Nikki’s Place

It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive.  Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining.  But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody.  I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.

That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday.  It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant.  It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952.  Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins.  An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.

So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort.  I know I do.  Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed.  When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind.  Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays.  (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)

As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service.  When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance.  (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!)  They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready.  I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour.  This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway.  Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike.  I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived.  This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first.  We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.

Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them.  I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version.  Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite.  They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes.  They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
DSC03192All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food.  The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before.  I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.

My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25).  I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus.  Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had.  As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time.  Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere.  It was a nice-sized fillet, too.DSC03195My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides.  I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top.  It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it.  The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended.  It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before.  I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.

Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later.  As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings.  Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them.  She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample!  I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.

As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013.  They weren’t at all what I expected.  They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari?  And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all.  I liked it and would totally order it in the future!

But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me.  They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone.  They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.  DSC03194

I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today!  I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic.  Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli.  I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful.  This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad.  It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute.  It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.

My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables.  It was so soft and tender.  Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could.  It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.

You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos.  All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome.  Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread.  I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet.  On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home.  It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.

But wait, there’s more!  Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert.  A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!DSC03196Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie.  This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie).  It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.

As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite.  It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit!  Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.

You’re probably hungry now.  I hope so.  That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner!  But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years.  Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore.  Restaurants come and go.  It’s a tough business.  The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both.  I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD.  After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.

That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy.  It nourishes the body, mind, and soul.  It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future.  I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything.  It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does.  Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades.  It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today.  Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food.  Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!

 

Light on the Sugar Bakery

I used to joke that living in Casselberry, we almost always have to drive 20+ minutes to get to Orlando’s hottest restaurants in the hipper, trendier areas like Winter Park, the Milk District, and Mills 50.  But since we started sheltering in place due to the pandemic, I’ve tried to stay much closer to home the rare times I venture out for takeout, and I’ve come to discover a lot of nearby gems like Alex’s Fresh Kitchen and Tomasino’s Pizza in recent reviews, alongside neighborhood favorites like Bagel King, Waffle House, and Kai Asian Street Fare.

I was overjoyed when my choice for Orlando’s best barbecue, Git-N-Messy BBQ, relocated from Sanford to the edge of Winter Park and Oviedo, much closer to us.  And since we started quarantining, I’ve picked up takeout from Git-N-Messy several times.  Best of all, there is a relatively new bakery right across the street from Git-N-Messy, in the same shopping center as Pho Cali/Quickly Boba and Twisted Root Burger Co.  It’s a small Asian bakery called Light on the Sugar (https://www.lightonthesugar.com/), and it is so good, we’re still in shock that it opened on our side of town and not one of these hipster neighborhoods.  

My wife and I first visited Light on the Sugar on our way to have dinner at Tomasino’s for the first time in mid-January of this year, back when you could still linger at restaurants, cafes, and even bakeries without a second thought.  We were face to face with glass cases full of beautiful baked goods — cakes, cream puffs, croissants, danishes, and more.  The bakery was already getting excellent word of mouth on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, so we were excited to be there and trying to take our time deciding what to bring home with us.  DSC02858

Even more choices (pardon the reflections):DSC02859

Unfortunately, I left this first visit very annoyed, due to an employee who was relentlessly rushing us to make a quick decision.  The place was empty aside from us, so it’s not like we were holding anyone else up.  And we had every intention of choosing quite a few treats to bring home, so the guy’s rude attitude really got on my nerves.  We made our choices and went on to dinner, both turned off by the experience.  In fact, I might have not returned at all, except that everything was so amazing.  My wife had fallen for these delectable, decadent desserts, so that inauspicious first visit became the first of many over a relatively short time.

This was what we brought home the first time: a cream puff topped with Froot Loops, a slice of their beautiful and intricate chocolate crepe cake, and a plain croissant.DSC02868

I liked the bites I tried of things, but she just went wild for them.  The cream puff is so light and delicate, but the rich cream in the middle is really something special.  As you saw in the first photo, they have many different varieties of cream puffs on any given day, including strawberry, matcha, ube (purple yam, taking off in popularity here in the States), and Earl Grey, but she loves her sugary cereals.  And the chocolate crepe cake, made of dozens of layers of thin crepes, also wowed my chocolate-loving wife.  DSC02867

On one of my many subsequent visits after picking up takeout from Git-N-Messy BBQ across the street, they didn’t have the Froot Loops cream puffs she loves, but I was able to bring her comparable Lucky Charms cream puffs that were also a big hit at home.DSC03044

You can tell these baked goods are all fresh and of the highest quality, but none of them are cloyingly, overwhelmingly sweet… hence the name.  They are also less heavy than baked goods from some other bakeries (4 Rivers Smokehouse’s Sweet Shop comes to mind) — these are almost ethereal, by comparison.

I’ve also been lucky enough to find a Japanese milk loaf on a few of my visits to Light on the Sugar, and I can never resist bringing one home.  This loaf of bread is rich and buttery, like a cross between brioche and challah.  It makes great French toast, or it’s perfect to just slice and enjoy with some good salted butter.
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I should note that Winter Park’s Bread & Co., another very good Asian bakery, also bakes a Japanese-style milk bread that I love, but my wife prefers Light on the Sugar’s version.

And I should also note that on the multiple visits I’ve made since that first unnecessarily stressful visit with my wife, I have received nothing but friendly and warm service from several female employees.  I haven’t seen that one rude guy again since, and he may not even still be there.  Since everything is takeout only these days, I’m usually in and out in two minutes, especially now that I know what my wife likes best.  But it’s a great bakery and well worth a visit, whether you live in our quieter part of town, or even if you’re surrounded by Orlando’s other good bakeries in the cooler areas.  Like every other restaurant we like, I hope they’ve been holding up through this scary and unknowable time.  But the best way to save the places and things you love is to actually support them, so stop by Light on the Sugar soon and try a few things.  You might even plan your visit around picking up some other takeout at any of the great nearby restaurants, who all need your support as well.

