Chain Reactions: White Castle

“I chill at White Castle ’cause it’s the best/
But I’m fly at Fatburger when I’m way out west.”
–The Beastie Boys, “The New Style” (1986)

I’ve always been fascinated by the restaurants that I read about in books, saw in movies and TV shows, and heard referenced in songs, that weren’t anywhere near me in Florida.  I’d think about how good that faraway food looked and sounded, and sometimes I’d even read menus and reviews online, even for places I doubted I would ever get to eat at.

The hell year 2020 encouraged a lot of people to seek comfort in nostalgia.  For me, that meant getting back into G.I. Joe in a major way, and also taking a deep dive into the back catalog of the legendary Beastie Boys, those fun-loving rap-rockers, quintessential New Yorkers, and fellow Jewish goofballs.  I always kinda liked them, going all the way back to elementary school, but during a year where we all worried about getting sick and dying, Mike D, Ad-Rock, and the late, great MCA brought me some much-needed joy and distraction.  I played their albums on repeat every time I drove anywhere, giving me ample opportunity to analyze and obsess over the songs.  They always made me laugh, and they impressed me with how they improved as musicians and matured as lyricists (and as people) from their debut album License to Ill (1986) all the way to their final album before Adam “MCA” Yauch’s tragic death, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011).

The Beastie Boys also made a lot of White Castle (https://www.whitecastle.com/) references in their lyrics, especially on License to Ill.  They recorded that first album as teenagers before their careers blew up, so they probably ate there all the time.  Every time I heard those songs, I craved White Castle’s tiny, greasy, oniony slider burgers, when all we had here in Orlando is its Southern rival/counterpart, Krystal.  I unapologetically like Krystal quite a bit, don’t get me wrong, but I knew there would be differences.  I’ve never had a chance to visit a White Castle while traveling, and I’ve always avoided the frozen boxes of White Castle sliders you can buy at most grocery stores, as I planned to save myself for the real deal some day.

“And I can always make ’em smile/
From White Castle to the Nile.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Girls” (1986)

Well, in 2021, the 100th anniversary of White Castle, the fast food chain opened its first Florida location since the 1970s right here in Orlando, and it also happened to be the world’s largest White Castle.  It first opened on May 3rd, but I didn’t make it there until mid-July, when the opening hype and lines that lasted hours eventually died down, and when I had slightly less going on in my own life.  The White Castle is down on the touristy side of town, over half an hour from my job during optimal traffic conditions, and almost an hour from home.  I cautiously drove down there on a weekday afternoon, hoping I wouldn’t get stuck waiting an hour or more.  And I couldn’t help but smile when I arrived at last and saw this sign, emblazoned with their Latin catchphrase “Desideres ego ergo sum,” or “I Crave, Therefore I Am.”

“Because being bad news is what we’re all about/
We went to White Castle and we got thrown out.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Slow Ride” (1986)

Once I arrived, the drive-through line looked long and didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I opted to park and eat on the premises.  There was a line to order inside that reached outside, but I only had to wait about ten minutes in the sweltering midday July heat and humidity before I made it through the doors into blasting air conditioning.  They only had one cashier taking orders at a register, possibly giving a slammed kitchen a chance to catch up with orders, but of course by the time I finally made my way to the front, about half an hour later, they added a second cashier.  A few people got fed up with waiting and left, but I am relieved to report that nobody got thrown out.

“Get down with Mike D and it ain’t no hassle/
I got the ladies of the eighties from here to White Castle.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Hold It Now, Hit It” (1986)

After studying the Orlando-specific menu, I knew I wanted sliders, and lots of ’em.  I could put away those tiny beef patties steamed with onions, melty cheese, and soft buns.  At Krystal I usually eat a dozen at a time when I partake once or twice a year, but this was White Castle, baby.  For the past two and a half months, I’ve seen photos of my fellow Orlandoans leaving with Crave Cases ($30.59), blue and white cardboard briefcases that carry 30 sliders, and beset by FOMO, I was excited to get one of those for myself.  I was hoping to mix and match many different kinds of sliders, but when I got there, they were adamant that you could only get the regular hamburger or cheeseburger sliders in the Crave Case.  So I got one anyway, figuring I would have a ludicrous amount of leftovers, and I could freeze plenty for later.

I half-expected the Crave Case to glow when I opened it, like the MacGuffin briefcase in Pulp Fiction.  But nope, instead it just contained 30 cheese sliders, arranged neatly in their little cardboard sleeves.  The stuff that dreams are made of… or perhaps nightmares.

“Ad-Rock, AKA sharp cheddar/
My rhymes are better.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Triple Trouble” (2004)

Here’s a close-up of the three types of cheese sliders I ordered.  White Castle has three cheese options: jalapeño (left), smoked cheddar (middle), and American (right), so of course I ordered ten of each to fill my Crave Case.  I liked them all.  I think American cheese is pretty much the perfect cheeseburger cheese.  It’s tangy and melts so well.  But the other two, the jalapeño and the smoked cheddar, tasted even more processed than the American cheese!  Nothing but love, though.  This was a long time coming, but they were delicious and worth the wait.  I’m glad I never succumbed to the allure of the frozen White Castle sliders you can buy at Publix and even Aldi.  I suspect they would have been disappointing compared to the real deal.I should note for the unfamiliar that White Castle sliders only come with steamed onions and a pickle slice.  The menu above the registers at the restaurant says ketchup and mustard are available by request, and I do love condiments, but it was important to me on this first-ever pilgrimage to try them the most authentic way possible.  I didn’t add ketchup, mustard, or any other condiments to the sliders I ate at the restaurants, and they were still extremely flavorful due to the onions and the melty cheeses.

“I’d like a lettuce, tomato and muenster on rye/
All this cheese is gonna make me cry.”
The Beastie Boys, “Shazam!” (2004)

Since I ordered a lot of other stuff that seemed like it would be more important to eat while it was hot and fresh, I brought the vast majority of the cheese sliders in my Crave Case home.   It didn’t fit in my fridge, so I transferred the remaining sliders into some airtight containers, and I snacked on them in the subsequent days.  Microwave them on a plate for 45 seconds, and they don’t taste that different from how they did fresh off the flattop grill at the restaurant.  I also got a little more creative with condiments at home, but it turned out a little bit of ketchup and plain yellow mustard complemented them best.  You really can’t go wrong with the classics!

“White Castle fries only come in one size.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Slow and Low” (1986)

A lot has changed since License to Ill dropped in 1986, as White Castle fries now come in multiple sizes.  I ordered the small ($2.59), and due to a mix-up with my order (yes, folks, that’s another Beastie Boys album reference!), I ended up with a free large sack of fries too.  These were crispy crinkle-cut fries that were excellent, by fast food standards.  I was hardly able to make a dent in them at the restaurant, but I brought them home, and our toaster oven resuscitated them surprisingly well.  I shared them with my wife, and we got four servings out of this unexpected windfall of fries.  Even she loved them after their trip through the toaster oven, which neither of us were expecting.

“And that’s wrong, y’all, over the long haul/
You can’t cut the mustard when you’re fronting it all.”
The Beastie Boys, “Professor Booty” (1992)

“Well I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce/
You’ve got the rhyme and reason, but got no cause.”
The Beastie Boys, “So Whatcha Want” (1992)

I keep that hot sauce hot, not mild and weak/
It’s gonna burn your mouth until you wet your beak.”
The Beastie Boys, “Hey Fuck You” (2004)

At White Castle, you can request a variety of dipping sauces.  In addition to a handful of ketchup packets, I ended up with barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and Zesty Zing Sauce, which are all exactly what you expect.  The creamy Zing Sauce isn’t hot at all, and just barely qualifies as zesty, if you ask me.  I also requested the “Spicy Dusseldorf Mustard,” but they didn’t give me any of those.  As a mustard maven, I was disappointed that they cut that mustard from my order.  I could have lived without the BBQ sauce, but I wanted to try that spicy Dusseldorf!  Oh well.

