Grocery Grails: Sun Noodle fresh ramen kits

Everyone loves ramen, right?  I sure do.  I never even tried ramen noodles until I moved away to go to college, and then they were de rigeur dorm food — bricks of fried noodles that came with seasoning packets (mostly salt and MSG) that you could turn into soup with just a pot of water boiled on an illegal hot plate.  Best of all, when we were poor all the time, you could get six or seven packages of this instant ramen in a multitude of flavors for a buck.  I quickly learned I liked my ramen best after draining the water and mixing the seasoning directly into the noodles themselves, like eating very salty flavored pasta.  When my old band spent our freshman year Spring Break touring Florida for a week, we brought bread, peanut butter, and bricks of instant ramen, which we ate uncooked, just crunching away at them in random parking lots.  All of this was extremely unhealthy, but ramen helped get me through three degrees, especially when paired with proteins like canned tuna or sardines, or sometimes chicken or sausage if I was feeling flush.

I wouldn’t discovery the glory and grandeur of “real,” authentic Japanese ramen until my 30s, when I was a little shocked over spending $10 or more for a bowl of the good stuff.  But it was so good, and I wondered where this real ramen had been all my life.  I tried a few and quickly realized tonkotsu ramen was my favorite, a creamy pork bone broth served with a slice of fatty roast chashu pork.  So delicious, and streets ahead of the cheap stuff that sustained me for so long.  I’ve had particularly lovely tonkotsu ramen at Ramen Takagi, Susuru, and Domu here in Orlando, and those are links to my reviews.  The tonkotsu at Ramen Takagi even made my Top Ten Tastes of 2020 in Orlando Weekly!

But sometimes you just want to make ramen at home for a nostalgic night in.  Orlando is blessed with a huge number of Asian markets, some of which are as huge as any Publix supermarket, and all of which feature a selection of ramen and other noodles that put Publix to shame.  And they aren’t all the fried dry bricks either — many brands offer fresh and frozen noodles that can be cooked just as easily, except the texture, taste, and quality are so much better.  Well, constant readers, I might have discovered the best store-bought ramen of all, so I had to share in another Grocery Grails feature.

The brand is Sun Noodle.  Based in Hawaii and founded by Hidehito Uki in 1981, Sun Noodle furnishes many of the best ramen restaurants in the U.S. with its fresh, springy noodles.  Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check out these features on Eater and Serious Eats and in Honolulu Magazine.  In recent years, Sun Noodle started producing ramen kits for home cooks to make fast, easy, restaurant-quality ramen with their fresh noodles and rich, flavorful concentrated soup bases that are a great leap forward from the salty powder packets we all know.

I recently found all three Sun Noodle ramen kits at Enson Market, formerly known as 1st Oriental Market, at 5132 West Colonial Drive in the Pine Hills neighborhood west of downtown Orlando, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and other businesses.  I found all three varieties in the cooler and bought them all: tonkotsu, shoyu, and miso ramen kits.  Each one comes with two servings.  Keep in mind these are perishable, so eat them or stick them in the freezer so they don’t go bad, which would be a damn shame.   

Of course I had to start with the tonkotsu, my favorite:

The back of each package includes cooking directions, nutrition information, and ingredients.  Note that this tonkotsu soup base contains pork extract, lard, and chicken powder,  so it is definitely not for vegetarians!

Each package includes two separate portions, with individually wrapped noodles and soup base packets.  The concentrated tonkotsu base was a thick, sticky paste the color of butterscotch pudding.  Let me save you the trouble — don’t bother tasting it.  You probably won’t like it, at least not until you mix it with hot water and stir well to create the creamy tonkotsu broth you were hoping for.

Here is my tonkotsu ramen, which I served with some corn and a piece of Filipino pork adobo, the only pork I had on hand.  It was great!  Definitely not as good as Ramen Takagi and the other aforementioned restaurants, because they make their broth from scratch and include house-made chashu pork and other fine ingredients.  Cobbled together from a ramen kit, a can of corn, and a hunk of leftover pork that wasn’t even from a Japanese recipe, it was still some damn fine ramen, and far better than any instant ramen I’ve tried before.  The rich, creamy broth was better than I could have imagined, made with that paste instead of a powdered seasoning blend. 

