Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (Miami)

Of all the restaurants I’ve written reviews for, I’ve been going to Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (https://www.arbetterhotdogs.com/index.html) the longest, ever since I was a little kid in the ’80s.  It’s an institution in Miami’s Westchester neighborhood, not far from where I grew up in Kendall, where my parents and brother still live.  The bright yellow building on Bird Road (SW 40th Street), just west of Galloway Road (SW 87th Avenue), has been serving up Miami’s most iconic hot dogs since 1972, after first opening in 1960 in a different location.  It has survived everything, from recessions to fickle foodie trends, keeping its prices low and its aesthetics simple and old-school.  It reminds me of Orlando’s beloved Beefy King that way, another culinary time capsule from a bygone era that continues to survive and thrive because it never changed what people love about it.

Even though my dad wouldn’t ever consider himself a foodie, he introduced me to all of his favorite Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis in Miami in the ’80s and ’90s, starting me on my lifelong quest to discover all the best food and tell people about it, whether they asked or not.  He would also take me to Arbetter’s, usually after trips to A&M Comics and Books, another Bird Road landmark that still survives today, the second-oldest comic book store in the country.  These jaunts fueled my lifelong loves of comic books and reading in general (and also hot dogs).

It had been far too long since I returned to this legendary hot dog spot for a taste of my youth, so it was fitting I made it back to finally write a review in 2022, its 50th anniversary in the Bird Road location.  That’s an incredible feat for any restaurant, especially in expensive, clout-chasing Miami.

Prices have gone up since the mid-’90s, the last time I was a permanent resident of Miami, but not as much as you would think:

I ordered two hot dogs, even though I could have easily eaten several more.  As Lake Street Dive sang (but surely not referring to hot dogs), they go down smooth.  On the left, behold Arbetter’s West Virginia dog ($3.99, a bargain at twice the price), topped with yellow mustard, onions, creamy cole slaw, and their delicious house-made chili (with no beans ever).  What a combination, between the crunch of the cabbage and onions versus the softness of the dog and the bun, the acidity of the chili and the pungence of the mustard versus the creamy coolness of the slaw.  On the right you see a traditional dog with mustard and sauerkraut ($2.99), the “control” in this little experiment.  The dogs are simple, and so are the plain buns. 
Since my last visit, back in 2015, Arbetter’s started selling grilled, all-beef, natural casing Sabrett hot dogs for slightly more money, which are high-quality dogs that I love and recommend.  But visiting the place I grew up and this particularly nostalgic restaurant, I had to go with the old-school boiled dogs, which are softer and smokier than the Sabretts, but not as salty or garlicky.  They tasted just as good as I remembered, and they went down soooo smooth.

Arbetter’s has always had awesome fries (currently $3.69), made even better by getting them topped with chili and molten melted cheese ($4.99).  Instead of getting fries on my July 2022 visit, I opted for the onion rings instead ($3.69), because as my constant readers know, I will ALWAYS opt for onion rings and review them on this blog in a little feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!  These were great onion rings — breaded rather than battered, not too thick or too thin, not too greasy, not ripping out of the breading.  I definitely rank them as “the good kind” of onion rings.  I dipped them in a ridiculous mound of ketchup, but in retrospect, I failed my readers and also myself by not getting them topped with chili and cheese (which would have also been $4.99, just like the fries).

Finally writing this review a few months after my meal at Arbetter’s, I’m feeling that nostalgia again and wishing I could get some right now.  I’ll almost certainly pick up a pack of hot dogs when I finally leave the house today, and I already have buns, a jar of Silver Floss kraut, and a multifarious multitude of mustards, plus some ground chuck defrosting in the fridge and a block of habanero cheddar begging to be shredded — everything I need for some chili cheese dogs and classic hot dogs of my own.  But it won’t be the same, not without that old yellow building with the same old faded posters and signs, the sense of community, and the memories of my youth.

I always felt like a stranger at home, growing up in Miami.  I have a good family and wonderful friends I’m still in touch with, but now I enjoy my rare visits to the city a lot more than I ever liked living there.  The food is a major aspect of why I appreciate Miami so much more now, and why I feel pride for my hometown that I never felt back in the day.  Even though Arbetter’s Hot Dogs isn’t fancy or glamorous, it’s an icon, an institution, and a survivor.  It still brings people together, over 50 years later, and makes them feel good, feel special, feel home.  And if that isn’t a microcosm for Miami, I don’t know what is.

