QuesaLoco

I just got home from Orlando’s newest Mexican restaurant, QuesaLoco (https://quesaloco.com/), which opened for business TODAY, Saturday, January 15, 2022.  I was the fifth person in line, about half an hour before it opened at 2:00, and they had a mariachi band playing festive, deafening music to make it a truly special, memorable occasion.  But today wasn’t my first experience with QuesaLoco.  Flash back with me to the fall of 2021, if you will — an era when some of us had received our boosters and were feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time in a while, in the era before we had ever heard of the Omicron Variant.

Last fall was when I first discovered QuesaLoco, in its original incarnation as a food truck, which I noticed while randomly driving by.  The QuesaLoco food truck had been setting up in front of the Lotto Zone convenience store at 4550 North Goldenrod Road in Winter Park, between Aloma Avenue and University Boulevard, on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons and evenings.  Unfortunately, I was thwarted by a ridiculously long line on that first attempt to stop.  Always seeking the new and novel and figuring anyone lined up at an unfamiliar food truck knows what’s up, I went home and looked it up, and made a plan to visit the truck as soon as I was able — ideally when the line was shorter.

I headed straight there after work on a Friday evening in the fall, planning to get there 20 minutes before it opened at 6:00.  I was the sixth person in line, and many more people queued up behind me.  Of course it started to pour rain, but nobody ran for cover or got frustrated and left.  Once the truck opened for business, they took orders very quickly and efficiently, and I think only about 15 minutes passed before I, lucky number six, got served.  The truck had a crew of five people, and they were all hustling like crazy to get everyone’s food ready.  I figured it was going to be good, but had no idea exactly what treasures I would be unboxing once I got home to my wife.

On that first visit, I started with a simple chorizo taco ($2.50), with crumbled spicy sausage, raw onions, and chopped cilantro on a very fresh, handmade corn tortilla.  It was a triumphant taco, everything you hope a chorizo taco will look, smell, taste, and even feel like.  The only thing you could do to improve this taco would be to increase its size, but this wasn’t the only thing I ordered.

Birria is a very trendy item in Mexican food these days — slow-braised shredded beef (or sometimes goat), served in tacos and other Mexican dishes (and sometimes even in ramen noodle soup!), usually accompanied by a dipping cup of rich consomme broth.  QuesaLoco offered birria in several different ways, so I opted for the most unfamiliar, a mulita ($6).  This was similar to a quesadilla, except instead of a flour tortilla, it was served as two fried corn tortillas stuffed with shredded birria beef, cheese, onion, and cilantro, dunked in consomme, and topped with sprinkles of cotija cheese before being wrapped up for me.   I’ve never noticed mulitas on any other Mexican menus around here, but consider me a card-carrying convert to the mulita militia.  (If only I still had my mullet!)
The extra cup of consomme on the side is a $1 upcharge, but I strongly recommend it, even if you aren’t ordering birria!  Unlike some other birria consomme I’ve seen and tried elsewhere, this one wasn’t bright orange with oil, but a legitimate broth that was rich and flavorful, perfect to dip things in, but probably just as good to sip on a cool day.

Finally, the coup de grace: a torta, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a sandwich full of al pastor (pork marinated in spices with pineapple and usually sliced off a rotating spit called a trompo), which is one of my favorite meats, period.  This sensational, stupendous sandwich was $12, and worth every penny.  It’s a truly titanic torta, the fresh, soft, lightly grilled roll stuffed with plenty of al pastor, melted cheese, cotija cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro,  and crema.  I have always been a huge fan of the tortas from the venerable Tortas El Rey, and I think this torta can easily stand alongside them in the sandwich pantheon.  After the small chorizo taco and the birria mulita, I got two additional meals out of this torta!

I ordered this carne asada quesadilla ($10) for my wife, and we were both blown away by how huge, heavy, and delicious it was.

Here’s a different angle.  Like everything else, they were extremely generous with the meat, cheese, and cilantro.  (She doesn’t like onions, so I always ask places to hold the onions for her.  Me, I love onions, but I love her more.)

This outstanding limon (lime) agua fresca ($4.50 for a large) was so cold,  refreshing, and delicious.  It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying, and did not taste artificial at all.  The sweetness was balanced perfectly by the acidic tang of real lime juice and the sweet, spicy chamoy and Tajin seasoning around the rim of the cup (a 50-cent upcharge).  It splashed around in my cupholder on the drive home because they couldn’t put a lid on it for obvious reasons, but it was worth it.   

I have been following QuesaLoco’s social media ever since that first visit, and they promised their long-awaited permanent restaurant location  would be opening soon.  Well, constant readers, that day was today, and the new location is open for business and already awesome.

The brick and mortar location of QuesaLoco is up and running at 971 West Fairbanks Avenue, a few doors down from Mediterranean Deli, home of the best gyro in Orlando and one of my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021

After the staff cut the ribbon right at 2:00, they let us inside.  The interior walls are covered with beautiful, colorful murals inspired by Mexican folk art, especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery.

Even the restroom doors are painted:

The six-piece mariachi band was tearing it up!  I had to shout my order over their brassy serenade (and through my unflattering-but-necessary N95 mask), but Silvia on the cash register rang everything up correctly.   

After how much I loved the limon agua fresca from the food truck a few months ago, I was excited that they had so many flavors available here at the restaurant:

I ended up choosing pineapple and fresa (strawberry), which were $4 each.  The strawberry surprised me by being very creamy, almost like melted strawberry ice cream.  I drank a little on the way home, but saved plenty for my wife because I knew she would like it too.  Pineapple is my go-to agua fresca flavor, and this one did not disappoint, but next time I’ll get different ones.

Once I got home, the first thing I tried was the taco de cecina ($4), a traditional taco from Tampico, Mexico.  It features fried skirt steak (arrechera), chopped into small pieces and wrapped in two soft, fried corn tortillas, with diced onion and cilantro, sliced avocado, and crema, with grilled onions and a whole grilled, blistered jalapeño toreado on the side.

My wife usually likes sopes from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey, so I ordered her a sope from QuesaLoco ($5.50).  Sopes are a fried masa corn disc (sometimes puffy, sometimes flatter like this one), topped with the al pastor pork I liked so much in my torta last time, refried beans, crumbled cotija cheese, and crema.  I asked them to hold the lettuce, tomato, and onions, since the lettuce would have wilted on the drive home, and my wife isn’t into tomatoes or onions anyway.

Because I loved that beautiful torta so much on my visit to the food truck, I thought I might order another torta today, but wasn’t sure which meat I would choose.  My decision was made for me when I saw QuesaLoco’s brand-new, expanded menu, with the option of the torta de la Barda ($15).  This classic street sandwich from Tampico has everything: sliced ham, shredded beef, crumbled chorizo, pork jam, stewed chicharrones (pork skins), crumbled cotija cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and salsa verde on another perfectly soft Mexican roll.  It is huge, but I put it away.

As I said earlier, birria is one of the house specialties at QuesaLoco.  But since I had already sampled tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and the birria itself in my first-ever mulita, this time I couldn’t resist a new menu item: birria ramen ($12).  Yes!  They serve ramen noodle soup made with the consommé broth, onions, cilantro, and sliced radishes.  I guess they must have larger bowls for customers who dine in, since my takeout order was divided into two smaller styrofoam cups.  But that was fine with me, because it automatically divided it into two portions for me for later.

