Washington D.C. Part 5: Momofuku CCDC

It’s hard to choose what was the best meal of my trip.  China Chilcano‘s Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion feast with friends was legendary, and the Union Market was everything I love, with a trifecta of sandwiches, again shared with friends.  (Well, we shared the experience, but they didn’t want any of my three sandwiches, even though I offered!)  But Momofuku CCDC (https://ccdc.momofuku.com/), the Washington D.C. outpost of celebrity chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant empire, was also a meal to remember — once again improved exponentially by the excellent company.

I had sampled one of David Chang’s iconic dishes once before, his pork belly bao, when I visited the Momofuku-affiliated Milk Bar bakery on our NYC honeymoon back in 2009.  As great as delightful Chef Christina Tosi’s baked goods were, I was overjoyed that they were serving those famous bao there, and so lucky I got to try it.  I’ve tried to duplicate that pork belly bao at home over the years, but I’ve been waiting a decade for a chance to sample more food from the Momofuku family.

I am in a group that held an evening business meeting at our big professional conference, and we scheduled some dine-arounds for our members after the meeting.  There was a list of D.C. restaurants near the convention center for people to choose from, and I volunteered to “host” a group at Momofuku CCDC, just because I wanted to eat there so badly.  Four people signed up, and the five of us walked over together.  I knew most of them, but mostly just by their impeccable reputations, and none of them knew each other.  I made everyone do an icebreaker (which could have gone badly but didn’t), and by the end of our incredible dinner, I think everyone parted as frolleagues — colleagues who had become friends.

One of the CCDC specialties is bing bread, which is kind of like a cross between a pancake, a tortilla, and a pita.  It was soft and fluffy and warm and steamy, and perfect to spread things on or rip pieces off to dip into stuff.  Somehow a group of information professionals failed to make any “Bing” jokes, but it had been a long day and we were hungry.

My bing bread came with salted chili pimento cheese, topped with bread and butter pickled kohlrabi ($7).  Pimento cheese is rapidly joining onion rings as something I’ll order whenever it’s on the menu, and I loved it.  It has been a few weeks since this meal, but I’m 90% sure this was served chilled, which I always prefer to warm versions.DSC02445

One of my companions got the bing bread with chicken liver mousse, topped with fennel jam, Chinese five spice seasoning, and toasted almonds ($15).  I desperately wanted to try it because I love chopped chicken liver, but we had just met on the walk over here, and I didn’t dare ask her for a taste.  She seemed to really enjoy it, though.DSC02449

These were my garlic noodles, with crab, shrimp, corn, green tomato relish, and Thai basil ($33, which is out of my comfort zone for what I’d normally order as an entree, but I was at Momofuku CCDC and probably won’t ever make it back!).  I’m so glad I splurged, because it was amazing.  DSC02446

Someone else ordered charred broccoli with smoked béarnaise sauce ($13).  It normally comes with XO vinaigrette, but she’s a vegetarian so she asked them to hold it.  I discovered XO sauce recently, and now I’m a little obsessed with it — a rich, savory umami-bomb of a condiment made with dried shrimp and scallops, cured Chinese ham (or bacon or lap xeong Chinese sausage), chilies, onions, garlic, soy sauce, and/or oyster sauce, cooked into a thick jam, sometimes with oil added, and in this case, vinegar.  I should have asked if they would serve the XO vinaigrette on the side so I could try it, but it didn’t occur to me until just now, because these are the things I dwell on, weeks after the fact.DSC02448

I’m not seeing this on the menu, but it looks like the same charred broccoli dish served with softshell crab, so that must have been a special that night.  My colleague demonstrated his good taste, between the softshell crab and his seersucker jacket.  (I was sporting mine too, and miraculously didn’t get anything on it.)DSC02447

And this has to be the spicy cucumber, served with crushed almonds and togarashi seasoning ($7).  This would be a great restaurant for vegetarians, since they had several options that are much more interesting and luxurious than their usual choices of fries or a salad.DSC02450

After dinner, four of the five of us, now bonded over this magnificent meal, piled into a Lyft to attend a fancy party at the Library of Congress.  (Not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story!)  Then we split up almost immediately once we got there, but at least we’re all cool now.  And at least they didn’t see me completely wipe out on some slippery marble stairs in the Great Hall.  Luckily I wasn’t carrying anything and didn’t hurt myself, or worse yet, anyone else.

