Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Aardvark

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAM Hot Chicken

JAM Hot Chicken (https://www.jamhotchickenfl.com/) opened in Winter Park in late 2021, with a walk-up window location previously occupied by The Sausage Shack, a hot dog place I loved for its huge selection of mustards.  Sadly, it did not last there, but JAM is a welcome addition to the Winter Park landscape.  There is no indoor seating — you order at the window and then enjoy your food at the picnic tables or benches outside on picturesque New England Avenue, in the Hannibal Square area.  On a day that isn’t too hot or humid, an outdoor lunch in this scenic setting can feel like heaven, even when the delicious hot chicken sets your tongue ablaze.

This was my “sando” ($14, but worth every penny).  The HUGE chicken sandwich contains a Bell & Evans chicken breast, fried and seasoned to perfection, topped with crunchy pickle slices (I think they were my beloved Grillo’s), crispy slaw made with cabbage, red onion, apple cider vinegar, and no mayo, creamy comeback sauce (I would slather this on anything!), and served on a great buttered bun.  It was a magnificent chicken sandwich, up there with the best Nashville-style hot chicken I’ve ever had… and I’ve been to the legendary Hattie B’s IN Nashville.  
I ordered mine Hot, which is actually the middle level of heat.  Plain means no heat (for people like my wife), then Mild has “just a touch” of heat, and the next levels are Hot, Hotter, and JAM (marked on the menu with “You’ve been warned”).  I think next time I’ll tempt fate and try the JAM.   I love Nashville hot chicken because you don’t just get your ass kicked by pure heat; there is always so much delicious flavor, and that’s spicy food should deliver.  There is usually a touch of sweetness too, to help offset the spice.  It’s a delicate balance that I now crave, and JAM’s sando perfectly straddles that fine line.

Since I was driving home, I opted against ordering fries, knowing they would be cold by the time I returned.  I’ll have to return, because they looked good.  Instead, I got the cheddar bob mac ($5), which is in the Top Two best macaroni and cheese dishes I’ve had in Orlando.  It was really that incredible, knocking my socks off after the chicken sando already did that.  (Good thing I was wearing two pairs of socks!) The dark stuff on top was perfectly crispy, crunchy, buttery — maybe cracker crumbs?  It added a lot of terrific texture to the mac and cheese.  I also loved that the mac and cheese was cheesy and sticky, but not overly creamy.  Of course I could be wrong, but I don’t think this cheddary concoction was based on a bechamel sauce.  I find bechamel-based mac and cheese doesn’t always impart the cheesy texture and flavor I’m looking for.

The JAM Hot Chicken website also boasts an outstanding playlist that features a lot of choice ’90s and ’00s hip hop and R&B, making it even cooler — or hotter, if you will.  Wu-Tang Clan and several of its members’ solo projects, Beastie Boys (stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know I love ’em), Outkast, The Pharcyde (Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is an all-time Top Ten hip hop album as far as I’m concerned), Souls of Mischief, and the late, great MF Doom — all aces in my book.

We already have some great hot chicken in and around Orlando, including Chicken Fire (which made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 list) and Swine & Sons (which made my 2019 list, that I was honored to be included on alongside Orlando Weekly’s regular food writer Faiyaz Kara).  JAM Hot Chicken is the newest entrant into this growing field, and I was thrilled to discover it in this unassuming location, because it was awesome.  In fact, just like I say whenever “Poison,” “Motownphilly,” or “This Is How We Do It” come on the radio, THAT’S MY JAM!

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

Smokemade Meats + Eats

Sometimes my parents joke that they have no idea why I like so many different kinds of food that my family never ate when I was growing up.  I got curious and wanted to try new things once I was on my own, out of their house, taking the advice of cultured, worldly friends or the Internet hive-mind.  Not my dad, though!  He likes what he likes, he’s set in his ways, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t on a constant quest for the best too!  Just today I reassured my dad that he is a big reason I appreciate food as much as I do.  He used to drive all over Miami to find the best Chinese buffets, hot dog carts, New York pizza (by the slice!), bagels, Cuban bistec milanesa, and pastrami sandwiches.  He’d schlep up to an hour for a good meal, so that’s where I get it from.  We had a heartfelt conversation where I told him that I love all the same foods he loves, but along the way, I just figured out I like to eat other things too.  We had one of those “We’re not so different, you and I” moments over the phone.

