Cowboy Dips & Chips at Brooklyn South Bar at Aloma Bowl

I’m not a great bowler, so because I’m not great at it, I never really enjoyed the experience of bowling.  I remember going to kids’ birthday parties at bowling alleys and slinking off to play video games in the arcades, to spare myself some public humiliation at a formative age where everything felt like public humiliation.  This was my usual schtick at even more depressing parties at the roller skating rink when we were a few years older, back when Miami booty bass and freestyle music blared from the speakers, the soundtrack to everyone (except me) starting to kiss.

Of course, this was still during a golden age of arcade video games, back when nobody thought twice about touching things in public places that everyone else had been touching, and there were no hand sanitizer or wipes anywhere.  So as a result of arcades falling out of vogue and being a grown-ass man who avoids awkward social situations as a matter of course, I haven’t been to a bowling alley in over a decade.

Well, I am also a grown-ass man who loves sandwiches and potato chips, as stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know too well.  I recently learned of the existence of Cowboy Food & Drink, a restaurant in the perhaps-tellingly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio, that serves barbecue and American food.  They spun their concept off into Cowboy Dips & Chips (https://www.cowboyfoodanddrink.com/dips-and-chips), which serves a selection of sandwiches with au jus dip and fresh, house-made potato chips at bowling alleys, including two right here in Orlando.  They even donate a portion of the proceeds to charities!  I was intrigued, so last night I went to Aloma Bowl in nearby Winter Park on my way home from work.  Here is the menu for the Brooklyn South Bar, the snack bar at Aloma Bowl, which includes the new Cowboy Dips & Chips: https://www.alomabowlingcenters.com/aloma/food-drinks/.

As you can see, they offer two kinds of sandwiches on “butter-toasted rolls”: pastrami and roast beef.  Of course I had to try them both, and because I am a good husband, I brought one of each home for my wife as well.  They were both a good value, with lots of meat.  Of the two, the pastrami ($10) was much better, with lots of delicious fatty marbling, but not too much.  Here was mine.  I paid a 75-cent upcharge for grilled onions to try theirs, even though I had some at home, and I got creamy hot mustard on the side, to compare it to the multitude of mustards in my mustard collection.

My wife had her plain pastrami sandwich for lunch today.  It heated up well in our little toaster oven, and she enjoyed it:

I also got us each a roast beef sandwich ($8), and I paid a 75-cent upcharge for Swiss cheese on mine, and got pickles and creamy horseradish sauce on the side.  It was honestly just okay, and I wouldn’t get it again.  I love a good roast beef sandwich, but I would have preferred the roast beef to be a lot more rare, with more seasoning. 

My favorite deli roast beef is Dietz & Watson London broil, which you can buy at the deli counters at Winn-Dixie and Sprouts.  That stuff is the best, and I highly recommend it to all.  My wife and I are also suckers for a classic roast beef sandwich from Arby’s or our local legend Beefy King.  This looked more like “real” shaved roast beef than Arby’s or Beefy King, but didn’t have as much flavor.  It wasn’t as salty as those, and it was sliced thicker, so it wasn’t as tender as I would have liked either.

As much as my wife agreed with me that the pastrami was good, she didn’t care for the roast beef either, so we ended up with a spare(Bowling!)  I finished her plain sandwich for lunch today, warmed in the toaster oven with muenster cheese and onions I had sauteed myself, then doctored up with some of my favorite mustard and pickles.  That improved it immensely.  But here it was last night, still warm when I got it home:

Each of the four sandwiches came with a large plastic cup of au jus.  I’m not usually a fan of a WAS (wet-ass sandwich), and probably wouldn’t choose to dip if I was eating at the bowling alley, just to avoid making a mess.  I tried dipping the roast beef sandwich last night after changing out of my work clothes, but it didn’t add much to the flavor aside from salt, and made those good rolls wet and gushy.  But I can’t bear to dump these out — I am totally going to figure out something to do with the au jus.

I also got three orders of the house-made chips ($2 each), since they had three flavors to choose from: salted, BBQ, and salt and vinegar, which I always call “salty Vinnies.”  My wife only likes plain chips, but she really enjoyed these.  They had a fantastic texture, a good crunch without being too hard, and weren’t greasy at all.  I was a little worried because the BBQ and salty Vinnies didn’t look like they were covered with much flavor seasoning, but they tasted great.  The salty Vinnies in particular were delicious, and I would love to get some of that vinegar powder to use for different things at home, since I already have a huge vinegar collection to rival my mustard collection.

Finally, since I was already buying four sandwiches and three orders of potato chips at a bowling alley after a long day of work, I got an order of funnel cake fries from the regular snack bar menu ($5).  They were a little crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, warm, and sweet, just like you would expect and hope for.  They reminded us both a lot of the old Burger King French toast sticks from their breakfast menu in the ’90s (and possibly still; I haven’t gone to Burger King in many years).

It might seem counterintuitive to go to a bowling alley snack bar in search of good food, but if you’ve been reading my blog or anything I’ve ever written about food, you know I’m on the lookout for a good meal anywhere, and it’s amazing where you can find it if you’re willing to look.  Some of my favorite tacos and Nashville hot chicken come from local food trucks, my absolute favorite barbecue came from a gas station convenience store up until very recently (stay tuned for an update on that!), and one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando is a stall in a food court inside a Korean supermarket.  So why not a bowling alley snack bar?

I can appreciate upscale luxury, but I don’t always feel comfortable paying for it (especially since I’m still not dining in at any restaurants anytime soon), and I’d always rather take a gamble on something delicious, casual, and cheap, especially when it’s off the beaten path.  Those treasures that require a little hunting are often the most satisfying to find.  And while the roast beef sandwich was just okay, my wife (a tougher food critic than I) agreed with me that the pastrami sandwich and the chips were quite good, better than some standard restaurants.  The staff was great too — friendly, fast, all masked.  Just knowing there’s one more place in Orlando to get a decent pastrami sandwich and some house-made chips in different flavors makes me feel like all hope is not lost.

