Chain Reactions: Eataly (Chicago)

Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/) is like heaven for foodies: a massive Italian food store that contains several restaurants, from sit-down pastarias to wine bars to counter-service bakeries to grab-and-go snack shops.  As a result, it is kind of like a massive food hall, with so much to see and do, smell and taste, experience and indulge.  But most of all, Eataly feels like a temple to Italian food — truly a place of worship — and well worth a pilgrimage at least once.  There are ten Eataly stores in Italy (the first one opened in Torino in 2007), nine in North America, and eight elsewhere in the world.   I don’t know how different they all are, since I’ve only been to the Chicago Eataly (https://www.eataly.com/us_en/stores/chicago/) — first with my wife in 2014, and again on a recent business trip to Chicago.  I had to venture back there, to make sure that first visit wasn’t just a wonderful dream, but the kind of place where dreams come true.

It had been so long since my first visit, I had to explore everything in the store before deciding on my first bit of food.  I made my way to the second floor to a familiar kiosk that beckoned: the land of cured meats and cheeses.  I felt like a weary traveler who had finally made it to my destination, yet also feeling like I was home

Since I was just staying in Chicago for two nights, I couldn’t buy anything fresh or perishable or requiring cooking, but I’m sure some fancy Chicago locals bypass the local supermarkets and buy all their meats at this gleaming butcher’s counter.  You can’t see the price labels in this photo, but take it from me: if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

Here’s a shot of huge tomahawk ribeye steaks, slowly dry-aging to perfection in a clear refrigerated case: 

The seafood counter was equally sumptuous.  On my first visit to Eataly back in 2014, I made an indulgent purchase of bottarga here: the salted, cured, pressed, and dried roe sac of a fish (usually gray mullet, but sometimes tuna).  I had read about bottarga before, and it sounded irresistible to me, as a connoisseur of the cured, a scholar of the smoked, and a professor of the pickled.  So many cultures created their own versions of this delicacy, and I’ve still never found it in Florida.  The bottarga I bought at Eataly made it back in my luggage without any problems, and it lasted months in the fridge, as I finely grated it over so many pasta dishes.  It added a salty, savory, umami flavor to everything, and pretty much melted in my mouth.  If that sounds good and not gross, I highly recommend it.

But all this browsing made me hungry, so I returned to the restaurant my wife and I dined at on our original trip to Eataly here in Chicago: the creatively named La Pizza & La Pasta.  You can’t go to a restaurant like this and not know what you’re getting!  They take reservations, but I arrived relatively late in the day, after a long training workshop and an architectural boat tour down the Chicago River, so I had my choice of seats and opted for a solitary barstool, far from any other diners.

The kind server brought out this wonderfully fresh, crusty bread with olive oil that was much sweeter and more flavorful than the kind I keep at home that regularly goes on sale at Publix.  I’m not sure if every party gets “table bread,” or if it came with the dish I ordered, but if you’re visiting Eataly, hopefully you’re not obsessed with counting carbs, so you should definitely take advantage and enjoy this brilliant bread.   

As a solo diner, I knew I couldn’t justify ordering two entrees, so it was difficult for me to choose.  My server helped me break a tie, so I went with a fresh pasta dish, tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($24), topped with real-deal parmigiano Reggiano, not the shaky-can stuff I’ve bought my entire life.   The fresh tagliatelle pasta was kind of eggy (not in a bad way, just not exactly what I expected), but the savory Bolognese sauce was awesome, with plenty of chunks of meat.  I get that this was a pretty basic choice, and I make “pasta and meat sauce” quite often at home, but it is real comfort food for me, and I wanted to see how Eataly’s kitchen would present such a timeless classic.  They knocked it out of the park, needless to say.

As an aside, here’s a photo I found of the dish I ordered here back in 2014, in those pre-Saboscrivner days: my favorite pasta dish anywhere, bucatini all’amatriciana ($21).  This thick bucatini pasta (long, hollow tubes) was not fresh like the tagliatelle I had just tried, but there’s nothing wrong with good quality dried pasta.  I think I prefer it, in fact.  All’amatriciana is served in a spicy tomato sauce with guanciale (cured pork jowl), and this version from La Pizza & La Pasta was perfect in every way, even better than the tagliatelle from this most recent visit.
I make pasta all’amatriciana at home as a treat once or twice a year, but since guanciale is hard to find, I usually substitute cubed pancetta, which you can find at Trader Joe’s, Publix, and even Aldi sometimes.  If you’re not into bucatini, pretty much any other pasta works well, except for weirdo choices like tri-color wagon wheels.  What is the deal with those, anyway?

