Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (Miami)

Of all the restaurants I’ve written reviews for, I’ve been going to Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (https://www.arbetterhotdogs.com/index.html) the longest, ever since I was a little kid in the ’80s.  It’s an institution in Miami’s Westchester neighborhood, not far from where I grew up in Kendall, where my parents and brother still live.  The bright yellow building on Bird Road (SW 40th Street), just west of Galloway Road (SW 87th Avenue), has been serving up Miami’s most iconic hot dogs since 1972, after first opening in 1960 in a different location.  It has survived everything, from recessions to fickle foodie trends, keeping its prices low and its aesthetics simple and old-school.  It reminds me of Orlando’s beloved Beefy King that way, another culinary time capsule from a bygone era that continues to survive and thrive because it never changed what people love about it.

Even though my dad wouldn’t ever consider himself a foodie, he introduced me to all of his favorite Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis in Miami in the ’80s and ’90s, starting me on my lifelong quest to discover all the best food and tell people about it, whether they asked or not.  He would also take me to Arbetter’s, usually after trips to A&M Comics and Books, another Bird Road landmark that still survives today, the second-oldest comic book store in the country.  These jaunts fueled my lifelong loves of comic books and reading in general (and also hot dogs).

It had been far too long since I returned to this legendary hot dog spot for a taste of my youth, so it was fitting I made it back to finally write a review in 2022, its 50th anniversary in the Bird Road location.  That’s an incredible feat for any restaurant, especially in expensive, clout-chasing Miami.

Prices have gone up since the mid-’90s, the last time I was a permanent resident of Miami, but not as much as you would think:

I ordered two hot dogs, even though I could have easily eaten several more.  As Lake Street Dive sang (but surely not referring to hot dogs), they go down smooth.  On the left, behold Arbetter’s West Virginia dog ($3.99, a bargain at twice the price), topped with yellow mustard, onions, creamy cole slaw, and their delicious house-made chili (with no beans ever).  What a combination, between the crunch of the cabbage and onions versus the softness of the dog and the bun, the acidity of the chili and the pungence of the mustard versus the creamy coolness of the slaw.  On the right you see a traditional dog with mustard and sauerkraut ($2.99), the “control” in this little experiment.  The dogs are simple, and so are the plain buns. 
Since my last visit, back in 2015, Arbetter’s started selling grilled, all-beef, natural casing Sabrett hot dogs for slightly more money, which are high-quality dogs that I love and recommend.  But visiting the place I grew up and this particularly nostalgic restaurant, I had to go with the old-school boiled dogs, which are softer and smokier than the Sabretts, but not as salty or garlicky.  They tasted just as good as I remembered, and they went down soooo smooth.

Arbetter’s has always had awesome fries (currently $3.69), made even better by getting them topped with chili and molten melted cheese ($4.99).  Instead of getting fries on my July 2022 visit, I opted for the onion rings instead ($3.69), because as my constant readers know, I will ALWAYS opt for onion rings and review them on this blog in a little feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!  These were great onion rings — breaded rather than battered, not too thick or too thin, not too greasy, not ripping out of the breading.  I definitely rank them as “the good kind” of onion rings.  I dipped them in a ridiculous mound of ketchup, but in retrospect, I failed my readers and also myself by not getting them topped with chili and cheese (which would have also been $4.99, just like the fries).

Finally writing this review a few months after my meal at Arbetter’s, I’m feeling that nostalgia again and wishing I could get some right now.  I’ll almost certainly pick up a pack of hot dogs when I finally leave the house today, and I already have buns, a jar of Silver Floss kraut, and a multifarious multitude of mustards, plus some ground chuck defrosting in the fridge and a block of habanero cheddar begging to be shredded — everything I need for some chili cheese dogs and classic hot dogs of my own.  But it won’t be the same, not without that old yellow building with the same old faded posters and signs, the sense of community, and the memories of my youth.

I always felt like a stranger at home, growing up in Miami.  I have a good family and wonderful friends I’m still in touch with, but now I enjoy my rare visits to the city a lot more than I ever liked living there.  The food is a major aspect of why I appreciate Miami so much more now, and why I feel pride for my hometown that I never felt back in the day.  Even though Arbetter’s Hot Dogs isn’t fancy or glamorous, it’s an icon, an institution, and a survivor.  It still brings people together, over 50 years later, and makes them feel good, feel special, feel home.  And if that isn’t a microcosm for Miami, I don’t know what is.

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Lam’s Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crispy eggroll:

And a little dish of fried rice:

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

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

Heartsong Cookies

I try to write my massive missives about restaurants to share the love that I feel as a diner — the love that emanates from those kitchens, from the people working really hard jobs to keep us fed and happy and returning, from the savory and sweet dishes themselves.  If I encounter brusque and impersonal service, I don’t mind writing a food-focused review and accentuating the positive.  Some restaurant staff members and owners are almost comically curt and curmudgeonly as a matter of course, but if the food is good enough, I’ll keep coming back for more.  I can take it.

But I really try to shine a spotlight on the nicest, friendliest, warmest, most welcoming places and the people behind them, like Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites, Kwame Boakye of Chicken Fire, Brennan Heretick of High Tide Harry’s, George Markward of The Pastrami Project, Patrice and Terence Phillips of Something Fishy, Rafaela Cabede of Mrs. Potato, Andy and Evette Rahman of Sister Honey’s Bakery, and the famously friendly Walid Ali at Mediterranean Deli.  Every time I return to these establishments, I always feel like a special, valued regular, even when I don’t make it back to them as often as I would like, to earn my regular status.  But at these restaurants and a handful of others around town, the warmth and friendliness of the owner-operators and their staff make the whole experience even more special.

Another one of these is Heartsong Cookies (https://heartsongcookies.com/), a true mom-and-pop operation that sells Orlando’s absolute best cookies at farmer’s markets and cafes around the city.  The mom in question is a wonderful woman who I would go so far as to call Wonder Woman: Kathy Paiva.  Kathy has the kind of story I enjoy reading and sharing: a proud mother and grandmother, she has a degree in advertising (a fellow Florida Gator!) and a business background, but she got into baking because she loves it, and more importantly, because she loves to make people happy.  Her husband and business partner Mike makes most of the regular cookie dough, Kathy creates the recipes and bakes the cookies, and they have a wonderful partnership going.