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Hawkers Asian Street Fare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Hindu Society of Central Florida Cafeteria

One of the new foodie friends I’ve made in Orlando is Isha Shah, the influencer who runs the Will Fly For Chai Facebook and Instagram accounts.  She is an excellent photographer, a top-notch writer with exquisite taste, and a genuinely kind and good person.  She is originally from India, but she and her husband have lived in Orlando for 17 years, and they are vegetarians who love to eat, cook, and travel.  (Like and follow Will Fly For Chai, by the way!  I bestow the Saboscrivner Seal of Sublimeness upon it, and upon her.)

Once a month, Isha will organize a meet-up of local foodies at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, but I had never been able to attend these gatherings before… until this past weekend, when we met at the Hindu Society of Central Florida (https://www.orlandohindutemple.org/), a beautiful temple nestled in the suburbs of Casselberry, ten minutes from where I’ve been living for a decade!  It opened in 2005, four years before we moved into our home, and I had no idea it was so close.  My regular readers will know I love discovering new things, places, and experiences, and nothing amazes and astonishes me more than finding hidden treasures close to home.  This is a perfect example of one of those.  DSC02294

There is a cafeteria on the premises that specializes in South Indian food, and she recommended it highly.  Now, I like almost all the Indian food I’ve ever tried, but I’m definitely not an expert.  I’ve been to a certain Indian lunch buffet near my work countless times, and I like all the standard, familiar dishes, but I knew this was going to be different.  Here I’d have Isha to guide me, explain things, and make recommendations.  Because I’m not well-versed in Indian cuisine, I also wanted to test my limits with spices, since most of the food on the lunch buffet is very mild (which is probably for the best, considering they expect us to return to work and continue to be productive).  I figured the dishes served at the temple cafeteria might be a little hotter.  I looked forward to this lunch all week.

I had met Isha once before, at a lunch at the East End Market (see my Hinckley’s Fancy Meats review), but this time I also met her cool husband and her delightful mom, as well as several old and new friends and acquaintances from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps.  The cafeteria was a standard setup where you order and pay at a window, then wait for your number to be called and bring your tray of food to one of the many tables.  They had a handwritten menu on a large dry-erase board, offering most of the options listed on the website.  Everything was vegetarian, and most of it was new and unfamiliar to me.  In typical Saboscrivner fashion, I over-ordered, expecting I’d share everything with the lunch bunch:

An order of vada ($5), which had the texture of good cake doughnuts — battered and deep-fried with the slightest crispy exterior but a soft, dense interior, only savory instead of sweet.  These three vada came with a bowl of sambhar, a thick, lentil-based vegetable stew, meant to either soak or dip pieces in.  They also came with coconut chutney (top right).
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A samosa plate ($4), featuring three pyramid-shaped deep-fried pastries stuffed with spiced potatoes, onions, and peas.  I’ve had samosas before, but these were the best ones I’ve ever had.  They were such a great blend of textures, with the outer pastry shell very close to the Cuban empanadas of my childhood, fried to perfection but not greasy at all. DSC02287

The show-stopper was the dosa ($6), an absolutely huge South Indian crispy crepe.  The batter is made from fermented rice and black lentil flour, then fried in a skillet and folded or rolled into a very thin, delicate, crispy wrap, perfect for stuffing with fillings or breaking off pieces to dip into things.  This took the longest to cook, but it was worth the wait.  The dosas are so big, everyone was taken by surprise by them.
DSC02292I ordered my dosa with masala, a slightly spicy blend of potatoes, fried onions, and peas seasoned with curry spices.  I thought the dosa might come stuffed with the masala, but instead it was served on the side, which was perfectly fine.  It also came with coconut chutney that was nice for cutting a bit of the spice.  Whenever I return, I will be brave and order the mysore dosa, which came stuffed with a spicy chili paste.  The kind and concerned man taking the orders warned me it would be too spicy, so I deferred to his judgment this time, but Isha shared a piece of hers, and I could totally handle it!  Next time.
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Expecting heat, I ordered a cup of mango lassi ($1.50), a sweet and cooling yogurt drink that is my go-to beverage at Indian restaurants — not just for cutting the heat, but because I love anything with mangoes.  This was a very small plastic cup, so I sipped to make it last, but I was glad to have it near at hand.

