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.

Grocery Grails: Lay’s Flavor Icons potato chips

As longtime Saboscrivner readers and any of my real-life friends already know, I am a sucker for potato chips, especially new, interesting, and exotic flavors.  Chips and other salty, crunchy snacks are my favorite junk foods, and I can voraciously devour a bag before realizing what happened.  That makes them dangerous… and it makes me dangerous too.

So in spite of the danger, when Lay’s rolls out new potato chip flavors, I always go on a quest to track them down.  They are always hard to find at first, and I love the thrill of the hunt — my old toy collector impulses never abandoning me.  I also know the new flavors rarely last, so I  want to taste them while I can, before they disappear forever.

This summer, Lay’s rolled out five new potato chip flavors branded as Flavor Icons, inspired by regional dishes from restaurants around the United States:

Nashville Hot Chicken from Party Fowl in Nashville, Tennessee.
New York Style Pizza from Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York.
Carnitas Street Taco from El Torito in Marina del Rey, California.
Philly Cheesesteak from Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Chile Relleno from Cocina Azul in Albuquerque, NM.

I haven’t been to any of these restaurants, but those are five meals that are easy to love, no matter where you order them.

If you want to try these, but don’t want to get stuck with a big bag of chips you might not like, or don’t want to feel too guilty about eating a whole big bag, you can almost always count on Walgreens to find smaller bags of new Frito-Lay chips.  They came through for three out of the five Flavor Icons: Nashville Hot Chicken, New York Style Pizza, and Carnitas Street Taco.nashville_pizza_carnitas

Here’s the nutrition info for the Carnitas Street Taco-flavored Wavy Lay’s.  Note that they contain pork and bacon fat!
carnitas1

And a look inside at the Wavy Lay’s.  I don’t care for the ridged texture as much as the classic thin potato chip we associate with the Lay’s brand.  carnitas2
For some reason, these tasted saltier than any of the others, and were also the blandest.  I detected lots of onion and a vague porky scent and essence, but I didn’t pick up on the cheese that is listed in the ingredients.  In fact, I never would have concluded “Ah yes, carnitas!”  But I have to admit, whenever I’m at a taqueria or Mexican restaurant, I’m much less likely to order carnitas (pan-fried pork) when I have other juicier, more flavorful meat options, like marinated al pastor pork, chorizo sausage, or shredded, braised brisket.

Here’s the Nashville Hot Chicken nutrition info.  They contain bacon fat and chicken fat!
nashville1

Now I LOVE Nashville hot chicken, and I’m glad it has become a foodie trend, including here in Orlando.  I first had it at one of the most famous destinations in Nashville in 2018: not the aforementioned Party Fowl, but the legendary Hattie B’s, where even the “medium” set my mouth on fire.  Since then, I have sung the praises of Nashville hot chicken here in town at Swine & Sons (it was one of my favorite local dishes in 2019), Chicken Fire, and Git-N-Messy BBQ. (Disclaimer: Git-N-Messy BBQ didn’t offer Nashville hot chicken when I wrote my review, but it is amazing, and I’ve tried so many new dishes there since then, I need to write a more detailed and updated review.)

So here’s a close-up of the chips.  Credit for this photo goes to my friend David Zubkoff.  More on that in a little bit.lays_hotchicken
They have a nice fiery burn that was most reminiscent of cayenne pepper, but more pleasant than Frito-Lay’s ubiquitous “Flamin’ Hot” flavor that burns going in and coming out, and more bearable than the Habanero flavor too.  Aside from those two, which I am not a huge fan of, it is one of the spicier chip flavors I’ve ever tried.  One thing I am a huge fan of is sauteing chicken skins low and slow, to crisp them up into gribenes (like chicken chips or chicharrones) and then rendering the fat, or schmaltz, to cook with later.  These chips reminded me of very spicy crispy chicken skins, so props to Lay’s for that.

Next up, here’s the nutrition info for the New York Style Pizza chips.  Lots of dairy ingredients in these, so vegans stay away, but no meat.
pizza1

Now I LOVE New York-style pizza.  Everyone has their own strong opinions about pizza, but it’s hard to go wrong with thin, crispy, huge slices topped with gooey, melty cheese and robust sauce seasoned with oregano and garlic.  Some of my favorite New York-style slices in Orlando comes from Pizzeria Del Dio, Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria, Tornatore’s Cafe and Pizzeria, Tomasino’s New York Pizzeria, Tuscany Pizza (review coming soon), Pizzeria Valdiano, and Antonella’s.

