Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mr. Dunderbak’s (Tampa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray’s Deli & More

I really drove out of my way to find Ray’s Deli & More (https://www.raysdeliandmore.com/), which is the closest thing I’ve ever found in Orlando to the bodega-delis of New York City.  It is located at 6101 South Orange Avenue in Orlando’s Pinecastle neighborhood, south of downtown (and south of the SoDo district).  Once Orange Avenue splits apart into one-way southbound and northbound streets, you’ll find Ray’s in the middle.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside — just a generic convenience store with an outdoor table and a lot of signs in the window — but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all the fresh, made-to-order sandwiches you can order there.

The menu is on the website, but I also took photos of the menu board above the counter.  You can right-click these photos and open them in a new tab for larger images.

Here is the deli case with plenty of high-quality Boar’s Head meats and cheeses you can buy by the pound.  (The prices are also on the menu board above.)  The top shelf also includes sides of potato salad, pasta salad, egg salad, and some slices of cheesecake and red velvet cake, among other things. 

The main reason I sought out Ray’s Deli & More was to try the legendary chopped cheese sandwich ($10.99), a New York bodega classic, referred to in so many hip hop lyrics.  They aren’t popular outside the five boroughs, but I recently learned that two different convenience store sandwich counters in Orlando offer the chopped cheese.  I recently tried the one that is closer to me, but that was after five separate attempts to catch them open for business.  Ray’s is across town, but it was totally worth the 45-minute schlep to the Pinecastle neighborhood south of downtown Orlando, because they were open for business during the hours they advertised, cooking up a storm, and the food turned out to be awesome.Imagine a cheeseburger and a Philly cheesesteak hooked up after a crazy night at the club, and the chopped cheese is their beautiful, greasy, cheesy love child.  It is two angus burgers chopped up on the flattop grill with onions and peppers, then placed on a sub roll with American cheese, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo, and then pressed on a panini press until the cheese melts.  It was still warm by the time I got it home, and it was awesome.  So satisfying!  I always love a good burger, but I find Philly cheesesteaks often disappoint (except for the one at Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen, which is the best one I’ve ever had in Florida, and it made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021).  This chopped cheese sandwich lived up to all the hip hop hype and combined the best of both worlds.  I loved it!

This was the very substantial Italian combo sub ($11.99), stuffed with Boar’s Head genoa salami, prosciutto, capocollo, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, and raw onion.  I stuck it in the fridge as soon as I got home and enjoyed half that evening and the other half the next day, once it was chilled.  I liked it a lot, especially once I got home and added some peppers and a splash of balsamic vinaigrette dressing to it.  The sub roll was very soft, almost like a large hot dog bun.  I don’t like rolls that are too crusty, but a slightly crustier roll might help bring this sub over the top.  No regrets, though.  I’m always happy to order an Italian sub anywhere, and I definitely recommend it!

Both sandwiches (and I assume all the others) came with a wee bag of chips (I chose Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch Doritos for both, since I haven’t tried that odd flavor combo before) and a canned soda.  The convenience store has a huge selection of bottled and canned drinks, but the freebie choices were pretty basic: Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi, Mountain Dew.  Still, free is free!  I used to drink Mountain Dew A LOT, back in school, and a few sips from this can reminded me why I don’t drink much soda at all anymore.

Longtime readers, my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know that whenever onion rings are available, I WILL order them.  These onion rings ($3.99) were just okay.  They reminded me of the ones at Burger King, but you get a huge portion of them.  They were limp and lukewarm by the time I got them home, but heating them up in the toaster oven the next day helped them get crispier and more satisfying.  Essentially, these were condiment delivery devices.  But still, RING THE ALARM!

Anyway, Ray’s Deli & More has this huge sandwich selection, plus prepared foods like several Italian pasta dishes, another case with some fried empanadas and other goodies, and they said they also serve breakfast sandwiches all day.  This could be another source for New York transplants to track down their classic bodega bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, among other things.  It’s a full convenience store with groceries, snacks, sodas, beer, wine, and all the accessories you might want to find at a smoke shop, too.  It has a lot more character than a Wawa or 7-Eleven, and it was busy enough that plenty of people already know how good it is.  I drove all the way across town to Ray’s for a chopped cheese, an Italian sub, and onion rings, and I didn’t leave empty-handed or disappointed.  The only thing this bodega was missing was a great cat, ideally one who takes a pet like no problem!

