Ms Tea’s Bento

This week I ordered takeout for myself and two co-workers from a relatively new Taiwanese restaurant for the first time, after seeing some photos of the food on The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps, the main reason I haven’t deleted my Facebook account. Ms Tea’s Bento (https://msteasbento.business.site/) opened last year, then closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and only recently reopened at the beginning of September. The restaurant and teahouse is located in a shopping plaza on East Colonial Drive between Dean and Rouse Roads, easily accessible via the 417 or 408 and not far from busy Alafaya Trail.

It’s a cute little cafe, very warm and welcoming with simple decor (lots of tea, lots of cats), and I was welcomed by the sweetest woman who had my order all ready when I showed up. They have a menu on the website, but I thought it would be convenient for my readers to scan and share the menu here:

I mentioned it was my first time in, and I was so excited to try everything. The lady offered to make me a tea drink for free, because it was my first visit, which was so sweet and generous. I was almost ready to get a black milk tea, but I saw they had a sign in the window offering Yakult beverages, made with a popular Japanese probiotic drink, similar to sweet, thin yogurt with a subtle citrus taste. I asked about the Yakult, and she ended up making me a beautiful pink iced hibiscus tea drink with Yakult added to it, the way you would normally add milk. It was really light, sweet, and refreshing.


I also picked up an iced coffee for my co-worker ($3.75), which was shaken up with some sweetened condensed milk, like Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá. It looked and smelled delicious, and she seemed to love it. My longtime readers know I’m not a big coffee drinker, but I do make an exception for Vietnamese iced coffee.

So this is the chicken teriyaki bento box my one co-worker ordered, with steamed rice and vegetables ($9.50). I appreciated that all the meals came in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe plastic containers with lids that snap into place. That’s always nice to see, especially because I clean and reuse all those kinds of containers. Those are so much better than styrofoam or those flimsy, fragile folded paper takeout boxes.

My other co-worker loves takoyaki, crispy fried fritters made with octopus, a popular Japanese street food. She wanted to try Ms. Tea’s takoyaki ($5.99), and seemed to really like them. I believe they came garnished with thin bonito (fish) flakes and Japanese mayo.


I couldn’t decide between two dishes, and she was also interested in one of the two I wanted, so I suggested we split one of them, knowing her takoyaki wouldn’t be a large order. We split the spicy pork dry noodles ($8.95), which were nice, thick udon-like noodles with ground pork and julienned cucumber, very similar to dan dan noodles I’ve enjoyed before at Chuan Lu Garden. It also came topped with an egg fried to a perfect over-medium with a runny yolk that added richness, and fresh cilantro.

The other dish I wanted to try was the pork stew rice bowl ($7.50), which included braised pork belly in a rich brown sauce over steamed white rice, with still-crispy celery sticks, some tangy diced preserved vegetables (near the top), and half of a “tea boiled egg,” which was one of the things that drew me to try this dish. I think those lighter diced cubes at the bottom were fried tofu, which I definitely wasn’t expecting, but I could be wrong., since I almost never eat tofu. Saboscrivnerinos, please weight in and set me right!


Finally, I couldn’t resist trying the sweet butter/condensed milk toast ($4.25), which sounded like a rich, delightful dessert. I love buttered toast, from Waffle House breakfasts to every kind of garlic bread with barbecue or Italian food. And I love sweetened condensed milk with anything, from coffee to fruit to Cuban tres leches. To me, plain ol’ sweetened condensed milk is a more satisfying dessert than many kinds of cookies, cakes, and ice cream!

I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it ended up being ONE large, thick slice of bread, very lightly toasted, and soaked with butter and condensed milk. I didn’t share this one, even though I realized about halfway through that it was scored into several smaller squares to be easily divided and shared. I ordered it for myself, so I had no compunction about enjoying it all myself.

I enjoyed everything I tasted on my first trip to Ms. Tea’s Bento, and I definitely plan to return and try more dishes and drinks. It’s one of Orlando’s hidden gems in that sun-baked industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive between the 417 and Alafaya, and it’s easy to miss. But when the sun is beating down and you want pull over for a cold, tasty beverage, or you’re hungry for something unfussy and possibly unfamiliar, it’s one more delicious destination in East Orlando and a casual, affordable alternative to the chain restaurants that proliferate out around UCF and Waterford Lakes.

Sister Honey’s Bakery

Orlando is blessed with an abundance of wonderful, locally-owned bakeries.  I’ve reviewed many of our best ones already, so please click here to see all my other bakery reviews.  But I had yet to review one of my favorites, to add it to my bakery pantheon (or pan-pantheon): Sister Honey’s Bakery (https://www.sisterhoneys.com/).

