Build My Burgers

Build My Burgers (https://www.buildmyburgers.com/) sounds like something an old-timey Southern lady would say, as an expression of surprise or exasperation: “Well, build mah burgers!”  But no such phrase exists, although maybe it should.  Instead, Build My Burgers is a new fast-casual burger restaurant that opened in a small shopping plaza on University Boulevard, just a few minutes west of the University of Central Florida.  It is an independent, locally owned restaurant, and it could really use your support, because Build My Burgers will build you a tasty burger to your exact specifications, with dozens of options to customize it.  You can have a lot of fun here.  I sure did.

The burgers themselves are Black Angus beef, served as thin, “smashed” patties.  They might not be as thick or juicy as the patties from a burger joint like Fuddruckers or Teak, but they pack a lot of flavor and are clearly high-quality beef.  You can also choose regular or spicy fried chicken, a veggie burger, or an Impossible Burger if you don’t feel like beef.  Brioche is the standard bun, but you could also get your burger or sandwich on a thicker pretzel bun for a $2 upcharge or a lettuce bed for no additional cost, for the keto dieters out there.  (I did keto for five miserable months in 2017, and let’s just say it did not end well.)

But best of all about Build My Burgers, at least in my book, is the voluminous list of burger toppings and condiments to choose from.  I know some people’s brains short-circuit and shut down when faced with too many choices, but I love being able to choose so many different flavors and textures to make a one-of-a-kind meal, whether I’m customizing a poke bowl, a sandwich, a burrito, or a burger, in this case.

I opted for a double-patty burger ($8.99) with two slices of American cheese (75 cents each) on the standard brioche bun.  From there, I asked them to add ketchup, spicy mustard, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, pickles, roasted red peppers, crunchy potato sticks (making their second appearance in a row on The Saboscrivner blog), and guacamole.  Our food arrived on metal trays,  with the burgers wrapped up, fast food-style, already assembled.  Good grief, that was an insanely beautiful, messy, and delicious burger!

My wife likes to keep things simple, so she ordered a single burger ($6.49) on the pretzel bun (a $2 upcharge), and only opted to add thousand island dressing, which was a really good condiment pairing.  She ended up thinking the pretzel bun was just okay, but probably would have preferred the brioche.  I thought the denser, thicker pretzel bun would have been balanced better with a thicker, two-patty burger and more toppings and condiments. 
Next time she’ll get a burger on a brioche bun with guacamole, and next time I’ll probably get something very similar to what I got this time, but add thousand island.  We both thought the crinkle-cut fries, dusted with a peppery seasoning, were just okay.

What really sold me on finally trying Build My Burgers were people’s photos of the onion rings.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I am an onion ring aficionado, and I’ll try onion rings anywhere I find them.  Those inevitable onion ring reviews get a special tag: RING THE ALARM!  And these onion rings ($4.99) are “my type,” with their golden brown batter.  Perfect size, shape, color, consistency, and taste.  Flawless onion rings, worth ringing the alarm for. 

My wife was really craving a chocolate shake ($5.99), but also asked me if I had any interest in sharing an order of fried Oreos ($5.99).  That’s a decadent double dessert right there, but I realized neither of us had ever had fried Oreos before, so why not?  Anything the Scots love has to be pretty good, right?  Well, she seemed to really like the shake, and I enjoyed the obligatory sip I took. 
Does anyone remember Pulp Fiction, one of the biggest movies to come out in 1994?  I was in 11th grade at the time, and I was absolutely obsessed with it.  Anywhere, there was a whole discussion about how a cheesy ’50s diner-themed restaurant in L.A. served five-dollar milkshakes, and what a ripoff that was.  I always think of that moment in the film whenever I encounter milkshakes, because over 25 years later, five dollars is pretty standard, and many places cost far more.  Vincent Vega would have lost his damn mind if he saw the $15.99 “freaky shakes” on the Build My Burgers menu, but those are huge, opulent, towering structures meant to be photographed and shared (but not picked up, because all kinds of stuff is stuck to the outside of the glasses).  This standard chocolate milkshake in a standard plastic cup suited my wife just fine.

And because you were wondering, here’s a cross-section of the fried Oreos.  They were actually better than I expected, in that the batter was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and the Oreo still had some crunch to it.  I was expecting a sad, greasy mess that would make me feel guiltier than usual, and also a little disappointed.  Well, they weren’t greasy or disappointing at all, I’m happy to report!

I don’t end up on the east side of Orlando near UCF to eat very often, but if you’re out there, you can definitely count on a tasty burger from Build My Burgers.  Any of my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I value freedom of choice, and how much I love being able to customize and trick out my meals with a variety of options.  This is the perfect place for that.  Even vegetarians would be very content.  I look forward to returning and improvising some new crazy burger combination, but in the meantime, I wanted to spread the word about a relatively new restaurant that could use every bit of support.

Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.

Thirsty Gator

Thirsty Gator (http://thirstygator.net/) is a great dive bar and casual restaurant located on a lonely stretch of Goldenrod Road between University Drive and East Colonial Drive.  The address plants it firmly in Winter Park, but the surrounding area doesn’t look or feel like Winter Park.  To be completely honest, entering the bar feels like you’ve entered a portal that transports you to the Southern college town of Gainesville, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.  It doesn’t even matter when you knew Gainesville best — it will feel like Gainesville from “back in the day,” whenever that day was for you.

As if the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, Thirsty Gator is a Florida Gators-themed bar, so I’m sure it is a hot destination when Gator games are on or when University of Florida alumni in Orlando are feeling particularly nostalgic.  I have a few degrees from UF, but as I get older, I rarely feel that nostalgia for “bright college days, oh carefree days that fly” anymore.  I had some of the best and worst times of my life during my seven years as a UF student, but I met a lot of amazing friends there, and I’m so honored to know them and so proud of what they have all become.  Also, I fully realize I am able to lead the life I live now — educated, gainfully employed, happily married — because of what I accomplished back then, so in the end, it all worked out.  I never thought I’d feel more content and fulfilled in my 40s than I did in my late teens and 20s, but here I am.  Aw heck, when I was in my 20s, there were times I honestly didn’t think I would even make it to my 40s, but here I am, doing better than pretty much anyone expected, myself included.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, it really does get better.  I’m living proof of that.

But enough about an old man’s reflections of times past.  On to the food!

I brought home an order of ten mild wings ($15):

And an order of ten garlic wings ($15):
These are some of my favorite wings in Orlando.  I’ve written before about how I dislike typical sports bar wings that are tiny, greasy, crunchy, and dry.  These are the exact opposite — decent-sized wings that are tender, moist, juicy, incredibly well-seasoned, and barely greasy at all because they are baked, not fried.  I probably would have preferred them hot, but then my wife couldn’t enjoy them at all, and we always endeavor to share.  Thirsty Gator may be known for its seafood, but don’t sleep on these wings!  Seriously, they have to be near the top of the Top Five in Orlando.

My wife and I can never refuse the allure of a soft pretzel.  This one was $3.25, and it was pretty large, soft, and buttery.  It wasn’t as flaky and perfect as an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel (the only thing I like going to malls for anymore), but still hit the spot.  That is yellow mustard in the little plastic cup, not butter! 

I can never resist garlic rolls or garlic bread either, and this garlic bread was $3.25.  You get four pieces that are similar to the frozen loaves of Cole’s garlic bread I enjoy a little bit too much.  They had softened by the time I got everything home, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, and herbs on them.  You just can’t go wrong with garlic bread.

And the main reason I got takeout from Thirsty Gator, rock shrimp (market price; currently $21.95 per pound).  This delectable denizen of the deep rarely appears on any restaurant menus, and this is the one restaurant I know of in Orlando that specializes in the little crustaceans.  These are peel-and-eat rock shrimp, and their shells are slightly harder to pierce, penetrate, and peel than the typical shrimp we all know and love.  So they’re more work, but totally worth it.

This is what one of the rock shrimp looks like peeled.  The meat is succulent and sweet, and my wife and I agree they taste more like lobster than shrimp.   
Funny enough, one of our featured songs at our wedding was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s.  If you’ve ever had spiny lobster, AKA langoustine or langostino, those guys are the real-life rock lobsters, and I honestly think they taste more like regular shrimp than lobster.

These are a real treat, and since each one is a bit of a hassle to peel, you never take these for granted.  The peeling process may not be appealing, but you never eat rock shrimp without appreciating each sweet, tender morsel.  As a result, we took our time making our way through the pound we got.  They are served warm, but we also enjoyed them chilled out of the fridge the next day.

Aside from the rock shrimp and the wings, the other big food specialty at Thirsty Gator is the fresh raw oysters, but those aren’t great takeout food.  I’ve made no secret of my great love of oysters, so I’ll just have to go back another time to enjoy them in person.  Whether you love the Gators, hate them, or just fear them as so many do, there is so much to love at Thirsty Gator.

 

 

 

Christo’s (Sanford)

Sometimes I find out about a restaurant, read everything I can about it, and pore over the menu months or even years before I’m able to go.  This usually happens when a place is far from both home and work, when I can’t just jet off there whenever I want, and when takeout or delivery are unrealistic due to distance, so I need to plan a special trip to go.  Sometimes those trips end in disappointment, and other times they end in unbridled joy and obsession.  The following review is based on two separate visits to a restaurant, one for dining in and one for takeout, and it definitely runs the gamut of emotions.

