AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.

Cubans on the Run

Cubans on the Run (https://www.cubansontherun.com/) is a small, casual Cuban restaurant located in Casselberry, but practically on the edge of Longwood.  Yesid Saavedra opened it as a small sandwich shop with his late father-in-law Jose Torres in 1993, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Charlie in 2004.  Undaunted, they rebuilt and reopened it as a larger space, with an expanded kitchen and a fuller menu to match, adding Cuban entrees beyond sandwiches.

My wife and I have enjoyed Cubans on the Run for years, but because it is closed on Sundays, sometimes we don’t make it there when we get the bright idea to go.  I’ve never eaten in the dining room, even in all the years before the pandemic, but it’s a fantastic restaurant to pick up takeout.  They have one of the best Cuban sandwiches in town — not as large as College Park Cafe‘s Cubano, but definitely one of the better ones in the Orlando area.  Those two are my Top Two, for sure.

My wife doesn’t share my obsession with sandwiches, but she likes steak much more than I do, believe it or not.  At Cuban restaurants, she almost always orders a thin grilled steak, like this one here ($10.99), served with chimichurri sauce on the side, and topped with a mound of thin-sliced grilled onions she hates, but I love.  I am always glad to scoop up her onions.  She requested white rice with it but got yellow rice, which she was fine with.  Those are tostones on top — savory, starchy, salty, crunchy fried plantains, and a cup of red beans underneath that I would end up eating.  The steak is very thin, but it was a huge portion.  There  was a second entire piece of steak underneath that one, almost the same size! 

I am making a conscious effort to eat a little healthier in 2021, so on this visit, I ordered chicken fricasee for the first time.  This herculean portion was only $7.50.  I requested dark meat, so I got a huge chicken thigh with the bone still in and the skin still on, a huge leg, a couple of chunks of potato from the stew, a bed of rich yellow rice, a cup of red beans, and four maduros — sweet fried plantains, definitely a Top Ten favorite food of mine.  Sometimes you order chicken and it’s disappointingly dry, which is one reason I tend to prefer dark meat, especially thighs.  This was perfect chicken — so moist, juicy, tender, rich, flavorful.  It was prepared so well, I feel inspired to try to recreate my own version at home.  Loved this chicken.  One of the best chicken dishes I’ve eaten in the Orlando area, without a doubt!

But for the purposes of this review, I couldn’t go to Cubans on the Run and not order one of their signature sandwiches.  But instead of the traditional Cuban sandwich that Cubans on the Run is acclaimed for, I switched it up and got my childhood favorite from Miami, the medianoche (midnight) sandwich ($5.99).  It has all the same ingredients as the Cubano: roast pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, and pickles, only it is served on a sweet, egg-based yellow bread, rather than Cuban bread.  But I’ve had the Cubano before too, and like I said, both are among the finest in Orlando. 

This is a chicharron ($3.75), crispy fried pork with the crunchy skin attached.  This one was harder, drier, and crunchier than I like, but we caught them late on a weekday evening on this particular visit, and usually I go earlier on Saturdays when the chicharrones are fresher and more tender.

My wife and I both love arepas ($3.75), sort of a sandwich made with two sweet corn patties fried on a grill, with melty mozzarella cheese in between them.  Growing up in Miami, you got an arepa from a cart whenever there was an outdoor event, like a fair or festival.  I have recently learned these are often referred to as arepas con choclo, or cachapas, since there are other kinds of arepas (Colombian, Venezuelan, etc.) that aren’t the sweet corn cakes.

These are two perfect churros ($3.25 for the pair), which are doughnut-like pastries that are fried and dusted with cinnamon sugar.  They should be crispy on the outside and moist and cake-like on the inside.  These churros are made fresh, and you can get them with or without cream down their long hollow centers.  I like the cream, but my wife prefers them without.  Guess how we got these!*
*We got them without cream, the way my wife likes.  Fellas, consider this a teaching moment.

I have a hard time going to any Cuban restaurant and not trying my old Miami standards of a beef empanada ($1.85) and one or two croquetas de jamon (75 cents each).

Empanadas are savory pastries, usually filled with some kind of meat wrapped in a half moon-shaped crust, then baked or fried.  Cuban empanadas are wrapped in a flour dough crust, then fried until crispy, flaky, and soft.  I like them the best, especially when they’re stuffed with picadillo, a dish of seasoned ground beef.  This was a nice light empanada, crispy yet soft and yielding, barely greasy, although I wish the ground beef was a little more tomatoey.  (Everyone seasons it a little different, and sometimes you find olives in there, stewed with the picadillo.)

