Heartsong Cookies

I try to write my massive missives about restaurants to share the love that I feel as a diner — the love that emanates from those kitchens, from the people working really hard jobs to keep us fed and happy and returning, from the savory and sweet dishes themselves.  If I encounter brusque and impersonal service, I don’t mind writing a food-focused review and accentuating the positive.  Some restaurant staff members and owners are almost comically curt and curmudgeonly as a matter of course, but if the food is good enough, I’ll keep coming back for more.  I can take it.

But I really try to shine a spotlight on the nicest, friendliest, warmest, most welcoming places and the people behind them, like Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites, Kwame Boakye of Chicken Fire, Brennan Heretick of High Tide Harry’s, George Markward of The Pastrami Project, Patrice and Terence Phillips of Something Fishy, Rafaela Cabede of Mrs. Potato, Andy and Evette Rahman of Sister Honey’s Bakery, and the famously friendly Walid Ali at Mediterranean Deli.  Every time I return to these establishments, I always feel like a special, valued regular, even when I don’t make it back to them as often as I would like, to earn my regular status.  But at these restaurants and a handful of others around town, the warmth and friendliness of the owner-operators and their staff make the whole experience even more special.

Another one of these is Heartsong Cookies (https://heartsongcookies.com/), a true mom-and-pop operation that sells Orlando’s absolute best cookies at farmer’s markets and cafes around the city.  The mom in question is a wonderful woman who I would go so far as to call Wonder Woman: Kathy Paiva.  Kathy has the kind of story I enjoy reading and sharing: a proud mother and grandmother, she has a degree in advertising (a fellow Florida Gator!) and a business background, but she got into baking because she loves it, and more importantly, because she loves to make people happy.  Her husband and business partner Mike makes most of the regular cookie dough, Kathy creates the recipes and bakes the cookies, and they have a wonderful partnership going.

Since I changed careers many years ago to find my calling, then left it earlier this year to try a new challenge, I thrill to the courage of people who gravitate toward passion projects, who are truly gifted at something and share their infectious enthusiasm and enviable talents with the world.  She is one of those people, and her creativity, care, and compassion come through in every perfect bite of a Heartsong cookie.  Note that the cookies are $3 each, or three for $8.  A regular person can easily take a couple down by him- or herself, but I always recommend buying a variety and cutting them into halves or quarters to share, so you get to try an assortment of fun flavors.

Here are some of her classics: the traditional chocolate chip, dulce de leche sea salt, M&M chocolate chip, coconut caramel chocolate chip, cookies & cream, and chocolate lava crunch, made with Nestle Toll House chocolate lava cake-flavored baking truffles.  All of her cookies are moist and pillowy-soft, but not so soft that they feel under-baked or raw in the middle.  The texture is the ideal cookie texture, as far as I’m concerned, but I’d rather eat raw cookie dough than dry cookies that shatter into a cloud of crumbs when you take your first of several disappointing bites.  Heartsong Cookies are that masterful midpoint between the two extremes, elevating cookies to a rare and glorious pinnacle.  Baked to perfection?  You bet they are.

I’m not big on nuts in my baked goods, but that toasted walnut fig cookie is really something special, let me tell you.  It helps that I love figs, and she uses chewy dried figs for a really interesting combination of textures in that one.

Come on!  Caramel apple pecan?  White chocolate cranberry pistachio?  Who else would come up with flavor combinations like these?

I’m always a little saddened when people denigrate the humble oatmeal raisin cookie.  It isn’t human, but it needs to be loved, just like anybody else does.  But if you’ve dismissed oatmeal raisin cookies before as a “consolation prize” or a marauding trickster when you’re hoping for a mouthful of chocolate chip, I implore you to give Heartsong’s version a chance.  

She always has at least two gluten free vegan flavors available, and trust me, even if you don’t eat gluten free or vegan (I surely don’t), the texture and flavor is just as good as all her other cookies.  In fact, since I love lemony desserts, her gluten free vegan lemon blueberry cookie (with chewy dried blueberries) is one of my favorites of all her creations. 

