Friends Indian Cuisine

Friends Indian Cuisine (https://friendsindiancuisine.com/) is a new halal Indian restaurant on South Semoran Boulevard, just north of Curry Ford Road in South Orlando, south of State Road 408.  It opened earlier this year (2022) and is building a loyal following due to excellent word of mouth.  The location has hosted a handful of restaurants before, but hopefully Friends is here to stay.  I have dined in twice and brought home takeout another time, so I couldn’t wait on this review any longer.  The short version: Friends is fantastic.  It’s another great recommendation to Orlando’s Indian restaurant scene, which I am slowly but surely working my way through.

From my first takeout trip, I brought home the two dishes I know my wife likes: butter chicken (left; $13.99) and palak paneer (right; $12.99) — both mild, for her sake.  The butter chicken is a delicious dish that was her gateway to appreciating Indian food: shredded dark meat chicken (all leg meat) stewed in a creamy tomato sauce.  It is very similar to chicken tikka masala (also on the menu for $14.99), but I’ve brought both to my wife before, and she prefers the butter chicken.  I love it too.  The palak paneer is cubes of cottage cheese (the paneer part) cooked with spinach in a creamy sauce.  It is another great gateway dish for people unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, especially vegetarians.  I’ve ordered an extremely similar dish called saag paneer at other Indian restaurants, but I just researched the difference: palak paneer is always made with spinach, while saag paneer can be made with spinach and/or any other leafy greens, particularly mustard greens.  Mystery solved!

I ordered lamb karahi ($14.99) for myself: boneless lamb strips cooked with tomatoes, onions, and green bell peppers in a curry sauce, served over basmati rice that came on the side.  Normally I order hot lamb vindaloo at Indian restaurants, but I switched it up to try the karahi for the first time.  I still got it hot, but it was a lot less vinegary and pungent than the vindaloo.   

I brought home an appetizer portion of vegetable pakoras ($4.99), a serving of six mixed vegetable patties dipped in chickpea batter and fried until golden-brown and crispy.  I thought my wife would like them too, but I ended up enjoying them more than she did, especially with tamarind sauce for dipping.

This was an order of tandoori paratha (top; $3.49), which is whole wheat bread layered with butter, and regular butter naan (bottom; $2.49, or you can get it with your entree as an alternative to plain basmati rice).  I wanted my wife to be able to compare and contrast them, but they were very similar.  Both breads were soft and warm from having been baked in a clay oven called a tandoor, and we really enjoyed both.  I am more used to buttery, flaky Malaysian-style parathas than the Indian variety, so this tandoori paratha was much more naan-like.  But trust me — I could eat these naan-stop.

If you don’t feel like ordering off the menu, or if you’re a newer convert to the wonderfulness of Indian food, Friends Indian Cuisine offers a daily all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $12.99 on weekdays and $14.99 on weekends, from 11:30 AM until 3:30 PM.  I’ve had the lunch buffet twice now, and it is terrific.  The dishes on the buffet are all mildly spiced for a wide range of palates.

Here are all the options from my most recent visit:

You grab your plate near the naan bread, aloo pakora (crispy battered and fried potatoes that were replenished right after I took this photo, of course), a lentil soup, that I did not try, and sweet gulab jamon, a dessert dish of cake-like balls in a sugary syrup.

Here you have plain white basmati rice, palak paneer (which we have already established is awesome), mixed vegetable curry, and aloo cholay, a dish with cubed potatoes and chickpeas cooked in a spicy curry sauce.

Moving down the line, they offer vegetable rice pilaf, chicken biryani (terrific), chicken curry, chicken korma in a creamy cashew sauce, butter chicken (I love this so much), and moist and tender tandoori chicken thighs and legs.

And finally, you can get cool, creamy raita (a yogurt sauce that is perfect for neutralizing spicy dishes), green chutney, tangy-sweet tamarind sauce, intimidating-looking green chili peppers, chopped red onion, lemon and orange wedges, a green salad, and rice pudding, another sweet dish.

This was my first plate, where I sampled a little bit of everything.  The butter chicken, tandoori chicken, palak paneer, and chicken biryani were my favorites from the lunch buffet.

On my most recent trip to the buffet with two work colleagues, I got an order of vegetable samosas ($4.99) for us to share.  These were perfect potato pyramids, with seasoned potatoes and peas in lightly fried, crispy crusts.  They split one and liked it, and I was too full to try mine until the next morning at home, but it was still great then.

Since Friends Indian Cuisine is so convenient to my job, I look forward to becoming more of a regular over the months and years, even as I branch out and continue to try other Indian restaurants throughout Orlando.  My family NEVER ate Indian food when I was growing up in Miami, and I never ate it that often until the last few years, in my quest to discover the best food anywhere and everywhere and share my thoughts on it.  Now I’m making up for lost time, and I’m thrilled to recommend one more great local Indian restaurant to expand my palate and my experience.

And hey, if you were expecting a Friends reference since I always make pop culture references in my restaurant reviews, sorry to disappoint you, but I always hated that show.

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John and John’s – A Pizza Shop

My favorite new pizzeria in Orlando is John and John’s – A Pizza Shop (https://www.johnandjohnspizza.com/) in the SoDo area, south of downtown Orlando and mere moments from the incredible Sister Honey’s Bakery.  I’ve been twice since it opened in mid-August, but if it wasn’t across town from me, I would be a regular for sure.  I believe the titular Johns hail from Philadelphia, but their pizza is pure New York style — thin, crispy, large, foldable slices with the crispy crunch I crave and high-quality ingredients and toppings.  The owners are also involved with Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen, a great restaurant in Thornton Park near downtown Orlando, which boasts the best Philly cheesesteak in Orlando.  (It made my list of Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 in Orlando Weekly.)  More on that a little later!

Like all the best New York-style pizzerias, John and John’s has several pizzas available to order by the slice at all times, stacked behind glass like a museum:

And here are their slice prices, since those aren’t listed on the website with the rest of the menu:

These are the three gorgeous slices I ordered on my first visit to John and John’s.  On the left is an “upside-down slice” ($4.99), with red sauce, chopped garlic, crushed peppers, freshly chopped basil, and pecorino romano cheese.  There’s nothing like fresh basil on pizza!  I am a convert, and I just wish every pizzeria did this, or at least the good ones.   
I’ll tell you more about the other two slices below, but they were all masterful.  I wolfed them down on site while sitting on a barstool, since pizza is always better at the pizzeria.  As it steams in the box on your way home, it always loses some of that crispiness and just isn’t the same.

