Kabuto Sushi & Grill

Kabuto Sushi & Grill (https://www.kabuto-sushi.com) is the closest sushi restaurant to our house, but it took us a while to try it.  It used to be a different sushi restaurant years ago, which we only ever went to once.  Once was enough.  It was really expensive and just okay, but Kabuto has a completely different menu, different management, different décor, different everything.  I ordered takeout, but the dining room was gorgeous — very modern and sexy, especially for a sushi restaurant in uber-suburban Winter Springs, next door to our regular Publix where everyone knows me.

I ordered takeout for that first visit to Kabuto, starting with a pretty typical eel roll ($10), with baked eel and cucumber inside the sushi rice and a little dipping cup of sticky, sweet eel sauce on the side:

My wife thought the Kabuto’s summer roll ($16) sounded interesting, with tuna, salmon, a krab stick, avocado, and mango, wrapped in spring mix leaves and rice paper, with house-made raspberry wine sauce on the side.  It was an interesting combination, especially with the sauce, that was like a sweet and sticky vinaigrette dressing, and no rice to speak of.

I ended up using the sauce as dressing on a homemade salad a few days later, since she isn’t into sauces and dips anyway.  It was perfectly fine, but I like my sushi rolls with rice, so I probably wouldn’t order this one again.

I’m glad I ordered a spicy tuna crunch roll and a spicy salmon crunch roll ($8 each; below left and center), both with tempura flakes inside to give them that gentle crunch, and we really enjoyed both of those.
But there were two highlights, even though these other rolls were solid.  One was the mango passion roll that my wife chose ($16; on the right side in the above photo), with yellowtail, salmon, and avocado inside, topped with more yellowtail and salmon, plus mango salsa.  It was AWESOME.  What a great combination.  I always order mango in my poke bowls with tuna and/or salmon when it is available, and it worked so well here.

My personal favorite wasn’t a roll at all, but a selection from the “cold small plates” part of the menu: spicy tuna crispy rice ($12), with cubes of deep-fried rice topped with spicy tuna, avocado, masago, scallions, sesame seeds, and a sweet glaze.  It came with four pieces, which we split evenly, but I could have eaten two hundred of them, seriously.

I love ramen almost as much as I love sushi, but my wife doesn’t always share my love of ramen (aside from the instant stuff).  I was surprised when she suggested we order a bowl of the tonkotsu ramen ($13) to split, since I figured she wouldn’t be interested, but I was half-considering ordering one just for myself.  In the end, I liked it more than she did and ended up eating most of it, which was fine with me, but I was relieved she suggested it in the first place.

I really liked how rich and creamy the pork bone broth was, how tender the thin slices of chashu pork and bamboo shoots were, and how springy and chewy the noodles were.  I always think I’m going to hate the bamboo in tonkotsu ramen, expecting it to be tough and fibrous like a cross between chewing on celery sticks and saxophone reeds, but it is more like al dente lasagna noodle sheets.  The soft-boiled egg halves were cooked to gooey perfection as well, although I chomped them both rather than letting the yolks mix into the tonkotsu broth.  The broth was served on the side in our takeout order, which was the ideal way to do it, to keep those great noodles from getting soggy.

I had no idea Kabuto also has a happy hour menu, since it wasn’t on the website.  If you dine in between 4:30 and 7:00 PM, you could get much cheaper sushi rolls, and if I had known, we might have done that instead of ordering takeout.  Here’s a photo, because the people need to know about this great deal!
In fact, we returned two weeks later to dine in and take advantage of happy hour, since the food was so good.

My wife started out with two pieces of escolar sashimi ($4) and two pieces of tako (octopus) sashimi ($4):

Then we went hard on those happy hour rolls!  I got the same spicy tuna crunch roll and spicy salmon crunch roll we liked so much at home ($5 each; right center and bottom), as well as the full-priced mango passion roll we loved (top left):

We also got the Philly roll ($4; top right), the fire dragon roll ($5, bottom left), and the lobster sensation roll ($5, center).  I always gravitate toward “Japanese bagel” rolls, with smoked salmon and cream cheese (the food of my people!), but the Philly roll was regular (non-smoked) salmon with cream cheese.  Still very pleasing.  This was my first fire dragon roll, with salmon, asparagus, and avocado inside, and topped with yellowtail, thin-sliced serrano peppers, and dollops of “house-made kobachi sauce,” as the menu said.  It looked and tasted more like sriracha to me.

Finally, the lobster sensation roll isn’t listed on the regular menu, but it contained lobster mixed with cream cheese and was lightly fried in tempura batter.  Really good stuff.  I’m sorry I didn’t take more close-ups of this beautiful sushi tray.

There are also daily specials at Kabuto that we didn’t order, but I snapped a photo of the menu from the day we went, since they aren’t on the website either:

There is no shortage of good sushi restaurants in and around Orlando, but Kabuto Sushi & Grill is definitely the closest to us.   It may not be super-upscale, but that isn’t The Saboscrivner’s style anyway, and it is still a really nice place with fresh, delicious, unpretentious sushi and ramen, tucked away in Winter Springs, where foodies rarely dare to venture.  Please dare.  In the meantime, we will keep enjoying this friendly neighborhood restaurant moments from our home.

Thai Singha

Thai Singha (https://thaisingha.net/) is the first Thai restaurant I ever visited in Orlando, shortly after meeting my wife and starting to date her, back in 2006.  It is out in the sprawling Waterford Lakes shopping center in East Orlando, south of the University of Central Florida.  The area is full of restaurants, but not many stand out and draw attention.  Thai Singha definitely does, or at least it should.

We realized it had been years since we had gone together, especially after discovering newer favorites like Mee Thai and Naradeva Thai, both wonderful places.  But you never forget your first, especially since Thai Singha is where I discovered my favorite Thai dish that is now my benchmark order at any new Thai restaurant, to compare and contrast them all.

