Francisco’s Taco Madness

I think we can all agree that 2020 is one of the worst years ever, but on a personal level, I had a pretty rotten 2017 too.  That summer, I was hospitalized with the worst pain of my life that turned out to be kidney stones (thanks for nothing, keto diet!).  Then two weeks later I got what was probably the second-worst pain of my life, which turned out to be pneumonia, which I almost certainly caught in the hospital the first time.  I missed two weeks of work recovering, and it all really shook me up and made me realize I’m getting old, and things are going to keep breaking.  (And back then, even after that one-two punch, I didn’t know the half of it!)

Toward the end of those two weeks, I was out running errands, feeling sorry for myself, and also feeling hungry.  What else is new, am I right?  Driving down State Road 17-92, I passed the Lowe’s home improvement store and saw a familiar white trailer with a red and white striped awning, a sight I had seen countless times over the years.  But this day, I was curious enough to stop, and I had all the time in the world to linger.  It smelled so good, and as I perused the handwritten menu, I knew I had chosen wisely.  The Mexican food was some of the best I’d ever tasted, and it was incredibly cheap and so satisfying.  It helped lift me out of a deep existential depression, and made me feel physically better, too.  This was a real treasure, and I felt like I had discovered it, despite them always being busy and having long lines.
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I would later learn that taco trailer was called Francisco’s Taco Madness (https://www.facebook.com/Franciscos-Taco-Madness-Pinedo-rental-173063512788695/), and it became one of my favorite sights to see in Casselberry, whenever I drove by the Fern Park Lowe’s on State Road 17-92, just south of Semoran Boulevard.  You have to follow their Facebook page to know when they’re going to be serving, but it’s usually between Wednesday and Saturday, afternoons only, usually just between 1 PM and 6 PM.  I’ve been back many times over the last few years, but Saturdays are typically my only opportunity to visit.  And since the lines really do get long, my recommendation is to be there close to the beginning, when they’re still putting up that striped awning.

Most recently, after a few weeks of being shut down, Francisco’s Taco Madness announced their triumphant return starting this past Tuesday, June 30th.  They wouldn’t be at Lowe’s anymore, but at a new location literally two minutes away:

Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People
704 Prairie Lake Dr.
Fern Park, FL 32730

They are also asking diners to text their pickup orders to 407.865.4697, to cut down on crowds and help with social distancing.  NOW’S YOUR CHANCE, PEOPLE!

Here is the menu:
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I ordered my wife her favorite: two carne asada tacos, with cilantro, guacamole, and a splash of hot sauce, hold the onions ($2 each):
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I got myself one chorizo taco with all of that, plus onions ($2):
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Here are some lovely tacos from an earlier visit:
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And I got my favorite burrito in all of Orlando, Francisco’s al pastor burrito ($8).  It is huge and perfect in every way, the archetypal burrito of your dreams and mine:
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It is so good that I included it in my list of Top Five Dishes of 2017, published in the Orlando Weekly‘s end of the year issue.

Here’s a cross-section so you can see the deliciousness wrapped inside that grilled 12″ flour tortilla: the perfectly marinated and slightly sweet al pastor pork, rice, beans, cheese, onions, peppers, guacamole, and a piquant sauce.  It’s truly unparalleled.
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This time I treated myself to a fresh-squeezed lemonade (something I have a hard time turning down), and I got the large for $4, which just comes in a styrofoam cup.  It was really refreshing, especially after waiting outside in the early summer heat for my order to come up — probably the longest sustained period I’ve been outdoors since the quarantine started in March.  They also offer regular canned sodas and bottled Jarritos Mexican sodas, made with cane sugar, which I love and recommend.
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You can see that Francisco’s Taco Madness also offers quesadillas (which my wife loves), hamburgers, hot dogs, a kielbasa sausage sandwich, a barbecue pulled pork sandwich, a Philly cheesesteak, and even chicken salad.  I’ve been tempted in the past by the kielbasa, which I’m imagining comes on a nice, lightly-griddled roll and covered with onions and peppers, but I always return to that al pastor burrito and one or more tacos.

Orlando is lucky to have so many outstanding Mexican options, especially for tacos.  I’ve already reviewed my other favorites, which I think are synonymous with the best in town (Tortas El Rey, Hunger Street Tacos, MX Taco), but no list of my favorites or the best would be complete without Francisco’s Taco Madness.  If you’re also driving through Fern Park and see that red and white striped awning over their white decorated trailer, stop whatever you’re doing, pull into Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People, and text your order to 407.865.4697.  You will be so happy you did, and you’ll wonder what took you so long.

Tako Cheena

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skyline Chili (Fort Lauderdale)

Skyline Chili (https://www.skylinechili.com/) is a chain restaurant started by Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1949.  Cincinnati chili is very different from any other kind of chili you’ve tried before.  There are no beans in it, it’s not spicy, and it’s a relatively thin meat sauce with finely ground beef — not thick or chunky.  In addition to ground beef, it contains tomato paste, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, cider vinegar, and cumin, which sounds normal enough so far.  But HOLD ONTO YOUR HATS, because Cincinnati chili ain’t Cincinnati chili without cinnamon, cloves, allspice, Worcestershire sauce, and maybe a bit of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, if you wanna get nuts.  YOU WANNA GET NUTS?  COME ON!  LET’S GET NUTS!

At Skyline and its Midwestern rivals like Gold Star Chili, you can order chili by the bowl, topping a hot dog (Skyline calls them Coneys), or served in a “3-Way” (spaghetti, chili, and bright orange, finely shredded cheddar cheese), a “4-Way” (a 3-Way topped with onions or beans), or a “5-Way” (a 3-Way topped with onions and beans).  I find the names hilariously ironic, because most people wouldn’t fare very well in a 3-way after eating a 3-Way, at least not for long.  And don’t even bother trying any kind of way after a 5-Way!

