Mason Jar Provisions

Mason Jar Provisions (https://www.masonjarprovisionsorlando.com/) is a brand-new Southern restaurant that just opened in the space recently vacated by Big Time Street Food, which I reviewed earlier this year after my one and only visit (before a KRS-One concert, which was one of the last fun things I did pre-pandemic).  Located in the Thornton Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, it’s a very small space with a few seats at a counter, but the restaurant is attached to Burton’s Bar next door (and now owned by the same people).  Diners can take their food through a doorway over to Burton’s and walk back and forth between the establishments.  By the time people read this, their hours will be 12 noon to 10 PM.

Before continuing my review, you have to check out this menu.  Everything looked so delicious and tempting, I had a hard time choosing between six or seven different things.  I had to go back to edit this review after first publishing it because I belatedly learned Mason Jar Provisions is co-owned by chef A.J. Haines, who used to cook at one of our favorite, long-gone, much-missed Italian restaurants, Wolfie’s PizzaMia, and he used to work magic and miracles in that kitchen.  Burton’s General Manager Jeff Darnell is the other co-owner.  But because Thornton Park is pretty far from us and parking is difficult around there, I called in a pretty big order on a weekday afternoon I had off, and was lucky enough to be able to park right in front to pick it up.  That probably would not have happened in the evening or on a weekend.

My wife likes her food relatively plain and unadorned, without any condiments or sauces.  So I ordered her the regular beef burger ($9) with its lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, ketchup on the side.  It’s the kind of burger that is smashed flat on the griddle, cooked to medium well.  It was served on a lightly-griddled brioche bun with a huge order of seasoned fries.  masonjar1

You may have also noticed two huge chicken tenders, which I also ordered for her, because she was intrigued by both.  She doesn’t eat a lot, so we both figured she’d probably get three or four meals out of the big burger and the tenders (which actually come in an order of three for $9).  She thought the burger was a perfectly okay burger, but LOVED the tenders.  These were mild, but they also come in medium, hot, inferno, blackstrap (molasses) barbecue, or dry rub flavors.  We were given a choice of a cup of ranch or blue cheese (she never wants either, so I chose blue cheese for myself), and they also came with a cup of buffalo sauce and four celery sticks.

I had been reading hype and praise for the titular Mason Jar burger ($13), so that’s what I had to get… well, one of the things I had to get.  It contained TWO beef patties, tasso ham (such a nice alternative to bacon!), creamy and tangy remoulade sauce, melty American cheese (longtime Saboscrivnerinos know it’s one of my favorite cheeses to put on a burger), plus the usual lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles.  I like pickles now, so these were all welcome toppings for me.  masonjar2
The burger was juicy and flavorful, despite my initial skepticism about it being cooked to medium well, the grilled brioche bun was rich and perfect, and everything held together for an intoxicating melange of flavors, colors, and textures without threatening to slip and slide apart as I enjoyed it at home.  And despite the schlep back to the Casselberry suburbs, the fries were still warm by the time I got home!

Maybe the most curious thing on the menu was the collard melt sandwich ($12), featuring braised collard greens, house-made smoked pimento cheese, chow chow (a Southern cabbage-based relish that is sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, but always tangy), and balsamic reduction, all on grilled sourdough bread.  These are all flavors I love that I never thought of combining into a sandwich, so I’m glad someone more creative than I did.  It came with even more fries.masonjar4I didn’t even eat this until the following day, after warming it up in the toaster oven.  It was a winner.  I seriously love collards, pimento cheese, anything cabbagey, and anything smoky, so it was a killer-diller, no-filler, thriller goriller of a sandwich for me.  Vegetarians, rejoice!  As long as you allow yourself to experience the joy of cheese, here’s a new sandwich every vegetarian in Orlando should seek out.

If it seems like I brought home a lot of food, I did.  I wanted to order a few different things because I was trying a new place, because it’s hard to get over to Thornton Park, and because I wanted to give myself a break from cooking and avoid even being tempted to leave the house again for the next few days.  And with all of this in mind, I also ordered the hot chicken sandwich.  (My parents must be so proud.)  I’ve been very obsessed with hot chicken ever since eating at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2017, and I’m thrilled that Orlando has so many wonderful hot chicken options now, including Swine & Sons (a smoked thigh sandwich), Chicken Fire (tenders in or out of a sandwich), and Git-N-Messy BBQ (not covered in my review, but his hot half chicken may rule them all).

Mason Jar Provisions’ menu says their hot chicken sandwich ($13) says it’s a smoked, breaded, and deep-fried chicken thigh served with hot sauce, bread and butter pickle slices, and cole slaw, served on a grilled brioche bun with even more fries on the side.
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As you can see, the sandwich included two smaller breaded thighs, but it wasn’t dripping in the intense oily, spicy seasoning of Nashville hot chicken like the aforementioned restaurants.  It was incredibly tender and juicy meat, but it wasn’t really hot either.  Like a couple of kids, I traded my wife the not-really-hot thighs from the sandwich for her burger patty — each missing a bite, so it was a very fair trade.   They were thoughtful enough to pack the cole slaw in a separate cup with a lid, to avoid creating a mess that would have ruined the crispiness of the chicken and soaked through the bun and fries on my way home.

As much as I enjoyed my Mason Jar burger and the collard melt sandwich and would probably order them again in the future, I probably wouldn’t get the chicken sandwich again.  Not when they offer a braised barbecue short rib hoagie with pickled onions and pickles (the Dave Dog).  Why didn’t I get that instead?  However, my wife gives the chicken tenders her Saboscrivner Spouse Seal of Approval, and she knows tenders because she is the most tender person there is!

Folks, it’s an unknowable, scary, and outright dangerous time right now.  The restaurant business was hard enough already before COVID-19 pandemic struck, and we’ve seen too many beloved local eateries struggling and shuttering over the last few months.  I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be opening up now, in late June, as infection rates are increasing almost exponentially here in Orlando.  But we still have to eat, and restaurants are still considered essential businesses that are staying open to serve the rest of us.  Most people are going to venture out of their bunkers for takeout food eventually.  I implore you all to choose wisely and eat locally when you do, to support local restaurants that rely on your business and will appreciate your business.  So consider paying a visit to Mason Jar Provisions, one of Orlando’s newest restaurants, for some Southern comfort food at a time when we can all use some comfort in our lives.  Check out these drool-worthy photos and treat yourselves to something tasty and satisfying.  It might just be the highlight of your week, as it was of mine.

