Naradeva Thai

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s going to the mall.  The only kinds of shopping I like are grocery shopping and comic book shopping.  However, once or twice a year I end up near Orlando’s upscale Mall at Millenia, rarely for anything I need.  At least there’s a very welcoming and well-stocked Coliseum of Comics location near that mall, along with one of my favorite Thai  restaurants anywhere, ever: Naradeva Thai (http://naradevathai.com/).

In the middle of a sprawling retail district, in the shadow of a Super Target, Naradeva feels like an oasis.  It’s definitely one of the best restaurants in that part of Orlando, but because it’s tucked into a little strip of shops (a musical instrument store, a GameStop, a Subway, and the aforementioned Coliseum of Comics), it is easy to miss.  But once you get inside, you will see what I mean about the sense of calm, relaxation, and beauty that will wash over you.  It’s one of the prettiest dining spaces anywhere in the city, on top of serving top-notch Thai food.  It is a sanctuary.DSC02472

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Going there recently with my wife, we both bemoaned the fact that Naradeva is across town from us, or otherwise we would be regulars for sure.  Even in the blistering August heat and sweltering humidity, it feels cooler inside, with the calming sounds of a little waterfall soothing us after weaving through the unknowable weekend traffic on I-4.

We both started our lunch with sweet, rich, creamy Thai iced coffees (one of the few kinds of coffee I like):dsc02476.jpg

After stirring it up (little darlin’):dsc02477.jpg

Back when I reviewed the wonderful Mee Thai last fall, I mentioned that I don’t eat enough Thai food and would like to try more dishes and even experiment with upping the heat levels.  Sadly, I haven’t done that enough.  On a rare trip to Naradeva, I defaulted to my favorite Thai dish: pad kee mao, also known as drunken noodles.  I feel like I need to try every Thai restaurant’s version of this, since everyone makes it a little different, and even a mediocre version is still going to be good.  Naradeva’s pad kee mao was above and beyond.  It was exactly what I wanted and needed, with nice chewy rice noodles, ground pork, crispy bell peppers and green beans, scallions, Thai basil, and bamboo shoot strips all stir-fried together.  I used to be skeptical about bamboo shoots, but they’re great — chewy and inoffensive.  One reason I love pad kee mao is the slight sweetness that cuts through the spice, probably from the basil leaves.  DSC02481I wish the noodles they used were thicker and wider, but those super-thick and wide noodles are pretty hard to find around here.  I tried the “hot” version for the first time, up from my usual medium heat.

This is Naradeva’s Thai red barbecue pork fried rice, which we ordered to split because we both love it so much.  It’s definitely my favorite fried rice dish anywhere.  The char siu-style pork is juicy, sweet, and tender.  It pretty much melts in your mouth.  They add eggs and scallions, plus the cilantro garnish on top, keeping it pretty simple but never boring or bland.  It’s amazing, and as long as you eat pork, I would strongly recommend any visitors to Naradeva try this dish.DSC02480

And my wife, who always has impeccable taste, selected the boneless duck in sweet and sour sauce, which was as gorgeous to look at as it was delectable to eat.  Naradeva serves their duck in a very light batter that comes out crispy from deep-frying, but never too crunchy or heavy with batter, and never dripping with grease.  You can choose from three sauces: tangy sweet and sour, pad kaprow Thai basil sauce (that probably would have been similar to the sauce on my pad kee mao), or red curry sauce.  But I know she doesn’t like curry or anything spicy, so she chose wisely and regretted nothing.  The sweet and sour sauce includes onions (which I dutifully picked out for her, like a good husband), tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber and pineapple chunks.

I can’t get over this plating!DSC02482

The duck comes with white jasmine rice, which neither of us paid much attention to, not with that perfect fried rice there between us.  But I took it home and made it into my own (not nearly as good) fried rice a day or two later.

On past visits to Naradeva, we have treated ourselves to puffy fried Thai doughnuts served with coconut custard dip, but we had more errands to run and were pretty full after this particular meal.  We will definitely return, though.  I’m sure our blood pressure and stress levels drop every time we visit that gorgeous restaurant, as we transport ourselves to a serene jungle oasis.  It’s even worth braving the bougie mall if I can stop at Naradeva on the way in or out.  And after that luxurious lunch, I found a comic I had been looking for forever at the shop a few doors down, and I even had a coupon for a $5 discount.  As my man Cube once said, “I gotta say it was a good day.”

