful, and you can never go wrong with iced coffee or Thai iced tea, but I chose a drink I’ve been hearing about for months but haven’t had a chance to try yet: milk tea with cheese foam ($5).  dsc02306.jpg

This was my cool, creamy milk tea with cheese foam.  It’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise.  The milk tea is sweet and refreshing, and never tastes too much like tea to me, but I’m okay with that.  The foam at the top is kind of like a sweetened cream cheese, but not thick and solid like cheesecake.  It’s sticky and frothy and a little salty — more like thicker, sticky, salty whipped cream.  Go ahead and giggle — get it out of your system — but I swear it works.  I enjoyed this drink and would totally order it again.  DSC02298

On my way out, I took some more photos of the beautiful cakes, eclairs, napoleons, macarons, tarts, and other pastries in their glass cases up front.  Things like this never tempt me that much, but I have no doubt each one would be wonderful.  My parents, who are definitely not adventurous eaters, go gaga over French pastries like these, so I’d love to take them here if they ever make it up from Miami to visit us.  No pressure, though!  (I know they read my blog and wonder how I got this way.)

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Best of all, on this visit — my first visit — someone called my name, and it was three friendly and delightful regulars from the Orlando Foodie Forum, the Facebook group that inspires my food blogging, and hopefully I inspire some of them with my recommendations right here.  Even on a national holiday and a day off work, after seeing Spider-Man and picking out delicious food to bring home, the biggest treat of all was meeting Rasha, Brian, and Yousuf.  They were warm and welcoming — fellow foodies I had never met before, but they recognized me and were kind enough to introduce themselves and make that connection.  This was their second time getting food from Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, and I think they’ve even returned since last week.  I can’t blame them.  I already knew they had impeccable taste, and this place is GOOD.

When you make it to Mills 50, it’s hard to choose where to eat.  You can have spicy Szechuan Chinese at Chuan Lu Garden, cool and refreshing Hawaiian poke at Poke Hana, or endless Vietnamese restaurants like Pho 88 — all reliable recipients of the Saboscrivner Seal of Approval.  But no matter where you go for lunch or dinner, consider saving some room for a sweet dessert, a snack to go, or some frothy milk tea (and don’t forget the cheese foam!) at Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, or make a special trip there for some of the best banh mi in Orlando.  It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I’d be shocked if anyone visited and couldn’t find something to love.

Waffle House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grits!  Not my favorite, but my wife sure loves ’em.  I’m assuming these are the real deal, as no self-respecting Southerner would make instant grits.20190222_191021_resized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cafe Madrid

Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine.  Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay.  I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food.  We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.

As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami.  So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day.  Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me.  I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner!  I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/).  It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.

And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant.  Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters.  They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation.  It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials.  It ended up being exactly what I… wanted?  NO.  It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.

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Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich.  I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.

The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house.  It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo.  Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant.  It was great!  DSC01800

The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself.  I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo.  You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”dsc01802.jpg

Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better.  And you know what?  It was a delicious sandwich, even cold.  I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich.  The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for).  It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.  DSC01806DSC01807

I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like.  The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche.  Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux.  But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.

In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised.  I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home.  And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.dsc01801.jpg

I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada.  (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)dsc01799.jpg

And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.DSC01803

Braza gitana!dsc01805.jpg

So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location.  If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place.  And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was.  While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.

Se7en Bites

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

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

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

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

I was just planning to bring a crack pie home to her, that rich, custardy concoction popularized by another delightful designer of delectable desserts, Chef Christina Tosi of New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar.  It’s a small, individual-sized pie that we ended up splitting into quarters, with a buttery crust and a creamy, sticky center, dusted with powdered sugar.  Like most of Se7en Bites’ pies, it is small — just a 5″ diameter, but rich and thick enough for two people to easily share and be satisfied.

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Chef Trina, knowing our mutual love for croissants, strongly recommended I bring home her new lavender honey butter croissants, and how could I refuse that?  They weren’t enormous, so I got one for each of us.  And when we enjoyed them the following morning for breakfast (since we tried to not make this CarbChella Fest ’18), they were definitely fine croissants, hon hon hon!  I wonder how it would be if it was just honey butter, without the lavender.  Still pretty amazing, I have no doubt.

20180720_190410_resized(Pardon the end I ripped off — it was hard to resist the buttery aroma and perfect pastry texture before remembering I need to be documenting this!)

That day, they also had “Beach Bum cheesecake” listed on a chalkboard of daily specials, so I had to ask what that was.  It was a mini-cheesecake with mango, coconut, and something else I’m blanking on at the moment, which instantly became something I couldn’t live without.  I love cheesecake and tropical fruit, so I had to have it!  When I brought it home, my wife was a little skeptical, but she ended up loving it too, and concluded that it was far better cheesecake than the Cheesecake Factory (which I wholeheartedly agree with, because Cheesecake Factory cheesecake is totally overrated).  That one didn’t last long enough for me to take a photo, but it has a nice, moist graham cracker bottom crust, and the whole thing was just about 5″ diameter, like most of Chef Trina’s pies.

As usual, I should have taken more pictures, but this really was just a quick pop-in for one dessert item that ended up becoming four.  We’ll be back to Se7en Bbites without fail, and I’ll report more on it then.  But for now, I’m so glad it exists here in Orlando.  It’s a real treasure, and so are Chef Trina and her lovely staff.