Mediterranean Street Food by ShishCo

Mediterranean Street Food by ShishCo (https://www.mediterraneanstreetfood.com/) is a small free-standing shack in the middle of a shopping plaza parking lot on State Road 17-92 in Maitland, between Casselberry and Winter Park, not far from Lake Lily, the Enzian Theater, and Luke’s Kitchen and Bar.  If you live in Orlando, you’ve probably driven by it countless times and might not have given it a second glance.  But if you know, you know.  I first ate there on New Year’s Day several years ago.  It is a perfect setup for drive-through or takeout, but they have a few outdoor tables under an awning, and it was a gorgeous, sunny, chilly day for an al fresco lunch.  It helps that I absolutely love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.  It’s rare when food is so delicious, yet also relatively healthy.

But I hadn’t been back in a while — not since I started The Saboscrivner in 2018 — so I was long overdue for a return for some serious takeout.  About a month back, I ordered us the sampler platter, and me being me, I chose the one that feeds three ($13.50) so my wife and I would have plenty of leftovers, instead of the sampler platter that feeds two ($11.50).  It was a huge amount of food, and probably worth the extra two bucks.  I think this top container in the photo below was supposed to be babaganoush, but it was nothing like the creamy, smoky eggplant dip we’ve had at other restaurants and always love.  It was almost more like a chilled, spicy salsa, with lots of tomatoes in it, and maybe some eggplant too?  Nothing like that was listed in the menu online.  My wife was disappointed because it wasn’t standard babaganoush, and it remains a mystery to me.  The hummus was much better, and you can see they were extremely generous with grilled pita wedges.  But that’s not all…

The sampler platter also came with a generous portion of falafel balls (that were more like patties) and the most delicious Turkish egg rolls called sigara boregi — crispy phyllo dough cylinders wrapped around a blend of spiced savory cheese.  You can order those separately, and I’d definitely get them again next time.  There were stuffed grape leaves too — one of my favorite foods — but I guess I ate those before getting a photo.  The sampler also came with tahini and tzatziki sauces.My wife is going through a major falafel phase, so I think we added on a few extra falafel balls for her (75 cents each).  The extras came packaged separately, but trust me, they look the same as the ones above.

This is the doner/gyro bowl ($10.49), which is a huge amount of food and a terrific value for the price and quality.  The doner/gyro meat is a combination of beef and lamb, served in a soft, fluffy bread bowl over rice with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions, all dusted with savory za’atar seasoning.  This is what I ordered on my first visit a few years ago.  I sat at one of their tables under the awning on a beautiful, sunny, cool January day and felt like a king, eating this in the middle of that parking lot.  I loved it then and loved it this time too.  The bread bowl is really fantastic.  I like to tear off pieces and make little roll-ups with all the ingredients.

And this is the chicken shish kebab bowl (also $10.49), served the same way.  I hesitate to order chicken at a lot of restaurants because it is often dry and bland, but I knew this would be good because the menu said it was grilled dark meat, marinated in spices.  I love dark meat chicken, especially thighs, and the best thing you can do to prepare chicken is marinate it before cooking.  It was very tender, juicy, and flavorful, plus you got more of that nice rice and another fluffy bread bowl.  Needless to say, the two of us got a few meals out of all of this bounty.   

These two bowls might have come with additional tzatziki sauce cups too — I’m afraid I don’t remember, but they probably should have.  I made sure to request a little two-ounce cup of the “Julides hot relish” listed on the menu under Add Ons (50 cents), and that was terrific stuff.  It’s one more condiment I would happily buy by the jar.

Anyway, I don’t intend to stay away from Mediterranean Street Food this long again.  In an attempt to live a little healthier (and longer), we have both been eating a lot of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food recently, especially from Casselberry’s Beyti Mediterranean Grill, an amazing Turkish restaurant that opened last October, that we have been to many times.  We love that place!  This return trip to Mediterranean Street Food in Maitland was an attempt to switch up our routine, and it was good too.  I can’t think of too many world cuisines that are just as tasty and somehow also pretty healthy.  Usually you have to trade one for the other, but not at Mediterranean Street Food.

Tight Chips: New Aldi and Fresh Market potato chip flavors

This week I’m back with another edition of Tight Chips, a recurring feature on The Saboscrivner, where I review new and interesting potato chips and other store-bought snacks.