Ms Tea’s Bento

This week I ordered takeout for myself and two co-workers from a relatively new Taiwanese restaurant for the first time, after seeing some photos of the food on The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, the main reason I haven’t deleted my Facebook account. Ms Tea’s Bento (https://msteasbento.business.site/) opened last year, then closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and only recently reopened at the beginning of September. The restaurant and teahouse is located in a shopping plaza on East Colonial Drive between Dean and Rouse Roads, easily accessible via the 417 or 408 and not far from busy Alafaya Trail.

It’s a cute little cafe, very warm and welcoming with simple decor (lots of tea, lots of cats), and I was welcomed by the sweetest woman who had my order all ready when I showed up. They have a menu on the website, but I thought it would be convenient for my readers to scan and share the menu here:

I mentioned it was my first time in, and I was so excited to try everything. The lady offered to make me a tea drink for free, because it was my first visit, which was so sweet and generous. I was almost ready to get a black milk tea, but I saw they had a sign in the window offering Yakult beverages, made with a popular Japanese probiotic drink, similar to sweet, thin yogurt with a subtle citrus taste. I asked about the Yakult, and she ended up making me a beautiful pink iced hibiscus tea drink with Yakult added to it, the way you would normally add milk. It was really light, sweet, and refreshing.


I also picked up an iced coffee for my co-worker ($3.75), which was shaken up with some sweetened condensed milk, like Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá. It looked and smelled delicious, and she seemed to love it. My longtime readers know I’m not a big coffee drinker, but I do make an exception for Vietnamese iced coffee.

So this is the chicken teriyaki bento box my one co-worker ordered, with steamed rice and vegetables ($9.50). I appreciated that all the meals came in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe plastic containers with lids that snap into place. That’s always nice to see, especially because I clean and reuse all those kinds of containers. Those are so much better than styrofoam or those flimsy, fragile folded paper takeout boxes.

My other co-worker loves takoyaki, crispy fried fritters made with octopus, a popular Japanese street food. She wanted to try Ms. Tea’s takoyaki ($5.99), and seemed to really like them. I believe they came garnished with thin bonito (fish) flakes and Japanese mayo.


I couldn’t decide between two dishes, and she was also interested in one of the two I wanted, so I suggested we split one of them, knowing her takoyaki wouldn’t be a large order. We split the spicy pork dry noodles ($8.95), which were nice, thick udon-like noodles with ground pork and julienned cucumber, very similar to dan dan noodles I’ve enjoyed before at Chuan Lu Garden. It also came topped with an egg fried to a perfect over-medium with a runny yolk that added richness, and fresh cilantro.

The other dish I wanted to try was the pork stew rice bowl ($7.50), which included braised pork belly in a rich brown sauce over steamed white rice, with still-crispy celery sticks, some tangy diced preserved vegetables (near the top), and half of a “tea boiled egg,” which was one of the things that drew me to try this dish. I think those lighter diced cubes at the bottom were fried tofu, which I definitely wasn’t expecting, but I could be wrong., since I almost never eat tofu. Saboscrivnerinos, please weight in and set me right!


Finally, I couldn’t resist trying the sweet butter/condensed milk toast ($4.25), which sounded like a rich, delightful dessert. I love buttered toast, from Waffle House breakfasts to every kind of garlic bread with barbecue or Italian food. And I love sweetened condensed milk with anything, from coffee to fruit to Cuban tres leches. To me, plain ol’ sweetened condensed milk is a more satisfying dessert than many kinds of cookies, cakes, and ice cream!

I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it ended up being ONE large, thick slice of bread, very lightly toasted, and soaked with butter and condensed milk. I didn’t share this one, even though I realized about halfway through that it was scored into several smaller squares to be easily divided and shared. I ordered it for myself, so I had no compunction about enjoying it all myself.

I enjoyed everything I tasted on my first trip to Ms. Tea’s Bento, and I definitely plan to return and try more dishes and drinks. It’s one of Orlando’s hidden gems in that sun-baked industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive between the 417 and Alafaya, and it’s easy to miss. But when the sun is beating down and you want pull over for a cold, tasty beverage, or you’re hungry for something unfussy and possibly unfamiliar, it’s one more delicious destination in East Orlando and a casual, affordable alternative to the chain restaurants that proliferate out around UCF and Waterford Lakes.

Fuddruckers

Fuddruckers (https://www.fuddruckers.com/) was my favorite restaurant throughout my teens and most of my 20s. When you walked toward the counter to order, you used to see the whole sides of beef hanging in a “butcher shop” window, knowing your burger would be ground fresh. Vegetarians and even some carnivores might have been repulsed, but the rest of us knew we had something really special coming, a burger that stood alone and above all others. The burgers were big, thick, and juicy, cooked to your specifications every time. I followed my dad’s lead for so many years and got mine medium, before I entered a late-bloomer teenage rebellion phase and tried medium rare, only to discover how much better they were. It would be longer still before I dared to become my own man and order steaks rare, and then there was no turning back.

Back in the ’90s, they served the best onion rings — golden brown, beer-battered, just like I like ’em. Those were the onion rings that made me a fan of onion rings 4 LIFE. But for the influence of Fuddruckers and its perfect onion rings, the baker’s dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos might never have experienced

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The buns were brioche-like, baked fresh, fluffy, and fragrant. The Fuddruckers that once stood at Orlando’s Festival Bay Mall (RIP), later known as Artegon Marketplace (RIP), even sold an entire loaf of bread that was soft, airy, and buttery, just like those perfect buns. It made the best French toast. If Fuddruckers served French toast, you know it would have been some kick-ass French toast. Even their desserts were solid, including huge “crispy squares” (Rice Krispies Treats in all but name) that were better than your mom’s.

Maybe my favorite part of Fuddruckers as a teenanger excitedly discovering my likes and dislikes was the toppings and condiments bar, where you could customize your burger however you wanted. The lettuce (in lovely leaves or shredded), tomatoes (always perfectly sliced), and onions (sliced into rings or chopped) were always arranged beautifully, fresh, crispy, and chilled. The condiment station wasn’t limited to basic-ass ketchup and yellow mustard, but barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and molten nacho cheese sauce that you could pump onto anything. I usually went for a combination of all those flavors.

