Grocery Grails: A Plethora of Pickles

I spent most of my life not liking pickles, despite being a Jew who loves New York-style Jewish deli food more than just about anything.  So I’ve been on a long quest to find pickles I liked, with most of them ranging from “meh” to “feh.”  My long-time readers will recognize that I’ve brought this up a lot.  I can’t try any pickles without commenting on them and somehow ranking them in my head.

Well, thanks to our local barbecue maven Chuck Cobb of Git-N-Messy BBQ (which I reviewed right here on The Saboscrivner last fall and have been frequenting ever since), I’ve found the best pickles I’ve ever tried, and very possibly the best pickles ever: Grillo’s Dill Pickle Chips.  Don’t worry, in pickle parlance, “chips” refers to round slices, not pickle-flavored potato chips.  See https://www.grillospickles.com/ for more information.  But I have snacked on them like potato chips or tortilla chips; they’re that good!  IMG_0193

The only ingredients are cucumbers, water, distilled white vinegar, salt, garlic, fresh dill, and GRAPE LEAVES.  They are firm, crunchy, and not overly salty, which is always nice.  There’s a slight sweetness to them, something I felt was missing from every bite I’ve ever taken of a dill pickle before, but there’s no sugar listed, so maybe it’s the grape leaves.  They’re fantastic.  I’d put them on just about anything.

At least at Florida’s ubiquitous Publix supermarkets, Grillo’s Pickles are in the refrigerated case above the hot dogs, where they keep the “fancier” pickles and sauerkraut.  These came in a relatively small container that cost $4.99, but they’re worth every penny.  Sometimes they go on sale.  If they do, stock up, pickle peeps!
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And of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I have to research anything I like, so here’s an article about Grillo’s Pickles from FoodDive.

More recently, I was at Target picking up a few things and found Grillo’s Classic Dill Pickle Spears in a 32-ounce plastic container in their refrigerated case.  I was a little more hesitant to get full spears, rather than the sliced chips that fit so well in sandwiches, but it was a very good price: $5.99 for that much larger container.  Well, even though they taste the same as the chips, I didn’t like chomping on the spear as much, compared to the perfect flatness and crunch of the sliced chips.  Plus, the spears were just a little more inconvenient for fitting on a burger.
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Grillo’s makes hot pickles too, so I’ll have to try those eventually.  I never thought I’d be so enthusiastic about pickles, but if I could like Grillo’s that much, then normal people who have always liked pickles should really taste the difference as well.  The brine is so good, I always keep it and make pickled eggs in the Grillo’s brine.

I am also a huge fan of shopping at Aldi, the discount supermarket chain that offers amazing deals on everything, including some serious gourmet shit.  I buy the majority of our groceries at Aldi now — they can’t be beaten for quality and value on staples like fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs, and salami.  I check their weekly ads online every Wednesday to see their special buys for each week — interesting foods and other products that are only there for a week, or until they run out.  Aldi sells a lot of “private labels” that are usually national or international products from familiar brands, just relabeled as store brands that are exclusive to Aldi.

In recent months, I’ve discovered and tried three delicious kinds of sliced pickles from Aldi — two private labels and one national brand.  These were all weekly “Aldi finds” that I picked up at various times.  They probably won’t be available there now, but watch those weekly ads, and be on the lookout for their return.

The two private labels are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles, which were new to me, and the Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles, which were my favorites until I discovered Grillo’s.  I still like them a lot, though.  Like the Grillo’s brand, the Park Street Deli pickles are sold refrigerated, and they have other varieties, including regular spears and “atomic spicy.”  Suckerpunch Gourmet Pickles is a national brand, and I wanted to try their Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles too, since I was reminded of a friend and colleague’s ska-punk band I like a lot.

I recently tested out all three of these pickles on Krystal sliders, one of my favorite snacks that I’ve reviewed before.  I ordered a dozen Krystals with cheese, the standard yellow mustard, and extra onions, but I asked them to hold their usual mediocre pickles.

Here are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles on four Krystal sliders, so I could gauge their full effect.  I think the strong flavors overpowered the sliders.  They have that nice crispness, but they’re a little too sweet and not as spicy as I was hoping. 

The Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better [sp] pickles were also sweeter than they were spicy.  They would be a perfect pickle on a larger, more substantial burger to cut the juicy richness and saltiness, but again, Krystal sliders are delicious but puny, and these pickles were overpowering.  