 

Grocery Grails: Fox’s U-Bet Syrups

This week I’m taking a break from restaurant reviews to bring back my recurring Grocery Grails feature, where I review and recommend some of my favorite food products you can buy at supermarkets and grocery stores.  In the past, I’ve reviewed pickles and ramen noodles in order to highlight the best store-bought varieties I’ve ever found, as well as all kinds of potato chips under the Tight Chips banner, reviewed sardines in features called The ‘Dines List, and mustards in a recurring segment called Cutting the Mustard.  Stay tuned for more of those, sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos, but today we’re going to cool things down with something a little different.

Have you ever eaten too much, or too much of the wrong things?  I have.  Sometimes you get that feeling where you’re too full and bloated, or you’re an anhedonic altacocker like me and suffer from a bit of acid reflux.  In that case, allow me to recommend the perfect solution for your indigestion: an egg cream!  You’ve probably heard of these delightful, deli-derived digestive drinks before, and I’ve even mentioned them in some of my past reviews.  An egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream, but three perfect ingredients to help you feel better after a heavy meal, and to leave a sweet, creamy, refreshing taste in your mouth: seltzer water, milk, and a flavored syrup.  And folks, if you make your egg creams with anything but Fox’s U-Bet Syrups, you’re not living right!

Fox’s is one of those beloved, old-school New Yawk products that is harder to find these days, and costs a little more, but is totally worth every penny.  Founded in Brooklyn in 1895 by H. Fox & Company, the Fox’s U-Bet brand is now owned by the Gold’s Horseradish company.  They do not contain high fructose corn syrup, unlike many comparable brands, and they are kosher for Passover.  The thick, rich chocolate syrup with the yellow label is the standard for egg creams, but I would strongly recommend it for any of your chocolate syrup needs: making chocolate milk, hot chocolate, ice cream sundaes, milkshakes, or anything else.  It tastes better than any other chocolate syrups, and definitely any powder mixes I’ve ever tried.Personally, I like the U-Bet vanilla and coffee syrups even more than the chocolate, which speaks volumes about how good they are.  Both of these are thinner than the thick, sticky chocolate syrup, but they are so good. They are harder to find around here, though.  I found the coffee syrup once at a “bougier” Publix than my normal location, and last fall, I was lucky enough to find some vanilla U-Bet bottles marked down for clearance after Yom Kippur at another swankier Publix, so I grabbed them all.  Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood also sells the chocolate and vanilla syrups.

With any of the three, squirt some U-Bet syrup into a tall glass, fill it about halfway with the milk of your choice and stir well, making sure it doesn’t all stick to the bottom and sides of your glass.  Fill the rest with seltzer, stir some more, and enjoy an effervescent, foamy, sweet, creamy, classic beverage that goes so well at the end of any meal as both a dessert and a digestive aid. 

Our plastic glasses have seen better days, after going through the dishwasher for 13 years, but here’s one of the many vanilla egg creams I’ve made to relax after work.  Hey, as a non-drinker, I take my simple pleasures where I can find them.

Last year I discovered a game-changing new product that completely changed my egg cream game, and it can change yours too.  The Polar brand makes several calorie-free flavored seltzers with all-natural ingredients, no sugar, and no gross artificial sweeteners added.  Sprouts Farmers Market grocery stores in Orlando and Oviedo (but interestingly, not Winter Park) sell a toasted coconut flavor of Polar seltzer that is absolutely delicious on its own, but elevates chocolate, vanilla, or coffee-flavored egg creams to the next level.  Think about how good a toasted coconut flavor would be when combined with any of those flavors, but especially my absolute favorite, the vanilla.  Combine that with 1% or 2% milk (which still taste so luxurious to me, after growing up in a house with skim milk, or vaguely milk-flavored water), and your egg cream will taste so much richer and more decadent than it really is.   I buy every bottle of Polar toasted coconut seltzer on the shelf every time I see them at Sprouts, just so we never run out!

