Hawkers Asian Street Fare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pho 88

Well, before it got hot in Orlando again, it was remarkably chilly for a little while there.  I look forward to those brief blasts of winter all year, every year.  I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, which I guess makes me a true Florida Man.  I hate our humid, oppressive, sticky summers and eagerly anticipate the few weeks a year where we can walk outside, eat outside, and see the one coat or jacket everyone owns.  We don’t have to shovel snow or drive on icy roads, so our cold is a novelty, and we know it won’t last.

Winter is also perfect soup weather, and there are few soups finer than phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup that so many Orlando restaurants have perfected.  I have yet to get into the trend of fancy bowls of ramen, after so many years of subsisting on seven-for-$1 bricks of instant ramen noodles.  On the other hand, pho (which I was taught to pronounce “fuh,” although I hear “foe” all the time) is so warm and rich and hearty that it is a welcome meal year-round, not too heavy or hot to enjoy in warmer months.  But nothing beats a steaming bowl in 40-degree winter weather.

Slow-simmered broth is flavored with spices including cinnamon and star anise, and it includes rice vermicelli and different cuts of meat.  Thin slices of rare beef eye round are the most common, but other bowls of pho may also include beef brisket or flank steak, chewy beef meatballs (completely different from the meatballs you’d get with spaghetti or in a sub), tendon, and tripe.  Pho usually contains paper-thin slices of onion and diced green onions as well.  Then lucky diners can continue to customize their pho with sprigs of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts (I’ve never been a fan, sorry), fresh slices of jalapeno peppers, and fresh lime wedges, which come on a separate plate.  Hoisin sauce, sriracha, and sambal oelek (chili garlic sauce) are common condiments that are always available on Vietnamese restaurant tables.  No two bowls of pho end up alike, which is part of its charm.

Anyway, we are very lucky to have a large Vietnamese population in Orlando, and plenty of delicious Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, mostly centered in the Mills 50 district near downtown.  I’ve tried most of them at least once, but I always return to two favorites: Saigon Noodle and Grill or the subject of this review, Pho 88 (http://www.pho88orlando.com/).  My wife and I had our first date at yet another local Vietnamese restaurant, Lac Viet, but we’ve been going to Pho 88 for many years.  Located on Mills Avenue, just north of busy Colonial Drive in the heart of our foodie-friendly Mills 50 district, Pho 88 also has more parking than a lot of the other nearby restaurants, which is one more reason we end up there as often as we do.  Not only do we like it a lot and seek it out, it often becomes our fallback choice when we can’t park near anywhere else.

This review is based on our two most recent visits to Pho 88.  My wife tends to crave pho even more often than I do, and during our most recent cold snap, she demanded it two nights in a row.  So like a good husband, we went two nights in a row!

The first night, we both ordered pho.  She likes the simple pho tai, with thin-sliced rare beef eye round.  I prefer the pho dặc biệt combination with the rare beef slices plus fatty brisket, well-done flank steak, dense and chewy meatballs, and soft, chewy, rich tendon.  Tendon and book tripe almost always come together, and while I must admit the texture of tripe doesn’t do much for me, I never ask them to hold it.  Here is my bowl, after I tore up several basil leaves and added them in.  These are HUGE bowls, by the way.  20181129_185826_resized

Instagram-hip foodies love to get the shot of pulling perfect noodles out of a perfect bowl of pho.  Most of you are already acquainted with the limitations of my phone camera, so apologies in advance for this action shot:
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On our second visit the next evening, my wife ordered her favorite pho tai again, but I decided to switch it up and get something spicy for the chilly night: a different kind of noodle soup called bún bò huế.  It contains thicker rice noodles than the vermicelli in pho, pork roll (similar to bologna, but chewier and cut thicker), well-done flank steak, lemongrass, and white and green onion in a rich, spicy, orangey-red broth.  It cleared up my sinuses and warmed my body from head to toe.20181130_184243_resized

Bun bo hue action shot:20181130_184359_resized

I am also a fan of banh mi sandwiches, which demonstrate the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine.  Served on a crusty baguette, my favorite banh mi includes a variety of pork-based cold cuts and is served with a spread of butter and liver pate on each side of the roll, cool, shredded pickled carrot and daikon radish, refreshing sprigs of fresh cilantro, and spicy slices of fresh (never jarred) jalapeno peppers.  Best of all, these sandwiches are usually quite cheap, often $4 or $5.  Pho 88 is one of the few Orlando Vietnamese restaurants that serves banh mi as well as pho, so I’ll often order a banh mi as an appetizer, devour half there, and save the other half for later.  I did NOT order a banh mi with my soup two nights in a row, just that first night.  20181129_184836_resized

Well, we’re over halfway into February and our local weather is already back into the 80s, but like I said, pho hits the spot year-round at Pho 88.

