Royal Castle (Miami)

A note to constant readers: I mistakenly published this review two weeks ago, while I was still working on it as a draft.  My small subset of subscribers should have subsequently seen it e-mailed to them, but I unpublished it immediately… UNTIL NOW, when it’s shined and polished for public consumption.  For those of you who have already read and reveled in my Royal Castle review, regrets for the redundancy.

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Growing up, my dad would sometimes get nostalgic about the restaurants he used to frequent in Miami that were before my time.  So many dearly-departed delis for pastrami sandwiches, Lum’s for hot dogs boiled in beer (I was so surprised to see Lum’s and those legendary hot dogs referenced in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last year!) and Royal Castle for tiny hamburgers and birch beer.  My dad doesn’t consider himself a “foodie” at all, and reads this blog with a mix of amusement and bemusement, but I feel like I became The Saboscrivner due in part to his influence.

A transplanted Brooklynite who moved to North Miami in his late teens, he always knew where to find the best hot dog carts, by-the-slice pizzerias, and all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.  He had no problem packing us in the car for the hour drive from suburban Kendall to the North Miami Beach/Aventura/Sunny Isles area to take us to the much-missed Mister Coney Island and Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House.  That entire part of Miami was magical to me from childhood through my college years, with two good comic book shops, the legendary Blue Note Records, and a Toys R Us on NE 163rd Street that always seemed to have a better selection than the ones closer to us.  But those places are all gone now, like so much of Miami’s glorious, golden past.  (Stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)

Anyway, my dad likes what he likes and sticks to the classics, but he was cool enough to step out of his comfort zone a handful of times to take us for Thai food (once; he claimed the spices made him angry), German food (once; he got weirded out when a bunch of people showed up in lederhosen and dirndls, but who could blame him?), and even a live jazz club on Miami Beach that served burgers and ribs, exponentially expanding my limited teenage horizons.  These were all big-deal formative experiences for me back then, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s.

Royal Castle always stood out to me because it sounded like Miami’s homegrown version of the White Castle and Krystal chains, much like how Orlando’s beloved and long-standing Beefy King is the last bastion of a local chain that was once poised to compete with Arby’s back in the ’70s.  There were once over 150 Royal Castles spanning Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, but only one remains.  Founded in 1958, this Royal Castle is a true family business, sold to 28-year-old James Brimberry by the previous owner, his grandfather, “the first black employee to work inside any Royal Castle restaurant as it integrated just ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  See Carlos Frias, “Miami’s last Royal Castle slings its burgers and birch beer for a new generation,” Miami Herald (June 27, 2019).

Here’s another article about Royal Castle for additional background information:

Miami Herald Archives, “Remember Royal Castle? The burger boom went bust, except for one last survivor,” Miami Herald (February 26, 2019).

By the way, Carlos Frias is one of my favorite food writers and an excellent person to follow on Twitter, whether you live in South Florida or not.  Earlier this summer, Royal Castle made his list of Black-owned Miami restaurant recommendations:

Carlos Frias, “Eat like a local at Miami-Dade’s black-owned restaurants. Here are some of our favorites,” Miami Herald (June 2, 2020).

But it was his June 2019 article I linked above that inspired me to seek out the last remaining Royal Castle on a quick overnight work trip to Miami last fall.  I had one free afternoon to grab lunch on the way down, so I decided to storm the Castle for myself.  Since they don’t have a website with a full menu, I was surprised to see they had a large diner-like menu with breakfasts, sandwiches, and sides — way more variety than I expected from a fast food burger place.  It’s definitely more like a diner than fast food as we all think of it.DSC02630

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I already love li’l slider burgers (see my Krystal review from last summer), and despite the other menu options that I wasn’t expecting, I made the special trip out of my way to Royal Castle to try their famous sliders.  I grabbed a stool at the counter and ordered this 6-Pack combo with cheese added to the burgers, crinkle-cut fries, and a lemonade, which was a reasonable $12.25.  (Unfortunately they were out of their famous birch beer, which I had really been looking forward to.)DSC02634

Close-up to see that nice melty American cheese, still the perfect burger cheese (and grilled cheese cheese).  I had just driven almost four hours and was starving and in a hurry to get to my destination, so I apologize for not taking more or better photos.  Rest assured there were steamed onions and pickle slices underneath the thin burger patties, and I made sure to apply plenty of ketchup to those fries and a dab on each slider.  DSC02635

In retrospect, I wish I had ordered more food, but I didn’t have the time to savor it or a fridge in my hotel room to safely store it.  They were perfectly fine little sliders that hit the spot and got me through a bunch of work schmoozing, but for me, it was all about making that pilgrimage, feeling that Miami history, and eating where my dad ate when he was probably half the age I am now.

