The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

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Ming’s Bistro

I recently met a friend at the Chinese restaurant Ming’s Bistro (https://www.mingsbistro.net/), in the heart of Orlando’s Mills 50 district, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and shops centered around the busy intersection of East Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, near downtown Orlando.  This was our first time at Ming’s Bistro, but we had both heard for years that it specialized in dim sum, and that’s what lured us out there — better late than never.

What is dim sum, you ask?  It’s a Cantonese tradition that started in teahouses that served little snacks with the tea, now most commonly served as brunch (yum cha).  A lot of restaurants push carts around the dining room, allowing diners to point and grab what they want, while other places have you check off your choices on a paper menu, like how some sushi restaurants do it.  Ming’s Bistro mostly does it the latter method, with an illustrated menu to give you ideas and a paper menu you check off next to each item.  The prices are listed, which helps, since you can get in some real trouble grabbing too many dishes off the rolling carts.  But they push some carts around too, and we picked a few random things that came by our table, just because they looked good.  And just to clarify, Ming’s also offers a whole regular menu of Chinese food to choose from, in addition to the dim sum menu.  So all your usual favorites are probably available here, too.

Ming’s opens at 10:45 AM (every day except Thursdays, when it is closed), and I was there right when it opened to grab a table.  We didn’t have to wait at all, and it was slammed by the time we left, a little after noon.  I have written many times that I’m not a brunch person, but dim sum is a unique brunch experience, where you ideally go with a group, hang out for a long time, order a bunch of small plates, and share everything, including good times.  Even though it was only two of us, we shared nine different dim sum items, and we chose wisely.  There wasn’t a dud in the whole bunch!

We started out with an order of steamed roast pork buns (top; $4.50) and an order of baked pineapple buns (bottom).  The roast pork buns are a dim sum classic for good reason.  For the uninitiated, the steamed buns are kind of like soft, bready rolls, and the pork inside is in a red sauce, savory but also slightly sweet.I love pineapple anything, and these baked pineapple buns were a subtly sweet treat that would have been ideal as a dessert, but they came out early, so we enjoyed them early in the meal.  I was expecting something more like sticky pineapple preserves in the centers, but it was creamier than I thought.  Still good, though.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos confirmed my suspicion that dim sum pineapple buns don’t contain any pineapple, but get their name from the crackly crust.  I still liked them, but thought it was odd they were generically sweet without any obvious pineapple!

We didn’t even order these, but a nice lady wheeled a cart next to our table, loaded up with several dim sum dishes already on plates, and asked if we wanted any.  These looked like jalapeño peppers stuffed with something, which is all good with me, so we went for it.  It turned out to be a shrimp filling, but the shrimp was processed into a soft, savory paste, and the peppers were lightly roasted.  I make similar roasted jalapeños once or twice a year, stuffed with light cream cheese and sometimes topped with bacon, chorizo, or prosciutto.  They are a delicious, keto-friendly snack, and these were equally delicious.  I’m not sure what the sauce on top was, but it added to the experience of flavors and textures without overpowering the shrimp or the peppers.  They weren’t very spicy at all, so don’t worry about that if you’re the type who sweats when the heat is on.

These are pan-fried pork pot stickers ($5.50), which had a wonderful crispy shell and a strong ginger flavor inside.  I always appreciate pot stickers, but my friend liked these even more than I did, so I only had one.   

Another foodie friend introduced me to rice paste dim sum during a feast at another great local Chinese restaurant, Peter’s Kitchen, a few years ago.  I probably never would have tried them on my own, but now I recommend them to everyone else.  This is beef rice paste ($4.75), where the rice paste itself is kind of a slippery, chewy crepe wrapped around a filling — almost like a thicker and more slippery manicotti pasta.  I’m not a fan of things that are too chewy and starchy, like certain bao buns and Jamaican boiled dumplings, but these are terrific, especially swimming in the soy-based sauce.  It’s a challenge to keep them from sliding out of your chopsticks, but we both persevered like the functional adults we are!