“Mike D!  (YEAH?)  With your bad self running things/
(WHAT’S UP?)  With your bad breath — Onion rings!”
–The Beastie Boys, “Shake Your Rump” (1989)

According to White Castle’s online menu, the restaurants serve both onion rings and onion chips, but the Orlando location only serves onion chips ($3.79 for a large sack).  As an onion ring aficionado, I had to try them, so even though these aren’t rings, I will still denote this review with a RING THE ALARM! tag, like I do whenever I try onion rings or similarly fried onions anywhere.  And these “chips” were rad, despite the misleading moniker.  They were more like onion petals, like thicker, larger, crunchier, somehow less greasy Bloomin’ Onion pieces, only breaded instead of battered.  Thick breading, crunchy, not overly greasy, firm enough to dip and not have them fall apart.  Yes, they were very salty, like pretty much everything else I sampled, but I liked them a lot and would definitely order them on a return trip.   

There were a few things in my massive order that I didn’t love, but that’s because for the purposes of writing a more complete and exhaustive review, I didn’t just stick to the specialties of the house (or castle, if you will).  I don’t know when I’ll make it back out there, so I just ordered everything I could.

“I can do the Freak, the Patty Duke, and the Spank/
Gotta free the funky fish from the funky fish tanks.”
The Beastie Boys, “Finger Lickin’ Good” (1992)

“Don’t forget the tartar sauce, yo, cause it’s sad/
All these crab rappers, they’re rappin’ like crabs.”
The Beastie Boys, “Too Many Rappers” (2011)

This was the panko-crusted fish slider ($2.09), served on the same soft, steamed slider bun with a slice of American cheese.  I figured I would try it, because I have some nostalgic love for McDonald’s ol’ Filet-O-Fish, and I think Culver’s has a legitimately GREAT fast food fried fish sandwich.  This one wasn’t as good as either of those. I’m relieved that this fish wasn’t funky, but it was a little sad.  The Beastie Boys were correct: tartar sauce would have improved it immensely, as it elevates those two superior fried fish sandwiches.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?/
I egged the chicken, and then I ate his leg!”
–The Beastie Boys, “Eggman” (1989)

The Chicken Ring slider ($1.89) wasn’t anything special.  White Castle serves highly processed white meat Chicken Rings, like their own version of nuggets, but I found this slider with two Chicken Rings and a little slice of American cheese to be bland and tasteless.  I wouldn’t bother getting it again.  If you happen to like the Chicken Rings, you can also order them as a side, like the fries and onion chips, and not just in one size.

“Now we be grillin’ cheese and flippin’ flapjacks/
With the diamond stylus, yo, we cutting wax.
The Beastie Boys, “3 the Hard Way” (2004)

“To the heart of the matter, the mic I shatter/
So cold on the mic, I make your teeth chatter/
You climb the corporate ladder/
To make your pockets fatter/
We be flipping styles like pancake batter.”
The Beastie Boys, “Say It” (2011)

White Castle also serves breakfast all day, and I felt obligated to try its versions of breakfast sandwiches.  Instead of standard breakfast sliders on the same steamed buns, I opted for two Belgian waffle sliders ($2.69 each): one with bacon, egg, and cheese, and one with sausage, egg, and cheese.  These were heavier and greasier than any of the other sliders I ate, and I can’t say I loved them.  I think the waffles would have been better if they were a little crispier and a little sweeter to counterbalance the salty meat, egg, and cheese, like McDonald’s McGriddles (which are trashy junk food for sure, but satisfying and delicious).  As it was, the waffles were mostly just greasy and doughy.

The sausage was a standard breakfast sausage patty where salt and sage were the main flavors, but I preferred it to the bacon, which didn’t add much.  Don’t let me dissuade you from trying these for yourself, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, but I wouldn’t get them again.

I’m not walking around, looking to get you cake/
The D is for Diamonds, not for Drake’s
.”
The Beastie Boys, “Oh Word?” (2004)

I had to try White Castle’s three desserts on-a-stick: birthday cake on-a-stick, fudge-dipped brownie on-a-stick, and fudge-dipped cheesecake on-a-stick ($1.29 each).  I brought these home to share with my wife, because I was too full to touch them at the restaurant.

They were really tiny and cute, but we both thought they were all waaaay too sweet.  The cheesecake (bottom right) was by far the best, because it had a slight acidic tang and a moist graham cracker crust.  I wouldn’t bother to get the other two again, but at least they were moist and not dry, like I was expecting.

“Check-ch-check-check-check-ch-check it out/
What-wha-what-what-what’s it all about/
Work-wa-work-work-work-wa-work it out/
Let’s turn this motherfucking party out.”
The Beastie Boys, “Ch-Check It Out” (2004)

So after all my years on the planet, I finally made my pilgrimage to one of America’s oldest and most iconic fast food restaurants, a favorite choice of late-night partiers, fictional stoners (and surely some real ones too), and one of my all-time favorite hip hop groups.  Did White Castle live up to the decades of hype, especially from my beloved Beastie Boys’ enthusiastic endorsements?  It did, absolutely — at least the iconic sliders, the fries, and  the onion chips.  Everything else, the tangential items, weren’t anything special to me, and I wouldn’t bother with them again, but I don’t regret trying them either.  Longtime readers know how much I love trying new things.  Even if I don’t always love everything I eat, I live for novelty, especially new eating experiences.

When we first learned White Castle was opening in Orlando, almost two years ago, a lot of the usual online suspects were skeptical and dismissive.  It’s just fast food, they said.  It’s cheap, greasy, salty, unhealthy, low-quality fast food — nothing to get excited about.  Well, I have to agree with all of their statements in the previous sentence, except I argue that it is worth getting excited about.  For transplants from up north, especially New York and New Jersey (and we sure have plenty of them here), White Castle brings a nostalgic taste of home to Orlando at last.  For born-and-raised Floridians who have never had it before, it might be fast food, and it might be a chain, but at least it’s something new in this area that’s going to be slightly different from everything else here, so let’s let them enjoy it.  Plus, it is employing local people!  And for people like me who were already inclined to like White Castle due to loving the sliders at Krystal and Miami’s last remaining Royal Castle, and who could probably spit most of the verses from License to Ill, it was a long-overdue culinary experience, literally decades in the making.  I don’t know when I’ll return to this White Castle — probably not unless a visiting friend desperately wants to try it — but I’m so happy it’s here now, and so relieved to have finally made it.  So check-ch-check-check-check-ch-check it out!

Chain Reactions: Chuy’s

Chuy’s (http://www.chuys.com/) is a Tex-Mex chain that was founded in Austin, Texas, in 1982.  I’ve been to three separate locations here in Orlando: multiple meals in Winter Park, a few times to Waterford Lakes (a location that has since closed), and down by the airport once with co-workers.  Chuy’s has a fun, funky, kitschy, irreverent vibe, and the food is always prepared fresh, from scratch.  Portions are huge, and prices are very fair.

What’s this?  Fake palm trees… “growing” in the dining room?  It’s crazy, I tell ya!DSC02761

I know some people are really skeptical of chains, but Chuy’s is always solid.  I can’t think of many other Mexican restaurants that make their corn AND flour tortillas from scratch, and you can really taste the difference.  I am NOT a fan of shelf-stable grocery store tortillas!  As far as I can tell, they make everything from scratch here.  The thin, crispy tortilla chips they bring to your table for free are freshly fried from those corn tortillas, and they come with a chilled salsa that has more heat than most restaurant salsas.  You can also request a creamy jalapeño sauce that is like a cool, slightly spicy ranch dip, but much better than ranch.

Here’s that overflowing complimentary basket of their light, thin, crispy tortilla chips, with the chilled salsa and creamy jalapeño sauce.  I love both of these because they are obviously made fresh, actually spicy, and both served chilled.  I am never as big a fan of room temperature salsa.