I’ve been buying Aldi’s Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles the longest, so I already knew I liked them a lot, especially on homemade burgers.  Of these three kinds of pickles, they were the best on the Krystal sliders, but the slices are thicker than I would like.  They are nice and crunchy, not quite as horseradishy as I would like, but not as sweet as the two aforementioned pickles.  These were the best of the three, but would have been even better if the slices were thinner.

Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos, you can see Krystal has pretty decent breaded onion rings now.  RING THE ALARM, WHAT WHAT!

But I felt like the two newer, sweeter pickles still deserved another chance, so I made my own really delicious cheeseburgers to try them.  I don’t like the flattened “smash burger” style, so my burgers are thicc, juicy, and medium rare.  I served these with American cheese (the best cheese for a burger), Cuban mustard, and a little ketchup.  Check out these perfect golden buns, spread with garlic aioli and lightly browned in the pan:

Now with the Great Gherkins and Suckerpunch pickles:

Both of these pickles went so much better with the juicier, higher-quality burgers, with their sweetness working well to offset the saltiness of the meat and tanginess of the mustard and ketchup.  Their crunch held up well, especially with the light, toasty crispiness of the pan-grilled buns.  I give the edge to the Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles here, but they were both good pickles that led to even better burgers.

Now I’m thinking about all the foods that pickles could go well with, and I am psyched to experiment more.  I’ve already chopped pickles up in chicken and egg salads and made my own relish the last time I cooked hot dogs.  (I buy the Boar’s Head all-beef hot dogs with the snappy natural casing, and they are awesome.)  Salty, sour Saboscrivnerinos, which pickles do you like, and how do you eat them?  Inquiring minds want to know!

But so far, the only pickles I’ve just gone to the fridge and sought out as a solo snack are the Grillo’s, which are above and beyond all the rest.  In this pickle pantheon, they sit on the throne of gods.

Thai Halal Grill

Thai Halal Grill (http://thaihalalgrill.com/) is a new fast-casual restaurant located inside the Apna Bazaar, a Halal Indian grocery store in Longwood, north of Orlando.  The restaurant just opened recently — I believe in October 2020.  When you walk into Apna Bazaar, you can’t miss their round sign lit up on the right of the market. 

The menu appears on a large TV monitor above the counter where you order, but they also have the menu on their website and full-color paper menus to take.  I was not planning to order food when I got to Apna Bazaar — instead I was looking for ground lamb for a pastitsio recipe.  But a friend and co-worker with good taste and opinions I respect raved about Thai Halal Grill after discovering it recently, so I placed an order and shopped around the grocery store while my food was being prepared, picking out some snacks and sweet basil seed drinks.  It only took about ten minutes.

I saw they had spicy halal meatballs in chili sauce with fried rice, and I almost order that when I saw the meatballs could also come with stir-fried noodles.  Sold!  That dish was a very reasonable $10.95 for a huge portion.  In fact, everything on the menu is $10.95 except for the stir-fried beef and pepper with white rice, which is $11.95.   I might try that next time, or the Thai fried rice, ore even one of the curries.  The lady working the counter was so sweet, warm, and welcoming.  She gave me a tangerine to take with me, for dessert. 

Here’s a close-up photo.  I loved this dish.  The meatballs were extremely flavorful, with the nice spongy texture you hope for from a meatball.  It contained red and green bell peppers, onions, and peas, but luckily no carrots.  I can take or leave carrots in dishes like this, as they never seem to add much in the way of flavor.  The noodles were soft and delicious.  I could have easily gotten two servings from this portion, but I chose not to.

I will totally go back to Thai Halal Grill and try something different next time, plus it was fun browsing around Apna Bazaar.  But I didn’t want to wait any longer on this review, since I got a little distracted by all the big news last weekend and never published anything this past week.  This is a tiny local restaurant that could use your business.  Please stop by and give them a chance, and I guarantee you’ll be tempted to buy some stuff from the market too.  Longwood isn’t known as one of Orlando’s super-hip foodie areas, but I’ve also reviewed Oh My Gyro and Pickles Delicatessen in the area, and there are more delicious destinations in Longwood I have plans to revisit and review soon.

Grocery Grails: Sprouts Potato Co. Kettle Style Chips – Limited Edition flavors

Anyone who knows me know how much I love grocery shopping, as well as how much I love trying new flavors of potato chips and tortilla chips.  Sure, most of the time they’re disappointing and weird, but it’s always worth trying them because you never know if you’ll get another chance.  Kind of like new life experiences in general, I guess.

