Bento Cafe

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro (https://peterskitchencb.business.site/)  opened in late 2017, and quickly made a splash on the Orlando Foodie Forum.  It developed a loyal following for its orange chicken, of all dishes — that syrupy-sweet, Americanized comfort food synonymous with mall food courts and greasy take-out places.  But Peter’s elevated the orange chicken and made it sing.  That’s what they do at this comfortable sit-down spot on East Colonial Drive, a former “cursed location” that they took over and made into a beloved local success over the last two years.

I first went there in December 2017, shortly after it opened, and met some new friends from the Foodie Forum there for lunch.  We ordered a veritable feast and shared everything, including that awe-inspiring orange chicken ($10.95) and lots of dim sum.
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I also introduced these new friends to one of my favorite Chinese-American dishes: beef chow fun ($13.50) — tender strips of beef and the greatest chewy wide noodles, stir-fried with onions, green onions, bean sprouts (not my favorite, so I ask them to hold the bean sprouts), and a soy-based sauce (I’m assuming) with the slightest bit of sweetness to it.  It’s a little greasy, but a truly perfect dish.  It is the best version of beef chow fun in Orlando, and I even listed it among my Top Five favorite dishes in Orlando in 2017, in the Orlando Weekly.20180604_171352_resized

In addition to the regular menu, Peter’s features a dim sum menu that’s available daily, except they only push the dim sum carts around the restaurant on weekends.  On that first visit, a Foodie Forum friend introduced me to some of the wonders of dim sum, including slippery, chewy rice paste, here served with shrimp and drizzled with soy sauce (which I think had something else mixed into it):
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Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor!  From a later visit with my wife, this is the butter lobster (the dreaded market price) — a self-explanatory name for a truly rich and special dish, worthy of celebrations.  The lobsters are alive, furtively pacing around in tanks, perhaps contemplating their fates.  The unlucky crustacean is served fresh, broken apart, easy to spear and slide the meat out of the shell.  It is shiny with garlic and butter, easily one of my favorite lobster dishes I’ve ever had anywhere (not that I’m some fancy boy who eats lobster all the time; I can count the times I’ve sat down to a meal of lobster on my fingers and still have some left over).*  20180604_171945_resized*Fingers left over, not lobster.

On my most recent trip, I brought home takeout.  My wife had requested orange chicken from somewhere, and despite the ubiquity of this sweet, sticky, greasy dish in storefront Chinese restaurants and mall food courts everywhere, I remain convinced Peter’s Kitchen serves the best version of orange chicken anywhere.

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I can’t go to Peter’s without ordering beef chow fun.  I also won my wife over on this dish, and we split this portion over the course of two or three days.DSC02740

On this last takeout trip, I brought home some more dim sum too:

She requested and loved sesame balls ($3.25), filled with a subtly sweet red bean paste:DSC02743
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I’ve ordered these baked roast pork pies ($4.95) before, but the last photo I had of them was really blurry, and I know people already think I’m a crummy photographer.  I ordered them again for YOU, constant readers:DSC02744

The crust is flaky like an traditional American-style pie crust, and the roast pork is sweet, sort of like char siu.
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My wife also wanted these crispy taro dumplings ($3.85), which were stuffed with ground pork, surrounded by the soft, light-purple taro layer and then a crispy exterior, but neither of us loved them.  They reminded me a bit of Cuban papas rellenas, the crispy fried mashed potato balls stuffed with seasoned ground beef called picadillo.  But I like my papas rellenas much better than these.DSC02741

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Oh well, you can’t win them all, but at Peter’s Kitchen, chances are you’re going to like almost everything on the menu, if not everything.

I almost always end up with baked egg custard tarts ($3.85) for dessert, and got my wife hooked on them:
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So these photos were taken over a handful of visits over the last two years, but mostly from a recent takeout order that fed us for days.  I’m so glad Peter’s Kitchen is serving some of Orlando’s best Chinese food, and that they’ve turned a “cursed location” into a can’t-miss culinary destination.  And it’s so close to my job as well, which is a bonus for me.

Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)

Prohibition Kitchen (St. Augustine)

This past weekend, my wife and I ventured out to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, for my first time in almost 20 years and her first visit since elementary school.  We were going to a concert on Saturday night, but we decided to get a motel, stay the night, and use the day to explore a bit of the Historic District and grab a late lunch somewhere good.  Prohibition Kitchen (https://pkstaug.com/) came highly recommended, and it looked very much like our kind of place — a gastropub with an eclectic menu and a unique retro aesthetic.

