La Hacienda

La Hacienda (https://linktr.ee/lahaciendarestaurant) is a Mexican restaurant in Winter Park, on the southwest corner of Semoran Boulevard (State Road 436) and Aloma Avenue.  It has its own adjoining grocery store, similar to my old favorite near work, Tortilleria El Progreso.  I actually pass both going to and from work every day, but had only ever stopped into La Hacienda to pick up fresh tortillas and Mexican snacks.  But after so many years of always being in too much of a hurry, I recently ate at the restaurant for the first time, with my wife — one of our first post-vaccination meals out together.

My sense of blocking sucks, but here are our complimentary chips and salsa, with my large pineapple agua fresca ($2.50) nearly covering my wife’s small horchata agua fresca ($1.49).  The pineapple is one of the best aguas frescas I’ve ever had anywhere, with lots of real fruit pulp in it.  The horchata was nice and refreshing too.  Very cinnamony.  These chips desperately needed to be salted, ideally right when they came out of the fryer, as they were pretty bland.  But the salsa was terrific.  It must have been made fresh, because it was much better than most table salsas I’ve had at similar Mexican restaurants, with a roasted tomato flavor.  I would totally buy this salsa by the jar.

My wife suggested we get the Hacienda sampler platter ($7.99), but we were both a little underwhelmed by it.  You have more of the unsalted chips, covered with refried beans and molten lava-hot queso to serve as nachos in the middle, two crispy beef flautas (which she usually likes), and then a quesadilla on the right side with seasoned ground beef in a soft flour tortilla.  She wasn’t into the quesadilla at all after one bite, so I ate it.  She wasn’t really feeling the queso either, so I ate everything it touched.  It was kind of bland.  Guacamole was okay.  I would skip this sampler in the future.  The menu is huge, and there are plenty of more interesting offerings to be had here.

Whenever I’m at a new Mexican restaurant that serves traditional tacos on corn tortillas, dressed with only fresh cilantro and diced onions, with multiple meats to choose from, I like to order an assortment of those tacos to sample the different meats.  They are usually small and cheap, so I get a nice variety and a chance to gauge what the restaurant does best.  From left to right I got birria (shredded and steamed barbecue beef; a real foodie trend of the past two years), lengua (tender braised beef tongue), pescado (fried fish), al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated with pineapple juice and traditionally shaved off a spit), chorizo (crumbled spicy pork sausage), and carne asada (grilled steak). Each of these beauties was $1.79, except for the fish taco that was $3.49.  The plate came garnished with a lime wedge to squirt over each taco, soft marinated carrot slices (delicious), and crispy sliced radishes.  I ran out of steam and couldn’t eat the carne asada, but I mostly ordered that one for my wife to try, since that is usually her go-to Mexican meat.

In fact, she ordered two carne asada sopes ($2.99 each), served open-faced on thick, puffy fried corn shells that are much thicker than tortillas, that serve kind of like a shallow cup or bowl.   They were topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and crumbled cotija cheese.She always orders sopes at one of our favorite establishments, Tortas El Rey, and I think those remain the reigning champions for her.

I was so full that I was feeling ill, but my wife wanted dessert, so we ordered the helado frito, or fried ice cream ($4.99).  It was a huge portion — a big scoop of rock-hard vanilla ice cream covered in a really nice, crispy fried breading, and served in a fried flour tortilla like the kind taco salads come in.  It was drizzled with caramel sauce and served with whipped cream and sprinkles.  For some reason, she didn’t like the fried breading around the ice cream, but that was my favorite part, so that worked out well for us.  

I definitely liked our meal at La Hacienda more than my wife did, but she might have preferred it if she ordered different things.  I definitely enjoyed the birria, al pastor, chorizo, and fried fish tacos, the marinated carrots, and the salsa that came with the chips (but the chips themselves, ehhhh, not so much).  I would go back, but I think she would take a pass.  With Tortilleria El Progreso so close to work, I don’t know if I could wrangle work colleagues to grab lunch here (once we start doing that again), or even drive the extra distance to pick up takeout to eat at work.  But it would be a convenient stop to pick up takeout on my way home, now that I know what’s good and what is just so-so.  Tortas El Rey is just so far, and our other favorite, Francisco’s Taco Madness, is never open at night or on Sundays, so it could be a nice option to have solid, authentic Mexican food near home in the future.

El Santo Taqueria (Miami)

On my madcap trip to Miami in early March last year, right before the world changed forever, I spent a full day hanging out with my best friend and eating all over the city, including Cuban burgers and Cuban pizza for lunch at Polo Norte.  For dinner, we made our way down to Miami’s vibrant Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street), the center of the Cuban community, full of restaurants, bars, and vibrant nightlife.  It is so much more fun than pricey and pretentious South Beach.  While waiting for a table at our ultimate dinner destination (stay tuned, Saboscrivnerinos!), I spotted the lucha libre-themed El Santo Taqueria (http://elsantomiami.com/taqueria-home/), and begged my BFF and his lovely girlfriend to indulge me and stop in for a snack between our earlier snack and an impending huge, heavy dinner.