I’m a big fan of the supermarket Sprouts (http://www.sprouts.com), which has two Orlando-area locations, in Winter Park and Oviedo.  It’s an “upscale” grocer in the sense that Whole Foods and Fresh Market are — lots of high-end products, and unfortunately high-end prices to match.  But if you check the weekly ads, Sprouts runs excellent deals and sales every week, especially on produce.  They also have a lot of neat store-brand products and things you can’t find elsewhere, and I love their Dietz & Watson deli meats and cheeses, which are much better than the Boar’s Head products carried at Publix.

As far as chips go, Sprouts carries their own potato chips in multiple flavors — all the classics you might expect, plus some curveballs like Hatch green chile.  They have regular potato chips that are thinner like Lay’s (the industry standards, as far as I’m concerned), and thicker, crunchier kettle chips.  On my first trip to Sprouts since the pandemic started, back on July 1st, I found two new “Limited Edition” kettle chip flavors, for $2.50 each.  Both had summer cookout themes, and I couldn’t say no to them:

  • Burger Toppings: Ketchup, Mustard, and Pickle
  • Aloha BBQ: Pineapple and Sweet Onion

I would soon learn that one was just okay and one was really good, but they were not the ones I expected!sprouts1

Here are the nutrition info (ha!) and ingredients for the Burger Toppings chips:
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These were outstanding potato chips, with intense, strong, clear, obvious flavors.  They tasted like ketchup, mustard, and pickle, as promised.  Unlike some lesser potato chip brands, Sprouts didn’t skimp on the flavor powder.  They had a nice crunchy consistency without being rock-hard gum-shredders like so many other kettle chips.  I almost ate them all before remembering to take a picture:sprouts3

I guess I must really like tomato seasoning on my chips.  One of my all-time favorite flavors was Lay’s Garden Tomato and Basil, which was unfortunately discontinued a few years ago.  I also really like that Canadian favorite, ketchup-flavored potato chips.  Herr’s (a Pennsylvania-based company that goes hard on interesting chip flavors and doesn’t skimp on the seasoning powder) makes ketchup chips that I sometimes find at Wawa convenience stores and enjoy about once a year.  I’m adding these to the pantheon of really good tomatoey chips.

Here are the nutrition info (like I said, HA!) and ingredients for the Aloha BBQ chips:
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I was looking forward to these, because I like barbecue-flavored chips a lot (that sweet-tangy-salty-smoky-sometimes-spicy combo always works for me), and I love onions and onion-flavored things, as well as pineapple and pineapple-flavored things.  But these didn’t taste that different from most other barbecue chips.  They were better than some (once again, they were generous with the seasoning), but they weren’t terribly oniony, and the pineapple was more of a mental suggestion than an actual flavor coming through.sprouts5

I returned to Sprouts last night, since I found an old raincheck they gave me when Rao’s pasta sauce had been on sale for $5 but they were out of it.  Anyway, I noticed both of these flavors of chips were now marked down to 99 cents each, so I figured now was as good a time as any to publish this Grocery Grails review so my dozens of Saboscrivner readers could be on the lookout.  I’m sure these flavors were launched with Independence Day cookouts in mind, but maybe they were a bust this summer, when the need for social distancing outweighed the desire to cook out with family and friends.  And frankly, it’s just too hot to spend much time at all outside, even without the looming airborne dangers of COVID-19.  But you know what can sometimes soothe that sense of disappointment and dread?  New chip flavors being clearanced for 99 cents!  Sprouts is offering a bargain which could only be described as “all that and a bag of chips.”

Grocery Grails: Whole Foods 365 sandwich-flavored potato chips

I’ve been meaning to review more of the random grocery purchases I’ve tried, when I discover something worth recommending.  Sometimes little treats and new discoveries are enough to get us through the day.  But that should be a special Saboscrivner feature that deserves a special name, so I went with Grocery Grails because I love alliteration and assonance as much as Silver Age Stan Lee.

As one of the biggest lovers of sandwiches and new chip flavors, I recently made my first post-quarantine trip to Whole Foods to track down these new sandwich-flavored potato chips from their 365 house brand.  I rarely shop at Whole Foods (more like “Whole Paycheck,” am I right?), but these were on sale for a very reasonable $2.39 each, and let’s face it, I probably would have paid more for them and been happy to do it.DSC03184

Cuban Press ingredients:DSC03185

Italian Hoagie ingredients:DSC03187

Pastrami on Rye ingredients.  Vegetarians, take note of the beef stock in these chips:DSC03188

Here are the chips.  All three flavors look exactly the same, so there was no purpose to posting three nearly-identical pictures:
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They are thinner potato chips like Lay’s, not super-thick, crunchy kettle chips.  I actually prefer this consistency.  They are easier on my gums, too.