The Northwest Miami neighborhood has seen better days, and the restaurant probably has too, but heck, so have I.  After this year, I think we can all say we’ve seen better days.  But it’s a testament to the Brimberry family that the last Royal Castle is still standing after 62 tumultuous years, still in the family, still proudly Black-owned, and still serving filling, flavorful fast food and a lot of local flavor as well.

Sister Honey’s Bakery

Orlando is blessed with an abundance of wonderful, locally-owned bakeries.  I’ve reviewed many of our best ones already, so please click here to see all my other bakery reviews.  But I had yet to review one of my favorites, to add it to my bakery pantheon (or pan-pantheon): Sister Honey’s Bakery (https://www.sisterhoneys.com/).

Sister Honey’s is a Black-owned bakery in the SoDo area (South of Downtown Orlando), named for owner Evette Rahman’s mother’s nickname.  Evette is a champion baker with awards and accolades to spare.  From 2014 to 2016, she took the Best in Show awards at the National Pie Championships, hosted right here in Orlando by the American Pie Council.  That’s the pie-baking equivalent of winning Best Director three years in a row at the Academy Awards!  (I had the honor of serving as a pie judge in this prestigious competition in 2018 and 2019, and wrote about it right here on this blog.)  As of 2017, Evette had won 27 blue ribbons from the National Pie Championships, including a staggering 10 alone in 2016.

So needless to say, if you haven’t been to Sister Honey’s before, knowing this now, your expectations will be pretty high.  Well, I promise that they’ll be even higher if you make it all the way through this review, and you WON’T be disappointed.

As far as I’m concerned, Evette makes the best key lime pie I’ve ever had, and key lime pie is one of my Top Five all-time desserts.  This is the whole pie, which I’ve never bought from her:
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But in all the years I’ve been going, I think I’ve eaten the equivalent of a whole key lime pie, one decadent slice ($5.99) at a time.
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Key lime pie isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make at home, and Publix even makes a damn fine one, but you have to try Sister Honey’s version at least once, to see how it stands alone.

I’ve also had the strawberry cheese pie many times, with its thick graham cracker crust, gooey cream cheese base, fresh strawberries, and fresh whipped cream.  It was the National Pie Championships Best in Show winner in 2014, and the judges chose wisely.
20200711_123803On my most recent visit, Evette brought this pie out from the back when I was already about to pay, so I was able to request a last-second slice but wasn’t able take a picture of the whole pie.  It melted a little in my car on the long drive home, but you get the idea of its pure decadent deliciousness.

My wife’s favorite delectable dessert from Sister Honey’s is the vanilla bean pound cake.  Usually the icing on the top is perfectly smooth, but I smeared it taking it out of its plastic clamshell box, so that’s on me.  It’s incredibly moist and vanilla-ey, and the icing is never heavy or greasy like the gross buttercream on a lot of supermarket cakes.
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Rear view:DSC03198

Coconut and German chocolate cakes on display.  The coconut cake is my wife’s second-favorite:DSC03190

Here’s the latest slice of coconut cake she got ($5.99).  It looks much better in person, and it is incredibly moist and rich.  The gooey coconutty filling between layers is my favorite part of this cake.20200711_123722

This was the first time I ever saw a golden pineapple cake available.  Longtime readers know how much I love anything pineappley, so I had to go for it. 20200711_112811

Here’s the slice I got ($7.99).  The cake itself and the icing were both more subtle than I expected.
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I make a mean pineapple upside-down cake that my in-laws crave, to the point where I make it for us every Thanksgiving instead of more traditional Thanksgiving desserts.  It’s also a big hit at work potlucks.  But I make it using a Duncan Hines pineapple cake box mix that smells and tastes as “pineappley” as you might expect, probably due to being so processed and artificial.  Evette’s cake has real chunks of pineapple in the icing between the cake layers and the delicious topping, and if anything, it probably has more real pineapple and pineapple juice in it than the store-bought cake mix I’m more used to.  It was another hit.