Longtime readers know how much my wife and I both love diners, and any Orlando residents know that truly good diners like the ones they have up north are extremely rare down here.  So when I first heard about Christo’s (https://christossanford.com/) in quaint, historic downtown Sanford, it had my curiosity.  Then I began to study the voluminous menu online, and it had my attention!  It was a huge menu full of classic American food, along with the Italian and Greek dishes that many northern diners boast among their offerings, and a huge selection of freshly-baked desserts.  To quote Stefon, “This place has everything!”

There aren’t enough restaurants where you can get burgers, pizza, gyros, barbecue ribs, fish and chips, pasta, Italian subs, all kinds of fried apps, wings, breakfast (only on Sundays), pies, and a cheesecake of the day.  Some people might look suspiciously at a restaurant like that, where the menu’s ambition may exceed the kitchen’s reality, where they spread themselves too thin instead of focusing on and perfecting a few core dishes.  But the allure of the diner is that variety, where you can get waffles, a Reuben sandwich, spanikopita, calzone, or even lobster, at any time of day, and you know they’ll all be good.  And at Christo’s, rest assured, they are gonna be GOOD.  (Editor’s note: Christo’s does not have lobster, but they do have crab cakes!)

The dining room appears to be built inside of an old bank, with the area where the vault used to be in the very back of the long room.  It is a little dark in there, which I appreciate.  I hate feeling blasted with light in restaurants, like we’re being examined on a slide on a giant microscope.  Christo’s had a homey, relaxing feeling, like a restaurant my parents would have taken us to when I was a kid in the ’80s, without feeling like a Southern “down-home-cookin’-corn-pone-y’all” kind of diner.  I liked it immediately, and my wife and I both liked our server Arielle, who was so sweet and patient and welcoming, despite being super-busy.  I keep reading stories about service in restaurants being bad due to the pandemic, and places being short-staffed due to staff quitting for more lucrative jobs and due to abuse from customers.  I’m sure that all happens, and anyone who is rude to hard-working people in the service industry is deplorable and worthy of the deepest contempt and merciless social consequences.  But I digress.  I just meant to say that Arielle was slammed, but she provided us the best service I’ve experienced in a restaurant in a year and a half, since before COVID-19 changed everything forever.  (I know some people will be interested, so I mention it here: none of the staff members were wearing masks on either of these visits.)

One thing I had been excited about trying at Christo’s was the fresh-baked pepperoni bread.  It isn’t a stromboli (because they have those too), but just fresh, fluffy, crusty bread with pepperoni slices and cheese baked into it sounded delightful.  Guess what, folks: it was.  I usually don’t like bread that is too crusty, where the crust shatters into shards when you bite it, occasionally carving up your gums like a ninja on the rampage.  This was an ideal crust that was crackly, but not overly hard or crunchy.

I was tempted by other apps, but I feel like I made the best possible choice in Greek nachos ($11.49), a Herculean portion of crispy, fresh-fried pita wedges (definitely not those rock-hard, bone-dry, bagged pita chips) smothered and covered with a veritable Mount Olympus of sliced gyro meat, crumbled feta cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, thin-sliced red onions, kalamata olives, and chopped pepperoncini peppers, then topped with a layer of creamy, tangy tzatziki sauce.  Folks, this was legendary, or at least mythical.  If only Homer was still around to write about these Greek nachos… or maybe they should have called them Natchios.  (Any other Daredevil fans reading this?  If so, make your presence known!)
Much to my pleasant surprise, my wife liked these Greek nachos too, but I loved them.  Fearless readers, I might go out on a limb and say that this is one of my favorite restaurant appetizers of all time, and not just in the Orlando area either.  I can’t recommend or rave about these enough!  And the portion really is huge, so a group could happily share it, or someone could easily make it into a filling, fulfilling meal.

My wife always appreciates a nice sweet breakfast, so we made sure to go on a Sunday, the one day Christo’s opens earlier than 11 AM and serves a breakfast menu until it closes at 3 PM.  She ordered white chocolate French toast ($10.99), which came with six thicc slices of fresh-baked challah, dipped in white chocolate egg batter and grilled until it was golden.  She loved it, as I suspect most people would, but everything was so filling, she could only eat two of the smaller slices then and there.  Everything heated up very well back at home, which is a bonus.

I couldn’t decide between a burger and a sandwich, so Arielle recommended Christo’s Chicago beef sandwich ($9.95), which she said would be “more festive than a burger.”  Folks, I’ll take any festivities where I can get them, especially these days!   The sandwich includes thin slices of bottom round topped with sauteed onions (and mushrooms, which I asked her to hold), baked on a crusty roll with mozzarella and brick cheeses and served with au jus.

