Chain Reactions: White Castle

“I chill at White Castle ’cause it’s the best/
But I’m fly at Fatburger when I’m way out west.”
–The Beastie Boys, “The New Style” (1986)

I’ve always been fascinated by the restaurants that I read about in books, saw in movies and TV shows, and heard referenced in songs, that weren’t anywhere near me in Florida.  I’d think about how good that faraway food looked and sounded, and sometimes I’d even read menus and reviews online, even for places I doubted I would ever get to eat at.

The hell year 2020 encouraged a lot of people to seek comfort in nostalgia.  For me, that meant getting back into G.I. Joe in a major way, and also taking a deep dive into the back catalog of the legendary Beastie Boys, those fun-loving rap-rockers, quintessential New Yorkers, and fellow Jewish goofballs.  I always kinda liked them, going all the way back to elementary school, but during a year where we all worried about getting sick and dying, Mike D, Ad-Rock, and the late, great MCA brought me some much-needed joy and distraction.  I played their albums on repeat every time I drove anywhere, giving me ample opportunity to analyze and obsess over the songs.  They always made me laugh, and they impressed me with how they improved as musicians and matured as lyricists (and as people) from their debut album License to Ill (1986) all the way to their final album before Adam “MCA” Yauch’s tragic death, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011).

The Beastie Boys also made a lot of White Castle (https://www.whitecastle.com/) references in their lyrics, especially on License to Ill.  They recorded that first album as teenagers before their careers blew up, so they probably ate there all the time.  Every time I heard those songs, I craved White Castle’s tiny, greasy, oniony slider burgers, when all we had here in Orlando is its Southern rival/counterpart, Krystal.  I unapologetically like Krystal quite a bit, don’t get me wrong, but I knew there would be differences.  I’ve never had a chance to visit a White Castle while traveling, and I’ve always avoided the frozen boxes of White Castle sliders you can buy at most grocery stores, as I planned to save myself for the real deal some day.

“And I can always make ’em smile/
From White Castle to the Nile.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Girls” (1986)

Well, in 2021, the 100th anniversary of White Castle, the fast food chain opened its first Florida location since the 1970s right here in Orlando, and it also happened to be the world’s largest White Castle.  It first opened on May 3rd, but I didn’t make it there until mid-July, when the opening hype and lines that lasted hours eventually died down, and when I had slightly less going on in my own life.  The White Castle is down on the touristy side of town, over half an hour from my job during optimal traffic conditions, and almost an hour from home.  I cautiously drove down there on a weekday afternoon, hoping I wouldn’t get stuck waiting an hour or more.  And I couldn’t help but smile when I arrived at last and saw this sign, emblazoned with their Latin catchphrase “Desideres ego ergo sum,” or “I Crave, Therefore I Am.”

“Because being bad news is what we’re all about/
We went to White Castle and we got thrown out.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Slow Ride” (1986)

Once I arrived, the drive-through line looked long and didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I opted to park and eat on the premises.  There was a line to order inside that reached outside, but I only had to wait about ten minutes in the sweltering midday July heat and humidity before I made it through the doors into blasting air conditioning.  They only had one cashier taking orders at a register, possibly giving a slammed kitchen a chance to catch up with orders, but of course by the time I finally made my way to the front, about half an hour later, they added a second cashier.  A few people got fed up with waiting and left, but I am relieved to report that nobody got thrown out.

“Get down with Mike D and it ain’t no hassle/
I got the ladies of the eighties from here to White Castle.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Hold It Now, Hit It” (1986)

After studying the Orlando-specific menu, I knew I wanted sliders, and lots of ’em.  I could put away those tiny beef patties steamed with onions, melty cheese, and soft buns.  At Krystal I usually eat a dozen at a time when I partake once or twice a year, but this was White Castle, baby.  For the past two and a half months, I’ve seen photos of my fellow Orlandoans leaving with Crave Cases ($30.59), blue and white cardboard briefcases that carry 30 sliders, and beset by FOMO, I was excited to get one of those for myself.  I was hoping to mix and match many different kinds of sliders, but when I got there, they were adamant that you could only get the regular hamburger or cheeseburger sliders in the Crave Case.  So I got one anyway, figuring I would have a ludicrous amount of leftovers, and I could freeze plenty for later.

I half-expected the Crave Case to glow when I opened it, like the MacGuffin briefcase in Pulp Fiction.  But nope, instead it just contained 30 cheese sliders, arranged neatly in their little cardboard sleeves.  The stuff that dreams are made of… or perhaps nightmares.