This is my wife’s favorite tortilla soup.  It is chicken broth-based, with lots of shredded chicken, melty white cheese, tomatoes, carrots, celery, avocado, and crispy fried strips of fresh corn tortillas.  Before Chuy’s opened a restaurant in Winter Park, sometimes she’d ask me to pick it up for her from the Waterford Lakes location.  Despite how awful traffic gets heading east on Colonial Drive in the evening, I’d still run the errand, because I love her, and she loves that soup!  (Of course, that location has since closed.)  On this last trip from early 2020, we even ended up getting a second cup to go, and I returned a few days later to bring her home a larger order.  DSC02763

This was her taco and enchilada plate from that February 2020 visit.  Knowing her, I’m guessing she got grilled steak in them, as opposed to chicken or seasoned ground beef.  You get very generous portions at Chuy’s, including that mountain of Mexican rice and that sea of refried beans.  DSC02765

And this was my chile relleno and enchilada plate.  The chile relleno is a batter-dipped and fried pepper stuffed with ground beef and covered in Tex-Mex sauce, kind of like a chili con carne.  The enchilada is stuffed with shredded chicken and covered in spicy, tangy, creamy Boom-Boom sauce, a Chuy’s specialty.  DSC02766Chuy’s used to have my favorite chile relleno.  A lot of Mexican restaurants use a batter that is too thick, heavy, and eggy, and it ends up soggy, greasy, and sloughing off the pepper.  Not so here.  This chile relleno batter always stayed crispy and didn’t disintegrate.

Unfortunately, starting around the time of the pandemic, Chuy’s cut its menu offerings back, removing many of the truly unique Tex-Mex dishes I had come to love.  The chile relleno pictured above?  GONE.  The combo platters you just salivated over?  GONE.  The chili con carne Tex-Mex sauce?  GONE.  I always meant to order the green chile fried chicken, but too bad, so sad — it’s off the menu too.  And so is the delicious carne guisada, a beef stew that was a lunch special one rare and lucky time I went, that I always hoped to get again.

We hadn’t been back in over a year, even though I’ve been ordering takeout all over town, mostly due to Chuy’s shrinking the menu.  But we recently found ourselves near the Winter Park location after a doctor appointment.  This was our first restaurant meal together in over a year — on the covered outdoor patio — since we were hungry and stressed, it was a beautiful day, and we had both been fully vaccinated.

We had never sprung for the guacamole ($7.59) before, but it was so good, and it complemented the freshly fried chips so well.

At least my wife was still able to get her favorite tortilla soup ($8.69 for a bowl, which is larger than the cup that was pictured above from our previous pre-pandemic visit):

I got the Chuychanga ($12.99), my favorite of the remaining entrees.  This shredded chicken and cheese chimichanga (essentially a deep-fried burrito) has such an amazing texture, I would love the experience of eating it even if it wasn’t quite so tasty.  But it is really damn delicious, so that makes it even better.  I’m sorry I didn’t get an interior photo, but I really tore into the thing.

I think they upcharged me a dollar because I asked for a side of Boom-Boom sauce, the spicy queso sauce.  It was great with the Chuychanga and the chips. 

I have to give Chuy’s all the credit in the world for making their own flour and corn tortillas fresh and in-house.  That really makes a huge difference for Mexican and Tex-Mex food.  We even bought a dozen flour tortillas to take home ($3.25, a real steal) because they are so damn good.  Now I’m just hoping they bring back all those much-missed menu options some day.  Orlando has no shortage of fantastic Mexican restaurants, and I always prefer to eat local, but Chuy’s never disappointed — at least not until they cut the chile relleno and so much else from their menu.

Chain Reactions: Sus Hi Eatstation

I am a sucker for extravagant sushi rolls and poke bowls that I get to customize myself, with the ingredients of my choice — different fish, vegetables, toppings, condiments.  They’re beautiful to the eye, refreshing, delicious, and you can go as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  I’ve reviewed and sung the praises of two of my favorite local restaurants: Poke Hana and Bento Cafe, but I recently paid my first visit to the homegrown chain Sus Hi Eatstation (https://sushieatstation.com/), founded here in Orlando by local couple Robert and Teresa Ly.

I don’t know why it took me so long.  Sus Hi Eatstation has several locations around town, with the “build your own” model popularized by Subway, Chipotle, and so many other successful fast food and fast casual restaurants.  They are also vaguely ninja-themed, and as an ’80s kid who grew up loving G.I. Joe and Daredevil comics, I have nothing but love for ninjas (and G.I. Joe, and Daredevil) to this day.  If anything, I wish they leaned into the ninja theme even more, especially in this era of everyone wearing masks in public.  (But don’t worry, everyone working at Sus Hi when I visited was wearing normal masks.)

I went to the closest location in Altamonte Springs, and  I should mention that at least during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sus Hi Eatstation has customers place all orders from a touchscreen kiosk or online through the website.  When I got there, I used the kiosk, and they had a pump bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it, so have no fear.  At the front of the store, the dutiful staff members (who really could have been dressed like ninjas, I’m just sayin’) are meticulously assembling orders from the mise en place ingredients arranged in front of them, just like so many other fast casual eateries.

I have to admit it was a particular special that drew me in that day.  One of Sus Hi’s specialties is sushi burritos wrapped in huge flour tortillas, and for a $1.50 upcharge, you can get them crusted with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so they have a crunchy outer layer, but the sushi inside is still cool and refreshing.  That already sounded amazing — certainly not traditional, but a nice, fusiony presentation.  But now, they are running a special where you can get the burrito covered with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and deep-fried for a $3 upcharge.  Yes, I’m not proud, but as soon as I learned that was a current menu option, I had to have it!

The basic burrito is $8.50, and I chose a base of white rice.  (The other options are brown rice and lettuce.)  When you customize a Sus Hi burrito, you get to select three proteins.  I had already studied the menu in advance, and even though they offer steak and chicken, I went to a place called Sus Hi because I wanted sushi.  I selected tuna (a 50-cent upcharge), salmon (a 75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab, which is shredded surimi tossed in spicy mayo.  I added on cream cheese, cucumbers, shredded purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning.  It was gorgeous!

Sus Hi allows you to get up to three different sauces with a burrito, and I opted for sauces on the side so I could taste everything better.  The bright orange sauce on the top left is an additional sauce that comes special with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito.  I thought it was going to be like a spicy queso, but it was more of a very spicy mayo, with the intensity of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  The paler sauce next to it is classic creamy, tangy white sauce.  Below we have orange fire sauce, which was like a smoky chili mayo, probably with chipotle flavor added, and the slightly lighter orange sauce on the bottom right is standard spicy mayo, which I unapologetically love with my sushi and poke.

Sus Hi also offers regular and sweet soy sauces, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce, sweet chili sauce, mango habanero sauce, regular sriracha (meh), and yellow sriracha (better), among others.

The burrito was HUGE, and I am making a conscious effort to eat smaller portions in 2021, so I got two meals out of it.  The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted outer surface wasn’t quite as crunchy as I expected, nor as flamin’ hot, but I still enjoyed it.  It was a novelty, something I’m glad I tried but wouldn’t order again.  I suspect the regular panko-crusted burrito will probably have a better texture.

But while I was at Sus Hi for my first time, I figured I might as well try a bowl too.  I selected a regular bowl ($9.95) with brown rice as the base, in my half-hearted, conflicted attempt to eat slightly healthier.  I usually don’t like brown rice, but theirs wasn’t bad at all!  Again, I selected the same three proteins: tuna (50-cent upcharge), salmon (75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab.  I kept my toppings pretty similar to the burrito: cream cheese (you can see the little scoop near the bottom), cucumber, purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning, but I also had them add sliced pickled jalapenos, crunchy noodles, and pickled ginger.  Hey, why not, right?

I swear there is tuna, salmon, and krab under all that in the paper bowl.  In fact, I was really impressed by the size of the “regular” bowl, and how generous they were with everything they put in it.  A lot of places will scrimp on toppings and especially proteins, but I feel like this is a terrific deal — a huge portion of a lot of fresh, tasty food.

I got the same three sauces on the side with this bowl: spicy mayo, white sauce, and fire sauce.  In the future, now that I’ve tried those sauces separately, I’d be more likely to just order one or more on top of the bowl, for ease of mixing everything together.  You can also purchase Sus Hi’s sauces in bottles if you fall in love with any of them.  I wish more restaurants would offer their sauces, condiments, and dressings for sale, but it never hurts to ask!

