Popeyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Git-N-Messy BBQ

I figure most Saboscrivner readers are aware that barbecue is more than just slathering meat with sweet, sticky sauce.  It’s the whole process of smoking meat for hours at a time over the right wood, low and slow.  When people talk about having a backyard barbecue and grillin’ hamburgers and hot dogs, I cringe, because that’s a cookout.  That’s grillin’.  And that’s super-cool and good, but that ain’t barbecuing.

There are regional barbecue styles in different parts of the country: Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina.  And different areas focus on different meats: beef brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and more.  Florida doesn’t have its own famous barbecue style, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, because it allows us to draw from the best of everywhere else.  That’s a major positive aspect of Central Florida: it’s a real melting pot — an interesting place to live, and a great place to eat.

That said, while we have some perfectly fine barbecue chains around Orlando (some of which used to be better than they are now), I’ve tried a few of them in recent months and haven’t been enthusiastic about writing reviews.  I have been searching for a while for some next-level barbecue worth shouting about from the virtual rooftops, restaurants that combine meat, sauce, smoke, time, and even ambiance to create something truly special.  And I found one the other day in an unassuming Shell gas station in suburban Sanford.

Git-N-Messy BBQ (https://www.facebook.com/gitnmessybbq/) opened recently in the Express convenience store at the Shell station on West Lake Mary Boulevard, just west of 17-92.  Chef Chuck Cobb previously ran an omakase-style sushi restaurant, Zoetic Sushi, that I never got to try, but people on the Orlando Foodie Forum were singing its praises.  But after Zoetic closed, Chef Chuck’s next move was to return to one of his prior loves: barbecue.  I knew of him from the Foodie Forum, but in person, he is a jovial, jocular personality, happy to chat as he prepared my order. dsc02585.jpg

Inside this convenience store, Chef Chuck has his open food prep area, with three high-top tables and a small bar set up with a few stools.  There are four different local beers on tap: two from Sanford Brewing Company and two from Central 28 Beer Company.  Yes, you can even get a pint of beer with your barbecue, if you dine in the convenience store!  Party boy that I am, I just got a hard-to-find strawberry-kiwi Gatorade to go.  I had planned to bring home my food to share everything with my wife, but a guy was hanging out at a table, just chillin’, enjoying the best pulled pork sandwich of his life (his words), after he had just stopped by to fill up his car with gas.  I knew I had to try that sandwich, but as usual, I wanted to try everything.

The Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($8) comes with slow-smoked pork that Chef Chuck further chopped into smaller pieces, house-made cole slaw, lots of sliced pickles (which I’m really okay with these days), and a Carolina-style mustard-based barbecue sauce I asked him to leave on the side.  The sandwich was huge, and a huge value for that price.  Here it is, back at home on a too-familiar plate:DSC02593

I also got an order of smoked beef brisket ($16), which consisted of four large and generous slices.  There was no need to chop them up further or drench them in sauce to obscure the rich-looking marbling or the dark, spicy outer bark.  At some restaurants, the brisket is too dry and tough, and at others, it seems like you just get served a pile of greasy fat.  Here, it was a perfect blend of tender meat and unctious fat, just perfect.
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And then I also got an order of smoked sausage ($8.50), a barbecue item that tends to be underrated, but I always like sausage in any forms.  The large link was chopped up into smaller segments, and once we got it home, we especially liked the rich snappiness of the outer casing — something missing in far too many sausages and hot dogs.  Even my wife liked the sausage, something she can usually take or leave.  It was a generous order, and probably my favorite smoked sausage that I’ve had, at least in a really long time.
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The sides I brought home included more of that cole slaw (which I might have gone without, since the giant pork sandwich had so much on it), very good baked beans, and excellent collard greens, of course cooked with meat.  I love collards, and I’ve tried to make them at home many times, but mine NEVER come out as good as these barbecue joints, even after spiking them with pepper vinegar.
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Chef Chuck loaded me up with five house-made sauces: sweet, mild, hot, mustard-based, and an Alabama white sauce that goes so perfectly with chicken — which is great, because I have a really bland chicken breast in the fridge that desperately needs something to salvage it.  That will teach me to stick to buying chicken thighs, the superior cut of chicken!  Anyway, they were all good sauces.
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I would have loved to try the St. Louis-style spare ribs, but those would not have been ready for another hour, and I couldn’t hang around that long.  But I’ll totally go back for them, because everything else was so amazing.  I learned that Chef Chuck can also make a Tampa-style Cuban sandwich with his own slow-smoked pulled pork in a house-made mojo marinade, Genoa salami, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, so that’s also intriguing.  Too often, the pork is the weak link in many Cuban sandwiches, either dry or not very flavorful.  I know it would be the star in his version of the Cubano.

