Rey’s Cuban Cafe

My wife and I love Cuban food, and I’m from Miami, so I grew up eating some of the best Cuban food in the world.  My parents definitely weren’t into exploring new cuisines, but we often feasted on Cuban delicacies, and as a result, I feel like my standards are high.  I’m always on a quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando, and my latest discovery has been Rey’s Cuban Cafe (https://www.reyscubancafe.com/), a small and unassuming restaurant in Fern Park, not too far from where we live.  Rey’s has about eight indoor tables and a few more on an outdoor patio, but I’ve only ever brought home takeout from there.  It’s ten minutes away, so the food is always nice and hot by the time I get it home.  I went three times before writing this review.

My wife’s favorite dish from any Cuban restaurant is bistec empanado (which I’ve seen as empanizado on other restaurants’ menus): tender steak pounded flat, breaded, and deep-fried ($9).  This is served over white rice with fried yuca.DSC02311

Here’s her bistec empanado from our second visit.  This time it came with garlicky boiled yuca, which she prefers:
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I am a sucker for liver dishes, which are rare enough on most menus, but Rey’s has two different versions.  This is higado Italiano ($10.99), strips of tender beef liver sauteed with onions and green and red bell peppers in a tangy tomato sauce.  I usually order yellow rice instead of white when there is a choice, and I can never refuse maduros, sweet fried plantains, which are one of my favorite foods in the whole world.  The onions are from my wife’s steak, since I love them and she most definitely does not.  DSC02312

This past weekend, my wife was craving bistec empanado again, and I had just donated blood, as I try to do every eight weeks.  Liver sounded awesome, probably to help replace some of the iron I had just gladly given up, so I ordered the regular bistec de higado, liver steak ($9.99).  It was very thin and tender — a perfect consistency.  I wish they had really slathered it in onions, like gone to town with cebollas.DSC02566

I always like to get red beans when I have a choice between black and red.  Rey’s red beans are served like a stew, with chunks of potatoes and little bits of onions and pork.  I wish they had a little more smoky flavor and spice, but I’ve always gotten takeout, so I add my own hot sauce at home.  I realize Cuban food is rarely spicy.DSC02569

I am a huge fan of Jon Favreau’s wonderful movie Chef, about an L.A. chef who finds new inspiration for cooking after a trip to Miami.  He buys a food truck and drives back home with his buddy and his son, selling Cuban sandwiches and bonding as they drive cross-country.  I can’t believe I never saw it until this past summer, so I was a little obsessed with Cuban sandwiches that particular weekend in July.  I remember stopping by Rey’s for the first time for my own inspiration as I prepared to marinate and roast my own pork shoulder for homemade Cubanos.  (That ended up being the best thing I ever cooked.)

But before I made my own, I enjoyed Rey’s Cuban Deluxe ($7.99), with the usual sliced roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, plus the additions of salami, Spanish sausage, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo.  Did I add one of the many mustards from my collection when I got this sandwich home?  Long-time Saboscrivnerinos will know the answer is YES.  DSC02313(My homemade Cuban sandwich was better, but this wasn’t bad at all.  I’d skip the lettuce and tomato next time, for sure.)

You can’t go wrong with buttery Cuban toast on the side of any meal:
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One of these times I brought home takeout, I was in the mood for good empanadas (although as comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada).  I ate them too quickly to take pictures of their fillings, but two of them were stuffed with picadillo, or seasoned ground beef, and the other was a pizza empanada, stuffed with hearty tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.
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There are many kinds of empanadas, with many Latin-American countries specializing in their own versions.  However, Cuban empanadas, with their flaky fried flour crusts, have always been my favorites.

And on our last visit, pastelitos (pastries) were two for the price of one, so I brought home a quesito filled with sweet cream cheese and a pastelito with guava and cream cheese.  These were perfectly fine, but not on the level of Versailles and La Carreta from back home in Miami (also known as “The 3-0-5”).  I was also craving croquetas de jamon, crispy fried croquettes stuffed with a soft, yielding filling of diced ham and bechamel sauce.  Those always hit the spot!
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I don’t think Rey’s Cuban Cafe is elevating Cuban food to new levels or putting gourmet twists on anything.  It’s comfort food, pure and simple — hearty food that reminds me of home (even though the food was one of the only things I liked about growing up in Miami).  My quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando certainly continues, but you could do a lot worse than Rey’s.  You can see the generous portion sizes and extremely reasonable prices.  Everything is fresh and tasty, and they accomplish everything they set out to do.

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Pickles Delicatessen

Pickles Delicatessen (http://www.picklescatering.com/) is one of my favorite destinations in Longwood, on State Road 434 right off I-4 exit 94.  It is located in the same little shopping center where the Longwood location of 4 Rivers Smokehouse is.  In a town sorely lacking authentic New York-style delis, Pickles is the closest we have to the great delicatessens of New York City and its boroughs (and parts of South Florida).  Of course there is the Toojay’s chain, but I greatly prefer Pickles for its authenticity, quality, and selection.

They have all kinds of cookies and pastries brought in fresh from New York.  My wife loves some of the Italian-style cookies, like the ones with sprinkles, and pistachio cookies shaped like red and green leaves.  My mom used to buy cookies like that at a little bakery in Miami back when I was a kid in the ’80s.DSC02195

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The bagels at Pickles are maybe the best you can get in Orlando, especially the everything bagels my wife and I both like.  Pickles serves the Just Bagels brand from The Bronx, and they are extremely high quality.  I’d rather have a really good frozen and toasted authentic New York bagel than a mediocre fresh-baked bagel.  The other morning, I was overjoyed to find two of these saved in my freezer from our last trip to Pickles, and I happened to have nova salmon and cream cheese.  It’s rare when the universe lines up so perfectly.DSC02198

On my last takeout order, I brought home terrific latkes (potato pancakes).  Even after the drive home, they were still nicely crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with tastes of onion, garlic, and pepper.  They are served with sour cream and applesauce.  Some people prefer one over the other with their latkes, but I like both.  If you haven’t had them that way, you don’t know what you’re missing!DSC02199

I don’t have a photo, but if you like potato knishes, Pickles serves Gabila’s, a commercially-available knish that is definitely my favorite.