Here’s a close-up of the classic cheese slice ($3.99) I got customized with crumbled meatballs and caramelized onions (99 cents each).  That was an absolutely perfect combination of toppings more people should try. 

And here’s a close-up of the Mediterranean Blue slice ($4.99), a tribute to the Greek restaurant that was the former tenant in John and John’s space on Michigan Avenue.  The pizza is topped with slices of gyro meat, feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, red onion, and creamy, tangy tzatziki sauce, on top of the regular mozzarella cheese base.  It’s a breathtaking combination of flavors that really works.

On my second visit, I ordered a Spicy Swine slice ($6.99) with red sauce, mozzarella, sharp provolone, spicy Italian sausage, long hot peppers, and Calabrian chili oil, pictured next to a plain cheese slice ($3.99) to use as a “control.”  Both were outstanding, as always.   Note how thin the crusts are.  A lot of places skimp on the sauce and cheese, pumping out pathetic, puny pizzas where half the slice is plain crust, and they know who they are.  At John and John’s, the sauce and cheese extend pretty far to the edge of their slices, leaving very tasty, thin, crispy crusts you won’t be tempted to leave uneaten for any reason. 
I really loved the long hot peppers on the Spicy Swine slice, but only John and John’s and another favorite, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, use them.  I’ve never even seen long hots for sale in a jar, and I love buying different jars of roasted, marinated, and pickled peppers to throw into sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes.

After completely missing the pasta salad ($5.99) on the menu on my first visit (because I’m usually not going to pay attention to salads at a new pizzeria), I saw pictures online, felt the FOMO, and had to try it on my second trip.  It was outstanding — ditalini pasta (an underrated pasta shape, if ever there was one) in an Italian vinaigrette dressing with fresh tomatoes, onions, basil, black olives, and parmesan cheese.  It was served chilled, of course, and it was very refreshing.   
I’ll try anyone’s versions of pasta salad, macaroni salad, and potato salad, and this pasta salad did not disappoint.

This was the fried cheese plank ($6.99), a crispy, knish-sized square of melty mozzarella cheese, expertly breaded.  I couldn’t resist!  They had me at “cheese plank.” The cup of marinara sauce was boiling lava-hot, even hotter than the cheese.  But as it cooled, I dipped my pizza crusts in it, and there wasn’t a single drop left by the time I was done.

Check out that cheese pull!  This would have looked great on video, but trust me, nobody wants to watch me eat.

I had to bring home a 14″ pepperoni pizza ($) to share with my wife.  As in sync as we usually are, pizza is one thing we rarely agree on, but she really liked this.  How could you not?  It was still warm by the time I got it home since I drive around with an insulated “heat bag” in my trunk to keep takeout food as hot as possible, and it is a perfect example of New York pizza here in Florida.

This is the Chicken Leo sandwich ($14.99), with a breaded chicken cutlet, vodka sauce, fresh and melty mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and fresh basil on a crusty seeded roll.
I ate half of this sandwich for dinner, straight out of the fridge, and it was unbelievably delicious even cold.  I’m going to warm the other half in the toaster oven later this weekend for the full effect, but it is probably my favorite chicken sandwich in Orlando that isn’t of the Nashville hot variety.

And I couldn’t resist bringing home the classic Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13.99) to heat and eat later, since it is such a shining example of Philadelphia’s third-best sandwich (after DiNic’s roast pork and the standard Italian hoagie) and one of Orlando’s best as well.  I always refer to Orlando’s Thornton Park neighborhood as “Thornton No-Park” due to the distinct lack of parking spaces, so I don’t make it to Cavo’s as often as I would like.  Luckily, John and John’s offers the exact same sandwich, and it’s a lot easier to get in and out of, despite being even further from home and work.   The cheesesteak is packed with thinly sliced ribeye steak, sauteed onions, and melty white American cheese.  Surprisingly, it isn’t dripping with grease like some lesser versions I tried in Philly, but it is packed with flavor, even eating half of it cold, straight out of the fridge.  Like the Chicken Leo, I’ll definitely warm up the other half tomorrow.  Just like I did at Cavo’s last year, I forgot to request some kind of hot peppers on it, like those long hots from my Spicy Swine slice.  I knew I was forgetting something, but there’s always a next time.

I admit there are some restaurants I’ve never made it back to after writing my reviews, but John and John’s – A Pizza Shop won’t be one of them.  I see so many other local food lovers discovering this place and singing its praises online.  Sure, I could have written this review over a month ago, after my first visit, but I waited to join the chorus until I could go back a second time and try more things.  Across town or not, it’s far too good to stay away for long, and that’s really the mark of a restaurant that does everything right, if you’re willing to schlep to it and schedule your day around getting there and back.  If you think Orlando doesn’t have good pizza, first of all, you’re wrong, and you’re probably an elitist too.  John and John’s is one of our newest pizzerias, and already one of our best and brightest.  Just don’t forget that their sandwiches are top-notch too, and don’t sleep on the pasta salad either, even though it’s “hidden” in the salad section of the menu!

Ziggie’s Pizza

Today I tried Ziggie’s Pizza (https://www.ziggiespizza.com/) for the first time.  It is in the Ivanhoe Village district of Orlando, at 603 Virginia Avenue, not far from the Mills 50 neighborhood with some of our best restaurants in the city.  Ziggie’s is named for its owner-operators, brothers Christian and Floyd Ziegler, who opened it in 2021.  Their pizzeria shares space with a very hip bar, The Thirsty Topher, that specializes in really good beer and wine.  You can hang out on either the bar side or the pizzeria side and bring your food and drinks back and forth.

I expected to have a hard time parking, as I do at most of the hyped, hipster establishments in Orlando, but it was very quiet on the Sunday afternoon I visited, with plenty of parking and no wait inside.  I expect that would be very different most evenings, so plan accordingly.

The menu on the website doesn’t make this clear, but all the pizzas at Ziggie’s are 12″ personal size, and they are all wonderful thin crust style.  You order at the front counter, and they have plenty of laminated menus to browse through.  Pizzas with a variety of creative and high-quality toppings range from $10 to $16, and you have the option to build your own, starting at $10.  There are also salads, if you don’t feel like a pizza, or if you want a salad with your pizza.

