Grocery Grails: Sun Noodle fresh ramen kits

Everyone loves ramen, right?  I sure do.  I never even tried ramen noodles until I moved away to go to college, and then they were de rigeur dorm food — bricks of fried noodles that came with seasoning packets (mostly salt and MSG) that you could turn into soup with just a pot of water boiled on an illegal hot plate.  Best of all, when we were poor all the time, you could get six or seven packages of this instant ramen in a multitude of flavors for a buck.  I quickly learned I liked my ramen best after draining the water and mixing the seasoning directly into the noodles themselves, like eating very salty flavored pasta.  When my old band spent our freshman year Spring Break touring Florida for a week, we brought bread, peanut butter, and bricks of instant ramen, which we ate uncooked, just crunching away at them in random parking lots.  All of this was extremely unhealthy, but ramen helped get me through three degrees, especially when paired with proteins like canned tuna or sardines, or sometimes chicken or sausage if I was feeling flush.

I wouldn’t discovery the glory and grandeur of “real,” authentic Japanese ramen until my 30s, when I was a little shocked over spending $10 or more for a bowl of the good stuff.  But it was so good, and I wondered where this real ramen had been all my life.  I tried a few and quickly realized tonkotsu ramen was my favorite, a creamy pork bone broth served with a slice of fatty roast chashu pork.  So delicious, and streets ahead of the cheap stuff that sustained me for so long.  I’ve had particularly lovely tonkotsu ramen at Ramen Takagi, Susuru, and Domu here in Orlando, and those are links to my reviews.  The tonkotsu at Ramen Takagi even made my Top Ten Tastes of 2020 in Orlando Weekly!

But sometimes you just want to make ramen at home for a nostalgic night in.  Orlando is blessed with a huge number of Asian markets, some of which are as huge as any Publix supermarket, and all of which feature a selection of ramen and other noodles that put Publix to shame.  And they aren’t all the fried dry bricks either — many brands offer fresh and frozen noodles that can be cooked just as easily, except the texture, taste, and quality are so much better.  Well, constant readers, I might have discovered the best store-bought ramen of all, so I had to share in another Grocery Grails feature.

The brand is Sun Noodle.  Based in Hawaii and founded by Hidehito Uki in 1981, Sun Noodle furnishes many of the best ramen restaurants in the U.S. with its fresh, springy noodles.  Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check out these features on Eater and Serious Eats and in Honolulu Magazine.  In recent years, Sun Noodle started producing ramen kits for home cooks to make fast, easy, restaurant-quality ramen with their fresh noodles and rich, flavorful concentrated soup bases that are a great leap forward from the salty powder packets we all know.

I recently found all three Sun Noodle ramen kits at Enson Market, formerly known as 1st Oriental Market, at 5132 West Colonial Drive in the Pine Hills neighborhood west of downtown Orlando, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and other businesses.  I found all three varieties in the cooler and bought them all: tonkotsu, shoyu, and miso ramen kits.  Each one comes with two servings.  Keep in mind these are perishable, so eat them or stick them in the freezer so they don’t go bad, which would be a damn shame.   

Of course I had to start with the tonkotsu, my favorite:

The back of each package includes cooking directions, nutrition information, and ingredients.  Note that this tonkotsu soup base contains pork extract, lard, and chicken powder,  so it is definitely not for vegetarians!

Each package includes two separate portions, with individually wrapped noodles and soup base packets.  The concentrated tonkotsu base was a thick, sticky paste the color of butterscotch pudding.  Let me save you the trouble — don’t bother tasting it.  You probably won’t like it, at least not until you mix it with hot water and stir well to create the creamy tonkotsu broth you were hoping for.

Here is my tonkotsu ramen, which I served with some corn and a piece of Filipino pork adobo, the only pork I had on hand.  It was great!  Definitely not as good as Ramen Takagi and the other aforementioned restaurants, because they make their broth from scratch and include house-made chashu pork and other fine ingredients.  Cobbled together from a ramen kit, a can of corn, and a hunk of leftover pork that wasn’t even from a Japanese recipe, it was still some damn fine ramen, and far better than any instant ramen I’ve tried before.  The rich, creamy broth was better than I could have imagined, made with that paste instead of a powdered seasoning blend. 

A week or so passed, and I decided to bust out the shoyu ramen, which is soy sauce-flavored.

Nutrition info and ingredients.  This one includes dried sardine extract powder, so vegetarians, stay away.

How everything looks before cooking.  Note the shoyu ramen noodles are more of a rich golden color than the paler noodles that came in the tonkotsu kit above.

And here’s the prepared soup, with more corn and some crunchy fried onions.  They’re not just for Thanksgiving green bean casserole anymore!  I think I liked these noodles better, but I definitely prefer the rich, porky flavor of the tonkotsu broth to the almost overwhelming saltiness of the shoyu broth.   And yet, it was still better than any instant ramen I’ve ever tried.

Most recently, I made the miso ramen, which is soybean paste-flavored.  Now, I’ve had miso soup at Japanese restaurants before, but only when it came with something else I ordered.  I must admit I never get too excited about it, because it never tastes like much to me.  I’ve never really sought out tofu or other soy-based meat substitutes, and it certainly never occurred to me to order miso ramen at any restaurants when tonkotsu was an option.  But I tried it for you, constant readers, for the sake of SCIENCE and JOURNALISM!  I may never be the kind of “influencer” food blogger that gets invited to free meals and fancy events, but I will definitely keeping reporting on the best local restaurants and the most interesting groceries you can find at local markets. 