“AU JUUUUUUUUS!
AU JUUUUUUUUUS!
Do you hate him, ’cause he’s PIECES OF YOU?
(Nobody will get or appreciate that, but I only write this blog to amuse myself, so mission accomplished.)

Anyway, it was a fine sandwich, but really could have used a vegetable and something spicy.  The pickled giardinera vegetables that go on an authentic Chicago Italian beef sandwich would have brought this one over the top.So what’s all the other stuff on the plate, you ask?  Well, at Christo’s, sandwiches and burgers come with chips and a pickle, OR for an additional $4.49, you can get it Fat Boy Style.  I have nothing but love for the Fat Boys (RIP, Buff Love and Prince Markie D!), but Christo’s had the ingenious idea to include a single onion ring, a firecracker fried cheese ball (with firecracker sauce!), and either fries or potato salad in their Fat Boy Style option, and how could I refuse?  Yes, this is a Ring the Alarm! feature because I ate a single onion ring, and it was a fine one — hand-dipped into homemade beer batter and fried to perfection.  You know this onion ring was made with care, pride, and love, and didn’t come frozen in an industrial-sized bag from somewhere.  The firecracker fried cheese ball was a blend of five cheeses dipped in batter and fried into a perfect little golden globe (don’t sue me, please).  The firecracker sauce was creamy and tangy, barely spicy at all — definitely not as spicy as spicy mayo that comes with sushi and poke.  Anyway, you can get a full appetizer order of the firecracker fried cheese balls for $8.49, a full order of the onion rings for $6.99, or a smaller “entree side” order of the onion rings for $3.99, which is good to know for next time.

And because you can get fries almost anywhere but I was already eating plenty of fried stuff, and also in a Greek diner, I chose the potato salad, and I was so glad I did.  Greek-style potato salad is served chilled, but instead of mayonnaise, it includes vinegar, and I love vinegary salads.  It was so delicious, I just loved it.  (As an aside, German potato salad is also awesome and vinegary, but it is served warm and includes bacon.  Get some down the street at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, our favorite restaurant in Sanford.)

Like the diners of my dreams, Christo’s had a long glass refrigerated display case near the front, full of freshly baked pies and cakes.  It looked like a birthday-style cake with rainbow sprinkles baked in and more on top, a key lime pie, and a blueberry cream pie in the front.  It’s harder to tell exactly what wonders were on the lower level.

Moving on down, there was one slice remaining of a gorgeous flaky apple pie, a slice of blueberry cheesecake in the back, and the cake on the top right was either a carrot cake or a hummingbird cake, topped with nuts and cream cheese icing.  On the lower deck, there was a cake with cherries on it, some kind of chocolate cake, and an intriguing-looking orange cake I made a mental note of.

Further down, there were freshly baked cookies and pastries, as well as chocolate-dipped wedges of baklava in the top left there!

My wife usually gravitates toward anything chocolatey, so she really surprised me by expressing interest in that beautiful blueberry cream pie ($6.99), which would have been my top choice anyway.  It wasn’t overly sweet, and the crust had a nice saltiness to it, to offset the tangy cream and tart berries.  I liked it more than she did, but we both liked it.

Since it’s summer and blueberries are in peak season, at least somewhere, I made a case that we had to compare the cream pie to the blueberry cheesecake ($7.99) too.  This one wasn’t overly sweet either.  It almost reminded me of yogurt, in that it had a subtle tangy tartness that wasn’t just from the berries.  The graham cracker crust was more crumbly than firm, but it wasn’t moist or buttery like the graham cracker crusts on some cheesecakes and key lime pies, and wasn’t salty either.  I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but everything about the blueberry cream pie was better than the cheesecake.

Funny enough, my wife’s favorite desserts were the freshly baked cookies we brought home: snickerdoodles and sugar cookies ($2.50 each).  Back at home, she said they were soft, but not like raw cookie dough either — they were nicely chewy, but still had a bit of a crumble, just like you hope for.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Christo’s, and I really wanted to write a review while it was all fresh in my mind, so I returned after work today and brought home a large takeout order, using a very generous UberEats gift card a sweet friend had given us.  This way, I figured my wife and I would have enough leftovers to last through most of the weekend.

Christo’s makes much of their pizzas, and my wife asked me to bring her a personal pizza with Italian sausage, mushrooms, and green peppers ($11.99).  I splurged and took the 417 (a toll road) home from Sanford to ensure the food would still be as hot as possible, and the pizza was still warm!  I had a slice after picking most of the mushrooms off it, and it was a pretty chewy crust, but had a good flavor from the sauce, cheese, and toppings.  I prefer a crispier crust, though, whether it’s thin New York-style pizza or thick, rectangular Sicilian-style.  My wife thought it was okay, but her favorite pizzas in town are from Pizza Bruno and that rare bird, Brad’s Underground Pizza.