After dinner, I wandered around the store a little more and gazed at beautiful Roman-style pizzas on display at the Pizza alla Pala kiosk.  I was tempted, but I had just eaten dinner, and I knew they wouldn’t be that great eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning.

But I saw these gorgeous foccaci farcita sandwiches, with cured speck ham, provolone, and arugula on fresh focaccia bread, and I thought “One of those would be awe-inspiring eaten cold in my hotel room the next morning!”  Maybe because I got to Eataly relatively late in the day, they charged me a much lower price for the to-go sandwich than what you see pictured, more like the price of an individual slice of pizza.   

Here’s an extreme close-up of the lovely sandwich.  Speck is very similar to prosciutto.  I could tell they brushed some olive oil on the bread, but I thought a tangy vinaigrette of some kind would have really put it over the top.  (But I think about that with most sandwiches.)

And to go with my beautiful Italian breakfast, I found an Italian brand of potato chips, San Carlo la Vita e Buona, with a flavor that was too interesting to turn down: mint and chili pepper!  If I recall, this bag was under $3.  Since I love trying new potato chip flavors and reviewing them in this very blog, I felt obligated.  I did it for YOU, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

San Carlo was a bit stingy with the flavoring, a marked contrast against many American chip manufacturers that really cake it on there, but they tasted very fresh and potatoey, and the mint subtly shined through.  They were barely spicy at all. 

I also brought home a salami from the cured meat counter that sounded amazing (elk, pork, and dried blueberries?!), but it wasn’t worth the price I paid.  I would have loved to try so many more things at Eataly, but again, I was limited by what I could safely store in my hotel room and bring back in a carry-on bag, with TSA’s continuing rules banning liquids.  That said, if you ever find yourself in a city grand and lucky enough to have its own Eataly location, I implore you to make that pilgrimage and try it for yourself.  You will be tempted by all sorts of treasures, and it is just a pleasure to wander around and explore, treat yourself in one of the many restaurants, and bring back mouthwatering mementos, succulent souvenirs, and tasty trophies from your travels.

 

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Chain Reactions: Krispy Krunchy Chicken

Krispy Krunchy Chicken (https://krispykrunchy.com/) is a unique fried chicken chain with a distinct Cajun accent, founded in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1989.  It is a unique chain because most of the locations are inside gas station convenience stores, but anyone who reads my blog knows you can often find great food in the most humble-looking and unlikely of places.

Take, for example, the Citgo station at 3025 East Colonial Drive, 32803, in Orlando, on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Maguire Road.  This is on the edge of a couple of the best foodie neighborhoods in the city: the Milk District and Mills 50.  I’ve been driving past this gas station for years, and only recently noticed a sign that it offered Krispy Krunchy Chicken inside.  I had to try it, for the sake of journalism and a librarian’s desire to share information.  I’m not sorry I did.

When you place your order, you ask for the chicken you want from under the heat lamps, and a nice lady will bag it up for you.  It was all very fresh.

The sides are self-serve (you just grab them yourself).  This sign lists prices for single pieces of chicken:
Breast: $3.19
Wing: $1.89
Thigh: $2.09
Leg: $2.09
Tender: $1.89

Here’s a close-up of that bottom shelf, which includes honey butter biscuits, boneless chicken tenders, corn dogs, and egg rolls.  Sauces are 50 cents each (original, buffalo, honey mustard, ranch, tartar, sweet and sour, and barbecue), but as much as I love sauces and condiments, I was trying this chicken for the first time, so I didn’t want to overwhelm my palate or distract from the main mission with too many variables.

I ordered a two-piece meal ($7.99) with a leg, a thigh, a side (see below), and a honey butter biscuit, and had a little picnic in my car.  Totally worth it.  The chicken was juicy and the breading was thick and crunchy, but not as Cajun-spicy as I was hoping.  Still, you can’t ask for much more than that, especially from a gas station convenience store setup!  The biscuit was a real standout.  Not in the same league as Se7en Bites, Orlando’s beloved Southern bakery and restaurant moments away, which is home of the best biscuits ever, but perfectly fine to accompany this chicken.