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Lam’s Garden

Lam’s Garden (https://www.lams-garden.com/) is a respected and venerated Chinese restaurant in Orlando, on the border of two of the city’s best foodie neighborhoods, Mills 50 and the Milk District.  It is in the shopping plaza with iFresh Market (a really good Asian grocery store, not to be confused with Fresh Market) and my beloved Chicken Fire, on the northeast corner of East Colonial Drive and Bumby Avenue.

But me being a lifelong late bloomer, I only recently visited Lam’s Garden for the first time.  (I told an older man that after my meal, and he said “How?  We’ve been here since 1975!”)  Well, better late than never, because it was really good.

I thought it was very old-school to get a bowl of crunchy fried noodles to snack on while we waited for our orders to come out.  This took me right back to all the Chinese restaurants my dad took me to in Miami, growing up in the ’80s, where he knew all the owners and they all knew him because he taught their children and grandchildren. 

At first, they just presented us with a laminated menu of lunch specials, but I asked for a longer menu if they had one.  They brought us two additional menus, with standard Americanized Chinese food favorites and another with Chinese “home cooking,” as the server described it.  Whenever you go, make sure they give you all the different menus to maximize your choices!

My vegetarian colleague ordered Buddha’s delight off the lunch specials menu ($9.95), and got a huge plate of broccoli, crisp snow peas, bok choy, baby corn, onions, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, in a brown sauce.  Her white rice was served on the side.

The lunch specials came with plenty of other stuff she couldn’t eat, so like a good friend, I volunteered to eat everything, like this small bowl of wonton soup:

A crispy eggroll:

And a little dish of fried rice:

I had a really hard time making a decision, since this was our first time here, so I went with a dish that never disappoints, and definitely didn’t disappoint at Lam’s Garden: Singapore curry rice noodles ($15.95), served with chicken, pork, and shrimp.  It was kind of medium-spicy and so flavorful, with the thin, tender noodles.

I would be tempted to order this again and again, but after finally visiting Lam’s Garden, I definitely want to start working my way through the large menu on future trips.  Lam’s might very well be the oldest Chinese restaurant in Orlando, and since it has been proven to have staying power, I look forward to trying other dishes, making up for lost time.

Au Cheval (Chicago)

My new job sent me to Chicago twice this summer for training opportunities, and I did everything I could to explore and eat my way around the beautiful Windy City as much as I could.  I already regaled my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos with my epic excursion to Eataly, and the next really terrific meal I enjoyed in Chicago was at Au Cheval (http://auchevaldiner.com/chicago/).  It sounds like a fancy French restaurant, which is really not my thing, but instead it is a really nice, “elevated” diner.  Well, that’s how Au Cheval describes itself, anyway. 

It was a tight, crowded space with a handful of booths along the windows, and a bustling open kitchen with several barstools open for diners to sit facing the bar.  The dining room is relatively dark and full of dark leather and dark wood for a “macho,” masculine feel.  I got there in time for an early lunch, and I still waited about 20 minutes for a solo seat to open up at the farthest left corner of the busy kitchen/bar area.  I don’t drink, but I was watching expert bartenders slinging some really nice-looking cocktails the whole time I was there.

I fully admit Au Cheval wasn’t on my original dining agenda, but the first two restaurants I attempted to go to in Chicago’s West Loop (an incredible dining destination I strongly recommend to all) were closed for various reasons, so I’m really glad I wandered in there.  They don’t accept reservations for lunch or dinner, so I got lucky, all things considered.

The menu isn’t huge, but it consists of pure comfort food, of the delicious, heavy, hearty, and unhealthy variety.  They do have two salads and several egg dishes, but I was torn between two different dishes, and since I had no idea when I would be back in Chicago, I ordered both.

First up was seared, chilled, and chopped chicken liver ($14.95), one of the classic foods of my people.  It was served with rich, salted butter (almost overkill, given the fatty, savory richness of the liver) and the absolute finest toast I’ve ever had.  The bread was thick Texas toast, the kind you can get at my beloved Waffle House and so many other diners, ideal for patty melts and barbecue sandwiches.  Rather than being “toasted” in the traditional sense, it was cooked on the flattop griddle and beautifully buttered.  

