Orlando Weekly published my Top Ten Tastes of 2020!

I am honored to have one of my end-of-the-year lists included in our wonderful local alt-weekly newspaper, Orlando Weekly, for the FOURTH year in a row.  This piece, my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, didn’t make it into the print edition, but it is a blog piece on their website for all to see.

https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/top-tastes-2020-the-10-best-dishes-we-tried-in-orlando-this-year/Content?oid=28559241

Here’s a link to my 2017, 2018, and 2019 Orlando Weekly lists.

Happy New Year to all of my dozens of readers!  Stay warm, healthy, and safe in 2021.  Don’t forget to eat something good — because you deserve it, and because these local restaurants could use all the help they can get.

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.

Cowboy Dips & Chips at Brooklyn South Bar at Aloma Bowl

I’m not a great bowler, so because I’m not great at it, I never really enjoyed the experience of bowling.  I remember going to kids’ birthday parties at bowling alleys and slinking off to play video games in the arcades, to spare myself some public humiliation at a formative age where everything felt like public humiliation.  This was my usual schtick at even more depressing parties at the roller skating rink when we were a few years older, back when Miami booty bass and freestyle music blared from the speakers, the soundtrack to everyone (except me) starting to kiss.

Of course, this was still during a golden age of arcade video games, back when nobody thought twice about touching things in public places that everyone else had been touching, and there were no hand sanitizer or wipes anywhere.  So as a result of arcades falling out of vogue and being a grown-ass man who avoids awkward social situations as a matter of course, I haven’t been to a bowling alley in over a decade.

Well, I am also a grown-ass man who loves sandwiches and potato chips, as stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know too well.  I recently learned of the existence of Cowboy Food & Drink, a restaurant in the perhaps-tellingly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio, that serves barbecue and American food.  They spun their concept off into Cowboy Dips & Chips (https://www.cowboyfoodanddrink.com/dips-and-chips), which serves a selection of sandwiches with au jus dip and fresh, house-made potato chips at bowling alleys, including two right here in Orlando.  They even donate a portion of the proceeds to charities!  I was intrigued, so last night I went to Aloma Bowl in nearby Winter Park on my way home from work.  Here is the menu for the Brooklyn South Bar, the snack bar at Aloma Bowl, which includes the new Cowboy Dips & Chips: https://www.alomabowlingcenters.com/aloma/food-drinks/.

As you can see, they offer two kinds of sandwiches on “butter-toasted rolls”: pastrami and roast beef.  Of course I had to try them both, and because I am a good husband, I brought one of each home for my wife as well.  They were both a good value, with lots of meat.  Of the two, the pastrami ($10) was much better, with lots of delicious fatty marbling, but not too much.  Here was mine.  I paid a 75-cent upcharge for grilled onions to try theirs, even though I had some at home, and I got creamy hot mustard on the side, to compare it to the multitude of mustards in my mustard collection.

My wife had her plain pastrami sandwich for lunch today.  It heated up well in our little toaster oven, and she enjoyed it:

I also got us each a roast beef sandwich ($8), and I paid a 75-cent upcharge for Swiss cheese on mine, and got pickles and creamy horseradish sauce on the side.  It was honestly just okay, and I wouldn’t get it again.  I love a good roast beef sandwich, but I would have preferred the roast beef to be a lot more rare, with more seasoning. 

My favorite deli roast beef is Dietz & Watson London broil, which you can buy at the deli counters at Winn-Dixie and Sprouts.  That stuff is the best, and I highly recommend it to all.  My wife and I are also suckers for a classic roast beef sandwich from Arby’s or our local legend Beefy King.  This looked more like “real” shaved roast beef than Arby’s or Beefy King, but didn’t have as much flavor.  It wasn’t as salty as those, and it was sliced thicker, so it wasn’t as tender as I would have liked either.

As much as my wife agreed with me that the pastrami was good, she didn’t care for the roast beef either, so we ended up with a spare(Bowling!)  I finished her plain sandwich for lunch today, warmed in the toaster oven with muenster cheese and onions I had sauteed myself, then doctored up with some of my favorite mustard and pickles.  That improved it immensely.  But here it was last night, still warm when I got it home:

Each of the four sandwiches came with a large plastic cup of au jus.  I’m not usually a fan of a WAS (wet-ass sandwich), and probably wouldn’t choose to dip if I was eating at the bowling alley, just to avoid making a mess.  I tried dipping the roast beef sandwich last night after changing out of my work clothes, but it didn’t add much to the flavor aside from salt, and made those good rolls wet and gushy.  But I can’t bear to dump these out — I am totally going to figure out something to do with the au jus.