“Ad-Rock, AKA sharp cheddar/
My rhymes are better.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Triple Trouble” (2004)

Here’s a close-up of the three types of cheese sliders I ordered.  White Castle has three cheese options: jalapeño (left), smoked cheddar (middle), and American (right), so of course I ordered ten of each to fill my Crave Case.  I liked them all.  I think American cheese is pretty much the perfect cheeseburger cheese.  It’s tangy and melts so well.  But the other two, the jalapeño and the smoked cheddar, tasted even more processed than the American cheese!  Nothing but love, though.  This was a long time coming, but they were delicious and worth the wait.  I’m glad I never succumbed to the allure of the frozen White Castle sliders you can buy at Publix and even Aldi.  I suspect they would have been disappointing compared to the real deal.I should note for the unfamiliar that White Castle sliders only come with steamed onions and a pickle slice.  The menu above the registers at the restaurant says ketchup and mustard are available by request, and I do love condiments, but it was important to me on this first-ever pilgrimage to try them the most authentic way possible.  I didn’t add ketchup, mustard, or any other condiments to the sliders I ate at the restaurants, and they were still extremely flavorful due to the onions and the melty cheeses.

“I’d like a lettuce, tomato and muenster on rye/
All this cheese is gonna make me cry.”
The Beastie Boys, “Shazam!” (2004)

Since I ordered a lot of other stuff that seemed like it would be more important to eat while it was hot and fresh, I brought the vast majority of the cheese sliders in my Crave Case home.   It didn’t fit in my fridge, so I transferred the remaining sliders into some airtight containers, and I snacked on them in the subsequent days.  Microwave them on a plate for 45 seconds, and they don’t taste that different from how they did fresh off the flattop grill at the restaurant.  I also got a little more creative with condiments at home, but it turned out a little bit of ketchup and plain yellow mustard complemented them best.  You really can’t go wrong with the classics!

“White Castle fries only come in one size.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Slow and Low” (1986)

A lot has changed since License to Ill dropped in 1986, as White Castle fries now come in multiple sizes.  I ordered the small ($2.59), and due to a mix-up with my order (yes, folks, that’s another Beastie Boys album reference!), I ended up with a free large sack of fries too.  These were crispy crinkle-cut fries that were excellent, by fast food standards.  I was hardly able to make a dent in them at the restaurant, but I brought them home, and our toaster oven resuscitated them surprisingly well.  I shared them with my wife, and we got four servings out of this unexpected windfall of fries.  Even she loved them after their trip through the toaster oven, which neither of us were expecting.

“And that’s wrong, y’all, over the long haul/
You can’t cut the mustard when you’re fronting it all.”
The Beastie Boys, “Professor Booty” (1992)

“Well I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce/
You’ve got the rhyme and reason, but got no cause.”
The Beastie Boys, “So Whatcha Want” (1992)

I keep that hot sauce hot, not mild and weak/
It’s gonna burn your mouth until you wet your beak.”
The Beastie Boys, “Hey Fuck You” (2004)

At White Castle, you can request a variety of dipping sauces.  In addition to a handful of ketchup packets, I ended up with barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and Zesty Zing Sauce, which are all exactly what you expect.  The creamy Zing Sauce isn’t hot at all, and just barely qualifies as zesty, if you ask me.  I also requested the “Spicy Dusseldorf Mustard,” but they didn’t give me any of those.  As a mustard maven, I was disappointed that they cut that mustard from my order.  I could have lived without the BBQ sauce, but I wanted to try that spicy Dusseldorf!  Oh well.

“Mike D!  (YEAH?)  With your bad self running things/
(WHAT’S UP?)  With your bad breath — Onion rings!”
–The Beastie Boys, “Shake Your Rump” (1989)

According to White Castle’s online menu, the restaurants serve both onion rings and onion chips, but the Orlando location only serves onion chips ($3.79 for a large sack).  As an onion ring aficionado, I had to try them, so even though these aren’t rings, I will still denote this review with a RING THE ALARM! tag, like I do whenever I try onion rings or similarly fried onions anywhere.  And these “chips” were rad, despite the misleading moniker.  They were more like onion petals, like thicker, larger, crunchier, somehow less greasy Bloomin’ Onion pieces, only breaded instead of battered.  Thick breading, crunchy, not overly greasy, firm enough to dip and not have them fall apart.  Yes, they were very salty, like pretty much everything else I sampled, but I liked them a lot and would definitely order them on a return trip.   

There were a few things in my massive order that I didn’t love, but that’s because for the purposes of writing a more complete and exhaustive review, I didn’t just stick to the specialties of the house (or castle, if you will).  I don’t know when I’ll make it back out there, so I just ordered everything I could.