I can tell a lot about a restaurant by the kind of music they play, and these were the songs I heard while I waited for my order:

  • Jurassic 5 – “What’s Golden”
  • The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
  • Mark Morrison – “Return of the Mack”
  • A Tribe Called Quest – “Award Tour”
  • Skee-Lo – “I Wish”
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message”

All classics, all straight fire.  Not booming loud, which is never necessary, just impeccable taste.  (I might suffer from impostor syndrome and depression, but I know I have good taste, hence this blog!)  At least someone at Ziggie’s is probably around my age, with impeccable taste too.  It definitely made me realize I was choosing wisely.

They even decorate the walls with some sweet vinyl, including the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Madvillain, Czarface, and the legendary debut album of the Wu-Tang Clan:
NOTE: After publishing my review, Christian Ziegler himself sent me the link to the Ziggie’s Pizza Spotify playlist, which is nothing but bangers.

It didn’t take long for my pizza to be ready.  Believe it or not, I don’t want my pizza to be loaded with toppings, especially when I’m first trying a new pizzeria.  I’d rather let the crust, the sauce, and the cheese speak for themselves, so I can best assess the strengths of the pizza.  As a result, I ordered The O.G. ($10), with red sauce, low-moisture mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella, AND aged pecorino romano cheeses.  I loved that they garnished the pizza with fresh basil leaves.  That’s a really nice touch, as it is one of my favorite pizza toppings in general, and one that never overwhelms the overall balance of the pie.
Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, this was SUPOIB.  A perfect pizza in every way.  If you don’t like thin crust, you may be disinclined to agree, but I sure do.  It wasn’t as crisp as a New York-style slice, but not as soft and floppy as a Neapolitan-style pizza.  I’d describe it as a perfect middle ground between those two beloved pizza styles.  As you can see, it was cut into six large slices rather than eight smaller ones (which I prefer, for no real reason), and I wolfed it down in no time flat.  (It was my first meal of the day, you see, after spending hours cleaning the garage in the sweltering heat.)

Since I don’t drink, I didn’t bother exploring The Thirsty Topher in the adjoining space, but I hear it is an awesome place for beer lovers.  Ziggie’s has a small refrigerator full of nice bottled sodas, but they are also kind enough to have a jug of chilled water available for free, so that’s all I had with my pizza at the time.

That said, The O.G. was so good that I had to bring some pizza home to share with my wife.  As much as we are soulmates who are completely in sync throughout life, one thing we rarely agree on is pizza.  She does like thin crust, though, so I figured she would appreciate Ziggie’s.  I ordered two pies to go:

This is half of the Gabagool ($16), since I put two slices on a plate for her and devoured a third before remembering to photograph it.  That’s a rookie mistake that I rarely make these days, but it was still warm by the time I got home, and I didn’t want to linger any longer.  The Gabagool is topped with red sauce, a three-cheese blend, pepperoni, crumbled Italian sausage, smoked slab bacon (probably the highest quality bacon I’ve ever had on a pizza), and pickled red onions, which I requested on the side, because my wife hates onions as much as I love them.
It was awesome, and I was thrilled she agreed.  She even suggested her parents would like this pizza, and they (in)famously don’t like trying any new things.  I will have to introduce them to Ziggie’s and the Gabagool some time soon.

And this was the other pizza I brought home: the Killa Beez hot honey pizza ($16).  I would have been tempted to try it for the Wu-Tang Clan reference alone, even if I didn’t love all the toppings on it: low-moisture mozzarella, pepperoni, prosciutto, crumbled goat cheese, fig jam, and house-made hot honey (which I requested mild for my wife, even though I’m among the some who like it hot).
We both like sweet and savory combos, and this was another hit.  I would totally order this again, even though ultimately, the O.G. might have been my favorite of the three.  In the future, I might just build my own pizza and get the smoked slab bacon, pickled red onions, and Calabrese peppers on it.

But I absolutely loved Ziggie’s Pizza, and the chill, laid-back vibe, and the sweet-ass hip hop they played, and I will definitely return.  If you haven’t been there yet, I encourage you to go.  That stretch of Virginia Drive between Mills and Orange Avenues has several hipstery bars and breweries on it, which many of my readers are probably already familiar with.  Make sure you add Ziggie’s and The Thirsty Topher to your Sunday Funday drinking and dining agenda ASAP, and enjoy what might be the best thin crust pizza in Orlando.

Thai Singha

Thai Singha (https://thaisingha.net/) is the first Thai restaurant I ever visited in Orlando, shortly after meeting my wife and starting to date her, back in 2006.  It is out in the sprawling Waterford Lakes shopping center in East Orlando, south of the University of Central Florida.  The area is full of restaurants, but not many stand out and draw attention.  Thai Singha definitely does, or at least it should.

We realized it had been years since we had gone together, especially after discovering newer favorites like Mee Thai and Naradeva Thai, both wonderful places.  But you never forget your first, especially since Thai Singha is where I discovered my favorite Thai dish that is now my benchmark order at any new Thai restaurant, to compare and contrast them all.

My wife started with hot ginger tea ($2.95), which smelled really good and came in a neat-looking receptacle:

Then she ordered one of her favorite dishes, that she also introduced me to at Thai Singha over 15 years ago: mee grob ($6.95).  Some restaurants call it mee krob or meekrob, but many around Orlando don’t serve it at all.  It is a veritable mountain of crispy rice noodles, shrimp, pork, and tofu, tossed in a tangy sweet sauce and garnished with scallions and bean sprouts.  It is awesome, folks.  It is very sticky, crunchy, sweet, salty, and sour — a feast for all the senses.  The shrimp is fried so nicely that you can even crunch and swallow the crispy tails.  It is one of the only places where I like tofu, but I fully admit I haven’t had enough tofu to discount it completely.  Maybe everyone is already wise to the joys of mee grob, but if ya don’t know, now you know.

My wife ordered her favorite entree as well: late night noodles with a combination of shrimp, scallops, and squid ($16.95).  You can choose any of the options from the “Favorite Dishes” section of the menu to come with mixed vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, or pork for $11.50, shrimp for $14.50, or a meat combo or this seafood combo for $16.95.The late night noodles are soft, chewy rice noodles stir-fried to perfection, then tossed in a light soy sauce with eggs, the shrimp, the buttery little bay scallops, and the tender squid, and served over a bit of lettuce.  She loves it.

And this is my favorite Thai dish, made with the same flat, wide, perfectly chewy rice noodles: drunken noodles, also known as pad kee mao or pad kee mow.  I got mine with tender pork for $11.50, and I always wish the portion was bigger here, because it is so incredibly delicious.  Drunken noodles are stir-fried with onions, green bell peppers, fresh Thai basil leaves, and a sweet chili paste sauce.  It is always sweet and spicy at once, which I just love in any cuisine, and the Thai basil brings such a unique herby flavor — very different than the typical basil in Italian recipes.  Despite the name, there is no alcohol in this dish, but it is a common, beloved Thai street food for drunken revelers.  I’m sure the late night noodles have a similar origin story from nocturnal hawkers and their grateful post-partying clientele.