My wife started with hot ginger tea ($2.95), which smelled really good and came in a neat-looking receptacle:

Then she ordered one of her favorite dishes, that she also introduced me to at Thai Singha over 15 years ago: mee grob ($6.95).  Some restaurants call it mee krob or meekrob, but many around Orlando don’t serve it at all.  It is a veritable mountain of crispy rice noodles, shrimp, pork, and tofu, tossed in a tangy sweet sauce and garnished with scallions and bean sprouts.  It is awesome, folks.  It is very sticky, crunchy, sweet, salty, and sour — a feast for all the senses.  The shrimp is fried so nicely that you can even crunch and swallow the crispy tails.  It is one of the only places where I like tofu, but I fully admit I haven’t had enough tofu to discount it completely.  Maybe everyone is already wise to the joys of mee grob, but if ya don’t know, now you know.

My wife ordered her favorite entree as well: late night noodles with a combination of shrimp, scallops, and squid ($16.95).  You can choose any of the options from the “Favorite Dishes” section of the menu to come with mixed vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, or pork for $11.50, shrimp for $14.50, or a meat combo or this seafood combo for $16.95.The late night noodles are soft, chewy rice noodles stir-fried to perfection, then tossed in a light soy sauce with eggs, the shrimp, the buttery little bay scallops, and the tender squid, and served over a bit of lettuce.  She loves it.

And this is my favorite Thai dish, made with the same flat, wide, perfectly chewy rice noodles: drunken noodles, also known as pad kee mao or pad kee mow.  I got mine with tender pork for $11.50, and I always wish the portion was bigger here, because it is so incredibly delicious.  Drunken noodles are stir-fried with onions, green bell peppers, fresh Thai basil leaves, and a sweet chili paste sauce.  It is always sweet and spicy at once, which I just love in any cuisine, and the Thai basil brings such a unique herby flavor — very different than the typical basil in Italian recipes.  Despite the name, there is no alcohol in this dish, but it is a common, beloved Thai street food for drunken revelers.  I’m sure the late night noodles have a similar origin story from nocturnal hawkers and their grateful post-partying clientele.

So that’s our first Thai restaurant we were able to share with each other, Thai Singha.  I am pleased to report we enjoyed it as much as ever after being away for far too long.  I was just sad to see it dimly lit and not busy, despite it always bustling during our past visits, too long ago.  We got there in the late afternoon on a recent Friday, too early for the dinner hour, but we were the only diners in the place, while others popped in and out to pick up sporadic takeout orders.  It is difficult to get to Waterford Lakes, and we rarely end up on that east side of Orlando anyway, but it remains a treasure well worth braving UCF-area traffic to return to from time to time.  Over the years we’ve been together, we have ordered other dishes on the menu that are always solid, but we are always a little disappointed when we don’t go with our favorites here.  Now you’ve seen our go-to dishes, so pay it a visit, decide on your own favorites, and let me know what they are!

St. Johns River Steak & Seafood

A while back, we met one of my wife’s best friends for lunch at St. Johns River Steak & Seafood (https://stjrss.com/), a lovely restaurant near where she lives in Sanford.  My wife and I had never been there before, but the biggest draw was being able to sit outdoors on the huge covered patio overlooking picturesque Lake Monroe on a glorious spring day.

My wife and I shared a bowl of gumbo ($9), which looks very small due to the large bowl they served it in, with just a small space in the middle.  The  rich, thick, spicy, tomatoey stew contained chicken, shrimp, crawfish, and andouille sausage, and I think I liked it a lot more than my wife did. 

I also ordered gator bites ($15) for the three of us to share.  Gator is almost a novelty food.  I don’t know anyone who loves it, but when people see it on menus, especially in casual seafood restaurants in places like Louisiana and Florida, we feel obligated to order it, I gar-ron-tee.  Maybe it’s an “eat them before they eat you” defense mechanism, or a way to prove our local “Florida Man” bona fides.  Anyway, these were chewy and chickeny, as gator bites usually are.  I think we got them grilled, but you can also get them fried or blackened.

All three of us were in the mood for grouper, which is one of the finest fish you can eat.  A surprising amount of local seafood restaurants don’t offer grouper on their menus, and some others sneakily serve other, lesser fish, even when they advertise grouper.  We figured we were coming to a place that would treat us grouper groupies right.

Our friend ordered a Caesar salad ($9) with grouper added on (I can’t find my receipt, but some of the other protein add-ons were $9, or it might have been whatever “market price” was that day).

My wife ordered the fried grouper sandwich ($18.50) and upgraded to a side of Sidewinder fries (an extra $2).  The regular sides that come with sandwiches are house-made chips or cole slaw, but we both love Sidewinder fries.  They might be some of my favorite fries ever.  It came with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on a lightly grilled brioche bun, but since I love sandwiches and my wife doesn’t, I took her bun and vegetables to turn my own grouper (see below) into a sandwich. 

And I got a blackened grouper entree ($27) with two sides: rich and creamy macaroni (really penne pasta) and cheese, and terrific onion rings.  RING THE ALARM!

Sadly, all three of us thought our grouper was a little dry.  Mine reminded me more of a denser fish like mahi, and was less flaky and buttery than grouper I’ve had elsewhere.  But the two sides were top-notch, and I really enjoyed them.

Sanford’s food scene is really blowing up with wonderful restaurants and hip bars and breweries in the quaint downtown area.  There are so many choices, it can be hard to choose.  We used to always end up at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, and last summer I discovered Christo’s wonderful diner and their legendary Greek nachos.  But it is nice to know about a seafood option too, moments away from that main drag on First Street, and with that gorgeous patio and lake view.  I can’t decide if I would give the grouper another try when I inevitably return to St. Johns River Steak & Seafood or branch out to another favorite like soft shell crab or even jambalaya.  However, I would definitely get the onion rings, mac and cheese, and Sidewinder fries again… and probably leave the gator to first-timers.

QuesaLoco

I just got home from Orlando’s newest Mexican restaurant, QuesaLoco (https://quesaloco.com/), which opened for business TODAY, Saturday, January 15, 2022.  I was the fifth person in line, about half an hour before it opened at 2:00, and they had a mariachi band playing festive, deafening music to make it a truly special, memorable occasion.  But today wasn’t my first experience with QuesaLoco.  Flash back with me to the fall of 2021, if you will — an era when some of us had received our boosters and were feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time in a while, in the era before we had ever heard of the Omicron Variant.