So here’s a close-up of the NY Pizza-flavored chips themselves.  These are the only ones that are thicker chips, branded as Lay’s Kettle Cooked.  And you know what?  These are awesome.  They taste like tomato, cheese, garlic, and oregano, and you can’t go wrong with that.  I like that the kettle-style chips weren’t so thick and crunchy as to be hard to bite, or to have too many sharp, mouth-shredding edges.  They had a great texture and an excellent flavor profile.  Moreso than the first two flavors, I ate these and immediately though “Hey, these taste like pizza!  Nailed it!”
pizza2

Next up is the Chile Relleno flavor, which is supposed to be exclusively sold at Walmart and 7-Eleven.  I searched for these chips for a few weeks, but have yet to see them anywhere in Orlando.  Luckily, my aforementioned friend David from Boston hooked me up, mailing me two bags out of the kindness of his heart.  (In return, I mailed him the Nashville Hot Chicken chips, and was kind enough to take that picture above, because I devoured my own bag and forgot to photograph the actual chips.)
chile1

Once again, the nutrition info, with dairy ingredients, but no meat:
chile2

When I go to a Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant, I tend to judge it if they don’t offer a chile relleno on the menu, and then it serves as a good barometer of the restaurant’s overall quality.  A lot of them use poblano peppers*, first roasting them, then stuffing them with cheese (and occasionally meat), dipping them in a eggy batter, and then deep-frying them.  It can be a thing of beauty.  And fear not, spice skeptics — these aren’t spicy peppers.  The poblano is lower on the Scoville scale than even jalapeños, so don’t worry about not being able to take the heat.

*However, one of my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, the sensational Savanna, just let me know that most restaurants in New Mexico, including Cocina Azul itself, use New Mexican green chiles instead of poblanos in their chile rellenos, which really makes a lot of sense. 

Here’s a close-up of these chips.  I liked these a lot.  I don’t know if my brain would have automatically gone to “chile relleno,” but I did taste pepper that had a familiar and comforting roasted flavor, a little piquant but definitely not spicy.  And there was cheese in there too.  Well played, Lay’s!chile3

I could only find the Philly Cheesesteak-flavored chips in a larger bag:
philly1

Once again, the nutrition info.  These contain beef, so watch out, vegetarians!
philly2

I’ve been to Philadelphia twice, and it’s a great food city, but this might sound sacrilegious: there are better sandwiches to be found and eaten there.  I’d much rather have an Italian roast pork sandwich with sharp provolone and bitter broccoli rabe, perfected by DiNic’s in Philly’s Reading Terminal Market (one of my favorite foodie destinations in the world) and recreated wonderfully here in Orlando at one of the best new restaurants to open this year, Uncommon Catering.  I’d also rather eat an Italian hoagie (or sub, hero, grinder, whatever, but in Philly, it’s always a hoagie).  Once again, the best one I had in Philadelphia was also at the Reading Terminal Market, at Salumeria, which sadly closed after my last visit.  But here in Orlando, you can get my favorite Italian hoagie and the city’s finest cheesesteak at one of my favorite local establishments, LaSpada’s.

Anyway, back to the chips, which I also forgot to take a photo of.  They tasted the most like cheese and onion, and you can’t have a Philly cheesesteak without them.  Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be the same.  I detected some general “grilled meat” flavor, so they did what they set out to do.

Instead of snacking on these chips,  I used this large bag to bake potato chip-crusted chicken thighs in the oven on the convection setting.  They came out tender, crispy, and delicious, even after being reheated in the toaster oven over the next few days.  Why did I use the Philly Cheesesteak chips and not the Nashville Hot Chicken-flavored ones?  Subversive, right?  Because I had a much larger bag of these, and I thought the strong flavors of cheese and onion would work well with chicken.  If you’re wondering about the two pieces on the right, I ran out of crushed chips and had to use Italian bread crumbs for those.  They were pretty good too, but not as good.
chipcrustedchicken

