Tako Cheena

My wife and I have always been huge fans of Tako Cheena (http://mytakocheena.com/), the creative and bohemian Asian-Latin fusion restaurant on Mills Avenue, north of Colonial, in one of Orlando’s finest foodie neighborhoods, Mills 50.  It used to be in a tiny space in a little strip plaza on Mills, with very few parking spaces in front, to the point where we’d often have to circle the block six or ten or twenty times, or more realistically, time our visits for when the place was just opening up.  There was a somewhat steep step up that limited the accessibility for my walker-wielding wife, and a tiny, cramped dining room that further limited her mobility inside once I helped hoist her up.  The food was always delicious, but it wasn’t the most comfortable surroundings, despite the hip, colorful, artsy decor.
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Well, I was recently craving Tako Cheena after a rough week, and to my great joy, they recently moved into a larger building mere steps from their old location.  And it has an actual parking lot, plus a spacious outdoor patio.  I was just picking up takeout from an outside-facing window, so I didn’t linger or even peek inside to look at indoor seating.  However, the new location already looks so much more comfortable and accessible, and that is like a dream come true for us.
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The covered patio overlooks Mills Avenue, and you can see it is steps away from the original location:
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Since the menu on the website doesn’t have most of their newer menu additions of the last few years, or any prices, this was the best shot I could get of the posted menu.  A past favorite, Mary’s Greek Lil Lamb (a gyro in taco form) has never been on their old menu on the website, so I didn’t even think to order one this time, but I was glad to see it has been added to the new menu.  The pernil asado, slow-roasted, marinated pork, is pretty darn great too, but I didn’t order that either on my most recent visit.
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Since I haven’t even been here since I started this blog two years ago, I ordered a bunch of our old favorites.  I got us each a panko-crusted cod “tako” ($4.50), with spicy mayo, shredded cabbage, and scallions on a soft flour tortilla.  This was the first time they asked me if I wanted flour or corn tortillas, but they could have started giving customers that choice at any point in the last two or three years.  These are my favorite fish tacos in Orlando, and I was sad to learn they were out of the usual sweet and sour onion sauce that goes on them, but they were still delicious.  My wife, who always used to love these, thought hers was too spicy, so I ended up eating most of hers too.  I love spicy mayo on anything, so they were perfect for me, as usual.
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Miami kid that I am, I have a hard time turning down empanadas, those crispy-fried half moon-shaped pastries stuffed with a variety of savory or sometimes sweet fillings, sealed with a crimped edge.  Different cultures make different empanadas, but I always prefer a deep-fried, crispy flour pastry shell, and those are the ones they make here.  Tako Cheena always offers different beef, chicken, and vegan empanadas of the day ($3.25 each), always rotating creative fusion ingredients in each one.  I asked what the beef empanada of the day was, and this one had seasoned ground beef like picadillo with mashed potatoes and sweet plantains.  Yes please!  I could have easily eaten two of more of those crispy fried pastries, especially since sweet plantains are a top ten favorite food for me, but I stuck to one.
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The empanadas come with a very small plastic dipping cup of salsa.  When I placed my phone order, the guy asked if I wanted sweet or spicy.  I asked if I could try both, and he said yes.  Well, my bill had a “GG” next to the empanada at no charge, and an “HJ” that I was charged 50 cents for, so that’s how I learned additional salsas come at a cost.  I don’t mind, because I always love trying new salsas.  I could be wrong, but looking at Tako Cheena’s website and the menu above, I’m guessing the “GG” refers to ginger guava salsa, and the “HJ” is probably habanero jackfruit salsa, even though they list it as “jackfruit habanero.”

The website advertises “BURRITOS THE SIZE OF BABY’S [sic] ARMS,” and they aren’t exaggerating.  I ordered the Korean burrito ($10.75), stuffed to almost bursting with sweet and savory marinated beef bulgogi, kimchi fried rice with mixed vegetables, crema, sriracha, ginger scallion oil, and cilantro.  It was a really interesting blend of flavors and textures wrapped in that huge, straining flour tortilla, which is one reason I prefer burritos to tacos.  (GASP!)  It’s so huge, I saved half for the next day, and even the half is a generous portion.  That isn’t something I normally order at Tako Cheena, but I wanted to present more of a variety of options for my baker’s dozens of readers.

