Mason Jar Provisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nikki’s Place

It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive.  Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining.  But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody.  I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.

That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday.  It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant.  It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952.  Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins.  An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.

So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort.  I know I do.  Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed.  When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind.  Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays.  (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)

As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service.  When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance.  (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!)  They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready.  I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour.  This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway.  Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike.  I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived.  This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first.  We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.

Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them.  I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version.  Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite.  They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes.  They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
DSC03192All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food.  The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before.  I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.

My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25).  I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus.  Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had.  As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time.  Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere.  It was a nice-sized fillet, too.DSC03195My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides.  I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top.  It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it.  The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended.  It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before.  I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.

Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later.  As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings.  Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them.  She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample!  I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.

As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013.  They weren’t at all what I expected.  They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari?  And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all.  I liked it and would totally order it in the future!

But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me.  They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone.  They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.  DSC03194

I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today!  I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic.  Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli.  I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful.  This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad.  It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute.  It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.

My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables.  It was so soft and tender.  Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could.  It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.

You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos.  All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome.  Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread.  I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet.  On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home.  It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.

But wait, there’s more!  Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert.  A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!DSC03196Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie.  This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie).  It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.

As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite.  It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit!  Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.

You’re probably hungry now.  I hope so.  That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner!  But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years.  Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore.  Restaurants come and go.  It’s a tough business.  The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both.  I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD.  After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.

That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy.  It nourishes the body, mind, and soul.  It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future.  I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything.  It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does.  Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades.  It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today.  Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food.  Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!

 

Mei’s Kitchen

Mei’s Kitchen (https://www.meiskitchenorlando.com/) is a brand-new Taiwanese restaurant that opened less than a month ago in East Orlando, in the Publix plaza on University Drive and Dean Road, right off State Road 417.  It is two doors down from another restaurant I discovered and reviewed this year, Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill.  So if you ever can’t decide between Jamaican and Taiwanese food (a situation that most people may never find themselves in, but I have a feeling I will often), this is the place to go.

As usual, friends on The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps on Facebook were even quicker to discover Mei’s Kitchen, and have been posting tantalizing photos and singing its praises for the last two or three weeks.  I have been wanting to make it over there, and finally made it on Memorial Day, a rare Monday off work.  I called in our takeout order as I was leaving the house, hopped on the 417, stopped into Publix for a few groceries, and my order was ready and bagged up when I got to Mei’s, about 20 minutes after making the call.

It’s a large and beautiful dining room in the unassuming shopping center, which they spent months completely refurbishing after the previous tenant, Chinese restaurant Pu Yi, closed.  Sadly, the dining room was empty, but I was there before 5:00 PM on a Monday, Mei’s is still less than a month old and doesn’t seem to have much word of mouth yet, and of course there are COVID-19 concerns.  I don’t plan to resume dining in restaurants anytime soon, but I’m still happy to order takeout to support locally-owned establishments, and I tip like I’m taking up one of their tables.  And now for the word of mouth — I’m here to tell you that the food was terrific and a terrific bargain, and they could really use your business.

I had been dying to try the Taiwanese beef noodle soup ($10.95), and it ended up being one of the most delicious and satisfying noodle soups I’ve ever had.  I was grateful they packed the broth (with beef) and the noodles (with finely-chopped cilantro and what I believe are pickled mustard greens) separately, so the noodles didn’t become a soggy, gloopy mess on my drive home.DSC03170

I poured some of the broth and all of the beef into the noodle container with enough room to mix it around, and I still had lots of broth left over (which I’ll add my own noodles to).  The beef was very tender, and I’m pretty sure it was brisket — one of my favorite cuts of beef.DSC03172

It was so satisfying, and not nearly as salty as I expected.  I’ve had countless bowls of pho, and I’ve finally started wading into the world of “fancy” (non-instant) ramen, but nothing could have prepared me for the perfection of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  Of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I had to research it further, and I found this Grub Street article that lists the best Taiwanese beef noodle soup locations in New York, with more background about the ingredients and cooking processes that make it so unique and special.  The article says “[m]any consider it to be the national dish of Taiwan,” and I can see why!DSC03173

The Taiwanese sausage fried rice ($7.95) wasn’t that different from other fried rice dishes I’ve enjoyed in the past, but its hard to go wrong with fried rice.  I love lap cheong (AKA lạp xưởng in Vietnamese), dried Chinese pork sausage that is chewy and slightly sweet.  It is one of my favorite ingredients in fried rice, and one that doesn’t get included often enough.  This version of the dish wasn’t overly greasy or salty, and the rice had a nice chewiness to it.  It was loaded with scrambled eggs, peas, and diced onion and carrot, in addition to the sausage.

