Taglish

Taglish (https://www.taglishfl.com/) just soft-opened a few weeks ago, and it quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  “Taglish” is clever shorthand for Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines, and English, and the name fits perfectly, because Chef Michael Collantes envisioned it as a Filipino-American fusion restaurant.DSC02696

Located in the small-but-bustling food court of one of my new favorite foodie destinations in Orlando, Lotte Plaza Market on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway in West Orlando, Taglish has filled a void that many of us didn’t even realize was there — an introduction (for many foodies) to the delicious flavors and textures of Filipino food.  Filipino restaurants are still rare in most parts of the country, especially here.  But since Taglish announced its soft opening, I’ve been twice so far, a week apart, and I fantasized about returning that whole week in between.  On my first visit, knowing Taglish opened at 11 AM and wanting to beat the rush, I arrived around 11:15 and barely had to wait in line at all.

The first thing  you might notice upon lining up are the four drinks served in “bubblers”: ube horchata, strawberry hibiscus, cucumber pear, and mango calamansi lemonade.  (The lady in front of me in line moved a bag at the exact wrong moment to cover that last sign, but trust me.)  Drinks are $2.70, except for the ube horchata, which is $3.95.  But you can always make any meal into a combo for $4, which includes a drink (plus a nominal upcharge if you want the ube horchata, which you probably will).DSC02694

On my first visit, I chose the ube horchata.  Ube is a purple yam that is popular in Filipino desserts, and horchata is one of my favorite drinks to order with Mexican food: a rice milk often flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting the heat of spicy dishes.  It was thick and rich and sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet.  Having no experience tasting ube before, it reminded me of the vanilla-scented taro milk tea my wife always orders at Vietnamese restaurants and Asian tea shops, right down to the similar shade of lavender.  dsc02680.jpg

Although the dish I ordered wasn’t spicy at all, it was one of the tastiest, most satisfying meals I’ve eaten anywhere, in a long, long time.  I asked Barbara, the extraordinarily friendly and welcoming cashier, what she recommended, because everything sounded interesting, and she recommended I try the sisig ($9.50) — a dish of crispy pork pan-seared in garlic, tomato, onion, and jalapeno, served over rice (I opted for garlic rice instead of the regular white rice), topped with a poached egg and a drizzle of garlic mayo.  I made it into a combo for an additional $4, to include the above drink and two lumpia, crispy pork-stuffed spring rolls served with sweet chili sauce for dipping (just out of frame).DSC02681

Constant readers, I can’t sing the praises of this sisig dish nearly enough, or in enough detail to honor the fictional definition of the term Saboscrivner.  It exceeded my every expectation in the best possible way.  I splashed on a bit of spicy vinegar from a glass bottle in a small condiment area next to the cash register, and that spicy sourness just brought out all the strong, rich flavors even more.  The perfectly poached egg ran richly over everything, and the bits of tomato, onion, jalapeno, and garlic added the slightest spice.  I would eat this dish every week if I could.  I felt like I was floating afterwards, and I surely bored my wife and a few acquaintances raving about it for days after the fact.  I even e-mailed Chef Collantes to gush about how much I enjoyed it, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to write me back.

By the way, you give them your phone number when you place your order, and they text you to come pick up your food on a tray when it’s ready.  This could get precarious later in the day when every seat in the food court is taken, so I encourage you to arrive with friends, or make some once you get there!

Well, after that auspicious first visit, I returned a week later, on another Saturday.  Unfortunately I got to Lotte Plaza Market around 1:30 PM that second visit, so there was already a long line at Taglish — great for them, and only the most minor of annoyances for me.  But good word has been spreading, and I only hope to spread it further.

Barbara even remembered me from the previous week, and I remembered her second-place recommendation from when she suggested the sisig.  As much as I loved it, I had to try something new, for the sake of the Saboscrivner’s subscribers.  So I ordered the chicken adobo burrito ($8.95) — a thick burrito stuffed to the bursting point with classic Filipino dish chicken adobo (also served as a bowl over rice), garlic rice, fried potatoes, and stewed mung beans, wrapped in a large flour tortilla and almost defying the laws of physics.  It was outstanding!  So many flavors, textures, and even colors to appreciate and explore.
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This was a perfect example of a fusion dish, and I loved it.  My only regret is very minor — I might have been able to analyze each component better and savor the ingredients if I had ordered this as a bowl over rice, instead of wrapped in the lightly grilled tortilla.  For example, I’ve never had monggo (stewed mung beans) before, and I still can’t really describe it, since it melded together with everything else in the burrito.  But it was all fantastic!DSC02701

But as long as I was there, I had to try something else that has always caught my eye on the menu: the longaniza burger.  Longaniza is a Filipino pork sausage that is a little bit sweet, often eaten as a breakfast meat (if I’m not mistaken).  Here, the homemade longaniza sausage was crafted into a burger patty and served on a soft, buttered, grilled bun (possibly a King’s Hawaiian roll), topped with a slice of grilled pineapple, garlic mayo, and a salad of sweet, tangy, vinegary, pickled, shredded papaya called atchara, which I loved.  DSC02702Note the two included lumpia and the serving of crispy seasoned potatoes, which stayed warm and crispy throughout my meal.  I got another small cup of sweet chili sauce, but next time I will request banana ketchup for the fried potatoes, just because I love dipping sauces and condiments — especially new and unfamiliar ones.