Since I changed careers many years ago to find my calling, then left it earlier this year to try a new challenge, I thrill to the courage of people who gravitate toward passion projects, who are truly gifted at something and share their infectious enthusiasm and enviable talents with the world.  She is one of those people, and her creativity, care, and compassion come through in every perfect bite of a Heartsong cookie.  Note that the cookies are $3 each, or three for $8.  A regular person can easily take a couple down by him- or herself, but I always recommend buying a variety and cutting them into halves or quarters to share, so you get to try an assortment of fun flavors.

Here are some of her classics: the traditional chocolate chip, dulce de leche sea salt, M&M chocolate chip, coconut caramel chocolate chip, cookies & cream, and chocolate lava crunch, made with Nestle Toll House chocolate lava cake-flavored baking truffles.  All of her cookies are moist and pillowy-soft, but not so soft that they feel under-baked or raw in the middle.  The texture is the ideal cookie texture, as far as I’m concerned, but I’d rather eat raw cookie dough than dry cookies that shatter into a cloud of crumbs when you take your first of several disappointing bites.  Heartsong Cookies are that masterful midpoint between the two extremes, elevating cookies to a rare and glorious pinnacle.  Baked to perfection?  You bet they are.

I’m not big on nuts in my baked goods, but that toasted walnut fig cookie is really something special, let me tell you.  It helps that I love figs, and she uses chewy dried figs for a really interesting combination of textures in that one.

Come on!  Caramel apple pecan?  White chocolate cranberry pistachio?  Who else would come up with flavor combinations like these?

I’m always a little saddened when people denigrate the humble oatmeal raisin cookie.  It isn’t human, but it needs to be loved, just like anybody else does.  But if you’ve dismissed oatmeal raisin cookies before as a “consolation prize” or a marauding trickster when you’re hoping for a mouthful of chocolate chip, I implore you to give Heartsong’s version a chance.  

She always has at least two gluten free vegan flavors available, and trust me, even if you don’t eat gluten free or vegan (I surely don’t), the texture and flavor is just as good as all her other cookies.  In fact, since I love lemony desserts, her gluten free vegan lemon blueberry cookie (with chewy dried blueberries) is one of my favorites of all her creations. 

This photo is from a previous visit from April, when I ran slightly amok.  Clockwise from top, I brought home an M&M chocolate chip, a strawberry hazelnut chocolate chip with dried strawberries, an orange Creamsicle cookie with dried orange bits and white chocolate chips (one of my favorites), a coconut cream pie cookie (we both loved this one), an oatmeal raisin (like I said, forget every preconceived notion you’ve ever had about oatmeal raisin cookies), one of those gluten free vegan lemon blueberry cookies (if you’re skeptical, I assure you it was amazing), and in the center, a brown sugar sprinkles cookie.

Earlier this week, I contacted Kathy over Facebook Messenger and asked if she took requests for special orders, specifically sugar cookies.  She delivered in a major way at the Maitland Farmer’s Market earlier today, with a beautiful selection of both “drop”-style sugar cookies sprinkled with red sugar crystals and lovely glazed cut-out sugar cookies shaped like trees and leaves to symbolize fall (even though it sure still feels a lot like summer).  In the top left, you should also see an “ultimate snickerdoodle,” her classic cinnamon sugar cookie made with Nestle Toll House frosted cinnamon roll baking truffles inside.  That’s going to be a life-changing cookie, I just know it. 

Here are some more I brought home today.  Some will be for us, but I’m bringing a bunch of them to work to share with my stressed-out co-workers: a caramel apple pecan cookie made with chewy dried apples, a festive funfetti cookie, a cookies & cream cookie (very meta, but I do love Oreos and cookies and cream anything), a gluten free vegan dark chocolate espresso cookie (my wife already called dibs on that one), a gluten free vegan pumpkin spice latte cookie (reserved for a pumpkin-loving co-worker who tries to eat vegan), and a coconut caramel chocolate chip cookie. 
How can you go wrong with any of these?  You can’t.  I am looking forward to sharing the wonders of Heartsong Cookies and Kathy’s generosity, love, and artistry with the good folks at work.  These people could all use a hug, but since I wouldn’t dare make it weird, Kathy’s cookies are like hugs you can eat, and that’s much more workplace-appropriate.

She even put together a beautiful Happy Birthday bag for some of the cookies for someone I work with!  This is what she does — makes people happy.  You can tell she takes that seriously.  That’s an honorable calling and one to be proud of, now more than ever.

Kathy and Mike often set up at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and the Maitland Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings, which is where I usually catch her.  I try to visit her table early before she starts selling out of everything.  (Trust me, these cookies will go fast!)  Follow Heartsong Cookies on Facebook for their whereabouts on any given weekend, and what flavors Kathy will have available at any time and place.  Anywhere she pops up next, rest assured she will be ready to share the most delicious cookies, hugs, and some much-needed joy wherever she is. 

Au Cheval (Chicago)

My new job sent me to Chicago twice this summer for training opportunities, and I did everything I could to explore and eat my way around the beautiful Windy City as much as I could.  I already regaled my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos with my epic excursion to Eataly, and the next really terrific meal I enjoyed in Chicago was at Au Cheval (http://auchevaldiner.com/chicago/).  It sounds like a fancy French restaurant, which is really not my thing, but instead it is a really nice, “elevated” diner.  Well, that’s how Au Cheval describes itself, anyway. 

It was a tight, crowded space with a handful of booths along the windows, and a bustling open kitchen with several barstools open for diners to sit facing the bar.  The dining room is relatively dark and full of dark leather and dark wood for a “macho,” masculine feel.  I got there in time for an early lunch, and I still waited about 20 minutes for a solo seat to open up at the farthest left corner of the busy kitchen/bar area.  I don’t drink, but I was watching expert bartenders slinging some really nice-looking cocktails the whole time I was there.

I fully admit Au Cheval wasn’t on my original dining agenda, but the first two restaurants I attempted to go to in Chicago’s West Loop (an incredible dining destination I strongly recommend to all) were closed for various reasons, so I’m really glad I wandered in there.  They don’t accept reservations for lunch or dinner, so I got lucky, all things considered.

The menu isn’t huge, but it consists of pure comfort food, of the delicious, heavy, hearty, and unhealthy variety.  They do have two salads and several egg dishes, but I was torn between two different dishes, and since I had no idea when I would be back in Chicago, I ordered both.