Croquetas are small fritters of diced ham mixed with a rich, creamy bechamel sauce, dipped in bread crumbs, and then fried until crispy and solid, but soft and creamy inside.  I love them, but nobody loves them more than my best friend since childhood, a lifelong Miami resident who is currently blogging about his quest to discover and review Miami’s finest croquetas, in The Croqueta Diaries.  I’m a dabbling dilletante, but consider my dude Captain Croqueta.

And even though Cuban food is not known as spicy food, Cubans on the Run is well-known for their housemade hot sauce.  Usually they will give you one or two tiny plastic cups, even with a big order like this, but this time I remembered to ask to purchase a bottle (I believe it was $5).

I’ve tried several other Cuban restaurants around Orlando, but Cubans on the Run is definitely one of my favorites, and one of the best.  It isn’t far from home, but much too far from work to dash off to for a quick lunch.  Since it is closed on Sundays, that means we can pretty much only ever go on Saturdays or rare mornings after dental appointments nearby.  But as you can see from the hearty, unpretentious, delicious food here, it never disappoints.  Run, don’t walk, to Cubans on the Run!

Mofongo (Miami)

I always remember March 7th, 2020, a date that shall live in infamy.  I took my first trip down to Miami in over two years to attend an old friend’s funeral, visited my family for the first time in far too long, and got to hang out with my best friend on an epic foodie adventure day.  As you might remember (because it was a year ago today, but also feels like a decade ago, and possibly also last week), this was right before so much of the country started quarantining before the COVID-19 pandemic, so March 7th was the last day I ate any meals in a restaurant.  But I went out in style, because we ate at FIVE restaurants that day.  I have already shared my reviews of Polo Norte and El Santo Taqueria from that same legendary day, along with my review of the Fort Lauderdale Skyline Chili from earlier in the same trip.  But my last Miami visit and my last hurrah going out to dinner with friends culminated at Mofongo (https://www.mofongoscalle8.com/), a popular Puerto Rican restaurant on Miami’s festive, fun, and iconic Calle Ocho, the center of the expatriate Cuban and Cuban-American community.

This evening was the first time I had met my best friend’s girlfriend, who is just the coolest person, and a damn delight.  I was so happy to be out with both of them, at last.  She started out with some nice sangria:
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We shared alcapurrias de carne ($9.50).  These are crispy, crunchy fritters made out of either mashed green plantains, grated yuca, or both, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, and deep-fried.  They were really heavy, but good.  This was my first alcapurria experience!DSC03029

This was the star of the show: mofongo de carne frita ($16).  Mofongo, the restaurant’s namesake dish, is a concoction of green plantains, which are sliced, then fried, then mashed up with garlic, salt, and crunchy chicharrones (pork rinds) in a wooden mortar.  Here at Mofongo (the restaurant), they serve mofongo (the dish) in tall wooden mortars that make attention-grabbing centerpieces for every table.  The mofongo itself is sculpted into a dome, its apex artfully adorned with awe-inspiring alimentary accoutrements.  This was A LOT of food for the three of us to share, especially since my friend and I had been eating literally all day.  Somehow our trio made it work. DSC03030

A close-up of the top of Mount Mofongo, with thick chunks of rich, salty carne frita (fried pork shoulder), translucent pink marinated onions, and colorful herbs over the golden dome.   DSC03032

Finally, the arroz mamposteao ($4.50) ended up being my favorite thing we had at Mofongo!  This side order of buttery yellow rice, stewed red beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bell peppers was one of my favorite rice dishes I’ve ever had.
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Almost a full year after this legendary night out in Miami, I finally found a restaurant that serves arroz mamoposteao in Orlando: Cafe Madrid, which I reviewed right here, almost two years ago.  It was good there too, so now I have a local hook-up.

This meal was the culmination of one of my favorite days ever — definitely my favorite day of the last 365, right before the way we had to live our lives changed forever, to protect ourselves and the people around us.  That’s why I’ll always remember the date of March 7th, along with the festive surroundings, the beautiful live music (my best friend’s girl knew all the Puerto Rican songs and explained them to us), the good food, and the wonderful company.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do something like this again safely, sooner rather than later, and we can remind our friends how much we love them and missed them over another delicious meal (or five).

Valisa Bakery

I pass Valisa Bakery (https://www.valisabakery.net/) every day on my way to and from work. It’s a Puerto Rican bakery that serves breakfast, lunch, and plenty of pastries and other snacks and sweets, and it’s another one of Orlando’s little treasures. This week, my co-worker had heard about a pulpo (octopus) sandwich they serve, so it sounded like a perfect opportunity to return, bring back takeout lunch for both of us, and finally review a place I’ve always enjoyed on my past visits.