Our motel was a real dump (I booked it online), and parking near the Historic District was a nightmare, but we were charmed by the beautiful old buildings and laid-back, touristy vibe of the Historic District once we finally got there and found a parking space.  Driving from Orlando, we had definitely built up an appetite, so we arrived at Prohibition Kitchen just in time, on our way to hangry.

It’s a long restaurant that goes pretty far back, with a long bar along the right side.  It was pretty busy when we go in, with a huge crowd gathered for the Florida Gators game.  We waited about half an hour for a table, but after how long it took us to park and find the place, we didn’t mind waiting.  Luckily, we arrived late in the fourth quarter, and the bar crowd cleared out when the UF game ended and the UCF game began.

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There is a stage to the right of the entrance for live music (which they feature many evenings).  This is a happening place!
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Stairs up to second floor loft section:
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We started out with a cup of beer cheese soup ($4), garnished with toasted pretzel crumbles.  It was excellent, with a nice texture that wasn’t too sticky or goopy, and not too smooth and uniform like most queso dips.  It even had the slightest bit of spice.  I would make this at home if I could find a similar recipe; it was that good.DSC02552

This was the German-style pretzel, served with beer cheese dip ($10).  It was light, fluffy, and buttery, with the slightest crispness to the outer crust.  I have nothing but love for Auntie Anne’s pretzels — in fact, they are the only thing that redeems my rare trips to malls — and this was similar to those, but on a much grander scale.  We have a hard time saying no to any kind of soft pretzels.DSC02553

However, the beer cheese dip, included in the price, was identical to the separate cup of beer cheese soup I ordered, and the same size, too.  Could our server have warned me that if I wanted to try the soup, I’d get a cup with the pretzel, to save me $4?  Sure, she could have, and it would have been appreciated.  And $4 isn’t going to break the bank for us, but it would have been a perfect opportunity to give me a heads-up.  Did I need two cups of beer cheese soup and/or dip?  Nope.  But did I slurp down two cups?  I sure as hell did, since I paid extra for one of them!

My wife made the best choice at this lunch, ordering the Maine lobster roll ($21), which actually came out as a pair of lobster rolls, both on grilled, buttered, New England-style split-top buns.  The lobstah meat was in big chunks, cool and refreshing, dressed with mayo, diced celery, chervil leaves, and Old Bay seasoning.  She gave me a delicious bite, and because she doesn’t dig on sandwiches, I ended up eating most of both buns, fan of buttered toast that I am.  DSC02554dsc02555.jpg

Having studied the menu in advance, I figured I would go with the Prohibition Kitchen signature burger ($16): a half-pound blend of sirloin, short rib, and brisket, served medium-rare with red onion bacon jam, a fried egg, and Red Dragon cheese, along with the typical lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles.  Red Dragon isn’t just a Hannibal Lecter novel anymore, but a Welsh cheddar made with whole grain mustard seeds and Welsh brown ale.  I’ve only ever had it once or twice ever, but as a fan of cheeses with stuff in them, and especially as a mustard aficionado, I figured I was choosing wisely.  I love onion jam and/or bacon jam as burger toppings, too.  I even ate all my pickles, and they weren’t bad!  DSC02556

Like BurgerFi, they brand the buns — in this case a fluffy brioche bun, which you can never go wrong with.DSC02557

The burger was perfectly fine.  Greasy, juicy, lots of flavors going on.  But on a humid day of walking around pushing my wife in her wheelchair over the cobblestone streets of St. Augustine’s Historic District, and especially with a concert to look forward to that night, I would have preferred the cool, refreshing lobster rolls she ordered to a heavy burger.  But I always say she’s the smart one, and that was one more example of why.

For the record, the fries were very forgettable, and neither of us ate very many of them.  I could have gotten a cup of beer cheese soup instead of the fries for a $2 upcharge, which would have at least saved me $2 (or gotten me a third cup of beer cheese soup), but I really need to let this go.

