The ‘Dines List: Canned Sardines 101

“Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner”
–The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy” (1994)

I’ve been putting this off for a long time, but we’re into July now, so for Floridians, hurricane season is starting to feel like a real, existential threat.  As I put the finishing touches on this piece, a tropical storm named Elsa is currently days away from our big, stupid peninsula, and I wish we could all just let it go, am I right?  But we don’t have that luxury.  We need to stock up on serious supplies and shelf-stable snacks in the days to come, so this is the right moment for my latest review.  Trust me.  If nothing else, it will be a deep dive into uncharted waters.  But it could just save your life!

Most of this food blog is dedicated to reviewing and recommending restaurants in and around Orlando, Florida, and my occasional travels out of town, which I look forward to resuming.  But how do most of us eat most of the time?  We buy groceries and prepare simple meals at home, right?  (I know, I know, your meals are not simple, how dare I?)  As much as I like getting takeout, and as much as I’m loving eating at restaurants again, I still do meal prep, pack lunches for work, and cook food in large batches so I can eat leftovers for a few days before the cycle repeats.  I enjoy the process of grocery shopping, even when every trip out of the house felt like putting on the ol’ hazmat suit and wandering out into the wild wastelands.  So last year I created a new recurring feature on The Saboscrivner called Grocery Grails, where I review some of my favorite supermarket and grocery store finds.  So far, Grocery Grails have covered potato chips (the recurring Tight Chips features), pickles, mustards, and ramen noodles.

And now Grocery Grails has a second spinoff (after the aforementioned Tight Chips), a fabulous, fantastic feature devoted to one of my staple foods, sardines — delicious and healthy, but also unglamorous and relatively intimidating for the uninitiated.  It’s a little feature I like to call The ‘Dines List, and it is a crash course in appreciating canned sardines and other canned seafood, which I collect and eat all the time.  I will use The ‘Dines List to demystify, review, and recommend sardines, since I consider myself a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, a dean of sardines, if you will.  This isn’t the first sardine review blog out there — Mouth Full of Sardines and Society for the Appreciation of the Lowly Tinned Sardine are out there, fully dedicated to reviewing sardines, whereas this is just going to be a recurring feature here on The Saboscrivner, as a palate cleanser between my restaurant reviews, just like Tight Chips and Grocery Grails.

So here’s The ‘Dines List 101: my freshman feature on the best canned sardines out there.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some gross sardines on supermarket shelves, and those may have turned people off to the entire concept of tinned seafood.  Here are a few helpful hints to get you started with this sardine syllabus, just based on my own personal preferences:

  • Smaller sardines taste better to me than larger ones.  If you can find a can that advertises itself as “two layer,” “dual layer,” “double layer,” or “cross pack,” you have tinier fish, literally packed in like sardines.  Bigger fish that are packed two to four in a can usually don’t taste as good to me, although there are always exceptions.
  • Stick to sardines packed in oil.  Feel free to drain the oil (not down the sink!), but I guarantee they will smell and taste better than sardines packed in water, which even I don’t like.  The same goes for canned tuna, which I ate my entire life until I met my wife, because she hated the smell so much when I opened a can of tuna.  She doesn’t share my love of sardines, but at least the smell of an open sardine can never seems to bother her the same way.
  • I never like skinless and/or boneless sardines.  Don’t be afraid of the shimmering silvery skin or the bones.  Those ‘dines always taste better than skinless and boneless varieties, which are always blander, and their textures aren’t as pleasant.  The bones are usually removed anyway, but they are a good source of calcium.  And yes, sardine tails are so teeny-tiny, you can eat them with no problem.  Don’t worry — nothing is going to crunch in your mouth or get caught in your throat.
  • Really large, oval-shaped cans of sardines never taste that great to me.  You will often see these in the “ethnic foods” aisle in the supermarket, rather than with the rest of the canned meat and seafood.
  • I love spicy sardines, and there are a lot of terrific spicy varieties out there.  But as much as I love tomato sauce and mustard as ingredients in so many foods, I almost never like sardines packed in tomato sauce or mustard.  They are always watery and low-quality, imparting a funky flavor to everything (or more likely, attempting to cover up the funky flavor of the fish).  Add your own condiments and accompaniments!  Sardines are very much a blank canvas that allow you to get creative.
  • On that note, sardines are versatile, and you can do almost anything you want to them.  Personally, I like them best on some kind of bread or crackers or in a sandwich, but I definitely eat them straight out of the can sometimes, usually standing over a sink (dad-style) to avoid dripping the oil everywhere.  But you can put them on a salad, serve them over pasta or rice, and even mash them up and make “sardine salad” the way you might make tuna salad with canned tuna.  If you elect to preserve the oil, you might consider sautéing vegetables in it and mashing up some ‘dines for an umami punch (I do this with canned anchovies much more frequently), or even using it for a quick vinaigrette dressing.
  • Sardines are practically health food!  They are full of omega-3 fatty acids to help prevent heart disease, and they are pure protein, fantastic for a meal or a snack if you are trying to cut carbs.  Legend has it that my favorite actor, the great thespian Nicolas Cage, bulked up for the 1997 action movie Con Air while working with a trainer and eating nothing but sardines.  (Con Air is a fun ride, but doesn’t even make my Top Ten Nicolas Cage films.  Cage is at his best when he’s full Method and completely unhinged, but I digress.)
  • Being so low on the food chain and plentiful in wild waters, sardines are extremely ecologically sustainable and low in mercury, much moreso than larger fish like tuna, or farmed fish.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a lot of interesting and important information about choosing sustainable seafood.
  • Finally, while sardines have been dismissed as food for broke people and dads, apparently they are the “new hotness.”  I don’t know where you’ve been, but these days, hip bars and gastropubs like my friend’s Baltimore bar The Back Yard are serving up fancy tinned seafood, inspired by bars in Spain offering canned conservas on tapas menus.  They’re elegant!  They’re continental!  And if that don’t beat all, the fashionable website Nylon just named tinned fish “the hot girl snack of the summer.”  Well, I had no idea I’d be up on some hot girl shit, but I’ve always been ahead of my time (and mostly unappreciated as a trendsetter).

