Chain Reactions: Cooper’s Hawk

My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while.  It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before.  I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.

But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little.  Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing.  If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out.  It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there.  But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.

It was seriously hard to choose.  The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices.  There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more.  I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.

I’ve never been a pork chop fan.  Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.

But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.

When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen!  She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me.  Pure perfection, dear readers.  She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor.  And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all.  It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side.  (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)ch1.jpg

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As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender.  I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should).  Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes!) and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes.  When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos.  It makes a difference!  Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold.  And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did.  To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.

It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings.  The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.ch3

I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish.  I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them.  But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them.  And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings.  She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big.  They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts!  If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.

The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all.  I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold.  They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty.  I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning.  Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.  ch4

Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert!  I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake.  It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house.  I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great.  The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel.  My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.ch5

A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place.  Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.”  They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater.  Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods!  (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!)

But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would.  So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!

My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish).  She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day.  It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.DSC01836

My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.DSC01834

My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese.  She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint.  They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler.  (She asked and they answered!)DSC01835

And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando.  The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.

I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues.  It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners.  It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all.  I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can.   I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time.  Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!

I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera.  Sorry.  Mea culpa.  I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
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My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday.  This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle.  She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:DSC01837

After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:

The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
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Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
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And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust.  Very sweet, rich, and heavy.  I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious.  I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.DSC01840

Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it,  speaks volumes right there.  Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them.  It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes.  It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits.  And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!  If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board).  My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.

Chain Reactions: Zero Degrees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chain Reactions: Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza

I generally try to avoid chain restaurants, but everyone has some chains they like.  One of my favorites is Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (https://acfp.com/), a chain founded in 2002 right here in Florida — Fort Lauderdale, to be exact.  Not only do they have excellent pizza baked in an 800-degree coal fired oven, they also serve some of my absolute favorite chicken wings and unique ribs I love, that are totally different than what you’d get at any barbecue joints.

On one visit to the Altamonte Springs location in late 2018, I brought home a lunch-sized Paulie’s Pie, my favorite of their pizzas, with mini-meatballs, crumbled Italian sausage, ricotta cheese, and sweet peppers (you can also choose hot peppers), in addition to their tangy red sauce and regular mozzarella.  The crust has some burned spots, but it never tastes burnt or ashy.  It’s a thin crust, but not super-crispy.  It is softer than you think, and it is awesome.  img_0007

These are the oven-roasted pork spare ribs, roasted in the coal oven with garlic, rosemary, white wine, and spicy vinegar peppers (I can’t get enough of those things!).  You can get an order of six (I did) or twelve.  I love barbecue ribs, and these are nothing like them, but they’re outstanding.  So tender — the meat easily peels off the bone, but doesn’t just “fall apart.”  The flavor is incredible, but they sure are spicy.img_0009

This is a piece of their oven-baked focaccia bread, which is very soft, but it has a perfectly light, crispy (but NOT crunchy) exterior.  img_0011

On a more recent visit in late November, I treated myself to a LARGE Paulie’s Pie to go, knowing I’d get three or four meals out of it.  dsc01719

Yea yea, that’s the stuff.dsc01717

They also had new spice-rubbed wings, which I decided to try since I love their original oven-roasted wings so much, and these were a limited-time fall special.  They were fine, but I prefer the flavor of the originals.  Plus, the original wings come buried under a mountain of caramelized onions, with more of that great focaccia bread.  I feel like I missed out on those beloved accompaniments with the special wings.dsc01718

They happened to have a promotion going on where I got a free order of pumpkin cannoli, so that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  I’m not usually the biggest pumpkin fanboy, but these were great.  The pumpkin cream filling was very subtly pumpkin-flavored, to the point where even a pumpkin hater would not have had a problem with them.  They were dusted with cinnamon and a squirt of sticky, syrupy pumpkin glaze.  I liked them a lot and made a mental note to try their regular cannoli on a future visit.  dsc01720

I have a top three pizza ranking for Orlando, and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza is definitely in it, alongside Pizza Bruno (which I have reviewed before) and Pizzeria Del Dio.  All three are very different, but all superb and worth trying.  I’m pickier on wings, but Anthony’s wings are definitely in my top four wings in town, along with Kai Asian Street Fare, Hawkers, and 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  All very different wings, and none of them are the traditional fried-to-a-crisp, burn-your-mouth-and-ass-off Buffalo-style sports bar wings.

Anthony’s also offers some lunch sandwiches on their focaccia bread, and you can buy a reusable metal pot of their meatballs in sauce.  I have never indulged that much, but if I was throwing a party, I’d consider it.  Oh, who am I kidding?  We hardly ever entertain anymore.  I’d probably just buy the pot o’meatballs and eat them all myself over the course of a week.  Dare to dream…

Chain Reactions: Arby’s

Wait a minute!  Is he really reviewing ARBY’S?  (https://arbys.com/)  He’s only had a food blog for two months and he’s talking about a fast food chain, and a critically-derided, notably un-hip fast food chain?