Close-up on the slaw-like atchara, which I would love to buy a jar of and put on everything.  I really like vinegar, and I am drawn to Filipino cuisine because vinegar is such a common and important ingredient.  Also dig that wonderful grilled, buttered bun.  I wish everyone who served burgers, dogs, and sandwiches would take a lesson from this.DSC02698

A cross-section.  The slight crispiness of the atchara really balanced out the softer ingredients (the bun, grilled sausage patty, and pineapple slice).  DSC02703

On this second visit, I paid $4 for the combo again (dig the lumpia above), and tried the refreshingly tart mango calamansi lemonade.  Calamansi, also known as the Philippine lime, is a small citrus fruit used in a lot of Filipino recipes.  I had never tasted it before, but my research tells me it’s a hybrid of the kumquat and mandarin orange.  Plus, I already love mangoes in anything, and I’ll always drink lemonade when it’s an option.
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This time, I was lucky enough to meet the amiable Chef Collantes, shake his hand, and tell him in person how wonderful his food is, and how friendly, patient, and helpful his staff is.  He is the former Culinary Director of Bento, a small, local chain of pan-Asian restaurants I have been a big fan of since the first one opened in Gainesville in 2003, the last year I lived there.  I’ve eaten countless custom poke bowls, sushi rolls, bento boxes, and udon noodles at Bento’s numerous Orlando locations — even on my wedding day, ten years ago — but this reminded me to make it back there soon to write a Saboscrivner review.  The fact that Chef Collantes might have created some of my favorite dishes at Bento before opening Taglish (and subsequently blowing my mind with that sisig) makes all the sense in the world.

I wish him and his staff the best of all things, but they already have a huge hit on their hands.  For many, Filipino food will be unfamiliar and novel, but even though people will come in to try something new and different, I’m convinced they will get hooked and become regulars, like I hope to be.

Ring the Alarm! Twisted Root Burger Co.

Twisted Root Burger Co. (https://www.twistedrootburgerco.com/) is the latest fast-casual burger chain out of Texas to come to Orlando, after Hopdoddy Burger Bar opened earlier this year in the Pointe Orlando mall on International Drive.  But luckily for us, Twisted Root opened much closer to where we live, in a little shopping center on Aloma Avenue and Howell Branch Road that has been brought back to life by an influx of new restaurants, including the adjoining Pho Cali and Quickly Boba, which I reviewed in 2018.

Twisted Root goes for a theme of irreverent, wacky fun, with animal head busts above the counter where you order, letting you know which ones are available to eat on any given day.  From right to left:dsc02661.jpg

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After you place your order, you can go get drinks.  There is a full bar, and more options than usual for the non-drinkers.  I love hip hop and my wife loves Law and Order: SVU, so this was a delightful display:DSC02667

Twisted Root serves its own fountain sodas, all made with cane sugar instead of the usual high fructose corn syrup.  I sampled sips of the watermelon Ice-T, cream soda, root beer, and lemonade, and the cream soda was my favorite.  A refillable drink is $2.25, by the way.  I think that would be worth it for most, just to try their versions of all the different sodas and teas.dsc02669.jpgdsc02670.jpg

Pass the soda fountain and you will encounter the pickle bar.  I’ve written before about how I’ve never been a big fan of pickles, but I’m all about trying them now, to grow my appreciation for them.  Needless to say, I had to try all five varieties here, especially since they’re free!  From left to right: atomic (spicy), sweet & spicy, ranch, bread & butter, and dill.  I think I liked the bread & butter pickles the most, and there was only one flavor I really disliked — I think it was probably the ranch.  DSC02672This was a nice feature, especially because I’m not willing to shell out for whole jars of pickles I might not like, the way I do with mustards and other condiments (and new flavors of chips and sodas).

When you order, they give you a buzzer with a pop culture icon on it to alert you that your food is ready to pick up from the counter.  We got Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which was aces with me, because I used to be a huge pro wrestling fan and am slowly wading back into that pool, and also because he elevates almost every movie he’s in.  Seriously, The Rock makes decent movies better and terrible movies tolerable.  When our buzzer went off so quickly, I was surprised our food was already ready, since the place was so slammed they had shut down one of their cash registers to give the kitchen a chance to catch up.  But it was just my wife’s s’mores milkshake ($6).  dsc02674.jpg
Her verdict: it was okay.  She thought the marshmallow tasted like lighter fluid.  I had some and liked it fine, I think even more than she did.  But I could take or leave marshmallows, whereas she is a connoisseur.