This is so unbelievably good.  Better than it looks, better than you’re probably even thinking.  It is the best kind of fusion cuisine — a dish that combines flavors and cultures, without detracting from either. 

I’m so glad I was one of the first people in line at QuesaLoco on its opening day, because the line was pretty long when I left.  People were wrapped around the side of the small plaza’s parking lot, and a few shot me dirty looks as I left with two large bags and two colorful cups.  But just like going to the doctor’s office, you want to try to get to a hot new restaurant early, because the longer you wait, the more they might be slowed down.  No matter when you go, rest assured that QuesaLoco will be worth the wait.  If you loved the food truck, you’ll only find more to love in their beautiful dining room, with its lovely artwork and expanded menu.  And if you never got to try the food truck (which is going on hiatus for a while), then you are in for such a treat.  You can’t go wrong trying anything I ordered on either of my visits, but I don’t think anything on the new menu could possibly disappoint.  Even though you won’t get the opening day experience with live mariachis blowing the roof off the place, you’re going to have an incredible meal… or two or three, if you order like I did.

Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”

Meng’s Kitchen

Meng’s Kitchen (https://www.mengskitchensorlando.com/) is one of my favorite kinds of restaurants: a bit of a secret because it’s a restaurant inside something else — in this case, inside another restaurant, U-Roll Sushi on East Colonial Drive, directly east of Goldenrod Road (which I really need to review some other time).

When you crave Chef AJ’s eclectic comfort food with origins in China, Thailand, and India, you have to place an online order on the website above, then pick it up from U-Roll Sushi or make a note that you’re going to eat it there, as I did recently.  I met one of my closest foodie friends here in Orlando, a true bon vivant who knows even more good local places to eat than I do, and also one of the most upstanding, civic-minded, honorable people I know.  He has been a Meng’s mark for a while now, and I was glad to finally catch up with him over lunch on a workday, to see what all the hype was about.  This guy has never steered me wrong, and he definitely helped me choose wisely this time.

This is Chef AJ’s famous Hainanese chicken and rice ($10) — poached chicken served over Hainanese style rice pilaf with the most amazing ginger, garlic and soy dipping sauce.  The online ordering system gives a choice of white or dark meat, and I will always choose dark meat, 100% of the time.  It came boneless and fully sliced, with the soft skin on.  It also came with a side of broth that I forgot to photograph.  It looked like plain broth, just like this looks like plain chicken, but looks are deceiving, because everything had so much incredible flavor, I was blown away. 

My wise and worldly friend chose the chicken, so I had to make a decision.  With so many intriguing and unfamiliar options, I chose the braised pork Hunglay curry ($10) — marinated pork belly and pork shoulder with toasted garam masala, slowly braised with Hunglay curry paste, shallots, pickled garlic, fresh mango and ginger, and tamarind paste.  It was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year, so I chose wisely too.  Every piece of pork was tender enough to cut with our plastic forks, and they just melted in my mouth.  I’m such a fan of saucy, braised meats, and this was an outstanding dish, full of strong flavors I wasn’t overly familiar with, but they all worked so well together.   

The online menu said this braised pork curry came with steamed jasmine rice, but I requested a substitution of the spiced yellow rice that came with some other dishes, and I noted that it was okay if Chef AJ couldn’t substitute it.  Well, he did, and the spiced yellow rice was triumphant as well.  I have a rice cooker at home, and I can still NEVER cook rice as well as Asian and Latin restaurants.  But both this rice and the Hainanese rice pilaf that came with the chicken were something really special.  Spooning some of the pork curry sauce, which was savory but not spicy at all, over both kinds of rice opened up whole new worlds of flavor.   

My friend ordered this cucumber salad ($4) for us to share — chunks of cucumber and tomato and thin slivers of red onion in Thai sweet and sour dressing.  It might not have occurred to me to order this, but I’m so glad he did, and I’d get it again.  It was crisp and crunchy and sweet and spicy and cool and refreshing, especially with the heavy chicken, pork, and rice and the rich sauces they came with.  The sweet and sour dressing reminded me of Thai sweet chili sauce, a beloved condiment, but not as thick, sticky, and jelly-like.  True to its name, there was also a sour, slightly pungent component in the dressing that played well with the cucumbers.

My friend also ordered tom kha gai ($5), a Thai soup made with coconut milk, curry paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and big ol’ chunks of mushrooms, which I cannot eat.  Normally I like to try everything, but I am allergic or intolerant or something.  It always ends badly for me, so I passed.  But the soup looked and smelled good, and he seemed to like it. 

So far, this was my only visit to Meng’s Kitchen, but I need to return sooner rather than later for more Hainanese chicken and rice, more of that incredible braised pork Hunglay curry, and to eventually make my way through the menu and try everything else (as long as it doesn’t contain mushrooms).  It was terrific — one of those hidden gems that are all over Orlando, if you just give them a chance.

Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.

Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant

The first time I ever heard of Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant (https://www.lascarretasmexicanrest.com/), my heart filled with joy and hope, then immediate disappointment.  When I first saw a sign that the restaurant was opening soon in the Publix plaza on the corner of University Boulevard and Goldenrod Road in east Winter Park, I was overjoyed, thinking at first it meant an outpost of La Carreta, my family’s favorite Cuban restaurant chain in Miami, was coming to the Orlando area.

But I quickly noticed the sign was pluralized: “Las Carretas,” not “La Carreta,” and that it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, not Cuban.  We already have far more good Mexican restaurants here than in Miami, but I got over that initial disappointment and forgot about it for a while.  It opened earlier this year, and diners started posting really positive reviews on the Orlando Foodie Forum Presented by Tasty Chomps!, and I started paying attention all over again.

Well, I have eaten there four times now, and I can happily report that Las Carretas is an excellent Mexican restaurant, and we should be happy it’s here.  The initial fault was mine for misreading the sign and getting my hopes up.  It might not be the beloved Cuban restaurant of my past, but it is the terrific Mexican restaurant of my present and future.

The Las Carretas menu is HUGE, so I strongly suggest studying it in advance.  On our first visit, my wife and I started our first meal with a couple of aguas frescas ($4.99 each), sweet, non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverages that are much tastier and more refreshing than sodas, and much better for cutting the heat of spicy food.  I chose horchata (left), sweet, creamy rice milk seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.  My wife chose coco nuez, a rich and creamy agua fresca made with coconut milk, coconut shreds, and crushed pecans.  I’m not big on nuts, but I do love coconut, and I liked her drink even more than mine.  These are gigantic glass mugs, by the way — think German biergarten mugs.  No free refills, though!  (Yes, I asked.)

They have a self-service salsa bar!  Just use hand sanitizer before and after, and fill the little plastic cups with chilled fresh salsas and pickled vegetables (jalapeños, carrots, onions, nopal cactus strips) to your heart’s content.  They will be perfect for the fresh, crispy, thin tortilla chips about to grace your table.

Here are those chips with an assortment of salsas.  The white stuff turned out to be a tangy, creamy, cool salad dressing, but it was nice to dip the chips in, and it works well cutting the heat of some of the spicier ones.   The dark salsa next to it is a smoky chipotle salsa, blended smooth so it is thin, with no chunks in it.  That one was my wife’s favorite by far.  They’re all a little bit different, so if you’re anything like me, a self-proclaimed salsaholic, you will want to try little dabs of all of them on your chips.  One or two are extremely spicy, but I honestly don’t remember which of these were the spicy ones.  I think the orange one on the left was fiery, so be prepared!