My friend ordered idli, which are softer, fluffier discs that are similar to the vada, but not deep-fried, so I suspect not as flavorful or as interesting, texture-wise.  More experienced people advised him to rip them into chunks and soak them in the sambhar.  I didn’t try these, but I wondered if they might be similar to the consistency of bao buns.
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He also ordered chole poori, which was fried, leavened flatbread (which looked similar to puffy flour tortillas) served with a bowl of chole, a spicy curry made out of chickpeas.  I didn’t try this either, but I will next time!DSC02289

Finally, as the group wrapped up our meals and started gathering to take a tour of the serene and welcoming Hindu temple, I got talked into ordering a mango kulfi dessert ($3) — smooth and creamy mango ice cream with real chunks of fruit on a wooden popsicle stick.  I would have been fine with the cool sweetness of my wee cup of mango lassi, but I was glad I succumbed to the peer pressure, because it was a hot day, and the kulfi was a refreshing treat as we ventured back outside.  DSC02293

I felt very calm and comfortable as we wandered through the temple itself, shoes left in racks outside.  Isha encouraged us to explore the altars and just take everything in.  Wanting to be respectful, I didn’t take any pictures or even check my phone inside the temple, so I felt more attuned to my surroundings, maybe more mindful, certainly less distracted than I usually do.  The holiness of the large, open, ornately-decorated room was palpable.  There was so much culture and history to behold that it felt as much like a museum to me as it did a temple.  Since I eschew organized religion myself, museums always feel like holy places to me, where you can learn about other cultures and contemplate our place in the larger framework of the world.  (I feel the same about libraries, but I am, after all, a librarian.) I asked some general questions about the temple and about Hinduism that I hope weren’t stupid, but Isha was very patient and informative, and so was a Hindu priest who happened to be nearby.  I couldn’t get over how welcome I felt — how welcome she made us all feel there.  As if a large, cheap, tasty, and NEW lunch with nice people wasn’t enough, I learned a lot too.

And one more big lesson I learned was about myself: that I eat A LOT of meat. (I’m sure you have noticed, dear readers!) I have always had the utmost respect for my vegetarian friends, but this lunch reminded me how delicious and satisfying vegetarian food can be. I never missed meat in any of these dishes, so it made me think about being more mindful and maybe not feeling obligated to include meat in every meal I eat as a matter of course or habit.

It was the best Sunday afternoon I’ve had in quite a while.  And by the way, the cafeteria is open (to all, including the public) on Fridays from 6:00 to 8:30 PM and Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

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Chuan Lu Garden

Even though I have discovered the glory of Taste of Chengdu and Chef Wang’s Kitchen over the last few months, I always end up returning to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Orlando, Chuan Lu Garden (http://www.chuanluorlando.com/).  There are two locations: one at the heart of the Mills 50 District, Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, and a newer one in east Orlando on Alafaya Trail, closer to UCF

Like Taste of Chengdu, fewer than 15 minutes away, Chuan Lu Garden specializes in spicy Szechuan cuisine, with peppercorns that numb your mouth and make everything tingle. It’s a different kind of heat than what most hot sauce heroes and chile cheerleaders are used to, but those flavors are highlighted in several dishes throughout the lengthy menu, like la zi chicken and la zi fish (crispy fried, breaded pieces that bring the tingle). I appreciate some heat some of the time, but I tend to play it safer and stick to the delicious hand-cut and hand-pulled noodle offerings.