We also randomly picked these off a later cart that came by our table.  Some kind of fried dumplings that are both crispy and chewy.  I think they are crispy taro dumplings ($4.75), and they were yet another pleasant surprise.

Here’s a cross-section of one of them.  They were stuffed with shrimp and green vegetables, and we joked that these were the healthiest part of our dim sum brunch, despite obviously being fried.  
EDITOR’S NOTE: A sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino informed me these might have been pan-fried chive dumplings ($5.50).

I always like beef short ribs — I rank them up there near oxtails on a list of favorite meats.  This was beef short ribs with black pepper ($5.80), which I enthusiastically ordered, despite not knowing exactly what to expect.  It was great.  It was a relatively small portion, like so many of these diverse dishes, but still plenty for two people to share.  The short ribs came chopped into tiny chunks of rich, succulent, moist, fatty meat, braised until they were very soft and easy to pull off the shards of bone.  They were extremely flavorful and easier to eat than I expected.  I wished I had saved some of the doughier buns and dumplings to dip into the short ribs’ sauce.

I ordered us the pan-fried sticky rice ($5.50) because the couple at the table next to us got it, and it looked good.  That was another pro move on my part.  It was sticky and savory, with maybe the tiniest bit of subtle sweetness you get from Chinese five-spice powder, a blend of Chinese cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, cloves, and peppercorns (or sometimes ginger).  It also would have been good to soak up some of the short rib sauce, but the rice was so flavorful, we ate it on its own. 

The last dim sum dish we ordered was another winner: fried meat dumplings ($4.75).  I can’t tell you if the meat was beef or pork, or maybe a combination of both, or something else entirely.  It was ground, spiced (but not spicy), and saucy, and served in these awesome dumplings that reminded me of Indian batura, Native American fry bread, hand pies, lightly fried empanadas, or even funnel cakes at a fair.  That perfect flaky dough that is lightly crispy but mostly soft, that leaves your fingers greasy and your soul happy.  

Like I said, not a bad dish in the bunch.  It was a great meal, and while we probably could have done more damage, it was the perfect amount of food for two people, with some leftovers at the end.  I’m guessing most of my readers are already familiar with the joy of a communal dim sum brunch, and many know the wonders of Ming’s Bistro.  But if you don’t know, now you know!  I hated crowds and lines long before there was a pandemic, so in addition to recommending all these delicious dishes we tried, I also strongly suggest getting to Ming’s early — ideally in that golden half hour between 10:45 and 11:15 AM — to beat the lunch rush and avoid having to wait.

Ray’s Deli & More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

Mynt Fine Indian Cuisine

Mynt Fine Indian Cuisine (https://www.myntorlando.com/) is an Indian restaurant in Winter Park that I’ve wanted to go to for years.  I finally made it there with my two closest former co-workers from my librarian days, which are really not that long ago.  We used to go out to lunch every once in a while, usually on Fridays if at all, but I would at least see them every day, throughout the day.  Now those sightings are few and far between, and the lunches even moreso.  So going out to Mynt was a rare and wonderful treat, especially sitting outdoors on a gorgeous February day with these two brilliant people.

I didn’t even realize that Mynt had lunch specials, but they do.  They come with basmati rice (of course), yellow lentil dal that I ate with a spoon like a soup, and a cute little samosa, with the most savory potato filling and the perfect, delicate, flaky crust, served with tamarind and mint chutneys.  Everything came in round metal containers called tiffins.

Mynt also served the most delicious garlic naan I’ve ever had.  This was for the table to share, but I could have easily and happily gone through a few baskets of it myself.

My vegetarian co-worker ordered vegetable korma ($10), with mixed vegetables and paneer cheese in a creamy onion cashew sauce.  She let me spear the last chunk of tender potato at the end, so I could try the sauce for the first time.