I couldn’t resist getting an order of fried chicken gizzards too.  (I don’t remember how much this was.)  Now I LOVE chicken livers (chopped liver is one of the foods of my people!) and hearts, but I didn’t remember ever trying gizzards before.  They were REALLY chewy.  That’s the most I can say about them.

The macaroni and cheese tasted a lot better than it looks here, flattened down by the lid on this styrofoam cup.  But I don’t even think it looks bad.  It looks and tastes like typical macaroni and cheese you would get as a side at any number of barbecue joints or Southern restaurants.  So maybe not Orlando’s best (for that, check out Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, nearby in the Milk District, and also Se7en Bites again!), but very pleasing nonetheless.

Since this was my first visit to a Krispy Krunchy Chicken location, I got two additional sides while I was there.  These red beans and rice were suitably smoky, salty, and creamy, but you just can’t beat Popeyes red beans and rice.  That’s the quintessential version right there, the one that even chefs (like David Chang) cite as the best.

But my favorite side was the jambalaya, saucy rice with chunks of (andouille?) sausage and ham.  I always like jambalaya, whether it’s from an old restaurant in the French Quarter or a box from Zatarain’s.  This was somewhere in between, quality-wise, but closer to the French Quarter than the box.   I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was.

Would I go back?  Absolutely I would.  As much as I generally like Popeyes for bone-in fried chicken, they can be hit-or-miss with both food quality and service.  And this particular Krispy Krunchy Chicken gas station location is a lot more convenient for me than the always-excellent Theo’s Kitchen.  This was solid fried chicken, but I think the thing I liked the most was the jambalaya.  It was so tasty and hearty and full of meat, I could happily make it the centerpiece of a meal some other day, when I’m in the mood for such a thing again.

Chain Reactions: Salt & Straw

Salt & Straw (https://saltandstraw.com/) is a small chain of artisanal ice cream shops, founded in 2011 by cousins Kim and Tyler Malek in that hipster hub of Portland, Oregon.  Now they have four locations in Oregon (three of which are in Portland) and a handful in other cities known for their strong foodie culture: Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, two in Miami, one at Disneyland in California, and now one right here at Disney Springs in Orlando, which opened just this past Wednesday, four days ago!

Your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner was right there on the scene, accompanied by his wife and three dear friends who came in from Tampa to join us in our decadent breakfast of ice cream.  We were the first people there when the doors opened at 10 AM, since I had read about long lines the past few days.  That’s how we roll, folks.  Get in, get out, beat the crowds, and hopefully limit our COVID-19 exposure.

It is located near the AMC Theater, Starbucks, and the Star Wars and Marvel stores on the west side of Disney Springs.  If you’re making a special trip just to try it, I recommend parking in the Orange Garage, or in the parking lot near the House of Blues and Cirque de Soleil.

Salt & Straw is known for some pretty creative flavors, all made from high-end, often locally sourced ingredients.  The official website doesn’t list the flavors for the brand-new Disney Springs location yet, but the Disney Springs website does.  I also took a picture of the flavors, for your convenience:
We were amused by a lot of people walking by, looking at the sign, and remarking how “weird” a lot of those flavors sounded.  I think the location will do very well, because there are plenty of novelty-seekers who just love trying new things and having new experiences.  I’m certainly one of those, and we may outnumber the people who get stressed out by too many options, or put off by unfamiliar options.

This is not cheap ice cream, folks, but if you’re on Disney property, you must already realize that nothing is cheap.  But I hate a ripoff, and I’m happy to report you get what you pay for here.  Also, the patient Salt & Straw staffers will hand you spoons to sample any flavor, and possibly even every flavor if they aren’t too busy.  Since we were first, Keanna was extremely patient and gracious with us, as we sampled their wares.  I kept promising that we were going to buy a lot of ice cream after all those samples, and we certainly did!

Our one friend got a single scoop “kids” portions for $5.75, and she chose honey lavender, which she seemed to love.  I’m not a huge fan of lavender as a food flavor — it often makes things smell or taste like soap to me.  But I also tried a free sample spoonful of that flavor, and it was nice — smooth and floral, but not soapy.  Sorry I didn’t get a photo.

But the best deal, which I highly recommend, is the ice cream flight, where you can choose up to four flavors — four separate, slightly smaller scoops — in a container with four compartments to keep them from touching.  It costs $14.75, and that’s definitely the way to do it.  My wife and I studied the menu in advance, and after trying our samples, we knew exactly what to get.

