Chicken Fire

There is one local foodie friend of mine, a fellow educator and fellow lover of hip hop, who I always agree with on all gustatory matters.  We haven’t met in real life yet, but she’s definitely one of my BFFs — my Best Food Friends.  Whenever she posts about trying anything new and liking it, I always pay attention, because I know it is going to be awesome.  Follow her Instagram as @Fork07, and just like I never try to steer my readers wrong, she won’t either.

One of her latest discoveries became one of mine as well: Chicken Fire (https://www.facebook.com/eatchickenfire/), a new food truck specializing in Nashville-style hot chicken, that is currently all the rage.  I’ve been obsessed with it ever since trying it at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2018, and I was thrilled to discover that Swine & Sons makes an outstanding SMOKED hot chicken sandwich, right here in Winter Park.  I gave them a glowing review a few months ago. 

Well, Chicken Fire is the new Nashville hot chicken contender, and I can assure you that the chicken is straight fire.  It tastes closer to Nashville standard Hattie B’s than Swine & Sons’ smoked hot chicken.  Don’t get me wrong, both are great, but if you’re craving that one-of-a-kind Nashville burn, do I have the truck for you.DSC02686

Chef Kwame Boakye serves up chicken tenders at four strengths: Soulful (seasoned but not spicy at all, like regular fried chicken), Mild, Medium, and Hot.dsc02689.jpg

On the recent Sunday morning I caught the Chicken Fire truck at the East End Market in Orlando’s Audubon Park neighborhood, I arrived almost 45 minutes before he opened and ended up being the sixth person in what became a very long line, wrapping around the whole front of the East End Market building.  Chef Kwame was outside his eye-catching food truck, taking orders by hand and warmly greeting every customer with a handshake and a welcome.  I had already messaged him on Facebook to ask for his whereabouts, so I was exciting to meet The Man.  He could not have been warmer or friendlier.

I ordered a Big Box ($12) that comes with four tenders, a little container of Fire sauce (a creamy, tangy sauce that goes great with any flavor of chicken tender, similar to Hattie B’s “comeback sauce,” with more flavor going on than Alabama-style white barbecue sauce), and two slices of white bread underneath — a necessary and welcome addition for helping to cut the heat.  I asked Kwame if I could get one tender of each flavor: Soulful, Mild, Medium, and Hot.  He said he doesn’t usually do that, but he would make it happen for me.  I was grateful, because I was really looking forward to trying each one to share my thoughts.

It didn’t take long for my order to come up, and since it was crowded at the East End Market as well as being a cool, drizzly morning, I drove straight home to share my spoils with my wife.  I figured the non-spicy Soulful tender had her name on it, since she doesn’t eat a lot and avoids anything spicy.  (Hattie B’s in Nashville does something similar, with their “Southern” tender as the completely non-spicy one, even below Mild.)

From left to right: Hot, Medium, Mild, Soulful.dsc02690.jpg

Luckily, there was plenty of food for me.  These are huge white meat chicken tenders, juicy and moist and fried to crispy perfection.  But they are not for the faint of heart!  The Mild would easily be a medium at most other places, the Medium was hot enough to make my eyes water, and the Hot, in its deep, dark, intimidating red color… WOOOOOOOOO!  (Imagine more of a Ric Flair “WOOOOO!” than a Will Smith “WOO!”, and you’ll have the right idea.)  Powerful stuff.

Those slices of white bread under the tenders (from the excellent Olde Hearth Bread Company in East End Market, which provides bread and baked goods to many local restaurants) was a real lifesaver in putting out the fire on my tongue, but it could only do so much.  I was also relieved to have cold milk at home, since water would not have done much to abate the burning.

I hate the song, but these hurt so good.

I also paid $3 for an order of Kwame’s excellent, cool, creamy, crunchy cole slaw, another heat-cutter, and 50 cents for an extra container of Fire sauce, since the one that came with the Big Box wasn’t nearly enough.  If he sold Fire sauce in bottles, especially convenient squeeze bottles, I would totally buy one for myself and others to give as gifts.  “Merry Christmas!  Have some Fire sauce!”  Too bad I can’t mail these hot chicken tenders, or I’d consider doing that too.  I have friends in other cities who would love them, even in Nashville, ground zero for legendary hot chicken.

Be on the lookout for Chef Kwame popping up with his Chicken Fire truck around Orlando during what remains of November and throughout December.  Check his Facebook page for dates and times so you catch him, but it looks like he’ll be at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store on Friday evenings, Redlight Redlight in Audubon Park on Saturday evenings, and if you’re very lucky, you might also catch him at East End Market another Sunday during the day.