My dieting co-worker ordered the vegetable biryani ($11), the most beautiful dish of garden vegetables and paneer cheese over spiced saffron rice.  I didn’t ask to try his, but look at how gorgeous this presentation was:

Since this was my first time at Mynt, I ordered one of my favorite dishes, lamb vindaloo ($12), with tender chunks of boneless lamb and potatoes in a spicy, tomatoey, vinegary curry.  I asked for it spicy, and it sure was spicy, but I could handle it just fine.  I loved it, but whenever I make it back to Mynt, I would try something new just because I eventually want to expand my palate with Indian cuisine.

And me being me, I also ordered aaloo gobhi ($10) for the table — a vegetarian dish of potatoes and cauliflower (currently one of my favorite vegetables to cook and eat) in an onion gravy.  I asked for it medium, so they could also enjoy it, and it was so flavorful and good.  This was a new dish for me, and I loved it too.

I hadn’t eaten at a restaurant since December, when I met another friend on the opening day of bb.q Chicken.  It felt so nice and normal, and I think this outdoor lunch at Mynt was the happiest and most upbeat I’ve felt in a while.  The company was great, the surroundings were beautiful, the weather could not have been nicer, and every dish we ordered was prettier and tastier than the last.  I would totally return, especially to try the expanded dinner menu or the weekend brunch buffet.

Corfu Greek Restaurant

I recently learned about the existence of Corfu Greek Restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/CorfuWinterSprings), located at 124 State Road 434 in Winter Springs.  When my wife and I were playing the interminable game of figuring out what to eat on a weekend not that long ago, I suggested Greek food and sent her the menu photos from Corfu’s Facebook page.  It sounded good to her (huzzah!), so I placed a large order to ensure we had enough food to get us through the weekend and even the first day or two of the coming work week.

I took the liberty of scanning Corfu’s menu.  You may want to right-click on these menu pics and open the images in a new tab, to read them in a larger size.

I loved the interior of the restaurant.  The blue walls, all the artwork and photographs of Greece highlighting its beautiful blue seas, and the blue and white retro-looking booths created a cool, welcoming atmosphere.  The two-tone booths reminded me of a gorgeous 1950s automobile, like a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air, which made me think of a classic diner setting.  And I LOVE diners!  I ordered our food to go, but would not have minded hanging out there.  By the way, I picked up our order around 3:30 PM on a Saturday, which is why these booths are empty.  There were some diners on the other side of the restaurant, but I didn’t want to be a creeper and photograph them in their booths.  I met the lovely Rita, one of the owners, who was very sweet and welcoming, especially when I mentioned this was my first time ordering from there.  Corfu opened eight years ago, so better late than never.  And we ordered so much, to make up for lost time!

This first photo is the dish that made my wife agree to try Corfu: the charbroiled octopus appetizer ($17.99).  I’m not a huge octopus fan, but it is one of her favorite foods, and she proclaimed this might be her new favorite octopus dish anywhere.  It was marinated in olive oil and vinegar — I’m guessing red wine vinegar, but I could be wrong.  I did try one bite of one of the thicker tentacles, and it was remarkably tender, when so many places serve it on the chewy side.  She was in heaven after this dish.

She also requested the fried calamari appetizer ($12.50), but I ended up liking these crispy squid rings more than she did.  They went really well dipped into the little cup of marinara sauce that was included.  
I definitely give Olympia Restaurant the edge for fried calamari from Greek restaurants in Orlando, but these were good, don’t get me wrong!

I’m a big fan of sampler platters, especially when I’m visiting a new restaurant for the first time.  I love trying new tastes and new dishes, especially to find out how a particular place handles an old favorite.  So I was drawn to the Corfu Platter ($21.95), where diners can choose three options.  I went with three things I thought both of us would enjoy: gyro meat, roasted lamb, and moussaka.  Other options included spanakopita and one of my favorite Greek dishes, pastitsio, which is like a Greek version of lasagna, but made with long, uncut macaroni similar to ziti and topped with a bechamel sauce.  But I know pastitsio isn’t my wife’s favorite, and I had homemade lasagna in the fridge, so I went with three safe choices I knew she would like too.
She LOVED the moussaka, so I only took one bite and saved her the rest, because she’s more into it than I am.  For those who don’t know, moussaka is a baked casserole of sliced eggplant, sliced potatoes, and meat sauce (not a tomato-based meat sauce, like bolognese), topped with bechamel sauce and melted mozzarella cheese.  I’m not even the biggest eggplant guy, and I liked it a lot.  The gyro meat must have been grilled on a flattop after being sliced, because it had a nice char to it.  We are both huge lamb fans, and we both thought the roasted lamb was a little bland compared to the other two choices — but I still ate it.  If I order the Corfu Platter again, I would get pastitsio instead of the roasted lamb.

