The Osprey

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Ernest “I Love When You Call Me Big Papa” Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

The Osprey (https://www.theospreyorlando.com/) is one of my favorite restaurants in all of Orlando, but it had been over three years since my last visit.  They didn’t do anything wrong — owners Jason and Sue Chin run a tight ship, and it never disappoints.  In fact, their restaurant is so good, they were recently named James Beard Award semifinalists, which is a huge honor in the restaurant industry.  (And we here in Orlando feel like they were robbed of an official nomination!)

But so much had changed since my last visit, even the name!  The restaurant was renamed The Osprey (it used to be The Osprey Tavern), and the menu was revamped to focus much more on local seafood.  My last meal there with my wife was excellent, but that was in early 2018, before I started this blog.  As a result, I never got around to writing a belated review, since most of my photos were of dishes we ordered that are no longer on the current menu (and my photos were also pretty bad back then).  So I was long overdue for a return trip.

The Osprey does not serve lunch, but it opens for dinner at 5:00 PM every day of the week except for Monday.  It runs one of the best happy hours in Orlando runs from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, Tuesday through Friday only.  It is also open for brunch on Sundays, which was my first experience at The Osprey many years ago.  I’m just not a brunch guy; it doesn’t matter where it is.  But I am very much a lunch/dinner/happy hour guy.

But my favorite thing about The Osprey Tavern, and now The Osprey, was $1 oysters during happy hour on weeknights.  Since I work so late, I was hardly ever able to make it over there to take advantage of one of my favorite meal deals in Orlando, so it was a rare and wonderful treat.

The $1 happy hour oysters were the main thing that recently drew me back to The Osprey in the middle of a long and exhausting recent workday where I had several classes to teach.  (Since that visit, they are now $2 each.)   I ordered an icy platter with a dozen fresh mid-Atlantic James River oysters on the half shell ($12), plump and juicy, from Virginia.  These were much smaller and more delicate than the typical huge Appalachicola oysters I’m most used to, which come from Florida’s Gulf Coast.  These James River oysters were slightly firmer in texture too, which may be a boon for those who don’t love the texture of oysters.  I sipped their briny liquor and slurped them down with gusto; they didn’t need any lemon, cocktail sauce, or horseradish.  I wrote about the raw oysters I enjoyed so much from High Tide Harry’s and the late, lamented Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe during the stressful, chaotic year of 2021, and I share my Saboscrivner Seal of Superiority with these oysters from The Osprey.I should have taken a close-up of that other little ramekin of sauce near the 2:00 position above.  That is a mignonette, a unique condiment I tried for the first time on my previous visit to The Osprey for oysters, back in early 2018 — far too long ago — before I started this blog.  I remember that mignonette was different from this one, but the menu refers to it as “seasonal” mignonette, so they may change out ingredients and flavor profiles throughout the year.  I’ve never had anything like them before or since.  It’s kind of like a peppery vinaigrette, with small bits of crispy shallots floating in it, and it’s a little sweet.  I like my oysters straight-up to fully savor their flavor, but the mignonette was too delicious to leave behind… so I sipped and chewed it, just like I did in 2018.  It’s that good.

This was the calamari ($9 during happy hour; otherwise $12).  These tender, breaded squid rings and tentacles come adorned with paper-thin slices of piquant pickled peppers (a very nice and colorful touch), served on a bed of hazelnut romesco (the tangy orange sauce on the plate below, made with roasted tomatoes and peppers), and served with a ramekin of cool, creamy, slightly lemony citrus aioli.  All the flavors and textures worked together perfectly for a beautiful harmony. 
I usually love calamari, but some places serve you a greasy mess of chewy rubber bands, sometimes hidden under too much crunchy, overcooked, tasteless batter.  Not here.  If you had any doubt that a seafood restaurant as nice as The Osprey would excel at the calamari game, dispel those doubts now.

Now I come to one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had — certainly in Orlando, and possibly an all-time Top Tenner.  It even made my list of Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 in Orlando Weekly, where it was the only dish from a restaurant I hadn’t reviewed yet.  Well, here’s my full review, better late than never.  This is spaghetti alla chitarra ($15; not a happy hour special), and this picture cannot possibly do it justice.