As for the chopped liver, as my students used to say, IYKYK (if you know, you know).  It might look like cat food, but it is so rich and savory and tasty, I love it so much as a very rare treat.  Most of the chopped liver I’ve had from Jewish delicatessens and appetizing stores is a smooth, creamy, uniform consistency, but Au Cheval’s version was more roughly chopped for a more interesting texture.  It still spread so smoothly on the best toast ever, the butter was really kind of unnecessary… but ultimately too good to ignore.

After that, I was watching burger after beguiling burger come out of that open kitchen while I waited for my seat at the bar, so I couldn’t leave without one.  I ended up springing for the double cheeseburger ($16.95), since it was only two dollars more than the single, and this string of good decisions continued.  Constant readers, I have to tell you that this was the #1 absolute all-time best burger I’ve ever eaten in my damn life, here at Au Cheval in Chicago.  I’ve eaten burgers all around the state of Florida and elsewhere along the highways and byways of America, and this left them all in the dust.  Perfect in every way, ten out of ten, nothing comes close.It was like an ideal, iconic version of a “smash-style” diner burger, like a burger out of a Tom Waits song, but so much better than that fictional burger would have been in his sad world of late-night, lonely meals wolfed down in Edward Hopper environs.  While the menu said “double cheeseburger,” it sure looked like it had three patties to me.  What do you think, folks?

Traditionally, I have preferred thick, juicy burgers, but between Au Cheval and two restaurants here in Orlando that I haven’t had a chance to review yet, that smash style is definitely winning me over.  It had so much flavor and wasn’t overdone or dry at all — quite the opposite, in fact.  It was dressed simply, with a creamy sauce, a few scant pickle slices, and wonderfully melty American cheese between the patties, and I did put some ketchup on it.  The bun was grilled like the toast that came with my chopped liver, which is the best/only way to serve a hamburger bun.

Now I made two mistakes here: I did not order bacon on the burger, because that would have been an extra $6.95, and I felt like I was being decadent enough, with these two heavy, greasy dishes.  But Au Cheval serves really thick-cut bacon like some steakhouses do, and I bet it would have been totally worth it.  Sometimes bacon on burgers is undercooked, so you can’t get a good bite without pulling out the whole strip, and sometimes it is burnt to a crisp and doesn’t end up adding much to the experience.  I’m sure this would have made the best burger of my life even better, but then again, how can you possibly improve on perfection?

Also, I did not order fries or hash browns ($8.95 each), simply because I got plenty of carbs from the perfect toast and the bun from the perfect burger, and that would be a bit insane, even for me.  But I bet they would have been spectacular from a restaurant like this.  If they had onion rings, I would have been all about those, but they didn’t, so it was a moot point.  Regardless, I give my strongest possible recommendation to Au Cheval, and if you ever find yourself in Chicago, I would encourage you to ease up on the pizza casserole and overloaded Vienna Beef hot dogs to indulge here instead.

Pig Floyd’s Urban BBQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Chain Reactions: Krispy Krunchy Chicken

Krispy Krunchy Chicken (https://krispykrunchy.com/) is a unique fried chicken chain with a distinct Cajun accent, founded in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1989.  It is a unique chain because most of the locations are inside gas station convenience stores, but anyone who reads my blog knows you can often find great food in the most humble-looking and unlikely of places.

Take, for example, the Citgo station at 3025 East Colonial Drive, 32803, in Orlando, on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Maguire Road.  This is on the edge of a couple of the best foodie neighborhoods in the city: the Milk District and Mills 50.  I’ve been driving past this gas station for years, and only recently noticed a sign that it offered Krispy Krunchy Chicken inside.  I had to try it, for the sake of journalism and a librarian’s desire to share information.  I’m not sorry I did.

When you place your order, you ask for the chicken you want from under the heat lamps, and a nice lady will bag it up for you.  It was all very fresh.

