Jaber

UPDATED ON 9.15.2021:
On September 3, 2021, Jaber announced on its Facebook page that it was closing.

***

My wife and I were recently driving through College Park, a nice Orlando neighborhood near downtown, full of really terrific restaurants.  We hardly ever make it down there, and I’m not even sure why we were in College Park this time around.  But traffic temporarily stopped in front of Jaber (https://www.facebook.com/jaberorlando/), a restaurant on Edgewater Drive displaying a big banner advertising Lebanese cuisine, with huge color pictures of tempting, tantalizing shawarma wraps.  We looked at each other and decided to pull over and stop in for lunch — a rare moment of serendipity, without reading reviews or online hype or studying the menu in advance of our visit.  Sometimes you have to take a chance, especially when it comes to lunch.  YOLO, am I right?  (Did I get that right?)

Looking through the unique menu at Jaber, I realized it was a Lebanese restaurant with a Brazilian twist, with multiple locations in Brazil.  This was going to be an interesting fusion feast.  We started out with some esfihas, which are small Lebanese pastries.  The menu listed open esfihas that look like petite pizzas, and closed esfihas that are more like little pockets of dough, pinched closed in a variety of pretty shapes, and baked.  The open beef esfiha in the bottom right corner above ($2.49) was indeed like a wee pizza, minus cheese.  My wife ordered the folded spinach esfiha ($3.49), the triangle in the top left, that was just like the delicious spinach pies I used to enjoy so much at Gyro Plus and Falafel King back in Gainesville, over 20 years ago, and much more recently at Tony’s Bakery here in Orlando.  As much as I like Greek spanakopitas on thin, crispy, flaky phyllo dough, I always prefer this Lebanese style spinach pie enveloped in warm, soft, chewy dough.  Jaber’s folded spinach esfiha was much smaller than the one from Tony’s Bakery, but it was still warm and soft and chewy and fresh, with the cooked spinach so well-seasoned inside, with garlic, lemon, and possibly even nutmeg, among other savory flavors.

My wife’s favorite, however, ended up being the folded sausage esfiha that I ordered ($3.49), the tempting pinched pastry in the bottom right of the above photo.  It was stuffed with crumbled calabresa sausage (which I first encountered at another local Brazilian restaurant, Mrs. Potato) and olives!  That was an interesting choice that she just loved.  The soft dough was my favorite part, so I’m glad we split that one.  And finally, in the top right of the above photo, we have a fried kibbeh ($3.49), the lemon-shaped fried shell of cracked wheat with crumbled, seasoned ground beef and minced onions inside.  I liked this one more than she did because it was so oniony.

I am always up for anything with lamb, so I went with the lamb shawarma ($17.89) — a thin wrap (more like a lightly-grilled tortilla than the fluffy, puffy pita bread I’m used to with gyros) stuffed with thin slices of seasoned lamb, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and tahini sauce, like a Lebanese burrito.  It was tasty, even though I prefer the huge gyro from Mediterranean Deli that is around half the price.  The lamb shawarma came with fries which were similar to McDonald’s fries, but could have used a lot more salt.  I was really hoping for better fries, on par with Mrs. Potato, but those were some of the best fries I’ve ever had.

I was able to resuscitate these fries by shaking a liberal amount of this “Chef’s Sauce” onto them.  It was a delicious hot sauce that definitely breathed some life into them.  I asked our server Bella what was in the hot sauce, and if they sold bottles of it.  She came back with “peppers and garlic,” and a bottle was $11.  Sorry, I think that’s way too much to pay for a bottle of hot sauce, even though it was good.

This was the Syrian rice ($7.50), one of several different international rice dishes on the menu.  It sounded the best for sharing — rice and angel hair pasta, fried in butter, kind of like a rice pilaf from heaven.  Some Turkish restaurants serve a similar buttery rice, and we both ended up loving it. 

My wife was feeling overwhelmed by the large two-page menu in a new restaurant, but it was an easy choice once I pointed out the combo meals.  She loves steak — far more than I do, far more than most men do — so she chose combo #7 with picanha ($17.99), a thin-sliced Brazilian steak, reminiscent of Cuban palomilla steak and Argentinian churrasco, if that helps place it in context.  Unlike those, picanha is served with the fat cap attached.  It was seasoned with garlic and herbs, and it arrived sizzling.

Her picanha steak combo came with even more of the unsalted fries, a mound of white rice, and a cup of stewed red beans.  This was so much food, we brought these fries home along with the rice and beans, and I ate everything over the next couple of days, doused with some hot sauces from my own collection. 

My wife also ordered a cappuccino with Nutella around the rim ($5.79), which would have been a great dessert, but she asked for it at the beginning of our meal and sipped it throughout.  It was messier than she expected, with the thick, sticky Nutella around the rim of the cup, but she did what she could to scrape it in and stir it into the cappuccino.  I didn’t try this, but she liked it, and how could it not be great? 

I honestly don’t know when we will return to Jaber.  It’s in a part of Orlando we rarely venture out to, and even though our food was good, I thought it was kind of pricey for what we got, compared to similar dishes we like from elsewhere.  The esfihas and the rich, buttery Syrian rice were definitely our favorite parts, and I would still recommend it for anyone located closer to College Park, Winter Park, or downtown Orlando looking to try one of Orlando’s more interesting fusion restaurants.

One thing that would bring me back would be their All You Can Eat Esfihas offer for $19.99 (plus tax and tip, of course), on Tuesdays from 4:00 to 10:00 PM and Sundays from 12:00 to 4:00 and 5:00 to 10:00 PM.  I really did like the esfihas we got, and I wanted to try others from the long list of options.  Plus, they are small, and I have faith in myself to know I could put A LOT of those away and more than get my money’s worth on a future visit.  The Jaber Facebook page posted about the all-you-can-eat special back in February and said you have to make reservations.  I don’t know if they are still running this special, but it would definitely be worth investigating.  If I see you there, it will probably be on one of those days!