Washington D.C. Part 5: Momofuku CCDC

It’s hard to choose what was the best meal of my trip.  China Chilcano‘s Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion feast with friends was legendary, and the Union Market was everything I love, with a trifecta of sandwiches, again shared with friends.  (Well, we shared the experience, but they didn’t want any of my three sandwiches, even though I offered!)  But Momofuku CCDC (https://ccdc.momofuku.com/), the Washington D.C. outpost of celebrity chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant empire, was also a meal to remember — once again improved exponentially by the excellent company.

I had sampled one of David Chang’s iconic dishes once before, his pork belly bao, when I visited the Momofuku-affiliated Milk Bar bakery on our NYC honeymoon back in 2009.  As great as delightful Chef Christina Tosi’s baked goods were, I was overjoyed that they were serving those famous bao there, and so lucky I got to try it.  I’ve tried to duplicate that pork belly bao at home over the years, but I’ve been waiting a decade for a chance to sample more food from the Momofuku family.

I am in a group that held an evening business meeting at our big professional conference, and we scheduled some dine-arounds for our members after the meeting.  There was a list of D.C. restaurants near the convention center for people to choose from, and I volunteered to “host” a group at Momofuku CCDC, just because I wanted to eat there so badly.  Four people signed up, and the five of us walked over together.  I knew most of them, but mostly just by their impeccable reputations, and none of them knew each other.  I made everyone do an icebreaker (which could have gone badly but didn’t), and by the end of our incredible dinner, I think everyone parted as frolleagues — colleagues who had become friends.

One of the CCDC specialties is bing bread, which is kind of like a cross between a pancake, a tortilla, and a pita.  It was soft and fluffy and warm and steamy, and perfect to spread things on or rip pieces off to dip into stuff.  Somehow a group of information professionals failed to make any “Bing” jokes, but it had been a long day and we were hungry.

My bing bread came with salted chili pimento cheese, topped with bread and butter pickled kohlrabi ($7).  Pimento cheese is rapidly joining onion rings as something I’ll order whenever it’s on the menu, and I loved it.  It has been a few weeks since this meal, but I’m 90% sure this was served chilled, which I always prefer to warm versions.DSC02445

One of my companions got the bing bread with chicken liver mousse, topped with fennel jam, Chinese five spice seasoning, and toasted almonds ($15).  I desperately wanted to try it because I love chopped chicken liver, but we had just met on the walk over here, and I didn’t dare ask her for a taste.  She seemed to really enjoy it, though.DSC02449

These were my garlic noodles, with crab, shrimp, corn, green tomato relish, and Thai basil ($33, which is out of my comfort zone for what I’d normally order as an entree, but I was at Momofuku CCDC and probably won’t ever make it back!).  I’m so glad I splurged, because it was amazing.  DSC02446

Someone else ordered charred broccoli with smoked béarnaise sauce ($13).  It normally comes with XO vinaigrette, but she’s a vegetarian so she asked them to hold it.  I discovered XO sauce recently, and now I’m a little obsessed with it — a rich, savory umami-bomb of a condiment made with dried shrimp and scallops, cured Chinese ham (or bacon or lap xeong Chinese sausage), chilies, onions, garlic, soy sauce, and/or oyster sauce, cooked into a thick jam, sometimes with oil added, and in this case, vinegar.  I should have asked if they would serve the XO vinaigrette on the side so I could try it, but it didn’t occur to me until just now, because these are the things I dwell on, weeks after the fact.DSC02448

I’m not seeing this on the menu, but it looks like the same charred broccoli dish served with softshell crab, so that must have been a special that night.  My colleague demonstrated his good taste, between the softshell crab and his seersucker jacket.  (I was sporting mine too, and miraculously didn’t get anything on it.)DSC02447

And this has to be the spicy cucumber, served with crushed almonds and togarashi seasoning ($7).  This would be a great restaurant for vegetarians, since they had several options that are much more interesting and luxurious than their usual choices of fries or a salad.DSC02450

After dinner, four of the five of us, now bonded over this magnificent meal, piled into a Lyft to attend a fancy party at the Library of Congress.  (Not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story!)  Then we split up almost immediately once we got there, but at least we’re all cool now.  And at least they didn’t see me completely wipe out on some slippery marble stairs in the Great Hall.  Luckily I wasn’t carrying anything and didn’t hurt myself, or worse yet, anyone else.

Hawkers Asian Street Fare

The pan-Asian restaurant Hawkers (https://eathawkers.com/) started as a small, hip, industrial-looking modern space on Mills Avenue, in what may be Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, Mills 50.  Since 2011, it has expanded into ten locations in multiple states, and for good reason: it’s terrific.  We’ve gone countless times since it opened, almost always to that original location.