Anyway, here are the nutrition info and ingredients for the miso ramen.  Yes, it is vegetarian-friendly!

The fresh noodles and soup base packet.  This one was also a thick paste that I poured the hot water from the noodles into and stirred.

And here is my miso ramen, with (surprise!) more corn, more crunchy fried onions that didn’t stay crunchy for long.  I decorated this bowl with black sesame seeds, and that cherry on top is actually a bulb of black garlic, with a very complex and surprisingly sweet flavor, and a chewy consistency like gummy candy.  

Interestingly, this was the most complex flavor of all.  Having never tried miso ramen before, I can barely even describe it, but there was a lot going on — all of it good.

I strongly recommend these to anyone curious, and I would definitely buy them again to keep in the freezer for when I crave ramen.  This happens a lot, by the way.  I’m sure there are other great ramen brands to make at home, but Sun Noodle is kind of a big deal.  I was thrilled to discover these existed, and then to find them locally.  Have you tried these?  Is there another variety of ramen you recommend, either a brand, a flavor, or both?  Your friendly neighborhood Sabsoscrivner is always on the lookout for gustatory glory with Grocery Grails.

Singh’s Roti Shop

It’s not every day I get to try a whole new regional cuisine, but my first visit to Singh’s Roti Shop (https://www.facebook.com/SinghsRotiShop/) on Old Winter Garden Road, just east of Kirkman Road in West Orlando, was my first experience eating Trinidadian and Guyanese food.  Trinidad and Tobago is a small dual-island country in the southern Caribbean Sea, just off the northern coast of South America, while Guyana is a slightly larger country in the north of the South American mainland, directly east of Venezuela.  The two countries are relatively close, geographically, and both have similar demographics, with large Indo-Caribbean populations who influenced their culinary cultures.

I was so excited to make the schlep out to Singh’s for the first time, and I loved all the West Indian delicacies I brought home.  The closest I’ve come to this cuisine is Jamaican food, which is one of my favorites.  Many of the dishes at Singh’s were familiar to me from Jamaican menus, but the flavors here were somewhat different, and often spicier.  But Singh’s food also had a strong Indian influence, and then they even had an entire Chinese menu with West Indian takes on familiar Chinese dishes.

The menu is not available online, so I scanned their paper menu.  Right-click these menu images to open larger images in new tabs.  When you enter Singh’s, you will see illuminated menu signs above the counter.  I took pictures of those too, but I think it will be easier to read this printed menu.

This was the stew oxtail meal ($15.50).  I can’t go to a restaurant with oxtail on the menu and not try it!  It is one of my favorite meats, and one of my favorite dishes, period.  Each culture prepares oxtail a little differently, but usually stewed or braised to break down all that wonderful collagen for some of the most tender, unctious meat.  This oxtail was spicier than the Jamaican-style oxtail I’m used to, which is savory but also a little sweet, in a darker sauce.  I loved this hotter, redder regional variation!

And this was the curry duck meal ($13.50).  It was a very generous portion of bite-size pieces of duck stewed with potatoes and some chick peas in a think, rich, very spicy curry sauce.  I love duck almost as much as I love oxtail, so when I saw it on the menu, any thoughts of other meats went out the window.  The duck was so tender, it was very easy to pull the bones right out.  I wonder if it was cooked in a pressure cooker.  This was probably a mild curry, but it was noticeably, pleasantly spicy by my standards. 

Note on the above menu that main entree meals come with either roti or rice, and they way I see it, the place is called Singh’s Roti Shop, not Singh’s Rice Shop.  I’m sure the rice is good, but you can also get rice almost anywhere, and roti is something you would probably love if you haven’t tried it before.

This is the dhal puri, one of two kinds of roti that you can choose with the main entree meals, or you can order it separately for $2.50.  It is a huge, round, chewy, golden blanket of dough stuffed with seasoned ground chickpeas.  If you unfold the whole thing or tear off a piece, be really careful to avoid causing a messy shower of fine chickpea crumbs.  I made that mistake the first time I ever ordered a roti at the Jamaican restaurant Golden Krust, so I moved a little more gingerly as I tore into this one. 

But because I am a bit of a rube, I didn’t even realize there was a whole other kind of roti, listed on the menu as the paratha buss up (also $2.50 if you get one a la carte, or included with a meal).  The name comes from “buss up shut,” West Indian slang for a tattered, torn, “busted up” shirt.  I think I accidentally ordered the dhal puri with the oxtail meal and the paratha buss up with the curry duck meal, which was a lucky break.  If I had known what I was doing, I’d place the exact same order.  The paratha buss up was even softer, fluffier, and chewier than the dhal puri, but equally gigantic when unfurled.  But this was a little more buttery and less “earthy”-tasting than the dhal puri — more like a cross between really soft and fresh Indian naan and a puffy, fluffy Mexican flour tortilla.  Here it is after my wife and I had torn it up a little — a buss up shot of a buss up shut.

The top item on the plate below is a fry bake ($2), a breakfast offering that is warm, soft, fluffy fried dough, much like Native American fry bread, and very similar to the batura I enjoyed so much at Rasa, an Indian restaurant I reviewed months before it closed last year.  I would have also ordered some smoke herring to go with this, but breakfast hours were over, and they were all out!  The fry bake would have also been delicious drizzled with honey and cinnamon for a dessert, like a giant sopapilla, but that would be a bastardization of this wonderful, simple treat.  But to be fair, it’s so good and such a perfect blank canvas that it would go well with anything, savory, spicy, or sweet.  The pastry below it is an aloo pie ($1.50), a soft fritter that is stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes.  Both of these were a little greasy, but very tasty, with great textures — the lightest outer crispiness but so perfectly fluffy, soft, and warm on the inside.  These were my wife’s two favorite things I brought home.