Little Saigon

On my first real date with my wife back in August 2006, I took her to a Vietnamese restaurant (Lac Viet, which closed several years ago), followed by a gelato place in downtown Orlando (also long gone), and we ended the night at Tatame in Winter Park for boba tea (sadly gone as well, but now Manzano’s Deli and Tin & Taco are in its old location).  Since then, we have shared countless meals at Orlando’s many Vietnamese restaurants.

Our longest-standing favorite is Little Saigon (https://www.littlesaigonfl.com/), located on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Thornton Avenue, one block west of Mills Avenue, right in the Mills 50 District.  After getting vaccinated, Little Saigon was one of the first restaurants my wife and I returned to in April, finally dining out after strictly getting takeout for over a year.

My wife couldn’t decide between two old Little Saigon favorites after all our time away from restaurants during the pandemic, so I advised her to order both dishes so she could enjoy leftovers the next day.  (We are a fun couple who knows how to party because of life decisions like this.)  This was grilled beef over rice vermicelli ($9.95), a light, fresh favorite of hers.  The beef is served with incredibly thin, tender slices that were marinated in something that makes them sweet, salty, and absolutely delicious.  I know fish sauce is involved, and probably sugar.  The rice vermicelli beneath doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but it soaks up so much flavor from everything it touches.  This dish is topped with crushed peanuts and shredded lettuce and cilantro, adding a bit of crunch and coolness.  This is what she opted to take home to eat the following day, because the noodles and grilled beef microwave so well.

She also ordered her favorite beef noodle soup anywhere — phở tai ($9.95), a rich beef broth flavored with beef bones, onions, scallions, ginger, star anise, and other aromatics.  It comes with rice vermicelli noodles and thin slices of rare beef that cook in the hot broth.  You can see thin-sliced onions floating around, but I always fish those out and happily add them to my own bowl of phở, because she hates onions and I love them — one more reason we are so perfectly matched.  And this was the dish she enjoyed in the restaurant, while it was hot, fresh, and at its best.   

I was also craving phở, but I always go with phở dac biet ($9.95), the same beef broth and rice noodles served with thin-sliced rare beef as well as brisket, beef meatballs (much denser and chewier than Italian-style meatballs), chewy, tender tendon, and usually tripe.  This time I asked them to hold the tripe and give me extra tendon instead, and I’ve decided I like it much better that way. Any Vietnamese restaurant will serve phở with a plate of several fresh herbs and additional ingredients to add, so diners can customize their soup to their hearts’ content.  I always tear up fragrant fresh basil leaves and crunchy sliced jalapeño peppers (these are fresh; much spicier than the pickled kind from a jar, so don’t touch your eyes!), but I prefer to leave the crispy bean sprouts out of my phở.  If I get lime wedges, I’ll usually squeeze some lime into my phở and some more into my glass of water.  Then there are condiments: hoisin sauce, sriracha (overrated hot sauce), and sambal oelek (thicker, chunkier hot sauce).  I’ll usually add just a tiny spoonful of sambal too, but only after tasting the pure, unadulterated  broth first.  As you might have guessed, my wife prefers plain phở, just as it comes out of the kitchen… but with as many onions fished out as possible.

My wife also loves boba tea drinks, especially the ones that are served up like slushies, full of chewy tapioca balls called boba.  I like the drinks quite a bit myself, but I’m not into the boba itself.  This time I passed, but she got her favorite, taro boba tea ($4.25), which always comes in a purple color but tastes more like vanilla to me than anything else.  It was icy and creamy and velvety and refreshing, but since my wife is only five feet tall, she had to stand up just to take a sip from this tall straw and taller glass. 

More recently, a dear old friend of my wife’s brought us some Little Saigon takeout after we had just returned home from being away for a while.  She brought my wife her usual favorite, the grilled beef with rice vermicelli, as well an order of two summer rolls ($4.25) as an appetizer.  I totally forgot to take a photo when she ordered them on our last visit to the restaurant, but I got ’em this time!  These are thin, sticky rice paper wraps stuffed with chilled pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and herbs, and served with a thick, sweet peanut dipping sauce.  I must admit I’m not the biggest fan, but she just loves them.

This friend of my wife’s asked me what I wanted, and I decided to try something I love, but hadn’t ordered before at Little Saigon: a hot and spicy beef noodle soup ($9.95), also called bún bò huế.  At Pho 88, their version of bún bò huế includes pork as well as beef, but this was its own unique thing.  I appreciated that the thin slices of beef were fattier, with more marbling, than the usual thin slices of beef eye round in the standard phở , and I liked them much more as a result.  The rice noodles in the hot and spicy soup were definitely thicker than the typical rice vermicelli in phở, too.

Whenever you order phở to go, any good Vietnamese restaurant serves the broth in a separate container from everything else, so the rice noodles don’t turn to mush and the rare beef doesn’t overcook before you get it home.  Little Saigon packaged the deep red, oily bún bò huế broth separately from everything else, which is the ideal way to do it for takeout orders.

Here is the assembled bún bò huế, with plenty of cilantro and green onions.  It came with the typical phở accompaniments, so I squirted in some lime juice but didn’t feel the need to add anything else.  The soup is definitely spicy, but if you’re worried about the heat, I can promise you it looks much spicier than it actually is.  You may need to blow your nose while eating it (I sure did), but your lips and tongue shouldn’t burn afterwards, and you shouldn’t have any other distress or discomfort from it.