Something Fishy

This past weekend, I brought home takeout from another excellent Black-owned restaurant that I want more people to know about: Something Fishy (https://www.somethingfishyapopka.com/), located in Apopka, just west of Altamonte Springs on Semoran Boulevard.  I hardly ever make it that far west, but now I have a reason to!  Something Fishy is a casual seafood restaurant that is the very definition of a family business, opened by husband and wife Terence and Patrice Phillips two years ago.  This is their first restaurant, and they both had other careers before, but one of their sons graduated from culinary school and has helped guide them, their daughter is a graphic designer who designed their logo and flyers, and their youngest son works at the Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt location next door that the Phillipses also own.
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Terence, who is also the chef, took my order over the phone, and I got to meet him and Patrice when I showed up to pick up our lunch order.  They were really nice — warm, welcoming, and wearing masks — and I knew immediately that the food was going to be great.

I’ve joked before that my wife and I are on seafood diets: if we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  Longtime Orlando residents know our local seafood options are scant and slim, especially for more casual, non-bank-breaking choices, so I’m thrilled to report that Something Fishy will satisfy your cravings, especially if you may already be a fan of places like Boston’s Fish House.  Now, I’ve been going to Boston’s since I first met my wife and her parents in 2006, but everything she and I tried today was a different style of seafood, maybe more Southern and less New Englandy.  There’s no point in trying to rank them, but I do think Something Fishy has bolder flavors. I encourage you to try it for yourselves, ideally as soon as possible.

“When marimba rhythms start to play,
Dance with me, make me swai”

My wife has lived in the Orlando area since she was three, which I guess makes her a Southern gal, at least geographically.  She loves catfish and grits, so she perked up when she saw fish and grits (together at last!) on the menu.  She asked me to order her the fried swai (Asian catfish) and grits ($9.99), but you can also choose tilapia, Atlantic cod, salmon, unicorn fish (AKA naso; a new one to us), or a fresh catch of the day.  It’s nice to have options, but she wanted swai!  The fish came in two thin fillets, fried in a light and crispy batter that looked cornmeal-based, and she devoured them with gusto.  It was a different style from the catfish she enjoyed from Nikki’s Place last weekend, but she was super-enthusiastic about both.
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She just wanted butter on her grits, which came in a separate container (one of those good plastic reusable containers that are dishwasher- and microwave-safe), but you can also get green onions and cheese on them, in addition to the butter.  Not being the biggest grit guy, I asked if these grits were better than our beloved Waffle House, and she said yes.  I’m guessing Something Fishy serves real grits, because as we all learned from My Cousin Vinny, “No self-respecting Southerner serves instant grits!”
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I was torn between multiple options, but narrowed it down to two and decided to get both, figuring she would want to try them anyway.  I got an appetizer order of fried oysters for myself ($8.99), because I always love oysters in any form, whether they’re raw on the half-shell, battered and fried, or pretty much anything else.  These twelve oysters had a completely different breading than the swai fish, darker and crispier, with savory seasoning — a little peppery.  They came with a small dipping cup of creamy, tangy remoulade sauce that I would love to be able to spread on anything or dip anything into, from roast beef sandwiches to potato chips to falafel, from fried chicken to grilled vegetables to roasted corn.  My wife also liked the fried oysters, since we share everything here.
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My other choice was the lobster roll, which is listed as “market price” on the menu, but today that came out to $16.99.  We always love lobster rolls, and it’s rare to find such a hearty and delicious sandwich that also manages to be refreshing, rather than heavy.  This was a different kind of lobster roll.  Instead of the rich lobster meat being served chilled in mayonnaise, this one was served warm, after being sauteed in butter with the most delicious sauteed, seasoned cabbage.  We chose wisely.  It was a beautiful sandwich, and after I cut it in half for us to share, it was a big hit.  My wife always “deconstructs” her sandwiches (just like a professor to do that!) and usually gives me her bread or roll, but this soft bun was so soaked through with butter and the lobster juices and seasoning that she even wanted that.
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The sandwich came with one side, and since my wife had her grits, I asked Chef Terence if they happened to serve onion rings, even though they weren’t on the website menu.  I was pleasantly surprised that he said they did, so I asked for those, and now this is a

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
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special review.  These were excellent onion rings, not too greasy, not dark and burned to a crisp, not falling apart, fried to golden brown in what I always default to calling the “good kind” of batter.  And once again, this was a completely different batter than the swai fish and the fried oysters, so their batter game is strong at Something Fishy.  I dipped some of them in the remaining remoulade sauce that came with the fried oysters, and had ketchup on hand for the rest.
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Something Fishy was a great catch in Apopka, which rarely shows up on Orlando foodies’ radar as a hot hub of gustatory goodness.  But it’s worth the 10-15 minute drive west when you get off I-4 on exit 92 in Altamonte.  Terence and Patrice were kind hosts who run a tight ship, and they definitely aren’t shellfish with the portions.  It’s a brightly-lit space with plenty of seating, for those brave enough to dine in restaurants these days.  It’s not a dive; you and your grouper won’t feel packed in like sardines.  Everything we ordered was reely good, so if you like what you’re herring, stop floundering.  Mullet over and swim by Something Fishy some time, just for the halibut.  It’ll have you exclaiming “Oh my cod, it’s so good!”

Nikki’s Place

It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive.  Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining.  But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody.  I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.

That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday.  It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant.  It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952.  Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins.  An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.

So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort.  I know I do.  Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed.  When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind.  Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays.  (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)

As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service.  When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance.  (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!)  They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready.  I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour.  This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway.  Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike.  I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived.  This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first.  We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.

Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them.  I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version.  Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite.  They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes.  They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
DSC03192All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food.  The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before.  I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.

My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25).  I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus.  Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had.  As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time.  Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere.  It was a nice-sized fillet, too.DSC03195My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides.  I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top.  It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it.  The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended.  It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before.  I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.

Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later.  As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings.  Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them.  She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample!  I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.

As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013.  They weren’t at all what I expected.  They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari?  And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all.  I liked it and would totally order it in the future!

But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me.  They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone.  They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.  DSC03194

I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today!  I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic.  Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli.  I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful.  This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad.  It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute.  It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.

My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables.  It was so soft and tender.  Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could.  It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.

You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos.  All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome.  Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread.  I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet.  On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home.  It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.

But wait, there’s more!  Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert.  A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!DSC03196Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie.  This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie).  It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.

As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite.  It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit!  Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.