I try to be good.  I try to support local restaurants AND avoid fast food as much as possible, but I’m only human.  I’m a sucker for Krystal sliders, I have a nostalgic fondness for McDonald’s breakfasts (and was thrilled when they started offering all-day breakfast, even though I rarely partake), and Arby’s hits the spot more often than not (although I almost never go).  Sure, I think of obnoxious little Sherri from The Simpsons (or was it her twin Terri?) whining “I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s!”, which I think ruined it for a whole generation.  But the truth is, Arby’s is cool.  It’s always trying new things, taking risks, adding crazy new menu items, and killing it with social media marketing — and these gambles are working!  Arby’s is the quirky, likable guy in a rom-com who might not end up with the girl, but he has a full and rich life with friends, hobbies, a good job, and you rooted for him and know he’s going to be okay.

I went twice in 2017, which was twice as often as I had gone in the previous decade.  Once was to try their porchetta sandwich while it lasted (surprisingly good), and the other time was to try their venison steak sandwich the one special day they offered it (incredibly good).  Yes, this is a fast food chain people regularly crack on, but they’re rolling out porchetta, a pretty classy Italian pork preparation that you rarely even see on menus at Italian restaurants and takes some real talent and patience to make at home, and venison, which is almost impossible to get unless you’re friends with hunters.  They’re not just adding bacon or chips or (eurgh) sriracha (sorry, it’s nasty!) to the same tired old offerings.  They’re introducing people to entirely new meats, which is a noble and ambitious undertaking!  

So yesterday, my best friend sent me this entertaining and insightful essay about the new golden age of Arby’s, and I was impressed by the writer’s obvious passion and enthusiasm, something I always try for here on The Saboscrivner.

He touched on all my thoughts more eloquently and at greater length than I would, so I’m not even going to try to top it.  But I am extremely suggestible when it comes to food, so of course that means I had to try Arby’s again.  I went today for lunch, and I have no regrets.

Their current limited-time special is the Smokehouse beef short rib sandwich, served with melty cheddar cheese, crispy onions, and barbecue sauce on Texas toast.  I’m always happy to find Texas toast, whether it’s made into garlic bread, served as a sandwich, or just lightly toasted and buttered and served with some Zaxby’s chicken tenders.  This sandwich was a real winner.  I have to admit, it was better than some sandwiches I’ve had from barbecue restaurants.  It was a decent size, with lots of flavors and textures going on, and the shredded, smoked short rib was very tender and tasty.  The Texas toast held everything together well.  I’m always disappointed when some barbecue places serve their wondrous, lovingly-prepared, low-and-slow-smoked meats on the cheapest buns or white bread, but not so here.

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I had also recently been advised to try Arby’s gyro and their onion rings, a combo I enjoyed at Theo’s Kitchen earlier this summer (see my recent review here).  I knew they had a gyro, but it never occurred to me to try it until a few people vouched for it.  And like I said, there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, right?  Well, this one was better than some I’ve had from dedicated Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants.  It certainly wasn’t the best gyro I’ve ever had, but it was far from the worst, and only $3.99.  This was the good kind of pita bread — nice and soft, like you get from actual gyro shops but never find at the supermarket.  They included a generous portion of thin-sliced, processed gyro meat, which is usually a salty, garlicky beef and lamb combo, plus tzatziki sauce, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and thin slices of onion.

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I can’t say the same for the onion rings, which had that craggy, crumby breading that mostly fell off.  I can’t Ring the Alarm! in good conscience for these rings.  At least Arby’s has some good dipping sauces in pumps: their legendary Horsey sauce (creamy horseradish), very decent three-pepper sauce that is more like a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce than an actual hot sauce (which is more than fine with me), and a creamy Dijon mustard sauce.

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Finally, because this was a hectic week and we’re heading into our busiest and most stressful time of the year at work, I treated myself to an orange cream shake, because orange shakes are hard to find, and I freakin’ love them.

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I also brought back a Jamocha shake for one beloved co-worker and two cherry turnovers for another one.  Food gifts are some of the best gifts, if you ask me.

So yeah, Arby’s.  If you haven’t had it since you were a teenager, or if pop culture has conditioned you to think it can’t possibly be any good, think again, and try it again.  Even if you don’t love their old-school roast beef sandwiches (tasty, but super-salty), they have a ton of newer menu options including the limited-time Smokehouse beef short rib, and I definitely vouch for that.  Their seasoned curly fries might be the best in the game, and I wish I had gotten those instead of the onion rings.  Nowadays they have Italian subs, Reubens, smoked brisket sandwiches, and even some healthy-looking options!  Seriously, try it, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.