After all these years, I finally see why Sus Hi Eatstation is so popular, with such a devoted following around Orlando.  People love sushi, and they love freedom of choice.  I’m sure I will return, probably going back for a similar version of everything I tried for this review.  I don’t know how long the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted sushi burrito will last, but if that was on your bucket list, I strongly encourage you to cross it off while you can!

Chain Reactions: Polo Norte (Miami)

The last day I ate a meal in an actual restaurant was March 7th.  I was hanging out with my best friend in Miami on my first trip down in over two years, and we made the most of that pre-pandemic day by eating at FOUR restaurants.  We started our morning with cafes con leche and Miami’s best croquetas de jamon at Islas Canarias in West Kendall, but then the real challenge began.  From there, we made our way to Polo Norte (https://polonorterestaurant.com/), a Cuban restaurant with five locations around South Florida, to sample Cuban pizza and Cuban burgers called fritas.

Feeling invincible, with a long day ahead of us, we started with a half-order of garlic rolls, or pan de ajo ($1.85):DSC03007

This was a personal pizza con chorizo ($7.95), with finely diced sausage baked under the cheese.  The cheese was appropriately melty, the dough was pretty soft with the expected crispy bottom, and the chorizo was salty.  Funny enough, it didn’t remind me of Mexican-style chorizo, red and crumbly and and perfect with eggs in breakfast tacos and burritos, nor Spanish-style chorizo, dry, rich, and spicy, like salami meant for the most special of occasions.  This chorizo was salty above all else, and the entire pizza was pretty greasy.DSC03009

We shared that, and we also shared this personal pizza con maduros ($7.95)!  Yesssss, since Polo Norte is a Cuban pizza joint, you can get sweet, ripe, fried plantains on your pizza.  Maduros are a top ten favorite food of mine in any form.DSC03008

These Cuban pizzas were okay.  Even though my life was more complete, it wasn’t necessarily changed for the better.  I’m so glad I tried them, after growing up in Miami and not even knowing these existed for my first few decades, but there are certainly better regional pizza styles to seek out, even when you’re in Miami.  (I’m a Sicilian pizza fanboy to this day, after so many slices from Cozzoli’s in the Dadeland Mall food court, growing up in Kendall in the ’80s.)

But while we were at Polo Norte, already the second stop on our day of gorging ourselves around Miami, we each had to get a frita con queso ($3.95 each), a Cuban-style cheeseburger that is famous around Miami and virtually unknown elsewhere.  Not only did my best friend and I have our first Cuban pizza experience at Polo Norte, despite growing up in the 305, this was also my first-ever frita. DSC03010

Since our trip to Polo Norte, I’ve become a little obsessed with the frita burger and researched it a lot.  I have experimented a lot more with cooking at home over the last year, especially during this quarantine period, and recreated the frita several times following this recipe from the Three Guys From Miami, to great success.

The burger patties are seasoned in a way that most burgers aren’t, with paprika, cumin, garlic, and onion.  Adding so many additional flavors to the meat before cooking it makes it a little like meatloaf, as far as I’m concerned, but I love meatloaf almost as much as I love burgers.  But instead of thick meatloaf sandwiches, fritas should still be thin burger patties smashed flat on the cooking surface.  A red sauce is often squirted onto it while cooking, adding to the savory flavors.  It is tangy, but not spicy, because Cuban food is rarely spicy.  Then the burger is served on a bun that has also been lightly griddled (either a Cuban roll or a regular soft hamburger bun) with additional onion, a squirt of ketchup, cheese if you want (I always want cheese), and a mountain of crispy julienned potatoes or commercial potato sticks.

I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to return to Polo Norte on future trips to Miami, just because those visits are so infrequent and short, there are so many great restaurants to try, and my best friend, my family, and I all have our own favorites already.  But if you’ve ever wanted to try a whole new style of pizza and find yourself down south, this is one of the leading places to experience Cuban-style pizza, and you should totally get a frita burger while you’re there.  I’m reasonably sure nobody serves Cuban pizza here in Orlando, so I’m especially glad I got to try them at Polo Norte last year.

Chain Reactions: Fuddruckers

Fuddruckers (https://www.fuddruckers.com/) was my favorite restaurant throughout my teens and most of my 20s. When you walked toward the counter to order, you used to see the whole sides of beef hanging in a “butcher shop” window, knowing your burger would be ground fresh. Vegetarians and even some carnivores might have been repulsed, but the rest of us knew we had something really special coming, a burger that stood alone and above all others. The burgers were big, thick, and juicy, cooked to your specifications every time. I followed my dad’s lead for so many years and got mine medium, before I entered a late-bloomer teenage rebellion phase and tried medium rare, only to discover how much better they were. It would be longer still before I dared to become my own man and order steaks rare, and then there was no turning back.

Back in the ’90s, they served the best onion rings — golden brown, beer-battered, just like I like ’em. Those were the onion rings that made me a fan of onion rings 4 LIFE. But for the influence of Fuddruckers and its perfect onion rings, the baker’s dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos might never have experienced

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The buns were brioche-like, baked fresh, fluffy, and fragrant. The Fuddruckers that once stood at Orlando’s Festival Bay Mall (RIP), later known as Artegon Marketplace (RIP), even sold an entire loaf of bread that was soft, airy, and buttery, just like those perfect buns. It made the best French toast. If Fuddruckers served French toast, you know it would have been some kick-ass French toast. Even their desserts were solid, including huge “crispy squares” (Rice Krispies Treats in all but name) that were better than your mom’s.

Maybe my favorite part of Fuddruckers as a teenanger excitedly discovering my likes and dislikes was the toppings and condiments bar, where you could customize your burger however you wanted. The lettuce (in lovely leaves or shredded), tomatoes (always perfectly sliced), and onions (sliced into rings or chopped) were always arranged beautifully, fresh, crispy, and chilled. The condiment station wasn’t limited to basic-ass ketchup and yellow mustard, but barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and molten nacho cheese sauce that you could pump onto anything. I usually went for a combination of all those flavors.

Our old Fuddruckers in the Miami suburbs in the ’90s had a giant vat of warm sauerkraut for their equally giant hot dogs, and to this day, it’s still some of the best sauerkraut I’ve ever had. (The ones in Orlando have never had that, at least not since I moved here in 2004.) When I took U.S. History in 8th grade, I invented the “Zimmerman burger” there, topped with a mountain of sauerkraut, fresh pico de gallo (another standard), and sliced pickled jalapeños. My spicy food-hating history teacher father was both impressed with the deep cut and appalled by the combination. Later, in my Orlando era, I know I would disgust some friends when I used to put away those one-pound burgers, piled high with fresh vegetables and condiments. (I can still do it, but I’ve since learned that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.)

Like my other chain loves Waffle House, Krystal, and Arby’s, I still have a lot of fondness for Fuddruckers. Ask my wife — in our early years together, when we’d drive around Orlando and see a new building under construction, I used to always say “I hope it’s a Fuddruckers,” to the point where it became one of those running gags that nobody even likes. But my teenage dream was fulfilled a few years ago when a new Fuddruckers really did open ten minutes away from my job. I was one of the first 20 people in line on the day it opened, winning me a coupon for a free burger a week for a year. (And no, I went there twice a month at most, even with that proverbial golden ticket.)

But with some bad news out of Texas, where the corporate headquarters is located, I decided to bring home some takeout from my local Fuddruckers a few nights ago, concerned it could be my last chance. But fear not, the patient lady who works there assured me they aren’t going anywhere, and the website has a similarly hopeful message on it.

I ordered a large burger for myself ($8.99), cooked medium rare of course, and added American cheese (an extra 75 cents). Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), the topping bar had been discontinued during the era of COVID, but they will add lettuce, tomatoes, onions, or pickles to your burger. Funny, since my appreciation for pickles is a recent development, I’ve never bothered to try whichever pickles they use at Fuddruckers, so I opted for the usual lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. It was a beautiful burger, thick and juicy.