The sides are self-serve (you just grab them yourself).  This sign lists prices for single pieces of chicken:
Breast: $3.19
Wing: $1.89
Thigh: $2.09
Leg: $2.09
Tender: $1.89

Here’s a close-up of that bottom shelf, which includes honey butter biscuits, boneless chicken tenders, corn dogs, and egg rolls.  Sauces are 50 cents each (original, buffalo, honey mustard, ranch, tartar, sweet and sour, and barbecue), but as much as I love sauces and condiments, I was trying this chicken for the first time, so I didn’t want to overwhelm my palate or distract from the main mission with too many variables.

I ordered a two-piece meal ($7.99) with a leg, a thigh, a side (see below), and a honey butter biscuit, and had a little picnic in my car.  Totally worth it.  The chicken was juicy and the breading was thick and crunchy, but not as Cajun-spicy as I was hoping.  Still, you can’t ask for much more than that, especially from a gas station convenience store setup!  The biscuit was a real standout.  Not in the same league as Se7en Bites, Orlando’s beloved Southern bakery and restaurant moments away, which is home of the best biscuits ever, but perfectly fine to accompany this chicken.

I couldn’t resist getting an order of fried chicken gizzards too.  (I don’t remember how much this was.)  Now I LOVE chicken livers (chopped liver is one of the foods of my people!) and hearts, but I didn’t remember ever trying gizzards before.  They were REALLY chewy.  That’s the most I can say about them.

The macaroni and cheese tasted a lot better than it looks here, flattened down by the lid on this styrofoam cup.  But I don’t even think it looks bad.  It looks and tastes like typical macaroni and cheese you would get as a side at any number of barbecue joints or Southern restaurants.  So maybe not Orlando’s best (for that, check out Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, nearby in the Milk District, and also Se7en Bites again!), but very pleasing nonetheless.

Since this was my first visit to a Krispy Krunchy Chicken location, I got two additional sides while I was there.  These red beans and rice were suitably smoky, salty, and creamy, but you just can’t beat Popeyes red beans and rice.  That’s the quintessential version right there, the one that even chefs (like David Chang) cite as the best.

But my favorite side was the jambalaya, saucy rice with chunks of (andouille?) sausage and ham.  I always like jambalaya, whether it’s from an old restaurant in the French Quarter or a box from Zatarain’s.  This was somewhere in between, quality-wise, but closer to the French Quarter than the box.   I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was.

Would I go back?  Absolutely I would.  As much as I generally like Popeyes for bone-in fried chicken, they can be hit-or-miss with both food quality and service.  And this particular Krispy Krunchy Chicken gas station location is a lot more convenient for me than the always-excellent Theo’s Kitchen.  This was solid fried chicken, but I think the thing I liked the most was the jambalaya.  It was so tasty and hearty and full of meat, I could happily make it the centerpiece of a meal some other day, when I’m in the mood for such a thing again.

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.

Chicago Dog & Co

As much as I love food and restaurants and cooking, I’ve never worked a day in the food service or hospitality industries.  For me, eating, cooking, and even grocery shopping are necessities I’ve turned into hobbies.  We have to eat to survive, so I do what I can to make the experiences enjoyable, but I’ve never had to work at it.  As a result, I have nothing but admiration and awe for everyone who works in restaurants.  It’s a hard, hot, and dangerous job, and too many people take it for granted when we get delicious food we didn’t have to make ourselves.  Even I have been guilty of this in the past, but I have so much appreciation, and I always try to show it, including by writing this food blog.  I hope it comes across in my words, as I try to boost the signal for local restaurants here.

This past week my wife and I binge-watched a new show called The Bear, which consists of eight half-hour episodes streaming on Hulu.  The Bear is about Carmy, a world-renowned chef who returns to his family’s divey restaurant in Chicago after his brother commits suicide and leaves Carmy the restaurant in his will.  Most of the show takes place inside the restaurant’s cramped, chaotic kitchen, and the writing, acting, directing, and editing work in perfect tandem to create a feeling of unhinged uneasiness — a “sense of urgency,” as Carmy calls it.  All the restaurant people I know who have been watching it say they get the details almost too perfect, to the point where it is too real, too uncomfortable to enjoy.  But it’s really good, so you should watch it if you’re looking for a new show you can knock out in a weekend.