But best of all, starting in January, Chicken Fire will become one of the regular food trucks featured at Orlando’s centrally-located A La Cart food truck park.  2020 is going to be the year hot chicken reigns supreme in our City Beautiful, between Swine & Sons’ spicy, smokin’ sandwich and Chicken Fire’s tangy, tantalizing tenders.  Wherever that truck goes, I will follow… with plenty of bread and milk!

Popeyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moghul Indian Cuisine

Growing up, we never ate Indian food.  My parents generally eschewed anything with even a reputation of being spicy, so no Korean, no Indian, no Thai (we went out for Thai once, and the new flavors literally made my dad ANGRY), and nothing from a Chinese menu with a flame or pepper icon next to it.  Back in the ’90s, even Mexican was a rare treat for me, and that usually meant driving through Taco Bell — which helped sustain me through high school and college.

When more adventurous friends introduced me to Indian food, it opened me up to a whole new world of flavors and spices, but it was still a rare event to go out for Indian.  I used to eat it once a year at most, usually by myself — sometimes even when I traveled to work conferences out of town.  And I’d always seek out Indian buffets to maximize the number of different dishes I could sample and the amount of food I could eat.  All-you-can-eat buffets are not only economical, but they are a great introduction to the cuisine for unfamiliar diners.

That said, India is a huge country — a whole subcontinent! — with many different regional styles of cooking.  This really became apparent when I attended a festive weekend lunch at the Hindu Society of Central Florida’s temple earlier this year and enjoyed a vegetarian feast full of giant dosas and other unfamiliar offerings, all South Indian specialties.  With that in mind, Indian buffets are going to stick to the most popular, familiar dishes that American palates are used to, and probably nothing too intimidating or spicy.  There are a lot of lamb dishes in Indian cuisine, which is great if you love lamb like I do, but since it’s a more expensive meat, I’ve never found a buffet that offered lamb.  That’s too baaaaaaaad.

Since I started working with a particular colleague at the beginning of 2013, we’ve gone out to lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch more times than I can count.  She’s vegetarian and loves Indian food, and I’m always happy to get out of the office and hang out with her.  She is not only a legitimately good person who I’m honored to call a friend, but she’s amazing at her job, and I’ve learned so much from her over the years.  I’m a better librarian and professor because of her ideas and influence, and thanks to our occasional lunches out, I’m also way more familiar with Indian food than I would be otherwise.

That restaurant is Moghul Indian Cuisine (http://www.moghulindian.com/), located on the east side of busy Semoran Boulevard, between Aloma Avenue to the north and University Boulevard to the south.  Moghul has a very affordable lunch buffet ($8.95), but also a longer menu full of delicious dishes you can’t get from the buffet.  I have recently decided to broaden my horizons and order a new entree on each subsequent visit.

Here’s a look at the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which I have ordered from countless times, but decided to forego on my most recent two visits, which I’m reviewing here:dsc02491.jpg

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Since I started ordering off the menu, I get thin and crispy pappadams served at our table, the same ones available on the buffet.  They come with spicy tomato and onion chutney, sweet and tangy tamarind chutney, and cool, creamy, and slightly spicy coriander and mint chutney.DSC02492

I love samosas, but in all my lunch visits to Moghul where I ordered off the buffet, I had never ordered them.  I decided to order the vegetable samosas ($3.95) on these two recent trips, and I realized I should have been ordering them all along.  You get two in an order, so on both of these visits, I had one and gave the other to my vegetarian co-worker.  The fried shell was very light, airy, and flaky — not greasy at all.  The lightly curry-seasoned potatoes and peas inside were tasty, and that shell was really something special.DSC02604

A look inside that samosa:dsc02605.jpg

This was a non-vegetarian friend’s trip to the buffet.  Looks like she got butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, and saag paneer (the stewed spinach in the top right), among other things — all Indian buffet classics.DSC02494

And my vegetarian colleague got all this good stuff, including eggplant, pakoras (vegetables breaded in chick pea flour and fried until crunchy), and naan bread.
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On one recent visit I ordered the Goan dish lamb vindaloo ($13.95) for the first time ever, and I was brave and ordered it HOT.  Not “Indian hot,” because I still had to go back to work, but not my usual, safe medium either.  And I am relieved to report I could handle it just fine.  Moghul’s menu describes vindaloo as “lamb marinated with vinegar, chilies and spices,” and it definitely had an acidic tang to it, no doubt from the vinegar.  DSC02495