Here is a separate aloo pie split down the long way and stuffed with tender and spicy curry beef ($4.50).  I chose the beef after getting oxtail and curry duck in the main meals, but the nice folks at Singh’s let you choose whichever meat you want!  This could be a terrific option for visitors wanting to maximize the things they can sample on a single visit — a few aloo pies with different meats. 

This is a doubles ($1.50), a popular Trinidadian street food dish of curried chickpeas called channa, served as a sandwich between two soft fried flatbreads called baras.  Baras are direct descendants of South Indian vadas, another fried bread I tried for the first time at the Hindu Society of Central Florida’s cafeteria in Casselberry.  The classic doubles costs only $1.50, and most people in front of me in line were ordering several of them.  Indian food aficionados might have noticed this is similar to the South Indian dish chole poori, another lesson in how immigration and diaspora inspire regional recipes. As much as I love foods made out of chickpeas, particularly falafel and hummus, I’ve never been too keen on plain old chickpeas, because my mom used to buy cans of them, and I hated that texture and the slippery, goopy liquid they were packed in.  These curried chickpeas in the doubles were so flavorful, and had a good soft texture too, like well-cooked beans.

I brought home a doubles with meat ($4.50) as well, choosing chicken as the meat option, so we could sample yet another meat too.  That photo didn’t come out looking very appetizing, so I spared you, but I assure you the chicken was tasty!

Finally, this is a piece of macaroni pie ($3.50), very much like a baked macaroni and cheese casserole that uses long bucatini-like noodles.  I wish it was a little cheesier and gooier, as I always do with baked mac and cheese dishes that crisp up the cheese too much on top and aren’t cheesy enough all the way through, but I’m glad I tried it too.

Singh’s Roti Shop doesn’t have a working website at the moment, but the address is 524 Old Winter Garden Road, Orlando, FL 32811.  The phone number is 407.253.2900.  You have to go!  I just wish I had gone sooner, but hopefully I have demystified the basic menu options for first-timers.  Once again, I recommend a new visitor try the doubles and the aloo pie because you can’t go wrong for $1.50 each.  They would be perfect vegetarian snacks, and then you can order more with different meats for $4.50 each.  And you absolutely can’t miss the two kinds of roti — the dhal puri and the paratha buss up — for $2.50 each.

Plenty of people around Orlando have probably been fans of Singh’s for years and years, but it is one of my favorite recent discoveries.  I’m always a late bloomer, but better late than never!

Yellow Spoon Kitchen

Orlando is a really diverse, multicultural, cosmopolitan city — far more than most outsiders would believe, and sadly far more than most tourists ever get to see for themselves.  But locals know we have so much more going on than theme parks and chain restaurants (even though for most people, there is a time and a place for those too).  Our culinary scene has advanced so much that we have all kinds of exciting pop-up restaurants now, many of them cooking out of ghost kitchens and specializing in takeout food you preorder online.  This is a great way to adapt to the changing needs of diners, allowing creative chefs and enterprising entrepreneurs to minimize expenses and personal contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, when fewer people feel comfortable dining in restaurant dining rooms.  I’m always on the lookout for new, unfamiliar cuisines I’ve never tried before, especially when pop-up restaurants are involved.  These ephemeral eateries motivate me to get out and try things while I can, because you never know when they’ll be back, or what they will offer next time.

So imagine my excitement when I first hear about Yellow Spoon Kitchen (https://yellowspoonkitchen.com/) on the tried and true Orlando Foodie Forum Facebook Group.  This is a pop-up restaurant specializing in Indonesian cuisine, which is definitely new to me, as well as healthy pre-made meals.  Guess which one caught my attention!

The young chef behind Yellow Spoon Kitchen, Ridwan Nurjaman, is also a sushi chef, according to his Facebook profile.  This is an ambitious side hustle, introducing a mostly unfamiliar population to Indonesian food out of a shared ghost kitchen in the East End Market in Audubon Park.  But that’s a great location for him — in one of Orlando’s foodie landmarks, our small food hall easily accessible from most of our hippest, most diverse, and most open-minded neighborhoods that are home to some of our finest local restaurants.  This week he advertised two different Indonesian dishes up for preorder this weekend, so I ordered one of each — one for me and one for my wife — and requested to pick them up today, Saturday, at noon.

Me being me, I arrived almost an hour early because parking is terrible at the East End Market on weekends.  Then I realized I had no idea where the food pickup was supposed to be.  The place isn’t that large, but the e-mail receipt didn’t have any information, so I searched high and low for the mysterious ghost kitchen.  At one point I walked through some unmarked doors on the second floor of the building and interrupted a church service, with a keyboard player and singers and everything.  That was definitely not one of my finest moments!  Eventually I found a door in the very back of the market with a small sign on it — the ghost kitchen entrance, where we could pick up our Yellow Spoon Kitchen preorders.  My order wasn’t ready until after 12:30, but I had a book I have to read for work, and I was content to wait in the back and avoid everyone eating at tables in the busy parts of the food hall.  I’m still doing everything I can to avoid crowds and any unmasked people, which includes pretty much everyone dining in public.