Sister Honey’s is a Black-owned bakery in the SoDo area (South of Downtown Orlando), named for owner Evette Rahman’s mother’s nickname.  Evette is a champion baker with awards and accolades to spare.  From 2014 to 2016, she took the Best in Show awards at the National Pie Championships, hosted right here in Orlando by the American Pie Council.  That’s the pie-baking equivalent of winning Best Director three years in a row at the Academy Awards!  (I had the honor of serving as a pie judge in this prestigious competition in 2018 and 2019, and wrote about it right here on this blog.)  As of 2017, Evette had won 27 blue ribbons from the National Pie Championships, including a staggering 10 alone in 2016.

So needless to say, if you haven’t been to Sister Honey’s before, knowing this now, your expectations will be pretty high.  Well, I promise that they’ll be even higher if you make it all the way through this review, and you WON’T be disappointed.

As far as I’m concerned, Evette makes the best key lime pie I’ve ever had, and key lime pie is one of my Top Five all-time desserts.  This is the whole pie, which I’ve never bought from her:
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But in all the years I’ve been going, I think I’ve eaten the equivalent of a whole key lime pie, one decadent slice ($5.99) at a time.
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Key lime pie isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make at home, and Publix even makes a damn fine one, but you have to try Sister Honey’s version at least once, to see how it stands alone.

I’ve also had the strawberry cheese pie many times, with its thick graham cracker crust, gooey cream cheese base, fresh strawberries, and fresh whipped cream.  It was the National Pie Championships Best in Show winner in 2014, and the judges chose wisely.
20200711_123803On my most recent visit, Evette brought this pie out from the back when I was already about to pay, so I was able to request a last-second slice but wasn’t able take a picture of the whole pie.  It melted a little in my car on the long drive home, but you get the idea of its pure decadent deliciousness.

My wife’s favorite delectable dessert from Sister Honey’s is the vanilla bean pound cake.  Usually the icing on the top is perfectly smooth, but I smeared it taking it out of its plastic clamshell box, so that’s on me.  It’s incredibly moist and vanilla-ey, and the icing is never heavy or greasy like the gross buttercream on a lot of supermarket cakes.
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Rear view:DSC03198

Coconut and German chocolate cakes on display.  The coconut cake is my wife’s second-favorite:DSC03190

Here’s the latest slice of coconut cake she got ($5.99).  It looks much better in person, and it is incredibly moist and rich.  The gooey coconutty filling between layers is my favorite part of this cake.20200711_123722

This was the first time I ever saw a golden pineapple cake available.  Longtime readers know how much I love anything pineappley, so I had to go for it. 20200711_112811

Here’s the slice I got ($7.99).  The cake itself and the icing were both more subtle than I expected.
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I make a mean pineapple upside-down cake that my in-laws crave, to the point where I make it for us every Thanksgiving instead of more traditional Thanksgiving desserts.  It’s also a big hit at work potlucks.  But I make it using a Duncan Hines pineapple cake box mix that smells and tastes as “pineappley” as you might expect, probably due to being so processed and artificial.  Evette’s cake has real chunks of pineapple in the icing between the cake layers and the delicious topping, and if anything, it probably has more real pineapple and pineapple juice in it than the store-bought cake mix I’m more used to.  It was another hit.

We’ve never tried her carrot cake, but for $5.99 a slice, how can you possibly go wrong?  If you see it up close, the smooth cream cheese frosting (my favorite part of any carrot cake) is sprinkled with gleaming orange and green sugar crystals.20200711_112759

Sister Honey’s also offers multiple types of cupcakes, which I fully admit aren’t usually my thing, although I’m sure hers are a cut above the rest.  Seen below: Peanut butter chocolate, German chocolate, and Very vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).20200711_112742

Seen below: Cookies & cream and Chocolate vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).
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Evette has cookies too, and the wedge-shaped shortbread cookies are rich, buttery, and quite good, but I think the pies and cakes are the star attractions at Sister Honey’s.
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Sister Honey’s is a good distance away from home, so it requires a special trip to make it there.  I always shoot for Saturdays around 11:30, to give them time to put everything out after opening at 11:00.  (You heard it here first!)  Evette’s husband Andy is always manning the front, boxing up slices, patiently answering questions, and ringing people up.  I admit I’ve never actually met Evette, but I’ve dealt with Andy so many times over the last few years that he recognizes me now, even with my mask on, and always asks how my wife is doing.  He’s a real mensch, and I hold them both in high esteem.

It is a very small bakery space with no indoor seating, so plan on getting everything to go.  But these days, that’s the safest bet anywhere, anyway.  You may want to bring a cooler if you’re planning to get perishable pies like the key lime pie and strawberry cheese pie above, or Evette’s equally exquisite coconut cream pie.  They might melt and droop a bit in this oppressive summer heat, even if you’re running the air conditioner in your car.  But the cakes are ideally left out at room temperature, as Andy advises, to avoid drying them out in the fridge.

