Sanguich De Miami (Miami)

My oldest, closest friend is a fellow food-lover and blogger, and since he still lives in Miami, the city of my birth and first 18 years on this big blue ball o’dirt, I defer to him on all things worth eating in South Florida.  He is an authority on croquetas and writes a semi-regular Croqueta Diaries column on his blog.  On the rare chances we get to visit each other, we try to introduce each other to our cities’ local favorite restaurants — not just our personal favorites, but the ones we are proudest of, that we think the other will appreciate the most.

It had been over two years since my last trip down to Miami to visit this guy (and also my family), thanks to the pandemic making social calls more fraught and long trips seem like less of a priority.  But I missed everyone, so back in July, I schlepped down south from Orlando and tried to make the most of it.  For my buddy and I, that usually meant hitting a few different restaurants to try to sample the best stuff in a limited amount of time.

Our ridiculous foodie day got off to the best possible start at one of Miami’s finest establishments, Sanguich De Miami (https://sanguich.com/).  It has become famous in a relatively short time for featuring some of the finest Cuban sandwiches in the city that specializes in them — no, not Tampa, the other one!  But my friend isn’t the only person who vouches for Sanguich — it earned a prestigious Michelin Bib Gourmand Award earlier this year, which is a huge honor for any restaurant.  Several of my Orlando favorites won Bib Gourmands in 2022 as well, and the Michelin website explains it best: “What Bib restaurants do have in common is their simpler style of cooking, which is recognisable, easy-to-eat and often something you feel you could attempt to replicate at home. A Bib restaurant will also leave you with a sense of satisfaction, at having eaten so well at such a reasonable price.”  My regular readers know I’m not the biggest fan of “fine dining,” so these Bib Gourmand-rated restaurants appeal to me a lot more.

Anyway, this is the beautiful, fragrant, flawless pan con bistec sandwich ($13.59) that we split in the car.  It contains thinly sliced sous vide steak, mojo rojo sauce, fried string potatoes, and Swiss cheese on pressed Cuban bread.  I’ve had several similar sandwiches at Cuban restaurants in Miami over the decades, but I can tell you that I’ve never had its equal.  Look at that cheese pull!  I just wish you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos could smell it.

We also ordered the pan con lechon ($10.99) to eat later.  This elevated take on another classic Miami sandwich contains shredded pork, pickled mojo onions, and garlic cilantro aioli on Cuban bread.  I hate to even put this in print, but sometimes the pork in these pork sandwiches is on the dry side, and sometimes it is sliced so thick that you take one bite and pull huge chunks out of the sandwich, destroying the structural integrity.  Well, that was not the case with this pan con lechon!  Look at it! 

Here’s the half I heated up back home, and it was glorious.  The pork was so flavorful, and all the elements sang together in perfect harmony.  Shredding the meat made it such a pleasant textural experience to eat, and everything held together, as it should.  Of course the bread was pressed to perfection, even surviving a four-hour drive and a trip through the toaster oven. 

Of course we didn’t leave well enough alone!  We ordered a third sandwich too, but my friend is such a mensch, he sent me packing with the whole thing, since he could return to Sanguich de Miami a heck of a lot sooner than I could.  We opted for a slight variation on the classic Cubano, for only 30 cents more: the croqueta preparada ($12.79).   

It contains all the same ingredients as the Cubano: city ham, lechon (the same pork that’s on the pan con lechon), Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on pressed Cuban bread, BUT there is one more ingredient that is probably obvious by now: two croquetas de jamon!  Yes, that’s right.  For a double dose of delectable decadence, Sanguich added two of those crispy, cracker crumb-coated croquettes stuffed with finely chopped ham and creamy bechamel sauce, deep fried and then pressed onto the sandwich so they turn warm and melty and gooey, almost like a super-savory Cubano condiment.  This wasn’t the biggest Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (that was from the former owner-operators of Orlando’s College Park Cafe), but it was easily one of the best.  Top Five, for sure.  Top two or three, absolutely.  Of course, the croquetas added a whole new dimension of deliciousness to the classic Cubano, just like how Tampa Cuban sandwiches (like the ones at Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery) add genoa salami.  But I’ve never had anything like the croqueta preparada sandwich from Sanguich.

So this place is worth every bit of praise and hype, trust me (or hey, trust a tire company that also rates restaurants, which makes about as much sense).  Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana is full of wonderful, iconic restaurants, and I’m sure it is pretty hard to get a bad meal there.  I’ve written about a couple of those establishments before, and I have one more Little Havana review from my most recent trip that I’m working on.  But next time you’re in Miami, you’ll avoid a lot of damage and anguish if you practice your Spanish and manage to order a sandwich from Sanguich (or two, or three).

Pig Floyd’s Urban BBQ

Pig Floyd’s Urban BBQ (https://www.pigfloyds.com/) is a beloved, locally owned and operated restaurant in Orlando’s Mills 50 district, filled with some of our best local dining options.  A lot of people credit it as being the best barbecue place in the city, despite not being the most traditional barbecue style.  Proprietor Thomas Ward has combined Latin, Caribbean, and Asian culinary influences with delicious meats smoked low and slow, and that sets Pig Floyd’s apart from the crowd.

Earlier this year, I met a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum out there for lunch on a weekend, which was admittedly my first visit to Pig Floyd’s in several years.  I was happy to see there was a large, covered outdoor patio, which made me feel more at ease hanging out to eat there.

My friend ordered the banh mi sandwich ($11.99), which comes with a choice of oakwood-smoked pulled pork, tender char-grilled chopped chicken thighs, or deep fried pork belly with “lucky dragon” sauce, pickled vegetables, jalapeño, and garlic ginger aioli on a toasted baguette.  It is about double the price of the excellent, traditional banh mi sandwiches available at so many great Vietnamese restaurants in Mills 50 district, but you get what you pay for, since none of those other places are serving meats of this quality.
His banh mi came with a side order of apple fennel slaw that he raved about.

