Phở Vinh

Phở Vinh (http://www.phovinhorlando.com/) is one of the many Vietnamese restaurants east of downtown Orlando, but it is slightly east of the main Vietnamese neighborhood, Mills 50, in an adjoining neighborhood known as the Milk District, due to the presence of the T.G. Lee Dairy headquarters.  Some of my favorite restaurants in Orlando are in the Milk District, and I’m happy to add another one to that number.

Our wonderful next-door neighbors took us to dinner at Pho Vinh several years ago, and we all liked it, but my wife and I kept returning to our usual Vietnamese restaurants, Phở 88 and Little Saigon, in the subsequent years.  Both are very good, but I recently felt like a change, so I recently called in a takeout order with Phở Vinh, brought it home, and unpacked deliciousness that even exceeded that dinner way back when.

Since the name of the place is Phở Vinh, we both decided to order phở, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup that we love so much.  Even though “beef noodle soup” sounds heavy, it is surprisingly light and refreshing, despite still being hearty and filling.

When we go to our usual Vietnamese restaurants, my wife always orders phở tai ($9.95), with thin slices of rare beef that cook in the hot, fragrant, clear broth.  Phở Vinh does what most Vietnamese restaurants do, packing the meat, noodles, and aromatics in one container, and the broth in a separate container, so the meat doesn’t get fully cooked and the noodles don’t turn to mush on the drive home.  We order takeout a lot more often than we dine out, especially these days, so we appreciate this very much.

I got what I normally order at other Vietnamese restaurants, the phở xe lưa ($13.95), with thin slices of rare beef, brisket, flank steak, tendon (rich, unctious, and chewy — I love it), and tripe (not my favorite, but it’s always included with the other meats in the combination phở). 

Here is the phở broth.  We both got identical containers, which are pretty generous.

And here is a shot of my steaming soup, all the meats and noodles simmering with torn basil leaves, paper-thin sliced onions, scallions, and fresh jalapeño peppers with all the fiery seeds and ribs intact. I squirted in a bit of lime juice from lime wedges (also included), but I rarely alter my phở beyond that, despite the addition of sauces like hoisin and sriracha.  It is better to taste it as intended, especially when visiting a new restaurant for  the first time, or in our case, the first time in a long time.   It was wonderful.  So fresh and fragrant, and like I said, never a heavy meal.

I also got an order of cơm chiên dương châu ($11.95), fried rice with shrimp, roast pork, ham, and sweet, chewy Chinese sausage called lap cheong or lap xeong, which I love.  They should call this dish the “kosher special”!  I was hoping to share it with my wife, but figured she might not like it, so I’d have more for myself to pack for lunch the next day.  But she thrilled me by loving the fried rice, even the Chinese sausage, which I definitely wasn’t expecting.

Guessing wrongly that she wouldn’t be into the fried rice, I ordered my wife a second whole meal for the next day, since I was going to be at work, and she doesn’t cook.  After phở tai, this is her favorite Vietnamese dish to order: bún bò nướng, or charbroiled beef with rice vermicelli (the bún).  At Phở Vinh, this also came with a crispy fried spring roll, so the dish was called bún bò nướng chả giò ($12.95).  I thought she might like to try the spring roll (the chả giò), but she wasn’t interested in it, so I ate it while it was hot and fresh.  We almost never get spring rolls, and I was reminded how much I like them.  I didn’t try any of the rest, but she ate it all, which means she liked it.  (If she didn’t, she wouldn’t!)

My next visit to Phở Vinh to bring home more takeout was two weeks later, on a recent drizzly, dreary Friday evening.  I got my wife the summer rolls she greatly prefers (an order or two for $3.95).  Unlike the crispy fried spring rolls, summer rolls are wrapped in a thin, chewy, sticky rice crepe, stuffed with pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and vegetables, and served chilled.  I’m never into these, but she loves ’em, especially the sweet, sticky peanut sauce they are always served with.

She got her usual phở tai again, but I switched it up and got a different kind of noodle soup, the very spicy bún bò huế ($11.95), with slices of beef and pork in an intensely hot broth.  As usual, the meats, noodles, and vegetables were packaged separately from the orangey-red broth. 

And here’s the gleaming, glistening soup, perfect for warming me up (and making my eyes water and nose run) on a surprisingly chilly, rainy evening. 