You’re probably hungry now.  I hope so.  That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner!  But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years.  Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore.  Restaurants come and go.  It’s a tough business.  The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both.  I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD.  After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.

That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy.  It nourishes the body, mind, and soul.  It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future.  I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything.  It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does.  Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades.  It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today.  Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food.  Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!

 

Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen

I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans four times between 1998 and 2001, with different groups of friends every time.  Back then, as a young guy in college, I never had much money, but I sure liked good food, good music, history, architecture, culture, adventure, and romance, so New Orleans was the perfect destination for all of those things.  (Never did find any romance there, though.)  I played an unforgettable gig with my old band once, went to an epic bachelor party with a bunch of my closest friends in the world (and we were all on remarkably good behavior, believe it or not), and even descended on Mardi Gras one time, which was actually too crazy, crowded, and chaotic to be as much fun as it should have been.  New Orleans is a legendary party town pretty much any weekend, but even as a senior in college, I thought Mardi Gras was just too much.

Obviously the city has changed a lot over the last 19 years, and especially since Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005.  I’d love to make it back to see how the city has bounced back and been revitalized, but have no idea when and if that’ll happen.  But in the meantime, when I crave the food of New Orleans — Cajun and Creole cuisine — we have a very good option right here in Orlando: Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen (https://tibbys.com/), a locally-owned restaurant with locations in Winter Park and Altamonte Springs.  On my most recent visit, I went with two former co-workers who I grew very close to during my first years at my job.  Those were some tough times then, and we all found strength in numbers and looked out for each other.  We were long overdue to get together and catch up, so in true Sabsocrivner fashion, I sent them a list of multiple restaurants where we could have a leisurely lunch and hang out for a while, without feeling crowded or rushed.  I was relieved and excited when they chose Tibby’s, since I hadn’t been in a few years.

In fact, the last time I had been to Tibby’s was long before I started this food blog, so I realized I had never ordered the onion rings before.  That’s right, they offer onion rings as an appetizer ($6.50), which means I had to try them for a little recurring onion ring review feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!

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This was a generous order of thick onion rings (or thicc, as the kids say), with a nice texture from their light, crispy breading.  They came with an excellent remoulade sauce for dipping, one of the best condiments to accompany onion rings at any local restaurant.  These rings seemed particularly salty, but I still liked them a lot.  DSC02870

My wife and I are huge fans of a wonderful, hilarious comedian named Tig Notaro, who had a short-lived and much-missed show on Amazon Prime called One Mississippi.  The theme song was “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” which I only recently found out was written by the legendary, prolific songwriter and country music legend Hank Williams back in 1952.  That song always makes me hungry due to the lyric “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo.”  (I have a real soft spot for songs about food in general, and there aren’t enough of them.)  So when I saw Tibby’s sampler consists of jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo ($14.25), I knew it was meant to be.DSC02871

The jambalaya rice, stewed in a mildly spicy tomato sauce with onions, bell peppers, celery, andouille sausage, and tasso ham, is a classic dish I always love.  In college, I ate a lot of Zatarain’s jambalaya made from a box of rice with dehydrated vegetables and salty seasonings, and I’d mix in cheap sausage, chicken, canned sardines, you name it, plus any vegetables I could afford to stretch it out.  Even that was tasty back in the day, but real jambalaya with quality ingredients is a delicious meal.  The crawfish pie was essentially a crawfish empanada with tail meat in a crispy fried pastry shell.  The filé gumbo was on the salty side, but still very tasty, made with chicken and sausage.  Filé powder is made from grinding dried sassafras leaves, and it is used as a thickener for the hearty stew and other Creole dishes.  The other primary gumbo recipe uses okra to thicken the stew instead.

My one friend ordered shrimp Creole ($12.25), a tomato-based stew with a little island of rice in the middle.  She seemed to love it. DSC02872

My other friend wanted fried shrimp and fried oysters, but not necessarily in a po’boy.  Our server was very accommodating, and allowed her to order side orders of both ($12 for the oysters, $6 for the shrimp).  I tried one of her fried oysters, and it was delicious… but it’s really hard to go wrong with fried oysters.  DSC02873

She also ordered the sweet potato fries for us to share ($4), and they were a treat — salty and sweet at the same time.DSC02874

We couldn’t leave without a plate of beignets for dessert ($4.25).  These crispy-on-the-outside, soft and flaky-on-the-inside fried pastries are a New Orleans specialty.  I’ve had them at the legendary Cafe Du Monde, and nothing really equals that experience of sitting outside, listening to street musicians play incredible jazz and people-watching in the French Quarter… but Tibby’s beignets come close.  DSC02876

I’m really hoping to return to New Orleans for my profession’s big conference this summer, 19 years after my last visit.  It’s staggering to think of everything that city has endured in the meantime, especially the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  But it’s an incredible place, like nowhere else in America, with some of the greatest food in the country.  If you can’t make it, Tibby’s is like a little piece of the Big Easy right here in Winter Park.  You should go there and laissez les bon temps rouler, especially as we celebrate Mardi Gras this coming Tuesday!

 

 

Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before starting The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” neighborhood on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.20191130_130558_resized

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location a few years ago, with much more parking.  She’s still on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  (And another one of my local favorite restaurants, Bad As’s Sandwich, has since opened in the original Se7en Bites location and has been absolutely killing it for the past two years.)

In 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (However, I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing retro-looking shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or just have dessert because we’re grown-ass adults who can do that if we want to, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone.

Unfortunately, I missed her on my most recent visit, around 1:00 on a weekend when I ordered everything to go.  She was probably already hard at work at her other restaurant Sette, Orlando’s newest Italian restaurant, which I reviewed back in March 2019 and consider the best Italian restaurant in our City Beautiful.  My poor wife was at home, grading papers while fighting off a cold, so I wanted to bring her a really nice lunch.  When we saw photos of Se7en Bites’ weekend brunch special, the Minnie Pearl, on Facebook, she told me that was exactly what she wanted.DSC02719

The Minnie Pearl ($14.75), named for the down-home hostess of Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry, comes with two mini pearl sugar waffles (GET IT???), a buttermilk-fried chicken breast, and an over medium egg, although I requested the egg be cooked over hard for my wife, who doesn’t love runny eggs.  It also comes with hot honey drizzle and the most amazing vanilla bean butter syrup, which they were kind enough to include in separate containers with lids.  You can say “HOW-DEEEEEEE!” to that.  DSC02720I’m so glad my wife shared a little bite of the pearl sugar waffle with me.  It was easily the best waffle I’ve ever tasted.  Much crisper and denser than most breakfast waffles, including the ones from my beloved Waffle House, this one made the whole house smell like butter, vanilla, and good times.