Here’s their pastrami sandwich on rye bread with caraway seeds.  My wife especially loves their pastrami.  It is sliced thin, and not too lean or too fatty.  I wish it was hand-sliced a little thicker like New York’s iconic Katz’s Deli, but this is the Orlando ‘burbs, not the Lower East Side.  It’s definitely a solid and generously-stuffed pastrami sandwich.DSC02202

This is a very small sampling of my mustard collection at home, perfect for pastrami.  In recent months, I was lucky enough to stock up on a dozen bottles of the Grey Poupon Mild & Creamy Dijon when Publix put it on clearance, AND five jars of the Sir Kensington’s Spicy Brown (which has a bit of maple syrup) when Lucky’s Market recently did the same.  Not bad — usually those aren’t the cheapest brands, but I have mustard to last me years (months?) for a buck and change each.  But I still take risks with new, exciting, and fancy varieties, like the Kozlik’s Hot Russian mustard, an indulgence that wasn’t cheap, but was totally worth every penny.DSC02203

Pickles has really terrific vinaigrette pasta salad, which I always love as a side item with their sandwiches.DSC02206

If you don’t feel like a Jewish deli classic like pastrami, corned beef, brisket, or chopped liver, Pickles also serves some great Italian hoagies and other deli-style sandwiches.  I’m a huge fan of their Italian Combo, with cappicola, sopresata, Genoa salami, mozzarella,  Italian peppers, lettuce, tomato, balsamic, and parmesan.  I swear I took a picture of it at some point in the past, but it would have been on my lousy phone camera, so people probably would complain more if I included a photo of this sandwich than if I didn’t.

They serve breakfasts, burgers, salads, and wraps as well.

But WAIT!  What’s this?DSC02196

It’s true, dear readers — Pickles carries Junior’s cheesecake from Brooklyn, which might be the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.  I sang its praises in my review of Junior’s, when we went to New York this past May and ended up eating at both of its Times Square locations.

Here’s a slice of their plain cheesecake, which I’ll take over Publix or the Factory any day:dsc02201.jpg

And here’s the chocolate cake-layered cheesecake.  I can normally take or leave chocolate cake, or anything chocolate, but this was on a whole other level, and I loved it.  dsc02200.jpg
On top of the cheesecake being awe-inspiring, the chocolate cake was rich, dense, moist, fudgy — almost like a gooey brownie, but still clearly cake.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such good chocolate cake.  As you can probably guess, this was very rich, and even the two of us working together got four portions out of this one generous slice.

Since Pickles has so many authentic New York products and ingredients, imagine my surprise after our New York trip to find Fox’s U-Bet VANILLA syrup, after I had the best vanilla egg cream at Veselka in the East Village.  I’ll argue to anyone that Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup is the best commercially-available chocolate syrup, especially if you’re making an egg cream with milk and seltzer water.  Nothing else tastes right.  Luckily most Publix stores carry Fox’s U-Bet chocolate in their kosher sections, but I had never seen the vanilla syrup for sale anywhere locally until noticing it at Pickles.  Needless to say, I had to buy a bottle, and now my homemade vanilla egg cream game is strong.  dsc02205.jpg
Since the trip I photographed for this review, we used up this one bottle, and I returned to Pickles to buy three more.  Imagine the deliciousness of a vanilla milkshake, only thinner, lightly carbonated, surprisingly helpful with digestion, and with much less guilt, and you’ve got it.  This stuff has been a game-changer at Casa de Saboscrivner!

Just so you know, Pickles is open 8:00 to 4:00, Monday through Saturday.  That means they aren’t open for dinner hours or on Sundays, and those are times when I tend to want their food the most.  But go there when you can for a little slice of New York deli heaven right here in Seminole County, Florida.

Hawkers Asian Street Fare

The pan-Asian restaurant Hawkers (https://eathawkers.com/) started as a small, hip, industrial-looking modern space on Mills Avenue, in what may be Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, Mills 50.  Since 2011, it has expanded into ten locations in multiple states, and for good reason: it’s terrific.  We’ve gone countless times since it opened, almost always to that original location.

Hawkers specializes in diverse street food specialties from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, and more.  Portions are relatively small, so it’s a great place to go with a group and share lots of dishes.  And very few items on the menu are over $10, so you don’t have to worry too much or feel too guilty ordering more than one dish to sample new things.

Hawkers is a real treasure, and it has emerged as one of my favorite restaurants to bring out-of-town visitors — a perfect distillation of Orlando’s multicultural culinary scene, especially its Asian influences.  It has impressed good friends from far and wide when they come to visit, and in the meantime, it has become a safe, reliable place to bring my wife when one or both of us have a hard time deciding what sounds best.  If you want something healthy or heavy, meaty or veggie, cool or spicy, noodles or rice, soups or salads, and now even a sweet treat of a brunch, Hawkers will have something you like.

For my most recent visit, I caught up with an old friend with connections to my old Miami friend group, who I then got to know better while we both studied in Gainesville.  I hadn’t seen him since 2006, which is insane.  In that time, we both met amazing women and got married, and he had kids.  It’s crazy!  Life happens.  He happened to be in Orlando for work that day and looked me up, hoping to meet for dinner and remembering I’m the guy who knows where to eat around here.  I was so glad to catch up with my old friend, and I knew Hawkers would be the perfect place to get together.  I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t amazed and astonished by it.