I can’t sing the praises of this bakery and its award-winning baker enough.  Anytime anyone asks wants to know the best key lime pie in Florida, this is where I direct them.  Yeah, I said it!  Pretty much anything I photographed and discussed above is the best of its kind that you’ll find in Orlando.  Now more than ever, we need to be showing love to our small businesses, and especially Black-owned businesses.  If you’re wistfully wishing for cakes, pies, cupcakes, and cookies that transcend the Publix bakery, schlep down to SoDo for Sister Honey’s, where Evette Rahman will make your life that much sweeter.

 

Light on the Sugar Bakery

I used to joke that living in Casselberry, we almost always have to drive 20+ minutes to get to Orlando’s hottest restaurants in the hipper, trendier areas like Winter Park, the Milk District, and Mills 50.  But since we started sheltering in place due to the pandemic, I’ve tried to stay much closer to home the rare times I venture out for takeout, and I’ve come to discover a lot of nearby gems like Alex’s Fresh Kitchen and Tomasino’s Pizza in recent reviews, alongside neighborhood favorites like Bagel King, Waffle House, and Kai Asian Street Fare.

I was overjoyed when my choice for Orlando’s best barbecue, Git-N-Messy BBQ, relocated from Sanford to the edge of Winter Park and Oviedo, much closer to us.  And since we started quarantining, I’ve picked up takeout from Git-N-Messy several times.  Best of all, there is a relatively new bakery right across the street from Git-N-Messy, in the same shopping center as Pho Cali/Quickly Boba and Twisted Root Burger Co.  It’s a small Asian bakery called Light on the Sugar (https://www.lightonthesugar.com/), and it is so good, we’re still in shock that it opened on our side of town and not one of these hipster neighborhoods.  

My wife and I first visited Light on the Sugar on our way to have dinner at Tomasino’s for the first time in mid-January of this year, back when you could still linger at restaurants, cafes, and even bakeries without a second thought.  We were face to face with glass cases full of beautiful baked goods — cakes, cream puffs, croissants, danishes, and more.  The bakery was already getting excellent word of mouth on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, so we were excited to be there and trying to take our time deciding what to bring home with us.  DSC02858

Even more choices (pardon the reflections):DSC02859

Unfortunately, I left this first visit very annoyed, due to an employee who was relentlessly rushing us to make a quick decision.  The place was empty aside from us, so it’s not like we were holding anyone else up.  And we had every intention of choosing quite a few treats to bring home, so the guy’s rude attitude really got on my nerves.  We made our choices and went on to dinner, both turned off by the experience.  In fact, I might have not returned at all, except that everything was so amazing.  My wife had fallen for these delectable, decadent desserts, so that inauspicious first visit became the first of many over a relatively short time.

This was what we brought home the first time: a cream puff topped with Froot Loops, a slice of their beautiful and intricate chocolate crepe cake, and a plain croissant.DSC02868

I liked the bites I tried of things, but she just went wild for them.  The cream puff is so light and delicate, but the rich cream in the middle is really something special.  As you saw in the first photo, they have many different varieties of cream puffs on any given day, including strawberry, matcha, ube (purple yam, taking off in popularity here in the States), and Earl Grey, but she loves her sugary cereals.  And the chocolate crepe cake, made of dozens of layers of thin crepes, also wowed my chocolate-loving wife.  DSC02867

On one of my many subsequent visits after picking up takeout from Git-N-Messy BBQ across the street, they didn’t have the Froot Loops cream puffs she loves, but I was able to bring her comparable Lucky Charms cream puffs that were also a big hit at home.DSC03044

You can tell these baked goods are all fresh and of the highest quality, but none of them are cloyingly, overwhelmingly sweet… hence the name.  They are also less heavy than baked goods from some other bakeries (4 Rivers Smokehouse’s Sweet Shop comes to mind) — these are almost ethereal, by comparison.

I’ve also been lucky enough to find a Japanese milk loaf on a few of my visits to Light on the Sugar, and I can never resist bringing one home.  This loaf of bread is rich and buttery, like a cross between brioche and challah.  It makes great French toast, or it’s perfect to just slice and enjoy with some good salted butter.
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I should note that Winter Park’s Bread & Co., another very good Asian bakery, also bakes a Japanese-style milk bread that I love, but my wife prefers Light on the Sugar’s version.