My wife ordered table-side guacamole ($8.99), hold the jalapeños and easy on the tomatoes and onions.  It was made with care and flair by a nice lady who probably has to make guacamole in front of people all day, pushing her cart around the restaurant like teachers who wanted to show a video in class back in the day.  It was some of the freshest, nicest guac I’ve ever had.

For her meal, my wife chose the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99), a dazzling platter of grilled shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, and bacon, with grilled peppers and onions, topped with melty oaxaca cheese and sliced avocado, tomato, and radish.  She loved it, except for the cheese.  She thought it overwhelmed the more subtle seafood flavors.  I’ve never noticed alambres on a menu before, but all of the ones at Las Carretas come with five tortillas.  She chose corn tortillas with it.   
This picture barely communicates the size of the platter and exactly how much food comes on it!

I couldn’t resist an alambre either, but I chose the alambre mata hambre ($16.99), which lived up to its name as a true “hunger killer.”  It was an equally massive platter of pork loin, al pastor pork, carne asada (grilled steak seasoned with lime), chorizo, bacon, ham, grilled bell peppers, onions, pineapple, melty oaxaca cheese, and topped with sliced avocado, tomato, and radish, and served with five tortillas (flour for me):

The a la carte menu has a lot of options for people who like to sample things, like a single cheese tamale ($3.50), which we both thought was just okay:

This is an a la carte beef burrito ($3.99), served “wet” (smothered in sauce and melted cheese).  It’s a classic wet burrito, which is making me reminiscent for Taco Viva, a South Florida fast food chain that predated Taco Bell in the ’80s.  They all closed decades ago, but they gave me my first tastes of Mexican food as a kid, igniting a lifelong love affair.  I don’t even know if Taco Viva was any damn good by Mexican food standards (probably not), but you know what is?  Las Carretas and this burrito right here:

This is a huge a la carte chile relleno stuffed with cheese ($4.99).  After I was so disappointed Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s removed chiles rellenos from its menu at some point in the last year and a half, I was thrilled to discover such a good one here at Las Carretas, with a lightly crispy batter that didn’t get soggy under all that sauce, and didn’t fall or peel off.

There were almost too many good choices for dessert, but on this first visit, my wife chose fried ice cream ($5.99).  The scoop of vanilla had a nice, thin, crackly coating she liked that reminded me of crushed corn flakes, and that was her favorite part.  I preferred the fried flour shell/”bowl,” so that worked out well for both of us.  But we had other dessert ideas that would have to wait for our second visit.

My wife and I went back for a second lunch a couple of weeks later (months ago, at this point), and met a good friend there.  I ordered the chimichanga ($9.99 on the lunch menu), sort of like a burrito wrapped in a flour tortilla, then lightly fried.  It was smothered with a sticky, thick cheese sauce and stuffed with beef tips that ended up being kind of like pot roast.  The Mexican rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream were nice, fresh accompaniments that kept the beef, sticky cheese sauce, and crispy shell from feeling too heavy.

Our friend got enchiladas rancheras ($9.99) on the lunch menu — cheese-stuffed enchiladas topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, green and red bell peppers, and enchilada sauce.  I swear there are enchiladas under there!

My wife went back to the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99) again, only asked for it without cheese this time.  She liked it even better without the melted cheese contrasting against the seafood.

This one cracked me up.  I always love tortas, Mexican sandwiches on bolillo rolls, so I ordered the one torta on Las Carretas’ menu, the torta toloqueña ($11.99 on the lunch menu), intending to split it with our friend.  The sandwich comes with chicken milanesa (a chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded, and fried), ham, oaxaca cheese, pineapple, “vinegar mixed manzano pepper,” tomato, avocado, ketchup, mayonnaise… and salchicha, which I know means sausage.  Well, I expecting more like a chorizo-like sausage, and not these hot dogs on top!  That’s my bad.  I should have known better.  All three of us had a good laugh over it, and we still shared the salty, overstuffed torta.  It was an unexpected surprise, but it was still a really decadent and satisfying sandwich.  This torta toloqueña was the only time in my life I’ve ever been okay with ketchup being anywhere near hot dogs.

We couldn’t decide between two desserts, so we got both!  These are the churros ($4.99), served with caramel and chocolate sauces:

And sopapillas ($5.99), fried flour tortilla wedges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with honey, and served with a rapidly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I couldn’t tell you which of the three desserts was my favorite, but they all involved comparable flavors.

On both of these visits, I was thinking about how much my co-workers would enjoy Las Carretas, so a few weeks later, at the first mention of a work lunch, I was quick to suggest this place.  When I returned to Las Carretas for my third time, I brought three co-workers with me.  None of them are the adventurous eaters I am, so we often end up at Chili’s, Miller’s Ale House, or Gator’s Dockside for work lunches.  But I implored them to give this new Mexican restaurant a chance, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

They weren’t.

My vegetarian supervisor and friend ordered enchiladas vegetarianas ($10.99), three enchiladas stuffed with zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, and mushrooms, topped with ranchera sauce and mozzarella cheese:

Another co-worker, my former supervisor who has since been promoted, ordered this beautiful campeche quesadilla ($13.99), with grilled shrimp, onions, bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese:

I ordered the party tacos ($14.99), because nothing says “party” like a lunch with your current and former supervisors and one other guy, where you talk all about work before having to drive back to work and not fall asleep.  Anyway, you get an order of six tacos and can try two proteins in them.  Frankly, I would have preferred an option where I could buy six individual tacos, all with different proteins, but I chose wisely: cabeza (tender, moist, fatty beef head; along the top) and al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated in pineapple juice; along the bottom).  Both were so delicious and satisfying, not dry at all like the meats occasionally are at even the best taquerias.  This is an incredible dish, and a good deal too.

And another guy got a trio of tacos, but I don’t remember which ones these are.  Carne asada would be my best guess.

On my fourth visit with one of the same co-workers, she got queso dip ($3.99) and table-side guacamole ($8.99) to go with the fresh tortilla chips:

And I tried yet another new dish, the Texas burrito ($11.99), a dry burrito (not smothered in cheese and sauce, so you can hold it and eat it), stuffed with crumbled chorizo sausage (another one of my favorite Mexican meats), rice, beans, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado sauce.  It was awesome and huge.  Look at it on this large, long plate:

And you thought it smelled good on the outside!

So that’s a massive review based on my four meals at Las Carretas, all eaten at the restaurant.  With how close it is to both work and home, I expect I will continue to be a regular at this place, especially since they have a large, covered outdoor seating area for when the weather finally cools down (and avoiding people carrying the Delta variant in the meantime).  Las Carretas may not be Miami’s La Carreta, but it is one of Orlando’s best Mexican restaurants, and now one of my favorites.  I can’t imagine anyone going out to eat here and being disappointed.  It’s a real crowd-pleaser in every way.

The ‘Dines List 2: Mission to Morocco!

Believe it or not, even though we’re finally into October, it’s still hurricane season, so this lifelong Florida Man isn’t relaxing just yet.  I usually don’t let my guard down until we get to Thanksgiving, so I still have a huge stash of shelf-stable food on hand, including plenty of my favorite quick, easy, healthy, delicious household staple, tinned sardines.

