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!”
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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.

The Pastrami Project

On an episode of Seinfeld, a woman George Costanza was infatuated with once said that “pastrami is the most sensual of the salted, cured meats,” and I think she had a point.  As much as I pine for prosciutto and swoon for salami, pastrami definitely holds the title and championship belt as the greatest of all cured meats.  If you’ve heard of The Pastrami Project (http://www.pastramiproject.com/) before, you may have already tasted the best pastrami I’ve ever had outside of New York City, or you may have seen the humble food truck featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network.  No matter what you think of host Guy Fieri’s frosted tips and Smashmouth-inspired sartorial style, he is a real mensch who shines a well-deserved spotlight on local restaurants across the country, just like I attempt on a smaller scale in The Saboscrivner.  On a trip to Orlando a few years ago, Guy already raised hometown heroes Se7en Bites and Mrs. Potato to new levels of visibility and fame, and also made a pilgrimage to The Pastrami Project in Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives Season 26, episode 11, “Multicultural Cooking.”  I’ve been wanting to try it for years, long before the Triple-D episode, but never made it there until this past week.

You see, self-proclaimed “Pastranomer” (a portmanteau for the pantheon!) George Markward only sets up his food truck behind Cafe Travastere on Magnolia Avenue near downtown Orlando Mondays through Fridays, from 10 AM until 2 PM — perfect timing for a late breakfast or a workday lunch for normal people.  But for almost a decade, I’ve been working the very weird hours of 11 AM to 8 PM, so I don’t usually even eat my first meal of the day until after George drives away.  Luckily, this past Monday, I took my wife to a doctor’s appointment a mile from the Pastrami Project truck (of course I checked), so we had the perfect opportunity to pick up lunch and bring it home to enjoy.  My only regret was not doing this much sooner, like years sooner.

The affable Mr. Markward:

Here’s the current menu with prices.  Right-click and open in a new tab for a larger image.  You can see George serves breakfast too, if you aren’t craving deli delicacies:

We started out with an order of three potato latkes ($5), served with sour cream.  You can also choose applesauce instead of sour cream, but we have applesauce at home.  These weren’t flat pancakes like most latkes I’ve had, but thick fritters that were still hot when we got them home, with perfect crispy exteriors and soft, savory insides.  I tasted a lot of onion, garlic, and pepper.  If you like fries and home fries, do yourself a favor (and a flavor) and try some potato latkes some time.  Ideally these.  

My wife couldn’t decide between the pastrami and the brisket, and I wanted to try both, so we got a sandwich of each.  His sliced beef brisket sandwich ($12) comes with creamy cole slaw, half of a small half-sour pickle, and “donkey sauce,” a roasted garlic aioli that is definitely a tribute to his biggest benefactor, Mr. Fieri.  My wife isn’t big on sauces on anything, whereas I love ’em, so George kindly served the sauce on the side.  I’ve had plenty of delicious, moist, marbled, flavorful brisket from Jewish delis and barbecue restaurants alike, and unfortunately plenty of bland, dry, sad brisket too.  This sandwich was the former.  So rich and flavorful!  If that rye bread looks good, IT WAS.  George bakes his own rye loaves, and it is so soft!  The bread is too often an afterthought on deli sandwiches like these.  At Katz’s, their underwhelming rye is more like a small, edible napkin, which is why true deli aficionados know to pay the small upcharge to get your sandwich on a club roll.  (I once had the opportunity to mention Katz’s club rolls to Phil Rosenthal, the genial host of food and travel show Somebody Feed Phil, and a fellow lover of old-school deli culture.  He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, but now you do, steadfast Saboscrivnerinos!)  But anyway, George’s rye bread slices are plenty thick enough to support a heavy sandwich and hold up to the juice, grease, and mustard very well, and I appreciate that he doesn’t go overboard with the caraway seeds in his rye.  The seeds add some flavor, but I don’t like too many caraway seeds in my rye, and luckily they are few and far between here.

But beyond the brisket, the star of the show is definitely the pastrami.  The regular pastrami sandwich is also $12, or you can pay an additional $9 for double the meat, which is what we did.  Hey, when we went to the iconic Lower East Side institution Katz’s Delicatessen in 2019, the gargantuan pastrami sandwiches cost $23, so George charging $21 for a nearly Katz’s-sized double-meat sandwich on better bread with cole slaw and the pickle is reasonable.

You can also get it made as a Reuben, grilled with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, or as a Rachel, grilled with cole slaw, Swiss, and Russian dressing, for an additional $2 either way, but me being me, I already had sauerkraut and Russian dressing at home.

