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.

Bread & Co. / Nakada’s Kitchen

Bread & Co. (https://www.facebook.com/breadncokitchen/) is a Korean bakery that serves Korean and French-inspired breads, sweet and savory pastries, and other baked goods.  It opened in the spring of 2019, and my wife and I were overjoyed on our first visit.  Similar to the French-Vietnamese bakery Paris Banh Mi, that early incarnation of Bread & Co. had long shelves and tables teeming with beautiful baked goods, and you were encouraged to grab a tray and some tongs, to grab whatever you wanted and bring them to the cashier to be rung up.  Everything was quite affordable, mostly in the $2-$4 range.
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This is what we picked during our first visit.  The large round pastry was mostly savory, but the cream cheese in the middle had a slight tangy, citrusy sweetness to it.  The other crust was very soft, and I liked it a lot.DSC02056
I believe the pastries on the left were financiers, and one might have been almond, and another might have been maple.  The shell-shaped pastry that is second from the top left was a madeline, which my wife always loves.  Bottom right is a red bean doughnut.  I wish I remembered exactly what that slice was, but I think it contained blueberry compote and had a subtle, tangy, creamy topping.

The inside of the red bean doughnut:
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That Milkis beverage tastes like a liquid version of those strawberry candies that elderly people always seem to have, but I never see them actually sold anywhere.DSC02057

Back home from that first visit from mid-2019, with even more goodies they were kind enough to throw in as samples.  The round ring on the left was similar to a stollen, and the two buns along the top had a peanut butter-like top crust but were harder rolls on the inside (and not sweet).  The yellow round bun in the middle was called a crayon bun, and it was very fluffy, with a moist, buttery top and a hollow center with onions baked into it, like a bialy or an onion schnecken roll.  dsc02059.jpg

Winter Park and Orlando were struck with sadness when the location on Fairbanks suddenly closed for remodeling later in 2019, but I was thrilled to discover a second, smaller Bread & Co. location inside the awe-inspiring Lotte Market, the huge pan-Asian supermarket on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway.  Lotte Market is the home of the Filipino-American fusion resturant Taglish, among others, in its excellent food court.  Since I started making the haul out to Lotte in West Orlando, I’ve returned to that Bread & Co. to purchase the best white sandwich bread ever, which is perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches.  It is simply called sandwich loaf, and the ingredients are flour, egg, sugar, butter, milk, powdered milk, malt, and RICE WINE!dsc02704.jpg

There is another, larger loaf of bread available for sale that is even better: a milk loaf that contains flour, sugar, butter, milk, yeast, malt, and salt.  It is similar to brioche, soft and rich, and it makes OUTSTANDING French toast and equally awe-inspiring grilled cheese sandwiches.

This is a small Japanese cheesecake, which was marked down to $5 on the day I tried it.  DSC02684

This cheesecake had more of a fluffy, bread-like texture than the richer, creamier cheesecakes I’ve had (like from Publix, Cheesecake Factory, or the best of them all, Junior’s), and it was much less sweet than all of the others.  I’ve always heard it described as “jiggly,” but this one didn’t jiggle.  It was a nice little treat, but I probably wouldn’t get it again.  It’s just not my kind of cheesecake.

Well, the larger Bread & Co. in Winter Park finally reopened in January 2020 after some renovations, so I recently returned to see what changed and to finish this long-overdue review.  I’ve popped in there twice in March: once on my way down to Miami in early March, to bring milk loaves and sandwich loaves for my family and best friend down there, and made another trip more recently, in the midst of coronavirus panic, to pick up lunch and some sweet snacks to go.

Since the remodeling, Bread & Co. has decreased its pastry offerings from what they used to have, but they still have many of people’s favorites from before.  Check out that gorgeous (mislabeled) tiramisu cake in the top left!DSC03037

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I’m the guy who doesn’t care for macarons, but if you like them, here’s your place:DSC03039