It didn’t take that much longer for The Rock to buzz us again, letting me know our food was ready.  I ordered the Freedom Melt ($11), served on “Texas toast” with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onion straws, and brisket on top — a very “me” burger to order.  Be forewarned that Twisted Root cooks all burgers MEDIUM WELL unless you ask them not to, and I’m not down with that.  I asked for mine medium rare, and it came out between medium rare and medium, but still very juicy.  DSC02675I’ve been spoiled by too much great barbecue brisket, at our well-respected homegrown chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse, and most recently, at the fantastic Git-N-Messy Barbecue in Sanford.  So I guess I was expecting shredded (but recognizable) brisket on top of my burger, instead of the finely-chopped (and probably sauced) meat I got.  It was tastier than I expected and definitely tastier than it looked, nice and smoky (again, possibly from the sauce), but it reminded me of really tender chopped beef jerky even more than brisket.

I haven’t done a

[Air horn]
RING THE ALARM!
[/Air horn]

feature in a while, but Twisted Root offers fried onion strings ($3), and those count!  They were good — never as satisfying or substantial as thicker-cut, beer-battered onion rings, but they added a good dimension to my burger and gave me stuff to dip (more on that later).

My wife ordered a venison burger ($10), one of the special game meats, on “Texas toast,” otherwise served plain.  I didn’t get a picture of it, but it looked like pretty much any other burger.  She ate the whole thing, which is a good sign that she liked it.  She ordered hand-cut potato chips ($2) as her side, a nice-sized order of crispy (not overly crunchy) chips that were just salty enough.  I had to help her finish those, happily.
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A friendly manager came by to ask us how we were liking everything, and she was really craving honest feedback.  The ONLY complaint I had, and it’s a minor one, was that the “Texas toast” wasn’t what we were expecting.  I really love getting Texas toast at my beloved Waffle House — thick slices of white Wonder bread, spread liberally with butter and then grilled on both sides.  The “Texas toast” both of our burgers came on was just regular white bread: not thick, not square, not Wonder, definitely not buttered or grilled, and barely even toasted.  I always hate to complain about anything, but she asked, and it was a minor quibble.  I think thicker bread, buttered and grilled, would add so much richness to the burgers.  If they don’t change it, I’ll simply order a brioche bun with my burger on my next visit.

I was already digging Twisted Root offering so many choices (sodas, sides, pickles), but their condiment game is also strong.  Every table has squeeze bottles of Heinz ketchup and yellow mustard, plus these three beauties.  The horseradish Dijon mustard was fabulous (I’d buy a jar), the ancho chipotle ketchup was great, but as much as I love root beer AND barbecue sauce, I thought it was a little too thin and tasted a little too much of molasses.
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So this restaurant is a real “get” for our quiet, boring little area where Winter Springs, Oviedo, and Winter Park run together.  It was super-busy when we were there, but that was also a Friday night on its opening week.  I think they will do very well, especially since the shopping center has returned to life.  I liked my burger much more than some of the more popular fast-casual contenders, and I love all the different options and how close it is to our home.

Oh, one last thing: the men’s restroom is wallpapered with silly memes and sayings about the most overrated action movie “star” of all time, which I feel obligated to point out after praising the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson earlier in this review.  Yes, you can’t wash your hands without being inundated with tall tales of Texas’ own adopted son Chuck Norris, who I don’t think ever made a good movie or TV show.  I don’t know how beatifying Chuck Norris became a thing.  Sure, he was a legit martial artist, unlike many of the other action actors of the ’70s and ’80s, but Norris was a charisma vacuum, compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham, The Rock, and the vast majority of superhero actors.  Heck, even Jean-Claude Van Damme had two great (or at least memorable) movies in his career, and if any Saboscrivner readers think you can guess what they are, then let me know!

Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)

Moghul Indian Cuisine

Growing up, we never ate Indian food.  My parents generally eschewed anything with even a reputation of being spicy, so no Korean, no Indian, no Thai (we went out for Thai once, and the new flavors literally made my dad ANGRY), and nothing from a Chinese menu with a flame or pepper icon next to it.  Back in the ’90s, even Mexican was a rare treat for me, and that usually meant driving through Taco Bell — which helped sustain me through high school and college.

When more adventurous friends introduced me to Indian food, it opened me up to a whole new world of flavors and spices, but it was still a rare event to go out for Indian.  I used to eat it once a year at most, usually by myself — sometimes even when I traveled to work conferences out of town.  And I’d always seek out Indian buffets to maximize the number of different dishes I could sample and the amount of food I could eat.  All-you-can-eat buffets are not only economical, but they are a great introduction to the cuisine for unfamiliar diners.

That said, India is a huge country — a whole subcontinent! — with many different regional styles of cooking.  This really became apparent when I attended a festive weekend lunch at the Hindu Society of Central Florida’s temple earlier this year and enjoyed a vegetarian feast full of giant dosas and other unfamiliar offerings, all South Indian specialties.  With that in mind, Indian buffets are going to stick to the most popular, familiar dishes that American palates are used to, and probably nothing too intimidating or spicy.  There are a lot of lamb dishes in Indian cuisine, which is great if you love lamb like I do, but since it’s a more expensive meat, I’ve never found a buffet that offered lamb.  That’s too baaaaaaaad.