A week or so passed, and I decided to bust out the shoyu ramen, which is soy sauce-flavored.

Nutrition info and ingredients.  This one includes dried sardine extract powder, so vegetarians, stay away.

How everything looks before cooking.  Note the shoyu ramen noodles are more of a rich golden color than the paler noodles that came in the tonkotsu kit above.

And here’s the prepared soup, with more corn and some crunchy fried onions.  They’re not just for Thanksgiving green bean casserole anymore!  I think I liked these noodles better, but I definitely prefer the rich, porky flavor of the tonkotsu broth to the almost overwhelming saltiness of the shoyu broth.   And yet, it was still better than any instant ramen I’ve ever tried.

Most recently, I made the miso ramen, which is soybean paste-flavored.  Now, I’ve had miso soup at Japanese restaurants before, but only when it came with something else I ordered.  I must admit I never get too excited about it, because it never tastes like much to me.  I’ve never really sought out tofu or other soy-based meat substitutes, and it certainly never occurred to me to order miso ramen at any restaurants when tonkotsu was an option.  But I tried it for you, constant readers, for the sake of SCIENCE and JOURNALISM!  I may never be the kind of “influencer” food blogger that gets invited to free meals and fancy events, but I will definitely keeping reporting on the best local restaurants and the most interesting groceries you can find at local markets. 

Anyway, here are the nutrition info and ingredients for the miso ramen.  Yes, it is vegetarian-friendly!

The fresh noodles and soup base packet.  This one was also a thick paste that I poured the hot water from the noodles into and stirred.

And here is my miso ramen, with (surprise!) more corn, more crunchy fried onions that didn’t stay crunchy for long.  I decorated this bowl with black sesame seeds, and that cherry on top is actually a bulb of black garlic, with a very complex and surprisingly sweet flavor, and a chewy consistency like gummy candy.  

Interestingly, this was the most complex flavor of all.  Having never tried miso ramen before, I can barely even describe it, but there was a lot going on — all of it good.

I strongly recommend these to anyone curious, and I would definitely buy them again to keep in the freezer for when I crave ramen.  This happens a lot, by the way.  I’m sure there are other great ramen brands to make at home, but Sun Noodle is kind of a big deal.  I was thrilled to discover these existed, and then to find them locally.  Have you tried these?  Is there another variety of ramen you recommend, either a brand, a flavor, or both?  Your friendly neighborhood Sabsoscrivner is always on the lookout for gustatory glory with Grocery Grails.

Yummy House

The Chinese restaurant Yummy House (https://yummyhouseflorida.com/orlando-menu/) has five locations: Tampa, Sarasota, Ocala, my old college town of Gainesville, and nearby Altamonte Springs, one of the small municipalities in Seminole County, directly north of Orlando.  I always liked it, and I think it’s definitely the best Chinese restaurant north of the Colonial Drive area, where all the other great ones like Peter’s Kitchen, Chuan Lu Garden, and Taste of Chengdu are located.

But when I realized I hadn’t been back to Yummy House a few years, the timing seemed right to do something about that.  You may have noticed there has been a lot of ignorance and intolerance leveled against the Asian-American community recently — discrimination against businesses, harassment and even horrific violence against individuals.  This is inexcusable and wrong, but there are things we can do to help.  You can attend a bystander intervention training to help stop anti-Asian-American and xenophobic harassment, like the ones run by the Hollaback! organization.  (I’m registered for my first training next week.)  If you are an ally, you can check in with your Asian friends and tell them you’re here for them, that you empathize and care, that you see them and hear them and are available for any support they need.   And you can support Asian-owned restaurants and other businesses, because between the lasting pandemic and this new wave of anti-Asian hate, they could use your business more than ever.  So if you weren’t already craving Chinese food, I hope you will consider placing an order at Yummy House now.