So that’s my rundown of Lay’s five new Flavor Icons, so get them while they last!  Unlike past years where we were “treated” to Biscuits & Gravy- and Cappuccino-flavored potato chips, there wasn’t a dud in this bunch.  Your mileage will surely vary, but I thought the Carnitas Street Taco was the blandest and most forgettable, and my far-and-away favorite was the New York-Style Pizza flavor.  In fact, it was my favorite new potato chip flavor I’ve tried in a long time.  I do love tomatoey chips, though.  I’m always up for anyone’s version of sweet, smoky, tangy, tomatoey barbecue chips, I was a huge fan of Lay’s Garden Tomato and Basil chips until they discontinued those, I am a sucker for Herr’s Ketchup chips (a Canadian favorite, eh?), and I recently reviewed “Burger Toppings” chips from Sprouts supermarket, which tasted like ketchup, mustard, and pickles in the best possible way.  But even though I’m still sad about the loss of Garden Tomato and Basil Lay’s all these years later, New York-Style Pizza Lay’s reign supreme, and I hope they stick around for a good long time.

Oh My Gyro

I’ll never forget a trip my wife and I were lucky enough to take to New York City while we were dating and I was working my way through library school.  Among other things, I grabbed this incredible lunch from a halal food cart near 30 Rockefeller Center.  It was so simple, but pretty perfect: gyro meat (possibly lamb, but who can really say?), rice, salad, pita bread, mysterious white sauce and painful hot sauce, eaten out of a tinfoil plate while surrounded by the excitement, adventure, and passion of the greatest city in the world (as well as our own).  When we returned for our honeymoon in 2009, I found an unrelated halal cart and tried their version of the gyro platter.  It was almost identical, but still satisfying, especially with the nostalgia factor working for it.

We were even luckier to return to Manhattan last year, a decade later, to celebrate our tenth anniversary.  (And how lucky were we that our tenth anniversary fell in 2019 and not the hell year 2020?)  We ate like kings on that trip, but one thing I didn’t seek out were the halal food vendors.  Who needed them, now that we have Oh My Gyro (https://www.facebook.com/ohmygyro/) to deliver the New York halal street food experience to the suburbs of Seminole County?  Oh My Gyro is owned by the Kermali family, transplanted New Yorkers who have nailed the flavors of the ubiquitous street food and bolstered their menu with some Indian dishes and a few special surprises.DSC02717

I can’t help it — I’ve been here four times (with far too much time in between each visit), but until today, I have always ordered the same thing, because it’s a flawless meal: the lamb combo platter ($9.89), with salty, garlicky gyro-seasoned lamb meat served over perfectly cooked yellow rice with pita bread, lettuce, and tomatoes.  I ask for plenty of their cool, creamy white sauce (stop giggling, you guys!), a bit of the spicy red hot sauce (like the NYC version, it’s VERY spicy, and a little goes a long way, even for those who crave the burn), and it even comes with a soda.  DSC02718

They also offer chicken and falafel on these platters, but my wife and I both love gyros — and lamb in all forms, really — so that will always be our top choice.  When I went back today, I ordered a large lamb platter for my wife (only $8.99 when it isn’t a combo with the soda, and peep that white sauce on the side).  She liked it a lot, as I always do.  ohmygyro2

I have been missing the occasional Indian buffet lunches at Moghul Indian Cuisine my co-workers and I used to enjoy pre-pandemic, and I was craving samosas.  Luckily, Oh My Gyro serves vegetarian, beef, and chicken samosas.  I’ve never tried theirs, so this time I ordered the vegetarian ($4.99) and beef ($5.99), not realizing each order would come with four adorable, perfectly folded, perfectly fried samosas.  ohmygyro4
These were very thin and crispy, in what reminded me of spring roll wrappers.  The samosas at Moghul, on the other hand, are larger and in a thicker, flakier, almost pie crust-like shell.  But these both had a lot of flavor and a surprising amount of heat, from both the ground beef in sauce and the spiced mashed potatoes in the vegetarian ones.

But the main reason I returned to Oh My Gyro today was for a special they were only running today (Friday) — spicy, East African-style bone-in veal biryani ($12), which promised to be braised until tender.  I am a sucker for stewed and braised meats, especially when they’re cooked low and slow until they’re tender enough to fall off the bone.  I’ll take a Turkish lamb shank stewed in tomato sauce (like the ones at Cappadocia), German pork eisbein (like the ones at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe), or giant beef ribs (like the ones at Git-N-Messy BBQ) over steak.  But then again, I don’t think steak is the be-all and end-all of meats.