This is an Indonesian “heavy salad” called gado-gado ($10), requested by my wife.  According to the website, gado-gado is an “Indonesian salad of slightly boiled, blanched or steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, boiled potato, fried tofu and tempeh, and lontong (rice wrapped in a banana leaf), served with magic spicy peanut sauce dressing.  In 2018, gado-gado was promoted as one of six national dishes of Indonesia.”  Neither of us noticed any hard-boiled eggs or rice in a banana leaf in this particular salad, but there were definitely bean sprouts on the bottom.  She loves tofu, tempeh, and peanut sauce, so I think those were her favorite parts.   

This was the peanut sauce, in a generous-sized plastic cup:

This was my meal, the nasi padang ($13), a segmented platter with all kinds of dishes, like a Japanese bento box, an old-school TV dinner, or the school lunches of my youth, only a lot better than the latter two.  Whenever I eat somewhere new, I usually have a hard time deciding between a few dishes, so I always love some kind of sampler platter that lets me try a few different things.  I was so happy this was something he offered today, since it was my crash course in Indonesian food.  The top left dish is beef rendang, a spicy, savory stew of beef slow-cooked in coconut milk, herbs, and spices for hours until it is fork-tender.  It’s kind of like a curry, but more of a dry curry that isn’t overly saucy.  I tasted some familiar flavors, but as a whole, it was an entirely new taste experience for me.  To the right of the beef rendang was a savory omelet full of peppers and other vegetables.  Miraculously, it was still warm by the time I got it home.  I love omelets and cooked them often for myself at home, until a recent physical confirmed I have high cholesterol and blood pressure, and my doctor told me eggs are the enemy.  (Funny, I know I indulge in delicious and unhealthy foods sometimes, but I always thought eggs were a reasonably healthy and uncontroversial thing to eat.  What are you gonna do?)  And next to that was a bed of rice, perfect for cutting the heat of some of the dishes in the bottom left compartment.

The immediate bottom left of the nasi padang tray contained jackfruit curry.  Jackfruit is a large tropical fruit grown between India and Malaysia.  It isn’t sweet, but vegetarians love it because it can be used in a lot of savory recipe as a decent meat substitute.  The texture was softer and more yielding than chicken or pork, but I could finally see what my vegetarian friends rave about, how it could be a satisfying substitution in so many dishes because it takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in — in this case, a mildly spicy curry sauce.

The greens in the photo above are steamed kale.  I usually hate the harsh texture of raw kale, but I’ve enjoyed it in a stew with sausage, potatoes, and white beans, and I liked it with this softer texture from steaming.  It was seasoned with something that made it surprisingly spicy, though.

Directly above the kale, there are red and green condiments called sambal.  The green one is sambal ijo, and forgive me, but I don’t know what the red one is called.  I ate every drop of these, mixed with the rice, because they were so spicy.  The green sambal ijo was much hotter than the red one, but I liked the flavor of the red one more.

At first I was like “Man, what a small little chicken leg!” but this was the standout of the nasi padang — definitely my favorite part, and one of the best pieces of chicken I’ve eaten in some time.  It was fried, but not breaded or crispy, and definitely not greasy.  I would not be surprised if it was brined or marinated first, because it had such a good flavor — very savory, with a hint of sweetness.  No spiciness here, unlike several of the other ingredients.  I wish Chef Ridwan would offer a whole meal of Indonesian fried chicken, because I would totally order that.

These were lightly crispy, crunchy, salty chips that were included.  I’m not sure which of the two meals they came with (maybe both?), but I have bought similar chips at Asian markets around Orlando, and I always like them.

I thought about holding off on writing my review of Yellow Spoon Kitchen because I don’t know when and where Chef Ridwan will pop back up with new menu items.  But life is so unknowable these days, and everyone is still hunkering down and ordering takeout, while craving some novelty to break up the monotony.  I wanted to start spreading the good word now, so people can be on the lookout for his eventual triumphant return and discover his Indonesian cooking for themselves.

DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart

Ever since I first tried Taglish in late 2019, chef-owner Michael Collantes’ Filipino-American fusion restaurant located inside Lotte Plaza Market‘s food court, I have been obsessed with the flavors of Filipino food.  I’ve been back to Taglish several times and tried many different dishes, each more delicious than the next, but Orlando just doesn’t have that many Filipino restaurants.  A former co-worker who left our workplace to marry a Filipino guy in Montreal used to bring in takeout from DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Deguzman-Oriental-Food-Mart/149298135096257), a Filipino convenience store on East Colonial Drive, just west of State Road 417.  Thanks to his generosity, I had sampled some of their dishes before, but never been there, so I recently decided to do something about that.

DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart is a humble convenience store connected to a Citgo gas station.  In addition to the usual snacks you would expect at a convenience store, they carry an assortment of Filipino groceries, but the star is the shining steam table of fresh, hot food they prepare daily.  A few weeks ago, on a busy, chilly day, I stopped in for an early lunch and decided to order a few different things to treat myself. 

Unfortunately I was eating in my office, so I avoided the tempting-looking crispy fried milkfish, which I figured would be too messy to eat on the job.  Next time, milkfish!

I had been craving pancit, so I got a large serving ($10.00) and made a few meals out of it.  Pancit is a dish of tender rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, eggs, onions, celery, and carrots, and soy sauce.  It wasn’t overly salty or greasy, which is always a relief.  It it totally hit the spot.   