This photo is from a previous visit from April, when I ran slightly amok.  Clockwise from top, I brought home an M&M chocolate chip, a strawberry hazelnut chocolate chip with dried strawberries, an orange Creamsicle cookie with dried orange bits and white chocolate chips (one of my favorites), a coconut cream pie cookie (we both loved this one), an oatmeal raisin (like I said, forget every preconceived notion you’ve ever had about oatmeal raisin cookies), one of those gluten free vegan lemon blueberry cookies (if you’re skeptical, I assure you it was amazing), and in the center, a brown sugar sprinkles cookie.

Earlier this week, I contacted Kathy over Facebook Messenger and asked if she took requests for special orders, specifically sugar cookies.  She delivered in a major way at the Maitland Farmer’s Market earlier today, with a beautiful selection of both “drop”-style sugar cookies sprinkled with red sugar crystals and lovely glazed cut-out sugar cookies shaped like trees and leaves to symbolize fall (even though it sure still feels a lot like summer).  In the top left, you should also see an “ultimate snickerdoodle,” her classic cinnamon sugar cookie made with Nestle Toll House frosted cinnamon roll baking truffles inside.  That’s going to be a life-changing cookie, I just know it. 

Here are some more I brought home today.  Some will be for us, but I’m bringing a bunch of them to work to share with my stressed-out co-workers: a caramel apple pecan cookie made with chewy dried apples, a festive funfetti cookie, a cookies & cream cookie (very meta, but I do love Oreos and cookies and cream anything), a gluten free vegan dark chocolate espresso cookie (my wife already called dibs on that one), a gluten free vegan pumpkin spice latte cookie (reserved for a pumpkin-loving co-worker who tries to eat vegan), and a coconut caramel chocolate chip cookie. 
How can you go wrong with any of these?  You can’t.  I am looking forward to sharing the wonders of Heartsong Cookies and Kathy’s generosity, love, and artistry with the good folks at work.  These people could all use a hug, but since I wouldn’t dare make it weird, Kathy’s cookies are like hugs you can eat, and that’s much more workplace-appropriate.

She even put together a beautiful Happy Birthday bag for some of the cookies for someone I work with!  This is what she does — makes people happy.  You can tell she takes that seriously.  That’s an honorable calling and one to be proud of, now more than ever.

Kathy and Mike often set up at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and the Maitland Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings, which is where I usually catch her.  I try to visit her table early before she starts selling out of everything.  (Trust me, these cookies will go fast!)  Follow Heartsong Cookies on Facebook for their whereabouts on any given weekend, and what flavors Kathy will have available at any time and place.  Anywhere she pops up next, rest assured she will be ready to share the most delicious cookies, hugs, and some much-needed joy wherever she is. 

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Aunt Gingibread’s Bakery

Aunt Gingibread’s Bakery (https://www.auntgingibreadsbakery.com/) is a hidden gem in “downtown” Apopka, west of Altamonte Springs.  I almost never drive that far west, but I recently discovered it when I had to order ten dozen cupcakes for a function at work.  My predecessors had used a few different bakeries in the past, with mixed results, but I decided to try a new place that I had read good things about for a while.  Plus, they were surprisingly a lot cheaper than other local bakeries’ custom cupcakes.  Since I really wanted to try Aunt Gingibread’s myself and see what they had in the shop, I offered to drive out of my way to pick everything up on the big day.

I was greeted by the very friendly and welcoming Jennifer (“Aunt Gingibread” herself) and Dan, who had our ten dozen cupcakes all prepared and boxed up.  Part of me was a little worried about some complication on the day of our event, but they did everything right and were incredibly professional.  It came as no surprise that a lot of their business involves gorgeous custom cakes for special events, including wedding cakes.

But as nice as cakes and cupcakes are, while I was at the shop, I was more intrigued by the goodies in their refrigerated glass display cases, and I made some impulse buys to bring home to share with my wife later on.

