Bagel King

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

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

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

This was the bagel selection on a recent busy weekend after the takeout lunch crowd came and went, but they still had everything I wanted:
DSC03058

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

Close-up of a bialy, for the uninitiated:
DSC03074

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

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

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

On this most recent trip, I stocked up with bagels to freeze: nine everything bagels and nine bialys.
DSC03072

DSC03071

They were even kind enough to throw in these sweet treats: a raspberry danish pastry and a huge, dense cinnamon roll.
DSC03073

Bagel King also makes their own flavored cream cheeses, which you can order on your bagel or get to-go tubs.  The savory veggie, bruschetta, chunky nova, and smooth lox cream cheeses are all outstanding, but they have sweet ones too, like strawberry, Nutella, and almond amaretto.  I just wouldn’t recommend those sweet ones on an everything bagel or a bialy!DSC03059

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

 

Uncommon Catering and Eatery

Orlando’s “Hourglass District” along Curry Ford Road is quickly becoming one of our most exciting dining neighborhoods.  It’s pretty far from where I live so I don’t make it down there often enough, but it includes some real gems like Pizza Bruno, Cafe Madrid, Theo’s Kitchen, and its newest neighbor, right next door to Theo’s: Uncommon Catering and Eatery (https://www.uncommoncatering.com/eatery).  The catering company owned and operated by J. Travis Smith and Tara Vernau-Smith just opened a lovely restaurant space in the former Gabriel’s Subs location in the Winn-Dixie plaza on Curry Ford and Crystal Lake Road.  Their hours are just for lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 4 PM.

I had never been to Gabriel’s Subs before, so I didn’t know what the space would look like.  It turned out to be pretty and soothing with all the light wood and cool blue tones, like having lunch at the house of a friend with really good taste.

DSC02944

DSC02945

DSC02947

DSC02946

The antique typewriter had a list of their artisan cheeses (including one of my all-time favorites, Cahill’s Irish Porter cheddar) and charcuterie.  BUT WHO TYPED THE LIST?  It is a mystery.DSC02948

They had some canned and bottled sodas (including Dr. Brown’s!), but this jug of strawberry and basil-infused water was complimentary, and it was a damn delight.  Reminded me of staying in a really nice hotel.  I could drink this every day of my life and never get tired of it.DSC02949

Travis invited me to take a peek into their kitchen.  I’ve never worked in a restaurant before, so I’m no expert on professional kitchens, but it was spacious and spotless.  This is where Uncommon Catering is based now, in addition to their new Eatery concept, and they will be hosting catered events in this space as well.

I always talk about how much I love empanadas, and because I’m from Miami, I feel like I’m naturally an empanada aficionado.  Well, I do, and I am, and I am, and these mini-empanadas (a plate of four for $10) were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life.  DSC02951

They were stuffed with picadillo, seasoned ground beef stewed in a tomato sauce with olives and pimentos.  That’s my favorite empanada filling, and one of the only times I put up with olives (also as olive salad on a muffuletta sandwich).  And these weren’t greasy at all, the way some empanadas can be when the filling oozes through the crispy fried pastry shell or even leaks out.  DSC02952

I put the remaining empanadas aside for later when my roasted pork sandwich ($11) arrived with a little ramekin of pork jus.  I’ve had a very similar sandwich before, the house specialty at DiNic’s in Philadelphia’s legendary Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite foodie destinations of all time.  People always bring up the ubiquitous cheesesteak, but I think Philly’s finest sandwiches are the Italian hoagie (thankfully LaSpada’s serves the best version in Orlando, along with an excellent cheesesteak), and DiNic’s roast pork sandwich, which didn’t have a local equivalent until now.  Chef Tara cited her Pennsylvanian roots as an inspiration for this sensational sandwich.DSC02953
Close-up of the herb-roasted shaved pork tenderloin, sharp provolone cheese, broccoli rabe, and banana peppers on a soft, Philly-style roll (possibly an Amoroso brand roll, but also possibly something else).  I’m always a huge fan of pickled peppers, but I wonder if some sliced hot cherry peppers would have been even better than the banana peppers.  I don’t recall what kind of hot peppers I got on my sandwich at DiNic’s, and don’t get me wrong, I like banana peppers.  I just like hot cherry peppers more, but I defer to Tara and Travis on issues of authenticity.  DSC02954