El Santo was maybe the most famous luchador, an iconic Mexican wrestler who was like a real-life superhero in and out of the ring.  He starred in dozens of movies, was the hero of his own long-running comic book series, and never took his silver mask off in public, staying in character for decades as a hero and champion to fans of all ages, never revealing his secret identity.  While (almost) everyone knows wrestling is staged “sports entertainment” here in the United States, lucha libre is a grand tradition in Mexico, and luchadores can become folk heroes and symbols of national pride.

As for me, when I first got into watching pro wrestling around 1998, it was the high-flying luchadores in WCW’s cruiserweight division that drew me in and made me a fan.  Those guys were awe-inspiring — smaller competitors who held their own against the big brawlers, defying gravity with insane flips and hurricanranas while wearing cool masks.  I followed WCW until it was subsumed by WWE, and then stuck around until 2005, drifting away after one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Eddie Guerrero, passed away, tragically and far too young.  Over the last year, which I spent so much of at home, the new wrestling promotion AEW got me excited to watch and follow pro wrestling again.  AEW Dynamite became my Wednesday night tradition, and it is pretty much everything I always wished WWE was, back in the day: lots of action, entertaining characters, long-running story arcs with real character development, comic relief, no huge egos, no backstage politics, and everyone doing their best work and putting each other over (making their opponents look good).

I could mark out about AEW all day, but this is neither the time nor the place!  Flashing back to March 7th, 2020, I saw that sign with El Santo’s intimidating visage leaning out over Calle Ocho in three dimensions, and I knew I had to make a pilgrimage.  Tacos beckoned!DSC03026

The walls are adorned with lucha libre-themed artwork:
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This poster caught my eye, as a Bowie fan:
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El Santo Taqueria also displays the masks of champions:DSC03017

And even their championship belts.  (Cue my wife, who loves to say that wrestling is all about big, burly guys brawling over an accessory, but will begrudgingly admit that AEW has grown on her.)
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My buddy and I shared an order of two carne asada tacos ($9), with marinated steak, queso fresco, chili crema, tomatoes, and cilantro on charred corn tortillas.  DSC03021

We also split an order of two al pastor tacos ($8): slow-roasted marinated pork served with charred pineapple, caramelized onions, and tomatillo salsa on the same charred corn tortillas.DSC03022

These were not giant tacos — which is fine, because we were on our way to a colossal dinner — but they were beautiful and packed with flavor.  Perfect appetizers.

I got a Jarritos mandarin soda (made with sugar cane instead of high fructose corn syrup) to wash down my tacos.  Here’s a helpful hint to improve your life — some 7-Elevens now offer Jarritos mandarin soda in the fountain, so you can fill a Big Gulp with the stuff.  I’m trying to quit soda completely, but I always enjoyed orange sodas, and this one might be the best.DSC03023

I’m so glad I spotted El Santo Taqueria, and that my friends indulged me, even on this great day of indulgence.  It wasn’t on our dining agenda, but when I see masked wrestling iconography and Mexican food, nothing is going to keep the Saboscrivner away.  As the rockabilly band Southern Culture on the Skids sang, ¡Viva el Santo!

The Pass Progressive Cuisine

Not being an influencer, I sometimes arrive a little late to the hottest foodie trends. But for a couple of months, I’ve been salivating over photos and videos of birria tacos made with braised, shredded beef brisket or goat and served with a dipping cup of rich, glistening, orangey-red consommé. Now Orlando has a few Mexican restaurants that serve birria, and today I finally tried it at one of our newest birria boutiques: The Pass Progressive Cuisine (https://www.thepassprogressive.com/), located in a nondescript industrial warehouse plaza in Altamonte Springs. It’s a little off the beaten path, but the best places often are. And you don’t want to pass on The Pass Progressive, trust me.

My wife wasn’t as psyched for birria as I was, but at all of our favorite taquerias and Mexican restaurants like Tortas El Rey and Francisco’s Taco Madness, she always requests carne asada tacos, so that’s what she wanted to try here. You get an order of three for $11.95. I took one little bite and loved what I tasted, but more importantly, so did she. The steak was tender and picked up nice flavor from being grilled, and I think I detected some lime juice in there.

You can see they are absolutely stunning, topped with a snow flurry of Oaxaca cheese, fresh cilantro, and julienned radishes on soft corn tortillas. The carne asada tacos come with guajillo chile salsa, but my wife isn’t big on salsas, sauces, or anything too spicy, so I ordered it on the side for her (so I could have it).