Here are all the beautiful, elegant cupcakes from our work event.  I didn’t make the actual selections, but it was a good mix of flavors to please our students and staff.  A co-worker labeled the boxes, which came unmarked:

  • Chocolate cupcakes with chocolate buttercream icing,
  • Chocolate specialty cupcakes with chocolate chip cookie dough icing,
  • Chocolate premium cupcakes with Nutella buttercream icing, and
  • Vanilla cupcakes with lemon icing.  (I love citrusy desserts, so I tried a lemon-iced cupcake and can vouch for it being excellent.)
  • Carrot cake cupcakes with cream cheese icing (another big hit),
  • Red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese icing,
  • Strawberry cupcakes, and
  • Vanilla cupcakes with Funfetti icing:
  • Butter specialty cupcakes with cookies and cream icing and
  • Butter specialty cupcakes with salted caramel buttercream icing:

Like I said, everyone loved these, and I felt like a big damn hero for discovering the bakery and hand-delivering them to work.

But even better, here are the treasures I brought home from Aunt Gingibread’s for later.   Clockwise from the top:

  • Chocolate cream pie bar slice,
  • Blueberry cobbler bar slice on a shortbread crust,
  • Triple berry cobbler bar slice with blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries on a shortbread crust, and
  • Oatmeal creme pie cheesecake bar slice.   
    These were all rich and indulgent.  Long-time readers know my undying love for cheesecakes, pies, cobblers, and desserts in bar form.

And these were also awesome: lemon pie bar slices and key lime pie bar slices, with rich, moist graham cracker crusts.  Dan wisely advised me to stick these in the freezer before enjoying, since they wouldn’t fully freeze.  I did this, and actually forgot about them for over a week, which made a huge, pleasant surprise when I finally rediscovered them waiting for me. 

Everything from Aunt Gingibread’s Bakery was such a treat.  They have a tiny little space in Apopka, which is off the beaten path for most foodies and snack-seekers, but I strongly encourage everyone to check them out and bring home some sweets and treats for yourselves.

Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mr. Dunderbak’s (Tampa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

We were somewhere around DeLand on the edge of I-4 East when the Beaver Nuggets began to take hold.  Luckily, Doctor Professor Ma’am and I didn’t encounter any bats on our drive to or from Daytona Beach, but we shared a truly exhausting, truly American experience at Buc-ee’s (https://buc-ees.com/), the colossal convenience store just off I-95, a unique shopping experience as vast, overwhelming, and occasionally maddening as its home state of Texas.

Imagine Wawa, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart Supercenter twisted into a sweaty, throbbing throuple, and that comes close, but still doesn’t quite capture the sensory overload of Buc-ee’s.  I counted 43 locations on the website, but there are only two in Florida, both new: off the highway in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.  We didn’t even bother to fill up the car with gas there, given the surprising crowd at lunchtime on a Friday.  Instead, we hustled inside to see what food and snacks awaited us in the sprawling superstore.

They say everything is bigger in Texas: the deserts, the hats, the trucks, the cattle, the churches, the guns, the belt buckles, and unfortunately the intolerance (see recent news for far too many examples).  Well, Buc-ee’s goes big in every way as well.  Once we made our way through sections of the store devoted to kitschy casual clothing, folksy home décor, and touristy novelties (the “schlock and awe” department), we made it to the the real draws: stacks and stacks of snacks and snacks.

Here is the wall of jerky, which is the kind of wall Texas should focus on building.  There is also a jerky counter, where you can get any of the jerky varieties you want, by the pound.  It was easier and faster to grab bags off the wall for $7.99 each.   

I chose cherry maple, Bohemian garlic, and sweet and spicy beef jerky.  So far, the cherry maple was disappointingly bland, but the Bohemian garlic was packed with strong, garlicky flavor.

Doctor Professor Ma’am is more of a fan of gummy candy, and she was faced with overwhelming options, here at the wall of gummies. 

She went with hot cinnamon gummy bears (I think that smell, taste, and texture are all gross, but more for her!) and chamoy-flavored peach rings, pictured below with three different flavors of Rice Krispy Treats she chose (regular, salted caramel, and “Fruity”), plus fried pecans.