I had every intention of visiting a second time so I could review at least one more dish, but I decided to publish my review now due to so many restaurants and other businesses being affected by fears of COVID-19.  (With any luck, new Saboscrivnerinos will discover this review months from now, long after life is back to normal, and they will think “Oh yeah, that was a weird few weeks!” with no lasting trauma.)  Uncommon Catering just recently opened their Eatery, and it’s fantastic, and they could really use your business.  Check them out, and order something to go!  Tip well, wash your hands, and enjoy.  You won’t be sorry.

Git-N-Messy BBQ

EDIT: Since I originally wrote this review, Git-N-Messy BBQ reopened inside a Citgo station at 4980 Hall Rd, Orlando, FL 32817, right at the corner of Aloma Avenue and Howell Branch Road.  I’ve been to this new location multiple times in March and April of 2020, and it is better than ever.

I figure most Saboscrivner readers are aware that barbecue is more than just slathering meat with sweet, sticky sauce.  It’s the whole process of smoking meat for hours at a time over the right wood, low and slow.  When people talk about having a backyard barbecue and grillin’ hamburgers and hot dogs, I cringe, because that’s a cookout.  That’s grillin’.  And that’s super-cool and good, but that ain’t barbecuing.

There are regional barbecue styles in different parts of the country: Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina.  And different areas focus on different meats: beef brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and more.  Florida doesn’t have its own famous barbecue style, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, because it allows us to draw from the best of everywhere else.  That’s a major positive aspect of Central Florida: it’s a real melting pot — an interesting place to live, and a great place to eat.

That said, while we have some perfectly fine barbecue chains around Orlando (some of which used to be better than they are now), I’ve tried a few of them in recent months and haven’t been enthusiastic about writing reviews.  I have been searching for a while for some next-level barbecue worth shouting about from the virtual rooftops, restaurants that combine meat, sauce, smoke, time, and even ambience to create something truly special.  And I found one the other day in an unassuming Shell gas station in suburban Sanford.

Git-N-Messy BBQ (https://www.facebook.com/gitnmessybbq2/) opened recently in the Express convenience store at the Shell station on West Lake Mary Boulevard, just west of 17-92.  Chef Chuck Cobb previously ran an omakase-style sushi restaurant, Zoetic Sushi, that I never got to try, but people on the Orlando Foodie Forum were singing its praises.  But after Zoetic closed, Chef Chuck’s next move was to return to one of his prior loves: barbecue.  I knew of him from the Foodie Forum, but in person, he is a jovial, jocular personality, happy to chat as he prepared my order. dsc02585.jpg

Inside this convenience store, Chef Chuck has his open food prep area, with three high-top tables and a small bar set up with a few stools.  There are four different local beers on tap: two from Sanford Brewing Company and two from Central 28 Beer Company.  Yes, you can even get a pint of beer with your barbecue, if you dine in the convenience store!  Party boy that I am, I just got a hard-to-find strawberry-kiwi Gatorade to go.  I had planned to bring home my food to share everything with my wife, but a guy was hanging out at a table, just chillin’, enjoying the best pulled pork sandwich of his life (his words), after he had just stopped by to fill up his car with gas.  I knew I had to try that sandwich, but as usual, I wanted to try everything.

The Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($8) comes with slow-smoked pork that Chef Chuck further chopped into smaller pieces, house-made cole slaw, lots of sliced pickles (which I’m really okay with these days), and a Carolina-style mustard-based barbecue sauce I asked him to leave on the side.  The sandwich was huge, and a huge value for that price.  Here it is, back at home on a too-familiar plate:DSC02593

I also got an order of smoked beef brisket ($16), which consisted of four large and generous slices.  There was no need to chop them up further or drench them in sauce to obscure the rich-looking marbling or the dark, spicy outer bark.  At some restaurants, the brisket is too dry and tough, and at others, it seems like you just get served a pile of greasy fat.  Here, it was a perfect blend of tender meat and unctious fat, just perfect.
dsc02589.jpg