I’m glad they have avoided the “smash burger” trend of the last few years, where burgers are flattened on the grill. It’s so much more satisfying to bite into a juicy, thick burger on a fresh, thick bun, loaded with amazing fresh toppings.

Luckily, the condiment pumps were still operational, so I was able to add barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and that molten lava-hot cheese sauce everyone loves.

There was plenty of hand sanitizer around, so I wasn’t concerned about pumping my condiments. By the way, the restaurant was sparsely populated with diners, but everyone working was wearing masks, which is always a relief to see.

I got a medium-sized burger for my my wife ($6.24), plain, cooked medium rare. Usually she deconstructs burgers and sandwiches, literally taking them apart and often leaving the bread or bun behind. But even she can’t resist the buttery, brioche-like brilliance of a Fuddruckers bun, so she ate the whole thing.


Fuddruckers fries are like thick potato wedges, and after ordering takeout from there for the last few years, we’ve found the fries get cold by the time I make it home, so we didn’t bother this time. The onion rings aren’t the same style as the ones I grew up with in Miami, so I skipped them too. They do have good sweet potato fries, though — especially when dipped in the honey mustard.

I want to get this out there, in case there is any doubt: I wholeheartedly support our locally-owned restaurants, and I love them with all my heart. This should be clear to anyone who has read anything I’ve ever written about food, on this blog or elsewhere. Even during the pandemic, when I haven’t dined in a restaurant in over six months, I have been ordering takeout at least once a week to support struggling local restaurants, and tipping big. That’s a major reason I write this blog, even though I’m well aware that few people read, like, and follow, and fewer still take seriously — to boost the signal and shout from the virtual rooftops about places I love that everyone else should love too.

But thinking of the mantra “Eat local,” this Fuddruckers is a franchise, owned and operated by friendly and competent local people. Everyone who works there is one of our neighbors. Some foodies eschew chain restaurants, and I usually do too, but I’ll always be a Fuddruckers fanboy. They make a tasty damn burger, a burger I prefer to the trendier fast-casual burger joints and most sit-down restaurants that charge two or three times as much. At least pre-pandemic, they let you dress it up however you want, and that went a long way with me. Freedom of choice. Customization. Those options helped make me into the food blogger I am today, back when Fuddruckers was a special day or night out, and even a bit of a splurge. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Maybe you’ve never given it a chance, but the good news is that it’s not too late. If all the locations were to close, my culinary landscape — my Saboscrivner saga — would be changed forever, for the worse. But for now, we can keep enjoying and supporting it, and these days we have to support the places and things we enjoy, to protect them. These are uncertain times, and no matter what the future holds, Fuddruckers and the other restaurants we love need all the support they can get.

 

Chain Reactions: Skyline Chili (Fort Lauderdale)

Skyline Chili (https://www.skylinechili.com/) is a chain restaurant started by Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1949.  Cincinnati chili is very different from any other kind of chili you’ve tried before.  There are no beans in it, it’s not spicy, and it’s a relatively thin meat sauce with finely ground beef — not thick or chunky.  In addition to ground beef, it contains tomato paste, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, cider vinegar, and cumin, which sounds normal enough so far.  But HOLD ONTO YOUR HATS, because Cincinnati chili ain’t Cincinnati chili without cinnamon, cloves, allspice, Worcestershire sauce, and maybe a bit of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, if you wanna get nuts.  YOU WANNA GET NUTS?  COME ON!  LET’S GET NUTS!

At Skyline and its Midwestern rivals like Gold Star Chili, you can order chili by the bowl, topping a hot dog (Skyline calls them Coneys), or served in a “3-Way” (spaghetti, chili, and bright orange, finely shredded cheddar cheese), a “4-Way” (a 3-Way topped with onions or beans), or a “5-Way” (a 3-Way topped with onions and beans).  I find the names hilariously ironic, because most people wouldn’t fare very well in a 3-way after eating a 3-Way, at least not for long.  And don’t even bother trying any kind of way after a 5-Way!

Good thing I never bothered to monetize this blog, because I’ll probably lose multiple subscribers after this review, and we all know I don’t have that many to begin with.

Anyway, there are a few Skyline locations in Florida, but none here in Orlando.  I’ve eaten at the one in Naples and two in South Florida (Sunrise and the one I’m reviewing here, in Fort Lauderdale), and there are others in Clearwater, Bradenton, and Fort Myers.  All the others are in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.  Come on, Skyline!  Orlando gets tourists from all around the world, including the Midwest.  Send your 3-Ways our way!

I drove down to South Florida at the beginning of March, shortly before COVID-19 became a serious concern, to visit my family and best friend in Miami for the first time in far too long.  I also had the sad experience of attending a friend’s funeral in Fort Lauderdale on my way down.  By the time it ended, I needed to center myself before driving the last hour down to my parents’ house in Kendall, a Miami suburb.  I was running on empty — emotionally drained, hungry, and craving comfort food.  And what did I discover mere minutes from the service?  A rare Skyline Chili sighting.  Of course I had to stop, since I haven’t been to one in many years.  DSC02998

You know what’s interesting?  Cincinnati’s chili restaurants like Skyline and Gold Star are usually referred to as “chili parlors” up there.  These days, not a lot happens in parlors.  You hear about parlor games and parlor tricks, but there’s an old-timey connotation to those.  Of course there are ice cream parlors, but that’s pretty much it for food.  And then there are funeral parlors, so don’t think I missed the significance of going from a funeral straight to a chili parlor.

This location (the Skyline Chili parlor, I should clarify) was set up like a diner, with regular tables, but also a counter with a row of stools facing the open kitchen.  I always like to sit at the counter when it’s an option and I’m alone, so I parked on a stool and ordered a cheese Coney (Skyline’s small, chili and cheese-covered hot dogs) as an appetizer.  It took less than a minute for the Coney to be served in front of me — a tiny hot dog on a soft, steamed bun with a squirt of yellow mustard, topped with the hearty chili, diced raw onions, and a mountain of almost neon orange shredded cheddar.
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My kind and thoughtful waitress was thoughtful enough to offer me a disposable plastic bib.  This was a godsend, considering I was still wearing my good black suit, white dress shirt, and skinny black tie from the funeral I had just come from.  I was really worried about how I was going to get out of this restaurant without dripping, splashing, or splattering myself, and the bib greatly improved my chances of avoiding besmirchment.

Anyway, the cheese Coney was glorious.  Everything my mind and mouth needed, even if my body might possibly regret it later.  I could have put away a half-dozen of those, but I had another hour to drive before making it to my parents’ house.  Don’t worry, though — I wasn’t done yet.

Yes, there was a hot dog under all that:DSC03002

I couldn’t leave Fort Lauderdale without enjoying a nice 3-Way, and that was when I saw a sign advertising an “extreme” habanero and cheddar cheese blend as an alternative to the classic cheddar, advising curious diners to “turn up the heat.”  So I got that, because if you’re going to have a 3-Way, you might as well make it as hot and extreme as possible.  Again, moments later, it was in front of me, steaming, melting, fragrant spicy messy tempting.DSC02999

This makes quite a mess, as you might expect from a 3-Way, but there were so many flavors and textures to enjoy, and the slower you go, the more sticky and melty everything gets.  Thank goodness for that bib!  But it totally hit the spot — my first Skyline fix in almost a decade, and on an afternoon where I really needed some uplift.DSC03000

I should note that my entire bill for the cheese Coney, the 3-Way, and a fountain soda was only $12.70, which seems like a bargain at twice the price.

I should note that the Internet abounds with Cincinnati chili recipes.  I’ve even tried some of them, and they’re all decent, if not identical to Skyline’s secret recipe.  You can’t go wrong with those basic ingredients.  Even if the idea of putting a little cinnamon and unsweetened chocolate in your chili sounds weird and wrong, step out of your culinary comfort zone, because you might discover you like it weird and wrong, and that weird and wrong is really so, so right.