Finally, I got bánh mì bò kho ($11.95), a rich Vietnamese take on classic beef stew, served with half a loaf of crusty French bread.  I didn’t eat this until the following Sunday, two days later, when it was even chillier, but it heated up great and tasted delicious.  It was thicker than the phở and bún bò huế, but not nearly as thick as some beef stew I’ve had.  There were plenty of big chunks of soft carrot, thin slices of onion, and huge pieces of tender beef that were a perfect, soft consistency — not that different from oxtails, which are one of my favorite foods.  That got me thinking about how awesome a Vietnamese oxtail soup or stew would be.   
Unfortunately, the French bread was burnt, as you can see.  I still ate it, don’t get me wrong!  I heated it up in the toaster oven, but had I been at the restaurant, I would probably have asked for another piece.

So as you can see, Phở Vinh won us over.  With this stupid weather we’ve been having, alternating between days in the 80s and nights in the 50s, you can imagine how good nice, hot soups and stews would be.  If you’ve lived in Orlando for a while, you probably have a favorite Vietnamese restaurant.  We sure did, but I’m glad we branched out and tried Phở Vinh.  It is definitely a regular in our rotation now, and we will definitely return.

Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”

Meng’s Kitchen

Meng’s Kitchen (https://www.mengskitchensorlando.com/) is one of my favorite kinds of restaurants: a bit of a secret because it’s a restaurant inside something else — in this case, inside another restaurant, U-Roll Sushi on East Colonial Drive, directly east of Goldenrod Road (which I really need to review some other time).

When you crave Chef AJ’s eclectic comfort food with origins in China, Thailand, and India, you have to place an online order on the website above, then pick it up from U-Roll Sushi or make a note that you’re going to eat it there, as I did recently.  I met one of my closest foodie friends here in Orlando, a true bon vivant who knows even more good local places to eat than I do, and also one of the most upstanding, civic-minded, honorable people I know.  He has been a Meng’s mark for a while now, and I was glad to finally catch up with him over lunch on a workday, to see what all the hype was about.  This guy has never steered me wrong, and he definitely helped me choose wisely this time.

This is Chef AJ’s famous Hainanese chicken and rice ($10) — poached chicken served over Hainanese style rice pilaf with the most amazing ginger, garlic and soy dipping sauce.  The online ordering system gives a choice of white or dark meat, and I will always choose dark meat, 100% of the time.  It came boneless and fully sliced, with the soft skin on.  It also came with a side of broth that I forgot to photograph.  It looked like plain broth, just like this looks like plain chicken, but looks are deceiving, because everything had so much incredible flavor, I was blown away. 

My wise and worldly friend chose the chicken, so I had to make a decision.  With so many intriguing and unfamiliar options, I chose the braised pork Hunglay curry ($10) — marinated pork belly and pork shoulder with toasted garam masala, slowly braised with Hunglay curry paste, shallots, pickled garlic, fresh mango and ginger, and tamarind paste.  It was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year, so I chose wisely too.  Every piece of pork was tender enough to cut with our plastic forks, and they just melted in my mouth.  I’m such a fan of saucy, braised meats, and this was an outstanding dish, full of strong flavors I wasn’t overly familiar with, but they all worked so well together.   

The online menu said this braised pork curry came with steamed jasmine rice, but I requested a substitution of the spiced yellow rice that came with some other dishes, and I noted that it was okay if Chef AJ couldn’t substitute it.  Well, he did, and the spiced yellow rice was triumphant as well.  I have a rice cooker at home, and I can still NEVER cook rice as well as Asian and Latin restaurants.  But both this rice and the Hainanese rice pilaf that came with the chicken were something really special.  Spooning some of the pork curry sauce, which was savory but not spicy at all, over both kinds of rice opened up whole new worlds of flavor.   

My friend ordered this cucumber salad ($4) for us to share — chunks of cucumber and tomato and thin slivers of red onion in Thai sweet and sour dressing.  It might not have occurred to me to order this, but I’m so glad he did, and I’d get it again.  It was crisp and crunchy and sweet and spicy and cool and refreshing, especially with the heavy chicken, pork, and rice and the rich sauces they came with.  The sweet and sour dressing reminded me of Thai sweet chili sauce, a beloved condiment, but not as thick, sticky, and jelly-like.  True to its name, there was also a sour, slightly pungent component in the dressing that played well with the cucumbers.