Last year, a really good friend visited Rhode Island and brought me back this huge bottle of Autocrat coffee syrup, completely unknown here in Florida, but a standard shelf staple in Rhode Island, where everyone drinks “coffee milk.”  (Yes, it’s essentially the same thing as chocolate milk, just made with coffee syrup.  And I knew about it because I am obsessed with regional foods, especially anything I can’t easily find around here.)   I despise autocrats in real life, and there are far too many of them these days with too much power and control, but I sure did like the coffee syrup named after them.I almost never drink coffee due to the aforementioned acid reflux, but I like the taste of a sweet, creamy, chilled, coffee-flavored beverage.  Naturally, I enjoyed comparing it to the Fox’s U-Bet coffee syrup and using it in some coffee egg creams with plain and toasted coconut seltzer.  I decided the Autocrat works great for coffee milk, but nothing can touch the flavors of the Fox’s U-Bet products for egg creams.

If you read through this review and still have no idea what I’m talking about, treat yourself to a bottle of Fox’s or find a deli or a bagel shop willing to mix you up an egg cream.  You’re not gonna regret this!

Grocery Grails: Sun Noodle fresh ramen kits

Everyone loves ramen, right?  I sure do.  I never even tried ramen noodles until I moved away to go to college, and then they were de rigeur dorm food — bricks of fried noodles that came with seasoning packets (mostly salt and MSG) that you could turn into soup with just a pot of water boiled on an illegal hot plate.  Best of all, when we were poor all the time, you could get six or seven packages of this instant ramen in a multitude of flavors for a buck.  I quickly learned I liked my ramen best after draining the water and mixing the seasoning directly into the noodles themselves, like eating very salty flavored pasta.  When my old band spent our freshman year Spring Break touring Florida for a week, we brought bread, peanut butter, and bricks of instant ramen, which we ate uncooked, just crunching away at them in random parking lots.  All of this was extremely unhealthy, but ramen helped get me through three degrees, especially when paired with proteins like canned tuna or sardines, or sometimes chicken or sausage if I was feeling flush.

I wouldn’t discovery the glory and grandeur of “real,” authentic Japanese ramen until my 30s, when I was a little shocked over spending $10 or more for a bowl of the good stuff.  But it was so good, and I wondered where this real ramen had been all my life.  I tried a few and quickly realized tonkotsu ramen was my favorite, a creamy pork bone broth served with a slice of fatty roast chashu pork.  So delicious, and streets ahead of the cheap stuff that sustained me for so long.  I’ve had particularly lovely tonkotsu ramen at Ramen Takagi, Susuru, and Domu here in Orlando, and those are links to my reviews.  The tonkotsu at Ramen Takagi even made my Top Ten Tastes of 2020 in Orlando Weekly!

But sometimes you just want to make ramen at home for a nostalgic night in.  Orlando is blessed with a huge number of Asian markets, some of which are as huge as any Publix supermarket, and all of which feature a selection of ramen and other noodles that put Publix to shame.  And they aren’t all the fried dry bricks either — many brands offer fresh and frozen noodles that can be cooked just as easily, except the texture, taste, and quality are so much better.  Well, constant readers, I might have discovered the best store-bought ramen of all, so I had to share in another Grocery Grails feature.

The brand is Sun Noodle.  Based in Hawaii and founded by Hidehito Uki in 1981, Sun Noodle furnishes many of the best ramen restaurants in the U.S. with its fresh, springy noodles.  Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check out these features on Eater and Serious Eats and in Honolulu Magazine.  In recent years, Sun Noodle started producing ramen kits for home cooks to make fast, easy, restaurant-quality ramen with their fresh noodles and rich, flavorful concentrated soup bases that are a great leap forward from the salty powder packets we all know.

I recently found all three Sun Noodle ramen kits at Enson Market, formerly known as 1st Oriental Market, at 5132 West Colonial Drive in the Pine Hills neighborhood west of downtown Orlando, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and other businesses.  I found all three varieties in the cooler and bought them all: tonkotsu, shoyu, and miso ramen kits.  Each one comes with two servings.  Keep in mind these are perishable, so eat them or stick them in the freezer so they don’t go bad, which would be a damn shame.   

Of course I had to start with the tonkotsu, my favorite:

The back of each package includes cooking directions, nutrition information, and ingredients.  Note that this tonkotsu soup base contains pork extract, lard, and chicken powder,  so it is definitely not for vegetarians!

Each package includes two separate portions, with individually wrapped noodles and soup base packets.  The concentrated tonkotsu base was a thick, sticky paste the color of butterscotch pudding.  Let me save you the trouble — don’t bother tasting it.  You probably won’t like it, at least not until you mix it with hot water and stir well to create the creamy tonkotsu broth you were hoping for.

