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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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.

St. Johns River Steak & Seafood

A while back, we met one of my wife’s best friends for lunch at St. Johns River Steak & Seafood (https://stjrss.com/), a lovely restaurant near where she lives in Sanford.  My wife and I had never been there before, but the biggest draw was being able to sit outdoors on the huge covered patio overlooking picturesque Lake Monroe on a glorious spring day.

My wife and I shared a bowl of gumbo ($9), which looks very small due to the large bowl they served it in, with just a small space in the middle.  The  rich, thick, spicy, tomatoey stew contained chicken, shrimp, crawfish, and andouille sausage, and I think I liked it a lot more than my wife did. 

I also ordered gator bites ($15) for the three of us to share.  Gator is almost a novelty food.  I don’t know anyone who loves it, but when people see it on menus, especially in casual seafood restaurants in places like Louisiana and Florida, we feel obligated to order it, I gar-ron-tee.  Maybe it’s an “eat them before they eat you” defense mechanism, or a way to prove our local “Florida Man” bona fides.  Anyway, these were chewy and chickeny, as gator bites usually are.  I think we got them grilled, but you can also get them fried or blackened.

All three of us were in the mood for grouper, which is one of the finest fish you can eat.  A surprising amount of local seafood restaurants don’t offer grouper on their menus, and some others sneakily serve other, lesser fish, even when they advertise grouper.  We figured we were coming to a place that would treat us grouper groupies right.

Our friend ordered a Caesar salad ($9) with grouper added on (I can’t find my receipt, but some of the other protein add-ons were $9, or it might have been whatever “market price” was that day).

My wife ordered the fried grouper sandwich ($18.50) and upgraded to a side of Sidewinder fries (an extra $2).  The regular sides that come with sandwiches are house-made chips or cole slaw, but we both love Sidewinder fries.  They might be some of my favorite fries ever.  It came with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on a lightly grilled brioche bun, but since I love sandwiches and my wife doesn’t, I took her bun and vegetables to turn my own grouper (see below) into a sandwich. 

And I got a blackened grouper entree ($27) with two sides: rich and creamy macaroni (really penne pasta) and cheese, and terrific onion rings.  RING THE ALARM!

Sadly, all three of us thought our grouper was a little dry.  Mine reminded me more of a denser fish like mahi, and was less flaky and buttery than grouper I’ve had elsewhere.  But the two sides were top-notch, and I really enjoyed them.

Sanford’s food scene is really blowing up with wonderful restaurants and hip bars and breweries in the quaint downtown area.  There are so many choices, it can be hard to choose.  We used to always end up at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, and last summer I discovered Christo’s wonderful diner and their legendary Greek nachos.  But it is nice to know about a seafood option too, moments away from that main drag on First Street, and with that gorgeous patio and lake view.  I can’t decide if I would give the grouper another try when I inevitably return to St. Johns River Steak & Seafood or branch out to another favorite like soft shell crab or even jambalaya.  However, I would definitely get the onion rings, mac and cheese, and Sidewinder fries again… and probably leave the gator to first-timers.

The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

The Osprey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

JAM Hot Chicken

JAM Hot Chicken (https://www.jamhotchickenfl.com/) opened in Winter Park in late 2021, with a walk-up window location previously occupied by The Sausage Shack, a hot dog place I loved for its huge selection of mustards.  Sadly, it did not last there, but JAM is a welcome addition to the Winter Park landscape.  There is no indoor seating — you order at the window and then enjoy your food at the picnic tables or benches outside on picturesque New England Avenue, in the Hannibal Square area.  On a day that isn’t too hot or humid, an outdoor lunch in this scenic setting can feel like heaven, even when the delicious hot chicken sets your tongue ablaze.

This was my “sando” ($14, but worth every penny).  The HUGE chicken sandwich contains a Bell & Evans chicken breast, fried and seasoned to perfection, topped with crunchy pickle slices (I think they were my beloved Grillo’s), crispy slaw made with cabbage, red onion, apple cider vinegar, and no mayo, creamy comeback sauce (I would slather this on anything!), and served on a great buttered bun.  It was a magnificent chicken sandwich, up there with the best Nashville-style hot chicken I’ve ever had… and I’ve been to the legendary Hattie B’s IN Nashville.  
I ordered mine Hot, which is actually the middle level of heat.  Plain means no heat (for people like my wife), then Mild has “just a touch” of heat, and the next levels are Hot, Hotter, and JAM (marked on the menu with “You’ve been warned”).  I think next time I’ll tempt fate and try the JAM.   I love Nashville hot chicken because you don’t just get your ass kicked by pure heat; there is always so much delicious flavor, and that’s spicy food should deliver.  There is usually a touch of sweetness too, to help offset the spice.  It’s a delicate balance that I now crave, and JAM’s sando perfectly straddles that fine line.

