Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/) is like heaven for foodies: a massive Italian food store that contains several restaurants, from sit-down pastarias to wine bars to counter-service bakeries to grab-and-go snack shops.  As a result, it is kind of like a massive food hall, with so much to see and do, smell and taste, experience and indulge.  But most of all, Eataly feels like a temple to Italian food — truly a place of worship — and well worth a pilgrimage at least once.  There are ten Eataly stores in Italy (the first one opened in Torino in 2007), nine in North America, and eight elsewhere in the world.   I don’t know how different they all are, since I’ve only been to the Chicago Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/us_en/stores/chicago/) — first with my wife in 2014, and again on a recent business trip to Chicago.  I had to venture back there, to make sure that first visit wasn’t just a wonderful dream, but the kind of place where dreams come true.

It had been so long since my first visit, I had to explore everything in the store before deciding on my first bit of food.  I made my way to the second floor to a familiar kiosk that beckoned: the land of cured meats and cheeses.  I felt like a weary traveler who had finally made it to my destination, yet also feeling like I was home

Since I was just staying in Chicago for two nights, I couldn’t buy anything fresh or perishable or requiring cooking, but I’m sure some fancy Chicago locals bypass the local supermarkets and buy all their meats at this gleaming butcher’s counter.  You can’t see the price labels in this photo, but take it from me: if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

Here’s a shot of huge tomahawk ribeye steaks, slowly dry-aging to perfection in a clear refrigerated case: 

The seafood counter was equally sumptuous.  On my first visit to Eataly back in 2014, I made an indulgent purchase of bottarga here: the salted, cured, pressed, and dried roe sac of a fish (usually gray mullet, but sometimes tuna).  I had read about bottarga before, and it sounded irresistible to me, as a connoisseur of the cured, a scholar of the smoked, and a professor of the pickled.  So many cultures created their own versions of this delicacy, and I’ve still never found it in Florida.  The bottarga I bought at Eataly made it back in my luggage without any problems, and it lasted months in the fridge, as I finely grated it over so many pasta dishes.  It added a salty, savory, umami flavor to everything, and pretty much melted in my mouth.  If that sounds good and not gross, I highly recommend it.

But all this browsing made me hungry, so I returned to the restaurant my wife and I dined at on our original trip to Eataly here in Chicago: the creatively named La Pizza & La Pasta.  You can’t go to a restaurant like this and not know what you’re getting!  They take reservations, but I arrived relatively late in the day, after a long training workshop and an architectural boat tour down the Chicago River, so I had my choice of seats and opted for a solitary barstool, far from any other diners.

The kind server brought out this wonderfully fresh, crusty bread with olive oil that was much sweeter and more flavorful than the kind I keep at home that regularly goes on sale at Publix.  I’m not sure if every party gets “table bread,” or if it came with the dish I ordered, but if you’re visiting Eataly, hopefully you’re not obsessed with counting carbs, so you should definitely take advantage and enjoy this brilliant bread.   

As a solo diner, I knew I couldn’t justify ordering two entrees, so it was difficult for me to choose.  My server helped me break a tie, so I went with a fresh pasta dish, tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($24), topped with real-deal parmigiano Reggiano, not the shaky-can stuff I’ve bought my entire life.   The fresh tagliatelle pasta was kind of eggy (not in a bad way, just not exactly what I expected), but the savory Bolognese sauce was awesome, with plenty of chunks of meat.  I get that this was a pretty basic choice, and I make “pasta and meat sauce” quite often at home, but it is real comfort food for me, and I wanted to see how Eataly’s kitchen would present such a timeless classic.  They knocked it out of the park, needless to say.

As an aside, here’s a photo I found of the dish I ordered here back in 2014, in those pre-Saboscrivner days: my favorite pasta dish anywhere, bucatini all’amatriciana ($21).  This thick bucatini pasta (long, hollow tubes) was not fresh like the tagliatelle I had just tried, but there’s nothing wrong with good quality dried pasta.  I think I prefer it, in fact.  All’amatriciana is served in a spicy tomato sauce with guanciale (cured pork jowl), and this version from La Pizza & La Pasta was perfect in every way, even better than the tagliatelle from this most recent visit.
I make pasta all’amatriciana at home as a treat once or twice a year, but since guanciale is hard to find, I usually substitute cubed pancetta, which you can find at Trader Joe’s, Publix, and even Aldi sometimes.  If you’re not into bucatini, pretty much any other pasta works well, except for weirdo choices like tri-color wagon wheels.  What is the deal with those, anyway?

After dinner, I wandered around the store a little more and gazed at beautiful Roman-style pizzas on display at the Pizza alla Pala kiosk.  I was tempted, but I had just eaten dinner, and I knew they wouldn’t be that great eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning.

But I saw these gorgeous foccaci farcita sandwiches, with cured speck ham, provolone, and arugula on fresh focaccia bread, and I thought “One of those would be awe-inspiring eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning!”  Maybe because I got to Eataly relatively late in the day, they charged me a much lower price for the to-go sandwich than what you see pictured, more like the price of an individual slice of pizza.   

Here’s an extreme close-up of the lovely sandwich.  Speck is very similar to prosciutto.  I could tell they brushed some olive oil on the bread, but I thought a tangy vinaigrette of some kind would have really put it over the top.  (But I think about that with most sandwiches.)

And to go with my beautiful Italian breakfast, I found an Italian brand of potato chips, San Carlo la Vita e Buona, with a flavor that was too interesting to turn down: mint and chili pepper!  If I recall, this bag was under $3.  Since I love trying new potato chip flavors and reviewing them in this very blog, I felt obligated.  I did it for YOU, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

San Carlo was a bit stingy with the flavoring, a marked contrast against many American chip manufacturers that really cake it on there, but they tasted very fresh and potatoey, and the mint subtly shined through.  They were barely spicy at all. 

I also brought home a salami from the cured meat counter that sounded amazing (elk, pork, and dried blueberries?!), but it wasn’t worth the price I paid.  I would have loved to try so many more things at Eataly, but again, I was limited by what I could safely store in my hotel room and bring back in a carry-on bag, with TSA’s continuing rules banning liquids.  That said, if you ever find yourself in a city grand and lucky enough to have its own Eataly location, I implore you to make that pilgrimage and try it for yourself.  You will be tempted by all sorts of treasures, and it is just a pleasure to wander around and explore, treat yourself in one of the many restaurants, and bring back mouthwatering mementos, succulent souvenirs, and tasty trophies from your travels.

 

Chain Reactions: Krispy Krunchy Chicken

Krispy Krunchy Chicken (https://krispykrunchy.com/) is a unique fried chicken chain with a distinct Cajun accent, founded in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1989.  It is a unique chain because most of the locations are inside gas station convenience stores, but anyone who reads my blog knows you can often find great food in the most humble-looking and unlikely of places.