But being a huge lamb fan, I was even more tempted by the lamb shank Kapama for myself, knowing my wife wouldn’t even be interested in tasting it.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I mark out for braised and stewed meats, especially on the bone — cooked at low temperatures for a long time in some flavorful liquid until they’re tender enough to cut with a fork.  I’ve raved about similar braised lamb shanks from Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine, but this was a uniquely Greek take on the lamb shank, with green and kalamata olives and capers in the rich tomato sauce.
I’m not even a fan of olives or capers (two of the few foods I tend to avoid), but I inhaled every morsel of this dish.  The lamb was done so perfectly, the bone pulled out completely clean.  Even though it is always my impulse to try new things when I return to a restaurant, this dish will tempt me again and again.

The Corfu Platter and lamb shank Kapama are both entrees, so each one came with a side — as if this wasn’t enough food already!  I chose lemon roasted potatoes with one of them, which were a little bland.  Funny enough, lemony desserts are among my favorite desserts ever, but I’m just not the hugest fan of lemon as an ingredient in savory dishes.  That’s just me being weird.

But I love green beans, and this large side order of tender green beans stewed in a tomato sauce was my preferred side.  The other options were French fries, which I worried might not be hot by the time I made it home, and rice, which I will try next time.  I really liked these green beans, though.

The two entrees both came with lightly grilled pita bread wedges, my favorite kind of pita and my favorite way to serve it.  It picks up flavors from the grill and has a slightly crispy exterior while still being soft.  Believe me, I used these to scoop up every drop of that delicious tomato sauce from the lamb shank.

I didn’t taste the baklava ($5.50), but my wife requested it and seemed very happy with it.

Even though I rarely order dessert for myself, I realized I had never tried baklava cheesecake at a Greek or Mediterranean restaurant before, and decided to do something about that.  Corfu’s baklava cheesecake ($6.95) was rich, creamy, sticky, and delicious.  No regrets.  I’m glad I treated myself to it!

There aren’t a lot of nice, sit-down Greek restaurants on my end of town, especially after some old favorites like Greek Flame Taverna, Patsio’s Diner, and Cypriana (all near us) closed so many years ago.  So I was thrilled to recently learn Corfu existed, and even more thrilled to sample so many dishes and enjoy them at home with my wife.  This is a place I would definitely return to, even for the simple thrill of sitting in those blue and white booths when it feels a little safer to dine out — which is hopefully months away, rather than years.  Regardless, I will still come back to Corfu to order more takeout in the meantime!

QuesaLoco

I just got home from Orlando’s newest Mexican restaurant, QuesaLoco (https://quesaloco.com/), which opened for business TODAY, Saturday, January 15, 2022.  I was the fifth person in line, about half an hour before it opened at 2:00, and they had a mariachi band playing festive, deafening music to make it a truly special, memorable occasion.  But today wasn’t my first experience with QuesaLoco.  Flash back with me to the fall of 2021, if you will — an era when some of us had received our boosters and were feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time in a while, in the era before we had ever heard of the Omicron Variant.

Last fall was when I first discovered QuesaLoco, in its original incarnation as a food truck, which I noticed while randomly driving by.  The QuesaLoco food truck had been setting up in front of the Lotto Zone convenience store at 4550 North Goldenrod Road in Winter Park, between Aloma Avenue and University Boulevard, on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons and evenings.  Unfortunately, I was thwarted by a ridiculously long line on that first attempt to stop.  Always seeking the new and novel and figuring anyone lined up at an unfamiliar food truck knows what’s up, I went home and looked it up, and made a plan to visit the truck as soon as I was able — ideally when the line was shorter.