This time I’m focusing on some new store brand chips I purchased over the last few months at Aldi and The Fresh Market.  I’ve raved about Aldi before, and  for the last few years, I do most of our grocery shopping there.  It’s cheaper than any other grocery store, and it mostly carries high-quality private label products — groceries and other goods produced by other manufacturers (often familiar ones), then rebranded with Aldi’s own store brands.  Some of them are “Aldi Finds” that only appear for a week, or as long as supplies last, and then vanish just as quickly.  Weekly ads run from Wednesday through Tuesday, so make sure you check the ads online and hit store starting on Wednesday to track down the Aldi Finds while you can.

Most of Aldi’s potato chips and snacks are sold under the Clancy’s private label, including these two delicious new potato chip flavors inspired by cocktails enjoyed at brunch: Bloody Mary and Moscow Mule.  Both of these are crunchy, “krinkle-cut” chips, with thicker ridges than Ruffles, and of course they were limited-time Aldi finds.

Here is the nutrition info for the Bloody Mary chips.  Bloody Mary cocktails are usually made with worcestershire sauce, a tasty and versatile condiment that adds a funky umami element to anything, in part due to containing anchovies.  I love cooking with anchovies.  They add even saltiness and umami, especially when you saute bitter vegetables like broccoli rabe (aka rapini) and broccolini (aka baby broccoli).  I’ve never had a Bloody Mary, but I can’t imagine they would be as beloved as they are by brunchers everywhere if they tasted like salty cured fish.  Seems like an instant ticket to acid reflux, but what do I know?  Anyway, vegetarians don’t have to worry, because the ingredients specifically state they use anchovy-free worcestershire sauce.

These were better than I expected.  Tangy, tomatoey, a little bit spicy.  I love these flavors in general, and especially on chips.  They are kind of like barbecue chips, but with a sharper flavor, and less sweet.  They would be great dunked in a tangy blue cheese dip or a creamy spinach-artichoke dip, but I didn’t have any. 

Next up, we have the Moscow Mule chips, so here is the nutrition info for those.  These chips were a pleasant surprise too.  I gave up drinking before ever trying a real Moscow mule, but the cocktail contains vodka, spicy ginger beer, and lime juice, and is served in a copper mug.  Note that the ingredients list lemon juice powder rather than lime juice powder, as well as citric acid for a sour, puckery punch.

These really do taste like ginger and citrus!  They are a little sweet, a little sour, a little spicy, and surprisingly refreshing.  Even if you don’t care about the drink, it’s a nice flavor combination that makes me think of a sunny summer day.

Aldi has a different private label called Specially Selected for serious gourmet goodies — everything from fancy preserves and holiday-themed sweets to frozen meals and decadent desserts, plus occasional new chips.  These are also Aldi Finds that pop up randomly, and they can be gone, baby, gone just as quickly.  I found these Specially Selected Pancetta and Parmesan kettle chips back in early March:

Vegetarians, note that these contain dairy, but no pork or other meat! 

These chips were savory and a little smoky, but all the flavors were subtle.  They really did smell and taste like pancetta, that wonderful cured Italian meat that is like unsmoked bacon, which can miraculously improve so many recipes.  They had a little bit of funky umami flavor from parmesan cheese as well.   

Another good grocery store that I don’t shop at nearly as often is The Fresh Market, which is more of an upscale, gourmet supermarket, similar to Whole Foods, but generally a little smaller and a lot less “hippie-ish.”  Shopping there really is a pleasure.  The stores aren’t overly bright, they pipe in classical music, and they have a lot of delicious food you can’t buy anywhere else.  Their groceries tend to be on the pricey side, but they run some decent sales and often put good products on clearance, so you want to be on the lookout and stock up on things when you can.  The Fresh Market has its own store brand for all kinds of products, including snacks and even potato chips.  I don’t recall being tempted by them before, but All Dressed potato chips recently caught my eye, and I couldn’t resist.  This is a terrific flavor that is popular in Canada, but very rare here in the States.  Frito-Lay has released All Dressed Ruffles before, but that’s all I can recall, until now.