Look at how much room it takes up on our now-familiar green plates!
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Here’s a shot with burrito and empanada interiors:
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Another one of our long-time favorites isn’t listed on the menu on the website, but Tako Cheena has incredible arepas, sweet corn patties stuffed with a variety of ingredients.  Our favorite is the four-cheese arepa ($7.50) with a big fried cheese patty, topped with pickled shredded carrots and other vegetables (maybe jicama or daikon radish?  Although it looks similar to Filipino atchara, or pickled papaya salad), and spicy mayo.
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Picking a favorite item on the whole menu feels like being forced to pick a favorite child, for those who have more than one child, but this arepa might be it:DSC03100

Cross-section.  I should note that the cheese is lightly fried on its exterior, but not battered or breaded like my beloved mozzarella sticks.  It’s more like halloumi cheese that way, with a similar texture.DSC03104

One thing you probably noticed by now, that I definitely appreciated, was how they packed all our takeout food either wrapped in foil wrappers or placed in cardboard boxes.  It was nice to see some eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam.

Even though some restaurants are reopening for dining in, my wife and I are in no hurry to start doing that again anytime soon.  But now that Tako Cheena has a parking lot of its own and that convenient walk-up window, I’ll probably order more takeout from them in the weeks and months to come.  I’m glad an old favorite is more accessible than ever before, and as good as ever.

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.

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.

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!

 

Zero Degrees

The other day I drove further west than I’ve ever driven before, in my almost 15 years in Orlando.  There’s a whole “Chinatown” west of downtown, even past Taste of Chengdu, with lots of Asian markets and restaurants, as well as a Caribbean supermarket.  It felt like I unlocked a new level in a video game, venturing to an unfamiliar new area and discovering all kinds of exciting, even legendary places to eat and explore in the future.

I went out that way on a quest for a certain kind of hot sauce, after coming up empty at three much closer Asian markets.  I finally found it at the Tan Tien Oriental Market, and a few doors down from it, I stumbled upon Zero Degrees (https://zerodegreescompany.com/).  It immediately felt like a Southern California sort of place due to a lot of Mexican and Asian fusion food and beverages, and the website confirmed it was founded in (that other) Orange County.

Zero Degrees has an eclectic menu full of frosty, sweet, refreshing (non-alcoholic) drinks, including fruit slushes, sweet shakes, limeades, milk teas (including Thai iced tea), green teas, Vietnamese iced coffee (with sweetened condensed milk, so good!), and Mexican horchata (sweetened rice milk), which can all be ordered with or without chewy boba pearls made from tapioca.  They even have a Splitcup: a cup split down the middle into two separate compartments, so you can order two drinks in the same cup without having them mix together, for $5.50.

The food menu is snack-focused, featuring different variations of fries, nachos, elotes (Mexican street corn), chicharrones (pork rinds), and macaroni and cheese with a variety of toppings, including cheese, carne asada beef, and crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I knew carne asada fries is a real L.A. thing.  They also have wings and crispy popcorn chicken bites, in salt and pepper or honey barbecue flavors.

I was in a hurry and had a hard time deciding, but I went with the garlic noodle dish (a larger entree, but still only $6), stir-fried in butter and garlic, with melty Cotija cheese and topped with grilled carne asada beef (a $3.50 upcharge).  You can also get it with shrimp (also $3.50) and/or an egg ($1.50).  It was great.  Really rich, probably horrible for me, but it hit the spot.  The beef had a hint of lime to it, and I’m sure it would be great over the other items on the menu, like the fries.