Most people who know me or read The Saboscrivner know that Italian subs are pretty much my favorite meal.  I had to try Christo’s version, the Italian Lunch Box ($9.99) to compare it to my favorite subs and hoagies in Orlando.  It was okay, with salami, pepperoni, ham, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions on a soft hoagie roll, but no roasted peppers or drizzled Italian dressing, as promised on the menu.   I think the roasted peppers and Italian dressing would have helped it immensely.  I’m kind of a sub aficionado, and I think they need the tanginess of peppers — either roasted reds or something spicy, like hot pickled cherry peppers, or both.  Subs also require the lubrication from a condiment, like some kind of oil and vinegar, or better yet, a vinaigrette dressing.  As it is, I’ll leave the Italian subs to the experts, but props to Christo’s for offering one in the first place.

Ribs?  At a DINER?  Yep, “Need-A-Bib” ribs were on the menu, so I ordered a full slab ($19.99), just for the heck of it, knowing we could share them and they would last us a few meals.  These were substantial spare ribs, not tiny little baby backs, uncut and fall-off-the-bone tender (which most barbecue pitmasters would argue isn’t ideal).  They definitely weren’t smoked — most likely par-boiled and finished on the grill, then brushed with a sticky, sweet, and slightly smoky barbecue sauce.  But they were still tender and tasty, despite not being traditionally smoked, and weren’t fatty or greasy at all.   

I got a choice of two sides with the ribs, so I opted for those really good onion rings as well as fried macaroni and cheese, because why not, right?  The fried mac and cheese came in the form of two large, thick triangles, covered with crispy brown breading and dusted with parmesan cheese.   

Here’s a cross-section of the fried mac and cheese and one of the firecracker fried cheese balls that come with the Fat Boy Style orders:

We went a bit nuts on desserts as well.  Restaurants, take note: if you want to tempt us, put pies and cakes in a glass display case, or better yet, under glass domes, like they always have in diners in old movies.  We are suckers for seeing them up close and on display like that!

Continuing the blueberry dessert trend from our previous visit, it looks like we got a double slice of a blueberry cake ($7.99, but it’s a large portion that needs to be shared).  The cake itself was on the dry side, and we both wished it had more blueberries, but the cream cheese icing was a real winner.  It was much better after we left it in the fridge to chill for a while.  I like my cake chilled, and usually my pie as well.

I am also a mark for any orange desserts, so after seeing it on our last visit, I brought home a slice of orange cake ($7.99), intending to make it last a while.  The cake itself was slightly more moist than the blueberry cake, but it had a good subtle orange flavor, and once again, cream cheese icing.  Not bad, but one of these days I’m going to have to return to Christner’s, the really nice steakhouse that serves a mandarin orange cake that is one of my all-time favorite desserts.  I haven’t been there in many years, so I’ve never written a review.

And finally, Christo’s apple pie is so pretty, I had to get us a slice of that too ($6.99).  This is one that looked better than it tasted, I must admit.  Do you remember reading how I wished the Chicago beef sandwich had some spicy marinated giardinera vegetables and the Italian Lunch Box sub had some hot peppers and a vinaigrette dressing?  They would have been much better sandwiches with some spicy elements added.  Well, you know what WAS spicy, but we both wished it wasn’t?  This apple pie.  It had a lot of cinnamon in it — like, a ridiculous amount of cinnamon that had a hot, spicy bite to temper the tartness of the apples.  It wasn’t overly sweet either, which was fine, especially after I overdosed on apple pie judging the 2018 National Pie Championships here in Orlando, but mama mia, that was a spicy pie!
So that’s Christo’s, one of the best diners I’ve found in Florida.  We tried a lot of stuff because I got all swept up in the excitement of discovering a new diner with a big ol’ menu, and I wanted to write a thorough, exhaustive review after all the anticipation of finally getting out there.  Some things were terrific (I can’t rave enough about those Greek nachos!), others were fine, and some were a little disappointing, but that’s diners for ya, and that’s life as well.

Since Sanford is half an hour away from home and even further from work, I don’t see myself returning all that often.  But it is definitely worth a try for anyone hanging out in Sanford, especially among all the other trendier restaurants and hip breweries and wine bars along First Street.  It’s a family restaurant — not cutting-edge or foodie-hipsterish in any way — but that’s part of Christo’s charm.  I think it’s cool just by being an unpretentious, old-school diner with a huge, ambitious menu.  I think any diners would have a difficult time going there and not finding something good to eat, especially if you’re dining with a party of people with strong opinions.  If you’re anything like me, you might feel a little overwhelmed by all the choices, but overwhelmed in the best possible way.  And if we’re lucky, life can feel a little like that too.

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
DSC02929

But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

The Pass Progressive Cuisine

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

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

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

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

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

Close-up of these beautiful birria tacos:

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

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

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

Sauce gallery!