I’m not really into nuts.  I just buy them for her, and I almost never snack on them myself.  But when we busted into these fried pecans back at home, all I could say was “GOOD LORD.”  Even with the hell-squirrel armed with a sharp fork on the bag, “GOOD LORD” is the appropriate response.  I couldn’t believe how good they were.  At $14.99, that was the most expensive single item we bought, but it is a good-sized bag, and they are so rich, they should last quite a while.

As an unabashed fan and collector of condiments, sauces, and preserves, Buc-ee’s had a staggering selection to tease, tantalize, and tempt me.

I went a little mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes.  I couldn’t resist (I’m your) huckleberry and blackberry preserves, peach-chipotle and mango-pineapple-habanero salsas, prickly pear cactus jam, candied jalapeños, sweet and spicy ghost pepper hot sauce, and pickled quail eggs!

I fully admit I haven’t tried most of these yet, since our fridge door has only so much space (and it is already stuffed with interesting things in bottles and jars, as one would expect from me).  But I did just bust open the pickled quail eggs, after letting the jar chill in the fridge overnight, and I liked it a lot!  Very spicy and tangy from the vinegary brine, which includes garlic and jalapeños.  “What, you egg?”  [I stabbed it.]

It was even hard to choose a soft drink, with dozens of options.  This is only one of the three huge soda fountain setups.  I grabbed an extra-large cup, avoided anything I could find elsewhere, and sampled sips of the Buc-ee’s-specific flavors.  Favorites included pineapple cream soda, piña colada soda, orange Creamsicle soda, sarsaparilla, strawberry lemonade (non-carbonated), and my big winner, the cream soda on the far right, which I ultimately filled our shared cup with for the schlep home.  Doctor Professor Ma’am said it tasted like pecan pie filling as a soda, and she wasn’t wrong.  It was too sweet to be refreshing, but a very tasty cream soda nonetheless.  We also tried the blue cream soda, which I thought tasted like banana-flavored candy.  She liked it until the chemically aftertaste hit.   We both really wished some of those sodas were sold in bottles or cans, since we would have definitely bought a few different ones to savor later, but alas, they were fountain drinks only.

There were multiple stations to get hot, fresh food, including a station with barbecue sandwiches already wrapped in foil.  I grabbed us a pulled pork sandwich that was delicious.  Doctor Professor Ma’am was tired and hungry by this point, so we split it in the car in the parking lot on the way out to keep hungry from approaching hangry.  Forgive my freestyling, but we savagely ravaged this sandwich, and its richness fixed us from being sad bitches.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, but it didn’t overwhelm the smoky savoriness of the pork. 

There were also touch-screen kiosks for ordering other food, including tacos, burritos, chicken fingers, and a few other sandwiches that get freshly assembled.  I was really hoping to get a pastrami Reuben on a pretzel roll, which came highly recommended, but they weren’t available!  I was so disappointed, which is a quintessentially American take, to bemoan the loss of one option in this land of abundance.  So I chose a “Chopping Block” sandwich that came with sliced rare roast beef, horseradish, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and I asked to add jalapeños for a 50-cent upcharge.  We had to wait a while for that one, since the sandwich-makers were slammed due to 20 busy touchscreen kiosks all beaming in constant orders, but it was worth the wait.  The roast beef was tender, flavorful, and rare, the way I like it, the hoagie roll was nice and soft, and the sandwich was still warm by the time I got it home.   To the right is a chopped brisket sandwich that was also really good — pre-wrapped in foil like the pulled pork sandwich, and mixed up with sweet sauce.  I liked it even better than the pulled pork.

She was disappointed by the fresh potato chips, but I thought they were fine.  Just plain, crispy, salty, slightly greasy chips, as expected.

A fried apple pie was yet another impulse buy.  She enjoyed it in the car (eating it over the open bag to catch the cinnamon sugar cascade), and the one bite I took was really good.  The flaky fried crust was terrific.  We hoped it would be like the bubbly, crackly McDonald’s fried apple pies of our ’80s childhoods, but it turned out to be so much better than those.

