Mediterranean Street Food by ShishCo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Tide Harry’s

High Tide Harry’s (https://hightideharrys.com/) is a wonderful, casual  seafood restaurant owned and operated by the Heretick family.  Located on South Semoran Boulevard, between Curry Ford Road and Orlando International Airport, it is easily accessible via State Roads 408 or 528.  I think it is worth the drive from pretty much anywhere.

It used to be five minutes from my job, and my co-workers and I would go there for lunch every so often.  They have a whole menu of lunch specials that are an excellent deal, and the food and service have always been great.  When the restaurant moved further south a few years ago, it seemed so much further from work than it actually is, and I had only been once since it moved to that newer, larger, nicer location.

Well, cut to last week, when I was working a 13-hour day, starting with a class at 9 AM, another class at 2 PM, and then my own regular class that starts at 8 PM and ends at 9:35 PM.  I was exhausted by the middle of the day, and I began to fantasize about getting out of the office for a relaxing late lunch, actually eating AT a restaurant — but somewhere with outdoor seating and not a lot of people packed together.  High Tide Harry’s came to mind, since I recently read somewhere that it was taking extra safety precautions during COVID-19 to enforce mask use and social distancing.  The restaurant has a small outdoor patio, and to put diners’ minds even more at ease, the staff also set up a large tent with additional socially-distanced tables in the parking lot.  That all sounded safe enough for me, after not having eaten at a restaurant in over a year… but a lot would depend on how crowded it was.

Well, with my 2:00 class ending at 3:30, I would get there at an off time between lunch and dinner, and High Tide Harry’s is famous for happy hour specials, like $1 oysters and clams and $5 appetizers.  This was it.  It had to happen.  I love it when a plan comes together!  I left work at 3:33 and was there at 3:45.  Not too far at all!

I don’t remember the last time I was so excited to eat at a restaurant, but that white and blue building beckoned.

I asked to sit outside, and they directed me to the small covered patio on the side of the building.  It was a hot day, but the sun wasn’t beating directly down on me.  I was in the shade, there was a nice breeze, and I felt the sun on my face for the first time in what seemed like a long time.  I was tired, hungry, and my voice was already going after lecturing for two full 90-minute classes that day (so far), and I was so ready to dig into some happy hour specials.  This was going to be my happiest hour in a really long time.

I started out with one of my favorite things to eat, a platter of a dozen raw oysters on the half shell, served on a platter of ice ($1 each during happy hour).  These were so fresh, plump, and briny.  The taste and texture aren’t for everyone, but I consider them such a luxurious food, like something I need to save for a special occasion or a big personal reward.  I love oysters, but haven’t had a chance to enjoy raw ones in over two years, between sticking to the “months with an ‘r'” rule and of course COVID-19.  As you might guess, oysters aren’t optimal takeout food, unless you buy a bunch to shuck at home, which I admit I have never done.   I took my time with each of these, inhaling their salty aromas and sipping the liquor out of the shells.  (“Liquor” is referring to the oysters’ natural juices — I don’t even drink, and especially wouldn’t drink during a workday!).  Only then did I embrace my inner otter, slurping up each briny bivalve, making sure to chew each one to savor the full flavor and not just gulp them down like someone would throw back a shot.  I typically don’t add anything to my oysters because I don’t like covering up their unique taste — no lemon, horseradish, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, or crackers — but I appreciated having the options.

I also ordered some fried clams from the long list of (mostly fried) appetizers marked down to $5 during happy hour.  I’ve had fried clams at High Tide Harry’s before, but again, it had been too many years.  Sometimes restaurants can overcook these to the point where they are chewy rubber bands that aren’t even crispy anymore, just greasy and depressing.  But these were so tender, crunchy, and hardly greasy.  I dipped many of them in the tangy cocktail sauce that came with the oysters, but they didn’t even need it.

And what’s that I hear?  Could it be–?!  Is it–!?  IT IS!

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

You know it, true believers!  Despite eating all those lunches at High Tide Harry’s in times past, because I always stuck to the smaller lunch menu back in the day, somehow I never ordered the onion rings here!  Well, better late than never, because they were terrific.  This big plate of golden-brown, crunchy, pungent happiness is also $5 during happy hour. 

After putting all of that away, my attentive and patient server Kenzie asked how I liked the oysters.  I gushed that I hadn’t had oysters in a long time, and hadn’t even eaten at a restaurant for over a year, like I had just emerged from a bunker or something.  She asked if I wanted more, and suggested I try them her favorite way: charbroiled instead of raw.  I’m an easy mark when it comes to food — make a suggestion, and 99 times out of 100, I’ll try it.  I’ve never had charbroiled oysters before, but this half-dozen (still $1 each during happy hour) were so decadent — topped with garlic, herbs, bread crumbs, and LOTS of butter, and served with a great piece of garlic bread that wasn’t too crusty.  Apparently this preparation is similar to a legendary New Orleans restaurant called Drago’s.  I haven’t been back to New Orleans in over 20 years and never had charbroiled oysters anywhere there, but I can at least vouch for High Tide Harry’s version being amazing.

Then I figured while I was dining out for the first time in far too long, decompressing on Harry’s patio, feeling that breeze on my face on a hot March afternoon, enjoying a well-deserved feast in the middle of a 13-hour workday, I might as well order a dozen steamed clams too.  YOLO.  I rarely indulge on this level, but they are also $1 each during happy hour!  What did you think I was going to say, steamed hams?  No, I am not from Albany, Utica, or anywhere else in upstate New York.  I love fried clams, and I love clam sauce over pasta, but these steamed clams were a little chewier and blander than I prefer.  The melted butter in the little dipping cup on the side helped, because what doesn’t melted butter help?  But whenever I return, I’ll probably get more oysters and apps (including more of those fried clams) and avoid the steamed clams.  Don’t get me wrong, I ate them all and liked them, just not as much as I liked everything else.  I mostly ordered steamed clams to make the Simpsons reference most of my readers didn’t even catch or appreciate.  Tough crowd!