The pasta itself was freshly made in house, and it was tossed and served with shelled clams from Cedar Key, Florida, blistered tomatoes, herbs, and an ingredient I’ve been obsessed with since learning about it a few years back: bottarga.  As if fresh, handmade pasta and local clams weren’t awe-inspiring enough, bottarga is the egg sacs of a fish (usually grey mullet or bluefin tuna), cured in salt, then pressed and dried until they are solid blocks of savory, salty, fishy goodness, then shaved or grated onto a dish to lend it an umami-laden intensity.  If you’ve ever had bonito flakes on a Japanese dish, bottarga is like that, but more intense.  At least to me, it is also vaguely reminiscent of caviar, only without the unique “popping” sensation and all the bougie attitude that goes along with caviar.  As an unabashed aficionado of all cured, smoked, and pickled seafood, this is a dream ingredient, and the spaghetti alla chitarra was a dream dish.

Finally, I wasn’t sure if I’ve ever had the fries at The Osprey, but a trusted foodie friend had raved about them before.  I saw the cheeseburger and fish and chips both came with fries, so I asked my wonderful, attentive server Savannah if they would consider selling me a separate order of fries, even though it wasn’t listed on the menu.  She said they would, and she brought me a plate teeming with a huge “side order” of fries (only $4).   Folks, these join the potato pantheon of the finest fries in Orlando, alongside other fabulous fries from the likes of Mrs. Potato, Chicken Fire, Makani, and Se7en Bites.  They have a crispy, seasoned outer coating like the fast food fries I love so much from Arby’s, but they are pillowy soft and potatoey inside.  Not too thick, not too thing.  Just fantastic fries all around.  Savannah brought them with ketchup and a house-made creamy, tangy “comeback sauce” that you absolutely have to try, whether you get fries or something else to dip in it, or just shoot it out of the little metal ramekin.

I still had to return to work and teach one more late class after that luxurious dinner, but I ordered something to bring home to my wife, who loves desserts as much as I love oysters and pasta and cured stuff.  This looked like a dessert that would bring us both joy: the s’mores tart ($7), with “smoky ganache,” graham cracker crust, and toasted meringue topping.  This was another standout dish, even for me.  I might not be the biggest dessert eater, but I sure do love pie, especially chilled pies with graham cracker crusts, and this one was right up my alley.  We both had tiny tastes that night, and my wife liked it, but I liked it even more than she did.  Because of that, she was kind enough to eat a little more for breakfast the next morning, but saved me some to enjoy when I got home from work that following evening.  She’s the sweetest of all, but this was an excellent dessert I would recommend to anyone.  It was so rich, we were able to get four servings out of this one slice!

So that’s a long-overdue review of one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  Even though oysters are $2 each at happy hour instead of the buck they used to be, I still strongly recommend them — even at full price.  Jason and Sue Chin are building a local restaurant empire with their Good Salt Restaurant Group, and I look forward to returning to their other concepts and trying their newest place.  But don’t sleep on The Osprey!

Hidden away on beautiful, idyllic New Broad Street in Orlando’s burgeoning Baldwin Park neighborhood, it feels like it exists in another world, another reality, compared to the industrial, somewhat dilapidated stretch of East Colonial Drive just minutes away (and minutes from my workplace).  Making the short drive to savor a happy hour dinner on a busy, stressful workday transported me away from real life temporarily, as all the best meals should do, to one degree or another.  If you like seafood, I hope you will allow yourself that experience as well.

 

Banh Mi Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

The ‘Dines List 2: Mission to Morocco!

Believe it or not, even though we’re finally into October, it’s still hurricane season, so this lifelong Florida Man isn’t relaxing just yet.  I usually don’t let my guard down until we get to Thanksgiving, so I still have a huge stash of shelf-stable food on hand, including plenty of my favorite quick, easy, healthy, delicious household staple, tinned sardines.