It might sound a little weird to order hot soup during so much of the year in steamy hot central Florida, but I find phở and bún bò huế very refreshing, even in the peak of the summer months.  Keep in mind that Vietnam has a humid, tropical climate too!  But I think I appreciate phở the most during our weeks of winter when the temperature in Orlando drops below 70 degrees, and sometimes down into the 40s for a few precious days.  It doesn’t matter, though — Vietnamese food is delicious any time of year, and Little Saigon is one of our favorite restaurants to order it.  And my wife says the summer rolls here are the best ones anywhere.

AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.

Caribbean Sunshine Bakery

Jamaican food is one of my favorite kinds of food.  For many years, I was loyal to the Golden Krust location in East Orlando, and that’s because it is awesome.  But when I started branching out, I discovered Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill last year, and that was pretty good too (even if they left the roti I paid for out of my order; I have a long memory).  My most recent Jamaican discovery is Caribbean Sunshine Bakery, a restaurant with two locations in west Orlando and one in Winter Garden.  I have paid two visits to the location on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway.

I was surprised to see they had multiple small restaurants on the inside: the Jamaican place (the main attraction) taking up the left side of the space, and small soul food and Haitian restaurants off to the right, along with a T-shirt shop.  I went straight to the thatched hut to place my order, then waited for it along the left side, so I didn’t get to check out the menus of the Soul Food Cafe or the Haitian restaurant.

But since the website listed on the door and the website listed on the paper menu are different, and neither work, I took the liberty of scanning the paper menu:

I always love spicy beef patties, but that’s what I almost always get.  I even have a frozen Golden Krust spicy beef patty in my freezer right now!  So when I saw Caribbean Sunshine Bakery offered a salt fish patty ($2.35), I had to try that.  First I asked for an ackee and salt fish patty, to represent the national dish of Jamaica, but they were sold out of those.  I’m glad they still had regular salt fish patties available when I got there in the afternoon, since that is traditionally a Jamaican breakfast dish.  Because Caribbean Sunshine is a bakery, I decided to get my patty wrapped in coco bread ($1 additional) to try their version of the soft, fluffy bread.  Carbs on carbs!

The crispy golden patty had a nice flakiness and tasted very fresh.  The fish inside was suitably salty, surprisingly smoky, and seasoned well with some red pepper — maybe pimiento?  It wasn’t spicy, for those who fear Jamaican food might be too spicy for them.  This sandwich, laden with carbs, salt, and grease, had a nice blend of textures, and everything was fresh and delicious.  Salt fish patties, where have you been all my life?

This is the large oxtail meal ($11.95), served over rice and peas with steamed cabbage, sweet fried plantains, and a round fried dumpling with the very festive moniker of festival.  Oxtail and maduros are two of my favorite foods in the entire world, together or separately, and these were awesome.  I wish I could cook rice and peas and cabbage like this!  The rice has the slightest coconutty flavor, and I wish I could duplicate the magical recipe that most Jamaican restaurants use at home.   

I almost never order jerk chicken, but I don’t know why that is, because I feel more comfortable eating meat when I know the animal had been a jerk.  Also, I usually prefer brown stew chicken, but I asked the friendly woman at the counter which one of the two she recommended, and she said to go with the jerk.  I didn’t want to be a jerk after asking for her recommendation, so I went for it.  This was another large meal ($11.95), and it was great.  I forgot to specify I always prefer dark meat chicken, so I was disappointed to see breast meat when I got it home.  But even though some restaurants overcook their white meat chicken, this was very moist, tender, juicy, and full of incredible flavor.  The jerk seasoning had a little bite, but wasn’t overwhelmingly spicy at all.  I loved it.   

I returned to Caribbean Sunshine about a month back, to pick up lunch for myself and three co-workers.  One woman ordered the jerk chicken I enjoyed so much last time, and two others ordered the brown stew chicken.  This was a small brown stew chicken meal ($9.75), with rice and peas, cabbage, and festival:I traded a piece of my jerk pork for a piece of her brown stew chicken, and all three of us who tried it agreed how good it was.

Oh yeah, the jerk pork!  I ordered a small meal ($10.85) and really liked it.  There were a few large bone fragments to pick out, but the meat was so tender, it was easy to pull the bones out cleanly, with no shreds of meat sticking to them.  Never mind the chicken wing on top of the cabbage in the picture above — you won’t get that in a jerk pork meal unless you trade some food with your friend.

I had to get another salt fish patty on this takeout trip, but this time I also tried my old standard, the spicy beef patty ($2.35).  These are much larger patties than you get at other Jamaican restaurants, convenience stores, and random Cuban restaurants and pizzerias.  You can tell they are made fresh here at Caribbean Sunshine Bakery.  After taking this first taste, I ended up eating the patties the next day.  They were still nice and flaky after a quick trip through the microwave.  (Not at work; I don’t microwave fish at work because I am not a sociopath.)  The salt fish was nice and smoky like last time, and the beef patty was quite spicy, which was what I hoped for.  It made my tongue tingle for a while afterwards!

I really love Jamaican and Caribbean food, and I’m glad to discover new restaurants around Orlando all the time.  If you haven’t been to Caribbean Sunshine Bakery, definitely make a special trip to one of the three locations some time.  The West Colonial one is directly across the street from Lotte Plaza Market, the sprawling Asian supermarket that houses another one of my favorite restaurants in its food court, the Filipino-American fusion restaurant Taglish.  That whole stretch of West Colonial Drive has some of Orlando’s best Caribbean and Asian grocery shopping and dining options, so don’t sleep on it, even though it isn’t a toney or touristy part of town.  You’ll be missing out on some real shining gems, like Caribbean Sunshine.