This was her pulpo sandwich ($11.95), with chunks of tender octopus  marinated in a citrus vinaigrette, with lettuce and tomato on fresh pressed bread.  She wasn’t expecting it to be served chilled like ceviche, but it looked and sounded really refreshing, like a great summer sandwich.  

I decided to finally try a tripleta ($8.50), the Puerto Rican sandwich that is great late-night drunk food and just as good in the middle of a workday when you don’t even drink.  Tripletas can have infinite variations, as long as there are three meats on it.  This one had thin-sliced, sauteed steak, roast pork, and sliced ham, served on a soft, fluffy, fresh roll with lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce (awesome), and creamy mayo-ketchup — an awesome combination.  It was so big and heavy, I only ate half at work and finished it at home that night.  

Tripleta close-up:

I was intrigued by the daily lunch specials, especially a Thursday special called canoas.  I had to look it up, but canoas are sweet fried whole plantains, cut down the middle, stuffed with seasoned ground beef like picadillo, topped with a white cheese, and baked until it melts, so they look like little canoes.  With that in mind, I was ready to take a canoe trip.  I ordered two canoas ($3.50 each), not knowing how big they would be, but they were huge.  My co-worker and I each had one, and I loved them.  They reminded me of pastelon, my favorite Puerto Rican dish that I’ve had, which is kind of like a lasagna but with layers of sweet plantains instead of pasta sheets.  Canoas were like single servings of pastelon.

Any good Latin restaurant should have great rice that is better than the rice I can make at home, and Valisa Bakery was no exception.  I tried their yellow rice, which looked and tasted more like fried rice, rich from being cooked with pieces of pork, including rich, fatty chicharron.  I have a hard time going anywhere and not trying macaroni salad or pasta salad, so I tried an eight-ounce container of ensalada de coditos ($2) and was glad I did.  It was a creamy macaroni salad (but not runny at all), and the elbow noodles were very al dente.  Of course I shared this too!

Finally, I already knew that Valisa Bakery baked some really good quesitos -sweet, flaky pastries stuffed with cream cheese that are like the beautiful love child of a glazed croissant and a cheese danish.  I have an unimpeachable favorite destination for quesitos in Orlando, but Valisa is my second-favorite, and these quesitos ($2 each) were not disappointing.

So as you can tell, Valisa Bakery is more than just a bakery.  It’s a great bakery, but it’s also a breakfast joint, a cafeteria with rotating daily hot lunch specials, a deli with a scintillating selection of sandwiches, and a Puerto Rican restaurant where you can get tostones, mofongo, and more.  And did I mention it’s a great bakery too?  I have enjoyed it for years, so I’m a little ashamed it took me this long to return and write a long-overdue review.

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.

Lechonera El Barrio

Maybe the best lunch value to be found in the Orlando area is at Lechonera El Barrio (https://www.facebook.com/Lechonera-El-Barrio-Restaurant-1519366968315699/), a small, modest cafeteria on Semoran Boulevard, located at 435 North Semoran, on the east side, between East Colonial Drive and State Road 408.  They serve huge, hearty, heaping helpings of heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban food at extremely low prices — perfect to pop into for a quick lunch to go, that can usually be turned into two or even three meals.  There are a few tables there, but I’ve never lingered.  It’s so close to work, I’m usually in and out, often picking up additional food for other co-workers to turn them into enduring fans of the place.  Even President Obama ate there, during a visit to Orlando for his 2012 campaign, and there is a photo on the wall to prove it, alongside several other (much) lower-profile celebrity guests.

Whether you’re eating in or taking out, food is served in styrofoam to-go boxes, with a medium costing $5 or a large costing $8.  I usually spring for the large, just because the leftovers heat up well, and I know my leftovers will never go to waste.  I never understand people who let their leftovers rot in our tiny break room fridge at work, or worse yet, “forget about them” at home.  To me, ignoring your restaurant leftovers is the equivalent of having a night of steamy romance and passion with a very hot partner of your preferred gender, but losing all interest in seeing them again for another tryst the following day.  WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?  But I digress.