But here it is, the star of the show: birria tacos! These also come in an order of three for $11.95. They were also topped with cilantro, radish, onion (I asked them to hold the onion for my wife’s tacos), and a dusting of Oaxaca cheese, plus there’s that rich, flavorful consommé.

The meat was so flavorful and tender from being braised and shredded, it didn’t even need the consommé, but you can bet I dipped anyway. Things got a little drippy and greasy from there, but we were at home, so all was well.

Close-up of these beautiful birria tacos:

They must season and grill these corn tortillas, because they are some of the best corn tortillas I’ve ever had. They held up to a lot of heavy ingredients and hungry handling, and really helped make the tacos into something special.

Since this was my first visit, I couldn’t resist ordering something else for later, so I went with something completely different: the Jaeyook Korean pork burrito ($11.20), with white rice, black beans, cheese, sour crema, avocado, kimchi cabbage, perilla leaf (a plant in the mint family, related to Japanese shiso), and spicy gochujang sauce wrapped up in a huge flour tortilla. I often like burritos even more than tacos, but I wanted to try birria in its traditional taco form and get something else as a burrito.

This one was a little spicier from the gochujang sauce, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Like all the other food from The Pass, it was gorgeous, with such an eye-catching blend of colors and textures, in addition to all the flavors at play. All their burritos come with excellent fresh, crispy, salty tortilla chips that we shared, and a different salsa that was all mine.

Sauce gallery!

Here you see pickled red onions that came with something, garlic aioli that had a thinner, more crema-like consistency than I expected (50 cents), the most delicious pineapple chutney that was so sweet it could have gone on an ice cream sundae (50 cents), the guajillo chile salsa that would have come on my wife’s carne asada tacos that she asked for on the side, the salsa that came with the burrito and chips, and some tomatillo salsa. Of all of these, the pineapple chutney was the big winner for both of us, and I also loved the smoky guajillo chile salsa. I’d buy both of those by the jar or bottle.

As you might guess, The Pass Progressive Cuisine was a big hit, and I know we’re not the only people falling in love with their food. I expect the legend will only grow, so you (possibly) heard it here first, on The Saboscrivner! I can’t wait to return and try their Caribbean wings, their ancho-braised beef or chicken empanadas, their lobster tacos (with lobster consommé!), but I know I won’t be able to resist the birria, so I’ll just keep ordering multiple things. And in case you ever tire of tacos or burritos (the horror!), you can also get almost everything as enchiladas or quesadillas too.

Just remember that The Pass Progressive Cuisine doesn’t have seating, so it’s a takeout-only place — but that’s perfect during a pandemic anyway. And they are open Tuesday through Friday, 12 – 8 PM, and Saturdays 12 – 5 PM.

Francisco’s Taco Madness

I think we can all agree that 2020 is one of the worst years ever, but on a personal level, I had a pretty rotten 2017 too.  That summer, I was hospitalized with the worst pain of my life that turned out to be kidney stones (thanks for nothing, keto diet!).  Then two weeks later I got what was probably the second-worst pain of my life, which turned out to be pneumonia, which I almost certainly caught in the hospital the first time.  I missed two weeks of work recovering, and it all really shook me up and made me realize I’m getting old, and things are going to keep breaking.  (And back then, even after that one-two punch, I didn’t know the half of it!)

Toward the end of those two weeks, I was out running errands, feeling sorry for myself, and also feeling hungry.  What else is new, am I right?  Driving down State Road 17-92, I passed the Lowe’s home improvement store and saw a familiar white trailer with a red and white striped awning, a sight I had seen countless times over the years.  But this day, I was curious enough to stop, and I had all the time in the world to linger.  It smelled so good, and as I perused the handwritten menu, I knew I had chosen wisely.  The Mexican food was some of the best I’d ever tasted, and it was incredibly cheap and so satisfying.  It helped lift me out of a deep existential depression, and made me feel physically better, too.  This was a real treasure, and I felt like I had discovered it, despite them always being busy and having long lines.
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I would later learn that taco trailer was called Francisco’s Taco Madness (https://www.facebook.com/Franciscos-Taco-Madness-Pinedo-rental-173063512788695/), and it became one of my favorite sights to see in Casselberry, whenever I drove by the Fern Park Lowe’s on State Road 17-92, just south of Semoran Boulevard.  You have to follow their Facebook page to know when they’re going to be serving, but it’s usually between Wednesday and Saturday, afternoons only, usually just between 1 PM and 6 PM.  I’ve been back many times over the last few years, but Saturdays are typically my only opportunity to visit.  And since the lines really do get long, my recommendation is to be there close to the beginning, when they’re still putting up that striped awning.