Here’s half of the brisket sandwich I saved for Doctor Professor Ma’am back at home, along with a cream cheese kolache (left), a strawberry cheese kolache (right), and a sausage, cheese, and jalapeño kolache (bottom).  Kolaches are pastries that Czech immigrants brought to Texas.  There are sweet and savory varieties, and as you can see, the sweet ones look a lot like danishes.  The sausage inside that bottom one was hot dog-shaped, but much chewier, like a Slim Jim.  It was okay.  The pastry itself is just like chewy white bread.   
I also got a boudin kolache that looked almost exactly like the one on the bottom in this photo, stuffed with the savory Cajun pork-and-rice sausage, but that one didn’t last long enough to get photographed.

They had a fudge counter with nearly 20 different varieties of fudge, all neatly divided into squares.  You could buy any combination of four and get two more free, so how could we refuse?  My wife chose the different fudge flavors, and there is a chocolate one for sure, a chocolate pecan, a “gooey pecan,” a “tiger butter” in the top left (vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter), and a blueberry cheesecake fudge (bottom left).  The sweet fudge lady would cut off little sample slivers, and I sampled key lime pie and banana pudding fudge.  Both were good, but too rich to get entire slices of, on top of everything else.  She warned me I might not like the banana pudding fudge, but I sure showed her!

Anyway, these are ridiculously rich, so I know we will make them last.  We might even freeze some, forget about them for a while, and then have a pleasant surprise when we rediscover them days or probably weeks later.

The very first thing that tempted Doctor Professor Ma’am was a box of six pecan pralines.  I suggested we do one loop around the store first to get the lay of the land before we start grabbing everything, and that’s when she found individual pecan pralines at the fudge counter.  She was thrilled to be able to just get one, rather than a six-pack, with all the other stuff we chose.  I broke off one little morsel, and it was almost cloyingly sweet and  intensely rich.

Since I regularly review chips in my series of Tight Chips features here on The Saboscrivner, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few small bags of classic, barbecue, and hot Buc-ee’s chips.  I don’t know how they’ll be, but I got ’em.   
A sample guy was giving out samples of the barbecue-flavored Baked Chees-ee Curls, the Buc-ee’s version of Cheetos, and they were good enough to bring home a small bag.  I’m surprised Frito-Lay hasn’t come out with a barbecue Cheetos flavor, in all these decades.

And we couldn’t go all the way to Buc-ee’s without grabbing a bag of Beaver Nuggets, one of the most famous (infamous?) and recommended snacks from fellow travelers.  These things are unbelievably good.  Crunchy, toffee-sweet, buttery, salty.  Imagine Corn Pops cereal, but a million times better in every possible way.  Neither of us had ever tried them before, but I figured she would love them, and I was right.  As for me, I can eat a whole bag of chips standing up in my kitchen without even thinking about what I’m doing, but the Beaver Nuggets are so much richer, heavier, and more substantial than chips, I was perfectly content after just crunching on a few of them. 
The Buc-ee’s Nug-ees on the right are a “Bold ‘n’ Spicy” version of the sweet, crunchy Beaver Nuggets.  Their texture is softer, though — more like puffy Cheez Doodles that you can easily crush between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  They are well-dusted with spicy, cheesy orange powder that is spicier than regular Cheetos or Cheez Doodles, but much less spicy than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I can only imagine combining the two varieties in a bowl as some kind of decadent snack mix.

Finally, I grabbed two large boudain [sp] sausage links from a freezer case, and I got the small package of sliced smoked venison sausage at the jerky counter.  Those were $5 and $4.40 respectively — cheaper than I expected.  I haven’t tried them yet, but my hopes are high.

Our first trip to Buc-ee’s was both physically and mentally draining.  It is a lot to process, and if you arrive hungry and like to try new foods and snacks, you can get yourself in a bit of trouble there, as we did.  But it’s such an overwhelming experience, somewhere between the food halls in cosmopolitan cities like Philadelphia or Seattle and a Southern Walmart on Black Friday.  I suspect that if we ever return, the novelty and mystery will have worn off, so we can quickly grab a few favorites and rush out, without feeling the need to see and try everything, like we did this time.  Trader Joe’s definitely feels like that now, after breaking the bank on my first-ever visit so many years ago, but now just running in and out for a few staples while dodging the mobs.  Novelty fades.  Newness wears off.  That’s why I constantly seek it out and share it here, with YOU.

