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.

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

QuesaLoco

I just got home from Orlando’s newest Mexican restaurant, QuesaLoco (https://quesaloco.com/), which opened for business TODAY, Saturday, January 15, 2022.  I was the fifth person in line, about half an hour before it opened at 2:00, and they had a mariachi band playing festive, deafening music to make it a truly special, memorable occasion.  But today wasn’t my first experience with QuesaLoco.  Flash back with me to the fall of 2021, if you will — an era when some of us had received our boosters and were feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time in a while, in the era before we had ever heard of the Omicron Variant.

Last fall was when I first discovered QuesaLoco, in its original incarnation as a food truck, which I noticed while randomly driving by.  The QuesaLoco food truck had been setting up in front of the Lotto Zone convenience store at 4550 North Goldenrod Road in Winter Park, between Aloma Avenue and University Boulevard, on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons and evenings.  Unfortunately, I was thwarted by a ridiculously long line on that first attempt to stop.  Always seeking the new and novel and figuring anyone lined up at an unfamiliar food truck knows what’s up, I went home and looked it up, and made a plan to visit the truck as soon as I was able — ideally when the line was shorter.

I headed straight there after work on a Friday evening in the fall, planning to get there 20 minutes before it opened at 6:00.  I was the sixth person in line, and many more people queued up behind me.  Of course it started to pour rain, but nobody ran for cover or got frustrated and left.  Once the truck opened for business, they took orders very quickly and efficiently, and I think only about 15 minutes passed before I, lucky number six, got served.  The truck had a crew of five people, and they were all hustling like crazy to get everyone’s food ready.  I figured it was going to be good, but had no idea exactly what treasures I would be unboxing once I got home to my wife.

On that first visit, I started with a simple chorizo taco ($2.50), with crumbled spicy sausage, raw onions, and chopped cilantro on a very fresh, handmade corn tortilla.  It was a triumphant taco, everything you hope a chorizo taco will look, smell, taste, and even feel like.  The only thing you could do to improve this taco would be to increase its size, but this wasn’t the only thing I ordered.

Birria is a very trendy item in Mexican food these days — slow-braised shredded beef (or sometimes goat), served in tacos and other Mexican dishes (and sometimes even in ramen noodle soup!), usually accompanied by a dipping cup of rich consomme broth.  QuesaLoco offered birria in several different ways, so I opted for the most unfamiliar, a mulita ($6).  This was similar to a quesadilla, except instead of a flour tortilla, it was served as two fried corn tortillas stuffed with shredded birria beef, cheese, onion, and cilantro, dunked in consomme, and topped with sprinkles of cotija cheese before being wrapped up for me.   I’ve never noticed mulitas on any other Mexican menus around here, but consider me a card-carrying convert to the mulita militia.  (If only I still had my mullet!)
The extra cup of consomme on the side is a $1 upcharge, but I strongly recommend it, even if you aren’t ordering birria!  Unlike some other birria consomme I’ve seen and tried elsewhere, this one wasn’t bright orange with oil, but a legitimate broth that was rich and flavorful, perfect to dip things in, but probably just as good to sip on a cool day.

Finally, the coup de grace: a torta, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a sandwich full of al pastor (pork marinated in spices with pineapple and usually sliced off a rotating spit called a trompo), which is one of my favorite meats, period.  This sensational, stupendous sandwich was $12, and worth every penny.  It’s a truly titanic torta, the fresh, soft, lightly grilled roll stuffed with plenty of al pastor, melted cheese, cotija cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro,  and crema.  I have always been a huge fan of the tortas from the venerable Tortas El Rey, and I think this torta can easily stand alongside them in the sandwich pantheon.  After the small chorizo taco and the birria mulita, I got two additional meals out of this torta!

I ordered this carne asada quesadilla ($10) for my wife, and we were both blown away by how huge, heavy, and delicious it was.

Here’s a different angle.  Like everything else, they were extremely generous with the meat, cheese, and cilantro.  (She doesn’t like onions, so I always ask places to hold the onions for her.  Me, I love onions, but I love her more.)

This outstanding limon (lime) agua fresca ($4.50 for a large) was so cold,  refreshing, and delicious.  It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying, and did not taste artificial at all.  The sweetness was balanced perfectly by the acidic tang of real lime juice and the sweet, spicy chamoy and Tajin seasoning around the rim of the cup (a 50-cent upcharge).  It splashed around in my cupholder on the drive home because they couldn’t put a lid on it for obvious reasons, but it was worth it.   