So that’s our first Thai restaurant we were able to share with each other, Thai Singha.  I am pleased to report we enjoyed it as much as ever after being away for far too long.  I was just sad to see it dimly lit and not busy, despite it always bustling during our past visits, too long ago.  We got there in the late afternoon on a recent Friday, too early for the dinner hour, but we were the only diners in the place, while others popped in and out to pick up sporadic takeout orders.  It is difficult to get to Waterford Lakes, and we rarely end up on that east side of Orlando anyway, but it remains a treasure well worth braving UCF-area traffic to return to from time to time.  Over the years we’ve been together, we have ordered other dishes on the menu that are always solid, but we are always a little disappointed when we don’t go with our favorites here.  Now you’ve seen our go-to dishes, so pay it a visit, decide on your own favorites, and let me know what they are!

St. Johns River Steak & Seafood

A while back, we met one of my wife’s best friends for lunch at St. Johns River Steak & Seafood (https://stjrss.com/), a lovely restaurant near where she lives in Sanford.  My wife and I had never been there before, but the biggest draw was being able to sit outdoors on the huge covered patio overlooking picturesque Lake Monroe on a glorious spring day.

My wife and I shared a bowl of gumbo ($9), which looks very small due to the large bowl they served it in, with just a small space in the middle.  The  rich, thick, spicy, tomatoey stew contained chicken, shrimp, crawfish, and andouille sausage, and I think I liked it a lot more than my wife did. 

I also ordered gator bites ($15) for the three of us to share.  Gator is almost a novelty food.  I don’t know anyone who loves it, but when people see it on menus, especially in casual seafood restaurants in places like Louisiana and Florida, we feel obligated to order it, I gar-ron-tee.  Maybe it’s an “eat them before they eat you” defense mechanism, or a way to prove our local “Florida Man” bona fides.  Anyway, these were chewy and chickeny, as gator bites usually are.  I think we got them grilled, but you can also get them fried or blackened.

All three of us were in the mood for grouper, which is one of the finest fish you can eat.  A surprising amount of local seafood restaurants don’t offer grouper on their menus, and some others sneakily serve other, lesser fish, even when they advertise grouper.  We figured we were coming to a place that would treat us grouper groupies right.

Our friend ordered a Caesar salad ($9) with grouper added on (I can’t find my receipt, but some of the other protein add-ons were $9, or it might have been whatever “market price” was that day).

My wife ordered the fried grouper sandwich ($18.50) and upgraded to a side of Sidewinder fries (an extra $2).  The regular sides that come with sandwiches are house-made chips or cole slaw, but we both love Sidewinder fries.  They might be some of my favorite fries ever.  It came with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on a lightly grilled brioche bun, but since I love sandwiches and my wife doesn’t, I took her bun and vegetables to turn my own grouper (see below) into a sandwich. 

And I got a blackened grouper entree ($27) with two sides: rich and creamy macaroni (really penne pasta) and cheese, and terrific onion rings.  RING THE ALARM!

Sadly, all three of us thought our grouper was a little dry.  Mine reminded me more of a denser fish like mahi, and was less flaky and buttery than grouper I’ve had elsewhere.  But the two sides were top-notch, and I really enjoyed them.

Sanford’s food scene is really blowing up with wonderful restaurants and hip bars and breweries in the quaint downtown area.  There are so many choices, it can be hard to choose.  We used to always end up at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, and last summer I discovered Christo’s wonderful diner and their legendary Greek nachos.  But it is nice to know about a seafood option too, moments away from that main drag on First Street, and with that gorgeous patio and lake view.  I can’t decide if I would give the grouper another try when I inevitably return to St. Johns River Steak & Seafood or branch out to another favorite like soft shell crab or even jambalaya.  However, I would definitely get the onion rings, mac and cheese, and Sidewinder fries again… and probably leave the gator to first-timers.

Cafe Tu Tu Tango

Cafe Tu Tu Tango (https://www.cafetututango.com/) is a beautiful restaurant located in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district on International Drive, near Universal Studios and the Orange County Convention Center.  I used to take my wife there for special celebratory occasions back when we were dating, mostly between 2006 and 2008.  The restaurant is bright and bustling, its red walls strewn with lovely art that is all for sale.  There are local artists painting and sculpting all over the restaurant, dancers are often dancing, and tarot card readers will read guests for a small fee.  It’s a very bohemian place — maybe too loud to be intimate, but festive, fun, and as romantic as you want it to be.  The menu matches the vibe, with small plates featuring fusion foods from around the world, ideal for sharing.

As cool as that all sounds, we fell out of the habit of going, mostly because it is all the way across town.  But we had some wonderful meals and memories there, including two strips of photos we had taken in a photo booth, those completely obsolete but fun and beloved novelties of recent times past.

Well, my wife had a birthday coming up, so I asked her where she wanted to go out.  It had been a few months since we had dined out anywhere together, and me being me, I sent her a list of good restaurants — some old favorites, some we had yet to go to together, and a few that we loved but hadn’t been to in a long time.  She chose Cafe Tu Tu Tango, and we were both excited to return after all these years.  I even wore the same shirt and tie I wore in the photo booth photos (because I hate buying new clothes), hoping to get some updated pics and maybe frame them all together.

Best of all, like its sister restaurant Mia’s Italian Kitchen just up the road, Cafe Tu Tu Tango features an all-you-can-eat weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays for $28.22 per person.  Like Mia’s, it is not a buffet, but you just order whatever you want off the brunch menu (slightly more limited than the regular dinner menu), and as much as you want, for that fixed price.  Back in the day, before I was as gainfully employed, those small plates with their pretty presentations and puny portions could really add up.  It is a hell of a bargain to go for brunch and be able to go and sample anything and everything, so that’s exactly what we did.