And I should also note that on the multiple visits I’ve made since that first unnecessarily stressful visit with my wife, I have received nothing but friendly and warm service from several female employees.  I haven’t seen that one rude guy again since, and he may not even still be there.  Since everything is takeout only these days, I’m usually in and out in two minutes, especially now that I know what my wife likes best.  But it’s a great bakery and well worth a visit, whether you live in our quieter part of town, or even if you’re surrounded by Orlando’s other good bakeries in the cooler areas.  Like every other restaurant we like, I hope they’ve been holding up through this scary and unknowable time.  But the best way to save the places and things you love is to actually support them, so stop by Light on the Sugar soon and try a few things.  You might even plan your visit around picking up some other takeout at any of the great nearby restaurants, who all need your support as well.

Alex’s Fresh Kitchen

I’m sure my regular readers are all doing their part to keep themselves and others safe by staying home, and so is your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner.  But we still have to eat, and I feel obligated to help our local restaurants by ordering takeout when I can (pretty much limited to weekends, on my way home from the pharmacy or grocery store) and spreading the good word about them, to encourage others to keep ordering too.

I’m much less likely to drive all around the Orlando area on food missions like I used to, so I have a renewed focus on what’s good in the neighborhood.  (Sorry.)  Late in 2019, my quiet and unassuming suburb of Casselberry got a new little restaurant: Alex’s Fresh Kitchen (https://www.alexsfreshkitchenfl.com/).  It opened in a space on Semoran Boulevard just south of Red Bug Lake Road once held by Five Boroughs Pizzeria.  Who?  Exactly.  I visited the pizzeria once and thought it was perfectly okay, but it closed before I could write a review.  Alex’s Fresh Kitchen, on the other hand, is a welcome addition to this side of town, and a place I intend to become a regular at.

Alex Diaz is the chef-owner of this small, quaint restaurant with an open kitchen.  He cooks, and his mother, Deborah McDowell, who I didn’t get to meet, provides the baked goods.  Alex was a convivial guy, definitely proud of his place despite suffering from the slowdown all restaurants are dealing with.  But he had other locals, clearly regulars, coming in for takeout before and after me, so I’m glad people are finding out about his Fresh Kitchen.

I used to not be a big chicken sandwich guy, but the last year has led to me appreciating the humble fried chicken sandwich more, as you might have seen in my reviews of Popeye’s, Swine & Sons (which I named one of my favorite dishes of 2019 in Orlando Weekly), and Chicken Fire (which I tried and loved even before they introduced a chicken sandwich of their own).  I had heard from multiple trusted foodies that Alex’s offers a worthy chicken sandwich, so of course I had to try it.
DSC03064 Their version ($12) is a fried or grilled chicken breast (I chose fried because when we’re under a stay-at-home order, we all deserve a little treat), served on a brioche bun with garlic aioli, cabbage slaw, and pickles that were made in house.  I always prefer chicken thighs, especially when the chicken is being fried, but even with white meat, it was still a large and tasty sandwich.

DSC03062I also ordered the burger special ($13), and I’m so glad I did, because it was one of the tastiest burgers I’ve eaten in a really long time, and not just because we’ve been quarantined at home.  It was an eight-ounce burger cooked medium rare, exactly how I requested, served on the same kind of lightly-griddled brioche bun, and topped with fried onion strings, barbecue sauce, pulled bacon, and the most delicious roasted tomato aioli — a pretty perfect burger.  I can’t rave about this burger enough.  Alex told me he runs a different burger special almost every week, so this was a passing thing, but I hope he brings it back or maybe makes it the regular burger, in addition to rotating specials.

DSC03066I placed my takeout order over the phone, and Alex offered me the choice of fries, home fries, or salad.  I had a hard time deciding between fries and home fries, especially because I make and eat salads all the time, but usually leave deep-frying to the professionals.  Luckily, with ordering the chicken sandwich and the burger, I got an order of fries and an order of home fries.  Even though I live ten minutes from Alex’s, the fries were lukewarm and a little soggy by the time I got home and started eating, but I devoured them anyway.  They were good fries, and I suspect they’d be great fries when we’re able to eat in restaurants again.

What was great, however, were the little plastic cups of roasted tomato aioli and roasted onion aioli that Alex included for me.  Longtime readers know what a fan I am of condiments, dips, and sauces, and these were mind-blowing.  I wish he sold these two house-made aiolis in jars, because I’d buy multiple jars and give them to friends and colleagues as gifts.  Ask my wife, who was eating something else while I had this food — I kept exclaiming how good the fries were dipped in these two aiolis, especially the roasted onion one.  I was even cursing with enthusiastic disbelief, and I’m sure I pumped my fist more than once.  They were that good.