Our old Fuddruckers in the Miami suburbs in the ’90s had a giant vat of warm sauerkraut for their equally giant hot dogs, and to this day, it’s still some of the best sauerkraut I’ve ever had. (The ones in Orlando have never had that, at least not since I moved here in 2004.) When I took U.S. History in 8th grade, I invented the “Zimmerman burger” there, topped with a mountain of sauerkraut, fresh pico de gallo (another standard), and sliced pickled jalapeños. My spicy food-hating history teacher father was both impressed with the deep cut and appalled by the combination. Later, in my Orlando era, I know I would disgust some friends when I used to put away those one-pound burgers, piled high with fresh vegetables and condiments. (I can still do it, but I’ve since learned that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.)

Like my other chain loves Waffle House, Krystal, and Arby’s, I still have a lot of fondness for Fuddruckers. Ask my wife — in our early years together, when we’d drive around Orlando and see a new building under construction, I used to always say “I hope it’s a Fuddruckers,” to the point where it became one of those running gags that nobody even likes. But my teenage dream was fulfilled a few years ago when a new Fuddruckers really did open ten minutes away from my job. I was one of the first 20 people in line on the day it opened, winning me a coupon for a free burger a week for a year. (And no, I went there twice a month at most, even with that proverbial golden ticket.)

But with some bad news out of Texas, where the corporate headquarters is located, I decided to bring home some takeout from my local Fuddruckers a few nights ago, concerned it could be my last chance. But fear not, the patient lady who works there assured me they aren’t going anywhere, and the website has a similarly hopeful message on it.

I ordered a large burger for myself ($8.99), cooked medium rare of course, and added American cheese (an extra 75 cents). Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), the topping bar had been discontinued during the era of COVID, but they will add lettuce, tomatoes, onions, or pickles to your burger. Funny, since my appreciation for pickles is a recent development, I’ve never bothered to try whichever pickles they use at Fuddruckers, so I opted for the usual lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. It was a beautiful burger, thick and juicy.

I’m glad they have avoided the “smash burger” trend of the last few years, where burgers are flattened on the grill. It’s so much more satisfying to bite into a juicy, thick burger on a fresh, thick bun, loaded with amazing fresh toppings.

Luckily, the condiment pumps were still operational, so I was able to add barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and that molten lava-hot cheese sauce everyone loves.

There was plenty of hand sanitizer around, so I wasn’t concerned about pumping my condiments. By the way, the restaurant was sparsely populated with diners, but everyone working was wearing masks, which is always a relief to see.

I got a medium-sized burger for my my wife ($6.24), plain, cooked medium rare. Usually she deconstructs burgers and sandwiches, literally taking them apart and often leaving the bread or bun behind. But even she can’t resist the buttery, brioche-like brilliance of a Fuddruckers bun, so she ate the whole thing.


Fuddruckers fries are like thick potato wedges, and after ordering takeout from there for the last few years, we’ve found the fries get cold by the time I make it home, so we didn’t bother this time. The onion rings aren’t the same style as the ones I grew up with in Miami, so I skipped them too. They do have good sweet potato fries, though — especially when dipped in the honey mustard.

I want to get this out there, in case there is any doubt: I wholeheartedly support our locally-owned restaurants, and I love them with all my heart. This should be clear to anyone who has read anything I’ve ever written about food, on this blog or elsewhere. Even during the pandemic, when I haven’t dined in a restaurant in over six months, I have been ordering takeout at least once a week to support struggling local restaurants, and tipping big. That’s a major reason I write this blog, even though I’m well aware that few people read, like, and follow, and fewer still take seriously — to boost the signal and shout from the virtual rooftops about places I love that everyone else should love too.

But thinking of the mantra “Eat local,” this Fuddruckers is a franchise, owned and operated by friendly and competent local people. Everyone who works there is one of our neighbors. Some foodies eschew chain restaurants, and I usually do too, but I’ll always be a Fuddruckers fanboy. They make a tasty damn burger, a burger I prefer to the trendier fast-casual burger joints and most sit-down restaurants that charge two or three times as much. At least pre-pandemic, they let you dress it up however you want, and that went a long way with me. Freedom of choice. Customization. Those options helped make me into the food blogger I am today, back when Fuddruckers was a special day or night out, and even a bit of a splurge. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Maybe you’ve never given it a chance, but the good news is that it’s not too late. If all the locations were to close, my culinary landscape — my Saboscrivner saga — would be changed forever, for the worse. But for now, we can keep enjoying and supporting it, and these days we have to support the places and things we enjoy, to protect them. These are uncertain times, and no matter what the future holds, Fuddruckers and the other restaurants we love need all the support they can get.

Oh My Gyro

I’ll never forget a trip my wife and I were lucky enough to take to New York City while we were dating and I was working my way through library school.  Among other things, I grabbed this incredible lunch from a halal food cart near 30 Rockefeller Center.  It was so simple, but pretty perfect: gyro meat (possibly lamb, but who can really say?), rice, salad, pita bread, mysterious white sauce and painful hot sauce, eaten out of a tinfoil plate while surrounded by the excitement, adventure, and passion of the greatest city in the world (as well as our own).  When we returned for our honeymoon in 2009, I found an unrelated halal cart and tried their version of the gyro platter.  It was almost identical, but still satisfying, especially with the nostalgia factor working for it.