First, you start out choosing your rice for the foundation of your giant food box: white (which is always more tender, fluffy, and buttery than the white rice I make at home in a rice cooker), yellow (even more buttery) with gandules (pigeon peas), or moros (white rice mixed with black beans; you’ll never be morose if you try it).
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I always try to time my rare visits for Fridays, because I know that’s when they’ll serve paella-style yellow rice mixed with seafood — bits of fish, shrimp with tails on, and even small bay scallops and mussels still in the shell, all stewed together with red bell peppers and peas.  That’s what I always go for.  Pardon the blurriness of this photo, taken through glass.  dsc02654.jpg

Then you can choose black or red beans, and while I like black beans (good Miami boy that I am), I almost always choose red beans, because they were never an option at the Cuban restaurants I grew up going to, and I like them even more.  I usually opt for my beans on the side in a separate container, even though I often pour them over my rice once I reach my final destination (usually our sad little break room at work, although I guess I made it sound more ominous than that).  You choose an entree after that, and then a side, which may include boiled yucca, tostones (crispy fried slices of unripe plantains), or maduros (sweet and sticky fried ripe plantains, one of my favorite foods in the world).

Entree choices include quartered or halved roasted rotisserie chickens marinated in garlicky mojo criollo, pernil (tender roast pork, often with delicious crispy bits of skin attached), pepper steak, costillas (ribs), and different stewed beef, chicken, pork, and even fish dishes.  Most people I know opt for white meat chicken, which occasionally disappoints due to sitting out a little too long and being dry.  I have much better luck with dark meat, but I rarely order the chicken here.  Pernil pork is almost always awesome, and I always ask (in my best awful Spanish) for pieces of that crispy skin.  I think once they had rabos (stewed oxtails), and I was in heaven, because I always love oxtail, whether it’s in Jamaican, Latin, or Asian recipes.
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But on my most recent visit, I was craving pastelon, a dish that’s kind of like Puerto Rican lasagna: layers of sweet plantains and seasoned ground beef, topped with a bechamel sauce and white cheese (mozzarella?), then baked into a casserole and served in large slices the size of Rubik’s cubes.  I got my pastelon with a large order of seafood paella rice, red beans on the side, and maduros, so I ended up with plantains and more plantains, and definitely engaged in some carb-loading.  It was a ton of delicious food for only $8.  DSC02658

Because I try to be a stand-up guy, on my way out the door, I asked three co-workers if they wanted anything, and two actually did.  Someone wanted a Cuban sandwich, which I was pleased to see they used the fresh pernil pork in, before pressing it on a sandwich press with the usual ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles.  It was a nice-sized sandwich for only $5, and I guarantee the pork was a lot fresher and higher-quality than it would be at lots of places that specialize in Cubanos.dsc02655.jpg

My other colleague asked for “mofongo and chicken,” and I failed to press for additional details, in my haste.  The mofongo — a mountain of mashed plantains mixed up with bits of chicharrones (pork fat and skin), garlic, and other seasonings — was prepared to order, so that took about ten minutes.  They served it with what looked like a quarter of the rotisserie chicken, most likely white meat, and only charged $6 for all of that!  I will now admit I’ve only ever had mofongo once, at a different restaurant, and wasn’t blown away.dsc02657.jpg

But our Friday only improved from there, because when I brought our food back to work, we did what I always hope my dining companions will want to do — we shared everything.  I got to sample the super-solid Cuban sandwich as well as the mofongo, which was much better from Lechonera El Barrio, helped immensely by pungent, vinegary, almost creamy, ridiculously good garlic sauce.  My one colleague who requested the mofongo joked that it’s pretty much an excuse to eat the garlic sauce, and I can totally see where she’s coming from with that.  Make sure you ask for it.  I’m going to request it from now on, even if I don’t order mofongo!  I also shared my pastelon, which seemed to go over well, and both ladies were brave enough to sample the morcilla sausage I asked for on the side, and seemed to like that too.

Morcilla is rich and savory blood sausage with a nice crispy casing and an interesting — but not unpleasant — gritty-but-soft texture.  Here it is in my little sampler with mofongo and part of the Cuban sandwich:dsc02659.jpg

Some foodies joke that they don’t always want to share their favorite spots because then everyone will go to them, but as a librarian, a nerd, and your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, I’m all about sharing information — and also sharing the love.  This is a small, locally-owned business you may have driven by dozens or hundreds of times and never thought to stop there.  You may be intimidated to go there if you don’t speak much Spanish.  (My Spanish is laughably bad, but I understand it much better than I can speak it, and I’m always able to end up with what I want by pointing, smiling, and nodding, when all else fails.)  They don’t even have a website or a menu online.  But Lechonera El Barrio is another one of those hidden treasures in Orlando.  It is not upscale, romantic, or hipster-cool.  It isn’t deconstructing, reinventing, or challenging cuisine.  It’s a cafeteria, and a very good one at that.  What it lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in value, quantity, and quality.  This is simple, tasty food, and you get so much of it.  Plus, you can be out the door quickly with enough food for two or three meals, for under $10.  That is a rare and wonderful thing.

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.

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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.