We’ve never tried her carrot cake, but for $5.99 a slice, how can you possibly go wrong?  If you see it up close, the smooth cream cheese frosting (my favorite part of any carrot cake) is sprinkled with gleaming orange and green sugar crystals.20200711_112759

Sister Honey’s also offers multiple types of cupcakes, which I fully admit aren’t usually my thing, although I’m sure hers are a cut above the rest.  Seen below: Peanut butter chocolate, German chocolate, and Very vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).20200711_112742

Seen below: Cookies & cream and Chocolate vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).
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Evette has cookies too, and the wedge-shaped shortbread cookies are rich, buttery, and quite good, but I think the pies and cakes are the star attractions at Sister Honey’s.
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Sister Honey’s is a good distance away from home, so it requires a special trip to make it there.  I always shoot for Saturdays around 11:30, to give them time to put everything out after opening at 11:00.  (You heard it here first!)  Evette’s husband Andy is always manning the front, boxing up slices, patiently answering questions, and ringing people up.  I admit I’ve never actually met Evette, but I’ve dealt with Andy so many times over the last few years that he recognizes me now, even with my mask on, and always asks how my wife is doing.  He’s a real mensch, and I hold them both in high esteem.

It is a very small bakery space with no indoor seating, so plan on getting everything to go.  But these days, that’s the safest bet anywhere, anyway.  You may want to bring a cooler if you’re planning to get perishable pies like the key lime pie and strawberry cheese pie above, or Evette’s equally exquisite coconut cream pie.  They might melt and droop a bit in this oppressive summer heat, even if you’re running the air conditioner in your car.  But the cakes are ideally left out at room temperature, as Andy advises, to avoid drying them out in the fridge.

I can’t sing the praises of this bakery and its award-winning baker enough.  Anytime anyone asks wants to know the best key lime pie in Florida, this is where I direct them.  Yeah, I said it!  Pretty much anything I photographed and discussed above is the best of its kind that you’ll find in Orlando.  Now more than ever, we need to be showing love to our small businesses, and especially Black-owned businesses.  If you’re wistfully wishing for cakes, pies, cupcakes, and cookies that transcend the Publix bakery, schlep down to SoDo for Sister Honey’s, where Evette Rahman will make your life that much sweeter.

 

Something Fishy

This past weekend, I brought home takeout from another excellent Black-owned restaurant that I want more people to know about: Something Fishy (https://www.somethingfishyapopka.com/), located in Apopka, just west of Altamonte Springs on Semoran Boulevard.  I hardly ever make it that far west, but now I have a reason to!  Something Fishy is a casual seafood restaurant that is the very definition of a family business, opened by husband and wife Terence and Patrice Phillips two years ago.  This is their first restaurant, and they both had other careers before, but one of their sons graduated from culinary school and has helped guide them, their daughter is a graphic designer who designed their logo and flyers, and their youngest son works at the Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt location next door that the Phillipses also own.
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Terence, who is also the chef, took my order over the phone, and I got to meet him and Patrice when I showed up to pick up our lunch order.  They were really nice — warm, welcoming, and wearing masks — and I knew immediately that the food was going to be great.

I’ve joked before that my wife and I are on seafood diets: if we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  Longtime Orlando residents know our local seafood options are scant and slim, especially for more casual, non-bank-breaking choices, so I’m thrilled to report that Something Fishy will satisfy your cravings, especially if you may already be a fan of places like Boston’s Fish House.  Now, I’ve been going to Boston’s since I first met my wife and her parents in 2006, but everything she and I tried today was a different style of seafood, maybe more Southern and less New Englandy.  There’s no point in trying to rank them, but I do think Something Fishy has bolder flavors. I encourage you to try it for yourselves, ideally as soon as possible.

“When marimba rhythms start to play,
Dance with me, make me swai”

My wife has lived in the Orlando area since she was three, which I guess makes her a Southern gal, at least geographically.  She loves catfish and grits, so she perked up when she saw fish and grits (together at last!) on the menu.  She asked me to order her the fried swai (Asian catfish) and grits ($9.99), but you can also choose tilapia, Atlantic cod, salmon, unicorn fish (AKA naso; a new one to us), or a fresh catch of the day.  It’s nice to have options, but she wanted swai!  The fish came in two thin fillets, fried in a light and crispy batter that looked cornmeal-based, and she devoured them with gusto.  It was a different style from the catfish she enjoyed from Nikki’s Place last weekend, but she was super-enthusiastic about both.
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She just wanted butter on her grits, which came in a separate container (one of those good plastic reusable containers that are dishwasher- and microwave-safe), but you can also get green onions and cheese on them, in addition to the butter.  Not being the biggest grit guy, I asked if these grits were better than our beloved Waffle House, and she said yes.  I’m guessing Something Fishy serves real grits, because as we all learned from My Cousin Vinny, “No self-respecting Southerner serves instant grits!”
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I was torn between multiple options, but narrowed it down to two and decided to get both, figuring she would want to try them anyway.  I got an appetizer order of fried oysters for myself ($8.99), because I always love oysters in any form, whether they’re raw on the half-shell, battered and fried, or pretty much anything else.  These twelve oysters had a completely different breading than the swai fish, darker and crispier, with savory seasoning — a little peppery.  They came with a small dipping cup of creamy, tangy remoulade sauce that I would love to be able to spread on anything or dip anything into, from roast beef sandwiches to potato chips to falafel, from fried chicken to grilled vegetables to roasted corn.  My wife also liked the fried oysters, since we share everything here.
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My other choice was the lobster roll, which is listed as “market price” on the menu, but today that came out to $16.99.  We always love lobster rolls, and it’s rare to find such a hearty and delicious sandwich that also manages to be refreshing, rather than heavy.  This was a different kind of lobster roll.  Instead of the rich lobster meat being served chilled in mayonnaise, this one was served warm, after being sauteed in butter with the most delicious sauteed, seasoned cabbage.  We chose wisely.  It was a beautiful sandwich, and after I cut it in half for us to share, it was a big hit.  My wife always “deconstructs” her sandwiches (just like a professor to do that!) and usually gives me her bread or roll, but this soft bun was so soaked through with butter and the lobster juices and seasoning that she even wanted that.
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The sandwich came with one side, and since my wife had her grits, I asked Chef Terence if they happened to serve onion rings, even though they weren’t on the website menu.  I was pleasantly surprised that he said they did, so I asked for those, and now this is a