I asked George about his creative process, and he took me through how he makes his pastrami from scratch.  He takes the big briskets and cuts them to fit in his storage containers, then pierces them with hundreds of tiny holes before curing them for a week.  Then he rubs on his spice rub, smokes them, refrigerates them to make them easier to hand-slice, and finally steams the thick slices on a steam table before building his sandwiches.  I mentioned that his pastrami is the best I’ve ever had in Florida, and the only thing that has come close to the legendary hand-sliced pastrami at Katz’s.  George said Katz’s final step is boiling their pastrami, which surprised the hell out of me, because that would wash a lot of the spice and flavor out, as opposed to his method of steaming the slices.  Clearly his process is long and involved, but makes a huge difference.

In fact, these photos came from our first visit a week ago on Monday, and we liked that pastrami so much, my wife asked me to return for another double-meat sandwich on Wednesday!  So spoiler alert: of course I did.  I have a hard time disappointing her in any way.  The second sandwich was even bigger and prettier, so naturally I forgot to take a photo of it.  FYI, George automatically adds mustard to his pastrami sandwiches, so if you don’t like mustard (like my wife) or you have a giant mustard collection of your own to experiment with back at home (like me), make sure to ask him to hold the mustard or put it on the side.

Finally, my wife always appreciates a bit of dessert, and I saw George was selling black and white cookies ($2), another New York City specialty that she loves.  If you’ve never had one, the best black and whites are more like a soft but firm sponge cake than a crumbly, crunchy cookie, and they are quite large.  When I showed her this one from Daisy’s, from a New Jersey bakery that supplies many NYC restaurants, cafes, and stores, she exclaimed “This is a really good brand!”, which sounds like something I would say.  George told me he could bake his own, but they wouldn’t be as good as this.

To wrap this up, even if you don’t believe your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner after all this time, trust in Guy Fieri.  He does so much good, spreading the word about beloved local restaurants on his show that seems to be on cable as often as Law & Order reruns.  He helped make Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites into a camera-ready culinary sensation, featured Rafaela Cabede and her wonderful restaurant Mrs. Potato, and brought more business and well-deserved acclaim to George Markward and The Pastrami Project.  On our first visit, while we were waiting for our order, two dudes on their way back to Nashville, Tennessee, were just picking up theirs, to eat on the long drive home.  That speaks volumes, that a humble food truck is a now a can’t-miss destination for tourists.  So if you’re an Orlando local, especially if you’re anywhere near downtown during the week, don’t wait as long as I did.

Pastrami, that most sensual of the salted, cured meats, really is kind of like sex — even if it’s just okay, it is still AWESOME.  But sometimes it can be mind-blowing and unforgettable, like the pastrami from The Pastrami Project.  And then you’ll probably crave it all the time.

Grocery Grails: A Plethora of Pickles

I spent most of my life not liking pickles, despite being a Jew who loves New York-style Jewish deli food more than just about anything.  So I’ve been on a long quest to find pickles I liked, with most of them ranging from “meh” to “feh.”  My long-time readers will recognize that I’ve brought this up a lot.  I can’t try any pickles without commenting on them and somehow ranking them in my head.

Well, thanks to our local barbecue maven Chuck Cobb of Git-N-Messy BBQ (which I reviewed right here on The Saboscrivner last fall and have been frequenting ever since), I’ve found the best pickles I’ve ever tried, and very possibly the best pickles ever: Grillo’s Dill Pickle Chips.  Don’t worry, in pickle parlance, “chips” refers to round slices, not pickle-flavored potato chips.  See https://www.grillospickles.com/ for more information.  But I have snacked on them like potato chips or tortilla chips; they’re that good!  IMG_0193

The only ingredients are cucumbers, water, distilled white vinegar, salt, garlic, fresh dill, and GRAPE LEAVES.  They are firm, crunchy, and not overly salty, which is always nice.  There’s a slight sweetness to them, something I felt was missing from every bite I’ve ever taken of a dill pickle before, but there’s no sugar listed, so maybe it’s the grape leaves.  They’re fantastic.  I’d put them on just about anything.

At least at Florida’s ubiquitous Publix supermarkets, Grillo’s Pickles are in the refrigerated case above the hot dogs, where they keep the “fancier” pickles and sauerkraut.  These came in a relatively small container that cost $4.99, but they’re worth every penny.  Sometimes they go on sale.  If they do, stock up, pickle peeps!
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And of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I have to research anything I like, so here’s an article about Grillo’s Pickles from FoodDive.

More recently, I was at Target picking up a few things and found Grillo’s Classic Dill Pickle Spears in a 32-ounce plastic container in their refrigerated case.  I was a little more hesitant to get full spears, rather than the sliced chips that fit so well in sandwiches, but it was a very good price: $5.99 for that much larger container.  Well, even though they taste the same as the chips, I didn’t like chomping on the spear as much, compared to the perfect flatness and crunch of the sliced chips.  Plus, the spears were just a little more inconvenient for fitting on a burger.
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Grillo’s makes hot pickles too, so I’ll have to try those eventually.  I never thought I’d be so enthusiastic about pickles, but if I could like Grillo’s that much, then normal people who have always liked pickles should really taste the difference as well.  The brine is so good, I always keep it and make pickled eggs in the Grillo’s brine.