First up was seared, chilled, and chopped chicken liver ($14.95), one of the classic foods of my people.  It was served with rich, salted butter (almost overkill, given the fatty, savory richness of the liver) and the absolute finest toast I’ve ever had.  The bread was thick Texas toast, the kind you can get at my beloved Waffle House and so many other diners, ideal for patty melts and barbecue sandwiches.  Rather than being “toasted” in the traditional sense, it was cooked on the flattop griddle and beautifully buttered.  

As for the chopped liver, as my students used to say, IYKYK (if you know, you know).  It might look like cat food, but it is so rich and savory and tasty, I love it so much as a very rare treat.  Most of the chopped liver I’ve had from Jewish delicatessens and appetizing stores is a smooth, creamy, uniform consistency, but Au Cheval’s version was more roughly chopped for a more interesting texture.  It still spread so smoothly on the best toast ever, the butter was really kind of unnecessary… but ultimately too good to ignore.

After that, I was watching burger after beguiling burger come out of that open kitchen while I waited for my seat at the bar, so I couldn’t leave without one.  I ended up springing for the double cheeseburger ($16.95), since it was only two dollars more than the single, and this string of good decisions continued.  Constant readers, I have to tell you that this was the #1 absolute all-time best burger I’ve ever eaten in my damn life, here at Au Cheval in Chicago.  I’ve eaten burgers all around the state of Florida and elsewhere along the highways and byways of America, and this left them all in the dust.  Perfect in every way, ten out of ten, nothing comes close.It was like an ideal, iconic version of a “smash-style” diner burger, like a burger out of a Tom Waits song, but so much better than that fictional burger would have been in his sad world of late-night, lonely meals wolfed down in Edward Hopper environs.  While the menu said “double cheeseburger,” it sure looked like it had three patties to me.  What do you think, folks?

Traditionally, I have preferred thick, juicy burgers, but between Au Cheval and two restaurants here in Orlando that I haven’t had a chance to review yet, that smash style is definitely winning me over.  It had so much flavor and wasn’t overdone or dry at all — quite the opposite, in fact.  It was dressed simply, with a creamy sauce, a few scant pickle slices, and wonderfully melty American cheese between the patties, and I did put some ketchup on it.  The bun was grilled like the toast that came with my chopped liver, which is the best/only way to serve a hamburger bun.

Now I made two mistakes here: I did not order bacon on the burger, because that would have been an extra $6.95, and I felt like I was being decadent enough, with these two heavy, greasy dishes.  But Au Cheval serves really thick-cut bacon like some steakhouses do, and I bet it would have been totally worth it.  Sometimes bacon on burgers is undercooked, so you can’t get a good bite without pulling out the whole strip, and sometimes it is burnt to a crisp and doesn’t end up adding much to the experience.  I’m sure this would have made the best burger of my life even better, but then again, how can you possibly improve on perfection?

Also, I did not order fries or hash browns ($8.95 each), simply because I got plenty of carbs from the perfect toast and the bun from the perfect burger, and that would be a bit insane, even for me.  But I bet they would have been spectacular from a restaurant like this.  If they had onion rings, I would have been all about those, but they didn’t, so it was a moot point.  Regardless, I give my strongest possible recommendation to Au Cheval, and if you ever find yourself in Chicago, I would encourage you to ease up on the pizza casserole and overloaded Vienna Beef hot dogs to indulge here instead.

Sanguich De Miami (Miami)

My oldest, closest friend is a fellow food-lover and blogger, and since he still lives in Miami, the city of my birth and first 18 years on this big blue ball o’dirt, I defer to him on all things worth eating in South Florida.  He is an authority on croquetas and writes a semi-regular Croqueta Diaries column on his blog.  On the rare chances we get to visit each other, we try to introduce each other to our cities’ local favorite restaurants — not just our personal favorites, but the ones we are proudest of, that we think the other will appreciate the most.

It had been over two years since my last trip down to Miami to visit this guy (and also my family), thanks to the pandemic making social calls more fraught and long trips seem like less of a priority.  But I missed everyone, so back in July, I schlepped down south from Orlando and tried to make the most of it.  For my buddy and I, that usually meant hitting a few different restaurants to try to sample the best stuff in a limited amount of time.

Our ridiculous foodie day got off to the best possible start at one of Miami’s finest establishments, Sanguich De Miami (https://sanguich.com/).  It has become famous in a relatively short time for featuring some of the finest Cuban sandwiches in the city that specializes in them — no, not Tampa, the other one!  But my friend isn’t the only person who vouches for Sanguich — it earned a prestigious Michelin Bib Gourmand Award earlier this year, which is a huge honor for any restaurant.  Several of my Orlando favorites won Bib Gourmands in 2022 as well, and the Michelin website explains it best: “What Bib restaurants do have in common is their simpler style of cooking, which is recognisable, easy-to-eat and often something you feel you could attempt to replicate at home. A Bib restaurant will also leave you with a sense of satisfaction, at having eaten so well at such a reasonable price.”  My regular readers know I’m not the biggest fan of “fine dining,” so these Bib Gourmand-rated restaurants appeal to me a lot more.

Anyway, this is the beautiful, fragrant, flawless pan con bistec sandwich ($13.59) that we split in the car.  It contains thinly sliced sous vide steak, mojo rojo sauce, fried string potatoes, and Swiss cheese on pressed Cuban bread.  I’ve had several similar sandwiches at Cuban restaurants in Miami over the decades, but I can tell you that I’ve never had its equal.  Look at that cheese pull!  I just wish you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos could smell it.

We also ordered the pan con lechon ($10.99) to eat later.  This elevated take on another classic Miami sandwich contains shredded pork, pickled mojo onions, and garlic cilantro aioli on Cuban bread.  I hate to even put this in print, but sometimes the pork in these pork sandwiches is on the dry side, and sometimes it is sliced so thick that you take one bite and pull huge chunks out of the sandwich, destroying the structural integrity.  Well, that was not the case with this pan con lechon!  Look at it! 

Here’s the half I heated up back home, and it was glorious.  The pork was so flavorful, and all the elements sang together in perfect harmony.  Shredding the meat made it such a pleasant textural experience to eat, and everything held together, as it should.  Of course the bread was pressed to perfection, even surviving a four-hour drive and a trip through the toaster oven. 