We started with two “non-spirited frescos,” essentially mocktails, since neither of us drink.  My wife ordered the $6 Pollock Punch (named for the artist Jackson Pollock, of course), with pineapple, mango, and cranberry juices, passion purée, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, and almond-flavored orgeat syrup, the necessary ingredient in mai tais and so many other tropical drinks.  I ordered the $6 Lichtenstein Lemonade*, a delicious-sounding combination of house-made lemonade, muddled cucumber and basil, strawberry purée, and club soda to make it fizz.  Funny enough, once we sipped each other’s drinks, we realized we each liked the other one better.  The Pollock Punch (left) was too sour for her, while I love sour, and she preferred the fizz in my Lichtenstein Lemonade (right), so we switched them.
*The Lichtenstein Lemonade is named for the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who I DESPISE, because he swiped art from underpaid and underappreciated comic book artists, blew their panels up to giant size and got them displayed in galleries, took all the credit, and got rich and famous off their artwork.  Screw that guy, but if you want an artist who specializes in Lichtenstein’s mid-century retro pop art style but is a truly iconoclastic original, check out my all-time favorite comic book artist Mike Allred.

Anyway, we went on to order A LOT of food from our sweet and patient server Chelsea, who was absolutely slammed, but had a great attitude and personality.  The first thing to come out was the churro waffles (which would normally be $9 if we ordered a la carte) –perfect Belgian waffles with crispy exteriors and fluffy interiors, topped with cinnamon sugar, dulce de leche, vanilla cream, cinnamon  whipped cream.  There were actually two of these in the order, so we each had one.  This was my wife’s first choice, and it was a good one.

I ordered the butter chicken tikka masala (normally $13), a good-sized portion serviced over ‍fluffy basmati rice with pickled red onions, fresh cilantro, roasted corn, and creamy tikka masala sauce.  I love Indian food, but my wife is convinced she doesn’t, because most things she has tried have been too spicy for her.  I was thrilled that she loved this dish, even more than I did, since she never wants to get Indian food, and now we had a dish we know she likes.  The chicken breast meat was very tender, and it wasn’t spicy at all.  I tried a little, but was happy to keep it on her side of the table.Since this meal, I have researched butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two distinct Indian dishes that use similar ingredients, but aren’t the same.  We are going to run further tests to see which one my wife actually prefers, since Tu Tu Tango’s “butter chicken tikka masala” may not be the best example of authentic Indian cuisine.  It was good, though!

I had never ordered any of the brick oven pan pizzas on our past trips to Cafe Tu Tu Tango, because it always seemed like there were more interesting things to try.  But this time I ordered the sausage and peppers pizza (normally $9.25), with Italian sausage, hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers.  It was magnificent, and pan pizza usually isn’t even one of the pizza styles I prefer.  Perfect crispy edges and a nice, fluffy crust.  All the toppings came together beautifully.  It was relatively small, like a “personal” pizza, but I always say that if you believe in yourself, any pizza can be a personal pizza.

Next up, my wife ordered the monkey bread (normally $7), a rich, sticky, super-sweet pastry with golden raisins, pecans, dulce de leche sauce, whipped cream, and enough powdered sugar to make it look like it was partying in Miami.  Funny enough, the monkey bread ended up being too sweet for her, but I ended up really loving its chewy, sticky texture.  It was heavy, and it probably sapped some of my strength and endurance mid-meal, but what a way to go.   

I ordered these breakfast tacos (normally $8), with jalapeño jack cheese, huevos rancheros, and crumbled, seasoned beef  on two soft corn tortillas.  My wife wanted no part of them, but they ended up being among my favorites of the brunch.   I really thought the beef was chorizo sausage — it was that kind of savory flavor with just a little spice.

Next up, she ordered the grilled fish tacos (normally $11), with honey-lime escabeche sauce, cotija cheese, crunchy cabbage slaw, and more pink pickled onions on the same soft corn tortillas.  We both appreciate good fish tacos, but both agreed the fish was on the “fishy” side.  I ended up eating everything except the tortillas, which she wanted for herself.  I wouldn’t get these again.  Loved the toppings, but the fish — not so much.

Anyone who knows me at all would glance at the menu and predict I would order the Cuban sliders (normally $12), two wee sandwich halves with capicola, genoa salami, pulled pork, pickles, Swiss cheese on pressed bread with a ramekin of the most delicious, vinegary mojo sauce.  I’m predictable when it comes to food.  I liked these, but the sauce was my favorite part!  I thought about how much I might have preferred chilled Italian-style sandwich sliders with the capicola and genoa salami and some pickled vegetables.   But don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy them. 

Next, I got the Tango home fries (normally $4), with sautéed red pepper and onion strips, scallions and a house spice blend.  These were delicious, but I thought the potatoes could have been crispier.  They had a pleasing amount of heat, but not so much that a person who likes things mild wouldn’t enjoy them.  I was starting to get full, so I didn’t finish these, and I still feel guilty about that.

My wife ended her meal with one of her favorite dishes of the day, shrimp and grits (normally $12), served with corn relish and scallions.  She loves grits, whereas they are not usually my favorite.  I didn’t try this, but she ate it with gusto, so it must have been good.  I’d say this, the butter chicken tikka masala, and the churro waffle were her favorites.   

Next up came the dessert that I thought was going to be my favorite: guava and sweet plantain bread pudding (normally $7), served in a sizzling skillet and topped with Nutella sauce.  I wish I had asked them to hold the sauce.  Believe it or not, I could take or leave Nutella.  Thanks to it, the whole thing ended up tasting like chocolate and muted the flavors of the guava and sweet plantains, two of my favorite things to eat anywhere.  I could only eat one of the two pieces, and she wanted nothing to do with it. 

Finally, my Southwest Caesar salad arrived (normally $10).  It contained romaine lettuce, avocado, crunchy fried tortilla strips, cotija cheese, salsa roja, and chipotle-garlic dressing .  I make salads and eat them in my work lunches almost every day, so I rarely order salads at restaurants, but this had a lot of neat-sounding ingredients, and it was included in the fixed price for brunch, so I decided to give it a try.  I’m glad I did, but I ate all the interesting stuff off the top and tapped out before I could make it through all the romaine lettuce. 

So that was it for brunch, and that was pretty much it for the two of us for the rest of the day.  But what a way to go.  This has to be one of the best values in Orlando, folks.  I crunched the numbers, and these eleven small plates we ordered would add up to $102.25 if we ordered them a la carte.  Instead, we paid $56.44 for the both of us (minus our drinks) — almost half that price for the all-you-can-eat brunch deal.

Sadly, Cafe Tu Tu Tango got rid of its photo booth at some point before Chelsea even started working there, as I had feared.  In this age of camera phones, selfies, Instagram, and “pics, or it didn’t happen” culture, a photo booth taking up space in a busy restaurant or bar seems like less of a sound and necessary investment, but there’s something about printing out those momentous moments on a little strip of paper to cherish forever, in a way that doesn’t seem the same when staring at images on screens.  But in the end, we didn’t need new photos.  We had each other, we had our memories –both old and new — and we had an epic brunch in beautiful, bohemian surroundings that would tide us over for a while.  At least until dinner that evening.