Anyway, that was the one meal we got to eat in St. Augustine, although after lunch, my wife bought two kinds of fudge and a big bag of different flavors of saltwater taffy at one of the many ubiquitous candy shops along St. George Street, one of the main drags.  We were both charmed by the touristy Historic District and swore to return together, when we didn’t have a concert to take up our evening.  We might even stay there next time to explore the history, culture, architecture, and food more, since we sure as hell are never going back to that dingy, decrepit, desolate dive of a motel, and it would be nice not to fight for a parking space every time we wanted to come and go.  And while we’d probably seek out other local eateries on a future visit, I’d still recommend Prohibition Kitchen to any St. Augustine newcomers.  The lobstah rolls, giant pretzel, and beer cheese soup were all well worth it.

Bem Bom on Corrine

Bem Bom on Corrine (https://bembomfood.com) is a cute and cool restaurant in Orlando’s hip, foodie-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood that specializes in Mexican and Portuguese cuisines (but separate, not a funky fusion of the two).  Conceptualized by Chef Francisco “Chico” Mendonça, Bem Bom (Portuguese for “Good Good”) started out as a food truck before opening its brick and mortar location in 2018.  My first visit was way back in June, but since I was alone and in a hurry that night, I only ordered one dish and a drink.  DSC02215

They have a nice outdoor patio facing Corrine Drive, with some singular shops and other restaurants directly across the street.DSC02216

This drink was listed on the menu as Portuguese Sumol Passion Fruit ($2.75), and I love passion fruit-flavored anything.  I was relieved to find out it was non-alcoholic, so I treated myself.  The lightly-carbonated beverage tasted good and surprisingly natural and juicy, despite having the weird, dry aftertaste that Sucralose-sweetened drinks often have.  I probably wouldn’t order it again, but I’m glad I tried it once.DSC02211

These were my three tacos al pastor ($13), a dinner special with marinated pork in adobo sauce, pineapple, and a sauce made with arbol chiles and tomatillos, double-wrapped in soft, fresh corn tortillas.  I have a hard time turning down tacos al pastor whenever I find them on a Mexican menu, and these were excellent, garnished simply with finely-chopped cilantro, diced onion, and a lime wedge.  DSC02212DSC02213

I finally went back with two work colleagues today, so I could try more things.  We started out with excellent crispy tortilla chips, served with extremely fresh-tasting guacamole (some of the better guac I’ve had, for $9) and salsa that was actually spicy.
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I’ve been hearing great things about the pasteis de bacalhau, or cod fritters ($9.95), for a long time now, so I had to try them.  They came with a small arugula salad tossed in a light lemony dressing, and creamy, cooling jalapeño ranch for dipping (which wasn’t spicy at all).DSC02536

These were extremely hot (temperature-wise, not spice-wise), but they had a very light, crispy exterior and weren’t overly greasy.  The flaky cod on the inside wasn’t as strongly seasoned as I was hoping for (I was craving something spicy, like the devil crabs of Tampa), but at least it was pleasantly mild and not overly fishy.  They really didn’t need the jalapeño ranch, which is fine, because I used it elsewhere.DSC02537

One of my colleagues ordered frango de churrasco, half a bone-in chicken marinated in tangy piri-piri marinade and grilled ($13.95).  It was served with a beautiful small salad and hearty fries, which I ended up eating most of, dipping them in the jalapeño ranch.  I can’t let a good sauce, condiment, or dip go to waste.  Awww, dip!
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I don’t think he ate the croutons, but they looked house-made, and I probably should have asked for them.  DSC02542

My other colleague ordered the smoked chicken enchiladas ($13.95), which came with white rice and black beans.  The two enchiladas included apples and onions wrapped up with the smoked shredded chicken in corn tortillas, topped with red and green chile sauces.  I tried the tiniest morsel, and it was really good.  I would definitely order these enchiladas for myself in the future.  DSC02538

She wasn’t feeling the beans, so with complete disregard for my co-workers’ welfare later in the afternoon, I had to sample them.  They were pretty basic black beans.  DSC02540

And last, but far from least, I ordered the pork prego sandwich ($11.95): six-hour braised pork, onions, peppers, pico de gallo, radish, cilantro, and serrano sauce served on a crusty Portuguese roll.  It was an incredible sandwich.  Lots of good flavors and textures, saucy, and pleasantly spicy.  I’ve written before how much I hate overly-hard rolls that shatter when you bite into them, spewing crumbs and cutting up the inside of your mouth, but this roll wasn’t like that at all.  The delicious, spicy juices from the pork softened up the inside.  It was a juicy sandwich in the best possible way.  10/10, would order again.
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Some of Bem Bom’s other delicacies include highly-recommended queso dip to go with the chips, rock shrimp tacos, mango-“painted” fish tacos, duck meatballs, a lamb burger, and a pan-seared filet mignon topped with prosciutto, a fried egg, and a beer-based sauce.  I’ve heard about other limited-time specials, including an intriguing octopus dish that wasn’t on the menu at lunch today.  And they even serve brunch on Sundays!