For this dinner, I started us out with an order of roti canai, which are buttery, flaky Malaysian flatbreads.  Think about a really good, fresh, fluffy flour tortilla getting it on with a layer you peel off a delicate French croissant, and you’ll come close to the glory and grandeur of a Malaysian roti.  An order of a single roti with a cup of curry sauce for dipping is $3, and each additional roti costs $1.50.  Count on ordering at least one roti for everyone in your party, and I guarantee you’ll want more.  Even people with the most unadventurous palates will love these, although those people might want to forego the curry sauce.  If you have kids, they will love these things too.dsc02328.jpg

I also requested an order of Korean twice-fried chicken wings ($8), which are my favorite wings anywhere, ever.  My wife agrees, and so does my best food friend (BFF) who lives in Miami.  And now, so does this old friend.  These are huge wings, with the thickest, crispiest breading, slathered in a sticky, sweet, spicy, garlicky gochujang sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and fresh cilantro.  An order of five wings costs $8, and my friend liked them so much, he ordered more.
DSC02327 These wings made my Orlando Weekly list of five favorite dishes of 2017.  They are perfect in every way.  They’re thick, meaty, juicy, crunchy, sweet (but not too sweet), and spicy (but definitely not too spicy).  I hate the tiny, dry, burnt-to-a-crisp sports bar wings that too many restaurants and bars serve, slathered in oily hot sauce designed to burn on the way in and the way out.  To me, there’s no point to even eating wings like that.  They’re just sad.  These Korean twice-fried wings are the opposite: pure happiness.

Next up were the chicka-rones ($6), crispy fried chicken skins tossed in jerk seasoning.  The menu says these are Filipino-style.  I loved them, especially as a nice alternative to pork rinds (AKA chicharrones, hence the clever name of this dish), which can sometimes be too hard to bite through, or so crunchy they can shred the inside of your mouth.  DSC02329For the first time ever, I recently fried up my own chicken skins at home into a crispy Jewish delicacy called gribenes, and rendered the fat (schmaltz) for cooking with later.  Fried chicken skins are so much lighter and less oppressive-feeling than pork rinds, so I’m definitely a convert.

My friend was craving something spicy, so he went with a dish I had never tried before: Kin’s prawn mee ($9), a hot noodle soup with spicy prawn broth, shrimp, chicken, wheat noodles, hard-boiled egg, yow choy (Chinese greens), bean sprouts, and fried shallots.  He was sweating, but he loved it.  I might order this in the future, since he was so enthusiastic about it.DSC02330

And I also picked a new noodle dish, knowing those are always safe bets.  This was the Yaki udon ($8.50): thick and chewy udon noodles (always a favorite), chicken, eggs, onions, spring onions, and carrots.  It comes with bean sprouts too, but I am not the biggest fan, so I asked them to hold the bean sprouts — never a problem at Hawkers.  It had pretty mild heat, but it was pleasant.  We both enjoyed this one, and I’d totally order it again.  DSC02331In the past, I have loved so many of Hawkers’ noodle dishes: curry-seasoned Singapore mei fun with chicken and shrimp, beef haw fun (with wide, flat noodles, similar to the beef chow fun I order at almost every Chinese restaurant that offers it), char kway teow, and spicy pad Thai.  Now I’m adding the Yaki udon to this all-star lineup.  The only problem in the future is what to choose: an old favorite or an exciting new possibility.  You can’t go wrong either way, trust me.

Anyway, I parted ways with my old friend after dinner, determined to keep in touch better and not let thirteen more years go by.  He seemed to really enjoy the restaurant and our menu selections, which I totally expected, but the last thing I ever want to do is recommend something that disappoints, staunch Saboscrivner subscribers included.  A bad meal always depresses me, because not only is it a bad meal, but there’s the opportunity cost of not being able to enjoy a good meal in its place.  I can safely say that Hawkers is a crowd-pleaser, and if you haven’t given it a chance yet, you won’t be sorry.

In fact, to sweeten the deal, Hawkers started serving brunch recently, but only on weekends and only at their newer, larger location in Windemere, much further from where we live.  People’s photos of the new menu items looked enticing, so my wife and I recently took the trip out there, a few weeks after they rolled out the brunch menu, figuring they would have time to work out any potential bugs.  Though we were one of the first parties to arrive when the restaurant opened that morning, it took an extraordinarily long time for us to get seated.  I normally don’t remark on things like this on my blog, but it seemed weird, given that the restaurant was completely empty after just opening for business, with lots of staff available.  We couldn’t help but be amused by one woman who (politely and diplomatically) complained about the delay before leaving.  My wife expressed a gesture of solidarity with her as she walked out, and then I figured we were going to get lousy service and would end up feeling like chumps.  But once we finally got seated, the service improved exponentially, and it was worth the wait.

I’m a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, so I marked out when I saw this brunch item called Hash Rules Everything Around Me.  How could I not order that?  Dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all!  The dish included fried pork belly, crisp tater tots, bell peppers, and onions, topped with an egg fried over easy, smothered in curry gravy.  Everything about this dish worked for me, with the runny richness of the egg cascading down and melding with the spicy gravy, forming a killer sauce for those tots.  They were the best tots I’ve ever had, and the pork belly was everything I love about pork belly — a crispy (but not crunchy) exterior, giving way to smooth, unctious, yielding deliciousness. DSC02092DSC02094

Xiao long bao, AKA soup dumplings!  On the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, people had been hyping these up for years and bemoaning their absence in Orlando before they popped up on a few local restaurants’ menus recently.  Hawkers was the first or second to offer these steamed classics in town.DSC02095

Frankly, I think they’re kind of messy to eat, and dare I say it — more trouble than they’re worth.  If you don’t eat the whole thing in one bite, the broth leaks out, and if you do eat the whole thing in one bite, you can burn a layer of skin out of your mouth.  DSC02097

Think about how perfect a pizza is, and then consider the calzone — everything you love about a pizza, but the inverse.  Not bad, per se, but inside out and a little awkward to eat.  Now think about a bowl of good wonton soup.  Are you envisioning it?  So warm and comforting!  Well, the xiao long bao is the calzone version of wonton soup, with pork, crab, and broth inside the wonton, each soup dumpling its own little microcosm.  DSC02098

Even for brunch, we couldn’t go to Hawkers and not order the twice-fried Korean chicken wings.  Yes, don’t worry — many of your regular favorites are still available on the brunch menu.  Check the website to confirm, though!  These wings were as sticky, sweet, and spicy as usual.  DSC02099

This was a brunch dish that might as well have been on the dessert menu: the Hong Kong bubble waffle, stuffed with whipped cream, fresh lemon custard, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  If you’ve never had a bubble waffle, remedy that.  It is sweet and eggy with the lightest, crispiest outer shell, but so soft and fluffy inside.  This one got soggy and cool quickly due to the whipped cream, but was still tasty.  DSC02091