I don’t know if my first installment of The ‘Dines List, the new ongoing Saboscrivner feature where I review canned sardines and other tinned seafood, was a rousing hit among my dozens of readers back in July.  Most people come here for restaurant reviews, but because I don’t go out to eat as often as everyone thinks I do, I bolster those with reviews of other foods I enjoy and want to spread the word about in recurring features like Grocery Grails, Tight Chips, Cutting the Mustard, and now The ‘Dines List.  But the truth is, I eat a lot of sardines.  I got into them when I was a poor student, but now that I make the medium bucks in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of academia, I continue to dine on ‘dines because they’re so healthy, they’re environmentally sustainable (especially compared to most other fish), they’re cheap, they’re versatile, and I just like them.  Plus, as a lifelong collector of things like comic books, action figures, and music, I appreciate that there are seemingly infinite varieties of sardines, so I love discovering and collecting new brands and flavors and sharing information about them.

My first ‘Dines List feature, “Canned Sardines 101,” was a rundown of some of my all-time favorite sardines, meant as a guide for the unfamiliar and the skeptical, to ease new ‘dine eaters into those briny waters and introduce them to the tastiest and least-intimidating tinned ‘dines I know of.  But since there are so many more sardines out there, future ‘Dines List installments are going to have themes to them, and this one is going to be about sardines from Morocco.

Why Morocco?  Perhaps the better question is why not Morocco?  Located in the northwestern point of the African continent, Morocco borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost edge of the warm Mediterranean Sea.  This geographical area, where ocean meets sea, has a long history of fishing and trading, and there are commercial fisheries all through the region.  Morocco is right across from Spain and Portugal, and plenty of tinned sardines are products of those three countries.  I’ll cover Spanish and Portuguese sardines in future installments, but it is worth noting that due to European Union agreements regarding fishing rights, many Spanish vessels fish for sardines in Moroccan waters.

The first Moroccan sardines I found were from the Titus brand, which most Asian markets around Orlando seem to carry.  These had a very cool-looking can.  I love how sardine can graphic design tends to be “old-timey,” like they’ve had the same artwork, fonts, and colors for decades, or even longer.  You’ll never see tins emblazoned with a cartoon fish shredding on an electric guitar while riding a skateboard and wearing sunglasses and a backwards cap, because there are no focus groups warning the sardine companies they need to be more “extreme” and “totally in your face.”  And that’s just fine, really.

But the ‘dines inside weren’t the prettiest.  This was after I drained the oil, but don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.   

I just threw these over some pasta and didn’t bother to take a picture.  They were okay.  I don’t think I would get them again, but of course I bought two cans of the regular Titus and two cans of…

HOT TITUS!  I almost always gravitate toward spicy sardines, which are either packed in spicy oil or with some kind of hot peppers, or both.  They usually taste better than plain ones, at least to me.   

This can only included three large ‘dines, and in my experience, the bigger ones rarely taste as good as the smaller ones.  They tend to be drier and flakier in texture than smaller brisling sardines.   These Hot Titus ‘dines came packed with some very hot peppers (dry and full of spicy seeds) in addition to the bright orange spicy vegetable oil.

I made the Hot Titus ‘dines into one and a half sandwiches on delicious Deutsche Kuche soft pretzel sticks from my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” because I am easily amused.  The pretzel sticks are imported from Germany, and I just bake them in the toaster oven at 350 for nine minutes.  They come out with perfect crispy, crackly exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors, ideal for salvaging sardines (or sampling mustards, as in my Cutting the Mustard feature from earlier this summer).I left off the condiments to get their full flavor… which wasn’t much to speak of, even with the two peppers they had been canned with.  I drained the oil, as I always do, but it didn’t impart much flavor either.  That could have been because it was vegetable oil instead of the superior olive oil.  A schmear of mustard and some fresh and pickled vegetables would have helped turn these into superior sandwiches, even with mediocre ‘dines, but I wanted the full, unadulterated Hot Titus experience.

Earlier this year, I found these Brother and Sister sardines at Tima’s House, a Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, which has some neat stuff.  I don’t think they would have cost more than $3, or I would not have bought them.  You don’t usually see sardines in sunflower oil, but I’m a mark for spicy ‘dines with peppers, so I had to try them.  Plus, they were from Morocco!

They were pretty typical-looking large sardines with dark skin, packed in a deep orange spicy oil that didn’t actually impart much flavor. 