I don’t know if my first installment of The ‘Dines List, the new ongoing Saboscrivner feature where I review canned sardines and other tinned seafood, was a rousing hit among my dozens of readers back in July.  Most people come here for restaurant reviews, but because I don’t go out to eat as often as everyone thinks I do, I bolster those with reviews of other foods I enjoy and want to spread the word about in recurring features like Grocery Grails, Tight Chips, Cutting the Mustard, and now The ‘Dines List.  But the truth is, I eat a lot of sardines.  I got into them when I was a poor student, but now that I make the medium bucks in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of academia, I continue to dine on ‘dines because they’re so healthy, they’re environmentally sustainable (especially compared to most other fish), they’re cheap, they’re versatile, and I just like them.  Plus, as a lifelong collector of things like comic books, action figures, and music, I appreciate that there are seemingly infinite varieties of sardines, so I love discovering and collecting new brands and flavors and sharing information about them.

My first ‘Dines List feature, “Canned Sardines 101,” was a rundown of some of my all-time favorite sardines, meant as a guide for the unfamiliar and the skeptical, to ease new ‘dine eaters into those briny waters and introduce them to the tastiest and least-intimidating tinned ‘dines I know of.  But since there are so many more sardines out there, future ‘Dines List installments are going to have themes to them, and this one is going to be about sardines from Morocco.

Why Morocco?  Perhaps the better question is why not Morocco?  Located in the northwestern point of the African continent, Morocco borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost edge of the warm Mediterranean Sea.  This geographical area, where ocean meets sea, has a long history of fishing and trading, and there are commercial fisheries all through the region.  Morocco is right across from Spain and Portugal, and plenty of tinned sardines are products of those three countries.  I’ll cover Spanish and Portuguese sardines in future installments, but it is worth noting that due to European Union agreements regarding fishing rights, many Spanish vessels fish for sardines in Moroccan waters.

The first Moroccan sardines I found were from the Titus brand, which most Asian markets around Orlando seem to carry.  These had a very cool-looking can.  I love how sardine can graphic design tends to be “old-timey,” like they’ve had the same artwork, fonts, and colors for decades, or even longer.  You’ll never see tins emblazoned with a cartoon fish shredding on an electric guitar while riding a skateboard and wearing sunglasses and a backwards cap, because there are no focus groups warning the sardine companies they need to be more “extreme” and “totally in your face.”  And that’s just fine, really.

But the ‘dines inside weren’t the prettiest.  This was after I drained the oil, but don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.   

I just threw these over some pasta and didn’t bother to take a picture.  They were okay.  I don’t think I would get them again, but of course I bought two cans of the regular Titus and two cans of…

HOT TITUS!  I almost always gravitate toward spicy sardines, which are either packed in spicy oil or with some kind of hot peppers, or both.  They usually taste better than plain ones, at least to me.   

This can only included three large ‘dines, and in my experience, the bigger ones rarely taste as good as the smaller ones.  They tend to be drier and flakier in texture than smaller brisling sardines.   These Hot Titus ‘dines came packed with some very hot peppers (dry and full of spicy seeds) in addition to the bright orange spicy vegetable oil.

I made the Hot Titus ‘dines into one and a half sandwiches on delicious Deutsche Kuche soft pretzel sticks from my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” because I am easily amused.  The pretzel sticks are imported from Germany, and I just bake them in the toaster oven at 350 for nine minutes.  They come out with perfect crispy, crackly exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors, ideal for salvaging sardines (or sampling mustards, as in my Cutting the Mustard feature from earlier this summer).I left off the condiments to get their full flavor… which wasn’t much to speak of, even with the two peppers they had been canned with.  I drained the oil, as I always do, but it didn’t impart much flavor either.  That could have been because it was vegetable oil instead of the superior olive oil.  A schmear of mustard and some fresh and pickled vegetables would have helped turn these into superior sandwiches, even with mediocre ‘dines, but I wanted the full, unadulterated Hot Titus experience.

Earlier this year, I found these Brother and Sister sardines at Tima’s House, a Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, which has some neat stuff.  I don’t think they would have cost more than $3, or I would not have bought them.  You don’t usually see sardines in sunflower oil, but I’m a mark for spicy ‘dines with peppers, so I had to try them.  Plus, they were from Morocco!

They were pretty typical-looking large sardines with dark skin, packed in a deep orange spicy oil that didn’t actually impart much flavor. 

I had these four Brother and Sister ‘dines over a simple salad, since I pack a salad in my lunches for work almost every day.  This salad looks like it was more simple than usual, since I just see lettuce and cucumber on it, but I probably splashed on a bit of a vinaigrette dressing.  They were okay.  I’ve made better salads and eaten better sardines, that’s for sure.  The little peppers aren’t very tasty, and they are full of seeds, so I tossed them after taking this picture. 

I don’t remember if I got these Baraka sardines at Tima’s House or at one of Orlando’s many Middle Eastern grocery stores.  Once again, they are products of Morocco, and they are packed in soy oil with chili peppers, so I was on board.  The price was definitely right on these, but sometimes you don’t want the absolute cheapest canned seafood out there. 

I instinctively drained the orange oil before taking this photo, so they weren’t just sitting in a completely dry can:

And I enjoyed them on some marble rye toast with a schmear of neufchatel cheese (like cream cheese, but low-fat, so the cheese and your life are both less enjoyable) and everything bagel seasoning.  The tin ended up having just three large sardines plus the long chili pepper that didn’t taste very good on its own.

The next Moroccan ‘dines I tried were from the Sultan brand.  First I tried spicy Sultan sardines, in oil with chili peppers.  I believe I found these at the Walmart Supercenter, of all places, in the small Middle Eastern food section.  They were cheap, so I figured “Why not?  I’m already in Walmart.  How much worse can things get?”

They were pretty large ‘dines, as all the Moroccan ‘dines tend to be.

I had these on Ritz crackers (the BEST crackers for any purpose), with dabs of my homemade tzatziki sauce underneath each one — Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, and a dash of dill.  These spicy Sultans weren’t bad at all.  They were very meaty ‘dines, with decent flavor from the spicy oil and some subtle heat.  The chili peppers, as usual, were barely edible.  

I also bought a can of plain Sultan sardines at the same time, and my hopes for these weren’t as high, especially after the relative disappointment of the plain, non-hot Titus ‘dines compared to the Hot Titus.

These were even larger fish:

But I worked some magic, following a Sicilian recipe for pasta con le sarde, a dish that includes onions, garlic, fennel bulb, golden raisins soaked in wine, seasoned bread crumbs, the plain Sultan sardines, and pasta — in this case, some perciatelli, which is essentially the same as bucatini (long, hollow tubes).  Of course I didn’t have any wine to soak the golden raisins in since neither my wife nor I drink, so I just threw them in there unaltered, thinking the sweetness and chewiness would bring something nice to the experience.  It was a tasty pasta dish, especially with that fragrant fennel, which is a truly underrated ingredient.  But I felt like it could be better.