I can see bubble waffles being a very satisfying street food, especially if you just get handed a warm waffle and eat it by tearing bubbles off or just biting off a bubble at a time.  The whipped cream and especially the lemon custard would have been better as dips for the waffle itself, rather than being served inside of it to make the whole thing soggy.DSC02093

And this sweet brunch dish (pretty much another dessert) was called Stacks on Stacks: Japanese souffle pancakes, so trendy and Instagrammable.  The pancakes were tall, thick, and very jiggly and fluffy, served with bananas, Nutella, whipped cream, and drizzled with a housemade sesame peanut sauce.  (Fo’ drizzle.)  I didn’t think this was that fantastic.  The pancakes were kind of doughy and a little dry, even with all the toppings.  I honestly prefer IHOP and Cracker Barrel pancakes, and I’m not that big on Nutella, sesame, or peanuts.  This dish just wasn’t for me, but I suspect many of my regular readers and “brunch squad” types will love it.DSC02100

I always order a Vietnamese iced coffee at Hawkers, especially if I’m going to have anything spicy.  It’s one of the only coffee drinks I’ll drink, rich and sweet with condensed milk.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet with condensed milk, and ready to jolt me awake.  That morning, my wife ordered a “mocktail” called the Tang Dynasty, with tangy pineapple juice, orange juice, tamarind, salt, and ginger ale.dsc02090.jpg

I’m generally not a brunch fan — my regular readers know I consider it a disappointing ripoff of a meal, especially since neither of us drink — but I’m glad we experienced the new brunch at Hawkers once.  I don’t think we’ll rush back, but mostly because the Windemere location is quite far from us.  We’re still huge fans of the tried-and-true original location for lunch and dinner, especially those Korean twice-fried wings, the roti canai, and all those noodles.  And if you come to visit me from a town that doesn’t have a Hawkers location yet, we might just end up there.  So far, all the friends I’ve dragged there have emerged huge fans, so watch out!

 

Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

One of Orlando’s culinary highlights is its burgeoning Vietnamese restaurant scene.  The Mills 50 neighborhood near downtown Orlando (the intersection of Mills Avenue, AKA Highway 17-92, and Colonial Drive, AKA State Road 50) might be the best part of town for dining out, period.  We have the most Vietnamese restaurants centered around there, plus lots of Vietnamese and other Asian markets.  Vietnamese cuisine carries some French influences, from delicate pastries to banh mi, sub sandwiches with various cured meats and pickled vegetables on perfect crisp baguettes.  Even Vietnamese iced coffee, or cà phê sữa đá, is a strong dark roast served over ice with sweetened condensed milk — ooh la la, hon hon hon!  So rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.

Amid all our other Vietnamese options, we have a new choice that just opened recently and is getting plenty of well-deserved foodie buzz: Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery (https://parisbanhmicafebakery.com/).  It’s not a full-service, sit-down restaurant, but a casual cafe, wide open with modern decor, specializing in banh mi sandwiches, baked goods, and tasty beverages.  You order at the counter, but first you have to run the gauntlet of all those beautiful, fresh-baked pastries on display.  DSC02305

I arrived after the lunch rush on Independence Day, after treating myself to a mid-morning showing of the new Spider-Man sequel on a day off work.  The baked goods were picked over, but there was still plenty to choose from:DSC02304

When you enter, grab a tray and a pair of tongs, because you can start serving yourself on your way up to the counter.  A hungry or sweet-toothed person can do a lot of damage, but at least these pastries aren’t expensive, so you can make some choices and have a good time with a mostly-clear conscience.DSC02301

I had been warned to not miss these flaky round pastries stuffed with savory seasoned ground beef.  They were kept in a separate glass case on top of the front counter, being kept warm.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I would have chosen one anyway.  I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially at only $2:DSC02300

I selected an assortment of five pastries to bring home to share with my wife, but a kind gentleman who worked there advised me of their special deal of buying five and getting a sixth free.  How could I refuse?  So I walked out with a flaky margherita pastry with tomato filling (top left; $3), a cheese croissant that was much more like a cheese danish (top middle; $2), a sweet cheese blueberry croissant (top right; $2.80), the warm, meat-stuffed pastry that rang up as a pate chaud (bottom left; $2), a mozzarella and tomato sauce-filled pastry that was kind of like a really good pizza Hot Pocket (bottom; $3), and a sweet, buttery, flaky kouign amann (the round one on the right; $2.80).
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Here is the banh mi menu, at last!  These are a bargain at $5 each, and they are extremely high-quality, especially the fresh-baked baguettes, so crispy outside and so soft inside.  I’ve had some banh mi served to me on stale baguettes that shatter when you bite into them, and a couple you could use as baseball bats, but I can’t conceive of such a thing at Paris Banh Mi.  dsc02307.jpgI ended up choosing a B1 special combination, with several different cold cuts (served cold), and a B2 grilled pork (served warm), both to go.

Here they are, unwrapped back at home.  I’d definitely rank them among the best banh mi in a city blessed to have lots of good ones to choose from.
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Here is the drink menu, also posted above the counter.  The Paris By Night latte looked beautiful, and you can never go wrong with iced coffee or Thai iced tea, but I chose a drink I’ve been hearing about for months but haven’t had a chance to try yet: milk tea with cheese foam ($5).  dsc02306.jpg

This was my cool, creamy milk tea with cheese foam.  It’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise.  The milk tea is sweet and refreshing, and never tastes too much like tea to me, but I’m okay with that.  The foam at the top is kind of like a sweetened cream cheese, but not thick and solid like cheesecake.  It’s sticky and frothy and a little salty — more like thicker, sticky, salty whipped cream.  Go ahead and giggle — get it out of your system — but I swear it works.  I enjoyed this drink and would totally order it again.  DSC02298

On my way out, I took some more photos of the beautiful cakes, eclairs, napoleons, macarons, tarts, and other pastries in their glass cases up front.  Things like this never tempt me that much, but I have no doubt each one would be wonderful.  My parents, who are definitely not adventurous eaters, go gaga over French pastries like these, so I’d love to take them here if they ever make it up from Miami to visit us.  No pressure, though!  (I know they read my blog and wonder how I got this way.)

