Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/) is like heaven for foodies: a massive Italian food store that contains several restaurants, from sit-down pastarias to wine bars to counter-service bakeries to grab-and-go snack shops.  As a result, it is kind of like a massive food hall, with so much to see and do, smell and taste, experience and indulge.  But most of all, Eataly feels like a temple to Italian food — truly a place of worship — and well worth a pilgrimage at least once.  There are ten Eataly stores in Italy (the first one opened in Torino in 2007), nine in North America, and eight elsewhere in the world.   I don’t know how different they all are, since I’ve only been to the Chicago Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/us_en/stores/chicago/) — first with my wife in 2014, and again on a recent business trip to Chicago.  I had to venture back there, to make sure that first visit wasn’t just a wonderful dream, but the kind of place where dreams come true.

It had been so long since my first visit, I had to explore everything in the store before deciding on my first bit of food.  I made my way to the second floor to a familiar kiosk that beckoned: the land of cured meats and cheeses.  I felt like a weary traveler who had finally made it to my destination, yet also feeling like I was home

Since I was just staying in Chicago for two nights, I couldn’t buy anything fresh or perishable or requiring cooking, but I’m sure some fancy Chicago locals bypass the local supermarkets and buy all their meats at this gleaming butcher’s counter.  You can’t see the price labels in this photo, but take it from me: if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

Here’s a shot of huge tomahawk ribeye steaks, slowly dry-aging to perfection in a clear refrigerated case: 

The seafood counter was equally sumptuous.  On my first visit to Eataly back in 2014, I made an indulgent purchase of bottarga here: the salted, cured, pressed, and dried roe sac of a fish (usually gray mullet, but sometimes tuna).  I had read about bottarga before, and it sounded irresistible to me, as a connoisseur of the cured, a scholar of the smoked, and a professor of the pickled.  So many cultures created their own versions of this delicacy, and I’ve still never found it in Florida.  The bottarga I bought at Eataly made it back in my luggage without any problems, and it lasted months in the fridge, as I finely grated it over so many pasta dishes.  It added a salty, savory, umami flavor to everything, and pretty much melted in my mouth.  If that sounds good and not gross, I highly recommend it.

But all this browsing made me hungry, so I returned to the restaurant my wife and I dined at on our original trip to Eataly here in Chicago: the creatively named La Pizza & La Pasta.  You can’t go to a restaurant like this and not know what you’re getting!  They take reservations, but I arrived relatively late in the day, after a long training workshop and an architectural boat tour down the Chicago River, so I had my choice of seats and opted for a solitary barstool, far from any other diners.

The kind server brought out this wonderfully fresh, crusty bread with olive oil that was much sweeter and more flavorful than the kind I keep at home that regularly goes on sale at Publix.  I’m not sure if every party gets “table bread,” or if it came with the dish I ordered, but if you’re visiting Eataly, hopefully you’re not obsessed with counting carbs, so you should definitely take advantage and enjoy this brilliant bread.   

As a solo diner, I knew I couldn’t justify ordering two entrees, so it was difficult for me to choose.  My server helped me break a tie, so I went with a fresh pasta dish, tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($24), topped with real-deal parmigiano Reggiano, not the shaky-can stuff I’ve bought my entire life.   The fresh tagliatelle pasta was kind of eggy (not in a bad way, just not exactly what I expected), but the savory Bolognese sauce was awesome, with plenty of chunks of meat.  I get that this was a pretty basic choice, and I make “pasta and meat sauce” quite often at home, but it is real comfort food for me, and I wanted to see how Eataly’s kitchen would present such a timeless classic.  They knocked it out of the park, needless to say.

As an aside, here’s a photo I found of the dish I ordered here back in 2014, in those pre-Saboscrivner days: my favorite pasta dish anywhere, bucatini all’amatriciana ($21).  This thick bucatini pasta (long, hollow tubes) was not fresh like the tagliatelle I had just tried, but there’s nothing wrong with good quality dried pasta.  I think I prefer it, in fact.  All’amatriciana is served in a spicy tomato sauce with guanciale (cured pork jowl), and this version from La Pizza & La Pasta was perfect in every way, even better than the tagliatelle from this most recent visit.
I make pasta all’amatriciana at home as a treat once or twice a year, but since guanciale is hard to find, I usually substitute cubed pancetta, which you can find at Trader Joe’s, Publix, and even Aldi sometimes.  If you’re not into bucatini, pretty much any other pasta works well, except for weirdo choices like tri-color wagon wheels.  What is the deal with those, anyway?

After dinner, I wandered around the store a little more and gazed at beautiful Roman-style pizzas on display at the Pizza alla Pala kiosk.  I was tempted, but I had just eaten dinner, and I knew they wouldn’t be that great eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning.

But I saw these gorgeous foccaci farcita sandwiches, with cured speck ham, provolone, and arugula on fresh focaccia bread, and I thought “One of those would be awe-inspiring eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning!”  Maybe because I got to Eataly relatively late in the day, they charged me a much lower price for the to-go sandwich than what you see pictured, more like the price of an individual slice of pizza.   

Here’s an extreme close-up of the lovely sandwich.  Speck is very similar to prosciutto.  I could tell they brushed some olive oil on the bread, but I thought a tangy vinaigrette of some kind would have really put it over the top.  (But I think about that with most sandwiches.)