So if you couldn’t already tell, High Tide Harry’s is a real treasure of a restaurant in south Orlando, just a little far from the foodie-centric parts of town where most favorite local restaurants are clustered.  They are taking COVID-19 seriously, and are very big on safety, cleaning, and social distancing, with plenty of outdoor tables on their small patio and the much larger tent.  If you refuse to wear a mask, you’re not welcome there, and I am so glad the Heretick family and their staff are enforcing that rule.  I know people occasionally hassle them about it, but I’m glad they aren’t capitulating.  Because of this alone, on top of being a long-running family business with great food, I feel really good about giving them my business and helping boost the signal to encourage others to dine there.  High Tide Harry’s happy hour, from 2:00 to 5:00 Tuesday through Sunday, is one of the best deals in town, especially if you love oysters, clams, and tasty fried things.  Next time you’re feeling like starting a seafood diet, where if you see food, you’ll eat it, especially if it’s seafood, consider starting it at High Tide Harry’s.

This was the most decadent, luxurious meal I’ve had in over a year.  It was just what I needed on that long workday, just what I needed for way too long before that.  Between bites, I would close my eyes and pretend I was much further away than I actually was — not facing a parking lot and busy State Road 436 on a late lunch break before returning to work and teaching another class that evening, and definitely not wearing a dress shirt and a tie.  Hey, at least I had rolled my sleeves up.  That’s about as laid-back as I ever get, but it’s progress.

Yellow Spoon Kitchen

Orlando is a really diverse, multicultural, cosmopolitan city — far more than most outsiders would believe, and sadly far more than most tourists ever get to see for themselves.  But locals know we have so much more going on than theme parks and chain restaurants (even though for most people, there is a time and a place for those too).  Our culinary scene has advanced so much that we have all kinds of exciting pop-up restaurants now, many of them cooking out of ghost kitchens and specializing in takeout food you preorder online.  This is a great way to adapt to the changing needs of diners, allowing creative chefs and enterprising entrepreneurs to minimize expenses and personal contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, when fewer people feel comfortable dining in restaurant dining rooms.  I’m always on the lookout for new, unfamiliar cuisines I’ve never tried before, especially when pop-up restaurants are involved.  These ephemeral eateries motivate me to get out and try things while I can, because you never know when they’ll be back, or what they will offer next time.

So imagine my excitement when I first hear about Yellow Spoon Kitchen (https://yellowspoonkitchen.com/) on the tried and true Orlando Foodie Forum Facebook Group.  This is a pop-up restaurant specializing in Indonesian cuisine, which is definitely new to me, as well as healthy pre-made meals.  Guess which one caught my attention!

The young chef behind Yellow Spoon Kitchen, Ridwan Nurjaman, is also a sushi chef, according to his Facebook profile.  This is an ambitious side hustle, introducing a mostly unfamiliar population to Indonesian food out of a shared ghost kitchen in the East End Market in Audubon Park.  But that’s a great location for him — in one of Orlando’s foodie landmarks, our small food hall easily accessible from most of our hippest, most diverse, and most open-minded neighborhoods that are home to some of our finest local restaurants.  This week he advertised two different Indonesian dishes up for preorder this weekend, so I ordered one of each — one for me and one for my wife — and requested to pick them up today, Saturday, at noon.

Me being me, I arrived almost an hour early because parking is terrible at the East End Market on weekends.  Then I realized I had no idea where the food pickup was supposed to be.  The place isn’t that large, but the e-mail receipt didn’t have any information, so I searched high and low for the mysterious ghost kitchen.  At one point I walked through some unmarked doors on the second floor of the building and interrupted a church service, with a keyboard player and singers and everything.  That was definitely not one of my finest moments!  Eventually I found a door in the very back of the market with a small sign on it — the ghost kitchen entrance, where we could pick up our Yellow Spoon Kitchen preorders.  My order wasn’t ready until after 12:30, but I had a book I have to read for work, and I was content to wait in the back and avoid everyone eating at tables in the busy parts of the food hall.  I’m still doing everything I can to avoid crowds and any unmasked people, which includes pretty much everyone dining in public.

This is an Indonesian “heavy salad” called gado-gado ($10), requested by my wife.  According to the website, gado-gado is an “Indonesian salad of slightly boiled, blanched or steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, boiled potato, fried tofu and tempeh, and lontong (rice wrapped in a banana leaf), served with magic spicy peanut sauce dressing.  In 2018, gado-gado was promoted as one of six national dishes of Indonesia.”  Neither of us noticed any hard-boiled eggs or rice in a banana leaf in this particular salad, but there were definitely bean sprouts on the bottom.  She loves tofu, tempeh, and peanut sauce, so I think those were her favorite parts.   

This was the peanut sauce, in a generous-sized plastic cup:

This was my meal, the nasi padang ($13), a segmented platter with all kinds of dishes, like a Japanese bento box, an old-school TV dinner, or the school lunches of my youth, only a lot better than the latter two.  Whenever I eat somewhere new, I usually have a hard time deciding between a few dishes, so I always love some kind of sampler platter that lets me try a few different things.  I was so happy this was something he offered today, since it was my crash course in Indonesian food.  The top left dish is beef rendang, a spicy, savory stew of beef slow-cooked in coconut milk, herbs, and spices for hours until it is fork-tender.  It’s kind of like a curry, but more of a dry curry that isn’t overly saucy.  I tasted some familiar flavors, but as a whole, it was an entirely new taste experience for me.  To the right of the beef rendang was a savory omelet full of peppers and other vegetables.  Miraculously, it was still warm by the time I got it home.  I love omelets and cooked them often for myself at home, until a recent physical confirmed I have high cholesterol and blood pressure, and my doctor told me eggs are the enemy.  (Funny, I know I indulge in delicious and unhealthy foods sometimes, but I always thought eggs were a reasonably healthy and uncontroversial thing to eat.  What are you gonna do?)  And next to that was a bed of rice, perfect for cutting the heat of some of the dishes in the bottom left compartment.