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Best of all, on this visit — my first visit — someone called my name, and it was three friendly and delightful regulars from the Orlando Foodie Forum, the Facebook group that inspires my food blogging, and hopefully I inspire some of them with my recommendations right here.  Even on a national holiday and a day off work, after seeing Spider-Man and picking out delicious food to bring home, the biggest treat of all was meeting Rasha, Brian, and Yousuf.  They were warm and welcoming — fellow foodies I had never met before, but they recognized me and were kind enough to introduce themselves and make that connection.  This was their second time getting food from Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, and I think they’ve even returned since last week.  I can’t blame them.  I already knew they had impeccable taste, and this place is GOOD.

When you make it to Mills 50, it’s hard to choose where to eat.  You can have spicy Szechuan Chinese at Chuan Lu Garden, cool and refreshing Hawaiian poke at Poke Hana, or endless Vietnamese restaurants like Pho 88 — all reliable recipients of the Saboscrivner Seal of Approval.  But no matter where you go for lunch or dinner, consider saving some room for a sweet dessert, a snack to go, or some frothy milk tea (and don’t forget the cheese foam!) at Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, or make a special trip there for some of the best banh mi in Orlando.  It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I’d be shocked if anyone visited and couldn’t find something to love.

The New York Adventure Part 3: Junior’s

One thing New Yorkers and well-traveled foodies always warn people about is to NEVER EAT IN TIMES SQUARE.  It’s tourist trap central, featuring comically-large, multi-story versions of national and worldwide chain restaurants.  That’s where you have your oversized Olive Garden, your astronomical Applebee’s, your stupendous S’barro (someone once said they have the best pizza in New York!), and I swear we passed some kind of combination prodigious Planet Hollywood and Brobdingnagian Buca Di Beppo.  (“I’M AT THE PLANET HOLLYWOOD!  I’M AT THE BUCA DI BEPPO!  I’M AT THE COMBINATION PLANET HOLLYWOOD AND BUCA DI BEPPO!”)

But when we took a cab down to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to see Hamilton (only the greatest musical of all time!), my wife and I both clocked Junior’s (https://www.juniorscheesecake.com/), another one of those legendary, old-school Jewish New York restaurants.  I was a little surprised to see it, because I thought Junior’s was a Brooklyn thing, and I knew we weren’t going to make it into Brooklyn on this trip.  I barely gave it a second thought, because on the rare times we go to concerts, plays, and stand-up performances at home, my wife is usually too tired to go out for a bite afterwards.  When I lived in Gainesville (go Gators!), I loved going out for food with my friends after a show.  To this day, food always tastes the best to me at night, after doing something fun.

But after being completely blown away by the awesomeness of Hamilton, my wife said she could eat, and we both immediately thought of how close we were to Junior’s.  It turns out there are two separate Junior’s locations in the Times Square/Broadway area, and they’re open late to accommodate the after-show crowd.  Little did we know that we would end up taking in a second Broadway show on this trip, or that we would end up at both Junior’s locations!  I’m so glad we did, though.  Since this was the only restaurant I didn’t research in advance, it ended up being the most pleasant surprise.

This is the 45th Street Junior’s location, at 1515 Broadway.  It looks old, but it was founded in 2006.  (The original location in Brooklyn was founded by Harry Rosen in 1950.)DSC02130

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Like so many of the iconic Jewish delis of decades past, Junior’s served us free cole slaw (good) and dill pickles (meh) for the table.DSC02132

My wife’s chocolate milkshake was good enough to bring anyone to the yard.  Dig that Junior’s glasses have instructions for mixing up the perfect egg cream, with seltzer, milk, and chocolate syrup (go Fox’s U-Bet or go home).dsc02134.jpg

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting anything special when I ordered onion rings, but I am an onion ring aficionado, this is The Saboscrivner, and we have a little recurring feature on here called

[NEW YORK POLICE SIREN SAMPLE!]

RING THE ALARM!

And these were godly onion rings.  I didn’t know what to expect from their thick batter coatings, but they were crispy-yet-yielding on the outside, and soft on the inside, with a slight sweetness.  If I had to describe them, it was almost like a funnel cake-style batter, or like a really good old-fashioned sour cream cake doughnut, but with a crunchier outer layer — and of course not that sweet.  I’ve never had their equal and doubt I ever will again.DSC02136

This was the combination corned beef and pastrami Reuben sandwich we ordered to share in our post-Hamilton afterglow, and it was a winner.  The rye bread was buttered and lightly grilled to perfection, as opposed to too many Reubens where the bread is toasted hard to the point of being burned, and you can’t even take a bite without the sandwich flopping apart.  Both meats were sliced thin and lean, but this would not be our only pastrami experience on this trip, fear not.  DSC02137They served the Russian dressing on the side, which was great because my wife is always hesitant around sauces and condiments, whereas I generally love them, and I feel like we ended up with more this way.  Needless to say, some of my onion rings took a dip.

And finally, the piece de resistance — a slice of Junior’s famous blueberry cheesecake.  We both love cheesecake, and we both agreed this was the best cheesecake of our little lives — so much better than Florida mainstay Publix, and streets ahead of the Cheesecake Factory.  It was perfect in every way, to the point where I almost feel guilty posting this pic and raving about it, knowing my dozens of readers (baker’s dozens?) can’t just pop off to Junior’s to score a slice for themselves.  DSC02138

Our last day in New York, we realized we didn’t have any set plans for the evening, so we decided to see Chicago, a musical we had never seen live before.  We love the 2002 Best Picture-winning movie, though.  Since the Chicago revival is the longest continuously-running show in Broadway history (since 1996), it didn’t have the hype that Hamilton did, and were were lucky to score excellent and affordable fifth-row orchestra tickets.  It razzle-dazzled us, especially Desi Oakley, whose adorably sexy and hilarious lead performance as coquettish murderess Roxie Hart, blew away the A-list actress from the award-winning film.  Plus, we’ve been digging Fosse/Verdon, the FX miniseries about the mercurial director-choreographer and his dancer-actress-muse, and they aired their making-of-Chicago episode mere days before our New York arrival.  Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, but I believe that everything happens for a reason!