This is spicy XO beef short ribs ($16.99): sautéed baby beef short ribs with snow peas in house-made spicy XO sauce.  I always love short ribs, and these were tender and tasty.  I always never eat snow peas, but the crispiness offset the unctuous richness of the saucy meat.  Just be careful of the bones, but you can eat all the way around them, with very little meat clinging to them.

This next dish is one of my old favorites from Yummy House: XO seafood chow fun ($12.99).  These chewy rice noodles are stir-fried with shrimp, scallops, calamari, onion, and crunchy bean sprouts in lightly spicy XO sauce.  They’re not quite as visible in this photo, but I assure you there were plenty of plump shrimp, sweet scallops, and tender squid, and they all tasted very fresh.

You may already be asking yourself “What the heck is XO sauce?”  It is a luxurious Chinese condiment that I became obsessed with trying after first reading about it on Serious Eats and Saveur, and as far as I can tell, Yummy House is the only restaurant in Orlando that uses it in dishes (although there may be others I haven’t been to).  It brings saltiness and savory umami flavor to dishes, but it is also a little spicy and a little sweet.  Created in Hong Kong in the 1980s, it was named after another high-end luxury item, French XO (extra old) cognac, that receives the XO designation after it has been aged for over six years.  However, there is no cognac in the sauce.  These two articles taught me that it includes dried scallops (an expensive ingredient), bacon and/or ham, spicy cod roe called mentaiko, baby anchovies, fried shallots and garlic, chiles, ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, chicken stock, spices, sugar, and oil, then simmered until it takes on the thick consistency of preserves, like marmalade or jam.  RESEARCH!  Know it, love it.

Sounds amazing, right?  It sounds really labor-intensive, for one thing.  I’ve never noticed premade jars of XO sauce at any of Orlando’s fantastic Asian markets, but if any of my readers can recommend a good brand, I’d love to pick one up for kitchen experimentation.  In the meantime, you can enjoy the heck out of it at Yummy House.

Anyway, this next dish was a gigantic hit with my wife, and I loved it too.  I think it joins the red barbecue pork fried rice at Naradeva Thai in the pantheon of greatest rice dishes in Orlando.  It is duck and dried grape fried rice ($12.99), and it is so ridiculously good.  It is no secret that my wife and I both love duck in all its forms, and this jasmine rice dish also includes eggs, green onions, and fresh cilantro, in addition to the tender and juicy minced boneless roast duck.  But dried grapes?  Those are raisins — specifically sultanas, or golden raisins, in this dish, and they are so perfect, adding a chewy texture and a pleasant sweetness that is awe-inspiring. 

There are a lot of jokes about bad cooks ruining dishes with raisins, like sneaking them into potato salad to ruin cookouts for unsuspecting family and friends.  The wonderful Netflix TV series Dead to Me even had a gag about a neighbor’s “Mexican lasagna” that was full of raisins.  (It was no mistake that this neighbor was named “Karen.”  Seriously, watch the show.  Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are doing the best work of their careers.)  And some people even hate oatmeal raisin cookies, which I don’t get because I love them, but I guess they could be disappointing if you were expecting chocolate chip.  But anyway, don’t knock roast duck and golden raisins (or “dried grapes”) in your fried rice until you’ve tried it, and I sincerely hope you try it.

Anyway, that was last weekend, and it was so good, I brought Yummy House home again last night.  Of course we had to get the same fried rice:

And since it was so good last time, I also had to try the BBQ pork fried rice ($9.99), also with eggs, green onions, and fresh cilantro mixed into the jasmine rice.  This pork was also very tender, smoky, slightly sweet, and delightfully fatty.  In case you can’t tell, these are huge portions.  My wife and I were able to get several meals out of both takeout orders.

The first time we ever went to Yummy House to dine in, years ago, I ordered my favorite go-to dish at any Chinese restaurant, beef chow fun noodles ($11.99).  This time my wife requested it, sans bean sprouts, and I figured she would prefer it to the spicy XO version.  As usual, the noodles have that perfect chewy consistency, the sliced beef was tender, and the whole dish came together so well.  I’ve waxed poetic about the wonderful beef chow fun at Peter’s Kitchen in my Top Tastes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly, and this is up there with it as one of the best I’ve had anywhere.