Unfortunately, none of them tasted much like the sandwiches that inspired them.  I definitely picked up the flavors of pickles, mustard, and a smoky flavor reminiscent of ham in the Cuban Press chips (and seriously, has anyone ever called a Cuban sandwich or Cubano a “Cuban Press”?).  The Pastrami on Rye chips reminded me of smoke, pepper, and the vinegary tang of sauerkraut, but unfortunately the Italian Hoagie chips were the least like their inspiration, with a subtle taste of Italian herbs, maybe a bit of tomato and vinegar.  They were all exceedingly salty, even by potato chip standards, to the point where I was thinking “Enough, already!”

So if you’re anything like me and you love to try new and novel chip flavors, I highly recommend them for that purpose.  But go in with tempered expectations and don’t expect them to rock your tastebuds or change your life for the better.  My best advice is to seek out the actual sandwiches and pair them with some of your favorite chips, no matter what they are.  (What are your favorites, anyway?  The Saboscrivner is always interested in what other people are eating.)  But for sandwiches in the Orlando area, I recommend Italian hoagies from LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (specifically the LaSpada’s Famous), Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market (the Stasio), and Manzano’s Deli (the Rocco).  You can get a great pastrami on rye from Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood, and the biggest and best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had in Orlando is from one of my recent discoveries, College Park Cafe.

Taglish

Taglish (https://www.taglishfl.com/) just soft-opened a few weeks ago, and it quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  “Taglish” is clever shorthand for Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines, and English, and the name fits perfectly, because Chef Michael Collantes envisioned it as a Filipino-American fusion restaurant.DSC02696

Located in the small-but-bustling food court of one of my new favorite foodie destinations in Orlando, Lotte Plaza Market on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway in West Orlando, Taglish has filled a void that many of us didn’t even realize was there — an introduction (for many foodies) to the delicious flavors and textures of Filipino food.  Filipino restaurants are still rare in most parts of the country, especially here.  But since Taglish announced its soft opening, I’ve been twice so far, a week apart, and I fantasized about returning that whole week in between.  On my first visit, knowing Taglish opened at 11 AM and wanting to beat the rush, I arrived around 11:15 and barely had to wait in line at all.

The first thing  you might notice upon lining up are the four drinks served in “bubblers”: ube horchata, strawberry hibiscus, cucumber pear, and mango calamansi lemonade.  (The lady in front of me in line moved a bag at the exact wrong moment to cover that last sign, but trust me.)  Drinks are $2.70, except for the ube horchata, which is $3.95.  But you can always make any meal into a combo for $4, which includes a drink (plus a nominal upcharge if you want the ube horchata, which you probably will).DSC02694

On my first visit, I chose the ube horchata.  Ube is a purple yam that is popular in Filipino desserts, and horchata is one of my favorite drinks to order with Mexican food: a rice milk often flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting the heat of spicy dishes.  It was thick and rich and sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet.  Having no experience tasting ube before, it reminded me of the vanilla-scented taro milk tea my wife always orders at Vietnamese restaurants and Asian tea shops, right down to the similar shade of lavender.  dsc02680.jpg

Although the dish I ordered wasn’t spicy at all, it was one of the tastiest, most satisfying meals I’ve eaten anywhere, in a long, long time.  I asked Barbara, the extraordinarily friendly and welcoming cashier, what she recommended, because everything sounded interesting, and she recommended I try the sisig ($9.50) — a dish of crispy pork pan-seared in garlic, tomato, onion, and jalapeno, served over rice (I opted for garlic rice instead of the regular white rice), topped with a poached egg and a drizzle of garlic mayo.  I made it into a combo for an additional $4, to include the above drink and two lumpia, crispy pork-stuffed spring rolls served with sweet chili sauce for dipping (just out of frame).DSC02681

Constant readers, I can’t sing the praises of this sisig dish nearly enough, or in enough detail to honor the fictional definition of the term Saboscrivner.  It exceeded my every expectation in the best possible way.  I splashed on a bit of spicy vinegar from a glass bottle in a small condiment area next to the cash register, and that spicy sourness just brought out all the strong, rich flavors even more.  The perfectly poached egg ran richly over everything, and the bits of tomato, onion, jalapeno, and garlic added the slightest spice.  I would eat this dish every week if I could.  I felt like I was floating afterwards, and I surely bored my wife and a few acquaintances raving about it for days after the fact.  I even e-mailed Chef Collantes to gush about how much I enjoyed it, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to write me back.

By the way, you give them your phone number when you place your order, and they text you to come pick up your food on a tray when it’s ready.  This could get precarious later in the day when every seat in the food court is taken, so I encourage you to arrive with friends, or make some once you get there!