I headed straight there after work on a Friday evening in the fall, planning to get there 20 minutes before it opened at 6:00.  I was the sixth person in line, and many more people queued up behind me.  Of course it started to pour rain, but nobody ran for cover or got frustrated and left.  Once the truck opened for business, they took orders very quickly and efficiently, and I think only about 15 minutes passed before I, lucky number six, got served.  The truck had a crew of five people, and they were all hustling like crazy to get everyone’s food ready.  I figured it was going to be good, but had no idea exactly what treasures I would be unboxing once I got home to my wife.

On that first visit, I started with a simple chorizo taco ($2.50), with crumbled spicy sausage, raw onions, and chopped cilantro on a very fresh, handmade corn tortilla.  It was a triumphant taco, everything you hope a chorizo taco will look, smell, taste, and even feel like.  The only thing you could do to improve this taco would be to increase its size, but this wasn’t the only thing I ordered.

Birria is a very trendy item in Mexican food these days — slow-braised shredded beef (or sometimes goat), served in tacos and other Mexican dishes (and sometimes even in ramen noodle soup!), usually accompanied by a dipping cup of rich consomme broth.  QuesaLoco offered birria in several different ways, so I opted for the most unfamiliar, a mulita ($6).  This was similar to a quesadilla, except instead of a flour tortilla, it was served as two fried corn tortillas stuffed with shredded birria beef, cheese, onion, and cilantro, dunked in consomme, and topped with sprinkles of cotija cheese before being wrapped up for me.   I’ve never noticed mulitas on any other Mexican menus around here, but consider me a card-carrying convert to the mulita militia.  (If only I still had my mullet!)
The extra cup of consomme on the side is a $1 upcharge, but I strongly recommend it, even if you aren’t ordering birria!  Unlike some other birria consomme I’ve seen and tried elsewhere, this one wasn’t bright orange with oil, but a legitimate broth that was rich and flavorful, perfect to dip things in, but probably just as good to sip on a cool day.

Finally, the coup de grace: a torta, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a sandwich full of al pastor (pork marinated in spices with pineapple and usually sliced off a rotating spit called a trompo), which is one of my favorite meats, period.  This sensational, stupendous sandwich was $12, and worth every penny.  It’s a truly titanic torta, the fresh, soft, lightly grilled roll stuffed with plenty of al pastor, melted cheese, cotija cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro,  and crema.  I have always been a huge fan of the tortas from the venerable Tortas El Rey, and I think this torta can easily stand alongside them in the sandwich pantheon.  After the small chorizo taco and the birria mulita, I got two additional meals out of this torta!

I ordered this carne asada quesadilla ($10) for my wife, and we were both blown away by how huge, heavy, and delicious it was.

Here’s a different angle.  Like everything else, they were extremely generous with the meat, cheese, and cilantro.  (She doesn’t like onions, so I always ask places to hold the onions for her.  Me, I love onions, but I love her more.)

This outstanding limon (lime) agua fresca ($4.50 for a large) was so cold,  refreshing, and delicious.  It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying, and did not taste artificial at all.  The sweetness was balanced perfectly by the acidic tang of real lime juice and the sweet, spicy chamoy and Tajin seasoning around the rim of the cup (a 50-cent upcharge).  It splashed around in my cupholder on the drive home because they couldn’t put a lid on it for obvious reasons, but it was worth it.   

I have been following QuesaLoco’s social media ever since that first visit, and they promised their long-awaited permanent restaurant location  would be opening soon.  Well, constant readers, that day was today, and the new location is open for business and already awesome.

The brick and mortar location of QuesaLoco is up and running at 971 West Fairbanks Avenue, a few doors down from Mediterranean Deli, home of the best gyro in Orlando and one of my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021

After the staff cut the ribbon right at 2:00, they let us inside.  The interior walls are covered with beautiful, colorful murals inspired by Mexican folk art, especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery.