You can also find Skyline Chili at some Publix supermarkets in the frozen food case, and I’ve even seen it in cans at Walmart, near the other canned chili like Hormel and Wolf Brand.  It’s an acquired taste, and one I’m sure not all my readers will love, but I believe in trying everything once, and often twice… just to be sure.  If you find the frozen or canned Skyline, you can even assemble a 3-Way in the comfort and safety of your own home and try it once for yourselves.  Just keep The Saboscrivner in your thoughts while you experiment!

In fact, I’ve been cooking at home so much during this quarantine, writing this review inspired me to make my own Cincinnati-style chili with one of the many Skyline “copycat” recipes that are out there.  I used a pound of ground chuck AND a pound of ground turkey, canned tomato sauce but no paste, added cinnamon and unsweetened chocolate I ground with my box grater, and even ground my own cloves and allspice berries in a small coffee grinder I use exclusively for spices.  I let the chili sit in the fridge for almost two days before trying it, and that allowed me to skim a lot of the orange congealed fat off the top.  Then I served it over good quality Flora brand spaghetti with a blend of extra-sharp cheddar and habanero cheddar that I shredded myself, and it was fantastic.  It was thicker than Skyline’s, which I appreciated, and also spicier due to adding a little more cayenne pepper than the recipe I found called for, plus the habanero cheddar to turn up the heat and make it extreme.  My cheese (Cabot brand) didn’t melt as quickly or as well as Skyline’s cheese, but my spaghetti was more al dente, and the whole concoction tasted great.  Since I used two pounds of meat, I’ll be enjoying 3-Ways at home for the next several days.
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Chain Reactions: Bento

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Chain Reactions: Twisted Root Burger Co.

Twisted Root Burger Co. (https://www.twistedrootburgerco.com/) is the latest fast-casual burger chain out of Texas to come to Orlando, after Hopdoddy Burger Bar opened earlier this year in the Pointe Orlando mall on International Drive.  But luckily for us, Twisted Root opened much closer to where we live, in a little shopping center on Aloma Avenue and Howell Branch Road that has been brought back to life by an influx of new restaurants, including the adjoining Pho Cali and Quickly Boba, which I reviewed in 2018.

Twisted Root goes for a theme of irreverent, wacky fun, with animal head busts above the counter where you order, letting you know which ones are available to eat on any given day.  From right to left:dsc02661.jpg

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After you place your order, you can go get drinks.  There is a full bar, and more options than usual for the non-drinkers.  I love hip hop and my wife loves Law and Order: SVU, so this was a delightful display:DSC02667

Twisted Root serves its own fountain sodas, all made with cane sugar instead of the usual high fructose corn syrup.  I sampled sips of the watermelon Ice-T, cream soda, root beer, and lemonade, and the cream soda was my favorite.  A refillable drink is $2.25, by the way.  I think that would be worth it for most, just to try their versions of all the different sodas and teas.dsc02669.jpgdsc02670.jpg

Pass the soda fountain and you will encounter the pickle bar.  I’ve written before about how I’ve never been a big fan of pickles, but I’m all about trying them now, to grow my appreciation for them.  Needless to say, I had to try all five varieties here, especially since they’re free!  From left to right: atomic (spicy), sweet & spicy, ranch, bread & butter, and dill.  I think I liked the bread & butter pickles the most, and there was only one flavor I really disliked — I think it was probably the ranch.  DSC02672This was a nice feature, especially because I’m not willing to shell out for whole jars of pickles I might not like, the way I do with mustards and other condiments (and new flavors of chips and sodas).

When you order, they give you a buzzer with a pop culture icon on it to alert you that your food is ready to pick up from the counter.  We got Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which was aces with me, because I used to be a huge pro wrestling fan and am slowly wading back into that pool, and also because he elevates almost every movie he’s in.  Seriously, The Rock makes decent movies better and terrible movies tolerable.

When our buzzer went off so quickly, I was surprised our food was already ready, since the place was so slammed they had shut down one of their cash registers to give the kitchen a chance to catch up.  But it was just my wife’s s’mores milkshake ($6).  dsc02674.jpg
Her verdict: it was okay.  She thought the marshmallow tasted like lighter fluid.  I had some and liked it fine, I think even more than she did.  But I could take or leave marshmallows, whereas she is a connoisseur.

It didn’t take that much longer for The Rock to buzz us again, letting me know our food was ready.  I ordered the Freedom Melt ($11), served on “Texas toast” with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onion straws, and brisket on top — a very “me” burger to order.  Be forewarned that Twisted Root cooks all burgers MEDIUM WELL unless you ask them not to, and I’m not down with that.  I asked for mine medium rare, and it came out between medium rare and medium, but still very juicy.  DSC02675I’ve been spoiled by too much great barbecue brisket, at our well-respected homegrown chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse, and most recently, at the fantastic Git-N-Messy Barbecue in Sanford.  So I guess I was expecting shredded (but recognizable) brisket on top of my burger, instead of the finely-chopped (and probably sauced) meat I got.  It was tastier than I expected and definitely tastier than it looked, nice and smoky (again, possibly from the sauce), but it reminded me of really tender chopped beef jerky even more than brisket.

I haven’t done a

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feature in a while, but Twisted Root offers fried onion strings ($3), and those count!  They were good — never as satisfying or substantial as thicker-cut, beer-battered onion rings, but they added a good dimension to my burger and gave me stuff to dip (more on that later).

My wife ordered a venison burger ($10), one of the special game meats, on “Texas toast,” otherwise served plain.  I didn’t get a picture of it, but it looked like pretty much any other burger.  She ate the whole thing, which is a good sign that she liked it.  She ordered hand-cut potato chips ($2) as her side, a nice-sized order of crispy (not overly crunchy) chips that were just salty enough.  I had to help her finish those, happily.
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A friendly manager came by to ask us how we were liking everything, and she was really craving honest feedback.  The ONLY complaint I had, and it’s a minor one, was that the “Texas toast” wasn’t what we were expecting.  I really love getting Texas toast at my beloved Waffle House — thick slices of white Wonder bread, spread liberally with butter and then grilled on both sides.  The “Texas toast” both of our burgers came on was just regular white bread: not thick, not square, not Wonder, definitely not buttered or grilled, and barely even toasted.  I always hate to complain about anything, but she asked, and it was a minor quibble.  I think thicker bread, buttered and grilled, would add so much richness to the burgers.  If they don’t change it, I’ll simply order a brioche bun with my burger on my next visit.

I was already digging Twisted Root offering so many choices (sodas, sides, pickles), but their condiment game is also strong.  Every table has squeeze bottles of Heinz ketchup and yellow mustard, plus these three beauties.  The horseradish Dijon mustard was fabulous (I’d buy a jar), the ancho chipotle ketchup was great, but as much as I love root beer AND barbecue sauce, I thought it was a little too thin and tasted a little too much of molasses.
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So this restaurant is a real “get” for our quiet, boring little area where Winter Springs, Oviedo, and Winter Park run together.  It was super-busy when we were there, but that was also a Friday night on its opening week.  I think they will do very well, especially since the shopping center has returned to life.  I liked my burger much more than some of the more popular fast-casual contenders, and I love all the different options and how close it is to our home.

Oh, one last thing: the men’s restroom is wallpapered with silly memes and sayings about the most overrated action movie “star” of all time, which I feel obligated to point out after praising the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson earlier in this review.  Yes, you can’t wash your hands without being inundated with tall tales of Texas’ own adopted son Chuck Norris, who I don’t think ever made a good movie or TV show.  I don’t know how beatifying Chuck Norris became a thing.  Sure, he was a legit martial artist, unlike many of the other action actors of the ’70s and ’80s, but Norris was a charisma vacuum, compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham, The Rock, and the vast majority of superhero actors.  Heck, even Jean-Claude Van Damme had two great (or at least memorable) movies in his career, and if any Saboscrivner readers think you can guess what they are, then let me know!

Chain Reactions: Popeyes

My readers may have heard some news a while back about a certain fried chicken sandwich controversy.  Barely three months ago, the Louisiana-based fried chicken chain Popeyes (https://www.popeyes.com/), came out with a chicken sandwich for the first time ever, upending the balance of power in fast food chicken sandwiches and making people  everywhere lose their damn minds.