I ordered the Mills 50 sandwich ($12.99), with oakwood-smoked brisket, house-made pimento cheese, caramelized onions, and red peppers served on a hoagie roll.  It was a terrific choice, full of ingredients and flavors I love.  The side order of sticky-sweet maduros (sweet fried plantains, one of my favorite dishes) was a perfect accompaniment to the rich, heavy sandwich.

Despite getting a sandwich featuring beef brisket, I couldn’t help myself from ordering a pork al pastor taco ($3.99), featuring pulled pork with roasted pineapple, onion, cilantro, and tomatillo sauce.  It was so good — even better than it looks below. 

I couldn’t believe I had stayed away from Pig Floyd’s for so long.  It was even better than I remembered, so I intend to make my next visit a heck of a lot sooner, and to eventually work my way through Thomas Ward’s meat-centric menu.

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!

Alessi Bakery (Tampa)

Alessi Bakery (https://www.alessibakery.com/) first opened in Tampa in 1912.  That is older than any bakeries in Orlando, by several decades.  Founded by Italian immigration Nicolo Alessi, it is now run by the fourth generation of the Alessi family: Phil Alessi, Jr., who expanded the bakery and started a huge catering side to the business.  I think stories like that are beautiful, and I love supporting family-owned restaurants and businesses, especially with that much history behind them.  Orlando locals might have even tried Alessi’s baked goods without knowing it, because they make all the king cakes that Publix sells around Mardi Gras, at least here in the Orlando area.

I first discovered Alessi Bakery on a brief Tampa trip in 2017 and fell in love.  You can get overwhelmed browsing the gorgeous cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, cupcakes, breads, sandwiches, snacks, and prepared foods in the glass cases.  There is even a dining room for you to enjoy things right there, rather than packing everything up to go.

Here is an assortment of coconut macaroons, rugelach cookies filled with fruit preserves, and beautiful danish pastries I brought over to a gathering of Tampa friends back in March, our first time hanging out post-pandemic:

I also brought over four beautiful sfogliatelle pastries, an Italian bakery classic sometimes called “lobster tails.”  Light and crispy and flaky, these shell-shaped beauties are dusted with powdered sugar and filled with a slightly lemony custard:

And here is an assortment of Italian tea cookies I brought home for my wife after that March visit.  She loves these little dudes.  I remember cookies like this from small, mom-and-pop Miami bakeries from my childhood in the ’80s.  My mom always loved cookies like this too. 

This is another assortment of goodies I brought home: pound cake, New York crumb cake, zucchini bread, and multicolored birthday cake.  The pound cake slice at the top was by far the biggest hit.

Remembering this, we got two more wrapped slices of the pound cake on our June trip today:

I couldn’t remember what this thing was, but one of my good friends (who is also an Alessi fan, after I introduced him and his family to it) told me it is crème brûlée bread pudding.  He said it is his favorite dessert from here.  I’m sure I liked it too, because come on, look at it!

In addition to all the pastries and sweets, another Alessi Bakery specialty is scachatta, a kind of bread that looks like pizza and smells like pizza, but brother, it ain’t pizza.  It is a soft, yellow, egg-based flatbread (kind of like focaccia, but softer), covered with a slightly sweet tomato sauce full of very finely ground beef, but no cheese except for a light sprinkling of parmesan.  It is then cut into squares or rectangular slices and served at room temperature.  If this sounds weird, I cannot disagree with you, but it’s a thing, and it’s so much better than it sounds or even looks.  Saveur wrote a neat article about scachatta, and so did pizza blog Slice.  

This is a half-sheet ($19) that I bought to share with my friends when I caught up with them back in March.  Everyone really liked it.

When I returned to Alessi in June, I had to do one of my Saboscrivnerrific “Dare to Compare” experiments with the Alessi Bakery scachatta and the scachatta from Tampa’s other legendary Cuban bakery, La Segunda Central Bakery, which was founded three years later, in 1915.  I reviewed La Segunda back in October 2018 and tried the scachatta then, but for the sake of good food writing, I dragged my poor, patient wife to both bakeries back-to-back today and got a few items at La Segunda too.  The sacrifices I make for the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos out there!

Here is a photo I took back at home earlier today, with a small slice from a quarter-sheet of Alessi’s scachatta ($11) on the left, and a single slice of La Segunda’s scachatta ($2.29) on the right:
I love Alessi’s scachatta, really and truly.  But I have to give a slight edge to La Segunda here!  Their version was more savory and less sweet, and it had more flavor, perhaps due to the visible green pepper chunks in the sauce.  But I’d order either again, any time.

The only place to order anything remotely similar to scachatta in Orlando is at my favorite Italian restaurant, Tornatore’s — or to be more accurate, at their Italian market next door.  They serve an upstate New York delicacy called… STEAMED HAMS!  No, no, sorry, I kid.  Tornatore’s serves tomato pie — another soft flatbread spread with tomato paste and served at room temperature or chilled, but no cheese to put it into pizza territory.  It’s interesting how different regions came up with their own pizza-adjacent specialties.

Anyway, here is another delicious treat I’ve only ever found in Tampa: devil crab, a crispy croquette full of shredded, seasoned, savory crabmeat, coated in Cuban bread crumbs and deep-fried.  I had my first devil crab on my first-ever trip to Alessi in 2017, introduced a pescatarian pal to them back in 2018, and ordered two to share with my wife before our drive home from Orlando today:

In case you’ve never had a devil crab yourself, here’s an interior shot, to show it bursting with tender crab that melts in your mouth.  