The immediate bottom left of the nasi padang tray contained jackfruit curry.  Jackfruit is a large tropical fruit grown between India and Malaysia.  It isn’t sweet, but vegetarians love it because it can be used in a lot of savory recipe as a decent meat substitute.  The texture was softer and more yielding than chicken or pork, but I could finally see what my vegetarian friends rave about, how it could be a satisfying substitution in so many dishes because it takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in — in this case, a mildly spicy curry sauce.

The greens in the photo above are steamed kale.  I usually hate the harsh texture of raw kale, but I’ve enjoyed it in a stew with sausage, potatoes, and white beans, and I liked it with this softer texture from steaming.  It was seasoned with something that made it surprisingly spicy, though.

Directly above the kale, there are red and green condiments called sambal.  The green one is sambal ijo, and forgive me, but I don’t know what the red one is called.  I ate every drop of these, mixed with the rice, because they were so spicy.  The green sambal ijo was much hotter than the red one, but I liked the flavor of the red one more.

At first I was like “Man, what a small little chicken leg!” but this was the standout of the nasi padang — definitely my favorite part, and one of the best pieces of chicken I’ve eaten in some time.  It was fried, but not breaded or crispy, and definitely not greasy.  I would not be surprised if it was brined or marinated first, because it had such a good flavor — very savory, with a hint of sweetness.  No spiciness here, unlike several of the other ingredients.  I wish Chef Ridwan would offer a whole meal of Indonesian fried chicken, because I would totally order that.

These were lightly crispy, crunchy, salty chips that were included.  I’m not sure which of the two meals they came with (maybe both?), but I have bought similar chips at Asian markets around Orlando, and I always like them.

I thought about holding off on writing my review of Yellow Spoon Kitchen because I don’t know when and where Chef Ridwan will pop back up with new menu items.  But life is so unknowable these days, and everyone is still hunkering down and ordering takeout, while craving some novelty to break up the monotony.  I wanted to start spreading the good word now, so people can be on the lookout for his eventual triumphant return and discover his Indonesian cooking for themselves.

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
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But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

V&S Italian Deli (Boca Raton)

Ever since I read Michael Mayo‘s 2017 South Florida Sun Sentinel review of Boca Raton’s V&S Italian Deli (https://www.vandsdeli.com/), I desperately wanted to go to there, except I’m almost never in South Florida anymore.  Even on the rare occasions I get to visit my parents down in Kendall (the boring Miami suburb where I grew up), Boca is still over an hour north of there, and over three hours south of where I live.  But a while back, pre-pandemic, while I had a quick-turnaround work trip to Miami.  It was a perfect opportunity to make a lunch detour at V&S on my way back to Orlando, since it’s only about ten minutes off I-95.  Long-time Saboscrivnerinos know how much I love a good Italian sub, and how delis are my absolute favorite, so I was very glad I drove a little out of my way.
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V&S (named for co-founders Vinnie and Sal Falcone*) has been in operation since 1985, in a small storefront space along US-1, also known as North Federal Highway, in Boca.  They serve Boar’s Head and Citterio meats and cheeses in their huge, overstuffed sandwiches, and also sell them by the pound.  They also feature salads, pasta dishes, and Italian desserts like cannoli.  I would have loved to bring home more stuff to try, but I had that three-hour drive ahead of me, and it ended up taking over four due to stopping for this lunch and hitting rough rush hour traffic once I finally hit Orlando.dsc02637.jpg

Beautiful cured meats, just waiting to be sliced by true sandwich craftsmen:DSC02643

So I ordered two cold subs loaded with cured Italian meats, cheeses, and tasty vegetables, figuring they would hold up okay in the car without spoiling, and would probably even get better over time, with the ingredients melding and marinating together.  I devoured half of each of them while sitting at one of the six stools at the little lunch counter in V&S (back when you could do such a thing, but they also have a few small outside tables for those attempting it now), and brought the other halves home for later — a standard Saboscrivner style whenever I visit a new, faraway sandwich joint.

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I got the V&S Special, with sopressata, mortadella with pistachios, and provolone, and the Italian Combo, with genoa salami, capicola (GABBAGOOL!), and provolone.  I loved how thin the very patient Nick sliced all the meats, fresh for both sandwiches.  They both came dressed with finely-shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, thin-sliced onions, hot and sweet peppers, on fresh-baked crusty Italian rolls covered with sesame seeds.  I saw they also offered softer Cusano’s rolls, which my beloved local LaSpada’s uses, but I figured for an extra quarter each, go with the fresh bread.  Each sandwich cost $13.86 after tax and the minor upcharges of the fresh bread and hot and sweet peppers.DSC02646

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And as if there was any doubt, they held up fine on the long drive back to Orlando, and were even MORE delicious the next day:
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V&S is a tiny treasure in Boca Raton, the kind of Italian deli I just love.  We’re so lucky here in Orlando to have some real options for great Italian sandwiches: LaSpada’s, Stasio’s, Manzano’s, Tornatore’s, and Bad As’s Sandwich whenever they bring back the Capone sandwich.  But I’d add V&S to my regular rotation if it was closer, or if I was.  If you’re ever driving on I-95 through Broward or Palm Beach County and find yourself near the Yamato Road exit, definitely make a detour.  And if you already live in the area, you’re officially on notice!  Next time, though, I’m gonna leave more cash and take the cannoli.

*I draw attention to the names of the founders in part because I have occasionally used the name “Vincent Falcone” as an alias or fake name at random times throughout my life.  It’s just a cool-ass name, right?  I can think of only one of my regular readers (my best friend) who will grasp the significance and know the backstory, but I’ll be amazed and astonished if any other stalwart, steadfast Saboscrivnerinos figure it out.