This was my flight:

  • Top left: a new flavor called Bottomless Limes!, invented by a 12-year-old kid named Rae.  According to the menu, “[they] ribbon in Key Lime cheesecake with hunks of golden pie crust, crystallized with brown sugar and ginger, and shards of sprinkle-studded chocolate bark.”  I’ve made no secret of my love of key lime pie, citrusy desserts, and cheesecake, so that sounded perfect for me.
  • Top right: strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper, another flavor that sounded tailor-made for me.  I often buy fresh strawberries, chop them up, and then macerate them in the fridge with balsamic vinegar, which brings out their natural sweetness.  This sounds weird, but it is amazing, and even more amazing scooped over vanilla ice cream.  So with this combination from Salt & Straw, it was definitely an example of great minds thinking alike.
  • Bottom left: Roasted pineapple coconut sherbet.  This is a vegan flavor.  I love anything pineappley and coconutty, and those flavors work so well together.

Bottom right: The Salty Donut guava and cheese, inspired by an artisanal doughnut shop that opened a location in Orlando a year or two back, but I haven’t been to it yet.  I’m from Miami, and I grew up eating pastelitos, flaky pastries stuffed with sweetened cream cheese and guava paste, so I couldn’t resist this combination of cream cheese ice cream, glazed brioche donut chunks, guava curd, and puffed pastry streusel.

You can see above that they serve the flights in a flat plastic container with flat lids, which makes it a heck of a lot easier to carry out of the shop, since there is no seating inside.  They are also nice enough to write the flavors on the lid, so you can always remember which one you are trying.Here they are, uncovered.  The Bottomless Limes! flavor (top left) had a lot going on — maybe too much.  But it wasn’t as citrusy or as tart as I would have liked.  The Salty Donut had a slight tartness from the cream cheese ice cream base, but I didn’t detect a single morsel of guava curd in there, and neither did our other friend, who got a scoop in his flight.  Again, I’m glad I tried both of those, but I wouldn’t get either one again.
On the other hand, the strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper (top right) was sweet, tart, and magnificent, and the roasted pineapple coconut sherbet (bottom left) was subtle, but refreshing, and I loved it.  I’d definitely recommend those.

This is my wife’s flight:

  • Top left: Cinnamon snickerdoodle, with actual freshly baked snickerdoodle cookies (or cookie dough?) folded into the cinnamon ice cream.  This was by far her favorite.
  • Top right: The “Ice Cream of Moo,” invented by a 10-year-old named Bridget.  It features “Silky chocolate ice cream dashed with a touch of salt, studded with clusters of candied caramel cashews and hunks of maraschino cherry-laced chocolate ganache.” 
  • Bottom left: Chocolate gooey brownie, with actual fudge brownies folded into chocolate ice cream.
  • Bottom right: Double Fold vanilla, with ground vanilla beans and double-folded vanilla extract.  We were looking forward to a great, simple vanilla ice cream, but we thought this one was rather bland and kind of disappointing, compared to the others’ strong flavors and bold combinations.

Those waffle cone “chips” are pretty amazing, by the way.  Very buttery, with a slight hint of salt, and they stayed crunchy even in the ice cream.  I had bought an extra waffle cone for the two of us to sample (just $2), but that was before I knew they threw in these waffle cone chips with the flights… and then it rolled off my container and fell on the ground, shattering.  Hopefully one of the cute Disney squirrels got to enjoy that cone.

My other friend’s flight included the Triple Tropic Twist flavor, which features “Bright mango-pineapple jelly and citrus mousse swirl through a wildly fruity raspberry sherbet.”  He let me taste that one, and it was really good too.  It had more of that tartness I always enjoy in fruity desserts.  I also really like sherbet and sorbet, sometimes even more than creamy ice cream.

And before we got served, I also sampled the Arbequina olive oil ice cream (extremely subtle and not too sweet or too strong; probably great as a palate cleanser between stronger flavors) and the Panther Coffee chocolate tres leches ice cream, featuring espresso from Miami’s popular hipster coffeehouse.  Tres leches is one of my favorite desserts, but I didn’t really taste any of that in my little sample spoonful.  I just tasted milky coffee ice cream, but really good milky coffee ice cream.

Would I rush back to Salt & Straw?  I don’t think so, but mostly because we are not really “Disney adults,” and the place is such a schlep to get out to.  But I sure love trying new things and writing about them, so I’m very glad I was able to try as many new ice cream flavors as I did, treated people I love to them too, and got to tell this tale afterwards.  If you’re at Disney Springs and are craving something sweet, absolutely check it out.  I don’t think you could possibly regret it, especially if you order a flight, as most of us did this morning.  If you get there early enough to not have to wait in a long line in the blazing heat and oppressive humidity, even better!