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I also ordered Zero Degrees’ signature drink, the Mangonada ($6), a fresh mango slush with chamoy (a salty-sweet-sour sauce made from pickled plums or apricots that made its way to Mexico from China), Tajin (a spicy chili-lime spice powder that is popular sprinkled on fruit in Mexico), and topped with chunks of fresh mango.  They asked me if I wanted my Mangonada spicy or not spicy, and I chose spicy.  It has a lot of nice flavor, but it wasn’t “burn your tongue” spicy in the least.  We have a bottle of Tajin at home, and we’ve found it is great on certain fruit, especially melons.  It worked beautifully with the mango in the drink.  And this was my first experience trying chamoy, so now I want to try it in other things, too!  20190107_152742_resized

If that straw looks weird, it’s because it is coated with spicy-tangy-fruity-sweet-sour-salty-chewy tamarind candy, making a unique sensory and taste experience.  The tamarind candy straw was also a $1 upcharge, but I figured “Why not?”, especially since I live so far from this place.  I admit the straw was more hassle than it was worth, especially since it didn’t extend past the plastic lid when touching the bottom of the cup.  Also, it was messy, sticky, and hard to bite the chewy candy off the plastic, especially while driving.  I don’t think I’d bother to get that straw again, but I’m glad I tried it.

***

I returned to Zero Degrees a few days later, even though it’s quite a distance away, because I wanted to explore the Chinatown area further.  (Stay tuned, Saboscrivner Society of America!)  I also really wanted to try the strawberry limeade and strawberry horchata, so the SplitCup was the perfect solution to my dilemma.  Apologies for the pic, dear readers — it was an unseasonably hot January afternoon, and I drank most of the limeade before I got it home to take a (not even that) decent photo.  They used fresh strawberries in both beverages that tasted just like my homemade strawberry smoothies do, with no extra sugar or sweet syrup added to them.

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I also brought my wife an ube milkshake.  The purple yam, popular in Filipino desserts, tasted more like vanilla to both of us, but it was a beautiful purple color (her favorite color), so I knew (hoped) she would like it.  It came garnished with a toasted marshmallow (she loves those), some rainbow-colored sour belt chewy candy, and glittery purple sugar.  If I actually used Instagram like a normal food blogger in 2019, this would be the kind of thing I’d be ‘Gramming about.  But instead, you’re hearing it here first!

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I don’t know when I’ll return to Zero Degrees because it’s literally across town, but I’m so glad I accidentally discovered it and took the time to try it twice in the same week.  I’d love to go back  and get the mac and cheese covered with Flamin’ Hot Cheeto dust, but I’ve done enough damage for this week.  Eating healthy in 2019, yea yea!

My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

Kai Asian Street Fare

It’s rare we get an exciting new restaurant in my neighborhood, but Kai Asian Street Fare (http://www.kaistreetfare.com/) started out strong when it opened earlier this year in a small, nondescript shopping strip on Semoran, just south of Howell Branch, and it has been improving exponentially since then.

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My first trip was back in early April, and my wife and I ordered and shared several of Kai’s eclectic dishes:

The “Dude Where’s My Ca” fish taco was very different from my favorite Asian fusion fried cod taco at Tako Cheena, but it was nice and crispy, not greasy at all, and had a good blend of flavors going on.

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They had three different varieties of Korean fried chicken wings, but since my wife doesn’t like spicy, we went with a safe soy-garlic flavor:

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I appreciate clever names, especially puns, so “I’m in Love with the Pho Pho” earned bonus points from me right away.  It wasn’t my favorite bowl of pho I’ve ever had, but it the broth was rich and fragrant, and it came with tender slices of beef and chewy meatballs.  I just have a TENDON-cy to want beef tendon in my pho, and that wasn’t an option at Kai.

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The “Legendary” garlic noodles with shrimp were one of the best noodle dishes I have ever tasted, and will surely make my list of favorite dishes of 2018.

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Finally, the “On Fleek” pork and shrimp wontons were as tasty as they were pretty, especially rolled around in the leftover garlic noodle drippings:

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Well, life gets in the way, and I had a few really hectic and stressful months since then, so I didn’t make it back to Kai for a while, all while positive reviews kept rolling in.  Two weeks ago, I finally returned on a weekend, just intending to get some takeout for lunch, when I ran into a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum, who was there meeting another friend for lunch.  They graciously allowed me to join them, so that was super-fun, and of course we ordered and shared even more wonderful food.  Everything I tried on this second visit in October was even better than my first trip.  Plus, they had some interesting weekend-only specials which we took advantage of, so I’m so glad I went.

