Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

We were somewhere around DeLand on the edge of I-4 East when the Beaver Nuggets began to take hold.  Luckily, Doctor Professor Ma’am and I didn’t encounter any bats on our drive to or from Daytona Beach, but we shared a truly exhausting, truly American experience at Buc-ee’s (https://buc-ees.com/), the colossal convenience store just off I-95, a unique shopping experience as vast, overwhelming, and occasionally maddening as its home state of Texas.

Imagine Wawa, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart Supercenter twisted into a sweaty, throbbing throuple, and that comes close, but still doesn’t quite capture the sensory overload of Buc-ee’s.  I counted 43 locations on the website, but there are only two in Florida, both new: off the highway in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.  We didn’t even bother to fill up the car with gas there, given the surprising crowd at lunchtime on a Friday.  Instead, we hustled inside to see what food and snacks awaited us in the sprawling superstore.

They say everything is bigger in Texas: the deserts, the hats, the trucks, the cattle, the churches, the guns, the belt buckles, and unfortunately the intolerance (see recent news for far too many examples).  Well, Buc-ee’s goes big in every way as well.  Once we made our way through sections of the store devoted to kitschy casual clothing, folksy home décor, and touristy novelties (the “schlock and awe” department), we made it to the the real draws: stacks and stacks of snacks and snacks.

Here is the wall of jerky, which is the kind of wall Texas should focus on building.  There is also a jerky counter, where you can get any of the jerky varieties you want, by the pound.  It was easier and faster to grab bags off the wall for $7.99 each.   

I chose cherry maple, Bohemian garlic, and sweet and spicy beef jerky.  So far, the cherry maple was disappointingly bland, but the Bohemian garlic was packed with strong, garlicky flavor.

Doctor Professor Ma’am is more of a fan of gummy candy, and she was faced with overwhelming options, here at the wall of gummies. 

She went with hot cinnamon gummy bears (I think that smell, taste, and texture are all gross, but more for her!) and chamoy-flavored peach rings, pictured below with three different flavors of Rice Krispy Treats she chose (regular, salted caramel, and “Fruity”), plus fried pecans.

I’m not really into nuts.  I just buy them for her, and I almost never snack on them myself.  But when we busted into these fried pecans back at home, all I could say was “GOOD LORD.”  Even with the hell-squirrel armed with a sharp fork on the bag, “GOOD LORD” is the appropriate response.  I couldn’t believe how good they were.  At $14.99, that was the most expensive single item we bought, but it is a good-sized bag, and they are so rich, they should last quite a while.

As an unabashed fan and collector of condiments, sauces, and preserves, Buc-ee’s had a staggering selection to tease, tantalize, and tempt me.

I went a little mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes.  I couldn’t resist (I’m your) huckleberry and blackberry preserves, peach-chipotle and mango-pineapple-habanero salsas, prickly pear cactus jam, candied jalapeños, sweet and spicy ghost pepper hot sauce, and pickled quail eggs!

I fully admit I haven’t tried most of these yet, since our fridge door has only so much space (and it is already stuffed with interesting things in bottles and jars, as one would expect from me).  But I did just bust open the pickled quail eggs, after letting the jar chill in the fridge overnight, and I liked it a lot!  Very spicy and tangy from the vinegary brine, which includes garlic and jalapeños.  “What, you egg?”  [I stabbed it.]

It was even hard to choose a soft drink, with dozens of options.  This is only one of the three huge soda fountain setups.  I grabbed an extra-large cup, avoided anything I could find elsewhere, and sampled sips of the Buc-ee’s-specific flavors.  Favorites included pineapple cream soda, piña colada soda, orange Creamsicle soda, sarsaparilla, strawberry lemonade (non-carbonated), and my big winner, the cream soda on the far right, which I ultimately filled our shared cup with for the schlep home.  Doctor Professor Ma’am said it tasted like pecan pie filling as a soda, and she wasn’t wrong.  It was too sweet to be refreshing, but a very tasty cream soda nonetheless.  We also tried the blue cream soda, which I thought tasted like banana-flavored candy.  She liked it until the chemically aftertaste hit.   We both really wished some of those sodas were sold in bottles or cans, since we would have definitely bought a few different ones to savor later, but alas, they were fountain drinks only.