We were even luckier to return to Manhattan last year, a decade later, to celebrate our tenth anniversary.  (And how lucky were we that our tenth anniversary fell in 2019 and not the hell year 2020?)  We ate like kings on that trip, but one thing I didn’t seek out were the halal food vendors.  Who needed them, now that we have Oh My Gyro (http://ohmygyro.mobile-webview2.com/) to deliver the New York halal street food experience to the suburbs of Seminole County?  Oh My Gyro is owned by the Kermali family, transplanted New Yorkers who have nailed the flavors of the ubiquitous street food and bolstered their menu with some Indian dishes and a few special surprises.DSC02717

I can’t help it — I’ve been here four times (with far too much time in between each visit), but until today, I have always ordered the same thing, because it’s a flawless meal: the lamb combo platter ($9.89), with salty, garlicky gyro-seasoned lamb meat served over perfectly cooked yellow rice with pita bread, lettuce, and tomatoes.  I ask for plenty of their cool, creamy white sauce (stop giggling, you guys!), a bit of the spicy red hot sauce (like the NYC version, it’s VERY spicy, and a little goes a long way, even for those who crave the burn), and it even comes with a soda.  DSC02718

They also offer chicken and falafel on these platters, but my wife and I both love gyros — and lamb in all forms, really — so that will always be our top choice.  When I went back today, I ordered a large lamb platter for my wife (only $8.99 when it isn’t a combo with the soda, and peep that white sauce on the side).  She liked it a lot, as I always do.  ohmygyro2

I have been missing the occasional Indian buffet lunches at Moghul Indian Cuisine my co-workers and I used to enjoy pre-pandemic, and I was craving samosas.  Luckily, Oh My Gyro serves vegetarian, beef, and chicken samosas.  I’ve never tried theirs, so this time I ordered the vegetarian ($4.99) and beef ($5.99), not realizing each order would come with four adorable, perfectly folded, perfectly fried samosas.  ohmygyro4
These were very thin and crispy, in what reminded me of spring roll wrappers.  The samosas at Moghul, on the other hand, are larger and in a thicker, flakier, almost pie crust-like shell.  But these both had a lot of flavor and a surprising amount of heat, from both the ground beef in sauce and the spiced mashed potatoes in the vegetarian ones.

But the main reason I returned to Oh My Gyro today was for a special they were only running today (Friday) — spicy, East African-style bone-in veal biryani ($12), which promised to be braised until tender.  I am a sucker for stewed and braised meats, especially when they’re cooked low and slow until they’re tender enough to fall off the bone.  I’ll take a Turkish lamb shank stewed in tomato sauce (like the ones at Cappadocia), German pork eisbein (like the ones at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe), or giant beef ribs (like the ones at Git-N-Messy BBQ) over steak.  But then again, I don’t think steak is the be-all and end-all of meats.

Anyway, this was the veal biryani, served over fluffy basmati rice with a side of pickled onions, hot peppers, and random other vegetables.  The meat was deliciously tender, and the sauce had so much flavor.  It wasn’t nearly as spicy as I expected, which is fine.  It came with a side of cool, creamy, yogurt-based raita to assuage the burn that never came, but it was so good, I was glad they included it.
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The two little orange-red balls at the top of the plate, called ladoo, came with it as a bonus.  My wife and I had never encountered these before, but they turned out to be sweet!  I researched these, and ladoo (or laddu) are made with flour, fat, and sugar, and often contain nuts — these did.  They were a pleasant surprise after our lamb platter, veal biryani, and samosassortment.  (There.  I just created a word.)

But there were more sweet balls in store!  I had to get an order of gulab jamun ($2.99), those sticky, syrupy, spongy balls that are a joy at the end of any Indian meal.  My wife had never had them before, but I was proud of her for trying one.  Of course she liked it.  What’s not to like?  But they must be REALLY sweet, because she commented on how sweet it is, and how it was too sweet for her to have more than one.  Hey, more for me!
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As a last-minute choice, I ordered a mango lassi ($2.99), hoping to save it to cut any heat from the biryani.  But anyone who knows me can predict what happened next: of course I drank it on the drive home, probably finishing it while I was still in Longwood!
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Oh My Gyro is one of those neighborhood gems that doesn’t get enough foodie love, especially being tucked away in a small, easy-to-miss strip along State Road 434 in Longwood, between 17-92 and I-4.  I highly recommend it, though.  Unfortunately the biryani was a one-day special, but if we’re all lucky, they will bring it back.  But if you’ve spent any time in New York City and romanticize the gyro, chicken, or falafel platters with rice you can buy from countless carts to eat on the street, Oh My Gyro will satisfy that craving.

Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria

My wife recently said I like pizza more than anyone else she’s ever known.  I’m not sure if that’s accurate, because even though I have strong opinions about what constitutes good pizza (and she and I often disagree on good pizza), I really don’t indulge that often.  I published my last pizzeria review back on March 1st (Tomasino’s!), and I’ve only had pizza three times in almost five months since then (two to be discussed in forthcoming reviews, and the subject of this review).  Now if she had said I like subs more than anyone she’s ever known, I wouldn’t be surprised at all, and I wouldn’t doubt the veracity of the statement either.  I like subs more than anyone I’ve ever known.  Yes, even more than YOU.  Come at me, bro.

So when I kept hearing hype and praise for an Italian restaurant that served great New York-style pizza and a great Italian sub, I paid attention.  Word on the street (by which I mean the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook) was that this place makes everything from scratch — their sub rolls, their pasta, even their fresh mozzarella!  It is Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria (https://tornatoresitalianrestaurant.com/), a beloved favorite out in the College Park neighborhood, west of Winter Park and north of downtown Orlando.

I called in a large order, figuring it would be more than enough food to last the two of us a few days.  Tornatore’s was doing very organized curbside pickup, with a table outside where a hostess greeted me.  She brought my credit card inside to charge me, I signed the receipt outside, and they had my food bagged up and ready to go in no time.  They even had a neat little disinfecting device for pens that I had never seen before, that you slide the pen through after each person touches it.  I never even made it inside the restaurant, but I gazed through the glass window into a glass case of house-made desserts (not on the online menu) right in front.  Had I but known, I might have done even more damage!

Anyway, I’ve written before about how pizza is never as good by the time you bring it home, so I ordered a single slice of cheese pizza ($1.95) to consume immediately, in the car, before even leaving Tornatore’s parking lot.  It was New York-style pizza, one of my two favorite kinds (do any sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos remember my other favorite kind of pizza?), hot and thin and crispy with gooey, melty cheese.  I’m glad I got the experience of trying a “control” slice the way it was meant to be enjoyed.tornatores1

I brought home a 14″ medium pizza, among other things.  This was Leah’s Pie ($14.95), topped with mozzarella, sausage, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers — all things I love on a pizza.  It was cut into six wide slices instead of the usual eight most places do, and I enjoyed them for the next several days after heating them up in our trusty toaster oven.  tornatores7
It was a great combination of toppings, and while I can’t call it the best New York-style pizza I’ve had in Orlando (Pizzeria Del Dio holds that title, just barely edging out Paradiso), it definitely makes my Top Five.  And that is NOT meant to be a diss.  It’s top-notch pizza in my top-notch pizza pantheon.