Also, I must note this, because I am a fan of professional wrestling and action movies: a co-worker tipped me off that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is now an investor in Salt & Straw, and they have released flavors inspired by his larger-than-life persona as one of the biggest entertainers in the world (figuratively and literally).  None of those were available today, but you might SMELLLLLLLLLL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKING on a later visit to Salt & Straw, Orlando’s newest and most exciting ice cream destination.

Chain Reactions: bb.q Chicken

This past Tuesday was the grand opening of Orlando’s first bb.q Chicken (https://bbdotqchicken.com/), a Korean chain restaurant that was founded in 1995 and expanded into the U.S. in 2014, with franchise locations in 19 states so far and continuing to grow rapidly.  This was the first of many planned locations in Florida, right in our Mills 50 district, one of the best food neighborhoods in Orlando (in the old Tasty Wok location on the corner of East Colonial Drive and Shine Avenue, no less).

The restaurant name is a bit misleading, because bb.q Chicken does not sell barbecued chicken.  No grilling or smoking here!  The name is an acronym for “Best of the Best Quality” chicken, so if you go in expecting barbecued chicken, you’ll be confused or disappointed (although some of the sauces are sticky, tangy, sweet, and/or spicy, as many barbecue sauces and glazes are).  The chain specializes in Korean-style fried chicken wings and “boneless” chicken — think chicken tenders, strips, or fingers.  They are made of white meat from chicken breasts, so I appreciated them not being called “boneless wings,” which always annoys me for its inaccuracy.  Anyway, this is masterful fried chicken, with the perfect texture and so many different flavors to choose from.

The menu is on the website linked above, but I’ve taken the liberty of scanning the menu for this particular Orlando location, with prices that were accurate on the opening day: December 14, 2021:

I arrived a few minutes after it opened, after taking a while to find parking.  I met two other guys from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, a Facebook group that has been my best source of local food news and reviews for many years, where I try to contribute and share all the information I can, along with asking questions of my own from time to time.  One of these guys is my local food guru — a guy who knows even more good places than I do, who never steers me wrong.  They arrived slightly before me, placed their orders, and got their lunches before I got mine, but we all shared our food — a perfect opportunity to try as many new things as possible.

These are someone else’s soy garlic boneless chicken strips — a small order of eight pieces for $12.  We all tried them and thought they were tasty, with a really nice, crispy, crunchy breading.  If you’ve never had Korean fried chicken before, it is truly fried to perfection, with a different kind of breading than Southern-style fried chicken that we automatically think of, like Popeyes or K-Fry-C.  It is both light and airy while also being really crunchy, even holding up well under sticky sauces. 

These were the Golden Original wings (an order of eight for $14), served with no sauce.   Yes, maybe that seems a little high, but chicken wing prices are much higher everywhere this year due to nationwide supply chain issues — this isn’t completely new, and isn’t unique to bb.q Chicken, either.  I didn’t actually try these at the time, because I had plenty of my own food coming, and I was all about sampling the different flavors while I could.  Just like with chips, I’ll rarely settle for plain when I can try all the different versions and varieties.   

One of my fellow diners ordered the rosé ddeok-bokki, a traditional Korean dish of chewy rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy sauce ($12.95).  It was a huge portion, but I think I was more into it than either of them.  I’ve only ever had these kinds of rice cakes once before, mixed in with a Korean brand of instant ramen noodles I ate out of the pot while standing up over my kitchen sink, like a very civilized adult.   
As you can guess, these are completely different from the “rice cakes” you may be thinking of right now — hockey puck-shaped patties of crunchy white Styrofoam that our dieting moms snacked on back in the 1980s.  To this day, it never occurs to me to seek these out, just because when I think of rice cakes, I think of one of the worst snacks ever.  These ddeok-bokki (sometimes called tteokbokkiare very different — extremely chewy, with a texture like a cross between al dente pasta and Starburst candy, if that makes any sense at all.  They usually take on the flavor of their sauce, which is usually a bright red, very spicy sauce.  This rosé version scaled back the heat from the traditional version, but the orange sauce that resembled Italian vodka cream sauce was still moderately spicy.  I was the only person at lunch who is really into spicy food, but I don’t have a lot of experience with the spices used in Korean cuisine.  I was already curious about this dish, and so relieved someone else ordered it so I was able to try it!