But beyond the novelty of new sandwiches, snacks, and sodas, Buc-ee’s also felt like the kind of roadside attractions that used to line America’s highways and byways — bemusement parks that drew cross-sections of society away from their homes and out of their cars, those in-between places that made the journey so much more interesting (and often weirder) than the destination, before every highway exit started to feature the same corporate fast food restaurants and chain stores.

Being in a new job in academia where I no longer work directly with our diverse student body, and generally avoiding crowds and social situations for the past two years, this was the most people I had been around in a while — and such people!  There were exhausted families, bored teenagers, leather-clad bikers, swaggering cowboy types, beachgoers, retirees, active-duty military men and women in uniform, actual Goths (in broad daylight, in Daytona Beach!), a guy who looked like Gung-Ho from G.I. Joe, and so many tattoos, with a particularly large amount of spider webs on elbows.  The two of us only noticed one guy in an overtly political T-shirt, and we seemed to be the only two people still wearing masks.  Stefon would have had a field day.  But everyone was passing through Buc-ee’s on their way somewhere, fueling themselves up before or after they fueled up their cars, or stopping to use the gleaming, spotless restrooms (which are indeed glorious, living up to all the hype).

I wondered where that sea of sweaty people was off to, and how many had made the pilgrimage to Buc-ee’s as their ultimate destination, as we had, rather than just a rest stop along the way to someplace else.  Well, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, I can tell you that Buc-ee’s is definitely worth a stop — at least once — but don’t expect to get any rest there.

Chain Reactions: Salt & Straw

Salt & Straw (https://saltandstraw.com/) is a small chain of artisanal ice cream shops, founded in 2011 by cousins Kim and Tyler Malek in that hipster hub of Portland, Oregon.  Now they have four locations in Oregon (three of which are in Portland) and a handful in other cities known for their strong foodie culture: Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, two in Miami, one at Disneyland in California, and now one right here at Disney Springs in Orlando, which opened just this past Wednesday, four days ago!

Your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner was right there on the scene, accompanied by his wife and three dear friends who came in from Tampa to join us in our decadent breakfast of ice cream.  We were the first people there when the doors opened at 10 AM, since I had read about long lines the past few days.  That’s how we roll, folks.  Get in, get out, beat the crowds, and hopefully limit our COVID-19 exposure.

It is located near the AMC Theater, Starbucks, and the Star Wars and Marvel stores on the west side of Disney Springs.  If you’re making a special trip just to try it, I recommend parking in the Orange Garage, or in the parking lot near the House of Blues and Cirque de Soleil.

Salt & Straw is known for some pretty creative flavors, all made from high-end, often locally sourced ingredients.  The official website doesn’t list the flavors for the brand-new Disney Springs location yet, but the Disney Springs website does.  I also took a picture of the flavors, for your convenience:
We were amused by a lot of people walking by, looking at the sign, and remarking how “weird” a lot of those flavors sounded.  I think the location will do very well, because there are plenty of novelty-seekers who just love trying new things and having new experiences.  I’m certainly one of those, and we may outnumber the people who get stressed out by too many options, or put off by unfamiliar options.

This is not cheap ice cream, folks, but if you’re on Disney property, you must already realize that nothing is cheap.  But I hate a ripoff, and I’m happy to report you get what you pay for here.  Also, the patient Salt & Straw staffers will hand you spoons to sample any flavor, and possibly even every flavor if they aren’t too busy.  Since we were first, Keanna was extremely patient and gracious with us, as we sampled their wares.  I kept promising that we were going to buy a lot of ice cream after all those samples, and we certainly did!

Our one friend got a single scoop “kids” portions for $5.75, and she chose honey lavender, which she seemed to love.  I’m not a huge fan of lavender as a food flavor — it often makes things smell or taste like soap to me.  But I also tried a free sample spoonful of that flavor, and it was nice — smooth and floral, but not soapy.  Sorry I didn’t get a photo.