 

Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria

Way back in December 2005, chef-owner Pom Moongauklang founded Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria (http://pompomsteahouse.com/), located in Orlando’s Milk District neighborhood, not too far from downtown Orlando.  Pom studied as a pastry chef, and she cooked in several trendy and high-end New York City restaurants (including the famous Nobu and also an infamous BDSM-themed French restaurant that no longer exists, but sounds fascinating) before striking out on her own here in Orlando, serving up some of the city’s most creative sandwiches and eclectic tea drinks for over 15 years.  That was about a year after I first moved to Orlando, and right when I was changing careers and going back to school.  Things seemed really hopeful at the time, and all food tasted better to me.  I remember Pom Pom’s being one of our first really hip and cool locally owned restaurants.  For me, it was love at first sight… and first bite.

The restaurant is a hip, funky space, full of artwork by local artists that is rotated regularly.  All the art is displayed on consignment, so if you fall in love with a piece of artwork, you can buy it.  Pom Pom’s is open until 4 AM on Fridays and Saturdays, making it an oasis for hungry and restless partiers, back when it was safe to be out partying.  In addition to the sandwiches, salads, and tea drinks, there is also a breakfast menu, only available Friday night through noon on Saturday, and then Saturday night through 4 PM on Sunday.

On a visit a while back, the special tea (heh, “specialty”) of the day was strawberry-kiwi, so I impulsively ordered an iced version for $3.  I’m not a big tea drinker, although I sometimes appreciate a good, strong, sweet Southern-style iced tea.  I am not into hot beverages at all, but you can order any of Pom Pom’s teas hot or iced.  The strawberry-kiwi was sweet, but not overly sweet, and very refreshing.  I was glad that it tasted like real fruit juice, not artificial or chemically. I’m not a big tea drinker in general, but I’ve had the chocolate cream tea there before, and that’s always really good.

One one particular visit, I ordered two sandwiches, just so I could write a more comprehensive review here.  I’ve been going to Pom Pom’s since shortly after Pom opened the place, and I have my favorites, so I decided to choose an old favorite and try something new too.  This was my old favorite, the Woody ($9.95), with hot pastrami, Swiss cheese, honey mustard, Thousand Island dressing, Southern slaw, and red onion on pressed pumpernickel bread.  I always love pastrami, and the pumpernickel goes so well with it.  (You can choose sourdough, whole wheat, or rye with caraway seeds as the other bread options.)  All the sandwiches at Pom Pom’s are pressed, so they’re served hot.  Especially with the Woody, you get the crispiness of the pressed bread and the melty, crunchy, meaty, creaminess of all the other ingredients, warm and sliding around.

This was the new sandwich I hadn’t tried before, the Billy Chang (also $9.95).  It sounded a little weird, but just weird enough to work: sliced smoked beef brisket, blue cheese, red onion, and strawberry jelly, and I got it on pressed sourdough bread.  This sandwich had everything: salty, smoky, pungent, sweet, funky, crispy. 
I love savory and sweet flavors together, but I think the smoky brisket and sweet jelly would have worked together with something spicy uniting them, like a pepper jelly instead.  I would have also preferred goat cheese or cream cheese to the crumbly and funky blue cheese, and it also would have made for a more cohesive sandwich that held together better.  But those are my own personal hang-ups, not meant to take away from the sandwich at all.  There was a lot going on, flavor-wise, and it was also the messiest sandwich I’ve ever eaten, on one of the very rare days I ate lunch in my office at work.  It had already soaked through the paper wrapping by the time I got it back to my desk, and eating the half I tackled at work was a multiple-paper towel job.  Would I get it again?  I don’t think so, not that it was bad!  There are just so many other sandwiches at Pom Pom’s I either like more, or that I still have yet to try.

On a more recent visit, I got my old favorite sandwich, the smoked salmon ($11.25), with thin-sliced nova salmon, bacon, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, arugula, tomato, and and lemon caper aioli.  This is an intense rush of strong, smoky flavors, and I just love it.  I ordered it on pumpernickel and it came on sourdough, but I couldn’t complain because it was still awesome.

On my previous visit, I tried the daily special sandwich, a spicy mac tuna melt.  I grew up eating tuna salad sandwiches, but never buy canned tuna anymore, and rarely order it out anywhere.  Pom’s regular melt includes capers, celery, red onions, lemon zest, and your choice of a domestic cheese, which sounds good on its own.  But I loooooove the macaroni and cheese here (more on that shortly), and I figured adding it to any sandwich would take it to another level — like hipster tuna noodle casserole, only a thousand times better.  I didn’t think the combination would disappoint, and it definitely did not.

Putting their delicious macaroni and cheese in a sandwich is a recurring theme at Pom Pom’s, because here is a special from this very weekend, the Chez G, with spicy crumbled chorizo sausage and mac and cheese on sourdough.  I took this one home, so the bread wasn’t crispy anymore, but it was still really good.

Pom Pom’s offers a few sides, including my absolute #1 favorite macaroni and cheese in Orlando, the spicy turkey mac and cheese (on the right; $2.25), with cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, scallions, and that most overrated of hot sauces that nevertheless works so perfectly here, sriracha.  There are always nice cubes of tender turkey in it too.  When I make mac and cheese at home, this is the consistency I aim for — not a liquidy, cheesy soup, and not barely-melted cheese shreds that look like they came straight out of a bag.  It’s the ideal “middle way.”  Melty, not soupy, not greasy, not dry.  I love it, and I would happily eat a much larger portion of it.  On the left, you can see Pom Pom’s German potato salad ($2.25), which is different from most American-style potato salads, which are usually mixed up with mayo and served cold.  This potato salad is served warm with crumbled bacon, scallions, and vinegar, and it’s so, so good if you’ve never had it before.  I love potato salad.  In fact, it’s probably my second-favorite thing to do with potatoes, after chips, and just edging out fries.  That’s my spicy hot take on potato salad, that underrated side order.  And as much as I love the mayo-based varieties (especially Southern-style potato salad with chopped hard-boiled eggs, pickles, and yellow mustard added), German potato salad is a nice change of pace, especially as a rich side dish in the fall and winter.