In my first ‘Dines List write-up, I sang the praises of Norway’s King Oscar brand, some of the best sardines you can buy in terms of quality, variety, and value.  King Oscars are readily available at most major supermarkets, and I mentioned last time that they are terrific “gateway sardines” for the uninitiated.  Most King Oscar sardines are products of Poland despite being caught in Norwegian waters.  However, these skinless and boneless Spanish Style ‘dines, packed in olive oil and seasoned with chili peppers and tiny slices of carrot and pickle, are products of Morocco, hence their inclusion here.

In that previous installment, I warned about avoiding boneless and skinless sardines.  That’s just a personal preference, but I felt obligated to try these for a more complete feature on the different varieties of Moroccan sardines.  These King Oscars are perfectly good sardines, but they never look right to me without the silvery skin.  And I think the bones add some interesting texture (plus calcium).

I decided to attempt pasta con le sarde again, to do something more exciting with these boneless, skinless ‘dines.  I started sautéing diced onions, garlic, and more of that awesome fennel bulb in extra virgin olive oil, then added a can of Cento anchovies, which I always stock up on at Trader Joe’s, because they are so good in recipes.  (They are also products of Morocco!)  I mashed up the salty anchovies and their oil in the aromatics and kept sautéing until the anchovies completely dissolved.  That added some saltiness and savory umami flavor, which is good because all boneless, skinless sardines are very mild.  (Although these Spanish Style King Oscars are the best boneless, skinless sardines I’ve ever tried, both flavor- and texture-wise.)

Once the aromatics were translucent and soft, I added sultanas (golden raisins) that I had been soaking in white wine vinegar as a substitute for wine, since I learn from my mistakes.  Then I stirred in the King Oscar ‘dines, their oil, and the tiny sliced vegetables straight out of the can, then some seasoned Italian bread crumbs and red pepper flakes, and let everything continue to sauté.  I tossed it all together with some al dente fettuccine pasta, threw some diced tomatoes on top, and boom: new and improved pasta con le sarde!  This was by far the better attempt, between the higher-quality King Oscar sardines that brought their own flavors, plus the can of anchovies, the red pepper flakes for some necessary heat, and the white wine vinegar-soaked golden raisins for sweetness and tartness.  I’ve never seen this pasta dish on a restaurant menu anywhere, but I am  obsessed with it now.

A long time ago, I bought a can of Alshark sardines from a Middle Eastern grocery store and thought they were pretty good, so I tracked down another can for the purposes of this review, since they are also Moroccan.  

This was the only sardine can I had trouble fully opening, but I was still able to get the four large ‘dines out.  

I ate them plain to really experience the flavor.  These were meaty and pleasantly spicy, moreso than any of the other so-called spicy ‘dines in this review.  I’d definitely get these Alshark ‘dines again.

Last but not least, I decided to try Wild Planet’s “Wild” white anchovies, another product of Morocco.  These are totally different from the salt-cured anchovies most people are familiar with, like the Cento anchovies shown above, which are one of my secret weapons when cooking.  These are more like typical tinned sardines than super-salty brown anchovy filets.  

White anchovies like this are popular in tapas dishes in Spain, where they are called boquerones.  I ate these straight out of the can after draining the oil because I had never had boquerones before, and they were okay.  Pretty plain and bland, like Wild Planet sardines I’ve tried before.  Despite the name of the company, there wasn’t much “wild” about their flavor.  Unfortunately I bought these at Costco, so I have four more cans to get through.  I will definitely jazz them up with more exciting recipes and serving methods to make them more interesting in the future.

So here ends our Mission to Morocco, the second of hopefully many ‘Dines List features right here on The Saboscrivner.  Expect to learn all about sardines from Spain, Portugal, and other parts unknown in the months (and years) to come, but at least I got this one out before hurricane season is over, just in case it inspires anyone to stock up on some sardines.

As always, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, let me know what you try and if you like them or not, and if there are other sardines or tinned seafood you recommend.  I’m always happy to take requests and accept freebies, especially if any of you jet-setters travel to Europe, where grocery stores have mythical aisles of nothing but fancy tinned seafood.  But in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt (or more accurately, gone fishin’) in Orlando’s many supermarkets and international grocery stores as a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, the dean of sardines.

Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar

After discovering the delicious new world of West Indian food with my review of Singh’s Roti Shop earlier this year, I craved more.  The Trinidadian and Guyanese flavors were similar to Jamaican dishes I had always loved, with with some Indian influences too.  After posting my review of Singh’s on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, a lot of people recommended Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar (https://www.facebook.com/VindisRotiShopAndBar/), formerly known as Annie’s Roti Shop, located at 805 S Kirkman Road, Suite 106, Orlando, FL 32811, mere minutes away from Singh’s on Old Winter Garden Road.  I visited Vindi’s a while back and ordered a bunch of different dishes to sample, enough for three or four meals, so I could compare and contrast them.

First of all, since Vindi’s doesn’t have a menu online or paper menus to take with you, I took photos of the menu screens on their large TVs:

I ordered:

An oxtail meal ($14.50), which comes with stewed potatoes, curried chickpeas called channa, and a choice of either rice or a choice of huge, fluffy, soft flatbreads called roti.  My trip to Singh’s clued me in to the two different kinds of roti, so I chose my favorite, the “buss up shot,” like a big, chewy paratha, named for the “busted-up shirt” it resembled when torn into pieces to scoop up the tender stewed meat and vegetables.  Because my wife and I both loved the buss up shot so much at Singh’s, I ordered a second one for $3.

The buss up shot, which unrolls and unfolds to become an absolutely huge blanket of soft, fluffy wonderfulness:

This was the boneless curry/stew chicken meal ($10), also served with stewed potatoes and channa.  I love Jamaican-style brown stew chicken, which is usually cooked until tender with the bones, but this chicken being boneless made it easier to scoop up with roti.  This is after I transferred it to a microwavable plastic container for later.  I realize it might not look appetizing in this photo, but it smelled so delicious and tasted even better.

I decided to go with the other roti variety with this meal, the dhal puri, which is more of a golden color and stuffed with seasoned chickpea particles that add texture.  I can’t seem to find that photo, but it looked very similar to the dhal puri I got at Singh’s and photographed in that review back in March.

Vindi’s came highly recommended for its doubles ($1.50), a beloved Trinidadian street food with channa sandwiched between two fried paratha-like patties.  This doubles had a slight sweetness to it, and I liked the flavor and texture even more than Singh’s version of the doubles.

A peek inside the doubles:

Similar to how saltfish is a popular breakfast food in Jamaica (and the national dish when served with a local fruit called ackee), Vindi’s serves smoke herring as a breakfast dish, stuffed into a fried bread called fried bake (sometimes “fry bake” or just “bake”).  I am all about smoked fish at any time of day, whether it’s delicate, luxurious sable on a bagel, whitefish salad on a bialy, saltfish with ackee or stuffed into a golden fried patty, or even good sardines or sprats out of a can.  I loved this fried bake with smoke herring ($6.50), which was mashed up, served warm, and mixed with some spicy vegetables.  I ate half for lunch and half for dinner, but I can only imagine it would be a breakfast of champions.  The thing on the left above is an extra plain fried bake ($2) that I ordered for my wife, since I knew she wouldn’t be into the smoke herring.

I also got two aloo pies ($2 each), one for me and one for my wife — a soft, fluffy fritter stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes.  It was very good, and very similar to the aloo pie I tried at Singh’s.  I couldn’t tell any major difference between the two.