Apparently vindaloo has Portuguese roots, and historically it called for meat to be marinated in wine and garlic.  Along the way, and especially as the dish rose in popularity in British Indian cooking, palm vinegar replaced the wine.  But I love vinegar, so it’s all good!DSC02497

On my second, more recent trip, I ordered a different lamb dish, the Kashmiri dish rogan josh ($13.95), also HOT.  Once again, it was delicious, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to handle the heat.  The menu describes this dish as “lamb cooked in curry sauce with yogurt, tomato and spices.”  This sauce was richer and thicker than the vindaloo — not as tangy, despite the addition of tomato.  I liked it so much I slurped up all the leftover sauce with a spoon after finishing the chunks of tender lamb, no additional rice required!  Despite my pledge to try new things every time, I would totally order the lamb rogan josh again.
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Since these entrees don’t come with bread, I ordered onion kulcha ($3.50) for the first time ever with my vindaloo, as an alternative to the standard naan.  Like naan, kulcha is a bread baked in a tandoor (a clay oven), and this one is stuffed with onions, cumin, and cilantro.  I loved it so much!DSC02496

Even though I am forcing myself to order a new entree every time, I had to get that onion kulcha again on my second recent visit, to accompany the rogan josh.  It was so rich and buttery and soft and fragrant.  I just love sauteed onions and soft, fluffy, buttery bread.  They probably use ghee in the kitchen at Moghul; I am happy to clarify that.
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I drive by Moghul almost twice a day on my way to and from work, and it sure is tempting to order just onion kulcha every night on my way home.  I can’t do it, but have I thought about it?DSC02607

YUP!

(What I’m really going to have to do is learn to make my own onion kulcha at home, and maybe regular naan bread too, if it can be done without a tandoor.  But I’m going to leave the rest of this deliciousness to the professionals.)

The good news is Moghul is close to work, my co-worker loves Indian food even more than I do, and I have every intention of returning often to keep expanding my palate, both in terms of new dishes and spice levels.  Just keep in mind that Moghul is closed on Mondays.

Tortas El Rey

In Orlando, we are so lucky to have amazing Mexican food in so many different styles and price ranges.  I have reviewed some of our best establishments already, like the beloved Hunger Street Tacos and MX Taco, as well as hidden gems like Tortilleria El Progreso.  But with all due respect to those wonderful restaurants, my all-time favorite might be Tortas El Rey (http://www.tortas-el-rey.com/), an unassuming drive-through establishment on Orange Blossom Trail north of the Florida Mall near Lancaster Road, almost an hour from where I live.  Maybe it’s because I’m so rarely on that side of Orlando that it’s a rare treat, but I dream about it often and recommend it even more often.

Housed in a former Checkers location, the small white and red building has a few outdoor picnic-style tables with large umbrellas providing a bit of shade, but other than that, it’s strictly a to-go operation.  Sometimes the drive-through line can get quite long, but they make all their food fresh to order, so your patience will pay off.  On top of being fresh, authentic, and amazing, it’s CHEAP.  I don’t know how they do it, but I encourage you to venture out there, arrive hungry, and over-order.  Try everything you can.  You’re not gonna regret it!

My wife is a big fan of the sopes, thick fried shells covered with the meat of her choice, crumbled queso blanco, sour cream, and shredded lettuce.  I almost never see sopes on menus elsewhere.  And she’s really partial to the carne asada, marinated, chopped, grilled steak with a distinct lime flavor from the marinade.

Here is a carne asada sope ($3.95) I brought her home this past weekend:DSC02597

A different sope from a different visit:DSC02486

Did I mention she loves carne asada?  Here’s the carne asada quesadilla ($6.25) in a soft, lightly grilled flour tortilla, served with sour cream and shredded lettuce.  It’s quite large, with big wedges camouflaged underneath the ones you can easily see here.DSC02596

The tacos are quite small, but super-cheap, at $1.80 each.  On your first visit, you might decide to try each of the meats in a different taco, and then you can branch out to other dishes once you figure out your favorite meat.  They come wrapped in two soft, lightly-grilled corn tortillas and garnished simply with diced cilantro, diced onions, and a spicy red hot sauce.