I also got three orders of the house-made chips ($2 each), since they had three flavors to choose from: salted, BBQ, and salt and vinegar, which I always call “salty Vinnies.”  My wife only likes plain chips, but she really enjoyed these.  They had a fantastic texture, a good crunch without being too hard, and weren’t greasy at all.  I was a little worried because the BBQ and salty Vinnies didn’t look like they were covered with much flavor seasoning, but they tasted great.  The salty Vinnies in particular were delicious, and I would love to get some of that vinegar powder to use for different things at home, since I already have a huge vinegar collection to rival my mustard collection.

Finally, since I was already buying four sandwiches and three orders of potato chips at a bowling alley after a long day of work, I got an order of funnel cake fries from the regular snack bar menu ($5).  They were a little crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, warm, and sweet, just like you would expect and hope for.  They reminded us both a lot of the old Burger King French toast sticks from their breakfast menu in the ’90s (and possibly still; I haven’t gone to Burger King in many years).

It might seem counterintuitive to go to a bowling alley snack bar in search of good food, but if you’ve been reading my blog or anything I’ve ever written about food, you know I’m on the lookout for a good meal anywhere, and it’s amazing where you can find it if you’re willing to look.  Some of my favorite tacos and Nashville hot chicken come from local food trucks, my absolute favorite barbecue came from a gas station convenience store up until very recently (stay tuned for an update on that!), and one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando is a stall in a food court inside a Korean supermarket.  So why not a bowling alley snack bar?

I can appreciate upscale luxury, but I don’t always feel comfortable paying for it (especially since I’m still not dining in at any restaurants anytime soon), and I’d always rather take a gamble on something delicious, casual, and cheap, especially when it’s off the beaten path.  Those treasures that require a little hunting are often the most satisfying to find.  And while the roast beef sandwich was just okay, my wife (a tougher food critic than I) agreed with me that the pastrami sandwich and the chips were quite good, better than some standard restaurants.  The staff was great too — friendly, fast, all masked.  Just knowing there’s one more place in Orlando to get a decent pastrami sandwich and some house-made chips in different flavors makes me feel like all hope is not lost.

Valisa Bakery

I pass Valisa Bakery (https://www.valisabakery.net/) every day on my way to and from work. It’s a Puerto Rican bakery that serves breakfast, lunch, and plenty of pastries and other snacks and sweets, and it’s another one of Orlando’s little treasures. This week, my co-worker had heard about a pulpo (octopus) sandwich they serve, so it sounded like a perfect opportunity to return, bring back takeout lunch for both of us, and finally review a place I’ve always enjoyed on my past visits.

This was her pulpo sandwich ($11.95), with chunks of tender octopus  marinated in a citrus vinaigrette, with lettuce and tomato on fresh pressed bread.  She wasn’t expecting it to be served chilled like ceviche, but it looked and sounded really refreshing, like a great summer sandwich.  

I decided to finally try a tripleta ($8.50), the Puerto Rican sandwich that is great late-night drunk food and just as good in the middle of a workday when you don’t even drink.  Tripletas can have infinite variations, as long as there are three meats on it.  This one had thin-sliced, sauteed steak, roast pork, and sliced ham, served on a soft, fluffy, fresh roll with lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce (awesome), and creamy mayo-ketchup — an awesome combination.  It was so big and heavy, I only ate half at work and finished it at home that night.  

Tripleta close-up:

I was intrigued by the daily lunch specials, especially a Thursday special called canoas.  I had to look it up, but canoas are sweet fried whole plantains, cut down the middle, stuffed with seasoned ground beef like picadillo, topped with a white cheese, and baked until it melts, so they look like little canoes.  With that in mind, I was ready to take a canoe trip.  I ordered two canoas ($3.50 each), not knowing how big they would be, but they were huge.  My co-worker and I each had one, and I loved them.  They reminded me of pastelon, my favorite Puerto Rican dish that I’ve had, which is kind of like a lasagna but with layers of sweet plantains instead of pasta sheets.  Canoas were like single servings of pastelon.