Pom Pom’s also has soups of the day that I rarely order, but I’m usually happy with the ones I try.  Waaaaay back in December 2020, Pom had cooked up a pot of dark chocolate duck chili, and there was no way I was going to miss that.  They were selling it by the cup for $5 or by the bowl for $7.  I ordered a bowl for myself and a cup to bring home to my wife, who doesn’t like my chili at all, but sometimes surprises me by liking professional chefs’ better versions of chili.  Both were served in coffee cups as part of my takeout order, and mine was topped with scallions and smoked gouda cheese.  It was a rich, hearty chili with at least two different kinds of beans and plenty of shredded, stewed duck. 

You can get a better view of everything here, after I caused a stir.  It was quacktacular!

When I returned today, I tried Pom’s beef lasagna soup, which sounded perfect on a cooler day leading into a very cold night.  It was a savory tomato broth with crumbled, seasoned ground beef, lasagna noodle sheets cut into squares, floating pools of melted mozzarella cheese, lots of garlic, and a surprising amount of chunks of zucchini and yellow squash.

So this is a review after at least three separate visits to Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, even though I’ve lost count of the many times I’ve been here over the past 16 years.  Follow Pom Pom’s Instagram page for daily specials, and time your visit so you can try something new that may never be seen again.  But the old classics stick around for a reason — because they are loved and treasured throughout Orlando.

Corfu Greek Restaurant

I recently learned about the existence of Corfu Greek Restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/CorfuWinterSprings), located at 124 State Road 434 in Winter Springs.  When my wife and I were playing the interminable game of figuring out what to eat on a weekend not that long ago, I suggested Greek food and sent her the menu photos from Corfu’s Facebook page.  It sounded good to her (huzzah!), so I placed a large order to ensure we had enough food to get us through the weekend and even the first day or two of the coming work week.

I took the liberty of scanning Corfu’s menu.  You may want to right-click on these menu pics and open the images in a new tab, to read them in a larger size.

I loved the interior of the restaurant.  The blue walls, all the artwork and photographs of Greece highlighting its beautiful blue seas, and the blue and white retro-looking booths created a cool, welcoming atmosphere.  The two-tone booths reminded me of a gorgeous 1950s automobile, like a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air, which made me think of a classic diner setting.  And I LOVE diners!  I ordered our food to go, but would not have minded hanging out there.  By the way, I picked up our order around 3:30 PM on a Saturday, which is why these booths are empty.  There were some diners on the other side of the restaurant, but I didn’t want to be a creeper and photograph them in their booths.  I met the lovely Rita, one of the owners, who was very sweet and welcoming, especially when I mentioned this was my first time ordering from there.  Corfu opened eight years ago, so better late than never.  And we ordered so much, to make up for lost time!

This first photo is the dish that made my wife agree to try Corfu: the charbroiled octopus appetizer ($17.99).  I’m not a huge octopus fan, but it is one of her favorite foods, and she proclaimed this might be her new favorite octopus dish anywhere.  It was marinated in olive oil and vinegar — I’m guessing red wine vinegar, but I could be wrong.  I did try one bite of one of the thicker tentacles, and it was remarkably tender, when so many places serve it on the chewy side.  She was in heaven after this dish.

She also requested the fried calamari appetizer ($12.50), but I ended up liking these crispy squid rings more than she did.  They went really well dipped into the little cup of marinara sauce that was included.  
I definitely give Olympia Restaurant the edge for fried calamari from Greek restaurants in Orlando, but these were good, don’t get me wrong!

I’m a big fan of sampler platters, especially when I’m visiting a new restaurant for the first time.  I love trying new tastes and new dishes, especially to find out how a particular place handles an old favorite.  So I was drawn to the Corfu Platter ($21.95), where diners can choose three options.  I went with three things I thought both of us would enjoy: gyro meat, roasted lamb, and moussaka.  Other options included spanakopita and one of my favorite Greek dishes, pastitsio, which is like a Greek version of lasagna, but made with long, uncut macaroni similar to ziti and topped with a bechamel sauce.  But I know pastitsio isn’t my wife’s favorite, and I had homemade lasagna in the fridge, so I went with three safe choices I knew she would like too.
She LOVED the moussaka, so I only took one bite and saved her the rest, because she’s more into it than I am.  For those who don’t know, moussaka is a baked casserole of sliced eggplant, sliced potatoes, and meat sauce (not a tomato-based meat sauce, like bolognese), topped with bechamel sauce and melted mozzarella cheese.  I’m not even the biggest eggplant guy, and I liked it a lot.  The gyro meat must have been grilled on a flattop after being sliced, because it had a nice char to it.  We are both huge lamb fans, and we both thought the roasted lamb was a little bland compared to the other two choices — but I still ate it.  If I order the Corfu Platter again, I would get pastitsio instead of the roasted lamb.

But being a huge lamb fan, I was even more tempted by the lamb shank Kapama for myself, knowing my wife wouldn’t even be interested in tasting it.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I mark out for braised and stewed meats, especially on the bone — cooked at low temperatures for a long time in some flavorful liquid until they’re tender enough to cut with a fork.  I’ve raved about similar braised lamb shanks from Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine, but this was a uniquely Greek take on the lamb shank, with green and kalamata olives and capers in the rich tomato sauce.
I’m not even a fan of olives or capers (two of the few foods I tend to avoid), but I inhaled every morsel of this dish.  The lamb was done so perfectly, the bone pulled out completely clean.  Even though it is always my impulse to try new things when I return to a restaurant, this dish will tempt me again and again.

The Corfu Platter and lamb shank Kapama are both entrees, so each one came with a side — as if this wasn’t enough food already!  I chose lemon roasted potatoes with one of them, which were a little bland.  Funny enough, lemony desserts are among my favorite desserts ever, but I’m just not the hugest fan of lemon as an ingredient in savory dishes.  That’s just me being weird.

But I love green beans, and this large side order of tender green beans stewed in a tomato sauce was my preferred side.  The other options were French fries, which I worried might not be hot by the time I made it home, and rice, which I will try next time.  I really liked these green beans, though.

The two entrees both came with lightly grilled pita bread wedges, my favorite kind of pita and my favorite way to serve it.  It picks up flavors from the grill and has a slightly crispy exterior while still being soft.  Believe me, I used these to scoop up every drop of that delicious tomato sauce from the lamb shank.

I didn’t taste the baklava ($5.50), but my wife requested it and seemed very happy with it.

Even though I rarely order dessert for myself, I realized I had never tried baklava cheesecake at a Greek or Mediterranean restaurant before, and decided to do something about that.  Corfu’s baklava cheesecake ($6.95) was rich, creamy, sticky, and delicious.  No regrets.  I’m glad I treated myself to it!