Finally, a friend and co-worker who also loves Yummy House recommended the salt and pepper calamari ($9.99), so I added that to last night’s takeout order too.  Calamari is so different everywhere, and you never know if you’re going to get tender tubes, or a mass of Lovecraftian tentacles, and if they will be battered or breaded, greasy or rubbery, or just plain perfect.  This calamari was on the perfect side, with thick and tender strips rather than tubes, and a nice batter that was crispy and firm and stayed in place, without being too greasy or heavy.  I was surprised to see this much seasoning on it, including red pepper flakes, green onions, and what seemed like Szechuan peppercorns, but without the tingling, numbing heat those usually bring.  It was spicier than I expected “salt and pepper” calamari to be, but also not nearly as spicy as it looks in this photo.  I loved it.  It was a really pleasant surprise.

So to sum all of this up, Yummy House is the best Chinese restaurant I know of in Seminole County, and it holds its own against the other best ones in Orlando.  You have to come for the calamari, the chow fun, the duck and dried grape fried rice, and anything with XO sauce, trust me.  But trust me on this too: we need to come together as a community to support our Asian friends and neighbors now more than ever, to let them know we care about them, value them, and welcome them, and will stand with them and stand up for them.  Why not start at Yummy House, or one of the other wonderful local Asian restaurants I’ve reviewed here on The Saboscrivner?  Check those categories near the top right of the page and find somewhere that looks good.  I don’t think you will have to look far at all.

DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart

Ever since I first tried Taglish in late 2019, chef-owner Michael Collantes’ Filipino-American fusion restaurant located inside Lotte Plaza Market‘s food court, I have been obsessed with the flavors of Filipino food.  I’ve been back to Taglish several times and tried many different dishes, each more delicious than the next, but Orlando just doesn’t have that many Filipino restaurants.  A former co-worker who left our workplace to marry a Filipino guy in Montreal used to bring in takeout from DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Deguzman-Oriental-Food-Mart/149298135096257), a Filipino convenience store on East Colonial Drive, just west of State Road 417.  Thanks to his generosity, I had sampled some of their dishes before, but never been there, so I recently decided to do something about that.

DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart is a humble convenience store connected to a Citgo gas station.  In addition to the usual snacks you would expect at a convenience store, they carry an assortment of Filipino groceries, but the star is the shining steam table of fresh, hot food they prepare daily.  A few weeks ago, on a busy, chilly day, I stopped in for an early lunch and decided to order a few different things to treat myself. 

Unfortunately I was eating in my office, so I avoided the tempting-looking crispy fried milkfish, which I figured would be too messy to eat on the job.  Next time, milkfish!

I had been craving pancit, so I got a large serving ($10.00) and made a few meals out of it.  Pancit is a dish of tender rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, eggs, onions, celery, and carrots, and soy sauce.  It wasn’t overly salty or greasy, which is always a relief.  It it totally hit the spot.   

I also got a small container of pork adobo ($5.50), a stew of large, tender chunks of pork braised in a rich, thick gravy made of soy sauce, vinegar and garlic, with plenty of whole black peppercorns in there too.  Soy sauce and vinegar are common ingredients in Filipino cuisine, and I just love the vinegar-heavy flavors that bring sourness and also sweetness, complemented by the saltiness of the soy sauce.  It is really nothing like adobo seasoning or adobo dishes from Latin-American countries that I’ve had.   

Since this was a rare cold day in Orlando, I couldn’t resist ordering a small container of beef caldereta ($7.50) too, another rich, heavy braised dish.  Caldereta is a Filipino take on beef stew, definitely spicier than the pork adobo, but still pretty mild.  “Tangy” might be the best descriptor, due to the tomatoey sauce with chunks of potato, onion, red bell pepper, carrot, and even  black olives in there.  The meat was extremely tender, and the broth had a great flavor.  I am such a sucker for braised meats, especially in the wintertime (which is just a few weeks here in Central Florida), but I love them year-round.   