Most recently, after a few weeks of being shut down, Francisco’s Taco Madness announced their triumphant return starting this past Tuesday, June 30th.  They wouldn’t be at Lowe’s anymore, but at a new location literally two minutes away:

Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People
704 Prairie Lake Dr.
Fern Park, FL 32730

They are also asking diners to text their pickup orders to 407.865.4697, to cut down on crowds and help with social distancing.  NOW’S YOUR CHANCE, PEOPLE!

Here is the menu:
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I ordered my wife her favorite: two carne asada tacos, with cilantro, guacamole, and a splash of hot sauce, hold the onions ($2 each):
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I got myself one chorizo taco with all of that, plus onions ($2):
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Here are some lovely tacos from an earlier visit:
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And I got my favorite burrito in all of Orlando, Francisco’s al pastor burrito ($8).  It is huge and perfect in every way, the archetypal burrito of your dreams and mine:
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It is so good that I included it in my list of Top Five Dishes of 2017, published in the Orlando Weekly‘s end of the year issue.

Here’s a cross-section so you can see the deliciousness wrapped inside that grilled 12″ flour tortilla: the perfectly marinated and slightly sweet al pastor pork, rice, beans, cheese, onions, peppers, guacamole, and a piquant sauce.  It’s truly unparalleled.
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This time I treated myself to a fresh-squeezed lemonade (something I have a hard time turning down), and I got the large for $4, which just comes in a styrofoam cup.  It was really refreshing, especially after waiting outside in the early summer heat for my order to come up — probably the longest sustained period I’ve been outdoors since the quarantine started in March.  They also offer regular canned sodas and bottled Jarritos Mexican sodas, made with cane sugar, which I love and recommend.
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You can see that Francisco’s Taco Madness also offers quesadillas (which my wife loves), hamburgers, hot dogs, a kielbasa sausage sandwich, a barbecue pulled pork sandwich, a Philly cheesesteak, and even chicken salad.  I’ve been tempted in the past by the kielbasa, which I’m imagining comes on a nice, lightly-griddled roll and covered with onions and peppers, but I always return to that al pastor burrito and one or more tacos.

Orlando is lucky to have so many outstanding Mexican options, especially for tacos.  I’ve already reviewed my other favorites, which I think are synonymous with the best in town (Tortas El Rey, Hunger Street Tacos, MX Taco), but no list of my favorites or the best would be complete without Francisco’s Taco Madness.  If you’re also driving through Fern Park and see that red and white striped awning over their white decorated trailer, stop whatever you’re doing, pull into Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People, and text your order to 407.865.4697.  You will be so happy you did, and you’ll wonder what took you so long.

Tako Cheena

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tortas El Rey

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

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

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

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

A different sope from a different visit:DSC02486

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bem Bom on Corrine

Bem Bom on Corrine (https://bembomfood.com) is a cute and cool restaurant in Orlando’s hip, foodie-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood that specializes in Mexican and Portuguese cuisines (but separate, not a funky fusion of the two).  Conceptualized by Chef Francisco “Chico” Mendonça, Bem Bom (Portuguese for “Good Good”) started out as a food truck before opening its brick and mortar location in 2018.  My first visit was way back in June, but since I was alone and in a hurry that night, I only ordered one dish and a drink.  DSC02215

They have a nice outdoor patio facing Corrine Drive, with some singular shops and other restaurants directly across the street.DSC02216

This drink was listed on the menu as Portuguese Sumol Passion Fruit ($2.75), and I love passion fruit-flavored anything.  I was relieved to find out it was non-alcoholic, so I treated myself.  The lightly-carbonated beverage tasted good and surprisingly natural and juicy, despite having the weird, dry aftertaste that Sucralose-sweetened drinks often have.  I probably wouldn’t order it again, but I’m glad I tried it once.DSC02211

These were my three tacos al pastor ($13), a dinner special with marinated pork in adobo sauce, pineapple, and a sauce made with arbol chiles and tomatillos, double-wrapped in soft, fresh corn tortillas.  I have a hard time turning down tacos al pastor whenever I find them on a Mexican menu, and these were excellent, garnished simply with finely-chopped cilantro, diced onion, and a lime wedge.  DSC02212DSC02213

I finally went back with two work colleagues today, so I could try more things.  We started out with excellent crispy tortilla chips, served with extremely fresh-tasting guacamole (some of the better guac I’ve had, for $9) and salsa that was actually spicy.
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I’ve been hearing great things about the pasteis de bacalhau, or cod fritters ($9.95), for a long time now, so I had to try them.  They came with a small arugula salad tossed in a light lemony dressing, and creamy, cooling jalapeño ranch for dipping (which wasn’t spicy at all).DSC02536

These were extremely hot (temperature-wise, not spice-wise), but they had a very light, crispy exterior and weren’t overly greasy.  The flaky cod on the inside wasn’t as strongly seasoned as I was hoping for (I was craving something spicy, like the devil crabs of Tampa), but at least it was pleasantly mild and not overly fishy.  They really didn’t need the jalapeño ranch, which is fine, because I used it elsewhere.DSC02537