My wife had requested eggplant rollatini ($9.95) off the appetizers menu — thin slices of fried eggplant wrapped around parmesan herb ricotta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, and baked in the oven.  tornatores4
She usually doesn’t care for the acidity of tomato-based sauces, but she seemed to love this version of rollatini.  And for an appetizer portion, she got three meals out of it!

Meatballs are a good way to gauge any good Italian restaurant, so I got us a side order of two meatballs ($4.95), served in marinara sauce and topped with ricotta cheese.  They had a light, airy consistency and good flavor.tornatores2

And we always like to gauge every Italian restaurant and pizzeria on its garlic rolls, so I got us an order of garlic knots too, for $5.95.  You get six knots in an order, not five, but I had already given my wife one when I took this photo:
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These are probably the biggest garlic rolls we’ve had from anywhere.  They had a nice crispy, crackly exterior and were topped generously with garlic and parmesan cheese, but they weren’t as buttery as we like.  Pizza Bruno still holds the championship belt for best garlic rolls in Orlando, and it’s hard to beat Tomasino’s for sheer butteriness.

However, when I unwrapped everything at home, I was very surprised to see these soft, fresh-baked rolls in a paper bag:
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They must have come with the eggplant rollatini and the meatballs, so that was a pleasant surprise, since the menu didn’t mention them.  My wife absolutely loved these, even more than the actual garlic knots!  They were kind of like ciabatta bread on the outside, but much softer and fluffier on the inside — still warm out of the oven.  Had I known these were coming, I probably would have skipped the knots.

But one thing I couldn’t bring myself to skip was the Italian sub ($10.95 for a whole).  As I said earlier, I love subs, especially Italian subs, those choruses of cured meats, cheeses, vegetables, and some kind of vinegar-based sauce on a good roll.  I’ve championed the best Italian subs Orlando has to offer: the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie from LaSpada’s, the namesake Stasio from Stasio’s, the Rocco from Manzano’s, and the Capone, that recurring special guest star from Bad As’s Sandwich.  Well, I can clearly say I have a Top Five of local Italian subs, because the one from Tornatore’s rounds out that quintet.
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Forgoing ham (which can be so good when it’s good quality ham, but too many sub places use the cheap, slimy stuff), Tornatore’s Italian sub uses three of the best cured meats: salami (almost certainly Genoa salami), capicola (spicy ham), and prosciutto (one of the finest cured hams of all, especially when it’s sliced paper-thin like they do, and streaked with rich, creamy fat).  Instead of industry standard provolone cheese, they use fresh, house-made mozzarella rounds (most impressive!), and finish it off with lettuce, tomato, thin-sliced red onion, pickled banana pepper rings, oil and vinegar, and… black olives.

If I had remembered the menu says black olives come standard, I would have asked them to hold them.  As it is, I ate them on the first half of the sub, but picked them off the second half for the following day.  It wasn’t listed on the menu, but they added a pesto spread on the wonderful fresh-baked sub roll, which was crackly on the outside (but not too crackly!) and pillowy soft on the inside.  A little harder than the soft Cusano’s brand rolls at LaSpada’s, but softer than the crusty rolls at Manzano’s, it was a damn fine roll for a damn fine sandwich.

And finally, I have to

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Because Tornatore’s offers onion rings ($4.95), and I’m pleased to report you get a generous order of A-list onion rings, similar to the aforementioned Pizzeria Del Dio and Paradiso.  For some reason, when Italian restaurants have onion rings on the menu, they’re almost always this really good beer-battered kind, the kind I always crave.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I can never resist trying and comparing onion rings wherever I find myself, and I was very happy with these.
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So that was my whirlwind tour of Tornatore’s.  I don’t make it out to College Park that often, but I was glad the place had ample parking, further north on Edgewater Drive from that cluster of restaurants  with minimal parking, mostly along the street.  I appreciated the efficient curbside pickup and especially the really terrific food.  I’m impressed they make so much from scratch, even those desserts I spied through two layers of glass.  The pizza was very good, but that Italian sub was a (cold) cut above.  Whenever I make it back, I’d be tempted to get another one of those, but I wouldn’t mind trying their grilled sausage, pepper, and onion sub on that same delicious fresh-baked roll, with more of that fresh mozzarella.  I’d also get some pasta next time, which is also made from scratch.

Grocery Grails: Sprouts Potato Co. Kettle Style Chips – Limited Edition flavors

Anyone who knows me know how much I love grocery shopping, as well as how much I love trying new flavors of potato chips and tortilla chips.  Sure, most of the time they’re disappointing and weird, but it’s always worth trying them because you never know if you’ll get another chance.  Kind of like new life experiences in general, I guess.

I’m a big fan of the supermarket Sprouts (http://www.sprouts.com), which has two Orlando-area locations, in Winter Park and Oviedo.  It’s an “upscale” grocer in the sense that Whole Foods and Fresh Market are — lots of high-end products, and unfortunately high-end prices to match.  But if you check the weekly ads, Sprouts runs excellent deals and sales every week, especially on produce.  They also have a lot of neat store-brand products and things you can’t find elsewhere, and I love their Dietz & Watson deli meats and cheeses, which are much better than the Boar’s Head products carried at Publix.