Even the restroom doors are painted:

The six-piece mariachi band was tearing it up!  I had to shout my order over their brassy serenade (and through my unflattering-but-necessary N95 mask), but Silvia on the cash register rang everything up correctly.   

After how much I loved the limon agua fresca from the food truck a few months ago, I was excited that they had so many flavors available here at the restaurant:

I ended up choosing pineapple and fresa (strawberry), which were $4 each.  The strawberry surprised me by being very creamy, almost like melted strawberry ice cream.  I drank a little on the way home, but saved plenty for my wife because I knew she would like it too.  Pineapple is my go-to agua fresca flavor, and this one did not disappoint, but next time I’ll get different ones.

Once I got home, the first thing I tried was the taco de cecina ($4), a traditional taco from Tampico, Mexico.  It features fried skirt steak (arrechera), chopped into small pieces and wrapped in two soft, fried corn tortillas, with diced onion and cilantro, sliced avocado, and crema, with grilled onions and a whole grilled, blistered jalapeño toreado on the side.

My wife usually likes sopes from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey, so I ordered her a sope from QuesaLoco ($5.50).  Sopes are a fried masa corn disc (sometimes puffy, sometimes flatter like this one), topped with the al pastor pork I liked so much in my torta last time, refried beans, crumbled cotija cheese, and crema.  I asked them to hold the lettuce, tomato, and onions, since the lettuce would have wilted on the drive home, and my wife isn’t into tomatoes or onions anyway.

Because I loved that beautiful torta so much on my visit to the food truck, I thought I might order another torta today, but wasn’t sure which meat I would choose.  My decision was made for me when I saw QuesaLoco’s brand-new, expanded menu, with the option of the torta de la Barda ($15).  This classic street sandwich from Tampico has everything: sliced ham, shredded beef, crumbled chorizo, pork jam, stewed chicharrones (pork skins), crumbled cotija cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and salsa verde on another perfectly soft Mexican roll.  It is huge, but I put it away.

As I said earlier, birria is one of the house specialties at QuesaLoco.  But since I had already sampled tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and the birria itself in my first-ever mulita, this time I couldn’t resist a new menu item: birria ramen ($12).  Yes!  They serve ramen noodle soup made with the consommé broth, onions, cilantro, and sliced radishes.  I guess they must have larger bowls for customers who dine in, since my takeout order was divided into two smaller styrofoam cups.  But that was fine with me, because it automatically divided it into two portions for me for later.

This is so unbelievably good.  Better than it looks, better than you’re probably even thinking.  It is the best kind of fusion cuisine — a dish that combines flavors and cultures, without detracting from either. 

I’m so glad I was one of the first people in line at QuesaLoco on its opening day, because the line was pretty long when I left.  People were wrapped around the side of the small plaza’s parking lot, and a few shot me dirty looks as I left with two large bags and two colorful cups.  But just like going to the doctor’s office, you want to try to get to a hot new restaurant early, because the longer you wait, the more they might be slowed down.  No matter when you go, rest assured that QuesaLoco will be worth the wait.  If you loved the food truck, you’ll only find more to love in their beautiful dining room, with its lovely artwork and expanded menu.  And if you never got to try the food truck (which is going on hiatus for a while), then you are in for such a treat.  You can’t go wrong trying anything I ordered on either of my visits, but I don’t think anything on the new menu could possibly disappoint.  Even though you won’t get the opening day experience with live mariachis blowing the roof off the place, you’re going to have an incredible meal… or two or three, if you order like I did.

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

Meng’s Kitchen

Meng’s Kitchen (https://www.mengskitchensorlando.com/) is one of my favorite kinds of restaurants: a bit of a secret because it’s a restaurant inside something else — in this case, inside another restaurant, U-Roll Sushi on East Colonial Drive, directly east of Goldenrod Road (which I really need to review some other time).