Take, for example, the Citgo station at 3025 East Colonial Drive, 32803, in Orlando, on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Maguire Road.  This is on the edge of a couple of the best foodie neighborhoods in the city: the Milk District and Mills 50.  I’ve been driving past this gas station for years, and only recently noticed a sign that it offered Krispy Krunchy Chicken inside.  I had to try it, for the sake of journalism and a librarian’s desire to share information.  I’m not sorry I did.

When you place your order, you ask for the chicken you want from under the heat lamps, and a nice lady will bag it up for you.  It was all very fresh.

The sides are self-serve (you just grab them yourself).  This sign lists prices for single pieces of chicken:
Breast: $3.19
Wing: $1.89
Thigh: $2.09
Leg: $2.09
Tender: $1.89

Here’s a close-up of that bottom shelf, which includes honey butter biscuits, boneless chicken tenders, corn dogs, and egg rolls.  Sauces are 50 cents each (original, buffalo, honey mustard, ranch, tartar, sweet and sour, and barbecue), but as much as I love sauces and condiments, I was trying this chicken for the first time, so I didn’t want to overwhelm my palate or distract from the main mission with too many variables.

I ordered a two-piece meal ($7.99) with a leg, a thigh, a side (see below), and a honey butter biscuit, and had a little picnic in my car.  Totally worth it.  The chicken was juicy and the breading was thick and crunchy, but not as Cajun-spicy as I was hoping.  Still, you can’t ask for much more than that, especially from a gas station convenience store setup!  The biscuit was a real standout.  Not in the same league as Se7en Bites, Orlando’s beloved Southern bakery and restaurant moments away, which is home of the best biscuits ever, but perfectly fine to accompany this chicken.

I couldn’t resist getting an order of fried chicken gizzards too.  (I don’t remember how much this was.)  Now I LOVE chicken livers (chopped liver is one of the foods of my people!) and hearts, but I didn’t remember ever trying gizzards before.  They were REALLY chewy.  That’s the most I can say about them.

The macaroni and cheese tasted a lot better than it looks here, flattened down by the lid on this styrofoam cup.  But I don’t even think it looks bad.  It looks and tastes like typical macaroni and cheese you would get as a side at any number of barbecue joints or Southern restaurants.  So maybe not Orlando’s best (for that, check out Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, nearby in the Milk District, and also Se7en Bites again!), but very pleasing nonetheless.

Since this was my first visit to a Krispy Krunchy Chicken location, I got two additional sides while I was there.  These red beans and rice were suitably smoky, salty, and creamy, but you just can’t beat Popeyes red beans and rice.  That’s the quintessential version right there, the one that even chefs (like David Chang) cite as the best.

But my favorite side was the jambalaya, saucy rice with chunks of (andouille?) sausage and ham.  I always like jambalaya, whether it’s from an old restaurant in the French Quarter or a box from Zatarain’s.  This was somewhere in between, quality-wise, but closer to the French Quarter than the box.   I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was.

Would I go back?  Absolutely I would.  As much as I generally like Popeyes for bone-in fried chicken, they can be hit-or-miss with both food quality and service.  And this particular Krispy Krunchy Chicken gas station location is a lot more convenient for me than the always-excellent Theo’s Kitchen.  This was solid fried chicken, but I think the thing I liked the most was the jambalaya.  It was so tasty and hearty and full of meat, I could happily make it the centerpiece of a meal some other day, when I’m in the mood for such a thing again.

Mr. Dunderbak’s (Tampa)

One of my closest friends lives in Tampa, and many years ago, he introduced me to a terrific German restaurant near his home called Mr. Dunderbak’s (https://dunderbaksbeer.wordpress.com/).  There used to be multiple locations, many of which were in malls, but this location moved out of Tampa’s University Mall and into its current location near the University of South Florida a long time ago, long before I discovered it.  There is also a completely separate, unaffiliated restaurant of the same name in Daytona Beach, with its own website and menu, but I’ve never been there.  The Tampa location, however, is near and dear to my heart.

I’ve ended up there a few times, visiting  dear friends from high school who had families and escaped Miami, just as I did, only they ended up in Tampa instead of Orlando.  On past visits, I would order a variety of wursts (sausages) and apply a variety of different mustards to them.  Mr. Dunderbak’s sells a variety of German groceries, including mustards, and I could never leave empty-handed.  The dining room is a bit crowded, and it’s dark inside, which I love.  Even though there are shelves of groceries, racks of candy, a full deli counter, a busy and bustling bar, and lots of tuba-heavy German music being piped in, it feels like an intimate experience.

At some point along the way, I brought my wife to Mr. Dunderbak’s, and she fell in love with the food and atmosphere too, as I knew she would.  We were lucky enough to return for two lunches earlier this summer, just the two of us — once on our way back from a quick getaway to St. Pete Beach, and again on our way to a concert in Tampa.  We had the same server both times, the lovely and patient Victoria, who made us feel like welcome regulars, even though these had been our first visits in far too many years.  She is the greatest!

Mr. Dunderbak’s serves the best pork rinds ever ($4.99 for this very generous portion).  They are so light and crispy, not like some others that are hard enough to break your teeth or your jaw crunching into them.  They aren’t greasy or overly salty, and they are covered with a light glaze of honey, making them sticky and sweet and salty all at the same time.  They are a delicious appetizer and snack, and the leftovers stayed crispy after we drove home from Tampa.

Of course I couldn’t resist trying Mr. Dunderbak’s onion rings ($8.99 for this huge portion) for the first time ever.  RING THE ALARM!  (That’s how I celebrate reviewing any onion rings, which I do whenever and wherever I find them on a menu.)  These were beer-battered, golden brown, lightly crispy, not greasy, not too crunchy, not too soft, not falling apart.  They were just right — my favorite kind of onion rings anywhere. 

I took a risk and chose the paprikasch pork gulasch ($13.99), even though it was a hot June day — less than ideal for a rich, meaty, spicy, tomato-based stew thick with pork, carrots, tomatoes, and twisty egg noodles.  I normally enjoy goulash in all of its forms, and even though it was tasty, I would have been better off with something a little less heavy and hearty in the thick of a Tampa summer. 

My gulasch came with two sides, so I got what I’ve had at my handful of previous visits to Mr. Dunderbak’s: both kinds of potato salad, since I’m such a mark for potato salad.  The one on the left is the German potato salad, served warm, in a sweet, thick, vinegary sauce.  The one on the right is a cold potato salad, also a bit sweet from vinegar, and served with crumbled bacon. 

My wife ordered a pork wiener schnitzel ($13.99) — a pork cutlet pounded flat, breaded with cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy.  You may notice a trend developing, but I am pleased to say it wasn’t greasy at all, not overly crunchy, the breading stayed on, and the meat inside was tender, juicy, and flavorful. 