I also got a small container of pork adobo ($5.50), a stew of large, tender chunks of pork braised in a rich, thick gravy made of soy sauce, vinegar and garlic, with plenty of whole black peppercorns in there too.  Soy sauce and vinegar are common ingredients in Filipino cuisine, and I just love the vinegar-heavy flavors that bring sourness and also sweetness, complemented by the saltiness of the soy sauce.  It is really nothing like adobo seasoning or adobo dishes from Latin-American countries that I’ve had.   

Since this was a rare cold day in Orlando, I couldn’t resist ordering a small container of beef caldereta ($7.50) too, another rich, heavy braised dish.  Caldereta is a Filipino take on beef stew, definitely spicier than the pork adobo, but still pretty mild.  “Tangy” might be the best descriptor, due to the tomatoey sauce with chunks of potato, onion, red bell pepper, carrot, and even  black olives in there.  The meat was extremely tender, and the broth had a great flavor.  I am such a sucker for braised meats, especially in the wintertime (which is just a few weeks here in Central Florida), but I love them year-round.   

Don’t worry — like I said, I got three or four meals out of everything I ordered.  I tried spooning the pork adobo and beef caldereta juices over the pancit — both separately and together, creating new and exciting flavor combinations.  As a guy with a vinegar collection that rivals my multitude of mustards, familiarizing myself with vinegar-centric Filipino food has been a fun adventure.  I have bought a few seasoned Filipino vinegars of my own — Suka Pinakurat spicy coconut vinegar and Datu Puti spicy cane vinegar — and I’ve made my own version of the dish adobong sitaw at home several times now, substituting green beans for the more traditional (and harder to find) long beans.  But I haven’t attempted to recreate any other Filipino dishes.  It’s intimidating, but I am more than happy to leave it to the experts in the meantime.

Don’t let the fact that DeGuzman is a convenience store connected to a gas station put you off.  I have always tried to highlight “non-traditional” restaurants on The Saboscrivner, because if you’re willing to take a chance and try new things, you can find some incredible, memorable meals at food trucks, food courts and food halls, farmer’s markets, restaurants inside grocery stores, convenience stores, bowling alleys, and more.  Here we are, eleven months into this pandemic, and restaurants are still struggling everywhere.  Businesses like these are clever, focusing on takeout business rather than customers dining in and doing what they can to survive, and I’m glad we have options like them.  Now I am really glad to have the option of amazing, fresh, homemade food at DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart, just moments from my job and easily accessible from most parts of Orlando.

BaanChan Thai Restaurant

I had been hearing about BaanChan Thai Restaurant (https://www.baanchanorlando.com/) for years before finally making it there in December.  I brought back takeout for my “lunch bunch” at work, and everyone really enjoyed what they ordered.  It’s way out east on Colonial Drive, further east than I usually venture, almost out to Alafaya.  But it is easily accessible via the 417 and convenient for anyone in the UCF area.

My one co-worker ordered the BaanChan ramen ($10), with noodles in a spicy lemongrass soup, mushrooms, onions, scallions, cilantro, whole chiles, and lime.  It came with a soy-marinated soft boiled egg and several large deep-fried, breaded shrimp.  This was a a uniquely Thai take on ramen.  They wisely packed the broth, the fried shrimp, and all the other stuff in three separate containers for her.  My photo of the broth came out blurry, so I left it out.  You’re welcome!

Three of us ordered my go-to Thai dish, drunken noodles ($8.50), at various levels of heat.  Because I like to tempt fate and sometimes ruin my afternoons at the workplace, I asked for mine to be hot.  Drunken noodles, sometimes called pad kee mow or pad kee mao, are wide, flat noodles stir-fried to an al dente consistency in a spicy sauce with onions, bell peppers, and Thai basil, plus a protein.  I chose pork, which was tender and not dried out from the stir-frying.  These were much more oily than other drunken noodles I’ve ordered elsewhere, at places like Mee Thai, Naradeva Thai, and Thai Singha, but still had a lot of flavor and A LOT of heat.

Someone’s food came with fluffy jasmine rice, but it went unclaimed.  That was a relief to me, because I ate it to cut some of the lingering heat from the spicy, oleaginous noodles.  Sometimes carbs can save your life!

I also ordered two small appetizers for myself, so I could make everything last for lunch and dinner.  I asked around, and a lot of people recommended the Thai heaven beef ($4.50), which is fried beef jerky!  Because it was fried and not just cured like a lot of conventional jerky I’ve had, in addition to being sticky, sweet, salty, and slightly spicy, it was oily and also quite firm and crunchy, which I wasn’t expecting.  I can see why this is a popular crowd-pleaser at BaanChan, but I don’t know if I would order it again.

My absolute favorite thing I tried on this first visit to BaanChan was the Thai sausage ($4).  It was chewy and savory with a slightly crispy exterior, not spicy at all.  It was a terrific sausage, and I loved it.  It came with paper-thin slices of pickled ginger like you might get with sushi, and some intimidating-looking whole chiles that I wisely avoided.

You can also see a fried pot sticker that one of my co-workers gave me from her order ($4.50 for four).  It was stuffed with ground, seasoned pork and vegetables and was a pretty standard pot sticker, but you can never go wrong with those.

I was glad to finally try BaanChan after reading about it for years.  Whenever I make it back, I’ll definitely order that amazing sausage again, and I’ll probably try the pineapple fried rice, chili jam, or larb next time to switch things up.

Orlando Weekly published my Top Ten Tastes of 2020!