Hawkers specializes in diverse street food specialties from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, and more.  Portions are relatively small, so it’s a great place to go with a group and share lots of dishes.  And very few items on the menu are over $10, so you don’t have to worry too much or feel too guilty ordering more than one dish to sample new things.

Hawkers is a real treasure, and it has emerged as one of my favorite restaurants to bring out-of-town visitors — a perfect distillation of Orlando’s multicultural culinary scene, especially its Asian influences.  It has impressed good friends from far and wide when they come to visit, and in the meantime, it has become a safe, reliable place to bring my wife when one or both of us have a hard time deciding what sounds best.  If you want something healthy or heavy, meaty or veggie, cool or spicy, noodles or rice, soups or salads, and now even a sweet treat of a brunch, Hawkers will have something you like.

For my most recent visit, I caught up with an old friend with connections to my old Miami friend group, who I then got to know better while we both studied in Gainesville.  I hadn’t seen him since 2006, which is insane.  In that time, we both met amazing women and got married, and he had kids.  It’s crazy!  Life happens.  He happened to be in Orlando for work that day and looked me up, hoping to meet for dinner and remembering I’m the guy who knows where to eat around here.  I was so glad to catch up with my old friend, and I knew Hawkers would be the perfect place to get together.  I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t amazed and astonished by it.

For this dinner, I started us out with an order of roti canai, which are buttery, flaky Malaysian flatbreads.  Think about a really good, fresh, fluffy flour tortilla getting it on with a layer you peel off a delicate French croissant, and you’ll come close to the glory and grandeur of a Malaysian roti.  An order of a single roti with a cup of curry sauce for dipping is $3, and each additional roti costs $1.50.  Count on ordering at least one roti for everyone in your party, and I guarantee you’ll want more.  Even people with the most unadventurous palates will love these, although those people might want to forego the curry sauce.  If you have kids, they will love these things too.dsc02328.jpg

I also requested an order of Korean twice-fried chicken wings ($8), which are my favorite wings anywhere, ever.  My wife agrees, and so does my best food friend (BFF) who lives in Miami.  And now, so does this old friend.  These are huge wings, with the thickest, crispiest breading, slathered in a sticky, sweet, spicy, garlicky gochujang sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and fresh cilantro.  An order of five wings costs $8, and my friend liked them so much, he ordered more.
DSC02327 These wings made my Orlando Weekly list of five favorite dishes of 2017.  They are perfect in every way.  They’re thick, meaty, juicy, crunchy, sweet (but not too sweet), and spicy (but definitely not too spicy).  I hate the tiny, dry, burnt-to-a-crisp sports bar wings that too many restaurants and bars serve, slathered in oily hot sauce designed to burn on the way in and the way out.  To me, there’s no point to even eating wings like that.  They’re just sad.  These Korean twice-fried wings are the opposite: pure happiness.

Next up were the chicka-rones ($6), crispy fried chicken skins tossed in jerk seasoning.  The menu says these are Filipino-style.  I loved them, especially as a nice alternative to pork rinds (AKA chicharrones, hence the clever name of this dish), which can sometimes be too hard to bite through, or so crunchy they can shred the inside of your mouth.  DSC02329For the first time ever, I recently fried up my own chicken skins at home into a crispy Jewish delicacy called gribenes, and rendered the fat (schmaltz) for cooking with later.  Fried chicken skins are so much lighter and less oppressive-feeling than pork rinds, so I’m definitely a convert.

My friend was craving something spicy, so he went with a dish I had never tried before: Kin’s prawn mee ($9), a hot noodle soup with spicy prawn broth, shrimp, chicken, wheat noodles, hard-boiled egg, yow choy (Chinese greens), bean sprouts, and fried shallots.  He was sweating, but he loved it.  I might order this in the future, since he was so enthusiastic about it.DSC02330

And I also picked a new noodle dish, knowing those are always safe bets.  This was the Yaki udon ($8.50): thick and chewy udon noodles (always a favorite), chicken, eggs, onions, spring onions, and carrots.  It comes with bean sprouts too, but I am not the biggest fan, so I asked them to hold the bean sprouts — never a problem at Hawkers.  It had pretty mild heat, but it was pleasant.  We both enjoyed this one, and I’d totally order it again.  DSC02331In the past, I have loved so many of Hawkers’ noodle dishes: curry-seasoned Singapore mei fun with chicken and shrimp, beef haw fun (with wide, flat noodles, similar to the beef chow fun I order at almost every Chinese restaurant that offers it), char kway teow, and spicy pad Thai.  Now I’m adding the Yaki udon to this all-star lineup.  The only problem in the future is what to choose: an old favorite or an exciting new possibility.  You can’t go wrong either way, trust me.