Since we were sitting down to eat in Alessi’s dining room, I decided to try their macaroni and potato salads ($2.50 each).  I might not have bothered to drive back to Orlando with those mayo-based salads, with a 90-minute drive ahead (that ended up taking over two hours due to terrible traffic in the middle of a Saturday), but I’m so glad I treated myself to them.  This was one of the two best macaroni salads I’ve ever had in my life.  IN.  MY.  LIFE.  (The other is from Poke Hana, my favorite poke spot right here in Orlando.)

Both Alessi Bakery and La Segunda Bakery prepare fabulous sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, including Cuban sandwiches, yet another Tampa specialty, always served on Cuban bread and pressed in a plancha.  Yes, Miami people, I know Cuban sandwiches are a major Miami thing too.  I’m from down there, and I grew up eating them.  But Tampa did them first, due to an earlier Cuban population working in the cigar factories of Ybor City alongside Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants.  That’s how the original Cuban sandwich (called the “mixto” at the time) was born: a combination of Cuban roast pork marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and herbs, Spanish sweet cured ham, Italian Genoa salami, and German mustard and pickles.  (The salami is a Tampa thing, specifically — Miami people are always outraged by it, except this Miami person.)

This is the hand-carved Cuban sandwich I brought home on my trip to Alessi back in March, with really thick slices of roast pork and ham.  It was good, but almost seemed like a little much.  I’m guessing this was the 12″ sandwich ($13.95).

On my June trip with my wife, I brought home the regular Cuban sandwich (a 9″ for $8.95, which is me showing unusual restraint), and I thought it was a lot better than the hand-carved version.  The pressed Cuban bread was less well-done, and the meats had a better texture with their thinner slices.  It was so much more pleasant to sink my teeth into, literally and figuratively.  Even eating it at room temperature, standing up in my kitchen immediately after driving back from Tampa, it was an excellent Cubano.

One thing to note about both Alessi Bakery’s hand-carved and regular Cuban sandwiches: they come with both yellow mustard and mayo, which was fine with me.  Some Cubanos are too dry, even with high-quality ingredients, and I think the mayo makes a fine sandwich lubricant here.  Also, even though the menu says they contain Genoa salami (Tampa’s gonna Tampa), neither of these Cubanos, ordered on two separate trips three months apart, had any.  (The Miami people are breathing a sigh of relief here, but I was looking forward to having a little salami, as a treat.)

I also brought this Italian sub ($11.95) home from my March trip to Alessi, and it was top-notch as well.  Thrill to the sight of Genoa salami (nobody can argue it is necessary in an Italian sandwich), ham, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, awesome hot pepper relish, oil, and vinegar on nice, soft, fresh-baked Italian bread.

Backtracking to Alessi’s Cuban bread, I brought this loaf over when I visited my Tampa friends in March, and everyone ripped into it with gusto.  The Cuban bread they sell at Publix cannot compare.  It doesn’t even come close.  I don’t think any Cuban bread I’ve tried in Orlando does, and I’ve been gone from Miami for far too long.

Once again, I wanted to DARE TO COMPARE Alessi’s Cuban bread to La Segunda’s, so during this busy morning of bakery-hopping, I bought a THREE-FOOT-LONG loaf of fresh La Segunda Cuban bread (left; a real attention-getter!), a new 18″ loaf of Alessi Cuban bread (center), and some buttered Cuban toast from La Segunda (right) for my wife, since she loved it so much on our 2018 visit when I reviewed it.  As you can see, La Segunda’s bread is double the length (and also thinner and softer), and Alessi’s is thicker and has more of a crackly outer crust.  By the way, that is a six-inch Cobra Commander action figure from the G.I. Joe Classified toy line, for scale.  COBRAAAAAA!  RETREAT AND EAT!   

Boy, that’s a lot of Cuban bread, you may be thinking, and you would be right.  I already know both Alessi and La Segunda are famous for their Cuban bread for good reason, and I have already enjoyed it in plenty of their sandwiches.  I will be making several sandwiches of my own in the week ahead, and because of some other ingredients I’ll be using, you will read all about them on The Saboscrivner in the next week or two!

In the meantime, if you are ever in or near Tampa, I’d say Alessi Bakery is definitely worth a special trip.  You can feel four generations of history and love in everything you eat there.  That’s a rare thing in today’s world, especially when so many experiences and sensations are fleeting and ephemeral.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot — the fresh lemonade is exceptional as well, especially today, driving home in temperatures over 100 degrees that felt like walking through warm Jell-O between the bakery and our little car.  If you go, don’t miss that lemonade, on top of all these other treasures!

Cafe Tu Tu Tango

Cafe Tu Tu Tango (https://www.cafetututango.com/) is a beautiful restaurant located in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district on International Drive, near Universal Studios and the Orange County Convention Center.  I used to take my wife there for special celebratory occasions back when we were dating, mostly between 2006 and 2008.  The restaurant is bright and bustling, its red walls strewn with lovely art that is all for sale.  There are local artists painting and sculpting all over the restaurant, dancers are often dancing, and tarot card readers will read guests for a small fee.  It’s a very bohemian place — maybe too loud to be intimate, but festive, fun, and as romantic as you want it to be.  The menu matches the vibe, with small plates featuring fusion foods from around the world, ideal for sharing.

As cool as that all sounds, we fell out of the habit of going, mostly because it is all the way across town.  But we had some wonderful meals and memories there, including two strips of photos we had taken in a photo booth, those completely obsolete but fun and beloved novelties of recent times past.

Well, my wife had a birthday coming up, so I asked her where she wanted to go out.  It had been a few months since we had dined out anywhere together, and me being me, I sent her a list of good restaurants — some old favorites, some we had yet to go to together, and a few that we loved but hadn’t been to in a long time.  She chose Cafe Tu Tu Tango, and we were both excited to return after all these years.  I even wore the same shirt and tie I wore in the photo booth photos (because I hate buying new clothes), hoping to get some updated pics and maybe frame them all together.