DSC03065The home fries were even better than the fries.  The fried potato chunks were a little soft,  but I’m sure they would have been crispier if eaten immediately.  They were very well-seasoned, and there were strips of onion and bell pepper tossed in with them.  I don’t order home fries very often, but I’m so glad I got these.  They were more flavorful than the regular fries so they didn’t benefit as much from the aioli duo, but you bet I tried every different combination and permutation anyway.

Alex’s mother, Deborah McDowell, makes the desserts at the Fresh Kitchen.  I saw a beautiful chocolate peanut butter cake, as well as a beguiling ube cake:
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But maybe my favorite dessert in the world is an Atlantic Beach Pie that I make.  This is the recipe, except I make the crust out of Ritz crackers (the best crackers) instead of the traditional Saltines,  You end up with a pie that is sweet, rich, creamy, sticky, buttery, tart, salty, and crunchy, and perfect year-round (but especially as a summer dessert).  So when I saw Deborah also makes a lemon pie for Alex’s Fresh Kitchen, I had to try her version.  She didn’t opt for the buttery, salty, cracker crust, instead going for a thick, moist graham cracker crust.  Her lemon filling was more custardy than mine, much less tart, and also firmer, while mine comes out more runny.  I was so happy I tried it.  Creamy, citrusy pies are the best.DSC03069

Well, after this first visit, I was already a fan of Alex’s, so I returned this past weekend for more takeout.  I got myself one of his weekly specials, an 8″ Philly cheesesteak sandwich ($12), with a side of those terrific home fries.  It was tasty, but not as juicy or greasy as cheesesteaks I’m used to from places like LaSpada’s.  I feel like it could have used more melty cheese, but it still hit the spot.DSC03076

After my week of raving about Alex’s, and my dear wife not being able to escape my raving, she asked me to order her the mini chicken and waffles ($11).  By the time I got it home and unpacked it for her, there didn’t seem to be anything “mini” about it.  It was a large Belgian-style waffle, already cut into quarters, and served with two medium-sized pieces of fried chicken breast.  Some parts of the fried chicken were burnt, but she ate it anyway, scorched spots and all.  I’m sure this was an anomaly, because my chicken sandwich from the previous visit was fried to perfection.DSC03077
The chicken and waffles came with four little cups of various accompaniments.  From left to right: maple syrup (maybe “pancake syrup,” which I honestly prefer sometimes due to growing up with it), a sweet, caramelized, almost toffee-like topping that she loved on the waffles, what I think was cinnamon sugar (we didn’t try this, and it’s still in our fridge), and her favorite, a sweet and sticky vanilla sauce.

And because nobody deserves a treat more than my poor wife, who has been cooped up at home for weeks, I brought her back a slice of the chocolate peanut butter cake ($7), which happens to be gluten-free.  She absolutely loved it, chocolate lover that she is.  Just like last week’s burger was my favorite thing I’ve tried from Alex’s, this cake was definitely her favorite.DSC03075

It’s great to have one more good restaurant offering comfort and consistency close to home, especially because we’re hardly going anywhere these days.  Alex’s Fresh Kitchen is a relatively new addition to Casselberry’s limited dining options, but I’m so glad Alex and his mom are here, now more than ever.  Ironically, their restaurant is across the street from my gym, but they’re open and the gym is closed.  I can’t go there three times a week like I was going to the gym, but I’ll keep going when I can, especially now that I’m following their Facebook page for updates on the new burgers and other weekly specials.  Welcome to the neighborhood, Alex and Deborah!  Constant readers, make them feel welcome.

Bread & Co. / Nakada’s Kitchen

Bread & Co. (https://www.facebook.com/breadncokitchen/) is a Korean bakery that serves Korean and French-inspired breads, sweet and savory pastries, and other baked goods.  It opened in the spring of 2019, and my wife and I were overjoyed on our first visit.  Similar to the French-Vietnamese bakery Paris Banh Mi, that early incarnation of Bread & Co. had long shelves and tables teeming with beautiful baked goods, and you were encouraged to grab a tray and some tongs, to grab whatever you wanted and bring them to the cashier to be rung up.  Everything was quite affordable, mostly in the $2-$4 range.
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This is what we picked during our first visit.  The large round pastry was mostly savory, but the cream cheese in the middle had a slight tangy, citrusy sweetness to it.  The other crust was very soft, and I liked it a lot.DSC02056
I believe the pastries on the left were financiers, and one might have been almond, and another might have been maple.  The shell-shaped pastry that is second from the top left was a madeline, which my wife always loves.  Bottom right is a red bean doughnut.  I wish I remembered exactly what that slice was, but I think it contained blueberry compote and had a subtle, tangy, creamy topping.