Well, after that auspicious first visit, I returned a week later, on another Saturday.  Unfortunately I got to Lotte Plaza Market around 1:30 PM that second visit, so there was already a long line at Taglish — great for them, and only the most minor of annoyances for me.  But good word has been spreading, and I only hope to spread it further.

Barbara even remembered me from the previous week, and I remembered her second-place recommendation from when she suggested the sisig.  As much as I loved it, I had to try something new, for the sake of the Saboscrivner’s subscribers.  So I ordered the chicken adobo burrito ($8.95) — a thick burrito stuffed to the bursting point with classic Filipino dish chicken adobo (also served as a bowl over rice), garlic rice, fried potatoes, and stewed mung beans, wrapped in a large flour tortilla and almost defying the laws of physics.  It was outstanding!  So many flavors, textures, and even colors to appreciate and explore.
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This was a perfect example of a fusion dish, and I loved it.  My only regret is very minor — I might have been able to analyze each component better and savor the ingredients if I had ordered this as a bowl over rice, instead of wrapped in the lightly grilled tortilla.  For example, I’ve never had monggo (stewed mung beans) before, and I still can’t really describe it, since it melded together with everything else in the burrito.  But it was all fantastic!DSC02701

But as long as I was there, I had to try something else that has always caught my eye on the menu: the longaniza burger.  Longaniza is a Filipino pork sausage that is a little bit sweet, often eaten as a breakfast meat (if I’m not mistaken).  Here, the homemade longaniza sausage was crafted into a burger patty and served on a soft, buttered, grilled bun (possibly a King’s Hawaiian roll), topped with a slice of grilled pineapple, garlic mayo, and a salad of sweet, tangy, vinegary, pickled, shredded papaya called atchara, which I loved.  DSC02702Note the two included lumpia and the serving of crispy seasoned potatoes, which stayed warm and crispy throughout my meal.  I got another small cup of sweet chili sauce, but next time I will request banana ketchup for the fried potatoes, just because I love dipping sauces and condiments — especially new and unfamiliar ones.

Close-up on the slaw-like atchara, which I would love to buy a jar of and put on everything.  I really like vinegar, and I am drawn to Filipino cuisine because vinegar is such a common and important ingredient.  Also dig that wonderful grilled, buttered bun.  I wish everyone who served burgers, dogs, and sandwiches would take a lesson from this.DSC02698

A cross-section.  The slight crispiness of the atchara really balanced out the softer ingredients (the bun, grilled sausage patty, and pineapple slice).  DSC02703

On this second visit, I paid $4 for the combo again (dig the lumpia above), and tried the refreshingly tart mango calamansi lemonade.  Calamansi, also known as the Philippine lime, is a small citrus fruit used in a lot of Filipino recipes.  I had never tasted it before, but my research tells me it’s a hybrid of the kumquat and mandarin orange.  Plus, I already love mangoes in anything, and I’ll always drink lemonade when it’s an option.
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This time, I was lucky enough to meet the amiable Chef Collantes, shake his hand, and tell him in person how wonderful his food is, and how friendly, patient, and helpful his staff is.  He is the former Culinary Director of Bento, a small, local chain of pan-Asian restaurants I have been a big fan of since the first one opened in Gainesville in 2003, the last year I lived there.  I’ve eaten countless custom poke bowls, sushi rolls, bento boxes, and udon noodles at Bento’s numerous Orlando locations — even on my wedding day, ten years ago — but this reminded me to make it back there soon to write a Saboscrivner review.  The fact that Chef Collantes might have created some of my favorite dishes at Bento before opening Taglish (and subsequently blowing my mind with that sisig) makes all the sense in the world.

I wish him and his staff the best of all things, but they already have a huge hit on their hands.  For many, Filipino food will be unfamiliar and novel, but even though people will come in to try something new and different, I’m convinced they will get hooked and become regulars, like I hope to be.

Swine & Sons

So, has anyone heard about any good chicken sandwiches lately?

Let me rewind for a bit.  This week the Internet went insane over chicken sandwiches, something I rarely order anywhere.  When there’s a burger available, I never give the chicken sandwich a second look.  At fast food places, even if I’m not in the mood for a burger, I’m more likely to order the fish sandwich than the chicken sandwich!  Even when I go to a fried chicken joint, I’ll usually get a couple of crispy fried thighs, rather than a sandwich.  Too often, the classic fried chicken sandwich contains a dry chicken breast, or worse yet, a dry tender or two.  I’ve been burned by dry, bland white meat too often, and don’t get me started ranting about dry, bland, boring-ass Thanksgiving turkeys.  I always prefer dark meat, and thighs usually hide my favorite morsels of meat on the entire chicken: the oysters, tucked away under a bone, two little perfect bites per bird.