Anyway, I parted ways with my old friend after dinner, determined to keep in touch better and not let thirteen more years go by.  He seemed to really enjoy the restaurant and our menu selections, which I totally expected, but the last thing I ever want to do is recommend something that disappoints, staunch Saboscrivner subscribers included.  A bad meal always depresses me, because not only is it a bad meal, but there’s the opportunity cost of not being able to enjoy a good meal in its place.  I can safely say that Hawkers is a crowd-pleaser, and if you haven’t given it a chance yet, you won’t be sorry.

In fact, to sweeten the deal, Hawkers started serving brunch recently, but only on weekends and only at their newer, larger location in Windemere, much further from where we live.  People’s photos of the new menu items looked enticing, so my wife and I recently took the trip out there, a few weeks after they rolled out the brunch menu, figuring they would have time to work out any potential bugs.  Though we were one of the first parties to arrive when the restaurant opened that morning, it took an extraordinarily long time for us to get seated.  I normally don’t remark on things like this on my blog, but it seemed weird, given that the restaurant was completely empty after just opening for business, with lots of staff available.  We couldn’t help but be amused by one woman who (politely and diplomatically) complained about the delay before leaving.  My wife expressed a gesture of solidarity with her as she walked out, and then I figured we were going to get lousy service and would end up feeling like chumps.  But once we finally got seated, the service improved exponentially, and it was worth the wait.

I’m a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, so I marked out when I saw this brunch item called Hash Rules Everything Around Me.  How could I not order that?  Dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all!  The dish included fried pork belly, crisp tater tots, bell peppers, and onions, topped with an egg fried over easy, smothered in curry gravy.  Everything about this dish worked for me, with the runny richness of the egg cascading down and melding with the spicy gravy, forming a killer sauce for those tots.  They were the best tots I’ve ever had, and the pork belly was everything I love about pork belly — a crispy (but not crunchy) exterior, giving way to smooth, unctious, yielding deliciousness. DSC02092DSC02094

Xiao long bao, AKA soup dumplings!  On the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, people had been hyping these up for years and bemoaning their absence in Orlando before they popped up on a few local restaurants’ menus recently.  Hawkers was the first or second to offer these steamed classics in town.DSC02095

Frankly, I think they’re kind of messy to eat, and dare I say it — more trouble than they’re worth.  If you don’t eat the whole thing in one bite, the broth leaks out, and if you do eat the whole thing in one bite, you can burn a layer of skin out of your mouth.  DSC02097

Think about how perfect a pizza is, and then consider the calzone — everything you love about a pizza, but the inverse.  Not bad, per se, but inside out and a little awkward to eat.  Now think about a bowl of good wonton soup.  Are you envisioning it?  So warm and comforting!  Well, the xiao long bao is the calzone version of wonton soup, with pork, crab, and broth inside the wonton, each soup dumpling its own little microcosm.  DSC02098

Even for brunch, we couldn’t go to Hawkers and not order the twice-fried Korean chicken wings.  Yes, don’t worry — many of your regular favorites are still available on the brunch menu.  Check the website to confirm, though!  These wings were as sticky, sweet, and spicy as usual.  DSC02099

This was a brunch dish that might as well have been on the dessert menu: the Hong Kong bubble waffle, stuffed with whipped cream, fresh lemon custard, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  If you’ve never had a bubble waffle, remedy that.  It is sweet and eggy with the lightest, crispiest outer shell, but so soft and fluffy inside.  This one got soggy and cool quickly due to the whipped cream, but was still tasty.  DSC02091

I can see bubble waffles being a very satisfying street food, especially if you just get handed a warm waffle and eat it by tearing bubbles off or just biting off a bubble at a time.  The whipped cream and especially the lemon custard would have been better as dips for the waffle itself, rather than being served inside of it to make the whole thing soggy.DSC02093

And this sweet brunch dish (pretty much another dessert) was called Stacks on Stacks: Japanese souffle pancakes, so trendy and Instagrammable.  The pancakes were tall, thick, and very jiggly and fluffy, served with bananas, Nutella, whipped cream, and drizzled with a housemade sesame peanut sauce.  (Fo’ drizzle.)  I didn’t think this was that fantastic.  The pancakes were kind of doughy and a little dry, even with all the toppings.  I honestly prefer IHOP and Cracker Barrel pancakes, and I’m not that big on Nutella, sesame, or peanuts.  This dish just wasn’t for me, but I suspect many of my regular readers and “brunch squad” types will love it.DSC02100