As you can hopefully see by now, Bem Bom has a creative and eclectic menu in fun, funky surroundings.  I would totally go back, especially because it’s only ten minutes from where we work.  Plus, you have Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream, one of my Top Two local ice cream shops, right across the street, and our first local food hall, the East End Market, moments away.  That immediate stretch of Corrine Drive also hosts some of  Orlando’s coolest establishments like Park Avenue CDs (my favorite local music store, even if I feel woefully uncool whenever I shop there), Stardust Video and Coffee*, which hosts the Audubon Park Community Market on Monday nights, and Big Daddy’s (a karaoke bar I can never get anyone to accompany me to).

* Who else used to rent videos from Stardust back in the day?  When I first moved to Orlando, the place blew my mind.  It was the first video store I had ever been to that specialized in independent, cult, and art films, and it organized them by director and/or country of origin for foreign films.  Totally warmed this nerdy librarian’s heart.

 

Washington D.C. Part 5: Momofuku CCDC

It’s hard to choose what was the best meal of my trip.  China Chilcano‘s Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion feast with friends was legendary, and the Union Market was everything I love, with a trifecta of sandwiches, again shared with friends.  (Well, we shared the experience, but they didn’t want any of my three sandwiches, even though I offered!)  But Momofuku CCDC (https://ccdc.momofuku.com/), the Washington D.C. outpost of celebrity chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant empire, was also a meal to remember — once again improved exponentially by the excellent company.

I had sampled one of David Chang’s iconic dishes once before, his pork belly bao, when I visited the Momofuku-affiliated Milk Bar bakery on our NYC honeymoon back in 2009.  As great as delightful Chef Christina Tosi’s baked goods were, I was overjoyed that they were serving those famous bao there, and so lucky I got to try it.  I’ve tried to duplicate that pork belly bao at home over the years, but I’ve been waiting a decade for a chance to sample more food from the Momofuku family.

I am in a group that held an evening business meeting at our big professional conference, and we scheduled some dine-arounds for our members after the meeting.  There was a list of D.C. restaurants near the convention center for people to choose from, and I volunteered to “host” a group at Momofuku CCDC, just because I wanted to eat there so badly.  Four people signed up, and the five of us walked over together.  I knew most of them, but mostly just by their impeccable reputations, and none of them knew each other.  I made everyone do an icebreaker (which could have gone badly but didn’t), and by the end of our incredible dinner, I think everyone parted as frolleagues — colleagues who had become friends.

One of the CCDC specialties is bing bread, which is kind of like a cross between a pancake, a tortilla, and a pita.  It was soft and fluffy and warm and steamy, and perfect to spread things on or rip pieces off to dip into stuff.  Somehow a group of information professionals failed to make any “Bing” jokes, but it had been a long day and we were hungry.

My bing bread came with salted chili pimento cheese, topped with bread and butter pickled kohlrabi ($7).  Pimento cheese is rapidly joining onion rings as something I’ll order whenever it’s on the menu, and I loved it.  It has been a few weeks since this meal, but I’m 90% sure this was served chilled, which I always prefer to warm versions.DSC02445

One of my companions got the bing bread with chicken liver mousse, topped with fennel jam, Chinese five spice seasoning, and toasted almonds ($15).  I desperately wanted to try it because I love chopped chicken liver, but we had just met on the walk over here, and I didn’t dare ask her for a taste.  She seemed to really enjoy it, though.DSC02449

These were my garlic noodles, with crab, shrimp, corn, green tomato relish, and Thai basil ($33, which is out of my comfort zone for what I’d normally order as an entree, but I was at Momofuku CCDC and probably won’t ever make it back!).  I’m so glad I splurged, because it was amazing.  DSC02446