I am also a huge fan of shopping at Aldi, the discount supermarket chain that offers amazing deals on everything, including some serious gourmet shit.  I buy the majority of our groceries at Aldi now — they can’t be beaten for quality and value on staples like fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs, and salami.  I check their weekly ads online every Wednesday to see their special buys for each week — interesting foods and other products that are only there for a week, or until they run out.  Aldi sells a lot of “private labels” that are usually national or international products from familiar brands, just relabeled as store brands that are exclusive to Aldi.

In recent months, I’ve discovered and tried three delicious kinds of sliced pickles from Aldi — two private labels and one national brand.  These were all weekly “Aldi finds” that I picked up at various times.  They probably won’t be available there now, but watch those weekly ads, and be on the lookout for their return.

The two private labels are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles, which were new to me, and the Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles, which were my favorites until I discovered Grillo’s.  I still like them a lot, though.  Like the Grillo’s brand, the Park Street Deli pickles are sold refrigerated, and they have other varieties, including regular spears and “atomic spicy.”  Suckerpunch Gourmet Pickles is a national brand, and I wanted to try their Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles too, since I was reminded of a friend and colleague’s ska-punk band I like a lot.

I recently tested out all three of these pickles on Krystal sliders, one of my favorite snacks that I’ve reviewed before.  I ordered a dozen Krystals with cheese, the standard yellow mustard, and extra onions, but I asked them to hold their usual mediocre pickles.

Here are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles on four Krystal sliders, so I could gauge their full effect.  I think the strong flavors overpowered the sliders.  They have that nice crispness, but they’re a little too sweet and not as spicy as I was hoping. 

The Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better [sp] pickles were also sweeter than they were spicy.  They would be a perfect pickle on a larger, more substantial burger to cut the juicy richness and saltiness, but again, Krystal sliders are delicious but puny, and these pickles were overpowering.  

I’ve been buying Aldi’s Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles the longest, so I already knew I liked them a lot, especially on homemade burgers.  Of these three kinds of pickles, they were the best on the Krystal sliders, but the slices are thicker than I would like.  They are nice and crunchy, not quite as horseradishy as I would like, but not as sweet as the two aforementioned pickles.  These were the best of the three, but would have been even better if the slices were thinner.

Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos, you can see Krystal has pretty decent breaded onion rings now.  RING THE ALARM, WHAT WHAT!

But I felt like the two newer, sweeter pickles still deserved another chance, so I made my own really delicious cheeseburgers to try them.  I don’t like the flattened “smash burger” style, so my burgers are thicc, juicy, and medium rare.  I served these with American cheese (the best cheese for a burger), Cuban mustard, and a little ketchup.  Check out these perfect golden buns, spread with garlic aioli and lightly browned in the pan:

Now with the Great Gherkins and Suckerpunch pickles:

Both of these pickles went so much better with the juicier, higher-quality burgers, with their sweetness working well to offset the saltiness of the meat and tanginess of the mustard and ketchup.  Their crunch held up well, especially with the light, toasty crispiness of the pan-grilled buns.  I give the edge to the Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles here, but they were both good pickles that led to even better burgers.

Now I’m thinking about all the foods that pickles could go well with, and I am psyched to experiment more.  I’ve already chopped pickles up in chicken and egg salads and made my own relish the last time I cooked hot dogs.  (I buy the Boar’s Head all-beef hot dogs with the snappy natural casing, and they are awesome.)  Salty, sour Saboscrivnerinos, which pickles do you like, and how do you eat them?  Inquiring minds want to know!

But so far, the only pickles I’ve just gone to the fridge and sought out as a solo snack are the Grillo’s, which are above and beyond all the rest.  In this pickle pantheon, they sit on the throne of gods.

V&S Italian Deli (Boca Raton)

Ever since I read Michael Mayo‘s 2017 South Florida Sun Sentinel review of Boca Raton’s V&S Italian Deli (https://www.vandsdeli.com/), I desperately wanted to go to there, except I’m almost never in South Florida anymore.  Even on the rare occasions I get to visit my parents down in Kendall (the boring Miami suburb where I grew up), Boca is still over an hour north of there, and over three hours south of where I live.  But a while back, pre-pandemic, while I had a quick-turnaround work trip to Miami.  It was a perfect opportunity to make a lunch detour at V&S on my way back to Orlando, since it’s only about ten minutes off I-95.  Long-time Saboscrivnerinos know how much I love a good Italian sub, and how delis are my absolute favorite, so I was very glad I drove a little out of my way.
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V&S (named for co-founders Vinnie and Sal Falcone*) has been in operation since 1985, in a small storefront space along US-1, also known as North Federal Highway, in Boca.  They serve Boar’s Head and Citterio meats and cheeses in their huge, overstuffed sandwiches, and also sell them by the pound.  They also feature salads, pasta dishes, and Italian desserts like cannoli.  I would have loved to bring home more stuff to try, but I had that three-hour drive ahead of me, and it ended up taking over four due to stopping for this lunch and hitting rough rush hour traffic once I finally hit Orlando.dsc02637.jpg