The Minnie Pearl also included cheddar chive grits, which she is much more into than I am:DSC02724

This is my favorite regular item on the menu at Se7en Bites, the meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough bread, with a mashed potato schmear ($9.25).  I’m a meatloaf lover and make a damn amazing meatloaf, if I do say so myself.  Chef Trina’s version is the only meatloaf that I think comes close to mine.  And since I don’t always feel like a huge and hearty Southern breakfast, I know I can always count on this sandwich (since I always feel like sandwiches).  DSC02725

This is the pimento cheese and bacon sandwich, also on grilled sourdough bread ($8.75).  And I opted for a crispy fried green tomato on mine, for a $2 upcharge.  Pimento cheese is something else I make well, but I feel compelled to try it whenever I see it on a menu, since everyone’s version is a little different.  The version at Se7en Bites is among my favorites.  DSC02726

Sides with the two sandwiches, creamy macaroni and cheese (a $3.25 upcharge) and the aforementioned ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries (a $2.75 upcharge).  Sadly, the fries were cold by the time I got home with everything, thanks to hitting every light on Colonial and then again on Semoran.  I’ll never order these fries with a takeout order again, but they are among my favorite fries in the city when I dine in at Se7en Bites.  DSC02723

To make the lines move along better, you order your sweets at a separate counter, where all the delicious, decadent desserts are on display under glass domes.  Feel free to ask questions — her staff is probably used to them, and they’re always happy to tell you anything you want to know.  20191130_130547_resized

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This is the aforementioned Signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pecan pie ($7), which features the finest, flakiest, most buttery pie crust I’ve ever had.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of richness.  It looks small, but it can be easily be shared by two to four people.  DSC02722DSC02730

I recently met one of my favorite Internet friends for the first time, along with his lovely girlfriend.  He is a fellow aficionado of comic books, cats, pro wrestling, and pie, and we got together for dinner at an old Disney Springs favorite, The Polite Pig.  I made sure to pick up one of Chef Trina’s signature pies for them, and I think it dazzled them the same way it always dazzles us.  That crust remains unparalleled.

This is the Se7en Bites coconut cream pie ($7), one of my favorite kinds of pies, even after getting a little burned out on them judging the cream pie category at the National Pie Championship last spring.  It’s another big hit in our household, to the point where after sharing small slivers when I brought our most recent takeout order home, my wife woke up very early the next morning and finished the rest of it before I got up.  But what’s mine is hers, and at least I got a taste.DSC02721DSC02728

Most recently, when I picked up the signature pie for my visiting friend, I also noticed a new pie I had never seen before: a Samoa brownie cream pie ($7)!  It looked magnificent, and I brought it home, split it evenly, and devoured it with my wife — while we were both watching each other, like something out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This pie has everything: a chocolate fudgy cookie-like crust, caramel, butterscotch, coconut, and the smoothest, coolest, creamiest filling.  It was literally my favorite Se7en Bites dessert EVER, and I hope Chef Trina will consider adding it to the permanent menu.
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And this thicc bar came highly recommended by one of the lovely and ever-patient women of the Se7en Bites staff.  I believe it’s called I Don’t Give a Fudge, and the layers are chocolate chip cookie (bottom), rich fudge brownie (middle), smooth chocolate peanut butter (top), and then a soft cookie dough topping above all of that.  It’s about four inches thick, and once again, meant to be shared by several people (or at least for one or two people to get several portions out of it.  This one cost about $6.  DSC02727

Se7en Bites even serves special burgers on Fridays, which makes it difficult to catch them, but they have been among my favorite dishes there.  In fact, this is an older photo of my favorite burger Chef Trina has ever crafted, the Italian Stallion.  It is topped with a fried mozzarella plank, savory-sweet tomato jam, and pesto aioli, and it is one of my favorite burgers of all time.  In fact, the Italian Stallion made my Top Five favorite dishes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly20170805_103742
Anyone remember the Bennigan’s chain, so ubiquitous throughout the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s?  They had a similar burger back then, the Wheelhouse burger, topped with a fried mozzarella cheese “wheel” and marinara sauce.  That was good eatin’ back in the day, but the Se7en Bites version even leaves that fond memory behind, in the dust.

This was another special Friday burger, topped with bacon, Chef Trina’s wonderful pimento cheese, and onion rings, and I got it with a side of onion rings!  That’s right — you didn’t think this was going to be a RING THE ALARM! feature, but I sneaked it in there, right at the end.  I don’t remember the cute name this burger no doubt had, but I wish she would bring it back, and make those onion rings a regular menu item.  Look at them!  They’re the “good kind” of onion rings I always wax poetic about on this blog — beer-battered and golden brown, crispy but not crunchy, not too thin or too thick, not too greasy.  These were the onion rings that dreams are made of!  20180223_132856_resized

Anyway, Se7en Bites is a local favorite with national renown for good reason, and between this and Sette, Trina and Va’s culinary empire is pretty well-established in Orlando.  I can’t wait to see — and taste — whatever these gastronomic goddesses do next.  In the meantime, if I have co-workers or out-of-town guests who are craving brunch or sweets, Se7en Bites will remain my top choice to bring them to.  There isn’t much like it anywhere else, and we are so lucky to have it here.  Don’t miss the Minnie Pearl with those perfect pearl sugar waffles, and be on the lookout for Friday burgers and that Samoa brownie cream pie!

Popeyes

My readers may have heard some news a while back about a certain fried chicken sandwich controversy.  Barely three months ago, the Louisiana-based fried chicken chain Popeyes (https://www.popeyes.com/), came out with a chicken sandwich for the first time ever, upending the balance of power in fast food chicken sandwiches and making people  everywhere lose their damn minds.

Almost everyone I know either tried the Popeyes chicken sandwich and loved it (like my best friend down in Miami), or tried to, but were foiled every time by long lines and stores selling out (like me).  There were some haters too — either loyalists to the long-standing chicken sandwich champion, or people who claim to never eat fast food for any number of legitimate reasons (which is all good, but they might miss out on something tasty).  And almost as quickly as the hype grew around this sandwich for those two or three weeks in the late summer, Popeyes pulled it from their menus everywhere, and life moved on.  I ended up discovering and reviewing the greatest chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life at Winter Park’s own Swine & Sons, and those went a long way toward helping me get over my FOMO.