Don’t worry — like I said, I got three or four meals out of everything I ordered.  I tried spooning the pork adobo and beef caldereta juices over the pancit — both separately and together, creating new and exciting flavor combinations.  As a guy with a vinegar collection that rivals my multitude of mustards, familiarizing myself with vinegar-centric Filipino food has been a fun adventure.  I have bought a few seasoned Filipino vinegars of my own — Suka Pinakurat spicy coconut vinegar and Datu Puti spicy cane vinegar — and I’ve made my own version of the dish adobong sitaw at home several times now, substituting green beans for the more traditional (and harder to find) long beans.  But I haven’t attempted to recreate any other Filipino dishes.  It’s intimidating, but I am more than happy to leave it to the experts in the meantime.

Don’t let the fact that DeGuzman is a convenience store connected to a gas station put you off.  I have always tried to highlight “non-traditional” restaurants on The Saboscrivner, because if you’re willing to take a chance and try new things, you can find some incredible, memorable meals at food trucks, food courts and food halls, farmer’s markets, restaurants inside grocery stores, convenience stores, bowling alleys, and more.  Here we are, eleven months into this pandemic, and restaurants are still struggling everywhere.  Businesses like these are clever, focusing on takeout business rather than customers dining in and doing what they can to survive, and I’m glad we have options like them.  Now I am really glad to have the option of amazing, fresh, homemade food at DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart, just moments from my job and easily accessible from most parts of Orlando.

BaanChan Thai Restaurant

I had been hearing about BaanChan Thai Restaurant (https://www.baanchanorlando.com/) for years before finally making it there in December.  I brought back takeout for my “lunch bunch” at work, and everyone really enjoyed what they ordered.  It’s way out east on Colonial Drive, further east than I usually venture, almost out to Alafaya.  But it is easily accessible via the 417 and convenient for anyone in the UCF area.

My one co-worker ordered the BaanChan ramen ($10), with noodles in a spicy lemongrass soup, mushrooms, onions, scallions, cilantro, whole chiles, and lime.  It came with a soy-marinated soft boiled egg and several large deep-fried, breaded shrimp.  This was a a uniquely Thai take on ramen.  They wisely packed the broth, the fried shrimp, and all the other stuff in three separate containers for her.  My photo of the broth came out blurry, so I left it out.  You’re welcome!

Three of us ordered my go-to Thai dish, drunken noodles ($8.50), at various levels of heat.  Because I like to tempt fate and sometimes ruin my afternoons at the workplace, I asked for mine to be hot.  Drunken noodles, sometimes called pad kee mow or pad kee mao, are wide, flat noodles stir-fried to an al dente consistency in a spicy sauce with onions, bell peppers, and Thai basil, plus a protein.  I chose pork, which was tender and not dried out from the stir-frying.  These were much more oily than other drunken noodles I’ve ordered elsewhere, at places like Mee Thai, Naradeva Thai, and Thai Singha, but still had a lot of flavor and A LOT of heat.

Someone’s food came with fluffy jasmine rice, but it went unclaimed.  That was a relief to me, because I ate it to cut some of the lingering heat from the spicy, oleaginous noodles.  Sometimes carbs can save your life!

I also ordered two small appetizers for myself, so I could make everything last for lunch and dinner.  I asked around, and a lot of people recommended the Thai heaven beef ($4.50), which is fried beef jerky!  Because it was fried and not just cured like a lot of conventional jerky I’ve had, in addition to being sticky, sweet, salty, and slightly spicy, it was oily and also quite firm and crunchy, which I wasn’t expecting.  I can see why this is a popular crowd-pleaser at BaanChan, but I don’t know if I would order it again.

My absolute favorite thing I tried on this first visit to BaanChan was the Thai sausage ($4).  It was chewy and savory with a slightly crispy exterior, not spicy at all.  It was a terrific sausage, and I loved it.  It came with paper-thin slices of pickled ginger like you might get with sushi, and some intimidating-looking whole chiles that I wisely avoided.

You can also see a fried pot sticker that one of my co-workers gave me from her order ($4.50 for four).  It was stuffed with ground, seasoned pork and vegetables and was a pretty standard pot sticker, but you can never go wrong with those.