Well, another kind of food my dad actually likes is barbecue… as long as it is not too saucy or spicy, that is!  He got me into barbecue at the legendary Shorty’s in Miami, and we ate there together countless times.  Barbecue is a reliable crowd-pleaser and a timeless and true American art form, like jazz, blues, and comic books.  Most people have strong opinions and great loyalty to barbecue, but even when we find a ‘cue joint we like, we’re always scanning the sky for scintillating smoke signals, seeking something equally good or even better.  And today I think I found that place.

Smokemade Meats + Eats (https://www.smokemade.com/) is a pop-up restaurant that started pitching a tent and serving up Texas-style barbecue at local breweries around Orlando earlier this year.  I’m back at work with a heavy teaching load, so between that and the pandemic worsening in Florida, I’ve been laying low, avoiding crowds, and not exploring as much as I would like.  But after several months of frustration, I finally made to a Smokemade pop-up at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store in Orlando’s Milk District and met Tyler Brunache, the sorcerer supreme of smoke and mystical maven of meat.  Tyler, an FSU graduate (which I’ll forgive) started barbecuing in Washington D.C. before returning home to Orlando, and we should all be glad he made that decision.  You have to follow Smokemade on Facebook or Instagram and find out where he’ll next appear, so you can try this delicious food for yourselves.

I hated crowds and long lines before social distancing was cool, so I was smart and made it to Whippoorwill Beer House on the early side, before it got overrun with Milk District hipsters.  I parked right in front of the establishment (a very pleasant surprise), and Smokemade was already set up in a tent in the parking lot with Tyler, three associates, and a very tenacious bee flying around inside the tent, occasionally landing on them but going unnoticed.  Everyone was friendly as they were taking and assembling orders, and nobody seemed perturbed about the bee, even though I warned two of the guys to watch out for it.  Those guys are nonchalant AF.  I would have gotten the hell out of that tent until the bee got bored and took off.  He must have been there because of all the positive buzz online.

Anyway, even with the curious bee, I was one of the first in line, so I was able to order and get my food packed up within ten minutes.  Keep in mind that proper barbecue is smoked low and slow — low temperatures for hours at a time.  Tyler’s beef brisket is smoked for 16 hours, his pulled pork is smoked for ten hours, his pork spare ribs are smoked for six hours, and his scratch-made sausages are cold-smoked for four hours.  Then all the meats have to rest for hours before serving to be at their best, kind of like me.  So even though I got my order quickly, it took over 24 hours to get ready behind the scenes.  What looks like a pop-up to us takes days of planning, prepping, and perfecting.  And looking at drool-worthy photos of Smokemade’s food online over the past few months, it sure looks like Tyler Brunache has perfected his process.

So what did I get?

Well, whenever I try any new restaurant, I always like to order something where I can sample as many different flavors as I can.  Here, that was the Texas Trinity Platter ($29), featuring a half-pound of beef brisket, a half-pound of pork spare ribs, and two sausages.  Keep in mind, I was bringing all of this home to share with my wife!

When I got home with this massive takeout order, I opened the heaviest box first to reveal the Texas Trinity Platter, and this is what we saw.  WOW.  But you’re not even seeing all of it here!

The first thing I did was remove that half-pound slice of brisket to portion it out.  Look at that gorgeous color, that bark, that marbling!  My photo fails to describe just how thick and substantial it is.  But it’s magnificent, masterful meat.  I asked for our brisket to be a little more moist and fatty, rather than lean.  Trust me, it’s better.  Texas-style barbecue is never served drenched in sauce, but even though we got several small cups of barbecue sauce, none of the meats really needed it.  This brisket stands on its own just fine.

By the way, you can also order a brisket sandwich on a roll for $15, and they look huge.