As far as chips go, Sprouts carries their own potato chips in multiple flavors — all the classics you might expect, plus some curveballs like Hatch green chile.  They have regular potato chips that are thinner like Lay’s (the industry standards, as far as I’m concerned), and thicker, crunchier kettle chips.  On my first trip to Sprouts since the pandemic started, back on July 1st, I found two new “Limited Edition” kettle chip flavors, for $2.50 each.  Both had summer cookout themes, and I couldn’t say no to them:

  • Burger Toppings: Ketchup, Mustard, and Pickle
  • Aloha BBQ: Pineapple and Sweet Onion

I would soon learn that one was just okay and one was really good, but they were not the ones I expected!sprouts1

Here are the nutrition info (ha!) and ingredients for the Burger Toppings chips:
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These were outstanding potato chips, with intense, strong, clear, obvious flavors.  They tasted like ketchup, mustard, and pickle, as promised.  Unlike some lesser potato chip brands, Sprouts didn’t skimp on the flavor powder.  They had a nice crunchy consistency without being rock-hard gum-shredders like so many other kettle chips.  I almost ate them all before remembering to take a picture:sprouts3

I guess I must really like tomato seasoning on my chips.  One of my all-time favorite flavors was Lay’s Garden Tomato and Basil, which was unfortunately discontinued a few years ago.  I also really like that Canadian favorite, ketchup-flavored potato chips.  Herr’s (a Pennsylvania-based company that goes hard on interesting chip flavors and doesn’t skimp on the seasoning powder) makes ketchup chips that I sometimes find at Wawa convenience stores and enjoy about once a year.  I’m adding these to the pantheon of really good tomatoey chips.

Here are the nutrition info (like I said, HA!) and ingredients for the Aloha BBQ chips:
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I was looking forward to these, because I like barbecue-flavored chips a lot (that sweet-tangy-salty-smoky-sometimes-spicy combo always works for me), and I love onions and onion-flavored things, as well as pineapple and pineapple-flavored things.  But these didn’t taste that different from most other barbecue chips.  They were better than some (once again, they were generous with the seasoning), but they weren’t terribly oniony, and the pineapple was more of a mental suggestion than an actual flavor coming through.sprouts5

I returned to Sprouts last night, since I found an old raincheck they gave me when Rao’s pasta sauce had been on sale for $5 but they were out of it.  Anyway, I noticed both of these flavors of chips were now marked down to 99 cents each, so I figured now was as good a time as any to publish this Grocery Grails review so my dozens of Saboscrivner readers could be on the lookout.  I’m sure these flavors were launched with Independence Day cookouts in mind, but maybe they were a bust this summer, when the need for social distancing outweighed the desire to cook out with family and friends.  And frankly, it’s just too hot to spend much time at all outside, even without the looming airborne dangers of COVID-19.  But you know what can sometimes soothe that sense of disappointment and dread?  New chip flavors being clearanced for 99 cents!  Sprouts is offering a bargain which could only be described as “all that and a bag of chips.”

Something Fishy

This past weekend, I brought home takeout from another excellent Black-owned restaurant that I want more people to know about: Something Fishy (https://www.somethingfishyapopka.com/), located in Apopka, just west of Altamonte Springs on Semoran Boulevard.  I hardly ever make it that far west, but now I have a reason to!  Something Fishy is a casual seafood restaurant that is the very definition of a family business, opened by husband and wife Terence and Patrice Phillips two years ago.  This is their first restaurant, and they both had other careers before, but one of their sons graduated from culinary school and has helped guide them, their daughter is a graphic designer who designed their logo and flyers, and their youngest son works at the Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt location next door that the Phillipses also own.
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Terence, who is also the chef, took my order over the phone, and I got to meet him and Patrice when I showed up to pick up our lunch order.  They were really nice — warm, welcoming, and wearing masks — and I knew immediately that the food was going to be great.

I’ve joked before that my wife and I are on seafood diets: if we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  Longtime Orlando residents know our local seafood options are scant and slim, especially for more casual, non-bank-breaking choices, so I’m thrilled to report that Something Fishy will satisfy your cravings, especially if you may already be a fan of places like Boston’s Fish House.  Now, I’ve been going to Boston’s since I first met my wife and her parents in 2006, but everything she and I tried today was a different style of seafood, maybe more Southern and less New Englandy.  There’s no point in trying to rank them, but I do think Something Fishy has bolder flavors. I encourage you to try it for yourselves, ideally as soon as possible.

“When marimba rhythms start to play,
Dance with me, make me swai”

My wife has lived in the Orlando area since she was three, which I guess makes her a Southern gal, at least geographically.  She loves catfish and grits, so she perked up when she saw fish and grits (together at last!) on the menu.  She asked me to order her the fried swai (Asian catfish) and grits ($9.99), but you can also choose tilapia, Atlantic cod, salmon, unicorn fish (AKA naso; a new one to us), or a fresh catch of the day.  It’s nice to have options, but she wanted swai!  The fish came in two thin fillets, fried in a light and crispy batter that looked cornmeal-based, and she devoured them with gusto.  It was a different style from the catfish she enjoyed from Nikki’s Place last weekend, but she was super-enthusiastic about both.
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She just wanted butter on her grits, which came in a separate container (one of those good plastic reusable containers that are dishwasher- and microwave-safe), but you can also get green onions and cheese on them, in addition to the butter.  Not being the biggest grit guy, I asked if these grits were better than our beloved Waffle House, and she said yes.  I’m guessing Something Fishy serves real grits, because as we all learned from My Cousin Vinny, “No self-respecting Southerner serves instant grits!”
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I was torn between multiple options, but narrowed it down to two and decided to get both, figuring she would want to try them anyway.  I got an appetizer order of fried oysters for myself ($8.99), because I always love oysters in any form, whether they’re raw on the half-shell, battered and fried, or pretty much anything else.  These twelve oysters had a completely different breading than the swai fish, darker and crispier, with savory seasoning — a little peppery.  They came with a small dipping cup of creamy, tangy remoulade sauce that I would love to be able to spread on anything or dip anything into, from roast beef sandwiches to potato chips to falafel, from fried chicken to grilled vegetables to roasted corn.  My wife also liked the fried oysters, since we share everything here.
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My other choice was the lobster roll, which is listed as “market price” on the menu, but today that came out to $16.99.  We always love lobster rolls, and it’s rare to find such a hearty and delicious sandwich that also manages to be refreshing, rather than heavy.  This was a different kind of lobster roll.  Instead of the rich lobster meat being served chilled in mayonnaise, this one was served warm, after being sauteed in butter with the most delicious sauteed, seasoned cabbage.  We chose wisely.  It was a beautiful sandwich, and after I cut it in half for us to share, it was a big hit.  My wife always “deconstructs” her sandwiches (just like a professor to do that!) and usually gives me her bread or roll, but this soft bun was so soaked through with butter and the lobster juices and seasoning that she even wanted that.
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The sandwich came with one side, and since my wife had her grits, I asked Chef Terence if they happened to serve onion rings, even though they weren’t on the website menu.  I was pleasantly surprised that he said they did, so I asked for those, and now this is a