I was glad to finally try BaanChan after reading about it for years.  Whenever I make it back, I’ll definitely order that amazing sausage again, and I’ll probably try the pineapple fried rice, chili jam, or larb next time to switch things up.

Ramen Takagi

There are some foods I crave literally all of the time.  Loaded Italian subs.  Turkish lahmacun.  Nova salmon.  Jamaican oxtails.  Hot pastrami with grilled onions and good mustard.  Prosciutto.  Oysters.  Auntie Anne’s pretzels.  (Sorry, not sorry!)  Obviously I don’t eat them all the time because I don’t want to die, but I sure do love them.  And another one on this list is tonkotsu ramen, springy noodles and fat-marbled chashu pork slices in a gloriously rich and creamy pork bone broth.  There are other kinds of ramen that are all worthy of love, but for me, tonkotsu is the bowl that rules them all.

There are a few restaurants to get a delicious bowl of ramen around Orlando, and I’ve reviewed a few of them: Susuru down near Disney Springs, Domu in the East End Market in Orlando’s hip Audubon Park neighborhood, Kai Asian Street Fare on the edge of Casselberry and Winter Park, Jade Sushi & New Asian in College Park near downtown Orlando.

But this past week, a brand-new restaurant specializing in ramen opened on Aloma Avenue in Oviedo, between Tuskawilla Road and the 417, placing it very close to Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Winter Park, and ten minutes from our home.  The place is Ramen Takagi (https://ramentakagi.com/), and I’ve been waiting months for it to finally open.  (It is open every day except Tuesdays!)  When I arrived, I was the only customer, but three staff members were chatting inside.  I was pleased to see they were all wearing masks, even though they were alone in their restaurant, and they were warm and friendly when I got there and introduced myself.  After visiting tonight for the first time, I was so glad to welcome them to the neighborhood, and I promised these new neighbors they would be seeing a lot more of me.

This is the tonkotsu ramen ($13), with the sliced chashu pork, ajitamago (a marinated, soft-boiled egg), pickled ginger, and scallions over a generous portion of perfectly-cooked noodles.  Even before adding the broth, it was beautiful.

This is the rich, creamy pork bone broth, which had already started separating in the ten minutes it took me to drive home, but a quick stir melded everything back together.  I appreciated it so much that they packed the broth separately.

Here’s the beautiful bowl with the broth stirred up and poured in over everything.  I loved it so very much.  Is it my favorite tonkotsu ramen in Orlando?  It was one of those meals that was so good, my eyes rolled back into my head.  It’s a heck of a lot more convenient than Domu (which has the excellent Richie Rich tonkotsu I reviewed earlier this year, pre-pandemic), and so much closer than Susuru, which I liked a lot, but it’s an hour from our door.  So for multiple reasons, it might be my new favorite.  It might become your new favorite too.

I couldn’t resist trying the mazesoba ($11), an order of savory ground pork with diced chashu, another ajitamago egg, strips of nori seaweed, and scallions over noodles.  This is a brothless ramen dish, and it was still tasty, but the tonkotsu broth was so good, it was hard for the mazesoba to measure up.  In the near future, I will try all the other forms of ramen at Ramen Takagi: shio (chicken bone broth with a salt base), shoyu (chicken bone broth with a soy base), and miso (pork and chicken blended broth, which can be ordered spicy or non-spicy).

This was kaedama, literally translated to an extra order of noodles, which were a very reasonable $1.50.  I had considered adding them to any leftover tonkotsu broth, but instead my wife really enjoyed them with just a small splash of the broth. 

These are onigiri, tasty triangles of seafood wrapped in sushi rice and wrapped again in delicious nori, the same thin sheets of crispy seaweed used for sushi rolls.  I liked how these came wrapped in cellophane with a red stripe down the center that you pull to tear it open, and then release the cellophane from the sides.