Any good Latin restaurant should have great rice that is better than the rice I can make at home, and Valisa Bakery was no exception.  I tried their yellow rice, which looked and tasted more like fried rice, rich from being cooked with pieces of pork, including rich, fatty chicharron.  I have a hard time going anywhere and not trying macaroni salad or pasta salad, so I tried an eight-ounce container of ensalada de coditos ($2) and was glad I did.  It was a creamy macaroni salad (but not runny at all), and the elbow noodles were very al dente.  Of course I shared this too!

Finally, I already knew that Valisa Bakery baked some really good quesitos -sweet, flaky pastries stuffed with cream cheese that are like the beautiful love child of a glazed croissant and a cheese danish.  I have an unimpeachable favorite destination for quesitos in Orlando, but Valisa is my second-favorite, and these quesitos ($2 each) were not disappointing.

So as you can tell, Valisa Bakery is more than just a bakery.  It’s a great bakery, but it’s also a breakfast joint, a cafeteria with rotating daily hot lunch specials, a deli with a scintillating selection of sandwiches, and a Puerto Rican restaurant where you can get tostones, mofongo, and more.  And did I mention it’s a great bakery too?  I have enjoyed it for years, so I’m a little ashamed it took me this long to return and write a long-overdue review.

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!
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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.

Francisco’s Taco Madness

I think we can all agree that 2020 is one of the worst years ever, but on a personal level, I had a pretty rotten 2017 too.  That summer, I was hospitalized with the worst pain of my life that turned out to be kidney stones (thanks for nothing, keto diet!).  Then two weeks later I got what was probably the second-worst pain of my life, which turned out to be pneumonia, which I almost certainly caught in the hospital the first time.  I missed two weeks of work recovering, and it all really shook me up and made me realize I’m getting old, and things are going to keep breaking.  (And back then, even after that one-two punch, I didn’t know the half of it!)

Toward the end of those two weeks, I was out running errands, feeling sorry for myself, and also feeling hungry.  What else is new, am I right?  Driving down State Road 17-92, I passed the Lowe’s home improvement store and saw a familiar white trailer with a red and white striped awning, a sight I had seen countless times over the years.  But this day, I was curious enough to stop, and I had all the time in the world to linger.  It smelled so good, and as I perused the handwritten menu, I knew I had chosen wisely.  The Mexican food was some of the best I’d ever tasted, and it was incredibly cheap and so satisfying.  It helped lift me out of a deep existential depression, and made me feel physically better, too.  This was a real treasure, and I felt like I had discovered it, despite them always being busy and having long lines.
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I would later learn that taco trailer was called Francisco’s Taco Madness (https://www.facebook.com/Franciscos-Taco-Madness-Pinedo-rental-173063512788695/), and it became one of my favorite sights to see in Casselberry, whenever I drove by the Fern Park Lowe’s on State Road 17-92, just south of Semoran Boulevard.  You have to follow their Facebook page to know when they’re going to be serving, but it’s usually between Wednesday and Saturday, afternoons only, usually just between 1 PM and 6 PM.  I’ve been back many times over the last few years, but Saturdays are typically my only opportunity to visit.  And since the lines really do get long, my recommendation is to be there close to the beginning, when they’re still putting up that striped awning.

Most recently, after a few weeks of being shut down, Francisco’s Taco Madness announced their triumphant return starting this past Tuesday, June 30th.  They wouldn’t be at Lowe’s anymore, but at a new location literally two minutes away:

Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People
704 Prairie Lake Dr.
Fern Park, FL 32730

They are also asking diners to text their pickup orders to 407.865.4697, to cut down on crowds and help with social distancing.  NOW’S YOUR CHANCE, PEOPLE!

Here is the menu:
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I ordered my wife her favorite: two carne asada tacos, with cilantro, guacamole, and a splash of hot sauce, hold the onions ($2 each):
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I got myself one chorizo taco with all of that, plus onions ($2):
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Here are some lovely tacos from an earlier visit:
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And I got my favorite burrito in all of Orlando, Francisco’s al pastor burrito ($8).  It is huge and perfect in every way, the archetypal burrito of your dreams and mine:
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It is so good that I included it in my list of Top Five Dishes of 2017, published in the Orlando Weekly‘s end of the year issue.