I had these four Brother and Sister ‘dines over a simple salad, since I pack a salad in my lunches for work almost every day.  This salad looks like it was more simple than usual, since I just see lettuce and cucumber on it, but I probably splashed on a bit of a vinaigrette dressing.  They were okay.  I’ve made better salads and eaten better sardines, that’s for sure.  The little peppers aren’t very tasty, and they are full of seeds, so I tossed them after taking this picture. 

I don’t remember if I got these Baraka sardines at Tima’s House or at one of Orlando’s many Middle Eastern grocery stores.  Once again, they are products of Morocco, and they are packed in soy oil with chili peppers, so I was on board.  The price was definitely right on these, but sometimes you don’t want the absolute cheapest canned seafood out there. 

I instinctively drained the orange oil before taking this photo, so they weren’t just sitting in a completely dry can:

And I enjoyed them on some marble rye toast with a schmear of neufchatel cheese (like cream cheese, but low-fat, so the cheese and your life are both less enjoyable) and everything bagel seasoning.  The tin ended up having just three large sardines plus the long chili pepper that didn’t taste very good on its own.

The next Moroccan ‘dines I tried were from the Sultan brand.  First I tried spicy Sultan sardines, in oil with chili peppers.  I believe I found these at the Walmart Supercenter, of all places, in the small Middle Eastern food section.  They were cheap, so I figured “Why not?  I’m already in Walmart.  How much worse can things get?”

They were pretty large ‘dines, as all the Moroccan ‘dines tend to be.

I had these on Ritz crackers (the BEST crackers for any purpose), with dabs of my homemade tzatziki sauce underneath each one — Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, and a dash of dill.  These spicy Sultans weren’t bad at all.  They were very meaty ‘dines, with decent flavor from the spicy oil and some subtle heat.  The chili peppers, as usual, were barely edible.  

I also bought a can of plain Sultan sardines at the same time, and my hopes for these weren’t as high, especially after the relative disappointment of the plain, non-hot Titus ‘dines compared to the Hot Titus.

These were even larger fish:

But I worked some magic, following a Sicilian recipe for pasta con le sarde, a dish that includes onions, garlic, fennel bulb, golden raisins soaked in wine, seasoned bread crumbs, the plain Sultan sardines, and pasta — in this case, some perciatelli, which is essentially the same as bucatini (long, hollow tubes).  Of course I didn’t have any wine to soak the golden raisins in since neither my wife nor I drink, so I just threw them in there unaltered, thinking the sweetness and chewiness would bring something nice to the experience.  It was a tasty pasta dish, especially with that fragrant fennel, which is a truly underrated ingredient.  But I felt like it could be better.

In my first ‘Dines List write-up, I sang the praises of Norway’s King Oscar brand, some of the best sardines you can buy in terms of quality, variety, and value.  King Oscars are readily available at most major supermarkets, and I mentioned last time that they are terrific “gateway sardines” for the uninitiated.  Most King Oscar sardines are products of Poland despite being caught in Norwegian waters.  However, these skinless and boneless Spanish Style ‘dines, packed in olive oil and seasoned with chili peppers and tiny slices of carrot and pickle, are products of Morocco, hence their inclusion here.

In that previous installment, I warned about avoiding boneless and skinless sardines.  That’s just a personal preference, but I felt obligated to try these for a more complete feature on the different varieties of Moroccan sardines.  These King Oscars are perfectly good sardines, but they never look right to me without the silvery skin.  And I think the bones add some interesting texture (plus calcium).

I decided to attempt pasta con le sarde again, to do something more exciting with these boneless, skinless ‘dines.  I started sautéing diced onions, garlic, and more of that awesome fennel bulb in extra virgin olive oil, then added a can of Cento anchovies, which I always stock up on at Trader Joe’s, because they are so good in recipes.  (They are also products of Morocco!)  I mashed up the salty anchovies and their oil in the aromatics and kept sautéing until the anchovies completely dissolved.  That added some saltiness and savory umami flavor, which is good because all boneless, skinless sardines are very mild.  (Although these Spanish Style King Oscars are the best boneless, skinless sardines I’ve ever tried, both flavor- and texture-wise.)