Pho Cali and Quickly Boba

There’s a strip shopping center along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (in an area that feels more like Casselberry) that once housed a Publix and several other businesses.  The Publix moved to a newer location ten minutes up the road, and most of the other tenants moved out.  I thought the entire strip was dead for sure, but a gym moved in, and now some restaurants have opened in there.  One of them is essentially two restaurants in one: a new Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Cali (https://www.facebook.com/phocalialoma/menu/), connected to an interesting chain called Quickly Boba.  They share the slick, modern dining room, but Pho Cali has table service, while you order at the counter at Quickly Boba.  They just opened in late August.

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The night I stopped by to check them out, I ended up bringing home some takeout from both.  Pho Cali has a pretty typical menu for a Vietnamese restaurant, but a little more expensive than most of the restaurants in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood.  My wife asked for grilled beef with rice vermicelli, her go-to standard when she doesn’t order pho.  It even came with three spring rolls, which were a pleasant little bonus.

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I’ve been to a few other Quickly locations in Orlando, and they’re all a little bit different.  They usually offer boba teas, smoothies, and slushes with a long list of flavors, macarons, and sometimes they have food menus with spicy popcorn chicken, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on baguettes, or even poke bowls.  This location had a lot of bakery items and desserts I’ve never seen at other Quickly stores, displayed in attractive glass cases.

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This is where they customize your boba drinks, and dig the multicolored macarons on top of the glass.

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I was thrilled to see that this location had banh mi, because sometimes I crave those sandwiches, my previous favorite banh mi shop Mai Bistro closed recently, and the current reigning contender, Nha Trang, is much further from home than this place.

A good thing about banh mi sandwiches is that they’re usually cheap, like in the $5 range.  In addition to whichever sandwich filling you choose, as the crusty baguettes are typically dressed with butter or mayo, pork liver pate (similar to liverwurst or braunschweiger, but less smoky-tasting), crunchy pickled carrot and daikon radish, cucumber spears, sprigs of refreshing cilantro, and slices of fresh, crunchy jalapeno peppers, which are much hotter than the pickled jalapenos most people are used to.  I was impressed to see this Quickly had an open area where you could watch your sandwiches being made and request custom ingredients, a la Subway.  Most places just disappear into the back to make them.

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I usually get a cold cut combo sandwich, but I noticed this Quickly location had crawfish on the menu, so I decided to get one of each, have half of each when I got them home, and save the other halves for the next day.  I don’t know why I was expecting breaded and deep-fried crawfish tails, but these were chilled and marinated, like a tangy crawfish salad.  I like seafood salads, so I figured I would try it.

The cold cut banh mi:

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The crawfish banh mi:20181022_204138_resized

Both were very fresh and tasty.  They’re always much lighter and more refreshing than most subs or hoagies, and a good banh mi should taste very fresh, with a variety of textures and flavors: crunchy bread and vegetables, soft meat fillings, some tangy, some spicy, and richness from the creamy mayo and smooth pate.  I don’t know if they dethrone Nha Trang or the late, lamented Mai Bistro, but they hit the spot, the price was right, and I’m glad I have the option much closer to home.

I also picked out a bun from the Quickly bakery case, with strands of salty, soft shredded pork baked on the top.  It was a savory bun with the slightest hint of sweetness, very buttery, and much softer and lighter than you would expect.

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It’s an interesting combination, and maybe just what this desolate shopping strip needs to revitalize itself.  I’m happy to provide some good word of mouth to help send business their way, and I wish them the best over there on Aloma.  It’s a very nice, cool dining room, reminiscent of Bento, a local favorite.  I think if people check it out, they will be pleasantly surprised.  Even if Pho Cali is a little more expensive than the Mills 50 stalwarts that have been serving Vietnamese food for far longer, I suspect it will win over folks in Winter Park, Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Oviedo that don’t want to drive all the way out there.

And next time I’ll actually try the pho!

Kai Asian Street Fare

It’s rare we get an exciting new restaurant in my neighborhood, but Kai Asian Street Fare (http://www.kaistreetfare.com/) started out strong when it opened earlier this year in a small, nondescript shopping strip on Semoran, just south of Howell Branch, and it has been improving exponentially since then.

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My first trip was back in early April, and my wife and I ordered and shared several of Kai’s eclectic dishes:

The “Dude Where’s My Ca” fish taco was very different from my favorite Asian fusion fried cod taco at Tako Cheena, but it was nice and crispy, not greasy at all, and had a good blend of flavors going on.

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They had three different varieties of Korean fried chicken wings, but since my wife doesn’t like spicy, we went with a safe soy-garlic flavor:

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I appreciate clever names, especially puns, so “I’m in Love with the Pho Pho” earned bonus points from me right away.  It wasn’t my favorite bowl of pho I’ve ever had, but it the broth was rich and fragrant, and it came with tender slices of beef and chewy meatballs.  I just have a TENDON-cy to want beef tendon in my pho, and that wasn’t an option at Kai.

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The “Legendary” garlic noodles with shrimp were one of the best noodle dishes I have ever tasted, and will surely make my list of favorite dishes of 2018.