Of course we didn’t leave well enough alone!  We ordered a third sandwich too, but my friend is such a mensch, he sent me packing with the whole thing, since he could return to Sanguich de Miami a heck of a lot sooner than I could.  We opted for a slight variation on the classic Cubano, for only 30 cents more: the croqueta preparada ($12.79).   

It contains all the same ingredients as the Cubano: city ham, lechon (the same pork that’s on the pan con lechon), Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on pressed Cuban bread, BUT there is one more ingredient that is probably obvious by now: two croquetas de jamon!  Yes, that’s right.  For a double dose of delectable decadence, Sanguich added two of those crispy, cracker crumb-coated croquettes stuffed with finely chopped ham and creamy bechamel sauce, deep fried and then pressed onto the sandwich so they turn warm and melty and gooey, almost like a super-savory Cubano condiment.  This wasn’t the biggest Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (that was from the former owner-operators of Orlando’s College Park Cafe), but it was easily one of the best.  Top Five, for sure.  Top two or three, absolutely.  Of course, the croquetas added a whole new dimension of deliciousness to the classic Cubano, just like how Tampa Cuban sandwiches (like the ones at Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery) add genoa salami.  But I’ve never had anything like the croqueta preparada sandwich from Sanguich.

So this place is worth every bit of praise and hype, trust me (or hey, trust a tire company that also rates restaurants, which makes about as much sense).  Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana is full of wonderful, iconic restaurants, and I’m sure it is pretty hard to get a bad meal there.  I’ve written about a couple of those establishments before, and I have one more Little Havana review from my most recent trip that I’m working on.  But next time you’re in Miami, you’ll avoid a lot of damage and anguish if you practice your Spanish and manage to order a sandwich from Sanguich (or two, or three).

Mr. Dunderbak’s (Tampa)

One of my closest friends lives in Tampa, and many years ago, he introduced me to a terrific German restaurant near his home called Mr. Dunderbak’s (https://dunderbaksbeer.wordpress.com/).  There used to be multiple locations, many of which were in malls, but this location moved out of Tampa’s University Mall and into its current location near the University of South Florida a long time ago, long before I discovered it.  There is also a completely separate, unaffiliated restaurant of the same name in Daytona Beach, with its own website and menu, but I’ve never been there.  The Tampa location, however, is near and dear to my heart.

I’ve ended up there a few times, visiting  dear friends from high school who had families and escaped Miami, just as I did, only they ended up in Tampa instead of Orlando.  On past visits, I would order a variety of wursts (sausages) and apply a variety of different mustards to them.  Mr. Dunderbak’s sells a variety of German groceries, including mustards, and I could never leave empty-handed.  The dining room is a bit crowded, and it’s dark inside, which I love.  Even though there are shelves of groceries, racks of candy, a full deli counter, a busy and bustling bar, and lots of tuba-heavy German music being piped in, it feels like an intimate experience.

At some point along the way, I brought my wife to Mr. Dunderbak’s, and she fell in love with the food and atmosphere too, as I knew she would.  We were lucky enough to return for two lunches earlier this summer, just the two of us — once on our way back from a quick getaway to St. Pete Beach, and again on our way to a concert in Tampa.  We had the same server both times, the lovely and patient Victoria, who made us feel like welcome regulars, even though these had been our first visits in far too many years.  She is the greatest!

Mr. Dunderbak’s serves the best pork rinds ever ($4.99 for this very generous portion).  They are so light and crispy, not like some others that are hard enough to break your teeth or your jaw crunching into them.  They aren’t greasy or overly salty, and they are covered with a light glaze of honey, making them sticky and sweet and salty all at the same time.  They are a delicious appetizer and snack, and the leftovers stayed crispy after we drove home from Tampa.

Of course I couldn’t resist trying Mr. Dunderbak’s onion rings ($8.99 for this huge portion) for the first time ever.  RING THE ALARM!  (That’s how I celebrate reviewing any onion rings, which I do whenever and wherever I find them on a menu.)  These were beer-battered, golden brown, lightly crispy, not greasy, not too crunchy, not too soft, not falling apart.  They were just right — my favorite kind of onion rings anywhere. 

I took a risk and chose the paprikasch pork gulasch ($13.99), even though it was a hot June day — less than ideal for a rich, meaty, spicy, tomato-based stew thick with pork, carrots, tomatoes, and twisty egg noodles.  I normally enjoy goulash in all of its forms, and even though it was tasty, I would have been better off with something a little less heavy and hearty in the thick of a Tampa summer. 

My gulasch came with two sides, so I got what I’ve had at my handful of previous visits to Mr. Dunderbak’s: both kinds of potato salad, since I’m such a mark for potato salad.  The one on the left is the German potato salad, served warm, in a sweet, thick, vinegary sauce.  The one on the right is a cold potato salad, also a bit sweet from vinegar, and served with crumbled bacon. 

My wife ordered a pork wiener schnitzel ($13.99) — a pork cutlet pounded flat, breaded with cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy.  You may notice a trend developing, but I am pleased to say it wasn’t greasy at all, not overly crunchy, the breading stayed on, and the meat inside was tender, juicy, and flavorful. 

Her schnitzel came with two sides, so she chose spaetzle (the most delicious little dumplings made from semolina flour and egg, sautéed in lots of butter), and homemade applesauce.  She loved both of these.

In fact, my wife loved all of this food so much, she ordered the same thing when we passed through again, a week later.

As for me, I had to try something different on our second visit, when we were lucky enough to have Victoria as our server again.  She even recognized us, and she helped me choose my next lunch: kassler rippchen ($19.99), two thin pork chops that were brined, cured, smoked, and served in an apricot, brown sugar, and Riesling reduction sauce.  They were outstanding.  I’ll rarely seek out pork chops on a menu or make them at home, but these were next-level delicious.  They were more like really good ham than any pork chops I’ve had before, due to the preparation method.  I loved them! 

In addition to a little round pretzel roll, this time I broke my pattern and ordered two different, slightly lighter and healthier sides: vinegary cucumber and dill salat (so perfect to cut the richness of the pork chops, and also crunchy, cool, tangy, and sweet), and a wonderful wilted spinach salat with shaved gruyere cheese and warm sweet and sour bacon dressing.  I shared both of these sides with my wife, and this one inspired her to start making spinach salads for herself at home, it was that good.