“I can do the Freak, the Patty Duke, and the Spank/
Gotta free the funky fish from the funky fish tanks.”
The Beastie Boys, “Finger Lickin’ Good” (1992)

“Don’t forget the tartar sauce, yo, cause it’s sad/
All these crab rappers, they’re rappin’ like crabs.”
The Beastie Boys, “Too Many Rappers” (2011)

This was the panko-crusted fish slider ($2.09), served on the same soft, steamed slider bun with a slice of American cheese.  I figured I would try it, because I have some nostalgic love for McDonald’s ol’ Filet-O-Fish, and I think Culver’s has a legitimately GREAT fast food fried fish sandwich.  This one wasn’t as good as either of those. I’m relieved that this fish wasn’t funky, but it was a little sad.  The Beastie Boys were correct: tartar sauce would have improved it immensely, as it elevates those two superior fried fish sandwiches.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?/
I egged the chicken, and then I ate his leg!”
–The Beastie Boys, “Eggman” (1989)

The Chicken Ring slider ($1.89) wasn’t anything special.  White Castle serves highly processed white meat Chicken Rings, like their own version of nuggets, but I found this slider with two Chicken Rings and a little slice of American cheese to be bland and tasteless.  I wouldn’t bother getting it again.  If you happen to like the Chicken Rings, you can also order them as a side, like the fries and onion chips, and not just in one size.

“Now we be grillin’ cheese and flippin’ flapjacks/
With the diamond stylus, yo, we cutting wax.
The Beastie Boys, “3 the Hard Way” (2004)

“To the heart of the matter, the mic I shatter/
So cold on the mic, I make your teeth chatter/
You climb the corporate ladder/
To make your pockets fatter/
We be flipping styles like pancake batter.”
The Beastie Boys, “Say It” (2011)

White Castle also serves breakfast all day, and I felt obligated to try its versions of breakfast sandwiches.  Instead of standard breakfast sliders on the same steamed buns, I opted for two Belgian waffle sliders ($2.69 each): one with bacon, egg, and cheese, and one with sausage, egg, and cheese.  These were heavier and greasier than any of the other sliders I ate, and I can’t say I loved them.  I think the waffles would have been better if they were a little crispier and a little sweeter to counterbalance the salty meat, egg, and cheese, like McDonald’s McGriddles (which are trashy junk food for sure, but satisfying and delicious).  As it was, the waffles were mostly just greasy and doughy.

The sausage was a standard breakfast sausage patty where salt and sage were the main flavors, but I preferred it to the bacon, which didn’t add much.  Don’t let me dissuade you from trying these for yourself, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, but I wouldn’t get them again.

I’m not walking around, looking to get you cake/
The D is for Diamonds, not for Drake’s
.”
The Beastie Boys, “Oh Word?” (2004)

I had to try White Castle’s three desserts on-a-stick: birthday cake on-a-stick, fudge-dipped brownie on-a-stick, and fudge-dipped cheesecake on-a-stick ($1.29 each).  I brought these home to share with my wife, because I was too full to touch them at the restaurant.

They were really tiny and cute, but we both thought they were all waaaay too sweet.  The cheesecake (bottom right) was by far the best, because it had a slight acidic tang and a moist graham cracker crust.  I wouldn’t bother to get the other two again, but at least they were moist and not dry, like I was expecting.

“Check-ch-check-check-check-ch-check it out/
What-wha-what-what-what’s it all about/
Work-wa-work-work-work-wa-work it out/
Let’s turn this motherfucking party out.”
The Beastie Boys, “Ch-Check It Out” (2004)

So after all my years on the planet, I finally made my pilgrimage to one of America’s oldest and most iconic fast food restaurants, a favorite choice of late-night partiers, fictional stoners (and surely some real ones too), and one of my all-time favorite hip hop groups.  Did White Castle live up to the decades of hype, especially from my beloved Beastie Boys’ enthusiastic endorsements?  It did, absolutely — at least the iconic sliders, the fries, and  the onion chips.  Everything else, the tangential items, weren’t anything special to me, and I wouldn’t bother with them again, but I don’t regret trying them either.  Longtime readers know how much I love trying new things.  Even if I don’t always love everything I eat, I live for novelty, especially new eating experiences.

When we first learned White Castle was opening in Orlando, almost two years ago, a lot of the usual online suspects were skeptical and dismissive.  It’s just fast food, they said.  It’s cheap, greasy, salty, unhealthy, low-quality fast food — nothing to get excited about.  Well, I have to agree with all of their statements in the previous sentence, except I argue that it is worth getting excited about.  For transplants from up north, especially New York and New Jersey (and we sure have plenty of them here), White Castle brings a nostalgic taste of home to Orlando at last.  For born-and-raised Floridians who have never had it before, it might be fast food, and it might be a chain, but at least it’s something new in this area that’s going to be slightly different from everything else here, so let’s let them enjoy it.  Plus, it is employing local people!  And for people like me who were already inclined to like White Castle due to loving the sliders at Krystal and Miami’s last remaining Royal Castle, and who could probably spit most of the verses from License to Ill, it was a long-overdue culinary experience, literally decades in the making.  I don’t know when I’ll return to this White Castle — probably not unless a visiting friend desperately wants to try it — but I’m so happy it’s here now, and so relieved to have finally made it.  So check-ch-check-check-check-ch-check it out!