There aren’t a lot of nice, sit-down Greek restaurants on my end of town, especially after some old favorites like Greek Flame Taverna, Patsio’s Diner, and Cypriana (all near us) closed so many years ago.  So I was thrilled to recently learn Corfu existed, and even more thrilled to sample so many dishes and enjoy them at home with my wife.  This is a place I would definitely return to, even for the simple thrill of sitting in those blue and white booths when it feels a little safer to dine out — which is hopefully months away, rather than years.  Regardless, I will still come back to Corfu to order more takeout in the meantime!

Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster

I’m not usually a big steakhouse person, but if you ask me, Orlando’s best steakhouse is Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster (https://christnersprimesteakandlobster.com/ ), located at 729 Lee Rd, Orlando, Florida, 32810.  Christner’s is very old-school and classy, with impeccable service and prices to match, but you get what you pay for at a place like this.  When I was still just dating my wife, her parents took us all out to Christner’s, and I must admit I had never been to a restaurant like this before.  I got sticker-shock from the prices, even though her generous father, a stand-up guy, treated us all.  But the steak was the finest I’ve ever had in my life — even better than the steak at the vaunted Bern’s in Tampa — and the sides were all top-notch as well.

Well, we’ve returned to Christner’s a few times in the intervening years, but we’ve canceled just about as many reservations just due to a lot of bad luck — someone always getting sick or injured right around the time of an anniversary, a birthday, or some other event worth celebrating.  This year we decided to treat ourselves.  Our anniversary and my in-laws’ anniversary are a day apart, so a while back, we finally returned to Christner’s for the first time in quite a few years, and everyone was healthy and safe and somehow stayed healthy and safe.  It was a lovely night out with three of the best people in the world, and we ate like kings.

I have made no secret of my love for oysters on this blog, and Christner’s has the absolute best fried oysters I’ve ever had.  Seriously, I’ve never had anything this good.  They would make a fine, filling meal in and of themselves, even if we didn’t get steaks.  This sharable appetizer portion comes with tartar sauce, which is really good, and cocktail sauce, which I didn’t even bother with.  But the oysters are so plump and well-seasoned, and the breading is so perfectly crispy, that they didn’t need either.

My mother-in-law ordered lobster bisque, and she was willing to share.  I just got a spoonful, but wow, was it good.  Lobster bisque is an all-time Top Five soup, even if it’s hard to make it look exciting in a photo.  Was this the best bisque?  Best believe it’s the baddest bisque, bro!

My father-in-law ordered a Caesar salad.  I didn’t ask to try any of it, but those croutons looked pretty fantastic.

The croutons are probably made from the fresh-baked bread that is delivered to your table with soft, spreadable butter as soon as your party sits down.  The photo I got of the bread didn’t look nearly as good as it actually is, so I left it out of this review.  It is a round loaf you have to cut yourself, but it is so soft and fluffy and warm, and I challenge anyone to try it and not like it.

My in-laws aren’t used to me always playing the food photographer, so I didn’t get a chance to take pictures of everyone’s main courses.  I did capture mine, though — Russ’ USDA Prime strip, a twelve-ounce steak seasoned with a nice amount of cracked pepper and cooked to a perfect rare, just like I like it.  I regret not taking a photo of the red center, which meat lovers would salivate over.  That would have been pure “food porn,” though.   This steak is one of the cheaper ones on the menu, and I still get sticker-shock after all these years, even when someone else is generous enough to treat.  But of course, at Christner’s, even the cheapest steak is relative.  But that’s not all!  I usually choose it because it is one of the only steaks that comes with a side item; almost all the rest come a la carte.  Russ’ USDA Prime strip is accompanied by the richest, creamiest, most buttery chateau potatoes, which are just very posh mashed potatoes.  Best mashed potatoes ever, though!

We also ordered the skillet potatoes and onions for everyone to share.  This is one of the best potato dishes I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Sliced thin and fried, these aren’t crispy-crunchy like potato chips, but more like thin, disc-shaped steak fries, seasoned with lots of good cracked pepper.  As a notorious onion fan, the onions are practically caramelized and so, so perfect.  Everyone loves the skillet potatoes and onions, even my onion-averse wife!

And speaking of onions, I finally got to try Christner’s legendary onion rings, which I had only stared at longingly on our previous (rare) visits.  I always hesitate to request extra stuff when someone else is being generous enough to treat, but onion rings are kind of my thing.  I even have a whole category on this blog called RING THE ALARM! (no air horn sound effects this time, because this is a very upscale restaurant), so here are Christner’s huge, thick, mountainous onion rings, at long last.   At least my father-in-law tried some, which made me feel less guilty for asking, and even my wife (yes, the onion-averse wife again!) tried one and really liked it.  You can get these rapturous rings in orders of five or nine, and I was glad everyone was okay with getting nine.  These were definitely opulent, ostentatious onion rings!

Everyone enjoyed their dinners, but we all ended up with plenty of leftovers to box up and enjoy the next day.  By now, we knew enough to save room for one of the most delicious, decadent desserts I’ve ever encountered: mandarin orange cake.  My photo doesn’t communicate the size of the slices nearly well enough, but each one is gigantic.  The icing is a “tropical pineapple-orange whipped cream icing,” and the cake is always moist and rich, with a subtle citrusy tang.  It is served a la mode with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream (quality stuff) and a little ramekin of chilled orange sauce that might be my favorite part, because it tastes like melted orange sherbet with chunks of actual orange in it.  I always pour it over the ice cream and eat it first, because I’m usually pretty full at this point.  
Fruity desserts are my absolute favorites, especially anything with citrus or tropical fruit.  I believe Christner’s mandarin orange cake is an all-time favorite restaurant dessert anywhere, and you can easily get two or three servings out of each stupendous slice of cake.

Well, after not doing anything at all last year due to the pandemic, this year my wife and her parents were (relatively) healthy and fully vaccinated, so it was so nice to celebrate our back-to-back anniversaries with this sumptuous feast at Christner’s.  Everything felt normal for a little while, and everyone left very full, satisfied, and happy.  I think all the time about how lucky I am to be married to such an amazing woman, and to have amazing in-laws too, who I love and get along with, and vice versa.  I know not everyone has that privilege and good fortune.  And to be able to enjoy a fancy meal like this at a fancy restaurant like Christner’s speaks to our privilege and good fortune too.  We rarely come here — only every few years — but each time we do, we are all reminded of how consistently excellent it is, and how lucky we are.

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.