Almost everyone I know either tried the Popeyes chicken sandwich and loved it (like my best friend down in Miami), or tried to, but were foiled every time by long lines and stores selling out (like me).  There were some haters too — either loyalists to the long-standing chicken sandwich champion, or people who claim to never eat fast food for any number of legitimate reasons (which is all good, but they might miss out on something tasty).  And almost as quickly as the hype grew around this sandwich for those two or three weeks in the late summer, Popeyes pulled it from their menus everywhere, and life moved on.  I ended up discovering and reviewing the greatest chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life at Winter Park’s own Swine & Sons, and those went a long way toward helping me get over my FOMO.

I was wondering if Popeyes got rid of their biggest hit ever because they weren’t prepared to deal with the insane demand.  It might have been a personnel issue — assembling sandwiches has to be more labor-intensive than boxing up the whole pieces of fried chicken, and every Popeyes restaurant I’ve ever been to is always understaffed.  It might have been a problem in the supply chain, as there was an annoying ad campaign in the weeks that followed encouraging customers to BYOB, or “Bring Your Own Bun.”  Maybe they wanted to create artificial demand through scarcity, but regardless, they listened to the people, because this game-changing chicken sandwich is back now, as of Sunday, November 3rd.  And this time, hopefully it’s here to stay.

Constant Readers, I failed you back in August.  Even though I had every intention of eating and reviewing this sandwich, I never got my hands or mouth on one in time, and then they were gone.  But there’s no way I was going to let you down you again.  I got to Popeyes on the morning of November 3rd, shortly after it opened at 10:30 AM, but as you would expect (and I kinda did expect), half of Seminole County had the same idea and was already there.

The drive-through line snaked through the huge shared parking lot at this location, so I parked far away so I wouldn’t get blocked in later, and took my chances waiting inside.  This was the smart move.  I was back home with my to-go order in just over an hour, and I didn’t have to waste half a tank of gas idling in the car.  If you go in the days and weeks to come, expect some wait, but the line definitely moves faster inside.  Eventually I got my order, and I was home in fewer than ten minutes, so everything was still hot and crispy.

This was the spicy chicken sandwich, which I loved.  The fried chicken breast was juicy and bursting with flavor.  I admit I was expecting to be disappointed, because Popeyes chicken can be quite inconsistent.  When you get a fresh batch, it’s amazing, but I’ve had far too much sad, dry chicken there.  I typically stick to dark meat, particularly thighs, which I think are more flavorful and less likely to get dried out, but this was a really fantastic fried chicken breast.  It was huge, too, and the buttermilk-based batter wasn’t just lightly crispy — it was CRUNCHY, even after steaming in its little foil pouch as I raced home.  Well-played, Popeyes.  I can’t conceive of a better fast food chicken sandwich.  I emphasize fast food because even though there are certainly better chicken sandwiches out there (like the Swine & Sons versions), those are $11 while this one is $4, almost one-third of the price.  dsc02613.jpgUnfortunately, I thought they were rather stingy with the spicy mayo, and would have loved some more on it.

This was the regular, non-spicy sandwich ($3.99 each without the combo).  It should come with mayo as well as pickles, but they left the mayo of both regular sandwiches I ordered — one for myself so I could try both versions, and one for my wife who doesn’t like anything spicy.  All three sandwiches came with two thin pickle slices, and now that I’m starting to appreciate pickles more, I would have been happy to get even more pickles on them.  By the way, the buns are brioche — soft and fluffy, buttered, and lightly toasted.  It’s a fantastic bun to serve this kind of sandwich on.  DSC02609

You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?dsc02610.jpg

Since my regular chicken sandwich didn’t have any mayo, it was a perfect opportunity to sample two different Popeyes sauces.  I cut the sandwich down the middle, making sure there was one pickle slice on each half, and applied one of these sauces to each:
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The Mardi Gras Mustard is a creamy Creole-style mustard (savory, but not spicy at all) that went well with the chicken, but the Voodoo Sauce was awesome on the other half.  It was thin and runny, sticky, sweet, and slightly spicy — extremely similar to a Thai sweet chili sauce.  And it jazzed up that sandwich just perfectly.  I should have added a schmear of my own mayo too (I only buy Duke’s), but I wanted to stick to just Popeyes’ own condiments for the purposes of this review.

And here is what might be the very best menu item from any fast food restaurant anywhere: Popeyes red beans and rice ($2.29 if you order the small separately, or it can be one of the sides you pick in your combo meal).  This is the perfect, quintessential version of this classic Louisiana dish.  Rich, thick, and smoky, it transcends this fast food fried chicken chain and could hold its own against high-tone versions of red beans and rice in some of New Orleans’ finest chef-driven establishments.  I know a lot of chefs agree and sing its praises, including Momofuku’s founder and all-around cool dude David Chang.dsc02614.jpg

When I finally got up to the cashier, she kept trying to cut me off and complete my order after every item I ordered.  Our conversation went something like this:

“I’d like a spicy chicken sandwich combo, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be $6.99 plus tax.”
“Oh!  But I would also like two regular chicken sandwiches, not the combos, and…”
“Okay, that’ll be…”
“Sorry, I wanted red beans and rice as the side for my combo, and also…”
“Beans and rice, gotcha.  That’ll be…”
“Sorry, I would also like to try the bourbon fudge pie, and…”
“Adding on the bourbon fudge pie!  So your order comes to…”
“NO, WAIT!  I’d also like the pumpkin cream cheese pie!” 

So yeah, it was a battle, and I ended up apologizing a heck of a lot, unnecessarily (which I do far too often).  But they have pie, and I love pie, and I really wanted to share them with my wife and review them for you.  But I really had to fight, just to be able to order them!dsc02611.jpg

The bourbon fudge pie ($2.49) is a small slice that we just cut down the middle.  The fudgy filling is rich, thick, and damn tasty, but the crust is completely tasteless and serves no real purpose.  We weren’t expecting much for $2.49, but it was like a cheap, knockoff version of local Chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s delicious signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pie at her beloved Orlando restaurant and bakery Se7en Bites.  And that pie has the best pie crust ever, so y’all need to make it over there and try hers, maybe even before you try these chicken sandwiches.DSC02612

The pumpkin cream cheese pie is your typical fast food turnover pie.  If you haven’t tried the very similar apple pie at Popeyes, you’ve probably had it at McDonald’s at some point in your life.  You might even remember when the McDonald’s apple pies used to be fried to a crisp, back in the ’80s! dsc02615.jpg

Here’s a cross-section: a strip of sweet pumpkin “pie” filling, and a strip of sweetened cream cheese.  The crust wasn’t anything special, but still better than the extremely bland, flavorless bourbon fudge pie crust. dsc02616.jpg

Anyway, these chicken sandwiches are so good, I went back a few days later to a different location and waited about 25 minutes, just so I could get another one.  I got another spicy boi and asked for extra spicy sauce, but the cashier said there isn’t a button on the register for extra sauce, so they couldn’t do it.  That particular sandwich didn’t come with pickles, but it was still mighty fine.  Tender and juicy, crispy breading, perfect bun (any burger would be honored to be served on a bun prepared that well), and slightly more of that spicy sauce that really brings everything together.

However, this time I asked for macaroni and cheese as the side, because I know the late, great Anthony Bourdain loved Popeyes mac and cheese, as well as their chicken.  I love mac and cheese too, so I had to try it.DSC02619

The mac and cheese was pretty standard, like what you’d get at a soul food or barbecue place.  Very similar to the mac and cheese at Orlando’s homegrown barbecue chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse and its Southern spinoff restaurant The Coop, in fact.  Not baked or anything, no bread crumbs or crispy layer of cheese — just al dente elbow macaroni in sticky, gluey, salty orange cheese.  I can see it being beloved comfort food, especially for someone like Bourdain, a world-weary traveler who sometimes craved simple tastes of home.