I was wondering if Popeyes got rid of their biggest hit ever because they weren’t prepared to deal with the insane demand.  It might have been a personnel issue — assembling sandwiches has to be more labor-intensive than boxing up the whole pieces of fried chicken, and every Popeyes restaurant I’ve ever been to is always understaffed.  It might have been a problem in the supply chain, as there was an annoying ad campaign in the weeks that followed encouraging customers to BYOB, or “Bring Your Own Bun.”  Maybe they wanted to create artificial demand through scarcity, but regardless, they listened to the people, because this game-changing chicken sandwich is back now, as of Sunday, November 3rd.  And this time, hopefully it’s here to stay.

Constant Readers, I failed you back in August.  Even though I had every intention of eating and reviewing this sandwich, I never got my hands or mouth on one in time, and then they were gone.  But there’s no way I was going to let you down you again.  I got to Popeyes on the morning of November 3rd, shortly after it opened at 10:30 AM, but as you would expect (and I kinda did expect), half of Seminole County had the same idea and was already there.

The drive-through line snaked through the huge shared parking lot at this location, so I parked far away so I wouldn’t get blocked in later, and took my chances waiting inside.  This was the smart move.  I was back home with my to-go order in just over an hour, and I didn’t have to waste half a tank of gas idling in the car.  If you go in the days and weeks to come, expect some wait, but the line definitely moves faster inside.  Eventually I got my order, and I was home in fewer than ten minutes, so everything was still hot and crispy.

This was the spicy chicken sandwich, which I loved.  The fried chicken breast was juicy and bursting with flavor.  I admit I was expecting to be disappointed, because Popeyes chicken can be quite inconsistent.  When you get a fresh batch, it’s amazing, but I’ve had far too much sad, dry chicken there.  I typically stick to dark meat, particularly thighs, which I think are more flavorful and less likely to get dried out, but this was a really fantastic fried chicken breast.  It was huge, too, and the buttermilk-based batter wasn’t just lightly crispy — it was CRUNCHY, even after steaming in its little foil pouch as I raced home.  Well-played, Popeyes.  I can’t conceive of a better fast food chicken sandwich.  I emphasize fast food because even though there are certainly better chicken sandwiches out there (like the Swine & Sons versions), those are $11 while this one is $4, almost one-third of the price.  dsc02613.jpgUnfortunately, I thought they were rather stingy with the spicy mayo, and would have loved some more on it.

This was the regular, non-spicy sandwich ($3.99 each without the combo).  It should come with mayo as well as pickles, but they left the mayo of both regular sandwiches I ordered — one for myself so I could try both versions, and one for my wife who doesn’t like anything spicy.  All three sandwiches came with two thin pickle slices, and now that I’m starting to appreciate pickles more, I would have been happy to get even more pickles on them.  By the way, the buns are brioche — soft and fluffy, buttered, and lightly toasted.  It’s a fantastic bun to serve this kind of sandwich on.  DSC02609

You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?dsc02610.jpg

Since my regular chicken sandwich didn’t have any mayo, it was a perfect opportunity to sample two different Popeyes sauces.  I cut the sandwich down the middle, making sure there was one pickle slice on each half, and applied one of these sauces to each:
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The Mardi Gras Mustard is a creamy Creole-style mustard (savory, but not spicy at all) that went well with the chicken, but the Voodoo Sauce was awesome on the other half.  It was thin and runny, sticky, sweet, and slightly spicy — extremely similar to a Thai sweet chili sauce.  And it jazzed up that sandwich just perfectly.  I should have added a schmear of my own mayo too (I only buy Duke’s), but I wanted to stick to just Popeyes’ own condiments for the purposes of this review.

And here is what might be the very best menu item from any fast food restaurant anywhere: Popeyes red beans and rice ($2.29 if you order the small separately, or it can be one of the sides you pick in your combo meal).  This is the perfect, quintessential version of this classic Louisiana dish.  Rich, thick, and smoky, it transcends this fast food fried chicken chain and could hold its own against high-tone versions of red beans and rice in some of New Orleans’ finest chef-driven establishments.  I know a lot of chefs agree and sing its praises, including Momofuku’s founder and all-around cool dude David Chang.dsc02614.jpg

When I finally got up to the cashier, she kept trying to cut me off and complete my order after every item I ordered.  Our conversation went something like this:

“I’d like a spicy chicken sandwich combo, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be $6.99 plus tax.”
“Oh!  But I would also like two regular chicken sandwiches, not the combos, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be…”
“Sorry, I wanted red beans and rice as the side for my combo, and also…”
“Beans and rice, gotcha.  That’ll be…”
“Sorry, I would also like to try the bourbon fudge pie, and…”
“Adding on the bourbon fudge pie!  So your order comes to…”
“NO, WAIT!  I’d also like the pumpkin cream cheese pie!” 

So yeah, it was a battle, and I ended up apologizing a heck of a lot, unnecessarily (which I do far too often).  But they have pie, and I love pie, and I really wanted to share them with my wife and review them for you.  But I really had to fight, just to be able to order them!dsc02611.jpg

The bourbon fudge pie ($2.49) is a small slice that we just cut down the middle.  The fudgy filling is rich, thick, and damn tasty, but the crust is completely tasteless and serves no real purpose.  We weren’t expecting much for $2.49, but it was like a cheap, knockoff version of local Chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s delicious signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pie at her beloved Orlando restaurant and bakery Se7en Bites.  And that pie has the best pie crust ever, so y’all need to make it over there and try hers, maybe even before you try these chicken sandwiches.DSC02612

The pumpkin cream cheese pie is your typical fast food turnover pie.  If you haven’t tried the very similar apple pie at Popeyes, you’ve probably had it at McDonald’s at some point in your life.  You might even remember when the McDonald’s apple pies used to be fried to a crisp, back in the ’80s! dsc02615.jpg

Here’s a cross-section: a strip of sweet pumpkin “pie” filling, and a strip of sweetened cream cheese.  The crust wasn’t anything special, but still better than the extremely bland, flavorless bourbon fudge pie crust. dsc02616.jpg

Anyway, these chicken sandwiches are so good, I went back a few days later to a different location and waited about 25 minutes, just so I could get another one.  I got another spicy boi and asked for extra spicy sauce, but the cashier said there isn’t a button on the register for extra sauce, so they couldn’t do it.  That particular sandwich didn’t come with pickles, but it was still mighty fine.  Tender and juicy, crispy breading, perfect bun (any burger would be honored to be served on a bun prepared that well), and slightly more of that spicy sauce that really brings everything together.