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

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

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

Domu

I can’t believe Orlando’s super-hip Japanese restaurant Domu (http://domufl.com/) opened in November 2016, and it took me over three years to make it there!  Located in the East End Market in the hipsterrific Audubon Park neighborhood, the very limited parking spaces fill up quickly, and I had been warned about infamous long waits, even during less busy times.  Plus, I work late during the week, and Domu doesn’t accept reservations or even allow takeout orders!  That’s their prerogative, I guess.  I figured being difficult to get into only added to the hype and made it a hotter foodie destination, but considering my wife and I don’t go out to eat as much as we used to, and she often prefers takeout at home, we stayed away, not wanting to deal with the aggravation.

But Domu now opens for brunch at 11 AM on weekends, with mostly the same menu.  I knew I could finally try it if I got there right when it opened, so on a recent Sunday morning, I was the first person to arrive, right around 10:30 — already having to park in an overflow lot for the East End Market.  (And because it rained and all the enthusiastic Domu diners went to wait under an overhang, about a dozen people got in before me once the doors finally opened.)  But I got seated at the bar, had very friendly service from Leah, and I’m glad to report what many of my faithful readers already knew — Domu was worth the wait.

The things I would hear the most about are Korean fried chicken wings and ramen, so in true Saboscrivner style, I ordered both.  The wings (an order of six for an extremely reasonable $9) came out quickly, and they were absolute units, thicc with crispy breading that wasn’t heavy or greasy.  They were covered with a sweet, sticky, slightly spicy sauce that was a little thinner than the sauce on the huge and crispy Korean wings my wife and I love so much at Hawkers.  But these wings lived up to all the hype.dsc02752.jpg

I ate three of them and still had ramen coming, but I was relieved to find out that even though Domu doesn’t allow takeout orders, they will still provide you with a box to bring your leftovers home.  (If not, those three wings were coming home in my guayabera pockets, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that.)  I happily packed up the remaining wings for my wife, and they were still warm by the time I got them home to her.  (This story has a bittersweet ending: she took one bite and immediately decreed them to be too spicy, so I finished them a little later!)

And then my ravishing, rapturous, radical ramen arrived.  All the ramen options all sounded good, but I picked a popular favorite, the Richie Rich ($13), named after a hokey old comic book that helped me learn how to read when I was two years old.  It comes with fresh, house-made ramen noodles in a miso-shoyu pork bone broth, with chashu pork, an ajitama brulee egg (half a hard-boiled egg, but with a rich, deep orange, almost custard-like yolk, caramelized on its surface with a blowtorch), scallions, fried garlic, black garlic oil, and domudana.  (I’m afraid I have no idea what domudana is.)  I am very lucky that I mentioned being allergic to mushrooms, because another ingredient, kikurage, is actually the wood ear or “Jew’s ear” mushroom, and Leah was kind enough to warn me and promise they would leave it out.  That was a close one.  That Jew’s ear would have destroyed this Jew’s stomach!DSC02753

I am still new to traditional/”fancy” ramen, after subsisting on cheap Nissin and Maruchan instant ramen noodles for so many years.  However, I loved the ramen I tried at Susuru earlier this year, and Domu’s Richie Rich was my latest foray into the exciting world of Big Ramen.  It was so delicious, I slurped it all up in record time, even after demolishing those three wondrous wings, and I’ve been craving more ever since.  The broth was so creamy! The pork melted in my mouth!  That egg was magical!  The noodles were streets ahead of any ramen I’ve ever had before (which amounts to the good stuff at Susuru and lots of cheap, unhealthy, instant crap).  I don’t know if anyone else in Orlando goes to the trouble of making their own fresh ramen noodles, but Domu is doing something really amazing in that open kitchen.  And like I said, I’m late to this party, but many of you already knew that.
DSC02754

The Domu website says its name translates as slang for “a dream come true,” and I’m sure that is true for owner Sonny Nguyen, who is starting his own culinary empire here in Orlando.  There is now a second, brand-new Domu location in Dr. Phillips, plus the fast-casual Domu Chibi in Waterford Lakes.  His new izakaya pub Tori Tori in the Mills 50 district impressed me when I was there recently, and I know that has quickly become another local hit.  After waiting three years, hearing raves about the ramen and whispers about the wings, I had an extremely pleasant and positive experience there myself, without any of the nightmarish waits I had read about.  (Saboscrivner Sage Suggestion #1: GET TO RESTAURANTS WHEN THEY OPEN!)  So you could say my dream came true at Domu as well.

 

Chain Reactions: 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!

