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!

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.”