I really liked everything I tried from Git-N-Messy BBQ, and immediately liked Chef Chuck Cobb, who is working meat miracles in this most unlikely of settings.  My readers know by now that too much extravagance and expense make me uncomfortable, and I’m much happier when I’m discovering humble hidden gems, casual restaurants that would be hard to find without a push in the right direction.  It doesn’t get much more humble or hidden than some of Central Florida’s best barbecue in a Sanford gas station, so consider this your push and the Saboscrivner your friendly neighborhood pusher.  Where else can you fill up your car and your belly at the same time?  (Costco, I guess, but Git-N-Messy is really something special!)  Just as a final note, Git-N-Messy is closed Sundays and Mondays, as even Chef Chuck needs some time off from smoking and slicing.

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.

Prohibition Kitchen (St. Augustine)

This past weekend, my wife and I ventured out to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, for my first time in almost 20 years and her first visit since elementary school.  We were going to a concert on Saturday night, but we decided to get a motel, stay the night, and use the day to explore a bit of the Historic District and grab a late lunch somewhere good.  Prohibition Kitchen (https://pkstaug.com/) came highly recommended, and it looked very much like our kind of place — a gastropub with an eclectic menu and a unique retro aesthetic.

Our motel was a real dump (I booked it online), and parking near the Historic District was a nightmare, but we were charmed by the beautiful old buildings and laid-back, touristy vibe of the Historic District once we finally got there and found a parking space.  Driving from Orlando, we had definitely built up an appetite, so we arrived at Prohibition Kitchen just in time, on our way to hangry.

It’s a long restaurant that goes pretty far back, with a long bar along the right side.  It was pretty busy when we go in, with a huge crowd gathered for the Florida Gators game.  We waited about half an hour for a table, but after how long it took us to park and find the place, we didn’t mind waiting.  Luckily, we arrived late in the fourth quarter, and the bar crowd cleared out when the UF game ended and the UCF game began.

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There is a stage to the right of the entrance for live music (which they feature many evenings).  This is a happening place!
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Stairs up to second floor loft section:
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We started out with a cup of beer cheese soup ($4), garnished with toasted pretzel crumbles.  It was excellent, with a nice texture that wasn’t too sticky or goopy, and not too smooth and uniform like most queso dips.  It even had the slightest bit of spice.  I would make this at home if I could find a similar recipe; it was that good.DSC02552

This was the German-style pretzel, served with beer cheese dip ($10).  It was light, fluffy, and buttery, with the slightest crispness to the outer crust.  I have nothing but love for Auntie Anne’s pretzels — in fact, they are the only thing that redeems my rare trips to malls — and this was similar to those, but on a much grander scale.  We have a hard time saying no to any kind of soft pretzels.DSC02553

However, the beer cheese dip, included in the price, was identical to the separate cup of beer cheese soup I ordered, and the same size, too.  Could our server have warned me that if I wanted to try the soup, I’d get a cup with the pretzel, to save me $4?  Sure, she could have, and it would have been appreciated.  And $4 isn’t going to break the bank for us, but it would have been a perfect opportunity to give me a heads-up.  Did I need two cups of beer cheese soup and/or dip?  Nope.  But did I slurp down two cups?  I sure as hell did, since I paid extra for one of them!