The inside of the red bean doughnut:
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That Milkis beverage tastes like a liquid version of those strawberry candies that elderly people always seem to have, but I never see them actually sold anywhere.DSC02057

Back home from that first visit from mid-2019, with even more goodies they were kind enough to throw in as samples.  The round ring on the left was similar to a stollen, and the two buns along the top had a peanut butter-like top crust but were harder rolls on the inside (and not sweet).  The yellow round bun in the middle was called a crayon bun, and it was very fluffy, with a moist, buttery top and a hollow center with onions baked into it, like a bialy or an onion schnecken roll.  dsc02059.jpg

Winter Park and Orlando were struck with sadness when the location on Fairbanks suddenly closed for remodeling later in 2019, but I was thrilled to discover a second, smaller Bread & Co. location inside the awe-inspiring Lotte Market, the huge pan-Asian supermarket on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway.  Lotte Market is the home of the Filipino-American fusion resturant Taglish, among others, in its excellent food court.  Since I started making the haul out to Lotte in West Orlando, I’ve returned to that Bread & Co. to purchase the best white sandwich bread ever, which is perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches.  It is simply called sandwich loaf, and the ingredients are flour, egg, sugar, butter, milk, powdered milk, malt, and RICE WINE!dsc02704.jpg

There is another, larger loaf of bread available for sale that is even better: a milk loaf that contains flour, sugar, butter, milk, yeast, malt, and salt.  It is similar to brioche, soft and rich, and it makes OUTSTANDING French toast and equally awe-inspiring grilled cheese sandwiches.

This is a small Japanese cheesecake, which was marked down to $5 on the day I tried it.  DSC02684

This cheesecake had more of a fluffy, bread-like texture than the richer, creamier cheesecakes I’ve had (like from Publix, Cheesecake Factory, or the best of them all, Junior’s), and it was much less sweet than all of the others.  I’ve always heard it described as “jiggly,” but this one didn’t jiggle.  It was a nice little treat, but I probably wouldn’t get it again.  It’s just not my kind of cheesecake.

Well, the larger Bread & Co. in Winter Park finally reopened in January 2020 after some renovations, so I recently returned to see what changed and to finish this long-overdue review.  I’ve popped in there twice in March: once on my way down to Miami in early March, to bring milk loaves and sandwich loaves for my family and best friend down there, and made another trip more recently, in the midst of coronavirus panic, to pick up lunch and some sweet snacks to go.

Since the remodeling, Bread & Co. has decreased its pastry offerings from what they used to have, but they still have many of people’s favorites from before.  Check out that gorgeous (mislabeled) tiramisu cake in the top left!DSC03037

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I’m the guy who doesn’t care for macarons, but if you like them, here’s your place:DSC03039

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But even better: since the remodeling and reopening, they have added a menu of Japanese food from Nakada’s Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant set up as a new part of the bakery.  By the time I visited this weekend, all local restaurants have temporarily transitioned to offering takeout food only, and they were no longer serving tempting-looking ramen or udon noodle bowls.  Luckily, they were still offering several intriguing sandwiches, and I picked one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long, long time: the menchi katsu sandwich ($8), a panko-crusted and fried meatloaf sandwich on a soft bun, served with finely-shredded cabbage on top.
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This was a perfect sandwich, perfect for allaying worry and dread and filling my mouth and heart with joy for a few valuable minutes.  The textures of this thing were unreal.  I already love meatloaf — I make a damn fine one, and I’ve enjoyed great versions from Se7en Bites and The Coop — but wasn’t sure what to expect from Japanese meatloaf.  I should have expected greatness.  I’ve also read that menchi katsu is sometimes a Japanese version of a hamburger, but panko-breaded and fried.  However, this has a lot more seasonings than your average burger, as well as a softer and “spongier” texture, making it more meatloaf-like to me.  The breading was light and crispy, and the bun was surprisingly soft and simple.  It just worked so well on every possible level.  Pure comfort food, and it even came with a generous order of tasty fries that were still warm by the time I got home, and ketchup that was slightly spicier than your typical Heinz, but definitely not adulterated with sriracha (I am NOT a fan of that ubiquitous hipster hot sauce).
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I also picked up a beautiful-looking onion bread (the big thing with cheese in the middle; $3.99), and a small custard tart similar to the egg tarts I’ve enjoyed at Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro.DSC03046

I’m so glad Bread & Co. is back in Winter Park, and now with Nakada’s Kitchen serving up Japanese food too.  If the rest of their offerings are as impressive as my menchi katsu sandwich, they have a hit on their hands.  Now we just need the world to get back to normal to fully enjoy things, but at least they are serving takeout in the meantime.  Please stop by and give them some of your business, because they are friendly and nice people, and we need carbs to get through the coming weeks.

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

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On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
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When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.