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Since my first visit, they have added a few more wing flavors, so each of us ordered a different one.  One friend ordered mango habanero wings, which were succulently sticky, sweet, and spicy.  I love mangoes in any shape and form, and I’m cool with spicy food, but habanero peppers are usually a little much for me, and I tend to avoid them.  Not these — they had such a great flavor, instead of just doubling down on ass-kicking heat like a lot of lesser wings at terrible sports bars and other awful wing chains.

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Another friend ordered the Szechuan dry-rub wings.  I’m developing a palate for Szechuan cuisine, which has a different kind of heat, a tingling and numbing heat that can be weirdly addictive (and sometimes has a slight metallic aftertaste).  These wings weren’t as strongly numbing as some Szechuan seasonings I’ve had at Orlando’s Chuan Lu Garden, and they seemed to be balanced by some sugar in the dry rub that cut the heat.  Since I was on my way to work after this lunch, I wisely avoided the peppers themselves.

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Those were both weekend specials, but I ordered the spicy tang wings off the regular menu, which I didn’t get to try on my first visit.  They were the most like the Korean fried chicken wings at Hawkers, which have been my favorite and gold standard so far:

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All of Kai’s wings are absolutely huge, meaty, and tender, with nice crispy breading that stays on, and never soaking in puddles of oil or grease.  I don’t know how they do it!  I am definitely a convert.  Not to take away from Hawkers’ wonderful wings, but these are easily as good — just different, and well worth trying if you already like Hawkers (or anyone else’s, really).

That day, they also had two varieties of freshly-made ho fun noodles, which are wide, flat, chewy noodles that I love.  I ordered the dan dan noodles with spicy ground chicken in chili oil, and my friend ordered the seafood ho fun noodles with shrimp, squid, beef, and rich XO sauce, a luxurious thick sauce from Hong Kong traditionally made with dried scallops, shrimp, ham, chilies, and spices.  Well, I’m here to tell you that the only way Kai could have beaten its own Legendary garlic noodles was with these two ho fun noodle dishes.  Wow.  Two weeks later and I still smile and salivate, thinking about them.  I don’t know if I’ve ever ordered other Asian noodle dishes this good.  I implore my readers to try them on a weekend, but with any luck, Kai will add them to the regular daily menu.

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This is my spicy chicken dan dan noodle bowl.  It was outstanding, folks.  It had an interesting visual flourish: the flakes on top are dehydrated bonito (fish) flakes, and when added to a steaming hot dish, they appear to dance or move!  We were all a little surprised by that, but it was a cool effect.  IT’S ALIVE!  (Not really, though.)  I didn’t get a picture of my friend’s seafood ho fun, but trust me, it looked almost as good as it tasted, which was really good.

We were all fanboying and fangirling out, chatting up the chef and our cool server throughout the meal, and the chef brought us one more thing to try, on the house: dry pho noodles, served with farm-raised chicken, crunchy chicharrones, and broth on the side.  The chicken was chewier than most chicken I’m used to, I guess from the bird actually being able to walk around freely and build up muscles.  The chicharrones weren’t like styrofoamy store-bought pork rinds, but actual crispy, crunchy chunks of rich, fatty pork.  The noodles (which were probably also house-made) stood on their own when we mixed a good sauce into them, and then we only drizzled on as much broth as we wanted for our own portions.  I love pho, but I have to be in the mood for it, and this was a nice alternative to wanting the flavors and textures but not sitting down to a steaming bowl of soup on a hot, humid day.  It was definitely better than the traditional pho I tried back in April.  I apologize for not having a photo of that either (although some patient, bleary-eyed Saboscrivner readers may be relieved!)

Well, I’m shocked and saddened it took me so many months to return to Kai Asian Street Fare and even longer to write a proper review, but I give it my highest recommendation.  If you follow the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, you will see it has emerged as a popular local favorite for good reason, and a godsend for those of us who don’t feel like schlepping down to Mills 50 for the city’s best Asian restaurants.  Kai definitely belongs in that rarified group, so don’t hold its suburban location against it.  I wish them the best of luck and all the success in the world, although they are already achieving it.  I just beg them to make those ho fun noodles a daily thing!  Also, as a music nerd, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention they were playing an incredible selection of ’90s hip hop and R&B the entire time, taking me right back to some of the more tolerable parts of high school.  Mad props to our server, who took credit for the bangin’ playlist.