This review is based on several visits over the last few months:

Visit #1: We met dear friends from Gainesville who were in town with tickets to see Hamilton.  Unfortunately, I am an idiot and gave them directions to the wrong Chuan Lu Garden location.  They drove all the way to east Orlando, when we were waiting for them near downtown, chosen purposely to put them near the theater.  But they are badasses who didn’t sweat it and weren’t even mad at me.  They made it to where we were in 15 minutes flat, and I ordered some vegetarian dishes for them in the meantime.  (I treated them to dinner too, but I was planning to do that anyway, even before I almost ruined their night and put them in danger of missing the greatest musical of all time.)

I ordered myself one of my favorite dishes on the menu, cumin lamb, which is much less blurry in person:DSC01808

My wife’s noodle soup with roast duck, the dish that finally won her over after years of me hyping up Chuan Lu Garden, making her a devoted fan:
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Our glorious pan-fried pork buns (sadly not the xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, that Orlando foodies constantly crave):
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Fried tofu with vegetables and the remnants of vegetable fried rice, after the four of us mostly devoured it:dsc01811.jpg

Vegetable noodle soup:DSC01809

Visit #2: Just the two of us.

Maybe the best Singapore mei fun noodles I’ve ever ordered anywhere, though curiously not very spicy compared to some others I’ve had.  These noodles were thin and ethereal, reminding me almost of cotton candy threads (although obviously neither sticky nor sweet).  I couldn’t get enough of them, and even my wife was amazed by their lighter-than-air texture and great flavor.chuan_IMG_0013

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take two:
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And a roast duck appetizer, full of tiny little bones to watch out for:chuan_IMG_0014

For the first time ever in my experiences at Chuan Lu Garden, they presented us with a separate dim sum menu.  Having been recently introduced to egg custard tarts by one of my favorite local foodies, I had to pay it forward and order them to share with my wife.  She loved them, like flaky little custard pies.chuan_IMG_0016

Visit #3: Just the two of us again.

I ordered one of my favorite dishes on the menu: dan dan noodles with spicy ground pork, served with thin-sliced cucumbers that do a great job counterbalancing the chili oil with their own crunchy coolness.DSC01827DSC01829

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take three, but this time with the wide, flat noodles:DSC01828

More of that quacktacular roast duck:DSC01832

And one of my favorite dishes here, the onion pancake, which is much more like a thick paratha or super-thick flour tortilla than an American-style pancake.  The outside is crispy, but the inside has a wonderful, rich, buttery crispness, with scallions baked into it.DSC01830DSC01831

Since I originally wrote this blog entry, I have brought her home roast duck noodle soup a few more times, often with an extra order of duck to go with it.  She loves it, and what’s not to love?

And guess what, fearless Saboscrivnerinos? Chuan Lu Garden now has a full dim sum menu, including the coveted soup dumplings! I haven’t tried them there yet, but how can you go wrong? It’s SOUP… in a DUMPLING!

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, 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.

Mediterranean Deli

My wife doesn’t share my fascination with certain foods. Sandwiches, cured meats, cheeses, anything in tomato sauce, flavored chips, dips, sauces, condiments, spicy stuff — I love all that, and she leaves them to me.  That said, she is way more into chicken wings, chocolate, and other sweets than I am, generally.  But one thing we can always agree upon is a good gyro.  We love gyros, and we’re always on the lookout for good ones, since it’s almost impossible to duplicate that salty, garlicky gyro meat at home, whether it’s beef, lamb, or a processed blend of both.  I buy ground lamb and make it into a gyro-flavored meatloaf of sorts, but it still isn’t the same as that salty, garlicky meat sliced off a spit.

(FYI, the father of processed gyro meat was a Jewish guy named John Garlic.  I love that so much.)

Well, after hearing about its wondrous gyros on the Orlando Foodie Forum for years, we finally sought out the Mediterranean Deli, west of I-4 at 981 West Fairbanks Avenue, OrlandoFL 32804, but this one was not easy to find.  I drove by it twice since it’s a small location in a tiny plaza that was half under construction, and there was no sign easily visible from the road.  I always panic a bit when I can’t find what I’m looking for, but we eventually figured it out.  I am so glad we didn’t get frustrated and give up on this mission, because it is my new favorite gyro spot in town.