Last fall was when I first discovered QuesaLoco, in its original incarnation as a food truck, which I noticed while randomly driving by.  The QuesaLoco food truck had been setting up in front of the Lotto Zone convenience store at 4550 North Goldenrod Road in Winter Park, between Aloma Avenue and University Boulevard, on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons and evenings.  Unfortunately, I was thwarted by a ridiculously long line on that first attempt to stop.  Always seeking the new and novel and figuring anyone lined up at an unfamiliar food truck knows what’s up, I went home and looked it up, and made a plan to visit the truck as soon as I was able — ideally when the line was shorter.

I headed straight there after work on a Friday evening in the fall, planning to get there 20 minutes before it opened at 6:00.  I was the sixth person in line, and many more people queued up behind me.  Of course it started to pour rain, but nobody ran for cover or got frustrated and left.  Once the truck opened for business, they took orders very quickly and efficiently, and I think only about 15 minutes passed before I, lucky number six, got served.  The truck had a crew of five people, and they were all hustling like crazy to get everyone’s food ready.  I figured it was going to be good, but had no idea exactly what treasures I would be unboxing once I got home to my wife.

On that first visit, I started with a simple chorizo taco ($2.50), with crumbled spicy sausage, raw onions, and chopped cilantro on a very fresh, handmade corn tortilla.  It was a triumphant taco, everything you hope a chorizo taco will look, smell, taste, and even feel like.  The only thing you could do to improve this taco would be to increase its size, but this wasn’t the only thing I ordered.

Birria is a very trendy item in Mexican food these days — slow-braised shredded beef (or sometimes goat), served in tacos and other Mexican dishes (and sometimes even in ramen noodle soup!), usually accompanied by a dipping cup of rich consomme broth.  QuesaLoco offered birria in several different ways, so I opted for the most unfamiliar, a mulita ($6).  This was similar to a quesadilla, except instead of a flour tortilla, it was served as two fried corn tortillas stuffed with shredded birria beef, cheese, onion, and cilantro, dunked in consomme, and topped with sprinkles of cotija cheese before being wrapped up for me.   I’ve never noticed mulitas on any other Mexican menus around here, but consider me a card-carrying convert to the mulita militia.  (If only I still had my mullet!)
The extra cup of consomme on the side is a $1 upcharge, but I strongly recommend it, even if you aren’t ordering birria!  Unlike some other birria consomme I’ve seen and tried elsewhere, this one wasn’t bright orange with oil, but a legitimate broth that was rich and flavorful, perfect to dip things in, but probably just as good to sip on a cool day.

Finally, the coup de grace: a torta, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a sandwich full of al pastor (pork marinated in spices with pineapple and usually sliced off a rotating spit called a trompo), which is one of my favorite meats, period.  This sensational, stupendous sandwich was $12, and worth every penny.  It’s a truly titanic torta, the fresh, soft, lightly grilled roll stuffed with plenty of al pastor, melted cheese, cotija cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro,  and crema.  I have always been a huge fan of the tortas from the venerable Tortas El Rey, and I think this torta can easily stand alongside them in the sandwich pantheon.  After the small chorizo taco and the birria mulita, I got two additional meals out of this torta!

I ordered this carne asada quesadilla ($10) for my wife, and we were both blown away by how huge, heavy, and delicious it was.

Here’s a different angle.  Like everything else, they were extremely generous with the meat, cheese, and cilantro.  (She doesn’t like onions, so I always ask places to hold the onions for her.  Me, I love onions, but I love her more.)

This outstanding limon (lime) agua fresca ($4.50 for a large) was so cold,  refreshing, and delicious.  It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying, and did not taste artificial at all.  The sweetness was balanced perfectly by the acidic tang of real lime juice and the sweet, spicy chamoy and Tajin seasoning around the rim of the cup (a 50-cent upcharge).  It splashed around in my cupholder on the drive home because they couldn’t put a lid on it for obvious reasons, but it was worth it.   

I have been following QuesaLoco’s social media ever since that first visit, and they promised their long-awaited permanent restaurant location  would be opening soon.  Well, constant readers, that day was today, and the new location is open for business and already awesome.

The brick and mortar location of QuesaLoco is up and running at 971 West Fairbanks Avenue, a few doors down from Mediterranean Deli, home of the best gyro in Orlando and one of my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021

After the staff cut the ribbon right at 2:00, they let us inside.  The interior walls are covered with beautiful, colorful murals inspired by Mexican folk art, especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery.

Even the restroom doors are painted:

The six-piece mariachi band was tearing it up!  I had to shout my order over their brassy serenade (and through my unflattering-but-necessary N95 mask), but Silvia on the cash register rang everything up correctly.   

After how much I loved the limon agua fresca from the food truck a few months ago, I was excited that they had so many flavors available here at the restaurant:

I ended up choosing pineapple and fresa (strawberry), which were $4 each.  The strawberry surprised me by being very creamy, almost like melted strawberry ice cream.  I drank a little on the way home, but saved plenty for my wife because I knew she would like it too.  Pineapple is my go-to agua fresca flavor, and this one did not disappoint, but next time I’ll get different ones.

Once I got home, the first thing I tried was the taco de cecina ($4), a traditional taco from Tampico, Mexico.  It features fried skirt steak (arrechera), chopped into small pieces and wrapped in two soft, fried corn tortillas, with diced onion and cilantro, sliced avocado, and crema, with grilled onions and a whole grilled, blistered jalapeño toreado on the side.

My wife usually likes sopes from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey, so I ordered her a sope from QuesaLoco ($5.50).  Sopes are a fried masa corn disc (sometimes puffy, sometimes flatter like this one), topped with the al pastor pork I liked so much in my torta last time, refried beans, crumbled cotija cheese, and crema.  I asked them to hold the lettuce, tomato, and onions, since the lettuce would have wilted on the drive home, and my wife isn’t into tomatoes or onions anyway.