Jaber

UPDATED ON 9.15.2021:
On September 3, 2021, Jaber announced on its Facebook page that it was closing.

***

My wife and I were recently driving through College Park, a nice Orlando neighborhood near downtown, full of really terrific restaurants.  We hardly ever make it down there, and I’m not even sure why we were in College Park this time around.  But traffic temporarily stopped in front of Jaber (https://www.facebook.com/jaberorlando/), a restaurant on Edgewater Drive displaying a big banner advertising Lebanese cuisine, with huge color pictures of tempting, tantalizing shawarma wraps.  We looked at each other and decided to pull over and stop in for lunch — a rare moment of serendipity, without reading reviews or online hype or studying the menu in advance of our visit.  Sometimes you have to take a chance, especially when it comes to lunch.  YOLO, am I right?  (Did I get that right?)

Looking through the unique menu at Jaber, I realized it was a Lebanese restaurant with a Brazilian twist, with multiple locations in Brazil.  This was going to be an interesting fusion feast.  We started out with some esfihas, which are small Lebanese pastries.  The menu listed open esfihas that look like petite pizzas, and closed esfihas that are more like little pockets of dough, pinched closed in a variety of pretty shapes, and baked.  The open beef esfiha in the bottom right corner above ($2.49) was indeed like a wee pizza, minus cheese.  My wife ordered the folded spinach esfiha ($3.49), the triangle in the top left, that was just like the delicious spinach pies I used to enjoy so much at Gyro Plus and Falafel King back in Gainesville, over 20 years ago, and much more recently at Tony’s Bakery here in Orlando.  As much as I like Greek spanakopitas on thin, crispy, flaky phyllo dough, I always prefer this Lebanese style spinach pie enveloped in warm, soft, chewy dough.  Jaber’s folded spinach esfiha was much smaller than the one from Tony’s Bakery, but it was still warm and soft and chewy and fresh, with the cooked spinach so well-seasoned inside, with garlic, lemon, and possibly even nutmeg, among other savory flavors.

My wife’s favorite, however, ended up being the folded sausage esfiha that I ordered ($3.49), the tempting pinched pastry in the bottom right of the above photo.  It was stuffed with crumbled calabresa sausage (which I first encountered at another local Brazilian restaurant, Mrs. Potato) and olives!  That was an interesting choice that she just loved.  The soft dough was my favorite part, so I’m glad we split that one.  And finally, in the top right of the above photo, we have a fried kibbeh ($3.49), the lemon-shaped fried shell of cracked wheat with crumbled, seasoned ground beef and minced onions inside.  I liked this one more than she did because it was so oniony.

I am always up for anything with lamb, so I went with the lamb shawarma ($17.89) — a thin wrap (more like a lightly-grilled tortilla than the fluffy, puffy pita bread I’m used to with gyros) stuffed with thin slices of seasoned lamb, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and tahini sauce, like a Lebanese burrito.  It was tasty, even though I prefer the huge gyro from Mediterranean Deli that is around half the price.  The lamb shawarma came with fries which were similar to McDonald’s fries, but could have used a lot more salt.  I was really hoping for better fries, on par with Mrs. Potato, but those were some of the best fries I’ve ever had.

I was able to resuscitate these fries by shaking a liberal amount of this “Chef’s Sauce” onto them.  It was a delicious hot sauce that definitely breathed some life into them.  I asked our server Bella what was in the hot sauce, and if they sold bottles of it.  She came back with “peppers and garlic,” and a bottle was $11.  Sorry, I think that’s way too much to pay for a bottle of hot sauce, even though it was good.

This was the Syrian rice ($7.50), one of several different international rice dishes on the menu.  It sounded the best for sharing — rice and angel hair pasta, fried in butter, kind of like a rice pilaf from heaven.  Some Turkish restaurants serve a similar buttery rice, and we both ended up loving it. 

My wife was feeling overwhelmed by the large two-page menu in a new restaurant, but it was an easy choice once I pointed out the combo meals.  She loves steak — far more than I do, far more than most men do — so she chose combo #7 with picanha ($17.99), a thin-sliced Brazilian steak, reminiscent of Cuban palomilla steak and Argentinian churrasco, if that helps place it in context.  Unlike those, picanha is served with the fat cap attached.  It was seasoned with garlic and herbs, and it arrived sizzling.

Her picanha steak combo came with even more of the unsalted fries, a mound of white rice, and a cup of stewed red beans.  This was so much food, we brought these fries home along with the rice and beans, and I ate everything over the next couple of days, doused with some hot sauces from my own collection. 