But people are losing their damn minds over this chicken sandwich, which gave me a serious case of the FOMO.*  I had to venture forth to see what the hype was about, and so I could blog about it and get some external validation before everyone moves onto the next foodie fad.  Wait, did I just write that?

Well, to none of my regular readers’ surprise, I ordered two different chicken sandwiches: spicy and extra-spicy.  And I’m happy to report they were the best damn chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had!  But they didn’t come from that chain.  Nope.  And not that chain either.  They came from a beloved local restaurant that just happens to be located in a butcher shop.  Not that one; the other one!

Swine & Sons (https://swineandsons.com/) started out as the third restaurant in James and Julie Petrakis’ locally-grown empire, following their flagship Winter Park gastropub The Ravenous Pig and their upscale Southern restaurant Cask & Larder.  With Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak in charge, Swine & Sons opened in a small space next door to the old Cask & Larder location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, and I made sure my wife and I were there on the very first day they opened for business.  We were some of their first customers through the door on Day One, and they had a good thing going from the onset.  It was always meant as a more casual restaurant compared to the others, a quick-service place with sandwiches, house-cured charcuterie, and lots of prepared takeout options.  And despite having limited seating and parking, it became a hit, like the Petrakis’ other establishments.

But the only constant is change.  In recent years, Cask & Larder moved to the Southwest Airlines terminal at Orlando International Airport, and The Ravenous Pig moved into the space Cask & Larder vacated on Fairbanks, which is much nicer and larger than the old Ravenous Pig location, with more parking.  The Gawlaks bought Swine & Sons from the Petrakises, and in March 2019, they moved across the street, into The Local Butcher & Market, an upscale full-service butcher shop.  (Da Kine Poke, one of Orlando’s best poke places, also has a counter location inside The Local Butcher.)  There are still tables to enjoy the Gawlaks’ delicious food in there, don’t worry.  And luckily, there are a lot more parking spaces!  Just keep in mind that it closes at 4:00 PM every day, so you’d have to be a real early bird to have dinner there.

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Anyway, Swine & Sons is one of the only Orlando restaurants I know of that serves Nashville-style hot chicken, which I was first introduced to at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year.  After the chicken is marinated (often in seasoned buttermilk), breaded or battered, and fried, it is covered in a spice paste that’s heavy on the cayenne pepper, so every surface is spicy.  It was amazing, and very different from the popular new fast food spicy chicken sandwich where any heat comes from a spicy mayo-based sauce. At Hattie B’s, I ordered a medium thigh and a hot thigh. They were crispy and crunchy and set my mouth ablaze, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
(To avoid any confusion, this photo is from Hattie B’s in Nashville, just in case the cup and the above paragraph didn’t give it away.  That’s medium on the left and hot on the right, and the hot was HOT.)
hattieb's

I tried the Nashville hot chicken at Cooper’s Hawk when I reviewed it earlier this year, and even though I liked that restaurant quite a bit, the hot chicken wasn’t that hot or that crunchy.  So my quest continued, and I’m so glad that the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 led me to Swine & Sons in search of a truly singular spicy chicken sandwich experience.

In fact, maybe with all the chicken sandwich hype and debating, Swine & Sons recently debuted a hotter hot chicken sandwich.  Their current menu showed the classic version, referred to as the “Party,” and the newer, hotter model called the “Rager.”  The very patient woman working the counter told me they use the same spice blend, but the Rager contains three times the cayenne pepper.  They use Bell & Evans all-natural chicken breasts, and she explained that they first brine them, then they smoke them, and then they fry them.  I was already on board even before she mentioned smoking, but that would have pushed me over the edge.  I love any smoked foods — meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, you name it.  I was ready for a life-changing flavor sensation, so of course I ordered one of each ($11 per sandwich), intending to eat half the Party and half the Rager there and save the other halves for later.

Party:
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Rager:
DSC02508

Both of the sandwiches were served on identical white sandwich rolls, with plenty of sliced pickles and little dipping cups of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based sauce I have come to really like with my chicken.  I’m usually not a pickle person, but I’ve been trying to develop more of an appreciation for pickles, and these were great.  Definitely some of the best pickles I’ve ever tried.  Surely they were house-made.  The chicken breasts with their crunchy breading and oily, spice-laden exterior coating were balanced perfectly with the soft roll and the crispy pickles (not overly sour or “dilly”).  I left the cool, creamy white sauce on the side for dipping random bites, lest it overpower the other flavors or cut the heat too much.  I would have preferred a soft, rich buttery brioche bun for these sandwiches, which would have both contrasted and cut the heat more than the plain white roll, but it still worked very well.

