Ms Tea’s Bento

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Mei’s Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

Susuru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.