Finally, I got a Solo brand cream soda for myself, and a Solo sorrel drink for my wife.  (Solo is a Trinidadian brand, and these were $2.50 each.)  I asked what sorrel tasted like, and a helpful guy waiting in line next to me said it tasted like hibiscus.  My wife loves jamaica (hibiscus-flavored) aguas frescas from Mexican restaurants, so I knew she would appreciate that.  I tried a sip, and it had an aftertaste that included cloves and possibly cinnamon — not my thing, but she seemed to like it.  The cream soda reminded me a little of a bubble gum flavor, maybe banana, possibly cotton candy, but it didn’t have the vanilla flavor I’m used to from American cream sodas.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it, and I’m glad I tried it.  I’m trying really hard to drink less soda, but I always like to try different root beers, cream sodas, and orange sodas.

Anyway, Vindi’s Roti Shop and Bar was awesome.  I can’t tell you if it is better than Singh’s, but I loved both, and I’d be a regular at both if they weren’t so far across town.  My recommendation, whether you’re familiar with the delicacies of Trindad and Guyana or not, is to visit both Singh’s and Vindi’s on the same trip to compare and contrast similar dishes, since they’re so close to each other.  Singh’s has the West Indian takes on Chinese food to set itself apart a bit, but both restaurants serve up the standard West Indian dishes.  They are delicious and ridiculously cheap, for the quality and quantity of food you get.  It has been a while since I went to Vindi’s and wrote the bulk of this review, so I think I’ve inspired myself to schlep out there for a return trip very soon.  Maybe I’ll see you there… except I probably won’t recognize you, since hopefully you’ll be masked, and I definitely will be.

The ‘Dines List: Canned Sardines 101

“Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner”
–The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy” (1994)

I’ve been putting this off for a long time, but we’re into July now, so for Floridians, hurricane season is starting to feel like a real, existential threat.  As I put the finishing touches on this piece, a tropical storm named Elsa is currently days away from our big, stupid peninsula, and I wish we could all just let it go, am I right?  But we don’t have that luxury.  We need to stock up on serious supplies and shelf-stable snacks in the days to come, so this is the right moment for my latest review.  Trust me.  If nothing else, it will be a deep dive into uncharted waters.  But it could just save your life!

Most of this food blog is dedicated to reviewing and recommending restaurants in and around Orlando, Florida, and my occasional travels out of town, which I look forward to resuming.  But how do most of us eat most of the time?  We buy groceries and prepare simple meals at home, right?  (I know, I know, your meals are not simple, how dare I?)  As much as I like getting takeout, and as much as I’m loving eating at restaurants again, I still do meal prep, pack lunches for work, and cook food in large batches so I can eat leftovers for a few days before the cycle repeats.  I enjoy the process of grocery shopping, even when every trip out of the house felt like putting on the ol’ hazmat suit and wandering out into the wild wastelands.  So last year I created a new recurring feature on The Saboscrivner called Grocery Grails, where I review some of my favorite supermarket and grocery store finds.  So far, Grocery Grails have covered potato chips (the recurring Tight Chips features), pickles, mustards, and ramen noodles.

And now Grocery Grails has a second spinoff (after the aforementioned Tight Chips), a fabulous, fantastic feature devoted to one of my staple foods, sardines — delicious and healthy, but also unglamorous and relatively intimidating for the uninitiated.  It’s a little feature I like to call The ‘Dines List, and it is a crash course in appreciating canned sardines and other canned seafood, which I collect and eat all the time.  I will use The ‘Dines List to demystify, review, and recommend sardines, since I consider myself a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, a dean of sardines, if you will.  This isn’t the first sardine review blog out there — Mouth Full of Sardines and Society for the Appreciation of the Lowly Tinned Sardine are out there, fully dedicated to reviewing sardines, whereas this is just going to be a recurring feature here on The Saboscrivner, as a palate cleanser between my restaurant reviews, just like Tight Chips and Grocery Grails.

So here’s The ‘Dines List 101: my freshman feature on the best canned sardines out there.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some gross sardines on supermarket shelves, and those may have turned people off to the entire concept of tinned seafood.  Here are a few helpful hints to get you started with this sardine syllabus, just based on my own personal preferences:

  • Smaller sardines taste better to me than larger ones.  If you can find a can that advertises itself as “two layer,” “dual layer,” “double layer,” or “cross pack,” you have tinier fish, literally packed in like sardines.  Bigger fish that are packed two to four in a can usually don’t taste as good to me, although there are always exceptions.
  • Stick to sardines packed in oil.  Feel free to drain the oil (not down the sink!), but I guarantee they will smell and taste better than sardines packed in water, which even I don’t like.  The same goes for canned tuna, which I ate my entire life until I met my wife, because she hated the smell so much when I opened a can of tuna.  She doesn’t share my love of sardines, but at least the smell of an open sardine can never seems to bother her the same way.
  • I never like skinless and/or boneless sardines.  Don’t be afraid of the shimmering silvery skin or the bones.  Those ‘dines always taste better than skinless and boneless varieties, which are always blander, and their textures aren’t as pleasant.  The bones are usually removed anyway, but they are a good source of calcium.  And yes, sardine tails are so teeny-tiny, you can eat them with no problem.  Don’t worry — nothing is going to crunch in your mouth or get caught in your throat.
  • Really large, oval-shaped cans of sardines never taste that great to me.  You will often see these in the “ethnic foods” aisle in the supermarket, rather than with the rest of the canned meat and seafood.
  • I love spicy sardines, and there are a lot of terrific spicy varieties out there.  But as much as I love tomato sauce and mustard as ingredients in so many foods, I almost never like sardines packed in tomato sauce or mustard.  They are always watery and low-quality, imparting a funky flavor to everything (or more likely, attempting to cover up the funky flavor of the fish).  Add your own condiments and accompaniments!  Sardines are very much a blank canvas that allow you to get creative.
  • On that note, sardines are versatile, and you can do almost anything you want to them.  Personally, I like them best on some kind of bread or crackers or in a sandwich, but I definitely eat them straight out of the can sometimes, usually standing over a sink (dad-style) to avoid dripping the oil everywhere.  But you can put them on a salad, serve them over pasta or rice, and even mash them up and make “sardine salad” the way you might make tuna salad with canned tuna.  If you elect to preserve the oil, you might consider sautéing vegetables in it and mashing up some ‘dines for an umami punch (I do this with canned anchovies much more frequently), or even using it for a quick vinaigrette dressing.
  • Sardines are practically health food!  They are full of omega-3 fatty acids to help prevent heart disease, and they are pure protein, fantastic for a meal or a snack if you are trying to cut carbs.  Legend has it that my favorite actor, the great thespian Nicolas Cage, bulked up for the 1997 action movie Con Air while working with a trainer and eating nothing but sardines.  (Con Air is a fun ride, but doesn’t even make my Top Ten Nicolas Cage films.  Cage is at his best when he’s full Method and completely unhinged, but I digress.)
  • Being so low on the food chain and plentiful in wild waters, sardines are extremely ecologically sustainable and low in mercury, much moreso than larger fish like tuna, or farmed fish.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a lot of interesting and important information about choosing sustainable seafood.
  • Finally, while sardines have been dismissed as food for broke people and dads, apparently they are the “new hotness.”  I don’t know where you’ve been, but these days, hip bars and gastropubs like my friend’s Baltimore bar The Back Yard are serving up fancy tinned seafood, inspired by bars in Spain offering canned conservas on tapas menus.  They’re elegant!  They’re continental!  And if that don’t beat all, the fashionable website Nylon just named tinned fish “the hot girl snack of the summer.”  Well, I had no idea I’d be up on some hot girl shit, but I’ve always been ahead of my time (and mostly unappreciated as a trendsetter).