Good thing I never bothered to monetize this blog, because I’ll probably lose multiple subscribers after this review, and we all know I don’t have that many to begin with.

Anyway, there are a few Skyline locations in Florida, but none here in Orlando.  I’ve eaten at the one in Naples and two in South Florida (Sunrise and the one I’m reviewing here, in Fort Lauderdale), and there are others in Clearwater, Bradenton, and Fort Myers.  All the others are in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.  Come on, Skyline!  Orlando gets tourists from all around the world, including the Midwest.  Send your 3-Ways our way!

I drove down to South Florida at the beginning of March, shortly before COVID-19 became a serious concern, to visit my family and best friend in Miami for the first time in far too long.  I also had the sad experience of attending a friend’s funeral in Fort Lauderdale on my way down.  By the time it ended, I needed to center myself before driving the last hour down to my parents’ house in Kendall, a Miami suburb.  I was running on empty — emotionally drained, hungry, and craving comfort food.  And what did I discover mere minutes from the service?  A rare Skyline Chili sighting.  Of course I had to stop, since I haven’t been to one in many years.  DSC02998

You know what’s interesting?  Cincinnati’s chili restaurants like Skyline and Gold Star are usually referred to as “chili parlors” up there.  These days, not a lot happens in parlors.  You hear about parlor games and parlor tricks, but there’s an old-timey connotation to those.  Of course there are ice cream parlors, but that’s pretty much it for food.  And then there are funeral parlors, so don’t think I missed the significance of going from a funeral straight to a chili parlor.

This location (the Skyline Chili parlor, I should clarify) was set up like a diner, with regular tables, but also a counter with a row of stools facing the open kitchen.  I always like to sit at the counter when it’s an option and I’m alone, so I parked on a stool and ordered a cheese Coney (Skyline’s small, chili and cheese-covered hot dogs) as an appetizer.  It took less than a minute for the Coney to be served in front of me — a tiny hot dog on a soft, steamed bun with a squirt of yellow mustard, topped with the hearty chili, diced raw onions, and a mountain of almost neon orange shredded cheddar.
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My kind and thoughtful waitress was thoughtful enough to offer me a disposable plastic bib.  This was a godsend, considering I was still wearing my good black suit, white dress shirt, and skinny black tie from the funeral I had just come from.  I was really worried about how I was going to get out of this restaurant without dripping, splashing, or splattering myself, and the bib greatly improved my chances of avoiding besmirchment.

Anyway, the cheese Coney was glorious.  Everything my mind and mouth needed, even if my body might possibly regret it later.  I could have put away a half-dozen of those, but I had another hour to drive before making it to my parents’ house.  Don’t worry, though — I wasn’t done yet.

Yes, there was a hot dog under all that:DSC03002

I couldn’t leave Fort Lauderdale without enjoying a nice 3-Way, and that was when I saw a sign advertising an “extreme” habanero and cheddar cheese blend as an alternative to the classic cheddar, advising curious diners to “turn up the heat.”  So I got that, because if you’re going to have a 3-Way, you might as well make it as hot and extreme as possible.  Again, moments later, it was in front of me, steaming, melting, fragrant spicy messy tempting.DSC02999

This makes quite a mess, as you might expect from a 3-Way, but there were so many flavors and textures to enjoy, and the slower you go, the more sticky and melty everything gets.  Thank goodness for that bib!  But it totally hit the spot — my first Skyline fix in almost a decade, and on an afternoon where I really needed some uplift.DSC03000

I should note that my entire bill for the cheese Coney, the 3-Way, and a fountain soda was only $12.70, which seems like a bargain at twice the price.

I should note that the Internet abounds with Cincinnati chili recipes.  I’ve even tried some of them, and they’re all decent, if not identical to Skyline’s secret recipe.  You can’t go wrong with those basic ingredients.  Even if the idea of putting a little cinnamon and unsweetened chocolate in your chili sounds weird and wrong, step out of your culinary comfort zone, because you might discover you like it weird and wrong, and that weird and wrong is really so, so right.

You can also find Skyline Chili at some Publix supermarkets in the frozen food case, and I’ve even seen it in cans at Walmart, near the other canned chili like Hormel and Wolf Brand.  It’s an acquired taste, and one I’m sure not all my readers will love, but I believe in trying everything once, and often twice… just to be sure.  If you find the frozen or canned Skyline, you can even assemble a 3-Way in the comfort and safety of your own home and try it once for yourselves.  Just keep The Saboscrivner in your thoughts while you experiment!

In fact, I’ve been cooking at home so much during this quarantine, writing this review inspired me to make my own Cincinnati-style chili with one of the many Skyline “copycat” recipes that are out there.  I used a pound of ground chuck AND a pound of ground turkey, canned tomato sauce but no paste, added cinnamon and unsweetened chocolate I ground with my box grater, and even ground my own cloves and allspice berries in a small coffee grinder I use exclusively for spices.  I let the chili sit in the fridge for almost two days before trying it, and that allowed me to skim a lot of the orange congealed fat off the top.  Then I served it over good quality Flora brand spaghetti with a blend of extra-sharp cheddar and habanero cheddar that I shredded myself, and it was fantastic.  It was thicker than Skyline’s, which I appreciated, and also spicier due to adding a little more cayenne pepper than the recipe I found called for, plus the habanero cheddar to turn up the heat and make it extreme.  My cheese (Cabot brand) didn’t melt as quickly or as well as Skyline’s cheese, but my spaghetti was more al dente, and the whole concoction tasted great.  Since I used two pounds of meat, I’ll be enjoying 3-Ways at home for the next several days.
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