One of my colleagues ordered frango de churrasco, half a bone-in chicken marinated in tangy piri-piri marinade and grilled ($13.95).  It was served with a beautiful small salad and hearty fries, which I ended up eating most of, dipping them in the jalapeño ranch.  I can’t let a good sauce, condiment, or dip go to waste.  Awww, dip!
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I don’t think he ate the croutons, but they looked house-made, and I probably should have asked for them.  DSC02542

My other colleague ordered the smoked chicken enchiladas ($13.95), which came with white rice and black beans.  The two enchiladas included apples and onions wrapped up with the smoked shredded chicken in corn tortillas, topped with red and green chile sauces.  I tried the tiniest morsel, and it was really good.  I would definitely order these enchiladas for myself in the future.  DSC02538

She wasn’t feeling the beans, so with complete disregard for my co-workers’ welfare later in the afternoon, I had to sample them.  They were pretty basic black beans.  DSC02540

And last, but far from least, I ordered the pork prego sandwich ($11.95): six-hour braised pork, onions, peppers, pico de gallo, radish, cilantro, and serrano sauce served on a crusty Portuguese roll.  It was an incredible sandwich.  Lots of good flavors and textures, saucy, and pleasantly spicy.  I’ve written before how much I hate overly-hard rolls that shatter when you bite into them, spewing crumbs and cutting up the inside of your mouth, but this roll wasn’t like that at all.  The delicious, spicy juices from the pork softened up the inside.  It was a juicy sandwich in the best possible way.  10/10, would order again.
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Some of Bem Bom’s other delicacies include highly-recommended queso dip to go with the chips, rock shrimp tacos, mango-“painted” fish tacos, duck meatballs, a lamb burger, and a pan-seared filet mignon topped with prosciutto, a fried egg, and a beer-based sauce.  I’ve heard about other limited-time specials, including an intriguing octopus dish that wasn’t on the menu at lunch today.  And they even serve brunch on Sundays!

As you can hopefully see by now, Bem Bom has a creative and eclectic menu in fun, funky surroundings.  I would totally go back, especially because it’s only ten minutes from where we work.  Plus, you have Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream, one of my Top Two local ice cream shops, right across the street, and our first local food hall, the East End Market, moments away.  That immediate stretch of Corrine Drive also hosts some of  Orlando’s coolest establishments like Park Avenue CDs (my favorite local music store, even if I feel woefully uncool whenever I shop there), Stardust Video and Coffee*, which hosts the Audubon Park Community Market on Monday nights, and Big Daddy’s (a karaoke bar I can never get anyone to accompany me to).

* Who else used to rent videos from Stardust back in the day?  When I first moved to Orlando, the place blew my mind.  It was the first video store I had ever been to that specialized in independent, cult, and art films, and it organized them by director and/or country of origin for foreign films.  Totally warmed this nerdy librarian’s heart.

 

Hunger Street Tacos

Orlando has a plethora of fantastic Mexican restaurants, from the upscale to the cheap and casual, from Americanized to authentic.  One that is consistently in the pantheon of best Mexican food is Hunger Street Tacos (http://hungerstreettacos.com/) on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from I-4.  Brothers Joseph and David Creech, the chef-owner-operators, and Joseph’s wife Seydi, serve a unique menu of authentic street foods you would definitely encounter in Mexico City, and most of their dishes are totally singular here in Orlando.  You won’t find them on most local menus, and even if you did, you won’t find their equals.  I love the Creech Brothers’ story on the Hunger Street website that describes their formative years spent in Mexico and how they studied the local street foods and authentically recreated them here, starting with a catering business and culminating in their restaurant, in the original location of the now-legendary 4 Rivers Smokehouse.

Unfortunately, Hunger Street Tacos is too far from my job to dash off there for lunch, and since I work late and they are closed on Sundays, I don’t make it there nearly often enough.  It had been far too long since my last visit, but thankfully my wife and I recently made it back there on a Saturday at 11 AM, while they still served some special brunch menu items, but before it got too hot and before they got too crowded.

As usual, we arrived hungry and over-ordered, so we could try a bunch of different dishes and end up with delicious leftovers for later:

Sauteed mushroom quesadilla ($4.75) for my wife, and vegetarian tinga quesadilla ($4.75) for me, on crispy grilled flour tortillas.  I love the vegetarian tinga, with sauteed onion, garlic, cabbage, and chipotle peppers that made it the spiciest dish I tried (but not too spicy, for those who fear the heat).  Both quesadillas include Chihuahua cheese (which, I must clarify, comes from the Chihuahua state in Mexico, not from actual chihuahuas).DSC02060

Campechano taco with pulled brisket and crumbled chorizo ($3.75) and fried avocado taco ($3.75).  This brisket is crispy from being cooked in a hot griddle after being slow-cooked, and the fried avocado is the perfect consistency — light and crispy outside, warm and soft on the inside.  DSC02061