We ordered so much food, I put the fried rice away after a tiny taste, only to devour it the following day after stirring in a little Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, a versatile Szechuan condiment you can find any any Asian market.  But here it is, pre-spicy chili crisping:
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I hadn’t had softshell crabs in a long time, so I was happy to see a salt and pepper soft shell crab appetizer on the menu — two crispy fried crabs for $7.95.  They were both bisected down the middle and came with a generous helping of delicious spicy mayo, which I love on sushi (and almost anything else) way more than I should.  These weren’t greasy either, which is always a nice surprise.DSC03168

Here’s a close-up of the fried crabs.  I really appreciated that Mei’s uses those plastic takeout containers with plastic lids that snap into place.  They are recyclable and dishwasher-safe, so we always clean and save these.  They are perfect for food storage beyond their original use.  DSC03169

But wait, we aren’t done yet!  My wife usually likes fluffy bao buns, so we ordered all three varieties of bao for her, not even realizing Mei’s Kitchen includes two bao in each order!  We were expecting one of each kind of bao, so that was a nice surprise.

So we got traditional gua bao with braised pork belly, garnished with fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and crushed roasted peanuts ($2.95 for two):
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Fried pork belly bao with shredded cucumber and sesame seed dressing ($3.50 for two):
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And fried shrimp bao with avocado and more of that spicy mayo ($3.95 for two):
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As you can see, the bao came in regular styrofoam boxes.

It was a quite a feast that yielded plenty of leftovers, and this was actually our first time having Taiwanese food.  If you like Chinese, you’ll love Taiwanese!  I wish Mei’s Kitchen well.  Most of Orlando’s best Chinese restaurants are all the way out on Colonial Drive (Peter’s Kitchen, Taste of Chengdu, Chuan Lu Garden), so this is somewhat closer to home.  The food is excellent, the portions are generous, the dining room is new and nice, and the prices are extremely reasonable, so here’s that word of mouth Mei’s could definitely use.  Give them a chance, and you won’t be sorry.  I’d definitely recommend everything we tried, and they have a whole lot more to choose from as well.

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.

Olympia Restaurant

“Hangin’ on the corner of 52nd and Broadway
Cars passin’ by, but none of ’em seem to go my way
An’ New York City, well I wish I was on a highway
Back to Olympia”
–“Olympia, WA,” written by Tim Armstrong, Matt Freeman, and Lars Frederiksen

With all due respect to legendary punk band Rancid and their ABSOLUTELY FLAWLESS 1995 album “…And Out Come the Wolves,” I only shared the chorus lyrics from that wistful song because I too wish I was on a highway back to Olympia, but a very different one than the one they meant.

Olympia Restaurant (https://www.olympiaorlando.com/) is Orlando’s oldest Greek restaurant, founded in 1979.  I’ve been a few times over the years, but not nearly often enough.  On my most recent visit, with a new co-worker and friend who loves the place, I realized that I need to return a lot more frequently.  This guy is an accomplished attorney who also plays drums in the ska-punk band Sucker Punch, so he’s basically one of the coolest people I know.  (And I don’t just say that because I’m an ex-ska-punk musician myself.)  He’s an Orlando native who has been a regular at Olympia his entire life, and if you know Olympia, you can tell it’s the kind of local institution that would retain regulars through the decades.

On past visits, I’ve ordered the gyro lunch special many times, which comes with outstanding fries.  And as a big sardine eater (some folks call me the Dean of Sardines*), I’ve enjoyed Olympia’s marides, or fried smelts — small, sardine-like fish that are lightly breaded and fried until crispy.  Unfortunately they were out of smelts on my most recent visit back in February, but the allure of fried seafood was hard to overcome.