Once the aromatics were translucent and soft, I added sultanas (golden raisins) that I had been soaking in white wine vinegar as a substitute for wine, since I learn from my mistakes.  Then I stirred in the King Oscar ‘dines, their oil, and the tiny sliced vegetables straight out of the can, then some seasoned Italian bread crumbs and red pepper flakes, and let everything continue to sauté.  I tossed it all together with some al dente fettuccine pasta, threw some diced tomatoes on top, and boom: new and improved pasta con le sarde!  This was by far the better attempt, between the higher-quality King Oscar sardines that brought their own flavors, plus the can of anchovies, the red pepper flakes for some necessary heat, and the white wine vinegar-soaked golden raisins for sweetness and tartness.  I’ve never seen this pasta dish on a restaurant menu anywhere, but I am  obsessed with it now.

A long time ago, I bought a can of Alshark sardines from a Middle Eastern grocery store and thought they were pretty good, so I tracked down another can for the purposes of this review, since they are also Moroccan.  

This was the only sardine can I had trouble fully opening, but I was still able to get the four large ‘dines out.  

I ate them plain to really experience the flavor.  These were meaty and pleasantly spicy, moreso than any of the other so-called spicy ‘dines in this review.  I’d definitely get these Alshark ‘dines again.

Last but not least, I decided to try Wild Planet’s “Wild” white anchovies, another product of Morocco.  These are totally different from the salt-cured anchovies most people are familiar with, like the Cento anchovies shown above, which are one of my secret weapons when cooking.  These are more like typical tinned sardines than super-salty brown anchovy filets.  

White anchovies like this are popular in tapas dishes in Spain, where they are called boquerones.  I ate these straight out of the can after draining the oil because I had never had boquerones before, and they were okay.  Pretty plain and bland, like Wild Planet sardines I’ve tried before.  Despite the name of the company, there wasn’t much “wild” about their flavor.  Unfortunately I bought these at Costco, so I have four more cans to get through.  I will definitely jazz them up with more exciting recipes and serving methods to make them more interesting in the future.

So here ends our Mission to Morocco, the second of hopefully many ‘Dines List features right here on The Saboscrivner.  Expect to learn all about sardines from Spain, Portugal, and other parts unknown in the months (and years) to come, but at least I got this one out before hurricane season is over, just in case it inspires anyone to stock up on some sardines.

As always, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, let me know what you try and if you like them or not, and if there are other sardines or tinned seafood you recommend.  I’m always happy to take requests and accept freebies, especially if any of you jet-setters travel to Europe, where grocery stores have mythical aisles of nothing but fancy tinned seafood.  But in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt (or more accurately, gone fishin’) in Orlando’s many supermarkets and international grocery stores as a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, the dean of sardines.

Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar

After discovering the delicious new world of West Indian food with my review of Singh’s Roti Shop earlier this year, I craved more.  The Trinidadian and Guyanese flavors were similar to Jamaican dishes I had always loved, with with some Indian influences too.  After posting my review of Singh’s on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, a lot of people recommended Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar (https://www.facebook.com/VindisRotiShopAndBar/), formerly known as Annie’s Roti Shop, located at 805 S Kirkman Road, Suite 106, Orlando, FL 32811, mere minutes away from Singh’s on Old Winter Garden Road.  I visited Vindi’s a while back and ordered a bunch of different dishes to sample, enough for three or four meals, so I could compare and contrast them.

First of all, since Vindi’s doesn’t have a menu online or paper menus to take with you, I took photos of the menu screens on their large TVs:

I ordered:

An oxtail meal ($14.50), which comes with stewed potatoes, curried chickpeas called channa, and a choice of either rice or a choice of huge, fluffy, soft flatbreads called roti.  My trip to Singh’s clued me in to the two different kinds of roti, so I chose my favorite, the “buss up shot,” like a big, chewy paratha, named for the “busted-up shirt” it resembled when torn into pieces to scoop up the tender stewed meat and vegetables.  Because my wife and I both loved the buss up shot so much at Singh’s, I ordered a second one for $3.