And then I also got an order of smoked sausage ($8.50), a barbecue item that tends to be underrated, but I always like sausage in any forms.  The large link was chopped up into smaller segments, and once we got it home, we especially liked the rich snappiness of the outer casing — something missing in far too many sausages and hot dogs.  Even my wife liked the sausage, something she can usually take or leave.  It was a generous order, and probably my favorite smoked sausage that I’ve had, at least in a really long time.
dsc02590.jpg

The sides I brought home included more of that cole slaw (which I might have gone without, since the giant pork sandwich had so much on it), very good baked beans, and excellent collard greens, of course cooked with meat.  I love collards, and I’ve tried to make them at home many times, but mine NEVER come out as good as these barbecue joints, even after spiking them with pepper vinegar.
dsc02591.jpg

Chef Chuck loaded me up with five house-made sauces: sweet, mild, hot, mustard-based, and an Alabama white sauce that goes so perfectly with chicken — which is great, because I have a really bland chicken breast in the fridge that desperately needs something to salvage it.  That will teach me to stick to buying chicken thighs, the superior cut of chicken!  Anyway, they were all good sauces.
DSC02592

I would have loved to try the St. Louis-style spare ribs, but those would not have been ready for another hour, and I couldn’t hang around that long.  But I’ll totally go back for them, because everything else was so amazing.  I learned that Chef Chuck can also make a Tampa-style Cuban sandwich with his own slow-smoked pulled pork in a house-made mojo marinade, Genoa salami, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, so that’s also intriguing.  Too often, the pork is the weak link in many Cuban sandwiches, either dry or not very flavorful.  I know it would be the star in his version of the Cubano.

I really liked everything I tried from Git-N-Messy BBQ, and immediately liked Chef Chuck Cobb, who is working meat miracles in this most unlikely of settings.  My readers know by now that too much extravagance and expense make me uncomfortable, and I’m much happier when I’m discovering humble hidden gems, casual restaurants that would be hard to find without a push in the right direction.  It doesn’t get much more humble or hidden than some of Central Florida’s best barbecue in a Sanford gas station, so consider this your push and the Saboscrivner your friendly neighborhood pusher.  Where else can you fill up your car and your belly at the same time?  (Costco, I guess, but Git-N-Messy is really something special!)  Just as a final note, Git-N-Messy is closed Sundays and Mondays, as even Chef Chuck needs some time off from smoking and slicing.

Texas de Brazil

Back in the day, when we all could eat more than we can now, my dad was a huge fan of all-you-can-eat restaurants, especially the many Chinese buffets around Miami in the ’80s and ’90s.  He knew each one’s strengths and weaknesses: which ones had the best spare ribs, the best fantail shrimp, the best house special fried rice, and so forth.  He was a beloved regular at a lot of those places, and even though he wouldn’t consider himself a foodie, it was his quest for the best versions of a dish and the best bargains around South Florida that started your Saboscrivner on my persistent path as a culinary explorer, reporter, and reference librarian.

But beyond the Chinese buffets, the height of luxury was the all-you-can-eat Brazilian churrascaria, Texas de Brazil (https://texasdebrazil.com/), a decadent steakhouse where uniformed gauchos walk a never-ending parade of grilled meats to your table, impaled on giant swords, for you to enjoy until you slip into a meat coma.  This was our destination for the most special of special occasions, our most rare and revered restaurant.  There were multiple steaks, including filet mignon (some wrapped in bacon!), Brazilian picanha, and flank steak, parmesan-crusted chicken and pork, Brazilian sausage, lamb chops, leg of lamb, and a star player I’m saving for last because it is the best.

Beyond the meats is a sumptuous salad bar, if one could even call it that — one of the most bountiful, bombastic, breathtaking buffets imaginable, where the actual salad is a mere afterthought alongside fancy salami and prosciutto, fresh mozzarella orbs, spreadable Boursin cheese, fancy Spanish manchego (sheep-milk cheese), cold-smoked salmon, chilled marinated shrimp, California rolls, roasted peppers, caramelized garlic cloves, and other roasted, grilled, marinated, and pickled vegetables.  You also help yourself to luscious lobster bisque, and the gauchos also grace your table with soft Brazilian cheese buns, mashed potatoes (I usually ignore both of those), and fried bananas served with cinnamon and sugar (big fan here).