These are thinner potato chips, very similar to Lay’s, which is my favorite texture and mouth-feel for chips.  They went heavy with the All Dressed seasoning, and they are fantastic.  The bag doesn’t lie — they are sweet, tangy, savory, smoky, spicy, vinegary, and vaguely tomatoey.  They are kind of like a combination of barbecue and salt and vinegar chip flavors, and I think that’s a winning combination.  If you like Zapp’s Voodoo chips, All Dressed is similar to those.  Tremendous flavor.  I highly recommend these!

The three Aldi flavors are almost certainly already gone, but Aldi brings old favorites back throughout the year.  I’m always on the lookout for the triumphant return of their Park Street Deli atomic spicy and sweet horseradish pickles and their maple-vanilla whipped cream around the holidays.  I’ve seen these chips flavors more than once, so just follow the weekly ads and stay vigilant.  I even bought my record player at Aldi, a neat little Crosley knockoff that transforms into a briefcase and even has a USB port for digitizing your vinyl collection, and those tend to show up around Mother’s Day every year.

The Fresh Market All Dressed chips should still be around, and I suggest running, not walking, to get those in your life sooner rather than later… so you can burn calories and allow yourself to eat more Tight Chips!

Singh’s Roti Shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow Spoon Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
DSC02929

But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

Sus Hi Eatstation

I am a sucker for extravagant sushi rolls and poke bowls that I get to customize myself, with the ingredients of my choice — different fish, vegetables, toppings, condiments.  They’re beautiful to the eye, refreshing, delicious, and you can go as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  I’ve reviewed and sung the praises of two of my favorite local restaurants: Poke Hana and Bento Cafe, but I recently paid my first visit to the homegrown chain Sus Hi Eatstation (https://sushieatstation.com/), founded here in Orlando by local couple Robert and Teresa Ly.

I don’t know why it took me so long.  Sus Hi Eatstation has several locations around town, with the “build your own” model popularized by Subway, Chipotle, and so many other successful fast food and fast casual restaurants.  They are also vaguely ninja-themed, and as an ’80s kid who grew up loving G.I. Joe and Daredevil comics, I have nothing but love for ninjas (and G.I. Joe, and Daredevil) to this day.  If anything, I wish they leaned into the ninja theme even more, especially in this era of everyone wearing masks in public.  (But don’t worry, everyone working at Sus Hi when I visited was wearing normal masks.)

I went to the closest location in Altamonte Springs, and  I should mention that at least during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sus Hi Eatstation has customers place all orders from a touchscreen kiosk or online through the website.  When I got there, I used the kiosk, and they had a pump bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it, so have no fear.  At the front of the store, the dutiful staff members (who really could have been dressed like ninjas, I’m just sayin’) are meticulously assembling orders from the mise en place ingredients arranged in front of them, just like so many other fast casual eateries.

I have to admit it was a particular special that drew me in that day.  One of Sus Hi’s specialties is sushi burritos wrapped in huge flour tortillas, and for a $1.50 upcharge, you can get them crusted with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so they have a crunchy outer layer, but the sushi inside is still cool and refreshing.  That already sounded amazing — certainly not traditional, but a nice, fusiony presentation.  But now, they are running a special where you can get the burrito covered with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and deep-fried for a $3 upcharge.  Yes, I’m not proud, but as soon as I learned that was a current menu option, I had to have it!

The basic burrito is $8.50, and I chose a base of white rice.  (The other options are brown rice and lettuce.)  When you customize a Sus Hi burrito, you get to select three proteins.  I had already studied the menu in advance, and even though they offer steak and chicken, I went to a place called Sus Hi because I wanted sushi.  I selected tuna (a 50-cent upcharge), salmon (a 75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab, which is shredded surimi tossed in spicy mayo.  I added on cream cheese, cucumbers, shredded purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning.  It was gorgeous!

Sus Hi allows you to get up to three different sauces with a burrito, and I opted for sauces on the side so I could taste everything better.  The bright orange sauce on the top left is an additional sauce that comes special with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito.  I thought it was going to be like a spicy queso, but it was more of a very spicy mayo, with the intensity of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  The paler sauce next to it is classic creamy, tangy white sauce.  Below we have orange fire sauce, which was like a smoky chili mayo, probably with chipotle flavor added, and the slightly lighter orange sauce on the bottom right is standard spicy mayo, which I unapologetically love with my sushi and poke.