So since I’m highlighting personal favorites, I figured I’d start you out with the ‘dines that earn consistently high marks on my ‘Dines List: wild-caught brisling sardines from King Oscar.  The Norwegian company was founded in 1873, but has been using King Oscar II’s name and likeness “by special royal permission” since 1902, and exporting its delicious ‘dines to the U.S. since 1903.  King Oscar is known for its high-quality, sustainable sardines from Norway’s icy waters.  They market several varieties and flavors, and cans typically run between $2 and $4 at most major supermarkets, including Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Walmart.  You can find cheaper sardines from other brands, and some of them are also good, but many are not.

My favorite King Oscars are the two layer jalapeño sardines, which are actually packed in Poland since 2008.  They are easy to find, cheap, and delicious in anything, or alone.  I always have a huge stash of these at home:

They actually pack sliced jalapeños inside the can to impart their spicy flavor into the extra virgin olive oil and the ‘dines:

I enjoyed this particular can on some toasted Cheesecake Factory brown bread.  Did you know you can buy that bread as a sandwich loaf or a pair of mini-baguettes at Publix and Winn-Dixie?  I also spread on some homemade tzatziki sauce made with Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and coarse sea salt.

Since I had more sardines left in this can but no more jalapeños, I made a second slice of toast with thin-sliced cucumbers.  Now I’m just waiting for some Boomer to complain about my sardine toast, but maybe they won’t find it as inexplicably offensive as avocado toast.

If you don’t like spicy, you can buy regular, plain two layer sardines, also packed in EVOO:

From a different day, here are King Oscar’s single layer Mediterranean style  sardines, also packed in EVOO and seasoned with herbs de Provence, red bell pepper, black olives, and garlic.

They weren’t kidding:

Here are some of these slightly larger Mediterranean ‘dines on toasted pita points:
I’m not a big fan of black olives, so I bought this can specifically to review here on The ‘Dines List.  You’re welcome!  I ate the whole can, though — olives and all, to get the full Mediterranean experience.

Next up, we have the King Oscar cross-pack, their smallest sardines of all.

The can says it holds 24-38 ‘dines, and I counted 24 exactly.  Yes, there is an entire layer underneath the ones you can see here.
The cross-pack is usually about a dollar more expensive than the other varieties, but I don’t like them quite as much.  Don’t get me wrong, they are fine, and might even be a good “gateway” sardine for the uninitiated, but I just prefer the taste of the jalapeño two layer variety.  The cross-pack ‘dines are definitely blander, but you can include them in some really creative recipes and jazz them up that way.

This was a dish I concocted recently — my own take on pasta con le sarde, with shaved fennel bulb, onions, garlic, smoked sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chili flakes, Italian-seasoned bread crumbs, and King Oscar cross-pack sardines, all sautéed together in extra virgin olive oil and served over bucatini pasta.  It was damn delightful, and I will make it again for sure, maybe when I have golden raisins on hand in the future.

In the interest of really comparing and contrasting, dear readers, I opened three cans from my stash at once to take these comparison photos on pita strips I toasted until they were crunchy and firm.  The top row is plain two layer King Oscar sardines (exactly the same as the jalapeño variety, just minus the jalapeños), the three in the middle are the slightly larger one layer Mediterranean ‘dines, and the bottom row is the cross-pack ‘dines.  Funny, looking at them laid out on a cutting board like this, they really don’t look that different from each other!

Moving past King Oscars, I want to introduce you to some other good brands of canned ‘dines.  These are the only other kind I stockpile in our pantry, in addition to the King Oscar  jalapeño ‘dines.  They are from the Canario brand, and there is almost no information about this company on the Internet.  But I absolutely love their sardinillas picantes en aceite (“small sardines in oil spiced piquant”).

These Peruvian-caught fish have a rich, meaty flavor and consistency, and a pleasing amount of spice.  I only ever see these at Latin grocery stores, so I stock up whenever I’m at Bravo Supermarket or Fancy Fruit and Produce, both of which have multiple locations around Orlando.  Canario usually costs around $1.59 per can, so they are cheaper than King Oscar.  And I really, really like them.

Here are the Canario sardinillas on a soft, crispy, flaky paratha, an Indian flatbread that is like the beautiful love child of a flour tortilla and a croissant.  I spread on more of my homemade tzatziki sauce here to make a really delicious lunch.

Here is another serving of Canario ‘dines from a different meal, this time on rye avocado toast.  (Here come the Boomers, oh nooooo!)
DSC02706

Some of the most luxurious tinned fish I’ve ever found are Riga Gold sprats, which are very similar to sardines, but slightly larger.  These Latvian-caught fish have a terrific smoky flavor, taking on a golden glow from the smoking process.  The only places I’ve ever found them in Orlando are at International Food Club, a sprawling supermarket on L.B. McLeod Road, boasting food from over 20 countries around the world, and Tima’s House, a smaller Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, much closer to home.  International Food Club in particular is such a fun place to shop, browse, discover new things, and treat yourself.

You can see that the round Riga Gold cans have a clear plastic pull-top to allow you to inspect the glorious golden sprats inside.  Da, tovarisch!  By the White Wolf!

I ate these on some leftover rye bread from The Pastrami Project, with more of that homemade tzatziki — something creamy and cool to cut the salty smokiness of the sprats.  It was an inspired combination.  Riga Gold sprats are really terrific, especially if you like smoked fish dip, whitefish salad, and other smoked fish delicacies.

I strongly recommend these sprats, even if you’ve tried sardines before and didn’t like them.  Especially if you’ve tried sardines before and didn’t like them!  If you like whitefish salad, that smoky Jewish deli delicacy made from golden smoked chubs, the Riga Gold sprats might fill that void, and you won’t have to pick out dozens of tiny, hair-thin, transparent, plastic-like bones while preparing it.

But if you don’t live close to a cool international market that sells Riga Gold smoked sprats, WALMART sells the Polar brand of smoked brisling sardines, which come in a very familiar, flat, round can with a clear plastic top, and they are also from Latvia!  Are they a repackaged version of Riga Gold?  They sure look and taste similar, they would be a heck of a lot easier to find, and for only $2 for a can, you can’t go wrong.