Note that all this decadence doesn’t come cheap.  The all-you-can-eat dinner is normally $49.99, or you can opt for just the salad bar (which is honestly my favorite part of Texas de Brazil, and would be a fine, full meal on its own) for $24.99.  Monday through Friday, lunch is somewhat discounted at $34.99.  Still, it’s way too extravagant for us more than once a year (and believe me, we don’t even do this once a year).

But we did last year, and we did again this past weekend, thanks to a very special month in Orlando called Magical Dining.  Every September, our official tourism association Visit Orlando sets up Magical Dining with dozens of participating restaurants all over the city, generally mid-to-upscale establishments.  Each restaurant announces a prix fixe menu with a few options to choose from: appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and the price is $35.  This is a real bargain at most of these restaurants, and it gives people who might not normally treat themselves a chance to try some delicious dishes at new, unfamiliar, and highly vaunted restaurants around town at a discounted price.  And best of all, $1 from each Magical Dining bill goes to a number of worthy local charities!

My wife and I rarely take part in Magical Dining.  As you can tell from this blog, we generally gravitate toward more casual restaurants, and very few of those participate.  At these higher-end places, sometimes there isn’t an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert on the Magical Dining menu that appeal to both of us, and we figure we’d rather hold out for a special occasion and order our top choices off the full menu, not a small, curated list of options.  (Of course, you can still order off the regular menu at any of these places during Magical Dining.)

But Texas de Brazil might be the best deal of all, because you get the full salad bar, the full unlimited meats, AND a dessert (which normally costs extra) for the excellent discounted price of $35 (plus tip, of course).  That’s a bargain, for all the same stuff plus a dessert!  My wife loves steak, we’re both crazy about lamb, and I go nuts for sausages and that spectacular, stupendous, sublime… sensual salad bar.  We squeezed in a reservation for the last weekend of Magical Dining, which I strongly recommend you do next year.

We arrived before our 5:00 reservation, in time to hit the salad bar buffet early, before it would be ravaged by ravenous rubes.  Dig the artful presentation of beautiful cured meats:DSC02570

Some of the Saboscrivner’s greatest hits on this buffet plate, even chilled couscous salad in a vinaigrette and some of the best potato salad ever.  I am careful not to fill up on carbs, but I can’t make a rare visit to TdB and not load up a plate with these wonders.  Rest assured, dear readers — I was a member of the Clean Plate Club.  DSC02571

Meanwhile, the gauchos were coming around, so I was building up a supply of meat to last me some time, while going through my buffet items.  This plate includes medium-rare flank steak (left), two lamb chops (top), two slices of picanha (right), part of a sausage (bottom, next to the fried banana).  GO AHEAD, TAKE THESE BANANAS!DSC02572A lot of the meats tend to be more done than we both like, so we always ask for as rare as possible, and end up content with medium rare.  I find all of Texas de Brazil’s meats to be extremely salty, so keep that in mind too.

But here’s the star of the show, both of our favorite meat: BRAISED BEEF RIB, sliced right off the giant bones in front of us.  If you go to Texas de Brazil, it’s very possible you might not even realize this was one of the meats being walked around.  It doesn’t circulate often, probably because it’s an expensive cut that takes a long time to prepare.  And as far as I can tell from having had two or three TdB lunches, they don’t offer it at lunch time!  Last year for Magical Dining, we learned to very politely request it as soon as we were seated, and then to get at least two slices once it makes its way to us.  I love braised, stewed, and other slow-cooked meats even more than grilled steaks, and this beef rib is fork-tender.  It seriously shreds apart with just the side of your fork, and then completely melts in your mouth.  DSC02573

I’m proud to say that neither of us wasted any food, but I was stuffed after finishing everything you saw above, and my wife got equally stuffed from a lot less (but she didn’t mess with the buffet like I did, minus a couple of those spicy marinated chilled shrimp).  I had ladled us each a bowl of lobster bisque at the beginning, but ended up having hers at the end of my meal, because it’s too good, and it would have been a shanda to waste a drop.