Since I started working with a particular colleague at the beginning of 2013, we’ve gone out to lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch more times than I can count.  She’s vegetarian and loves Indian food, and I’m always happy to get out of the office and hang out with her.  She is not only a legitimately good person who I’m honored to call a friend, but she’s amazing at her job, and I’ve learned so much from her over the years.  I’m a better librarian and professor because of her ideas and influence, and thanks to our occasional lunches out, I’m also way more familiar with Indian food than I would be otherwise.

That restaurant is Moghul Indian Cuisine (http://www.moghulindian.com/), located on the east side of busy Semoran Boulevard, between Aloma Avenue to the north and University Boulevard to the south.  Moghul has a very affordable lunch buffet ($8.95), but also a longer menu full of delicious dishes you can’t get from the buffet.  I have recently decided to broaden my horizons and order a new entree on each subsequent visit.

Here’s a look at the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which I have ordered from countless times, but decided to forego on my most recent two visits, which I’m reviewing here:dsc02491.jpg

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Since I started ordering off the menu, I get thin and crispy pappadams served at our table, the same ones available on the buffet.  They come with spicy tomato and onion chutney, sweet and tangy tamarind chutney, and cool, creamy, and slightly spicy coriander and mint chutney.DSC02492

I love samosas, but in all my lunch visits to Moghul where I ordered off the buffet, I had never ordered them.  I decided to order the vegetable samosas ($3.95) on these two recent trips, and I realized I should have been ordering them all along.  You get two in an order, so on both of these visits, I had one and gave the other to my vegetarian co-worker.  The fried shell was very light, airy, and flaky — not greasy at all.  The lightly curry-seasoned potatoes and peas inside were tasty, and that shell was really something special.DSC02604

A look inside that samosa:dsc02605.jpg

This was a non-vegetarian friend’s trip to the buffet.  Looks like she got butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, and saag paneer (the stewed spinach in the top right), among other things — all Indian buffet classics.DSC02494

And my vegetarian colleague got all this good stuff, including eggplant, pakoras (vegetables breaded in chick pea flour and fried until crunchy), and naan bread.
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On one recent visit I ordered the Goan dish lamb vindaloo ($13.95) for the first time ever, and I was brave and ordered it HOT.  Not “Indian hot,” because I still had to go back to work, but not my usual, safe medium either.  And I am relieved to report I could handle it just fine.  Moghul’s menu describes vindaloo as “lamb marinated with vinegar, chilies and spices,” and it definitely had an acidic tang to it, no doubt from the vinegar.  DSC02495

Apparently vindaloo has Portuguese roots, and historically it called for meat to be marinated in wine and garlic.  Along the way, and especially as the dish rose in popularity in British Indian cooking, palm vinegar replaced the wine.  But I love vinegar, so it’s all good!DSC02497

On my second, more recent trip, I ordered a different lamb dish, the Kashmiri dish rogan josh ($13.95), also HOT.  Once again, it was delicious, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to handle the heat.  The menu describes this dish as “lamb cooked in curry sauce with yogurt, tomato and spices.”  This sauce was richer and thicker than the vindaloo — not as tangy, despite the addition of tomato.  I liked it so much I slurped up all the leftover sauce with a spoon after finishing the chunks of tender lamb, no additional rice required!  Despite my pledge to try new things every time, I would totally order the lamb rogan josh again.
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Since these entrees don’t come with bread, I ordered onion kulcha ($3.50) for the first time ever with my vindaloo, as an alternative to the standard naan.  Like naan, kulcha is a bread baked in a tandoor (a clay oven), and this one is stuffed with onions, cumin, and cilantro.  I loved it so much!DSC02496

Even though I am forcing myself to order a new entree every time, I had to get that onion kulcha again on my second recent visit, to accompany the rogan josh.  It was so rich and buttery and soft and fragrant.  I just love sauteed onions and soft, fluffy, buttery bread.  They probably use ghee in the kitchen at Moghul; I am happy to clarify that.
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I drive by Moghul almost twice a day on my way to and from work, and it sure is tempting to order just onion kulcha every night on my way home.  I can’t do it, but have I thought about it?DSC02607

YUP!

(What I’m really going to have to do is learn to make my own onion kulcha at home, and maybe regular naan bread too, if it can be done without a tandoor.  But I’m going to leave the rest of this deliciousness to the professionals.)

The good news is Moghul is close to work, my co-worker loves Indian food even more than I do, and I have every intention of returning often to keep expanding my palate, both in terms of new dishes and spice levels.  Just keep in mind that Moghul is closed on Mondays.