My wife also ordered a cappuccino with Nutella around the rim ($5.79), which would have been a great dessert, but she asked for it at the beginning of our meal and sipped it throughout.  It was messier than she expected, with the thick, sticky Nutella around the rim of the cup, but she did what she could to scrape it in and stir it into the cappuccino.  I didn’t try this, but she liked it, and how could it not be great? 

I honestly don’t know when we will return to Jaber.  It’s in a part of Orlando we rarely venture out to, and even though our food was good, I thought it was kind of pricey for what we got, compared to similar dishes we like from elsewhere.  The esfihas and the rich, buttery Syrian rice were definitely our favorite parts, and I would still recommend it for anyone located closer to College Park, Winter Park, or downtown Orlando looking to try one of Orlando’s more interesting fusion restaurants.

One thing that would bring me back would be their All You Can Eat Esfihas offer for $19.99 (plus tax and tip, of course), on Tuesdays from 4:00 to 10:00 PM and Sundays from 12:00 to 4:00 and 5:00 to 10:00 PM.  I really did like the esfihas we got, and I wanted to try others from the long list of options.  Plus, they are small, and I have faith in myself to know I could put A LOT of those away and more than get my money’s worth on a future visit.  The Jaber Facebook page posted about the all-you-can-eat special back in February and said you have to make reservations.  I don’t know if they are still running this special, but it would definitely be worth investigating.  If I see you there, it will probably be on one of those days!

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
DSC02929

But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

Orlando Weekly published my Top Ten Tastes of 2020!

I am honored to have one of my end-of-the-year lists included in our wonderful local alt-weekly newspaper, Orlando Weekly, for the FOURTH year in a row.  This piece, my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, didn’t make it into the print edition, but it is a blog piece on their website for all to see.

https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/top-tastes-2020-the-10-best-dishes-we-tried-in-orlando-this-year/Content?oid=28559241

Here’s a link to my 2017, 2018, and 2019 Orlando Weekly lists.

Happy New Year to all of my dozens of readers!  Stay warm, healthy, and safe in 2021.  Don’t forget to eat something good — because you deserve it, and because these local restaurants could use all the help they can get.

Fiddler’s Green Irish Pub

I don’t drink anymore, but I always appreciate an atmospheric pub or bar that serves warm, hearty fare.  Pub grub is some of the ultimate comfort food, especially when the temperature finally drops a bit (which in Florida means a few days in the 50s and nights in the 40s).  I miss the old Fox’s Sherron Inn in South Miami, a dimly lit dive bar straight out of a Tom Waits song, jukebox and all, that served surprisingly good food.  It has been gone for over a decade, and it makes me sad that there’s no trace remaining, and too many people will never even know it was there.

But on a happier note, ever since I moved to Orlando in late 2004, I’ve been a huge fan of the great Irish pub in Winter Park, Fiddler’s Green (https://fiddlersgreen.pub/).  It feels like it was teleported here directly from Ireland — full of dark wood, no windows, a cozy little hideout near Park Avenue and Rollins College.  Luckily almost everyone knows the place, and those who know it love it.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve eaten countless meals at Fiddler’s Green that nourished the body and the soul, always accompanied by my wife or friends or co-workers, and good times were had by all.  Once, on one of their rare visits up here, I even brought my parents to Fiddler’s Green.  These are people who like what they like and don’t always like trying new things, but they loved it.  Years later, they still talk about the dinner we had — certainly nothing fancy, but one of those “perfect in every way” meals that just hit the spot for everyone.

This is the fish and chips ($17.95) that won my parents over, and also my wife’s go-to order at Fiddler’s Green.  You get three huge beer-battered Atlantic cod filets, fried to crispy golden-brown perfection — never too greasy, always tender, with just the right level of crunch to the batter.  The batter stays on and maintained that ideal crispness even after transporting my most recent order home.  The fish is served with a cool, creamy remoulade sauce, with the slightest tangy zip to it. 

Here’s a close-up of that gorgeous fried fish.  It’ll make you moan “Oh my cod!”

And here are the chips, delicious potato wedges.  I figure anyone reading this review knows that with British and Irish fish and chips, the “chips” refer to fries, and if you want thinner, crunchier potato chips, those are “crisps.”  So much for a common language, eh wot?  As far as fries/chips go, I’m often skeptical of potato wedges because they are rarely crispy, and if I wanted a baked potato (which I never do), I’d just order a baked potato.  But these are firm on the outside and soft on the inside, but not flaking apart either. 

You might expect an Irish pub would serve potatoes using multiple masterful methods, and you’d be right.  These are the ceili chips ($4.95), which are actually the potato chips most of us know and love… so in Irish pub parlance, they are crisps.  Don’t expect the hard crunchiness of store-bought kettle chips — these are thinner and crispier, and thankfully never soggy from grease.  We can’t go to Fiddler’s Green and not order a round of these. 