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
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special review.  These were excellent onion rings, not too greasy, not dark and burned to a crisp, not falling apart, fried to golden brown in what I always default to calling the “good kind” of batter.  And once again, this was a completely different batter than the swai fish and the fried oysters, so their batter game is strong at Something Fishy.  I dipped some of them in the remaining remoulade sauce that came with the fried oysters, and had ketchup on hand for the rest.
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Something Fishy was a great catch in Apopka, which rarely shows up on Orlando foodies’ radar as a hot hub of gustatory goodness.  But it’s worth the 10-15 minute drive west when you get off I-4 on exit 92 in Altamonte.  Terence and Patrice were kind hosts who run a tight ship, and they definitely aren’t shellfish with the portions.  It’s a brightly-lit space with plenty of seating, for those brave enough to dine in restaurants these days.  It’s not a dive; you and your grouper won’t feel packed in like sardines.  Everything we ordered was reely good, so if you like what you’re herring, stop floundering.  Mullet over and swim by Something Fishy some time, just for the halibut.  It’ll have you exclaiming “Oh my cod, it’s so good!”

Nikki’s Place

It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive.  Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining.  But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody.  I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.

That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday.  It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant.  It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952.  Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins.  An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.

So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort.  I know I do.  Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed.  When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind.  Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays.  (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)

As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service.  When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance.  (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!)  They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready.  I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour.  This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway.  Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike.  I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived.  This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first.  We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.

Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them.  I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version.  Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite.  They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes.  They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
DSC03192All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food.  The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before.  I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.

My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25).  I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus.  Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had.  As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time.  Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere.  It was a nice-sized fillet, too.DSC03195My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides.  I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top.  It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it.  The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended.  It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before.  I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.

Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later.  As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings.  Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them.  She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample!  I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.

As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013.  They weren’t at all what I expected.  They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari?  And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all.  I liked it and would totally order it in the future!

But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me.  They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone.  They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.  DSC03194

I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today!  I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic.  Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli.  I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful.  This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad.  It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute.  It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.

My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables.  It was so soft and tender.  Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could.  It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.

You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos.  All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome.  Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread.  I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet.  On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home.  It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.

But wait, there’s more!  Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert.  A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!DSC03196Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie.  This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie).  It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.

As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite.  It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit!  Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.

You’re probably hungry now.  I hope so.  That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner!  But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years.  Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore.  Restaurants come and go.  It’s a tough business.  The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both.  I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD.  After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.

That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy.  It nourishes the body, mind, and soul.  It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future.  I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything.  It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does.  Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades.  It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today.  Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food.  Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!

 

Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill

I really love Jamaican food.  Even though I usually go to the Golden Krust restaurant in Waterford Lakes to get my fix, I thought I would try a new place I’ve heard good things about — well, new to me, anyway — Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill (http://www.jamaicanbarandgrill.com/).  Located on University and Dean Roads, right off the 417, Mark’s is very close to the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University, East Orlando, and Winter Park.  It’s a small and casual restaurant in a shopping center with a Publix.  They have plenty of tables to dine in, and it seems like a relaxed little oasis.  But I ordered takeout on both of my visits.