Beyti Mediterranean Grill

I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, and my absolute favorite among those might be Turkish food.  Two of my favorite restaurants in Orlando are Turkish, and I’ve written glowing reviews of both of them here on The Saboscrivner blog: Bosphorous and Cappadocia.  But when I found out a Turkish restaurant was opening near where we live in Casselberry, my wife and I were excited, overwhelmed with hope it would be awesome.  Well, Beyti Mediterranean Grill (https://www.beytifl.com/) opened its doors this week, in the old location of Rolando’s Cuban Cuisine on Semoran Boulevard, just north of the busy Red Bug Lake Road intersection.  The restaurant is located right beyond where the overpass lets out, so it is easy to get to if you’re driving north on Semoran, but you’ll need to make a u-turn at the light if you’re heading south.  They don’t have a sign up yet, so be on the lookout.

The owners used to own Turkish Bar and Grill in Altamonte Springs, but I’m sad to say we never discovered that restaurant, and it closed in February 2019.  Well, they’re back in business at Beyti, and I am so happy to report that it is awesome.  Even better than we expected, in fact, and our expectations were high.  As usual, on a Friday night after a busy week, I ordered a lot of food, but the two of us will end up with multiple meals from this massive menu.

Turkish appetizers often include a lot of rich, savory dips, and my favorite is sauteed eggplant ($4.99), sometimes known as soslu patlican.  In this dish, the eggplant is cooked with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and garlic, and it is probably my favorite thing you can do with an eggplant.  I’ve had and enjoyed the Bosphorous and Cappadocia versions, and this was as good or better than both.  It was definitely a larger portion for a smaller price.  

My wife requested babaganoush ($4.99), which is a creamy and smoky eggplant dip, blended with tahini, yogurt, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and garlic.  We both like babaganoush a lot, and this was a real winner — not too chunky, but not blended so smooth that it loses any texture.  The smoky flavor came through very well.  We were in babaganoush bliss.

Even though the dips both came with soft pita wedges, we couldn’t resist ordering the lavash bread ($3.99) to tear apart and dip into the dips.  It usually comes to your table inflated to the size of a football, but this one deflated in the ten minutes it took me to drive this bounty home.  Still, the bread was warm, soft, and fluffy, if no longer puffy.  I give it props over Bosphorous and Cappadocia for being dusted with regular and black sesame seeds, a very nice touch.

This is lahmacun, which is a soft, thin Turkish flatbread topped with seasoned ground beef in a rich tomatoey sauce.  The order ($9.99) came with three of these, and they are one of my favorite Turkish dishes anywhere.  I only ate one tonight, so these are my most eagerly awaited leftovers.  It is even thinner than a typical pita bread, maybe about as thin as a thin crust pizza, but very soft — not like the crispy, crackery crust of most thin crust pizzas, and even softer than the pita and lavash breads.

This is a gyro plate with double the meat ($13.99).  The garlicky gyro meat, a mixture of seasoned lamb and beef, was fantastic — so savory and not greasy at all, like so many gyros from so many other places.  This was my wife’s choice, and clearly she has good taste.  But this way I got to have some too, without feeling guilty for tasting too much of her food.  What you can’t see in this photo is that the gyro meat completely covers a large portion of fluffy, buttery rice pilaf, with the meat juices dripping down and seasoning the rice even further.  Note the crispy, vinegary pickled cabbage, lettuce and tomato in a very light vinaigrette, half a charred jalapeno pepper, and four more soft pita wedges.

I was very curious about the restaurant’s namesake dish, the Beyti ($10.99).  The menu describes it as chopped lamb, garlic, hot peppers, and parsley, wrapped in pita bread and topped with tomato and yogurt sauces.  It reminded us of a Turkish enchilada with the yogurt sauce filling in for a crema or sour cream on top, and the thin pita wrap reminiscent of a tortilla.  The luscious lamb inside was formed and shaped into a long, dense meatloaf, so after being sliced, it was like there was a thick lamb meatball inside every segment.  I was happy to see more cabbage and another hot pepper with this dish, as well as marinated red onions. 

We ended up with even more vegetable accompaniments, enough to keep me in salads for a few more days!

The owner included two of their stuffed grape leaves, which he assured me were made fresh by hand, not served straight out of a can.  I’ve had canned dolmades, and I have to admit that I love them, but there’s nothing like the real deal.  They were served chilled, with seasoned rice inside, but no meat for you vegetarians to worry about.  I was torn about ordering these, because I’m such a fan of stuffed grape leaves, but I had already ordered so much food.  As a result, this was a really special surprise touch, and he assured I’ll order the grape leaves every time I return.

Finally, here’s a photo of an additional large container of the great buttery rice pilaf (I’m not even sure what that came with), along with an order of the most delicious pistachio baklava that the owner was also kind enough to include for free.  It was such a generous gesture, and one we’ll never forget.  I love baklava, and I’m not exaggerating when I say this is some of the best baklava I’ve ever had.  It was still warm, extremely fresh, chewy (some baklava is flaky and dry), and perfect in every way.

I just want to say that I brought this delicious food home the evening before our anniversary.  In this pandemic year, we haven’t gone out to eat at a restaurant together since the first days of March, and don’t intend to resume that old habit anytime soon.  So all of my restaurant reviews since March have been of takeout food.  I already warned my wife that this isn’t going to feel like a festive anniversary, but she’s perfectly content eating at home.  Tonight’s dinner felt extra special, being home together, still thankfully safe and healthy, and eating one of the tastiest meals we’ve shared in a while from a wonderful new restaurant right in our neighborhood.  While we enjoyed our first of several Turkish feasts over the next few days, for a little while it felt like nothing was wrong in the country or the world.  We had each other (eleven years married!), and we had Beyti Mediterranean Grill, a welcome new addition to the Casselberry culinary scene, one that is well worth the drive from anywhere in the greater Orlando area, easily as good or better than our other established Turkish restaurants, and considerably cheaper.  We wish them all the best and look forward to becoming regulars in the months and years to come.  Seriously, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos — RUN, don’t walk to this one.

Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria

My wife recently said I like pizza more than anyone else she’s ever known.  I’m not sure if that’s accurate, because even though I have strong opinions about what constitutes good pizza (and she and I often disagree on good pizza), I really don’t indulge that often.  I published my last pizzeria review back on March 1st (Tomasino’s!), and I’ve only had pizza three times in almost five months since then (two to be discussed in forthcoming reviews, and the subject of this review).  Now if she had said I like subs more than anyone she’s ever known, I wouldn’t be surprised at all, and I wouldn’t doubt the veracity of the statement either.  I like subs more than anyone I’ve ever known.  Yes, even more than YOU.  Come at me, bro.

So when I kept hearing hype and praise for an Italian restaurant that served great New York-style pizza and a great Italian sub, I paid attention.  Word on the street (by which I mean the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook) was that this place makes everything from scratch — their sub rolls, their pasta, even their fresh mozzarella!  It is Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria (https://tornatoresitalianrestaurant.com/), a beloved favorite out in the College Park neighborhood, west of Winter Park and north of downtown Orlando.

I called in a large order, figuring it would be more than enough food to last the two of us a few days.  Tornatore’s was doing very organized curbside pickup, with a table outside where a hostess greeted me.  She brought my credit card inside to charge me, I signed the receipt outside, and they had my food bagged up and ready to go in no time.  They even had a neat little disinfecting device for pens that I had never seen before, that you slide the pen through after each person touches it.  I never even made it inside the restaurant, but I gazed through the glass window into a glass case of house-made desserts (not on the online menu) right in front.  Had I but known, I might have done even more damage!

Anyway, I’ve written before about how pizza is never as good by the time you bring it home, so I ordered a single slice of cheese pizza ($1.95) to consume immediately, in the car, before even leaving Tornatore’s parking lot.  It was New York-style pizza, one of my two favorite kinds (do any sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos remember my other favorite kind of pizza?), hot and thin and crispy with gooey, melty cheese.  I’m glad I got the experience of trying a “control” slice the way it was meant to be enjoyed.tornatores1

I brought home a 14″ medium pizza, among other things.  This was Leah’s Pie ($14.95), topped with mozzarella, sausage, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers — all things I love on a pizza.  It was cut into six wide slices instead of the usual eight most places do, and I enjoyed them for the next several days after heating them up in our trusty toaster oven.  tornatores7
It was a great combination of toppings, and while I can’t call it the best New York-style pizza I’ve had in Orlando (Pizzeria Del Dio holds that title, just barely edging out Paradiso), it definitely makes my Top Five.  And that is NOT meant to be a diss.  It’s top-notch pizza in my top-notch pizza pantheon.

My wife had requested eggplant rollatini ($9.95) off the appetizers menu — thin slices of fried eggplant wrapped around parmesan herb ricotta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, and baked in the oven.  tornatores4
She usually doesn’t care for the acidity of tomato-based sauces, but she seemed to love this version of rollatini.  And for an appetizer portion, she got three meals out of it!

Meatballs are a good way to gauge any good Italian restaurant, so I got us a side order of two meatballs ($4.95), served in marinara sauce and topped with ricotta cheese.  They had a light, airy consistency and good flavor.tornatores2

And we always like to gauge every Italian restaurant and pizzeria on its garlic rolls, so I got us an order of garlic knots too, for $5.95.  You get six knots in an order, not five, but I had already given my wife one when I took this photo:
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These are probably the biggest garlic rolls we’ve had from anywhere.  They had a nice crispy, crackly exterior and were topped generously with garlic and parmesan cheese, but they weren’t as buttery as we like.  Pizza Bruno still holds the championship belt for best garlic rolls in Orlando, and it’s hard to beat Tomasino’s for sheer butteriness.

However, when I unwrapped everything at home, I was very surprised to see these soft, fresh-baked rolls in a paper bag:
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They must have come with the eggplant rollatini and the meatballs, so that was a pleasant surprise, since the menu didn’t mention them.  My wife absolutely loved these, even more than the actual garlic knots!  They were kind of like ciabatta bread on the outside, but much softer and fluffier on the inside — still warm out of the oven.  Had I known these were coming, I probably would have skipped the knots.

But one thing I couldn’t bring myself to skip was the Italian sub ($10.95 for a whole).  As I said earlier, I love subs, especially Italian subs, those choruses of cured meats, cheeses, vegetables, and some kind of vinegar-based sauce on a good roll.  I’ve championed the best Italian subs Orlando has to offer: the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie from LaSpada’s, the namesake Stasio from Stasio’s, the Rocco from Manzano’s, and the Capone, that recurring special guest star from Bad As’s Sandwich.  Well, I can clearly say I have a Top Five of local Italian subs, because the one from Tornatore’s rounds out that quintet.
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Forgoing ham (which can be so good when it’s good quality ham, but too many sub places use the cheap, slimy stuff), Tornatore’s Italian sub uses three of the best cured meats: salami (almost certainly Genoa salami), capicola (spicy ham), and prosciutto (one of the finest cured hams of all, especially when it’s sliced paper-thin like they do, and streaked with rich, creamy fat).  Instead of industry standard provolone cheese, they use fresh, house-made mozzarella rounds (most impressive!), and finish it off with lettuce, tomato, thin-sliced red onion, pickled banana pepper rings, oil and vinegar, and… black olives.

If I had remembered the menu says black olives come standard, I would have asked them to hold them.  As it is, I ate them on the first half of the sub, but picked them off the second half for the following day.  It wasn’t listed on the menu, but they added a pesto spread on the wonderful fresh-baked sub roll, which was crackly on the outside (but not too crackly!) and pillowy soft on the inside.  A little harder than the soft Cusano’s brand rolls at LaSpada’s, but softer than the crusty rolls at Manzano’s, it was a damn fine roll for a damn fine sandwich.