I have been following QuesaLoco’s social media ever since that first visit, and they promised their long-awaited permanent restaurant location  would be opening soon.  Well, constant readers, that day was today, and the new location is open for business and already awesome.

The brick and mortar location of QuesaLoco is up and running at 971 West Fairbanks Avenue, a few doors down from Mediterranean Deli, home of the best gyro in Orlando and one of my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021

After the staff cut the ribbon right at 2:00, they let us inside.  The interior walls are covered with beautiful, colorful murals inspired by Mexican folk art, especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery.

Even the restroom doors are painted:

The six-piece mariachi band was tearing it up!  I had to shout my order over their brassy serenade (and through my unflattering-but-necessary N95 mask), but Silvia on the cash register rang everything up correctly.   

After how much I loved the limon agua fresca from the food truck a few months ago, I was excited that they had so many flavors available here at the restaurant:

I ended up choosing pineapple and fresa (strawberry), which were $4 each.  The strawberry surprised me by being very creamy, almost like melted strawberry ice cream.  I drank a little on the way home, but saved plenty for my wife because I knew she would like it too.  Pineapple is my go-to agua fresca flavor, and this one did not disappoint, but next time I’ll get different ones.

Once I got home, the first thing I tried was the taco de cecina ($4), a traditional taco from Tampico, Mexico.  It features fried skirt steak (arrechera), chopped into small pieces and wrapped in two soft, fried corn tortillas, with diced onion and cilantro, sliced avocado, and crema, with grilled onions and a whole grilled, blistered jalapeño toreado on the side.

My wife usually likes sopes from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey, so I ordered her a sope from QuesaLoco ($5.50).  Sopes are a fried masa corn disc (sometimes puffy, sometimes flatter like this one), topped with the al pastor pork I liked so much in my torta last time, refried beans, crumbled cotija cheese, and crema.  I asked them to hold the lettuce, tomato, and onions, since the lettuce would have wilted on the drive home, and my wife isn’t into tomatoes or onions anyway.

Because I loved that beautiful torta so much on my visit to the food truck, I thought I might order another torta today, but wasn’t sure which meat I would choose.  My decision was made for me when I saw QuesaLoco’s brand-new, expanded menu, with the option of the torta de la Barda ($15).  This classic street sandwich from Tampico has everything: sliced ham, shredded beef, crumbled chorizo, pork jam, stewed chicharrones (pork skins), crumbled cotija cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and salsa verde on another perfectly soft Mexican roll.  It is huge, but I put it away.

As I said earlier, birria is one of the house specialties at QuesaLoco.  But since I had already sampled tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and the birria itself in my first-ever mulita, this time I couldn’t resist a new menu item: birria ramen ($12).  Yes!  They serve ramen noodle soup made with the consommé broth, onions, cilantro, and sliced radishes.  I guess they must have larger bowls for customers who dine in, since my takeout order was divided into two smaller styrofoam cups.  But that was fine with me, because it automatically divided it into two portions for me for later.

This is so unbelievably good.  Better than it looks, better than you’re probably even thinking.  It is the best kind of fusion cuisine — a dish that combines flavors and cultures, without detracting from either. 

I’m so glad I was one of the first people in line at QuesaLoco on its opening day, because the line was pretty long when I left.  People were wrapped around the side of the small plaza’s parking lot, and a few shot me dirty looks as I left with two large bags and two colorful cups.  But just like going to the doctor’s office, you want to try to get to a hot new restaurant early, because the longer you wait, the more they might be slowed down.  No matter when you go, rest assured that QuesaLoco will be worth the wait.  If you loved the food truck, you’ll only find more to love in their beautiful dining room, with its lovely artwork and expanded menu.  And if you never got to try the food truck (which is going on hiatus for a while), then you are in for such a treat.  You can’t go wrong trying anything I ordered on either of my visits, but I don’t think anything on the new menu could possibly disappoint.  Even though you won’t get the opening day experience with live mariachis blowing the roof off the place, you’re going to have an incredible meal… or two or three, if you order like I did.