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special review.  These were excellent onion rings, not too greasy, not dark and burned to a crisp, not falling apart, fried to golden brown in what I always default to calling the “good kind” of batter.  And once again, this was a completely different batter than the swai fish and the fried oysters, so their batter game is strong at Something Fishy.  I dipped some of them in the remaining remoulade sauce that came with the fried oysters, and had ketchup on hand for the rest.
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Something Fishy was a great catch in Apopka, which rarely shows up on Orlando foodies’ radar as a hot hub of gustatory goodness.  But it’s worth the 10-15 minute drive west when you get off I-4 on exit 92 in Altamonte.  Terence and Patrice were kind hosts who run a tight ship, and they definitely aren’t shellfish with the portions.  It’s a brightly-lit space with plenty of seating, for those brave enough to dine in restaurants these days.  It’s not a dive; you and your grouper won’t feel packed in like sardines.  Everything we ordered was reely good, so if you like what you’re herring, stop floundering.  Mullet over and swim by Something Fishy some time, just for the halibut.  It’ll have you exclaiming “Oh my cod, it’s so good!”

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!

 

Mei’s Kitchen

Mei’s Kitchen (https://www.meiskitchenorlando.com/) is a brand-new Taiwanese restaurant that opened less than a month ago in East Orlando, in the Publix plaza on University Drive and Dean Road, right off State Road 417.  It is two doors down from another restaurant I discovered and reviewed this year, Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill.  So if you ever can’t decide between Jamaican and Taiwanese food (a situation that most people may never find themselves in, but I have a feeling I will often), this is the place to go.

As usual, friends on The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps on Facebook were even quicker to discover Mei’s Kitchen, and have been posting tantalizing photos and singing its praises for the last two or three weeks.  I have been wanting to make it over there, and finally made it on Memorial Day, a rare Monday off work.  I called in our takeout order as I was leaving the house, hopped on the 417, stopped into Publix for a few groceries, and my order was ready and bagged up when I got to Mei’s, about 20 minutes after making the call.

It’s a large and beautiful dining room in the unassuming shopping center, which they spent months completely refurbishing after the previous tenant, Chinese restaurant Pu Yi, closed.  Sadly, the dining room was empty, but I was there before 5:00 PM on a Monday, Mei’s is still less than a month old and doesn’t seem to have much word of mouth yet, and of course there are COVID-19 concerns.  I don’t plan to resume dining in restaurants anytime soon, but I’m still happy to order takeout to support locally-owned establishments, and I tip like I’m taking up one of their tables.  And now for the word of mouth — I’m here to tell you that the food was terrific and a terrific bargain, and they could really use your business.

I had been dying to try the Taiwanese beef noodle soup ($10.95), and it ended up being one of the most delicious and satisfying noodle soups I’ve ever had.  I was grateful they packed the broth (with beef) and the noodles (with finely-chopped cilantro and what I believe are pickled mustard greens) separately, so the noodles didn’t become a soggy, gloopy mess on my drive home.DSC03170

I poured some of the broth and all of the beef into the noodle container with enough room to mix it around, and I still had lots of broth left over (which I’ll add my own noodles to).  The beef was very tender, and I’m pretty sure it was brisket — one of my favorite cuts of beef.DSC03172

It was so satisfying, and not nearly as salty as I expected.  I’ve had countless bowls of pho, and I’ve finally started wading into the world of “fancy” (non-instant) ramen, but nothing could have prepared me for the perfection of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  Of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I had to research it further, and I found this Grub Street article that lists the best Taiwanese beef noodle soup locations in New York, with more background about the ingredients and cooking processes that make it so unique and special.  The article says “[m]any consider it to be the national dish of Taiwan,” and I can see why!DSC03173

The Taiwanese sausage fried rice ($7.95) wasn’t that different from other fried rice dishes I’ve enjoyed in the past, but its hard to go wrong with fried rice.  I love lap cheong (AKA lạp xưởng in Vietnamese), dried Chinese pork sausage that is chewy and slightly sweet.  It is one of my favorite ingredients in fried rice, and one that doesn’t get included often enough.  This version of the dish wasn’t overly greasy or salty, and the rice had a nice chewiness to it.  It was loaded with scrambled eggs, peas, and diced onion and carrot, in addition to the sausage.

We ordered so much food, I put the fried rice away after a tiny taste, only to devour it the following day after stirring in a little Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, a versatile Szechuan condiment you can find any any Asian market.  But here it is, pre-spicy chili crisping:
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I hadn’t had softshell crabs in a long time, so I was happy to see a salt and pepper soft shell crab appetizer on the menu — two crispy fried crabs for $7.95.  They were both bisected down the middle and came with a generous helping of delicious spicy mayo, which I love on sushi (and almost anything else) way more than I should.  These weren’t greasy either, which is always a nice surprise.DSC03168

Here’s a close-up of the fried crabs.  I really appreciated that Mei’s uses those plastic takeout containers with plastic lids that snap into place.  They are recyclable and dishwasher-safe, so we always clean and save these.  They are perfect for food storage beyond their original use.  DSC03169

But wait, we aren’t done yet!  My wife usually likes fluffy bao buns, so we ordered all three varieties of bao for her, not even realizing Mei’s Kitchen includes two bao in each order!  We were expecting one of each kind of bao, so that was a nice surprise.

So we got traditional gua bao with braised pork belly, garnished with fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and crushed roasted peanuts ($2.95 for two):
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Fried pork belly bao with shredded cucumber and sesame seed dressing ($3.50 for two):
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And fried shrimp bao with avocado and more of that spicy mayo ($3.95 for two):
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As you can see, the bao came in regular styrofoam boxes.