I always order a Vietnamese iced coffee at Hawkers, especially if I’m going to have anything spicy.  It’s one of the only coffee drinks I’ll drink, rich and sweet with condensed milk.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet with condensed milk, and ready to jolt me awake.  That morning, my wife ordered a “mocktail” called the Tang Dynasty, with tangy pineapple juice, orange juice, tamarind, salt, and ginger ale.dsc02090.jpg

I’m generally not a brunch fan — my regular readers know I consider it a disappointing ripoff of a meal, especially since neither of us drink — but I’m glad we experienced the new brunch at Hawkers once.  I don’t think we’ll rush back, but mostly because the Windemere location is quite far from us.  We’re still huge fans of the tried-and-true original location for lunch and dinner, especially those Korean twice-fried wings, the roti canai, and all those noodles.  And if you come to visit me from a town that doesn’t have a Hawkers location yet, we might just end up there.  So far, all the friends I’ve dragged there have emerged huge fans, so watch out!

 

The New York Adventure Part 4: Xi’an Famous Foods

One of the restaurants I researched for our New York trip, after reading raves for years, was Xi’an Famous Foods (https://www.xianfoods.com/), a family-owned Chinese restaurant specializing in spicy noodle dishes, with eleven Manhattan locations, three in Queens, and one in Brooklyn.  From its humble beginning in a tiny mall basement food stall in Flushing, Queens, in 2005, Xi’an has grown into a familiar New York City institution.

According to the website, the city of Xi’an in northwestern China created a unique cuisine incorporating Middle Eastern influences and lots of spices, including mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns.  I have reviewed some of Orlando’s own Szechuan-influenced restaurants, Taste of Chengdu and Chuan Lu Garden, and I’m always a noodle fan, so I had to try Xi’an Famous Foods while I could.  Luckily, while we were touring our favorite museum, the always illuminating Museum of Modern Art, I looked out a second-floor window and saw a Xi’an location directly across the street!  It was meant to be.

Unfortunately, this location wasn’t the most accessible for my walker-wielding wife, who courageously climbed down a few steps to enter.  We took note of all of our “adventures in accessibility” in New York and realized how lucky we are that most buildings and businesses in Orlando are accessible for people with disabilities, compared to larger, older cities.  New York is still rad, but that was an ongoing issue throughout our trips, past and present.  But I digress.

Anyway, Xi’an Famous Foods posted its full menu on the wall inside, with photos — something we really appreciated, that I wish more restaurants would do.  DSC02149

My wife was a little intimidated by the promised spiciness, and the place was hopping with the lunch rush, so we compromised with me ordering my meal to go, to enjoy back in our room.  Chili oil leaked in the bag on the way back to our hotel and made a huge mess, which made photography difficult, but I did my best.

This was the dish I fantasized about in advance: hand-ripped wide biangbiang noodles with stewed oxtails.  Everyone warned me to order the noodles with the cumin lamb, and I do love cumin lamb, but oxtails win out.  DSC02152
That’s a dish I crave almost constantly, especially from Jamaican restaurants, despite indulging only once or twice a year.  I’ve made slow-braised oxtails at home too, but since she doesn’t care for them, it almost seems like more trouble than it’s worth.  Needless to say, these oxtails were much spicier than the Jamaican recipes I am used to, and I even ordered it mild (better safe than sorry, I figured).  They were tender and unctious, though, just as they should be from the slow stewing or braising process.  The noodles were delicious, with a great chewiness.

But since I’m also a cumin lamb fanboy, I had to try it too.  Luckily, Xi’an offers a spicy cumin lamb burger, a sandwich on a crispy flatbread bun that was like a cross between a pita and an English muffin, in terms of texture.  The bun didn’t do much for me, but the lamb was tender, flavorful, and very, very spicy.  I wimped out with the noodles, but felt I owed it to myself and to the cook to try something at maximum strength.DSC02156

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaaal!DSC02154Final thought on the famous cumin lamb: NOT BAAAAAAAD.

I wish I had more to say, but I just wish I could have tried more things.  I don’t think you can go wrong with anything atop these biangbiang noodles: not just oxtails or cumin lamb, but also spicy ground pork (like the dan dan noodles I love so much), stewed pork, spicy and sour pork belly, bone-in dark meat chicken, vegetables, and even plain noodles tossed in chili oil.  You can get most of the noodle dishes in soup as well, plus dumplings stuffed with spicy and sour lamb or spinach and vermicelli noodles, with or without soup.  Everything was very affordable, and as we could tell from the midday crowd, Xi’an Famous Foods must be a hot lunch spot for New Yorkers around the city (no pun intended).  I’m glad I finally got to feel the heat for myself.