However, this time I asked for macaroni and cheese as the side, because I know the late, great Anthony Bourdain loved Popeyes mac and cheese, as well as their chicken.  I love mac and cheese too, so I had to try it.DSC02619

The mac and cheese was pretty standard, like what you’d get at a soul food or barbecue place.  Very similar to the mac and cheese at Orlando’s homegrown barbecue chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse and its Southern spinoff restaurant The Coop, in fact.  Not baked or anything, no bread crumbs or crispy layer of cheese — just al dente elbow macaroni in sticky, gluey, salty orange cheese.  I can see it being beloved comfort food, especially for someone like Bourdain, a world-weary traveler who sometimes craved simple tastes of home.

I am trying really hard to avoid sodas, but this second Popeyes location had an unfamiliar label on the soda fountain — a drink I had never seen before or even heard of, and I try to stay apprised of such things!dsc02618.jpg

There is precious little information about Mirinda online, but it started out as a brand from Spain, and PepsiCo bought it.  They produce many different fruit-flavored sodas, so I guess Pepsi saw it as a way to compete against Coke’s Fanta brand.  I’ve tried a few different strawberry sodas before, and they always taste more like strawberry candy than the actual fruit.  This one was no exception.  It was almost sickeningly sweet, and I was glad I only took a few sips.  I ended up refilling my cup with Popeyes sweet tea while I waited for my food, and between the Mirinda soda and strong, acidic sweet tea, I ended up with acid reflux for the first few hours of my workday, long before I even indulged with a fried chicken sandwich and macaroni and cheese.  Serves me right, I guess!

Waffle House

“It is indeed marvelous.  An irony-free zone, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.  Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation, is welcomed.  Its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the South to to come inside.  A place of safety and nourishment.  It never closes.  It is always, ALWAYS faithful.  Always there FOR YOU.”

Those were the wise words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, from his Parts Unknown episode where he visited a Waffle House restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

The man did so much for broadening people’s views about food, between his brilliant books, like Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, and his fascinating food shows, like No Reservations and Parts Unknown.  He encouraged us to experiment and try new things in new places with new people, to step out of our culinary comfort zones, challenge our sensibilities, and open ourselves up to new, potentially life-changing experiences.  As a food blogger, he is one of my greatest influences, in terms of his unique voice (both his writing style and his soothing TV show narration), his curiosity and empathy, and his sense of adventure.

Bourdain knew a good meal when he saw it, whether it was five-star fine dining or some dirty, dangerous dive halfway across the globe.  I always appreciated that he spoke so highly of Waffle House (https://www.wafflehouse.com/), that ubiquitous-yet-humble chain of 24-hour Southern diners, and highlighted it on his show.

I also unironically love Waffle House.  It is practically synonymous with a “greasy spoon,” and sometimes infamous for unsavory late-night antics.  But the truth is, you can get a delicious, hearty, affordable meal there at any time of the day or night, prepared right before your eyes in an open kitchen.  I am lucky enough to live near the best Waffle House location ever — always spotless, fast, and friendly no matter when you show up, with impeccable, satisfying, soul-nourishing food.  Scoff all you want — if you’re still skeptical, that just means you’ve been denying yourself one of the greatest comfort food experiences to be had in the South.

I’ve been composing this Waffle House review and compiling photos for months, over the course of several separate visits with my wife.  But today was Anthony Bourdain’s birthday, so it felt like the right thing to do to go back tonight, to reminisce about the life and legacy of one of the greatest foodies of all, to indulge our senses and think about all the entertainment and education the man provided us over the years.  We were also joined by some members of the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, a Facebook group that has also broadened my culinary horizons and introduced me to some amazing new friends.  It felt right to commune with these fellow foodies and Bourdain fans, and to talk and laugh and share food with them, tonight of all nights.  We learned all the right lessons.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the glory of Waffle House, you may have heard of their flawless hash browns and all the different ways you can order them:

  • Smothered with grilled onions
  • Covered with melted cheese
  • Chunked with grilled smoked ham
  • Diced with grilled tomatoes
  • Peppered with pickled jalapeno peppers
  • Capped with grilled button mushrooms (more for y’all!)
  • Topped with Bert’s Chili
  • Country with sausage gravy

I am perfectly happy to eat my hash browns straight up with ketchup, but I do love them smothered and covered as a special treat.  My wife prefers hers plain, as usual.  Tonight one of our dinner companions ordered hers covered, chunked, and peppered.  (I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later!)
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The All-Star Special is a bargain and also a challenge: fried eggs (you can get them in other styles), accompanied by smothered hash browns (dig the grilled onions) and buttery white toast.  Tonight I was feeling like a big shot, so I got cheese on my eggs with a specific purpose in mind:DSC02279

A picture from an earlier visit, this time with no cheese on the eggs, and thicker grilled and buttered Texas toast, superior to the white toast:
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We both love their very crispy bacon, which is my wife’s go-to breakfast meat at any time of day:20190216_220330_resized

You can choose between bacon, sausage, and ham for this All-Star Special, or pay a slight upcharge for a large cut of rich, salty, bone-in country ham, bursting with far more flavor than the “everyday” ham.  The country ham is my new favorite.  Obviously the texture is totally different, but it always reminds me of prosciutto, one of my favorite foods in the whole world.
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As if that wasn’t enough, the All-Star Special also includes a plain waffle, which I believe is made with Golden Malted waffle and pancake mix, the best commercial mix I’ve ever found.  It isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make waffles or pancakes from scratch at home, but I buy that mix now to try (in vain) to recreate the perfection of a Waffle House waffle.  The outside is always crispy, the inside is always fluffy.  Anyway, if I ordered this one in the photo, it would soon be doused in syrup:DSC02070

Here’s a waffle topped with peanut butter chips, from another visit.  You can also get chocolate chips and even pecans.  They have even offered peach waffles in past summers, which is a pro-tier move from this Atlanta, Georgia-based company.  I’m looking forward to peach waffle season.  20190305_212120_resized

Grits!  Not my favorite, but my wife sure loves ’em with some butter and salt.  We all know that no self-respecting Southerner would make instant grits, but I’m not sure if these are “real” or instant.20190222_191021_resized

And she turned me onto the grilled, split, soft and buttery biscuits, which she likes instead of toast, with a little butter and jam.  You can also order a biscuit sandwich with eggs, cheese, and the breakfast meat of your choice.
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This is another one of my favorites, the Texas sausage, egg, and cheese melt, on grilled and buttered Texas toast, with added grilled onions.  I like mustard on my eggs, mmmm hmmmm.  Pure breakfast perfection at any time of day (or night), but I hate eating in the morning.  We’re much more likely to go there for dinner.DSC02252

Tonight, another one of my adventurous friends ordered something I’ve never tried before: the new Cheesesteak Melt Hashbrown Bowl, which is pretty self-explanatory: a large order of hash browns covered with melted cheese and topped with cheesesteak and grilled onions.  Everything a growing boy needs, it’s the breakfast of champions, even at 8:30 on a Tuesday night.  DSC02283

But Waffle House is about so much more than just breakfast food!  I actually love their burgers.