Best of all, like its sister restaurant Mia’s Italian Kitchen just up the road, Cafe Tu Tu Tango features an all-you-can-eat weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays for $28.22 per person.  Like Mia’s, it is not a buffet, but you just order whatever you want off the brunch menu (slightly more limited than the regular dinner menu), and as much as you want, for that fixed price.  Back in the day, before I was as gainfully employed, those small plates with their pretty presentations and puny portions could really add up.  It is a hell of a bargain to go for brunch and be able to go and sample anything and everything, so that’s exactly what we did.

We started with two “non-spirited frescos,” essentially mocktails, since neither of us drink.  My wife ordered the $6 Pollock Punch (named for the artist Jackson Pollock, of course), with pineapple, mango, and cranberry juices, passion purée, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, and almond-flavored orgeat syrup, the necessary ingredient in mai tais and so many other tropical drinks.  I ordered the $6 Lichtenstein Lemonade*, a delicious-sounding combination of house-made lemonade, muddled cucumber and basil, strawberry purée, and club soda to make it fizz.  Funny enough, once we sipped each other’s drinks, we realized we each liked the other one better.  The Pollock Punch (left) was too sour for her, while I love sour, and she preferred the fizz in my Lichtenstein Lemonade (right), so we switched them.
*The Lichtenstein Lemonade is named for the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who I DESPISE, because he swiped art from underpaid and underappreciated comic book artists, blew their panels up to giant size and got them displayed in galleries, took all the credit, and got rich and famous off their artwork.  Screw that guy, but if you want an artist who specializes in Lichtenstein’s mid-century retro pop art style but is a truly iconoclastic original, check out my all-time favorite comic book artist Mike Allred.

Anyway, we went on to order A LOT of food from our sweet and patient server Chelsea, who was absolutely slammed, but had a great attitude and personality.  The first thing to come out was the churro waffles (which would normally be $9 if we ordered a la carte) –perfect Belgian waffles with crispy exteriors and fluffy interiors, topped with cinnamon sugar, dulce de leche, vanilla cream, cinnamon  whipped cream.  There were actually two of these in the order, so we each had one.  This was my wife’s first choice, and it was a good one.

I ordered the butter chicken tikka masala (normally $13), a good-sized portion serviced over ‍fluffy basmati rice with pickled red onions, fresh cilantro, roasted corn, and creamy tikka masala sauce.  I love Indian food, but my wife is convinced she doesn’t, because most things she has tried have been too spicy for her.  I was thrilled that she loved this dish, even more than I did, since she never wants to get Indian food, and now we had a dish we know she likes.  The chicken breast meat was very tender, and it wasn’t spicy at all.  I tried a little, but was happy to keep it on her side of the table.Since this meal, I have researched butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two distinct Indian dishes that use similar ingredients, but aren’t the same.  We are going to run further tests to see which one my wife actually prefers, since Tu Tu Tango’s “butter chicken tikka masala” may not be the best example of authentic Indian cuisine.  It was good, though!

I had never ordered any of the brick oven pan pizzas on our past trips to Cafe Tu Tu Tango, because it always seemed like there were more interesting things to try.  But this time I ordered the sausage and peppers pizza (normally $9.25), with Italian sausage, hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers.  It was magnificent, and pan pizza usually isn’t even one of the pizza styles I prefer.  Perfect crispy edges and a nice, fluffy crust.  All the toppings came together beautifully.  It was relatively small, like a “personal” pizza, but I always say that if you believe in yourself, any pizza can be a personal pizza.

Next up, my wife ordered the monkey bread (normally $7), a rich, sticky, super-sweet pastry with golden raisins, pecans, dulce de leche sauce, whipped cream, and enough powdered sugar to make it look like it was partying in Miami.  Funny enough, the monkey bread ended up being too sweet for her, but I ended up really loving its chewy, sticky texture.  It was heavy, and it probably sapped some of my strength and endurance mid-meal, but what a way to go.   

I ordered these breakfast tacos (normally $8), with jalapeño jack cheese, huevos rancheros, and crumbled, seasoned beef  on two soft corn tortillas.  My wife wanted no part of them, but they ended up being among my favorites of the brunch.   I really thought the beef was chorizo sausage — it was that kind of savory flavor with just a little spice.

Next up, she ordered the grilled fish tacos (normally $11), with honey-lime escabeche sauce, cotija cheese, crunchy cabbage slaw, and more pink pickled onions on the same soft corn tortillas.  We both appreciate good fish tacos, but both agreed the fish was on the “fishy” side.  I ended up eating everything except the tortillas, which she wanted for herself.  I wouldn’t get these again.  Loved the toppings, but the fish — not so much.

Anyone who knows me at all would glance at the menu and predict I would order the Cuban sliders (normally $12), two wee sandwich halves with capicola, genoa salami, pulled pork, pickles, Swiss cheese on pressed bread with a ramekin of the most delicious, vinegary mojo sauce.  I’m predictable when it comes to food.  I liked these, but the sauce was my favorite part!  I thought about how much I might have preferred chilled Italian-style sandwich sliders with the capicola and genoa salami and some pickled vegetables.   But don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy them. 

Next, I got the Tango home fries (normally $4), with sautéed red pepper and onion strips, scallions and a house spice blend.  These were delicious, but I thought the potatoes could have been crispier.  They had a pleasing amount of heat, but not so much that a person who likes things mild wouldn’t enjoy them.  I was starting to get full, so I didn’t finish these, and I still feel guilty about that.

My wife ended her meal with one of her favorite dishes of the day, shrimp and grits (normally $12), served with corn relish and scallions.  She loves grits, whereas they are not usually my favorite.  I didn’t try this, but she ate it with gusto, so it must have been good.  I’d say this, the butter chicken tikka masala, and the churro waffle were her favorites.   