When I asked about the fried kalamari, our server enthusiastically told us it was the best in town.  I think it has to be up there among the best, if not the best.  This huge and satisfying appetizer portion was only $8, and the squid were fried to crispy perfection, still tender and not overcooked to the point of being chewy and rubbery.  I really liked the fried onions and green peppers the kalamari came tossed with, and the rich tomato sauce that was perfect for dipping.  I’ve become enough of a squid fan that I’ve made it at home a few times, but never fried like this.  Olympia may have inspired me to try it, but I’d usually rather leave breading and frying to the seasoned professionals — no pun intended.DSC02989

My friend chose the Greek salad with his lunch, which was fresh and colorful, with nice shreds of feta cheese and a kalamata olive plunked in the middle:DSC02991

And he ordered the gyro dinner ($13), which came with a generous portion of rice topped with tomato sauce, some of my favorite pita bread anywhere, and excellent fresh tzatziki sauce for dipping:DSC02992

I chose the soup of the day, lentil soup, with my lunch.  I’ve become a huge lentil soup fan, especially since you can make infinite variations of it, and lentils are healthy, versatile, cheap, and delicious.  DSC02990

And as tempted as I was by a gyro, I ordered one of my favorite dishes that is much harder to find on menus: pastitsio ($13), which is like the Greek version of lasagna.  It is made with long, uncut ziti noodles, ground beef or lamb, a creamy bechamel sauce, and topped with a rich and zesty tomato sauce.  I loved it.  It came with nice, crunchy green beans on the side, a vegetable I rarely order but usually enjoy.  DSC02993

A cross-section of this architectural marvel:DSC02994

Long-time Saboscrivner readers might remember I ordered the pastitsio at Theo’s Kitchen back in the summer of 2018.  Then again, I can’t imagine anyone would remember that detail, and I would be a little concerned if I had obsessive superfans who did.  But the dish is rare enough on menus, even at Greek restaurants, that I always love to try everyone’s different versions.  Olympia’s pastitsio was definitely the better of the two.

This visit with my friend made me realize I need to work Olympia back into my regular restaurant rotation.  It has withstood the test of time serving all the classic Greek dishes almost as long as I’ve been alive — over 40 years.  With the restaurant business so tenuous even in the best of times, that’s a colossal accomplishment, worthy of praise and continued support.  When my work reopens, it’s close enough that I can and will swing by whenever I want.

But now more than ever, in this difficult time where restaurants are limited to takeout orders, consider dropping by and placing an order, whether you’re a returning regular or just happen to be craving Herculean portions of Greek food.  (See what I did there?)  Your takeout lunch or dinner will ascend to new, godlike heights at Olympia.  (See what I did there?)

*Nobody calls me the Dean of Sardines.  YET.

Uncommon Catering and Eatery

Orlando’s “Hourglass District” along Curry Ford Road is quickly becoming one of our most exciting dining neighborhoods.  It’s pretty far from where I live so I don’t make it down there often enough, but it includes some real gems like Pizza Bruno, Cafe Madrid, Theo’s Kitchen, and its newest neighbor, right next door to Theo’s: Uncommon Catering and Eatery (https://www.uncommoncatering.com/eatery).  The catering company owned and operated by J. Travis Smith and Tara Vernau-Smith just opened a lovely restaurant space in the former Gabriel’s Subs location in the Winn-Dixie plaza on Curry Ford and Crystal Lake Road.  Their hours are just for lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 4 PM.

I had never been to Gabriel’s Subs before, so I didn’t know what the space would look like.  It turned out to be pretty and soothing with all the light wood and cool blue tones, like having lunch at the house of a friend with really good taste.

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The antique typewriter had a list of their artisan cheeses (including one of my all-time favorites, Cahill’s Irish Porter cheddar) and charcuterie.  BUT WHO TYPED THE LIST?  It is a mystery.DSC02948

They had some canned and bottled sodas (including Dr. Brown’s!), but this jug of strawberry and basil-infused water was complimentary, and it was a damn delight.  Reminded me of staying in a really nice hotel.  I could drink this every day of my life and never get tired of it.DSC02949

Travis invited me to take a peek into their kitchen.  I’ve never worked in a restaurant before, so I’m no expert on professional kitchens, but it was spacious and spotless.  This is where Uncommon Catering is based now, in addition to their new Eatery concept, and they will be hosting catered events in this space as well.