On my first visit, I decided to finally try the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish.  It was served with boiled dumplings, boiled green bananas, and sweet fried plantains.  I’ve had saltfish once before, at Golden Krust, but never with ackee or the boiled sides.DSC02890

Ackee is actually a fruit!  Fresh, it looks like large, shiny black balls (the seeds) popping out of a pale pink apple-like fruit, and it is highly toxic.  But if you boil the ackee and then saute it with salted cod, it comes to resemble scrambled eggs, and tasted kind of like them too, but a bit more bitter.  I liked it a lot, especially with the onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes mixed in.DSC02891I have to admit, as much as I liked my first ackee and saltfish, I didn’t love the boiled bananas or boiled dumplings.  Both were kind of plain “starch bombs.”  The boiled dumplings were incredibly dense, slippery, and chewy.  The bananas weren’t sweet at all because they are unripe, kind of like green plantains.  But these were more like bland-tains!

Oxtails are one of my favorite dishes to eat anytime, anyplace, any cuisine.  I’ve written before about how I like them more than steak.  They are so rich and beefy, tender and juicy from stewing or braising them, and from all that gelatin.  You can’t possibly look cool while eating oxtails because they’re sticky and slippery, and you have to hold them in your hands, eat the meat off the rock-hard bones (it will be tender enough to pull right off), and then suck and gnaw what’s left, without having them squirt out of your hands and divebomb your clothes or your dining companions.
DSC02888The oxtails at Mark’s were on point, especially served over rice and peas in their rich, almost slightly sweet gravy (I would have liked even more gravy over the rice), with sides of steamed cabbage and fried sweet plantains, another one of my all-time favorite foods.

After that weekend feast (which I swear I turned into three separate meals), I went back the following Friday and brought back an even larger feast of a lunch to share with two of my co-workers in our break room.  We all chipped in for certain dishes — I might be a cool guy, but I wasn’t about to buy all this food myself.

Another round of those delicious oxtails so my co-workers could try it for the first time:
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Brown stew chicken, one of my favorite dishes.  This was another one I bought to share, but I brought the vast majority of it home and ate it two days later.  I suspect it would have been better fresh and hot.  I’ve had brown stew chicken from elsewhere that was more tomatoey, maybe from ketchup as an ingredient.  This was a mix of different pieces of chicken, both white and dark meat.
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Jerk chicken over white rice with plantains.  I had one bite with a nice spice to it, but wasn’t anywhere close to overwhelmingly spicy.  DSC02894

Curried goat (pardon the blurriness).  This was another one of my co-workers’ choices.  I’ve eaten curried goat before and liked it fine, but as a warning for the uninitiated, it is full of tiny little bones.  However, in recent years, my wife has become a huge fan of baby goats, and I’ve taken her to a local dairy farm multiple times to frolic in the field with adorable baby goats that are as soft, cute, funny, and playful as puppies.  This has made me take a step back from eating this particular meat, but no judgment from me toward those who like it!DSC02896

Spicy shrimp fried rice with lots of vegetables.  I snagged a shrimp, and it was very tasty.DSC02895

Callaloo, a bitter, spinach-like vegetable stewed with onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers.  I had only ever tried it once before, at Golden Krust (once again, see that review).  I usally love bitter, braised and stewed greens like collards, spinach, and broccoli rabe.  But just like the boiled dumplings that came with the ackee and saltfish, I’m glad I tried it, but I probably won’t order it again at Mark’s. DSC02897

I always like to enjoy a pineapple soda when I have Jamaican food, especially the DG brand, so I brought back a bottle for each of us.  Sadly, pineapple isn’t the easiest soda flavor to find, no matter which brand.  But these two ladies had never tried ANY pineapple soda before, not even from Fanta!  Needless to say, they liked it too.DSC02900

Finally, I had ordered a roti, a chewy, doughy Jamaican flatbread, to share with everyone, since I liked the one I got at Golden Krust once.  But even though I was charged for it, the roti was left out of my takeout order, even though I specifically asked “Is everything here?  Even the roti?”  I order takeout a lot — much more than I actually eat at restaurants these days — and this happens from time to time.  I get pissed, and sometimes I hold grudges.  There are a few popular and well-loved local restaurants I’ve never returned to, after being charged for takeout items that weren’t included.  And I don’t want to hear that I should have checked.  When these places are slammed and my order is already boxed and bagged up next to the register, none of us have time to open every box and bag back up to conduct a roll call.

But despite stewing over the missing roti more than a week later, I realize I need to simmer down, as the legendary Robert Nesta Marley sang.  In the end, I liked the food at Mark’s enough to sing its praises here and now.  As if that doesn’t count for enough, I will still happily return, as a much closer source for really delicious Jamaican food.  Plus, they have something called “Rasta pasta,” and I really want to find out what that is next time!