Longtime Saboscrivner subscribers know I am obsessed with condiments, so whenever we would go to Fiddler’s Green, I would request a bottle of HP Sauce for the table and dunk the ceili chips (crisps) and potato wedges (chips) in it.  It’s a British condiment that’s a dark reddish-brown, savory and tangy, with a superficial similarity to our A1 sauce, but a million times better.  I asked for a few dipping cups of HP Sauce with this takeout order, and they were kind enough to oblige, but I really should just buy a bottle at our local British Shoppe in Orlando’s Mills 50 district.

I am especially obsessed with mustards, and Fiddler’s also has glass bottles of sinus-clearing Coleman’s prepared English mustard that they will bring to the table upon request.  A little of that stuff goes a long way, but it’s totally worth trying a dab, especially if you are congested.

But after all this talk of fried potatoes and far-flung condiments, I ordered myself an entree that was also really good: Irish stew ($16.95), a thick, rich, heavy concoction of lamb, potatoes, carrots, “and a hint of thyme,” according to the website.  Lamb is one of my favorite meats and thyme is one of favorite herbs, and you can definitely taste them in a perfect melange in this stew.  Of course they top it with a dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and some scallions.  Some people might mix it into the stew like it’s a container of hummus with a little island of sun-dried tomatoes in the middle, but I prefer to get a little morsel of the mash in every spoonful of stew. 

This is one of those ultimate cold weather comfort foods for me, like chili and lasagna.  If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, I’d love to sit down to another bowl of Irish stew inside Fiddler’s Green the next time we get a cold (for Florida) day.  It just feels good — the warmth, the familiarity, the surroundings, the Irish music playing in the background or sometimes performed live by wonderful local musicians.

On other visits, I have also enjoyed the corned beef and cabbage (the best thing to add a dab of the Coleman’s mustard to), bangers and mash with these delicious caramelized pearl onions I would eat by the bowlful, and rich potato leek soup, topped with bacon and cheddar cheese.  I think of these as fall and winter foods, even though we don’t really get a fall here, and our winter consists of random days that add up to about two weeks out of the year.

Long before COVID, I was at a point where I don’t hang out at bars and pubs anymore unless I’m eating or going out of my way to catch live music.  That said, Fiddler’s Green has always felt warm and welcoming, like a piece of home.  I love that it’s a little dark inside with no windows.  On a sweltering, humid Florida summer day, it can transport you to the old country, even if Ireland was never your people’s old country.  And on our rare days of jacket weather, it feels like a safe, comforting cave in the best possible way.  Maybe some day soon, we can all feel safe and comfortable huddling in there again, over pints and chips (crisps) with family and friends.  In the meantime, I’ll keep ordering takeout from here, and hopefully we have a few more chilly days this season for maximum enjoyment of it.

Chain Reactions: 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

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

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.

 

Royal Castle (Miami)

A note to constant readers: I mistakenly published this review two weeks ago, while I was still working on it as a draft.  My small subset of subscribers should have subsequently seen it e-mailed to them, but I unpublished it immediately… UNTIL NOW, when it’s shined and polished for public consumption.  For those of you who have already read and reveled in my Royal Castle review, regrets for the redundancy.

***

Growing up, my dad would sometimes get nostalgic about the restaurants he used to frequent in Miami that were before my time.  So many dearly-departed delis for pastrami sandwiches, Lum’s for hot dogs boiled in beer (I was so surprised to see Lum’s and those legendary hot dogs referenced in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last year!) and Royal Castle for tiny hamburgers and birch beer.  My dad doesn’t consider himself a “foodie” at all, and reads this blog with a mix of amusement and bemusement, but I feel like I became The Saboscrivner due in part to his influence.

A transplanted Brooklynite who moved to North Miami in his late teens, he always knew where to find the best hot dog carts, by-the-slice pizzerias, and all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.  He had no problem packing us in the car for the hour drive from suburban Kendall to the North Miami Beach/Aventura/Sunny Isles area to take us to the much-missed Mister Coney Island and Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House.  That entire part of Miami was magical to me from childhood through my college years, with two good comic book shops, the legendary Blue Note Records, and a Toys R Us on NE 163rd Street that always seemed to have a better selection than the ones closer to us.  But those places are all gone now, like so much of Miami’s glorious, golden past.  (Stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)

Anyway, my dad likes what he likes and sticks to the classics, but he was cool enough to step out of his comfort zone a handful of times to take us for Thai food (once; he claimed the spices made him angry), German food (once; he got weirded out when a bunch of people showed up in lederhosen and dirndls, but who could blame him?), and even a live jazz club on Miami Beach that served burgers and ribs, exponentially expanding my limited teenage horizons.  These were all big-deal formative experiences for me back then, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s.