There were multiple stations to get hot, fresh food, including a station with barbecue sandwiches already wrapped in foil.  I grabbed us a pulled pork sandwich that was delicious.  Doctor Professor Ma’am was tired and hungry by this point, so we split it in the car in the parking lot on the way out to keep hungry from approaching hangry.  Forgive my freestyling, but we savagely ravaged this sandwich, and its richness fixed us from being sad bitches.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, but it didn’t overwhelm the smoky savoriness of the pork. 

There were also touch-screen kiosks for ordering other food, including tacos, burritos, chicken fingers, and a few other sandwiches that get freshly assembled.  I was really hoping to get a pastrami Reuben on a pretzel roll, which came highly recommended, but they weren’t available!  I was so disappointed, which is a quintessentially American take, to bemoan the loss of one option in this land of abundance.  So I chose a “Chopping Block” sandwich that came with sliced rare roast beef, horseradish, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and I asked to add jalapeños for a 50-cent upcharge.  We had to wait a while for that one, since the sandwich-makers were slammed due to 20 busy touchscreen kiosks all beaming in constant orders, but it was worth the wait.  The roast beef was tender, flavorful, and rare, the way I like it, the hoagie roll was nice and soft, and the sandwich was still warm by the time I got it home.   To the right is a chopped brisket sandwich that was also really good — pre-wrapped in foil like the pulled pork sandwich, and mixed up with sweet sauce.  I liked it even better than the pulled pork.

She was disappointed by the fresh potato chips, but I thought they were fine.  Just plain, crispy, salty, slightly greasy chips, as expected.

A fried apple pie was yet another impulse buy.  She enjoyed it in the car (eating it over the open bag to catch the cinnamon sugar cascade), and the one bite I took was really good.  The flaky fried crust was terrific.  We hoped it would be like the bubbly, crackly McDonald’s fried apple pies of our ’80s childhoods, but it turned out to be so much better than those.

Here’s half of the brisket sandwich I saved for Doctor Professor Ma’am back at home, along with a cream cheese kolache (left), a strawberry cheese kolache (right), and a sausage, cheese, and jalapeño kolache (bottom).  Kolaches are pastries that Czech immigrants brought to Texas.  There are sweet and savory varieties, and as you can see, the sweet ones look a lot like danishes.  The sausage inside that bottom one was hot dog-shaped, but much chewier, like a Slim Jim.  It was okay.  The pastry itself is just like chewy white bread.   
I also got a boudin kolache that looked almost exactly like the one on the bottom in this photo, stuffed with the savory Cajun pork-and-rice sausage, but that one didn’t last long enough to get photographed.

They had a fudge counter with nearly 20 different varieties of fudge, all neatly divided into squares.  You could buy any combination of four and get two more free, so how could we refuse?  My wife chose the different fudge flavors, and there is a chocolate one for sure, a chocolate pecan, a “gooey pecan,” a “tiger butter” in the top left (vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter), and a blueberry cheesecake fudge (bottom left).  The sweet fudge lady would cut off little sample slivers, and I sampled key lime pie and banana pudding fudge.  Both were good, but too rich to get entire slices of, on top of everything else.  She warned me I might not like the banana pudding fudge, but I sure showed her!

Anyway, these are ridiculously rich, so I know we will make them last.  We might even freeze some, forget about them for a while, and then have a pleasant surprise when we rediscover them days or probably weeks later.

The very first thing that tempted Doctor Professor Ma’am was a box of six pecan pralines.  I suggested we do one loop around the store first to get the lay of the land before we start grabbing everything, and that’s when she found individual pecan pralines at the fudge counter.  She was thrilled to be able to just get one, rather than a six-pack, with all the other stuff we chose.  I broke off one little morsel, and it was almost cloyingly sweet and  intensely rich.