This is a carne asada taco (slightly higher at $1.89, unless that was a typo in the printed menu), hold the onions and hot sauce (for my wife, of course):DSC02489

I almost always drive through and get my food to go, but this past weekend, I lingered at one of the tables just to get this shot of taco nirvana to share with my Saboscrivner Squad.  I ordered three tacos ($1.80 each) with the works (cilantro, onions, and hot sauce): chorizo (crumbled Mexican sausage) at the top, cabeza (tender, braised beef head) on the left, and al pastor (pork marinated in pineapple juice with a slight sweet taste) on the right.  These tacos are everything tacos should aspire to be.  If these sound a little intimidating, fear not, because they also offer grilled chicken, carnitas (fried pork), and that old faithful, carne asada.DSC02595

I’ll almost always order al pastor when I see it on a menu, and I’ve tried it several ways at Tortas El Rey.  This was an al pastor burrito I ordered on a previous visit.  The burritos ($6.99 each) are huge — soft flour tortillas stuffed with the meat of your choice, seasoned rice, refried beans, and cheese, then lightly cooked on the griddle.  By the time you unwrap them from their foil wrapper, they are soft, chewy, gooey, melty pillows of deliciousness.  It’s almost too big and heavy to eat in one piece, especially since it will start to sag as you get deeper into it.  DSC02488

And this is a beautiful torta al pastor from my most recent visit, which I brought home after enjoying those three tacos al fresco.  Tortas ($7.25 each) are Mexican sandwiches served on bolillo rolls, and at Tortas El Rey, they come with refried beans, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced pickled jalapenos, avocado, and sour cream.  DSC02598DSC02600

I always love tortas, and I’ve tried several of them here.  They even serve a Milanesa torta with steak pounded flat, breaded in cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy.  I associate Milanesas more with Cuban food than Mexican (as in my Rey’s Cuban Cafe review), but I always love a good crossover — or fusion, since we’re talking about food and not comic books!

All orders should come with tiny plastic cups of house-made red and green hot sauces (I prefer red, but do try both), and little plastic baggies tied up with some pickled carrots, grilled onions, and lime wedges inside.  I rarely use the limes, but I’m always happy to add the onions and carrots to my torta.  Make sure you ask for these, so they don’t forget to give them to you!

I didn’t photograph the large styrofoam cup of a pineapple-flavored agua fresca I gulped down in the unseasonable October heat and humidity, but trust me, grab an agua fresca when you come here.  (A medium is $2.65, but be a big shot and pay $3.50 for the large; you will happily drink it all.)  They are some of my favorite soft drinks ever, non-carbonated and often made with real fruit and other fresh ingredients.  They are cool and refreshing and sweet, but never as sickly-sweet as sodas made with high fructose corn syrup.  They also offer a tangy limonada (limeade), horchata (sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting through the heat of spicy food), and jamaica, a fruity, tropical-tasting red drink made from hibiscus flowers.  Especially because I don’t drink, I always treat myself to an agua fresca when I visit a Mexican restaurant that offers them, and they pair perfectly with any dish I’ve ever encountered.  I’m also a sucker for anything pineappley.

I am smiling just thinking back to how amazing this food tasted and smelled, and I’m smelling it now as I write up this review at 1 AM on a work night.  It’s funny how closely our sense of smell is tied to memory.  Tortas El Rey is definitely one of my favorite places to eat in all of Orlando.  If it was closer, I’d go far more often, but maybe it’s a good thing it’s all the way across town.  It makes my infrequent visits that much more special, especially since I have to plan my errands to make it the last stop before heading back home.  If you’re looking for fancy, upscale, indoor seating, air conditioning — keep driving.  But if you want authentic Mexican food, cooked from scratch, made with love, full of flavor, and so very cheap, it’s worth venturing out of your proverbial and physical comfort zone onto OBT and looking for the tiny white and red building.  Tell the nice ladies behind the heavily fortified window that I sent you… and they’ll have no idea who or what you’re talking about.  But if you like tacos (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), you really need to experience the humble majesty of Tortas El Rey for yourself.

Bem Bom on Corrine

Bem Bom on Corrine (https://bembomfood.com) is a cute and cool restaurant in Orlando’s hip, foodie-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood that specializes in Mexican and Portuguese cuisines (but separate, not a funky fusion of the two).  Conceptualized by Chef Francisco “Chico” Mendonça, Bem Bom (Portuguese for “Good Good”) started out as a food truck before opening its brick and mortar location in 2018.  My first visit was way back in June, but since I was alone and in a hurry that night, I only ordered one dish and a drink.  DSC02215

They have a nice outdoor patio facing Corrine Drive, with some singular shops and other restaurants directly across the street.DSC02216

This drink was listed on the menu as Portuguese Sumol Passion Fruit ($2.75), and I love passion fruit-flavored anything.  I was relieved to find out it was non-alcoholic, so I treated myself.  The lightly-carbonated beverage tasted good and surprisingly natural and juicy, despite having the weird, dry aftertaste that Sucralose-sweetened drinks often have.  I probably wouldn’t order it again, but I’m glad I tried it once.DSC02211