Our luck just kept improving, because the Ambassador Theatre, where we saw Chicago, is right next to the other Times Square-area Junior’s location, 1626 Broadway at 49th Street, which opened in the summer of 2017.  And after how much we loved it the previous night, my wife was more than up for an encore performance.  This one featured the mid-century “space-age” design I love so much, that was so popular from the postwar years into the early 1960s.  It was cool to see this new version of the rotating “Junior’s” sign that the original location in Brooklyn has.  DSC02175

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My wife ordered something I probably never would have gone with, but it knocked our proverbial socks off: a brisket sandwich served on crispy-fried potato latkes, served with au jus and some of the freshest, chunkiest applesauce ever.  This thing was huge!  The brisket was pretty good (we’re both too used to smoked barbecued brisket, and this could have been improved by being a little fattier), but the latkes (AKA potato pancakes, goys and girls) were among the best we’ve ever had.  And yes, you eat them with applesauce.  DSC02180

I spend so much of my life thinking “What am I, chopped liver?” that along the way I became a big fan of the stuff.  I had yet to try chopped liver at any of our other NYC deli destinations, so tonight was the big night.  It came served simply, two big scoops with some thin slices of bread, which could have been toasted or grilled to hold up better to the weight and creamy richness of the chopped liver.  And as much as I love onions, raw red onion is a little much for me, so I left those alone.  DSC02181

I asked my wife if we were going to indulge in another slice of Junior’s heavenly cheesecake, but she was already enchanted by seeing a slice of red velvet cake being walked out to a nearby table.  She loves red velvet cake far more than I do, but hey, anniversary trip, and who am I to stand in the way of her continuing good times?  She loved it, and even I liked the bite I had.  Fear not, fearless readers — even the two of us, together at this late hour, couldn’t finish the whole supersized slice.  DSC02182

So that was Junior’s.  I hadn’t planned it into our schedule at all, but fate intervened, and we ended up there twice — two different nights, two separate locations.  And Times Square or not, tourist trap or not, everything we ordered transcended our expectations.

And here’s a helpful hint from your old pal The Saboscrivner: Orlando denizens, you CAN treat yo’selves to Junior’s cheesecake locally, at Pickles Deli in Longwood, on State Road 434 right off Exit 94.  They ship it in from New York and serve plain, raspberry swirl, chocolate “skyscraper,” and carrot cake “skyscraper” cheesecakes by the slice.  So forget the Factory and try Junior’s for yourselves.  Plus, Pickles is pretty great too.  Expect a review at some point this summer!

The New York Adventure Part 1: Ess-A-Bagel

My wife and I are celebrating our TENTH wedding anniversary in October, and we both wanted to make a big thing of it by returning to New York City, where we spent our honeymoon in 2009.  We haven’t had a chance to return in this entire last decade, but since my wife is a college professor and I’m also in academia, October is a pretty busy time for us, and it would be impossible to get away then.  So we opted for a mid-May getaway, during the empty and quiet weeks between the spring and summer semesters, before New York starts to rival Florida’s heat and humidity.  We also had some personal and professional milestones to celebrate, so the timing was right and the stars lined up for us.  We planned to take in the sights, see shows, and eat like kings.

Just as we did on our honeymoon, we chose our hotel based on its proximity to the legendary Midtown Manhattan bagel restaurant Ess-A-Bagel (https://www.ess-a-bagel.com/), considered by many the best bagel shop in the bagel capital of the world (sorry, Montreal!).  And wouldn’t you know it — we ended up reserving the exact same hotel, just under a different name and new management, ten years later.  It was meant to be!

So here is where the magic happens, this hole-y site.  I’m always taken aback by just how small and cramped many iconic New York restaurants and businesses are, and Ess-A-Bagel is no exception.  You enter and automatically line up, make your way down the counter until someone calls you, place your entire order with them, pay at the end, and hope there’s a tiny table available for you by then.  DSC02113

Ess-A-Bagel boils and bakes some of the largest bagels I’ve ever seen, with all the classics represented: plain, sesame, onion, garlic, salt, everything, pumpernickel, and cinnamon raisin, among others.  Here’s a gigantic everything bagel, which is our favorite — coated with sesame and poppy seeds, toasted onion and garlic, and coarse kosher salt crystals.
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You have a ridiculous choice of cream cheese and tofu-based spreads, all made fresh in-house.  This is like heaven.  The choices are unlimited, but you cannot go wrong.DSC02114

In addition to all the standard cream cheeses, Ess-A-Bagel has a large selection of smoked, cured, and pickled fish, all standard Jewish fare that accompanies bagels.  Most people are familiar with nova salmon — sometimes referred to as lox, although most lox is MUCH saltier than the more familiar nova your basic brunch spot offers.  It pairs so perfectly with cream cheese.  But when you get out of Orlando, you have far more fishy options for your bagels, and these are everything to me: smoked whitefish salad, large golden smoked chubs (whitefish), pickled herring fillets in either a sweet wine-based sauce or a sour cream-based sauce (both with plenty of sweet pickled onions!), rich smoky sturgeon, and the finest of all the smoked, cured, and pickled fishies: buttery sable, which sounds far more appetizing than “black cod.”  Sable is the finest thing you can eat, and here is an article I found with a recipe and more information about it, for the uninitiated.  These are the foods of my people, and they fill me with such joy.DSC02116

You also have a wide variety of tuna, salmon, and other seafood salads.  DSC02117

And some pasta salads, potato salad, cole slaw, and additional vegetarian options, sold by the pound to enjoy as sides.DSC02118

You can also order bagel sandwiches with the sliced deli meats and cheeses of your choice, but it seemed pointless to me to come all the way to New York and Ess-A-Bagel for a turkey, roast beef, or ham and cheese sandwich.  (Despite its traditional Jewish specialties, Ess-A-Bagel is not a kosher restaurant, and I’ve never kept kosher anyway.)