My wife made the best choice at this lunch, ordering the Maine lobster roll ($21), which actually came out as a pair of lobster rolls, both on grilled, buttered, New England-style split-top buns.  The lobstah meat was in big chunks, cool and refreshing, dressed with mayo, diced celery, chervil leaves, and Old Bay seasoning.  She gave me a delicious bite, and because she doesn’t dig on sandwiches, I ended up eating most of both buns, fan of buttered toast that I am.  DSC02554dsc02555.jpg

Having studied the menu in advance, I figured I would go with the Prohibition Kitchen signature burger ($16): a half-pound blend of sirloin, short rib, and brisket, served medium-rare with red onion bacon jam, a fried egg, and Red Dragon cheese, along with the typical lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles.  Red Dragon isn’t just a Hannibal Lecter novel anymore, but a Welsh cheddar made with whole grain mustard seeds and Welsh brown ale.  I’ve only ever had it once or twice ever, but as a fan of cheeses with stuff in them, and especially as a mustard aficionado, I figured I was choosing wisely.  I love onion jam and/or bacon jam as burger toppings, too.  I even ate all my pickles, and they weren’t bad!  DSC02556

Like BurgerFi, they brand the buns — in this case a fluffy brioche bun, which you can never go wrong with.DSC02557

The burger was perfectly fine.  Greasy, juicy, lots of flavors going on.  But on a humid day of walking around pushing my wife in her wheelchair over the cobblestone streets of St. Augustine’s Historic District, and especially with a concert to look forward to that night, I would have preferred the cool, refreshing lobster rolls she ordered to a heavy burger.  But I always say she’s the smart one, and that was one more example of why.

For the record, the fries were very forgettable, and neither of us ate very many of them.  I could have gotten a cup of beer cheese soup instead of the fries for a $2 upcharge, which would have at least saved me $2 (or gotten me a third cup of beer cheese soup), but I really need to let this go.

Anyway, that was the one meal we got to eat in St. Augustine, although after lunch, my wife bought two kinds of fudge and a big bag of different flavors of saltwater taffy at one of the many ubiquitous candy shops along St. George Street, one of the main drags.  We were both charmed by the touristy Historic District and swore to return together, when we didn’t have a concert to take up our evening.  We might even stay there next time to explore the history, culture, architecture, and food more, since we sure as hell are never going back to that dingy, decrepit, desolate dive of a motel, and it would be nice not to fight for a parking space every time we wanted to come and go.  And while we’d probably seek out other local eateries on a future visit, I’d still recommend Prohibition Kitchen to any St. Augustine newcomers.  The lobstah rolls, giant pretzel, and beer cheese soup were all well worth it.

Swine & Sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Fear Of Missing Out.

I’m so ashamed.

Krystal (the all-you-can-eat adventure)

When it comes to food, almost everyone has a guilty pleasure.  Maybe yours is Cadbury Creme Eggs (wisely bought on sale after Easter and saved in the depths of your freezer so you can enjoy one every month of the year that follows when nobody else has any), or trashy frozen French bread pizzas that remind you of hanging out at your friends’ houses in high school, or possibly even intimidating sandwiches you painstakingly assemble using two of those French bread pizzas in place of a sub roll, like a true sandwich artiste (particularly going for that self-destructive streak too many artists share).  It might be something as simple as ice cream, or fries, or fries dipped in said ice cream.  You might have a love-hate relationship with these foods.  Indulging might make you feel bad physically after the initial rush of excitement and joy, but you can’t help yourself.  Or they might bring you to a happy and comfortable place at the time, but then you feel shame or depression later on, like so many dysfunctional relationships.

After a disastrous attempt at the keto diet back in 2017, I now firmly believe we should eat whatever we want, just maybe a little bit less of it at each sitting, and maybe not indulge quite as often.  But life is full of pain and suffering and misery and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.  I say we should just take our pleasures where we can find them — ideally with some modicrum of moderation — and not feel too guilty.