Here is my tonkotsu ramen, which I served with some corn and a piece of Filipino pork adobo, the only pork I had on hand.  It was great!  Definitely not as good as Ramen Takagi and the other aforementioned restaurants, because they make their broth from scratch and include house-made chashu pork and other fine ingredients.  Cobbled together from a ramen kit, a can of corn, and a hunk of leftover pork that wasn’t even from a Japanese recipe, it was still some damn fine ramen, and far better than any instant ramen I’ve tried before.  The rich, creamy broth was better than I could have imagined, made with that paste instead of a powdered seasoning blend. 

A week or so passed, and I decided to bust out the shoyu ramen, which is soy sauce-flavored.

Nutrition info and ingredients.  This one includes dried sardine extract powder, so vegetarians, stay away.

How everything looks before cooking.  Note the shoyu ramen noodles are more of a rich golden color than the paler noodles that came in the tonkotsu kit above.

And here’s the prepared soup, with more corn and some crunchy fried onions.  They’re not just for Thanksgiving green bean casserole anymore!  I think I liked these noodles better, but I definitely prefer the rich, porky flavor of the tonkotsu broth to the almost overwhelming saltiness of the shoyu broth.   And yet, it was still better than any instant ramen I’ve ever tried.

Most recently, I made the miso ramen, which is soybean paste-flavored.  Now, I’ve had miso soup at Japanese restaurants before, but only when it came with something else I ordered.  I must admit I never get too excited about it, because it never tastes like much to me.  I’ve never really sought out tofu or other soy-based meat substitutes, and it certainly never occurred to me to order miso ramen at any restaurants when tonkotsu was an option.  But I tried it for you, constant readers, for the sake of SCIENCE and JOURNALISM!  I may never be the kind of “influencer” food blogger that gets invited to free meals and fancy events, but I will definitely keeping reporting on the best local restaurants and the most interesting groceries you can find at local markets. 

Anyway, here are the nutrition info and ingredients for the miso ramen.  Yes, it is vegetarian-friendly!

The fresh noodles and soup base packet.  This one was also a thick paste that I poured the hot water from the noodles into and stirred.

And here is my miso ramen, with (surprise!) more corn, more crunchy fried onions that didn’t stay crunchy for long.  I decorated this bowl with black sesame seeds, and that cherry on top is actually a bulb of black garlic, with a very complex and surprisingly sweet flavor, and a chewy consistency like gummy candy.  

Interestingly, this was the most complex flavor of all.  Having never tried miso ramen before, I can barely even describe it, but there was a lot going on — all of it good.

I strongly recommend these to anyone curious, and I would definitely buy them again to keep in the freezer for when I crave ramen.  This happens a lot, by the way.  I’m sure there are other great ramen brands to make at home, but Sun Noodle is kind of a big deal.  I was thrilled to discover these existed, and then to find them locally.  Have you tried these?  Is there another variety of ramen you recommend, either a brand, a flavor, or both?  Your friendly neighborhood Sabsoscrivner is always on the lookout for gustatory glory with Grocery Grails.

Grocery Grails: A Plethora of Pickles

I spent most of my life not liking pickles, despite being a Jew who loves New York-style Jewish deli food more than just about anything.  So I’ve been on a long quest to find pickles I liked, with most of them ranging from “meh” to “feh.”  My long-time readers will recognize that I’ve brought this up a lot.  I can’t try any pickles without commenting on them and somehow ranking them in my head.

Well, thanks to our local barbecue maven Chuck Cobb of Git-N-Messy BBQ (which I reviewed right here on The Saboscrivner last fall and have been frequenting ever since), I’ve found the best pickles I’ve ever tried, and very possibly the best pickles ever: Grillo’s Dill Pickle Chips.  Don’t worry, in pickle parlance, “chips” refers to round slices, not pickle-flavored potato chips.  See https://www.grillospickles.com/ for more information.  But I have snacked on them like potato chips or tortilla chips; they’re that good!  IMG_0193

The only ingredients are cucumbers, water, distilled white vinegar, salt, garlic, fresh dill, and GRAPE LEAVES.  They are firm, crunchy, and not overly salty, which is always nice.  There’s a slight sweetness to them, something I felt was missing from every bite I’ve ever taken of a dill pickle before, but there’s no sugar listed, so maybe it’s the grape leaves.  They’re fantastic.  I’d put them on just about anything.