Royal Castle always stood out to me because it sounded like Miami’s homegrown version of the White Castle and Krystal chains, much like how Orlando’s beloved and long-standing Beefy King is the last bastion of a local chain that was once poised to compete with Arby’s back in the ’70s.  There were once over 150 Royal Castles spanning Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, but only one remains.  Founded in 1958, this Royal Castle is a true family business, sold to 28-year-old James Brimberry by the previous owner, his grandfather, “the first black employee to work inside any Royal Castle restaurant as it integrated just ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  See Carlos Frias, “Miami’s last Royal Castle slings its burgers and birch beer for a new generation,” Miami Herald (June 27, 2019).

Here’s another article about Royal Castle for additional background information:

Miami Herald Archives, “Remember Royal Castle? The burger boom went bust, except for one last survivor,” Miami Herald (February 26, 2019).

By the way, Carlos Frias is one of my favorite food writers and an excellent person to follow on Twitter, whether you live in South Florida or not.  Earlier this summer, Royal Castle made his list of Black-owned Miami restaurant recommendations:

Carlos Frias, “Eat like a local at Miami-Dade’s black-owned restaurants. Here are some of our favorites,” Miami Herald (June 2, 2020).

But it was his June 2019 article I linked above that inspired me to seek out the last remaining Royal Castle on a quick overnight work trip to Miami last fall.  I had one free afternoon to grab lunch on the way down, so I decided to storm the Castle for myself.  Since they don’t have a website with a full menu, I was surprised to see they had a large diner-like menu with breakfasts, sandwiches, and sides — way more variety than I expected from a fast food burger place.  It’s definitely more like a diner than fast food as we all think of it.DSC02630

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I already love li’l slider burgers (see my Krystal review from last summer), and despite the other menu options that I wasn’t expecting, I made the special trip out of my way to Royal Castle to try their famous sliders.  I grabbed a stool at the counter and ordered this 6-Pack combo with cheese added to the burgers, crinkle-cut fries, and a lemonade, which was a reasonable $12.25.  (Unfortunately they were out of their famous birch beer, which I had really been looking forward to.)DSC02634

Close-up to see that nice melty American cheese, still the perfect burger cheese (and grilled cheese cheese).  I had just driven almost four hours and was starving and in a hurry to get to my destination, so I apologize for not taking more or better photos.  Rest assured there were steamed onions and pickle slices underneath the thin burger patties, and I made sure to apply plenty of ketchup to those fries and a dab on each slider.  DSC02635

In retrospect, I wish I had ordered more food, but I didn’t have the time to savor it or a fridge in my hotel room to safely store it.  They were perfectly fine little sliders that hit the spot and got me through a bunch of work schmoozing, but for me, it was all about making that pilgrimage, feeling that Miami history, and eating where my dad ate when he was probably half the age I am now.

The Northwest Miami neighborhood has seen better days, and the restaurant probably has too, but heck, so have I.  After this year, I think we can all say we’ve seen better days.  But it’s a testament to the Brimberry family that the last Royal Castle is still standing after 62 tumultuous years, still in the family, still proudly Black-owned, and still serving filling, flavorful fast food and a lot of local flavor as well.

Mason Jar Provisions

Mason Jar Provisions (https://www.masonjarprovisionsorlando.com/) is a brand-new Southern restaurant that just opened in the space recently vacated by Big Time Street Food, which I reviewed earlier this year after my one and only visit (before a KRS-One concert, which was one of the last fun things I did pre-pandemic).  Located in the Thornton Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, it’s a very small space with a few seats at a counter, but the restaurant is attached to Burton’s Bar next door (and now owned by the same people).  Diners can take their food through a doorway over to Burton’s and walk back and forth between the establishments.  By the time people read this, their hours will be 12 noon to 10 PM.

Before continuing my review, you have to check out this menu.  Everything looked so delicious and tempting, I had a hard time choosing between six or seven different things.  I had to go back to edit this review after first publishing it because I belatedly learned Mason Jar Provisions is co-owned by chef A.J. Haines, who used to cook at one of our favorite, long-gone, much-missed Italian restaurants, Wolfie’s PizzaMia, and he used to work magic and miracles in that kitchen.  Burton’s General Manager Jeff Darnell is the other co-owner.  But because Thornton Park is pretty far from us and parking is difficult around there, I called in a pretty big order on a weekday afternoon I had off, and was lucky enough to be able to park right in front to pick it up.  That probably would not have happened in the evening or on a weekend.