Here are the Polar sardines on rye-pumpernickel swirl toast, over thin-sliced cucumbers, and there is tarragon herb mustard (one of the seven mustards I reviewed in my first Cutting the Mustard feature) underneath them.  Despite being slightly smaller than the Riga sprats, these were very similar in smoky flavor, firm texture, and golden appearance, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Well hey there, sailor!  Congratulations!  You passed The ‘Dines List 101, a rundown of most of my favorite canned sardines.  I have no idea how this is going to go over, if I have somehow alienated my already small readership.  Most people dismiss sardines as stinky, funky, fishy, gross, and depressing.  Biggie Smalls sure did, and that guy loved to eat!  Remember from “It’s All About the Benjamins”: “Three course meal, spaghetti, fettuccine, and veal!”  Did that guy order the Tour of Italy at Olive Garden, or what?  And don’t forget Biggie’s breakfast of champions from “Big Poppa”: “A T-bone steak, cheese, eggs and Welch’s grape!”  (Or did he mean “cheese eggs,” like the eggs are served with cheese on them?)  But again, I digress.

Some sardines are certainly better than others, but trust me — I’ve tried so many ‘dines over the decades, and I’m sharing the best ones with you here.  And by the way, why is “fishy” so bad when we’re talking about fish?  Frankly, I’d be a little disappointed and concerned if my fish didn’t taste fishy.  But for people who crave the mild, bland taste of white fish like tilapia, these oily little fellas have so much more flavor, they’re cheap, they’re sustainable, they’re good for you, they’re great to nosh on when hurricanes knock our power out (hopefully not this summer!), they’re currently making hot girls swoon, and you might be pleasantly surprised by how tasty they are and how creative you can get with them.  (The sardines, not the hot girls!  Okay, why not both?)

I promise that next week I’ll review another good local restaurant, but I definitely plan to continue The ‘Dines List right here on The Saboscrivner.  I have two more installments already partially written, and I’m taking care to try new ‘dines to review, rather than falling back on old favorites already covered above.  Readers, reach out if you have any review requests or recommendations for sardines and other tinned seafood.  If there are specific ‘dines or other canned fish you love, recommend, and would like to send my way to sample and review, challah at your boy!

Yummy House

The Chinese restaurant Yummy House (https://yummyhouseflorida.com/orlando-menu/) has five locations: Tampa, Sarasota, Ocala, my old college town of Gainesville, and nearby Altamonte Springs, one of the small municipalities in Seminole County, directly north of Orlando.  I always liked it, and I think it’s definitely the best Chinese restaurant north of the Colonial Drive area, where all the other great ones like Peter’s Kitchen, Chuan Lu Garden, and Taste of Chengdu are located.

But when I realized I hadn’t been back to Yummy House a few years, the timing seemed right to do something about that.  You may have noticed there has been a lot of ignorance and intolerance leveled against the Asian-American community recently — discrimination against businesses, harassment and even horrific violence against individuals.  This is inexcusable and wrong, but there are things we can do to help.  You can attend a bystander intervention training to help stop anti-Asian-American and xenophobic harassment, like the ones run by the Hollaback! organization.  (I’m registered for my first training next week.)  If you are an ally, you can check in with your Asian friends and tell them you’re here for them, that you empathize and care, that you see them and hear them and are available for any support they need.   And you can support Asian-owned restaurants and other businesses, because between the lasting pandemic and this new wave of anti-Asian hate, they could use your business more than ever.  So if you weren’t already craving Chinese food, I hope you will consider placing an order at Yummy House now.

This is spicy XO beef short ribs ($16.99): sautéed baby beef short ribs with snow peas in house-made spicy XO sauce.  I always love short ribs, and these were tender and tasty.  I always never eat snow peas, but the crispiness offset the unctuous richness of the saucy meat.  Just be careful of the bones, but you can eat all the way around them, with very little meat clinging to them.

This next dish is one of my old favorites from Yummy House: XO seafood chow fun ($12.99).  These chewy rice noodles are stir-fried with shrimp, scallops, calamari, onion, and crunchy bean sprouts in lightly spicy XO sauce.  They’re not quite as visible in this photo, but I assure you there were plenty of plump shrimp, sweet scallops, and tender squid, and they all tasted very fresh.

You may already be asking yourself “What the heck is XO sauce?”  It is a luxurious Chinese condiment that I became obsessed with trying after first reading about it on Serious Eats and Saveur, and as far as I can tell, Yummy House is the only restaurant in Orlando that uses it in dishes (although there may be others I haven’t been to).  It brings saltiness and savory umami flavor to dishes, but it is also a little spicy and a little sweet.  Created in Hong Kong in the 1980s, it was named after another high-end luxury item, French XO (extra old) cognac, that receives the XO designation after it has been aged for over six years.  However, there is no cognac in the sauce.  These two articles taught me that it includes dried scallops (an expensive ingredient), bacon and/or ham, spicy cod roe called mentaiko, baby anchovies, fried shallots and garlic, chiles, ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, chicken stock, spices, sugar, and oil, then simmered until it takes on the thick consistency of preserves, like marmalade or jam.  RESEARCH!  Know it, love it.

Sounds amazing, right?  It sounds really labor-intensive, for one thing.  I’ve never noticed premade jars of XO sauce at any of Orlando’s fantastic Asian markets, but if any of my readers can recommend a good brand, I’d love to pick one up for kitchen experimentation.  In the meantime, you can enjoy the heck out of it at Yummy House.

Anyway, this next dish was a gigantic hit with my wife, and I loved it too.  I think it joins the red barbecue pork fried rice at Naradeva Thai in the pantheon of greatest rice dishes in Orlando.  It is duck and dried grape fried rice ($12.99), and it is so ridiculously good.  It is no secret that my wife and I both love duck in all its forms, and this jasmine rice dish also includes eggs, green onions, and fresh cilantro, in addition to the tender and juicy minced boneless roast duck.  But dried grapes?  Those are raisins — specifically sultanas, or golden raisins, in this dish, and they are so perfect, adding a chewy texture and a pleasant sweetness that is awe-inspiring. 