Her schnitzel came with two sides, so she chose spaetzle (the most delicious little dumplings made from semolina flour and egg, sautéed in lots of butter), and homemade applesauce.  She loved both of these.

In fact, my wife loved all of this food so much, she ordered the same thing when we passed through again, a week later.

As for me, I had to try something different on our second visit, when we were lucky enough to have Victoria as our server again.  She even recognized us, and she helped me choose my next lunch: kassler rippchen ($19.99), two thin pork chops that were brined, cured, smoked, and served in an apricot, brown sugar, and Riesling reduction sauce.  They were outstanding.  I’ll rarely seek out pork chops on a menu or make them at home, but these were next-level delicious.  They were more like really good ham than any pork chops I’ve had before, due to the preparation method.  I loved them! 

In addition to a little round pretzel roll, this time I broke my pattern and ordered two different, slightly lighter and healthier sides: vinegary cucumber and dill salat (so perfect to cut the richness of the pork chops, and also crunchy, cool, tangy, and sweet), and a wonderful wilted spinach salat with shaved gruyere cheese and warm sweet and sour bacon dressing.  I shared both of these sides with my wife, and this one inspired her to start making spinach salads for herself at home, it was that good.

Since we were on our way to check into a hotel room in Ybor City before an evening concert, I wanted to get something to eat in our room so we wouldn’t have to schlep out into the night after the show.  My wife had plenty of leftovers, but I ordered a sandwich that I knew would travel well: Dunderbak’s French Connection sub ($11.99), with Genoa salami, smoked German Westphalian ham, German bologna, garlic chive cream cheese spread, Swiss cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a sub roll.  It was really good, but I should have asked Victoria to have them apply one of their many mustards to it to spice it up.  It was a good sub, and it came with a dill pickle spear and some Ruffles-style ridged potato chips, but I could have probably picked something more unique.  That said, I wanted something I could easily eat in a hotel room at night when I was tired, that didn’t require heating up in case we didn’t have a microwave oven.  

And this is the vaguely automobile-shaped thick slice of apple strudel ($8.99) we brought to our hotel room in Tampa.  The crust was very delicate, almost like a pie crust but softer and not as rich or flaky.  The strudel was heavily spiced with cinnamon, and it also contained raisins and walnuts.  I just had the tiniest taste, but my wife really enjoyed it.  She also had me buy a lot of candy, including some marzipan and Haribo gummies.

So that’s Mr. Dunderbak’s.  It’s somewhat off the beaten path for those traveling to Tampa, nestled in the New Tampa suburbs close to USF, and not exactly close to the more hip, happening, and tourist-friendly parts of town.  But if you like German food (including Sanford’s beloved Hollerbach’s, which we are also big fans of), you have to try Mr. Dunderbak’s too.  Next time, I’m sure I’ll go with my Tampa friends again, but these two lunches with my wife felt like romantic getaways, even with all the “oom-pah” march music in the background.

Chicago Dog & Co

As much as I love food and restaurants and cooking, I’ve never worked a day in the food service or hospitality industries.  For me, eating, cooking, and even grocery shopping are necessities I’ve turned into hobbies.  We have to eat to survive, so I do what I can to make the experiences enjoyable, but I’ve never had to work at it.  As a result, I have nothing but admiration and awe for everyone who works in restaurants.  It’s a hard, hot, and dangerous job, and too many people take it for granted when we get delicious food we didn’t have to make ourselves.  Even I have been guilty of this in the past, but I have so much appreciation, and I always try to show it, including by writing this food blog.  I hope it comes across in my words, as I try to boost the signal for local restaurants here.

This past week my wife and I binge-watched a new show called The Bear, which consists of eight half-hour episodes streaming on Hulu.  The Bear is about Carmy, a world-renowned chef who returns to his family’s divey restaurant in Chicago after his brother commits suicide and leaves Carmy the restaurant in his will.  Most of the show takes place inside the restaurant’s cramped, chaotic kitchen, and the writing, acting, directing, and editing work in perfect tandem to create a feeling of unhinged uneasiness — a “sense of urgency,” as Carmy calls it.  All the restaurant people I know who have been watching it say they get the details almost too perfect, to the point where it is too real, too uncomfortable to enjoy.  But it’s really good, so you should watch it if you’re looking for a new show you can knock out in a weekend.

Anyway, the main specialty of Carmy’s family restaurant is a real Chicago classic: Italian beef sandwiches.  We watch them preparing hundreds of “beefs,” and before the end of the intense first episode, I was craving one here in Orlando.  The Chicago/Italian beef isn’t as ubiquitous a sandwich as the Philly cheesesteak, but there are a few places around town to find them.  My favorite local food writer, a woman who serves as a constant inspiration to me, who I am honored to think of as a friend (albeit one I have yet to meet in real life), Amy Drew Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, wrote a guide to Italian beef sandwiches in Orlando earlier this year, which pointed me to the subject of my latest restaurant review.

Chicago Dog & Co (https://www.chicagodogandco.com/) is located in Altamonte Springs, Florida, west of I-4, close to where Altamonte starts blending into Apopka.  Sandra (a practicing attorney!) and Monica, two Chicago-born sisters raised in Central Florida, opened the restaurant just over a year ago, in April 2021, and they have been going strong ever since.  Open every day except Monday, Chicago Dog & Co has covered outdoor seating, but no indoor seating.  You walk up to order at a window, and they call your name when your order is ready.  They specialize in Vienna Beef hot dogs on steamed poppy seed buns, and you can get them with a number of toppings, including the Chicago way, “dragging it through the garden,” with yellow mustard, diced onion, sliced tomato, neon green relish, a pickle spear, “sport” peppers, and celery salt.

But as much as I enjoy a good hot dog, I’m more of a devotee of a garlicky New York-style dog, as typified by Sabrett, Nathan’s, and Boar’s Head, topped with spicy mustard and sauerkraut.  I have no doubt the Vienna Beef hot dogs are bringing back happy Chicago memories for thousands of Central Floridians, but I went there for a different reason: to get my post-Bear Italian beef fix.  And did I ever!

This was the Italian beef ($8) I brought home for myself, the tender sliced beef topped with sweet peppers and spicy giardiniera vegetables, a blend of carrots, onions, and green peppers.  (The more traditional Chicago version has carrots, celery, and cauliflower!)  It is served on a soft Gonnella roll, either dry (no au jus, or au jus served on the side), wet (au jus poured over the sandwich), or dipped (the entire sandwich, roll and all, dipped in au jus to create a real fork-and-knife experience).  Since I was bringing it home, I opened for au jus on the side.  I thought it was really good, and better once I poured the jus over the meat and bread.  The actual beef in an Italian beef isn’t super-moist or fatty, so the jus helps lubricate the sandwich, in the best possible way.  It was definitely a WAS (wet-ass sandwich) by the time I was through, and it definitely fulfilled my Italian beef craving.