Here’s a cross-section so you can see the deliciousness wrapped inside that grilled 12″ flour tortilla: the perfectly marinated and slightly sweet al pastor pork, rice, beans, cheese, onions, peppers, guacamole, and a piquant sauce.  It’s truly unparalleled.
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This time I treated myself to a fresh-squeezed lemonade (something I have a hard time turning down), and I got the large for $4, which just comes in a styrofoam cup.  It was really refreshing, especially after waiting outside in the early summer heat for my order to come up — probably the longest sustained period I’ve been outdoors since the quarantine started in March.  They also offer regular canned sodas and bottled Jarritos Mexican sodas, made with cane sugar, which I love and recommend.
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You can see that Francisco’s Taco Madness also offers quesadillas (which my wife loves), hamburgers, hot dogs, a kielbasa sausage sandwich, a barbecue pulled pork sandwich, a Philly cheesesteak, and even chicken salad.  I’ve been tempted in the past by the kielbasa, which I’m imagining comes on a nice, lightly-griddled roll and covered with onions and peppers, but I always return to that al pastor burrito and one or more tacos.

Orlando is lucky to have so many outstanding Mexican options, especially for tacos.  I’ve already reviewed my other favorites, which I think are synonymous with the best in town (Tortas El Rey, Hunger Street Tacos, MX Taco), but no list of my favorites or the best would be complete without Francisco’s Taco Madness.  If you’re also driving through Fern Park and see that red and white striped awning over their white decorated trailer, stop whatever you’re doing, pull into Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People, and text your order to 407.865.4697.  You will be so happy you did, and you’ll wonder what took you so long.

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, 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.

Grocery Grails: Whole Foods 365 sandwich-flavored potato chips

I’ve been meaning to review more of the random grocery purchases I’ve tried, when I discover something worth recommending.  Sometimes little treats and new discoveries are enough to get us through the day.  But that should be a special Saboscrivner feature that deserves a special name, so I went with Grocery Grails because I love alliteration and assonance as much as Silver Age Stan Lee.

As one of the biggest lovers of sandwiches and new chip flavors, I recently made my first post-quarantine trip to Whole Foods to track down these new sandwich-flavored potato chips from their 365 house brand.  I rarely shop at Whole Foods (more like “Whole Paycheck,” am I right?), but these were on sale for a very reasonable $2.39 each, and let’s face it, I probably would have paid more for them and been happy to do it.DSC03184

Cuban Press ingredients:DSC03185

Italian Hoagie ingredients:DSC03187

Pastrami on Rye ingredients.  Vegetarians, take note of the beef stock in these chips:DSC03188

Here are the chips.  All three flavors look exactly the same, so there was no purpose to posting three nearly-identical pictures:
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They are thinner potato chips like Lay’s, not super-thick, crunchy kettle chips.  I actually prefer this consistency.  They are easier on my gums, too.

Unfortunately, none of them tasted much like the sandwiches that inspired them.  I definitely picked up the flavors of pickles, mustard, and a smoky flavor reminiscent of ham in the Cuban Press chips (and seriously, has anyone ever called a Cuban sandwich or Cubano a “Cuban Press”?).  The Pastrami on Rye chips reminded me of smoke, pepper, and the vinegary tang of sauerkraut, but unfortunately the Italian Hoagie chips were the least like their inspiration, with a subtle taste of Italian herbs, maybe a bit of tomato and vinegar.  They were all exceedingly salty, even by potato chip standards, to the point where I was thinking “Enough, already!”

So if you’re anything like me and you love to try new and novel chip flavors, I highly recommend them for that purpose.  But go in with tempered expectations and don’t expect them to rock your tastebuds or change your life for the better.  My best advice is to seek out the actual sandwiches and pair them with some of your favorite chips, no matter what they are.  (What are your favorites, anyway?  The Saboscrivner is always interested in what other people are eating.)  But for sandwiches in the Orlando area, I recommend Italian hoagies from LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (specifically the LaSpada’s Famous), Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market (the Stasio), and Manzano’s Deli (the Rocco).  You can get a great pastrami on rye from Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood, and the biggest and best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had in Orlando is from one of my recent discoveries, College Park Cafe.

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.