Since we were on our way to check into a hotel room in Ybor City before an evening concert, I wanted to get something to eat in our room so we wouldn’t have to schlep out into the night after the show.  My wife had plenty of leftovers, but I ordered a sandwich that I knew would travel well: Dunderbak’s French Connection sub ($11.99), with Genoa salami, smoked German Westphalian ham, German bologna, garlic chive cream cheese spread, Swiss cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a sub roll.  It was really good, but I should have asked Victoria to have them apply one of their many mustards to it to spice it up.  It was a good sub, and it came with a dill pickle spear and some Ruffles-style ridged potato chips, but I could have probably picked something more unique.  That said, I wanted something I could easily eat in a hotel room at night when I was tired, that didn’t require heating up in case we didn’t have a microwave oven.  

And this is the vaguely automobile-shaped thick slice of apple strudel ($8.99) we brought to our hotel room in Tampa.  The crust was very delicate, almost like a pie crust but softer and not as rich or flaky.  The strudel was heavily spiced with cinnamon, and it also contained raisins and walnuts.  I just had the tiniest taste, but my wife really enjoyed it.  She also had me buy a lot of candy, including some marzipan and Haribo gummies.

So that’s Mr. Dunderbak’s.  It’s somewhat off the beaten path for those traveling to Tampa, nestled in the New Tampa suburbs close to USF, and not exactly close to the more hip, happening, and tourist-friendly parts of town.  But if you like German food (including Sanford’s beloved Hollerbach’s, which we are also big fans of), you have to try Mr. Dunderbak’s too.  Next time, I’m sure I’ll go with my Tampa friends again, but these two lunches with my wife felt like romantic getaways, even with all the “oom-pah” march music in the background.

Alessi Bakery (Tampa)

Alessi Bakery (https://www.alessibakery.com/) first opened in Tampa in 1912.  That is older than any bakeries in Orlando, by several decades.  Founded by Italian immigration Nicolo Alessi, it is now run by the fourth generation of the Alessi family: Phil Alessi, Jr., who expanded the bakery and started a huge catering side to the business.  I think stories like that are beautiful, and I love supporting family-owned restaurants and businesses, especially with that much history behind them.  Orlando locals might have even tried Alessi’s baked goods without knowing it, because they make all the king cakes that Publix sells around Mardi Gras, at least here in the Orlando area.

I first discovered Alessi Bakery on a brief Tampa trip in 2017 and fell in love.  You can get overwhelmed browsing the gorgeous cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, cupcakes, breads, sandwiches, snacks, and prepared foods in the glass cases.  There is even a dining room for you to enjoy things right there, rather than packing everything up to go.

Here is an assortment of coconut macaroons, rugelach cookies filled with fruit preserves, and beautiful danish pastries I brought over to a gathering of Tampa friends back in March, our first time hanging out post-pandemic:

I also brought over four beautiful sfogliatelle pastries, an Italian bakery classic sometimes called “lobster tails.”  Light and crispy and flaky, these shell-shaped beauties are dusted with powdered sugar and filled with a slightly lemony custard:

And here is an assortment of Italian tea cookies I brought home for my wife after that March visit.  She loves these little dudes.  I remember cookies like this from small, mom-and-pop Miami bakeries from my childhood in the ’80s.  My mom always loved cookies like this too. 

This is another assortment of goodies I brought home: pound cake, New York crumb cake, zucchini bread, and multicolored birthday cake.  The pound cake slice at the top was by far the biggest hit.

Remembering this, we got two more wrapped slices of the pound cake on our June trip today:

I couldn’t remember what this thing was, but one of my good friends (who is also an Alessi fan, after I introduced him and his family to it) told me it is crème brûlée bread pudding.  He said it is his favorite dessert from here.  I’m sure I liked it too, because come on, look at it!

In addition to all the pastries and sweets, another Alessi Bakery specialty is scachatta, a kind of bread that looks like pizza and smells like pizza, but brother, it ain’t pizza.  It is a soft, yellow, egg-based flatbread (kind of like focaccia, but softer), covered with a slightly sweet tomato sauce full of very finely ground beef, but no cheese except for a light sprinkling of parmesan.  It is then cut into squares or rectangular slices and served at room temperature.  If this sounds weird, I cannot disagree with you, but it’s a thing, and it’s so much better than it sounds or even looks.  Saveur wrote a neat article about scachatta, and so did pizza blog Slice.  

This is a half-sheet ($19) that I bought to share with my friends when I caught up with them back in March.  Everyone really liked it.

When I returned to Alessi in June, I had to do one of my Saboscrivnerrific “Dare to Compare” experiments with the Alessi Bakery scachatta and the scachatta from Tampa’s other legendary Cuban bakery, La Segunda Central Bakery, which was founded three years later, in 1915.  I reviewed La Segunda back in October 2018 and tried the scachatta then, but for the sake of good food writing, I dragged my poor, patient wife to both bakeries back-to-back today and got a few items at La Segunda too.  The sacrifices I make for the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos out there!

Here is a photo I took back at home earlier today, with a small slice from a quarter-sheet of Alessi’s scachatta ($11) on the left, and a single slice of La Segunda’s scachatta ($2.29) on the right:
I love Alessi’s scachatta, really and truly.  But I have to give a slight edge to La Segunda here!  Their version was more savory and less sweet, and it had more flavor, perhaps due to the visible green pepper chunks in the sauce.  But I’d order either again, any time.

The only place to order anything remotely similar to scachatta in Orlando is at my favorite Italian restaurant, Tornatore’s — or to be more accurate, at their Italian market next door.  They serve an upstate New York delicacy called… STEAMED HAMS!  No, no, sorry, I kid.  Tornatore’s serves tomato pie — another soft flatbread spread with tomato paste and served at room temperature or chilled, but no cheese to put it into pizza territory.  It’s interesting how different regions came up with their own pizza-adjacent specialties.

Anyway, here is another delicious treat I’ve only ever found in Tampa: devil crab, a crispy croquette full of shredded, seasoned, savory crabmeat, coated in Cuban bread crumbs and deep-fried.  I had my first devil crab on my first-ever trip to Alessi in 2017, introduced a pescatarian pal to them back in 2018, and ordered two to share with my wife before our drive home from Orlando today:

In case you’ve never had a devil crab yourself, here’s an interior shot, to show it bursting with tender crab that melts in your mouth.  