And after all that, we were still entitled to desserts, included in the Magical Dining deal!  We got our desserts boxed up to take home, because we couldn’t eat another bite.  There were two selections, and we each chose the one you would expect us to choose, if you know us.

Unfortunately, my wife’s chocolate cake was very dry and disappointing:DSC02574

My Brazilian cheesecake was pretty good, because even bad cheesecake is pretty good, but it was a small sliver:DSC02575

Bonus pictures of the desserts we took home back in 2018, the last time we were here (also for Magical Dining Month):

Key lime pie that was much better than either of this year’s dessert options:
DSC01683

Bananas Foster pie that was incredible, that I was wishin’ and hopin’ they would offer again this year:DSC01685

Coconut chess pie that was also spectacular:
DSC01684
I don’t remember which two were included, and which one we paid extra for just to try it, but all three of these were awesome, and far better than this year’s two dessert choices.  But then again, I’m a pie guy.

So here are your takeaways:

  1. Magical Dining is a wonderful thing, and you should totally treat yourself next September, whether it’s here or one of Orlando’s other great participating restaurants.
  2. Texas de Brazil is an incredible indulgence, a sensational splurge, a truly unique and celebratory destination for carnivores, gourmands, and just plain old hungry people.  Heck, if you’re doing a low-carb diet, it could be a great restaurant to cut loose in, since meat and most salad bar offerings are the star attractions and carbs are supporting players.  My wife and I love it, but now we’re good for another year, or probably far longer.  We got it out of our systems for a while, and no, that wasn’t a colon-related joke.
  3. Or was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IKEA Midsummer Smorgasbord

For many relationships, a trip to the sprawling Swedish furniture store IKEA (https://www.ikea.com/) is a gauntlet to run, a compatibility test, or an exercise in survival.  It may be the event that seals a couple’s fate, as to whether they should move in together or even spend their lives together.  I like seeing the different room layouts and knowing there are almost infinite options when it comes to affordable, whimsically-named Swedish home furnishings and accoutrements, even though I never seem to need anything there.  So I can dig that TORMUND, that EDDARD, scope out that cute YGRITTE or consider that intriguing BRONN, but I’m pretty good at avoiding unnecessary impulse buys (except for food).  It’s just neat to browse around there.  My wife, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with it.  She trusts me to be the hunter and the gatherer, and I am happy to have the adventure and save her the schlep.

But my favorite parts of a trip to IKEA are the cafeteria at the beginning and the food market at the end.  They have lots of imported Swedish foods that are tasty and cheap, most of which you can’t get anywhere else in the Orlando area, so that’s the big draw for me.  I love exploring new grocery stores as much as I love exploring new restaurants, especially international ones.  And as my wife has learned, I can usually be counted on to come home with new treasures and wonders, as well as new stories.

Even though I’m sure you’ve heard of IKEA’s super-cheap breakfasts and controversial Swedish meatballs before, you may not realize that every December, IKEA throws a traditional Julbord, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet.  It happens to have a lot of foods I love: not just the tasty meatballs, but najad salmon (thin-sliced, marinated, smoked salmon, similar to our nova salmon but with dill added), different kinds of pickled herring, cheeses, ham, sausages, desserts, and more.  It’s one day a year, and I’ve never been able to make it.  There is always something going on at work that day that keeps me away.

But this year, I heard about IKEA hosting a Midsummer Smorgasbord this past Friday evening, probably similar to their holiday Julbord, with a lot of the same dishes.  This one was another all-you-can-eat affair, for only $16.99, or $12.99 if you’re an IKEA member (which I am not).  Heck, I could easily eat more than $16.99 worth of smoked salmon alone.  That stuff is amazing!

A friend of mine was patient and cool enough to meet me there, and he even picked us up advance tickets.  Yes, IKEA was probably selling tickets for this buffet weeks in advance, and it got quite crowded the evening of the smorgasbord.  But my friend and I are old pros at this kind of thing.  We arrived early and lined up ahead of the growing crowd, because when it comes to buffets, early is on time, and on time is late.  We came to PLAY, to go big before we go home.