The day we left for New York, we woke up at 3:30 AM to catch our 6:30 AM flight, got caught in morning rush hour traffic from Queens to Manhattan, and made it to our hotel to find out our room wasn’t ready yet.  At that point, it was 12:30 PM — nine hours since we got up, and we hadn’t eaten anything yet.  So we walked to Ess-A-Bagel just in time to join the long lunch line, and by the time we got our food and snagged one of those aforementioned tiny tables, almost an hour after that, it didn’t occur to me to take any pictures.  Mea culpa, although some long-suffering Saboscrivnerinos may be relieved.

That first day, my wife ordered a toasted and buttered everything bagel, with a quarter-pound side of whitefish salad on the side.  I wanted a bialy, that lovely cross between a bagel and a roll (baked, but never boiled!) with an indentation in the middle for baked onions, but they didn’t have any left.  (See this Food Republic article for some bialy background!)  So I got an everything bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese and my sweet, sweet sable.  I also ordered a huge, fluffy salt bagel to tear off chunks and scoop up a quarter-pound of smoked shrimp and crab salad that looked and sounded great, and tasted even better.  Everything was magnificent.  My wife had fond memories of an apple cinnamon muffin from our last visit a decade back, but that was crumbly and dry, failing to live up to her nostalgia the way the bagels and fish did.

Our second day in the city, we wanted to take it relatively easy and eat a light lunch in our room, in preparation for seeing a show that evening.  I walked back to Ess-A-Bagel to bring everything back to our hotel, and that time I remembered to take some photos.

My wife tried my sable the previous day and understood what I had raved about on and off for the last ten years, so she asked for an everything bagel sandwich with sable (left), and I happily obliged.  I decided to try something different: a bialy sandwich (finally!) with baked salmon salad (right), at once smoky and creamy, so it didn’t need a layer of cream cheese.  DSC02120

Here’s a half of my bialy sandwich, generously stuffed with the baked salmon salad: DSC02124

And her sable bagel, with nice thick chunks of the buttery, rich fish to melt in our mouths:DSC02125

That huge everything bagel I showed you earlier came from this second visit.  I also got a quarter-pound of their smoked tuna spread to go with that, and it was another good choice.  I grew up eating canned tuna, to the point where I was shocked the first time I ever encountered rich, deep purple raw tuna in sushi in my late teens.  My wife doesn’t like the smell of canned tuna, and it’s high in mercury and unsustainable, so I haven’t bought or even ordered it in years (although I am a huge sardine aficionado, and those are super-healthy and super-sustainable).  But trying smoked tuna seemed like a worthwhile move, and it was far better than any conventional tuna salad I’ve ever had before.  DSC02123

My wife also asked for a black and white cookie, that New York deli and bakery classic.  These should be more cake-like than anything — thick and moist, never crunchy or crispy.  This one was unique for having a slight lemony flavor to the yellow cookie/cake underneath the layer of black and white icing that reminds us “We’re not so different, you and I.”DSC02122

And then we went to see Hamilton, and I think it tied with seeing Tom Waits in concert in 2006 as the greatest musical experience… no, greatest cultural experience of my life.  I love American history, and I come by it naturally.  My dad was an esteemed history and social studies teacher, and now I teach a class that incorporates some U.S. history too.  Combine that with my deep loves of musical theater (encouraged by my wife, a former child and teen actress) and hip hop, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning show always felt like it was made just for me.  I have obsessed over the original cast album for over three years, so finally being able to see it (and in the greatest city in the world, no less!), being right there in the room where it happens, was awe-inspiring.

Like I said, we ate like kings over our few days in the City, so stay tuned over the next week (or let’s face it, probably longer) for more of our culinary New York Adventures, right here on The Saboscrivner!

I was a judge in the National Pie Championships! (Again!)

I like sweets and desserts as much as anyone, but I can usually stay strong in the face of  chocolate, candy, cupcakes, or cake, and turn them down without regret.  Even cookies have to be some pretty serious, next-level cookies to get me to indulge.  But one thing I will always choose and never refuse is PIE, that most humble and all-American of desserts.  Whether it’s a custard, cream, or fruit filling, a flaky dough crust or a crumb topping, hot or cold, sweet or tart or even savory, pie is everything.

There is a group called the American Pie Council that agrees with me.  From their website: “The American Pie Council Is The Only Organization Committed To Maintaining America’s Pie Heritage, Passing On The Tradition Of Pie-Making And Promoting America’s Love Affair With Pie.”  If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is.  They publish a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times (I love it!), full of tips, tricks, recipes, promotions, and networking information for bakers.

But the American Pie Council’s most visible event is hosting the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida every year — a chance for the most gifted commercial, professional, and amateur pie bakers to prove themselves in the ultimate pie arena, like Pie Thunderdome. These brave bakers descend upon Orlando from throughout the United States to compete for those blue ribbons and bragging rights, mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor of being the best.  Here is a Bon Appetit article about last year’s National Pie Championships, and here is an essay on Taste by two bakers who competed last year.  Christopher Guest really needs to write and direct a mockumentary about the world of competitive pie-baking, something like Best in Show meets Iron Chef meets… I don’t know, The Fast & the Furious.  “I live my life one quarter-stick of butter at a time.”  “If your dough isn’t out of control, you’re not in control.”  And what good is pie if you can’t share it with family (including chosen family)?

Anyway, last year, a fellow foodie friend told me that she regularly volunteers to judge the National Pie Championships, and I could apply to be a volunteer judge as well.  What the–?!!  People actually do this?  You can get chosen to sample a bunch of delicious pies from some of the best bakers in the country — for free!! — and then evaluate and rank them and offer constructive feedback?  I felt like every event in my life to date, everything I’ve ever learned and accomplished, had brought me to that point, and it could be a lifelong dream coming true.  I’m not a baker on the level of these master bakers — I have one EXCELLENT pie recipe that everybody goes crazy for — but I thought I would be a great pie judge between my two Orlando Weekly best-of-the-year food lists, blogging here as The Saboscrivner, and having pretty good taste in general.  Luckily, the American Pie Council agreed.  I volunteered and served for the first time in 2018, and just did it again last weekend, this time with my best friend, who drove all the way up from Miami.