And to go with my beautiful Italian breakfast, I found an Italian brand of potato chips, San Carlo la Vita e Buona, with a flavor that was too interesting to turn down: mint and chili pepper!  If I recall, this bag was under $3.  Since I love trying new potato chip flavors and reviewing them in this very blog, I felt obligated.  I did it for YOU, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

San Carlo was a bit stingy with the flavoring, a marked contrast against many American chip manufacturers that really cake it on there, but they tasted very fresh and potatoey, and the mint subtly shined through.  They were barely spicy at all. 

I also brought home a salami from the cured meat counter that sounded amazing (elk, pork, and dried blueberries?!), but it wasn’t worth the price I paid.  I would have loved to try so many more things at Eataly, but again, I was limited by what I could safely store in my hotel room and bring back in a carry-on bag, with TSA’s continuing rules banning liquids.  That said, if you ever find yourself in a city grand and lucky enough to have its own Eataly location, I implore you to make that pilgrimage and try it for yourself.  You will be tempted by all sorts of treasures, and it is just a pleasure to wander around and explore, treat yourself in one of the many restaurants, and bring back mouthwatering mementos, succulent souvenirs, and tasty trophies from your travels.

 

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Mr. Dunderbak’s (Tampa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Dog & Co

As much as I love food and restaurants and cooking, I’ve never worked a day in the food service or hospitality industries.  For me, eating, cooking, and even grocery shopping are necessities I’ve turned into hobbies.  We have to eat to survive, so I do what I can to make the experiences enjoyable, but I’ve never had to work at it.  As a result, I have nothing but admiration and awe for everyone who works in restaurants.  It’s a hard, hot, and dangerous job, and too many people take it for granted when we get delicious food we didn’t have to make ourselves.  Even I have been guilty of this in the past, but I have so much appreciation, and I always try to show it, including by writing this food blog.  I hope it comes across in my words, as I try to boost the signal for local restaurants here.

This past week my wife and I binge-watched a new show called The Bear, which consists of eight half-hour episodes streaming on Hulu.  The Bear is about Carmy, a world-renowned chef who returns to his family’s divey restaurant in Chicago after his brother commits suicide and leaves Carmy the restaurant in his will.  Most of the show takes place inside the restaurant’s cramped, chaotic kitchen, and the writing, acting, directing, and editing work in perfect tandem to create a feeling of unhinged uneasiness — a “sense of urgency,” as Carmy calls it.  All the restaurant people I know who have been watching it say they get the details almost too perfect, to the point where it is too real, too uncomfortable to enjoy.  But it’s really good, so you should watch it if you’re looking for a new show you can knock out in a weekend.

Anyway, the main specialty of Carmy’s family restaurant is a real Chicago classic: Italian beef sandwiches.  We watch them preparing hundreds of “beefs,” and before the end of the intense first episode, I was craving one here in Orlando.  The Chicago/Italian beef isn’t as ubiquitous a sandwich as the Philly cheesesteak, but there are a few places around town to find them.  My favorite local food writer, a woman who serves as a constant inspiration to me, who I am honored to think of as a friend (albeit one I have yet to meet in real life), Amy Drew Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, wrote a guide to Italian beef sandwiches in Orlando earlier this year, which pointed me to the subject of my latest restaurant review.

Chicago Dog & Co (https://www.chicagodogandco.com/) is located in Altamonte Springs, Florida, west of I-4, close to where Altamonte starts blending into Apopka.  Sandra (a practicing attorney!) and Monica, two Chicago-born sisters raised in Central Florida, opened the restaurant just over a year ago, in April 2021, and they have been going strong ever since.  Open every day except Monday, Chicago Dog & Co has covered outdoor seating, but no indoor seating.  You walk up to order at a window, and they call your name when your order is ready.  They specialize in Vienna Beef hot dogs on steamed poppy seed buns, and you can get them with a number of toppings, including the Chicago way, “dragging it through the garden,” with yellow mustard, diced onion, sliced tomato, neon green relish, a pickle spear, “sport” peppers, and celery salt.

But as much as I enjoy a good hot dog, I’m more of a devotee of a garlicky New York-style dog, as typified by Sabrett, Nathan’s, and Boar’s Head, topped with spicy mustard and sauerkraut.  I have no doubt the Vienna Beef hot dogs are bringing back happy Chicago memories for thousands of Central Floridians, but I went there for a different reason: to get my post-Bear Italian beef fix.  And did I ever!

This was the Italian beef ($8) I brought home for myself, the tender sliced beef topped with sweet peppers and spicy giardiniera vegetables, a blend of carrots, onions, and green peppers.  (The more traditional Chicago version has carrots, celery, and cauliflower!)  It is served on a soft Gonnella roll, either dry (no au jus, or au jus served on the side), wet (au jus poured over the sandwich), or dipped (the entire sandwich, roll and all, dipped in au jus to create a real fork-and-knife experience).  Since I was bringing it home, I opened for au jus on the side.  I thought it was really good, and better once I poured the jus over the meat and bread.  The actual beef in an Italian beef isn’t super-moist or fatty, so the jus helps lubricate the sandwich, in the best possible way.  It was definitely a WAS (wet-ass sandwich) by the time I was through, and it definitely fulfilled my Italian beef craving.

Knowing my wife the way I do, she isn’t into toppings, condiments, sauces, or even sandwiches all that much, so I ordered her a plain beef ($8) with jus on the side, and also giardiniera on the side (since I knew I would get to eat hers).  Here’s the unadorned, unadulterated beef:

Since they serve chili dogs and I love chili, I asked if I could try a little side order of chili, and they were kind enough to fill a small cup for me.  Here it is with the side of spicy giardiniera. 