I chose the tuna with mayo (left, $2.50) and the smoked salmon (right, $3).  For the tuna with mayo, I was really expecting raw or seared ahi tuna, rich and purple, hopefully adorned with the orange spicy mayo I love so much with sushi, poke, and pretty much everything.  I was surprised it was more like tuna salad.  It wasn’t bad, just not at all what I expected.  I liked the smoked salmon more, but even it was flakes of smoked salmon instead of… I don’t know if I expected thin slices of nova or belly lox or what.  Still, as always, I’m so glad I tried them.

As I said, Ramen Takagi just opened a week ago, after the sign had been up for several months.  I was starting to worry the restaurant might end up another casualty of 2020, and they might never open their doors at all.  But they’re here, and they’re already off to a bang-up start.  I was extremely impressed by their mask protocol, being alone in the shop without the prying eyes of concerned customers, and they had their masks on, taking things seriously before they could have possibly seen me approach.  And I was just as impressed by the quality of my takeout food.

I’m so glad to have another great restaurant near our home, along with a much closer and quicker source for one of my favorite dishes, tonkotsu ramen.  When I was in college, eating instant Nissin noodles that cost a buck for seven salty single servings, I never would have dreamed that over 20 years later, I’d have a wonderful wife, make an okay living, write a food blog that a handful of people actually read, or pay $13 for a bowl of delicious, beautiful, fresh ramen without thinking twice about it.  It makes me feel very lucky to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, and eating what I’m eating.  I intend to become a regular at Ramen Takagi, and I encourage my dozens of readers to do the same!

Thai Halal Grill

Thai Halal Grill (http://thaihalalgrill.com/) is a new fast-casual restaurant located inside the Apna Bazaar, a Halal Indian grocery store in Longwood, north of Orlando.  The restaurant just opened recently — I believe in October 2020.  When you walk into Apna Bazaar, you can’t miss their round sign lit up on the right of the market. 

The menu appears on a large TV monitor above the counter where you order, but they also have the menu on their website and full-color paper menus to take.  I was not planning to order food when I got to Apna Bazaar — instead I was looking for ground lamb for a pastitsio recipe.  But a friend and co-worker with good taste and opinions I respect raved about Thai Halal Grill after discovering it recently, so I placed an order and shopped around the grocery store while my food was being prepared, picking out some snacks and sweet basil seed drinks.  It only took about ten minutes.

I saw they had spicy halal meatballs in chili sauce with fried rice, and I almost order that when I saw the meatballs could also come with stir-fried noodles.  Sold!  That dish was a very reasonable $10.95 for a huge portion.  In fact, everything on the menu is $10.95 except for the stir-fried beef and pepper with white rice, which is $11.95.   I might try that next time, or the Thai fried rice, ore even one of the curries.  The lady working the counter was so sweet, warm, and welcoming.  She gave me a tangerine to take with me, for dessert. 

Here’s a close-up photo.  I loved this dish.  The meatballs were extremely flavorful, with the nice spongy texture you hope for from a meatball.  It contained red and green bell peppers, onions, and peas, but luckily no carrots.  I can take or leave carrots in dishes like this, as they never seem to add much in the way of flavor.  The noodles were soft and delicious.  I could have easily gotten two servings from this portion, but I chose not to.

I will totally go back to Thai Halal Grill and try something different next time, plus it was fun browsing around Apna Bazaar.  But I didn’t want to wait any longer on this review, since I got a little distracted by all the big news last weekend and never published anything this past week.  This is a tiny local restaurant that could use your business.  Please stop by and give them a chance, and I guarantee you’ll be tempted to buy some stuff from the market too.  Longwood isn’t known as one of Orlando’s super-hip foodie areas, but I’ve also reviewed Oh My Gyro and Pickles Delicatessen in the area, and there are more delicious destinations in Longwood I have plans to revisit and review soon.

Ms Tea’s Bento

This week I ordered takeout for myself and two co-workers from a relatively new Taiwanese restaurant for the first time, after seeing some photos of the food on The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, the main reason I haven’t deleted my Facebook account. Ms Tea’s Bento (https://msteasbento.business.site/) opened last year, then closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and only recently reopened at the beginning of September. The restaurant and teahouse is located in a shopping plaza on East Colonial Drive between Dean and Rouse Roads, easily accessible via the 417 or 408 and not far from busy Alafaya Trail.