Because I loved that beautiful torta so much on my visit to the food truck, I thought I might order another torta today, but wasn’t sure which meat I would choose.  My decision was made for me when I saw QuesaLoco’s brand-new, expanded menu, with the option of the torta de la Barda ($15).  This classic street sandwich from Tampico has everything: sliced ham, shredded beef, crumbled chorizo, pork jam, stewed chicharrones (pork skins), crumbled cotija cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and salsa verde on another perfectly soft Mexican roll.  It is huge, but I put it away.

As I said earlier, birria is one of the house specialties at QuesaLoco.  But since I had already sampled tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and the birria itself in my first-ever mulita, this time I couldn’t resist a new menu item: birria ramen ($12).  Yes!  They serve ramen noodle soup made with the consommé broth, onions, cilantro, and sliced radishes.  I guess they must have larger bowls for customers who dine in, since my takeout order was divided into two smaller styrofoam cups.  But that was fine with me, because it automatically divided it into two portions for me for later.

This is so unbelievably good.  Better than it looks, better than you’re probably even thinking.  It is the best kind of fusion cuisine — a dish that combines flavors and cultures, without detracting from either. 

I’m so glad I was one of the first people in line at QuesaLoco on its opening day, because the line was pretty long when I left.  People were wrapped around the side of the small plaza’s parking lot, and a few shot me dirty looks as I left with two large bags and two colorful cups.  But just like going to the doctor’s office, you want to try to get to a hot new restaurant early, because the longer you wait, the more they might be slowed down.  No matter when you go, rest assured that QuesaLoco will be worth the wait.  If you loved the food truck, you’ll only find more to love in their beautiful dining room, with its lovely artwork and expanded menu.  And if you never got to try the food truck (which is going on hiatus for a while), then you are in for such a treat.  You can’t go wrong trying anything I ordered on either of my visits, but I don’t think anything on the new menu could possibly disappoint.  Even though you won’t get the opening day experience with live mariachis blowing the roof off the place, you’re going to have an incredible meal… or two or three, if you order like I did.

Phở Vinh

Phở Vinh (http://www.phovinhorlando.com/) is one of the many Vietnamese restaurants east of downtown Orlando, but it is slightly east of the main Vietnamese neighborhood, Mills 50, in an adjoining neighborhood known as the Milk District, due to the presence of the T.G. Lee Dairy headquarters.  Some of my favorite restaurants in Orlando are in the Milk District, and I’m happy to add another one to that number.

Our wonderful next-door neighbors took us to dinner at Pho Vinh several years ago, and we all liked it, but my wife and I kept returning to our usual Vietnamese restaurants, Phở 88 and Little Saigon, in the subsequent years.  Both are very good, but I recently felt like a change, so I recently called in a takeout order with Phở Vinh, brought it home, and unpacked deliciousness that even exceeded that dinner way back when.

Since the name of the place is Phở Vinh, we both decided to order phở, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup that we love so much.  Even though “beef noodle soup” sounds heavy, it is surprisingly light and refreshing, despite still being hearty and filling.

When we go to our usual Vietnamese restaurants, my wife always orders phở tai ($9.95), with thin slices of rare beef that cook in the hot, fragrant, clear broth.  Phở Vinh does what most Vietnamese restaurants do, packing the meat, noodles, and aromatics in one container, and the broth in a separate container, so the meat doesn’t get fully cooked and the noodles don’t turn to mush on the drive home.  We order takeout a lot more often than we dine out, especially these days, so we appreciate this very much.

I got what I normally order at other Vietnamese restaurants, the phở xe lưa ($13.95), with thin slices of rare beef, brisket, flank steak, tendon (rich, unctious, and chewy — I love it), and tripe (not my favorite, but it’s always included with the other meats in the combination phở). 

Here is the phở broth.  We both got identical containers, which are pretty generous.

And here is a shot of my steaming soup, all the meats and noodles simmering with torn basil leaves, paper-thin sliced onions, scallions, and fresh jalapeño peppers with all the fiery seeds and ribs intact. I squirted in a bit of lime juice from lime wedges (also included), but I rarely alter my phở beyond that, despite the addition of sauces like hoisin and sriracha.  It is better to taste it as intended, especially when visiting a new restaurant for  the first time, or in our case, the first time in a long time.   It was wonderful.  So fresh and fragrant, and like I said, never a heavy meal.

I also got an order of cơm chiên dương châu ($11.95), fried rice with shrimp, roast pork, ham, and sweet, chewy Chinese sausage called lap cheong or lap xeong, which I love.  They should call this dish the “kosher special”!  I was hoping to share it with my wife, but figured she might not like it, so I’d have more for myself to pack for lunch the next day.  But she thrilled me by loving the fried rice, even the Chinese sausage, which I definitely wasn’t expecting.

Guessing wrongly that she wouldn’t be into the fried rice, I ordered my wife a second whole meal for the next day, since I was going to be at work, and she doesn’t cook.  After phở tai, this is her favorite Vietnamese dish to order: bún bò nướng, or charbroiled beef with rice vermicelli (the bún).  At Phở Vinh, this also came with a crispy fried spring roll, so the dish was called bún bò nướng chả giò ($12.95).  I thought she might like to try the spring roll (the chả giò), but she wasn’t interested in it, so I ate it while it was hot and fresh.  We almost never get spring rolls, and I was reminded how much I like them.  I didn’t try any of the rest, but she ate it all, which means she liked it.  (If she didn’t, she wouldn’t!)

My next visit to Phở Vinh to bring home more takeout was two weeks later, on a recent drizzly, dreary Friday evening.  I got my wife the summer rolls she greatly prefers (an order or two for $3.95).  Unlike the crispy fried spring rolls, summer rolls are wrapped in a thin, chewy, sticky rice crepe, stuffed with pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and vegetables, and served chilled.  I’m never into these, but she loves ’em, especially the sweet, sticky peanut sauce they are always served with.

She got her usual phở tai again, but I switched it up and got a different kind of noodle soup, the very spicy bún bò huế ($11.95), with slices of beef and pork in an intensely hot broth.  As usual, the meats, noodles, and vegetables were packaged separately from the orangey-red broth. 