In addition to the dogs and beefs, Chicago Dog & Co also serves burgers.  I haven’t had a tasty burger in quite a while, so I couldn’t resist this double smash ($6) — a very reasonable price for two beef patties smashed thin with sautéed onions and melty American cheese on a soft bun.  The bun got steamed in the aluminum foil wrap on my 20-minute drive home, but I imagine it would be a lot less wrinkly if you enjoy yours at the restaurant.The burger had a great “fresh off the grill” taste, and I’m a sucker for American cheese and sautéed or grilled onions on my burger.  I added a bit of the chili once I ate about half of it at home, but it didn’t need any other adornments to improve it.

Finally, I brought home an Iltaco Pizza Puff ($4) for my wife to try.  These things are awesome — another Chicago snack that is like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever had, or more like a small, flat, pizza-filled chimichanga or empanada.  

The crispy, bubbly, fried shell is like a flour tortilla — hence the chimichanga comparison — and it is stuffed with tomato sauce, melty mozzarella cheese, and sausage or pepperoni.  I love these things.  My wife wasn’t interested in trying it, so I ate both halves myself.

So if you also watched The Bear and have been asking “Where’s the beef?” ever since, Chicago Dog & Co is the place for you.  Since I started this blog in 2018, I’ve tried (and reviewed) two other Italian beef sandwiches in and around Orlando: Rosati’s Pizza (a Chicago chain) in Winter Park, and Christo’s, the diner in Sanford.  There are one or two other options I’m aware of, thanks in part to Amy Drew Thompson and the good people of The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, but as you might have realized by now, they aren’t nearly as easy to find around here as other sandwiches.  I’m happy I had time on a lazy Sunday to finally check out a new(ish) local restaurant owned by two women who deserve our community’s support.  Hopefully their kitchen is a lot more copacetic than the one in the show!  But if you go for a beef or even a Chicago hot dog, don’t forget that Pizza Puff too — trust me on that.  That thing is magical.

Grocery Grails: BarbaCuban Sauces

Longtime readers of this humble food blog, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know I am obsessed with condiments and sauces, to the point that I will plan entire meals around certain ones and check grocery stores wherever I am for new condiments I might not be able to find back at home.  I occasionally take breaks from restaurant reviews on this blog to occasionally highlight  grocery store finds in a recurring feature called Grocery Grails, and that got a spinoff of its own, another recurring feature called Cutting the Mustard, where I review different mustards.

Earlier this year, I was introduced to a whole new line of sauces I’ve never seen for sale before, and I was actually encouraged to review them on my blog.  A foodie friend with impeccable taste and a job in marketing gave me the sauces to try.  He told me that if I like them, they would be grateful if I reviewed them, but if I don’t like them, I’d be under no obligation.  No money changed hands, just a few bottles of sauce.  I’ve always taken pride in maintaining the independent status of this food blog, not taking any kind of quid pro quo in exchange for good reviews, and I’m not about to start now.  I’m no influencer-for-hire, just a guy who loves to try new foods and tell people what I think of them.  As a result, I was stoked to sample some new sauces, free from any conflicts of interest or ethical worries, and even more stoked that they were good enough to feature in a Grocery Grails segment.  (In fact, two of them are mustard-based, so this is also an official Cutting the Mustard column!)  So here we go!

BarbaCuban sauces (https://barbacuban.com/) are the creation of the BarbaCuban himself, Jose Juarez.  Back in 2015, he appeared on the Live with Kelly and Michael show and won the title of “America’s New Grill Star,” a nationwide contest sponsored by the show.   The secret to his BarbaCuban Sandwich success was his 455 Sauce, a tangy, creamy blend of three “M”s: mustard, mayo, and mojo criollo, the marinade that brings citrus and garlic flavors to so many Cuban pork and chicken dishes.  Now you can buy it, along with all of his other condiments and sauces, on the website.

The BarbaCuban website showed me that 455 Sauce is named after the engine block of Jose’s GTO convertible, which was a mystery to me until just now.  But I have been enjoying both the regular and hot 455 Sauces for months now, using them for everything from chicken marinades to dips for fries to the base for chicken salad, cole slaw, and honey mustard salad dressing.  As I’ve shown in my previous Cutting the Mustard columns, I consider myself a mustard aficionado and connoisseur, and BarbaCuban 455 Sauces have been a terrific, versatile addition to my condiment collection and my mustard museum.

Here are the ingredients for the hot 455 Sauce.  I finished the bottle of the regular version a while back and recycled it already, but I’m sure it is very similar, minus the smoked ghost pepper powder:

Here is the hot 455 Sauce accompanying a platter of chicken salad sandwiches I made on nice, fresh Cuban bread from the legendary Alessi Bakery in Tampa, the subject of my review from last week.  I pulled every morsel of meat off one of those gigantic mutant Costco rotisserie chickens and mixed it with chopped cornichons, pepperoncini peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, a good bit of hot 455 Sauce (where I would normally use mayo and some other kind of mustard), worcestershire sauce, and pretty much every herb and spice in my spice drawer. 

Here’s that hot 455 Sauce again, served with a grilled cheese sandwich with homemade pickled onions on sourdough bread, with chicken sausages on the side.  It’s a ridiculously versatile condiment — definitely the spiciest of the six BarbaCuban sauces I sampled, but creamy enough to be a great ingredient and/or dip for anything, in a way most conventional mustards aren’t unless you mix them up with mayo or something like that.  Mr. Juarez has already done that mayo-mixing for you!