Bagel King

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
–Omar Little, from The Wire (the greatest show of all time)

It’s no secret your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner loves bagels.  They are, after all, the food of my people.  I grew up eating bagels with my family on Sunday mornings in Kendall (one of Miami’s more staid suburbs) from a series of bagel shops and delis that are all decades gone.  On this very blog, I’ve waxed poetic about some of New York City’s best bagels, from the extraordinary Ess-A-Bagel and the rapturous Russ & Daughters Cafe.  I’ve sung the praises of Pickles Delicatessen in nearby Longwood, where their bagels are shipped frozen from New York, and they are almost as good as the real things, hot and fresh when you’re right there.

But if you want freshly baked bagels in the Orlando area, your best option is Casselberry’s Bagel King (https://www.bagelking.net/).  I’ve been going to Bagel King since I moved here in 2004, first with one of my good friends and former roommates, and then with my wife, ever since we started dating in 2006.  It’s a “friendly neighborhood” place too, with a wide open dining room and plenty of natural light streaming in, a gleaming glass case full of pastries baked in house, and a floor-to-ceiling rack of different freshly baked bagels behind the front counter.  You can order takeout at the counter (as everyone has to do these days), but in happier, safer times, it was a great place to grab a table for a leisurely breakfast or lunch.

This was the bagel selection on a recent busy weekend after the takeout lunch crowd came and went, but they still had everything I wanted:
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I can’t tell you how many times I ordered the “Fresh Fish Fantasy” ($10.99) over the last 15 years, where you can choose a bagel with cold-smoked nova salmon (what most people think of as “lox”) or much saltier belly lox, along with cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers on the side.  Almost as many times as I would belt out “Well it’s just a fresh fish fantasy, baby!” in my head over that bouncy Tom Tom Club sample, to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “Well it’s just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby!”  I would always opt for an everything bagel, thick and fluffy with that shiny exterior that only comes from boiling, dusted with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, or a crustier, non-boiled bialy roll with its oniony center.

Close-up of a bialy, for the uninitiated:
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Sometimes I’d switch up the Fresh Fish Fantasy formula and instead opt for smoked whitefish salad on a toasted everything bagel or bialy ($10.99), or sometimes I’d indulge and get Tinamarie’s stuffed potato knish ($8.99): pastrami, corned beef, roast beef, or turkey (I would NEVER get turkey) with provolone, caramelized onions, and dusseldorf mustard, served on a homemade potato knish, split open like a sandwich.  For those of you who have been deprived, a knish is a pastry made of a thin layer of dough wrapped around seasoned mashed potatoes.  You can buy delicious Gabila’s brand knishes in the frozen case at Publix (they are fried and made in New York), but a lot of bagel shops and delis bake theirs, including Bagel King.  You can buy a mini-knish for 99 cents or a full-sized one for $2, and your life will be so much better if you do.

However, my wife never deviates from her formula: a toasted, buttered everything bagel ($1.99) with a side order of pastrami ($4.49), always sliced into strips and cooked on the grill until it was slightly crispy, like bacon.  Bagel King isn’t a kosher restaurant, by the way — you can get applewood-smoked bacon with your eggs, cheddar cheese on your burger (on a pretzel roll), or provolone on any number of thick, meaty, overstuffed sandwiches.  But they also offer turkey sausage and turkey ham.

Most bagels are $1 each, or you can get a baker’s dozen (13) for $10.  Bagels freeze exceptionally well, especially if you slice them first, seal them in plastic bags, squeeze all the air out, and freeze them immediately.  Then they warm up perfectly in a toaster oven… or you can microwave them for 30 seconds before the toaster oven, if you always forget to slice them before freezing, like I usually do.

On this most recent trip, I stocked up with bagels to freeze: nine everything bagels and nine bialys.
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They were even kind enough to throw in these sweet treats: a raspberry danish pastry and a huge, dense cinnamon roll.
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Bagel King also makes their own flavored cream cheeses, which you can order on your bagel or get to-go tubs.  The savory veggie, bruschetta, chunky nova, and smooth lox cream cheeses are all outstanding, but they have sweet ones too, like strawberry, Nutella, and almond amaretto.  I just wouldn’t recommend those sweet ones on an everything bagel or a bialy!DSC03059

So that’s Bagel King, another old stalwart, and your source for the best fresh bagels in Orlando.  I’m so lucky to live near the one in Casselberry, but there are also locations in Winter Park, Lake Mary, Debary, and a wholesale location in Orlando.  Now more than ever, I know we’re all seeking comfort food.  To me, few meals are as comfortable as a good bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.  If that sounds the least bit good to you, come at the king, and don’t miss.

 

Alex’s Fresh Kitchen

I’m sure my regular readers are all doing their part to keep themselves and others safe by staying home, and so is your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner.  But we still have to eat, and I feel obligated to help our local restaurants by ordering takeout when I can (pretty much limited to weekends, on my way home from the pharmacy or grocery store) and spreading the good word about them, to encourage others to keep ordering too.

I’m much less likely to drive all around the Orlando area on food missions like I used to, so I have a renewed focus on what’s good in the neighborhood.  (Sorry.)  Late in 2019, my quiet and unassuming suburb of Casselberry got a new little restaurant: Alex’s Fresh Kitchen (https://www.alexsfreshkitchenfl.com/).  It opened in a space on Semoran Boulevard just south of Red Bug Lake Road once held by Five Boroughs Pizzeria.  Who?  Exactly.  I visited the pizzeria once and thought it was perfectly okay, but it closed before I could write a review.  Alex’s Fresh Kitchen, on the other hand, is a welcome addition to this side of town, and a place I intend to become a regular at.

Alex Diaz is the chef-owner of this small, quaint restaurant with an open kitchen.  He cooks, and his mother, Deborah McDowell, who I didn’t get to meet, provides the baked goods.  Alex was a convivial guy, definitely proud of his place despite suffering from the slowdown all restaurants are dealing with.  But he had other locals, clearly regulars, coming in for takeout before and after me, so I’m glad people are finding out about his Fresh Kitchen.