These chicken sandwiches were CRON-CHY!  Each bite had a satisfying crunch that is missing from too much fried chicken.  Under the breading, they were also juicy and moist.  Even beloved fried chicken establishments have let me down too often — even places I’ve given good reviews to in the past.  But these were everything you wish fried chicken sandwiches could be in terms of texture and consistency.

Party:
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And what of the heat, you ask?  The Party had a pleasant heat that would certainly be too much for my in-laws, my parents, and my wife, but anyone who enjoys spicy food will be fine with it.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Rager, but I’ve been pushing my limits with spicy food lately, maybe trying to feel more alive in this scary and unknowable world.  My eyes were watering, and I had to blow my nose more than once, but my body reacts like that whenever I eat anything spicy, so those weren’t new and unfamiliar reactions to this heat.  Despite all that, I was expecting it to be hotter, to maybe push into a place of unpleasant heat, but it was fine.  It was better than fine; it was awesome.  And through the heat, you could taste the smoky flavor.  They didn’t clash or overpower each other — smoke and fire burning together in crackling harmony.

Rager (see it through my tears!)
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I definitely like the oil-based spice rub on Nashville-style hot chicken compared to most other kinds of spicy chicken.  Don’t get me started on typical sports bar buffalo wings, which never do anything for me.  It might be the funkiness of the vinegar-based hot sauce, but those wings are often too crunchy, whether they are breaded or not, and they’re simultaneously dry and greasy.  And even though I couldn’t begin to identify the spices in the Swine & Sons chicken sandwiches (aside from the obvious cayenne pepper), at least they don’t have to increase the heat to ludicrous levels for macho bragging rights, with ridiculous names like “Atomic Hellfire,” “Habanero Apocalypse,” and “Ass-Blaster 5000.”

There was a slight sweetness emerging from the heat in both of these sandwiches, making me wonder if there was some sugar in the spice blend.  I loved it.  They were exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had been craving and chasing since hitting Hattie B’s in April 2018.  The smoky flavor made it through, so there were a lot of unique tastes and textures going on at once.  I have to say I preferred both of these chicken sandwiches to the two thighs I had back in Nashville.  Were they the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had?  In a week where people are getting passionate about chicken sandwiches, I’m going to do the same and say YES, yes they were.  As I write this review, far too late on a work night, I am so excited that I still have the other halves in my fridge, waiting for me… maybe even taunting me.

While I was there, I also ordered Swine & Sons’ macaroni and cheese, which I hadn’t had in several years.  It was $4 for a decent-sized side order, and it was very rich.  The cheeses (cheddar and fontina) were melty and the pasta was al dente, so I was more than content.  There was also a nice crumb topping made from cheddar-chive biscuit crumbs.  A lot of places bake their mac and cheese so the whole thing comes out dry, sacrificing that nice meltiness for overly-crispy edges and noodles you can barely chew anymore, but that was definitely not the case here.  DSC02509

I’ve ordered other sandwiches at Swine & Sons on my handful of previous visits over the years, including a good Southern-inspired take on the classic Cuban sandwich.  I think I even had a house-made hot dog there once, although it has been so long, I don’t even remember how they served it.  But today, in my first visit to their new location inside The Local Butcher & Market, Swine & Sons showed me the great heights a fried chicken sandwich could reach in the right hands, from the right kitchen.  It was hot, but all that heat was pure flavor, not just burning, tingling pain and regret.  It was crunchy, but not so hard that I felt like I was going to break a tooth.  It wasn’t dry, and it sure wasn’t bland.  It was a chicken sandwich all others should aspire to be.

I don’t know if they could serve a non-spicy version of the sandwich for the some who don’t like it hot, but right now I’m convinced Swine & Sons can do anything.  And while it is more expensive than the fast food chicken sandwiches making headlines and stirring up strong feelings, you get what you pay for.  I think these were dramatically, exponentially better than any chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had, and I hope my readers will feel the heat sooner rather than later.  The Gawlaks are like culinary royalty in Winter Park and Orlando, and this place isn’t exactly a secret.  But despite all that, you shouldn’t have to worry about long lines and sandwiches selling out, as transcendent as they are.

*Fear Of Missing Out.

I’m so ashamed.

