Rasa

Get off I-4 at exit 74 in Orlando, and you’ll be on Sand Lake Road, near a stretch referred to as “Restaurant Row.”  It is very close to the touristy International Drive, the Orange County Convention Center, and the Universal Studios theme parks.  Many of the restaurants in the immediate area are upscale, aimed at convention-goers with generous per diems and expense accounts, but there are plenty of options — including some at lower price points, luckily.  While I’m almost never out here to eat, there are some hidden gems that I continue to learn about all the time.

One of these Restaurant Row rewards is the radiant Rasa (https://www.eatatrasa.com/).  The long, modern-designed dining room is gorgeous — sexy, even! — but instead of overpriced steaks, bank-breaking seafood, or mediocre Mexican, you can enjoy some of the most unique and interesting Indian food in Orlando.  Rasa specializes in South Indian cuisine as well as Indo-Chinese, which is exactly what you think it is: Indian-Chinese fusion fare.DSC02855

I don’t even drink, but that’s still a nice bar.DSC02853

The most exclusive table is in the back, closed off behind glass, with a lush wall of verdant vegetation to put diners at ease. dsc02852.jpg

I went with one of my closest friends who is a vegetarian, so we stuck to vegetarian dishes so we could sample and share everything.  I had seen photos of the triple Schezwan [sp] rice, so I definitely wanted to try that.  It comes with soft noodles, fried rice, fried noodles, peppers, broccoli, scallions, and my old foe mushrooms, which they gladly left out of our order.  For our protein, we got paneer cheese ($14).  Our server even warned us it was hot, but I’ve been practicing ordering “hot” Indian dishes at Moghul, and both of us love hot sauces, so we were brave and bold and went for it. DSC02854It was spicy, but we handled ourselves with courage and honor.  And it was a beautiful and delicious dish with incredible flavors and textures.  I’m used to paneer cheese being much softer, cubed up with spinach in saag paneer, but the pieces on the left were thick, solid-feeling fried strips of the cheese, similar in consistency to dense halloumi cheese when it is grilled or pan-fried.  The fried rice is underneath the cylindrical tower of soft noodles, and it’s worth excavating to find it.  This was an awesome dish that I’d probably order every time I return, despite my constant impulse to branch out and try more things.

Last year, I was introduced to dosas, giant, thin, crispy crepes of fermented rice and lentil flour, when I joined fellow foodies at the Hindu Temple in Casselberry.  I didn’t think my friend had ever gotten a dose of a dosa before, so we had to order the paper Masala dosa ($11).  It definitely draws attention when it arrives at your table, rolled into a long, hollow, paper-thin cylinder.  It was served with the most delicious curry-spiced potatoes, a thin red sauce that seemed to have chunks of eggplant, and tomato and coconut chutneys.  The only way to attack this guy is to tear off pieces and dip it in different things.  It is somehow crispy yet soft at the same time.
dsc02856.jpg

And this was the channa batura ($12): puffy white leavened bread, served with spiced chickpeas stewed with tomatoes and topped with sun-dried fenugreek leaves called kasoori methi.  At first glance, it made me think of the puffy lavas bread at beloved Turkish restaurants Cappadocia and Bosphorous that I’ve reviewed before, but despite being puffed up with air, this was much thinner than either of those, with a completely different texture.  It almost reminded me of a super-thin funnel cake or elephant ear — essentially fried dough, lightly crispy but also soft, and somehow in a completely different way than the dosa.  DSC02857

Not only did we love it, but since I brought home our leftovers, my wife loved it too — and I have yet to get her into Indian food.  I just knew she would love this bread.  And this was the sole recommendation from our server, who at one point warned us we might be ordering too much food!  I really appreciated this recommendation.

Anyway, as much as I enjoy our closest Indian restaurant Moghul, the menu at Rasa is almost completely different, with the emphasis on South Indian and Indo-Chinese cuisines.  I really liked trying so many new things and sharing them with my friend, and I would totally come back to Rasa.  It’s a shame it is all the way across town.  But if you’re visiting Universal Studios or the convention center, or if you want to have a hot date down that way, Rasa would be a great choice, and not just because some of the food is quite spicy.  It really is a cool, sexy room with ambience you don’t get at many Indian restaurants, with a really unique menu that I haven’t encountered anywhere else.

Bento Cafe

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
DSC01735

My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro (https://peterskitchencb.business.site/)  opened in late 2017, and quickly made a splash on the Orlando Foodie Forum.  It developed a loyal following for its orange chicken, of all dishes — that syrupy-sweet, Americanized comfort food synonymous with mall food courts and greasy take-out places.  But Peter’s elevated the orange chicken and made it sing.  That’s what they do at this comfortable sit-down spot on East Colonial Drive, a former “cursed location” that they took over and made into a beloved local success over the last two years.

I first went there in December 2017, shortly after it opened, and met some new friends from the Foodie Forum there for lunch.  We ordered a veritable feast and shared everything, including that awe-inspiring orange chicken ($10.95) and lots of dim sum.
peters_20171211

I also introduced these new friends to one of my favorite Chinese-American dishes: beef chow fun ($13.50) — tender strips of beef and the greatest chewy wide noodles, stir-fried with onions, green onions, bean sprouts (not my favorite, so I ask them to hold the bean sprouts), and a soy-based sauce (I’m assuming) with the slightest bit of sweetness to it.  It’s a little greasy, but a truly perfect dish.  It is the best version of beef chow fun in Orlando, and I even listed it among my Top Five favorite dishes in Orlando in 2017, in the Orlando Weekly.20180604_171352_resized

In addition to the regular menu, Peter’s features a dim sum menu that’s available daily, except they only push the dim sum carts around the restaurant on weekends.  On that first visit, a Foodie Forum friend introduced me to some of the wonders of dim sum, including slippery, chewy rice paste, here served with shrimp and drizzled with soy sauce (which I think had something else mixed into it):
20180809_130711_resized

Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor!  From a later visit with my wife, this is the butter lobster (the dreaded market price) — a self-explanatory name for a truly rich and special dish, worthy of celebrations.  The lobsters are alive, furtively pacing around in tanks, perhaps contemplating their fates.  The unlucky crustacean is served fresh, broken apart, easy to spear and slide the meat out of the shell.  It is shiny with garlic and butter, easily one of my favorite lobster dishes I’ve ever had anywhere (not that I’m some fancy boy who eats lobster all the time; I can count the times I’ve sat down to a meal of lobster on my fingers and still have some left over).*  20180604_171945_resized*Fingers left over, not lobster.