Next up came the dessert that I thought was going to be my favorite: guava and sweet plantain bread pudding (normally $7), served in a sizzling skillet and topped with Nutella sauce.  I wish I had asked them to hold the sauce.  Believe it or not, I could take or leave Nutella.  Thanks to it, the whole thing ended up tasting like chocolate and muted the flavors of the guava and sweet plantains, two of my favorite things to eat anywhere.  I could only eat one of the two pieces, and she wanted nothing to do with it. 

Finally, my Southwest Caesar salad arrived (normally $10).  It contained romaine lettuce, avocado, crunchy fried tortilla strips, cotija cheese, salsa roja, and chipotle-garlic dressing .  I make salads and eat them in my work lunches almost every day, so I rarely order salads at restaurants, but this had a lot of neat-sounding ingredients, and it was included in the fixed price for brunch, so I decided to give it a try.  I’m glad I did, but I ate all the interesting stuff off the top and tapped out before I could make it through all the romaine lettuce. 

So that was it for brunch, and that was pretty much it for the two of us for the rest of the day.  But what a way to go.  This has to be one of the best values in Orlando, folks.  I crunched the numbers, and these eleven small plates we ordered would add up to $102.25 if we ordered them a la carte.  Instead, we paid $56.44 for the both of us (minus our drinks) — almost half that price for the all-you-can-eat brunch deal.

Sadly, Cafe Tu Tu Tango got rid of its photo booth at some point before Chelsea even started working there, as I had feared.  In this age of camera phones, selfies, Instagram, and “pics, or it didn’t happen” culture, a photo booth taking up space in a busy restaurant or bar seems like less of a sound and necessary investment, but there’s something about printing out those momentous moments on a little strip of paper to cherish forever, in a way that doesn’t seem the same when staring at images on screens.  But in the end, we didn’t need new photos.  We had each other, we had our memories –both old and new — and we had an epic brunch in beautiful, bohemian surroundings that would tide us over for a while.  At least until dinner that evening.

 

AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.

Cubans on the Run

Cubans on the Run (https://www.cubansontherun.com/) is a small, casual Cuban restaurant located in Casselberry, but practically on the edge of Longwood.  Yesid Saavedra opened it as a small sandwich shop with his late father-in-law Jose Torres in 1993, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Charlie in 2004.  Undaunted, they rebuilt and reopened it as a larger space, with an expanded kitchen and a fuller menu to match, adding Cuban entrees beyond sandwiches.

My wife and I have enjoyed Cubans on the Run for years, but because it is closed on Sundays, sometimes we don’t make it there when we get the bright idea to go.  I’ve never eaten in the dining room, even in all the years before the pandemic, but it’s a fantastic restaurant to pick up takeout.  They have one of the best Cuban sandwiches in town — not as large as College Park Cafe‘s Cubano, but definitely one of the better ones in the Orlando area.  Those two are my Top Two, for sure.

My wife doesn’t share my obsession with sandwiches, but she likes steak much more than I do, believe it or not.  At Cuban restaurants, she almost always orders a thin grilled steak, like this one here ($10.99), served with chimichurri sauce on the side, and topped with a mound of thin-sliced grilled onions she hates, but I love.  I am always glad to scoop up her onions.  She requested white rice with it but got yellow rice, which she was fine with.  Those are tostones on top — savory, starchy, salty, crunchy fried plantains, and a cup of red beans underneath that I would end up eating.  The steak is very thin, but it was a huge portion.  There  was a second entire piece of steak underneath that one, almost the same size! 

I am making a conscious effort to eat a little healthier in 2021, so on this visit, I ordered chicken fricasee for the first time.  This herculean portion was only $7.50.  I requested dark meat, so I got a huge chicken thigh with the bone still in and the skin still on, a huge leg, a couple of chunks of potato from the stew, a bed of rich yellow rice, a cup of red beans, and four maduros — sweet fried plantains, definitely a Top Ten favorite food of mine.  Sometimes you order chicken and it’s disappointingly dry, which is one reason I tend to prefer dark meat, especially thighs.  This was perfect chicken — so moist, juicy, tender, rich, flavorful.  It was prepared so well, I feel inspired to try to recreate my own version at home.  Loved this chicken.  One of the best chicken dishes I’ve eaten in the Orlando area, without a doubt!

But for the purposes of this review, I couldn’t go to Cubans on the Run and not order one of their signature sandwiches.  But instead of the traditional Cuban sandwich that Cubans on the Run is acclaimed for, I switched it up and got my childhood favorite from Miami, the medianoche (midnight) sandwich ($5.99).  It has all the same ingredients as the Cubano: roast pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, and pickles, only it is served on a sweet, egg-based yellow bread, rather than Cuban bread.  But I’ve had the Cubano before too, and like I said, both are among the finest in Orlando. 

This is a chicharron ($3.75), crispy fried pork with the crunchy skin attached.  This one was harder, drier, and crunchier than I like, but we caught them late on a weekday evening on this particular visit, and usually I go earlier on Saturdays when the chicharrones are fresher and more tender.

My wife and I both love arepas ($3.75), sort of a sandwich made with two sweet corn patties fried on a grill, with melty mozzarella cheese in between them.  Growing up in Miami, you got an arepa from a cart whenever there was an outdoor event, like a fair or festival.  I have recently learned these are often referred to as arepas con choclo, or cachapas, since there are other kinds of arepas (Colombian, Venezuelan, etc.) that aren’t the sweet corn cakes.

These are two perfect churros ($3.25 for the pair), which are doughnut-like pastries that are fried and dusted with cinnamon sugar.  They should be crispy on the outside and moist and cake-like on the inside.  These churros are made fresh, and you can get them with or without cream down their long hollow centers.  I like the cream, but my wife prefers them without.  Guess how we got these!*
*We got them without cream, the way my wife likes.  Fellas, consider this a teaching moment.

I have a hard time going to any Cuban restaurant and not trying my old Miami standards of a beef empanada ($1.85) and one or two croquetas de jamon (75 cents each).