I am trying really hard to avoid sodas, but this second Popeyes location had an unfamiliar label on the soda fountain — a drink I had never seen before or even heard of, and I try to stay apprised of such things!dsc02618.jpg

There is precious little information about Mirinda online, but it started out as a brand from Spain, and PepsiCo bought it.  They produce many different fruit-flavored sodas, so I guess Pepsi saw it as a way to compete against Coke’s Fanta brand.  I’ve tried a few different strawberry sodas before, and they always taste more like strawberry candy than the actual fruit.  This one was no exception.  It was almost sickeningly sweet, and I was glad I only took a few sips.  I ended up refilling my cup with Popeyes sweet tea while I waited for my food, and between the Mirinda soda and strong, acidic sweet tea, I ended up with acid reflux for the first few hours of my workday, long before I even indulged with a fried chicken sandwich and macaroni and cheese.  Serves me right, I guess!

Chain Reactions: Texas de Brazil

Back in the day, when we all could eat more than we can now, my dad was a huge fan of all-you-can-eat restaurants, especially the many Chinese buffets around Miami in the ’80s and ’90s.  He knew each one’s strengths and weaknesses: which ones had the best spare ribs, the best fantail shrimp, the best house special fried rice, and so forth.  He was a beloved regular at a lot of those places, and even though he wouldn’t consider himself a foodie, it was his quest for the best versions of a dish and the best bargains around South Florida that started your Saboscrivner on my persistent path as a culinary explorer, reporter, and reference librarian.

But beyond the Chinese buffets, the height of luxury was the all-you-can-eat Brazilian churrascaria, Texas de Brazil (https://texasdebrazil.com/), a decadent steakhouse where uniformed gauchos walk a never-ending parade of grilled meats to your table, impaled on giant swords, for you to enjoy until you slip into a meat coma.  This was our destination for the most special of special occasions, our most rare and revered restaurant.  There were multiple steaks, including filet mignon (some wrapped in bacon!), Brazilian picanha, and flank steak, parmesan-crusted chicken and pork, Brazilian sausage, lamb chops, leg of lamb, and a star player I’m saving for last because it is the best.

Beyond the meats is a sumptuous salad bar, if one could even call it that — one of the most bountiful, bombastic, breathtaking buffets imaginable, where the actual salad is a mere afterthought alongside fancy salami and prosciutto, fresh mozzarella orbs, spreadable Boursin cheese, fancy Spanish manchego (sheep-milk cheese), cold-smoked salmon, chilled marinated shrimp, California rolls, roasted peppers, caramelized garlic cloves, and other roasted, grilled, marinated, and pickled vegetables.  You also help yourself to luscious lobster bisque, and the gauchos also grace your table with soft Brazilian cheese buns, mashed potatoes (I usually ignore both of those), and fried bananas served with cinnamon and sugar (big fan here).

Note that all this decadence doesn’t come cheap.  The all-you-can-eat dinner is normally $49.99, or you can opt for just the salad bar (which is honestly my favorite part of Texas de Brazil, and would be a fine, full meal on its own) for $24.99.  Monday through Friday, lunch is somewhat discounted at $34.99.  Still, it’s way too extravagant for us more than once a year (and believe me, we don’t even do this once a year).

But we did last year, and we did again this past weekend, thanks to a very special month in Orlando called Magical Dining.  Every September, our official tourism association Visit Orlando sets up Magical Dining with dozens of participating restaurants all over the city, generally mid-to-upscale establishments.  Each restaurant announces a prix fixe menu with a few options to choose from: appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and the price is $35.  This is a real bargain at most of these restaurants, and it gives people who might not normally treat themselves a chance to try some delicious dishes at new, unfamiliar, and highly vaunted restaurants around town at a discounted price.  And best of all, $1 from each Magical Dining bill goes to a number of worthy local charities!

My wife and I rarely take part in Magical Dining.  As you can tell from this blog, we generally gravitate toward more casual restaurants, and very few of those participate.  At these higher-end places, sometimes there isn’t an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert on the Magical Dining menu that appeal to both of us, and we figure we’d rather hold out for a special occasion and order our top choices off the full menu, not a small, curated list of options.  (Of course, you can still order off the regular menu at any of these places during Magical Dining.)

But Texas de Brazil might be the best deal of all, because you get the full salad bar, the full unlimited meats, AND a dessert (which normally costs extra) for the excellent discounted price of $35 (plus tip, of course).  That’s a bargain, for all the same stuff plus a dessert!  My wife loves steak, we’re both crazy about lamb, and I go nuts for sausages and that spectacular, stupendous, sublime… sensual salad bar.  We squeezed in a reservation for the last weekend of Magical Dining, which I strongly recommend you do next year.

We arrived before our 5:00 reservation, in time to hit the salad bar buffet early, before it would be ravaged by ravenous rubes.  Dig the artful presentation of beautiful cured meats:DSC02570

Some of the Saboscrivner’s greatest hits on this buffet plate, even chilled couscous salad in a vinaigrette and some of the best potato salad ever.  I am careful not to fill up on carbs, but I can’t make a rare visit to TdB and not load up a plate with these wonders.  Rest assured, dear readers — I was a member of the Clean Plate Club.  DSC02571

Meanwhile, the gauchos were coming around, so I was building up a supply of meat to last me some time, while going through my buffet items.  This plate includes medium-rare flank steak (left), two lamb chops (top), two slices of picanha (right), part of a sausage (bottom, next to the fried banana).  GO AHEAD, TAKE THESE BANANAS!DSC02572A lot of the meats tend to be more done than we both like, so we always ask for as rare as possible, and end up content with medium rare.  I find all of Texas de Brazil’s meats to be extremely salty, so keep that in mind too.

But here’s the star of the show, both of our favorite meat: BRAISED BEEF RIB, sliced right off the giant bones in front of us.  If you go to Texas de Brazil, it’s very possible you might not even realize this was one of the meats being walked around.  It doesn’t circulate often, probably because it’s an expensive cut that takes a long time to prepare.  And as far as I can tell from having had two or three TdB lunches, they don’t offer it at lunch time!  Last year for Magical Dining, we learned to very politely request it as soon as we were seated, and then to get at least two slices once it makes its way to us.  I love braised, stewed, and other slow-cooked meats even more than grilled steaks, and this beef rib is fork-tender.  It seriously shreds apart with just the side of your fork, and then completely melts in your mouth.  DSC02573

I’m proud to say that neither of us wasted any food, but I was stuffed after finishing everything you saw above, and my wife got equally stuffed from a lot less (but she didn’t mess with the buffet like I did, minus a couple of those spicy marinated chilled shrimp).  I had ladled us each a bowl of lobster bisque at the beginning, but ended up having hers at the end of my meal, because it’s too good, and it would have been a shanda to waste a drop.

And after all that, we were still entitled to desserts, included in the Magical Dining deal!  We got our desserts boxed up to take home, because we couldn’t eat another bite.  There were two selections, and we each chose the one you would expect us to choose, if you know us.

Unfortunately, my wife’s chocolate cake was very dry and disappointing:DSC02574

My Brazilian cheesecake was pretty good, because even bad cheesecake is pretty good, but it was a small sliver:DSC02575

Bonus pictures of the desserts we took home back in 2018, the last time we were here (also for Magical Dining Month):

Key lime pie that was much better than either of this year’s dessert options:
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Bananas Foster pie that was incredible, that I was wishin’ and hopin’ they would offer again this year:DSC01685

Coconut chess pie that was also spectacular:
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I don’t remember which two were included, and which one we paid extra for just to try it, but all three of these were awesome, and far better than this year’s two dessert choices.  But then again, I’m a pie guy.

So here are your takeaways:

  1. Magical Dining is a wonderful thing, and you should totally treat yourself next September, whether it’s here or one of Orlando’s other great participating restaurants.
  2. Texas de Brazil is an incredible indulgence, a sensational splurge, a truly unique and celebratory destination for carnivores, gourmands, and just plain old hungry people.  Heck, if you’re doing a low-carb diet, it could be a great restaurant to cut loose in, since meat and most salad bar offerings are the star attractions and carbs are supporting players.  My wife and I love it, but now we’re good for another year, or probably far longer.  We got it out of our systems for a while, and no, that wasn’t a colon-related joke.
  3. Or was it?