These were my three tacos al pastor ($13), a dinner special with marinated pork in adobo sauce, pineapple, and a sauce made with arbol chiles and tomatillos, double-wrapped in soft, fresh corn tortillas.  I have a hard time turning down tacos al pastor whenever I find them on a Mexican menu, and these were excellent, garnished simply with finely-chopped cilantro, diced onion, and a lime wedge.  DSC02212DSC02213

I finally went back with two work colleagues today, so I could try more things.  We started out with excellent crispy tortilla chips, served with extremely fresh-tasting guacamole (some of the better guac I’ve had, for $9) and salsa that was actually spicy.
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I’ve been hearing great things about the pasteis de bacalhau, or cod fritters ($9.95), for a long time now, so I had to try them.  They came with a small arugula salad tossed in a light lemony dressing, and creamy, cooling jalapeño ranch for dipping (which wasn’t spicy at all).DSC02536

These were extremely hot (temperature-wise, not spice-wise), but they had a very light, crispy exterior and weren’t overly greasy.  The flaky cod on the inside wasn’t as strongly seasoned as I was hoping for (I was craving something spicy, like the devil crabs of Tampa), but at least it was pleasantly mild and not overly fishy.  They really didn’t need the jalapeño ranch, which is fine, because I used it elsewhere.DSC02537

One of my colleagues ordered frango de churrasco, half a bone-in chicken marinated in tangy piri-piri marinade and grilled ($13.95).  It was served with a beautiful small salad and hearty fries, which I ended up eating most of, dipping them in the jalapeño ranch.  I can’t let a good sauce, condiment, or dip go to waste.  Awww, dip!
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I don’t think he ate the croutons, but they looked house-made, and I probably should have asked for them.  DSC02542

My other colleague ordered the smoked chicken enchiladas ($13.95), which came with white rice and black beans.  The two enchiladas included apples and onions wrapped up with the smoked shredded chicken in corn tortillas, topped with red and green chile sauces.  I tried the tiniest morsel, and it was really good.  I would definitely order these enchiladas for myself in the future.  DSC02538

She wasn’t feeling the beans, so with complete disregard for my co-workers’ welfare later in the afternoon, I had to sample them.  They were pretty basic black beans.  DSC02540

And last, but far from least, I ordered the pork prego sandwich ($11.95): six-hour braised pork, onions, peppers, pico de gallo, radish, cilantro, and serrano sauce served on a crusty Portuguese roll.  It was an incredible sandwich.  Lots of good flavors and textures, saucy, and pleasantly spicy.  I’ve written before how much I hate overly-hard rolls that shatter when you bite into them, spewing crumbs and cutting up the inside of your mouth, but this roll wasn’t like that at all.  The delicious, spicy juices from the pork softened up the inside.  It was a juicy sandwich in the best possible way.  10/10, would order again.
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Some of Bem Bom’s other delicacies include highly-recommended queso dip to go with the chips, rock shrimp tacos, mango-“painted” fish tacos, duck meatballs, a lamb burger, and a pan-seared filet mignon topped with prosciutto, a fried egg, and a beer-based sauce.  I’ve heard about other limited-time specials, including an intriguing octopus dish that wasn’t on the menu at lunch today.  And they even serve brunch on Sundays!

As you can hopefully see by now, Bem Bom has a creative and eclectic menu in fun, funky surroundings.  I would totally go back, especially because it’s only ten minutes from where we work.  Plus, you have Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream, one of my Top Two local ice cream shops, right across the street, and our first local food hall, the East End Market, moments away.  That immediate stretch of Corrine Drive also hosts some of  Orlando’s coolest establishments like Park Avenue CDs (my favorite local music store, even if I feel woefully uncool whenever I shop there), Stardust Video and Coffee*, which hosts the Audubon Park Community Market on Monday nights, and Big Daddy’s (a karaoke bar I can never get anyone to accompany me to).

* Who else used to rent videos from Stardust back in the day?  When I first moved to Orlando, the place blew my mind.  It was the first video store I had ever been to that specialized in independent, cult, and art films, and it organized them by director and/or country of origin for foreign films.  Totally warmed this nerdy librarian’s heart.

 

Swine & Sons

So, has anyone heard about any good chicken sandwiches lately?