Knowing my wife the way I do, she isn’t into toppings, condiments, sauces, or even sandwiches all that much, so I ordered her a plain beef ($8) with jus on the side, and also giardiniera on the side (since I knew I would get to eat hers).  Here’s the unadorned, unadulterated beef:

Since they serve chili dogs and I love chili, I asked if I could try a little side order of chili, and they were kind enough to fill a small cup for me.  Here it is with the side of spicy giardiniera. 

In addition to the dogs and beefs, Chicago Dog & Co also serves burgers.  I haven’t had a tasty burger in quite a while, so I couldn’t resist this double smash ($6) — a very reasonable price for two beef patties smashed thin with sautéed onions and melty American cheese on a soft bun.  The bun got steamed in the aluminum foil wrap on my 20-minute drive home, but I imagine it would be a lot less wrinkly if you enjoy yours at the restaurant.The burger had a great “fresh off the grill” taste, and I’m a sucker for American cheese and sautéed or grilled onions on my burger.  I added a bit of the chili once I ate about half of it at home, but it didn’t need any other adornments to improve it.

Finally, I brought home an Iltaco Pizza Puff ($4) for my wife to try.  These things are awesome — another Chicago snack that is like the best Hot Pocket you’ve ever had, or more like a small, flat, pizza-filled chimichanga or empanada.  

The crispy, bubbly, fried shell is like a flour tortilla — hence the chimichanga comparison — and it is stuffed with tomato sauce, melty mozzarella cheese, and sausage or pepperoni.  I love these things.  My wife wasn’t interested in trying it, so I ate both halves myself.

So if you also watched The Bear and have been asking “Where’s the beef?” ever since, Chicago Dog & Co is the place for you.  Since I started this blog in 2018, I’ve tried (and reviewed) two other Italian beef sandwiches in and around Orlando: Rosati’s Pizza (a Chicago chain) in Winter Park, and Christo’s, the diner in Sanford.  There are one or two other options I’m aware of, thanks in part to Amy Drew Thompson and the good people of The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, but as you might have realized by now, they aren’t nearly as easy to find around here as other sandwiches.  I’m happy I had time on a lazy Sunday to finally check out a new(ish) local restaurant owned by two women who deserve our community’s support.  Hopefully their kitchen is a lot more copacetic than the one in the show!  But if you go for a beef or even a Chicago hot dog, don’t forget that Pizza Puff too — trust me on that.  That thing is magical.

Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

We were somewhere around DeLand on the edge of I-4 East when the Beaver Nuggets began to take hold.  Luckily, Doctor Professor Ma’am and I didn’t encounter any bats on our drive to or from Daytona Beach, but we shared a truly exhausting, truly American experience at Buc-ee’s (https://buc-ees.com/), the colossal convenience store just off I-95, a unique shopping experience as vast, overwhelming, and occasionally maddening as its home state of Texas.

Imagine Wawa, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart Supercenter twisted into a sweaty, throbbing throuple, and that comes close, but still doesn’t quite capture the sensory overload of Buc-ee’s.  I counted 43 locations on the website, but there are only two in Florida, both new: off the highway in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.  We didn’t even bother to fill up the car with gas there, given the surprising crowd at lunchtime on a Friday.  Instead, we hustled inside to see what food and snacks awaited us in the sprawling superstore.

They say everything is bigger in Texas: the deserts, the hats, the trucks, the cattle, the churches, the guns, the belt buckles, and unfortunately the intolerance (see recent news for far too many examples).  Well, Buc-ee’s goes big in every way as well.  Once we made our way through sections of the store devoted to kitschy casual clothing, folksy home décor, and touristy novelties (the “schlock and awe” department), we made it to the the real draws: stacks and stacks of snacks and snacks.

Here is the wall of jerky, which is the kind of wall Texas should focus on building.  There is also a jerky counter, where you can get any of the jerky varieties you want, by the pound.  It was easier and faster to grab bags off the wall for $7.99 each.   

I chose cherry maple, Bohemian garlic, and sweet and spicy beef jerky.  So far, the cherry maple was disappointingly bland, but the Bohemian garlic was packed with strong, garlicky flavor.

Doctor Professor Ma’am is more of a fan of gummy candy, and she was faced with overwhelming options, here at the wall of gummies. 

She went with hot cinnamon gummy bears (I think that smell, taste, and texture are all gross, but more for her!) and chamoy-flavored peach rings, pictured below with three different flavors of Rice Krispy Treats she chose (regular, salted caramel, and “Fruity”), plus fried pecans.

I’m not really into nuts.  I just buy them for her, and I almost never snack on them myself.  But when we busted into these fried pecans back at home, all I could say was “GOOD LORD.”  Even with the hell-squirrel armed with a sharp fork on the bag, “GOOD LORD” is the appropriate response.  I couldn’t believe how good they were.  At $14.99, that was the most expensive single item we bought, but it is a good-sized bag, and they are so rich, they should last quite a while.

As an unabashed fan and collector of condiments, sauces, and preserves, Buc-ee’s had a staggering selection to tease, tantalize, and tempt me.

I went a little mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes.  I couldn’t resist (I’m your) huckleberry and blackberry preserves, peach-chipotle and mango-pineapple-habanero salsas, prickly pear cactus jam, candied jalapeños, sweet and spicy ghost pepper hot sauce, and pickled quail eggs!

I fully admit I haven’t tried most of these yet, since our fridge door has only so much space (and it is already stuffed with interesting things in bottles and jars, as one would expect from me).  But I did just bust open the pickled quail eggs, after letting the jar chill in the fridge overnight, and I liked it a lot!  Very spicy and tangy from the vinegary brine, which includes garlic and jalapeños.  “What, you egg?”  [I stabbed it.]

It was even hard to choose a soft drink, with dozens of options.  This is only one of the three huge soda fountain setups.  I grabbed an extra-large cup, avoided anything I could find elsewhere, and sampled sips of the Buc-ee’s-specific flavors.  Favorites included pineapple cream soda, piña colada soda, orange Creamsicle soda, sarsaparilla, strawberry lemonade (non-carbonated), and my big winner, the cream soda on the far right, which I ultimately filled our shared cup with for the schlep home.  Doctor Professor Ma’am said it tasted like pecan pie filling as a soda, and she wasn’t wrong.  It was too sweet to be refreshing, but a very tasty cream soda nonetheless.  We also tried the blue cream soda, which I thought tasted like banana-flavored candy.  She liked it until the chemically aftertaste hit.   We both really wished some of those sodas were sold in bottles or cans, since we would have definitely bought a few different ones to savor later, but alas, they were fountain drinks only.

