Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”

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!

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.

Grocery Grails: Cutting the Mustard

In the three years I’ve been writing this food blog, I have made no secret of my love of condiments and sauces.  I love visiting new and unfamiliar grocery stores anywhere I go, and there are a few sections and aisles I will always spend my time browsing: the deli, chips and snacks, canned seafood, jarred pickled vegetables, and condiments and sauces.  I am always looking for new taste sensations, especially any products I can’t find locally.

Ask my patient wife — our refrigerator door and pantry are both full to bursting with condiments and sauces, and I am the only one who likes 99% of them.  I’ve been known to plan entire meals around a specific condiment or sauce, and I’ve begged and pleaded with restaurants to sell me some of their unique house-made condiments, salad dressings, etc.  Sometimes they even say yes and hook me up.

But while some condiments have limited uses, like ketchup (burgers, meatloaf, fries, and onion rings; never on hot dogs), mustards are near and dear to my heart because there are infinite brands and varieties, and infinite uses for them.  I freakin’ love mustard.  My dad was from Brooklyn, and we ate a lot of hot dogs growing up, between Hebrew Nationals cooked at home, Sabrett carts that used to be all over Miami, and the legendary Arbetter’s, founded in 1959, which I hope to review some day, on my next visit back to where I grew up.  He always bought Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard for the house, which is a perfect good, versatile, cheap, everyday mustard for hot dogs, burgers, and so much more.  It isn’t that spicy, though — trust me, everyone else in my family hates all spicy food.  Spicy food turns my dad from brilliant, mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner into the Hulk, to the point of making him angry.  (And you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry!)  They all wonder how I got this way, where I love trying interesting, new, and spicy flavors.

Ever since my first apartment in college in the late ’90s, I’ve been cooking for myself, trying to stick to a budget (back then it was a very small budget), but still branching out and trying new things whenever I could, as a treat.  My love of mustards has only grown in the last 20+ years, and now I have a veritable collection.  Some are better spread on different kinds of sandwiches, some on burgers and dogs, some with sausages, some with lamb, some with sardines, some in marinades and dressings… you get the picture.

Hence my newest Saboscrivner feature, a spinoff of my Grocery Grails features where I review different grocery items, called Cutting the Mustard.  In this inaugural Cutting the Mustard feature, I reviewed seven mustards I have at home right now.  (I have more, but I don’t want too many mustards open in the fridge at the same time.  My wife doesn’t like them at all, and I am just one man!)  I timed this piece to be published on Memorial Day weekend, so as we remember and honor our servicemen and servicewomen who made the ultimate sacrifice, you may find yourself at a cookout where hamburgers and hot dogs are being grilled, especially now that people have been getting vaccinated over the last few months.  Since it is becoming safe to gather and share meals with family and friends again, someone may ask you to recommend or even bring a mustard.  You’re welcome!

In an attempt to introduce the scientific method to these mustard reviews, I tried each of them the exact same way, as a control for this taste testing: on some Deutsche Kuche Bavarian soft pretzel sticks, purchased at my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  These aren’t available all the time — just a few times a year when Aldi busts out this private label of German imports.  I always try to stock up on these when I can.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” but you can call it whatever you like. I just heat up the frozen pretzel sticks on a tray in the toaster oven for nine minutes at 350 degrees, and they come out crackly and crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.  They are way better than you’d think frozen pretzels could possibly be — better than many fresh soft pretzels I’ve had.  Plus, pretzels are a perfect mustard delivery device, so let the grand experiment begin!  On to the mustards!

These are the seven mustards I go on to taste below.  I’ll tell you where I got each one, what I think of them, and what you might want to do with them.