Let me rewind for a bit.  This week the Internet went insane over chicken sandwiches, something I rarely order anywhere.  When there’s a burger available, I never give the chicken sandwich a second look.  At fast food places, even if I’m not in the mood for a burger, I’m more likely to order the fish sandwich than the chicken sandwich!  Even when I go to a fried chicken joint, I’ll usually get a couple of crispy fried thighs, rather than a sandwich.  Too often, the classic fried chicken sandwich contains a dry chicken breast, or worse yet, a dry tender or two.  I’ve been burned by dry, bland white meat too often, and don’t get me started ranting about dry, bland, boring-ass Thanksgiving turkeys.  I always prefer dark meat, and thighs usually hide my favorite morsels of meat on the entire chicken: the oysters, tucked away under a bone, two little perfect bites per bird.

But people are losing their damn minds over this chicken sandwich, which gave me a serious case of the FOMO.*  I had to venture forth to see what the hype was about, and so I could blog about it and get some external validation before everyone moves onto the next foodie fad.  Wait, did I just write that?

Well, to none of my regular readers’ surprise, I ordered two different chicken sandwiches: spicy and extra-spicy.  And I’m happy to report they were the best damn chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had!  But they didn’t come from that chain.  Nope.  And not that chain either.  They came from a a beloved local restaurant that just happens to be located in a butcher shop.  Not that one; the other one!

Swine & Sons (https://swineandsons.com/) started out as the third restaurant in James and Julie Petrakis’ locally-grown empire, following their flagship Winter Park gastropub The Ravenous Pig and their upscale Southern restaurant Cask & Larder.  With Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak in charge, Swine & Sons opened in a small space next door to the old Cask & Larder location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, and I made sure my wife and I were there on the very first day they opened for business.  We were some of their first customers through the door on Day One, and they had a good thing going from the onset.  It was always meant as a more casual restaurant compared to the others, a quick-service place with sandwiches, house-cured charcuterie, and lots of prepared takeout options.  And despite having limited seating and parking, it became a hit, like the Petrakis’ other establishments.

But the only constant is change.  In recent years, Cask & Larder moved to the Southwest Airlines terminal at Orlando International Airport, and The Ravenous Pig moved into the space Cask & Larder vacated on Fairbanks, which is much nicer and larger than the old Ravenous Pig location, with more parking.  The Gawlaks bought Swine & Sons from the Petrakises, and in March 2019, they moved across the street, into The Local Butcher & Market, an upscale full-service butcher shop.  (Da Kine Poke, one of Orlando’s best poke places, also has a counter location inside The Local Butcher.)  There are still tables to enjoy the Gawlaks’ delicious food in there, don’t worry.  And luckily, there are a lot more parking spaces!  Just keep in mind that it closes at 4:00 PM every day, so you’d have to be a real early bird to have dinner there.

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Anyway, Swine & Sons is one of the only Orlando restaurants I know of that serves Nashville-style hot chicken, which I was first introduced to at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year.  After the chicken is marinated (often in seasoned buttermilk), breaded or battered, and fried, it is covered in a spice paste that’s heavy on the cayenne pepper, so every surface is spicy.  It was amazing, and very different from the popular new fast food spicy chicken sandwich where any heat comes from a spicy mayo-based sauce. At Hattie B’s, I ordered a medium thigh and a hot thigh. They were crispy and crunchy and set my mouth ablaze, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
(To avoid any confusion, this photo is from Hattie B’s in Nashville, just in case the cup and the above paragraph didn’t give it away.  That’s medium on the left and hot on the right, and the hot was HOT.)
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I tried the Nashville hot chicken at Cooper’s Hawk when I reviewed it earlier this year, and even though I liked that restaurant quite a bit, the hot chicken wasn’t that hot or that crunchy.  So my quest continued, and I’m so glad that the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 led me to Swine & Sons in search of a truly singular spicy chicken sandwich experience.

In fact, maybe with all the chicken sandwich hype and debating, Swine & Sons recently debuted a hotter hot chicken sandwich.  Their current menu showed the classic version, referred to as the “Party,” and the newer, hotter model called the “Rager.”  The very patient woman working the counter told me they use the same spice blend, but the Rager contains three times the cayenne pepper.  They use Bell & Evans all-natural chicken breasts, and she explained that they first brine them, then they smoke them, and then they fry them.  I was already on board even before she mentioned smoking, but that would have pushed me over the edge.  I love any smoked foods — meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, you name it.  I was ready for a life-changing flavor sensation, so of course I ordered one of each ($11 per sandwich), intending to eat half the Party and half the Rager there and save the other halves for later.