There were multiple stations to get hot, fresh food, including a station with barbecue sandwiches already wrapped in foil.  I grabbed us a pulled pork sandwich that was delicious.  Doctor Professor Ma’am was tired and hungry by this point, so we split it in the car in the parking lot on the way out to keep hungry from approaching hangry.  Forgive my freestyling, but we savagely ravaged this sandwich, and its richness fixed us from being sad bitches.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, but it didn’t overwhelm the smoky savoriness of the pork. 

There were also touch-screen kiosks for ordering other food, including tacos, burritos, chicken fingers, and a few other sandwiches that get freshly assembled.  I was really hoping to get a pastrami Reuben on a pretzel roll, which came highly recommended, but they weren’t available!  I was so disappointed, which is a quintessentially American take, to bemoan the loss of one option in this land of abundance.  So I chose a “Chopping Block” sandwich that came with sliced rare roast beef, horseradish, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and I asked to add jalapeños for a 50-cent upcharge.  We had to wait a while for that one, since the sandwich-makers were slammed due to 20 busy touchscreen kiosks all beaming in constant orders, but it was worth the wait.  The roast beef was tender, flavorful, and rare, the way I like it, the hoagie roll was nice and soft, and the sandwich was still warm by the time I got it home.   To the right is a chopped brisket sandwich that was also really good — pre-wrapped in foil like the pulled pork sandwich, and mixed up with sweet sauce.  I liked it even better than the pulled pork.

She was disappointed by the fresh potato chips, but I thought they were fine.  Just plain, crispy, salty, slightly greasy chips, as expected.

A fried apple pie was yet another impulse buy.  She enjoyed it in the car (eating it over the open bag to catch the cinnamon sugar cascade), and the one bite I took was really good.  The flaky fried crust was terrific.  We hoped it would be like the bubbly, crackly McDonald’s fried apple pies of our ’80s childhoods, but it turned out to be so much better than those.

Here’s half of the brisket sandwich I saved for Doctor Professor Ma’am back at home, along with a cream cheese kolache (left), a strawberry cheese kolache (right), and a sausage, cheese, and jalapeño kolache (bottom).  Kolaches are pastries that Czech immigrants brought to Texas.  There are sweet and savory varieties, and as you can see, the sweet ones look a lot like danishes.  The sausage inside that bottom one was hot dog-shaped, but much chewier, like a Slim Jim.  It was okay.  The pastry itself is just like chewy white bread.   
I also got a boudin kolache that looked almost exactly like the one on the bottom in this photo, stuffed with the savory Cajun pork-and-rice sausage, but that one didn’t last long enough to get photographed.

They had a fudge counter with nearly 20 different varieties of fudge, all neatly divided into squares.  You could buy any combination of four and get two more free, so how could we refuse?  My wife chose the different fudge flavors, and there is a chocolate one for sure, a chocolate pecan, a “gooey pecan,” a “tiger butter” in the top left (vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter), and a blueberry cheesecake fudge (bottom left).  The sweet fudge lady would cut off little sample slivers, and I sampled key lime pie and banana pudding fudge.  Both were good, but too rich to get entire slices of, on top of everything else.  She warned me I might not like the banana pudding fudge, but I sure showed her!

Anyway, these are ridiculously rich, so I know we will make them last.  We might even freeze some, forget about them for a while, and then have a pleasant surprise when we rediscover them days or probably weeks later.

The very first thing that tempted Doctor Professor Ma’am was a box of six pecan pralines.  I suggested we do one loop around the store first to get the lay of the land before we start grabbing everything, and that’s when she found individual pecan pralines at the fudge counter.  She was thrilled to be able to just get one, rather than a six-pack, with all the other stuff we chose.  I broke off one little morsel, and it was almost cloyingly sweet and  intensely rich.

Since I regularly review chips in my series of Tight Chips features here on The Saboscrivner, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few small bags of classic, barbecue, and hot Buc-ee’s chips.  I don’t know how they’ll be, but I got ’em.   
A sample guy was giving out samples of the barbecue-flavored Baked Chees-ee Curls, the Buc-ee’s version of Cheetos, and they were good enough to bring home a small bag.  I’m surprised Frito-Lay hasn’t come out with a barbecue Cheetos flavor, in all these decades.

And we couldn’t go all the way to Buc-ee’s without grabbing a bag of Beaver Nuggets, one of the most famous (infamous?) and recommended snacks from fellow travelers.  These things are unbelievably good.  Crunchy, toffee-sweet, buttery, salty.  Imagine Corn Pops cereal, but a million times better in every possible way.  Neither of us had ever tried them before, but I figured she would love them, and I was right.  As for me, I can eat a whole bag of chips standing up in my kitchen without even thinking about what I’m doing, but the Beaver Nuggets are so much richer, heavier, and more substantial than chips, I was perfectly content after just crunching on a few of them. 
The Buc-ee’s Nug-ees on the right are a “Bold ‘n’ Spicy” version of the sweet, crunchy Beaver Nuggets.  Their texture is softer, though — more like puffy Cheez Doodles that you can easily crush between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  They are well-dusted with spicy, cheesy orange powder that is spicier than regular Cheetos or Cheez Doodles, but much less spicy than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I can only imagine combining the two varieties in a bowl as some kind of decadent snack mix.

Finally, I grabbed two large boudain [sp] sausage links from a freezer case, and I got the small package of sliced smoked venison sausage at the jerky counter.  Those were $5 and $4.40 respectively — cheaper than I expected.  I haven’t tried them yet, but my hopes are high.

Our first trip to Buc-ee’s was both physically and mentally draining.  It is a lot to process, and if you arrive hungry and like to try new foods and snacks, you can get yourself in a bit of trouble there, as we did.  But it’s such an overwhelming experience, somewhere between the food halls in cosmopolitan cities like Philadelphia or Seattle and a Southern Walmart on Black Friday.  I suspect that if we ever return, the novelty and mystery will have worn off, so we can quickly grab a few favorites and rush out, without feeling the need to see and try everything, like we did this time.  Trader Joe’s definitely feels like that now, after breaking the bank on my first-ever visit so many years ago, but now just running in and out for a few staples while dodging the mobs.  Novelty fades.  Newness wears off.  That’s why I constantly seek it out and share it here, with YOU.

But beyond the novelty of new sandwiches, snacks, and sodas, Buc-ee’s also felt like the kind of roadside attractions that used to line America’s highways and byways — bemusement parks that drew cross-sections of society away from their homes and out of their cars, those in-between places that made the journey so much more interesting (and often weirder) than the destination, before every highway exit started to feature the same corporate fast food restaurants and chain stores.