For the purposes of this review, I went twice, a few weeks apart, and ate pretty much the same stuff, because all of my photos came out horribly the first time.  (I only had my terrible phone camera on me, and not my halfway-decent camera.)  To help get people enthusiastic about trying Mediterranean Deli instead of inadvertently turning them off to it, all of these photos are from my second visit, when I brought everything home to share with my wife.

This was my huge gyro, sliced off a spit and served on soft, warm, lightly grilled pita bread with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and red onion, and cool, creamy, garlicky tzatziki sauce.  It is stuffed beyond belief, and a smart person might keep it wrapped in its paper and foil wrap, unpeeling just enough for a few bites at a time to avoid it falling to pieces.  But to get a proper photo just for you, dear readers, I opened it up.  No regrets.img_0067.jpg

My wife’s equally enormous gyro, hold the tomatoes and onions.  She got three meals out of it!img_0066.jpg

The gyro meals come with a side salad for something like $8, including a free canned drink.  My wife said she didn’t want any sides, so I picked two for myself: a vinaigrette-based pasta salad (left) and an absolutely delicious mayo-based seafood pasta salad, with imitation crabmeat and medium-sized, perfectly al dente shell pasta.  I always love any kinds of pasta or macaroni salad, but the seafood version will become my new go-to side.  They also offer fresh Greek and Mediterranean-style salads, hummus, and tabouleh as options, but I make green salads all the time at home, buy hummus often, and don’t like parsley enough to get into tabouleh.img_0065.jpg

This is a nice rectangular slice of spinach pie, AKA boreeka, with sheets of flaky dough layered with sauteed, tender, perfectly-seasoned spinach and feta cheese, then baked to a golden brown.  It is soft, warm, crispy, flaky perfection.  I could easily and happily eat the entire large pan my slice was cut out of.IMG_0068

I love stuffed grape leaves, often called dolmas or dolmades.  Sometimes they are stuffed with ground meat and rice and served warm, but I honestly prefer the vegetarian versions that are just stuffed with seasoned rice and served cold, marinated in oil and occasionally vinegar.  These are the latter, and I could eat dozens of them, too.  The side order comes with a generous helping of extra tzatziki sauce, which is very thick and perfect for dipping them.img_0069.jpg

Mediterranean Deli is a tiny little restaurant in a tiny little strip that looks like it has seen better days.  The restaurant isn’t fancy at all, but it is awesome, and locals know it.  I never even drove west of I-4 on Fairbanks before until I heard this place existed, but I’m so glad I went a little out of my way to discover it for myself.  I will argue they serve the absolute best gyro in Orlando, and everything else I ate was awesome as well.  It’s a real bargain too, for the amount and quality of food you get.  With any luck, you will meet the owner, warm and welcoming Walaid, who greets everyone as “My friend.”

By the way, Mediterranean Deli doesn’t have a website, but the phone number is listed online as 407-539-2650.  There are also photos of the menu on that inexplicably popular review site that rhymes with “help” and occasionally provides some.

Sette (pre-opening media event)

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Well, folks, your friend and humble narrator The Saboscrivner has finally done it! Tonight I attended my first-ever media event to review a new restaurant: Sette (https://www.setteitalian.com/), the Italian restaurant owned and operated by Orlando’s beloved Chef Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites and her wife Va Propst.  Located at 1407 N Orange Ave, Orlando, Florida 32804, Sette is across the street from scenic Lake Ivanhoe, in a spot where several restaurants have come and gone.  This one is going to be different because of the people behind it, their vision, their hospitality, and their sheer culinary talent.

Chef Trina flexing her mussels in her spacious open kitchen:DSC01912

This was an auspicious beginning for what I suspect will become one of Orlando’s hottest restaurants.  Sette opens this Friday, March 22nd, and I suggest you get in as soon as you can.  It will be open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:00 PM, Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:00 PM, and Sundays 1:00 to 8:00 PM.  You can call 407.704.7771 for information and reservations in the meantime.

The restaurant seats 150, and they have regular tables as well as high-tops, both inside and outside, and seating at the inside bar as well.  I am pleased to report they have a parking lot (a rarity along that stretch of Orange Avenue near downtown Orlando), but I suspect it will fill up quickly.