And finally, I have to

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

Because Tornatore’s offers onion rings ($4.95), and I’m pleased to report you get a generous order of A-list onion rings, similar to the aforementioned Pizzeria Del Dio and Paradiso.  For some reason, when Italian restaurants have onion rings on the menu, they’re almost always this really good beer-battered kind, the kind I always crave.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I can never resist trying and comparing onion rings wherever I find myself, and I was very happy with these.
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So that was my whirlwind tour of Tornatore’s.  I don’t make it out to College Park that often, but I was glad the place had ample parking, further north on Edgewater Drive from that cluster of restaurants  with minimal parking, mostly along the street.  I appreciated the efficient curbside pickup and especially the really terrific food.  I’m impressed they make so much from scratch, even those desserts I spied through two layers of glass.  The pizza was very good, but that Italian sub was a (cold) cut above.  Whenever I make it back, I’d be tempted to get another one of those, but I wouldn’t mind trying their grilled sausage, pepper, and onion sub on that same delicious fresh-baked roll, with more of that fresh mozzarella.  I’d also get some pasta next time, which is also made from scratch.

Mason Jar Provisions

Mason Jar Provisions (https://www.masonjarprovisionsorlando.com/) is a brand-new Southern restaurant that just opened in the space recently vacated by Big Time Street Food, which I reviewed earlier this year after my one and only visit (before a KRS-One concert, which was one of the last fun things I did pre-pandemic).  Located in the Thornton Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, it’s a very small space with a few seats at a counter, but the restaurant is attached to Burton’s Bar next door (and now owned by the same people).  Diners can take their food through a doorway over to Burton’s and walk back and forth between the establishments.  By the time people read this, their hours will be 12 noon to 10 PM.

Before continuing my review, you have to check out this menu.  Everything looked so delicious and tempting, I had a hard time choosing between six or seven different things.  I had to go back to edit this review after first publishing it because I belatedly learned Mason Jar Provisions is co-owned by chef A.J. Haines, who used to cook at one of our favorite, long-gone, much-missed Italian restaurants, Wolfie’s PizzaMia, and he used to work magic and miracles in that kitchen.  Burton’s General Manager Jeff Darnell is the other co-owner.  But because Thornton Park is pretty far from us and parking is difficult around there, I called in a pretty big order on a weekday afternoon I had off, and was lucky enough to be able to park right in front to pick it up.  That probably would not have happened in the evening or on a weekend.

My wife likes her food relatively plain and unadorned, without any condiments or sauces.  So I ordered her the regular beef burger ($9) with its lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and ketchup on the side.  It’s the kind of burger that is smashed flat on the griddle, cooked to medium well.  It was served on a lightly-griddled brioche bun with a huge order of seasoned fries.  masonjar1

You may have also noticed two huge chicken tenders, which I also ordered for her, because she was intrigued by both.  She doesn’t eat a lot, so we both figured she’d probably get three or four meals out of the big burger and the tenders (which actually come in an order of three for $9).  She thought the burger was a perfectly okay burger, but LOVED the tenders.  These were mild, but they also come in medium, hot, inferno, blackstrap (molasses) barbecue, or dry rub flavors.  We were given a choice of a cup of ranch or blue cheese (she never wants either, so I chose blue cheese for myself), and they also came with a cup of buffalo sauce and four celery sticks.

I had been reading hype and praise for the titular Mason Jar burger ($13), so that’s what I had to get… well, one of the things I had to get.  It contained TWO beef patties, tasso ham (such a nice alternative to bacon!), creamy and tangy remoulade sauce, melty American cheese (longtime Saboscrivnerinos know it’s one of my favorite cheeses to put on a burger), plus the usual lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles.  I like pickles now, so these were all welcome toppings for me.  masonjar2
The burger was juicy and flavorful, despite my initial skepticism about it being cooked to medium well, the grilled brioche bun was rich and perfect, and everything held together for an intoxicating melange of flavors, colors, and textures without threatening to slip and slide apart as I enjoyed it at home.  And despite the schlep back to the Casselberry suburbs, the fries were still warm by the time I got home!

Maybe the most curious thing on the menu was the collard melt sandwich ($12), featuring braised collard greens, house-made smoked pimento cheese, chow chow (a Southern cabbage-based relish that is sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, but always tangy), and balsamic reduction, all on grilled sourdough bread.  These are all flavors I love that I never thought of combining into a sandwich, so I’m glad someone more creative than I did.  It came with even more fries.masonjar4I didn’t even eat this until the following day, after warming it up in the toaster oven.  It was a winner.  I seriously love collards, pimento cheese, anything cabbagey, and anything smoky, so it was a killer-diller, no-filler, thriller goriller of a sandwich for me.  Vegetarians, rejoice!  As long as you allow yourself to experience the joy of cheese, here’s a new sandwich every vegetarian in Orlando should seek out.

If it seems like I brought home a lot of food, I did.  I wanted to order a few different things because I was trying a new place, because it’s hard to get over to Thornton Park, and because I wanted to give myself a break from cooking and avoid even being tempted to leave the house again for the next few days.  And with all of this in mind, I also ordered the hot chicken sandwich.  (My parents must be so proud.)  I’ve been very obsessed with hot chicken ever since eating at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2017, and I’m thrilled that Orlando has so many wonderful hot chicken options now, including Swine & Sons (a smoked thigh sandwich), Chicken Fire (tenders in or out of a sandwich), and Git-N-Messy BBQ (not covered in my review, but his hot half chicken may rule them all).