The buss up shot, which unrolls and unfolds to become an absolutely huge blanket of soft, fluffy wonderfulness:

This was the boneless curry/stew chicken meal ($10), also served with stewed potatoes and channa.  I love Jamaican-style brown stew chicken, which is usually cooked until tender with the bones, but this chicken being boneless made it easier to scoop up with roti.  This is after I transferred it to a microwavable plastic container for later.  I realize it might not look appetizing in this photo, but it smelled so delicious and tasted even better.

I decided to go with the other roti variety with this meal, the dhal puri, which is more of a golden color and stuffed with seasoned chickpea particles that add texture.  I can’t seem to find that photo, but it looked very similar to the dhal puri I got at Singh’s and photographed in that review back in March.

Vindi’s came highly recommended for its doubles ($1.50), a beloved Trinidadian street food with channa sandwiched between two fried paratha-like patties.  This doubles had a slight sweetness to it, and I liked the flavor and texture even more than Singh’s version of the doubles.

A peek inside the doubles:

Similar to how saltfish is a popular breakfast food in Jamaica (and the national dish when served with a local fruit called ackee), Vindi’s serves smoke herring as a breakfast dish, stuffed into a fried bread called fried bake (sometimes “fry bake” or just “bake”).  I am all about smoked fish at any time of day, whether it’s delicate, luxurious sable on a bagel, whitefish salad on a bialy, saltfish with ackee or stuffed into a golden fried patty, or even good sardines or sprats out of a can.  I loved this fried bake with smoke herring ($6.50), which was mashed up, served warm, and mixed with some spicy vegetables.  I ate half for lunch and half for dinner, but I can only imagine it would be a breakfast of champions.  The thing on the left above is an extra plain fried bake ($2) that I ordered for my wife, since I knew she wouldn’t be into the smoke herring.

I also got two aloo pies ($2 each), one for me and one for my wife — a soft, fluffy fritter stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes.  It was very good, and very similar to the aloo pie I tried at Singh’s.  I couldn’t tell any major difference between the two.

Finally, I got a Solo brand cream soda for myself, and a Solo sorrel drink for my wife.  (Solo is a Trinidadian brand, and these were $2.50 each.)  I asked what sorrel tasted like, and a helpful guy waiting in line next to me said it tasted like hibiscus.  My wife loves jamaica (hibiscus-flavored) aguas frescas from Mexican restaurants, so I knew she would appreciate that.  I tried a sip, and it had an aftertaste that included cloves and possibly cinnamon — not my thing, but she seemed to like it.  The cream soda reminded me a little of a bubble gum flavor, maybe banana, possibly cotton candy, but it didn’t have the vanilla flavor I’m used to from American cream sodas.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it, and I’m glad I tried it.  I’m trying really hard to drink less soda, but I always like to try different root beers, cream sodas, and orange sodas.

Anyway, Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar was awesome.  I can’t tell you if it is better than Singh’s, but I loved both, and I’d be a regular at both if they weren’t so far across town.  My recommendation, whether you’re familiar with the delicacies of Trindad and Guyana or not, is to visit both Singh’s and Vindi’s on the same trip to compare and contrast similar dishes, since they’re so close to each other.  Singh’s has the West Indian takes on Chinese food to set itself apart a bit, but both restaurants serve up the standard West Indian dishes.  They are delicious and ridiculously cheap, for the quality and quantity of food you get.  It has been a while since I went to Vindi’s and wrote the bulk of this review, so I think I’ve inspired myself to schlep out there for a return trip very soon.  Maybe I’ll see you there… except I probably won’t recognize you, since hopefully you’ll be masked, and I definitely will be.

Smokemade Meats + Eats

Sometimes my parents joke that they have no idea why I like so many different kinds of food that my family never ate when I was growing up.  I got curious and wanted to try new things once I was on my own, out of their house, taking the advice of cultured, worldly friends or the Internet hive-mind.  Not my dad, though!  He likes what he likes, he’s set in his ways, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t on a constant quest for the best too!  Just today I reassured my dad that he is a big reason I appreciate food as much as I do.  He used to drive all over Miami to find the best Chinese buffets, hot dog carts, New York pizza (by the slice!), bagels, Cuban bistec milanesa, and pastrami sandwiches.  He’d schlep up to an hour for a good meal, so that’s where I get it from.  We had a heartfelt conversation where I told him that I love all the same foods he loves, but along the way, I just figured out I like to eat other things too.  We had one of those “We’re not so different, you and I” moments over the phone.