Since I regularly review chips in my series of Tight Chips features here on The Saboscrivner, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few small bags of classic, barbecue, and hot Buc-ee’s chips.  I don’t know how they’ll be, but I got ’em.   
A sample guy was giving out samples of the barbecue-flavored Baked Chees-ee Curls, the Buc-ee’s version of Cheetos, and they were good enough to bring home a small bag.  I’m surprised Frito-Lay hasn’t come out with a barbecue Cheetos flavor, in all these decades.

And we couldn’t go all the way to Buc-ee’s without grabbing a bag of Beaver Nuggets, one of the most famous (infamous?) and recommended snacks from fellow travelers.  These things are unbelievably good.  Crunchy, toffee-sweet, buttery, salty.  Imagine Corn Pops cereal, but a million times better in every possible way.  Neither of us had ever tried them before, but I figured she would love them, and I was right.  As for me, I can eat a whole bag of chips standing up in my kitchen without even thinking about what I’m doing, but the Beaver Nuggets are so much richer, heavier, and more substantial than chips, I was perfectly content after just crunching on a few of them. 
The Buc-ee’s Nug-ees on the right are a “Bold ‘n’ Spicy” version of the sweet, crunchy Beaver Nuggets.  Their texture is softer, though — more like puffy Cheez Doodles that you can easily crush between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  They are well-dusted with spicy, cheesy orange powder that is spicier than regular Cheetos or Cheez Doodles, but much less spicy than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I can only imagine combining the two varieties in a bowl as some kind of decadent snack mix.

Finally, I grabbed two large boudain [sp] sausage links from a freezer case, and I got the small package of sliced smoked venison sausage at the jerky counter.  Those were $5 and $4.40 respectively — cheaper than I expected.  I haven’t tried them yet, but my hopes are high.

Our first trip to Buc-ee’s was both physically and mentally draining.  It is a lot to process, and if you arrive hungry and like to try new foods and snacks, you can get yourself in a bit of trouble there, as we did.  But it’s such an overwhelming experience, somewhere between the food halls in cosmopolitan cities like Philadelphia or Seattle and a Southern Walmart on Black Friday.  I suspect that if we ever return, the novelty and mystery will have worn off, so we can quickly grab a few favorites and rush out, without feeling the need to see and try everything, like we did this time.  Trader Joe’s definitely feels like that now, after breaking the bank on my first-ever visit so many years ago, but now just running in and out for a few staples while dodging the mobs.  Novelty fades.  Newness wears off.  That’s why I constantly seek it out and share it here, with YOU.

But beyond the novelty of new sandwiches, snacks, and sodas, Buc-ee’s also felt like the kind of roadside attractions that used to line America’s highways and byways — bemusement parks that drew cross-sections of society away from their homes and out of their cars, those in-between places that made the journey so much more interesting (and often weirder) than the destination, before every highway exit started to feature the same corporate fast food restaurants and chain stores.

Being in a new job in academia where I no longer work directly with our diverse student body, and generally avoiding crowds and social situations for the past two years, this was the most people I had been around in a while — and such people!  There were exhausted families, bored teenagers, leather-clad bikers, swaggering cowboy types, beachgoers, retirees, active-duty military men and women in uniform, actual Goths (in broad daylight, in Daytona Beach!), a guy who looked like Gung-Ho from G.I. Joe, and so many tattoos, with a particularly large amount of spider webs on elbows.  The two of us only noticed one guy in an overtly political T-shirt, and we seemed to be the only two people still wearing masks.  Stefon would have had a field day.  But everyone was passing through Buc-ee’s on their way somewhere, fueling themselves up before or after they fueled up their cars, or stopping to use the gleaming, spotless restrooms (which are indeed glorious, living up to all the hype).

I wondered where that sea of sweaty people was off to, and how many had made the pilgrimage to Buc-ee’s as their ultimate destination, as we had, rather than just a rest stop along the way to someplace else.  Well, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, I can tell you that Buc-ee’s is definitely worth a stop — at least once — but don’t expect to get any rest there.

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.

The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

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.