I always talk about how much I love empanadas, and because I’m from Miami, I feel like I’m naturally an empanada aficionado.  Well, I do, and I am, and I am, and these mini-empanadas (a plate of four for $10) were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life.  DSC02951

They were stuffed with picadillo, seasoned ground beef stewed in a tomato sauce with olives and pimentos.  That’s my favorite empanada filling, and one of the only times I put up with olives (also as olive salad on a muffuletta sandwich).  And these weren’t greasy at all, the way some empanadas can be when the filling oozes through the crispy fried pastry shell or even leaks out.  DSC02952

I put the remaining empanadas aside for later when my roasted pork sandwich ($11) arrived with a little ramekin of pork jus.  I’ve had a very similar sandwich before, the house specialty at DiNic’s in Philadelphia’s legendary Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite foodie destinations of all time.  People always bring up the ubiquitous cheesesteak, but I think Philly’s finest sandwiches are the Italian hoagie (thankfully LaSpada’s serves the best version in Orlando, along with an excellent cheesesteak), and DiNic’s roast pork sandwich, which didn’t have a local equivalent until now.  Chef Tara cited her Pennsylvanian roots as an inspiration for this sensational sandwich.DSC02953
Close-up of the herb-roasted shaved pork tenderloin, sharp provolone cheese, broccoli rabe, and banana peppers on a soft, Philly-style roll (possibly an Amoroso brand roll, but also possibly something else).  I’m always a huge fan of pickled peppers, but I wonder if some sliced hot cherry peppers would have been even better than the banana peppers.  I don’t recall what kind of hot peppers I got on my sandwich at DiNic’s, and don’t get me wrong, I like banana peppers.  I just like hot cherry peppers more, but I defer to Tara and Travis on issues of authenticity.  DSC02954

I had every intention of visiting a second time so I could review at least one more dish, but I decided to publish my review now due to so many restaurants and other businesses being affected by fears of COVID-19.  (With any luck, new Saboscrivnerinos will discover this review months from now, long after life is back to normal, and they will think “Oh yeah, that was a weird few weeks!” with no lasting trauma.)  Uncommon Catering just recently opened their Eatery, and it’s fantastic, and they could really use your business.  Check them out, and order something to go!  Tip well, wash your hands, and enjoy.  You won’t be sorry.

Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill

I really love Jamaican food.  Even though I usually go to the Golden Krust restaurant in Waterford Lakes to get my fix, I thought I would try a new place I’ve heard good things about — well, new to me, anyway — Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill (http://www.jamaicanbarandgrill.com/).  Located on University and Dean Roads, right off the 417, Mark’s is very close to the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University, East Orlando, and Winter Park.  It’s a small and casual restaurant in a shopping center with a Publix.  They have plenty of tables to dine in, and it seems like a relaxed little oasis.  But I ordered takeout on both of my visits.

On my first visit, I decided to finally try the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish.  It was served with boiled dumplings, boiled green bananas, and sweet fried plantains.  I’ve had saltfish once before, at Golden Krust, but never with ackee or the boiled sides.DSC02890

Ackee is actually a fruit!  Fresh, it looks like large, shiny black balls (the seeds) popping out of a pale pink apple-like fruit, and it is highly toxic.  But if you boil the ackee and then saute it with salted cod, it comes to resemble scrambled eggs, and tasted kind of like them too, but a bit more bitter.  I liked it a lot, especially with the onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes mixed in.DSC02891I have to admit, as much as I liked my first ackee and saltfish, I didn’t love the boiled bananas or boiled dumplings.  Both were kind of plain “starch bombs.”  The boiled dumplings were incredibly dense, slippery, and chewy.  The bananas weren’t sweet at all because they are unripe, kind of like green plantains.  But these were more like bland-tains!

Oxtails are one of my favorite dishes to eat anytime, anyplace, any cuisine.  I’ve written before about how I like them more than steak.  They are so rich and beefy, tender and juicy from stewing or braising them, and from all that gelatin.  You can’t possibly look cool while eating oxtails because they’re sticky and slippery, and you have to hold them in your hands, eat the meat off the rock-hard bones (it will be tender enough to pull right off), and then suck and gnaw what’s left, without having them squirt out of your hands and divebomb your clothes or your dining companions.
DSC02888The oxtails at Mark’s were on point, especially served over rice and peas in their rich, almost slightly sweet gravy (I would have liked even more gravy over the rice), with sides of steamed cabbage and fried sweet plantains, another one of my all-time favorite foods.

After that weekend feast (which I swear I turned into three separate meals), I went back the following Friday and brought back an even larger feast of a lunch to share with two of my co-workers in our break room.  We all chipped in for certain dishes — I might be a cool guy, but I wasn’t about to buy all this food myself.