Since I was driving home, I opted against ordering fries, knowing they would be cold by the time I returned.  I’ll have to return, because they looked good.  Instead, I got the cheddar bob mac ($5), which is in the Top Two best macaroni and cheese dishes I’ve had in Orlando.  It was really that incredible, knocking my socks off after the chicken sando already did that.  (Good thing I was wearing two pairs of socks!) The dark stuff on top was perfectly crispy, crunchy, buttery — maybe cracker crumbs?  It added a lot of terrific texture to the mac and cheese.  I also loved that the mac and cheese was cheesy and sticky, but not overly creamy.  Of course I could be wrong, but I don’t think this cheddary concoction was based on a bechamel sauce.  I find bechamel-based mac and cheese doesn’t always impart the cheesy texture and flavor I’m looking for.

The JAM Hot Chicken website also boasts an outstanding playlist that features a lot of choice ’90s and ’00s hip hop and R&B, making it even cooler — or hotter, if you will.  Wu-Tang Clan and several of its members’ solo projects, Beastie Boys (stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know I love ’em), Outkast, The Pharcyde (Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is an all-time Top Ten hip hop album as far as I’m concerned), Souls of Mischief, and the late, great MF Doom — all aces in my book.

We already have some great hot chicken in and around Orlando, including Chicken Fire (which made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 list) and Swine & Sons (which made my 2019 list, that I was honored to be included on alongside Orlando Weekly’s regular food writer Faiyaz Kara).  JAM Hot Chicken is the newest entrant into this growing field, and I was thrilled to discover it in this unassuming location, because it was awesome.  In fact, just like I say whenever “Poison,” “Motownphilly,” or “This Is How We Do It” come on the radio, THAT’S MY JAM!

Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”

Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen

At this point in my food writing, I keep an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the restaurants I want to try — and so I can always quickly send menu links to the people I eat with the most, my wife and my co-workers.  One restaurant that had been at the top of my list for far too long is Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen (https://www.cavosbar.com/) in Thornton Park, a neighborhood near downtown Orlando that I recently called “Thornton No-Park,” due to the lack of parking spaces.  I dragged three co-workers down to Cavo’s for lunch on a relatively quiet Friday not that long ago, and we definitely had to drive around a bit before we could park, but it was worth the wait.

I’ve been reading so many raves about Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13), so I had to try it, even though I often find cheesesteaks disappointing.  Usually the meat is relatively low-quality and dissolves into a pool of boiling lava-hot grease and melted cheese that never cools down, making it literally painful to eat, on top of being messy.  But this was easily the best cheesesteak I’ve tried in Orlando, and probably the best one I’ve had outside of Philadelphia.  The freshly baked soft roll, adorned with sesame seeds, held up to the heavy load inside — tasty thin-sliced ribeye (the king of steaks as far as I’m concerned), melty white American cheese, and plenty of sautéed onions, although if you ask me, you can’t ever put enough sautéed onions on anything.  It lived up to the hype and made me realize I still do like cheesesteaks; I just hadn’t had a worthy cheesesteak in a long time.

One co-worker ordered a gorgeous-looking Reuben sandwich ($13), with the usual suspects: corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing (not Russian dressing, but still good) on grilled marble rye.  I know her to be a fan of Reubens, as am I, and she looked content.

My vegetarian co-worker got the vegetarian sandwich ($13), with fried eggplant, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and roasted garlic basil vinaigrette on a fresh baked hoagie roll.  It looked good and smelled even better.  I didn’t ask her to try it, but even as a non-vegetarian myself, that looked like something I would really like.

Another co-worker who tries to eat healthy got the Cavo salad ($13), with spinach and romaine mix, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, artichokes, roasted red peppers, charred vidalia onions, garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, tossed with Cavo’s house vinaigrette dressing.  He added chicken for an additional $5.   He seemed to like it, and that’s what I call a salad!   

I got this plate of curly fries ($4) intending to share it with everyone.  They were awesome — maybe my favorite kind of fries, with a crispy seasoned coating and soft on the inside.  My beloved Arby’s serves fries like this, and so does Checkers.  But two of my colleagues ordered their own plates of tater tots ($4 each), leaving me with more fries than I expected.  It wasn’t a problem, though!

That night, when I got home from work, I enjoyed half of the classic Italian hoagie ($13) after it chilled in the fridge for a few hours, allowing the flavors to meld.  This beautiful sandwich included tavern ham, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, sweet Italian peppers, pickles, and oregano vinaigrette dressing on the same kind of soft seeded roll.  Years ago, the pickles might have ruined the sandwich for me, and even though I normally wouldn’t order them on an Italian sub, my growing tolerance for pickles has turned into an obsession, so I thought I would try them.  They only added; they did not detract.  It was an excellent Italian hoagie — maybe not reaching the great heights of the Stasio sub, the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie, the Rocco from Manzano’s Deli, or incredible new hoagies from Pizza Bruno, but it is still a top-tier Italian sandwich here in Orlando. 

I liked the space and loved the food.  If only it was easier to park at Cavo’s, I would want to be a regular for sure.  As it is, it will have to be a rare treat when I’m in Thornton No-Park, along with other local favorites Mason Jar Provisions and Benjamin French Bakery.  But rare treats may be the best, because if you treat yourself too often, the ritual starts to feel more commonplace, and less special as a result.  But that cheesesteak… wow.  That was totally worth driving laps around Thornton No-Park, or maybe even taking a Lyft down there in the future.