I am honored to have one of my end-of-the-year lists included in our wonderful local alt-weekly newspaper, Orlando Weekly, for the FOURTH year in a row.  This piece, my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, didn’t make it into the print edition, but it is a blog piece on their website for all to see.

https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/top-tastes-2020-the-10-best-dishes-we-tried-in-orlando-this-year/Content?oid=28559241

Here’s a link to my 2017, 2018, and 2019 Orlando Weekly lists.

Happy New Year to all of my dozens of readers!  Stay warm, healthy, and safe in 2021.  Don’t forget to eat something good — because you deserve it, and because these local restaurants could use all the help they can get.

Fiddler’s Green Irish Pub

I don’t drink anymore, but I always appreciate an atmospheric pub or bar that serves warm, hearty fare.  Pub grub is some of the ultimate comfort food, especially when the temperature finally drops a bit (which in Florida means a few days in the 50s and nights in the 40s).  I miss the old Fox’s Sherron Inn in South Miami, a dimly lit dive bar straight out of a Tom Waits song, jukebox and all, that served surprisingly good food.  It has been gone for over a decade, and it makes me sad that there’s no trace remaining, and too many people will never even know it was there.

But on a happier note, ever since I moved to Orlando in late 2004, I’ve been a huge fan of the great Irish pub in Winter Park, Fiddler’s Green (https://fiddlersgreen.pub/).  It feels like it was teleported here directly from Ireland — full of dark wood, no windows, a cozy little hideout near Park Avenue and Rollins College.  Luckily almost everyone knows the place, and those who know it love it.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve eaten countless meals at Fiddler’s Green that nourished the body and the soul, always accompanied by my wife or friends or co-workers, and good times were had by all.  Once, on one of their rare visits up here, I even brought my parents to Fiddler’s Green.  These are people who like what they like and don’t always like trying new things, but they loved it.  Years later, they still talk about the dinner we had — certainly nothing fancy, but one of those “perfect in every way” meals that just hit the spot for everyone.

This is the fish and chips ($17.95) that won my parents over, and also my wife’s go-to order at Fiddler’s Green.  You get three huge beer-battered Atlantic cod filets, fried to crispy golden-brown perfection — never too greasy, always tender, with just the right level of crunch to the batter.  The batter stays on and maintained that ideal crispness even after transporting my most recent order home.  The fish is served with a cool, creamy remoulade sauce, with the slightest tangy zip to it. 

Here’s a close-up of that gorgeous fried fish.  It’ll make you moan “Oh my cod!”

And here are the chips, delicious potato wedges.  I figure anyone reading this review knows that with British and Irish fish and chips, the “chips” refer to fries, and if you want thinner, crunchier potato chips, those are “crisps.”  So much for a common language, eh wot?  As far as fries/chips go, I’m often skeptical of potato wedges because they are rarely crispy, and if I wanted a baked potato (which I never do), I’d just order a baked potato.  But these are firm on the outside and soft on the inside, but not flaking apart either. 

You might expect an Irish pub would serve potatoes using multiple masterful methods, and you’d be right.  These are the ceili chips ($4.95), which are actually the potato chips most of us know and love… so in Irish pub parlance, they are crisps.  Don’t expect the hard crunchiness of store-bought kettle chips — these are thinner and crispier, and thankfully never soggy from grease.  We can’t go to Fiddler’s Green and not order a round of these. 

Longtime Saboscrivner subscribers know I am obsessed with condiments, so whenever we would go to Fiddler’s Green, I would request a bottle of HP Sauce for the table and dunk the ceili chips (crisps) and potato wedges (chips) in it.  It’s a British condiment that’s a dark reddish-brown, savory and tangy, with a superficial similarity to our A1 sauce, but a million times better.  I asked for a few dipping cups of HP Sauce with this takeout order, and they were kind enough to oblige, but I really should just buy a bottle at our local British Shoppe in Orlando’s Mills 50 district.

I am especially obsessed with mustards, and Fiddler’s also has glass bottles of sinus-clearing Coleman’s prepared English mustard that they will bring to the table upon request.  A little of that stuff goes a long way, but it’s totally worth trying a dab, especially if you are congested.

But after all this talk of fried potatoes and far-flung condiments, I ordered myself an entree that was also really good: Irish stew ($16.95), a thick, rich, heavy concoction of lamb, potatoes, carrots, “and a hint of thyme,” according to the website.  Lamb is one of my favorite meats and thyme is one of favorite herbs, and you can definitely taste them in a perfect melange in this stew.  Of course they top it with a dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and some scallions.  Some people might mix it into the stew like it’s a container of hummus with a little island of sun-dried tomatoes in the middle, but I prefer to get a little morsel of the mash in every spoonful of stew. 

This is one of those ultimate cold weather comfort foods for me, like chili and lasagna.  If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, I’d love to sit down to another bowl of Irish stew inside Fiddler’s Green the next time we get a cold (for Florida) day.  It just feels good — the warmth, the familiarity, the surroundings, the Irish music playing in the background or sometimes performed live by wonderful local musicians.

On other visits, I have also enjoyed the corned beef and cabbage (the best thing to add a dab of the Coleman’s mustard to), bangers and mash with these delicious caramelized pearl onions I would eat by the bowlful, and rich potato leek soup, topped with bacon and cheddar cheese.  I think of these as fall and winter foods, even though we don’t really get a fall here, and our winter consists of random days that add up to about two weeks out of the year.