Bagel King

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
–Omar Little, from The Wire (the greatest show of all time)

It’s no secret your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner loves bagels.  They are, after all, the food of my people.  I grew up eating bagels with my family on Sunday mornings in Kendall (one of Miami’s more staid suburbs) from a series of bagel shops and delis that are all decades gone.  On this very blog, I’ve waxed poetic about some of New York City’s best bagels, from the extraordinary Ess-A-Bagel and the rapturous Russ & Daughters Cafe.  I’ve sung the praises of Pickles Delicatessen in nearby Longwood, where their bagels are shipped frozen from New York, and they are almost as good as the real things, hot and fresh when you’re right there.

But if you want freshly baked bagels in the Orlando area, your best option is Casselberry’s Bagel King (https://www.bagelking.net/).  I’ve been going to Bagel King since I moved here in 2004, first with one of my good friends and former roommates, and then with my wife, ever since we started dating in 2006.  It’s a “friendly neighborhood” place too, with a wide open dining room and plenty of natural light streaming in, a gleaming glass case full of pastries baked in house, and a floor-to-ceiling rack of different freshly baked bagels behind the front counter.  You can order takeout at the counter (as everyone has to do these days), but in happier, safer times, it was a great place to grab a table for a leisurely breakfast or lunch.

This was the bagel selection on a recent busy weekend after the takeout lunch crowd came and went, but they still had everything I wanted:
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I can’t tell you how many times I ordered the “Fresh Fish Fantasy” ($10.99) over the last 15 years, where you can choose a bagel with cold-smoked nova salmon (what most people think of as “lox”) or much saltier belly lox, along with cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers on the side.  Almost as many times as I would belt out “Well it’s just a fresh fish fantasy, baby!” in my head over that bouncy Tom Tom Club sample, to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “Well it’s just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby!”  I would always opt for an everything bagel, thick and fluffy with that shiny exterior that only comes from boiling, dusted with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, or a crustier, non-boiled bialy roll with its oniony center.

Close-up of a bialy, for the uninitiated:
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Sometimes I’d switch up the Fresh Fish Fantasy formula and instead opt for smoked whitefish salad on a toasted everything bagel or bialy ($10.99), or sometimes I’d indulge and get Tinamarie’s stuffed potato knish ($8.99): pastrami, corned beef, roast beef, or turkey (I would NEVER get turkey) with provolone, caramelized onions, and dusseldorf mustard, served on a homemade potato knish, split open like a sandwich.  For those of you who have been deprived, a knish is a pastry made of a thin layer of dough wrapped around seasoned mashed potatoes.  You can buy delicious Gabila’s brand knishes in the frozen case at Publix (they are fried and made in New York), but a lot of bagel shops and delis bake theirs, including Bagel King.  You can buy a mini-knish for 99 cents or a full-sized one for $2, and your life will be so much better if you do.

However, my wife never deviates from her formula: a toasted, buttered everything bagel ($1.99) with a side order of pastrami ($4.49), always sliced into strips and cooked on the grill until it was slightly crispy, like bacon.  Bagel King isn’t a kosher restaurant, by the way — you can get applewood-smoked bacon with your eggs, cheddar cheese on your burger (on a pretzel roll), or provolone on any number of thick, meaty, overstuffed sandwiches.  But they also offer turkey sausage and turkey ham.

Most bagels are $1 each, or you can get a baker’s dozen (13) for $10.  Bagels freeze exceptionally well, especially if you slice them first, seal them in plastic bags, squeeze all the air out, and freeze them immediately.  Then they warm up perfectly in a toaster oven… or you can microwave them for 30 seconds before the toaster oven, if you always forget to slice them before freezing, like I usually do.

On this most recent trip, I stocked up with bagels to freeze: nine everything bagels and nine bialys.
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They were even kind enough to throw in these sweet treats: a raspberry danish pastry and a huge, dense cinnamon roll.
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Bagel King also makes their own flavored cream cheeses, which you can order on your bagel or get to-go tubs.  The savory veggie, bruschetta, chunky nova, and smooth lox cream cheeses are all outstanding, but they have sweet ones too, like strawberry, Nutella, and almond amaretto.  I just wouldn’t recommend those sweet ones on an everything bagel or a bialy!DSC03059

So that’s Bagel King, another old stalwart, and your source for the best fresh bagels in Orlando.  I’m so lucky to live near the one in Casselberry, but there are also locations in Winter Park, Lake Mary, Debary, and a wholesale location in Orlando.  Now more than ever, I know we’re all seeking comfort food.  To me, few meals are as comfortable as a good bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.  If that sounds the least bit good to you, come at the king, and don’t miss.