Build My Burgers

Build My Burgers (https://www.buildmyburgers.com/) sounds like something an old-timey Southern lady would say, as an expression of surprise or exasperation: “Well, build mah burgers!”  But no such phrase exists, although maybe it should.  Instead, Build My Burgers is a new fast-casual burger restaurant that opened in a small shopping plaza on University Boulevard, just a few minutes west of the University of Central Florida.  It is an independent, locally owned restaurant, and it could really use your support, because Build My Burgers will build you a tasty burger to your exact specifications, with dozens of options to customize it.  You can have a lot of fun here.  I sure did.

The burgers themselves are Black Angus beef, served as thin, “smashed” patties.  They might not be as thick or juicy as the patties from a burger joint like Fuddruckers or Teak, but they pack a lot of flavor and are clearly high-quality beef.  You can also choose regular or spicy fried chicken, a veggie burger, or an Impossible Burger if you don’t feel like beef.  Brioche is the standard bun, but you could also get your burger or sandwich on a thicker pretzel bun for a $2 upcharge or a lettuce bed for no additional cost, for the keto dieters out there.  (I did keto for five miserable months in 2017, and let’s just say it did not end well.)

But best of all about Build My Burgers, at least in my book, is the voluminous list of burger toppings and condiments to choose from.  I know some people’s brains short-circuit and shut down when faced with too many choices, but I love being able to choose so many different flavors and textures to make a one-of-a-kind meal, whether I’m customizing a poke bowl, a sandwich, a burrito, or a burger, in this case.

I opted for a double-patty burger ($8.99) with two slices of American cheese (75 cents each) on the standard brioche bun.  From there, I asked them to add ketchup, spicy mustard, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, pickles, roasted red peppers, crunchy potato sticks (making their second appearance in a row on The Saboscrivner blog), and guacamole.  Our food arrived on metal trays,  with the burgers wrapped up, fast food-style, already assembled.  Good grief, that was an insanely beautiful, messy, and delicious burger!

My wife likes to keep things simple, so she ordered a single burger ($6.49) on the pretzel bun (a $2 upcharge), and only opted to add thousand island dressing, which was a really good condiment pairing.  She ended up thinking the pretzel bun was just okay, but probably would have preferred the brioche.  I thought the denser, thicker pretzel bun would have been balanced better with a thicker, two-patty burger and more toppings and condiments. 
Next time she’ll get a burger on a brioche bun with guacamole, and next time I’ll probably get something very similar to what I got this time, but add thousand island.  We both thought the crinkle-cut fries, dusted with a peppery seasoning, were just okay.

What really sold me on finally trying Build My Burgers were people’s photos of the onion rings.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I am an onion ring aficionado, and I’ll try onion rings anywhere I find them.  Those inevitable onion ring reviews get a special tag: RING THE ALARM!  And these onion rings ($4.99) are “my type,” with their golden brown batter.  Perfect size, shape, color, consistency, and taste.  Flawless onion rings, worth ringing the alarm for. 

My wife was really craving a chocolate shake ($5.99), but also asked me if I had any interest in sharing an order of fried Oreos ($5.99).  That’s a decadent double dessert right there, but I realized neither of us had ever had fried Oreos before, so why not?  Anything the Scots love has to be pretty good, right?  Well, she seemed to really like the shake, and I enjoyed the obligatory sip I took. 
Does anyone remember Pulp Fiction, one of the biggest movies to come out in 1994?  I was in 11th grade at the time, and I was absolutely obsessed with it.  Anywhere, there was a whole discussion about how a cheesy ’50s diner-themed restaurant in L.A. served five-dollar milkshakes, and what a ripoff that was.  I always think of that moment in the film whenever I encounter milkshakes, because over 25 years later, five dollars is pretty standard, and many places cost far more.  Vincent Vega would have lost his damn mind if he saw the $15.99 “freaky shakes” on the Build My Burgers menu, but those are huge, opulent, towering structures meant to be photographed and shared (but not picked up, because all kinds of stuff is stuck to the outside of the glasses).  This standard chocolate milkshake in a standard plastic cup suited my wife just fine.

And because you were wondering, here’s a cross-section of the fried Oreos.  They were actually better than I expected, in that the batter was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and the Oreo still had some crunch to it.  I was expecting a sad, greasy mess that would make me feel guiltier than usual, and also a little disappointed.  Well, they weren’t greasy or disappointing at all, I’m happy to report!

I don’t end up on the east side of Orlando near UCF to eat very often, but if you’re out there, you can definitely count on a tasty burger from Build My Burgers.  Any of my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I value freedom of choice, and how much I love being able to customize and trick out my meals with a variety of options.  This is the perfect place for that.  Even vegetarians would be very content.  I look forward to returning and improvising some new crazy burger combination, but in the meantime, I wanted to spread the word about a relatively new restaurant that could use every bit of support.