Ketchup might be the most popular condiment in the United States, but it still has a polarizing reputation.  People either like ketchup or hate it.  I like it fine, but only for certain applications: burgers, fries, onion rings, and making a glazed crust for meatloaf.  I do most of my grocery shopping at Aldi, so I have no problem buying private labels and store brands, but for ketchup, I must admit I’ve always been a Heinz loyalist.  Nothing else ever tastes or feels quite right.  I’ve been to some restaurants that serve “house-made” ketchups, and I always steel myself for something that tastes like Christmas — chefs going hard with cinnamon and cloves, either too thick or too thin and never quite right.

But anyway, BarbaCuban makes Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup, and it immediately won me over: a non-Heinz ketchup I have been using exclusively for months.  Having these new sauces in my life, and especially this spicy ketchup, has inspired me to order more fries than I ever did before, and to bring them home from restaurants, untouched, just so I could reheat them in my toaster oven and use them as a Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup delivery system.  I also make a legendary meatloaf, so of course I have been brushing it on to form that sweet, tangy, sticky glazed crust.  Even if Heinz is the industry standard, this is the disruptor everyone has been waiting for without ever realizing it: a more complex flavor than Heinz with a pleasing amount of heat, but simple enough that it will still enhance all your old favorites without overpowering them.

Here are some Sidewinder fries (maybe my favorite kind of fries) that we brought home from St. Johns River Steak and Seafood earlier this summer, just so I could enjoy them with the Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup.

These are the ingredients, which include orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime juices, Spanish olive oil, smoked salt, smoked paprika, and smoked ghost pepper powder.  Yowza yowza yowza!

Here are some onion rings and fried avocado nuggets from two different restaurants we visited on a recent trip out of town, which I have yet to review.  If you can guess where we got these, I’ll be impressed, and I may have to think of some kind of prize for the sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino.  But as good as they were at their respective restaurants, they were even better heated back up with BarbaCuban condiments:

My absolute favorite of all the BarbaCuban sauces was the 4 Barrel BBQ Sauce (below left).  I always love barbecue sauce as a condiment, and not just on barbecued meats.  I know Mr. Juarez, the BarbaCuban himself, is a grill-master, but I don’t even own a grill!  It’s too damn hot and humid to spend any time outside nine months out of the year, so I know I wouldn’t get my money’s worth.  But that didn’t stop me from pouring that 4 Barrel BBQ Sauce on anything and everything over the last couple of months, while trying to make my one bottle last.

It is thinner than a lot of sticky, thick, gloopy commercial barbecue sauces, but so much more complex-tasting.  It has the most inspired ingredients I’ve ever seen in a barbecue sauce, including bourbon, Cuban coffee, tamarind extract, worcestershire sauce (bringing some nice umami funk from anchovies), ghost pepper, and guava, mango, pear, pineapple, lemon, and lime juices.  All those amazing ingredients and NO high fructose corn syrup?  Now that’s what I call barbecue sauce!

The BarbaCuban 4 Barrel Barbecue Sauce is so delicious, you could put this on vanilla ice cream!  I didn’t, but I would have if I ever kept vanilla ice cream in the house.

Next up, the BarbaCuban Havana Gold Barbecue Sauce is a combination of the mustard and mayo-based 455 Sauce and the brilliant 4 Barrel Barbecue Sauce.  It was sweet, tangy, a little spicy, a little creamy, and so good.  While I dipped plenty of things in it (see two photos above), I decided to use it to glaze a bone-in, spiral-sliced ham I bought on sale at Aldi after Easter.  I only ever treat myself to whole hams when they are discounted after holidays, which makes me both a good Jew and a bad Jew at the same time!  I’m here all week, folks!  Tip the veal!  Try your waitress!

Here’s the before picture:

Here it is, post-slatherin’ with BarbaCuban Havana Gold BBQ Sauce:

And here it is, hot and sweet and sticky and crackly, right out of the oven.  Our home smelled like heaven, and this ham tasted like it too.  Since I’m the only one here who eats ham, I froze a lot of it to save for later, specifically for the next time I make Cuban sandwiches at home. 

So that is an excellent segue to the last, but definitely not least, the BarbaCuban 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade, Mr. Juarez’s excellent version of mojo criollo, that citrusy, garlicky Cuban marinade so perfect with chicken and pork.  I follow a long, involved, labor-intensive Binging With Babish recipe to make my own mojo criollo from scratch when I want to make roast pork for homemade Cuban sandwiches, inspired by the delightful movie Chef.  It yields one of the most delicious meals ever, but it’s quite a process.  As a result, I’ve tried several store-bought mojo marinades over the decades, and most of them are pretty lousy.  In fact, I’ve only ever found two I liked, and this 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade is one of them.  Here are the ingredients:

I took this photo today, in fact — oven-roasted chicken thighs, marinated overnight in 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade, and served with seasoned black beans and homemade pickled red onions.

I do a lot of meal prep for the week on Sundays, and these are going to be my work lunches for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, alongside salads and fruit.  They are going to be great.  The whole house smells so good!  I made sure to save plenty of the 90 Miles to Mojo for the next time I bring home a pork tenderloin to make Cuban sandwiches.  Here’s hoping it will save me a ton of money and prep time, compared to making my own scratch mojo criollo.  And I already have sliced ham ready to thaw, with that BarbaCuban Havana Gold glaze on it.

Over the last few months, since my friend introduced these sauces to my life, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled to find them at retail.  I shop for groceries at a lot of different stores in and around Orlando, but I have yet to see them at Publix, Aldi, Winn-Dixie, Fresh Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Walmart.  Right now, my advice is to take the plunge, treat yourself, and order them on the BarbaCuban website: https://barbacuban.com/.  If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written about food before, you know I’m a nerd who gets enthusiastic about recommending things I have enjoyed.  I wouldn’t tell you to seek these out if I didn’t like them, trust me.  I did, so now I’m tellin’ you.  Call me a saucy boy if you must, but your meats, your carbs, your friends, and your mouth will thank you if you trust me!