Makani

Almost a year and a half after starting The Saboscrivner, I can’t say this blog has become a big breakthrough success.  I choose to not use Instagram, always preferring a thousand words to a single picture.  I don’t use that website that rhymes with “help,” and I’ll never become “help” elite.  I’m the furthest thing from an influencer, since nobody wants to look at photos of me posing, trying to look cute while holding up the delicious foods I eat, trust me.  I have literally DOZENS of followers, but at least I’ve made a mint off my food writing — one night, I got a single peppermint after paying my bill.

But my life is still better for it, because now when old friends pass through Orlando, they are much more likely to send me a Facebook message, inviting me to catch up over dinner, figuring I’ll pick a good restaurant.  At least my reputation has grown that way, and I’ve been able to see and reconnect with good people I miss, who I haven’t seen in far too many years.  Best of all, we can go to nicer places than I could afford back in the day.

This past week, I heard from an old friend from my college days in Gainesville.  We hadn’t seen each other in over 15 years, and probably closer to 20.  Back then he was one of the coolest people I had ever met, and he helped change my life for the better when I played in a band with him (and another friend I caught up with over a similar dinner at Chuan Lu Garden early this year).  I always looked up to this guy as a fascinating punk rock poet and general badass, and now he’s even cooler as a tireless advocate and activist for the homeless in Gainesville.  He was in town for a conference and staying down near International Drive, so I made a list of restaurants near there that I thought he might like, that I’ve also been wanting to try.  That’s all the way across town from me, and I don’t make it down there very often.

So we decided on Makani (https://www.facebook.com/makaniorlando/), an Egyptian restaurant on International Drive, tucked into a truly international shopping plaza with an upscale steakhouse, a Chinese buffet, a traditional Japanese restaurant, a 24-hour Turkish restaurant/lounge, and a dinner theater that performs an interactive murder mystery every night.  With no shortage of choices, I think we made the best possible one.  I always love any Middle Eastern food, but had never tried Egyptian before.  Needless to say, we feasted like the pharoahs of old, both of us having come a long way from feeling uncomfortable ordering anything at Taco Bell that wasn’t on the extra value menu.  It’s nice to go out to eat with people who are up for trying and sharing almost anything.

This was the hawawshi ($17.99), sort of a meat pie with seasoned ground beef, onions, and parsley in a crispy pastry crust, almost like a lightly fried stuffed pita (although it was possibly just baked).  I loved it.  It came with a metal pitcher of a very hot hot sauce that we learned to treat with caution and apply sparingly.  I would happily order this dish every time I return, I liked it that much.

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I’ve written before about how I can take or leave fries, but these fries are among the best I’ve ever had.  Crispy, crunchy, firm, flavorful, just salty enough — not limp or starchy.  Top-notch fries!DSC02576

I was intrigued by photos I had seen of this dish online, so I had to try it.  This was mombar ($12.99), chewy, savory sausages of seasoned rice, vegetables, and herbs, stuffed into cow intestines, fried in oil, and festooned with chewy, sweet sultanas.  I loved these, too!  They reminded me of dolmas (or dolmades), grape leaves stuffed with tangy seasoned rice, one of my favorite side dishes in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, only these were much richer and meatier-tasting.  They might sound weird, but I think most people would like them, if you get past the “cow intestine” dread.  They were an unlikely favorite of mine, in fact.  DSC02578

This mixed grill ($29.99) arrived at our table on a fancy golden platform billowing hot smoke.  It looked a little bit like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of my Top Five favorite movies of all time, but you don’t want to shield your eyes from this smoke show.  It came with a beef and lamb kofta skewer, a beef kabob skewer, a chicken kabob skewer, and a lamb chop, all char-grilled and expertly seasoned.  I don’t know which one I preferred more, the kofta or the beef kabob.  I like my lamb chops a little more on the rare side, but it still had so much flavor from the char-grilling process, something I just can’t do with meat at home, without a grill.  There was plenty for two of us to share everything, especially since we had ordered so many other dishes.DSC02581

The mixed grill came with a side order of rice that turned out to be a heaping mound of buttery rice pilaf, with vermicelli mixed in.
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This intriguing mountain of deliciousness is the koshari ($14.99), a combination of rice pilaf (maybe fried?), lentils, spaghetti and elbow macaroni, topped with tomato sauce and crispy, fresh-fried onions (you could tell they were fresh and not just shaken out of the French’s canister).  It would be a dream dish for vegetarians or anyone trying to carb-load, and it worked much better than you might be thinking.  It was a wonderful blend of textures, as well as flavors.  It also reminded me how much I love lentils, and how I should cook them at home far more often.  DSC02582
The menu said it also included chickpeas, but ours didn’t have any, and I was perfectly fine with that.  I love falafel and usually like hummus, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of plain ol’ chickpeas.  It also came with a side of garlic vinegar in a small metal pitcher, but we didn’t figure that out until we had already eaten most of it without it.