This is my standard: the $2 double “original” Angus cheeseburger that comes with two patties, melted cheese, and grilled onions on a grilled, buttered bun, with pickles and a packet of delicious WH Sauce, which is similar to chipotle mayo.  (It is a Heinz product, and I wish they sold it in bottles!)  It’s very much like an old-school diner burger, like the burger you imagine being served at a diner in a Tom Waits song.  It is better than just about any fast food burgers.  DID I MENTION IT IS $2?  It may be the best $2 you’ll ever spend on food.  20190222_190853_resized

Again, a better photo from a different visit.  I think American cheese is the ultimate cheese for burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, for how nicely it melts.  Yeah, come at me, bro.
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Here’s one adorned with that WH Sauce:DSC02251

And here’s tonight’s burger, pre-WH Saucing, side by side with one of those wondrous waffles.  Don’t worry, they don’t serve them on the same plate, but we had six people at our tiny table, so I was trying to consolidate:DSC02280

One day they were out of burger buns, so I asked if they could serve the burger on grilled Texas toast.  They happily obliged, and I think it was even better — kinda like a patty melt.  Pardon the blurriness.
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My wife swears by Waffle House’s grilled pork chops, always with her beloved hash browns.  These have supplanted eggs and bacon as her standard order, although she still loves the grits, waffles, and biscuits too.  They are surprisingly tender, juicy, flavorful, bone-in pork chops.  Ask for the “seasoning” — it is just a salt and pepper blend, but it adds a unique touch, and they aren’t the same without it.  DSC02254

Chops ‘n’ browns:
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More chops ‘n’ browns:
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And if you decide you want picante sauce for your hash browns, eggs, sandwiches, or burgers, I love that the brand is Senora Jackie’s Casa de Waffle.  This was old news to us, but our table-mates got a real kick out of it.
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Waffle House usually has good sweet iced tea, and I like my iced tea like I like my women: sweet, strong, chillin’, and with lemon.  But usually I’ll get a vanilla Coke or vanilla root beer there, on top of all those other carbs.  They actually squirt real vanilla syrup into the fountain beverage, which makes a nice difference.  I can’t speak for the coffee, since I rarely touch the stuff.

Waffle House restaurants all have another beloved feature: a jukebox, loaded up with pop hits, golden oldies, and a surprising number of novelty songs written ABOUT Waffle HouseFun fact: Waffle House even has its own record label!  I rarely indulge with the jukebox, which is odd, because I love foisting… uh, sharing my musical tastes with others.  But tonight I spared our new friends and the stalwart staff, lest I be tempted to queue up some Tom Jones on repeat.

And one more fun fact about the Waffle House I think you should know: it is often the first business up and running again after hurricanes and other natural disasters!  Because it stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) refers to the “Waffle House Index” in terms of the severity and impact of the disaster.  According to this transcribed National Public Radio interview, “If a Waffle House is closed because a disaster is bad, [FEMA calls] it red. If they’re open but have a limited menu, that’s yellow… And a completely open, full-menu Waffle House is green.”  A Waffle House spokesman said “If we’re opening up quickly, that’s a good sign that community is going to come back quickly.  If we are on a limited menu, that’s probably because we’re – have some utilities out, so it’s going to take a bit longer for that community to come back.”  So as we edge in those scary Southern summer months that occasionally bring hurricanes, maybe pay as close attention to your local Waffle House as you do to your favorite telegenic weatherperson.

The world is certainly not the same without Anthony Bourdain, and I think about him whenever I try a new dish, a new restaurant, or a new city… and also whenever I end up at my friendly neighborhood Waffle House.  Tonight, over a late dinner with my winsome, wondrous wife — the person I love most in the world — and some really great new foodie friends, Bourdain was on our minds and in our hearts.  That fellowship, the fact that I found my way onto a local food forum on Facebook, the fact that I started this blog just over a year ago and bother writing about food at all — I can trace all of it back to him.  So on his birthday, a year after we lost him, I mourned and celebrated the man, I ate good food with good people, and I thought long and hard about how lucky we all are to be able to do that.

Maple Street Biscuit Company

Despite living not too far from Oviedo, I almost never drive all the way east to head out there.  Every time I do, I’m always amazed by how much the area has been developed, with so many new restaurants popping up.  One of Oviedo’s newest neighbors is the Maple Street Biscuit Company (https://maplestreetbiscuits.com), a small chain that was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, and has since expanded into six Southern states (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas).  Despite being a chain, it has a very “down-home” Southern feeling, with everything in the bright, spacious dining room made of wood (or wood veneers).

Maple Street Biscuit Company specializes in fried chicken sandwiches made with fresh, white meat chicken breasts on fresh-baked biscuits, but they have lots of other options.  They make their jams and jellies from scratch too, which is not that common anymore.

I ordered the Squawking Goat sandwich, which includes fried chicken breast, a fried goat cheese medallion, and house-made pepper jelly on one of those fantastic biscuits.  I loved it.  It was awesome.  They were generous with the pepper jelly, ladling it on all over the plate, so it was definitely a sandwich to eat with a knife and fork.  I thought the goat cheese “medallion” was quite small, but it was so delicious, coated in seasoned bread crumbs, that I craved more.

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My wife ordered the Sticky Maple sandwich, with a fried chicken breast and pecanwood smoked bacon on a biscuit, with real maple syrup from the Bissell Family Farm served on the side.  (They usually pour it right on.)

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We had meant to share the Smoky Mountain Mac n Cheese, a $4 side of macaroni and cheese made with three different types of cheese and topped with a crunchy cheese cracker crumble, but then I think my wife remembered she isn’t the hugest mac and cheese fan.  More for me, I thought!  But the portion was very small, so it wasn’t that much more for me after all.  Still, it was rich and cheesy and gooey and tasty, so how can I complain?