Chicken Fire

There is one local foodie friend of mine, a fellow educator and fellow lover of hip hop, who I always agree with on all gustatory matters.  We haven’t met in real life yet, but she’s definitely one of my BFFs — my Best Food Friends.  Whenever she posts about trying anything new and liking it, I always pay attention, because I know it is going to be awesome.  Follow her Instagram as @Fork07, and just like I never try to steer my readers wrong, she won’t either.

One of her latest discoveries became one of mine as well: Chicken Fire (https://www.facebook.com/eatchickenfire/), a new food truck specializing in Nashville-style hot chicken, that is currently all the rage.  I’ve been obsessed with it ever since trying it at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2018, and I was thrilled to discover that Swine & Sons makes an outstanding SMOKED hot chicken sandwich, right here in Winter Park.  I gave them a glowing review a few months ago. 

Well, Chicken Fire is the new Nashville hot chicken contender, and I can assure you that the chicken is straight fire.  It tastes closer to Nashville standard Hattie B’s than Swine & Sons’ smoked hot chicken.  Don’t get me wrong, both are great, but if you’re craving that one-of-a-kind Nashville burn, do I have the truck for you.DSC02686

Chef Kwame Boakye serves up chicken tenders at four strengths: Soulful (seasoned like regular fried chicken, but not spicy at all), Mild, Medium, and Hot.dsc02689.jpg

On the recent Sunday morning I caught the Chicken Fire truck at the East End Market in Orlando’s Audubon Park neighborhood, I arrived almost 45 minutes before he opened and ended up being the sixth person in what became a very long line, wrapping around the whole front of the East End Market building.  Chef Kwame was outside his eye-catching food truck, taking orders by hand and warmly greeting every customer with a handshake and a welcome.  I had already messaged him on Facebook to ask for his whereabouts, so I was exciting to meet The Man.  He could not have been warmer or friendlier.

I ordered a Big Box ($12) that comes with four tenders, a little container of Fire sauce (a creamy, tangy sauce that goes great with any flavor of chicken tender, similar to Hattie B’s “comeback sauce,” with more flavor going on than Alabama-style white barbecue sauce), and two slices of white bread underneath — a necessary and welcome addition for helping to cut the heat.  I asked Kwame if I could get one tender of each flavor: Soulful, Mild, Medium, and Hot.  He said he doesn’t usually do that, but he would make it happen for me.  I was grateful, because I was really looking forward to trying each one to share my thoughts.

It didn’t take long for my order to come up, and since it was crowded at the East End Market as well as being a cool, drizzly morning, I drove straight home to share my spoils with my wife.  I figured the non-spicy Soulful tender had her name on it, since she doesn’t eat a lot and avoids anything spicy.  (Hattie B’s in Nashville does something similar, with their “Southern” tender as the completely non-spicy one, even below Mild.)

From left to right: Hot, Medium, Mild, Soulful.dsc02690.jpg

Luckily, there was plenty of food for me.  These are huge white meat chicken tenders, juicy and moist and fried to crispy perfection.  But they are not for the faint of heart!  The Mild would easily be a medium at most other places, the Medium was hot enough to make my eyes water, and the Hot, in its deep, dark, intimidating red color… WOOOOOOOOO!  (Imagine more of a Ric Flair “WOOOOO!” than a Will Smith “WOO!”, and you’ll have the right idea.)  Powerful stuff.

Those slices of white bread under the tenders (from the excellent Olde Hearth Bread Company in East End Market, which provides bread and baked goods to many local restaurants) was a real lifesaver in putting out the fire on my tongue, but it could only do so much.  I was also relieved to have cold milk at home, since water would not have done much to abate the burning.

I hate the song, but these hurt so good.

I also paid $3 for an order of Kwame’s excellent, cool, creamy, crunchy cole slaw, another heat-cutter, and 50 cents for an extra container of Fire sauce, since the one that came with the Big Box wasn’t nearly enough.  If he sold Fire sauce in bottles, especially convenient squeeze bottles, I would totally buy one for myself and others to give as gifts.  “Merry Christmas!  Have some Fire sauce!”  Too bad I can’t mail these hot chicken tenders, or I’d consider doing that too.  I have friends in other cities who would love them, even in Nashville, ground zero for legendary hot chicken.

Be on the lookout for Chef Kwame popping up with his Chicken Fire truck around Orlando during what remains of November and throughout December.  Check his Facebook page for dates and times so you catch him, but it looks like he’ll be at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store on Friday evenings, Redlight Redlight in Audubon Park on Saturday evenings, and if you’re very lucky, you might also catch him at East End Market another Sunday during the day.