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But even better: since the remodeling and reopening, they have added a menu of Japanese food from Nakada’s Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant set up as a new part of the bakery.  By the time I visited this weekend, all local restaurants have temporarily transitioned to offering takeout food only, and they were no longer serving tempting-looking ramen or udon noodle bowls.  Luckily, they were still offering several intriguing sandwiches, and I picked one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long, long time: the menchi katsu sandwich ($8), a panko-crusted and fried meatloaf sandwich on a soft bun, served with finely-shredded cabbage on top.
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This was a perfect sandwich, perfect for allaying worry and dread and filling my mouth and heart with joy for a few valuable minutes.  The textures of this thing were unreal.  I already love meatloaf — I make a damn fine one, and I’ve enjoyed great versions from Se7en Bites and The Coop — but wasn’t sure what to expect from Japanese meatloaf.  I should have expected greatness.  I’ve also read that menchi katsu is sometimes a Japanese version of a hamburger, but panko-breaded and fried.  However, this has a lot more seasonings than your average burger, as well as a softer and “spongier” texture, making it more meatloaf-like to me.  The breading was light and crispy, and the bun was surprisingly soft and simple.  It just worked so well on every possible level.  Pure comfort food, and it even came with a generous order of tasty fries that were still warm by the time I got home, and ketchup that was slightly spicier than your typical Heinz, but definitely not adulterated with sriracha (I am NOT a fan of that ubiquitous hipster hot sauce).
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I also picked up a beautiful-looking onion bread (the big thing with cheese in the middle; $3.99), and a small custard tart similar to the egg tarts I’ve enjoyed at Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro.DSC03046

I’m so glad Bread & Co. is back in Winter Park, and now with Nakada’s Kitchen serving up Japanese food too.  If the rest of their offerings are as impressive as my menchi katsu sandwich, they have a hit on their hands.  Now we just need the world to get back to normal to fully enjoy things, but at least they are serving takeout in the meantime.  Please stop by and give them some of your business, because they are friendly and nice people, and we need carbs to get through the coming weeks.

Domu

I can’t believe Orlando’s super-hip Japanese restaurant Domu (http://domufl.com/) opened in November 2016, and it took me over three years to make it there!  Located in the East End Market in the hipsterrific Audubon Park neighborhood, the very limited parking spaces fill up quickly, and I had been warned about infamous long waits, even during less busy times.  Plus, I work late during the week, and Domu doesn’t accept reservations or even allow takeout orders!  That’s their prerogative, I guess.  I figured being difficult to get into only added to the hype and made it a hotter foodie destination, but considering my wife and I don’t go out to eat as much as we used to, and she often prefers takeout at home, we stayed away, not wanting to deal with the aggravation.

But Domu now opens for brunch at 11 AM on weekends, with mostly the same menu.  I knew I could finally try it if I got there right when it opened, so on a recent Sunday morning, I was the first person to arrive, right around 10:30 — already having to park in an overflow lot for the East End Market.  (And because it rained and all the enthusiastic Domu diners went to wait under an overhang, about a dozen people got in before me once the doors finally opened.)  But I got seated at the bar, had very friendly service from Leah, and I’m glad to report what many of my faithful readers already knew — Domu was worth the wait.

The things I would hear the most about are Korean fried chicken wings and ramen, so in true Saboscrivner style, I ordered both.  The wings (an order of six for an extremely reasonable $9) came out quickly, and they were absolute units, thicc with crispy breading that wasn’t heavy or greasy.  They were covered with a sweet, sticky, slightly spicy sauce that was a little thinner than the sauce on the huge and crispy Korean wings my wife and I love so much at Hawkers.  But these wings lived up to all the hype.dsc02752.jpg

I ate three of them and still had ramen coming, but I was relieved to find out that even though Domu doesn’t allow takeout orders, they will still provide you with a box to bring your leftovers home.  (If not, those three wings were coming home in my guayabera pockets, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that.)  I happily packed up the remaining wings for my wife, and they were still warm by the time I got them home to her.  (This story has a bittersweet ending: she took one bite and immediately decreed them to be too spicy, so I finished them a little later!)

And then my ravishing, rapturous, radical ramen arrived.  All the ramen options all sounded good, but I picked a popular favorite, the Richie Rich ($13), named after a hokey old comic book that helped me learn how to read when I was two years old.  It comes with fresh, house-made ramen noodles in a miso-shoyu pork bone broth, with chashu pork, an ajitama brulee egg (half a hard-boiled egg, but with a rich, deep orange, almost custard-like yolk, caramelized on its surface with a blowtorch), scallions, fried garlic, black garlic oil, and domudana.  (I’m afraid I have no idea what domudana is.)  I am very lucky that I mentioned being allergic to mushrooms, because another ingredient, kikurage, is actually the wood ear or “Jew’s ear” mushroom, and Leah was kind enough to warn me and promise they would leave it out.  That was a close one.  That Jew’s ear would have destroyed this Jew’s stomach!DSC02753