When you are a National Pie Championships judge, you get assigned to a table in a huge hotel conference room where all the judging takes place, and each table gets one pie category the entire time.  They judge the commercial pies (think supermarket bakeries, frozen foods, and restaurant chains) on the Friday, and then professional and amateur pies on the Saturday, which is what I did both years.  On your judging application, you can choose your top six categories, and hopefully you will be placed in one of those.  You can choose among apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, nut (expect to overdose on heavy pecan pies!), peanut butter, citrus, tropical fruit, “open” fruit, “open” cream, and more.  There are 16 professional categories, and even more in the amateur division.  There is even a savory pot pie category!  Last year, the APC included a category for Hollywood-inspired pies, and this year’s unique category was for pies inspired by special and memorable vacations.

In 2018, I got moved away from my top choice at the last minute and placed at the Comstock apple pie table.  Comstock is one of the National Pie Championships sponsors, the company that makes canned apple, cherry, peach, strawberry, and blueberry pie fillings that you can buy at most supermarkets.  I was skeptical, but I got to taste some really solid apple pies that day.  I was definitely burned out on apple pie by the end, but luckily we then got to judge the Comstock “Best in Show” pies — the best apple pie from our table (a maple praline apple pie), plus the winners from the other Comstock categories: a chocolate-covered cherry pie, a raspberry peach bellini pie, a classic, old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie, and the delightful blueberry lemon cream pie that we crowned the winner.  I still remember this one fondly, over a year later, so enjoy the recipe and this photo:
Image may contain: dessert and food

This year, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of the National Pie Championships, my buddy and I made sure to fill out the same six categories, and I asked the powers that be to seat us at the same table so we could hang out.  And we were lucky enough to get placed at the Professional cream pie table, a highly-desirable category that was one of my top choices.

The way it works is volunteer pie servers pass the unsliced pie around our round table so we can all ooh and ahh and photograph it if we wish, to evaluate each pie in its uncut state.  Then the server returns with one slice removed, so we can evaluate how the slice holds up on its own, as well as how the pie looks with a slice taken out.  Then we pass the one slice around the table and cut off small slivers for ourselves, so everyone just gets a tiny taste.  Believe me, we don’t each eat an entire slice from each of these pies.  That would be ill-advised.  Each pie judge fills out an anonymous scoring worksheet as we evaluate each pie, with our judging number and the pie’s identification number.  There is even math involved!

We ended up sampling 14 pies in all:

The first of many coconut cream pies:DSC02000DSC02001

The first banana cream, which included some pineapple and crispy banana chips:DSC02004DSC02003

A chocolate-mint brownie cream pie, which was a big hit at our table:DSC02006DSC02005

Another coconut cream:DSC02008DSC02009

This lovely coconut cream was extremely thick and firm, and it was my favorite of the many coconut cream pies we tried.DSC02010DSC02011

I felt so bad for this baker, because this beautiful berry cream pie was damaged when the slicers tried to slice it.  However, it was delicious, and I would totally buy one if I ever saw it for sale or on a menu:DSC02012

I think everyone lost their minds over this Oreo cookies ‘n’ creme cream pie.  I know it was my friend’s favorite.DSC02014DSC02016

WHO DAT?  This was a New Orleans Saints-themed banana cream pie.  It would have been a nice touch if the baker went full N’awlins and made it a Bananas Foster cream pie.  I still don’t know if the fleur-de-lis was edible.DSC02017DSC02018

I don’t even remember if this one was banana cream, coconut cream, or something else entirely, but it was good, because how could it not be?  Those things around the crust might have been candied nuts, so maybe banana walnut?DSC02019DSC02020

This hypnotically beautiful cinnamon roll cream pie won our superlative award for Prettiest Pie at our table.DSC02021DSC02023

Another coconut cream:DSC02024DSC02025

This strawberry cream pie was far and away my favorite, and the only one I gave a perfect score to.  It was a cross between a strawberry cream pie and a strawberry cheesecake.DSC02026DSC02027

I forget what this one was:DSC02028DSC02029

And this was a heaven-themed coconut cream pie to end our judging, with edible golden sugar “glitter” and sparkling whipped cream.DSC02030DSC02032

We probably each ate the equivalent of 2-3 slices of pie, passing all of those around the table and cutting off tiny tastes from each slice — but that’s still a lot of rich cream pie for a regular person.  We were the first table to finish, and it came as a relief.

The second-place winner from our Professional Cream Pie table was the “Sunsational Islandtime Coconut Cream Pie,” baked by Avon Park, Florida’s own Amy Freeze.  I don’t remember which coconut cream pie that was, so apologies to the talented Ms. Freeze, but I enjoyed every single coconut cream pie we tried that day.

The winner, as you might have guessed, was the “Double the Good Stuff Cookies and Cream” pie, baked by Michele Stuart, who traveled all the way from Norwalk, Connecticut and entered several pies, with a grand total of FIVE winning either first or second place in different categories!  Ms. Stuart is a PIE BAWSS.

When each table of judges is finished, the scores are tallied to select first and second-place winners in each category.  Then each of those first-place pies compete against each other for the Best in Show, in both professional and amateur categories.

I have been sitting on this review for a week, waiting for the American Pie Council to release a formal announcement of all the winners, and here they are.  The Professional Best in Show pie was Iceland’s Café Loki-Inspired Rye Bread Cream Pie, baked by David Eaheart from Kansas City, Missouri.  “Layered with a cream filling, toasted rye bread, piped meringue and a caramel sauce drizzle, this pie is based on Café Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream, which Eaheart discovered on a walking food tour of Reykjavik.”  I didn’t get to try this pie, but I would have awarded it a perfect score for creativity.

On our way out of the judging room, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this gorgeous apple pie.  It has been over a year, so maybe I can start eating apple pies again, while taking a break from cream pies.  DSC02033

Being an official pie judge in the National Pie Championships two years in a row has been a great experience, and even a great responsibility, for which I have no regrets.  I’ll probably volunteer again, because it’s such a treat to sample so many delicious pies from bakers at the top of their game.  I’m just glad it only happens once a year!  DSC02046

EDIT (4/22/19): The American Pie Council posted hundreds of photos from the event, so feel free to spend some hours scrolling through beautiful pies.