Mason Jar Provisions’ menu says their hot chicken sandwich ($13) says it’s a smoked, breaded, and deep-fried chicken thigh served with hot sauce, bread and butter pickle slices, and cole slaw, served on a grilled brioche bun with even more fries on the side.
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As you can see, the sandwich included two smaller breaded thighs, but it wasn’t dripping in the intense oily, spicy seasoning of Nashville hot chicken like the aforementioned restaurants.  It was incredibly tender and juicy meat, but it wasn’t really hot either.  Like a couple of kids, I traded my wife the not-really-hot thighs from the sandwich for her burger patty — each missing a bite, so it was a very fair trade.   They were thoughtful enough to pack the cole slaw in a separate cup with a lid, to avoid creating a mess that would have ruined the crispiness of the chicken and soaked through the bun and fries on my way home.

As much as I enjoyed my Mason Jar burger and the collard melt sandwich and would probably order them again in the future, I probably wouldn’t get the chicken sandwich again.  Not when they offer a braised barbecue short rib hoagie with pickled onions and pickles (the Dave Dog).  Why didn’t I get that instead?  However, my wife gives the chicken tenders her Saboscrivner Spouse Seal of Approval, and she knows tenders because she is the most tender person there is!

Folks, it’s an unknowable, scary, and outright dangerous time right now.  The restaurant business was hard enough already before COVID-19 pandemic struck, and we’ve seen too many beloved local eateries struggling and shuttering over the last few months.  I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be opening up now, in late June, as infection rates are increasing almost exponentially here in Orlando.  But we still have to eat, and restaurants are still considered essential businesses that are staying open to serve the rest of us.  Most people are going to venture out of their bunkers for takeout food eventually.  I implore you all to choose wisely and eat locally when you do, to support local restaurants that rely on your business and will appreciate your business.  So consider paying a visit to Mason Jar Provisions, one of Orlando’s newest restaurants, for some Southern comfort food at a time when we can all use some comfort in our lives.  Check out these drool-worthy photos and treat yourselves to something tasty and satisfying.  It might just be the highlight of your week, as it was of mine.

College Park Cafe

I’ve written a lot about being from Miami and growing up eating the best Cuban food in the country.  If there’s one thing I hope I’ve shown the world on The Saboscrivner, it’s that Orlando has an exciting, burgeoning culinary scene, one that allows us to hold our own against other midsize-to-large cities.  We even have Cuban restaurants, but even though some of them are good, very few compare to the plethora of excellent Cuban dining options four hours south of us in Miami.  And nowhere is that more clear than with the legendary Cuban sandwich, AKA the Cubano.  Plenty of good ones, but nothing that matches the iconic Versailles restaurant, the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban community and a can’t-miss destination for locals and tourists alike.  Versailles’ Cuban sandwich is even featured in Jon Favreau’s delightful movie Chef, one of the best food-related movies ever made, which I strongly recommend to all my readers (most of whom have probably seen it already).

Well, dear readers (all those bakers’ dozens of you), I think I’ve finally located Orlando’s finest Cuban sandwich, one that can stand alongside los mejores en Miami, in large part because it’s larger than many of them.  It’s at College Park Cafe (https://collegeparkcafe.com/), a humble diner in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, a place just far enough out of my regular radius that I rarely venture out that way.  I’ve been seeing Facebook posts from them and from foodie friends, singing the praises of the Cuban sandwich and other food, so I had to try it for myself, and I’m so glad I did.  A sign outside the diner advertises “The Best Cuban Sandwich In Town!”, and they ain’t kidding.

College Park Cafe is open from 6:30 AM until 2:00 PM, so I planned to get lunch from here, knowing they aren’t open for dinner.  I called in my takeout order and spoke to Barbara’s son Juan, who was very friendly and patient.  I had to make a few stops on my way there, and Juan called me back to let me know they were out of something I ordered, and called back a second time when I was about five minutes away, to let me know my order was ready.  I appreciated the communication.  Later, I spoke to cook and owner Barbara Martinez over Facebook Messenger while I was writing this review, and she said her family moved to Orlando from South Florida a year ago and took over the diner in August of 2019.  That’s when they added Cuban dishes to the large menu full of American breakfast and lunch classics.

Of course I ordered the Cubano ($10.50) for myself, and I chose one of my lifelong favorite foods, sweet plantains (maduros) as the one side the sandwich comes with. DSC03125

Opened up to show off all the shredded, marinated, roast pork, thin-sliced sweet ham, melty Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, sliced pickles, and crunchy potato sticks on this sandwich.  Potato sticks aren’t typical, but they were a nice touch — says the guy who likes to put chips in almost any sandwich.DSC03126

And a cross-section, so you can see just how thick this sandwich really is:
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Sweet plantains with black beans (more about them below):DSC03121

I also got a side order of onion rings ($2.50) because this was my first visit to the College Park Cafe, and whenever I see onion rings on a menu, I have to try them.  That’s why this review gets a [AIR HORN!] RING THE ALARM! [/AIR HORN!] tag.  It was a great value for a generous order of small, mostly uniform onion rings that were still warm by the time I got them home.  Served with some ketchup I keep chillin’ in the fridge for such rare occasions, they were a nice accompaniment to that awe-inspiring Cubano.
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My wife wanted palomilla steak ($11.50), a thin, marinated, grilled Cuban-style steak, which came with rice, beans (she chose black beans), and salty fried plantains (tostones), which she always prefers to the sweet ones.  I always plate the food when I come home with takeout, especially in these pandemic days, and that means I always try a little bite of whatever she ordered.  She likes and orders steaks far more than I do, but WOW, I was in heaven after one bite of this thin, flat, tender palomilla.  My eyes rolled back in my head, and I was reeling from the excellent seasoning.  There was garlic, cumin, maybe the sour orange juice of a mojo criollo marinade.  It was an explosion of deliciousness, all from one bite.  And because my wife hates onions and I love them, I slid all the grilled, seasoned onions off the top of her steak to enjoy myself.  DSC03120

Tostones!
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When I got there, I saw they had a rich-looking chocolate cake under a glass dome, as any good diner should.  My wife always loves chocolate, so I got her a slice of that too.  It looked like they have flan as well, but I had to save some stuff for future visits.
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I would have ordered the Cuban frita sliders, small burgers made with a blend of ground beef and chorizo sausage, usually served on buns pressed in a plancha like the Cuban bread of a Cubano sandwich, and topped with potato sticks and onions.  But unfortunately they were out on this visit.  I discovered frita burgers relatively late in my life, on my most recent trip back home to Miami in early March, right before the pandemic struck, and I have a review of that restaurant written and ready to run on a week I don’t have anything new to report on locally.  I don’t know of anyone in Orlando serving fritas aside from College Park Cafe, so I’ll definitely return to try those.  I don’t think anything could keep me from ordering another one of those perfect, overstuffed Cubanos, though.  That thing would be a bargain at twice the price.  It really is that damn good, and not just by Orlando standards either.