I used to not be a big chicken sandwich guy, but the last year has led to me appreciating the humble fried chicken sandwich more, as you might have seen in my reviews of Popeye’s, Swine & Sons (which I named one of my favorite dishes of 2019 in Orlando Weekly), and Chicken Fire (which I tried and loved even before they introduced a chicken sandwich of their own).  I had heard from multiple trusted foodies that Alex’s offers a worthy chicken sandwich, so of course I had to try it.
DSC03064 Their version ($12) is a fried or grilled chicken breast (I chose fried because when we’re under a stay-at-home order, we all deserve a little treat), served on a brioche bun with garlic aioli, cabbage slaw, and pickles that were made in house.  I always prefer chicken thighs, especially when the chicken is being fried, but even with white meat, it was still a large and tasty sandwich.

DSC03062I also ordered the burger special ($13), and I’m so glad I did, because it was one of the tastiest burgers I’ve eaten in a really long time, and not just because we’ve been quarantined at home.  It was an eight-ounce burger cooked medium rare, exactly how I requested, served on the same kind of lightly-griddled brioche bun, and topped with fried onion strings, barbecue sauce, pulled bacon, and the most delicious roasted tomato aioli — a pretty perfect burger.  I can’t rave about this burger enough.  Alex told me he runs a different burger special almost every week, so this was a passing thing, but I hope he brings it back or maybe makes it the regular burger, in addition to rotating specials.

DSC03066I placed my takeout order over the phone, and Alex offered me the choice of fries, home fries, or salad.  I had a hard time deciding between fries and home fries, especially because I make and eat salads all the time, but usually leave deep-frying to the professionals.  Luckily, with ordering the chicken sandwich and the burger, I got an order of fries and an order of home fries.  Even though I live ten minutes from Alex’s, the fries were lukewarm and a little soggy by the time I got home and started eating, but I devoured them anyway.  They were good fries, and I suspect they’d be great fries when we’re able to eat in restaurants again.

What was great, however, were the little plastic cups of roasted tomato aioli and roasted onion aioli that Alex included for me.  Longtime readers know what a fan I am of condiments, dips, and sauces, and these were mind-blowing.  I wish he sold these two house-made aiolis in jars, because I’d buy multiple jars and give them to friends and colleagues as gifts.  Ask my wife, who was eating something else while I had this food — I kept exclaiming how good the fries were dipped in these two aiolis, especially the roasted onion one.  I was even cursing with enthusiastic disbelief, and I’m sure I pumped my fist more than once.  They were that good.

DSC03065The home fries were even better than the fries.  The fried potato chunks were a little soft,  but I’m sure they would have been crispier if eaten immediately.  They were very well-seasoned, and there were strips of onion and bell pepper tossed in with them.  I don’t order home fries very often, but I’m so glad I got these.  They were more flavorful than the regular fries so they didn’t benefit as much from the aioli duo, but you bet I tried every different combination and permutation anyway.

Alex’s mother, Deborah McDowell, makes the desserts at the Fresh Kitchen.  I saw a beautiful chocolate peanut butter cake, as well as a beguiling ube cake:
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But maybe my favorite dessert in the world is an Atlantic Beach Pie that I make.  This is the recipe, except I make the crust out of Ritz crackers (the best crackers) instead of the traditional Saltines,  You end up with a pie that is sweet, rich, creamy, sticky, buttery, tart, salty, and crunchy, and perfect year-round (but especially as a summer dessert).  So when I saw Deborah also makes a lemon pie for Alex’s Fresh Kitchen, I had to try her version.  She didn’t opt for the buttery, salty, cracker crust, instead going for a thick, moist graham cracker crust.  Her lemon filling was more custardy than mine, much less tart, and also firmer, while mine comes out more runny.  I was so happy I tried it.  Creamy, citrusy pies are the best.DSC03069

Well, after this first visit, I was already a fan of Alex’s, so I returned this past weekend for more takeout.  I got myself one of his weekly specials, an 8″ Philly cheesesteak sandwich ($12), with a side of those terrific home fries.  It was tasty, but not as juicy or greasy as cheesesteaks I’m used to from places like LaSpada’s.  I feel like it could have used more melty cheese, but it still hit the spot.DSC03076

After my week of raving about Alex’s, and my dear wife not being able to escape my raving, she asked me to order her the mini chicken and waffles ($11).  By the time I got it home and unpacked it for her, there didn’t seem to be anything “mini” about it.  It was a large Belgian-style waffle, already cut into quarters, and served with two medium-sized pieces of fried chicken breast.  Some parts of the fried chicken were burnt, but she ate it anyway, scorched spots and all.  I’m sure this was an anomaly, because my chicken sandwich from the previous visit was fried to perfection.DSC03077
The chicken and waffles came with four little cups of various accompaniments.  From left to right: maple syrup (maybe “pancake syrup,” which I honestly prefer sometimes due to growing up with it), a sweet, caramelized, almost toffee-like topping that she loved on the waffles, what I think was cinnamon sugar (we didn’t try this, and it’s still in our fridge), and her favorite, a sweet and sticky vanilla sauce.

And because nobody deserves a treat more than my poor wife, who has been cooped up at home for weeks, I brought her back a slice of the chocolate peanut butter cake ($7), which happens to be gluten-free.  She absolutely loved it, chocolate lover that she is.  Just like last week’s burger was my favorite thing I’ve tried from Alex’s, this cake was definitely her favorite.DSC03075

It’s great to have one more good restaurant offering comfort and consistency close to home, especially because we’re hardly going anywhere these days.  Alex’s Fresh Kitchen is a relatively new addition to Casselberry’s limited dining options, but I’m so glad Alex and his mom are here, now more than ever.  Ironically, their restaurant is across the street from my gym, but they’re open and the gym is closed.  I can’t go there three times a week like I was going to the gym, but I’ll keep going when I can, especially now that I’m following their Facebook page for updates on the new burgers and other weekly specials.  Welcome to the neighborhood, Alex and Deborah!  Constant readers, make them feel welcome.