Party:
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Rager:
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Both of the sandwiches were served on identical white sandwich rolls, with plenty of sliced pickles and little dipping cups of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based sauce I have come to really like with my chicken.  I’m usually not a pickle person, but I’ve been trying to develop more of an appreciation for pickles, and these were great.  Definitely some of the best pickles I’ve ever tried.  Surely they were house-made.  The chicken breasts with their crunchy breading and oily, spice-laden exterior coating were balanced perfectly with the soft roll and the crispy pickles (not overly sour or “dilly”).  I left the cool, creamy white sauce on the side for dipping random bites, lest it overpower the other flavors or cut the heat too much.  I would have preferred a soft, rich buttery brioche bun for these sandwiches, which would have both contrasted and cut the heat more than the plain white roll, but it still worked very well.

These chicken sandwiches were CRON-CHY!  Each bite had a satisfying crunch that is missing from too much fried chicken.  Under the breading, they were also juicy and moist.  Even beloved fried chicken establishments have let me down too often — even places I’ve given good reviews to in the past.  But these were everything you wish fried chicken sandwiches could be in terms of texture and consistency.

Party:
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And what of the heat, you ask?  The Party had a pleasant heat that would certainly be too much for my in-laws, my parents, and my wife, but anyone who enjoys spicy food will be fine with it.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Rager, but I’ve been pushing my limits with spicy food lately, maybe trying to feel more alive in this scary and unknowable world.  My eyes were watering, and I had to blow my nose more than once, but my body reacts like that whenever I eat anything spicy, so those weren’t new and unfamiliar reactions to this heat.  Despite all that, I was expecting it to be hotter, to maybe push into a place of unpleasant heat, but it was fine.  It was better than fine; it was awesome.  And through the heat, you could taste the smoky flavor.  They didn’t clash or overpower each other — smoke and fire burning together in crackling harmony.

Rager (see it through my tears!)
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I definitely like the oil-based spice rub on Nashville-style hot chicken compared to most other kinds of spicy chicken.  Don’t get me started on typical sports bar buffalo wings, which never do anything for me.  It might be the funkiness of the vinegar-based hot sauce, but those wings are often too crunchy, whether they are breaded or not, and they’re simultaneously dry and greasy.  And even though I couldn’t begin to identify the spices in the Swine & Sons chicken sandwiches (aside from the obvious cayenne pepper), at least they don’t have to increase the heat to ludicrous levels for macho bragging rights, with ridiculous names like “Atomic Hellfire,” “Habanero Apocalypse,” and “Ass-Blaster 5000.”

There was a slight sweetness emerging from the heat in both of these sandwiches, making me wonder if there was some sugar in the spice blend.  I loved it.  They were exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had been craving and chasing since hitting Hattie B’s in April 2018.  The smoky flavor made it through, so there were a lot of unique tastes and textures going on at once.  I have to say I preferred both of these chicken sandwiches to the two thighs I had back in Nashville.  Were they the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had?  In a week where people are getting passionate about chicken sandwiches, I’m going to do the same and say YES, yes they were.  As I write this review, far too late on a work night, I am so excited that I still have the other halves in my fridge, waiting for me… maybe even taunting me.

While I was there, I also ordered Swine & Sons’ macaroni and cheese, which I hadn’t had in several years.  It was $4 for a decent-sized side order, and it was very rich.  The cheeses (cheddar and fontina) were melty and the pasta was al dente, so I was more than content.  There was also a nice crumb topping made from cheddar-chive biscuit crumbs.  A lot of places bake their mac and cheese so the whole thing comes out dry, sacrificing that nice meltiness for overly-crispy edges and noodles you can barely chew anymore, but that was definitely not the case here.  DSC02509

I’ve ordered other sandwiches at Swine & Sons on my handful of previous visits over the years, including a good Southern-inspired take on the classic Cuban sandwich.  I think I even had a house-made hot dog there once, although it has been so long, I don’t even remember how they served it.  But today, in my first visit to their new location inside The Local Butcher & Market, Swine & Sons showed me the great heights a fried chicken sandwich could reach in the right hands, from the right kitchen.  It was hot, but all that heat was pure flavor, not just burning, tingling pain and regret.  It was crunchy, but not so hard that I felt like I was going to break a tooth.  It wasn’t dry, and it sure wasn’t bland.  It was a chicken sandwich all others should aspire to be.

I don’t know if they could serve a non-spicy version of the sandwich for the some who don’t like it hot, but right now I’m convinced Swine & Sons can do anything.  And while it is more expensive than the fast food chicken sandwiches making headlines and stirring up strong feelings, you get what you pay for.  I think these were dramatically, exponentially better than any chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had, and I hope my readers will feel the heat sooner rather than later.  The Gawlaks are like culinary royalty in Winter Park and Orlando, and this place isn’t exactly a secret.  But despite all that, you shouldn’t have to worry about long lines and sandwiches selling out, as transcendent as they are.