My friend also ordered tom kha gai ($5), a Thai soup made with coconut milk, curry paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and big ol’ chunks of mushrooms, which I cannot eat.  Normally I like to try everything, but I am allergic or intolerant or something.  It always ends badly for me, so I passed.  But the soup looked and smelled good, and he seemed to like it. 

So far, this was my only visit to Meng’s Kitchen, but I need to return sooner rather than later for more Hainanese chicken and rice, more of that incredible braised pork Hunglay curry, and to eventually make my way through the menu and try everything else (as long as it doesn’t contain mushrooms).  It was terrific — one of those hidden gems that are all over Orlando, if you just give them a chance.

Tajine Xpress

Tajine Xpress (http://tajinexpress.com/) is a fast-casual Moroccan restaurant that opened earlier this year on Goldenrod Road on the east side of Orlando, south of East Colonial Drive.  It didn’t seem like the most propitious location until I noticed it is close to a mosque with a school, as well as a Middle Eastern grocery store and a Muslim clothing store.  It should do really well in that area, which is luckily close to my job as well.

By fast-casual, I mean you order at the front counter, then sit down and wait for it.  When I went with a work colleague for lunch a month or so ago, it wasn’t busy, and a nice lady walked our food out to our table.  But there is also a pickup area right in the corner of the glass section below.  As a double-Gator, I appreciated the orange and blue décor, and I really liked the rich royal blue color of the walls.  The chairs are large and made of metal.  They don’t fit terribly well under the tables, so I found myself literally on the edge of my seat as a whole new, unfamiliar regional cuisine presented itself to us.  My colleague has eaten at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot, but for me, it was completely new.  I was excited!

She is vegetarian, so she ordered the Moroccan salad ($3.98), with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and herbs and spices dressed in olive oil and herbs.

She also got zaalouk ($3.98), a chilled eggplant and tomato salad.  She seemed to really like both of those dishes.

It came with round bread that was crusty on the outside and softer on the inside.  It wasn’t anything like pita bread, and we both agreed it didn’t have a lot of flavor.  I imagined it would have been better if she dipped pieces of it in those two salads.

We went on a Friday, so Tajine Xpress was offering its weekend-only couscous platters.  I love lamb and couscous, so I couldn’t resist ordering the lamb couscous ($15.98).  It arrived on a platter that was absolutely HUGE, with some soft, tender vegetables: potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and a squash I wasn’t familiar with.  My research shows it might have been an acorn or kabocha squash, with the green rind and tender orange flesh inside.

Underneath the mystery squash, the lamb had been stewed until it was fork-tender, and they left some bones in there to impart even more flavor.  It was salty and oniony and so delicious.  I wish there had been a little more of the lamb atop the tender, al dente couscous, but you’ll never catch The Saboscrivner wishing a dish had less meat.

Tajine Xpress makes two kinds of spring rolls called briwates — beef and seafood — and you get two per order.  OR, you can be like me and order the briwates sampler platter, which gives you one beef briwat and one seafood briwat ($9.98).  They were served with harissa, the spicy sauce that explains it all.  The briwates looked and smelled so good, but they were both stuffed with mushrooms, my old enemy, a tasty ingredient that chefs love to cook with, but I just cannot eat. 
Undeterred, I cut these open, picked out all the mushrooms, and ate whatever was left, which was not my best idea ever.  It ended up being a very long afternoon at work.  But you have to understand, my vegetarian co-worker couldn’t eat them, and I can’t stand to waste food.  I definitely won’t order these again because of the mushrooms, but you normal, non-afflicted people reading this will probably like the briwates.

It took me a while to return, but I had really wanted to try the beef with prunes tajine ($12.98), because I love savory and sweet flavors together.  I went for lunch today and ordered it to go, so it came in a round cardboard tray with separate compartments for the huge chunks of tender braised beef topped with slivers of toasted almonds, my side order of rice pilaf (mixed with tiny bits of vermicelli and topped with peas and diced carrots), and only two prunes, sticky-sweet and covered with sesame seeds.
My wife instinctively made a face when I told her I ordered beef with prunes, but I showed her the two prunes were separated in the to-go container and offered her one.  Even she liked it, but I was a little sad we each only got a single prune.  I definitely would have liked more prunes, and it would have been interesting to taste them swimming in the meat juices.  I assumed they would be cooked and served together, but what do I know?  The beef had a lot of flavor and was so tender, I didn’t even need a knife to cut it.  A couple of the pieces had thick bones attached with some tender fat, like one of my favorite meats to eat, oxtails.  But all the meat easily pulled right off the smooth bones, which is one of the joys of braising, stewing, and slow-cooking.  The rice was a little bland, so I mixed all of it into the juices the beef came with, although I would have liked more of that rich, flavorful liquid too.