Bread & Co. / Nakada’s Kitchen

Bread & Co. (https://www.facebook.com/breadncokitchen/) is a Korean bakery that serves Korean and French-inspired breads, sweet and savory pastries, and other baked goods.  It opened in the spring of 2019, and my wife and I were overjoyed on our first visit.  Similar to the French-Vietnamese bakery Paris Banh Mi, that early incarnation of Bread & Co. had long shelves and tables teeming with beautiful baked goods, and you were encouraged to grab a tray and some tongs, to grab whatever you wanted and bring them to the cashier to be rung up.  Everything was quite affordable, mostly in the $2-$4 range.
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This is what we picked during our first visit.  The large round pastry was mostly savory, but the cream cheese in the middle had a slight tangy, citrusy sweetness to it.  The other crust was very soft, and I liked it a lot.DSC02056
I believe the pastries on the left were financiers, and one might have been almond, and another might have been maple.  The shell-shaped pastry that is second from the top left was a madeline, which my wife always loves.  Bottom right is a red bean doughnut.  I wish I remembered exactly what that slice was, but I think it contained blueberry compote and had a subtle, tangy, creamy topping.

The inside of the red bean doughnut:
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That Milkis beverage tastes like a liquid version of those strawberry candies that elderly people always seem to have, but I never see them actually sold anywhere.DSC02057

Back home from that first visit from mid-2019, with even more goodies they were kind enough to throw in as samples.  The round ring on the left was similar to a stollen, and the two buns along the top had a peanut butter-like top crust but were harder rolls on the inside (and not sweet).  The yellow round bun in the middle was called a crayon bun, and it was very fluffy, with a moist, buttery top and a hollow center with onions baked into it, like a bialy or an onion schnecken roll.  dsc02059.jpg

Winter Park and Orlando were struck with sadness when the location on Fairbanks suddenly closed for remodeling later in 2019, but I was thrilled to discover a second, smaller Bread & Co. location inside the awe-inspiring Lotte Market, the huge pan-Asian supermarket on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway.  Lotte Market is the home of the Filipino-American fusion resturant Taglish, among others, in its excellent food court.  Since I started making the haul out to Lotte in West Orlando, I’ve returned to that Bread & Co. to purchase the best white sandwich bread ever, which is perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches.  It is simply called sandwich loaf, and the ingredients are flour, egg, sugar, butter, milk, powdered milk, malt, and RICE WINE!dsc02704.jpg

There is another, larger loaf of bread available for sale that is even better: a milk loaf that contains flour, sugar, butter, milk, yeast, malt, and salt.  It is similar to brioche, soft and rich, and it makes OUTSTANDING French toast and equally awe-inspiring grilled cheese sandwiches.

This is a small Japanese cheesecake, which was marked down to $5 on the day I tried it.  DSC02684

This cheesecake had more of a fluffy, bread-like texture than the richer, creamier cheesecakes I’ve had (like from Publix, Cheesecake Factory, or the best of them all, Junior’s), and it was much less sweet than all of the others.  I’ve always heard it described as “jiggly,” but this one didn’t jiggle.  It was a nice little treat, but I probably wouldn’t get it again.  It’s just not my kind of cheesecake.

Well, the larger Bread & Co. in Winter Park finally reopened in January 2020 after some renovations, so I recently returned to see what changed and to finish this long-overdue review.  I’ve popped in there twice in March: once on my way down to Miami in early March, to bring milk loaves and sandwich loaves for my family and best friend down there, and made another trip more recently, in the midst of coronavirus panic, to pick up lunch and some sweet snacks to go.

Since the remodeling, Bread & Co. has decreased its pastry offerings from what they used to have, but they still have many of people’s favorites from before.  Check out that gorgeous (mislabeled) tiramisu cake in the top left!DSC03037

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I’m the guy who doesn’t care for macarons, but if you like them, here’s your place:DSC03039

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But even better: since the remodeling and reopening, they have added a menu of Japanese food from Nakada’s Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant set up as a new part of the bakery.  By the time I visited this weekend, all local restaurants have temporarily transitioned to offering takeout food only, and they were no longer serving tempting-looking ramen or udon noodle bowls.  Luckily, they were still offering several intriguing sandwiches, and I picked one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long, long time: the menchi katsu sandwich ($8), a panko-crusted and fried meatloaf sandwich on a soft bun, served with finely-shredded cabbage on top.
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This was a perfect sandwich, perfect for allaying worry and dread and filling my mouth and heart with joy for a few valuable minutes.  The textures of this thing were unreal.  I already love meatloaf — I make a damn fine one, and I’ve enjoyed great versions from Se7en Bites and The Coop — but wasn’t sure what to expect from Japanese meatloaf.  I should have expected greatness.  I’ve also read that menchi katsu is sometimes a Japanese version of a hamburger, but panko-breaded and fried.  However, this has a lot more seasonings than your average burger, as well as a softer and “spongier” texture, making it more meatloaf-like to me.  The breading was light and crispy, and the bun was surprisingly soft and simple.  It just worked so well on every possible level.  Pure comfort food, and it even came with a generous order of tasty fries that were still warm by the time I got home, and ketchup that was slightly spicier than your typical Heinz, but definitely not adulterated with sriracha (I am NOT a fan of that ubiquitous hipster hot sauce).
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I also picked up a beautiful-looking onion bread (the big thing with cheese in the middle; $3.99), and a small custard tart similar to the egg tarts I’ve enjoyed at Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro.DSC03046

I’m so glad Bread & Co. is back in Winter Park, and now with Nakada’s Kitchen serving up Japanese food too.  If the rest of their offerings are as impressive as my menchi katsu sandwich, they have a hit on their hands.  Now we just need the world to get back to normal to fully enjoy things, but at least they are serving takeout in the meantime.  Please stop by and give them some of your business, because they are friendly and nice people, and we need carbs to get through the coming weeks.

Tomasino’s New York Pizzeria

Sometimes you never know the wonders in your own neighborhood, and you can live in a place for years before you discover them.  My wife and I were neighbors for two years — me living with one of my good friends and her living with her parents, five minutes away — before we met on OKCupid.  And in our very neighborhood was a pizzeria I’ve been driving past for over 15 years, that we finally took a chance on trying in recent weeks.  It turned out to be another pleasant surprise moments from our driveway.  This is Tomasino’s New York Pizzeria (http://www.tomasinospizza.com/), with three locations in Orlando (along East Colonial between Primrose and Bumby, in the “Milk District”), Winter Springs (near us), and Lake Mary (I never go up there, so I have no idea what it’s near).