Empanadas are savory pastries, usually filled with some kind of meat wrapped in a half moon-shaped crust, then baked or fried.  Cuban empanadas are wrapped in a flour dough crust, then fried until crispy, flaky, and soft.  I like them the best, especially when they’re stuffed with picadillo, a dish of seasoned ground beef.  This was a nice light empanada, crispy yet soft and yielding, barely greasy, although I wish the ground beef was a little more tomatoey.  (Everyone seasons it a little different, and sometimes you find olives in there, stewed with the picadillo.)

Croquetas are small fritters of diced ham mixed with a rich, creamy bechamel sauce, dipped in bread crumbs, and then fried until crispy and solid, but soft and creamy inside.  I love them, but nobody loves them more than my best friend since childhood, a lifelong Miami resident who is currently blogging about his quest to discover and review Miami’s finest croquetas, in The Croqueta Diaries.  I’m a dabbling dilletante, but consider my dude Captain Croqueta.

And even though Cuban food is not known as spicy food, Cubans on the Run is well-known for their housemade hot sauce.  Usually they will give you one or two tiny plastic cups, even with a big order like this, but this time I remembered to ask to purchase a bottle (I believe it was $5).

I’ve tried several other Cuban restaurants around Orlando, but Cubans on the Run is definitely one of my favorites, and one of the best.  It isn’t far from home, but much too far from work to dash off to for a quick lunch.  Since it is closed on Sundays, that means we can pretty much only ever go on Saturdays or rare mornings after dental appointments nearby.  But as you can see from the hearty, unpretentious, delicious food here, it never disappoints.  Run, don’t walk, to Cubans on the Run!

Chain Reactions: Polo Norte (Miami)

The last day I ate a meal in an actual restaurant was March 7th.  I was hanging out with my best friend in Miami on my first trip down in over two years, and we made the most of that pre-pandemic day by eating at FOUR restaurants.  We started our morning with cafes con leche and Miami’s best croquetas de jamon at Islas Canarias in West Kendall, but then the real challenge began.  From there, we made our way to Polo Norte (https://polonorterestaurant.com/), a Cuban restaurant with five locations around South Florida, to sample Cuban pizza and Cuban burgers called fritas.

Feeling invincible, with a long day ahead of us, we started with a half-order of garlic rolls, or pan de ajo ($1.85):DSC03007

This was a personal pizza con chorizo ($7.95), with finely diced sausage baked under the cheese.  The cheese was appropriately melty, the dough was pretty soft with the expected crispy bottom, and the chorizo was salty.  Funny enough, it didn’t remind me of Mexican-style chorizo, red and crumbly and and perfect with eggs in breakfast tacos and burritos, nor Spanish-style chorizo, dry, rich, and spicy, like salami meant for the most special of occasions.  This chorizo was salty above all else, and the entire pizza was pretty greasy.DSC03009

We shared that, and we also shared this personal pizza con maduros ($7.95)!  Yesssss, since Polo Norte is a Cuban pizza joint, you can get sweet, ripe, fried plantains on your pizza.  Maduros are a top ten favorite food of mine in any form.DSC03008

These Cuban pizzas were okay.  Even though my life was more complete, it wasn’t necessarily changed for the better.  I’m so glad I tried them, after growing up in Miami and not even knowing these existed for my first few decades, but there are certainly better regional pizza styles to seek out, even when you’re in Miami.  (I’m a Sicilian pizza fanboy to this day, after so many slices from Cozzoli’s in the Dadeland Mall food court, growing up in Kendall in the ’80s.)

But while we were at Polo Norte, already the second stop on our day of gorging ourselves around Miami, we each had to get a frita con queso ($3.95 each), a Cuban-style cheeseburger that is famous around Miami and virtually unknown elsewhere.  Not only did my best friend and I have our first Cuban pizza experience at Polo Norte, despite growing up in the 305, this was also my first-ever frita. DSC03010

Since our trip to Polo Norte, I’ve become a little obsessed with the frita burger and researched it a lot.  I have experimented a lot more with cooking at home over the last year, especially during this quarantine period, and recreated the frita several times following this recipe from the Three Guys From Miami, to great success.

The burger patties are seasoned in a way that most burgers aren’t, with paprika, cumin, garlic, and onion.  Adding so many additional flavors to the meat before cooking it makes it a little like meatloaf, as far as I’m concerned, but I love meatloaf almost as much as I love burgers.  But instead of thick meatloaf sandwiches, fritas should still be thin burger patties smashed flat on the cooking surface.  A red sauce is often squirted onto it while cooking, adding to the savory flavors.  It is tangy, but not spicy, because Cuban food is rarely spicy.  Then the burger is served on a bun that has also been lightly griddled (either a Cuban roll or a regular soft hamburger bun) with additional onion, a squirt of ketchup, cheese if you want (I always want cheese), and a mountain of crispy julienned potatoes or commercial potato sticks.

I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to return to Polo Norte on future trips to Miami, just because those visits are so infrequent and short, there are so many great restaurants to try, and my best friend, my family, and I all have our own favorites already.  But if you’ve ever wanted to try a whole new style of pizza and find yourself down south, this is one of the leading places to experience Cuban-style pizza, and you should totally get a frita burger while you’re there.  I’m reasonably sure nobody serves Cuban pizza here in Orlando, so I’m especially glad I got to try them at Polo Norte last year.

College Park Cafe

I’ve written a lot about being from Miami and growing up eating the best Cuban food in the country.  If there’s one thing I hope I’ve shown the world on The Saboscrivner, it’s that Orlando has an exciting, burgeoning culinary scene, one that allows us to hold our own against other midsize-to-large cities.  We even have Cuban restaurants, but even though some of them are good, very few compare to the plethora of excellent Cuban dining options four hours south of us in Miami.  And nowhere is that more clear than with the legendary Cuban sandwich, AKA the Cubano.  Plenty of good ones, but nothing that matches the iconic Versailles restaurant, the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban community and a can’t-miss destination for locals and tourists alike.  Versailles’ Cuban sandwich is even featured in Jon Favreau’s delightful movie Chef, one of the best food-related movies ever made, which I strongly recommend to all my readers (most of whom have probably seen it already).