Grocery Grails: Cutting the Mustard II: The Quest for More Mustard

Well, it’s the summer, and that means we’re getting some sequels.  Movie sequels always try to top the originals by being BIGGER, LOUDER, and LONGER, so that’s what I’m trying to do with the sequel to my original mustard review feature from last summer, Cutting the Mustard.  I reviewed seven different mustards, just in time for Memorial Day weekend, when people tend to eat a lot of hot dogs and burgers.  Well, it’s Memorial Day weekend again, so here’s our sequel: Cutting the Mustard II: The Quest for More Mustard!  And if you think I only reviewed eight mustards this time, then go jump in a lake, jabroni.  I only offer the best content to my dozens of readers, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, so I have raised the stakes and reviewed TEN mustards right here!  Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for mustard mishegas!

The first two new mustards I reviewed were from iconic mustard company French’s, famous for its standard yellow mustard.  But since nothing I write about on this blog is standard, I tried two of French’s deeper cuts, if you will.  The first one was French’s Brown Sugar Bourbon stone ground mustard, which comes in a relatively small glass jar.  Just like in the first Cutting the Mustard, I sampled it on a Deutsche Kuche (pronounced “douche cooch”) Bavarian soft pretzel stick from Aldi, imported from Germany, a place that knows something about pretzels and mustard.  This was a winning combination.  The Brown Sugar Bourbon added a subtle sweetness that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.  I thought it would go great with hot dogs to cut their extreme saltiness, and would also go well with most deli meats like turkey, roast beef, or ham, as long as the ham isn’t overly sweet already.

I chased that with French’s Roasted Garlic stone ground mustard, which comes in the same kind of glass jar, at the same price point.  I found both of these at Winn-Dixie, by the way.  The garlic flavor was a lot more subtle than I expected.  It reminded me of a standard Dijon mustard, but not as spicy in your nose, and definitely not as “bright”-tasting as a classic yellow mustard.  It would go really well on a sweeter ham sandwich, and it would be fabulous with roast beef or on a nice rare burger.  I could also see mixing it with mayonnaise and honey as the base for a slightly garlicky honey mustard dressing.   I was pleased that despite being labeled as “stone ground,” neither of these French’s mustards had whole crunchy seeds in them.  As I’ve remarked before, I am not a fan of eating mustard and feeling like I’m crunching away on a mouthful of Nerds candy.

I found my next two mustards at Clemons Produce, a wonderful locally owned and operated produce market at 3325 Curry Ford Road, Orlando, Florida, 32806.  It is on the northwest side of the intersection of Curry Ford Road and Crystal Lake Drive, in a great foodie neighborhood known as the Hourglass District.  I am a recent convert to Clemons Produce, but in addition to carrying some of the finest, freshest fruits and vegetables in town, they also have a great selection of groceries, including lots of Amish products: jams and preserves, pickles and other pickled veggies, pies, and even bottled sodas I haven’t found anywhere else in Orlando.  They also have an Amish deli counter that features meats and cheeses from the Troyer brand.  I recommend trying the Lebanon bologna and farmer’s cheese, if you’re in the area. 

And while you’re there, you can pick up some mustards from the Woeber’s brand!  I picked out two of Woeber’s Sandwich Pal mustards: Hot & Spicy and Sweet & Spicy.  The Hot & Spicy mustard had a fair bit of heat.  The Aldi pretzel sticks may have been out of season, so I don’t have a photo of it on one of those, but this was around the time during the pandemic when I was trying to engineer the perfect breakfast sandwich, and I used plenty of it on those experiments.  I love mustard on eggs and breakfast sandwiches.  I even love McDonald’s Sausage McMuffins With Egg, a nostalgic childhood treat that has aged better than anything else at McDonald’s, as far as I’m concerned.  As an adult, I always take them straight home so the American cheese has a chance to melt, and I can apply my own mustards.

Here is one of my most beautiful breakfast sandwich creations with the Woeber’s Sandwich Pal Sweet & Spicy mustard.  This is on Wonder brand Texas Toast (far superior to any other white bread due to its thiccness), and it is topped with a perfectly fried egg (cooked in a ring mold, the way McDonald’s does its McMuffin eggs), American cheese, lap xuong Chinese sausage (much chewier and sweeter than typical breakfast sausage), sautéed onions, Peppadew peppers, and of course the Sweet & Spicy mustard.  The Texas toast is spread with Duke’s mayo, after I chopped up an entire HEAD of garlic and added it directly to the Duke’s jar, so I always have garlic aioli at the ready.  Then I grilled the entire sandwich in a pan like a big ol’ grilled cheese.  Brilliant, and the different kinds of sweetness from the mustard, the sausage, and the Peppadews really sent this one over the top.

My next two mustards are Russian mustards, which I bought months before Russia invaded Ukraine, committed war crimes, and threatened to start World War III.  I found them at another terrific grocery store that specializes in Eastern European products, Green Hills Supermarket, at 1140 East Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs, Florida, 32701.

This first one is Zakuson Russian Standard mustard.  It was extremely spicy, the kind of spicy that burns your sinuses more than your tongue.  It reminded me of the hot Chinese mustard that comes in little plastic packets with takeout Chinese food — great for clearing clogged sinuses when you have a cold.  I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite, but I bravely made my way through the jar.