 

 

Jade Sushi & New Asian

For a guy who writes about food, I rarely leave work to go out to lunch, even though I work near some of our city’s best restaurants.  Nope, I pack mostly-healthy lunches in a lunch box with baked chicken, sometimes cans of sardines, hard-boiled pickled eggs I pickle myself, big salads, vegetables, berries.  Everyday stuff.  Boring stuff.  And I eat alone in our break room and usually choke it all down quickly  so I can get back to work.  Not festive, folks.  Not blog-worthy.  This Onion article hits really close to home for me: https://local.theonion.com/man-brings-lunch-from-home-to-cut-down-on-small-joys-1819577433

But today was a rarity, because not only did I go out to a nice lunch, but I met a lot of super-cool people from the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/orlandofoodieforum/), the community that keeps me in the loop and eating well in the first place.  If I’m any kind of authority on local food (and I am, at least for friends, co-workers, and students), it’s thanks to that place.

Seven of us assembled at Jade Sushi & New Asian (http://jadenewasian.com/) in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando: myself, Foodie Forum and Tasty Chomps food blog (http://tastychomps.com/) founder Ricky Ly (who I’ve known online for years but never met), and other super-cool people who probably don’t want me to list their full names: Krystle (another fellow blogger, of http://www.theorlandogirl.com/ fame), Monica, Mia and Aranya, and Lani (who I owe a debt of gratitude to, for welcoming me into the world of pie championship judging earlier this year).  I always feel awkward in social situations, like I’m not going to belong, but this was a very friendly and welcoming group, and I like to think I clicked with them.*

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*Speaking of “clicked,” I’m sure at least one careful Foodie Forum reader at this gathering was like “Really?  This is the guy who elected to take the group picture?”

We ordered lots of food, and everyone was very generous and laid-back about sharing.  We tried fried chicken wings in spicy-sweet Korean red sauce, pork belly bao, and they brought out thin slices of hamachi (a fish similar to amberjack) for us all to sample, which was really nice.

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A few of us ordered spicy tan tan men, which is thin, ramen-like noodles served with ground beef in a spicy, oily red sauce.  I love a similar dish at Chuan Lu Garden with ground pork, but this might have even been better because it also came with soft-boiled egg halves like “fancy” ramen (to me, that’s any non-instant ramen), beautiful chili threads as a garnish, and I opted for a bit of sliced cha shu pork with mine as well.

I’m pretty sure Ricky took this picture with my camera phone:

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And here’s my terrible photography again!

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Ricky has been promising to give me a food photography tutorial, so today was our chance.  I felt extremely relieved and vindicated when he quickly concluded that my phone camera is just the worst, rather than my eye or my talent as a photographer.  Hey, it’s not a fancy phone, but you would plotz if you knew how little it cost, and how little I pay for my plan per month.  That allows me to go out to eat slightly more often and write about my experiences here.  The downside, dear readers, is you have to look at my blurry-ass food photos from time to time.

Well, I can never resist a deal on sushi, and Jade has some great lunch specials, including two rolls for $11.  I opted for two standards, intending to share them: a spicy tuna roll and a bagel roll with smoked salmon and cream cheese, because that is the food of my people.  I haven’t had sushi in a long time, and they totally hit the spot.

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Other people ordered some beautiful-looking bento boxes and ramen bowls.  Jade Sushi & New Asian has a huge menu (http://jadenewasian.com/menu/), so take your time looking it over so you can make the best choices.  Better yet, go with a bunch of friends (or friendly Internet strangers) and share everything!

I have been to Jade twice before, and from those prior visits, I strongly recommend the “sizzling evil ribs” (great name, even greater dish) and the Stormtrooper roll, with smoked salmon, asparagus, and fried jalapeno, wrapped with escolar, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.

So today was better than most days.  I left work, ate a terrific lunch at a restaurant I love, and hung out with some friendly fellow foodies for the first time.