Se7en Bites

For many years, I have been a champion of Se7en Bites (http://www.se7enbites.com/), the local bakery and restaurant run by the delightful Chef Trina Gregory-Propst, a woman I am honored to call a friend.  Ever since I first tasted her Signature Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Pie at another local establishment, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I knew she was a master of her craft.  It is, and still remains, the finest pie crust I’ve ever had.  This is praise of the highest order, as I will always choose pie over all other desserts.  Long before starting The Saboscrivner, long before the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, I used to post about local food on the Florida forum of the website Chowhound.com, and I remember being the first to review her awe-inspiring pie on the entire Internet.  As far as I was concerned, a star was born.

This was several years ago, long before Chef Trina founded her own place, Se7en Bites.  It started out in Orlando’s “Milk District” neighborhood on Primrose and Robinson, in a very small space that regularly had lines out the door, especially for weekend breakfasts and brunches.  Peering over the counter at the array of beautiful baked goods was like looking through a window into Willy Wonka’s factory: a world of pure imagination, crafted from sugar, flour, and love.  We didn’t go as often as we liked, simply due to the crowds, but it was always a feast for the senses, as well as a great place to bring my co-workers and occasional out of town guests to show them one of Orlando’s best independent eateries.20191130_130558_resized

Chef Trina became successful enough to expand to a larger location a few years ago, with much more parking.  She’s still on Primrose, just south of Colonial.  (And another one of my local favorite restaurants, Bad As’s Sandwich, has since opened in the original Se7en Bites location and has been absolutely killing it for the past two years.)

In 2017, she received a well-deserved accolade that some restauranteurs only dream of: Se7en Bites was featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous and beloved Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, which only added to her status as a local legend.  (That was Season 26, episode 10, “Wonder Women,” in case you’re ever lucky enough to catch a replay.)  Once she started serving burgers (which are amazing!), I named her Italian Stallion burger one of my top five dishes of 2017 in a feature I wrote for the Orlando Weekly in their last issue of the year, but I’m no Guy Fieri, I get it. (However, I spent much of the late ’90s and 2000s wearing retro-looking shirts straight out of the “hipster doofus collection,” just like his.)

Needless to say, it has been a pleasure to watch Chef Trina become a recognized and respected face of Orlando’s culinary community, and my wife and I have been huge fans from the beginning!  Whenever we go to Se7en Bites, we always get the friendliest service and some of my favorite food in Orlando.  Whether we choose handmade burgers with ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries, buttermilk garlic breakfast biscuits heaped with bacon and eggs, or just have dessert because we’re grown-ass adults who can do that if we want to, we know we’re always in for a treat.  Chef Trina never fails to come out of her bustling kitchen to check on us, and she always asks how my wife is doing when I pop in alone.

Unfortunately, I missed her on my most recent visit, around 1:00 on a weekend when I ordered everything to go.  She was probably already hard at work at her other restaurant Sette, Orlando’s newest Italian restaurant, which I reviewed back in March 2019 and consider the best Italian restaurant in our City Beautiful.  My poor wife was at home, grading papers while fighting off a cold, so I wanted to bring her a really nice lunch.  When we saw photos of Se7en Bites’ weekend brunch special, the Minnie Pearl, on Facebook, she told me that was exactly what she wanted.DSC02719

The Minnie Pearl ($14.75), named for the down-home hostess of Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry, comes with two mini pearl sugar waffles (GET IT???), a buttermilk-fried chicken breast, and an over medium egg, although I requested the egg be cooked over hard for my wife, who doesn’t love runny eggs.  It also comes with hot honey drizzle and the most amazing vanilla bean butter syrup, which they were kind enough to include in separate containers with lids.  You can say “HOW-DEEEEEEE!” to that.  DSC02720I’m so glad my wife shared a little bite of the pearl sugar waffle with me.  It was easily the best waffle I’ve ever tasted.  Much crisper and denser than most breakfast waffles, including the ones from my beloved Waffle House, this one made the whole house smell like butter, vanilla, and good times.

The Minnie Pearl also included cheddar chive grits, which she is much more into than I am:DSC02724

This is my favorite regular item on the menu at Se7en Bites, the meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough bread, with a mashed potato schmear ($9.25).  I’m a meatloaf lover and make a damn amazing meatloaf, if I do say so myself.  Chef Trina’s version is the only meatloaf that I think comes close to mine.  And since I don’t always feel like a huge and hearty Southern breakfast, I know I can always count on this sandwich (since I always feel like sandwiches).  DSC02725

This is the pimento cheese and bacon sandwich, also on grilled sourdough bread ($8.75).  And I opted for a crispy fried green tomato on mine, for a $2 upcharge.  Pimento cheese is something else I make well, but I feel compelled to try it whenever I see it on a menu, since everyone’s version is a little different.  The version at Se7en Bites is among my favorites.  DSC02726