Long before COVID, I was at a point where I don’t hang out at bars and pubs anymore unless I’m eating or going out of my way to catch live music.  That said, Fiddler’s Green has always felt warm and welcoming, like a piece of home.  I love that it’s a little dark inside with no windows.  On a sweltering, humid Florida summer day, it can transport you to the old country, even if Ireland was never your people’s old country.  And on our rare days of jacket weather, it feels like a safe, comforting cave in the best possible way.  Maybe some day soon, we can all feel safe and comfortable huddling in there again, over pints and chips (crisps) with family and friends.  In the meantime, I’ll keep ordering takeout from here, and hopefully we have a few more chilly days this season for maximum enjoyment of it.

Ramen Takagi

There are some foods I crave literally all of the time.  Loaded Italian subs.  Turkish lahmacun.  Nova salmon.  Jamaican oxtails.  Hot pastrami with grilled onions and good mustard.  Prosciutto.  Oysters.  Auntie Anne’s pretzels.  (Sorry, not sorry!)  Obviously I don’t eat them all the time because I don’t want to die, but I sure do love them.  And another one on this list is tonkotsu ramen, springy noodles and fat-marbled chashu pork slices in a gloriously rich and creamy pork bone broth.  There are other kinds of ramen that are all worthy of love, but for me, tonkotsu is the bowl that rules them all.

There are a few restaurants to get a delicious bowl of ramen around Orlando, and I’ve reviewed a few of them: Susuru down near Disney Springs, Domu in the East End Market in Orlando’s hip Audubon Park neighborhood, Kai Asian Street Fare on the edge of Casselberry and Winter Park, Jade Sushi & New Asian in College Park near downtown Orlando.

But this past week, a brand-new restaurant specializing in ramen opened on Aloma Avenue in Oviedo, between Tuskawilla Road and the 417, placing it very close to Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Winter Park, and ten minutes from our home.  The place is Ramen Takagi (https://ramentakagi.com/), and I’ve been waiting months for it to finally open.  (It is open every day except Tuesdays!)  When I arrived, I was the only customer, but three staff members were chatting inside.  I was pleased to see they were all wearing masks, even though they were alone in their restaurant, and they were warm and friendly when I got there and introduced myself.  After visiting tonight for the first time, I was so glad to welcome them to the neighborhood, and I promised these new neighbors they would be seeing a lot more of me.

This is the tonkotsu ramen ($13), with the sliced chashu pork, ajitamago (a marinated, soft-boiled egg), pickled ginger, and scallions over a generous portion of perfectly-cooked noodles.  Even before adding the broth, it was beautiful.

This is the rich, creamy pork bone broth, which had already started separating in the ten minutes it took me to drive home, but a quick stir melded everything back together.  I appreciated it so much that they packed the broth separately.

Here’s the beautiful bowl with the broth stirred up and poured in over everything.  I loved it so very much.  Is it my favorite tonkotsu ramen in Orlando?  It was one of those meals that was so good, my eyes rolled back into my head.  It’s a heck of a lot more convenient than Domu (which has the excellent Richie Rich tonkotsu I reviewed earlier this year, pre-pandemic), and so much closer than Susuru, which I liked a lot, but it’s an hour from our door.  So for multiple reasons, it might be my new favorite.  It might become your new favorite too.

I couldn’t resist trying the mazesoba ($11), an order of savory ground pork with diced chashu, another ajitamago egg, strips of nori seaweed, and scallions over noodles.  This is a brothless ramen dish, and it was still tasty, but the tonkotsu broth was so good, it was hard for the mazesoba to measure up.  In the near future, I will try all the other forms of ramen at Ramen Takagi: shio (chicken bone broth with a salt base), shoyu (chicken bone broth with a soy base), and miso (pork and chicken blended broth, which can be ordered spicy or non-spicy).

This was kaedama, literally translated to an extra order of noodles, which were a very reasonable $1.50.  I had considered adding them to any leftover tonkotsu broth, but instead my wife really enjoyed them with just a small splash of the broth. 

These are onigiri, tasty triangles of seafood wrapped in sushi rice and wrapped again in delicious nori, the same thin sheets of crispy seaweed used for sushi rolls.  I liked how these came wrapped in cellophane with a red stripe down the center that you pull to tear it open, and then release the cellophane from the sides.

I chose the tuna with mayo (left, $2.50) and the smoked salmon (right, $3).  For the tuna with mayo, I was really expecting raw or seared ahi tuna, rich and purple, hopefully adorned with the orange spicy mayo I love so much with sushi, poke, and pretty much everything.  I was surprised it was more like tuna salad.  It wasn’t bad, just not at all what I expected.  I liked the smoked salmon more, but even it was flakes of smoked salmon instead of… I don’t know if I expected thin slices of nova or belly lox or what.  Still, as always, I’m so glad I tried them.

As I said, Ramen Takagi just opened a week ago, after the sign had been up for several months.  I was starting to worry the restaurant might end up another casualty of 2020, and they might never open their doors at all.  But they’re here, and they’re already off to a bang-up start.  I was extremely impressed by their mask protocol, being alone in the shop without the prying eyes of concerned customers, and they had their masks on, taking things seriously before they could have possibly seen me approach.  And I was just as impressed by the quality of my takeout food.

I’m so glad to have another great restaurant near our home, along with a much closer and quicker source for one of my favorite dishes, tonkotsu ramen.  When I was in college, eating instant Nissin noodles that cost a buck for seven salty single servings, I never would have dreamed that over 20 years later, I’d have a wonderful wife, make an okay living, write a food blog that a handful of people actually read, or pay $13 for a bowl of delicious, beautiful, fresh ramen without thinking twice about it.  It makes me feel very lucky to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, and eating what I’m eating.  I intend to become a regular at Ramen Takagi, and I encourage my dozens of readers to do the same!