For our first visit, we decided to dine in, because pizza is always better hot and fresh out of the oven.  The Winter Park Tomasino’s is a very small space, but we are early birds whenever possible and got seated immediately.  Later on, as you will find out, they get slammed.  We started out with an order of fresh-baked garlicky cheese knots ($3.99), drenched in thick, melty garlic butter, dusted with Romano cheese, and served with the most delicious marinara sauce for dipping.  Deez knots were very soft and fluffy, which we always like.  Sometimes garlic knots can be too dense and chewy, like little softballs, but not these!DSC02861

This was the 14″ Arthur Avenue-style pizza ($18.99), named after the famous old street of Italian restaurants, delis, and grocery stores in the Bronx.  This pizza sounded perfect for me, topped with spicy soppressata salami, caramelized onions, and goat cheese — these are a few of my favorite things!  They finish it off with a drizzle of their “spicy marinade” that definitely contains crushed red pepper, that pizzeria tabletop standard.  However, I couldn’t shake the fact (no pun intended) that it tasted like the Frank’s Red Hot sauce you put on Buffalo-style hot wings.  DSC02862

Here’s a slice of the Arthur Avenue pie.  I love vinegar and spice, but I’m not the biggest fan of hot Buffalo wings, and that was the overwhelming flavor on this particular pizza, due to that “spicy marinade.”  I would have tried it no matter what, but next time I’ll just stick to plain cheese or splurge on meatballs, onions, and peppers as toppings. DSC02863

My wife opted for two slices: a Don Tomasino slice ($4) and a regular cheese slice ($2.50), both cut from larger 18″ pizzas.  The Don Tomasino is their regular bianca pizza (mozzarella, ricotta, parmigiana and fresh garlic, with no red sauce), topped with thin-sliced breaded eggplant, spinach, fresh tomatoes, and drizzled with their “special pink sauce” (like a vodka sauce).  DSC02864
She didn’t even come close to finishing these, but as usual, I greatly preferred the crispy texture of these large slices to my 14″ pie.  When I return (AND I DID), I’m going to stick to slices, like I usually do at my other local favorite pizzerias Del Dio and Paradiso.

We shared a slice of strawberry cheesecake for dessert, since Tomasino’s gets cheesecake from the legendary Junior’s restaurant in Brooklyn.  This past summer, my wife and I went to New York and ate at two different Junior’s locations in the theater district.  I argue Junior’s bakes the best cheesecake anywhere — far better than your jiggly Japanese cheesecakes, the Publix bakery, and especially the Cheesecake Factory.  It’s nice to know we can get Junior’s slices at Pickles Deli in Longwood as well.DSC02865

More recently, I brought home takeout from Tomasino’s, so we had a second round of trying stuff.

We got the garlicky cheese knots again:DSC02956

My wife got another slices of the Don Tomasino pizza:
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I got my own slice of plain cheese this time (topped with her tomatoes that I dutifully plucked off the Don Tomasino, since she doesn’t like raw tomatoes:
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And a very good meatball sub ($7.99), with onions and peppers added.  Don’t worry, I only ate a few bites after two knots and the slice of pizza.  It heated up perfectly well in the toaster oven the next day.
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And for dessert, my wife wanted to try the chocolate mousse, which was very rich.  She barely made it through half of the decadent domelike dessert, and I only had a few bites, so she had plenty left to enjoy the next day.
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A cross-section, showing the layers of lusciousness:DSC02960

But I placed this pickup order on a Friday evening, just before leaving work at 6:00, and let me tell you, Tomasino’s was a standing room only crowd by the time I got there.  The only thing harder than getting a table was getting a parking space, especially with the even larger and busier Gators Dockside restaurant next door.  So keep in mind Tomasino’s delivers too, for peak times like that.  But also keep in mind that our pizza slices were cold by the time I got home, ten minutes away.  Pizza — especially thin and crispy New York-style slices like they serve here — is always better eaten at the restaurant, hot and fresh out of the oven, like I warned at the beginning of this review.  We knew better, but don’t get me wrong — the food was still good.  I’m glad we finally gave our friendly neighborhood Tomasino’s a chance, and after two visits, we have every intention of becoming regulars.

Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen

I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans four times between 1998 and 2001, with different groups of friends every time.  Back then, as a young guy in college, I never had much money, but I sure liked good food, good music, history, architecture, culture, adventure, and romance, so New Orleans was the perfect destination for all of those things.  (Never did find any romance there, though.)  I played an unforgettable gig with my old band once, went to an epic bachelor party with a bunch of my closest friends in the world (and we were all on remarkably good behavior, believe it or not), and even descended on Mardi Gras one time, which was actually too crazy, crowded, and chaotic to be as much fun as it should have been.  New Orleans is a legendary party town pretty much any weekend, but even as a senior in college, I thought Mardi Gras was just too much.

Obviously the city has changed a lot over the last 19 years, and especially since Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005.  I’d love to make it back to see how the city has bounced back and been revitalized, but have no idea when and if that’ll happen.  But in the meantime, when I crave the food of New Orleans — Cajun and Creole cuisine — we have a very good option right here in Orlando: Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen (https://tibbys.com/), a locally-owned restaurant with locations in Winter Park and Altamonte Springs.  On my most recent visit, I went with two former co-workers who I grew very close to during my first years at my job.  Those were some tough times then, and we all found strength in numbers and looked out for each other.  We were long overdue to get together and catch up, so in true Sabsocrivner fashion, I sent them a list of multiple restaurants where we could have a leisurely lunch and hang out for a while, without feeling crowded or rushed.  I was relieved and excited when they chose Tibby’s, since I hadn’t been in a few years.

In fact, the last time I had been to Tibby’s was long before I started this food blog, so I realized I had never ordered the onion rings before.  That’s right, they offer onion rings as an appetizer ($6.50), which means I had to try them for a little recurring onion ring review feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!

[AIR HORN!]