Someone else ordered charred broccoli with smoked béarnaise sauce ($13).  It normally comes with XO vinaigrette, but she’s a vegetarian so she asked them to hold it.  I discovered XO sauce recently, and now I’m a little obsessed with it — a rich, savory umami-bomb of a condiment made with dried shrimp and scallops, cured Chinese ham (or bacon or lap xeong Chinese sausage), chilies, onions, garlic, soy sauce, and/or oyster sauce, cooked into a thick jam, sometimes with oil added, and in this case, vinegar.  I should have asked if they would serve the XO vinaigrette on the side so I could try it, but it didn’t occur to me until just now, because these are the things I dwell on, weeks after the fact.DSC02448

I’m not seeing this on the menu, but it looks like the same charred broccoli dish served with softshell crab, so that must have been a special that night.  My colleague demonstrated his good taste, between the softshell crab and his seersucker jacket.  (I was sporting mine too, and miraculously didn’t get anything on it.)DSC02447

And this has to be the spicy cucumber, served with crushed almonds and togarashi seasoning ($7).  This would be a great restaurant for vegetarians, since they had several options that are much more interesting and luxurious than their usual choices of fries or a salad.DSC02450

After dinner, four of the five of us, now bonded over this magnificent meal, piled into a Lyft to attend a fancy party at the Library of Congress.  (Not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story!)  Then we split up almost immediately once we got there, but at least we’re all cool now.  And at least they didn’t see me completely wipe out on some slippery marble stairs in the Great Hall.  Luckily I wasn’t carrying anything and didn’t hurt myself, or worse yet, anyone else.

Washington D.C. Part 4: Union Market, Red Apron, Neopol Savory Smokery

There’s nothing I love more than exploring a good food market or food hall, and I’ve been to a lot of the greatest ones in the country.  Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Seattle’s Pike Place Market are my two all-time favorites, but I’ve also had way too much fun at Baltimore’s Lexington Market (home of Faidley’s Seafood, which I have reviewed right here!), San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and Columbus, Ohio’s North Market.  You can keep your fine dining experiences, with chefs who decide what you’re going to eat and obsequious waiters who hover behind you.  Not my idea of a good time!  Give me a sprawling maze of food stalls with local luxuries, exotic eats, stunning sandwiches, and gorgeous groceries, and I’m in Saboscrivner heaven.

On my trip to D.C., one of my frolleagues (a professional colleague who became a friend) invited me to the Union Market (https://unionmarketdc.com/), figuring I would have a great time.  She knows me well, because she was spot-on.  She and her husband, former D.C. denizens, were kind enough to pick me up, and we met another D.C.-based frolleague there.  I was so grateful to the three of them for hanging out with me, showing me around, and indulging me as I tried this and that, as I probably would not have made it to the market or even known about it, if left to my own devices.  Originally founded as the Centre Market in 1871, the Union Market has gone through many iterations over the decades, always changing to stay current and relevant, until it evolved into the hip foodie destination it is today.  I’d kill to have something similar here in Orlando!

I was first drawn to a sign that said Neopol Savory Smokery (http://neopolsmokery.com/), with a picture of a fish. dsc02419.jpg

Regular readers know I love my fish smoked, cured, and/or pickled (the food of my people), so my one friend and I headed straight to Neopol.  dsc02417.jpgdsc02418.jpgIt was almost impossible to choose, but my seasoned friend (the D.C. local) chose a smoked salmon BLT with avocado ($10):
DSC02426I went with a smoked whitefish salad sandwich ($10) on really nice, fresh, sliced white bread, adorned with lettuce, tomato, and onion.  I love cool, creamy, smoky whitefish salad, and it’s really hard to come by here in Orlando.  I’ve made it myself before, but even finding the golden smoked whitefish (sometimes called “chubs”) is a difficult task around here, and then you have to pick out hundreds of needle-thin, plastic-like bones.  This whitefish salad sandwich was excellent, and a heck of a lot easier than attempting to duplicate it at home.  dsc02425.jpgdsc02427.jpg

One super-cool thing I noticed about Neopol was a sign that said several of their employees are deaf, so patrons should make sure their have someone’s full attention and make eye contact before placing their order.  This made all the sense in the world, because I noticed the Union Market is very close to Gallaudet University, the largest university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the United States.  The entire market is very deaf-friendly, with deaf employees and interpreters who can speak and understand American Sign Language (ASL), plus lots of deaf patrons, many of whom are affiliated with Gallaudet.  This article from Gallaudet’s website has more information.