Here is the Zakuson mustard on a toasted bagel with delicious smoked sable (aka black cod, one of the finest smoked fish you can eat), also purchased at Green Hills Supermarket.  I also added sliced tomatoes and my homemade pickled onions, which are sweet and crispy.  In the future, I would stick to cream cheese for a decadent sandwich like this, rather than a strong and pungent mustard.

The other Russian mustard I bought at Green Hills Supermarket was Uncle Vanya, a small bottle that called out to me because it cost under $2.  How could I go wrong?  It was less intense than the Zakuson, which was a relief.

I decided to use it on the last batch of Cuban sandwiches I made at home, after making my own mojo criollo marinade for some pork tenderloins.  I used a loaf and a half of fresh Cuban bread, and I used up the entire jar of Uncle Vanya mustard, spreading it on both sides of the bread.  

These turned out to be some fine Cubanos!  Of course I used Grillo’s pickles, which I reviewed back in 2020.

Next up, I did a scientific taste test of four more mustards: three I like quite a bit, and one that was new to me.  I call this segment DARE TO COMPARE.

First up is Burman’s horseradish mustard, a pretty standard and budget-priced selection available at Aldi, great on hot dogs and most sandwiches.  It might be a rebranded private label version of Gulden’s horseradish mustard, given the similar shape of the bottles:

Next up is Ba-Tampte delicatessen style mustard, a classic and one of my all-time favorite mustards.  This is available at most Publix supermarkets for $2.99.  Just be aware that they keep it near the deli and not in the mustard section in the condiment aisle.  It is so delicious on anything, and I always recommend it highly.   As good as it is on hot dogs and conventional sandwiches, you might weep if you can get your hands on some good corned beef, pastrami, or tongue and apply a liberal schmear of Ba-Tampte.   Of course rye bread would be the industry standard here, but if you know someone who can hook you up with club rolls, you’ll never want your pastrami on rye again.

I also highly recommend Boar’s Head delicatessen style mustard, which is made with white wine and horseradish.  It is also available near the deli at Publix, and one of my favorite local delis in the Orlando area, Pickles New York Delicatessen in Longwood, is classy enough to put bottles of this on every table.  It is like a cross between a standard deli mustard and a dijon, and it’s absolutely delicious — tangy with a subtle acidic sweetness I attribute to the white wine.  Bottles usually cost around $4 because Boar’s Head products aren’t cheap, but I think I grabbed this one on sale for $3.50. 

And the new one (at least for me) was Kosciusko original spicy brown mustard.  I actually bought this one at Green Hills Supermarket too, despite it being an American product (and not Australian, as the name would have made me guess).  It is actually owned by mustard mega-conglomerate Plochman’s!   
Kosciusko is very similar to the Gulden’s spicy brown mustard my dad always kept in our house growing up, but maybe a touch creamier?  Despite “spicy” being in the description, it probably had the least zing of the four.  Still good, though.  I would consider it a solid all-purpose, everyday mustard.

I had these with a Gabila’s potato knish, which are my favorite knishes.  For the uninitiated, knishes are seasoned mashed potatoes that are baked — or in Gabila’s case, fried — in a pastry crust.  There was a fire at the Gabila’s factory back in 2013, and  I still remember multiple articles being written about the cataclysmic knish shortage, stirring up tsuris among fellow fressers and affiliated altacockers alike.  But luckily, just like the Fox’s U-Bet syrup empire, Gabila’s bounced back.  A lot of delis serve these knishes because they are such a high-quality product with a lot of history, but now you can buy a box of four frozen Gabila’s knishes at Publix, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.  They are one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes, and considering I also write potato chip reviews, I don’t say that lightly.

Here are the frozen knishes:

I very scientifically heated up one knish, cut it into quarters, and enjoyed it with each of the four mustards.  I am pleased to say that unlike sports, where there is generally always a winner and a loser, in this DARE TO COMPARE even, all of these mustards were winners, and I was the biggest winner of all.   
I would strongly recommend any of these four mustards for any of your dipping, spreading, or seasoning needs, especially if you’re mostly used to plain yellow mustards or just standard dijon when you’re feeling fancy.

So when you’re grilling out on Memorial Day weekend (please don’t call it “barbecuing” unless you’re smoking meats low and slow; that’s a pet peeve of mine), please consider some of these magical mustards for your condiment needs, and you too will conclude that they cut the mustard!

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.

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant

Kohinoor Indian Restaurant (http://www.kohinoorindianrestaurant.com/) in Altamonte Springs is the first Indian restaurant I ever tried in Orlando, back when I had only ever had Indian food a few times in my life.  I was newly dating my wife, and I met one of her good friends for lunch there to ask her advice for some gifts to buy her — I forget if it was for our first Christmas or first Valentine’s Day together.  The food was really good, but for whatever reason, I never made it back there.  Not until recently, when after almost 13 years of marriage, I embarked on a quest to get my wife into Indian food.

You see, my wife loved the “butter chicken tikka masala” at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, where we celebrated her birthday earlier this year.  After that, it became my mission to introduce her to more delicious Indian food, and to discern the difference between butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two similar dishes that share a lot of ingredients, but are ultimately different.

This is Kohinoor’s version of butter chicken, also known as chicken makhani ($18), boneless cubes of chicken tikka cooked in a “tomato-based creamy sauce.”  She loved it!  I tried it and liked it too, but I was thrilled that I was finally getting her on board with Indian food.  That creamy, rich, almost velvety sauce is a perfect gateway dish for anyone a little skeptical or squeamish about trying Indian food.  (See also: a lot of people’s parents.)