This was a generous order of thick onion rings (or thicc, as the kids say), with a nice texture from their light, crispy breading.  They came with an excellent remoulade sauce for dipping, one of the best condiments to accompany onion rings at any local restaurant.  These rings seemed particularly salty, but I still liked them a lot.  DSC02870

My wife and I are huge fans of a wonderful, hilarious comedian named Tig Notaro, who had a short-lived and much-missed show on Amazon Prime called One Mississippi.  The theme song was “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” which I only recently found out was written by the legendary, prolific songwriter and country music legend Hank Williams back in 1952.  That song always makes me hungry due to the lyric “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo.”  (I have a real soft spot for songs about food in general, and there aren’t enough of them.)  So when I saw Tibby’s sampler consists of jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo ($14.25), I knew it was meant to be.DSC02871

The jambalaya rice, stewed in a mildly spicy tomato sauce with onions, bell peppers, celery, andouille sausage, and tasso ham, is a classic dish I always love.  In college, I ate a lot of Zatarain’s jambalaya made from a box of rice with dehydrated vegetables and salty seasonings, and I’d mix in cheap sausage, chicken, canned sardines, you name it, plus any vegetables I could afford to stretch it out.  Even that was tasty back in the day, but real jambalaya with quality ingredients is a delicious meal.  The crawfish pie was essentially a crawfish empanada with tail meat in a crispy fried pastry shell.  The filé gumbo was on the salty side, but still very tasty, made with chicken and sausage.  Filé powder is made from grinding dried sassafras leaves, and it is used as a thickener for the hearty stew and other Creole dishes.  The other primary gumbo recipe uses okra to thicken the stew instead.

My one friend ordered shrimp Creole ($12.25), a tomato-based stew with a little island of rice in the middle.  She seemed to love it. DSC02872

My other friend wanted fried shrimp and fried oysters, but not necessarily in a po’boy.  Our server was very accommodating, and allowed her to order side orders of both ($12 for the oysters, $6 for the shrimp).  I tried one of her fried oysters, and it was delicious… but it’s really hard to go wrong with fried oysters.  DSC02873

She also ordered the sweet potato fries for us to share ($4), and they were a treat — salty and sweet at the same time.DSC02874

We couldn’t leave without a plate of beignets for dessert ($4.25).  These crispy-on-the-outside, soft and flaky-on-the-inside fried pastries are a New Orleans specialty.  I’ve had them at the legendary Cafe Du Monde, and nothing really equals that experience of sitting outside, listening to street musicians play incredible jazz and people-watching in the French Quarter… but Tibby’s beignets come close.  DSC02876

I’m really hoping to return to New Orleans for my profession’s big conference this summer, 19 years after my last visit.  It’s staggering to think of everything that city has endured in the meantime, especially the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  But it’s an incredible place, like nowhere else in America, with some of the greatest food in the country.  If you can’t make it, Tibby’s is like a little piece of the Big Easy right here in Winter Park.  You should go there and laissez les bon temps rouler, especially as we celebrate Mardi Gras this coming Tuesday!

 

 

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

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On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
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When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.

Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before starting The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” neighborhood on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.20191130_130558_resized

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location a few years ago, with much more parking.  She’s still on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  (And another one of my local favorite restaurants, Bad As’s Sandwich, has since opened in the original Se7en Bites location and has been absolutely killing it for the past two years.)

In 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (However, I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing retro-looking shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or just have dessert because we’re grown-ass adults who can do that if we want to, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone.

Unfortunately, I missed her on my most recent visit, around 1:00 on a weekend when I ordered everything to go.  She was probably already hard at work at her other restaurant Sette, Orlando’s newest Italian restaurant, which I reviewed back in March 2019 and consider the best Italian restaurant in our City Beautiful.  My poor wife was at home, grading papers while fighting off a cold, so I wanted to bring her a really nice lunch.  When we saw photos of Se7en Bites’ weekend brunch special, the Minnie Pearl, on Facebook, she told me that was exactly what she wanted.DSC02719

The Minnie Pearl ($14.75), named for the down-home hostess of Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry, comes with two mini pearl sugar waffles (GET IT???), a buttermilk-fried chicken breast, and an over medium egg, although I requested the egg be cooked over hard for my wife, who doesn’t love runny eggs.  It also comes with hot honey drizzle and the most amazing vanilla bean butter syrup, which they were kind enough to include in separate containers with lids.  You can say “HOW-DEEEEEEE!” to that.  DSC02720I’m so glad my wife shared a little bite of the pearl sugar waffle with me.  It was easily the best waffle I’ve ever tasted.  Much crisper and denser than most breakfast waffles, including the ones from my beloved Waffle House, this one made the whole house smell like butter, vanilla, and good times.

The Minnie Pearl also included cheddar chive grits, which she is much more into than I am:DSC02724

This is my favorite regular item on the menu at Se7en Bites, the meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough bread, with a mashed potato schmear ($9.25).  I’m a meatloaf lover and make a damn amazing meatloaf, if I do say so myself.  Chef Trina’s version is the only meatloaf that I think comes close to mine.  And since I don’t always feel like a huge and hearty Southern breakfast, I know I can always count on this sandwich (since I always feel like sandwiches).  DSC02725

This is the pimento cheese and bacon sandwich, also on grilled sourdough bread ($8.75).  And I opted for a crispy fried green tomato on mine, for a $2 upcharge.  Pimento cheese is something else I make well, but I feel compelled to try it whenever I see it on a menu, since everyone’s version is a little different.  The version at Se7en Bites is among my favorites.  DSC02726

Sides with the two sandwiches, creamy macaroni and cheese (a $3.25 upcharge) and the aforementioned ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries (a $2.75 upcharge).  Sadly, the fries were cold by the time I got home with everything, thanks to hitting every light on Colonial and then again on Semoran.  I’ll never order these fries with a takeout order again, but they are among my favorite fries in the city when I dine in at Se7en Bites.  DSC02723

To make the lines move along better, you order your sweets at a separate counter, where all the delicious, decadent desserts are on display under glass domes.  Feel free to ask questions — her staff is probably used to them, and they’re always happy to tell you anything you want to know.  20191130_130547_resized

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This is the aforementioned Signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pecan pie ($7), which features the finest, flakiest, most buttery pie crust I’ve ever had.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of richness.  It looks small, but it can be easily be shared by two to four people.  DSC02722DSC02730

I recently met one of my favorite Internet friends for the first time, along with his lovely girlfriend.  He is a fellow aficionado of comic books, cats, pro wrestling, and pie, and we got together for dinner at an old Disney Springs favorite, The Polite Pig.  I made sure to pick up one of Chef Trina’s signature pies for them, and I think it dazzled them the same way it always dazzles us.  That crust remains unparalleled.