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So I ordered two cold subs loaded with cured Italian meats, cheeses, and tasty vegetables, figuring they would hold up okay in the car without spoiling, and would probably even get better over time, with the ingredients melding and marinating together.  I devoured half of each of them while sitting at one of the six stools at the little lunch counter in V&S (back when you could do such a thing, but they also have a few small outside tables for those attempting it now), and brought the other halves home for later — a standard Saboscrivner style whenever I visit a new, faraway sandwich joint.

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I got the V&S Special, with sopressata, mortadella with pistachios, and provolone, and the Italian Combo, with genoa salami, capicola (GABBAGOOL!), and provolone.  I loved how thin the very patient Nick sliced all the meats, fresh for both sandwiches.  They both came dressed with finely-shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, thin-sliced onions, hot and sweet peppers, on fresh-baked crusty Italian rolls covered with sesame seeds.  I saw they also offered softer Cusano’s rolls, which my beloved local LaSpada’s uses, but I figured for an extra quarter each, go with the fresh bread.  Each sandwich cost $13.86 after tax and the minor upcharges of the fresh bread and hot and sweet peppers.DSC02646

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And as if there was any doubt, they held up fine on the long drive back to Orlando, and were even MORE delicious the next day:
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V&S is a tiny treasure in Boca Raton, the kind of Italian deli I just love.  We’re so lucky here in Orlando to have some real options for great Italian sandwiches: LaSpada’s, Stasio’s, Manzano’s, Tornatore’s, and Bad As’s Sandwich whenever they bring back the Capone sandwich.  But I’d add V&S to my regular rotation if it was closer, or if I was.  If you’re ever driving on I-95 through Broward or Palm Beach County and find yourself near the Yamato Road exit, definitely make a detour.  And if you already live in the area, you’re officially on notice!  Next time, though, I’m gonna leave more cash and take the cannoli.

*I draw attention to the names of the founders in part because I have occasionally used the name “Vincent Falcone” as an alias or fake name at random times throughout my life.  It’s just a cool-ass name, right?  I can think of only one of my regular readers (my best friend) who will grasp the significance and know the backstory, but I’ll be amazed and astonished if any other stalwart, steadfast Saboscrivnerinos figure it out.

Bagel King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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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

2021 EDIT: Chef Chuck Cobb of Git-N-Messy BBQ (later rebranded as Red-Eye’s Git N Messy Smokehouse & Tavern and relocated to 855 E State Rd 434, Winter Springs, FL 32708) passed away in a motorcycle accident on April 29, 2021, about a mile from the sports bar he had moved his burgeoning barbecue business into.

He worked his ass off, and all his labors were finally paying off.  Everything seemed to be going well.  He even received some national exposure, cooking on Live With Kelly and Ryan.  But he was still so down to Earth — this big, boisterous guy who always asked how my wife was feeling, always remembered our orders.  I’m proud that I wrote one of his earliest reviews right here on The Saboscrivner.

Later on, he expanded his menu to include more choices and limited-time specials.  I kept going back once he moved closer to us in the Winter Park convenience store, and we enjoyed his giant beef ribs (my wife’s favorite), jalapeño-cheddar sausage, Nashville hot chicken, smoked prime rib, even venison.  One day I made a special trip because he was experimenting with fried alligator nuggets!  I had been taking photos of all these new offerings, and kept meaning to make it out to the new Red-Eye’s Git N Messy Smokehouse & Tavern (that’s a mouthful!) to write a fully updated review.  I missed my chance to eat food he made one last time, to BS with him one last time.

Of course I’ll miss Chef Chuck’s delicious food (although he had been training an apprentice pitmaster, so the ‘cue will continue), but I’ll miss him more.  He was married and had four kids, on top of being beloved throughout greater Orlando for being so damn good at what he did, and so affable through all of it.  It just goes to show you how impermanent and uncertain everything is.  So do what you can WHEN you can.  Tell other people how much they mean to you.  Eat the food you want to eat.  Be kind.  Be empathetic.  Be patient.  None of this lasts, so try to make it as okay as possible for everyone else while we all can.

***

2020 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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:
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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:
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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?