I am still new to traditional/”fancy” ramen, after subsisting on cheap Nissin and Maruchan instant ramen noodles for so many years.  However, I loved the ramen I tried at Susuru earlier this year, and Domu’s Richie Rich was my latest foray into the exciting world of Big Ramen.  It was so delicious, I slurped it all up in record time, even after demolishing those three wondrous wings, and I’ve been craving more ever since.  The broth was so creamy! The pork melted in my mouth!  That egg was magical!  The noodles were streets ahead of any ramen I’ve ever had before (which amounts to the good stuff at Susuru and lots of cheap, unhealthy, instant crap).  I don’t know if anyone else in Orlando goes to the trouble of making their own fresh ramen noodles, but Domu is doing something really amazing in that open kitchen.  And like I said, I’m late to this party, but many of you already knew that.
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The Domu website says its name translates as slang for “a dream come true,” and I’m sure that is true for owner Sonny Nguyen, who is starting his own culinary empire here in Orlando.  There is now a second, brand-new Domu location in Dr. Phillips, plus the fast-casual Domu Chibi in Waterford Lakes.  His new izakaya pub Tori Tori in the Mills 50 district impressed me when I was there recently, and I know that has quickly become another local hit.  After waiting three years, hearing raves about the ramen and whispers about the wings, I had an extremely pleasant and positive experience there myself, without any of the nightmarish waits I had read about.  (Saboscrivner Sage Suggestion #1: GET TO RESTAURANTS WHEN THEY OPEN!)  So you could say my dream came true at Domu as well.

 

Rasa

Get off I-4 at exit 74 in Orlando, and you’ll be on Sand Lake Road, near a stretch referred to as “Restaurant Row.”  It is very close to the touristy International Drive, the Orange County Convention Center, and the Universal Studios theme parks.  Many of the restaurants in the immediate area are upscale, aimed at convention-goers with generous per diems and expense accounts, but there are plenty of options — including some at lower price points, luckily.  While I’m almost never out here to eat, there are some hidden gems that I continue to learn about all the time.

One of these Restaurant Row rewards is the radiant Rasa (https://www.eatatrasa.com/).  The long, modern-designed dining room is gorgeous — sexy, even! — but instead of overpriced steaks, bank-breaking seafood, or mediocre Mexican, you can enjoy some of the most unique and interesting Indian food in Orlando.  Rasa specializes in South Indian cuisine as well as Indo-Chinese, which is exactly what you think it is: Indian-Chinese fusion fare.DSC02855

I don’t even drink, but that’s still a nice bar.DSC02853

The most exclusive table is in the back, closed off behind glass, with a lush wall of verdant vegetation to put diners at ease. dsc02852.jpg

I went with one of my closest friends who is a vegetarian, so we stuck to vegetarian dishes so we could sample and share everything.  I had seen photos of the triple Schezwan [sp] rice, so I definitely wanted to try that.  It comes with soft noodles, fried rice, fried noodles, peppers, broccoli, scallions, and my old foe mushrooms, which they gladly left out of our order.  For our protein, we got paneer cheese ($14).  Our server even warned us it was hot, but I’ve been practicing ordering “hot” Indian dishes at Moghul, and both of us love hot sauces, so we were brave and bold and went for it. DSC02854It was spicy, but we handled ourselves with courage and honor.  And it was a beautiful and delicious dish with incredible flavors and textures.  I’m used to paneer cheese being much softer, cubed up with spinach in saag paneer, but the pieces on the left were thick, solid-feeling fried strips of the cheese, similar in consistency to dense halloumi cheese when it is grilled or pan-fried.  The fried rice is underneath the cylindrical tower of soft noodles, and it’s worth excavating to find it.  This was an awesome dish that I’d probably order every time I return, despite my constant impulse to branch out and try more things.

Last year, I was introduced to dosas, giant, thin, crispy crepes of fermented rice and lentil flour, when I joined fellow foodies at the Hindu Temple in Casselberry.  I didn’t think my friend had ever gotten a dose of a dosa before, so we had to order the paper Masala dosa ($11).  It definitely draws attention when it arrives at your table, rolled into a long, hollow, paper-thin cylinder.  It was served with the most delicious curry-spiced potatoes, a thin red sauce that seemed to have chunks of eggplant, and tomato and coconut chutneys.  The only way to attack this guy is to tear off pieces and dip it in different things.  It is somehow crispy yet soft at the same time.
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And this was the channa batura ($12): puffy white leavened bread, served with spiced chickpeas stewed with tomatoes and topped with sun-dried fenugreek leaves called kasoori methi.  At first glance, it made me think of the puffy lavas bread at beloved Turkish restaurants Cappadocia and Bosphorous that I’ve reviewed before, but despite being puffed up with air, this was much thinner than either of those, with a completely different texture.  It almost reminded me of a super-thin funnel cake or elephant ear — essentially fried dough, lightly crispy but also soft, and somehow in a completely different way than the dosa.  DSC02857

Not only did we love it, but since I brought home our leftovers, my wife loved it too — and I have yet to get her into Indian food.  I just knew she would love this bread.  And this was the sole recommendation from our server, who at one point warned us we might be ordering too much food!  I really appreciated this recommendation.