This is the Se7en Bites coconut cream pie ($7), one of my favorite kinds of pies, even after getting a little burned out on them judging the cream pie category at the National Pie Championship last spring.  It’s another big hit in our household, to the point where after sharing small slivers when I brought our most recent takeout order home, my wife woke up very early the next morning and finished the rest of it before I got up.  But what’s mine is hers, and at least I got a taste.DSC02721DSC02728

Most recently, when I picked up the signature pie for my visiting friend, I also noticed a new pie I had never seen before: a Samoa brownie cream pie ($7)!  It looked magnificent, and I brought it home, split it evenly, and devoured it with my wife — while we were both watching each other, like something out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This pie has everything: a chocolate fudgy cookie-like crust, caramel, butterscotch, coconut, and the smoothest, coolest, creamiest filling.  It was literally my favorite Se7en Bites dessert EVER, and I hope Chef Trina will consider adding it to the permanent menu.
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And this thicc bar came highly recommended by one of the lovely and ever-patient women of the Se7en Bites staff.  I believe it’s called I Don’t Give a Fudge, and the layers are chocolate chip cookie (bottom), rich fudge brownie (middle), smooth chocolate peanut butter (top), and then a soft cookie dough topping above all of that.  It’s about four inches thick, and once again, meant to be shared by several people (or at least for one or two people to get several portions out of it.  This one cost about $6.  DSC02727

Se7en Bites even serves special burgers on Fridays, which makes it difficult to catch them, but they have been among my favorite dishes there.  In fact, this is an older photo of my favorite burger Chef Trina has ever crafted, the Italian Stallion.  It is topped with a fried mozzarella plank, savory-sweet tomato jam, and pesto aioli, and it is one of my favorite burgers of all time.  In fact, the Italian Stallion made my Top Five favorite dishes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly20170805_103742
Anyone remember the Bennigan’s chain, so ubiquitous throughout the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s?  They had a similar burger back then, the Wheelhouse burger, topped with a fried mozzarella cheese “wheel” and marinara sauce.  That was good eatin’ back in the day, but the Se7en Bites version even leaves that fond memory behind, in the dust.

This was another special Friday burger, topped with bacon, Chef Trina’s wonderful pimento cheese, and onion rings, and I got it with a side of onion rings!  That’s right — you didn’t think this was going to be a RING THE ALARM! feature, but I sneaked it in there, right at the end.  I don’t remember the cute name this burger no doubt had, but I wish she would bring it back, and make those onion rings a regular menu item.  Look at them!  They’re the “good kind” of onion rings I always wax poetic about on this blog — beer-battered and golden brown, crispy but not crunchy, not too thin or too thick, not too greasy.  These were the onion rings that dreams are made of!  20180223_132856_resized

Anyway, Se7en Bites is a local favorite with national renown for good reason, and between this and Sette, Trina and Va’s culinary empire is pretty well-established in Orlando.  I can’t wait to see — and taste — whatever these gastronomic goddesses do next.  In the meantime, if I have co-workers or out-of-town guests who are craving brunch or sweets, Se7en Bites will remain my top choice to bring them to.  There isn’t much like it anywhere else, and we are so lucky to have it here.  Don’t miss the Minnie Pearl with those perfect pearl sugar waffles, and be on the lookout for Friday burgers and that Samoa brownie cream pie!

Popeyes

My readers may have heard some news a while back about a certain fried chicken sandwich controversy.  Barely three months ago, the Louisiana-based fried chicken chain Popeyes (https://www.popeyes.com/), came out with a chicken sandwich for the first time ever, upending the balance of power in fast food chicken sandwiches and making people  everywhere lose their damn minds.

Almost everyone I know either tried the Popeyes chicken sandwich and loved it (like my best friend down in Miami), or tried to, but were foiled every time by long lines and stores selling out (like me).  There were some haters too — either loyalists to the long-standing chicken sandwich champion, or people who claim to never eat fast food for any number of legitimate reasons (which is all good, but they might miss out on something tasty).  And almost as quickly as the hype grew around this sandwich for those two or three weeks in the late summer, Popeyes pulled it from their menus everywhere, and life moved on.  I ended up discovering and reviewing the greatest chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life at Winter Park’s own Swine & Sons, and those went a long way toward helping me get over my FOMO.

I was wondering if Popeyes got rid of their biggest hit ever because they weren’t prepared to deal with the insane demand.  It might have been a personnel issue — assembling sandwiches has to be more labor-intensive than boxing up the whole pieces of fried chicken, and every Popeyes restaurant I’ve ever been to is always understaffed.  It might have been a problem in the supply chain, as there was an annoying ad campaign in the weeks that followed encouraging customers to BYOB, or “Bring Your Own Bun.”  Maybe they wanted to create artificial demand through scarcity, but regardless, they listened to the people, because this game-changing chicken sandwich is back now, as of Sunday, November 3rd.  And this time, hopefully it’s here to stay.

Constant Readers, I failed you back in August.  Even though I had every intention of eating and reviewing this sandwich, I never got my hands or mouth on one in time, and then they were gone.  But there’s no way I was going to let you down you again.  I got to Popeyes on the morning of November 3rd, shortly after it opened at 10:30 AM, but as you would expect (and I kinda did expect), half of Seminole County had the same idea and was already there.

The drive-through line snaked through the huge shared parking lot at this location, so I parked far away so I wouldn’t get blocked in later, and took my chances waiting inside.  This was the smart move.  I was back home with my to-go order in just over an hour, and I didn’t have to waste half a tank of gas idling in the car.  If you go in the days and weeks to come, expect some wait, but the line definitely moves faster inside.  Eventually I got my order, and I was home in fewer than ten minutes, so everything was still hot and crispy.