Sus Hi also offers regular and sweet soy sauces, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce, sweet chili sauce, mango habanero sauce, regular sriracha (meh), and yellow sriracha (better), among others.

The burrito was HUGE, and I am making a conscious effort to eat smaller portions in 2021, so I got two meals out of it.  The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted outer surface wasn’t quite as crunchy as I expected, nor as flamin’ hot, but I still enjoyed it.  It was a novelty, something I’m glad I tried but wouldn’t order again.  I suspect the regular panko-crusted burrito will probably have a better texture.

But while I was at Sus Hi for my first time, I figured I might as well try a bowl too.  I selected a regular bowl ($9.95) with brown rice as the base, in my half-hearted, conflicted attempt to eat slightly healthier.  I usually don’t like brown rice, but theirs wasn’t bad at all!  Again, I selected the same three proteins: tuna (50-cent upcharge), salmon (75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab.  I kept my toppings pretty similar to the burrito: cream cheese (you can see the little scoop near the bottom), cucumber, purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning, but I also had them add sliced pickled jalapenos, crunchy noodles, and pickled ginger.  Hey, why not, right?

I swear there is tuna, salmon, and krab under all that in the paper bowl.  In fact, I was really impressed by the size of the “regular” bowl, and how generous they were with everything they put in it.  A lot of places will scrimp on toppings and especially proteins, but I feel like this is a terrific deal — a huge portion of a lot of fresh, tasty food.

I got the same three sauces on the side with this bowl: spicy mayo, white sauce, and fire sauce.  In the future, now that I’ve tried those sauces separately, I’d be more likely to just order one or more on top of the bowl, for ease of mixing everything together.  You can also purchase Sus Hi’s sauces in bottles if you fall in love with any of them.  I wish more restaurants would offer their sauces, condiments, and dressings for sale, but it never hurts to ask!

After all these years, I finally see why Sus Hi Eatstation is so popular, with such a devoted following around Orlando.  People love sushi, and they love freedom of choice.  I’m sure I will return, probably going back for a similar version of everything I tried for this review.  I don’t know how long the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted sushi burrito will last, but if that was on your bucket list, I strongly encourage you to cross it off while you can!

BaanChan Thai Restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orlando Weekly published my Top Ten Tastes of 2020!

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

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

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

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

Thai Halal Grill

Thai Halal Grill (http://thaihalalgrill.com/) is a new fast-casual restaurant located inside the Apna Bazaar, a Halal Indian grocery store in Longwood, north of Orlando.  The restaurant just opened recently — I believe in October 2020.  When you walk into Apna Bazaar, you can’t miss their round sign lit up on the right of the market. 

The menu appears on a large TV monitor above the counter where you order, but they also have the menu on their website and full-color paper menus to take.  I was not planning to order food when I got to Apna Bazaar — instead I was looking for ground lamb for a pastitsio recipe.  But a friend and co-worker with good taste and opinions I respect raved about Thai Halal Grill after discovering it recently, so I placed an order and shopped around the grocery store while my food was being prepared, picking out some snacks and sweet basil seed drinks.  It only took about ten minutes.

I saw they had spicy halal meatballs in chili sauce with fried rice, and I almost order that when I saw the meatballs could also come with stir-fried noodles.  Sold!  That dish was a very reasonable $10.95 for a huge portion.  In fact, everything on the menu is $10.95 except for the stir-fried beef and pepper with white rice, which is $11.95.   I might try that next time, or the Thai fried rice, ore even one of the curries.  The lady working the counter was so sweet, warm, and welcoming.  She gave me a tangerine to take with me, for dessert. 

Here’s a close-up photo.  I loved this dish.  The meatballs were extremely flavorful, with the nice spongy texture you hope for from a meatball.  It contained red and green bell peppers, onions, and peas, but luckily no carrots.  I can take or leave carrots in dishes like this, as they never seem to add much in the way of flavor.  The noodles were soft and delicious.  I could have easily gotten two servings from this portion, but I chose not to.

I will totally go back to Thai Halal Grill and try something different next time, plus it was fun browsing around Apna Bazaar.  But I didn’t want to wait any longer on this review, since I got a little distracted by all the big news last weekend and never published anything this past week.  This is a tiny local restaurant that could use your business.  Please stop by and give them a chance, and I guarantee you’ll be tempted to buy some stuff from the market too.  Longwood isn’t known as one of Orlando’s super-hip foodie areas, but I’ve also reviewed Oh My Gyro and Pickles Delicatessen in the area, and there are more delicious destinations in Longwood I have plans to revisit and review soon.