Rather than be redundant and also order chicken tikka masala, we switched it up and ordered the bot kabab (lamb) masala ($19), so we could both compare and contrast the butter/makhani and masala sauces.  The menu described this one as “cubes of lamb cooked in a creamy butter sauce with onions, spices, and bell peppers.”  Yes, I get that they look the same, for all intents and purposes.  I know the ingredients are similar too, but I wanted her to sample both dishes, to see if one stood out as her favorite.  She liked the butter chicken better, so I was more than happy to eat the majority of this lamb masala.

This was another dish my wife chose: saag paneer ($14): “freshly chopped spinach and homemade cheese cooked in a mild sauce.”  She said she had tried this dish once or twice a long time ago, before I was in the picture, and liked it back then.  I was so proud of her for branching out and giving Indian food another chance with me.  It was also delicious, as if you couldn’t already guess.  

Back home, dishin’ it out!  I always appreciate restaurants that serve takeout food in plastic trays with removable lids that are microwave-safe, dishwasher-safe, and recyclable.  As you can probably guess, I keep a bunch of them, but the crown jewels of my takeout container collection are two round, segmented plates with lids, molded with perfect little compartments that I think came from a long-gone restaurant called Stonewood.  They were ideal for portioning out our huge lunch, especially so my wife could try everything without different dishes touching each other.  The butter chicken, bot kabab masala, and saag paneer all came with basmati rice, so I served up sample portions of all three over rice for her.    But wait — where did that samosa come from?

I couldn’t resist the allure of the Kohinoor Special Appetizer platter ($14), which includes two potato-filled samosas (the large, triangular pastries with their crispy, flaky crusts), vegetable fritters called pakoras, aloo (potato) pakoras, chicken pakoras, chicken tikka (the orangey-red meat on the right, coated in a blend of yogurt and spices), and seekh kabaab (the most delicious sausages, on top).  It is safe to say I liked all of these more than she did, but you have to try new things!  That’s what keeps life — and marriage — interesting.

I always order soft naan bread ($3.50) at any Indian restaurants, to sop up all those incredible sauces.  This is typical Indian flatbread made from refined flour and baked in a tandoor, a clay oven.  I’m sure most of my readers know exactly what it is, so I apologize for naansplaining.

I decided to try the roti ($3.50) as well, which the menu described as whole wheat bread baked in a clay oven.  Now I am used to the Malaysian-style roti from Hawkers Asian Street Fare (which is called a paratha elsewhere), as well as the two kinds of huge, fluffy roti from West Indian restaurants Singh’s Roti Shop and Vindi’s Roti Shop: the dhal puri and “buss-up shot.”  This roti wasn’t much like either of them — it was more like an oily, lightly fried version of the naan.

We got one little ramekin of sweet, tangy tamarind chutney and another ramekin of spicy tomato and onion chutney.  Once again, my wife impressed me by trying and liking the tamarind chutney, and she usually isn’t into condiments and sauces at all.  I was so proud of her for trying new things, and overjoyed that she liked almost everything.  But she’s not a fan of tomatoes or onions, so she wisely avoided the other chutney.

So Kohinoor was a hit!  I am thrilled that the person I love the most in the world has come around on a cuisine that I’m still relatively inexperienced with myself.  Lately I’ve been obsessed with Indian food, trying new dishes and ranking different restaurants’ versions of my tried-and-true favorites.  This isn’t our only recent Indian meal, so I promise more reviews to come over the next few weeks and months.

The Osprey

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Ernest “I Love When You Call Me Big Papa” Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

The Osprey (https://www.theospreyorlando.com/) is one of my favorite restaurants in all of Orlando, but it had been over three years since my last visit.  They didn’t do anything wrong — owners Jason and Sue Chin run a tight ship, and it never disappoints.  In fact, their restaurant is so good, they were recently named James Beard Award semifinalists, which is a huge honor in the restaurant industry.  (And we here in Orlando feel like they were robbed of an official nomination!)

But so much had changed since my last visit, even the name!  The restaurant was renamed The Osprey (it used to be The Osprey Tavern), and the menu was revamped to focus much more on local seafood.  My last meal there with my wife was excellent, but that was in early 2018, before I started this blog.  As a result, I never got around to writing a belated review, since most of my photos were of dishes we ordered that are no longer on the current menu (and my photos were also pretty bad back then).  So I was long overdue for a return trip.

The Osprey does not serve lunch, but it opens for dinner at 5:00 PM every day of the week except for Monday.  It runs one of the best happy hours in Orlando runs from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, Tuesday through Friday only.  It is also open for brunch on Sundays, which was my first experience at The Osprey many years ago.  I’m just not a brunch guy; it doesn’t matter where it is.  But I am very much a lunch/dinner/happy hour guy.

But my favorite thing about The Osprey Tavern, and now The Osprey, was $1 oysters during happy hour on weeknights.  Since I work so late, I was hardly ever able to make it over there to take advantage of one of my favorite meal deals in Orlando, so it was a rare and wonderful treat.