Hibiscus and guacamole taco ($3.00).  Yes, they are actual hibiscus flowers, and they are so delicious.  They remind me a little of one of my favorite vegetable dishes, braised red cabbage, with their look and texture underneath that delicious fresh guacamole and tomatoes, but it’s hard to fully describe their unique flavor.DSC02062

Rib taco ($4.75), a current special that will eventually be added to the regular menu.  It is a bone-in pork rib, and the meat is so tender, you can simply squeeze the rib inside the tortilla to pull out the bone.  DSC02063

I was so excited to try the al pastor taco ($3.75, I believe), but it wasn’t ready when we arrived at 11 AM on a Saturday!  Luckily, they had it ready before we left, so I had to go back inside to order one.  It was totally worth the wait — one of the best al pastor dishes I’ve ever had, and that is one of my favorite dishes to order anywhere.  The marinated pork is sliced fresh off a vertical trompo (think of how gyro meat or shawarma is often sliced off a rotating spit), and I don’t think anyone else in the city does it this way.  The taco came simply garnished with onions, cilantro, a nice piece of fresh pineapple, and squeezing a lime wedge over it made it pure perfection.
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This is Hunger Street’s chicharron de queso ($8.00), a house specialty that you cannot order to go, since it wouldn’t be the same when it isn’t hot, fresh, and perfectly crispy.  Yes, this is gouda cheese, melted, stretched, and fried until it has almost a potato chip consistency.  It comes with guacamole and spicy red salsa, and my advice (really Chef David Creech’s advice) is to use the crispy cheese to scoop up some of both, so you get all the flavors and textures in one bite.  This would be a fantastic dish for low-carb and keto dieters who want something crispy and salty and are in chip withdrawal.  Been there, done that!DSC02064The chicharron de queso was so huge, we couldn’t finish it at the restaurant, so we ended up bringing a lot of it home.  Wisely, I didn’t put it in the refrigerator, where it might have turned soggy.  I left it on our kitchen counter on an uncharacteristically cool April day, so it was still mostly crispy later that evening.

And finally, this is one of their Saturday brunch dishes, churro French toast ($7.90), created from English muffin bread from Orlando’s own Olde Hearth Bread Company.  Light and eggy and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, this is what convinced my wife to have an early lunch here, and she absolutely loved it.  It was beautiful to behold, and its taste lived up to its looks!  DSC02065

I can’t say enough good things about Hunger Street Tacos or the warm and welcoming Super Creech Bros.  While geography and timing keep me from going as often as I would like, it is one of those Orlando restaurants that is constantly experimenting, improving, and impressing.  It never disappoints.  That al pastor is my new gold standard, and if you’re a vegetarian or have vegetarian friends, I can’t recommend it highly enough, with dishes like the hibiscus taco, chicharron de queso, vegetarian tinga quesadilla, mushroom quesadilla (more for you!), or the squash blossom quesadilla, which we didn’t even order this time.

Tin & Taco

As much as I love going to concerts, I don’t attend many of them anymore, because they make me feel old.  Especially at the venues in downtown Orlando, I get stressed out finding convenient parking, get annoyed paying for parking, and dread standing still in the same spot for hours at general admission venues.  Of course I always end up having a great time, even if I’m stiff and sore later.  I might be an altacocker, but I’m not dead yet!

Anyway, I decided to grab dinner before the last show I attended: the incredible singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Neko Case, a prolific artist I have adored for over 15 years and seen live once before.   I arrived early (as usual), parked in a lot around the corner from the club, and had a nice and easy pre-show meal at Tin & Taco (http://tinandtaco.com/), one of Orlando’s many newer taco joints that have sprung up over the last few years.

The downtown Tin & Taco restaurant is a small, tight space.  You order at the counter, move down to pay and choose your drinks (a wide assortment of beers and Stubborn brand sodas), and then take a seat at one of the indoor high-top tables or the lower outdoor tables on the patio.  There isn’t much of a view on Washington Avenue, and I was flying solo, so I opted to sit inside.  My order was ready in mere minutes, and they brought it right over to me.

But I have jumped ahead!  You have several options to choose from, most of which cost a very reasonable $8:

  • two tacos (you can mix and match them),
  • a bowl with rice,
  • a burrito with rice (these looked huge),
  • a salad,
  • a wrap (the menu clarifies the wrap as “a salad in a tortilla,” so I guess a burrito minus rice plus greens), or
  • in a small bag of Doritos, kind of like the “Frito pies” that are a popular outdoor food in Texas.