But best of all, starting in January, Chicken Fire will become one of the regular food trucks featured at Orlando’s centrally-located A La Cart food truck park.  2020 is going to be the year hot chicken reigns supreme in our City Beautiful, between Swine & Sons’ spicy, smokin’ sandwich and Chicken Fire’s tangy, tantalizing tenders.  Wherever that truck goes, I will follow… with plenty of bread and milk!

Washington D.C. Part 1: Ben’s Chili Bowl (RING THE ALARM!)

I am very lucky to be able to travel to professional conferences in different cities once in a while.  My profession has two major annual conferences: a huge national one in July and a smaller Southeastern conference in the spring.  In a really good year, I get to attend both.  Some years, my employer doesn’t have the budget to send me to either.  But each and every conference I attend is a gift.  I love them, because I get to visit and explore new cities, attend programs to help me improve at my job, learn from the best people in our field, catch up with my frolleagues (colleagues who have become friends), and eat at new restaurants along the way.

Our latest conference was in Washington D.C., and people are always shocked when I told them I’ve never been to our nation’s capital before.  Well, better late than never!  Even though this was a particularly busy conference, I was able to arrive a day early to play tourist.

That first day in D.C. was long and exhausting, but I credit a big breakfast at Reagan International Airport for giving me the strength to make it through.  I arrived so early, I figured I should kill a little time before even taking the Metro to check into my hotel.  And instead of the usual airport chains, I found a location of the Washington D.C. institution Ben’s Chili Bowl (https://www.benschilibowl.com/), a favorite of locals, tourists, celebrities, and even President Obama. DSC02332

Of course, most people opt for the historic location on U Street, founded by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958.  While that would have been a lot more atmospheric, I couldn’t beat the convenience of passing right by it on my way out of the airport. And I had wanted to try Ben’s anyway, so it worked out perfectly.DSC02334

So this was my healthy, balanced breakfast, around 9 AM after getting three hours of sleep the night before:

A spicy chili half-smoke sausage, grilled and served on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce.  The tomato-based chili con carne was very thin, with finely-ground beef — a pretty-standard hot dog chili, but that’s the best kind to put on a dog. DSC02335

The sausage itself had a nice bit of heat, but best of all was the snappiness it had, due to what was probably a natural casing.  This is definitely the kind of thing to eat with a knife and fork, but of course I didn’t.  Here’s a cross-section:
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My long-time readers know I order onion rings whenever I can, to see if they match my very high standards.  It’s a little recurring feature I like to call

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

For maybe the first time ever, I was a little disappointed that Ben’s served such a large portion of onion rings.  I never eat breakfast, I was still tired, and I was steeling myself for a really busy, physical day, so I knew I couldn’t eat them all, and I would make myself sick trying.  Luckily, they weren’t my absolute favorite kind of onion ring — instead of the golden beer battered rings I always seek, these had a crispy bread crumb coating that peeled off pretty easily.  Not awful by any means, but not my favorite onion rings ever.  I didn’t feel too guilty leaving some of them behind, since I knew they wouldn’t be worth dragging back to my hotel room to eat cold later.

And since this meal came with a huge, early morning blast of fat, salt, spice, and grease, I ordered a pineapple milkshake too, because I love pineapple anything, and I figured it would be cool and soothing after the spicy sausage, chili, and rings.  It was very thick and refreshing, but I wish it had been more pineappley.  It might have saved me from getting some acid reflux later on, so no regrets from me.dsc02336.jpg

After that, I never made it to the original Ben’s Chili Bowl location for that historic D.C. dining experience, but I was content.  I had always heard great things about Ben’s, and I’m glad I got to try the food for myself, even if it was in an airport location.  This wasn’t bad at all, but the meals I ate in Washington D.C. only got better from here.

Golden Krust

My intro to Jamaican culture came when I attended the University of Florida in the latter half of the ’90s.  I used to joke that every new UF student got a free copy of Bob Marley’s Legend CD and a Marley poster for their dorm rooms when they enrolled, because they were so ubiquitous on campus.  (Of course, college students today probably wouldn’t even know what to do with a CD.)  During my Gainesville days, I gravitated toward a different kind of Jamaican music: ska.  The mid-to-late ’90s era was the “third wave” of ska, when high school band geeks combined the traditional Jamaican dance music (usually much faster than reggae, with an emphasis on guitar upstrokes) with the speed and anarchic energy of punk rock.  So there were a lot of thrift store suits, skinny ties, retro-looking bowling shirts, and even a pair of black and white Doc Martens brogues in my checkered past (no pun intended), and I even played in a ska-punk band myself.