Cubans on the Run

Cubans on the Run (https://www.cubansontherun.com/) is a small, casual Cuban restaurant located in Casselberry, but practically on the edge of Longwood.  Yesid Saavedra opened it as a small sandwich shop with his late father-in-law Jose Torres in 1993, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Charlie in 2004.  Undaunted, they rebuilt and reopened it as a larger space, with an expanded kitchen and a fuller menu to match, adding Cuban entrees beyond sandwiches.

My wife and I have enjoyed Cubans on the Run for years, but because it is closed on Sundays, sometimes we don’t make it there when we get the bright idea to go.  I’ve never eaten in the dining room, even in all the years before the pandemic, but it’s a fantastic restaurant to pick up takeout.  They have one of the best Cuban sandwiches in town — not as large as College Park Cafe‘s Cubano, but definitely one of the better ones in the Orlando area.  Those two are my Top Two, for sure.

My wife doesn’t share my obsession with sandwiches, but she likes steak much more than I do, believe it or not.  At Cuban restaurants, she almost always orders a thin grilled steak, like this one here ($10.99), served with chimichurri sauce on the side, and topped with a mound of thin-sliced grilled onions she hates, but I love.  I am always glad to scoop up her onions.  She requested white rice with it but got yellow rice, which she was fine with.  Those are tostones on top — savory, starchy, salty, crunchy fried plantains, and a cup of red beans underneath that I would end up eating.  The steak is very thin, but it was a huge portion.  There  was a second entire piece of steak underneath that one, almost the same size! 

I am making a conscious effort to eat a little healthier in 2021, so on this visit, I ordered chicken fricasee for the first time.  This herculean portion was only $7.50.  I requested dark meat, so I got a huge chicken thigh with the bone still in and the skin still on, a huge leg, a couple of chunks of potato from the stew, a bed of rich yellow rice, a cup of red beans, and four maduros — sweet fried plantains, definitely a Top Ten favorite food of mine.  Sometimes you order chicken and it’s disappointingly dry, which is one reason I tend to prefer dark meat, especially thighs.  This was perfect chicken — so moist, juicy, tender, rich, flavorful.  It was prepared so well, I feel inspired to try to recreate my own version at home.  Loved this chicken.  One of the best chicken dishes I’ve eaten in the Orlando area, without a doubt!

But for the purposes of this review, I couldn’t go to Cubans on the Run and not order one of their signature sandwiches.  But instead of the traditional Cuban sandwich that Cubans on the Run is acclaimed for, I switched it up and got my childhood favorite from Miami, the medianoche (midnight) sandwich ($5.99).  It has all the same ingredients as the Cubano: roast pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, and pickles, only it is served on a sweet, egg-based yellow bread, rather than Cuban bread.  But I’ve had the Cubano before too, and like I said, both are among the finest in Orlando. 

This is a chicharron ($3.75), crispy fried pork with the crunchy skin attached.  This one was harder, drier, and crunchier than I like, but we caught them late on a weekday evening on this particular visit, and usually I go earlier on Saturdays when the chicharrones are fresher and more tender.

My wife and I both love arepas ($3.75), sort of a sandwich made with two sweet corn patties fried on a grill, with melty mozzarella cheese in between them.  Growing up in Miami, you got an arepa from a cart whenever there was an outdoor event, like a fair or festival.  I have recently learned these are often referred to as arepas con choclo, or cachapas, since there are other kinds of arepas (Colombian, Venezuelan, etc.) that aren’t the sweet corn cakes.

These are two perfect churros ($3.25 for the pair), which are doughnut-like pastries that are fried and dusted with cinnamon sugar.  They should be crispy on the outside and moist and cake-like on the inside.  These churros are made fresh, and you can get them with or without cream down their long hollow centers.  I like the cream, but my wife prefers them without.  Guess how we got these!*
*We got them without cream, the way my wife likes.  Fellas, consider this a teaching moment.

I have a hard time going to any Cuban restaurant and not trying my old Miami standards of a beef empanada ($1.85) and one or two croquetas de jamon (75 cents each).

Empanadas are savory pastries, usually filled with some kind of meat wrapped in a half moon-shaped crust, then baked or fried.  Cuban empanadas are wrapped in a flour dough crust, then fried until crispy, flaky, and soft.  I like them the best, especially when they’re stuffed with picadillo, a dish of seasoned ground beef.  This was a nice light empanada, crispy yet soft and yielding, barely greasy, although I wish the ground beef was a little more tomatoey.  (Everyone seasons it a little different, and sometimes you find olives in there, stewed with the picadillo.)

Croquetas are small fritters of diced ham mixed with a rich, creamy bechamel sauce, dipped in bread crumbs, and then fried until crispy and solid, but soft and creamy inside.  I love them, but nobody loves them more than my best friend since childhood, a lifelong Miami resident who is currently blogging about his quest to discover and review Miami’s finest croquetas, in The Croqueta Diaries.  I’m a dabbling dilletante, but consider my dude Captain Croqueta.

And even though Cuban food is not known as spicy food, Cubans on the Run is well-known for their housemade hot sauce.  Usually they will give you one or two tiny plastic cups, even with a big order like this, but this time I remembered to ask to purchase a bottle (I believe it was $5).

I’ve tried several other Cuban restaurants around Orlando, but Cubans on the Run is definitely one of my favorites, and one of the best.  It isn’t far from home, but much too far from work to dash off to for a quick lunch.  Since it is closed on Sundays, that means we can pretty much only ever go on Saturdays or rare mornings after dental appointments nearby.  But as you can see from the hearty, unpretentious, delicious food here, it never disappoints.  Run, don’t walk, to Cubans on the Run!