The first mustard I tried is Sir Kensington’s Dijon mustard.  Sir Kensington’s is an excellent brand of mustards, condiments, and salad dressings that tend to be on the pricey side, but I stocked up on several jars on clearance over a year ago, when the late, lamented Lucky’s Market was still open, and I’ve made them last.  Publix puts their products on sale occasionally, so be on the lookout.   I have never been a huge fan of any Dijon mustards for everyday use on things like sandwiches, hot dogs, or burgers, so I wasn’t enamored with a big dollop of Sir Kensington’s Dijon on the soft pretzel here.  If you’ve had the more famous Grey Poupon (but of course!) or even a cheap store-brand Dijon, you know what you’re trying here — smooth texture, a little flavor from white wine, a little spice you can feel in your nostrils.  But I keep this particular mustard on hand for one purpose: LAMB.  Dijon goes so well with the rich and slightly gamey flavor of lamb, which my wife and I both love.  I buy thick-cut lamb loin chops at Costco, rub them with Dijon mustard, sprinkle with salt and pepper and whatever herbs I feel like using, and roast them until they are rare.  It’s a winning flavor combination, and one of the only situations where my wife tolerates any form of mustard.

But not all Dijon is created equal!  Grey Poupon makes a Mild & Creamy Dijon mustard that I tried several years ago when it was on sale, and instantly became obsessed with.  I own about ten bottles of it right now, after snatching up a deeply discounted dozen at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet a while back.  This mustard remedies all of my criticisms about regular Dijon, including regular Grey Poupon.  It’s a fabulous mustard to spread onto most sandwiches: roast beef, turkey, ham, chicken salad, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, even an Italian sub, and those are usually better off without mustard.  (Don’t ever sully an Italian sub with yellow mustard!)  Despite the way it looks, the Mild & Creamy Dijon doesn’t have a gritty consistency from the visible seeds, so if that is a turn-off, don’t worry.  I don’t like whole-grain mustards that feel like you’re crunching a mouthful of Nerds either. I don’t think Mild & Creamy Dijon is spicy or pungent enough to complement hot dogs or classic Jewish deli-style sandwiches like pastrami, corned beef, or tongue, where the salted, cured meats usually beg for something tangy, spicy, or garlicky.  But for more everyday sandwiches, it’s a wonderful choice, and I did not mind having some straight up on the soft pretzel.

By the way, it is far too rare when my love of food and my love of hip hop cross over, but did you know there is a long tradition of rappers referencing Grey Poupon in hip hop lyrics, as a symbol of luxury?  It’s true!  Vox published an article and a playlist with 26 songs that reference Grey Poupon mustard over a 25-year period, up to 2016.  I appreciated this to no end, especially as a researcher and pop culture scholar in my day job.  But I digress.

I don’t shop at Walmart often, but sometimes I end up there when I work past 10 PM and other stores have closed, and I always check to see what interesting foods they have that nobody else carries.  Walmart has two private labels: the cheap Great Value, and the more upscale and gourmet Sam’s Choice, which has some pretty tasty, high-quality products, including a whole line of mustards.  I picked up this Sam’s Choice Herb Mustard because it was on clearance for a buck, down from the usual $3-something.  It had less of the tangy pungency that a regular yellow mustard is known for, and the herbs in question are tarragon and garlic, plus white vinegar, white wine vinegar, and mysterious “spices.” I haven’t eaten enough tarragon in my lifetime to confidently, competently describe what it tastes like on its own, and it isn’t terribly garlicky either.  Think of this as a yellow mustard that isn’t as “bright,” tangy, vinegary, or salty as you’re used to from a lifetime of cookouts.   There is an extremely subtle sweetness to it that isn’t there in regular yellow mustard.  I’ve tried it in several sandwiches since my first taste, including with some sardines, and also mixed it into chicken salad, where it is pretty inoffensive.  I didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it either.  At least the price was right.