The ddeok-bokki also included some tender cabbage and flat things that turned out to be fish cakes — not as chewy as the baby carrot-shaped rice cakes, but still chewy, with a pleasant processed-seafoody taste like surimi (or “krab,” if you prefer).   Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg in there too, as you can see, but the guy who ordered it got the egg.  He deserved that egg.

My friend also got a side order of these fried dumplings ($8.95) for us to share, which came with some kind of soy-based dipping sauce that may have been just plain soy sauce.  I didn’t get to try the sauce, but the dumpling on its own was pretty good.  You can’t ever go too wrong with crispy fried dumplings, unless someone sneaks mushrooms into them, in which case I might as well just throw them directly into the toilet, cutting out the middleman.  But I am relieved to report there were no mushrooms in these! 

These guys were kind enough to share their food while I waited for mine, and I was overjoyed when all of my stuff came out at once.  I picked up a tray from the front of the fast-casual restaurant, starting with a small eight-piece order of the galbi chicken strips ($12).  I know galbi (sometimes kalbi) refers to Korean-style barbecued or grilled short ribs, cut into thin slices across the bone, and marinated in a sweet, sticky, soy-based barbecue sauce.  So this is how these crispy chicken strips were seasoned, tossed in a galbi glaze and topped with green onions and sesame seeds, similar to how short ribs might be served.  Everyone at the table liked these.

I am not good at giving myself credit for accomplishments, but I don’t mind saying that I chose the best stuff of all of us, especially these outstanding Gangnam Style wings (an order of eight for $14.95).  I think these were the unanimous favorite at the table, tossed in “a sweet aromatic black pepper sauce sautéed with green onions, garlic, and peppers,” according to the menu.  They were sweet, savory, and just barely spicy, but they were the absolute best of the four kinds of chicken we shared.  They were definitely the most flavorful chicken we all tried, and also the crunchiest.These wings made me think of “Gangnam Style,” the one U.S. hit by Korean pop performer Psy, for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting footnote in music history that the frenetic dance-pop bop “Gangnam Style” is very likely the first song that most Americans ever heard by a Korean recording artist, a whopping nine years ago, long before K-Pop exploded here and became a major cultural phenomenon.

Oh yeah, RING THE ALARM, because bb.q Chicken also serves onion rings ($6.95), and they were terrific.  Large, firm, golden-brown, beer-battered onion rings — the kind I love — but they also had a light, airy texture and weren’t dripping with grease, no scorched spots, no rings falling apart.  Like I said, they fry everything to perfection here, even in their first hour open for business.  Even sharing my food with two other hungry guys, I had some leftovers to take home, including  a few assorted pieces of chicken and the vast majority of the onion rings!  Hey, I filled up on ddeok-bokki, which is the first time I’ve ever written that, but it may not be the last.

Finally, all of our meals came with plastic cups of pickled daikon radish, chopped into cubes.  I absolutely love most pickled vegetables, including these.  They are sweet and crunchy and cool with the slightest vinegary tang, perfect for cutting the rich, sweet, spicy flavors of Korean fried chicken.  I’ve only ever had pickled radish like this once before, from another Korean wing chain that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as bb.q Chicken.  Those wings from the other place didn’t strike me as anything special, and the pickled radish was my favorite part!  Here at bb.q Chicken, the radish was just one more element that made this a winning lunch and a great new addition to Orlando’s dining scene.   My dining companions weren’t into these at all, so I ended up with almost four full cups of the pickled radishes to take home and enjoy later, along with the leftover wings and rings.  The next evening, I heated everything back up in the toaster oven (no fancy air fryer for me!), and they crisped back to life rather well.  Even my wife, who was skeptical because she despises anything spicy, was really impressed by the flavors (which weren’t spicy at all) and crispy fried coating on both kinds of chicken, even 24 hours in the fridge and a reheating later.

So bb.q Chicken was a big hit with me and the three people I shared my food with, and I think it will be a huge success in Orlando’s Milk District.  Score!  Or should I say: “OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!”

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

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 restaurant, 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

UPDATE: All three Fuddruckers locations in the Orlando, Florida area announced they were closing on February 7, 2022.  See
https://www.facebook.com/FuddruckersEastColonial

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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RING THE ALARM!
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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.