Yummy House

The Chinese restaurant Yummy House (https://yummyhouseflorida.com/orlando-menu/) has five locations: Tampa, Sarasota, Ocala, my old college town of Gainesville, and nearby Altamonte Springs, one of the small municipalities in Seminole County, directly north of Orlando.  I always liked it, and I think it’s definitely the best Chinese restaurant north of the Colonial Drive area, where all the other great ones like Peter’s Kitchen, Chuan Lu Garden, and Taste of Chengdu are located.

But when I realized I hadn’t been back to Yummy House a few years, the timing seemed right to do something about that.  You may have noticed there has been a lot of ignorance and intolerance leveled against the Asian-American community recently — discrimination against businesses, harassment and even horrific violence against individuals.  This is inexcusable and wrong, but there are things we can do to help.  You can attend a bystander intervention training to help stop anti-Asian-American and xenophobic harassment, like the ones run by the Hollaback! organization.  (I’m registered for my first training next week.)  If you are an ally, you can check in with your Asian friends and tell them you’re here for them, that you empathize and care, that you see them and hear them and are available for any support they need.   And you can support Asian-owned restaurants and other businesses, because between the lasting pandemic and this new wave of anti-Asian hate, they could use your business more than ever.  So if you weren’t already craving Chinese food, I hope you will consider placing an order at Yummy House now.

This is spicy XO beef short ribs ($16.99): sautéed baby beef short ribs with snow peas in house-made spicy XO sauce.  I always love short ribs, and these were tender and tasty.  I always never eat snow peas, but the crispiness offset the unctuous richness of the saucy meat.  Just be careful of the bones, but you can eat all the way around them, with very little meat clinging to them.

This next dish is one of my old favorites from Yummy House: XO seafood chow fun ($12.99).  These chewy rice noodles are stir-fried with shrimp, scallops, calamari, onion, and crunchy bean sprouts in lightly spicy XO sauce.  They’re not quite as visible in this photo, but I assure you there were plenty of plump shrimp, sweet scallops, and tender squid, and they all tasted very fresh.

You may already be asking yourself “What the heck is XO sauce?”  It is a luxurious Chinese condiment that I became obsessed with trying after first reading about it on Serious Eats and Saveur, and as far as I can tell, Yummy House is the only restaurant in Orlando that uses it in dishes (although there may be others I haven’t been to).  It brings saltiness and savory umami flavor to dishes, but it is also a little spicy and a little sweet.  Created in Hong Kong in the 1980s, it was named after another high-end luxury item, French XO (extra old) cognac, that receives the XO designation after it has been aged for over six years.  However, there is no cognac in the sauce.  These two articles taught me that it includes dried scallops (an expensive ingredient), bacon and/or ham, spicy cod roe called mentaiko, baby anchovies, fried shallots and garlic, chiles, ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, chicken stock, spices, sugar, and oil, then simmered until it takes on the thick consistency of preserves, like marmalade or jam.  RESEARCH!  Know it, love it.

Sounds amazing, right?  It sounds really labor-intensive, for one thing.  I’ve never noticed premade jars of XO sauce at any of Orlando’s fantastic Asian markets, but if any of my readers can recommend a good brand, I’d love to pick one up for kitchen experimentation.  In the meantime, you can enjoy the heck out of it at Yummy House.

Anyway, this next dish was a gigantic hit with my wife, and I loved it too.  I think it joins the red barbecue pork fried rice at Naradeva Thai in the pantheon of greatest rice dishes in Orlando.  It is duck and dried grape fried rice ($12.99), and it is so ridiculously good.  It is no secret that my wife and I both love duck in all its forms, and this jasmine rice dish also includes eggs, green onions, and fresh cilantro, in addition to the tender and juicy minced boneless roast duck.  But dried grapes?  Those are raisins — specifically sultanas, or golden raisins, in this dish, and they are so perfect, adding a chewy texture and a pleasant sweetness that is awe-inspiring. 

There are a lot of jokes about bad cooks ruining dishes with raisins, like sneaking them into potato salad to ruin cookouts for unsuspecting family and friends.  The wonderful Netflix TV series Dead to Me even had a gag about a neighbor’s “Mexican lasagna” that was full of raisins.  (It was no mistake that this neighbor was named “Karen.”  Seriously, watch the show.  Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are doing the best work of their careers.)  And some people even hate oatmeal raisin cookies, which I don’t get because I love them, but I guess they could be disappointing if you were expecting chocolate chip.  But anyway, don’t knock roast duck and golden raisins (or “dried grapes”) in your fried rice until you’ve tried it, and I sincerely hope you try it.

Anyway, that was last weekend, and it was so good, I brought Yummy House home again last night.  Of course we had to get the same fried rice:

And since it was so good last time, I also had to try the BBQ pork fried rice ($9.99), also with eggs, green onions, and fresh cilantro mixed into the jasmine rice.  This pork was also very tender, smoky, slightly sweet, and delightfully fatty.  In case you can’t tell, these are huge portions.  My wife and I were able to get several meals out of both takeout orders.

The first time we ever went to Yummy House to dine in, years ago, I ordered my favorite go-to dish at any Chinese restaurant, beef chow fun noodles ($11.99).  This time my wife requested it, sans bean sprouts, and I figured she would prefer it to the spicy XO version.  As usual, the noodles have that perfect chewy consistency, the sliced beef was tender, and the whole dish came together so well.  I’ve waxed poetic about the wonderful beef chow fun at Peter’s Kitchen in my Top Tastes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly, and this is up there with it as one of the best I’ve had anywhere.