Chuan Lu Garden

Even though I have discovered the glory of Taste of Chengdu and Chef Wang’s Kitchen over the last few months, I always end up returning to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Orlando, Chuan Lu Garden (http://www.chuanluorlando.com/).  There are two locations: one at the heart of the Mills 50 District, Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, and a newer one in east Orlando on Alafaya Trail, closer to UCF

Like Taste of Chengdu, fewer than 15 minutes away, Chuan Lu Garden specializes in spicy Szechuan cuisine, with peppercorns that numb your mouth and make everything tingle. It’s a different kind of heat than what most hot sauce heroes and chile cheerleaders are used to, but those flavors are highlighted in several dishes throughout the lengthy menu, like la zi chicken and la zi fish (crispy fried, breaded pieces that bring the tingle). I appreciate some heat some of the time, but I tend to play it safer and stick to the delicious hand-cut and hand-pulled noodle offerings.

This review is based on several visits over the last few months:

Visit #1: We met dear friends from Gainesville who were in town with tickets to see Hamilton.  Unfortunately, I am an idiot and gave them directions to the wrong Chuan Lu Garden location.  They drove all the way to east Orlando, when we were waiting for them near downtown, chosen purposely to put them near the theater.  But they are badasses who didn’t sweat it and weren’t even mad at me.  They made it to where we were in 15 minutes flat, and I ordered some vegetarian dishes for them in the meantime.  (I treated them to dinner too, but I was planning to do that anyway, even before I almost ruined their night and put them in danger of missing the greatest musical of all time.)

I ordered myself one of my favorite dishes on the menu, cumin lamb, which is much less blurry in person:DSC01808

My wife’s noodle soup with roast duck, the dish that finally won her over after years of me hyping up Chuan Lu Garden, making her a devoted fan:
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Our glorious pan-fried pork buns (sadly not the xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, that Orlando foodies constantly crave):
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Fried tofu with vegetables and the remnants of vegetable fried rice, after the four of us mostly devoured it:dsc01811.jpg

Vegetable noodle soup:DSC01809

Visit #2: Just the two of us.

Maybe the best Singapore mei fun noodles I’ve ever ordered anywhere, though curiously not very spicy compared to some others I’ve had.  These noodles were thin and ethereal, reminding me almost of cotton candy threads (although obviously neither sticky nor sweet).  I couldn’t get enough of them, and even my wife was amazed by their lighter-than-air texture and great flavor.chuan_IMG_0013

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take two:
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And a roast duck appetizer, full of tiny little bones to watch out for:chuan_IMG_0014

For the first time ever in my experiences at Chuan Lu Garden, they presented us with a separate dim sum menu.  Having been recently introduced to egg custard tarts by one of my favorite local foodies, I had to pay it forward and order them to share with my wife.  She loved them, like flaky little custard pies.chuan_IMG_0016

Visit #3: Just the two of us again.

I ordered one of my favorite dishes on the menu: dan dan noodles with spicy ground pork, served with thin-sliced cucumbers that do a great job counterbalancing the chili oil with their own crunchy coolness.DSC01827DSC01829

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take three, but this time with the wide, flat noodles:DSC01828

More of that quacktacular roast duck:DSC01832

And one of my favorite dishes here, the onion pancake, which is much more like a thick paratha or super-thick flour tortilla than an American-style pancake.  The outside is crispy, but the inside has a wonderful, rich, buttery crispness, with scallions baked into it.DSC01830DSC01831

Since I originally wrote this blog entry, I have brought her home roast duck noodle soup a few more times, often with an extra order of duck to go with it.  She loves it, and what’s not to love?

And guess what, fearless Saboscrivnerinos? Chuan Lu Garden now has a full dim sum menu, including the coveted soup dumplings! I haven’t tried them there yet, but how can you go wrong? It’s SOUP… in a DUMPLING!

Susuru

I fully admit that one hip dining trend that totally passed me by is ramen.  I subsisted on instant ramen noodles, spaghetti, and canned tuna and sardines for far too many years of my life, fueling myself through far too many degrees.  And while I still like those ridiculously salty and unhealthy noodles today, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around $10+ bowls of “fancy” ramen, after dining on 7-for-$1 Maruchan and Nissin noodles for so long.  I’ve even tried a few ramen bowls from nicer restaurants, but found them bland and disappointing, and often overloaded with those long, thin, alien-looking mushrooms with the tiny caps that ruin the whole thing for me.