We were there a while and ordered a lot of stuff, so the friendly General Manager came by to check on us and very generously provided us with this dessert sampler (normally $13.99), completely free!  It was an unnecessary gesture, but certainly a welcome and appreciated one.
DSC02583Most of these desserts were reminiscent of baklava, but the top right and bottom left are kunefe (here called konafa), a Middle Eastern pastry made of finely-shredded dough (almost like more vermicelli) soaked in a sugar syrup over sweet cheese, then baked.  It is buttery, crispy, rich, and very, very sweet.  The ones in the middle may have been basbousa, which my research tells me is a semolina cake sweetened with simple syrup made with rosewater.  And the rolls had the thin, crispy dough I associate with baklava, although I don’t know what this particular dessert is called.  We devoured all of it with gusto, though.

This was a great night out, let me tell you.  Not only did I get to try an amazing new restaurant (new to me and relatively new to Orlando), but I got to do it with an old friend who I had some real adventures with back in the day.  Back then, being in a band with him and four other guys, I went from being a shy and sheltered introvert to a more confident performer.  We played gigs all over Florida and as far out as New Orleans, and even recorded in multiple music studios.  That was more than half my life ago, but I’ll never forget the excitement of being in a band with my friends, pretty much living my dream.  I haven’t played music in far too many years and I miss it terribly, but I owe those five guys a debt I can never repay.  I draw on those skills I learned every day, since teaching is just another kind of performing.  I looked up to this guy, and I’m glad to say I still do now, just for different reasons.  I was so glad to catch up and hear all about his wife, his kids, his continued education, and his heroic work on behalf of the homeless, as the founder and Executive Director of GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville.  It’s an organization that could use your support, for anyone interested in donating to a truly worthy cause.

And in the meantime, whether you’re a local or a tourist, visiting our City Beautiful for a conference, convention, or vacation, Makani is one of your best bets along busy International Drive.  Why not eschew the usual chains and try delicious Egyptian food, prepared with care and love?  One of their signs calls it “Good Mood Food,” and I don’t see how you could eat at Makani and not be in a better mood.

Git-N-Messy BBQ

I figure most Saboscrivner readers are aware that barbecue is more than just slathering meat with sweet, sticky sauce.  It’s the whole process of smoking meat for hours at a time over the right wood, low and slow.  When people talk about having a backyard barbecue and grillin’ hamburgers and hot dogs, I cringe, because that’s a cookout.  That’s grillin’.  And that’s super-cool and good, but that ain’t barbecuing.

There are regional barbecue styles in different parts of the country: Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina.  And different areas focus on different meats: beef brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and more.  Florida doesn’t have its own famous barbecue style, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, because it allows us to draw from the best of everywhere else.  That’s a major positive aspect of Central Florida: it’s a real melting pot — an interesting place to live, and a great place to eat.

That said, while we have some perfectly fine barbecue chains around Orlando (some of which used to be better than they are now), I’ve tried a few of them in recent months and haven’t been enthusiastic about writing reviews.  I have been searching for a while for some next-level barbecue worth shouting about from the virtual rooftops, restaurants that combine meat, sauce, smoke, time, and even ambiance to create something truly special.  And I found one the other day in an unassuming Shell gas station in suburban Sanford.

Git-N-Messy BBQ (https://www.facebook.com/gitnmessybbq/) opened recently in the Express convenience store at the Shell station on West Lake Mary Boulevard, just west of 17-92.  Chef Chuck Cobb previously ran an omakase-style sushi restaurant, Zoetic Sushi, that I never got to try, but people on the Orlando Foodie Forum were singing its praises.  But after Zoetic closed, Chef Chuck’s next move was to return to one of his prior loves: barbecue.  I knew of him from the Foodie Forum, but in person, he is a jovial, jocular personality, happy to chat as he prepared my order. dsc02585.jpg

Inside this convenience store, Chef Chuck has his open food prep area, with three high-top tables and a small bar set up with a few stools.  There are four different local beers on tap: two from Sanford Brewing Company and two from Central 28 Beer Company.  Yes, you can even get a pint of beer with your barbecue, if you dine in the convenience store!  Party boy that I am, I just got a hard-to-find strawberry-kiwi Gatorade to go.  I had planned to bring home my food to share everything with my wife, but a guy was hanging out at a table, just chillin’, enjoying the best pulled pork sandwich of his life (his words), after he had just stopped by to fill up his car with gas.  I knew I had to try that sandwich, but as usual, I wanted to try everything.

The Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($8) comes with slow-smoked pork that Chef Chuck further chopped into smaller pieces, house-made cole slaw, lots of sliced pickles (which I’m really okay with these days), and a Carolina-style mustard-based barbecue sauce I asked him to leave on the side.  The sandwich was huge, and a huge value for that price.  Here it is, back at home on a too-familiar plate:DSC02593

I also got an order of smoked beef brisket ($16), which consisted of four large and generous slices.  There was no need to chop them up further or drench them in sauce to obscure the rich-looking marbling or the dark, spicy outer bark.  At some restaurants, the brisket is too dry and tough, and at others, it seems like you just get served a pile of greasy fat.  Here, it was a perfect blend of tender meat and unctious fat, just perfect.
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And then I also got an order of smoked sausage ($8.50), a barbecue item that tends to be underrated, but I always like sausage in any forms.  The large link was chopped up into smaller segments, and once we got it home, we especially liked the rich snappiness of the outer casing — something missing in far too many sausages and hot dogs.  Even my wife liked the sausage, something she can usually take or leave.  It was a generous order, and probably my favorite smoked sausage that I’ve had, at least in a really long time.
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The sides I brought home included more of that cole slaw (which I might have gone without, since the giant pork sandwich had so much on it), very good baked beans, and excellent collard greens, of course cooked with meat.  I love collards, and I’ve tried to make them at home many times, but mine NEVER come out as good as these barbecue joints, even after spiking them with pepper vinegar.
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Chef Chuck loaded me up with five house-made sauces: sweet, mild, hot, mustard-based, and an Alabama white sauce that goes so perfectly with chicken — which is great, because I have a really bland chicken breast in the fridge that desperately needs something to salvage it.  That will teach me to stick to buying chicken thighs, the superior cut of chicken!  Anyway, they were all good sauces.
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I would have loved to try the St. Louis-style spare ribs, but those would not have been ready for another hour, and I couldn’t hang around that long.  But I’ll totally go back for them, because everything else was so amazing.  I learned that Chef Chuck can also make a Tampa-style Cuban sandwich with his own slow-smoked pulled pork in a house-made mojo marinade, Genoa salami, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, so that’s also intriguing.  Too often, the pork is the weak link in many Cuban sandwiches, either dry or not very flavorful.  I know it would be the star in his version of the Cubano.

I really liked everything I tried from Git-N-Messy BBQ, and immediately liked Chef Chuck Cobb, who is working meat miracles in this most unlikely of settings.  My readers know by now that too much extravagance and expense make me uncomfortable, and I’m much happier when I’m discovering humble hidden gems, casual restaurants that would be hard to find without a push in the right direction.  It doesn’t get much more humble or hidden than some of Central Florida’s best barbecue in a Sanford gas station, so consider this your push and the Saboscrivner your friendly neighborhood pusher.  Where else can you fill up your car and your belly at the same time?  (Costco, I guess, but Git-N-Messy is really something special!)  Just as a final note, Git-N-Messy is closed Sundays and Mondays, as even Chef Chuck needs some time off from smoking and slicing.

Texas de Brazil

Back in the day, when we all could eat more than we can now, my dad was a huge fan of all-you-can-eat restaurants, especially the many Chinese buffets around Miami in the ’80s and ’90s.  He knew each one’s strengths and weaknesses: which ones had the best spare ribs, the best fantail shrimp, the best house special fried rice, and so forth.  He was a beloved regular at a lot of those places, and even though he wouldn’t consider himself a foodie, it was his quest for the best versions of a dish and the best bargains around South Florida that started your Saboscrivner on my persistent path as a culinary explorer, reporter, and reference librarian.

But beyond the Chinese buffets, the height of luxury was the all-you-can-eat Brazilian churrascaria, Texas de Brazil (https://texasdebrazil.com/), a decadent steakhouse where uniformed gauchos walk a never-ending parade of grilled meats to your table, impaled on giant swords, for you to enjoy until you slip into a meat coma.  This was our destination for the most special of special occasions, our most rare and revered restaurant.  There were multiple steaks, including filet mignon (some wrapped in bacon!), Brazilian picanha, and flank steak, parmesan-crusted chicken and pork, Brazilian sausage, lamb chops, leg of lamb, and a star player I’m saving for last because it is the best.

Beyond the meats is a sumptuous salad bar, if one could even call it that — one of the most bountiful, bombastic, breathtaking buffets imaginable, where the actual salad is a mere afterthought alongside fancy salami and prosciutto, fresh mozzarella orbs, spreadable Boursin cheese, fancy Spanish manchego (sheep-milk cheese), cold-smoked salmon, chilled marinated shrimp, California rolls, roasted peppers, caramelized garlic cloves, and other roasted, grilled, marinated, and pickled vegetables.  You also help yourself to luscious lobster bisque, and the gauchos also grace your table with soft Brazilian cheese buns, mashed potatoes (I usually ignore both of those), and fried bananas served with cinnamon and sugar (big fan here).

Note that all this decadence doesn’t come cheap.  The all-you-can-eat dinner is normally $49.99, or you can opt for just the salad bar (which is honestly my favorite part of Texas de Brazil, and would be a fine, full meal on its own) for $24.99.  Monday through Friday, lunch is somewhat discounted at $34.99.  Still, it’s way too extravagant for us more than once a year (and believe me, we don’t even do this once a year).