Of course, that’s easier said than done when when of your (by which I mean my) guiltiest food pleasures are cheese Krystals, tiny little cheeseburgers served with mustard, onions, and a pickle slice on soft steamed buns.  Krystals (sometimes colloquially referred to as “sliders”) are the signature item from the fast food chain Krystal (https://krystal.com/).  If this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of White Castle, a fast food chain located throughout the Northern U.S.  We don’t have White Castle here (and I’ve never had a chance to go to one), but Krystal is the Southern equivalent.  Founded in 1932 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Krystal’s website claims it is the second-oldest fast food restaurant.  Locations are decorated in white and red and have a bit of a retro feel to them, and they’re usually sparkling clean and bright.

As you might guess, the Krystal burgers are very cheap (being a product of the Great Depression), remaining one of the better fast food values today.  They are meant to be consumed in mass quantities, and as you might also guess, they are not exactly health food.  I usually only go to Krystal once or twice a year, and luckily I have to drive out of my way to go to one, keeping it a rare indulgence.  When I go, I usually order a dozen cheese Krystals, and each soft little slider is lovingly tucked into a cardboard sleeve with one open side.  I’ll reach into the bag on my passenger seat and wolf down several of them before I even make it home.  Hey, I’m not proud.

But perhaps in an attempt to reach out to people like me, Krystal recently instituted an all-you-can-eat deal, offering unlimited Krystals and fries for $5.99.  (This deal is for dining in only.  You can’t get it to go, and you can’t leave and come back later and hope to get more.)  I had to try it, for the sake of this food blog and my dozens of vaguely-interested readers.  I figured I would live-blog my experience as I ate more and more sliders, perhaps chronicling my physical and mental decline, and to see how long I could stay in the restaurant, how many they would be willing to serve at a time, whether I could beat my previous Krystal record of eating twelve, and whether or not I’d wear out my welcome before I tapped out.  I love the state of journalism in 2019, don’t you?

Here’s a twist: I don’t think Krystal’s fries are anything special, so perhaps for the first time in the very short history of their all-you-can-eat deal, I asked them to hold the fries and just give me cheese Krystals.  (The incredulous cashier said “Are you sure?  The fries are included!”)  Just so ya know, the cheese is a $2 upcharge, but I think it’s totally worth it, as long as we’re indulging.  I also ordered a drink, a Sprite slushie for $1.  Hey, big spender!

So instead of giving you a tray laden with a precarious leaning tower of burgers like an old Jughead comic book cover, they start you out with four at a time.  If I had wanted fries, they would have given me a regular order of fries to begin with as well.DSC02469

Well, these sliders slide down real easy, so it wasn’t long before I went back to the counter and asked for a re-up.  Luckily they weren’t busy.  You can tell some time has passed because I drank about a third of the Sprite slushie with the first round.  Here’s round two: four more cheese Krystals.  DSC02470

I took my time with those soft, squishy, oniony, mustardy, cheesy little monsters, but I wasn’t ready to surrender to the sweet embrace of oblivion yet.  Like I said, my record for Krystals consumed had been twelve — sadly my usual order for the once or twice a year I drive through.  Whatever happened, I wanted to at least top that.  Why, you ask?  I couldn’t really tell you, dear Saboscrivnerinos.  Bragging rights?  I hardly think this is anything to brag about.

So I asked the nice lady for an order of five more, just so I’d have thirteen in all, and I could reevaluate my options after that.  She didn’t even argue with me.  I was clearly a man who came to play, who meant business, who could hold his sliders with the best of them.  Here they are, the Furious Five with no Grandmaster Flash in sight, and one-third of the slushie remaining.  DSC02471

In case there was any doubt remaining, I inhaled them.