The Pass Progressive Cuisine

Not being an influencer, I sometimes arrive a little late to the hottest foodie trends. But for a couple of months, I’ve been salivating over photos and videos of birria tacos made with braised, shredded beef brisket or goat and served with a dipping cup of rich, glistening, orangey-red consommé. Now Orlando has a few Mexican restaurants that serve birria, and today I finally tried it at one of our newest birria boutiques: The Pass Progressive Cuisine (https://www.thepassprogressive.com/), located in a nondescript industrial warehouse plaza in Altamonte Springs. It’s a little off the beaten path, but the best places often are. And you don’t want to pass on The Pass Progressive, trust me.

My wife wasn’t as psyched for birria as I was, but at all of our favorite taquerias and Mexican restaurants like Tortas El Rey and Francisco’s Taco Madness, she always requests carne asada tacos, so that’s what she wanted to try here. You get an order of three for $11.95. I took one little bite and loved what I tasted, but more importantly, so did she. The steak was tender and picked up nice flavor from being grilled, and I think I detected some lime juice in there.

You can see they are absolutely stunning, topped with a snow flurry of Oaxaca cheese, fresh cilantro, and julienned radishes on soft corn tortillas. The carne asada tacos come with guajillo chile salsa, but my wife isn’t big on salsas, sauces, or anything too spicy, so I ordered it on the side for her (so I could have it).

But here it is, the star of the show: birria tacos! These also come in an order of three for $11.95. They were also topped with cilantro, radish, onion (I asked them to hold the onion for my wife’s tacos), and a dusting of Oaxaca cheese, plus there’s that rich, flavorful consommé.

The meat was so flavorful and tender from being braised and shredded, it didn’t even need the consommé, but you can bet I dipped anyway. Things got a little drippy and greasy from there, but we were at home, so all was well.

Close-up of these beautiful birria tacos:

They must season and grill these corn tortillas, because they are some of the best corn tortillas I’ve ever had. They held up to a lot of heavy ingredients and hungry handling, and really helped make the tacos into something special.

Since this was my first visit, I couldn’t resist ordering something else for later, so I went with something completely different: the Jaeyook Korean pork burrito ($11.20), with white rice, black beans, cheese, sour crema, avocado, kimchi cabbage, perilla leaf (a plant in the mint family, related to Japanese shiso), and spicy gochujang sauce wrapped up in a huge flour tortilla. I often like burritos even more than tacos, but I wanted to try birria in its traditional taco form and get something else as a burrito.

This one was a little spicier from the gochujang sauce, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Like all the other food from The Pass, it was gorgeous, with such an eye-catching blend of colors and textures, in addition to all the flavors at play. All their burritos come with excellent fresh, crispy, salty tortilla chips that we shared, and a different salsa that was all mine.

Sauce gallery!

Here you see pickled red onions that came with something, garlic aioli that had a thinner, more crema-like consistency than I expected (50 cents), the most delicious pineapple chutney that was so sweet it could have gone on an ice cream sundae (50 cents), the guajillo chile salsa that would have come on my wife’s carne asada tacos that she asked for on the side, the salsa that came with the burrito and chips, and some tomatillo salsa. Of all of these, the pineapple chutney was the big winner for both of us, and I also loved the smoky guajillo chile salsa. I’d buy both of those by the jar or bottle.

As you might guess, The Pass Progressive Cuisine was a big hit, and I know we’re not the only people falling in love with their food. I expect the legend will only grow, so you (possibly) heard it here first, on The Saboscrivner! I can’t wait to return and try their Caribbean wings, their ancho-braised beef or chicken empanadas, their lobster tacos (with lobster consommé!), but I know I won’t be able to resist the birria, so I’ll just keep ordering multiple things. And in case you ever tire of tacos or burritos (the horror!), you can also get almost everything as enchiladas or quesadillas too.

Just remember that The Pass Progressive Cuisine doesn’t have seating, so it’s a takeout-only place — but that’s perfect during a pandemic anyway. And they are open Tuesday through Friday, 12 – 8 PM, and Saturdays 12 – 5 PM.