Anyway, this was the veal biryani, served over fluffy basmati rice with a side of pickled onions, hot peppers, and random other vegetables.  The meat was deliciously tender, and the sauce had so much flavor.  It wasn’t nearly as spicy as I expected, which is fine.  It came with a side of cool, creamy, yogurt-based raita to assuage the burn that never came, but it was so good, I was glad they included it.
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The two little orange-red balls at the top of the plate, called ladoo, came with it as a bonus.  My wife and I had never encountered these before, but they turned out to be sweet!  I researched these, and ladoo (or laddu) are made with flour, fat, and sugar, and often contain nuts — these did.  They were a pleasant surprise after our lamb platter, veal biryani, and samosassortment.  (There.  I just created a word.)

But there were more sweet balls in store!  I had to get an order of gulab jamun ($2.99), those sticky, syrupy, spongy balls that are a joy at the end of any Indian meal.  My wife had never had them before, but I was proud of her for trying one.  Of course she liked it.  What’s not to like?  But they must be REALLY sweet, because she commented on how sweet it is, and how it was too sweet for her to have more than one.  Hey, more for me!
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As a last-minute choice, I ordered a mango lassi ($2.99), hoping to save it to cut any heat from the biryani.  But anyone who knows me can predict what happened next: of course I drank it on the drive home, probably finishing it while I was still in Longwood!
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Oh My Gyro is one of those neighborhood gems that doesn’t get enough foodie love, especially being tucked away in a small, easy-to-miss strip along State Road 434 in Longwood, between 17-92 and I-4.  I highly recommend it, though.  Unfortunately the biryani was a one-day special, but if we’re all lucky, they will bring it back.  But if you’ve spent any time in New York City and romanticize the gyro, chicken, or falafel platters with rice you can buy from countless carts to eat on the street, Oh My Gyro will satisfy that craving.

Tako Cheena

My wife and I have always been huge fans of Tako Cheena (http://mytakocheena.com/), the creative and bohemian Asian-Latin fusion restaurant on Mills Avenue, north of Colonial, in one of Orlando’s finest foodie neighborhoods, Mills 50.  It used to be in a tiny space in a little strip plaza on Mills, with very few parking spaces in front, to the point where we’d often have to circle the block six or ten or twenty times, or more realistically, time our visits for when the place was just opening up.  There was a somewhat steep step up that limited the accessibility for my walker-wielding wife, and a tiny, cramped dining room that further limited her mobility inside once I helped hoist her up.  The food was always delicious, but it wasn’t the most comfortable surroundings, despite the hip, colorful, artsy decor.
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Well, I was recently craving Tako Cheena after a rough week, and to my great joy, they recently moved into a larger building mere steps from their old location.  And it has an actual parking lot, plus a spacious outdoor patio.  I was just picking up takeout from an outside-facing window, so I didn’t linger or even peek inside to look at indoor seating.  However, the new location already looks so much more comfortable and accessible, and that is like a dream come true for us.
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The covered patio overlooks Mills Avenue, and you can see it is steps away from the original location:
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Since the menu on the website doesn’t have most of their newer menu additions of the last few years, or any prices, this was the best shot I could get of the posted menu.  A past favorite, Mary’s Greek Lil Lamb (a gyro in taco form) has never been on their old menu on the website, so I didn’t even think to order one this time, but I was glad to see it has been added to the new menu.  The pernil asado, slow-roasted, marinated pork, is pretty darn great too, but I didn’t order that either on my most recent visit.
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Since I haven’t even been here since I started this blog two years ago, I ordered a bunch of our old favorites.  I got us each a panko-crusted cod “tako” ($4.50), with spicy mayo, shredded cabbage, and scallions on a soft flour tortilla.  This was the first time they asked me if I wanted flour or corn tortillas, but they could have started giving customers that choice at any point in the last two or three years.  These are my favorite fish tacos in Orlando, and I was sad to learn they were out of the usual sweet and sour onion sauce that goes on them, but they were still delicious.  My wife, who always used to love these, thought hers was too spicy, so I ended up eating most of hers too.  I love spicy mayo on anything, so they were perfect for me, as usual.
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Miami kid that I am, I have a hard time turning down empanadas, those crispy-fried half moon-shaped pastries stuffed with a variety of savory or sometimes sweet fillings, sealed with a crimped edge.  Different cultures make different empanadas, but I always prefer a deep-fried, crispy flour pastry shell, and those are the ones they make here.  Tako Cheena always offers different beef, chicken, and vegan empanadas of the day ($3.25 each), always rotating creative fusion ingredients in each one.  I asked what the beef empanada of the day was, and this one had seasoned ground beef like picadillo with mashed potatoes and sweet plantains.  Yes please!  I could have easily eaten two of more of those crispy fried pastries, especially since sweet plantains are a top ten favorite food for me, but I stuck to one.
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The empanadas come with a very small plastic dipping cup of salsa.  When I placed my phone order, the guy asked if I wanted sweet or spicy.  I asked if I could try both, and he said yes.  Well, my bill had a “GG” next to the empanada at no charge, and an “HJ” that I was charged 50 cents for, so that’s how I learned additional salsas come at a cost.  I don’t mind, because I always love trying new salsas.  I could be wrong, but looking at Tako Cheena’s website and the menu above, I’m guessing the “GG” refers to ginger guava salsa, and the “HJ” is probably habanero jackfruit salsa, even though they list it as “jackfruit habanero.”