But as much as I love Doritos, the bags looked really tiny (like those “fun-size” bags for little kids’ lunches or the sad vending machines when you’re trapped at a mechanic or a police station), so I went with tacos to capitalize on the variety and sample Tin & Taco’s tortillas.  In fact, they let you get three tacos for $11, so I saved a dollar!  I’m always trying to find bargains and share them with you, Saboscrivnerinos!

So my three tacos were:

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Al Pastor Style (left): slow and low braised shredded pork with shredded lettuce, pineapple pico de gallo, mango pineapple vinaigrette, and cotija cheese.  This one was my first choice because I love tacos al pastor (even though I realize this wasn’t real, authentic al pastor sliced off a spit), but I ate it last.  It was delicious, but rather sweet from the pineapple chunks in the pico and the mango pineapple vinaigrette.  It was almost like a dessert after the other two tacos, but I’m not complaining, because I love salty, spicy, and sweet flavors combined together.

Mac Attack (center): angus ground beef with craft beer queso macaroni and cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and green onions.  Delicious, with good quality, creamy mac and cheese and nice, crispy bacon pieces.  The seasoned ground beef was much more flavorful than I expected — this isn’t Taco Bell!

Tacosaurus (right): angus ground beef with shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, shredded jack and cheddar cheeses, cotija cheese, crushed Doritos, and Southwest sauce.  I’m still not sure what the Southwest sauce was, since I ate it in such a hurry, but I liked it a lot.  And I am always a fan of putting chips in sandwiches, so I was happy about the flavor, color, and especially the crunchy texture from the crushed Doritos.

Close-ups:

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They also have several more variations with the angus ground beef and braised shredded pork, even more shredded chicken taco options (but chicken is usually blander and dryer than beef and pork, from my taco experiences elsewhere), as well as a vegetarian option with black beans, corn, and quinoa.

These were definitely flour tortillas, but I could tell they were fresh and not some gross shelf-stable tortillas out of a bag from the supermarket.  I contacted Tin & Taco the next day to confirm, and they told me “We use a local supplier so that our tortillas can be as fresh/tasty as possible.  We then grill a blend of grated cheese on the shell in house to give it a range of flavors as well as support for the heavy amount of ingredients.”  I noticed the crispy, crunchy shredded cheese on the bottoms of the tortillas, which I thought was just a happy accident for me and not part of their master plan.  Well played, Tin & Taco!

And by the way, the tacos were served on metal (tin) trays, hence the name.  I think it’s a little weird when people online complain about metal trays in restaurants.  What’s the problem?  They can keep washing them and using them forever, and it beats having more plastic around.  Someone online once compared them to prison food trays, but all I know is that if shit ever jumps off at Tin & Taco, we’ll all be ready for it!

I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect from Tin & Taco.  I chose it out of convenience and because people on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook had good things to say about it, but I wondered if it was just going to be greasy, mediocre “drunk food,” meant for snack-outs before or after black-outs.

But I was impressed by the amount of food I got for my eleven bucks, the blends of flavors, textures, and colors, and how well everything worked together.  I ended up liking all three of my tacos a lot.  I CHOSE WISELY!  At $3.66 each, they were a decent value, but much larger than the more traditional tacos at more authentic taquerias, which are usually served on smaller corn tortillas with just some diced onions and cilantro as toppings.  These are very American tacos, which goes without saying, but as a pre-concert meal, they totally hit the spot.  I don’t know if I’d rush back to Tin & Taco and pay $10 to park next to it, but it’s a fantastic, fast, fresh, and affordable option if you’re hanging out downtown.  And if I hung out downtown more, I’d definitely work it into my regular restaurant rotation.

P.S.  As I expected and feared, I ended up standing in one place the whole time at the concert, so I was stiff and sore as I wrote this review later that night.  On top of that, a burly bouncer threatened to kick me out for having my phone out, and this was before the opening act even came to the stage!  They were nuts about phones that night, and you could tell the crowd was becoming ill at ease, not wanting to get in trouble but feeling that FOMO feeling and desperately wanting to check our phones (again, before the opening act and between the acts, not during the performances like sociopaths!).  But it was all worthwhile, because the legendary Neko Case amazed and astonished as always, and I got to try new tacos!

MX Taco (soft opening!)

Happy New Year, Sabo-bots and Sabo-cons!  Here’s hoping that 2019 brings us all health, happiness, and some truly memorable meals.

Yesterday I attended the soft opening of Orlando’s newest taco spot, MX Taco.  Chef-owner Ryan Manning started out cooking in kitchens across Mexico, and his specialty is cuisine from the Yucatan region.  He was the chef of the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C. before he brought his expertise with authentic Mexican cuisine to our city.

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We already have plenty of taco joints and Mexican restaurants to choose from, and some of my favorites include Tortas El Rey, Francisco’s Taco Madness, and Hunger Street Tacos.  But the good news is that they provide something to satisfy everyone.  None of these restaurants are exactly alike, and they all have unique specialties, strengths, and weaknesses, so there is room for all.  Besides, tacos are tasty!