There are a lot of jokes about bad cooks ruining dishes with raisins, like sneaking them into potato salad to ruin cookouts for unsuspecting family and friends.  The wonderful Netflix TV series Dead to Me even had a gag about a neighbor’s “Mexican lasagna” that was full of raisins.  (It was no mistake that this neighbor was named “Karen.”  Seriously, watch the show.  Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are doing the best work of their careers.)  And some people even hate oatmeal raisin cookies, which I don’t get because I love them, but I guess they could be disappointing if you were expecting chocolate chip.  But anyway, don’t knock roast duck and golden raisins (or “dried grapes”) in your fried rice until you’ve tried it, and I sincerely hope you try it.

Anyway, that was last weekend, and it was so good, I brought Yummy House home again last night.  Of course we had to get the same fried rice:

And since it was so good last time, I also had to try the BBQ pork fried rice ($9.99), also with eggs, green onions, and fresh cilantro mixed into the jasmine rice.  This pork was also very tender, smoky, slightly sweet, and delightfully fatty.  In case you can’t tell, these are huge portions.  My wife and I were able to get several meals out of both takeout orders.

The first time we ever went to Yummy House to dine in, years ago, I ordered my favorite go-to dish at any Chinese restaurant, beef chow fun noodles ($11.99).  This time my wife requested it, sans bean sprouts, and I figured she would prefer it to the spicy XO version.  As usual, the noodles have that perfect chewy consistency, the sliced beef was tender, and the whole dish came together so well.  I’ve waxed poetic about the wonderful beef chow fun at Peter’s Kitchen in my Top Tastes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly, and this is up there with it as one of the best I’ve had anywhere.

Finally, a friend and co-worker who also loves Yummy House recommended the salt and pepper calamari ($9.99), so I added that to last night’s takeout order too.  Calamari is so different everywhere, and you never know if you’re going to get tender tubes, or a mass of Lovecraftian tentacles, and if they will be battered or breaded, greasy or rubbery, or just plain perfect.  This calamari was on the perfect side, with thick and tender strips rather than tubes, and a nice batter that was crispy and firm and stayed in place, without being too greasy or heavy.  I was surprised to see this much seasoning on it, including red pepper flakes, green onions, and what seemed like Szechuan peppercorns, but without the tingling, numbing heat those usually bring.  It was spicier than I expected “salt and pepper” calamari to be, but also not nearly as spicy as it looks in this photo.  I loved it.  It was a really pleasant surprise.

So to sum all of this up, Yummy House is the best Chinese restaurant I know of in Seminole County, and it holds its own against the other best ones in Orlando.  You have to come for the calamari, the chow fun, the duck and dried grape fried rice, and anything with XO sauce, trust me.  But trust me on this too: we need to come together as a community to support our Asian friends and neighbors now more than ever, to let them know we care about them, value them, and welcome them, and will stand with them and stand up for them.  Why not start at Yummy House, or one of the other wonderful local Asian restaurants I’ve reviewed here on The Saboscrivner?  Check those categories near the top right of the page and find somewhere that looks good.  I don’t think you will have to look far at all.

High Tide Harry’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ravenous Pig

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

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

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

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

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

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

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

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

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

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
DSC02929

But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

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

Deli Desires

I try to spare my readers too many similar reviews in a row, plus I like to switch up my cuisines up to keep this blog as interesting as possible.  My readership is low enough as it is, am I right?  But even though I discovered The Pastrami Project two weeks ago and made it the subject of my most recent review, I have since discovered another delicatessen in Orlando, mere minutes away from the Pastrami Project food truck.  It’s a brand-new restaurant called Deli Desires (https://delidesires.com/), located one block north of Colonial Drive on Ferncreek Avenue.

For the last several months, Deli Desires ran a delivery-only business model over Instagram, similar to recent sensation Brad’s Underground Pizza, but started a soft opening in their new brick and mortar location last weekend and is continuing the soft opening this weekend.  I don’t believe they are doing phone or online orders yet, but since I couldn’t find a menu online, I went in person to pick up an early lunch on Friday, not knowing how crowded it would be or what they would have available.  Luckily, when I arrived around 11:45, there was no line, but a line grew by the time I left with my food.  Just so you all know, at least during the soft opening, Deli Desires is open for breakfast and lunch only, and just on Friday through Sunday.  It’s a small space with no seating — strictly a takeout operation for now, which is just fine with me.  And I’m always pleased to see the full staff of a restaurant wearing masks at all times, and wearing them the right way, covering their noses.  Wearing your mask with your nose hanging out totally defeats the purpose, like walking around with your schmeckle sticking out of your pants.  And yet you see it all the time!  (The noses, that is.  During a pandemic, consider it just as bad.)

There’s a lot to look at inside Deli Desires, with large shelves on each side with gourmet groceries — local honey, hot sauce, fancy canned seafood, giant jars of Duke’s mayo (the only kind of mayo I will buy), T-shirts, and a whole rack of Herr’s potato chips, which are excellent, especially the ketchup chips.  Directly in front, they have a display of Dr. Brown’s canned sodas (good root beer and cream soda, but I can’t recommend the Cel-Ray soda) and boxes of kosher salt.

You know what else is fine?  All the food.  Damn fine deli fare.  Here’s the menu, since they didn’t have a website up at the time I wrote this review, just the Instagram page.  It’s very unique for a deli menu — some classics, but definitely modern interpretations of the classics.

When I told my co-worker, a regular member of our Friday “lunch bunch” that I was going to a new deli and asked if she wanted anything, she asked if the menu was online, and I said I couldn’t find it and had no idea what they would have.  She told me she likes Reubens, in case they have one.  (Who doesn’t like Reubens?)  Well, they didn’t have a Reuben, but they did have a different kind of corned beef sandwich ($10) — a “Big Mac”-style corned beef sandwich with shredded lettuce and pickles (in place of the sauerkraut on a Reuben), special sauce (already very similar to the Russian or thousand island dressings that accompany Reubens), and served on a soft, fresh-baked sesame seeded roll.  I didn’t taste this sandwich I brought back for her, but she said it all worked well together.  When I placed the order with the very patient and welcoming Tyson at the counter, he told me they make everything from scratch, including curing their own corned beef.