Today has been a dark, dreary, drizzly day, which is a perfect day for soup.  At the last minute, I also ordered the harira soup, with tomatoes, onions, lentils, chickpeas, vermicelli, and beef ($3.98).  It was a tasty twist on a tomato-based vegetable beef soup, as I expected.

The harira came with another round piece of bread, which I made sure to dip in the soup to add some flavor and soften it up.  But I already consumed some carbs from the rice, so I realized I’m just not into this bread and didn’t have to eat all of it.

The menu at Tajine Xpress isn’t huge, but now I’ve covered the two dishes that sounded the best to me: the lamb couscous (available Friday through Sunday only) and the beef with prunes tajine.  I would recommend both of those for sure.  As I said, I wish you got more meat with both of dishes, especially because the meats are so good.  I don’t love that round bread, and I’m wondering if the other side order options of fries and beans would be better than the rice I got today.  I think they would have to be.  I just figured fries would be cold by the time I got them home, but if you go and try the fries, let me know how they were!

Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.

Tasty Wok BBQ & Noodle House

Tasty Wok BBQ & Noodle House (http://www.tastywok.net/) is the first Chinese restaurant I fell in love with in Orlando — before Chuan Lu GardenPeter’s Kitchen, and Taste of Chengdu opened.  Add in Yummy House in Altamonte (the others are all clustered around the Mills 50 district, with Taste of Chengdu recently relocated to Baldwin Park), and that rounds out my official Top Five Orlando Chinese restaurants.  I’m sorry I haven’t been back to review Tasty Wok sooner, but better late than never.

The Tasty Wok website I linked to above definitely does not include the full menu.  You could click through that website that rhymes with “help” and hope to find photos posted by randos that may not even be up to date, but I took the liberty of scanning the most recent “New” Tasty Wok menu, updated as of July 2021.  If you right-click on each image and select “Open image in new tab,” you should be able to see much larger, more legible versions.

For my first trip back in far too long, I ordered all of our old favorites to bring home to share with my wife.  From the Appetizers page, I got the three BBQ combination ($18.95), with generous portions of tender roasted duck with crispy, delicate skin, sweet char siu (sliced roasted pork), and roasted pork with fatty belly and deliciously crispy skin.  I don’t think any of the Chinese restaurants in Orlando, as much as I love some of the others, do these meats better than Tasty Wok.

This is the masterful roasted duck, which you can also order as a separate appetizer portion for $7.95, or with steamed white rice for $11.95.  Look at how beautiful it is!  My wife and I both love duck — it is one of our favorite meats.   

This is the sweet, tender char siu pork, which is also available as an appetizer portion for $7.95 or over steamed white rice for $10.95:

And I really should have turned some of these over to get a glamor shot of that crackly golden skin, but this is the fattier barbecue pork with crispy skin, also available as an appetizer portion for $7.95 or over steamed white rice for $11.95. 

I’ve been to a few local Chinese restaurants where these meats were served swimming in pools of congealing grease, or worse yet, bland and dry, like they were chopped and sliced hours ago and just sitting under heat lamps.  That’s just sad, and I never bothered to review those places because I didn’t have much nice to say after that.  But Tasty Wok has never done us wrong.  Since we love all three meats, we always get the three BBQ combination and choose these three.  (There is a fourth option, soy sauce chicken, which is probably also outstanding, but we’ve never tried it in all these years!)

We also got my go-to dish at pretty much any Chinese restaurant, beef chow fun ($14.95), with tender beef and wide rice noodles with the most pleasing chewy texture that I just love, plus onions and green onions.

This ended up being a lot of food for two people, and we had enough left over that my wife got to have the rest for lunch the following day.

Someone once described Tasty Wok to me as “Chinese soul food,” and I never forgot that description.  All the dishes I tend to like to order — these very dishes — are on the greasy side, and nobody would ever confuse them for health food.  But they are made with skill, care, and love, and they are satisfying, delicious comfort food.  They are some of the best examples of roasted and barbecued meats and wok-fried noodles around, and I recommend them all highly.  if you are a Tasty Wok regular, let me know what your go-to dishes are, since I’m always looking to expand my palate.  Run, don’t wok, to Tasty Wok!

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.