Well, another kind of food my dad actually likes is barbecue… as long as it is not too saucy or spicy, that is!  He got me into barbecue at the legendary Shorty’s in Miami, and we ate there together countless times.  Barbecue is a reliable crowd-pleaser and a timeless and true American art form, like jazz, blues, and comic books.  Most people have strong opinions and great loyalty to barbecue, but even when we find a ‘cue joint we like, we’re always scanning the sky for scintillating smoke signals, seeking something equally good or even better.  And today I think I found that place.

Smokemade Meats + Eats (https://www.smokemade.com/) is a pop-up restaurant that started pitching a tent and serving up Texas-style barbecue at local breweries around Orlando earlier this year.  I’m back at work with a heavy teaching load, so between that and the pandemic worsening in Florida, I’ve been laying low, avoiding crowds, and not exploring as much as I would like.  But after several months of frustration, I finally made to a Smokemade pop-up at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store in Orlando’s Milk District and met Tyler Brunache, the sorcerer supreme of smoke and mystical maven of meat.  Tyler, an FSU graduate (which I’ll forgive) started barbecuing in Washington D.C. before returning home to Orlando, and we should all be glad he made that decision.  You have to follow Smokemade on Facebook or Instagram and find out where he’ll next appear, so you can try this delicious food for yourselves.

I hated crowds and long lines before social distancing was cool, so I was smart and made it to Whippoorwill Beer House on the early side, before it got overrun with Milk District hipsters.  I parked right in front of the establishment (a very pleasant surprise), and Smokemade was already set up in a tent in the parking lot with Tyler, three associates, and a very tenacious bee flying around inside the tent, occasionally landing on them but going unnoticed.  Everyone was friendly as they were taking and assembling orders, and nobody seemed perturbed about the bee, even though I warned two of the guys to watch out for it.  Those guys are nonchalant AF.  I would have gotten the hell out of that tent until the bee got bored and took off.  He must have been there because of all the positive buzz online.

Anyway, even with the curious bee, I was one of the first in line, so I was able to order and get my food packed up within ten minutes.  Keep in mind that proper barbecue is smoked low and slow — low temperatures for hours at a time.  Tyler’s beef brisket is smoked for 16 hours, his pulled pork is smoked for ten hours, his pork spare ribs are smoked for six hours, and his scratch-made sausages are cold-smoked for four hours.  Then all the meats have to rest for hours before serving to be at their best, kind of like me.  So even though I got my order quickly, it took over 24 hours to get ready behind the scenes.  What looks like a pop-up to us takes days of planning, prepping, and perfecting.  And looking at drool-worthy photos of Smokemade’s food online over the past few months, it sure looks like Tyler Brunache has perfected his process.

So what did I get?

Well, whenever I try any new restaurant, I always like to order something where I can sample as many different flavors as I can.  Here, that was the Texas Trinity Platter ($29), featuring a half-pound of beef brisket, a half-pound of pork spare ribs, and two sausages.  Keep in mind, I was bringing all of this home to share with my wife!

When I got home with this massive takeout order, I opened the heaviest box first to reveal the Texas Trinity Platter, and this is what we saw.  WOW.  But you’re not even seeing all of it here!

The first thing I did was remove that half-pound slice of brisket to portion it out.  Look at that gorgeous color, that bark, that marbling!  My photo fails to describe just how thick and substantial it is.  But it’s magnificent, masterful meat.  I asked for our brisket to be a little more moist and fatty, rather than lean.  Trust me, it’s better.  Texas-style barbecue is never served drenched in sauce, but even though we got several small cups of barbecue sauce, none of the meats really needed it.  This brisket stands on its own just fine.

By the way, you can also order a brisket sandwich on a roll for $15, and they look huge.