Another round of those delicious oxtails so my co-workers could try it for the first time:
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Brown stew chicken, one of my favorite dishes.  This was another one I bought to share, but I brought the vast majority of it home and ate it two days later.  I suspect it would have been better fresh and hot.  I’ve had brown stew chicken from elsewhere that was more tomatoey, maybe from ketchup as an ingredient.  This was a mix of different pieces of chicken, both white and dark meat.
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Jerk chicken over white rice with plantains.  I had one bite with a nice spice to it, but wasn’t anywhere close to overwhelmingly spicy.  DSC02894

Curried goat (pardon the blurriness).  This was another one of my co-workers’ choices.  I’ve eaten curried goat before and liked it fine, but as a warning for the uninitiated, it is full of tiny little bones.  However, in recent years, my wife has become a huge fan of baby goats, and I’ve taken her to a local dairy farm multiple times to frolic in the field with adorable baby goats that are as soft, cute, funny, and playful as puppies.  This has made me take a step back from eating this particular meat, but no judgment from me toward those who like it!DSC02896

Spicy shrimp fried rice with lots of vegetables.  I snagged a shrimp, and it was very tasty.DSC02895

Callaloo, a bitter, spinach-like vegetable stewed with onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers.  I had only ever tried it once before, at Golden Krust (once again, see that review).  I usally love bitter, braised and stewed greens like collards, spinach, and broccoli rabe.  But just like the boiled dumplings that came with the ackee and saltfish, I’m glad I tried it, but I probably won’t order it again at Mark’s. DSC02897

I always like to enjoy a pineapple soda when I have Jamaican food, especially the DG brand, so I brought back a bottle for each of us.  Sadly, pineapple isn’t the easiest soda flavor to find, no matter which brand.  But these two ladies had never tried ANY pineapple soda before, not even from Fanta!  Needless to say, they liked it too.DSC02900

Finally, I had ordered a roti, a chewy, doughy Jamaican flatbread, to share with everyone, since I liked the one I got at Golden Krust once.  But even though I was charged for it, the roti was left out of my takeout order, even though I specifically asked “Is everything here?  Even the roti?”  I order takeout a lot — much more than I actually eat at restaurants these days — and this happens from time to time.  I get pissed, and sometimes I hold grudges.  There are a few popular and well-loved local restaurants I’ve never returned to, after being charged for takeout items that weren’t included.  And I don’t want to hear that I should have checked.  When these places are slammed and my order is already boxed and bagged up next to the register, none of us have time to open every box and bag back up to conduct a roll call.

But despite stewing over the missing roti more than a week later, I realize I need to simmer down, as the legendary Robert Nesta Marley sang.  In the end, I liked the food at Mark’s enough to sing its praises here and now.  As if that doesn’t count for enough, I will still happily return, as a much closer source for really delicious Jamaican food.  Plus, they have something called “Rasta pasta,” and I really want to find out what that is next time!

Mrs. Potato

I’ve been hearing good things about the Brazilian restaurant Mrs. Potato (https://www.mrspotato.net/) for years.  Located at the busy intersection of Conroy and South Kirkman Roads, Mrs. Potato opened in 2012, but earned well-deserved national acclaim when it was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in 2017.  Chef-owner Rafaela Cabede has been a regular, pleasant presence on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, and I’ve always meant to make it out there to try it, but it’s pretty far from me.  Luckily, on a recent trip to the mall (something I usually dread), my wife and I decided to give it a shot.  As a toy collector, I should have taken a photo of their wall of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head figurines, but we were both so hungry, it didn’t even occur to me until it was too late.

There were three things I really wanted to try on Mrs. Potato’s menu: chicken catupiry, carne seca, and calabresa sausage.  You can get all three of them stuffed inside rosti potatoes, a Swiss dish that is essentially a giant stuffed hash brown, but I couldn’t possibly eat three separate rostis, much less justify ordering them.  (As you will learn, I couldn’t even finish one.)  But you can also get two of those things inside Brazilian empanadas called pasteles.  I always love empanadas, so I ordered two of those to share with my wife ($4.50 each), and saved the third filling for the rosti.  I was pleased that the pasteles have a golden-fried, crispy flour shell, similar to the Cuban empanadas I grew up with, but quite a bit bigger.DSC02769

The first pastel I cut open was not one of the ones I ordered!  It contained ground beef, hard-boiled eggs, and olives, reminding me a bit of Cuban picadillo.  I told our server I didn’t order the ground beef pastel, and she whisked it away immediately.  I wish I had eaten my half, or at least taken a bite to try it, because I’m sure it ended up in the trash.  I hate wasting food, even if it isn’t my fault.  Weeks later, and I still feel bad about this.  DSC02770