Being in a new job in academia where I no longer work directly with our diverse student body, and generally avoiding crowds and social situations for the past two years, this was the most people I had been around in a while — and such people!  There were exhausted families, bored teenagers, leather-clad bikers, swaggering cowboy types, beachgoers, retirees, active-duty military men and women in uniform, actual Goths (in broad daylight, in Daytona Beach!), a guy who looked like Gung-Ho from G.I. Joe, and so many tattoos, with a particularly large amount of spider webs on elbows.  The two of us only noticed one guy in an overtly political T-shirt, and we seemed to be the only two people still wearing masks.  Stefon would have had a field day.  But everyone was passing through Buc-ee’s on their way somewhere, fueling themselves up before or after they fueled up their cars, or stopping to use the gleaming, spotless restrooms (which are indeed glorious, living up to all the hype).

I wondered where that sea of sweaty people was off to, and how many had made the pilgrimage to Buc-ee’s as their ultimate destination, as we had, rather than just a rest stop along the way to someplace else.  Well, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, I can tell you that Buc-ee’s is definitely worth a stop — at least once — but don’t expect to get any rest there.

The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

Cafe Tu Tu Tango

Cafe Tu Tu Tango (https://www.cafetututango.com/) is a beautiful restaurant located in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district on International Drive, near Universal Studios and the Orange County Convention Center.  I used to take my wife there for special celebratory occasions back when we were dating, mostly between 2006 and 2008.  The restaurant is bright and bustling, its red walls strewn with lovely art that is all for sale.  There are local artists painting and sculpting all over the restaurant, dancers are often dancing, and tarot card readers will read guests for a small fee.  It’s a very bohemian place — maybe too loud to be intimate, but festive, fun, and as romantic as you want it to be.  The menu matches the vibe, with small plates featuring fusion foods from around the world, ideal for sharing.

As cool as that all sounds, we fell out of the habit of going, mostly because it is all the way across town.  But we had some wonderful meals and memories there, including two strips of photos we had taken in a photo booth, those completely obsolete but fun and beloved novelties of recent times past.

Well, my wife had a birthday coming up, so I asked her where she wanted to go out.  It had been a few months since we had dined out anywhere together, and me being me, I sent her a list of good restaurants — some old favorites, some we had yet to go to together, and a few that we loved but hadn’t been to in a long time.  She chose Cafe Tu Tu Tango, and we were both excited to return after all these years.  I even wore the same shirt and tie I wore in the photo booth photos (because I hate buying new clothes), hoping to get some updated pics and maybe frame them all together.

Best of all, like its sister restaurant Mia’s Italian Kitchen just up the road, Cafe Tu Tu Tango features an all-you-can-eat weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays for $28.22 per person.  Like Mia’s, it is not a buffet, but you just order whatever you want off the brunch menu (slightly more limited than the regular dinner menu), and as much as you want, for that fixed price.  Back in the day, before I was as gainfully employed, those small plates with their pretty presentations and puny portions could really add up.  It is a hell of a bargain to go for brunch and be able to go and sample anything and everything, so that’s exactly what we did.

We started with two “non-spirited frescos,” essentially mocktails, since neither of us drink.  My wife ordered the $6 Pollock Punch (named for the artist Jackson Pollock, of course), with pineapple, mango, and cranberry juices, passion purée, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, and almond-flavored orgeat syrup, the necessary ingredient in mai tais and so many other tropical drinks.  I ordered the $6 Lichtenstein Lemonade*, a delicious-sounding combination of house-made lemonade, muddled cucumber and basil, strawberry purée, and club soda to make it fizz.  Funny enough, once we sipped each other’s drinks, we realized we each liked the other one better.  The Pollock Punch (left) was too sour for her, while I love sour, and she preferred the fizz in my Lichtenstein Lemonade (right), so we switched them.
*The Lichtenstein Lemonade is named for the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who I DESPISE, because he swiped art from underpaid and underappreciated comic book artists, blew their panels up to giant size and got them displayed in galleries, took all the credit, and got rich and famous off their artwork.  Screw that guy, but if you want an artist who specializes in Lichtenstein’s mid-century retro pop art style but is a truly iconoclastic original, check out my all-time favorite comic book artist Mike Allred.

Anyway, we went on to order A LOT of food from our sweet and patient server Chelsea, who was absolutely slammed, but had a great attitude and personality.  The first thing to come out was the churro waffles (which would normally be $9 if we ordered a la carte) –perfect Belgian waffles with crispy exteriors and fluffy interiors, topped with cinnamon sugar, dulce de leche, vanilla cream, cinnamon  whipped cream.  There were actually two of these in the order, so we each had one.  This was my wife’s first choice, and it was a good one.

I ordered the butter chicken tikka masala (normally $13), a good-sized portion serviced over ‍fluffy basmati rice with pickled red onions, fresh cilantro, roasted corn, and creamy tikka masala sauce.  I love Indian food, but my wife is convinced she doesn’t, because most things she has tried have been too spicy for her.  I was thrilled that she loved this dish, even more than I did, since she never wants to get Indian food, and now we had a dish we know she likes.  The chicken breast meat was very tender, and it wasn’t spicy at all.  I tried a little, but was happy to keep it on her side of the table.Since this meal, I have researched butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two distinct Indian dishes that use similar ingredients, but aren’t the same.  We are going to run further tests to see which one my wife actually prefers, since Tu Tu Tango’s “butter chicken tikka masala” may not be the best example of authentic Indian cuisine.  It was good, though!

I had never ordered any of the brick oven pan pizzas on our past trips to Cafe Tu Tu Tango, because it always seemed like there were more interesting things to try.  But this time I ordered the sausage and peppers pizza (normally $9.25), with Italian sausage, hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers.  It was magnificent, and pan pizza usually isn’t even one of the pizza styles I prefer.  Perfect crispy edges and a nice, fluffy crust.  All the toppings came together beautifully.  It was relatively small, like a “personal” pizza, but I always say that if you believe in yourself, any pizza can be a personal pizza.

Next up, my wife ordered the monkey bread (normally $7), a rich, sticky, super-sweet pastry with golden raisins, pecans, dulce de leche sauce, whipped cream, and enough powdered sugar to make it look like it was partying in Miami.  Funny enough, the monkey bread ended up being too sweet for her, but I ended up really loving its chewy, sticky texture.  It was heavy, and it probably sapped some of my strength and endurance mid-meal, but what a way to go.   

I ordered these breakfast tacos (normally $8), with jalapeño jack cheese, huevos rancheros, and crumbled, seasoned beef  on two soft corn tortillas.  My wife wanted no part of them, but they ended up being among my favorites of the brunch.   I really thought the beef was chorizo sausage — it was that kind of savory flavor with just a little spice.

Next up, she ordered the grilled fish tacos (normally $11), with honey-lime escabeche sauce, cotija cheese, crunchy cabbage slaw, and more pink pickled onions on the same soft corn tortillas.  We both appreciate good fish tacos, but both agreed the fish was on the “fishy” side.  I ended up eating everything except the tortillas, which she wanted for herself.  I wouldn’t get these again.  Loved the toppings, but the fish — not so much.