So since I’m highlighting personal favorites, I figured I’d start you out with the ‘dines that earn consistently high marks on my ‘Dines List: wild-caught brisling sardines from King Oscar.  The Norwegian company was founded in 1873, but has been using King Oscar II’s name and likeness “by special royal permission” since 1902, and exporting its delicious ‘dines to the U.S. since 1903.  King Oscar is known for its high-quality, sustainable sardines from Norway’s icy waters.  They market several varieties and flavors, and cans typically run between $2 and $4 at most major supermarkets, including Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Walmart.  You can find cheaper sardines from other brands, and some of them are also good, but many are not.

My favorite King Oscars are the two layer jalapeño sardines, which are actually packed in Poland since 2008.  They are easy to find, cheap, and delicious in anything, or alone.  I always have a huge stash of these at home:

They actually pack sliced jalapeños inside the can to impart their spicy flavor into the extra virgin olive oil and the ‘dines:

I enjoyed this particular can on some toasted Cheesecake Factory brown bread.  Did you know you can buy that bread as a sandwich loaf or a pair of mini-baguettes at Publix and Winn-Dixie?  I also spread on some homemade tzatziki sauce made with Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and coarse sea salt.

Since I had more sardines left in this can but no more jalapeños, I made a second slice of toast with thin-sliced cucumbers.  Now I’m just waiting for some Boomer to complain about my sardine toast, but maybe they won’t find it as inexplicably offensive as avocado toast.

If you don’t like spicy, you can buy regular, plain two layer sardines, also packed in EVOO:

From a different day, here are King Oscar’s single layer Mediterranean style  sardines, also packed in EVOO and seasoned with herbs de Provence, red bell pepper, black olives, and garlic.

They weren’t kidding:

Here are some of these slightly larger Mediterranean ‘dines on toasted pita points:
I’m not a big fan of black olives, so I bought this can specifically to review here on The ‘Dines List.  You’re welcome!  I ate the whole can, though — olives and all, to get the full Mediterranean experience.

Next up, we have the King Oscar cross-pack, their smallest sardines of all.

The can says it holds 24-38 ‘dines, and I counted 24 exactly.  Yes, there is an entire layer underneath the ones you can see here.
The cross-pack is usually about a dollar more expensive than the other varieties, but I don’t like them quite as much.  Don’t get me wrong, they are fine, and might even be a good “gateway” sardine for the uninitiated, but I just prefer the taste of the jalapeño two layer variety.  The cross-pack ‘dines are definitely blander, but you can include them in some really creative recipes and jazz them up that way.

This was a dish I concocted recently — my own take on pasta con le sarde, with shaved fennel bulb, onions, garlic, smoked sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chili flakes, Italian-seasoned bread crumbs, and King Oscar cross-pack sardines, all sautéed together in extra virgin olive oil and served over bucatini pasta.  It was damn delightful, and I will make it again for sure, maybe when I have golden raisins on hand in the future.

In the interest of really comparing and contrasting, dear readers, I opened three cans from my stash at once to take these comparison photos on pita strips I toasted until they were crunchy and firm.  The top row is plain two layer King Oscar sardines (exactly the same as the jalapeño variety, just minus the jalapeños), the three in the middle are the slightly larger one layer Mediterranean ‘dines, and the bottom row is the cross-pack ‘dines.  Funny, looking at them laid out on a cutting board like this, they really don’t look that different from each other!

Moving past King Oscars, I want to introduce you to some other good brands of canned ‘dines.  These are the only other kind I stockpile in our pantry, in addition to the King Oscar  jalapeño ‘dines.  They are from the Canario brand, and there is almost no information about this company on the Internet.  But I absolutely love their sardinillas picantes en aceite (“small sardines in oil spiced piquant”).

These Peruvian-caught fish have a rich, meaty flavor and consistency, and a pleasing amount of spice.  I only ever see these at Latin grocery stores, so I stock up whenever I’m at Bravo Supermarket or Fancy Fruit and Produce, both of which have multiple locations around Orlando.  Canario usually costs around $1.59 per can, so they are cheaper than King Oscar.  And I really, really like them.

Here are the Canario sardinillas on a soft, crispy, flaky paratha, an Indian flatbread that is like the beautiful love child of a flour tortilla and a croissant.  I spread on more of my homemade tzatziki sauce here to make a really delicious lunch.

Here is another serving of Canario ‘dines from a different meal, this time on rye avocado toast.  (Here come the Boomers, oh nooooo!)
DSC02706

Some of the most luxurious tinned fish I’ve ever found are Riga Gold sprats, which are very similar to sardines, but slightly larger.  These Latvian-caught fish have a terrific smoky flavor, taking on a golden glow from the smoking process.  The only places I’ve ever found them in Orlando are at International Food Club, a sprawling supermarket on L.B. McLeod Road, boasting food from over 20 countries around the world, and Tima’s House, a smaller Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, much closer to home.  International Food Club in particular is such a fun place to shop, browse, discover new things, and treat yourself.

You can see that the round Riga Gold cans have a clear plastic pull-top to allow you to inspect the glorious golden sprats inside.  Da, tovarisch!  By the White Wolf!

I ate these on some leftover rye bread from The Pastrami Project, with more of that homemade tzatziki — something creamy and cool to cut the salty smokiness of the sprats.  It was an inspired combination.  Riga Gold sprats are really terrific, especially if you like smoked fish dip, whitefish salad, and other smoked fish delicacies.

I strongly recommend these sprats, even if you’ve tried sardines before and didn’t like them.  Especially if you’ve tried sardines before and didn’t like them!  If you like whitefish salad, that smoky Jewish deli delicacy made from golden smoked chubs, the Riga Gold sprats might fill that void, and you won’t have to pick out dozens of tiny, hair-thin, transparent, plastic-like bones while preparing it.

But if you don’t live close to a cool international market that sells Riga Gold smoked sprats, WALMART sells the Polar brand of smoked brisling sardines, which come in a very familiar, flat, round can with a clear plastic top, and they are also from Latvia!  Are they a repackaged version of Riga Gold?  They sure look and taste similar, they would be a heck of a lot easier to find, and for only $2 for a can, you can’t go wrong.

Here are the Polar sardines on rye-pumpernickel swirl toast, over thin-sliced cucumbers, and there is tarragon herb mustard (one of the seven mustards I reviewed in my first Cutting the Mustard feature) underneath them.  Despite being slightly smaller than the Riga sprats, these were very similar in smoky flavor, firm texture, and golden appearance, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Well hey there, sailor!  Congratulations!  You passed The ‘Dines List 101, a rundown of most of my favorite canned sardines.  I have no idea how this is going to go over, if I have somehow alienated my already small readership.  Most people dismiss sardines as stinky, funky, fishy, gross, and depressing.  Biggie Smalls sure did, and that guy loved to eat!  Remember from “It’s All About the Benjamins”: “Three course meal, spaghetti, fettuccine, and veal!”  Did that guy order the Tour of Italy at Olive Garden, or what?  And don’t forget Biggie’s breakfast of champions from “Big Poppa”: “A T-bone steak, cheese, eggs and Welch’s grape!”  (Or did he mean “cheese eggs,” like the eggs are served with cheese on them?)  But again, I digress.