Since we were sitting down to eat in Alessi’s dining room, I decided to try their macaroni and potato salads ($2.50 each).  I might not have bothered to drive back to Orlando with those mayo-based salads, with a 90-minute drive ahead (that ended up taking over two hours due to terrible traffic in the middle of a Saturday), but I’m so glad I treated myself to them.  This was one of the two best macaroni salads I’ve ever had in my life.  IN.  MY.  LIFE.  (The other is from Poke Hana, my favorite poke spot right here in Orlando.)

Both Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery prepare fabulous sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, including Cuban sandwiches, yet another Tampa specialty, always served on Cuban bread and pressed in a plancha.  Yes, Miami people, I know Cuban sandwiches are a major Miami thing too.  I’m from down there, and I grew up eating them.  But Tampa did them first, due to an earlier Cuban population working in the cigar factories of Ybor City alongside Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants.  That’s how the original Cuban sandwich (called the “mixto” at the time) was born: a combination of Cuban roast pork marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and herbs, Spanish sweet cured ham, Italian Genoa salami, and German mustard and pickles.  (The salami is a Tampa thing, specifically — Miami people are always outraged by it, except this Miami person.)

This is the hand-carved Cuban sandwich I brought home on my trip to Alessi back in March, with really thick slices of roast pork and ham.  It was good, but almost seemed like a little much.  I’m guessing this was the 12″ sandwich ($13.95).

On my June trip with my wife, I brought home the regular Cuban sandwich (a 9″ for $8.95, which is me showing unusual restraint), and I thought it was a lot better than the hand-carved version.  The pressed Cuban bread was less well-done, and the meats had a better texture with their thinner slices.  It was so much more pleasant to sink my teeth into, literally and figuratively.  Even eating it at room temperature, standing up in my kitchen immediately after driving back from Tampa, it was an excellent Cubano.

One thing to note about both Alessi Bakery’s hand-carved and regular Cuban sandwiches: they come with both yellow mustard and mayo, which was fine with me.  Some Cubanos are too dry, even with high-quality ingredients, and I think the mayo makes a fine sandwich lubricant here.  Also, even though the menu says they contain Genoa salami (Tampa’s gonna Tampa), neither of these Cubanos, ordered on two separate trips three months apart, had any.  (The Miami people are breathing a sigh of relief here, but I was looking forward to having a little salami, as a treat.)

I also brought this Italian sub ($11.95) home from my March trip to Alessi, and it was top-notch as well.  Thrill to the sight of Genoa salami (nobody can argue it is necessary in an Italian sandwich), ham, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, awesome hot pepper relish, oil, and vinegar on nice, soft, fresh-baked Italian bread.

Backtracking to Alessi’s Cuban bread, I brought this loaf over when I visited my Tampa friends in March, and everyone ripped into it with gusto.  The Cuban bread they sell at Publix cannot compare.  It doesn’t even come close.  I don’t think any Cuban bread I’ve tried in Orlando does, and I’ve been gone from Miami for far too long.

Once again, I wanted to DARE TO COMPARE Alessi’s Cuban bread to La Segunda’s, so during this busy morning of bakery-hopping, I bought a THREE-FOOT-LONG loaf of fresh La Segunda Cuban bread (left; a real attention-getter!), a new 18″ loaf of Alessi Cuban bread (center), and some buttered Cuban toast from La Segunda (right) for my wife, since she loved it so much on our 2018 visit when I reviewed it.  As you can see, La Segunda’s bread is double the length (and also thinner and softer), and Alessi’s is thicker and has more of a crackly outer crust.  By the way, that is a six-inch Cobra Commander action figure from the G.I. Joe Classified toy line, for scale.  COBRAAAAAA!  RETREAT AND EAT!   

Boy, that’s a lot of Cuban bread, you may be thinking, and you would be right.  I already know both Alessi and La Segunda are famous for their Cuban bread for good reason, and I have already enjoyed it in plenty of their sandwiches.  I will be making several sandwiches of my own in the week ahead, and because of some other ingredients I’ll be using, you will read all about them on The Saboscrivner in the next week or two!

In the meantime, if you are ever in or near Tampa, I’d say Alessi Bakery is definitely worth a special trip.  You can feel four generations of history and love in everything you eat there.  That’s a rare thing in today’s world, especially when so many experiences and sensations are fleeting and ephemeral.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot — the fresh lemonade is exceptional as well, especially today, driving home in temperatures over 100 degrees that felt like walking through warm Jell-O between the bakery and our little car.  If you go, don’t miss that lemonade, on top of all these other treasures!

Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

We were somewhere around DeLand on the edge of I-4 East when the Beaver Nuggets began to take hold.  Luckily, Doctor Professor Ma’am and I didn’t encounter any bats on our drive to or from Daytona Beach, but we shared a truly exhausting, truly American experience at Buc-ee’s (https://buc-ees.com/), the colossal convenience store just off I-95, a unique shopping experience as vast, overwhelming, and occasionally maddening as its home state of Texas.

Imagine Wawa, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart Supercenter twisted into a sweaty, throbbing throuple, and that comes close, but still doesn’t quite capture the sensory overload of Buc-ee’s.  I counted 43 locations on the website, but there are only two in Florida, both new: off the highway in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.  We didn’t even bother to fill up the car with gas there, given the surprising crowd at lunchtime on a Friday.  Instead, we hustled inside to see what food and snacks awaited us in the sprawling superstore.

They say everything is bigger in Texas: the deserts, the hats, the trucks, the cattle, the churches, the guns, the belt buckles, and unfortunately the intolerance (see recent news for far too many examples).  Well, Buc-ee’s goes big in every way as well.  Once we made our way through sections of the store devoted to kitschy casual clothing, folksy home décor, and touristy novelties (the “schlock and awe” department), we made it to the the real draws: stacks and stacks of snacks and snacks.

Here is the wall of jerky, which is the kind of wall Texas should focus on building.  There is also a jerky counter, where you can get any of the jerky varieties you want, by the pound.  It was easier and faster to grab bags off the wall for $7.99 each.   

I chose cherry maple, Bohemian garlic, and sweet and spicy beef jerky.  So far, the cherry maple was disappointingly bland, but the Bohemian garlic was packed with strong, garlicky flavor.

Doctor Professor Ma’am is more of a fan of gummy candy, and she was faced with overwhelming options, here at the wall of gummies. 