MX Taco is a tiny little spot on Bumby Avenue, near Lou’s Lounge and Saigon Noodle and Grill, with Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market across the street.  There are only four tables (three of which are high-tops), and you order and pay at the counter.  For the soft opening, Chef Manning wasn’t offering every single item on their exciting menu, but most of them were available, and I tried everything I could.

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I absolutely love that MX Taco’s menu is a map of Mexico, showing you which region each individual dish comes from.  I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Mexico, but I love geography and how food influences and is in turn influenced by geography, economics, and culture at large.  It’s rare when you can order food at a restaurant and learn something at the same time.

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Prices are extremely reasonable, since you order tacos and other items individually — everything I ordered was either $3, $3.25, or $3.50.

At the restaurant, I ordered the cochinita pibil taco (pulled pork with bitter orange and pickled onion from the Yucatan region), the bistec en salsa roja taco (braised steak with pepper sauce and avocado from the Sonora region), the quesadilla con chorizo (Oaxacan cheese and crumbled chorizo sausage from Mexico City), and a piña (pineapple) agua fresca, a sweet, cold, refreshing drink made with fresh pineapple and surely plenty of sugar.  The food came out quickly, and everything was delicious.

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I love cochinita pibil (sometimes referred to on menus as puerco pibil) and order it whenever Mexican restaurants offer it, which isn’t often.  I always think back to the cheesy action movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, where Johnny Depp’s corrupt CIA agent ordered puerco pibil everywhere he ate, in a quest for the best version of the dish.  When he finally found it, he went into the kitchen and shot the chef to “consecrate the moment.”  It’s a good thing that was a fictional movie (and even better that the real Johnny Depp is somewhere far, far away from us), or otherwise Chef Manning might have been in danger!  It was so fresh and so good.  The chorizo in the quesadilla was excellent as well, and I’m a big chorizo fan too.

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They have three housemade hot sauces available in bottles on the tables.  From left to right: a medium arbol chile sauce that is orange, a mild guajillo pepper-based sauce that is thick and dark red, and a fiendishly-hot habanero sauce.  The Guajillo was my favorite.  Habanero is usually too much for me, but I had to try it, and I appreciated that it packed a lot of flavor (a bit fruity, in fact!), rather than just painful heat like too many sadistic sauces.

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I placed a takeout order to bring some food back home to my wife, and while I waited, Chef Manning insisted I try his avocado ice cream.  It was very smooth, soft, and creamy — not icy or chunky at all.  It tasted so much better than you’d ever expect avocado ice cream to taste, and I say this as someone who loves ice cream and avocados.  It was topped with pepitas (pumpkin seeds, possibly lightly toasted?), toasted shredded coconut, and dark chocolate shavings.  It was a small cup, but I highly recommend it to anyone who dines at MX Taco, as it was a nice palate cleanser and worked well for cutting any lingering heat.

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My wife insisted on letting me sample all the food I brought home for her: a carnitas taco (confit pulled pork, onion, and cilantro from the Michoacan region), a bistec con sikil pak taco (steak, avocado, pickled onion, and pumpkin seed sauce, which I asked for on the side, from the Yucatan region), a quesadilla (with Oaxacan cheese and chipotle crema, from Mexico City), and an order of totopos (chips) and guacamole.  The guacamole was excellent, I have to say.  Extremely fresh — some of the best I’ve had anywhere around here, including more upscale Mexican restaurants that make a big production of “tableside guac.”  It was a nice-sized serving of guacamole, too.

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Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner followers will probably recognize our green plates by now:

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I also got her an horchata con coco agua fresca, rice water sweetened with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and coconut — some of her favorite flavors in one drink, and an ideal heat-cutter.  It was the thickest and richest horchata I’ve ever sampled, that’s for sure.  I love aguas frescas, but a lot of them are made from sugary powdered mixes, not that dissimilar from Kool-Aid.  I could tell both my pineapple drink and her horchata were very fresh.

It should go without saying that everything is made fresh in-house.  The only exception are the tortillas, corn tortillas Chef Manning told me he gets from a tortilleria in Atlanta.  I almost hate to admit it, but I prefer flour tortillas, and I’ve never had quesadillas on corn tortillas before.  The totopos looked like they might have been made from the same corn tortillas.  I thought they could have used some salt, but the guac was good enough to offset that.

Orlando taco lovers, I encourage you to make it over to MX Taco sooner rather than later, to try the newest taqueria in town and see how it stacks up to your established favorites.  I guarantee it will be different enough from the tried-and-true taco joints that you’ll appreciate having it as one more option.  Just FYI, Chef Manning told me he will be closed today (Friday, January 4th) and open for limited hours over the next week: 4:00 to 8:00 PM, starting tomorrow, Saturday the 5th.