The website advertises “BURRITOS THE SIZE OF BABY’S [sic] ARMS,” and they aren’t exaggerating.  I ordered the Korean burrito ($10.75), stuffed to almost bursting with sweet and savory marinated beef bulgogi, kimchi fried rice with mixed vegetables, crema, sriracha, ginger scallion oil, and cilantro.  It was a really interesting blend of flavors and textures wrapped in that huge, straining flour tortilla, which is one reason I prefer burritos to tacos.  (GASP!)  It’s so huge, I saved half for the next day, and even the half is a generous portion.  That isn’t something I normally order at Tako Cheena, but I wanted to present more of a variety of options for my baker’s dozens of readers.

Look at how much room it takes up on our now-familiar green plates!
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Here’s a shot with burrito and empanada interiors:
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Another one of our long-time favorites isn’t listed on the menu on the website, but Tako Cheena has incredible arepas, sweet corn patties stuffed with a variety of ingredients.  Our favorite is the four-cheese arepa ($7.50) with a big fried cheese patty, topped with pickled shredded carrots and other vegetables (maybe jicama or daikon radish?  Although it looks similar to Filipino atchara, or pickled papaya salad), and spicy mayo.
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Picking a favorite item on the whole menu feels like being forced to pick a favorite child, for those who have more than one child, but this arepa might be it:DSC03100

Cross-section.  I should note that the cheese is lightly fried on its exterior, but not battered or breaded like my beloved mozzarella sticks.  It’s more like halloumi cheese that way, with a similar texture.DSC03104

One thing you probably noticed by now, that I definitely appreciated, was how they packed all our takeout food either wrapped in foil wrappers or placed in cardboard boxes.  It was nice to see some eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam.

Even though some restaurants are reopening for dining in, my wife and I are in no hurry to start doing that again anytime soon.  But now that Tako Cheena has a parking lot of its own and that convenient walk-up window, I’ll probably order more takeout from them in the weeks and months to come.  I’m glad an old favorite is more accessible than ever before, and as good as ever.

Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen

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

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

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

[AIR HORN!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill

I really love Jamaican food.  Even though I usually go to the Golden Krust restaurant in Waterford Lakes to get my fix, I thought I would try a new place I’ve heard good things about — well, new to me, anyway — Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill (http://www.jamaicanbarandgrill.com/).  Located on University and Dean Roads, right off the 417, Mark’s is very close to the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University, East Orlando, and Winter Park.  It’s a small and casual restaurant in a shopping center with a Publix.  They have plenty of tables to dine in, and it seems like a relaxed little oasis.  But I ordered takeout on both of my visits.

On my first visit, I decided to finally try the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish.  It was served with boiled dumplings, boiled green bananas, and sweet fried plantains.  I’ve had saltfish once before, at Golden Krust, but never with ackee or the boiled sides.DSC02890

Ackee is actually a fruit!  Fresh, it looks like large, shiny black balls (the seeds) popping out of a pale pink apple-like fruit, and it is highly toxic.  But if you boil the ackee and then saute it with salted cod, it comes to resemble scrambled eggs, and tasted kind of like them too, but a bit more bitter.  I liked it a lot, especially with the onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes mixed in.DSC02891I have to admit, as much as I liked my first ackee and saltfish, I didn’t love the boiled bananas or boiled dumplings.  Both were kind of plain “starch bombs.”  The boiled dumplings were incredibly dense, slippery, and chewy.  The bananas weren’t sweet at all because they are unripe, kind of like green plantains.  But these were more like bland-tains!