She went with hot cinnamon gummy bears (I think that smell, taste, and texture are all gross, but more for her!) and chamoy-flavored peach rings, pictured below with three different flavors of Rice Krispy Treats she chose (regular, salted caramel, and “Fruity”), plus fried pecans.

I’m not really into nuts.  I just buy them for her, and I almost never snack on them myself.  But when we busted into these fried pecans back at home, all I could say was “GOOD LORD.”  Even with the hell-squirrel armed with a sharp fork on the bag, “GOOD LORD” is the appropriate response.  I couldn’t believe how good they were.  At $14.99, that was the most expensive single item we bought, but it is a good-sized bag, and they are so rich, they should last quite a while.

As an unabashed fan and collector of condiments, sauces, and preserves, Buc-ee’s had a staggering selection to tease, tantalize, and tempt me.

I went a little mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes.  I couldn’t resist (I’m your) huckleberry and blackberry preserves, peach-chipotle and mango-pineapple-habanero salsas, prickly pear cactus jam, candied jalapeños, sweet and spicy ghost pepper hot sauce, and pickled quail eggs!

I fully admit I haven’t tried most of these yet, since our fridge door has only so much space (and it is already stuffed with interesting things in bottles and jars, as one would expect from me).  But I did just bust open the pickled quail eggs, after letting the jar chill in the fridge overnight, and I liked it a lot!  Very spicy and tangy from the vinegary brine, which includes garlic and jalapeños.  “What, you egg?”  [I stabbed it.]

It was even hard to choose a soft drink, with dozens of options.  This is only one of the three huge soda fountain setups.  I grabbed an extra-large cup, avoided anything I could find elsewhere, and sampled sips of the Buc-ee’s-specific flavors.  Favorites included pineapple cream soda, piña colada soda, orange Creamsicle soda, sarsaparilla, strawberry lemonade (non-carbonated), and my big winner, the cream soda on the far right, which I ultimately filled our shared cup with for the schlep home.  Doctor Professor Ma’am said it tasted like pecan pie filling as a soda, and she wasn’t wrong.  It was too sweet to be refreshing, but a very tasty cream soda nonetheless.  We also tried the blue cream soda, which I thought tasted like banana-flavored candy.  She liked it until the chemically aftertaste hit.   We both really wished some of those sodas were sold in bottles or cans, since we would have definitely bought a few different ones to savor later, but alas, they were fountain drinks only.

There were multiple stations to get hot, fresh food, including a station with barbecue sandwiches already wrapped in foil.  I grabbed us a pulled pork sandwich that was delicious.  Doctor Professor Ma’am was tired and hungry by this point, so we split it in the car in the parking lot on the way out to keep hungry from approaching hangry.  Forgive my freestyling, but we savagely ravaged this sandwich, and its richness fixed us from being sad bitches.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, but it didn’t overwhelm the smoky savoriness of the pork. 

There were also touch-screen kiosks for ordering other food, including tacos, burritos, chicken fingers, and a few other sandwiches that get freshly assembled.  I was really hoping to get a pastrami Reuben on a pretzel roll, which came highly recommended, but they weren’t available!  I was so disappointed, which is a quintessentially American take, to bemoan the loss of one option in this land of abundance.  So I chose a “Chopping Block” sandwich that came with sliced rare roast beef, horseradish, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and I asked to add jalapeños for a 50-cent upcharge.  We had to wait a while for that one, since the sandwich-makers were slammed due to 20 busy touchscreen kiosks all beaming in constant orders, but it was worth the wait.  The roast beef was tender, flavorful, and rare, the way I like it, the hoagie roll was nice and soft, and the sandwich was still warm by the time I got it home.   To the right is a chopped brisket sandwich that was also really good — pre-wrapped in foil like the pulled pork sandwich, and mixed up with sweet sauce.  I liked it even better than the pulled pork.

She was disappointed by the fresh potato chips, but I thought they were fine.  Just plain, crispy, salty, slightly greasy chips, as expected.

A fried apple pie was yet another impulse buy.  She enjoyed it in the car (eating it over the open bag to catch the cinnamon sugar cascade), and the one bite I took was really good.  The flaky fried crust was terrific.  We hoped it would be like the bubbly, crackly McDonald’s fried apple pies of our ’80s childhoods, but it turned out to be so much better than those.

Here’s half of the brisket sandwich I saved for Doctor Professor Ma’am back at home, along with a cream cheese kolache (left), a strawberry cheese kolache (right), and a sausage, cheese, and jalapeño kolache (bottom).  Kolaches are pastries that Czech immigrants brought to Texas.  There are sweet and savory varieties, and as you can see, the sweet ones look a lot like danishes.  The sausage inside that bottom one was hot dog-shaped, but much chewier, like a Slim Jim.  It was okay.  The pastry itself is just like chewy white bread.   
I also got a boudin kolache that looked almost exactly like the one on the bottom in this photo, stuffed with the savory Cajun pork-and-rice sausage, but that one didn’t last long enough to get photographed.

They had a fudge counter with nearly 20 different varieties of fudge, all neatly divided into squares.  You could buy any combination of four and get two more free, so how could we refuse?  My wife chose the different fudge flavors, and there is a chocolate one for sure, a chocolate pecan, a “gooey pecan,” a “tiger butter” in the top left (vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter), and a blueberry cheesecake fudge (bottom left).  The sweet fudge lady would cut off little sample slivers, and I sampled key lime pie and banana pudding fudge.  Both were good, but too rich to get entire slices of, on top of everything else.  She warned me I might not like the banana pudding fudge, but I sure showed her!

Anyway, these are ridiculously rich, so I know we will make them last.  We might even freeze some, forget about them for a while, and then have a pleasant surprise when we rediscover them days or probably weeks later.

The very first thing that tempted Doctor Professor Ma’am was a box of six pecan pralines.  I suggested we do one loop around the store first to get the lay of the land before we start grabbing everything, and that’s when she found individual pecan pralines at the fudge counter.  She was thrilled to be able to just get one, rather than a six-pack, with all the other stuff we chose.  I broke off one little morsel, and it was almost cloyingly sweet and  intensely rich.

Since I regularly review chips in my series of Tight Chips features here on The Saboscrivner, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few small bags of classic, barbecue, and hot Buc-ee’s chips.  I don’t know how they’ll be, but I got ’em.   
A sample guy was giving out samples of the barbecue-flavored Baked Chees-ee Curls, the Buc-ee’s version of Cheetos, and they were good enough to bring home a small bag.  I’m surprised Frito-Lay hasn’t come out with a barbecue Cheetos flavor, in all these decades.