Well, dear readers (all those bakers’ dozens of you), I think I’ve finally located Orlando’s finest Cuban sandwich, one that can stand alongside los mejores en Miami, in large part because it’s larger than many of them.  It’s at College Park Cafe (https://collegeparkcafe.com/), a humble diner in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, a place just far enough out of my regular radius that I rarely venture out that way.  I’ve been seeing Facebook posts from them and from foodie friends, singing the praises of the Cuban sandwich and other food, so I had to try it for myself, and I’m so glad I did.  A sign outside the diner advertises “The Best Cuban Sandwich In Town!”, and they ain’t kidding.

College Park Cafe is open from 6:30 AM until 2:00 PM, so I planned to get lunch from here, knowing they aren’t open for dinner.  I called in my takeout order and spoke to Barbara’s son Juan, who was very friendly and patient.  I had to make a few stops on my way there, and Juan called me back to let me know they were out of something I ordered, and called back a second time when I was about five minutes away, to let me know my order was ready.  I appreciated the communication.  Later, I spoke to cook and owner Barbara Martinez over Facebook Messenger while I was writing this review, and she said her family moved to Orlando from South Florida a year ago and took over the diner in August of 2019.  That’s when they added Cuban dishes to the large menu full of American breakfast and lunch classics.

Of course I ordered the Cubano ($10.50) for myself, and I chose one of my lifelong favorite foods, sweet plantains (maduros) as the one side the sandwich comes with. DSC03125

Opened up to show off all the shredded, marinated, roast pork, thin-sliced sweet ham, melty Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, sliced pickles, and crunchy potato sticks on this sandwich.  Potato sticks aren’t typical, but they were a nice touch — says the guy who likes to put chips in almost any sandwich.DSC03126

And a cross-section, so you can see just how thick this sandwich really is:
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Sweet plantains with black beans (more about them below):DSC03121

I also got a side order of onion rings ($2.50) because this was my first visit to the College Park Cafe, and whenever I see onion rings on a menu, I have to try them.  That’s why this review gets a [AIR HORN!] RING THE ALARM! [/AIR HORN!] tag.  It was a great value for a generous order of small, mostly uniform onion rings that were still warm by the time I got them home.  Served with some ketchup I keep chillin’ in the fridge for such rare occasions, they were a nice accompaniment to that awe-inspiring Cubano.
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My wife wanted palomilla steak ($11.50), a thin, marinated, grilled Cuban-style steak, which came with rice, beans (she chose black beans), and salty fried plantains (tostones), which she always prefers to the sweet ones.  I always plate the food when I come home with takeout, especially in these pandemic days, and that means I always try a little bite of whatever she ordered.  She likes and orders steaks far more than I do, but WOW, I was in heaven after one bite of this thin, flat, tender palomilla.  My eyes rolled back in my head, and I was reeling from the excellent seasoning.  There was garlic, cumin, maybe the sour orange juice of a mojo criollo marinade.  It was an explosion of deliciousness, all from one bite.  And because my wife hates onions and I love them, I slid all the grilled, seasoned onions off the top of her steak to enjoy myself.  DSC03120

Tostones!
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When I got there, I saw they had a rich-looking chocolate cake under a glass dome, as any good diner should.  My wife always loves chocolate, so I got her a slice of that too.  It looked like they have flan as well, but I had to save some stuff for future visits.
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I would have ordered the Cuban frita sliders, small burgers made with a blend of ground beef and chorizo sausage, usually served on buns pressed in a plancha like the Cuban bread of a Cubano sandwich, and topped with potato sticks and onions.  But unfortunately they were out on this visit.  I discovered frita burgers relatively late in my life, on my most recent trip back home to Miami in early March, right before the pandemic struck, and I have a review of that restaurant written and ready to run on a week I don’t have anything new to report on locally.  I don’t know of anyone in Orlando serving fritas aside from College Park Cafe, so I’ll definitely return to try those.  I don’t think anything could keep me from ordering another one of those perfect, overstuffed Cubanos, though.  That thing would be a bargain at twice the price.  It really is that damn good, and not just by Orlando standards either.

So that’s College Park Cafe, a friendly neighborhood diner with all your timeless diner classics: Reubens, patty melts, Greek omelettes, country-fried steak, eggs Benedict, chili cheeseburgers, anything you can picture in your diner dreams.  They even have an unlimited salad for $8.99 (for dine-in only), or $11.99 when paired with a few different entrees.  But the Cuban food is the real star of the show, and it’s definitely some of the best Cuban food to be had in Orlando, good enough to hold its own in Tampa or Miami.  The Martinez family is so incredibly nice, and I shouldn’t have to remind you that they could really use every bit of support.  Plus, normally parking along Edgewater Drive in College Park is kind of a nightmare, but it wasn’t bad at all on a Saturday afternoon during a pandemic.  Trust me — if you and the people you’re comfortable being within six feet of can’t decide between breakfast, diner food, and Cuban cuisine, have I got the place for you.

Lechonera El Barrio

Maybe the best lunch value to be found in the Orlando area is at Lechonera El Barrio (https://www.facebook.com/Lechonera-El-Barrio-Restaurant-1519366968315699/), a small, modest cafeteria on Semoran Boulevard, located at 435 North Semoran, on the east side, between East Colonial Drive and State Road 408.  They serve huge, hearty, heaping helpings of heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban food at extremely low prices — perfect to pop into for a quick lunch to go, that can usually be turned into two or even three meals.  There are a few tables there, but I’ve never lingered.  It’s so close to work, I’m usually in and out, often picking up additional food for other co-workers to turn them into enduring fans of the place.  Even President Obama ate there, during a visit to Orlando for his 2012 campaign, and there is a photo on the wall to prove it, alongside several other (much) lower-profile celebrity guests.