Finally, a friend and co-worker who also loves Yummy House recommended the salt and pepper calamari ($9.99), so I added that to last night’s takeout order too.  Calamari is so different everywhere, and you never know if you’re going to get tender tubes, or a mass of Lovecraftian tentacles, and if they will be battered or breaded, greasy or rubbery, or just plain perfect.  This calamari was on the perfect side, with thick and tender strips rather than tubes, and a nice batter that was crispy and firm and stayed in place, without being too greasy or heavy.  I was surprised to see this much seasoning on it, including red pepper flakes, green onions, and what seemed like Szechuan peppercorns, but without the tingling, numbing heat those usually bring.  It was spicier than I expected “salt and pepper” calamari to be, but also not nearly as spicy as it looks in this photo.  I loved it.  It was a really pleasant surprise.

So to sum all of this up, Yummy House is the best Chinese restaurant I know of in Seminole County, and it holds its own against the other best ones in Orlando.  You have to come for the calamari, the chow fun, the duck and dried grape fried rice, and anything with XO sauce, trust me.  But trust me on this too: we need to come together as a community to support our Asian friends and neighbors now more than ever, to let them know we care about them, value them, and welcome them, and will stand with them and stand up for them.  Why not start at Yummy House, or one of the other wonderful local Asian restaurants I’ve reviewed here on The Saboscrivner?  Check those categories near the top right of the page and find somewhere that looks good.  I don’t think you will have to look far at all.

Mediterranean Street Food by ShishCo

Mediterranean Street Food by ShishCo (https://www.mediterraneanstreetfood.com/) is a small free-standing shack in the middle of a shopping plaza parking lot on State Road 17-92 in Maitland, between Casselberry and Winter Park, not far from Lake Lily, the Enzian Theater, and Luke’s Kitchen and Bar.  If you live in Orlando, you’ve probably driven by it countless times and might not have given it a second glance.  But if you know, you know.  I first ate there on New Year’s Day several years ago.  It is a perfect setup for drive-through or takeout, but they have a few outdoor tables under an awning, and it was a gorgeous, sunny, chilly day for an al fresco lunch.  It helps that I absolutely love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.  It’s rare when food is so delicious, yet also relatively healthy.

But I hadn’t been back in a while — not since I started The Saboscrivner in 2018 — so I was long overdue for a return for some serious takeout.  About a month back, I ordered us the sampler platter, and me being me, I chose the one that feeds three ($13.50) so my wife and I would have plenty of leftovers, instead of the sampler platter that feeds two ($11.50).  It was a huge amount of food, and probably worth the extra two bucks.  I think this top container in the photo below was supposed to be babaganoush, but it was nothing like the creamy, smoky eggplant dip we’ve had at other restaurants and always love.  It was almost more like a chilled, spicy salsa, with lots of tomatoes in it, and maybe some eggplant too?  Nothing like that was listed in the menu online.  My wife was disappointed because it wasn’t standard babaganoush, and it remains a mystery to me.  The hummus was much better, and you can see they were extremely generous with grilled pita wedges.  But that’s not all…

The sampler platter also came with a generous portion of falafel balls (that were more like patties) and the most delicious Turkish egg rolls called sigara boregi — crispy phyllo dough cylinders wrapped around a blend of spiced savory cheese.  You can order those separately, and I’d definitely get them again next time.  There were stuffed grape leaves too — one of my favorite foods — but I guess I ate those before getting a photo.  The sampler also came with tahini and tzatziki sauces.My wife is going through a major falafel phase, so I think we added on a few extra falafel balls for her (75 cents each).  The extras came packaged separately, but trust me, they look the same as the ones above.

This is the doner/gyro bowl ($10.49), which is a huge amount of food and a terrific value for the price and quality.  The doner/gyro meat is a combination of beef and lamb, served in a soft, fluffy bread bowl over rice with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions, all dusted with savory za’atar seasoning.  This is what I ordered on my first visit a few years ago.  I sat at one of their tables under the awning on a beautiful, sunny, cool January day and felt like a king, eating this in the middle of that parking lot.  I loved it then and loved it this time too.  The bread bowl is really fantastic.  I like to tear off pieces and make little roll-ups with all the ingredients.

And this is the chicken shish kebab bowl (also $10.49), served the same way.  I hesitate to order chicken at a lot of restaurants because it is often dry and bland, but I knew this would be good because the menu said it was grilled dark meat, marinated in spices.  I love dark meat chicken, especially thighs, and the best thing you can do to prepare chicken is marinate it before cooking.  It was very tender, juicy, and flavorful, plus you got more of that nice rice and another fluffy bread bowl.  Needless to say, the two of us got a few meals out of all of this bounty.   

These two bowls might have come with additional tzatziki sauce cups too — I’m afraid I don’t remember, but they probably should have.  I made sure to request a little two-ounce cup of the “Julides hot relish” listed on the menu under Add Ons (50 cents), and that was terrific stuff.  It’s one more condiment I would happily buy by the jar.

Anyway, I don’t intend to stay away from Mediterranean Street Food this long again.  In an attempt to live a little healthier (and longer), we have both been eating a lot of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food recently, especially from Casselberry’s Beyti Mediterranean Grill, an amazing Turkish restaurant that opened last October, that we have been to many times.  We love that place!  This return trip to Mediterranean Street Food in Maitland was an attempt to switch up our routine, and it was good too.  I can’t think of too many world cuisines that are just as tasty and somehow also pretty healthy.  Usually you have to trade one for the other, but not at Mediterranean Street Food.