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen

At this point in my food writing, I keep an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the restaurants I want to try — and so I can always quickly send menu links to the people I eat with the most, my wife and my co-workers.  One restaurant that had been at the top of my list for far too long is Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen (https://www.cavosbar.com/) in Thornton Park, a neighborhood near downtown Orlando that I recently called “Thornton No-Park,” due to the lack of parking spaces.  I dragged three co-workers down to Cavo’s for lunch on a relatively quiet Friday not that long ago, and we definitely had to drive around a bit before we could park, but it was worth the wait.

I’ve been reading so many raves about Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13), so I had to try it, even though I often find cheesesteaks disappointing.  Usually the meat is relatively low-quality and dissolves into a pool of boiling lava-hot grease and melted cheese that never cools down, making it literally painful to eat, on top of being messy.  But this was easily the best cheesesteak I’ve tried in Orlando, and probably the best one I’ve had outside of Philadelphia.  The freshly baked soft roll, adorned with sesame seeds, held up to the heavy load inside — tasty thin-sliced ribeye (the king of steaks as far as I’m concerned), melty white American cheese, and plenty of sautéed onions, although if you ask me, you can’t ever put enough sautéed onions on anything.  It lived up to the hype and made me realize I still do like cheesesteaks; I just hadn’t had a worthy cheesesteak in a long time.

One co-worker ordered a gorgeous-looking Reuben sandwich ($13), with the usual suspects: corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing (not Russian dressing, but still good) on grilled marble rye.  I know her to be a fan of Reubens, as am I, and she looked content.

My vegetarian co-worker got the vegetarian sandwich ($13), with fried eggplant, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and roasted garlic basil vinaigrette on a fresh baked hoagie roll.  It looked good and smelled even better.  I didn’t ask her to try it, but even as a non-vegetarian myself, that looked like something I would really like.

Another co-worker who tries to eat healthy got the Cavo salad ($13), with spinach and romaine mix, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, artichokes, roasted red peppers, charred vidalia onions, garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, tossed with Cavo’s house vinaigrette dressing.  He added chicken for an additional $5.   He seemed to like it, and that’s what I call a salad!   

I got this plate of curly fries ($4) intending to share it with everyone.  They were awesome — maybe my favorite kind of fries, with a crispy seasoned coating and soft on the inside.  My beloved Arby’s serves fries like this, and so does Checkers.  But two of my colleagues ordered their own plates of tater tots ($4 each), leaving me with more fries than I expected.  It wasn’t a problem, though!

That night, when I got home from work, I enjoyed half of the classic Italian hoagie ($13) after it chilled in the fridge for a few hours, allowing the flavors to meld.  This beautiful sandwich included tavern ham, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, sweet Italian peppers, pickles, and oregano vinaigrette dressing on the same kind of soft seeded roll.  Years ago, the pickles might have ruined the sandwich for me, and even though I normally wouldn’t order them on an Italian sub, my growing tolerance for pickles has turned into an obsession, so I thought I would try them.  They only added; they did not detract.  It was an excellent Italian hoagie — maybe not reaching the great heights of the Stasio sub, the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie, the Rocco from Manzano’s Deli, or incredible new hoagies from Pizza Bruno, but it is still a top-tier Italian sandwich here in Orlando. 

I liked the space and loved the food.  If only it was easier to park at Cavo’s, I would want to be a regular for sure.  As it is, it will have to be a rare treat when I’m in Thornton No-Park, along with other local favorites Mason Jar Provisions and Benjamin French Bakery.  But rare treats may be the best, because if you treat yourself too often, the ritual starts to feel more commonplace, and less special as a result.  But that cheesesteak… wow.  That was totally worth driving laps around Thornton No-Park, or maybe even taking a Lyft down there in the future.

Build My Burgers

Build My Burgers (https://www.buildmyburgers.com/) sounds like something an old-timey Southern lady would say, as an expression of surprise or exasperation: “Well, build mah burgers!”  But no such phrase exists, although maybe it should.  Instead, Build My Burgers is a new fast-casual burger restaurant that opened in a small shopping plaza on University Boulevard, just a few minutes west of the University of Central Florida.  It is an independent, locally owned restaurant, and it could really use your support, because Build My Burgers will build you a tasty burger to your exact specifications, with dozens of options to customize it.  You can have a lot of fun here.  I sure did.