This was the bill of fare:
dsc02260.jpg

My friend had survived the holiday Julbord before, and he said tables were going to be at a premium.  He offered to hold our table to give me a chance to get through the line, and then he would go when I came back.  It was a self-sacrificing move, the epitome of taking one for the team, so of course I offered to do the same and let him go first.  But he is such a mensch, he held his ground and insisted.  I took him up on his generous offer, but in retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue and said we would brave the line together and take our chance finding a table at the end of our quest.  But more on that later.

This was the Swedish cucumber salad — thin-sliced cucumbers in a vinaigrette with pickled red onions.  I always say that I’m trying to develop my palate for pickles, so I took a healthy scoop.DSC02261

I’m a sucker for potato salad — one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes.  Baked?  Boring, unless you load them with more and more unhealthy toppings!  Mashed?  Often boring.  Smashed?  Heeeey, those are just mashed, but you left the skin in there!  Fries?  Sure, but you have the shortest window to finish them before they become inedible.  Chips?  Okay, I’m always on board for chips.  Hash browns?  Perfection.  But serve them soft and chilled, tossed in some mayo or vinegar, add finely-chopped vegetables, herbs, and spices, and I’m down.  DSC02262

This was a cabbage-based salad — essentially cole slaw, both creamy and vinegary at once, with a nice coolness and a refreshing crunch.DSC02263

Hard-boiled eggs (not actually deviled eggs) topped with that wonderful thin-sliced, marinated, smoked najad salmon.  I could have happily eaten nothing but this and gotten my money’s worth.  DSC02264

More hard-boiled eggs, topped with red seaweed pearls that serve as vegetarian caviar.  In my haste of making my way through the buffet line, I took this photo but forgot to take any of these.DSC02265

Here’s that good stuff: a huge platter of the marinated, smoked najad salmon, served chilled and thin enough to melt in your mouth.  DSC02267

At this point, I had moved my tray past the cold items and was in front of the hot stuff.  There were attendants asking everyone what I wanted, so it was harder to photograph everything as I worked my way through.  But they had three different kinds of Swedish meatballs: the classic beef-based, chicken, and vegetarian.  I asked for some of all three kinds, with a bit of gravy.  DSC02268

They also had shrimp salad, boiled and mashed potatoes (I opted for boiled), and steamed vegetables, which heavily featured asparagus, one of my faves.

Then I made it to another chilled area with some cubed Swedish cheese, three different kinds of pickled herring, and four kinds of desserts.  As always, I tried to get a little bit of everything, and regular Saboscrivner readers know from my recent pilgrimage to New York’s Russ & Daughters Cafe how much I love pickled herring.  These were served straight out of the glass jars they sell in the food market downstairs, and I made a mental note to return and get some for the road if I liked it.  (Spoiler alert: of course I did!)

So this was the first heroic plate I assembled with all the cold items.  Loved the najad salmon, the three kinds of pickled herring, the potato salad, and the cole slaw.  If this was all I ate, I would have been totally content.  The cheese was sharper than I expected, which is rarely a bad thing.  The different herrings included one in a mustard and dill sauce (at 12:00), pickled with dill (at 3:00), and spiced matjes herring (at 9:00), which I tried at Russ & Daughters.
DSC02272

And this was my hot plate.  The white stuff in the top right was a creamy lemon caper sauce, maybe the only thing I didn’t love, because I just don’t care for capers.  The potatoes and vegetables could have been seasoned a little better, but they were okay.  All three kinds of meatballs were great.  Very tasty, with nice textures I enjoyed.
DSC02273

They were serving coffee, tea, and cola, but these were the Swedish fountain drink options.  I tried the lingonberry drink (very subtly sweet) and the sparkling lemon fruit water (quite refreshing).
DSC02270DSC02271

And finally, my desserts.  The angel food strawberry shortcake was a little bland, as angel food cake always is.  The chocolate dome on the top had a thin chocolate shell, covering sticky, gooey marshmallow filling.  It was just okay.  But the other two items were very good.  The wedge of chocolate cake was rich and gooey, like brownie batter.  I loved it, and I knew that even though my wife doesn’t share my love for the IKEA cafeteria, she would have loved that.  The chocolatey thing on the bottom was covered with coconut flakes and had a rich, gooey center that reminded me of cocoa, coffee, caramel, and spiced Biscoff cookies.  DSC02274

Well, as you can see, I ate like a king.  But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending because even though I made my way through the line pretty quickly, being near the front of it, my buddy who saved our table wasn’t so lucky.  When I returned, he went off to get in line, and I waited, doing my best to be polite and not eat without him.  But he came back empty-handed almost 15 minutes later, frustrated that the line hadn’t moved at all!  IKEA has two sides to its cafeteria, one on the left and one on the right.  But for this big event, which they sold advance tickets for and could have easily anticipated the turnout, they only had the left side open, leading to major slowdowns and delays.  After all that, my friend, a good enough friend to have picked up our tickets, didn’t get to eat!