 

Ray’s Deli & More

I really drove out of my way to find Ray’s Deli & More (https://www.raysdeliandmore.com/), which is the closest thing I’ve ever found in Orlando to the bodega-delis of New York City.  It is located at 6101 South Orange Avenue in Orlando’s Pinecastle neighborhood, south of downtown (and south of the SoDo district).  Once Orange Avenue splits apart into one-way southbound and northbound streets, you’ll find Ray’s in the middle.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside — just a generic convenience store with an outdoor table and a lot of signs in the window — but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all the fresh, made-to-order sandwiches you can order there.

The menu is on the website, but I also took photos of the menu board above the counter.  You can right-click these photos and open them in a new tab for larger images.

Here is the deli case with plenty of high-quality Boar’s Head meats and cheeses you can buy by the pound.  (The prices are also on the menu board above.)  The top shelf also includes sides of potato salad, pasta salad, egg salad, and some slices of cheesecake and red velvet cake, among other things. 

The main reason I sought out Ray’s Deli & More was to try the legendary chopped cheese sandwich ($10.99), a New York bodega classic, referred to in so many hip hop lyrics.  They aren’t popular outside the five boroughs, but I recently learned that two different convenience store sandwich counters in Orlando offer the chopped cheese.  I recently tried the one that is closer to me, but that was after five separate attempts to catch them open for business.  Ray’s is across town, but it was totally worth the 45-minute schlep to the Pinecastle neighborhood south of downtown Orlando, because they were open for business during the hours they advertised, cooking up a storm, and the food turned out to be awesome.Imagine a cheeseburger and a Philly cheesesteak hooked up after a crazy night at the club, and the chopped cheese is their beautiful, greasy, cheesy love child.  It is two angus burgers chopped up on the flattop grill with onions and peppers, then placed on a sub roll with American cheese, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo, and then pressed on a panini press until the cheese melts.  It was still warm by the time I got it home, and it was awesome.  So satisfying!  I always love a good burger, but I find Philly cheesesteaks often disappoint (except for the one at Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen, which is the best one I’ve ever had in Florida, and it made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021).  This chopped cheese sandwich lived up to all the hip hop hype and combined the best of both worlds.  I loved it!

This was the very substantial Italian combo sub ($11.99), stuffed with Boar’s Head genoa salami, prosciutto, capocollo, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, and raw onion.  I stuck it in the fridge as soon as I got home and enjoyed half that evening and the other half the next day, once it was chilled.  I liked it a lot, especially once I got home and added some peppers and a splash of balsamic vinaigrette dressing to it.  The sub roll was very soft, almost like a large hot dog bun.  I don’t like rolls that are too crusty, but a slightly crustier roll might help bring this sub over the top.  No regrets, though.  I’m always happy to order an Italian sub anywhere, and I definitely recommend it!

Both sandwiches (and I assume all the others) came with a wee bag of chips (I chose Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch Doritos for both, since I haven’t tried that odd flavor combo before) and a canned soda.  The convenience store has a huge selection of bottled and canned drinks, but the freebie choices were pretty basic: Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi, Mountain Dew.  Still, free is free!  I used to drink Mountain Dew A LOT, back in school, and a few sips from this can reminded me why I don’t drink much soda at all anymore.

Longtime readers, my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know that whenever onion rings are available, I WILL order them.  These onion rings ($3.99) were just okay.  They reminded me of the ones at Burger King, but you get a huge portion of them.  They were limp and lukewarm by the time I got them home, but heating them up in the toaster oven the next day helped them get crispier and more satisfying.  Essentially, these were condiment delivery devices.  But still, RING THE ALARM!

Anyway, Ray’s Deli & More has this huge sandwich selection, plus prepared foods like several Italian pasta dishes, another case with some fried empanadas and other goodies, and they said they also serve breakfast sandwiches all day.  This could be another source for New York transplants to track down their classic bodega bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, among other things.  It’s a full convenience store with groceries, snacks, sodas, beer, wine, and all the accessories you might want to find at a smoke shop, too.  It has a lot more character than a Wawa or 7-Eleven, and it was busy enough that plenty of people already know how good it is.  I drove all the way across town to Ray’s for a chopped cheese, an Italian sub, and onion rings, and I didn’t leave empty-handed or disappointed.  The only thing this bodega was missing was a great cat, ideally one who takes a pet like no problem!