These major urban food markets usually have a butcher shop displaying beautiful steaks, chops, sausages, and seafood that I wish I could take home to prepare, except I’m usually far from home.  So I couldn’t believe it when I saw a gleaming glass case full of my absolute favorite: cured meats.  This was Red Apron Butcher (https://redapronbutchery.com/), a place you have to see to believe!  DSC02421DSC02422

Here’s a screen shot from Red Apron Butcher’s website with everything they offer.  We desperately need this place back home!  Well, maybe my wallet and my cholesterol don’t need it.  This is the stuff that dreams are made of:
redapron

Luckily for me, Red Apron also offers tempting and very reasonably-priced sandwiches:dsc02420.jpg

I knew I had to sample their Italian sandwich ($12), which comes with “4 meats” (I checked, and they were hot cotto, pork cotto, cappicola, and bologna), sharp provolone, pickled peppers, iceberg lettuce, onion, and an herb vinaigrette.  It was a top-notch Italian, as you might guess.   I liked how finely-shredded the lettuce and onions were, and how the dressing held it all in place, so it was less likely to slide off the soft roll.DSC02429dsc02430.jpg

But figuring I would bring leftovers back to my hotel room for a quiet dinner that evening, I decided to pick a second sandwich.  That’s my classic go-to plan, to eat half of each sandwich at the market (or wherever I am) and save the other halves for later.  It was so hard to choose, since everything on the menu looked so good.  But a chorizo burger or a meatball sub wouldn’t be quite as good back in my room later, without a microwave to heat them up.  So I eventually went with a simple grilled cheese with spicy smoked pimento cheese (so not such a simple grilled cheese after all!) on toasted white Pullman bread ($7).  I love pimento cheese, and I’m getting to the point where I’ll usually order it wherever I can find it, since everyone’s version is a little different — kind of like how I am with onion rings, chili, and Italian subs.  However, I prefer the bread in my grilled cheese a little more buttery and a little less toasty.DSC02428

Meanwhile, my other friend got an Indian dosa from DC Dosa (I passed due to having a fantastic dosa relatively recently), and her husband went to TaKorean Korean Taco Grill.  A place like the Union Market is so perfect for hanging out with family or friends because everyone can get whatever they want, and then you just reconvene at the communal tables to eat together.  It’s also a fantastic place for sharing your meals and trying new things.

Finally, I took a deep dive into the world of falooda, the sweet Indian dessert drink that can be layered with a variety of interesting ingredients.  My friend was raving about her cool, refreshing falooda from the Toli Moli Burmese Bodega (https://www.tolimolidc.com/), and on this ridiculously humid day, after a huge lunch, I easily succumbed to peer pressure and ordered one for myself.  According to the website, “Toli Moli” translates to “a little of this and a little of that,” which is a perfect way to describe the falooda drinks.

I am pretty sure she ordered the Royal, which contains pomegranate-ginger jellies and basil seeds suspended in paprika-infused milk, vanilla ice cream, and housemade rosewater syrup.  I almost ordered that too, but the guy at the counter suggested the Mango Mogul, which contains layers of mango jellies and basil seeds floating in turmeric-infused almond & coconut milk, mango sorbet from Washington D.C.’s own Ruby Scoops Ice Cream and Sorbet, and housemade rosewater syrup.  I was a little skeptical about the almond and coconut milk, but I do love mango, so I went for it.  It reminded me a bit of the sweet boba tea slushes I’ve had at Orlando Vietnamese restaurants and teahouses, only with the chewy stuff in a thicker milkshake.  (And I tend to hold the chewy stuff, but when in Rome — or D.C. — do what the locals do!)  Falooda might be the next trend to hit Orlando, so you heard it here first.dsc02431.jpg

Once again, I would probably have never discovered the falooda on my own, much less ordered it, so I was grateful to these fellow foodie frolleagues for broadening my horizons this day, and for showing me what has to be one of the most delicious destinations in D.C.  I loved the Union Market so much, and this lunch with these friends was definitely one of the highlights of my conference.  I never would have made it there without them, or even known to seek it out, but I’m so glad I did, and when you’re in D.C., you should too.