Now, I offered to share all my food with him, and you can see how much I grabbed.  Hey, I always like to share my food with my friends, and I wasn’t sick or anything, but he wasn’t having it.  I offered to wait too, but he was frustrated and didn’t want to waste even more time getting into that unmoving line again.  I felt really guilty, and he tried to make me feel better by saying he had a huge lunch, but I still felt like a heel.  But it wasn’t my fault, or his.  Despite how good most of the food was, IKEA really needs to work on its organization and have enough people available to meet the demand if they’re going to host big events like this, especially when they have the perfect means of knowing how many people will be coming, and therefore, how busy they will be.

Anyway, we hung out and caught up, I ate, and then we headed downstairs to the market.  You can see they have four different kinds of pickled herring in small jars for a very affordable $2.99, including three of the ones I enjoyed at dinner.  DSC02256DSC02257

I picked two out of the refrigerated case, SILL INLAGD and SILL MATJES.
DSC02276

These were the two desserts I liked, including the gooey brownie-like thin chocolate cake.  Apparently KAFFEREP is memorable moments with laughter and cake and/or pastries.DSC02277

I also got a bag of frozen PANNKAKOR, Swedish pancakes that are more like crepes.  I made these for my wife on Saturday morning and served them with some good bacon, ricotta cheese, and blackberry preserves.  (PANNKAKOR totally sounds like a forgotten minor character from Masters of the Universe, which was not one of my favorite childhood cartoons.)DSC02278

My whole IKEA market haul:
dsc02275.jpg

So after years of trying and failing to make it to the IKEA all-you-can-eat buffet, I finally got to eat all I could eat, while my poor friend didn’t get any food at all.  It was good, but I don’t think I’ll rush back next Midsummer or lose any sleep when I inevitably can’t make it to the December Julbord.  I got it out of my system.  But if you go on a normal day, they really do serve some surprisingly good and cheap food at IKEA.  If you go with your significant other and eat first, you might forestall one of those infamous IKEA passive-aggressive fights.  And if you’re brave enough to attend one of the all-you-can-eat events, even after reading this, buy your tickets in advance, arrive early with your entire party, go through the line together, and take your chances getting a table.  The alternative is far, far worse.

The New York Adventure Part 6: Katz’s Delicatessen

I promise my wife and I didn’t schlep all the way to New York to just eat Jewish deli food for our tenth anniversary trip, although that remains a huge part of The City’s culture and history, as well as its appeal for both of us.  I might be a secular, non-practicing Jew, but that food fills me with nostalgia for my childhood, as well as for early-to-mid 20th Century Jewish big city experiences I feel and relate to strongly, despite not being born yet.  Does that make sense?

I’ve written before about how food embodies our shared human experiences: our history, our politics, our economics, art, science, even religion.  And while I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere, I feel a sense of belonging to something larger and greater than myself when I nosh on a knish, a bagel with pickled fish, or a pastrami sandwich.  My wife indulges me, and she appreciates the food as well.  It might not feel like as big a deal if we could get all the same food at the same quality level at home, but we can’t, so going to the iconic originals, the legendary landmarks, the places that have survived a century because they’re that damn good, is a big damn deal.

My family was not what you might call “of the travelers.”  My parents, both teachers in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, were (and still are, in retirement) hard-working, patient, generous, and awesome, but we never took many trips when I was younger.  That’s why when we went to New York in the summer of 1991, it was the most profound and transformative experience of my life thus far.  My dad is from Brooklyn — specifically the East New York neighborhood that hasn’t been gentrified and hipsterized like so many other parts of the borough — so I feel like New York is in my blood, despite never having lived there.