My regular readers know how much I love delis, especially all the smoked, cured, and pickled meats and fish.  I saw a whitefish salad sandwich on the menu ($10) and had to have it.  Whitefish is a large fish that is often smoked whole, until the skin turns a beautiful golden color.  Then the flaky, oily, smoky flesh is scooped and scraped out, mixed with mayonnaise, dill, usually chopped celery, and other herbs and spices.  I just love it, and I’m already overjoyed on the rare occasions I can find a whole smoked whitefish or “chub” in a store and make my own whitefish salad.  But it’s a labor-intensive process, making sure to remove all the inedible hair-thin bones that look like clear plastic and can really get caught in your throat.  That’s why it is even more pleasing when the professionals do the work.  This was delicious whitefish salad on the same kind of soft seeded roll — big chunks of fish mixed with mayo (Duke’s!) and lots of dill.  It was topped by crispy “celery salad,” with long, paper-thin strands of celery and red radish that must have been sliced with a razor-sharp mandoline slicer.  They topped it with a slice of muenster cheese too, almost making it like their version of a tuna melt, that diner classic.  Of course the sandwich was served cold, as it should be.

While I was there for the soft opening, I wanted to try a second sandwich, so I could eat a little of both at work and finish them for dinner.  I decided to go with the scrapple sandwich ($8), although it was a difficult decision.  This was an excellent breakfast sandwich that would be a welcome meal at any time of day, not just in the morning.  For those that don’t know, scrapple is a breakfast meat that is made by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid-Atlantic states, kind of like a sausage or meatloaf, but a looser consistency.  It is often made with pork scraps, herbs, and spices, and then some fillers like flour and other grains, and served sliced and pan-fried.  I’ve had it before from one of the Amish food stands in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite places in the entire world.  I don’t know what Deli Desires puts into their scrapple, but I definitely tasted sage, making it reminiscent of a more crumbly pork breakfast sausage.  (Hey, they have a BLT on the menu too, so they never claimed to be a kosher deli!)  They also included a perfectly fried over-medium egg that held up perfectly until I got back to work and tried cutting the sandwich in half with a plastic knife, when it started to run.  But it was nice dipping the bialy in the warm, rich, runny yolk. 

What’s a bialy, you ask?  They are similar to bagels, but unfortunately, a lot less popular.  I love ’em, though.  Bagels have that smooth, shiny outer coating because they are boiled in huge kettles of water before being baked.  Bialys aren’t boiled, just baked, so they have more of a traditional outer crust, but are still soft, chewy, and fluffy on the inside like bagels.  They lack the holes that help make bagels bagels, but they do have an indentation that usually contains diced cooked onions and poppy seeds.  Deli Desires makes a very good bialy, and they are few and far between.  (Bagel King, our regular standard place for bagels, much closer to home, also bakes their own bialys.)

But I had to get two bialys to enjoy later: a standard one with caramelized onions in the center (left) and a smoked jalapeño and muenster bialy (right), the same kind the scrapple and egg sandwich came on.  These bialys were $3 each.

I saw they had potato salad ($3), so as long as I was already running amok with carbs (glorious carbs!), I wanted to try that too.  These were small redskin potatoes, very tender with some nice texture from the skins, mixed with mayo and lots of dill, for almost a Scandinavian style of potato salad.  But I have remarked before that the Scandinavians and the Jews share some culinary traditions — the aforementioned smoked, cured, and pickled fish, dark rye bread, lots of dill, and potato salad too, apparently.  This was a generous helping of potato salad that I finished in two sittings, but probably could have made last even longer.  It was just too good, though.   

And even though I had no intention of ordering dessert, Deli Desires had an assortment of fresh-baked desserts under glass domes on the counter.  There’s something about a pie under a glass dome, like at a diner, that makes it even more tempting to me than a pie in a fridge or sitting on a windowsill, like in old-timey cartoons.  It’s kind of like putting a statue on a pedestal… or putting a very attractive person on a pedestal, for that matter.

One of the daily desserts was right up my alley — a cara cara orange pie on a graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream and a chewy, sticky dried orange slice.  Conceptually, it is very similar to Florida’s beloved key lime pie, and very close to my all-time favorite dessert, a tart and creamy “Atlantic Beach pie” that I make with fresh-squeezed citrus juices on a buttery, salty crust made from crushed Ritz crackers.  This slice was $6, but I just had to try it, for science — to compare it to my Atlantic Beach pie recipe and see how I stacked up to a seasoned baker. 

Needless to say, it was good.  Firmer and less runny than my similar pie, and I’ll have to figure out how they do that.  However, it was served at room temperature, and I think it would have been even tastier served chilled, like how I serve my pie and pretty much any key lime pie from anywhere.  Of course I could have stuck it in the fridge for an hour, but even after eating everything else I ate, once I opened the box and tasted my first tiny taste of the slice, I couldn’t wait.  Also, cara cara oranges are more tart than our standard, familiar navel oranges, but the pie didn’t have that acidic tartness I love so much in citrusy desserts.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it!

I considered waiting a week or two after my Pastrami Project review to publish this one and running a different piece in its place.  But since Deli Desires is still in its soft opening phase, I wanted to get the word out that Mills 50 district has an exciting new deli in a permanent location, and it’s open for business and excellent, right out of the gate.  Check with them first, in case their hours change in the days and weeks to come, but everything I tried was terrific, and I look forward to returning and working my way through the menu.