 

Pizzeria Del Dio

In my review of Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza from earlier this year, I mentioned it is one of my top three favorite pizzerias in Orlando, alongside Pizza Bruno and a third I’m finally getting around to writing about: Pizzeria Del Dio (http://pizzeriadel-dio.com/).  Located at 3210 East Colonial Drive in Orlando (near the Maguire intersection, across from the Fashion Square Mall), Del Dio is not visible from busy Colonial.  It is still a bit of a secret after ten years in business, but it shouldn’t be.

While Anthony’s Coal Fired bakes really terrific coal oven pizza and Pizza Bruno specializes in Neopolitan-style, Del Dio quietly serves up Orlando’s best New York-style AND Sicilian-style pizzas.  However, I argue that both kinds of pizzas are best enjoyed hot, crispy, and melty right out of the oven, at the restaurant.  They’re perfectly fine if you get them to go (as I have done countless times), but any pizza loses something on the drive back home or to the office.  Trust me on this.  In this age of delivery and instant gratification, not enough people appreciate going out for pizza anymore.

So this is my regular order when I go to Del Dio, conveniently ten minutes from work: a slice of regular and a slice of Sicilian.  The regular NY-style pizza is thin and crispy, meant to be folded.  They have a wide range of toppings, and I tend to like meatballs on my pizza (sometimes sliced, sometimes crumbled), but it’s great just plain, with a dusting of parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.DSC01825

Sicilian pizza, for the uninitiated, is thick, cooked in a rectangular pan and cut into square or rectangular slices.  It’s not a “casserole” like Chicago’s deep dish so-called pizza.  Sicilian very clearly meets the definition of pizza, just different from what most people are used to.  Some are a little softer, others are crispier.  I like mine somewhere in between, and the edges of Del Dio’s Sicilian slices are always nice and crispy with the slightest char, especially when I dine in and they take it right out of the oven for me.  But once you get to the middle of the slice, it’s pillowy-soft.  The cheese is always fresh and melty, and it contains more sauce than your typical NY-style slice.  It’s a thick, hearty sauce that seems chunkier than the sauce on their regular pizza.  (I think sauce is the most underappreciated ingredient on a good pizza, almost an afterthought too often.)  But mama mia, they’re so good!  DSC01826

I’ve always heard Del Dio has really good wings, and I am hard to please when it comes to wings.  A lot of the time you get maximum mess, minimal meat.  Crunchy, greasy, dry sports bar-style Buffalo wings are my least-favorites.  But I gave Del Dio’s wings a chance recently and was pleasantly surprised.  These were mild, and they had plenty of meat and a nice, crackly crispiness to them.  They were so hot (temperature-hot, not spicy-hot), I burned my fingertips and my mouth a little.DSC01823

They also make excellent meatballs, which you can get as a side order like this, in a sub, or even as a pizza topping.  Like I said, I’ve had them show up both sliced and crumbled on my pizza in the past, but here they are whole — a lot more photogenic this way.DSC01824

They also serve surprisingly fantastic onion rings, with the golden-brown battered coating that I love.  They are totally “my type” of onion rings.  Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph or order them for this review, so it isn’t an official Ring the Alarm! feature.

We often order Del Dio at work, either for pizza parties for our staff or to reward the students in the evening classes I occasionally teach.  We are inside their regular delivery range, but for our latest staff luncheon, I picked them up:

Plain cheese:DSC01848

Pepperoni:DSC01847I have thoughts and feelings about pepperoni on pizza.  If you’re gonna get it, get it from a place like Del Dio that is generous with the pepperoni, laying out lots of flat slices like on the above pie.  I don’t love it when pepperoni slices curl up into crunchy little grease traps.  Honestly, I like pepperoni best served cold, salami-style, sliced thin in an Italian hoagie alongside its cured meat brothers and sisters, adding a bit of pleasant spiciness.  But if you’re gonna put pepperoni on pizza, this is definitely the way to do it.

But this was the crowd-pleasing favorite: thin-sliced, breaded eggplant cutlet and roasted red peppers!  People grabbed slices before I could even take this photo.  It was fabulous, and almost everyone agreed we’d order this again in the future.  I was thinking the only thing that could possibly improve it (aside from eating it at the restaurant for maximum crispness) was to add some ricotta.DSC01846

And the obligatory salad that some people shared (actually quite good):DSC01849

So yeah, that’s Del Dio.  I crave that Sicilian pizza far too often, and don’t indulge often enough.  But just FYI, if you are ordering pizzas for a large group, they will “double-cut” the pizzas to turn a classic NY-style from 8 large slices into 16 thinner ones, or to subdivide the Sicilian from 8 large, rectangular slices into 16 smaller squares.  Your family, friends, co-workers, and students will thank you.  And if you really want to enjoy Pizzeria Del Dio as it should be enjoyed, venture forth to the actual pizzeria and eat your pizza right there, at the scene.  The difference is night and day!