But the best deal, which I highly recommend, is the ice cream flight, where you can choose up to four flavors — four separate, slightly smaller scoops — in a container with four compartments to keep them from touching.  It costs $14.75, and that’s definitely the way to do it.  My wife and I studied the menu in advance, and after trying our samples, we knew exactly what to get.

This was my flight:

  • Top left: a new flavor called Bottomless Limes!, invented by a 12-year-old kid named Rae.  According to the menu, “[they] ribbon in Key Lime cheesecake with hunks of golden pie crust, crystallized with brown sugar and ginger, and shards of sprinkle-studded chocolate bark.”  I’ve made no secret of my love of key lime pie, citrusy desserts, and cheesecake, so that sounded perfect for me.
  • Top right: strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper, another flavor that sounded tailor-made for me.  I often buy fresh strawberries, chop them up, and then macerate them in the fridge with balsamic vinegar, which brings out their natural sweetness.  This sounds weird, but it is amazing, and even more amazing scooped over vanilla ice cream.  So with this combination from Salt & Straw, it was definitely an example of great minds thinking alike.
  • Bottom left: Roasted pineapple coconut sherbet.  This is a vegan flavor.  I love anything pineappley and coconutty, and those flavors work so well together.

Bottom right: The Salty Donut guava and cheese, inspired by an artisanal doughnut shop that opened a location in Orlando a year or two back, but I haven’t been to it yet.  I’m from Miami, and I grew up eating pastelitos, flaky pastries stuffed with sweetened cream cheese and guava paste, so I couldn’t resist this combination of cream cheese ice cream, glazed brioche donut chunks, guava curd, and puffed pastry streusel.

You can see above that they serve the flights in a flat plastic container with flat lids, which makes it a heck of a lot easier to carry out of the shop, since there is no seating inside.  They are also nice enough to write the flavors on the lid, so you can always remember which one you are trying.Here they are, uncovered.  The Bottomless Limes! flavor (top left) had a lot going on — maybe too much.  But it wasn’t as citrusy or as tart as I would have liked.  The Salty Donut had a slight tartness from the cream cheese ice cream base, but I didn’t detect a single morsel of guava curd in there, and neither did our other friend, who got a scoop in his flight.  Again, I’m glad I tried both of those, but I wouldn’t get either one again.
On the other hand, the strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper (top right) was sweet, tart, and magnificent, and the roasted pineapple coconut sherbet (bottom left) was subtle, but refreshing, and I loved it.  I’d definitely recommend those.

This is my wife’s flight:

  • Top left: Cinnamon snickerdoodle, with actual freshly baked snickerdoodle cookies (or cookie dough?) folded into the cinnamon ice cream.  This was by far her favorite.
  • Top right: The “Ice Cream of Moo,” invented by a 10-year-old named Bridget.  It features “Silky chocolate ice cream dashed with a touch of salt, studded with clusters of candied caramel cashews and hunks of maraschino cherry-laced chocolate ganache.” 
  • Bottom left: Chocolate gooey brownie, with actual fudge brownies folded into chocolate ice cream.
  • Bottom right: Double Fold vanilla, with ground vanilla beans and double-folded vanilla extract.  We were looking forward to a great, simple vanilla ice cream, but we thought this one was rather bland and kind of disappointing, compared to the others’ strong flavors and bold combinations.

Those waffle cone “chips” are pretty amazing, by the way.  Very buttery, with a slight hint of salt, and they stayed crunchy even in the ice cream.  I had bought an extra waffle cone for the two of us to sample (just $2), but that was before I knew they threw in these waffle cone chips with the flights… and then it rolled off my container and fell on the ground, shattering.  Hopefully one of the cute Disney squirrels got to enjoy that cone.

My other friend’s flight included the Triple Tropic Twist flavor, which features “Bright mango-pineapple jelly and citrus mousse swirl through a wildly fruity raspberry sherbet.”  He let me taste that one, and it was really good too.  It had more of that tartness I always enjoy in fruity desserts.  I also really like sherbet and sorbet, sometimes even more than creamy ice cream.