Underneath, you can see what is essentially a double-order of spare ribs, since I added on an extra half-pound ($9).  Hey, my wife and I both love ribs, and I knew she wouldn’t want any of the sausages.  The ribs are magnificent.  The sweet, sticky, peppery glaze adds tremendous texture and fabulous flavor.  These ribs are so tender, not only do they fall off the bone, but I swear I chewed up part of one of the bones, since it was as tender as the meat surrounding it!   Today, Tyler offered two different kinds of sausages, his popular cheddar jalapeño sausage, and a hot gut sausage.  I requested one of each in the Texas Trinity Platter, and they are both coarsely ground in natural casings (hence the “hot gut” moniker) that give you a satisfying crispy crunch sensation when you bite into them.  They were both heavy and dense sausages, and with everything else we tried, I could only eat a small segment of each.  The cheddar jalapeño was my favorite of the two, with pockets of oozing orange cheddar and a pleasant heat throughout.

Since I can’t always make it to these ephemeral pop-ups around town, I ordered what I could, while I could.  This here is a half-pound portion of pulled pork ($10), not included in the Texas Trinity Platter, but well worth trying.  It is much more understated than the brisket, ribs, and sausages, but I’d still totally recommend it.  You can also order a pulled pork sandwich on a roll for $11.  They were generous with the scratch-made barbecue sauce, which is thin and vinegary, not the usual thick slurry of ketchup, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial smoke flavor like too many sauces.

Barbecue focuses on the meats, but sides are part of the experience.  I couldn’t leave without trying three of Smokemade’s sides: coleslaw made with red cabbage and apples, jalapeño dill potato salad, and pinto beans that are spicier and more savory than the typical sweet “barbecue” baked beans served with Southern BBQ.  Each of these sides cost $3.50.  I liked the beans the most, but the meats are the real reason to chase down Smokemade.
Honestly, my favorite among all these pictured sides were the pickle slices and pink pickled onions in the top left corner of the box, and those actually came with the Texas Trinity Platter!  I already love pickled onions (I make my own), and I am starting to consider myself more of a pickle aficionado, but I really liked these.  Their puckery, pungent punches complemented the salty, smoky meats very well — even better than the actual separate side items, in my opinion.  I asked Tyler, and he said they make everything from scratch except for the slices of white bread that came with the platter.  I don’t know if he would consider selling his pickles and pickled onions in larger portions in the future, but if he offers them, run, don’t walk.

Finally, I couldn’t come home to face my wife without a dessert, so I chose bread pudding over key lime pie (I love it but she doesn’t) and banana pudding.  Each of the three desserts costs $4.  This was a nice-sized chunk of sugary-sweet, soft, moist bread pudding, featuring cinnamon and caramel flavors.  We thought it might have been made with challah bread, as it did taste somewhat eggy.  We each had a nice-sized portion earlier tonight, and there is still some bread pudding left for tomorrow (with my wife’s name on it).  I’d love to try the banana pudding and key lime pie on a future visit.

You might have noticed this was a lot of food for two people, but I fully expected we would get multiple meals out of it, especially with me packing lunches for work to wolf down between classes and reference interviews, and her being home for the time being.  And it was all so good, neither of us will mind eating amazing Texas-style barbecue for another couple of days.

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to attend an annual conference for my professional organization in Dallas, Texas.  Of course I had to try the local barbecue, so I sought out the famous and highly recommended Pecan Lodge.  It was amazing — easily some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten.  Maybe the best.  I’ve never had anything quite like it in Florida, until now.  I never forgot that meal, but I can tell you that Tyler Brunache’s food from Smokemade Meats + Eats looks, smells, and tastes just like that real-deal Texas ‘cue I enjoyed so much in Dallas and dreamed about ever since.

Seriously, don’t sleep on Smokemade, and don’t write it off as a logistical nightmare just because there isn’t a permanent, brick-and-mortar location.  Follow the social media, figure out where Smokemade Meats+ Eats will pop up next, get there early so they don’t sell out of what you want, and go with friends so you can sample a little bit of everything on the menu.  But be careful out there, and drink responsibly at all these breweries!

Back in 1996, the great singer/songwriter/actor/Texan Lyle Lovett sang “That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.”  Well, I’m not from Texas, and neither is Tyler, and statistically, most of you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos probably aren’t either.  But take it from The Saboscrivner: you want this Texas barbecue anyway!  Heck, even my dad would.

Orlando Weekly published my Top Ten Tastes of 2020!

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

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

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

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

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, and 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!
[/AIR HORN!]

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!