It’s a cute little cafe, very warm and welcoming with simple decor (lots of tea, lots of cats), and I was welcomed by the sweetest woman who had my order all ready when I showed up. They have a menu on the website, but I thought it would be convenient for my readers to scan and share the menu here:

I mentioned it was my first time in, and I was so excited to try everything. The lady offered to make me a tea drink for free, because it was my first visit, which was so sweet and generous. I was almost ready to get a black milk tea, but I saw they had a sign in the window offering Yakult beverages, made with a popular Japanese probiotic drink, similar to sweet, thin yogurt with a subtle citrus taste. I asked about the Yakult, and she ended up making me a beautiful pink iced hibiscus tea drink with Yakult added to it, the way you would normally add milk. It was really light, sweet, and refreshing.


I also picked up an iced coffee for my co-worker ($3.75), which was shaken up with some sweetened condensed milk, like Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá. It looked and smelled delicious, and she seemed to love it. My longtime readers know I’m not a big coffee drinker, but I do make an exception for Vietnamese iced coffee.

So this is the chicken teriyaki bento box my one co-worker ordered, with steamed rice and vegetables ($9.50). I appreciated that all the meals came in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe plastic containers with lids that snap into place. That’s always nice to see, especially because I clean and reuse all those kinds of containers. Those are so much better than styrofoam or those flimsy, fragile folded paper takeout boxes.

My other co-worker loves takoyaki, crispy fried fritters made with octopus, a popular Japanese street food. She wanted to try Ms. Tea’s takoyaki ($5.99), and seemed to really like them. I believe they came garnished with thin bonito (fish) flakes and Japanese mayo.


I couldn’t decide between two dishes, and she was also interested in one of the two I wanted, so I suggested we split one of them, knowing her takoyaki wouldn’t be a large order. We split the spicy pork dry noodles ($8.95), which were nice, thick udon-like noodles with ground pork and julienned cucumber, very similar to dan dan noodles I’ve enjoyed before at Chuan Lu Garden. It also came topped with an egg fried to a perfect over-medium with a runny yolk that added richness, and fresh cilantro.

The other dish I wanted to try was the pork stew rice bowl ($7.50), which included braised pork belly in a rich brown sauce over steamed white rice, with still-crispy celery sticks, some tangy diced preserved vegetables (near the top), and half of a “tea boiled egg,” which was one of the things that drew me to try this dish. I think those lighter diced cubes at the bottom were fried tofu, which I definitely wasn’t expecting, but I could be wrong., since I almost never eat tofu. Saboscrivnerinos, please weigh in and set me right!


Finally, I couldn’t resist trying the sweet butter/condensed milk toast ($4.25), which sounded like a rich, delightful dessert. I love buttered toast, from Waffle House breakfasts to every kind of garlic bread with barbecue or Italian food. And I love sweetened condensed milk with anything, from coffee to fruit to Cuban tres leches. To me, plain ol’ sweetened condensed milk is a more satisfying dessert than many kinds of cookies, cakes, and ice cream!

I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it ended up being ONE large, thick slice of bread, very lightly toasted, and soaked with butter and condensed milk. I didn’t share this one, even though I realized about halfway through that it was scored into several smaller squares to be easily divided and shared. I ordered it for myself, so I had no compunction about enjoying it all myself.

I enjoyed everything I tasted on my first trip to Ms. Tea’s Bento, and I definitely plan to return and try more dishes and drinks. It’s one of Orlando’s hidden gems in that sun-baked industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive between the 417 and Alafaya, and it’s easy to miss. But when the sun is beating down and you want pull over for a cold, tasty beverage, or you’re hungry for something unfussy and possibly unfamiliar, it’s one more delicious destination in East Orlando and a casual, affordable alternative to the chain restaurants that proliferate out around UCF and Waterford Lakes.

Mei’s Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skyline Chili (Fort Lauderdale)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cross-section of this architectural marvel:DSC02994

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

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

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

*Nobody calls me the Dean of Sardines.  YET.