This was one of the ones I ordered: seasoned, pulled chicken with catupiry, a soft, creamy, tangy Brazilian cheese.  It was delicious.  Chicken and cheese are sure to please.DSC02771

We both liked this pastel with carne seca, Brazilian cured beef jerky with a bit of cream cheese.  It was more like shredded, braised beef than the dry, chewy jerky I’m used to — kind of like the Cuban dish ropa vieja, but not tomatoey like that.  It was very good.  Guy Fieri raved about the carne seca on his show, and I get it.DSC02772

My wife loves steak, so she ordered the picanha ($18.99), which is top sirloin, cooked rare.  It came out more medium rare, but was still very tender and well-seasoned.  Her sides included yucca fries that we both thought were just okay, and also twice-dipped, Belgian-style French fries, which were among the best fries we’ve ever had!  I’m not surprised that a “potato house” restaurant would have good fries, but these were better than good.  They are definitely among the best fries in Orlando.  When you visit Mrs. Potato, don’t miss them, even if you order another potato dish!DSC02773

Anyway, I ordered another potato dish: the aforementioned rosti ($14).  It is huge, and more than a little intimidating!  I always argue that Waffle House has the best hash browns anywhere, but the rosti was like a serious gourmet version of those.DSC02774

After trying the chicken catupiry and carne seca in pasteles, the third thing I wanted to try was the calabresa sausage, so I got that stuffed inside my rosti.  The sausage came crumbled inside that mountain of crispy shredded potatoes, along with melty mozzarella and provolone cheeses and thin-sliced sauteed onions.  I should have asked about the sausage, since I was expecting slices or larger chunks of an Italian-style sausage, due to the name, not crumbles.  But it was tasty, don’t get me wrong.  A tomato-based sauce would have worked really well here, but not ketchup.  I might put ketchup on my Waffle House hash browns, but these were crying out for a finer caliber of red sauce.  It was still delicious — just super-heavy.  The rosti, stuffed with sausage, cheese, and onions, is a meal you need a nap after eating, and I only ate about half of it at the restaurant and took the rest to go.DSC02775

Whenever there’s a new or unfamiliar soda, I have to try it.  I’m sure I could have found Guarana Antarctica at Bravo Supermarket (and maybe even Publix), but it was here ($2.75), and I was thirsty.  It tasted a little like fruit (but not any specific, identifiable fruit, since I’ve never tried guarana berries on their own), and a little like bubble gum or cotton candy.  It was unique, yet strangely familiar.  Not sure if I would get it again, but I’m not sorry I tried it.
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For dessert, my wife ordered the churros ($4).  It came with an order of two, but she grabbed one before I could snap this shot.  I took one bite, and it was an okay churro with plenty of cinnamon and sugar dusted on its crevice-covered surface.  dsc02776.jpg
However, the warm, rich caramel sauce they came with was one of the most delicious sweet things I’ve ever tried.  She wasn’t into it, so that ended up being my dessert, which I scooped up with the teeny-tiny spoon.

I wrote this review on one of those rare Orlando days when we have some chilly weather, and I saw Mrs. Potato is offering an all-you-can-eat Soup Festival in the evenings for $14.99.  I was disappointed that wasn’t an option at lunch, because when we were there, I totally could have gone for all-you-can-slurp soups — not so much for eating soup until I’m sick, but because I love trying new things.  I reached out to Rafaela on Facebook and asked what kinds of soups are available in the Soup Festival, and she replied that these are the four everyday soups:
• Black Bean Soup
• Portuguese Sausage and Kale Soup (Caldo Verde)
• Creamy Heart of Palm
• Loaded Potato Soup

But on any given day, there would be four other rotating soups, including these and more:
• Creamy Corn, Chicken and Bacon
• Broccoli and Cheese
• Beef and Vegetables Soup
• Peanut Butter Cream (sweet)

Anyway, Mrs. Potato (or Mrs. Po-TAH-to, if you must) serves really delicious Brazilian comfort food, with an emphasis on the potatoes.  There are baked potatoes on the menu too, with the same variety of toppings, but I strongly recommend the rostis, since that’s such a unique dish, compared to baked potatoes you could get almost anywhere.  And don’t miss the pasteles, those amazing fries, and that caramel sauce!

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

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On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
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When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.

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.