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.