Many of their offerings are fresh, new takes on traditional New York/Jewish delicatessen fare.  You could almost call it “hipster deli,” but I don’t want that to sound like a diss in any way.  Delis have long been an endangered species among restaurants, decades before this pandemic started threatening the entire restaurant industry.  It breaks my heart to read about these august culinary landmarks closing down in big cities around the country, sometimes after half a century or longer in business.  But I get it — neighborhood demographics change, urban rents skyrocket, and a Jewish deli might seem stodgy and stale compared to some of the hot new food trends, especially for those who didn’t grow up in a family that loved that kind of food, as mine did.  But there is always hope!  Over the last decade or so, even as some of the iconic delis have baked their last bagels, cured their last corned beef, and plated their last pastrami, a young, hip, adventurous group of chefs has started revitalizing and rejuvenating the entire concept of the deli, reaching out to younger, hipper, more adventurous diners, offering some twists on the old standards, elevating and reinventing classic dishes while still paying homage to the old ways.  That’s what chef-owner Hannah Jaffe is doing here with her delicious, delectable, decadent Deli Desires, and it it’s going to catch on here in Orlando.  We’ve needed this for a long time, and now it’s here — and not that far from my day job either.  *I* need this.  Don’t let me down, people.  You will desire this deli, take it from me.

Sus Hi Eatstation

I am a sucker for extravagant sushi rolls and poke bowls that I get to customize myself, with the ingredients of my choice — different fish, vegetables, toppings, condiments.  They’re beautiful to the eye, refreshing, delicious, and you can go as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  I’ve reviewed and sung the praises of two of my favorite local restaurants: Poke Hana and Bento Cafe, but I recently paid my first visit to the homegrown chain Sus Hi Eatstation (https://sushieatstation.com/), founded here in Orlando by local couple Robert and Teresa Ly.

I don’t know why it took me so long.  Sus Hi Eatstation has several locations around town, with the “build your own” model popularized by Subway, Chipotle, and so many other successful fast food and fast casual restaurants.  They are also vaguely ninja-themed, and as an ’80s kid who grew up loving G.I. Joe and Daredevil comics, I have nothing but love for ninjas (and G.I. Joe, and Daredevil) to this day.  If anything, I wish they leaned into the ninja theme even more, especially in this era of everyone wearing masks in public.  (But don’t worry, everyone working at Sus Hi when I visited was wearing normal masks.)

I went to the closest location in Altamonte Springs, and  I should mention that at least during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sus Hi Eatstation has customers place all orders from a touchscreen kiosk or online through the website.  When I got there, I used the kiosk, and they had a pump bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it, so have no fear.  At the front of the store, the dutiful staff members (who really could have been dressed like ninjas, I’m just sayin’) are meticulously assembling orders from the mise en place ingredients arranged in front of them, just like so many other fast casual eateries.

I have to admit it was a particular special that drew me in that day.  One of Sus Hi’s specialties is sushi burritos wrapped in huge flour tortillas, and for a $1.50 upcharge, you can get them crusted with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so they have a crunchy outer layer, but the sushi inside is still cool and refreshing.  That already sounded amazing — certainly not traditional, but a nice, fusiony presentation.  But now, they are running a special where you can get the burrito covered with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and deep-fried for a $3 upcharge.  Yes, I’m not proud, but as soon as I learned that was a current menu option, I had to have it!

The basic burrito is $8.50, and I chose a base of white rice.  (The other options are brown rice and lettuce.)  When you customize a Sus Hi burrito, you get to select three proteins.  I had already studied the menu in advance, and even though they offer steak and chicken, I went to a place called Sus Hi because I wanted sushi.  I selected tuna (a 50-cent upcharge), salmon (a 75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab, which is shredded surimi tossed in spicy mayo.  I added on cream cheese, cucumbers, shredded purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning.  It was gorgeous!

Sus Hi allows you to get up to three different sauces with a burrito, and I opted for sauces on the side so I could taste everything better.  The bright orange sauce on the top left is an additional sauce that comes special with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito.  I thought it was going to be like a spicy queso, but it was more of a very spicy mayo, with the intensity of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  The paler sauce next to it is classic creamy, tangy white sauce.  Below we have orange fire sauce, which was like a smoky chili mayo, probably with chipotle flavor added, and the slightly lighter orange sauce on the bottom right is standard spicy mayo, which I unapologetically love with my sushi and poke.

Sus Hi also offers regular and sweet soy sauces, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce, sweet chili sauce, mango habanero sauce, regular sriracha (meh), and yellow sriracha (better), among others.

The burrito was HUGE, and I am making a conscious effort to eat smaller portions in 2021, so I got two meals out of it.  The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted outer surface wasn’t quite as crunchy as I expected, nor as flamin’ hot, but I still enjoyed it.  It was a novelty, something I’m glad I tried but wouldn’t order again.  I suspect the regular panko-crusted burrito will probably have a better texture.

But while I was at Sus Hi for my first time, I figured I might as well try a bowl too.  I selected a regular bowl ($9.95) with brown rice as the base, in my half-hearted, conflicted attempt to eat slightly healthier.  I usually don’t like brown rice, but theirs wasn’t bad at all!  Again, I selected the same three proteins: tuna (50-cent upcharge), salmon (75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab.  I kept my toppings pretty similar to the burrito: cream cheese (you can see the little scoop near the bottom), cucumber, purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning, but I also had them add sliced pickled jalapenos, crunchy noodles, and pickled ginger.  Hey, why not, right?

I swear there is tuna, salmon, and krab under all that in the paper bowl.  In fact, I was really impressed by the size of the “regular” bowl, and how generous they were with everything they put in it.  A lot of places will scrimp on toppings and especially proteins, but I feel like this is a terrific deal — a huge portion of a lot of fresh, tasty food.

I got the same three sauces on the side with this bowl: spicy mayo, white sauce, and fire sauce.  In the future, now that I’ve tried those sauces separately, I’d be more likely to just order one or more on top of the bowl, for ease of mixing everything together.  You can also purchase Sus Hi’s sauces in bottles if you fall in love with any of them.  I wish more restaurants would offer their sauces, condiments, and dressings for sale, but it never hurts to ask!

After all these years, I finally see why Sus Hi Eatstation is so popular, with such a devoted following around Orlando.  People love sushi, and they love freedom of choice.  I’m sure I will return, probably going back for a similar version of everything I tried for this review.  I don’t know how long the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted sushi burrito will last, but if that was on your bucket list, I strongly encourage you to cross it off while you can!