My wife likes her food relatively plain and unadorned, without any condiments or sauces.  So I ordered her the regular beef burger ($9) with its lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and ketchup on the side.  It’s the kind of burger that is smashed flat on the griddle, cooked to medium well.  It was served on a lightly-griddled brioche bun with a huge order of seasoned fries.  masonjar1

You may have also noticed two huge chicken tenders, which I also ordered for her, because she was intrigued by both.  She doesn’t eat a lot, so we both figured she’d probably get three or four meals out of the big burger and the tenders (which actually come in an order of three for $9).  She thought the burger was a perfectly okay burger, but LOVED the tenders.  These were mild, but they also come in medium, hot, inferno, blackstrap (molasses) barbecue, or dry rub flavors.  We were given a choice of a cup of ranch or blue cheese (she never wants either, so I chose blue cheese for myself), and they also came with a cup of buffalo sauce and four celery sticks.

I had been reading hype and praise for the titular Mason Jar burger ($13), so that’s what I had to get… well, one of the things I had to get.  It contained TWO beef patties, tasso ham (such a nice alternative to bacon!), creamy and tangy remoulade sauce, melty American cheese (longtime Saboscrivnerinos know it’s one of my favorite cheeses to put on a burger), plus the usual lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles.  I like pickles now, so these were all welcome toppings for me.  masonjar2
The burger was juicy and flavorful, despite my initial skepticism about it being cooked to medium well, the grilled brioche bun was rich and perfect, and everything held together for an intoxicating melange of flavors, colors, and textures without threatening to slip and slide apart as I enjoyed it at home.  And despite the schlep back to the Casselberry suburbs, the fries were still warm by the time I got home!

Maybe the most curious thing on the menu was the collard melt sandwich ($12), featuring braised collard greens, house-made smoked pimento cheese, chow chow (a Southern cabbage-based relish that is sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, but always tangy), and balsamic reduction, all on grilled sourdough bread.  These are all flavors I love that I never thought of combining into a sandwich, so I’m glad someone more creative than I did.  It came with even more fries.masonjar4I didn’t even eat this until the following day, after warming it up in the toaster oven.  It was a winner.  I seriously love collards, pimento cheese, anything cabbagey, and anything smoky, so it was a killer-diller, no-filler, thriller goriller of a sandwich for me.  Vegetarians, rejoice!  As long as you allow yourself to experience the joy of cheese, here’s a new sandwich every vegetarian in Orlando should seek out.

If it seems like I brought home a lot of food, I did.  I wanted to order a few different things because I was trying a new place, because it’s hard to get over to Thornton Park, and because I wanted to give myself a break from cooking and avoid even being tempted to leave the house again for the next few days.  And with all of this in mind, I also ordered the hot chicken sandwich.  (My parents must be so proud.)  I’ve been very obsessed with hot chicken ever since eating at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2017, and I’m thrilled that Orlando has so many wonderful hot chicken options now, including Swine & Sons (a smoked thigh sandwich), Chicken Fire (tenders in or out of a sandwich), and Git-N-Messy BBQ (not covered in my review, but his hot half chicken may rule them all).

Mason Jar Provisions’ menu says their hot chicken sandwich ($13) says it’s a smoked, breaded, and deep-fried chicken thigh served with hot sauce, bread and butter pickle slices, and cole slaw, served on a grilled brioche bun with even more fries on the side.
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As you can see, the sandwich included two smaller breaded thighs, but it wasn’t dripping in the intense oily, spicy seasoning of Nashville hot chicken like the aforementioned restaurants.  It was incredibly tender and juicy meat, but it wasn’t really hot either.  Like a couple of kids, I traded my wife the not-really-hot thighs from the sandwich for her burger patty — each missing a bite, so it was a very fair trade.   They were thoughtful enough to pack the cole slaw in a separate cup with a lid, to avoid creating a mess that would have ruined the crispiness of the chicken and soaked through the bun and fries on my way home.

As much as I enjoyed my Mason Jar burger and the collard melt sandwich and would probably order them again in the future, I probably wouldn’t get the chicken sandwich again.  Not when they offer a braised barbecue short rib hoagie with pickled onions and pickles (the Dave Dog).  Why didn’t I get that instead?  However, my wife gives the chicken tenders her Saboscrivner Spouse Seal of Approval, and she knows tenders because she is the most tender person there is!

Folks, it’s an unknowable, scary, and outright dangerous time right now.  The restaurant business was hard enough already before COVID-19 pandemic struck, and we’ve seen too many beloved local eateries struggling and shuttering over the last few months.  I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be opening up now, in late June, as infection rates are increasing almost exponentially here in Orlando.  But we still have to eat, and restaurants are still considered essential businesses that are staying open to serve the rest of us.  Most people are going to venture out of their bunkers for takeout food eventually.  I implore you all to choose wisely and eat locally when you do, to support local restaurants that rely on your business and will appreciate your business.  So consider paying a visit to Mason Jar Provisions, one of Orlando’s newest restaurants, for some Southern comfort food at a time when we can all use some comfort in our lives.  Check out these drool-worthy photos and treat yourselves to something tasty and satisfying.  It might just be the highlight of your week, as it was of mine.

College Park Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex’s Fresh Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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