Mofongo (Miami)

I always remember March 7th, 2020, a date that shall live in infamy.  I took my first trip down to Miami in over two years to attend an old friend’s funeral, visited my family for the first time in far too long, and got to hang out with my best friend on an epic foodie adventure day.  As you might remember (because it was a year ago today, but also feels like a decade ago, and possibly also last week), this was right before so much of the country started quarantining before the COVID-19 pandemic, so March 7th was the last day I ate any meals in a restaurant.  But I went out in style, because we ate at FIVE restaurants that day.  I have already shared my reviews of Polo Norte and El Santo Taqueria from that same legendary day, along with my review of the Fort Lauderdale Skyline Chili from earlier in the same trip.  But my last Miami visit and my last hurrah going out to dinner with friends culminated at Mofongo (https://www.mofongoscalle8.com/), a popular Puerto Rican restaurant on Miami’s festive, fun, and iconic Calle Ocho, the center of the expatriate Cuban and Cuban-American community.

This evening was the first time I had met my best friend’s girlfriend, who is just the coolest person, and a damn delight.  I was so happy to be out with both of them, at last.  She started out with some nice sangria:
DSC03028

We shared alcapurrias de carne ($9.50).  These are crispy, crunchy fritters made out of either mashed green plantains, grated yuca, or both, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, and deep-fried.  They were really heavy, but good.  This was my first alcapurria experience!DSC03029

This was the star of the show: mofongo de carne frita ($16).  Mofongo, the restaurant’s namesake dish, is a concoction of green plantains, which are sliced, then fried, then mashed up with garlic, salt, and crunchy chicharrones (pork rinds) in a wooden mortar.  Here at Mofongo (the restaurant), they serve mofongo (the dish) in tall wooden mortars that make attention-grabbing centerpieces for every table.  The mofongo itself is sculpted into a dome, its apex artfully adorned with awe-inspiring alimentary accoutrements.  This was A LOT of food for the three of us to share, especially since my friend and I had been eating literally all day.  Somehow our trio made it work. DSC03030

A close-up of the top of Mount Mofongo, with thick chunks of rich, salty carne frita (fried pork shoulder), translucent pink marinated onions, and colorful herbs over the golden dome.   DSC03032

Finally, the arroz mamposteao ($4.50) ended up being my favorite thing we had at Mofongo!  This side order of buttery yellow rice, stewed red beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bell peppers was one of my favorite rice dishes I’ve ever had.
DSC03031
Almost a full year after this legendary night out in Miami, I finally found a restaurant that serves arroz mamoposteao in Orlando: Cafe Madrid, which I reviewed right here, almost two years ago.  It was good there too, so now I have a local hook-up.

This meal was the culmination of one of my favorite days ever — definitely my favorite day of the last 365, right before the way we had to live our lives changed forever, to protect ourselves and the people around us.  That’s why I’ll always remember the date of March 7th, along with the festive surroundings, the beautiful live music (my best friend’s girl knew all the Puerto Rican songs and explained them to us), the good food, and the wonderful company.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do something like this again safely, sooner rather than later, and we can remind our friends how much we love them and missed them over another delicious meal (or five).

Chain Reactions: Sus Hi Eatstation

I am a sucker for extravagant sushi rolls and poke bowls that I get to customize myself, with the ingredients of my choice — different fish, vegetables, toppings, condiments.  They’re beautiful to the eye, refreshing, delicious, and you can go as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  I’ve reviewed and sung the praises of two of my favorite local restaurants: Poke Hana and Bento Cafe, but I recently paid my first visit to the homegrown chain Sus Hi Eatstation (https://sushieatstation.com/), founded here in Orlando by local couple Robert and Teresa Ly.

I don’t know why it took me so long.  Sus Hi Eatstation has several locations around town, with the “build your own” model popularized by Subway, Chipotle, and so many other successful fast food and fast casual restaurants.  They are also vaguely ninja-themed, and as an ’80s kid who grew up loving G.I. Joe and Daredevil comics, I have nothing but love for ninjas (and G.I. Joe, and Daredevil) to this day.  If anything, I wish they leaned into the ninja theme even more, especially in this era of everyone wearing masks in public.  (But don’t worry, everyone working at Sus Hi when I visited was wearing normal masks.)

I went to the closest location in Altamonte Springs, and  I should mention that at least during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sus Hi Eatstation has customers place all orders from a touchscreen kiosk or online through the website.  When I got there, I used the kiosk, and they had a pump bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it, so have no fear.  At the front of the store, the dutiful staff members (who really could have been dressed like ninjas, I’m just sayin’) are meticulously assembling orders from the mise en place ingredients arranged in front of them, just like so many other fast casual eateries.

I have to admit it was a particular special that drew me in that day.  One of Sus Hi’s specialties is sushi burritos wrapped in huge flour tortillas, and for a $1.50 upcharge, you can get them crusted with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so they have a crunchy outer layer, but the sushi inside is still cool and refreshing.  That already sounded amazing — certainly not traditional, but a nice, fusiony presentation.  But now, they are running a special where you can get the burrito covered with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and deep-fried for a $3 upcharge.  Yes, I’m not proud, but as soon as I learned that was a current menu option, I had to have it!

The basic burrito is $8.50, and I chose a base of white rice.  (The other options are brown rice and lettuce.)  When you customize a Sus Hi burrito, you get to select three proteins.  I had already studied the menu in advance, and even though they offer steak and chicken, I went to a place called Sus Hi because I wanted sushi.  I selected tuna (a 50-cent upcharge), salmon (a 75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab, which is shredded surimi tossed in spicy mayo.  I added on cream cheese, cucumbers, shredded purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning.  It was gorgeous!