Anyway, the main specialty of Carmy’s family restaurant is a real Chicago classic: Italian beef sandwiches.  We watch them preparing hundreds of “beefs,” and before the end of the intense first episode, I was craving one here in Orlando.  The Chicago/Italian beef isn’t as ubiquitous a sandwich as the Philly cheesesteak, but there are a few places around town to find them.  My favorite local food writer, a woman who serves as a constant inspiration to me, who I am honored to think of as a friend (albeit one I have yet to meet in real life), Amy Drew Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, wrote a guide to Italian beef sandwiches in Orlando earlier this year, which pointed me to the subject of my latest restaurant review.

Chicago Dog & Co (https://www.chicagodogandco.com/) is located in Altamonte Springs, Florida, west of I-4, close to where Altamonte starts blending into Apopka.  Sandra (a practicing attorney!) and Monica, two Chicago-born sisters raised in Central Florida, opened the restaurant just over a year ago, in April 2021, and they have been going strong ever since.  Open every day except Monday, Chicago Dog & Co has covered outdoor seating, but no indoor seating.  You walk up to order at a window, and they call your name when your order is ready.  They specialize in Vienna Beef hot dogs on steamed poppy seed buns, and you can get them with a number of toppings, including the Chicago way, “dragging it through the garden,” with yellow mustard, diced onion, sliced tomato, neon green relish, a pickle spear, “sport” peppers, and celery salt.

But as much as I enjoy a good hot dog, I’m more of a devotee of a garlicky New York-style dog, as typified by Sabrett, Nathan’s, and Boar’s Head, topped with spicy mustard and sauerkraut.  I have no doubt the Vienna Beef hot dogs are bringing back happy Chicago memories for thousands of Central Floridians, but I went there for a different reason: to get my post-Bear Italian beef fix.  And did I ever!

This was the Italian beef ($8) I brought home for myself, the tender sliced beef topped with sweet peppers and spicy giardiniera vegetables, a blend of carrots, onions, and green peppers.  (The more traditional Chicago version has carrots, celery, and cauliflower!)  It is served on a soft Gonnella roll, either dry (no au jus, or au jus served on the side), wet (au jus poured over the sandwich), or dipped (the entire sandwich, roll and all, dipped in au jus to create a real fork-and-knife experience).  Since I was bringing it home, I opened for au jus on the side.  I thought it was really good, and better once I poured the jus over the meat and bread.  The actual beef in an Italian beef isn’t super-moist or fatty, so the jus helps lubricate the sandwich, in the best possible way.  It was definitely a WAS (wet-ass sandwich) by the time I was through, and it definitely fulfilled my Italian beef craving.

Knowing my wife the way I do, she isn’t into toppings, condiments, sauces, or even sandwiches all that much, so I ordered her a plain beef ($8) with jus on the side, and also giardiniera on the side (since I knew I would get to eat hers).  Here’s the unadorned, unadulterated beef:

Since they serve chili dogs and I love chili, I asked if I could try a little side order of chili, and they were kind enough to fill a small cup for me.  Here it is with the side of spicy giardiniera. 

In addition to the dogs and beefs, Chicago Dog & Co also serves burgers.  I haven’t had a tasty burger in quite a while, so I couldn’t resist this double smash ($6) — a very reasonable price for two beef patties smashed thin with sautéed onions and melty American cheese on a soft bun.  The bun got steamed in the aluminum foil wrap on my 20-minute drive home, but I imagine it would be a lot less wrinkly if you enjoy yours at the restaurant.The burger had a great “fresh off the grill” taste, and I’m a sucker for American cheese and sautéed or grilled onions on my burger.  I added a bit of the chili once I ate about half of it at home, but it didn’t need any other adornments to improve it.

Finally, I brought home an Iltaco Pizza Puff ($4) for my wife to try.  These things are awesome — another Chicago snack that is like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever had, or more like a small, flat, pizza-filled chimichanga or empanada.  

The crispy, bubbly, fried shell is like a flour tortilla — hence the chimichanga comparison — and it is stuffed with tomato sauce, melty mozzarella cheese, and sausage or pepperoni.  I love these things.  My wife wasn’t interested in trying it, so I ate both halves myself.