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Finally, the “On Fleek” pork and shrimp wontons were as tasty as they were pretty, especially rolled around in the leftover garlic noodle drippings:

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Well, life gets in the way, and I had a few really hectic and stressful months since then, so I didn’t make it back to Kai for a while, all while positive reviews kept rolling in.  Two weeks ago, I finally returned on a weekend, just intending to get some takeout for lunch, when I ran into a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum, who was there meeting another friend for lunch.  They graciously allowed me to join them, so that was super-fun, and of course we ordered and shared even more wonderful food.  Everything I tried on this second visit in October was even better than my first trip.  Plus, they had some interesting weekend-only specials which we took advantage of, so I’m so glad I went.

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Since my first visit, they have added a few more wing flavors, so each of us ordered a different one.  One friend ordered mango habanero wings, which were succulently sticky, sweet, and spicy.  I love mangoes in any shape and form, and I’m cool with spicy food, but habanero peppers are usually a little much for me, and I tend to avoid them.  Not these — they had such a great flavor, instead of just doubling down on ass-kicking heat like a lot of lesser wings at terrible sports bars and other awful wing chains.

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Another friend ordered the Szechuan dry-rub wings.  I’m developing a palate for Szechuan cuisine, which has a different kind of heat, a tingling and numbing heat that can be weirdly addictive (and sometimes has a slight metallic aftertaste).  These wings weren’t as strongly numbing as some Szechuan seasonings I’ve had at Orlando’s Chuan Lu Garden, and they seemed to be balanced by some sugar in the dry rub that cut the heat.  Since I was on my way to work after this lunch, I wisely avoided the peppers themselves.

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Those were both weekend specials, but I ordered the spicy tang wings off the regular menu, which I didn’t get to try on my first visit.  They were the most like the Korean fried chicken wings at Hawkers, which have been my favorite and gold standard so far:

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All of Kai’s wings are absolutely huge, meaty, and tender, with nice crispy breading that stays on, and never soaking in puddles of oil or grease.  I don’t know how they do it!  I am definitely a convert.  Not to take away from Hawkers’ wonderful wings, but these are easily as good — just different, and well worth trying if you already like Hawkers (or anyone else’s, really).

That day, they also had two varieties of freshly-made ho fun noodles, which are wide, flat, chewy noodles that I love.  I ordered the dan dan noodles with spicy ground chicken in chili oil, and my friend ordered the seafood ho fun noodles with shrimp, squid, beef, and rich XO sauce, a luxurious thick sauce from Hong Kong traditionally made with dried scallops, shrimp, ham, chilies, and spices.  Well, I’m here to tell you that the only way Kai could have beaten its own Legendary garlic noodles was with these two ho fun noodle dishes.  Wow.  Two weeks later and I still smile and salivate, thinking about them.  I don’t know if I’ve ever ordered other Asian noodle dishes this good.  I implore my readers to try them on a weekend, but with any luck, Kai will add them to the regular daily menu.

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This is my spicy chicken dan dan noodle bowl.  It was outstanding, folks.  It had an interesting visual flourish: the flakes on top are dehydrated bonito (fish) flakes, and when added to a steaming hot dish, they appear to dance or move!  We were all a little surprised by that, but it was a cool effect.  IT’S ALIVE!  (Not really, though.)  I didn’t get a picture of my friend’s seafood ho fun, but trust me, it looked almost as good as it tasted, which was really good.

We were all fanboying and fangirling out, chatting up the chef and our cool server throughout the meal, and the chef brought us one more thing to try, on the house: dry pho noodles, served with farm-raised chicken, crunchy chicharrones, and broth on the side.  The chicken was chewier than most chicken I’m used to, I guess from the bird actually being able to walk around freely and build up muscles.  The chicharrones weren’t like styrofoamy store-bought pork rinds, but actual crispy, crunchy chunks of rich, fatty pork.  The noodles (which were probably also house-made) stood on their own when we mixed a good sauce into them, and then we only drizzled on as much broth as we wanted for our own portions.  I love pho, but I have to be in the mood for it, and this was a nice alternative to wanting the flavors and textures but not sitting down to a steaming bowl of soup on a hot, humid day.  It was definitely better than the traditional pho I tried back in April.  I apologize for not having a photo of that either (although some patient, bleary-eyed Saboscrivner readers may be relieved!)

Well, I’m shocked and saddened it took me so many months to return to Kai Asian Street Fare and even longer to write a proper review, but I give it my highest recommendation.  If you follow the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, you will see it has emerged as a popular local favorite for good reason, and a godsend for those of us who don’t feel like schlepping down to Mills 50 for the city’s best Asian restaurants.  Kai definitely belongs in that rarified group, so don’t hold its suburban location against it.  I wish them the best of luck and all the success in the world, although they are already achieving it.  I just beg them to make those ho fun noodles a daily thing!  Also, as a music nerd, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention they were playing an incredible selection of ’90s hip hop and R&B the entire time, taking me right back to some of the more tolerable parts of high school.  Mad props to our server, who took credit for the bangin’ playlist.