This was the spicy chicken sandwich, which I loved.  The fried chicken breast was juicy and bursting with flavor.  I admit I was expecting to be disappointed, because Popeyes chicken can be quite inconsistent.  When you get a fresh batch, it’s amazing, but I’ve had far too much sad, dry chicken there.  I typically stick to dark meat, particularly thighs, which I think are more flavorful and less likely to get dried out, but this was a really fantastic fried chicken breast.  It was huge, too, and the buttermilk-based batter wasn’t just lightly crispy — it was CRUNCHY, even after steaming in its little foil pouch as I raced home.  Well-played, Popeyes.  I can’t conceive of a better fast food chicken sandwich.  I emphasize fast food because even though there are certainly better chicken sandwiches out there (like the Swine & Sons versions), those are $11 while this one is $4, almost one-third of the price.  dsc02613.jpgUnfortunately, I thought they were rather stingy with the spicy mayo, and would have loved some more on it.

This was the regular, non-spicy sandwich ($3.99 each without the combo).  It should come with mayo as well as pickles, but they left the mayo of both regular sandwiches I ordered — one for myself so I could try both versions, and one for my wife who doesn’t like anything spicy.  All three sandwiches came with two thin pickle slices, and now that I’m starting to appreciate pickles more, I would have been happy to get even more pickles on them.  By the way, the buns are brioche — soft and fluffy, buttered, and lightly toasted.  It’s a fantastic bun to serve this kind of sandwich on.  DSC02609

You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?dsc02610.jpg

Since my regular chicken sandwich didn’t have any mayo, it was a perfect opportunity to sample two different Popeyes sauces.  I cut the sandwich down the middle, making sure there was one pickle slice on each half, and applied one of these sauces to each:
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The Mardi Gras Mustard is a creamy Creole-style mustard (savory, but not spicy at all) that went well with the chicken, but the Voodoo Sauce was awesome on the other half.  It was thin and runny, sticky, sweet, and slightly spicy — extremely similar to a Thai sweet chili sauce.  And it jazzed up that sandwich just perfectly.  I should have added a schmear of my own mayo too (I only buy Duke’s), but I wanted to stick to just Popeyes’ own condiments for the purposes of this review.

And here is what might be the very best menu item from any fast food restaurant anywhere: Popeyes red beans and rice ($2.29 if you order the small separately, or it can be one of the sides you pick in your combo meal).  This is the perfect, quintessential version of this classic Louisiana dish.  Rich, thick, and smoky, it transcends this fast food fried chicken chain and could hold its own against high-tone versions of red beans and rice in some of New Orleans’ finest chef-driven establishments.  I know a lot of chefs agree and sing its praises, including Momofuku’s founder and all-around cool dude David Chang.dsc02614.jpg

When I finally got up to the cashier, she kept trying to cut me off and complete my order after every item I ordered.  Our conversation went something like this:

“I’d like a spicy chicken sandwich combo, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be $6.99 plus tax.”
“Oh!  But I would also like two regular chicken sandwiches, not the combos, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be…”
“Sorry, I wanted red beans and rice as the side for my combo, and also…”
“Beans and rice, gotcha.  That’ll be…”
“Sorry, I would also like to try the bourbon fudge pie, and…”
“Adding on the bourbon fudge pie!  So your order comes to…”
“NO, WAIT!  I’d also like the pumpkin cream cheese pie!” 

So yeah, it was a battle, and I ended up apologizing a heck of a lot, unnecessarily (which I do far too often).  But they have pie, and I love pie, and I really wanted to share them with my wife and review them for you.  But I really had to fight, just to be able to order them!dsc02611.jpg

The bourbon fudge pie ($2.49) is a small slice that we just cut down the middle.  The fudgy filling is rich, thick, and damn tasty, but the crust is completely tasteless and serves no real purpose.  We weren’t expecting much for $2.49, but it was like a cheap, knockoff version of local Chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s delicious signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pie at her beloved Orlando restaurant and bakery Se7en Bites.  And that pie has the best pie crust ever, so y’all need to make it over there and try hers, maybe even before you try these chicken sandwiches.DSC02612

The pumpkin cream cheese pie is your typical fast food turnover pie.  If you haven’t tried the very similar apple pie at Popeyes, you’ve probably had it at McDonald’s at some point in your life.  You might even remember when the McDonald’s apple pies used to be fried to a crisp, back in the ’80s! dsc02615.jpg

Here’s a cross-section: a strip of sweet pumpkin “pie” filling, and a strip of sweetened cream cheese.  The crust wasn’t anything special, but still better than the extremely bland, flavorless bourbon fudge pie crust. dsc02616.jpg

Anyway, these chicken sandwiches are so good, I went back a few days later to a different location and waited about 25 minutes, just so I could get another one.  I got another spicy boi and asked for extra spicy sauce, but the cashier said there isn’t a button on the register for extra sauce, so they couldn’t do it.  That particular sandwich didn’t come with pickles, but it was still mighty fine.  Tender and juicy, crispy breading, perfect bun (any burger would be honored to be served on a bun prepared that well), and slightly more of that spicy sauce that really brings everything together.

However, this time I asked for macaroni and cheese as the side, because I know the late, great Anthony Bourdain loved Popeyes mac and cheese, as well as their chicken.  I love mac and cheese too, so I had to try it.DSC02619

The mac and cheese was pretty standard, like what you’d get at a soul food or barbecue place.  Very similar to the mac and cheese at Orlando’s homegrown barbecue chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse and its Southern spinoff restaurant The Coop, in fact.  Not baked or anything, no bread crumbs or crispy layer of cheese — just al dente elbow macaroni in sticky, gluey, salty orange cheese.  I can see it being beloved comfort food, especially for someone like Bourdain, a world-weary traveler who sometimes craved simple tastes of home.

I am trying really hard to avoid sodas, but this second Popeyes location had an unfamiliar label on the soda fountain — a drink I had never seen before or even heard of, and I try to stay apprised of such things!dsc02618.jpg

There is precious little information about Mirinda online, but it started out as a brand from Spain, and PepsiCo bought it.  They produce many different fruit-flavored sodas, so I guess Pepsi saw it as a way to compete against Coke’s Fanta brand.  I’ve tried a few different strawberry sodas before, and they always taste more like strawberry candy than the actual fruit.  This one was no exception.  It was almost sickeningly sweet, and I was glad I only took a few sips.  I ended up refilling my cup with Popeyes sweet tea while I waited for my food, and between the Mirinda soda and strong, acidic sweet tea, I ended up with acid reflux for the first few hours of my workday, long before I even indulged with a fried chicken sandwich and macaroni and cheese.  Serves me right, I guess!