And before we got served, I also sampled the Arbequina olive oil ice cream (extremely subtle and not too sweet or too strong; probably great as a palate cleanser between stronger flavors) and the Panther Coffee chocolate tres leches ice cream, featuring espresso from Miami’s popular hipster coffeehouse.  Tres leches is one of my favorite desserts, but I didn’t really taste any of that in my little sample spoonful.  I just tasted milky coffee ice cream, but really good milky coffee ice cream.

Would I rush back to Salt & Straw?  I don’t think so, but mostly because we are not really “Disney adults,” and the place is such a schlep to get out to.  But I sure love trying new things and writing about them, so I’m very glad I was able to try as many new ice cream flavors as I did, treated people I love to them too, and got to tell this tale afterwards.  If you’re at Disney Springs and are craving something sweet, absolutely check it out.  I don’t think you could possibly regret it, especially if you order a flight, as most of us did this morning.  If you get there early enough to not have to wait in a long line in the blazing heat and oppressive humidity, even better!

Also, I must note this, because I am a fan of professional wrestling and action movies: a co-worker tipped me off that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is now an investor in Salt & Straw, and they have released flavors inspired by his larger-than-life persona as one of the biggest entertainers in the world (figuratively and literally).  None of those were available today, but you might SMELLLLLLLLLL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKING on a later visit to Salt & Straw, Orlando’s newest and most exciting ice cream destination.

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.

 

Dochi

Sometimes you just have to have a doughnut, but not all doughnuts are created equal.  There’s something to be said for a fresh, warm Krispy Kreme when you’re driving by one of those shops and the “HOT DONUTS NOW” sign is lit up.  There are plenty of elevated, artisanal takes on doughnuts, which sometimes hit the spot, but occasionally you just want something sweet, sticky, and a little nasty.

And then there’s Dochi (https://www.dochicompany.com/), which serves a completely different kind of doughnut than you’ve ever tried before.  There are two Dochi locations in Washington state, one in Denver, and we are lucky to have two right here in Orlando (although the one in East End Market, Orlando’s small food hall in the Audubon Park neighborhood, is temporarily closed due to construction).  These are lighter and chewier than any conventional doughnuts, and not as greasy and heavy.  They are inspired by mochi, the sweet, chewy Japanese rice dessert, and they have beautiful “bubble ring” shapes, allowing you to easily pull pieces off to share, or just to save some for later… if you have the willpower.

They usually have five or six flavors available on any given day — some regulars and occasional new ones to keep things exciting.  They will always mark which flavors are available:

And since these are my wife’s favorite doughnuts, I will usually bring her home an assortment of six, which she makes last for a while, despite my dipping into them.  Six Dochi doughnuts cost $13, by the way.  Here are the attractive cardboard boxes, which will not leak grease upon your car upholstery, I’m relieved to report:

On this visit, I brought her home two strawberry Pocky (mostly because that one appealed to me the most), and one each of the rest: matcha Oreo, chocolate M&M, taro Pebbles (like the Fruity Pebbles cereal), and cinnamon-covered churro.

Well, today she was feeling like something sweet, and I was feeling like a hoagie from Hinckley’s Fancy Meats, so I headed out to the East End Market before it got too crowded to bring her home some more Dochi doughnuts.  This is when I found out that location was temporarily closed, so I got my delicious hoagie and headed off to the newer Dochi location in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and shops, just about ten minutes from East End Market.

Today they have six flavors: coffee red velvet, caramel Twix, strawberry Pocky, matcha Oreo, ube glaze, and taro Pebbles:

So I got my wife one of each:

Remember how I told you how easy it is to divide these up for sharing, or creating smaller portions?  We each tried every flavor by tearing off one little bubble from each doughnut for a delightful sampler of flavors, colors, and that unique chewy texture:

Now I like these fine, but my favorite doughnut that I’ve ever had in my life remains Edward Hawk’s citrus-glazed croissant doughnut.  I’ve still never had anything even close to it.  But if you ask my wife what kind of doughnut she would crave or recommend at any point, she will always return to Dochi, and encourage you to do the same.

The Osprey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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