And you know what?  After that, I made what might have been the smartest move I made that day — I called it a day.  Walked away while I was still on top (so to speak), quit while I was ahead (arguably), didn’t foolishly try to hit some arbitrary new Krystal milestone like 20, or doubling my old record with 24.

I ate thirteen of those things, and they were delicious, and I got it out of my system (pun very much intended).  I don’t need to return to Krystal for a while now — I’m good!  By the time I make it back, this dangerous all-you-can-eat deal will probably be over, and that’s fine with me.  I did the unthinkable that day, fearless readers, and lived to tell about it.  It was an intense 15 minutes that afternoon, let me tell you!

Washington D.C. Part 1: Ben’s Chili Bowl (RING THE ALARM!)

I am very lucky to be able to travel to professional conferences in different cities once in a while.  My profession has two major annual conferences: a huge national one in July and a smaller Southeastern conference in the spring.  In a really good year, I get to attend both.  Some years, my employer doesn’t have the budget to send me to either.  But each and every conference I attend is a gift.  I love them, because I get to visit and explore new cities, attend programs to help me improve at my job, learn from the best people in our field, catch up with my frolleagues (colleagues who have become friends), and eat at new restaurants along the way.

Our latest conference was in Washington D.C., and people are always shocked when I told them I’ve never been to our nation’s capital before.  Well, better late than never!  Even though this was a particularly busy conference, I was able to arrive a day early to play tourist.

That first day in D.C. was long and exhausting, but I credit a big breakfast at Reagan International Airport for giving me the strength to make it through.  I arrived so early, I figured I should kill a little time before even taking the Metro to check into my hotel.  And instead of the usual airport chains, I found a location of the Washington D.C. institution Ben’s Chili Bowl (https://www.benschilibowl.com/), a favorite of locals, tourists, celebrities, and even President Obama. DSC02332

Of course, most people opt for the historic location on U Street, founded by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958.  While that would have been a lot more atmospheric, I couldn’t beat the convenience of passing right by it on my way out of the airport. And I had wanted to try Ben’s anyway, so it worked out perfectly.DSC02334

So this was my healthy, balanced breakfast, around 9 AM after getting three hours of sleep the night before:

A spicy chili half-smoke sausage, grilled and served on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce.  The tomato-based chili con carne was very thin, with finely-ground beef — a pretty-standard hot dog chili, but that’s the best kind to put on a dog. DSC02335

The sausage itself had a nice bit of heat, but best of all was the snappiness it had, due to what was probably a natural casing.  This is definitely the kind of thing to eat with a knife and fork, but of course I didn’t.  Here’s a cross-section:
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My long-time readers know I order onion rings whenever I can, to see if they match my very high standards.  It’s a little recurring feature I like to call

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

For maybe the first time ever, I was a little disappointed that Ben’s served such a large portion of onion rings.  I never eat breakfast, I was still tired, and I was steeling myself for a really busy, physical day, so I knew I couldn’t eat them all, and I would make myself sick trying.  Luckily, they weren’t my absolute favorite kind of onion ring — instead of the golden beer battered rings I always seek, these had a crispy bread crumb coating that peeled off pretty easily.  Not awful by any means, but not my favorite onion rings ever.  I didn’t feel too guilty leaving some of them behind, since I knew they wouldn’t be worth dragging back to my hotel room to eat cold later.

And since this meal came with a huge, early morning blast of fat, salt, spice, and grease, I ordered a pineapple milkshake too, because I love pineapple anything, and I figured it would be cool and soothing after the spicy sausage, chili, and rings.  It was very thick and refreshing, but I wish it had been more pineappley.  It might have saved me from getting some acid reflux later on, so no regrets from me.dsc02336.jpg

After that, I never made it to the original Ben’s Chili Bowl location for that historic D.C. dining experience, but I was content.  I had always heard great things about Ben’s, and I’m glad I got to try the food for myself, even if it was in an airport location.  This wasn’t bad at all, but the meals I ate in Washington D.C. only got better from here.