Oxtails are one of my favorite dishes to eat anytime, anyplace, any cuisine.  I’ve written before about how I like them more than steak.  They are so rich and beefy, tender and juicy from stewing or braising them, and from all that gelatin.  You can’t possibly look cool while eating oxtails because they’re sticky and slippery, and you have to hold them in your hands, eat the meat off the rock-hard bones (it will be tender enough to pull right off), and then suck and gnaw what’s left, without having them squirt out of your hands and divebomb your clothes or your dining companions.
DSC02888The oxtails at Mark’s were on point, especially served over rice and peas in their rich, almost slightly sweet gravy (I would have liked even more gravy over the rice), with sides of steamed cabbage and fried sweet plantains, another one of my all-time favorite foods.

After that weekend feast (which I swear I turned into three separate meals), I went back the following Friday and brought back an even larger feast of a lunch to share with two of my co-workers in our break room.  We all chipped in for certain dishes — I might be a cool guy, but I wasn’t about to buy all this food myself.

Another round of those delicious oxtails so my co-workers could try it for the first time:
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Brown stew chicken, one of my favorite dishes.  This was another one I bought to share, but I brought the vast majority of it home and ate it two days later.  I suspect it would have been better fresh and hot.  I’ve had brown stew chicken from elsewhere that was more tomatoey, maybe from ketchup as an ingredient.  This was a mix of different pieces of chicken, both white and dark meat.
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Jerk chicken over white rice with plantains.  I had one bite with a nice spice to it, but wasn’t anywhere close to overwhelmingly spicy.  DSC02894

Curried goat (pardon the blurriness).  This was another one of my co-workers’ choices.  I’ve eaten curried goat before and liked it fine, but as a warning for the uninitiated, it is full of tiny little bones.  However, in recent years, my wife has become a huge fan of baby goats, and I’ve taken her to a local dairy farm multiple times to frolic in the field with adorable baby goats that are as soft, cute, funny, and playful as puppies.  This has made me take a step back from eating this particular meat, but no judgment from me toward those who like it!DSC02896

Spicy shrimp fried rice with lots of vegetables.  I snagged a shrimp, and it was very tasty.DSC02895

Callaloo, a bitter, spinach-like vegetable stewed with onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers.  I had only ever tried it once before, at Golden Krust (once again, see that review).  I usally love bitter, braised and stewed greens like collards, spinach, and broccoli rabe.  But just like the boiled dumplings that came with the ackee and saltfish, I’m glad I tried it, but I probably won’t order it again at Mark’s. DSC02897

I always like to enjoy a pineapple soda when I have Jamaican food, especially the DG brand, so I brought back a bottle for each of us.  Sadly, pineapple isn’t the easiest soda flavor to find, no matter which brand.  But these two ladies had never tried ANY pineapple soda before, not even from Fanta!  Needless to say, they liked it too.DSC02900

Finally, I had ordered a roti, a chewy, doughy Jamaican flatbread, to share with everyone, since I liked the one I got at Golden Krust once.  But even though I was charged for it, the roti was left out of my takeout order, even though I specifically asked “Is everything here?  Even the roti?”  I order takeout a lot — much more than I actually eat at restaurants these days — and this happens from time to time.  I get pissed, and sometimes I hold grudges.  There are a few popular and well-loved local restaurants I’ve never returned to, after being charged for takeout items that weren’t included.  And I don’t want to hear that I should have checked.  When these places are slammed and my order is already boxed and bagged up next to the register, none of us have time to open every box and bag back up to conduct a roll call.

But despite stewing over the missing roti more than a week later, I realize I need to simmer down, as the legendary Robert Nesta Marley sang.  In the end, I liked the food at Mark’s enough to sing its praises here and now.  As if that doesn’t count for enough, I will still happily return, as a much closer source for really delicious Jamaican food.  Plus, they have something called “Rasta pasta,” and I really want to find out what that is next time!