So that’s College Park Cafe, a friendly neighborhood diner with all your timeless diner classics: Reubens, patty melts, Greek omelettes, country-fried steak, eggs Benedict, chili cheeseburgers, anything you can picture in your diner dreams.  They even have an unlimited salad for $8.99 (for dine-in only), or $11.99 when paired with a few different entrees.  But the Cuban food is the real star of the show, and it’s definitely some of the best Cuban food to be had in Orlando, good enough to hold its own in Tampa or Miami.  The Martinez family is so incredibly nice, and I shouldn’t have to remind you that they could really use every bit of support.  Plus, normally parking along Edgewater Drive in College Park is kind of a nightmare, but it wasn’t bad at all on a Saturday afternoon during a pandemic.  Trust me — if you and the people you’re comfortable being within six feet of can’t decide between breakfast, diner food, and Cuban cuisine, have I got the place for you.

Olympia Restaurant

“Hangin’ on the corner of 52nd and Broadway
Cars passin’ by, but none of ’em seem to go my way
An’ New York City, well I wish I was on a highway
Back to Olympia”
–“Olympia, WA,” written by Tim Armstrong, Matt Freeman, and Lars Frederiksen

With all due respect to legendary punk band Rancid and their ABSOLUTELY FLAWLESS 1995 album “…And Out Come the Wolves,” I only shared the chorus lyrics from that wistful song because I too wish I was on a highway back to Olympia, but a very different one than the one they meant.

Olympia Restaurant (https://www.olympiaorlando.com/) is Orlando’s oldest Greek restaurant, founded in 1979.  I’ve been a few times over the years, but not nearly often enough.  On my most recent visit, with a new co-worker and friend who loves the place, I realized that I need to return a lot more frequently.  This guy is an accomplished attorney who also plays drums in the ska-punk band Sucker Punch, so he’s basically one of the coolest people I know.  (And I don’t just say that because I’m an ex-ska-punk musician myself.)  He’s an Orlando native who has been a regular at Olympia his entire life, and if you know Olympia, you can tell it’s the kind of local institution that would retain regulars through the decades.

On past visits, I’ve ordered the gyro lunch special many times, which comes with outstanding fries.  And as a big sardine eater (some folks call me the Dean of Sardines*), I’ve enjoyed Olympia’s marides, or fried smelts — small, sardine-like fish that are lightly breaded and fried until crispy.  Unfortunately they were out of smelts on my most recent visit back in February, but the allure of fried seafood was hard to overcome.

When I asked about the fried kalamari, our server enthusiastically told us it was the best in town.  I think it has to be up there among the best, if not the best.  This huge and satisfying appetizer portion was only $8, and the squid were fried to crispy perfection, still tender and not overcooked to the point of being chewy and rubbery.  I really liked the fried onions and green peppers the kalamari came tossed with, and the rich tomato sauce that was perfect for dipping.  I’ve become enough of a squid fan that I’ve made it at home a few times, but never fried like this.  Olympia may have inspired me to try it, but I’d usually rather leave breading and frying to the seasoned professionals — no pun intended.DSC02989

My friend chose the Greek salad with his lunch, which was fresh and colorful, with nice shreds of feta cheese and a kalamata olive plunked in the middle:DSC02991

And he ordered the gyro dinner ($13), which came with a generous portion of rice topped with tomato sauce, some of my favorite pita bread anywhere, and excellent fresh tzatziki sauce for dipping:DSC02992

I chose the soup of the day, lentil soup, with my lunch.  I’ve become a huge lentil soup fan, especially since you can make infinite variations of it, and lentils are healthy, versatile, cheap, and delicious.  DSC02990

And as tempted as I was by a gyro, I ordered one of my favorite dishes that is much harder to find on menus: pastitsio ($13), which is like the Greek version of lasagna.  It is made with long, uncut ziti noodles, ground beef or lamb, a creamy bechamel sauce, and topped with a rich and zesty tomato sauce.  I loved it.  It came with nice, crunchy green beans on the side, a vegetable I rarely order but usually enjoy.  DSC02993

A cross-section of this architectural marvel:DSC02994

Long-time Saboscrivner readers might remember I ordered the pastitsio at Theo’s Kitchen back in the summer of 2018.  Then again, I can’t imagine anyone would remember that detail, and I would be a little concerned if I had obsessive superfans who did.  But the dish is rare enough on menus, even at Greek restaurants, that I always love to try everyone’s different versions.  Olympia’s pastitsio was definitely the better of the two.

This visit with my friend made me realize I need to work Olympia back into my regular restaurant rotation.  It has withstood the test of time serving all the classic Greek dishes almost as long as I’ve been alive — over 40 years.  With the restaurant business so tenuous even in the best of times, that’s a colossal accomplishment, worthy of praise and continued support.  When my work reopens, it’s close enough that I can and will swing by whenever I want.

But now more than ever, in this difficult time where restaurants are limited to takeout orders, consider dropping by and placing an order, whether you’re a returning regular or just happen to be craving Herculean portions of Greek food.  (See what I did there?)  Your takeout lunch or dinner will ascend to new, godlike heights at Olympia.  (See what I did there?)

*Nobody calls me the Dean of Sardines.  YET.