It was a quite a feast that yielded plenty of leftovers, and this was actually our first time having Taiwanese food.  If you like Chinese, you’ll love Taiwanese!  I wish Mei’s Kitchen well.  Most of Orlando’s best Chinese restaurants are all the way out on Colonial Drive (Peter’s Kitchen, Taste of Chengdu, Chuan Lu Garden), so this is somewhat closer to home.  The food is excellent, the portions are generous, the dining room is new and nice, and the prices are extremely reasonable, so here’s that word of mouth Mei’s could definitely use.  Give them a chance, and you won’t be sorry.  I’d definitely recommend everything we tried, and they have a whole lot more to choose from as well.

Tako Cheena

My wife and I have always been huge fans of Tako Cheena (http://mytakocheena.com/), the creative and bohemian Asian-Latin fusion restaurant on Mills Avenue, north of Colonial, in one of Orlando’s finest foodie neighborhoods, Mills 50.  It used to be in a tiny space in a little strip plaza on Mills, with very few parking spaces in front, to the point where we’d often have to circle the block six or ten or twenty times, or more realistically, time our visits for when the place was just opening up.  There was a somewhat steep step up that limited the accessibility for my walker-wielding wife, and a tiny, cramped dining room that further limited her mobility inside once I helped hoist her up.  The food was always delicious, but it wasn’t the most comfortable surroundings, despite the hip, colorful, artsy decor.
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Well, I was recently craving Tako Cheena after a rough week, and to my great joy, they recently moved into a larger building mere steps from their old location.  And it has an actual parking lot, plus a spacious outdoor patio.  I was just picking up takeout from an outside-facing window, so I didn’t linger or even peek inside to look at indoor seating.  However, the new location already looks so much more comfortable and accessible, and that is like a dream come true for us.
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The covered patio overlooks Mills Avenue, and you can see it is steps away from the original location:
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Since the menu on the website doesn’t have most of their newer menu additions of the last few years, or any prices, this was the best shot I could get of the posted menu.  A past favorite, Mary’s Greek Lil Lamb (a gyro in taco form) has never been on their old menu on the website, so I didn’t even think to order one this time, but I was glad to see it has been added to the new menu.  The pernil asado, slow-roasted, marinated pork, is pretty darn great too, but I didn’t order that either on my most recent visit.
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Since I haven’t even been here since I started this blog two years ago, I ordered a bunch of our old favorites.  I got us each a panko-crusted cod “tako” ($4.50), with spicy mayo, shredded cabbage, and scallions on a soft flour tortilla.  This was the first time they asked me if I wanted flour or corn tortillas, but they could have started giving customers that choice at any point in the last two or three years.  These are my favorite fish tacos in Orlando, and I was sad to learn they were out of the usual sweet and sour onion sauce that goes on them, but they were still delicious.  My wife, who always used to love these, thought hers was too spicy, so I ended up eating most of hers too.  I love spicy mayo on anything, so they were perfect for me, as usual.
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Miami kid that I am, I have a hard time turning down empanadas, those crispy-fried half moon-shaped pastries stuffed with a variety of savory or sometimes sweet fillings, sealed with a crimped edge.  Different cultures make different empanadas, but I always prefer a deep-fried, crispy flour pastry shell, and those are the ones they make here.  Tako Cheena always offers different beef, chicken, and vegan empanadas of the day ($3.25 each), always rotating creative fusion ingredients in each one.  I asked what the beef empanada of the day was, and this one had seasoned ground beef like picadillo with mashed potatoes and sweet plantains.  Yes please!  I could have easily eaten two of more of those crispy fried pastries, especially since sweet plantains are a top ten favorite food for me, but I stuck to one.
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The empanadas come with a very small plastic dipping cup of salsa.  When I placed my phone order, the guy asked if I wanted sweet or spicy.  I asked if I could try both, and he said yes.  Well, my bill had a “GG” next to the empanada at no charge, and an “HJ” that I was charged 50 cents for, so that’s how I learned additional salsas come at a cost.  I don’t mind, because I always love trying new salsas.  I could be wrong, but looking at Tako Cheena’s website and the menu above, I’m guessing the “GG” refers to ginger guava salsa, and the “HJ” is probably habanero jackfruit salsa, even though they list it as “jackfruit habanero.”

The website advertises “BURRITOS THE SIZE OF BABY’S [sic] ARMS,” and they aren’t exaggerating.  I ordered the Korean burrito ($10.75), stuffed to almost bursting with sweet and savory marinated beef bulgogi, kimchi fried rice with mixed vegetables, crema, sriracha, ginger scallion oil, and cilantro.  It was a really interesting blend of flavors and textures wrapped in that huge, straining flour tortilla, which is one reason I prefer burritos to tacos.  (GASP!)  It’s so huge, I saved half for the next day, and even the half is a generous portion.  That isn’t something I normally order at Tako Cheena, but I wanted to present more of a variety of options for my baker’s dozens of readers.

Look at how much room it takes up on our now-familiar green plates!
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Here’s a shot with burrito and empanada interiors:
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Another one of our long-time favorites isn’t listed on the menu on the website, but Tako Cheena has incredible arepas, sweet corn patties stuffed with a variety of ingredients.  Our favorite is the four-cheese arepa ($7.50) with a big fried cheese patty, topped with pickled shredded carrots and other vegetables (maybe jicama or daikon radish?  Although it looks similar to Filipino atchara, or pickled papaya salad), and spicy mayo.
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Picking a favorite item on the whole menu feels like being forced to pick a favorite child, for those who have more than one child, but this arepa might be it:DSC03100

Cross-section.  I should note that the cheese is lightly fried on its exterior, but not battered or breaded like my beloved mozzarella sticks.  It’s more like halloumi cheese that way, with a similar texture.DSC03104

One thing you probably noticed by now, that I definitely appreciated, was how they packed all our takeout food either wrapped in foil wrappers or placed in cardboard boxes.  It was nice to see some eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam.

Even though some restaurants are reopening for dining in, my wife and I are in no hurry to start doing that again anytime soon.  But now that Tako Cheena has a parking lot of its own and that convenient walk-up window, I’ll probably order more takeout from them in the weeks and months to come.  I’m glad an old favorite is more accessible than ever before, and as good as ever.