And here’s the gleaming, glistening soup, perfect for warming me up (and making my eyes water and nose run) on a surprisingly chilly, rainy evening. 

Finally, I got bánh mì bò kho ($11.95), a rich Vietnamese take on classic beef stew, served with half a loaf of crusty French bread.  I didn’t eat this until the following Sunday, two days later, when it was even chillier, but it heated up great and tasted delicious.  It was thicker than the phở and bún bò huế, but not nearly as thick as some beef stew I’ve had.  There were plenty of big chunks of soft carrot, thin slices of onion, and huge pieces of tender beef that were a perfect, soft consistency — not that different from oxtails, which are one of my favorite foods.  That got me thinking about how awesome a Vietnamese oxtail soup or stew would be.   
Unfortunately, the French bread was burnt, as you can see.  I still ate it, don’t get me wrong!  I heated it up in the toaster oven, but had I been at the restaurant, I would probably have asked for another piece.

So as you can see, Phở Vinh won us over.  With this stupid weather we’ve been having, alternating between days in the 80s and nights in the 50s, you can imagine how good nice, hot soups and stews would be.  If you’ve lived in Orlando for a while, you probably have a favorite Vietnamese restaurant.  We sure did, but I’m glad we branched out and tried Phở Vinh.  It is definitely a regular in our rotation now, and we will definitely return.

Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster

I’m not usually a big steakhouse person, but if you ask me, Orlando’s best steakhouse is Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster (https://christnersprimesteakandlobster.com/ ), located at 729 Lee Rd, Orlando, Florida, 32810.  Christner’s is very old-school and classy, with impeccable service and prices to match, but you get what you pay for at a place like this.  When I was still just dating my wife, her parents took us all out to Christner’s, and I must admit I had never been to a restaurant like this before.  I got sticker-shock from the prices, even though her generous father, a stand-up guy, treated us all.  But the steak was the finest I’ve ever had in my life — even better than the steak at the vaunted Bern’s in Tampa — and the sides were all top-notch as well.

Well, we’ve returned to Christner’s a few times in the intervening years, but we’ve canceled just about as many reservations just due to a lot of bad luck — someone always getting sick or injured right around the time of an anniversary, a birthday, or some other event worth celebrating.  This year we decided to treat ourselves.  Our anniversary and my in-laws’ anniversary are a day apart, so a while back, we finally returned to Christner’s for the first time in quite a few years, and everyone was healthy and safe and somehow stayed healthy and safe.  It was a lovely night out with three of the best people in the world, and we ate like kings.

I have made no secret of my love for oysters on this blog, and Christner’s has the absolute best fried oysters I’ve ever had.  Seriously, I’ve never had anything this good.  They would make a fine, filling meal in and of themselves, even if we didn’t get steaks.  This sharable appetizer portion comes with tartar sauce, which is really good, and cocktail sauce, which I didn’t even bother with.  But the oysters are so plump and well-seasoned, and the breading is so perfectly crispy, that they didn’t need either.

My mother-in-law ordered lobster bisque, and she was willing to share.  I just got a spoonful, but wow, was it good.  Lobster bisque is an all-time Top Five soup, even if it’s hard to make it look exciting in a photo.  Was this the best bisque?  Best believe it’s the baddest bisque, bro!

My father-in-law ordered a Caesar salad.  I didn’t ask to try any of it, but those croutons looked pretty fantastic.

The croutons are probably made from the fresh-baked bread that is delivered to your table with soft, spreadable butter as soon as your party sits down.  The photo I got of the bread didn’t look nearly as good as it actually is, so I left it out of this review.  It is a round loaf you have to cut yourself, but it is so soft and fluffy and warm, and I challenge anyone to try it and not like it.

My in-laws aren’t used to me always playing the food photographer, so I didn’t get a chance to take pictures of everyone’s main courses.  I did capture mine, though — Russ’ USDA Prime strip, a twelve-ounce steak seasoned with a nice amount of cracked pepper and cooked to a perfect rare, just like I like it.  I regret not taking a photo of the red center, which meat lovers would salivate over.  That would have been pure “food porn,” though.   This steak is one of the cheaper ones on the menu, and I still get sticker-shock after all these years, even when someone else is generous enough to treat.  But of course, at Christner’s, even the cheapest steak is relative.  But that’s not all!  I usually choose it because it is one of the only steaks that comes with a side item; almost all the rest come a la carte.  Russ’ USDA Prime strip is accompanied by the richest, creamiest, most buttery chateau potatoes, which are just very posh mashed potatoes.  Best mashed potatoes ever, though!

We also ordered the skillet potatoes and onions for everyone to share.  This is one of the best potato dishes I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Sliced thin and fried, these aren’t crispy-crunchy like potato chips, but more like thin, disc-shaped steak fries, seasoned with lots of good cracked pepper.  As a notorious onion fan, the onions are practically caramelized and so, so perfect.  Everyone loves the skillet potatoes and onions, even my onion-averse wife!

And speaking of onions, I finally got to try Christner’s legendary onion rings, which I had only stared at longingly on our previous (rare) visits.  I always hesitate to request extra stuff when someone else is being generous enough to treat, but onion rings are kind of my thing.  I even have a whole category on this blog called RING THE ALARM! (no air horn sound effects this time, because this is a very upscale restaurant), so here are Christner’s huge, thick, mountainous onion rings, at long last.   At least my father-in-law tried some, which made me feel less guilty for asking, and even my wife (yes, the onion-averse wife again!) tried one and really liked it.  You can get these rapturous rings in orders of five or nine, and I was glad everyone was okay with getting nine.  These were definitely opulent, ostentatious onion rings!