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Also pictured above is the iced cinnamon pecan biscuit they were gracious enough to include with our order because it was our first visit.  It was delicious — much more of a dessert that something you should eat for breakfast, but I feel that way about most breakfast pastries (muffins, doughnuts, danishes, Pop-Tarts, and their ilk).  The icing was very fresh and very thin, like you would find on a cinnamon roll or a good cheese danish.  

My wife studied the menu in advance, and she knew she wanted the house-made ganache hot chocolate with steamed milk.  She tasted cinnamon and said it reminded her of Mexican hot chocolate, which she always loves.

I rarely drink coffee, but I love anything with vanilla and maple flavors, so I couldn’t turn down an iced maple vanilla latte.  Of course it was more like a dessert than anything else, but that’s how I like my coffee (like my women): sweet, smooth, and cool.

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And finally, because we didn’t have enough carbs and sugar already, they had fresh-baked cookies near the cash register, where you place your order, and we couldn’t resist trying the lemon blueberry cookie.  I was surprised my wife suggested it, since I love anything with lemon and with berries, and she usually doesn’t, opting for chocolatey sweets instead.  And I think she liked it, but I definitely liked it more.  It was obviously very freshly-baked, extremely soft, still warm, and delightfully lemony.  We ripped into it so quickly, I almost forgot to photograph it, as you will be able to tell:

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Maple Street Biscuit Company closes at 2:00 most days and stays closed on Sundays, so it isn’t the easiest place for us to get to.  Still, I’m glad we were finally able to try it.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I definitely would return to get that Squawking Goat again, and maybe I’ll ask for extra fried goat cheese next time.  I’d get that cookie again, too!

The Coop

John Rivers has built a successful restaurant empire from right here in the Orlando area, starting with his first, tiny 4 Rivers Smokehouse location in Winter Park that grew into an empire throughout Florida and even beyond.  We love 4 Rivers for barbecue, and I will get around to reviewing it here eventually, even though we’ve been there countless times over the last decade.

Mr. Rivers founded The Coop (https://asouthernaffair.com/), his Southern home-cookin’ restaurant, back in 2014, also in Winter Park.  I made it our goal to be there on opening day, and my wife and I were within the first 20 or so people lined up for lunch that first day.  At some point they started serving breakfast, and one morning a few years back, we met John Rivers, the man himself.  We had to gush a bit over how much we love 4 Rivers and The Coop, and I can tell you he could not have been friendlier, more down-to-Earth, more humble, or more welcoming.  He even treated us to breakfast that morning, which he did NOT have to do.  He does a lot of charitable work with these restaurants as well, and is an all-around mensch.

Anyway, The Coop serves some of the best fried chicken in Orlando and all kinds of down-home Southern sides and other dishes.  Chicken and waffles?  Chicken and dumplings?  Roasted chicken?  Shrimp and grits?  Fried seafood?  Pimento cheese?  Biscuits?  Cornbread?  Delicious breakfasts?  Decadent desserts?  You name it, they have it.

I have lost count of the times we’ve been there since it opened five years ago.  I have also brought my best friend from Miami there, and lots of co-workers as well.  This review is based on our two most recent visits.

Even though I love a good fried chicken thigh, The Coop’s roasted chicken is quite good, so I’ve been ordering it more often.  You can get a quarter- or half-chicken a la carte, or with two or three sides and a biscuit or cornbread.  I always get collard greens at The Coop and 4 Rivers.  Theirs are some of the best greens I’ve ever had.  They are slow-cooked with smoked pork, and I always add some generous dashes of pepper vinegar to them.  I can even drink the juice when I finish those greens, it is that delicious.  That square thing below is actually a biscuit, and it is flaky and rich.  Feel free to add butter, jam, syrup, or dip it in your meat juices or barbecue sauce, but it doesn’t need anything.coop1

Thighs and legs are my favorite parts of any bird, so I always go for the dark meat quarter chicken (or sometimes the half, if I’m hungry enough).  The skin is attached, brushed with barbecue sauce or some kind of sweet glaze but not smoked like the chicken at 4 Rivers.  It is always moist, juicy, and tender.  I asked for it with a side of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which might look like ranch and smell like ranch, but BROTHER, it ain’t ranch.  It is creamy, peppery, tangy, and subtly sweet, so it goes well with any kind of chicken, especially with that skin.  coop2

I also chose the side called “Hoppin’ John,” a Southern stew of rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra.  It is always okay, never quite as good as I think it’s going to be, but some people go gaga over this dish.  coop3

My wife loves fried catfish more than anyone I’ve ever met, so she vacillates between ordering fried chicken and catfish at The Coop.  She ordered catfish both of our last two visits, which comes with grits and hush puppies.  These are grits cooked the real, traditional way, as “NO SELF-RESPECTIN’ SOUTHERNER USES INSTANT GRITS.”  The Coop takes pride in its grits!

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And this was from a different visit.  This time, the hush puppies came out later, hot, crispy, and fresh.  She’s not so big on hush puppies, which is great, because I ate them, dipping them in the remoulade sauce that came with the catfish.  (She has never been into condiments or sauces or dipping things in other things, whereas I obsess over that.)20190103_125257_resized

As for me, I switched things around and created a new dish.  I’m not wild about grits, believe it or not, which is ironic because I love the way shrimp is prepared in shrimp and grits, that classic Low Country cuisine dish from the Carolinas and Georgia, stewed with salty, smoky andouille sausage and sometimes tasso ham.  Totally kosher, am I right?

I had a crazy idea, but I didn’t know if they would let me get away with it.  I asked if I could get the shrimp with something other than grits, and the patient girl told me that some people get the shrimp ladled over white rice.  I had other plans that day, and asked if I could get the shrimp over macaroni and cheese!  (The Coop has really nice, creamy macaroni and cheese, by the way.  It is never dried-out.)  She indulged me, and this is something they should seriously add to the menu, because it was forking amazing.  In fact, inspired by my bravado and culinary creativity, the older gentleman in line behind me requested the same thing!  Dear readers, have I become a dreaded “influencer”?  Say it ain’t so!20190103_124811_resized

And they always have beautiful cakes there, so my wife got this piece of chocolate cake wrapped up to go, which she loved.coop5

So yeah, come to The Coop for the excellent fried chicken, but stay for everything else!  Just don’t bother showing up on Sundays, because it is closed.  Of course, now I have incepted the idea into your heads that you will crave Coop food on Sundays, as we too often do.