But my best friend was in town recently to judge the National Pie Championships with me, and on the rare times we get to visit each other (me being in Orlando or him back in Miami), we always try to show off the newest and/or best restaurants in our home cities to each other.  One place I’ve been hearing great things about restaurant is Susuru (https://www.susuruorl.com), the new Japanese izakaya (casual pub) down near Disney World, close to where he was staying.  It’s extraordinarily easy to find if you take I-4 to exit 68 and get off on State Road 535, also known as Apopka-Vineland Road.

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Susuru features a quirky, funky, retro-hipster-otaku decor that you never see anywhere:DSC02039

As a lifelong action figure collector, I got a kick out of the view in the hallway when I left the men’s room:dsc02036.jpg

And as a cat lover with a few maneki nekos at home to hopefully bring some luck, I loved this little dude next to the bar:dsc02038.jpg

I’m sure my readers care far more about the menu, which wasn’t available on Susuru’s website when I checked, so here it is.  Note that this is a Japanese restaurant that serves no sushi.  Also note that none of the food is too expensive, so I encourage you to order several different dishes and share them:dsc02037.jpg

My buddy and I each ordered tonkotsu ramen ($10), with pork chashu, shoyu soft egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori, and tonkotsu broth.  I have to admit, I was still a little skeptical, given my limited experience with overpriced and mediocre “fancy” ramen, but this was so delicious, I can’t stop thinking about it almost two weeks later.  (“Or talking about it!”, my wife would say.)  DSC02042The broth was so rich and flavorful, almost creamy despite containing no dairy at all.  Even the bamboo shoots, which I had misgivings about, were soft and yielding, like thick al dente pasta sheets.  I’ve never been able to cook an egg to that perfect soft-boiled consistency, with the rich, runny yolk that infused the broth.  The noodles were so far beyond the instant ramen bricks of my college days, it was like graduating from your school cafeteria lunches to a gourmet feast.  And the pork!  The PORK!  It melted in my mouth.  It was sliced thin, and it was so tender and unctuous.  Once again, perfect in every way!

We also split the mentaiko fries ($6), which were McDonald’s-style fries topped with spicy cod roe mayonnaise and shredded nori (seaweed).  I love anything salty, spicy, and fishy, but these were almost like a salt overload.  Delicious, though.  I have to imagine this would be a great dish to order while drinking beer.DSC02043

Skewers, skewers, all kinds of skewers!  These skewers of meat are cut into perfect, uniform, bite-sized pieces and grilled over a charcoal flame.  From left to right, we ordered sausage, chicken hearts, short rib, chicken skin, and the two on the right are both chicken thighs.  The Kurobota (pork honey sausage) had the texture of a hot dog and didn’t taste that different, although it picked up nice flavor from the charcoal grill they used.  The short rib (in the middle) was a little tough, although still very rich and tasty.  I am drawn to sausages and short rib dishes anywhere I go and count them among my favorite meats.  That said…DSC02045I never thought I’d end up liking chicken more than sausage or short rib, but I sure did here.  All three types of chicken skewers (yakitori) were indeed better — not that I disliked the sausage or short rib!  But they were among the most delicious chicken-related items I’ve ever eaten in my life.  They had a fantastic taste they picked up from being grilled, especially those thighs.  My only disappointment was that they ran out of chicken oyster yakitori, an off-menu special for the evening.  Those two tiny, dark morsels of meat are my favorite part of the chicken, which is why I usually gravitate toward preparing thighs or roasting whole birds at home.

If you’re skeptical about chicken hearts, I implore you to give these a try.  I’ve bought hearts at Publix to cook at home (marinate in a vinaigrette dressing and then saute them).  I love the rich, organ-y flavor, like delicious chicken liver, but mine always come out chewy.  These were anything but chewy — far more tender than I ever expected chicken hearts could be.  Whoever is working the grill at Susuru is a master at his or her craft.

So I’m definitely a huge fan of Susuru.  If you spend time down near the theme parks or come to Orlando on vacation, venture off park property and go check it out.  Seriously, if it wasn’t an hour from home, I would become a regular for sure.  I’m already planning my next Susuru adventure!

Pho 88

Well, before it got hot in Orlando again, it was remarkably chilly for a little while there.  I look forward to those brief blasts of winter all year, every year.  I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, which I guess makes me a true Florida Man.  I hate our humid, oppressive, sticky summers and eagerly anticipate the few weeks a year where we can walk outside, eat outside, and see the one coat or jacket everyone owns.  We don’t have to shovel snow or drive on icy roads, so our cold is a novelty, and we know it won’t last.