Everyone enjoyed their dinners, but we all ended up with plenty of leftovers to box up and enjoy the next day.  By now, we knew enough to save room for one of the most delicious, decadent desserts I’ve ever encountered: mandarin orange cake.  My photo doesn’t communicate the size of the slices nearly well enough, but each one is gigantic.  The icing is a “tropical pineapple-orange whipped cream icing,” and the cake is always moist and rich, with a subtle citrusy tang.  It is served a la mode with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream (quality stuff) and a little ramekin of chilled orange sauce that might be my favorite part, because it tastes like melted orange sherbet with chunks of actual orange in it.  I always pour it over the ice cream and eat it first, because I’m usually pretty full at this point.  
Fruity desserts are my absolute favorites, especially anything with citrus or tropical fruit.  I believe Christner’s mandarin orange cake is an all-time favorite restaurant dessert anywhere, and you can easily get two or three servings out of each stupendous slice of cake.

Well, after not doing anything at all last year due to the pandemic, this year my wife and her parents were (relatively) healthy and fully vaccinated, so it was so nice to celebrate our back-to-back anniversaries with this sumptuous feast at Christner’s.  Everything felt normal for a little while, and everyone left very full, satisfied, and happy.  I think all the time about how lucky I am to be married to such an amazing woman, and to have amazing in-laws too, who I love and get along with, and vice versa.  I know not everyone has that privilege and good fortune.  And to be able to enjoy a fancy meal like this at a fancy restaurant like Christner’s speaks to our privilege and good fortune too.  We rarely come here — only every few years — but each time we do, we are all reminded of how consistently excellent it is, and how lucky we are.

Tajine Xpress

Tajine Xpress (http://tajinexpress.com/) is a fast-casual Moroccan restaurant that opened earlier this year on Goldenrod Road on the east side of Orlando, south of East Colonial Drive.  It didn’t seem like the most propitious location until I noticed it is close to a mosque with a school, as well as a Middle Eastern grocery store and a Muslim clothing store.  It should do really well in that area, which is luckily close to my job as well.

By fast-casual, I mean you order at the front counter, then sit down and wait for it.  When I went with a work colleague for lunch a month or so ago, it wasn’t busy, and a nice lady walked our food out to our table.  But there is also a pickup area right in the corner of the glass section below.  As a double-Gator, I appreciated the orange and blue décor, and I really liked the rich royal blue color of the walls.  The chairs are large and made of metal.  They don’t fit terribly well under the tables, so I found myself literally on the edge of my seat as a whole new, unfamiliar regional cuisine presented itself to us.  My colleague has eaten at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot, but for me, it was completely new.  I was excited!

She is vegetarian, so she ordered the Moroccan salad ($3.98), with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and herbs and spices dressed in olive oil and herbs.

She also got zaalouk ($3.98), a chilled eggplant and tomato salad.  She seemed to really like both of those dishes.

It came with round bread that was crusty on the outside and softer on the inside.  It wasn’t anything like pita bread, and we both agreed it didn’t have a lot of flavor.  I imagined it would have been better if she dipped pieces of it in those two salads.

We went on a Friday, so Tajine Xpress was offering its weekend-only couscous platters.  I love lamb and couscous, so I couldn’t resist ordering the lamb couscous ($15.98).  It arrived on a platter that was absolutely HUGE, with some soft, tender vegetables: potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and a squash I wasn’t familiar with.  My research shows it might have been an acorn or kabocha squash, with the green rind and tender orange flesh inside.

Underneath the mystery squash, the lamb had been stewed until it was fork-tender, and they left some bones in there to impart even more flavor.  It was salty and oniony and so delicious.  I wish there had been a little more of the lamb atop the tender, al dente couscous, but you’ll never catch The Saboscrivner wishing a dish had less meat.

Tajine Xpress makes two kinds of spring rolls called briwates — beef and seafood — and you get two per order.  OR, you can be like me and order the briwates sampler platter, which gives you one beef briwat and one seafood briwat ($9.98).  They were served with harissa, the spicy sauce that explains it all.  The briwates looked and smelled so good, but they were both stuffed with mushrooms, my old enemy, a tasty ingredient that chefs love to cook with, but I just cannot eat. 
Undeterred, I cut these open, picked out all the mushrooms, and ate whatever was left, which was not my best idea ever.  It ended up being a very long afternoon at work.  But you have to understand, my vegetarian co-worker couldn’t eat them, and I can’t stand to waste food.  I definitely won’t order these again because of the mushrooms, but you normal, non-afflicted people reading this will probably like the briwates.

It took me a while to return, but I had really wanted to try the beef with prunes tajine ($12.98), because I love savory and sweet flavors together.  I went for lunch today and ordered it to go, so it came in a round cardboard tray with separate compartments for the huge chunks of tender braised beef topped with slivers of toasted almonds, my side order of rice pilaf (mixed with tiny bits of vermicelli and topped with peas and diced carrots), and only two prunes, sticky-sweet and covered with sesame seeds.
My wife instinctively made a face when I told her I ordered beef with prunes, but I showed her the two prunes were separated in the to-go container and offered her one.  Even she liked it, but I was a little sad we each only got a single prune.  I definitely would have liked more prunes, and it would have been interesting to taste them swimming in the meat juices.  I assumed they would be cooked and served together, but what do I know?  The beef had a lot of flavor and was so tender, I didn’t even need a knife to cut it.  A couple of the pieces had thick bones attached with some tender fat, like one of my favorite meats to eat, oxtails.  But all the meat easily pulled right off the smooth bones, which is one of the joys of braising, stewing, and slow-cooking.  The rice was a little bland, so I mixed all of it into the juices the beef came with, although I would have liked more of that rich, flavorful liquid too.

Today has been a dark, dreary, drizzly day, which is a perfect day for soup.  At the last minute, I also ordered the harira soup, with tomatoes, onions, lentils, chickpeas, vermicelli, and beef ($3.98).  It was a tasty twist on a tomato-based vegetable beef soup, as I expected.

The harira came with another round piece of bread, which I made sure to dip in the soup to add some flavor and soften it up.  But I already consumed some carbs from the rice, so I realized I’m just not into this bread and didn’t have to eat all of it.

The menu at Tajine Xpress isn’t huge, but now I’ve covered the two dishes that sounded the best to me: the lamb couscous (available Friday through Sunday only) and the beef with prunes tajine.  I would recommend both of those for sure.  As I said, I wish you got more meat with both of dishes, especially because the meats are so good.  I don’t love that round bread, and I’m wondering if the other side order options of fries and beans would be better than the rice I got today.  I think they would have to be.  I just figured fries would be cold by the time I got them home, but if you go and try the fries, let me know how they were!

Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar

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

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

I ordered:

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

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

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

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

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

A peek inside the doubles:

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

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

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

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

Kombu Sushi Ramen

Sushi is one of my favorite foods, but I rarely eat it because you pay for quality, and that means decent sushi isn’t cheap, and next-level sushi is expensive.  Plus, it takes so much sushi to fill me up, it isn’t a cost-effective meal for me (excluding my beloved all-you-can-eat Mikado in Altamonte Springs, which I still contend is one of the best bangs for your buck anywhere).

A few weeks ago, my wife and I agreed that sushi sounded good for dinner, and I asked her to choose one of three sushi restaurants near us to order takeout from: two we hadn’t been to, and one we hadn’t been to in a few years.  She looked at all three menus online and chose one of the new ones that opened earlier this year, not far from us: Kombu Sushi Ramen (https://www.facebook.com/KombuSushiRamen/) on Aloma Avenue in a less-traveled part of Winter Park.  We went a little bit nuts with ordering, but the sushi ended up being just what we dreamed of for far too long.  (The last time I had sushi was earlier this year, while we both spent 30 days together in the hospital.  That sushi was one of the best things I ate from the hospital cafeteria, but I was looking forward to something far better, in more pleasant surroundings.)

Kombu is in a little building that looks like a house, and it probably used to be a house a long time ago.  Once I arrived, I only had to wait a few more minutes for my takeout order to be ready.  The dining room was very nice, modern, and clean.  It was busy on an early weekend evening, always a good sign.  The sushi chefs were definitely hustling behind the sushi bar, and the hostess was kind enough to offer me a glass of water while I waited.  It was a nice place I would like to see succeed.

Always health-conscious, my wife gravitates toward sashimi, thin slices of fresh, raw seafood without the usual rice, to avoid some carbs (or preferably, to save the carbs for dessert).  She ordered this sashimi dinner ($24.95), with 20 assorted pieces of fresh fish and shellfish slices selected by the chef.  This lovely arrangement included tuna, salmon, escolar (AKA white tuna or butterfish), surimi (AKA “krab,” white fish processed to look and taste like crab), and one of her favorite seafoods, tako (AKA octopus, at the 12:00 position).  She really loves octopus, whether it is grilled, fried, or served like this (not raw but actually cooked; thanks to a sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino for correcting me on this).   

Below on the left, you can see my order of mackerel sashimi ($4.50 for the three shimmering silver pieces of fish).  I always love saba (mackerel) because it tastes like pickled herring, with a little bit of sweetness and a light, vinegary tang.  Next to that, in the back, is my wife’s extra escolar sashimi ($5 for the three white pieces), and our bagel roll ($5.95), a favorite of mine, with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and avocado. 

Here are two more rolls we shared, a crunch roll ($5.50) and a crunchy spicy salmon roll ($6.95).  The crunch roll (left) included krab, spicy mayo, avocado, and tempura “chips” on the top, and it is drizzled with kabayaki sauce, a sweet soy-based glaze, similar to eel sauce. 
The crunchy spicy salmon roll (right) was a delicious blend of strong flavors and interesting textures, with spicy salmon, tempura chips on the inside, and drizzled with one of my favorite condiments (and not just for sushi, but especially for sushi), spicy mayo.

And this is one of my favorites anywhere, the volcano roll ($12.95).  This majestic mountain was built around a sushi roll containing tuna and cream cheese, topped with avocado, “baked krab special,” tempura chips, spicy mayo, kabayaki sauce, and tobiko, the tiny, salty, delicate orange pearls that are flying fish roe.  My wife liked this too, but I had been craving sushi for so long, it hit the spot so perfectly.   

Here’s another angle of the volcano roll, so you can see the rolls themselves.  All sushi is painstakingly prepared, with a lot of effort that goes into a beautiful presentation.   

The artful presentation is part of the price of admission right there, but I thought the prices at Kombu were all very reasonable for the good quality of this sushi and sashimi.  There are definitely fancier sushi places that are also more “authentic,” with less krab, less spicy mayo, fewer rolls in general.  There’s a time and a place for those upscale and authentic restaurants, at least for some, but this is the kind of sushi I know the best and love the most.  I’d consider Kombu more of an “everyday luxury,” and I mean that in the best possible way.  It isn’t exclusive or precious or snooty — it’s wonderful, fresh food made with precision and care, that you can enjoy whenever you want to do something really nice for yourself.  For me, believe it or not, that isn’t often enough.

Because Kombu has sushi and ramen in its title, I felt like I had to sample the ramen too, in order to write a worthy review.  I defaulted to my old favorite, tonkotsu ramen, but chose the mayu tonkotsu ramen here ($13.50) and asked them to hold the kikurage, those skinny little alien-looking mushrooms.  Note the noodles, two chashu pork slices, two ajitama egg halves, menma (AKA seasoned bamboo shoots), green onions, and lots of crunchy fried diced garlic.  The fried garlic and black garlic oil are what makes the mayu tonkotsu different from the regular tonkotsu, which comes with shredded red ginger instead.  As any restaurant packing up soup in a takeout order should, they packaged the tonkotsu broth in a separate container so the noodles wouldn’t get soggy on my way home.

Here is the mayu tonkotsu ramen with the broth added.  It was delicious, because you can’t ever go wrong with tonkotsu ramen (unless of course you’re a vegetarian or strictly kosher or halal, due to the broth being made from pork bones simmering for days).  My only issue with this takeout feast from Kombu is that the broth wasn’t the rich, creamy, opaque pork bone broth I’m used to from tonkotsu ramen.  This was more of a watery broth than I was expecting.  It was still tasty, salty, and porky, but not thick or creamy like I’ve gotten spoiled by.

So that’s my long-overdue review of Kombu Sushi Ramen.  I would happily return anytime for the sushi, but for ramen, tonkotsu or otherwise, I would probably sooner return to Ramen Takagi, just five minutes east on Aloma, still my favorite ramen spot.  Hey, that would be a great double feature dinner right there!