Some sardines are certainly better than others, but trust me — I’ve tried so many ‘dines over the decades, and I’m sharing the best ones with you here.  And by the way, why is “fishy” so bad when we’re talking about fish?  Frankly, I’d be a little disappointed and concerned if my fish didn’t taste fishy.  But for people who crave the mild, bland taste of white fish like tilapia, these oily little fellas have so much more flavor, they’re cheap, they’re sustainable, they’re good for you, they’re great to nosh on when hurricanes knock our power out (hopefully not this summer!), they’re currently making hot girls swoon, and you might be pleasantly surprised by how tasty they are and how creative you can get with them.  (The sardines, not the hot girls!  Okay, why not both?)

I promise that next week I’ll review another good local restaurant, but I definitely plan to continue The ‘Dines List right here on The Saboscrivner.  I have two more installments already partially written, and I’m taking care to try new ‘dines to review, rather than falling back on old favorites already covered above.  Readers, reach out if you have any review requests or recommendations for sardines and other tinned seafood.  If there are specific ‘dines or other canned fish you love, recommend, and would like to send my way to sample and review, challah at your boy!

Little Saigon

On my first real date with my wife back in August 2006, I took her to a Vietnamese restaurant (Lac Viet, which closed several years ago), followed by a gelato place in downtown Orlando (also long gone), and we ended the night at Tatame in Winter Park for boba tea (sadly gone as well, but now Manzano’s Deli and Tin & Taco are in its old location).  Since then, we have shared countless meals at Orlando’s many Vietnamese restaurants.

Our longest-standing favorite is Little Saigon (https://www.littlesaigonfl.com/), located on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Thornton Avenue, one block west of Mills Avenue, right in the Mills 50 District.  After getting vaccinated, Little Saigon was one of the first restaurants my wife and I returned to in April, finally dining out after strictly getting takeout for over a year.

My wife couldn’t decide between two old Little Saigon favorites after all our time away from restaurants during the pandemic, so I advised her to order both dishes so she could enjoy leftovers the next day.  (We are a fun couple who knows how to party because of life decisions like this.)  This was grilled beef over rice vermicelli ($9.95), a light, fresh favorite of hers.  The beef is served with incredibly thin, tender slices that were marinated in something that makes them sweet, salty, and absolutely delicious.  I know fish sauce is involved, and probably sugar.  The rice vermicelli beneath doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but it soaks up so much flavor from everything it touches.  This dish is topped with crushed peanuts and shredded lettuce and cilantro, adding a bit of crunch and coolness.  This is what she opted to take home to eat the following day, because the noodles and grilled beef microwave so well.

She also ordered her favorite beef noodle soup anywhere — phở tai ($9.95), a rich beef broth flavored with beef bones, onions, scallions, ginger, star anise, and other aromatics.  It comes with rice vermicelli noodles and thin slices of rare beef that cook in the hot broth.  You can see thin-sliced onions floating around, but I always fish those out and happily add them to my own bowl of phở, because she hates onions and I love them — one more reason we are so perfectly matched.  And this was the dish she enjoyed in the restaurant, while it was hot, fresh, and at its best.   

I was also craving phở, but I always go with phở dac biet ($9.95), the same beef broth and rice noodles served with thin-sliced rare beef as well as brisket, beef meatballs (much denser and chewier than Italian-style meatballs), chewy, tender tendon, and usually tripe.  This time I asked them to hold the tripe and give me extra tendon instead, and I’ve decided I like it much better that way. Any Vietnamese restaurant will serve phở with a plate of several fresh herbs and additional ingredients to add, so diners can customize their soup to their hearts’ content.  I always tear up fragrant fresh basil leaves and crunchy sliced jalapeño peppers (these are fresh; much spicier than the pickled kind from a jar, so don’t touch your eyes!), but I prefer to leave the crispy bean sprouts out of my phở.  If I get lime wedges, I’ll usually squeeze some lime into my phở and some more into my glass of water.  Then there are condiments: hoisin sauce, sriracha (overrated hot sauce), and sambal oelek (thicker, chunkier hot sauce).  I’ll usually add just a tiny spoonful of sambal too, but only after tasting the pure, unadulterated  broth first.  As you might have guessed, my wife prefers plain phở, just as it comes out of the kitchen… but with as many onions fished out as possible.

My wife also loves boba tea drinks, especially the ones that are served up like slushies, full of chewy tapioca balls called boba.  I like the drinks quite a bit myself, but I’m not into the boba itself.  This time I passed, but she got her favorite, taro boba tea ($4.25), which always comes in a purple color but tastes more like vanilla to me than anything else.  It was icy and creamy and velvety and refreshing, but since my wife is only five feet tall, she had to stand up just to take a sip from this tall straw and taller glass. 

More recently, a dear old friend of my wife’s brought us some Little Saigon takeout after we had just returned home from being away for a while.  She brought my wife her usual favorite, the grilled beef with rice vermicelli, as well an order of two summer rolls ($4.25) as an appetizer.  I totally forgot to take a photo when she ordered them on our last visit to the restaurant, but I got ’em this time!  These are thin, sticky rice paper wraps stuffed with chilled pork, shrimp, rice vermicelli, and herbs, and served with a thick, sweet peanut dipping sauce.  I must admit I’m not the biggest fan, but she just loves them.

This friend of my wife’s asked me what I wanted, and I decided to try something I love, but hadn’t ordered before at Little Saigon: a hot and spicy beef noodle soup ($9.95), also called bún bò huế.  At Pho 88, their version of bún bò huế includes pork as well as beef, but this was its own unique thing.  I appreciated that the thin slices of beef were fattier, with more marbling, than the usual thin slices of beef eye round in the standard phở , and I liked them much more as a result.  The rice noodles in the hot and spicy soup were definitely thicker than the typical rice vermicelli in phở, too.

Whenever you order phở to go, any good Vietnamese restaurant serves the broth in a separate container from everything else, so the rice noodles don’t turn to mush and the rare beef doesn’t overcook before you get it home.  Little Saigon packaged the deep red, oily bún bò huế broth separately from everything else, which is the ideal way to do it for takeout orders.

Here is the assembled bún bò huế, with plenty of cilantro and green onions.  It came with the typical phở accompaniments, so I squirted in some lime juice but didn’t feel the need to add anything else.  The soup is definitely spicy, but if you’re worried about the heat, I can promise you it looks much spicier than it actually is.  You may need to blow your nose while eating it (I sure did), but your lips and tongue shouldn’t burn afterwards, and you shouldn’t have any other distress or discomfort from it.

It might sound a little weird to order hot soup during so much of the year in steamy hot central Florida, but I find phở and bún bò huế very refreshing, even in the peak of the summer months.  Keep in mind that Vietnam has a humid, tropical climate too!  But I think I appreciate phở the most during our weeks of winter when the temperature in Orlando drops below 70 degrees, and sometimes down into the 40s for a few precious days.  It doesn’t matter, though — Vietnamese food is delicious any time of year, and Little Saigon is one of our favorite restaurants to order it.  And my wife says the summer rolls here are the best ones anywhere.

AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.