Sus Hi allows you to get up to three different sauces with a burrito, and I opted for sauces on the side so I could taste everything better.  The bright orange sauce on the top left is an additional sauce that comes special with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito.  I thought it was going to be like a spicy queso, but it was more of a very spicy mayo, with the intensity of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  The paler sauce next to it is classic creamy, tangy white sauce.  Below we have orange fire sauce, which was like a smoky chili mayo, probably with chipotle flavor added, and the slightly lighter orange sauce on the bottom right is standard spicy mayo, which I unapologetically love with my sushi and poke.

Sus Hi also offers regular and sweet soy sauces, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce, sweet chili sauce, mango habanero sauce, regular sriracha (meh), and yellow sriracha (better), among others.

The burrito was HUGE, and I am making a conscious effort to eat smaller portions in 2021, so I got two meals out of it.  The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted outer surface wasn’t quite as crunchy as I expected, nor as flamin’ hot, but I still enjoyed it.  It was a novelty, something I’m glad I tried but wouldn’t order again.  I suspect the regular panko-crusted burrito will probably have a better texture.

But while I was at Sus Hi for my first time, I figured I might as well try a bowl too.  I selected a regular bowl ($9.95) with brown rice as the base, in my half-hearted, conflicted attempt to eat slightly healthier.  I usually don’t like brown rice, but theirs wasn’t bad at all!  Again, I selected the same three proteins: tuna (50-cent upcharge), salmon (75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab.  I kept my toppings pretty similar to the burrito: cream cheese (you can see the little scoop near the bottom), cucumber, purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning, but I also had them add sliced pickled jalapenos, crunchy noodles, and pickled ginger.  Hey, why not, right?

I swear there is tuna, salmon, and krab under all that in the paper bowl.  In fact, I was really impressed by the size of the “regular” bowl, and how generous they were with everything they put in it.  A lot of places will scrimp on toppings and especially proteins, but I feel like this is a terrific deal — a huge portion of a lot of fresh, tasty food.

I got the same three sauces on the side with this bowl: spicy mayo, white sauce, and fire sauce.  In the future, now that I’ve tried those sauces separately, I’d be more likely to just order one or more on top of the bowl, for ease of mixing everything together.  You can also purchase Sus Hi’s sauces in bottles if you fall in love with any of them.  I wish more restaurants would offer their sauces, condiments, and dressings for sale, but it never hurts to ask!

After all these years, I finally see why Sus Hi Eatstation is so popular, with such a devoted following around Orlando.  People love sushi, and they love freedom of choice.  I’m sure I will return, probably going back for a similar version of everything I tried for this review.  I don’t know how long the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted sushi burrito will last, but if that was on your bucket list, I strongly encourage you to cross it off while you can!

BaanChan Thai Restaurant

I had been hearing about BaanChan Thai Restaurant (https://www.baanchanorlando.com/) for years before finally making it there in December.  I brought back takeout for my “lunch bunch” at work, and everyone really enjoyed what they ordered.  It’s way out east on Colonial Drive, further east than I usually venture, almost out to Alafaya.  But it is easily accessible via the 417 and convenient for anyone in the UCF area.

My one co-worker ordered the BaanChan ramen ($10), with noodles in a spicy lemongrass soup, mushrooms, onions, scallions, cilantro, whole chiles, and lime.  It came with a soy-marinated soft boiled egg and several large deep-fried, breaded shrimp.  This was a a uniquely Thai take on ramen.  They wisely packed the broth, the fried shrimp, and all the other stuff in three separate containers for her.  My photo of the broth came out blurry, so I left it out.  You’re welcome!

Three of us ordered my go-to Thai dish, drunken noodles ($8.50), at various levels of heat.  Because I like to tempt fate and sometimes ruin my afternoons at the workplace, I asked for mine to be hot.  Drunken noodles, sometimes called pad kee mow or pad kee mao, are wide, flat noodles stir-fried to an al dente consistency in a spicy sauce with onions, bell peppers, and Thai basil, plus a protein.  I chose pork, which was tender and not dried out from the stir-frying.  These were much more oily than other drunken noodles I’ve ordered elsewhere, at places like Mee Thai, Naradeva Thai, and Thai Singha, but still had a lot of flavor and A LOT of heat.

Someone’s food came with fluffy jasmine rice, but it went unclaimed.  That was a relief to me, because I ate it to cut some of the lingering heat from the spicy, oleaginous noodles.  Sometimes carbs can save your life!

I also ordered two small appetizers for myself, so I could make everything last for lunch and dinner.  I asked around, and a lot of people recommended the Thai heaven beef ($4.50), which is fried beef jerky!  Because it was fried and not just cured like a lot of conventional jerky I’ve had, in addition to being sticky, sweet, salty, and slightly spicy, it was oily and also quite firm and crunchy, which I wasn’t expecting.  I can see why this is a popular crowd-pleaser at BaanChan, but I don’t know if I would order it again.

My absolute favorite thing I tried on this first visit to BaanChan was the Thai sausage ($4).  It was chewy and savory with a slightly crispy exterior, not spicy at all.  It was a terrific sausage, and I loved it.  It came with paper-thin slices of pickled ginger like you might get with sushi, and some intimidating-looking whole chiles that I wisely avoided.

You can also see a fried pot sticker that one of my co-workers gave me from her order ($4.50 for four).  It was stuffed with ground, seasoned pork and vegetables and was a pretty standard pot sticker, but you can never go wrong with those.

I was glad to finally try BaanChan after reading about it for years.  Whenever I make it back, I’ll definitely order that amazing sausage again, and I’ll probably try the pineapple fried rice, chili jam, or larb next time to switch things up.