BaanChan Thai Restaurant

I had been hearing about BaanChan Thai Restaurant (https://www.baanchanorlando.com/) for years before finally making it there in December.  I brought back takeout for my “lunch bunch” at work, and everyone really enjoyed what they ordered.  It’s way out east on Colonial Drive, further east than I usually venture, almost out to Alafaya.  But it is easily accessible via the 417 and convenient for anyone in the UCF area.

My one co-worker ordered the BaanChan ramen ($10), with noodles in a spicy lemongrass soup, mushrooms, onions, scallions, cilantro, whole chiles, and lime.  It came with a soy-marinated soft boiled egg and several large deep-fried, breaded shrimp.  This was a a uniquely Thai take on ramen.  They wisely packed the broth, the fried shrimp, and all the other stuff in three separate containers for her.  My photo of the broth came out blurry, so I left it out.  You’re welcome!

Three of us ordered my go-to Thai dish, drunken noodles ($8.50), at various levels of heat.  Because I like to tempt fate and sometimes ruin my afternoons at the workplace, I asked for mine to be hot.  Drunken noodles, sometimes called pad kee mow or pad kee mao, are wide, flat noodles stir-fried to an al dente consistency in a spicy sauce with onions, bell peppers, and Thai basil, plus a protein.  I chose pork, which was tender and not dried out from the stir-frying.  These were much more oily than other drunken noodles I’ve ordered elsewhere, at places like Mee Thai, Naradeva Thai, and Thai Singha, but still had a lot of flavor and A LOT of heat.

Someone’s food came with fluffy jasmine rice, but it went unclaimed.  That was a relief to me, because I ate it to cut some of the lingering heat from the spicy, oleaginous noodles.  Sometimes carbs can save your life!

I also ordered two small appetizers for myself, so I could make everything last for lunch and dinner.  I asked around, and a lot of people recommended the Thai heaven beef ($4.50), which is fried beef jerky!  Because it was fried and not just cured like a lot of conventional jerky I’ve had, in addition to being sticky, sweet, salty, and slightly spicy, it was oily and also quite firm and crunchy, which I wasn’t expecting.  I can see why this is a popular crowd-pleaser at BaanChan, but I don’t know if I would order it again.

My absolute favorite thing I tried on this first visit to BaanChan was the Thai sausage ($4).  It was chewy and savory with a slightly crispy exterior, not spicy at all.  It was a terrific sausage, and I loved it.  It came with paper-thin slices of pickled ginger like you might get with sushi, and some intimidating-looking whole chiles that I wisely avoided.

You can also see a fried pot sticker that one of my co-workers gave me from her order ($4.50 for four).  It was stuffed with ground, seasoned pork and vegetables and was a pretty standard pot sticker, but you can never go wrong with those.

I was glad to finally try BaanChan after reading about it for years.  Whenever I make it back, I’ll definitely order that amazing sausage again, and I’ll probably try the pineapple fried rice, chili jam, or larb next time to switch things up.

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.

Fiddler’s Green Irish Pub

I don’t drink anymore, but I always appreciate an atmospheric pub or bar that serves warm, hearty fare.  Pub grub is some of the ultimate comfort food, especially when the temperature finally drops a bit (which in Florida means a few days in the 50s and nights in the 40s).  I miss the old Fox’s Sherron Inn in South Miami, a dimly lit dive bar straight out of a Tom Waits song, jukebox and all, that served surprisingly good food.  It has been gone for over a decade, and it makes me sad that there’s no trace remaining, and too many people will never even know it was there.

But on a happier note, ever since I moved to Orlando in late 2004, I’ve been a huge fan of the great Irish pub in Winter Park, Fiddler’s Green (https://fiddlersgreen.pub/).  It feels like it was teleported here directly from Ireland — full of dark wood, no windows, a cozy little hideout near Park Avenue and Rollins College.  Luckily almost everyone knows the place, and those who know it love it.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve eaten countless meals at Fiddler’s Green that nourished the body and the soul, always accompanied by my wife or friends or co-workers, and good times were had by all.  Once, on one of their rare visits up here, I even brought my parents to Fiddler’s Green.  These are people who like what they like and don’t always like trying new things, but they loved it.  Years later, they still talk about the dinner we had — certainly nothing fancy, but one of those “perfect in every way” meals that just hit the spot for everyone.

This is the fish and chips ($17.95) that won my parents over, and also my wife’s go-to order at Fiddler’s Green.  You get three huge beer-battered Atlantic cod filets, fried to crispy golden-brown perfection — never too greasy, always tender, with just the right level of crunch to the batter.  The batter stays on and maintained that ideal crispness even after transporting my most recent order home.  The fish is served with a cool, creamy remoulade sauce, with the slightest tangy zip to it. 

Here’s a close-up of that gorgeous fried fish.  It’ll make you moan “Oh my cod!”

And here are the chips, delicious potato wedges.  I figure anyone reading this review knows that with British and Irish fish and chips, the “chips” refer to fries, and if you want thinner, crunchier potato chips, those are “crisps.”  So much for a common language, eh wot?  As far as fries/chips go, I’m often skeptical of potato wedges because they are rarely crispy, and if I wanted a baked potato (which I never do), I’d just order a baked potato.  But these are firm on the outside and soft on the inside, but not flaking apart either. 

You might expect an Irish pub would serve potatoes using multiple masterful methods, and you’d be right.  These are the ceili chips ($4.95), which are actually the potato chips most of us know and love… so in Irish pub parlance, they are crisps.  Don’t expect the hard crunchiness of store-bought kettle chips — these are thinner and crispier, and thankfully never soggy from grease.  We can’t go to Fiddler’s Green and not order a round of these. 

Longtime Saboscrivner subscribers know I am obsessed with condiments, so whenever we would go to Fiddler’s Green, I would request a bottle of HP Sauce for the table and dunk the ceili chips (crisps) and potato wedges (chips) in it.  It’s a British condiment that’s a dark reddish-brown, savory and tangy, with a superficial similarity to our A1 sauce, but a million times better.  I asked for a few dipping cups of HP Sauce with this takeout order, and they were kind enough to oblige, but I really should just buy a bottle at our local British Shoppe in Orlando’s Mills 50 district.