Underneath, you can see what is essentially a double-order of spare ribs, since I added on an extra half-pound ($9).  Hey, my wife and I both love ribs, and I knew she wouldn’t want any of the sausages.  The ribs are magnificent.  The sweet, sticky, peppery glaze adds tremendous texture and fabulous flavor.  These ribs are so tender, not only do they fall off the bone, but I swear I chewed up part of one of the bones, since it was as tender as the meat surrounding it!   Today, Tyler offered two different kinds of sausages, his popular cheddar jalapeño sausage, and a hot gut sausage.  I requested one of each in the Texas Trinity Platter, and they are both coarsely ground in natural casings (hence the “hot gut” moniker) that give you a satisfying crispy crunch sensation when you bite into them.  They were both heavy and dense sausages, and with everything else we tried, I could only eat a small segment of each.  The cheddar jalapeño was my favorite of the two, with pockets of oozing orange cheddar and a pleasant heat throughout.

Since I can’t always make it to these ephemeral pop-ups around town, I ordered what I could, while I could.  This here is a half-pound portion of pulled pork ($10), not included in the Texas Trinity Platter, but well worth trying.  It is much more understated than the brisket, ribs, and sausages, but I’d still totally recommend it.  You can also order a pulled pork sandwich on a roll for $11.  They were generous with the scratch-made barbecue sauce, which is thin and vinegary, not the usual thick slurry of ketchup, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial smoke flavor like too many sauces.

Barbecue focuses on the meats, but sides are part of the experience.  I couldn’t leave without trying three of Smokemade’s sides: coleslaw made with red cabbage and apples, jalapeño dill potato salad, and pinto beans that are spicier and more savory than the typical sweet “barbecue” baked beans served with Southern BBQ.  Each of these sides cost $3.50.  I liked the beans the most, but the meats are the real reason to chase down Smokemade.
Honestly, my favorite among all these pictured sides were the pickle slices and pink pickled onions in the top left corner of the box, and those actually came with the Texas Trinity Platter!  I already love pickled onions (I make my own), and I am starting to consider myself more of a pickle aficionado, but I really liked these.  Their puckery, pungent punches complemented the salty, smoky meats very well — even better than the actual separate side items, in my opinion.  I asked Tyler, and he said they make everything from scratch except for the slices of white bread that came with the platter.  I don’t know if he would consider selling his pickles and pickled onions in larger portions in the future, but if he offers them, run, don’t walk.

Finally, I couldn’t come home to face my wife without a dessert, so I chose bread pudding over key lime pie (I love it but she doesn’t) and banana pudding.  Each of the three desserts costs $4.  This was a nice-sized chunk of sugary-sweet, soft, moist bread pudding, featuring cinnamon and caramel flavors.  We thought it might have been made with challah bread, as it did taste somewhat eggy.  We each had a nice-sized portion earlier tonight, and there is still some bread pudding left for tomorrow (with my wife’s name on it).  I’d love to try the banana pudding and key lime pie on a future visit.

You might have noticed this was a lot of food for two people, but I fully expected we would get multiple meals out of it, especially with me packing lunches for work to wolf down between classes and reference interviews, and her being home for the time being.  And it was all so good, neither of us will mind eating amazing Texas-style barbecue for another couple of days.

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to attend an annual conference for my professional organization in Dallas, Texas.  Of course I had to try the local barbecue, so I sought out the famous and highly recommended Pecan Lodge.  It was amazing — easily some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten.  Maybe the best.  I’ve never had anything quite like it in Florida, until now.  I never forgot that meal, but I can tell you that Tyler Brunache’s food from Smokemade Meats + Eats looks, smells, and tastes just like that real-deal Texas ‘cue I enjoyed so much in Dallas and dreamed about ever since.

Seriously, don’t sleep on Smokemade, and don’t write it off as a logistical nightmare just because there isn’t a permanent, brick-and-mortar location.  Follow the social media, figure out where Smokemade Meats+ Eats will pop up next, get there early so they don’t sell out of what you want, and go with friends so you can sample a little bit of everything on the menu.  But be careful out there, and drink responsibly at all these breweries!

Back in 1996, the great singer/songwriter/actor/Texan Lyle Lovett sang “That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.”  Well, I’m not from Texas, and neither is Tyler, and statistically, most of you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos probably aren’t either.  But take it from The Saboscrivner: you want this Texas barbecue anyway!  Heck, even my dad would.

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!)
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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!

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.