On my most recent trip, I brought home takeout.  My wife had requested orange chicken from somewhere, and despite the ubiquity of this sweet, sticky, greasy dish in storefront Chinese restaurants and mall food courts everywhere, I remain convinced Peter’s Kitchen serves the best version of orange chicken anywhere.

DSC02739

I can’t go to Peter’s without ordering beef chow fun.  I also won my wife over on this dish, and we split this portion over the course of two or three days.DSC02740

On this last takeout trip, I brought home some more dim sum too:

She requested and loved sesame balls ($3.25), filled with a subtly sweet red bean paste:DSC02743
DSC02745

I’ve ordered these baked roast pork pies ($4.95) before, but the last photo I had of them was really blurry, and I know people already think I’m a crummy photographer.  I ordered them again for YOU, constant readers:DSC02744

The crust is flaky like an traditional American-style pie crust, and the roast pork is sweet, sort of like char siu.
DSC02746

My wife also wanted these crispy taro dumplings ($3.85), which were stuffed with ground pork, surrounded by the soft, light-purple taro layer and then a crispy exterior, but neither of us loved them.  They reminded me a bit of Cuban papas rellenas, the crispy fried mashed potato balls stuffed with seasoned ground beef called picadillo.  But I like my papas rellenas much better than these.DSC02741

DSC02747

Oh well, you can’t win them all, but at Peter’s Kitchen, chances are you’re going to like almost everything on the menu, if not everything.

I almost always end up with baked egg custard tarts ($3.85) for dessert, and got my wife hooked on them:
DSC02742

So these photos were taken over a handful of visits over the last two years, but mostly from a recent takeout order that fed us for days.  I’m so glad Peter’s Kitchen is serving some of Orlando’s best Chinese food, and that they’ve turned a “cursed location” into a can’t-miss culinary destination.  And it’s so close to my job as well, which is a bonus for me.

Chicken Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate the song, but these hurt so good.

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

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

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

Popeyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since my regular chicken sandwich didn’t have any mayo, it was a perfect opportunity to sample two different Popeyes sauces.  I cut the sandwich down the middle, making sure there was one pickle slice on each half, and applied one of these sauces to each:
dsc02617.jpg

The Mardi Gras Mustard is a creamy Creole-style mustard (savory, but not spicy at all) that went well with the chicken, but the Voodoo Sauce was awesome on the other half.  It was thin and runny, sticky, sweet, and slightly spicy — extremely similar to a Thai sweet chili sauce.  And it jazzed up that sandwich just perfectly.  I should have added a schmear of my own mayo too (I only buy Duke’s), but I wanted to stick to just Popeyes’ own condiments for the purposes of this review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moghul Indian Cuisine

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

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

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

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

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

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

dsc02490.jpg

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

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

A look inside that samosa:dsc02605.jpg

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

And my vegetarian colleague got all this good stuff, including eggplant, pakoras (vegetables breaded in chick pea flour and fried until crunchy), and naan bread.
DSC02601

On one recent visit I ordered the Goan dish lamb vindaloo ($13.95) for the first time ever, and I was brave and ordered it HOT.  Not “Indian hot,” because I still had to go back to work, but not my usual, safe medium either.  And I am relieved to report I could handle it just fine.  Moghul’s menu describes vindaloo as “lamb marinated with vinegar, chilies and spices,” and it definitely had an acidic tang to it, no doubt from the vinegar.  DSC02495

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

On my second, more recent trip, I ordered a different lamb dish, the Kashmiri dish rogan josh ($13.95), also HOT.  Once again, it was delicious, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to handle the heat.  The menu describes this dish as “lamb cooked in curry sauce with yogurt, tomato and spices.”  This sauce was richer and thicker than the vindaloo — not as tangy, despite the addition of tomato.  I liked it so much I slurped up all the leftover sauce with a spoon after finishing the chunks of tender lamb, no additional rice required!  Despite my pledge to try new things every time, I would totally order the lamb rogan josh again.
DSC02608

Since these entrees don’t come with bread, I ordered onion kulcha ($3.50) for the first time ever with my vindaloo, as an alternative to the standard naan.  Like naan, kulcha is a bread baked in a tandoor (a clay oven), and this one is stuffed with onions, cumin, and cilantro.  I loved it so much!DSC02496

Even though I am forcing myself to order a new entree every time, I had to get that onion kulcha again on my second recent visit, to accompany the rogan josh.  It was so rich and buttery and soft and fragrant.  I just love sauteed onions and soft, fluffy, buttery bread.  They probably use ghee in the kitchen at Moghul; I am happy to clarify that.
DSC02606

I drive by Moghul almost twice a day on my way to and from work, and it sure is tempting to order just onion kulcha every night on my way home.  I can’t do it, but have I thought about it?DSC02607

YUP!

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

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

Tortas El Rey

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

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

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

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

A different sope from a different visit:DSC02486

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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