At least at Florida’s ubiquitous Publix supermarkets, Grillo’s Pickles are in the refrigerated case above the hot dogs, where they keep the “fancier” pickles and sauerkraut.  These came in a relatively small container that cost $4.99, but they’re worth every penny.  Sometimes they go on sale.  If they do, stock up, pickle peeps!
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And of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I have to research anything I like, so here’s an article about Grillo’s Pickles from FoodDive.

More recently, I was at Target picking up a few things and found Grillo’s Classic Dill Pickle Spears in a 32-ounce plastic container in their refrigerated case.  I was a little more hesitant to get full spears, rather than the sliced chips that fit so well in sandwiches, but it was a very good price: $5.99 for that much larger container.  Well, even though they taste the same as the chips, I didn’t like chomping on the spear as much, compared to the perfect flatness and crunch of the sliced chips.  Plus, the spears were just a little more inconvenient for fitting on a burger.
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Grillo’s makes hot pickles too, so I’ll have to try those eventually.  I never thought I’d be so enthusiastic about pickles, but if I could like Grillo’s that much, then normal people who have always liked pickles should really taste the difference as well.  The brine is so good, I always keep it and make pickled eggs in the Grillo’s brine.

I am also a huge fan of shopping at Aldi, the discount supermarket chain that offers amazing deals on everything, including some serious gourmet shit.  I buy the majority of our groceries at Aldi now — they can’t be beaten for quality and value on staples like fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs, and salami.  I check their weekly ads online every Wednesday to see their special buys for each week — interesting foods and other products that are only there for a week, or until they run out.  Aldi sells a lot of “private labels” that are usually national or international products from familiar brands, just relabeled as store brands that are exclusive to Aldi.

In recent months, I’ve discovered and tried three delicious kinds of sliced pickles from Aldi — two private labels and one national brand.  These were all weekly “Aldi finds” that I picked up at various times.  They probably won’t be available there now, but watch those weekly ads, and be on the lookout for their return.

The two private labels are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles, which were new to me, and the Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles, which were my favorites until I discovered Grillo’s.  I still like them a lot, though.  Like the Grillo’s brand, the Park Street Deli pickles are sold refrigerated, and they have other varieties, including regular spears and “atomic spicy.”  Suckerpunch Gourmet Pickles is a national brand, and I wanted to try their Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles too, since I was reminded of a friend and colleague’s ska-punk band I like a lot.

I recently tested out all three of these pickles on Krystal sliders, one of my favorite snacks that I’ve reviewed before.  I ordered a dozen Krystals with cheese, the standard yellow mustard, and extra onions, but I asked them to hold their usual mediocre pickles.

Here are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles on four Krystal sliders, so I could gauge their full effect.  I think the strong flavors overpowered the sliders.  They have that nice crispness, but they’re a little too sweet and not as spicy as I was hoping. 

The Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better [sp] pickles were also sweeter than they were spicy.  They would be a perfect pickle on a larger, more substantial burger to cut the juicy richness and saltiness, but again, Krystal sliders are delicious but puny, and these pickles were overpowering.  

I’ve been buying Aldi’s Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles the longest, so I already knew I liked them a lot, especially on homemade burgers.  Of these three kinds of pickles, they were the best on the Krystal sliders, but the slices are thicker than I would like.  They are nice and crunchy, not quite as horseradishy as I would like, but not as sweet as the two aforementioned pickles.  These were the best of the three, but would have been even better if the slices were thinner.

Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos, you can see Krystal has pretty decent breaded onion rings now.  RING THE ALARM, WHAT WHAT!

But I felt like the two newer, sweeter pickles still deserved another chance, so I made my own really delicious cheeseburgers to try them.  I don’t like the flattened “smash burger” style, so my burgers are thicc, juicy, and medium rare.  I served these with American cheese (the best cheese for a burger), Cuban mustard, and a little ketchup.  Check out these perfect golden buns, spread with garlic aioli and lightly browned in the pan:

Now with the Great Gherkins and Suckerpunch pickles:

Both of these pickles went so much better with the juicier, higher-quality burgers, with their sweetness working well to offset the saltiness of the meat and tanginess of the mustard and ketchup.  Their crunch held up well, especially with the light, toasty crispiness of the pan-grilled buns.  I give the edge to the Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles here, but they were both good pickles that led to even better burgers.