Anyway, as much as I enjoy our closest Indian restaurant Moghul, the menu at Rasa is almost completely different, with the emphasis on South Indian and Indo-Chinese cuisines.  I really liked trying so many new things and sharing them with my friend, and I would totally come back to Rasa.  It’s a shame it is all the way across town.  But if you’re visiting Universal Studios or the convention center, or if you want to have a hot date down that way, Rasa would be a great choice, and not just because some of the food is quite spicy.  It’s such a cool, sexy room with ambience you don’t get at many Indian restaurants, with a really unique menu that I haven’t encountered anywhere else.

Bento Cafe

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro (https://peterskitchencb.business.site/)  opened in late 2017, and quickly made a splash on the Orlando Foodie Forum.  It developed a loyal following for its orange chicken, of all dishes — that syrupy-sweet, Americanized comfort food synonymous with mall food courts and greasy take-out places.  But Peter’s elevated the orange chicken and made it sing.  That’s what they do at this comfortable sit-down spot on East Colonial Drive, a former “cursed location” that they took over and made into a beloved local success over the last two years.

I first went there in December 2017, shortly after it opened, and met some new friends from the Foodie Forum there for lunch.  We ordered a veritable feast and shared everything, including that awe-inspiring orange chicken ($10.95) and lots of dim sum.
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I also introduced these new friends to one of my favorite Chinese-American dishes: beef chow fun ($13.50) — tender strips of beef and the greatest chewy wide noodles, stir-fried with onions, green onions, bean sprouts (not my favorite, so I ask them to hold the bean sprouts), and a soy-based sauce (I’m assuming) with the slightest bit of sweetness to it.  It’s a little greasy, but a truly perfect dish.  It is the best version of beef chow fun in Orlando, and I even listed it among my Top Five favorite dishes in Orlando in 2017, in the Orlando Weekly.20180604_171352_resized

In addition to the regular menu, Peter’s features a dim sum menu that’s available daily, except they only push the dim sum carts around the restaurant on weekends.  On that first visit, a Foodie Forum friend introduced me to some of the wonders of dim sum, including slippery, chewy rice paste, here served with shrimp and drizzled with soy sauce (which I think had something else mixed into it):
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Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor!  From a later visit with my wife, this is the butter lobster (the dreaded market price) — a self-explanatory name for a truly rich and special dish, worthy of celebrations.  The lobsters are alive, furtively pacing around in tanks, perhaps contemplating their fates.  The unlucky crustacean is served fresh, broken apart, easy to spear and slide the meat out of the shell.  It is shiny with garlic and butter, easily one of my favorite lobster dishes I’ve ever had anywhere (not that I’m some fancy boy who eats lobster all the time; I can count the times I’ve sat down to a meal of lobster on my fingers and still have some left over).*  20180604_171945_resized*Fingers left over, not lobster.

On my most recent trip, I brought home takeout.  My wife had requested orange chicken from somewhere, and despite the ubiquity of this sweet, sticky, greasy dish in storefront Chinese restaurants and mall food courts everywhere, I remain convinced Peter’s Kitchen serves the best version of orange chicken anywhere.

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I can’t go to Peter’s without ordering beef chow fun.  I also won my wife over on this dish, and we split this portion over the course of two or three days.DSC02740

On this last takeout trip, I brought home some more dim sum too:

She requested and loved sesame balls ($3.25), filled with a subtly sweet red bean paste:DSC02743
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I’ve ordered these baked roast pork pies ($4.95) before, but the last photo I had of them was really blurry, and I know people already think I’m a crummy photographer.  I ordered them again for YOU, constant readers:DSC02744

The crust is flaky like an traditional American-style pie crust, and the roast pork is sweet, sort of like char siu.
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My wife also wanted these crispy taro dumplings ($3.85), which were stuffed with ground pork, surrounded by the soft, light-purple taro layer and then a crispy exterior, but neither of us loved them.  They reminded me a bit of Cuban papas rellenas, the crispy fried mashed potato balls stuffed with seasoned ground beef called picadillo.  But I like my papas rellenas much better than these.DSC02741

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Oh well, you can’t win them all, but at Peter’s Kitchen, chances are you’re going to like almost everything on the menu, if not everything.

I almost always end up with baked egg custard tarts ($3.85) for dessert, and got my wife hooked on them:
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So these photos were taken over a handful of visits over the last two years, but mostly from a recent takeout order that fed us for days.  I’m so glad Peter’s Kitchen is serving some of Orlando’s best Chinese food, and that they’ve turned a “cursed location” into a can’t-miss culinary destination.  And it’s so close to my job as well, which is a bonus for me.

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.