But we did last year, and we did again this past weekend, thanks to a very special month in Orlando called Magical Dining.  Every September, our official tourism association Visit Orlando sets up Magical Dining with dozens of participating restaurants all over the city, generally mid-to-upscale establishments.  Each restaurant announces a prix fixe menu with a few options to choose from: appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and the price is $35.  This is a real bargain at most of these restaurants, and it gives people who might not normally treat themselves a chance to try some delicious dishes at new, unfamiliar, and highly vaunted restaurants around town at a discounted price.  And best of all, $1 from each Magical Dining bill goes to a number of worthy local charities!

My wife and I rarely take part in Magical Dining.  As you can tell from this blog, we generally gravitate toward more casual restaurants, and very few of those participate.  At these higher-end places, sometimes there isn’t an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert on the Magical Dining menu that appeal to both of us, and we figure we’d rather hold out for a special occasion and order our top choices off the full menu, not a small, curated list of options.  (Of course, you can still order off the regular menu at any of these places during Magical Dining.)

But Texas de Brazil might be the best deal of all, because you get the full salad bar, the full unlimited meats, AND a dessert (which normally costs extra) for the excellent discounted price of $35 (plus tip, of course).  That’s a bargain, for all the same stuff plus a dessert!  My wife loves steak, we’re both crazy about lamb, and I go nuts for sausages and that spectacular, stupendous, sublime… sensual salad bar.  We squeezed in a reservation for the last weekend of Magical Dining, which I strongly recommend you do next year.

We arrived before our 5:00 reservation, in time to hit the salad bar buffet early, before it would be ravaged by ravenous rubes.  Dig the artful presentation of beautiful cured meats:DSC02570

Some of the Saboscrivner’s greatest hits on this buffet plate, even chilled couscous salad in a vinaigrette and some of the best potato salad ever.  I am careful not to fill up on carbs, but I can’t make a rare visit to TdB and not load up a plate with these wonders.  Rest assured, dear readers — I was a member of the Clean Plate Club.  DSC02571

Meanwhile, the gauchos were coming around, so I was building up a supply of meat to last me some time, while going through my buffet items.  This plate includes medium-rare flank steak (left), two lamb chops (top), two slices of picanha (right), part of a sausage (bottom, next to the fried banana).  GO AHEAD, TAKE THESE BANANAS!DSC02572A lot of the meats tend to be more done than we both like, so we always ask for as rare as possible, and end up content with medium rare.  I find all of Texas de Brazil’s meats to be extremely salty, so keep that in mind too.

But here’s the star of the show, both of our favorite meat: BRAISED BEEF RIB, sliced right off the giant bones in front of us.  If you go to Texas de Brazil, it’s very possible you might not even realize this was one of the meats being walked around.  It doesn’t circulate often, probably because it’s an expensive cut that takes a long time to prepare.  And as far as I can tell from having had two or three TdB lunches, they don’t offer it at lunch time!  Last year for Magical Dining, we learned to very politely request it as soon as we were seated, and then to get at least two slices once it makes its way to us.  I love braised, stewed, and other slow-cooked meats even more than grilled steaks, and this beef rib is fork-tender.  It seriously shreds apart with just the side of your fork, and then completely melts in your mouth.  DSC02573

I’m proud to say that neither of us wasted any food, but I was stuffed after finishing everything you saw above, and my wife got equally stuffed from a lot less (but she didn’t mess with the buffet like I did, minus a couple of those spicy marinated chilled shrimp).  I had ladled us each a bowl of lobster bisque at the beginning, but ended up having hers at the end of my meal, because it’s too good, and it would have been a shanda to waste a drop.

And after all that, we were still entitled to desserts, included in the Magical Dining deal!  We got our desserts boxed up to take home, because we couldn’t eat another bite.  There were two selections, and we each chose the one you would expect us to choose, if you know us.

Unfortunately, my wife’s chocolate cake was very dry and disappointing:DSC02574

My Brazilian cheesecake was pretty good, because even bad cheesecake is pretty good, but it was a small sliver:DSC02575

Bonus pictures of the desserts we took home back in 2018, the last time we were here (also for Magical Dining Month):

Key lime pie that was much better than either of this year’s dessert options:
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Bananas Foster pie that was incredible, that I was wishin’ and hopin’ they would offer again this year:DSC01685

Coconut chess pie that was also spectacular:
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I don’t remember which two were included, and which one we paid extra for just to try it, but all three of these were awesome, and far better than this year’s two dessert choices.  But then again, I’m a pie guy.

So here are your takeaways:

  1. Magical Dining is a wonderful thing, and you should totally treat yourself next September, whether it’s here or one of Orlando’s other great participating restaurants.
  2. Texas de Brazil is an incredible indulgence, a sensational splurge, a truly unique and celebratory destination for carnivores, gourmands, and just plain old hungry people.  Heck, if you’re doing a low-carb diet, it could be a great restaurant to cut loose in, since meat and most salad bar offerings are the star attractions and carbs are supporting players.  My wife and I love it, but now we’re good for another year, or probably far longer.  We got it out of our systems for a while, and no, that wasn’t a colon-related joke.
  3. Or was it?