Now I’m thinking about all the foods that pickles could go well with, and I am psyched to experiment more.  I’ve already chopped pickles up in chicken and egg salads and made my own relish the last time I cooked hot dogs.  (I buy the Boar’s Head all-beef hot dogs with the snappy natural casing, and they are awesome.)  Salty, sour Saboscrivnerinos, which pickles do you like, and how do you eat them?  Inquiring minds want to know!

But so far, the only pickles I’ve just gone to the fridge and sought out as a solo snack are the Grillo’s, which are above and beyond all the rest.  In this pickle pantheon, they sit on the throne of gods.

Tight Chips: Whole Foods 365 sandwich-flavored potato chips

I’ve been meaning to review more of the random grocery purchases I’ve tried, when I discover something worth recommending.  Sometimes little treats and new discoveries are enough to get us through the day.  But that should be a special Saboscrivner feature that deserves a special name, so I went with Grocery Grails because I love alliteration and assonance as much as Silver Age Stan Lee.  But for when I focus on one of my favorite foods, potato chips, I have an even more special heading: Tight Chips.

As one of the biggest lovers of sandwiches and new chip flavors, I recently made my first post-quarantine trip to Whole Foods to track down these new sandwich-flavored potato chips from their 365 house brand.  I rarely shop at Whole Foods (more like “Whole Paycheck,” am I right?), but these were on sale for a very reasonable $2.39 each, and let’s face it, I probably would have paid more for them and been happy to do it.DSC03184

Cuban Press ingredients:DSC03185

Italian Hoagie ingredients:DSC03187

Pastrami on Rye ingredients.  Vegetarians, take note of the beef stock in these chips:DSC03188

Here are the chips.  All three flavors look exactly the same, so there was no purpose to posting three nearly-identical pictures:
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They are thinner potato chips like Lay’s, not super-thick, crunchy kettle chips.  I actually prefer this consistency.  They are easier on my gums, too.

Unfortunately, none of them tasted much like the sandwiches that inspired them.  I definitely picked up the flavors of pickles, mustard, and a smoky flavor reminiscent of ham in the Cuban Press chips (and seriously, has anyone ever called a Cuban sandwich or Cubano a “Cuban Press”?).  The Pastrami on Rye chips reminded me of smoke, pepper, and the vinegary tang of sauerkraut, but unfortunately the Italian Hoagie chips were the least like their inspiration, with a subtle taste of Italian herbs, maybe a bit of tomato and vinegar.  They were all exceedingly salty, even by potato chip standards, to the point where I was thinking “Enough, already!”

So if you’re anything like me and you love to try new and novel chip flavors, I highly recommend them for that purpose.  But go in with tempered expectations and don’t expect them to rock your tastebuds or change your life for the better.  My best advice is to seek out the actual sandwiches and pair them with some of your favorite chips, no matter what they are.  (What are your favorites, anyway?  The Saboscrivner is always interested in what other people are eating.)  But for sandwiches in the Orlando area, I recommend Italian hoagies from LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (specifically the LaSpada’s Famous), Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market (the Stasio), and Manzano’s Deli (the Rocco).  You can get a great pastrami on rye from Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood, and the biggest and best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had in Orlando is from one of my recent discoveries, College Park Cafe.

Tortilleria El Progreso

Orlando is full of hidden treasures, and my latest discovery is Tortilleria El Progreso (https://www.tortilleriaelprogreso.com/), nestled in a nondescript strip shopping center in the shadow of a Home Depot, along a busy, industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive, west of the 417 and east of Semoran Boulevard.  It is a bustling Mexican restaurant and a full Mexican grocery store with a butcher shop, a bakery, an ice cream counter, and more.  This is real Mexican food, authentic and pure — the kind of place that makes its own tortillas, chips, and everything else from scratch.  The menu is huge, the service is friendly, the prices are cheap, the portions are large, and the colorful, welcoming dining room with hand-painted chairs makes you feel transported away from Orlando, to a vacation destination south of the border.