That was a whirlwind trip, indulgent for all of us.  My brother and I had never even flown before.  We stayed near Central Park (and even took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Park, which I do not recommend), visited family in Brooklyn, took in museums, made a pilgrimage to the legendary comic book store Forbidden Planet (much larger back then than it is now, enough to blow my middle school mind with its two floors).  On top of that, we ate at great Jewish delis of decades past that have long since closed their doors: the Stage Deli, the Carnegie Deli, and Lindy’s in Manhattan, and Grabstein’s in Brooklyn.  Despite everything in the City feeling more decrepit and dangerous back then, it was an awe-inspiring and unforgettable trip that made a huge impact on my life.  I had always romanticized New York from my dad’s stories about growing up, my lifelong obsession with DC and Marvel Comics, and my teenage love affairs with jazz and punk music.  But after seeing, feeling, and tasting it for myself that summer, New York changed me forever.  I desperately wanted to go to NYU for film school, but obviously that never happened.  I spent the next 15+ years fantasizing about a return trip and everything I would do, see, and eat there.

Even though my parents would never consider themselves “foodies” (and often wonder how the hell I ended up like I did), I think our original New York trip sowed the seeds of my own desire for culinary capers and appetizing adventures.  I finally made it back to New York with my wife while we were just dating, and the post-9/11 City felt much cleaner and safer than it did in 1991.  That time we took in my first real Broadway shows and visited maybe the most iconic New York delicatessen of all, Katz’s Delicatessen (https://katzsdelicatessen.com/).  And we returned again, to the City and to Katz’s, for our honeymoon a few years later, in 2009.  Finally, a decade later, we were back once more.

DSC02188

Katz’s feels chaotic when you’re a laid-back Floridian.  When you go in, you get a ticket, and then you can either get in line with one of the meat cutters behind the counter, or wait for a table with a waiter, who is usually cartoonishly brusque and rude (and yet, strangely charming).  I told my wife to grab an open table outside of the waiters’ section, and I lined up.  As you can see, it’s kind of a free-for-all.  They’ve been doing this for over a hundred years, but could there possibly be a better way to get everyone in and out?DSC02186When you finally get to the front of the line, if you order pastrami, the cutter will cut you a small slice on a plate, for you to sample.  Make sure you have a buck on hand for the customary tip.  Keep in mind, because they hand-slice the meat at Katz’s, it comes out much thicker and juicier than most sandwich shops with thin, machine-sliced pastrami.  Normally I prefer my deli meats sliced thin, but there’s nothing like this.

Anyway, here it is, the finest pastrami sandwich known to man, hand-sliced right in front of me.  I asked for a little fattier, juicier pastrami — none of that lean stuff for us.  A little helpful hint from your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner: When you’re at Katz’s, pay the $1 upcharge and get your sandwich on a CLUB ROLL, dig me?  The rye bread they use is essentially an edible napkin, because it barely holds up under the weight and greasy juices of the copious amounts of cured and smoked meats.  The club roll is delicious, and it supports the meat and condiments better.  Rye is for suckas.  DSC02183

This was a $23 sandwich, but two healthy, hungry people can easily split it and be satisfied.  I added some of their mustard to my half and even dabbed a bit in a small plastic cup of Russian dressing, meant for their Reubens, but my wife would do no such thing.  DSC02184

Pickles are included.  Just as I did on my previous visit, ten years ago on our honeymoon, I tried both kinds, but just couldn’t get into them.  I am truly trying to develop a taste for pickles, but kosher dills and half-sours just don’t tickle my pickle.  DSC02185

Anyway, leaving is a whole big production, because you have to present your ticket when you leave, then weave through the hangry crowd to get to the front.  But here’s another helpful hint: If you’re paying with a credit card, pay in the back.  We went to the front and waited to check out, only to find out they only accept cash up there.  Rather than force my wife to hustle back through the hungry, hangry hordes, I was lucky I had some sock money on hand (or in sock, to be accurate), so we settled up and escaped.

Katz’s can be an exhausting experience — I definitely wouldn’t go there for a chill, relaxing meal — but there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had in New York, which means there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had anywhere else.