I am especially obsessed with mustards, and Fiddler’s also has glass bottles of sinus-clearing Coleman’s prepared English mustard that they will bring to the table upon request.  A little of that stuff goes a long way, but it’s totally worth trying a dab, especially if you are congested.

But after all this talk of fried potatoes and far-flung condiments, I ordered myself an entree that was also really good: Irish stew ($16.95), a thick, rich, heavy concoction of lamb, potatoes, carrots, “and a hint of thyme,” according to the website.  Lamb is one of my favorite meats and thyme is one of favorite herbs, and you can definitely taste them in a perfect melange in this stew.  Of course they top it with a dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and some scallions.  Some people might mix it into the stew like it’s a container of hummus with a little island of sun-dried tomatoes in the middle, but I prefer to get a little morsel of the mash in every spoonful of stew. 

This is one of those ultimate cold weather comfort foods for me, like chili and lasagna.  If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, I’d love to sit down to another bowl of Irish stew inside Fiddler’s Green the next time we get a cold (for Florida) day.  It just feels good — the warmth, the familiarity, the surroundings, the Irish music playing in the background or sometimes performed live by wonderful local musicians.

On other visits, I have also enjoyed the corned beef and cabbage (the best thing to add a dab of the Coleman’s mustard to), bangers and mash with these delicious caramelized pearl onions I would eat by the bowlful, and rich potato leek soup, topped with bacon and cheddar cheese.  I think of these as fall and winter foods, even though we don’t really get a fall here, and our winter consists of random days that add up to about two weeks out of the year.

Long before COVID, I was at a point where I don’t hang out at bars and pubs anymore unless I’m eating or going out of my way to catch live music.  That said, Fiddler’s Green has always felt warm and welcoming, like a piece of home.  I love that it’s a little dark inside with no windows.  On a sweltering, humid Florida summer day, it can transport you to the old country, even if Ireland was never your people’s old country.  And on our rare days of jacket weather, it feels like a safe, comforting cave in the best possible way.  Maybe some day soon, we can all feel safe and comfortable huddling in there again, over pints and chips (crisps) with family and friends.  In the meantime, I’ll keep ordering takeout from here, and hopefully we have a few more chilly days this season for maximum enjoyment of it.

Itamae Densho

I just recently learned about the existence of Itamae Densho (https://itamae-densho.square.site/), a Japanese restaurant affiliated with local favorite (and Saboscrivner favorite) Swine & Sons inside The Local Butcher & Market, a gourmet butcher shop and market in Winter Park.  Local chef Denni Cha set up there a week ago, creating beautiful donburi, bowls of sushi-seasoned rice topped with stunningly gorgeous arrays of raw fish, fresh and pickled vegetables, actual flowers, and so much more.  I’m a huge fan of poke and sushi, but I’m used to very casual build-your-own poke bowl places, and I’ve never done a full-on omakase dinner experience.  So even though these donburi look almost too pretty to eat, I wanted to destroy something beautiful.

I placed my online order on the above website late last night and paid in advance with my credit card.  The automated e-mail told me my order would be ready after 5:50 PM today, and since I grew up in a home where “Early is on time and on time is late,” I was there right on the dot.  I met Denni, who said they would just need some time to assemble everything so it would be at its freshest, and I appreciated that he didn’t have it already made, sitting there waiting for me.  I was out the door with three bowls packed in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe containers in about ten minutes.

This is the Salmon Oyako donburi ($16) that my wife ate most of.  The website describes it as including “Wild King Salmon Tataki, House Cured Salmon Roe, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182329

Note the little yellow flowers and the beautiful green romanesco cauliflower, which has fascinating fractal patterns.  It looks like sci-fi food, and I always remember Rey actually eating some in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  The salmon roe popped lightly in our mouths like delicate, salty, fishy bubbles, and the salmon was incredibly fresh.

This was the “Tuna x Tuna” donburi ($15), with “Tuna Sashimi, Tuna, Densho-Style Tuna, Yuzu-Kosho Aiolo, Tobiko, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182309

I love tuna, so I was in tuna heaven with this one.  I also liked the seaweed salad, which had a nice crunch and a subtle saltiness from soy sauce.  The leafy green surrounding the roe in the above photo had an interesting bitter taste.  But those thin slices of pepper are serrano peppers with the seeds and ribs intact, so they are no joke.  I’m used to jalapeños, which are further down the Scoville scale, heat-wise.  Plus, I usually remove the seeds and ribs when I prepare jalapeños at home, always while wearing disposable gloves (a lesson learned the hard way, after one horrific incident I won’t go into in this space, in mixed company).  Anyway, before too long, we were like a couple of kids: her picking out the serrano slices for me, and me picking the tiny flowers off with my chopsticks for her.  (I don’t think they added much in the way of flavor, but damn, were they cute!)

And this was the Densho-Style chirashi donburi ($18), with “Chef’s Selection of sashimi grade fish with various garnished flavor profiles, house-cured salmon roe, unagi, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”
20200711_182352

Aside from tuna, salmon, and the roe, I think I recognized hamachi (yellowtail) in this bowl, plus more of the other ingredients.  The sushi rice was excellent, and even my wife, who normally doesn’t like the sweet rice vinegar flavor in sushi rice, enjoyed it.  My wife was the first one to discover that all three bowls had crispy fried onions near the bottom, underneath the rice.  She doesn’t normally like onions at all, but she enjoyed what these brought to the table.  As for me, I love onions, so I was very content.

I’m sure there is a grand tradition of this beautiful presentation in Japanese cuisine, but we usually don’t go to those high-end sushi restaurants.  However, my wife and I were both reminded of the award-winning restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark.  No, we’ve never been there either, but it has been featured in many food and travel shows, including the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil.  Those are all awesome shows that any Saboscrivner reader would love, if you don’t already.  Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, prepares these picturesque plates of fancy food that look like tiny terrariums, or dioramas for fairies and elves to live in.  He uses lots of edible flowers and plants to build a little scene, and that’s what Denni Cha’s lovely donburi bowls made us think of.  As long as he’s set up at The Local Butcher & Market, preparing these dishes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, I encourage all of you to place some preorders on his website.  But do it early, because I have a feeling he may only make so many of these every day, and you don’t want to miss out.