Whether you’re eating in or taking out, food is served in styrofoam to-go boxes, with a medium costing $5 or a large costing $8.  I usually spring for the large, just because the leftovers heat up well, and I know my leftovers will never go to waste.  I never understand people who let their leftovers rot in our tiny break room fridge at work, or worse yet, “forget about them” at home.  To me, ignoring your restaurant leftovers is the equivalent of having a night of steamy romance and passion with a very hot partner of your preferred gender, but losing all interest in seeing them again for another tryst the following day.  WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?  But I digress.

First, you start out choosing your rice for the foundation of your giant food box: white (which is always more tender, fluffy, and buttery than the white rice I make at home in a rice cooker), yellow (even more buttery) with gandules (pigeon peas), or moros (white rice mixed with black beans; you’ll never be morose if you try it).
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I always try to time my rare visits for Fridays, because I know that’s when they’ll serve paella-style yellow rice mixed with seafood — bits of fish, shrimp with tails on, and even small bay scallops and mussels still in the shell, all stewed together with red bell peppers and peas.  That’s what I always go for.  Pardon the blurriness of this photo, taken through glass.  dsc02654.jpg

Then you can choose black or red beans, and while I like black beans (good Miami boy that I am), I almost always choose red beans, because they were never an option at the Cuban restaurants I grew up going to, and I like them even more.  I usually opt for my beans on the side in a separate container, even though I often pour them over my rice once I reach my final destination (usually our sad little break room at work, although I guess I made it sound more ominous than that).  You choose an entree after that, and then a side, which may include boiled yucca, tostones (crispy fried slices of unripe plantains), or maduros (sweet and sticky fried ripe plantains, one of my favorite foods in the world).

Entree choices include quartered or halved roasted rotisserie chickens marinated in garlicky mojo criollo, pernil (tender roast pork, often with delicious crispy bits of skin attached), pepper steak, costillas (ribs), and different stewed beef, chicken, pork, and even fish dishes.  Most people I know opt for white meat chicken, which occasionally disappoints due to sitting out a little too long and being dry.  I have much better luck with dark meat, but I rarely order the chicken here.  Pernil pork is almost always awesome, and I always ask (in my best awful Spanish) for pieces of that crispy skin.  I think once they had rabos (stewed oxtails), and I was in heaven, because I always love oxtail, whether it’s in Jamaican, Latin, or Asian recipes.
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But on my most recent visit, I was craving pastelon, a dish that’s kind of like Puerto Rican lasagna: layers of sweet plantains and seasoned ground beef, topped with a bechamel sauce and white cheese (mozzarella?), then baked into a casserole and served in large slices the size of Rubik’s cubes.  I got my pastelon with a large order of seafood paella rice, red beans on the side, and maduros, so I ended up with plantains and more plantains, and definitely engaged in some carb-loading.  It was a ton of delicious food for only $8.  DSC02658

Because I try to be a stand-up guy, on my way out the door, I asked three co-workers if they wanted anything, and two actually did.  Someone wanted a Cuban sandwich, which I was pleased to see they used the fresh pernil pork in, before pressing it on a sandwich press with the usual ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles.  It was a nice-sized sandwich for only $5, and I guarantee the pork was a lot fresher and higher-quality than it would be at lots of places that specialize in Cubanos.dsc02655.jpg

My other colleague asked for “mofongo and chicken,” and I failed to press for additional details, in my haste.  The mofongo — a mountain of mashed plantains mixed up with bits of chicharrones (pork fat and skin), garlic, and other seasonings — was prepared to order, so that took about ten minutes.  They served it with what looked like a quarter of the rotisserie chicken, most likely white meat, and only charged $6 for all of that!  I will now admit I’ve only ever had mofongo once, at a different restaurant, and wasn’t blown away.dsc02657.jpg

But our Friday only improved from there, because when I brought our food back to work, we did what I always hope my dining companions will want to do — we shared everything.  I got to sample the super-solid Cuban sandwich as well as the mofongo, which was much better from Lechonera El Barrio, helped immensely by pungent, vinegary, almost creamy, ridiculously good garlic sauce.  My one colleague who requested the mofongo joked that it’s pretty much an excuse to eat the garlic sauce, and I can totally see where she’s coming from with that.  Make sure you ask for it.  I’m going to request it from now on, even if I don’t order mofongo!  I also shared my pastelon, which seemed to go over well, and both ladies were brave enough to sample the morcilla sausage I asked for on the side, and seemed to like that too.

Morcilla is rich and savory blood sausage with a nice crispy casing and an interesting — but not unpleasant — gritty-but-soft texture.  Here it is in my little sampler with mofongo and part of the Cuban sandwich:dsc02659.jpg

Some foodies joke that they don’t always want to share their favorite spots because then everyone will go to them, but as a librarian, a nerd, and your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, I’m all about sharing information — and also sharing the love.  This is a small, locally-owned business you may have driven by dozens or hundreds of times and never thought to stop there.  You may be intimidated to go there if you don’t speak much Spanish.  (My Spanish is laughably bad, but I understand it much better than I can speak it, and I’m always able to end up with what I want by pointing, smiling, and nodding, when all else fails.)  They don’t even have a website or a menu online.  But Lechonera El Barrio is another one of those hidden treasures in Orlando.  It is not upscale, romantic, or hipster-cool.  It isn’t deconstructing, reinventing, or challenging cuisine.  It’s a cafeteria, and a very good one at that.  What it lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in value, quantity, and quality.  This is simple, tasty food, and you get so much of it.  Plus, you can be out the door quickly with enough food for two or three meals, for under $10.  That is a rare and wonderful thing.