The burgers themselves are Black Angus beef, served as thin, “smashed” patties.  They might not be as thick or juicy as the patties from a burger joint like Fuddruckers or Teak, but they pack a lot of flavor and are clearly high-quality beef.  You can also choose regular or spicy fried chicken, a veggie burger, or an Impossible Burger if you don’t feel like beef.  Brioche is the standard bun, but you could also get your burger or sandwich on a thicker pretzel bun for a $2 upcharge or a lettuce bed for no additional cost, for the keto dieters out there.  (I did keto for five miserable months in 2017, and let’s just say it did not end well.)

But best of all about Build My Burgers, at least in my book, is the voluminous list of burger toppings and condiments to choose from.  I know some people’s brains short-circuit and shut down when faced with too many choices, but I love being able to choose so many different flavors and textures to make a one-of-a-kind meal, whether I’m customizing a poke bowl, a sandwich, a burrito, or a burger, in this case.

I opted for a double-patty burger ($8.99) with two slices of American cheese (75 cents each) on the standard brioche bun.  From there, I asked them to add ketchup, spicy mustard, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, pickles, roasted red peppers, crunchy potato sticks (making their second appearance in a row on The Saboscrivner blog), and guacamole.  Our food arrived on metal trays,  with the burgers wrapped up, fast food-style, already assembled.  Good grief, that was an insanely beautiful, messy, and delicious burger!

My wife likes to keep things simple, so she ordered a single burger ($6.49) on the pretzel bun (a $2 upcharge), and only opted to add thousand island dressing, which was a really good condiment pairing.  She ended up thinking the pretzel bun was just okay, but probably would have preferred the brioche.  I thought the denser, thicker pretzel bun would have been balanced better with a thicker, two-patty burger and more toppings and condiments. 
Next time she’ll get a burger on a brioche bun with guacamole, and next time I’ll probably get something very similar to what I got this time, but add thousand island.  We both thought the crinkle-cut fries, dusted with a peppery seasoning, were just okay.

What really sold me on finally trying Build My Burgers were people’s photos of the onion rings.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I am an onion ring aficionado, and I’ll try onion rings anywhere I find them.  Those inevitable onion ring reviews get a special tag: RING THE ALARM!  And these onion rings ($4.99) are “my type,” with their golden brown batter.  Perfect size, shape, color, consistency, and taste.  Flawless onion rings, worth ringing the alarm for. 

My wife was really craving a chocolate shake ($5.99), but also asked me if I had any interest in sharing an order of fried Oreos ($5.99).  That’s a decadent double dessert right there, but I realized neither of us had ever had fried Oreos before, so why not?  Anything the Scots love has to be pretty good, right?  Well, she seemed to really like the shake, and I enjoyed the obligatory sip I took. 
Does anyone remember Pulp Fiction, one of the biggest movies to come out in 1994?  I was in 11th grade at the time, and I was absolutely obsessed with it.  Anywhere, there was a whole discussion about how a cheesy ’50s diner-themed restaurant in L.A. served five-dollar milkshakes, and what a ripoff that was.  I always think of that moment in the film whenever I encounter milkshakes, because over 25 years later, five dollars is pretty standard, and many places cost far more.  Vincent Vega would have lost his damn mind if he saw the $15.99 “freaky shakes” on the Build My Burgers menu, but those are huge, opulent, towering structures meant to be photographed and shared (but not picked up, because all kinds of stuff is stuck to the outside of the glasses).  This standard chocolate milkshake in a standard plastic cup suited my wife just fine.

And because you were wondering, here’s a cross-section of the fried Oreos.  They were actually better than I expected, in that the batter was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and the Oreo still had some crunch to it.  I was expecting a sad, greasy mess that would make me feel guiltier than usual, and also a little disappointed.  Well, they weren’t greasy or disappointing at all, I’m happy to report!

I don’t end up on the east side of Orlando near UCF to eat very often, but if you’re out there, you can definitely count on a tasty burger from Build My Burgers.  Any of my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I value freedom of choice, and how much I love being able to customize and trick out my meals with a variety of options.  This is the perfect place for that.  Even vegetarians would be very content.  I look forward to returning and improvising some new crazy burger combination, but in the meantime, I wanted to spread the word about a relatively new restaurant that could use every bit of support.

Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.