Little Saigon

On my first real date with my wife back in August 2006, I took her to a Vietnamese restaurant (Lac Viet, which closed several years ago), followed by a gelato place in downtown Orlando (also long gone), and we ended the night at Tatame in Winter Park for boba tea (sadly gone as well, but now Manzano’s Deli and Tin & Taco are in its old location).  Since then, we have shared countless meals at Orlando’s many Vietnamese restaurants.

Our longest-standing favorite is Little Saigon (https://www.littlesaigonfl.com/), located on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Thornton Avenue, one block west of Mills Avenue, right in the Mills 50 District.  After getting vaccinated, Little Saigon was one of the first restaurants my wife and I returned to in April, finally dining out after strictly getting takeout for over a year.

My wife couldn’t decide between two old Little Saigon favorites after all our time away from restaurants during the pandemic, so I advised her to order both dishes so she could enjoy leftovers the next day.  (We are a fun couple who knows how to party because of life decisions like this.)  This was grilled beef over rice vermicelli ($9.95), a light, fresh favorite of hers.  The beef is served with incredibly thin, tender slices that were marinated in something that makes them sweet, salty, and absolutely delicious.  I know fish sauce is involved, and probably sugar.  The rice vermicelli beneath doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but it soaks up so much flavor from everything it touches.  This dish is topped with crushed peanuts and shredded lettuce and cilantro, adding a bit of crunch and coolness.  This is what she opted to take home to eat the following day, because the noodles and grilled beef microwave so well.

She also ordered her favorite beef noodle soup anywhere — phở tai ($9.95), a rich beef broth flavored with beef bones, onions, scallions, ginger, star anise, and other aromatics.  It comes with rice vermicelli noodles and thin slices of rare beef that cook in the hot broth.  You can see thin-sliced onions floating around, but I always fish those out and happily add them to my own bowl of phở, because she hates onions and I love them — one more reason we are so perfectly matched.  And this was the dish she enjoyed in the restaurant, while it was hot, fresh, and at its best.   

I was also craving phở, but I always go with phở dac biet ($9.95), the same beef broth and rice noodles served with thin-sliced rare beef as well as brisket, beef meatballs (much denser and chewier than Italian-style meatballs), chewy, tender tendon, and usually tripe.  This time I asked them to hold the tripe and give me extra tendon instead, and I’ve decided I like it much better that way. Any Vietnamese restaurant will serve phở with a plate of several fresh herbs and additional ingredients to add, so diners can customize their soup to their hearts’ content.  I always tear up fragrant fresh basil leaves and crunchy sliced jalapeño peppers (these are fresh; much spicier than the pickled kind from a jar, so don’t touch your eyes!), but I prefer to leave the crispy bean sprouts out of my phở.  If I get lime wedges, I’ll usually squeeze some lime into my phở and some more into my glass of water.  Then there are condiments: hoisin sauce, sriracha (overrated hot sauce), and sambal oelek (thicker, chunkier hot sauce).  I’ll usually add just a tiny spoonful of sambal too, but only after tasting the pure, unadulterated  broth first.  As you might have guessed, my wife prefers plain phở, just as it comes out of the kitchen… but with as many onions fished out as possible.

My wife also loves boba tea drinks, especially the ones that are served up like slushies, full of chewy tapioca balls called boba.  I like the drinks quite a bit myself, but I’m not into the boba itself.  This time I passed, but she got her favorite, taro boba tea ($4.25), which always comes in a purple color but tastes more like vanilla to me than anything else.  It was icy and creamy and velvety and refreshing, but since my wife is only five feet tall, she had to stand up just to take a sip from this tall straw and taller glass. 

More recently, a dear old friend of my wife’s brought us some Little Saigon takeout after we had just returned home from being away for a while.  She brought my wife her usual favorite, the grilled beef with rice vermicelli, as well an order of two summer rolls ($4.25) as an appetizer.  I totally forgot to take a photo when she ordered them on our last visit to the restaurant, but I got ’em this time!  These are thin, sticky rice paper wraps stuffed with chilled pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and herbs, and served with a thick, sweet peanut dipping sauce.  I must admit I’m not the biggest fan, but she just loves them.

This friend of my wife’s asked me what I wanted, and I decided to try something I love, but hadn’t ordered before at Little Saigon: a hot and spicy beef noodle soup ($9.95), also called bún bò huế.  At Pho 88, their version of bún bò huế includes pork as well as beef, but this was its own unique thing.  I appreciated that the thin slices of beef were fattier, with more marbling, than the usual thin slices of beef eye round in the standard phở , and I liked them much more as a result.  The rice noodles in the hot and spicy soup were definitely thicker than the typical rice vermicelli in phở, too.

Whenever you order phở to go, any good Vietnamese restaurant serves the broth in a separate container from everything else, so the rice noodles don’t turn to mush and the rare beef doesn’t overcook before you get it home.  Little Saigon packaged the deep red, oily bún bò huế broth separately from everything else, which is the ideal way to do it for takeout orders.

Here is the assembled bún bò huế, with plenty of cilantro and green onions.  It came with the typical phở accompaniments, so I squirted in some lime juice but didn’t feel the need to add anything else.  The soup is definitely spicy, but if you’re worried about the heat, I can promise you it looks much spicier than it actually is.  You may need to blow your nose while eating it (I sure did), but your lips and tongue shouldn’t burn afterwards, and you shouldn’t have any other distress or discomfort from it.

It might sound a little weird to order hot soup during so much of the year in steamy hot central Florida, but I find phở and bún bò huế very refreshing, even in the peak of the summer months.  Keep in mind that Vietnam has a humid, tropical climate too!  But I think I appreciate phở the most during our weeks of winter when the temperature in Orlando drops below 70 degrees, and sometimes down into the 40s for a few precious days.  It doesn’t matter, though — Vietnamese food is delicious any time of year, and Little Saigon is one of our favorite restaurants to order it.  And my wife says the summer rolls here are the best ones anywhere.