The $1 happy hour oysters were the main thing that recently drew me back to The Osprey in the middle of a long and exhausting recent workday where I had several classes to teach.  (Since that visit, they are now $2 each.)   I ordered an icy platter with a dozen fresh mid-Atlantic James River oysters on the half shell ($12), plump and juicy, from Virginia.  These were much smaller and more delicate than the typical huge Appalachicola oysters I’m most used to, which come from Florida’s Gulf Coast.  These James River oysters were slightly firmer in texture too, which may be a boon for those who don’t love the texture of oysters.  I sipped their briny liquor and slurped them down with gusto; they didn’t need any lemon, cocktail sauce, or horseradish.  I wrote about the raw oysters I enjoyed so much from High Tide Harry’s and the late, lamented Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe during the stressful, chaotic year of 2021, and I share my Saboscrivner Seal of Superiority with these oysters from The Osprey.I should have taken a close-up of that other little ramekin of sauce near the 2:00 position above.  That is a mignonette, a unique condiment I tried for the first time on my previous visit to The Osprey for oysters, back in early 2018 — far too long ago — before I started this blog.  I remember that mignonette was different from this one, but the menu refers to it as “seasonal” mignonette, so they may change out ingredients and flavor profiles throughout the year.  I’ve never had anything like them before or since.  It’s kind of like a peppery vinaigrette, with small bits of crispy shallots floating in it, and it’s a little sweet.  I like my oysters straight-up to fully savor their flavor, but the mignonette was too delicious to leave behind… so I sipped and chewed it, just like I did in 2018.  It’s that good.

This was the calamari ($9 during happy hour; otherwise $12).  These tender, breaded squid rings and tentacles come adorned with paper-thin slices of piquant pickled peppers (a very nice and colorful touch), served on a bed of hazelnut romesco (the tangy orange sauce on the plate below, made with roasted tomatoes and peppers), and served with a ramekin of cool, creamy, slightly lemony citrus aioli.  All the flavors and textures worked together perfectly for a beautiful harmony. 
I usually love calamari, but some places serve you a greasy mess of chewy rubber bands, sometimes hidden under too much crunchy, overcooked, tasteless batter.  Not here.  If you had any doubt that a seafood restaurant as nice as The Osprey would excel at the calamari game, dispel those doubts now.

Now I come to one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had — certainly in Orlando, and possibly an all-time Top Tenner.  It even made my list of Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 in Orlando Weekly, where it was the only dish from a restaurant I hadn’t reviewed yet.  Well, here’s my full review, better late than never.  This is spaghetti alla chitarra ($15; not a happy hour special), and this picture cannot possibly do it justice.

The pasta itself was freshly made in house, and it was tossed and served with shelled clams from Cedar Key, Florida, blistered tomatoes, herbs, and an ingredient I’ve been obsessed with since learning about it a few years back: bottarga.  As if fresh, handmade pasta and local clams weren’t awe-inspiring enough, bottarga is the egg sacs of a fish (usually grey mullet or bluefin tuna), cured in salt, then pressed and dried until they are solid blocks of savory, salty, fishy goodness, then shaved or grated onto a dish to lend it an umami-laden intensity.  If you’ve ever had bonito flakes on a Japanese dish, bottarga is like that, but more intense.  At least to me, it is also vaguely reminiscent of caviar, only without the unique “popping” sensation and all the bougie attitude that goes along with caviar.  As an unabashed aficionado of all cured, smoked, and pickled seafood, this is a dream ingredient, and the spaghetti alla chitarra was a dream dish.

Finally, I wasn’t sure if I’ve ever had the fries at The Osprey, but a trusted foodie friend had raved about them before.  I saw the cheeseburger and fish and chips both came with fries, so I asked my wonderful, attentive server Savannah if they would consider selling me a separate order of fries, even though it wasn’t listed on the menu.  She said they would, and she brought me a plate teeming with a huge “side order” of fries (only $4).   Folks, these join the potato pantheon of the finest fries in Orlando, alongside other fabulous fries from the likes of Mrs. Potato, Chicken Fire, Makani, and Se7en Bites.  They have a crispy, seasoned outer coating like the fast food fries I love so much from Arby’s, but they are pillowy soft and potatoey inside.  Not too thick, not too thin.  Just fantastic fries all around.  Savannah brought them with ketchup and a house-made creamy, tangy “comeback sauce” that you absolutely have to try, whether you get fries or something else to dip in it, or just shoot it out of the little metal ramekin.

I still had to return to work and teach one more late class after that luxurious dinner, but I ordered something to bring home to my wife, who loves desserts as much as I love oysters and pasta and cured stuff.  This looked like a dessert that would bring us both joy: the s’mores tart ($7), with “smoky ganache,” graham cracker crust, and toasted meringue topping.  This was another standout dish, even for me.  I might not be the biggest dessert eater, but I sure do love pie, especially chilled pies with graham cracker crusts, and this one was right up my alley.  We both had tiny tastes that night, and my wife liked it, but I liked it even more than she did.  Because of that, she was kind enough to eat a little more for breakfast the next morning, but saved me some to enjoy when I got home from work that following evening.  She’s the sweetest of all, but this was an excellent dessert I would recommend to anyone.  It was so rich, we were able to get four servings out of this one slice!

So that’s a long-overdue review of one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  Even though oysters are $2 each at happy hour instead of the buck they used to be, I still strongly recommend them — even at full price.  Jason and Sue Chin are building a local restaurant empire with their Good Salt Restaurant Group, and I look forward to returning to their other concepts and trying their newest place.  But don’t sleep on The Osprey!

Hidden away on beautiful, idyllic New Broad Street in Orlando’s burgeoning Baldwin Park neighborhood, it feels like it exists in another world, another reality, compared to the industrial, somewhat dilapidated stretch of East Colonial Drive just minutes away (and minutes from my workplace).  Making the short drive to savor a happy hour dinner on a busy, stressful workday transported me away from real life temporarily, as all the best meals should do, to one degree or another.  If you like seafood, I hope you will allow yourself that experience as well.

 

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!