 

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.

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

JAM Hot Chicken

JAM Hot Chicken (https://www.jamhotchickenfl.com/) opened in Winter Park in late 2021, with a walk-up window location previously occupied by The Sausage Shack, a hot dog place I loved for its huge selection of mustards.  Sadly, it did not last there, but JAM is a welcome addition to the Winter Park landscape.  There is no indoor seating — you order at the window and then enjoy your food at the picnic tables or benches outside on picturesque New England Avenue, in the Hannibal Square area.  On a day that isn’t too hot or humid, an outdoor lunch in this scenic setting can feel like heaven, even when the delicious hot chicken sets your tongue ablaze.

This was my “sando” ($14, but worth every penny).  The HUGE chicken sandwich contains a Bell & Evans chicken breast, fried and seasoned to perfection, topped with crunchy pickle slices (I think they were my beloved Grillo’s), crispy slaw made with cabbage, red onion, apple cider vinegar, and no mayo, creamy comeback sauce (I would slather this on anything!), and served on a great buttered bun.  It was a magnificent chicken sandwich, up there with the best Nashville-style hot chicken I’ve ever had… and I’ve been to the legendary Hattie B’s IN Nashville.  
I ordered mine Hot, which is actually the middle level of heat.  Plain means no heat (for people like my wife), then Mild has “just a touch” of heat, and the next levels are Hot, Hotter, and JAM (marked on the menu with “You’ve been warned”).  I think next time I’ll tempt fate and try the JAM.   I love Nashville hot chicken because you don’t just get your ass kicked by pure heat; there is always so much delicious flavor, and that’s spicy food should deliver.  There is usually a touch of sweetness too, to help offset the spice.  It’s a delicate balance that I now crave, and JAM’s sando perfectly straddles that fine line.

Since I was driving home, I opted against ordering fries, knowing they would be cold by the time I returned.  I’ll have to return, because they looked good.  Instead, I got the cheddar bob mac ($5), which is in the Top Two best macaroni and cheese dishes I’ve had in Orlando.  It was really that incredible, knocking my socks off after the chicken sando already did that.  (Good thing I was wearing two pairs of socks!) The dark stuff on top was perfectly crispy, crunchy, buttery — maybe cracker crumbs?  It added a lot of terrific texture to the mac and cheese.  I also loved that the mac and cheese was cheesy and sticky, but not overly creamy.  Of course I could be wrong, but I don’t think this cheddary concoction was based on a bechamel sauce.  I find bechamel-based mac and cheese doesn’t always impart the cheesy texture and flavor I’m looking for.

The JAM Hot Chicken website also boasts an outstanding playlist that features a lot of choice ’90s and ’00s hip hop and R&B, making it even cooler — or hotter, if you will.  Wu-Tang Clan and several of its members’ solo projects, Beastie Boys (stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know I love ’em), Outkast, The Pharcyde (Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is an all-time Top Ten hip hop album as far as I’m concerned), Souls of Mischief, and the late, great MF Doom — all aces in my book.

We already have some great hot chicken in and around Orlando, including Chicken Fire (which made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 list) and Swine & Sons (which made my 2019 list, that I was honored to be included on alongside Orlando Weekly’s regular food writer Faiyaz Kara).  JAM Hot Chicken is the newest entrant into this growing field, and I was thrilled to discover it in this unassuming location, because it was awesome.  In fact, just like I say whenever “Poison,” “Motownphilly,” or “This Is How We Do It” come on the radio, THAT’S MY JAM!