Anyone who knows me at all would glance at the menu and predict I would order the Cuban sliders (normally $12), two wee sandwich halves with capicola, genoa salami, pulled pork, pickles, Swiss cheese on pressed bread with a ramekin of the most delicious, vinegary mojo sauce.  I’m predictable when it comes to food.  I liked these, but the sauce was my favorite part!  I thought about how much I might have preferred chilled Italian-style sandwich sliders with the capicola and genoa salami and some pickled vegetables.   But don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy them. 

Next, I got the Tango home fries (normally $4), with sautéed red pepper and onion strips, scallions and a house spice blend.  These were delicious, but I thought the potatoes could have been crispier.  They had a pleasing amount of heat, but not so much that a person who likes things mild wouldn’t enjoy them.  I was starting to get full, so I didn’t finish these, and I still feel guilty about that.

My wife ended her meal with one of her favorite dishes of the day, shrimp and grits (normally $12), served with corn relish and scallions.  She loves grits, whereas they are not usually my favorite.  I didn’t try this, but she ate it with gusto, so it must have been good.  I’d say this, the butter chicken tikka masala, and the churro waffle were her favorites.   

Next up came the dessert that I thought was going to be my favorite: guava and sweet plantain bread pudding (normally $7), served in a sizzling skillet and topped with Nutella sauce.  I wish I had asked them to hold the sauce.  Believe it or not, I could take or leave Nutella.  Thanks to it, the whole thing ended up tasting like chocolate and muted the flavors of the guava and sweet plantains, two of my favorite things to eat anywhere.  I could only eat one of the two pieces, and she wanted nothing to do with it. 

Finally, my Southwest Caesar salad arrived (normally $10).  It contained romaine lettuce, avocado, crunchy fried tortilla strips, cotija cheese, salsa roja, and chipotle-garlic dressing .  I make salads and eat them in my work lunches almost every day, so I rarely order salads at restaurants, but this had a lot of neat-sounding ingredients, and it was included in the fixed price for brunch, so I decided to give it a try.  I’m glad I did, but I ate all the interesting stuff off the top and tapped out before I could make it through all the romaine lettuce. 

So that was it for brunch, and that was pretty much it for the two of us for the rest of the day.  But what a way to go.  This has to be one of the best values in Orlando, folks.  I crunched the numbers, and these eleven small plates we ordered would add up to $102.25 if we ordered them a la carte.  Instead, we paid $56.44 for the both of us (minus our drinks) — almost half that price for the all-you-can-eat brunch deal.

Sadly, Cafe Tu Tu Tango got rid of its photo booth at some point before Chelsea even started working there, as I had feared.  In this age of camera phones, selfies, Instagram, and “pics, or it didn’t happen” culture, a photo booth taking up space in a busy restaurant or bar seems like less of a sound and necessary investment, but there’s something about printing out those momentous moments on a little strip of paper to cherish forever, in a way that doesn’t seem the same when staring at images on screens.  But in the end, we didn’t need new photos.  We had each other, we had our memories –both old and new — and we had an epic brunch in beautiful, bohemian surroundings that would tide us over for a while.  At least until dinner that evening.

 

Ming’s Bistro

I recently met a friend at the Chinese restaurant Ming’s Bistro (https://www.mingsbistro.net/), in the heart of Orlando’s Mills 50 district, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and shops centered around the busy intersection of East Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, near downtown Orlando.  This was our first time at Ming’s Bistro, but we had both heard for years that it specialized in dim sum, and that’s what lured us out there — better late than never.

What is dim sum, you ask?  It’s a Cantonese tradition that started in teahouses that served little snacks with the tea, now most commonly served as brunch (yum cha).  A lot of restaurants push carts around the dining room, allowing diners to point and grab what they want, while other places have you check off your choices on a paper menu, like how some sushi restaurants do it.  Ming’s Bistro mostly does it the latter method, with an illustrated menu to give you ideas and a paper menu you check off next to each item.  The prices are listed, which helps, since you can get in some real trouble grabbing too many dishes off the rolling carts.  But they push some carts around too, and we picked a few random things that came by our table, just because they looked good.  And just to clarify, Ming’s also offers a whole regular menu of Chinese food to choose from, in addition to the dim sum menu.  So all your usual favorites are probably available here, too.

Ming’s opens at 10:45 AM (every day except Thursdays, when it is closed), and I was there right when it opened to grab a table.  We didn’t have to wait at all, and it was slammed by the time we left, a little after noon.  I have written many times that I’m not a brunch person, but dim sum is a unique brunch experience, where you ideally go with a group, hang out for a long time, order a bunch of small plates, and share everything, including good times.  Even though it was only two of us, we shared nine different dim sum items, and we chose wisely.  There wasn’t a dud in the whole bunch!

We started out with an order of steamed roast pork buns (top; $4.50) and an order of baked pineapple buns (bottom).  The roast pork buns are a dim sum classic for good reason.  For the uninitiated, the steamed buns are kind of like soft, bready rolls, and the pork inside is in a red sauce, savory but also slightly sweet.I love pineapple anything, and these baked pineapple buns were a subtly sweet treat that would have been ideal as a dessert, but they came out early, so we enjoyed them early in the meal.  I was expecting something more like sticky pineapple preserves in the centers, but it was creamier than I thought.  Still good, though.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos confirmed my suspicion that dim sum pineapple buns don’t contain any pineapple, but get their name from the crackly crust.  I still liked them, but thought it was odd they were generically sweet without any obvious pineapple!

We didn’t even order these, but a nice lady wheeled a cart next to our table, loaded up with several dim sum dishes already on plates, and asked if we wanted any.  These looked like jalapeño peppers stuffed with something, which is all good with me, so we went for it.  It turned out to be a shrimp filling, but the shrimp was processed into a soft, savory paste, and the peppers were lightly roasted.  I make similar roasted jalapeños once or twice a year, stuffed with light cream cheese and sometimes topped with bacon, chorizo, or prosciutto.  They are a delicious, keto-friendly snack, and these were equally delicious.  I’m not sure what the sauce on top was, but it added to the experience of flavors and textures without overpowering the shrimp or the peppers.  They weren’t very spicy at all, so don’t worry about that if you’re the type who sweats when the heat is on.

These are pan-fried pork pot stickers ($5.50), which had a wonderful crispy shell and a strong ginger flavor inside.  I always appreciate pot stickers, but my friend liked these even more than I did, so I only had one.   