Dig the homey, retro decor that screams “Italian restaurant!” without going into cliche territory.  You won’t find any red and white checkered tablecloths, candles melted into Chianti bottles, or artwork of stereotypical Italian chefs with Super Mario mustaches.
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The spacious and inviting outdoor patio:DSC01886

Even the musical selections fit the vibe perfectly: mid-century standards by the Italian-American triumvirate of Frank, Tony, and Dean, two of the three major Louies (Armstrong and Prima, but no Jordan), some jazz, nothing grating or out of place.

A welcoming bar well-stocked with wine, staffed by friendly bartenders serving up incredibly creative cocktails:DSC01887

Plenty of reds and whites I didn’t drink, but I was assured they have a great selection:DSC01889DSC01890

Most of the evening I nursed this blood orange Italian soda, which was crisp and clean and refreshing, and not cloyingly sweet like most store-bought sodas.  The bartender made this using one of several Italian syrups.  It looked like lavender, rose, and pistachio were among the other options, and I know they employ these in making cocktails as well. dsc01930.jpg

I don’t always get excited about salads, but this Caesar salad, with garlicky dressing and garlic parmesan croutons, and shaved parmesan cheese over romaine, was one of the best Caesar salads I’ve ever had, and well worth getting pumped over.DSC01893

I didn’t get to actually sample this beautiful Cucina salad, with romaine, cucumber, tomatoes, goat cheese, pine nuts, champagne dijon vinaigrette, and more of the garlic parmesan croutons, and I regret that.DSC01897

Trina and Va make their pastas from scratch.  I learned that all their extruded (shaped) pastas are vegan (think spaghetti, linguini, bucatini, etc.), but the flat pasta sheets, like their lasagna noodles, are not vegan due to containing eggs.  I can say that the pasta dishes I sampled tonight are easily some of the finest pastas I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying, and I LOVE pasta, and I’ve been to Babbo in New York (long before we knew what Mario Batali was really like).

Their lasagna was one of my favorite dishes, made with one long pasta sheet, painstakingly folded and assembled with layers of beef bolognese sauce, ricotta cheese, and pecorino romano, on a bed of creamy bechamel sauce.  Look at it!  Bellissima!DSC01923

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This was my favorite of all the pasta dishes, though.  These were so perfect, so chewy and thick.  I loved every bite, every morsel.  The sauce was so fresh and tangy.  It was an unfamiliar noodle to me called paccheri (kind of like a thicker rigatoni), in my favorite Italian sauce of all: amatriciana, the slightest bit spicy and a little bit salty from cured meats like guanciale, or in this case, pancetta.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.DSC01894DSC01900

I love thick, chewy, fresh pasta, and this bucatini carbonara was so good.  Tossed in eggs with crispy pancetta (bacon’s superior cousin), grated pecorino romano cheese, and peas, it was heavy and rich and oh so satisfying.  I never understand why carbonara isn’t more popular across the U.S. as a breakfast dish, considering it’s pasta served with eggs, bacon (although pancetta is always betta’), and cheese.DSC01924

More pasta: wonderful pesto linguini next to a stack of crispy fried eggplant, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese, shaved pecorino romano, and fresh basil.  I’m usually not the biggest fan of eggplant, but this was one of two eggplant dishes tonight that totally won me over and made me a fan.  DSC01914

I absolutely loved the clam linguini, served with small neck clams, crispy pancetta, fennel, and a thick, rich lemon white wine sauce.DSC01920

Continuing with delicious bivalves, the Prince Edward Island mussels were on point, served in a lemon white wine sauce with fresh basil and grilled crusty bread.  Hard to eat neatly while standing up, but totally worth it.  DSC01891

This antipasta dish was maybe the greatest surprise of the night: Italian sausage served with fennel and… it ain’t new potatoes, it ain’t olives, and it ain’t what I was expecting, always-disappointing grape tomatoes, ready to explode and burn the hell out of my mouth.  DSC01922Nope, this sausage and fennel is served with blistered GRAPES, and they work so well together, the savory saltiness and the sweetness and tartness of the grapes.  I never would have thought of it, but that’s why Trina and Va are the visionary restauranteurs and I’m a librarian who writes about food as a hobby.