And we couldn’t go all the way to Buc-ee’s without grabbing a bag of Beaver Nuggets, one of the most famous (infamous?) and recommended snacks from fellow travelers.  These things are unbelievably good.  Crunchy, toffee-sweet, buttery, salty.  Imagine Corn Pops cereal, but a million times better in every possible way.  Neither of us had ever tried them before, but I figured she would love them, and I was right.  As for me, I can eat a whole bag of chips standing up in my kitchen without even thinking about what I’m doing, but the Beaver Nuggets are so much richer, heavier, and more substantial than chips, I was perfectly content after just crunching on a few of them. 
The Buc-ee’s Nug-ees on the right are a “Bold ‘n’ Spicy” version of the sweet, crunchy Beaver Nuggets.  Their texture is softer, though — more like puffy Cheez Doodles that you can easily crush between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  They are well-dusted with spicy, cheesy orange powder that is spicier than regular Cheetos or Cheez Doodles, but much less spicy than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I can only imagine combining the two varieties in a bowl as some kind of decadent snack mix.

Finally, I grabbed two large boudain [sp] sausage links from a freezer case, and I got the small package of sliced smoked venison sausage at the jerky counter.  Those were $5 and $4.40 respectively — cheaper than I expected.  I haven’t tried them yet, but my hopes are high.

Our first trip to Buc-ee’s was both physically and mentally draining.  It is a lot to process, and if you arrive hungry and like to try new foods and snacks, you can get yourself in a bit of trouble there, as we did.  But it’s such an overwhelming experience, somewhere between the food halls in cosmopolitan cities like Philadelphia or Seattle and a Southern Walmart on Black Friday.  I suspect that if we ever return, the novelty and mystery will have worn off, so we can quickly grab a few favorites and rush out, without feeling the need to see and try everything, like we did this time.  Trader Joe’s definitely feels like that now, after breaking the bank on my first-ever visit so many years ago, but now just running in and out for a few staples while dodging the mobs.  Novelty fades.  Newness wears off.  That’s why I constantly seek it out and share it here, with YOU.

But beyond the novelty of new sandwiches, snacks, and sodas, Buc-ee’s also felt like the kind of roadside attractions that used to line America’s highways and byways — bemusement parks that drew cross-sections of society away from their homes and out of their cars, those in-between places that made the journey so much more interesting (and often weirder) than the destination, before every highway exit started to feature the same corporate fast food restaurants and chain stores.

Being in a new job in academia where I no longer work directly with our diverse student body, and generally avoiding crowds and social situations for the past two years, this was the most people I had been around in a while — and such people!  There were exhausted families, bored teenagers, leather-clad bikers, swaggering cowboy types, beachgoers, retirees, active-duty military men and women in uniform, actual Goths (in broad daylight, in Daytona Beach!), a guy who looked like Gung-Ho from G.I. Joe, and so many tattoos, with a particularly large amount of spider webs on elbows.  The two of us only noticed one guy in an overtly political T-shirt, and we seemed to be the only two people still wearing masks.  Stefon would have had a field day.  But everyone was passing through Buc-ee’s on their way somewhere, fueling themselves up before or after they fueled up their cars, or stopping to use the gleaming, spotless restrooms (which are indeed glorious, living up to all the hype).

I wondered where that sea of sweaty people was off to, and how many had made the pilgrimage to Buc-ee’s as their ultimate destination, as we had, rather than just a rest stop along the way to someplace else.  Well, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, I can tell you that Buc-ee’s is definitely worth a stop — at least once — but don’t expect to get any rest there.

The Aardvark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dochi

Sometimes you just have to have a doughnut, but not all doughnuts are created equal.  There’s something to be said for a fresh, warm Krispy Kreme when you’re driving by one of those shops and the “HOT DONUTS NOW” sign is lit up.  There are plenty of elevated, artisanal takes on doughnuts, which sometimes hit the spot, but occasionally you just want something sweet, sticky, and a little nasty.

And then there’s Dochi (https://www.dochicompany.com/), which serves a completely different kind of doughnut than you’ve ever tried before.  There are two Dochi locations in Washington state, one in Denver, and we are lucky to have two right here in Orlando (although the one in East End Market, Orlando’s small food hall in the Audubon Park neighborhood, is temporarily closed due to construction).  These are lighter and chewier than any conventional doughnuts, and not as greasy and heavy.  They are inspired by mochi, the sweet, chewy Japanese rice dessert, and they have beautiful “bubble ring” shapes, allowing you to easily pull pieces off to share, or just to save some for later… if you have the willpower.

They usually have five or six flavors available on any given day — some regulars and occasional new ones to keep things exciting.  They will always mark which flavors are available:

And since these are my wife’s favorite doughnuts, I will usually bring her home an assortment of six, which she makes last for a while, despite my dipping into them.  Six Dochi doughnuts cost $13, by the way.  Here are the attractive cardboard boxes, which will not leak grease upon your car upholstery, I’m relieved to report:

On this visit, I brought her home two strawberry Pocky (mostly because that one appealed to me the most), and one each of the rest: matcha Oreo, chocolate M&M, taro Pebbles (like the Fruity Pebbles cereal), and cinnamon-covered churro.

Well, today she was feeling like something sweet, and I was feeling like a hoagie from Hinckley’s Fancy Meats, so I headed out to the East End Market before it got too crowded to bring her home some more Dochi doughnuts.  This is when I found out that location was temporarily closed, so I got my delicious hoagie and headed off to the newer Dochi location in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and shops, just about ten minutes from East End Market.

Today they have six flavors: coffee red velvet, caramel Twix, strawberry Pocky, matcha Oreo, ube glaze, and taro Pebbles:

So I got my wife one of each:

Remember how I told you how easy it is to divide these up for sharing, or creating smaller portions?  We each tried every flavor by tearing off one little bubble from each doughnut for a delightful sampler of flavors, colors, and that unique chewy texture:

Now I like these fine, but my favorite doughnut that I’ve ever had in my life remains Edward Hawk’s citrus-glazed croissant doughnut.  I’ve still never had anything even close to it.  But if you ask my wife what kind of doughnut she would crave or recommend at any point, she will always return to Dochi, and encourage you to do the same.