Winter is also perfect soup weather, and there are few soups finer than phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup that so many Orlando restaurants have perfected.  I have yet to get into the trend of fancy bowls of ramen, after so many years of subsisting on seven-for-$1 bricks of instant ramen noodles.  On the other hand, pho (which I was taught to pronounce “fuh,” although I hear “foe” all the time) is so warm and rich and hearty that it is a welcome meal year-round, not too heavy or hot to enjoy in warmer months.  But nothing beats a steaming bowl in 40-degree winter weather.

Slow-simmered broth is flavored with spices including cinnamon and star anise, and it includes rice vermicelli and different cuts of meat.  Thin slices of rare beef eye round are the most common, but other bowls of pho may also include beef brisket or flank steak, chewy beef meatballs (completely different from the meatballs you’d get with spaghetti or in a sub), tendon, and tripe.  Pho usually contains paper-thin slices of onion and diced green onions as well.  Then lucky diners can continue to customize their pho with sprigs of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts (I’ve never been a fan, sorry), fresh slices of jalapeno peppers, and fresh lime wedges, which come on a separate plate.  Hoisin sauce, sriracha, and sambal oelek (chili garlic sauce) are common condiments that are always available on Vietnamese restaurant tables.  No two bowls of pho end up alike, which is part of its charm.

Anyway, we are very lucky to have a large Vietnamese population in Orlando, and plenty of delicious Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, mostly centered in the Mills 50 district near downtown.  I’ve tried most of them at least once, but I always return to two favorites: Saigon Noodle and Grill or the subject of this review, Pho 88 (http://www.pho88orlando.com/).  My wife and I had our first date at yet another local Vietnamese restaurant, Lac Viet, but we’ve been going to Pho 88 for many years.  Located on Mills Avenue, just north of busy Colonial Drive in the heart of our foodie-friendly Mills 50 district, Pho 88 also has more parking than a lot of the other nearby restaurants, which is one more reason we end up there as often as we do.  Not only do we like it a lot and seek it out, it often becomes our fallback choice when we can’t park near anywhere else.

This review is based on our two most recent visits to Pho 88.  My wife tends to crave pho even more often than I do, and during our most recent cold snap, she demanded it two nights in a row.  So like a good husband, we went two nights in a row!

The first night, we both ordered pho.  She likes the simple pho tai, with thin-sliced rare beef eye round.  I prefer the pho dặc biệt combination with the rare beef slices plus fatty brisket, well-done flank steak, dense and chewy meatballs, and soft, chewy, rich tendon.  Tendon and book tripe almost always come together, and while I must admit the texture of tripe doesn’t do much for me, I never ask them to hold it.  Here is my bowl, after I tore up several basil leaves and added them in.  These are HUGE bowls, by the way.  20181129_185826_resized

Instagram-hip foodies love to get the shot of pulling perfect noodles out of a perfect bowl of pho.  Most of you are already acquainted with the limitations of my phone camera, so apologies in advance for this action shot:
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On our second visit the next evening, my wife ordered her favorite pho tai again, but I decided to switch it up and get something spicy for the chilly night: a different kind of noodle soup called bún bò huế.  It contains thicker rice noodles than the vermicelli in pho, pork roll (similar to bologna, but chewier and cut thicker), well-done flank steak, lemongrass, and white and green onion in a rich, spicy, orangey-red broth.  It cleared up my sinuses and warmed my body from head to toe.20181130_184243_resized

Bun bo hue action shot:20181130_184359_resized

I am also a fan of banh mi sandwiches, which demonstrate the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine.  Served on a crusty baguette, my favorite banh mi includes a variety of pork-based cold cuts and is served with a spread of butter and liver pate on each side of the roll, cool, shredded pickled carrot and daikon radish, refreshing sprigs of fresh cilantro, and spicy slices of fresh (never jarred) jalapeno peppers.  Best of all, these sandwiches are usually quite cheap, often $4 or $5.  Pho 88 is one of the few Orlando Vietnamese restaurants that serves banh mi as well as pho, so I’ll often order a banh mi as an appetizer, devour half there, and save the other half for later.  I did NOT order a banh mi with my soup two nights in a row, just that first night.  20181129_184836_resized

Well, we’re over halfway into February and our local weather is already back into the 80s, but like I said, pho hits the spot year-round at Pho 88.