*Fear Of Missing Out.

I’m so ashamed.

Naradeva Thai

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s going to the mall.  The only kinds of shopping I like are grocery shopping and comic book shopping.  However, once or twice a year I end up near Orlando’s upscale Mall at Millenia, rarely for anything I need.  At least there’s a very welcoming and well-stocked Coliseum of Comics location near that mall, along with one of my favorite Thai  restaurants anywhere, ever: Naradeva Thai (http://naradevathai.com/).

In the middle of a sprawling retail district, in the shadow of a Super Target, Naradeva feels like an oasis.  It’s definitely one of the best restaurants in that part of Orlando, but because it’s tucked into a little strip of shops (a musical instrument store, a GameStop, a Subway, and the aforementioned Coliseum of Comics), it is easy to miss.  But once you get inside, you will see what I mean about the sense of calm, relaxation, and beauty that will wash over you.  It’s one of the prettiest dining spaces anywhere in the city, on top of serving top-notch Thai food.  It is a sanctuary.DSC02472

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Going there recently with my wife, we both bemoaned the fact that Naradeva is across town from us, or otherwise we would be regulars for sure.  Even in the blistering August heat and sweltering humidity, it feels cooler inside, with the calming sounds of a little waterfall soothing us after weaving through the unknowable weekend traffic on I-4.

We both started our lunch with sweet, rich, creamy Thai iced coffees (one of the few kinds of coffee I like):dsc02476.jpg

After stirring it up (little darlin’):dsc02477.jpg

Back when I reviewed the wonderful Mee Thai last fall, I mentioned that I don’t eat enough Thai food and would like to try more dishes and even experiment with upping the heat levels.  Sadly, I haven’t done that enough.  On a rare trip to Naradeva, I defaulted to my favorite Thai dish: pad kee mao, also known as drunken noodles.  I feel like I need to try every Thai restaurant’s version of this, since everyone makes it a little different, and even a mediocre version is still going to be good.  Naradeva’s pad kee mao was above and beyond.  It was exactly what I wanted and needed, with nice chewy rice noodles, ground pork, crispy bell peppers and green beans, scallions, Thai basil, and bamboo shoot strips all stir-fried together.  I used to be skeptical about bamboo shoots, but they’re great — chewy and inoffensive.  One reason I love pad kee mao is the slight sweetness that cuts through the spice, probably from the basil leaves.  DSC02481I wish the noodles they used were thicker and wider, but those super-thick and wide noodles are pretty hard to find around here.  I tried the “hot” version for the first time, up from my usual medium heat.

This is Naradeva’s Thai red barbecue pork fried rice, which we ordered to split because we both love it so much.  It’s definitely my favorite fried rice dish anywhere.  The char siu-style pork is juicy, sweet, and tender.  It pretty much melts in your mouth.  They add eggs and scallions, plus the cilantro garnish on top, keeping it pretty simple but never boring or bland.  It’s amazing, and as long as you eat pork, I would strongly recommend any visitors to Naradeva try this dish.DSC02480

And my wife, who always has impeccable taste, selected the boneless duck in sweet and sour sauce, which was as gorgeous to look at as it was delectable to eat.  Naradeva serves their duck in a very light batter that comes out crispy from deep-frying, but never too crunchy or heavy with batter, and never dripping with grease.  You can choose from three sauces: tangy sweet and sour, pad kaprow Thai basil sauce (that probably would have been similar to the sauce on my pad kee mao), or red curry sauce.  But I know she doesn’t like curry or anything spicy, so she chose wisely and regretted nothing.  The sweet and sour sauce includes onions (which I dutifully picked out for her, like a good husband), tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber and pineapple chunks.

I can’t get over this plating!DSC02482

The duck comes with white jasmine rice, which neither of us paid much attention to, not with that perfect fried rice there between us.  But I took it home and made it into my own (not nearly as good) fried rice a day or two later.

On past visits to Naradeva, we have treated ourselves to puffy fried Thai doughnuts served with coconut custard dip, but we had more errands to run and were pretty full after this particular meal.  We will definitely return, though.  I’m sure our blood pressure and stress levels drop every time we visit that gorgeous restaurant, as we transport ourselves to a serene jungle oasis.  It’s even worth braving the bougie mall if I can stop at Naradeva on the way in or out.  And after that luxurious lunch, I found a comic I had been looking for forever at the shop a few doors down, and I even had a coupon for a $5 discount.  As my man Cube once said, “I gotta say it was a good day.”