Mei’s Kitchen

Mei’s Kitchen (https://www.meiskitchenorlando.com/) is a brand-new Taiwanese restaurant that opened less than a month ago in East Orlando, in the Publix plaza on University Drive and Dean Road, right off State Road 417.  It is two doors down from another restaurant I discovered and reviewed this year, Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill.  So if you ever can’t decide between Jamaican and Taiwanese food (a situation that most people may never find themselves in, but I have a feeling I will often), this is the place to go.

As usual, friends on The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps on Facebook were even quicker to discover Mei’s Kitchen, and have been posting tantalizing photos and singing its praises for the last two or three weeks.  I have been wanting to make it over there, and finally made it on Memorial Day, a rare Monday off work.  I called in our takeout order as I was leaving the house, hopped on the 417, stopped into Publix for a few groceries, and my order was ready and bagged up when I got to Mei’s, about 20 minutes after making the call.

It’s a large and beautiful dining room in the unassuming shopping center, which they spent months completely refurbishing after the previous tenant, Chinese restaurant Pu Yi, closed.  Sadly, the dining room was empty, but I was there before 5:00 PM on a Monday, Mei’s is still less than a month old and doesn’t seem to have much word of mouth yet, and of course there are COVID-19 concerns.  I don’t plan to resume dining in restaurants anytime soon, but I’m still happy to order takeout to support locally-owned establishments, and I tip like I’m taking up one of their tables.  And now for the word of mouth — I’m here to tell you that the food was terrific and a terrific bargain, and they could really use your business.

I had been dying to try the Taiwanese beef noodle soup ($10.95), and it ended up being one of the most delicious and satisfying noodle soups I’ve ever had.  I was grateful they packed the broth (with beef) and the noodles (with finely-chopped cilantro and what I believe are pickled mustard greens) separately, so the noodles didn’t become a soggy, gloopy mess on my drive home.DSC03170

I poured some of the broth and all of the beef into the noodle container with enough room to mix it around, and I still had lots of broth left over (which I’ll add my own noodles to).  The beef was very tender, and I’m pretty sure it was brisket — one of my favorite cuts of beef.DSC03172

It was so satisfying, and not nearly as salty as I expected.  I’ve had countless bowls of pho, and I’ve finally started wading into the world of “fancy” (non-instant) ramen, but nothing could have prepared me for the perfection of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  Of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I had to research it further, and I found this Grub Street article that lists the best Taiwanese beef noodle soup locations in New York, with more background about the ingredients and cooking processes that make it so unique and special.  The article says “[m]any consider it to be the national dish of Taiwan,” and I can see why!DSC03173

The Taiwanese sausage fried rice ($7.95) wasn’t that different from other fried rice dishes I’ve enjoyed in the past, but its hard to go wrong with fried rice.  I love lap cheong (AKA lạp xưởng in Vietnamese), dried Chinese pork sausage that is chewy and slightly sweet.  It is one of my favorite ingredients in fried rice, and one that doesn’t get included often enough.  This version of the dish wasn’t overly greasy or salty, and the rice had a nice chewiness to it.  It was loaded with scrambled eggs, peas, and diced onion and carrot, in addition to the sausage.

We ordered so much food, I put the fried rice away after a tiny taste, only to devour it the following day after stirring in a little Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, a versatile Szechuan condiment you can find any any Asian market.  But here it is, pre-spicy chili crisping:
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I hadn’t had softshell crabs in a long time, so I was happy to see a salt and pepper soft shell crab appetizer on the menu — two crispy fried crabs for $7.95.  They were both bisected down the middle and came with a generous helping of delicious spicy mayo, which I love on sushi (and almost anything else) way more than I should.  These weren’t greasy either, which is always a nice surprise.DSC03168

Here’s a close-up of the fried crabs.  I really appreciated that Mei’s uses those plastic takeout containers with plastic lids that snap into place.  They are recyclable and dishwasher-safe, so we always clean and save these.  They are perfect for food storage beyond their original use.  DSC03169

But wait, we aren’t done yet!  My wife usually likes fluffy bao buns, so we ordered all three varieties of bao for her, not even realizing Mei’s Kitchen includes two bao in each order!  We were expecting one of each kind of bao, so that was a nice surprise.

So we got traditional gua bao with braised pork belly, garnished with fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and crushed roasted peanuts ($2.95 for two):
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Fried pork belly bao with shredded cucumber and sesame seed dressing ($3.50 for two):
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And fried shrimp bao with avocado and more of that spicy mayo ($3.95 for two):
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As you can see, the bao came in regular styrofoam boxes.

It was a quite a feast that yielded plenty of leftovers, and this was actually our first time having Taiwanese food.  If you like Chinese, you’ll love Taiwanese!  I wish Mei’s Kitchen well.  Most of Orlando’s best Chinese restaurants are all the way out on Colonial Drive (Peter’s Kitchen, Taste of Chengdu, Chuan Lu Garden), so this is somewhat closer to home.  The food is excellent, the portions are generous, the dining room is new and nice, and the prices are extremely reasonable, so here’s that word of mouth Mei’s could definitely use.  Give them a chance, and you won’t be sorry.  I’d definitely recommend everything we tried, and they have a whole lot more to choose from as well.

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.