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I went for lunch with a professional colleague who trusts my restaurant-choosing judgment and was kind enough to treat.  We started out with complimentary chips and salsa, and we could tell the chips were fresh, made from actual tortillas not long before our arrival:

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Whenever I see tortas on a menu, I go for it.  If there’s one thing I love more than a good taco, it’s a good sandwich, and tortas are the best of both worlds: Mexican ingredients on a soft bolillo or telera roll, with meat, a schmear of refried beans, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, sometimes peppers, and a dab of mayo or sour cream.  I got a barbacoa torta, with tender, oven-braised beef.  It even came with unexpected fries, but the fries weren’t anything special, and I didn’t dare fill up on them.  20180927_124658_resized

But I couldn’t visit a new Mexican restaurant and not sample two of my favorite meats, so I got a chorizo (spicy crumbled sausage) taco on a flour tortilla and an al pastor (marinated pork) taco on a corn tortilla, so I could try both kinds of tortillas too.  All the tacos came simply garnished with diced raw onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges on the side.  I am pleased to say everything was delicious.  20180927_124836_resized

My colleague ordered three tacos: shredded chicken and sauteed beef, hold the onions.20180927_124704_resized

We were also offered a choice of red or green salsas for the table, so of course I asked for both.  The green tomatillo salsa was medium-spicy, and the red had quite a bit of heat.  These were homemade as well:
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We also decided to try a side order of the Mexican rice, which was soft, fluffy, even a little buttery.  I have a rice cooker at home because my rice never comes out right from a pot, but I still never get it as perfect as all the restaurant rice I enjoy.  I stirred a little of the salsas into the rice, to make a good thing even better.20180927_131138_resized

I was overjoyed to see aguas frescas on the menu, which is one of my tests for how authentic and good a Mexican restaurant is going to be.  These refreshing drinks are sweet, but not as sweet as high fructose corn syrup-laden sodas, they aren’t carbonated, and they’re ideal for cutting the heat of spicy Mexican food.  I ordered a piña agua fresca because I will always try anything pineappley, and I recommended another one of my favorites to my colleague: horchata, which is a sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.  I didn’t snap photos of those, but they were both terrific.

I can’t wait to return to Tortilleria El Progreso and try some more menu items, including some of those other aguas frescas, and some of the paletas (popsicles) and helados (ice creams) in the big case at the front of the restaurant.  It looked like the market side had bolillo rolls in the bakery section for tortas, fresh tortillas, sodas, snacks, and other groceries worth exploring.  I love grocery shopping at new places almost as much as I love trying new restaurants, so I will definitely be back to this newly-discovered hidden treasure that plenty of other people surely already knew about.

Bravo Supermarket

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of grocery stores and grocery shopping.  It’s the only kind of shopping I enjoy, in fact.  I regularly stop at multiple stores to pick things up: Aldi (my favorite), Publix, Costco, occasionally Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, and Target if I’m near them.

We recently had a Bravo Supermarket open near us, which is aimed at the Latinx community and specializes in groceries and prepared foods from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.  (https://www.bravosupermarkets.com/)

The prices are fantastic, and as you would expect, they carry all kinds of stuff Publix doesn’t.  I got my wife an assortment of coconut waters, since they have over a dozen different brands and varieties: some with pulp and some without pulp, some roasted, some “young” coconut, etc.

The hot foods counter is set up like a cafeteria line, where you can get a styrofoam box stuffed to bursting with the rice of your choice (white, yellow with pigeon peas, or a specialty rice) with an entree and a side, for $7 and change.  I’ve been twice so far.  Last week, I brought home roast pork over yellow rice with tostones (crispy-fried plantains) for my wife and stewed goat over fried rice with maduros (sweet plantains) for myself.  Today being a Friday, I remembered they had rabo (oxtail) as a special of the day, and I always love oxtail.  I got mine over moros rice (white rice stewed with black beans and onions) with maduros.

bravo_oxtails

It was really good oxtail, but nothing beats when I get it at the Jamaican restaurant Golden Krust, one of my favorites.  I’ll have to go back soon and review it.

The prepared foods counter also has quesitos, empanadas, pastellitos, Jamaican beef patties, some desserts, and they will make you Cuban coffee, too.  Their quesitos (pastries stuffed with sweetened cream cheese) are very tasty, but much doughier and chewier than I’m used to.  The quesitos from the Cuban restaurants back home in Miami were usually made of a flakier, crispier, almost croissant-like dough that often shattered when you bit into them.  Both are good, though.