When you crave Chef AJ’s eclectic comfort food with origins in China, Thailand, and India, you have to place an online order on the website above, then pick it up from U-Roll Sushi or make a note that you’re going to eat it there, as I did recently.  I met one of my closest foodie friends here in Orlando, a true bon vivant who knows even more good local places to eat than I do, and also one of the most upstanding, civic-minded, honorable people I know.  He has been a Meng’s mark for a while now, and I was glad to finally catch up with him over lunch on a workday, to see what all the hype was about.  This guy has never steered me wrong, and he definitely helped me choose wisely this time.

This is Chef AJ’s famous Hainanese chicken and rice ($10) — poached chicken served over Hainanese style rice pilaf with the most amazing ginger, garlic and soy dipping sauce.  The online ordering system gives a choice of white or dark meat, and I will always choose dark meat, 100% of the time.  It came boneless and fully sliced, with the soft skin on.  It also came with a side of broth that I forgot to photograph.  It looked like plain broth, just like this looks like plain chicken, but looks are deceiving, because everything had so much incredible flavor, I was blown away. 

My wise and worldly friend chose the chicken, so I had to make a decision.  With so many intriguing and unfamiliar options, I chose the braised pork Hunglay curry ($10) — marinated pork belly and pork shoulder with toasted garam masala, slowly braised with Hunglay curry paste, shallots, pickled garlic, fresh mango and ginger, and tamarind paste.  It was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year, so I chose wisely too.  Every piece of pork was tender enough to cut with our plastic forks, and they just melted in my mouth.  I’m such a fan of saucy, braised meats, and this was an outstanding dish, full of strong flavors I wasn’t overly familiar with, but they all worked so well together.   

The online menu said this braised pork curry came with steamed jasmine rice, but I requested a substitution of the spiced yellow rice that came with some other dishes, and I noted that it was okay if Chef AJ couldn’t substitute it.  Well, he did, and the spiced yellow rice was triumphant as well.  I have a rice cooker at home, and I can still NEVER cook rice as well as Asian and Latin restaurants.  But both this rice and the Hainanese rice pilaf that came with the chicken were something really special.  Spooning some of the pork curry sauce, which was savory but not spicy at all, over both kinds of rice opened up whole new worlds of flavor.   

My friend ordered this cucumber salad ($4) for us to share — chunks of cucumber and tomato and thin slivers of red onion in Thai sweet and sour dressing.  It might not have occurred to me to order this, but I’m so glad he did, and I’d get it again.  It was crisp and crunchy and sweet and spicy and cool and refreshing, especially with the heavy chicken, pork, and rice and the rich sauces they came with.  The sweet and sour dressing reminded me of Thai sweet chili sauce, a beloved condiment, but not as thick, sticky, and jelly-like.  True to its name, there was also a sour, slightly pungent component in the dressing that played well with the cucumbers.

My friend also ordered tom kha gai ($5), a Thai soup made with coconut milk, curry paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and big ol’ chunks of mushrooms, which I cannot eat.  Normally I like to try everything, but I am allergic or intolerant or something.  It always ends badly for me, so I passed.  But the soup looked and smelled good, and he seemed to like it. 

So far, this was my only visit to Meng’s Kitchen, but I need to return sooner rather than later for more Hainanese chicken and rice, more of that incredible braised pork Hunglay curry, and to eventually make my way through the menu and try everything else (as long as it doesn’t contain mushrooms).  It was terrific — one of those hidden gems that are all over Orlando, if you just give them a chance.

Mia’s Italian Kitchen

It has been almost two months since my wife and I enjoyed the bottomless brunch at Mia’s Italian Kitchen (https://www.miasitalian.com/), the sprawling Italian restaurant on touristy International Drive.  Fear not, startled Saboscrivnerinos — pants were worn by all.  Bottomless brunch means that every Saturday and Sunday, from 11 AM until 3 PM, diners can enjoy unlimited, all-you-can-eat food off the brunch menu for $26 per person.  It’s an excellent deal if you come hungry, ready to beat the house.  Thirsty folks can also opt for bottomless drinks for an additional $20 per person, which includes mimosas, bloody Marys, and sparklers, but we don’t drink, so we didn’t bother with that.