Sides with the two sandwiches, creamy macaroni and cheese (a $3.25 upcharge) and the aforementioned ranch-seasoned crinkle-cut fries (a $2.75 upcharge).  Sadly, the fries were cold by the time I got home with everything, thanks to hitting every light on Colonial and then again on Semoran.  I’ll never order these fries with a takeout order again, but they are among my favorite fries in the city when I dine in at Se7en Bites.  DSC02723

To make the lines move along better, you order your sweets at a separate counter, where all the delicious, decadent desserts are on display under glass domes.  Feel free to ask questions — her staff is probably used to them, and they’re always happy to tell you anything you want to know.  20191130_130547_resized

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This is the aforementioned Signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pecan pie ($7), which features the finest, flakiest, most buttery pie crust I’ve ever had.  The whole thing is an embarrassment of richness.  It looks small, but it can be easily be shared by two to four people.  DSC02722DSC02730

I recently met one of my favorite Internet friends for the first time, along with his lovely girlfriend.  He is a fellow aficionado of comic books, cats, pro wrestling, and pie, and we got together for dinner at an old Disney Springs favorite, The Polite Pig.  I made sure to pick up one of Chef Trina’s signature pies for them, and I think it dazzled them the same way it always dazzles us.  That crust remains unparalleled.

This is the Se7en Bites coconut cream pie ($7), one of my favorite kinds of pies, even after getting a little burned out on them judging the cream pie category at the National Pie Championship last spring.  It’s another big hit in our household, to the point where after sharing small slivers when I brought our most recent takeout order home, my wife woke up very early the next morning and finished the rest of it before I got up.  But what’s mine is hers, and at least I got a taste.DSC02721DSC02728

Most recently, when I picked up the signature pie for my visiting friend, I also noticed a new pie I had never seen before: a Samoa brownie cream pie ($7)!  It looked magnificent, and I brought it home, split it evenly, and devoured it with my wife — while we were both watching each other, like something out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  This pie has everything: a chocolate fudgy cookie-like crust, caramel, butterscotch, coconut, and the smoothest, coolest, creamiest filling.  It was literally my favorite Se7en Bites dessert EVER, and I hope Chef Trina will consider adding it to the permanent menu.
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And this thicc bar came highly recommended by one of the lovely and ever-patient women of the Se7en Bites staff.  I believe it’s called I Don’t Give a Fudge, and the layers are chocolate chip cookie (bottom), rich fudge brownie (middle), smooth chocolate peanut butter (top), and then a soft cookie dough topping above all of that.  It’s about four inches thick, and once again, meant to be shared by several people (or at least for one or two people to get several portions out of it.  This one cost about $6.  DSC02727

Se7en Bites even serves special burgers on Fridays, which makes it difficult to catch them, but they have been among my favorite dishes there.  In fact, this is an older photo of my favorite burger Chef Trina has ever crafted, the Italian Stallion.  It is topped with a fried mozzarella plank, savory-sweet tomato jam, and pesto aioli, and it is one of my favorite burgers of all time.  In fact, the Italian Stallion made my Top Five favorite dishes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly20170805_103742
Anyone remember the Bennigan’s chain, so ubiquitous throughout the ’90s and the first half of the ’00s?  They had a similar burger back then, the Wheelhouse burger, topped with a fried mozzarella cheese “wheel” and marinara sauce.  That was good eatin’ back in the day, but the Se7en Bites version even leaves that fond memory behind, in the dust.

This was another special Friday burger, topped with bacon, Chef Trina’s wonderful pimento cheese, and onion rings, and I got it with a side of onion rings!  That’s right — you didn’t think this was going to be a RING THE ALARM! feature, but I sneaked it in there, right at the end.  I don’t remember the cute name this burger no doubt had, but I wish she would bring it back, and make those onion rings a regular menu item.  Look at them!  They’re the “good kind” of onion rings I always wax poetic about on this blog — beer-battered and golden brown, crispy but not crunchy, not too thin or too thick, not too greasy.  These were the onion rings that dreams are made of!  20180223_132856_resized

Anyway, Se7en Bites is a local favorite with national renown for good reason, and between this and Sette, Trina and Va’s culinary empire is pretty well-established in Orlando.  I can’t wait to see — and taste — whatever these gastronomic goddesses do next.  In the meantime, if I have co-workers or out-of-town guests who are craving brunch or sweets, Se7en Bites will remain my top choice to bring them to.  There isn’t much like it anywhere else, and we are so lucky to have it here.  Don’t miss the Minnie Pearl with those perfect pearl sugar waffles, and be on the lookout for Friday burgers and that Samoa brownie cream pie!

Popeyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.