Rasa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC02739

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC02747

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

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

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

Moghul Indian Cuisine

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

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

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

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

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

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

dsc02490.jpg

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

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

A look inside that samosa:dsc02605.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YUP!

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

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

Makani

Almost a year and a half after starting The Saboscrivner, I can’t say this blog has become a big breakthrough success.  I choose to not use Instagram, always preferring a thousand words to a single picture.  I don’t use that website that rhymes with “help,” and I’ll never become “help” elite.  I’m the furthest thing from an influencer, since nobody wants to look at photos of me posing, trying to look cute while holding up the delicious foods I eat, trust me.  I have literally DOZENS of followers, but at least I’ve made a mint off my food writing — one night, I got a single peppermint after paying my bill.

But my life is still better for it, because now when old friends pass through Orlando, they are much more likely to send me a Facebook message, inviting me to catch up over dinner, figuring I’ll pick a good restaurant.  At least my reputation has grown that way, and I’ve been able to see and reconnect with good people I miss, who I haven’t seen in far too many years.  Best of all, we can go to nicer places than I could afford back in the day.

This past week, I heard from an old friend from my college days in Gainesville.  We hadn’t seen each other in over 15 years, and probably closer to 20.  Back then he was one of the coolest people I had ever met, and he helped change my life for the better when I played in a band with him (and another friend I caught up with over a similar dinner at Chuan Lu Garden early this year).  I always looked up to this guy as a fascinating punk rock poet and general badass, and now he’s even cooler as a tireless advocate and activist for the homeless in Gainesville.  He was in town for a conference and staying down near International Drive, so I made a list of restaurants near there that I thought he might like, that I’ve also been wanting to try.  That’s all the way across town from me, and I don’t make it down there very often.

So we decided on Makani (https://www.facebook.com/makaniorlando/), an Egyptian restaurant on International Drive, tucked into a truly international shopping plaza with an upscale steakhouse, a Chinese buffet, a traditional Japanese restaurant, a 24-hour Turkish restaurant/lounge, and a dinner theater that performs an interactive murder mystery every night.  With no shortage of choices, I think we made the best possible one.  I always love any Middle Eastern food, but had never tried Egyptian before.  Needless to say, we feasted like the pharoahs of old, both of us having come a long way from feeling uncomfortable ordering anything at Taco Bell that wasn’t on the extra value menu.  It’s nice to go out to eat with people who are up for trying and sharing almost anything.

This was the hawawshi ($17.99), sort of a meat pie with seasoned ground beef, onions, and parsley in a crispy pastry crust, almost like a lightly fried stuffed pita (although it was possibly just baked).  I loved it.  It came with a metal pitcher of a very hot hot sauce that we learned to treat with caution and apply sparingly.  I would happily order this dish every time I return, I liked it that much.

DSC02577

I’ve written before about how I can take or leave fries, but these fries are among the best I’ve ever had.  Crispy, crunchy, firm, flavorful, just salty enough — not limp or starchy.  Top-notch fries!DSC02576

I was intrigued by photos I had seen of this dish online, so I had to try it.  This was mombar ($12.99), chewy, savory sausages of seasoned rice, vegetables, and herbs, stuffed into cow intestines, fried in oil, and festooned with chewy, sweet sultanas.  I loved these, too!  They reminded me of dolmas (or dolmades), grape leaves stuffed with tangy seasoned rice, one of my favorite side dishes in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, only these were much richer and meatier-tasting.  They might sound weird, but I think most people would like them, if you get past the “cow intestine” dread.  They were an unlikely favorite of mine, in fact.  DSC02578

This mixed grill ($29.99) arrived at our table on a fancy golden platform billowing hot smoke.  It looked a little bit like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of my Top Five favorite movies of all time, but you don’t want to shield your eyes from this smoke show.  It came with a beef and lamb kofta skewer, a beef kabob skewer, a chicken kabob skewer, and a lamb chop, all char-grilled and expertly seasoned.  I don’t know which one I preferred more, the kofta or the beef kabob.  I like my lamb chops a little more on the rare side, but it still had so much flavor from the char-grilling process, something I just can’t do with meat at home, without a grill.  There was plenty for two of us to share everything, especially since we had ordered so many other dishes.DSC02581

The mixed grill came with a side order of rice that turned out to be a heaping mound of buttery rice pilaf, with vermicelli mixed in.
DSC02579

This intriguing mountain of deliciousness is the koshari ($14.99), a combination of rice pilaf (maybe fried?), lentils, spaghetti and elbow macaroni, topped with tomato sauce and crispy, fresh-fried onions (you could tell they were fresh and not just shaken out of the French’s canister).  It would be a dream dish for vegetarians or anyone trying to carb-load, and it worked much better than you might be thinking.  It was a wonderful blend of textures, as well as flavors.  It also reminded me how much I love lentils, and how I should cook them at home far more often.  DSC02582
The menu said it also included chickpeas, but ours didn’t have any, and I was perfectly fine with that.  I love falafel and usually like hummus, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of plain ol’ chickpeas.  It also came with a side of garlic vinegar in a small metal pitcher, but we didn’t figure that out until we had already eaten most of it without it.

We were there a while and ordered a lot of stuff, so the friendly General Manager came by to check on us and very generously provided us with this dessert sampler (normally $13.99), completely free!  It was an unnecessary gesture, but certainly a welcome and appreciated one.
DSC02583Most of these desserts were reminiscent of baklava, but the top right and bottom left are kunefe (here called konafa), a Middle Eastern pastry made of finely-shredded dough (almost like more vermicelli) soaked in a sugar syrup over sweet cheese, then baked.  It is buttery, crispy, rich, and very, very sweet.  The ones in the middle may have been basbousa, which my research tells me is a semolina cake sweetened with simple syrup made with rosewater.  And the rolls had the thin, crispy dough I associate with baklava, although I don’t know what this particular dessert is called.  We devoured all of it with gusto, though.

This was a great night out, let me tell you.  Not only did I get to try an amazing new restaurant (new to me and relatively new to Orlando), but I got to do it with an old friend who I had some real adventures with back in the day.  Back then, being in a band with him and four other guys, I went from being a shy and sheltered introvert to a more confident performer.  We played gigs all over Florida and as far out as New Orleans, and even recorded in multiple music studios.  That was more than half my life ago, but I’ll never forget the excitement of being in a band with my friends, pretty much living my dream.  I haven’t played music in far too many years and I miss it terribly, but I owe those five guys a debt I can never repay.  I draw on those skills I learned every day, since teaching is just another kind of performing.  I looked up to this guy, and I’m glad to say I still do now, just for different reasons.  I was so glad to catch up and hear all about his wife, his kids, his continued education, and his heroic work on behalf of the homeless, as the founder and Executive Director of GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville.  It’s an organization that could use your support, for anyone interested in donating to a truly worthy cause.

And in the meantime, whether you’re a local or a tourist, visiting our City Beautiful for a conference, convention, or vacation, Makani is one of your best bets along busy International Drive.  Why not eschew the usual chains and try delicious Egyptian food, prepared with care and love?  One of their signs calls it “Good Mood Food,” and I don’t see how you could eat at Makani and not be in a better mood.

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.

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).
DSC02288

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.
DSC02291

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.
DSC02290

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 feel.  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.

dsc02295.jpg