And just to clarify — the bottomless brunch isn’t a buffet setup.  You can order whatever you want off the brunch menu, and dishes that have standard prices next to them on the menu just keep coming to your table, all included in the flat brunch price of $26.  I’ve written before about how I’m not a big brunch fan because I don’t like overpriced breakfast food, but I sure do love huge quantities of Italian food.

I decided to start with the Italian scramble (normally priced at $13), with scrambled eggs, pepperoni, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, basil, rustic toast.  It normally comes with mushrooms, but constant readers know that I do not partake.  Anyway, this was a delicious combination, although it could have used some cheese.  I used to make simple, filling, healthy egg dishes all the time at home until my doctor told me that eggs are not my friend.  I always thought they were some of the healthier things I ate, but I have since cut back.  Like everything else this morning, these scrambled eggs felt like an indulgence.

My wife, on the other hand, loves mushrooms, so I still cook them for her quite often.  They are one of her favorite foods, so she couldn’t resist this house-made fettuccine al funghi (normally $19).  In fact, she called it one of the best pasta dishes she’s ever had in her life!  High praise indeed.  She loves creamy pasta dishes, and we are both suckers for fresh, al dente pasta, but I didn’t even taste this one.  Better safe than sorry!

I always gravitate toward pasta in tomato-based sauces, since when I think of “Italian” cuisine, my senses and memories all go to New York/New Jersey-style Italian-American food, with mountains of pasta in red sauce.  That’s what we grew up cooking at home and ordering from Italian restaurants in Miami.  So I had every intention of ordering the rigatoni alla bolognese (normally $20), with tender pasta in a slow-braised beef bolognese “gravy” made with San Marzano tomatoes, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese.  It was terrific.  Loved it.  Whenever meats are braised until they’re tender, I’ll be there. 

And to accompany the rigatoni alla bolognese, I couldn’t attend bottomless brunch at Mia’s and not try the giant meatball (normally $13).  It’s a twelve-ounce, all-beef meatball stuffed with fresh mozzarella (or MOOT-sa-DELL, if you will), swimming in marinara sauce, topped with parmesan cheese, and served with more of that rustic garlic toast that I wished was a little softer.  I think everyone in the restaurant must order the giant meatball.  It makes a very dramatic appearance at people’s tables, and everyone is always shocked and awestruck by how giant it actually is.  It is a massive, monumental, mountainous meatball, indeed, and definitely meant to be shared.

There were plenty of sweeter, lighter options on the brunch menu too.  My wife ordered this berry waffle (normally $9), a pretty standard Belgian waffle topped with seasonal berry compote (we both would have liked much more of this) and a scoop of wonderful honey-marscarpone mousse, easily the best part.

She had also been very excited about the apple-ricotta doughnuts (normally $7), an order of six small cinnamon sugar-dusted doughnuts, which were really more like large doughnut holes, topped with rich crème anglaise.  We both liked these.  The texture was similar to sour cream cake doughnuts, also known as “old-fashioned” doughnuts, which are usually my favorite kind of doughnut.  They tasted like Autumn in the best possible way. 

And my choice for a dessert was something I always enjoy but almost never order: tiramisu (normally $7), the classic Italian layer cake of ladyfinger cookies, espresso, creamy mascarpone cheese, cocoa, marsala wine (I’ve never had it on its own, so I couldn’t detect it), and lemon (which I couldn’t detect either).  It was pretty great tiramisu, but even mediocre tiramisu is pretty great.

Believe me, we both felt like we had to roll out of Mia’s after that celebratory feast.  I don’t think we ate again that day.  Because it’s so decadent, we definitely don’t plan to make a habit of that bottomless brunch, but it was a nice way to spend a weekend morning.  It was also nice  to discover a new restaurant on that side of Orlando, since we’re hardly ever out that way.  I recommend it to locals and tourists alike, but think twice before indulging at Mia’s and then spending hours waiting in lines and riding crazy rides at the theme parks!