Banh Mi Boy

Banh Mi Boy (https://www.facebook.com/banhmiboyorlando) is a counter in the back of Tien Hung Market Oriental Foods, a Vietnamese grocery store in Orlando’s Mills 50 district, at 1112 E Colonial Drive, Orlando, FL 32803 (directly southeast of the major intersection of Colonial and Mills Avenue.  There is no shortage of places to get delicious banh mi, French-inspired Vietnamese sub sandwiches on crusty baguettes, in the Mills 50 district, but I had been hearing good things about this place for a while.  As much as I love Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery and always sing its praises to anyone who asks (and plenty who don’t), I also love branching out and trying new restaurants to discover different takes on favorite foods or brand-new favorites.

You may notice immediately that the Banh Mi Boy Facebook page I linked to above doesn’t include any information, or even a menu, so I took the liberty of photographing the menu above the counter.  Make sure you right-click both photos and open them in a new tab for larger images.

On my first visit, I bought two sandwiches.  For $6.99 each, you can’t go wrong.  They aren’t exactly foot-longs, but they are substantial enough (no pun intended) to get two meals out of one sandwich — although I usually eat a whole banh mi in one sitting.  The top one is the #1 Tien Hung Special (banh mi đặc biệt), usually the “special combination” with a variety of cured meats: pork roll, pork belly, head cheese, and pate (I’m assuming; I could be missing one or be wrong on one of the others).  If you’ve never had a banh mi before, this is the one I’d recommend, for the most interesting blend of flavors, textures, and colors.  The meats may be unfamiliar to American diners, but if you like deli meats and cold cuts, these really aren’t that different from various hams, salamis, bolognas, and other porky cured delicacies.The bottom one is the #3, cured pork belly, which was also really good.  You can see how they both come dressed with sliced fresh cucumbers and jalapeño peppers, fresh cilantro, and pickled shredded carrot and daikon radish, making everything taste very cool, refreshing, and crunchy.  What you can’t see are the smears of creamy mayo (or possibly even butter?) that lubricate the inner baguette surfaces, plus the rich, savory pate (think liverwurst, but better).  I would definitely order both in the future.

Well, I might not have returned so soon, but I forgot to photograph the menu on my first visit, and since there are no menus online, I wanted this review to be useful.  And as long as I was there, I decided to get two more banh mi sandwiches for two more meals!

This was the #8, the fried fish roll.  It contained slices of a processed cold cut made of fish, almost like a fish bologna.  It didn’t smell or taste overwhelmingly fishy in a bad way, and had an interesting chewy texture that I didn’t expect, but liked.  But then again, I’ve made no secret on this blog of my love of cured, smoked, pickled, and processed seafood.   

And this was the #14, the pate banh mi.  Pate is usually my favorite ingredient on just about any banh mi, but I rarely see it offered alone.  I figured that if I like the pate so much, why not finally try a sandwich with just that?  Honestly, I was hoping for a lot more pate because the usual meats on the đặc biệt weren’t there to accompany it, but it wasn’t spread on very thick.  It still tasted good — that rich, almost livery taste that I appreciate.

So yeah, that’s Banh Mi Boy.  They offer some other prepared Vietnamese snacks and foods that are unfamiliar to me — things I have yet to try — but when you go to a sandwich place, you probably want to try the sandwiches.  I know I do.  Like I said, I liked it enough to go two times, relatively close together, and I would definitely return again.  Tien Hung Market Oriental Foods may not be Orlando’s nicest or more inviting Asian market (that would be Lotte Plaza Market on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway, which has an entire food court), but it’s worth a visit to try some of the great banh mi sandwiches here.  And I’m always a fan of restaurants “hidden” inside other businesses, from grocery stores to convenience stores, office buildings to bowling alleys.

 

QuesaLoco

I just got home from Orlando’s newest Mexican restaurant, QuesaLoco (https://quesaloco.com/), which opened for business TODAY, Saturday, January 15, 2022.  I was the fifth person in line, about half an hour before it opened at 2:00, and they had a mariachi band playing festive, deafening music to make it a truly special, memorable occasion.  But today wasn’t my first experience with QuesaLoco.  Flash back with me to the fall of 2021, if you will — an era when some of us had received our boosters and were feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time in a while, in the era before we had ever heard of the Omicron Variant.