With few exceptions, I never keep plain, regular yellow mustard at home.  Sometimes (too often), it is the only choice available at restaurants.  It is fine on hot dogs and hamburgers (my beloved Krystals wouldn’t be the same without yellow mustard), but there is one more purpose for it, where a “nicer,” fancier mustard just wouldn’t be right: Cuban sandwiches.  When you slice and stack tender, mojo criollo-marinated roast pork loin, sweet baked ham, Swiss cheese, and crunchy dill pickles on fresh Cuban bread and press it in a plancha, you need that basic yellow mustard for the Cubano to taste just right, making it one of the ultimate sandwiches of all time.   And I believe I have found the tastiest yellow mustard out there, or at least my own personal favorite: Sam’s Choice Cuban Style Mustard, also from Walmart.  It tastes so much better than any other yellow mustard I’ve ever tried, and oh yes, I did put it on homemade Cubanos and a couple of store-bought Cuban sandwiches too.  I stocked up on a few bottles of this, because I don’t go to Walmart that often, but it is really good.  Publix doesn’t carry any equivalent of this, and Winn-Dixie carries a Cuban mustard from the Plochman’s brand, which is a few dollars more than the Sam’s Choice.  I haven’t tried the Plochman’s Cuban yet, but at least I know I like this one a lot for anything that normally calls for yellow mustard.

Terrapin Ridge Farms is definitely a fancy, upscale brand that I normally don’t take a second look at due to price, but it is based out of Clearwater, Florida, which is home to a really nice beach.  Publix stocks a few Terrapin Ridge Farms condiments near the deli, but not even close to all the interesting flavors they produce.  No matter how good their condiments may look and sound, I can’t justify spending $7 for a jar.  But a few weeks ago, Publix had a Buy One, Get One Free sale for their small Terrapin Ridge Farms product selection,  so I finally indulged.  I bought three jars of an absolutely delicious hot pepper bacon jam, and one jar of this dill pickle mustard.  It’s on the creamy side, and very pickley.  It tastes more like sour pickles than dill.  Normally I’d put mustard and pickles on burgers or sandwiches, so I’m trying to think of uses where you might want this mustard to cover both bases, without making it redundant by using actual pickles.  I also dipped some homemade sweet potato oven fries in it and mixed a lot of it into some chicken salad, and those worked okay.  I think I’d rather use other mustards and then just add favorite pickles for a nice crunch, but if you don’t have pickles on hand or don’t want to use them, you might be pleasantly surprised by this mustard.

I was also dipping sweet potato fries in this Robert Rothschild Farm Sweet & Spicy mustard, which was a better fit for them.  The Robert Rothschild Farm brand is always expensive, but their products seem almost tailor-made to tempt me: mustards, condiments, sauces, dressings, and dips with flavor combinations I love.  They always have stuff that is savory, sweet, spicy, fruity, smoky — often all combined together!  This Sweet & Spicy mustard is thick and sticky like a honey mustard, with a slight bite, but not overpoweringly hot.  It was fine on the soft pretzel, but very good with the sweet potato fries.   I think it would work well in a sandwich with savory meats like roast beef and turkey.  It would be an inspired main ingredient in a glaze if you were baking a ham (and then you could leave out some sugar), but it might be a little much spread onto a sweet ham sandwich.  It would be great as a dip for heavy, salty fried foods like french fries or fried chicken, or made into a barbecue sauce.

Last, but definitely not least, is another Robert Rothschild Farm product, Anna Mae’s Smoky mustard.  This was recommended to me by a foodie friend and former co-worker, and that’s when I learned that Walmart was the only place that sold Robert Rothschild Farm mustards around here.  Interestingly, they started clearancing them a couple of months ago, so I picked up a few jars of the Sweet & Spicy for $2-something each and a few of the Anna Mae’s Smoky for $3-something each, both marked down from the usual $5.  Now they are gone, at least from the Walmarts near me, so I’m glad I stocked up when I did.  This one is AWESOME.  It is my favorite mustard I’ve reviewed on this page, and I highly recommend it to all, if you can still find it anywhere.  This mustard would go well on or in anything.  If you can find a jar, treat yourself and pick one up, even at regular Robert Rothschild prices.  I give it my highest possible Saboscrivner recommendation.

So my top recommendations are the Robert Rothschild Farm Anna Mae’s Smoky mustard (for anything and everything), the Sam’s Choice Cuban Style mustard (for anything you’d put yellow mustard on) and the Grey Poupon Mild & Creamy Dijon (for most sandwiches).  Those were the big winners here, but I feel like the biggest winner of all, eating imported German soft pretzels with seven different mustards like some kind of big shot, and then blogging about it.  I wish I could time-travel back to tell my teenage self “It gets better.”