Chain Reactions: Zero Degrees

The other day I drove further west than I’ve ever driven before, in my almost 15 years in Orlando.  There’s a whole “Chinatown” west of downtown, even past Taste of Chengdu, with lots of Asian markets and restaurants, as well as a Caribbean supermarket.  It felt like I unlocked a new level in a video game, venturing to an unfamiliar new area and discovering all kinds of exciting, even legendary places to eat and explore in the future.

I went out that way on a quest for a certain kind of hot sauce, after coming up empty at three much closer Asian markets.  I finally found it at the Tan Tien Oriental Market, and a few doors down from it, I stumbled upon Zero Degrees (https://zerodegreescompany.com/).  It immediately felt like a Southern California sort of place due to a lot of Mexican and Asian fusion food and beverages, and the website confirmed it was founded in (that other) Orange County.

Zero Degrees has an eclectic menu full of frosty, sweet, refreshing (non-alcoholic) drinks, including fruit slushes, sweet shakes, limeades, milk teas (including Thai iced tea), green teas, Vietnamese iced coffee (with sweetened condensed milk, so good!), and Mexican horchata (sweetened rice milk), which can all be ordered with or without chewy boba pearls made from tapioca.  They even have a Splitcup: a cup split down the middle into two separate compartments, so you can order two drinks in the same cup without having them mix together, for $5.50.

The food menu is snack-focused, featuring different variations of fries, nachos, elotes (Mexican street corn), chicharrones (pork rinds), and macaroni and cheese with a variety of toppings, including cheese, carne asada beef, and crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I knew carne asada fries is a real L.A. thing.  They also have wings and crispy popcorn chicken bites, in salt and pepper or honey barbecue flavors.

I was in a hurry and had a hard time deciding, but I went with the garlic noodle dish (a larger entree, but still only $6), stir-fried in butter and garlic, with melty Cotija cheese and topped with grilled carne asada beef (a $3.50 upcharge).  You can also get it with shrimp (also $3.50) and/or an egg ($1.50).  It was great.  Really rich, probably horrible for me, but it hit the spot.  The beef had a hint of lime to it, and I’m sure it would be great over the other items on the menu, like the fries.

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I also ordered Zero Degrees’ signature drink, the Mangonada ($6), a fresh mango slush with chamoy (a salty-sweet-sour sauce made from pickled plums or apricots that made its way to Mexico from China), Tajin (a spicy chili-lime spice powder that is popular sprinkled on fruit in Mexico), and topped with chunks of fresh mango.  They asked me if I wanted my Mangonada spicy or not spicy, and I chose spicy.  It has a lot of nice flavor, but it wasn’t “burn your tongue” spicy in the least.  We have a bottle of Tajin at home, and we’ve found it is great on certain fruit, especially melons.  It worked beautifully with the mango in the drink.  And this was my first experience trying chamoy, so now I want to try it in other things, too!  20190107_152742_resized

If that straw looks weird, it’s because it is coated with spicy-tangy-fruity-sweet-sour-salty-chewy tamarind candy, making a unique sensory and taste experience.  The tamarind candy straw was also a $1 upcharge, but I figured “Why not?”, especially since I live so far from this place.  I admit the straw was more hassle than it was worth, especially since it didn’t extend past the plastic lid when touching the bottom of the cup.  Also, it was messy, sticky, and hard to bite the chewy candy off the plastic, especially while driving.  I don’t think I’d bother to get that straw again, but I’m glad I tried it.

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I returned to Zero Degrees a few days later, even though it’s quite a distance away, because I wanted to explore the Chinatown area further.  (Stay tuned, Saboscrivner Society of America!)  I also really wanted to try the strawberry limeade and strawberry horchata, so the SplitCup was the perfect solution to my dilemma.  Apologies for the pic, dear readers — it was an unseasonably hot January afternoon, and I drank most of the limeade before I got it home to take a (not even that) decent photo.  They used fresh strawberries in both beverages that tasted just like my homemade strawberry smoothies do, with no extra sugar or sweet syrup added to them.

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I also brought my wife an ube milkshake.  The purple yam, popular in Filipino desserts, tasted more like vanilla to both of us, but it was a beautiful purple color (her favorite color), so I knew (hoped) she would like it.  It came garnished with a toasted marshmallow (she loves those), some rainbow-colored sour belt chewy candy, and glittery purple sugar.  If I actually used Instagram like a normal food blogger in 2019, this would be the kind of thing I’d be ‘Gramming about.  But instead, you’re hearing it here first!

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I don’t know when I’ll return to Zero Degrees because it’s literally across town, but I’m so glad I accidentally discovered it and took the time to try it twice in the same week.  I’d love to go back  and get the mac and cheese covered with Flamin’ Hot Cheeto dust, but I’ve done enough damage for this week.  Eating healthy in 2019, yea yea!