Despite all appearances, these are crispy eggplant “meat” balls, completely vegetarian, topped with sauce, dollops of ricotta cheese, and fresh basil, and served over polenta.  This was the other eggplant dish I loved:DSC01916

They served a similar preparation of actual beef meatballs too.  I tried and enjoyed a few of them, in fact, but didn’t get a good photo.  Trust me, if you like meatballs, you’ll love Sette’s meatballs.

This is another vegetarian dish, sort of a ratatouille, with tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini served over rich risotto.DSC01896

And these were arancini, crispy fried balls stuffed with risotto, tangy gorgonzola cheese, and figs, served over a pesto cream sauce, and topped with crispy pancetta (which can easily be left off to accommodate vegetarians) and a balsamic glaze drizzle.DSC01902

Sette’s desserts were out of this world, as you would expect for the culinary wunderkind behind Se7en Bites.  My favorite was their unique take on the classic Italian tiramisu, a semifreddo (semi-frozen), cool, creamy concoction with a thin layer of ladyfingers that reminded me more of the graham cracker crust in a good pie, texture-wise, with espresso and dark chocolate ganache along the bottom.DSC01936DSC01937

They also served us amoretti cookies, very soft and chewy almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar and served with the most delicious and delightful little glasses of milk.  I thought there was something in the milk to make it sweeter, and it turned out it was “spiked” with white chocolate liqueur!  I don’t drink, but once I found out, it was so tasty I at least had to finish my little cup.  My wife will LOVE these cookies, since she loves anything almond-flavored.DSC01906DSC01933Almond lovers, they also serve a cocktail called “That’s Amore-etti,” with Real McCoy rum, almond syrup, DiSaronno amaretto, and almond milk.  I can imagine these cookies pairing very well with it.

Tonight they also served an olive oil cake with rosemary-accented lemon curd and lemon mascarpone buttercream icing, moist and tangy and fresh-tasting.  Loved it!DSC01911DSC01903

And while I’m not the biggest chocolate guy, this dense, brownie-like chocolate cake was garnished with fresh orange marmalade, candied oranges, and fresh chantilly cream.  The chantilly cream was my favorite part, and I would happily eat an entire bowl of that as a dessert!DSC01910DSC01909

This was a particularly special night for me because it was the first media event I’ve ever attended at a restaurant.  I’ve been reviewing and recommending restaurants and writing about food online for many years, on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook and on the old Chowhound.com website before that.  Despite all that, it took me forever to gain the self-confidence to match my passion for food writing — I didn’t start The Saboscrivner until last June, 2018, so as usual, I’m a late bloomer.

While I’ve met several Foodie Forum members at various lunches over the last several months, tonight was the first time I met many of our serious and devoted Orlando food and lifestyle bloggers.  Of course everyone seemed to know and be friends with each other already, but I always feel like the odd man out, even when I attend professional conferences with my own colleagues in my field.  Just about everyone I met tonight was warm and friendly, though.  We were all caught up in sampling these delicious dishes at Sette, and I like to think I bonded with some people and didn’t embarrass myself or cramp anybody’s style.

I’ve been a fan of Chef Trina ever since she made her signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pies for sale at Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, years before Se7en Bites even existed, long before Guy Fieri helped make her nationally renowned by featuring her on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Guy’s Grocery Games.  I couldn’t be happier for her or prouder of her, and I was honored to be one of the local luminaries invited to chronicle Sette’s pre-opening event.  Every dish I tried was better than the last, I found myself saying more than once tonight.  Even though I was thrilled to be one of the lucky people to get this early look and taste, I would be raving about Sette no matter what.  In fact, as I write this at 12:30 AM, knowing I have to be awake in three hours to catch a flight to one of those aforementioned professional conferences, I’m already planning to take my wife to Sette as soon as possible upon my return, to enjoy it as any guest surely will.

Trust me — Sette is going to be Orlando’s next big thing.  Brava, Trina and Va!  Brava.