Another foodie friend introduced me to rice paste dim sum during a feast at another great local Chinese restaurant, Peter’s Kitchen, a few years ago.  I probably never would have tried them on my own, but now I recommend them to everyone else.  This is beef rice paste ($4.75), where the rice paste itself is kind of a slippery, chewy crepe wrapped around a filling — almost like a thicker and more slippery manicotti pasta.  I’m not a fan of things that are too chewy and starchy, like certain bao buns and Jamaican boiled dumplings, but these are terrific, especially swimming in the soy-based sauce.  It’s a challenge to keep them from sliding out of your chopsticks, but we both persevered like the functional adults we are!

We also randomly picked these off a later cart that came by our table.  Some kind of fried dumplings that are both crispy and chewy.  I think they are crispy taro dumplings ($4.75), and they were yet another pleasant surprise.

Here’s a cross-section of one of them.  They were stuffed with shrimp and green vegetables, and we joked that these were the healthiest part of our dim sum brunch, despite obviously being fried.  
EDITOR’S NOTE: A sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino informed me these might have been pan-fried chive dumplings ($5.50).

I always like beef short ribs — I rank them up there near oxtails on a list of favorite meats.  This was beef short ribs with black pepper ($5.80), which I enthusiastically ordered, despite not knowing exactly what to expect.  It was great.  It was a relatively small portion, like so many of these diverse dishes, but still plenty for two people to share.  The short ribs came chopped into tiny chunks of rich, succulent, moist, fatty meat, braised until they were very soft and easy to pull off the shards of bone.  They were extremely flavorful and easier to eat than I expected.  I wished I had saved some of the doughier buns and dumplings to dip into the short ribs’ sauce.

I ordered us the pan-fried sticky rice ($5.50) because the couple at the table next to us got it, and it looked good.  That was another pro move on my part.  It was sticky and savory, with maybe the tiniest bit of subtle sweetness you get from Chinese five-spice powder, a blend of Chinese cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, cloves, and peppercorns (or sometimes ginger).  It also would have been good to soak up some of the short rib sauce, but the rice was so flavorful, we ate it on its own. 

The last dim sum dish we ordered was another winner: fried meat dumplings ($4.75).  I can’t tell you if the meat was beef or pork, or maybe a combination of both, or something else entirely.  It was ground, spiced (but not spicy), and saucy, and served in these awesome dumplings that reminded me of Indian batura, Native American fry bread, hand pies, lightly fried empanadas, or even funnel cakes at a fair.  That perfect flaky dough that is lightly crispy but mostly soft, that leaves your fingers greasy and your soul happy.  

Like I said, not a bad dish in the bunch.  It was a great meal, and while we probably could have done more damage, it was the perfect amount of food for two people, with some leftovers at the end.  I’m guessing most of my readers are already familiar with the joy of a communal dim sum brunch, and many know the wonders of Ming’s Bistro.  But if you don’t know, now you know!  I hated crowds and lines long before there was a pandemic, so in addition to recommending all these delicious dishes we tried, I also strongly suggest getting to Ming’s early — ideally in that golden half hour between 10:45 and 11:15 AM — to beat the lunch rush and avoid having to wait.

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen

At this point in my food writing, I keep an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the restaurants I want to try — and so I can always quickly send menu links to the people I eat with the most, my wife and my co-workers.  One restaurant that had been at the top of my list for far too long is Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen (https://www.cavosbar.com/) in Thornton Park, a neighborhood near downtown Orlando that I recently called “Thornton No-Park,” due to the lack of parking spaces.  I dragged three co-workers down to Cavo’s for lunch on a relatively quiet Friday not that long ago, and we definitely had to drive around a bit before we could park, but it was worth the wait.

I’ve been reading so many raves about Cavo’s cheesesteak ($13), so I had to try it, even though I often find cheesesteaks disappointing.  Usually the meat is relatively low-quality and dissolves into a pool of boiling lava-hot grease and melted cheese that never cools down, making it literally painful to eat, on top of being messy.  But this was easily the best cheesesteak I’ve tried in Orlando, and probably the best one I’ve had outside of Philadelphia.  The freshly baked soft roll, adorned with sesame seeds, held up to the heavy load inside — tasty thin-sliced ribeye (the king of steaks as far as I’m concerned), melty white American cheese, and plenty of sautéed onions, although if you ask me, you can’t ever put enough sautéed onions on anything.  It lived up to the hype and made me realize I still do like cheesesteaks; I just hadn’t had a worthy cheesesteak in a long time.

One co-worker ordered a gorgeous-looking Reuben sandwich ($13), with the usual suspects: corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing (not Russian dressing, but still good) on grilled marble rye.  I know her to be a fan of Reubens, as am I, and she looked content.

My vegetarian co-worker got the vegetarian sandwich ($13), with fried eggplant, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and roasted garlic basil vinaigrette on a fresh baked hoagie roll.  It looked good and smelled even better.  I didn’t ask her to try it, but even as a non-vegetarian myself, that looked like something I would really like.

Another co-worker who tries to eat healthy got the Cavo salad ($13), with spinach and romaine mix, marinated cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, artichokes, roasted red peppers, charred vidalia onions, garbanzo beans, kalamata olives, tossed with Cavo’s house vinaigrette dressing.  He added chicken for an additional $5.   He seemed to like it, and that’s what I call a salad!   

I got this plate of curly fries ($4) intending to share it with everyone.  They were awesome — maybe my favorite kind of fries, with a crispy seasoned coating and soft on the inside.  My beloved Arby’s serves fries like this, and so does Checkers.  But two of my colleagues ordered their own plates of tater tots ($4 each), leaving me with more fries than I expected.  It wasn’t a problem, though!

That night, when I got home from work, I enjoyed half of the classic Italian hoagie ($13) after it chilled in the fridge for a few hours, allowing the flavors to meld.  This beautiful sandwich included tavern ham, salami, capicola, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, sweet Italian peppers, pickles, and oregano vinaigrette dressing on the same kind of soft seeded roll.  Years ago, the pickles might have ruined the sandwich for me, and even though I normally wouldn’t order them on an Italian sub, my growing tolerance for pickles has turned into an obsession, so I thought I would try them.  They only added; they did not detract.  It was an excellent Italian hoagie — maybe not reaching the great heights of the Stasio sub, the LaSpada’s Famous hoagie, the Rocco from Manzano’s Deli, or incredible new hoagies from Pizza Bruno, but it is still a top-tier Italian sandwich here in Orlando. 

I liked the space and loved the food.  If only it was easier to park at Cavo’s, I would want to be a regular for sure.  As it is, it will have to be a rare treat when I’m in Thornton No-Park, along with other local favorites Mason Jar Provisions and Benjamin French Bakery.  But rare treats may be the best, because if you treat yourself too often, the ritual starts to feel more commonplace, and less special as a result.  But that cheesesteak… wow.  That was totally worth driving laps around Thornton No-Park, or maybe even taking a Lyft down there in the future.