But as for the cuisine, I was poor as hell back then and definitely hadn’t developed the love for food and desire to try new things that drives me, over half my life later.  I don’t know how I developed my great love of Jamaican food.  My family certainly never ate it growing up in the suburbs of Miami.  However, along the way, I finally got exposed to the classic Jamaican dishes, and it was love at first bite.  I’m crazy about tender, juicy braised oxtails, brown stew chicken, jerk chicken and pork, and delicious spicy beef patties in their yellow, flaky crusts.  And my favorite local restaurant for getting my Jamaican fix is Golden Krust (http://www.orlandogoldenkrust.com/), particularly the location on Alafaya Trail near the 408 in East Orlando, across from Waterford Lakes.  There are three Orlando locations in all, plus a fourth in Clermont.

First, a little background.  Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill was founded by the late Lowell Hawthorne in The Bronx, New York.  The corporation distributes its perfect patties and other retail products to grocery stores around the U.S. (including our very own Publix, at least in Florida), and has over 120 restaurant franchise locations in nine states: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.  The restaurants all carry lots of Jamaican groceries and baked goods, in addition to the cafeteria-style hot food menu.

Here’s the menu, posted above the counter.  Everything is very affordable, and the portions are gargantuan:
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This is one of my favorite dishes from any cuisine, any culture: braised oxtails, served here with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and my beloved sweet plantains.  This is one of my ultimate comfort foods.  I think I would rather eat oxtails than a steak!  I’ve made them at home before, but nothing ever comes out this well.  The meat is so tender, moist, juicy, unctious, yielding, flavorful.  It is NOT a spicy dish.  There is even a subtle sweetness to it, but don’t go in thinking all Jamaican food is breathe-fire spicy.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.IMG_0033
There is a lot of soft, chewy gelatin left on the irregularly-shaped bones, and that’s always worth sucking or gnawing off every morsel.  This is not a meal to order on a job interview or a first date (well, maybe a first date), but I’ve still eaten it at work, dressed in a full suit, always worried about a saucy piece of meat slipping out of my fingers and splattering me.  It’s a risk worth taking.

Here is a smaller, lunch-sized portion of brown stew chicken, also served with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and sweet plantains.  This is some of the most tender and flavorful chicken I’ve ever had.  I’ve attempted to recreate this dish too, but they are the masters.  IMG_0035

Really good baked macaroni and cheese, which I had somehow never tried at Golden Krust before:IMG_0034.jpg

On a second, more recent trip, I got a spicy, flaky beef and cheese patty in their signature golden crust (Krust).  It is pictured on top of soft, fluffy coco bread, which you eat like a sandwich — meat wrapped in carbs wrapped in more carbs.
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This was my first time trying the traditional breakfast dish of saltfish: flaky, sauteed salt cod, which was cooked with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and spices.  It had a nice spiciness, but nowhere close to as hot as you might be thinking.  It is Jamaica’s national dish.  Here it was served alongside spinach-like greens called callalou.  I liked the callalou even more than the usual stewed cabbage, and I would definitely order this combination again.  There are rice and peas underneath the saltfish and greens.DSC02233

I also ordered a roti, which is a chewy, soft, tortilla-like wrap that is served with your choice of meat.  You can tear off pieces of the roti and use them to scoop up the meat or sauce.  It was prepared to order, folded into several layers, and stuffed with a crumbly, curry-flavored filling that was a pleasant surprise.  DSC02235

Of course I had to choose oxtail as my meat again, and between the roti and my rice and peas, I took care of every drop of that rich gravy.DSC02234

I usually order a pineapple soda to accompany Jamaican food whenever I have it, or occasionally a refreshing grapefruit soda called Ting.  But this time I tried something new: a vanilla-flavored drink called Irish Moss, which is really thick and heavy from carageenan (red seaweed, a surprisingly common thickening ingredient in a lot of drinks and dairy products).  It tasted exactly like store-bought eggnog, and between being cool, creamy, and having that rich mouth-feel, it was perfect for cutting the heat.  You have to shake it really well, because otherwise you’ll end up with small, chewy chunks!
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Upon conducting some post-meal research (only the best for The Saboscrivner’s baker’s dozens of readers!), I learned that these Irish Moss soft drinks are marketed as an aphrodisiac, particularly for men.  I guess the brand name “Big Bamboo” should have been a big damn clue.  I wasn’t feeling particularly amorous after such a large and heavy meal, or especially after such a thick and heavy beverage, but I thought it was ironic that it was vanilla-flavored, and I’m only into vanilla when it comes to food and drinks.

Yeah, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!