So if you also watched The Bear and have been asking “Where’s the beef?” ever since, Chicago Dog & Co is the place for you.  Since I started this blog in 2018, I’ve tried (and reviewed) two other Italian beef sandwiches in and around Orlando: Rosati’s Pizza (a Chicago chain) in Winter Park, and Christo’s, the diner in Sanford.  There are one or two other options I’m aware of, thanks in part to Amy Drew Thompson and the good people of The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, but as you might have realized by now, they aren’t nearly as easy to find around here as other sandwiches.  I’m happy I had time on a lazy Sunday to finally check out a new(ish) local restaurant owned by two women who deserve our community’s support.  Hopefully their kitchen is a lot more copacetic than the one in the show!  But if you go for a beef or even a Chicago hot dog, don’t forget that Pizza Puff too — trust me on that.  That thing is magical.

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!

Thai Singha

Thai Singha (https://thaisingha.net/) is the first Thai restaurant I ever visited in Orlando, shortly after meeting my wife and starting to date her, back in 2006.  It is out in the sprawling Waterford Lakes shopping center in East Orlando, south of the University of Central Florida.  The area is full of restaurants, but not many stand out and draw attention.  Thai Singha definitely does, or at least it should.

We realized it had been years since we had gone together, especially after discovering newer favorites like Mee Thai and Naradeva Thai, both wonderful places.  But you never forget your first, especially since Thai Singha is where I discovered my favorite Thai dish that is now my benchmark order at any new Thai restaurant, to compare and contrast them all.

My wife started with hot ginger tea ($2.95), which smelled really good and came in a neat-looking receptacle:

Then she ordered one of her favorite dishes, that she also introduced me to at Thai Singha over 15 years ago: mee grob ($6.95).  Some restaurants call it mee krob or meekrob, but many around Orlando don’t serve it at all.  It is a veritable mountain of crispy rice noodles, shrimp, pork, and tofu, tossed in a tangy sweet sauce and garnished with scallions and bean sprouts.  It is awesome, folks.  It is very sticky, crunchy, sweet, salty, and sour — a feast for all the senses.  The shrimp is fried so nicely that you can even crunch and swallow the crispy tails.  It is one of the only places where I like tofu, but I fully admit I haven’t had enough tofu to discount it completely.  Maybe everyone is already wise to the joys of mee grob, but if ya don’t know, now you know.

My wife ordered her favorite entree as well: late night noodles with a combination of shrimp, scallops, and squid ($16.95).  You can choose any of the options from the “Favorite Dishes” section of the menu to come with mixed vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, or pork for $11.50, shrimp for $14.50, or a meat combo or this seafood combo for $16.95.The late night noodles are soft, chewy rice noodles stir-fried to perfection, then tossed in a light soy sauce with eggs, the shrimp, the buttery little bay scallops, and the tender squid, and served over a bit of lettuce.  She loves it.

And this is my favorite Thai dish, made with the same flat, wide, perfectly chewy rice noodles: drunken noodles, also known as pad kee mao or pad kee mow.  I got mine with tender pork for $11.50, and I always wish the portion was bigger here, because it is so incredibly delicious.  Drunken noodles are stir-fried with onions, green bell peppers, fresh Thai basil leaves, and a sweet chili paste sauce.  It is always sweet and spicy at once, which I just love in any cuisine, and the Thai basil brings such a unique herby flavor — very different than the typical basil in Italian recipes.  Despite the name, there is no alcohol in this dish, but it is a common, beloved Thai street food for drunken revelers.  I’m sure the late night noodles have a similar origin story from nocturnal hawkers and their grateful post-partying clientele.

So that’s our first Thai restaurant we were able to share with each other, Thai Singha.  I am pleased to report we enjoyed it as much as ever after being away for far too long.  I was just sad to see it dimly lit and not busy, despite it always bustling during our past visits, too long ago.  We got there in the late afternoon on a recent Friday, too early for the dinner hour, but we were the only diners in the place, while others popped in and out to pick up sporadic takeout orders.  It is difficult to get to Waterford Lakes, and we rarely end up on that east side of Orlando anyway, but it remains a treasure well worth braving UCF-area traffic to return to from time to time.  Over the years we’ve been together, we have ordered other dishes on the menu that are always solid, but we are always a little disappointed when we don’t go with our favorites here.  Now you’ve seen our go-to dishes, so pay it a visit, decide on your own favorites, and let me know what they are!