Last fall was when I first discovered QuesaLoco, in its original incarnation as a food truck, which I noticed while randomly driving by.  The QuesaLoco food truck had been setting up in front of the Lotto Zone convenience store at 4550 North Goldenrod Road in Winter Park, between Aloma Avenue and University Boulevard, on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons and evenings.  Unfortunately, I was thwarted by a ridiculously long line on that first attempt to stop.  Always seeking the new and novel and figuring anyone lined up at an unfamiliar food truck knows what’s up, I went home and looked it up, and made a plan to visit the truck as soon as I was able — ideally when the line was shorter.

I headed straight there after work on a Friday evening in the fall, planning to get there 20 minutes before it opened at 6:00.  I was the sixth person in line, and many more people queued up behind me.  Of course it started to pour rain, but nobody ran for cover or got frustrated and left.  Once the truck opened for business, they took orders very quickly and efficiently, and I think only about 15 minutes passed before I, lucky number six, got served.  The truck had a crew of five people, and they were all hustling like crazy to get everyone’s food ready.  I figured it was going to be good, but had no idea exactly what treasures I would be unboxing once I got home to my wife.

On that first visit, I started with a simple chorizo taco ($2.50), with crumbled spicy sausage, raw onions, and chopped cilantro on a very fresh, handmade corn tortilla.  It was a triumphant taco, everything you hope a chorizo taco will look, smell, taste, and even feel like.  The only thing you could do to improve this taco would be to increase its size, but this wasn’t the only thing I ordered.

Birria is a very trendy item in Mexican food these days — slow-braised shredded beef (or sometimes goat), served in tacos and other Mexican dishes (and sometimes even in ramen noodle soup!), usually accompanied by a dipping cup of rich consomme broth.  QuesaLoco offered birria in several different ways, so I opted for the most unfamiliar, a mulita ($6).  This was similar to a quesadilla, except instead of a flour tortilla, it was served as two fried corn tortillas stuffed with shredded birria beef, cheese, onion, and cilantro, dunked in consomme, and topped with sprinkles of cotija cheese before being wrapped up for me.   I’ve never noticed mulitas on any other Mexican menus around here, but consider me a card-carrying convert to the mulita militia.  (If only I still had my mullet!)
The extra cup of consomme on the side is a $1 upcharge, but I strongly recommend it, even if you aren’t ordering birria!  Unlike some other birria consomme I’ve seen and tried elsewhere, this one wasn’t bright orange with oil, but a legitimate broth that was rich and flavorful, perfect to dip things in, but probably just as good to sip on a cool day.

Finally, the coup de grace: a torta, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a sandwich full of al pastor (pork marinated in spices with pineapple and usually sliced off a rotating spit called a trompo), which is one of my favorite meats, period.  This sensational, stupendous sandwich was $12, and worth every penny.  It’s a truly titanic torta, the fresh, soft, lightly grilled roll stuffed with plenty of al pastor, melted cheese, cotija cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro,  and crema.  I have always been a huge fan of the tortas from the venerable Tortas El Rey, and I think this torta can easily stand alongside them in the sandwich pantheon.  After the small chorizo taco and the birria mulita, I got two additional meals out of this torta!

I ordered this carne asada quesadilla ($10) for my wife, and we were both blown away by how huge, heavy, and delicious it was.

Here’s a different angle.  Like everything else, they were extremely generous with the meat, cheese, and cilantro.  (She doesn’t like onions, so I always ask places to hold the onions for her.  Me, I love onions, but I love her more.)

This outstanding limon (lime) agua fresca ($4.50 for a large) was so cold,  refreshing, and delicious.  It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying, and did not taste artificial at all.  The sweetness was balanced perfectly by the acidic tang of real lime juice and the sweet, spicy chamoy and Tajin seasoning around the rim of the cup (a 50-cent upcharge).  It splashed around in my cupholder on the drive home because they couldn’t put a lid on it for obvious reasons, but it was worth it.   

I have been following QuesaLoco’s social media ever since that first visit, and they promised their long-awaited permanent restaurant location  would be opening soon.  Well, constant readers, that day was today, and the new location is open for business and already awesome.

The brick and mortar location of QuesaLoco is up and running at 971 West Fairbanks Avenue, a few doors down from Mediterranean Deli, home of the best gyro in Orlando and one of my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021

After the staff cut the ribbon right at 2:00, they let us inside.  The interior walls are covered with beautiful, colorful murals inspired by Mexican folk art, especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery.

Even the restroom doors are painted:

The six-piece mariachi band was tearing it up!  I had to shout my order over their brassy serenade (and through my unflattering-but-necessary N95 mask), but Silvia on the cash register rang everything up correctly.   

After how much I loved the limon agua fresca from the food truck a few months ago, I was excited that they had so many flavors available here at the restaurant:

I ended up choosing pineapple and fresa (strawberry), which were $4 each.  The strawberry surprised me by being very creamy, almost like melted strawberry ice cream.  I drank a little on the way home, but saved plenty for my wife because I knew she would like it too.  Pineapple is my go-to agua fresca flavor, and this one did not disappoint, but next time I’ll get different ones.

Once I got home, the first thing I tried was the taco de cecina ($4), a traditional taco from Tampico, Mexico.  It features fried skirt steak (arrechera), chopped into small pieces and wrapped in two soft, fried corn tortillas, with diced onion and cilantro, sliced avocado, and crema, with grilled onions and a whole grilled, blistered jalapeño toreado on the side.

My wife usually likes sopes from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey, so I ordered her a sope from QuesaLoco ($5.50).  Sopes are a fried masa corn disc (sometimes puffy, sometimes flatter like this one), topped with the al pastor pork I liked so much in my torta last time, refried beans, crumbled cotija cheese, and crema.  I asked them to hold the lettuce, tomato, and onions, since the lettuce would have wilted on the drive home, and my wife isn’t into tomatoes or onions anyway.

Because I loved that beautiful torta so much on my visit to the food truck, I thought I might order another torta today, but wasn’t sure which meat I would choose.  My decision was made for me when I saw QuesaLoco’s brand-new, expanded menu, with the option of the torta de la Barda ($15).  This classic street sandwich from Tampico has everything: sliced ham, shredded beef, crumbled chorizo, pork jam, stewed chicharrones (pork skins), crumbled cotija cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and salsa verde on another perfectly soft Mexican roll.  It is huge, but I put it away.

As I said earlier, birria is one of the house specialties at QuesaLoco.  But since I had already sampled tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and the birria itself in my first-ever mulita, this time I couldn’t resist a new menu item: birria ramen ($12).  Yes!  They serve ramen noodle soup made with the consommé broth, onions, cilantro, and sliced radishes.  I guess they must have larger bowls for customers who dine in, since my takeout order was divided into two smaller styrofoam cups.  But that was fine with me, because it automatically divided it into two portions for me for later.

This is so unbelievably good.  Better than it looks, better than you’re probably even thinking.  It is the best kind of fusion cuisine — a dish that combines flavors and cultures, without detracting from either. 

I’m so glad I was one of the first people in line at QuesaLoco on its opening day, because the line was pretty long when I left.  People were wrapped around the side of the small plaza’s parking lot, and a few shot me dirty looks as I left with two large bags and two colorful cups.  But just like going to the doctor’s office, you want to try to get to a hot new restaurant early, because the longer you wait, the more they might be slowed down.  No matter when you go, rest assured that QuesaLoco will be worth the wait.  If you loved the food truck, you’ll only find more to love in their beautiful dining room, with its lovely artwork and expanded menu.  And if you never got to try the food truck (which is going on hiatus for a while), then you are in for such a treat.  You can’t go wrong trying anything I ordered on either of my visits, but I don’t think anything on the new menu could possibly disappoint.  Even though you won’t get the opening day experience with live mariachis blowing the roof off the place, you’re going to have an incredible meal… or two or three, if you order like I did.