Tortilleria El Progreso

Orlando is full of hidden treasures, and my latest discovery is Tortilleria El Progreso (https://www.tortilleriaelprogreso.com/), nestled in a nondescript strip shopping center in the shadow of a Home Depot, along a busy, industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive, west of the 417 and east of Semoran Boulevard.  It is a bustling Mexican restaurant and a full Mexican grocery store with a butcher shop, a bakery, an ice cream counter, and more.  This is real Mexican food, authentic and pure — the kind of place that makes its own tortillas, chips, and everything else from scratch.  The menu is huge, the service is friendly, the prices are cheap, the portions are large, and the colorful, welcoming dining room with hand-painted chairs makes you feel transported away from Orlando, to a vacation destination south of the border.

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I went for lunch with a professional colleague who trusts my restaurant-choosing judgment and was kind enough to treat.  We started out with complimentary chips and salsa, and we could tell the chips were fresh, made from actual tortillas not long before our arrival:

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Whenever I see tortas on a menu, I go for it.  If there’s one thing I love more than a good taco, it’s a good sandwich, and tortas are the best of both worlds: Mexican ingredients on a soft bolillo or telera roll, with meat, a schmear of refried beans, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, sometimes peppers, and a dab of mayo or sour cream.  I got a barbacoa torta, with tender, oven-braised beef.  It even came with unexpected fries, but the fries weren’t anything special, and I didn’t dare fill up on them.  20180927_124658_resized

But I couldn’t visit a new Mexican restaurant and not sample two of my favorite meats, so I got a chorizo (spicy crumbled sausage) taco on a flour tortilla and an al pastor (marinated pork) taco on a corn tortilla, so I could try both kinds of tortillas too.  All the tacos came simply garnished with diced raw onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges on the side.  I am pleased to say everything was delicious.  20180927_124836_resized

My colleague ordered three tacos: shredded chicken and sauteed beef, hold the onions.20180927_124704_resized

We were also offered a choice of red or green salsas for the table, so of course I asked for both.  The green tomatillo salsa was medium-spicy, and the red had quite a bit of heat.  These were homemade as well:
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We also decided to try a side order of the Mexican rice, which was soft, fluffy, even a little buttery.  I have a rice cooker at home because my rice never comes out right from a pot, but I still never get it as perfect as all the restaurant rice I enjoy.  I stirred a little of the salsas into the rice, to make a good thing even better.20180927_131138_resized

I was overjoyed to see aguas frescas on the menu, which is one of my tests for how authentic and good a Mexican restaurant is going to be.  These refreshing drinks are sweet, but not as sweet as high fructose corn syrup-laden sodas, they aren’t carbonated, and they’re ideal for cutting the heat of spicy Mexican food.  I ordered a piña agua fresca because I will always try anything pineappley, and I recommended another one of my favorites to my colleague: horchata, which is a sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.  I didn’t snap photos of those, but they were both terrific.

I can’t wait to return to Tortilleria El Progreso and try some more menu items, including some of those other aguas frescas, and some of the paletas (popsicles) and helados (ice creams) in the big case at the front of the restaurant.  It looked like the market side had bolillo rolls in the bakery section for tortas, fresh tortillas, sodas, snacks, and other groceries worth exploring.  I love grocery shopping at new places almost as much as I love trying new restaurants, so I will definitely be back to this newly-discovered hidden treasure that plenty of other people surely already knew about.

Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market: Opening Day review!

Well, after tracking its progress for what seems like a year, Orlando’s first Italian deli and market, Stasio’s, finally opened for business today, as a soft opening.  (https://www.facebook.com/Stasios-Italian-deli-194418224503776/)  I love Italian delis and markets — Mazzaro’s Market in St. Petersburg is one of my favorite destinations in all of Florida (and I don’t just mean restaurants), and DeLaurenti inside Pike Place Market in Seattle and Eataly in Chicago are two of the coolest places I’ve ever been.  Needless to say, I had to make a pilgrimage to Stasio’s on its opening day, and I’m so glad I did, because they are filling a void in Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  The family that owns Stasio’s also founded the venerable and much-missed Louie and Maria’s Italian restaurant, as well as the Pizzeria Valdiano location in Waterford Lakes, so they aren’t new to Orlando or to delicious Italian food.

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My co-worker and I arrived around 1 PM, and I was glad to see the place busy and bustling.  We immediately got in line to order sandwiches at the deli counter, where we were presented with a laminated menu.  For me, choosing the Stasio sandwich was an easy choice: prosciutto, hot capicola, mild soppressata, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, red onion, and white balsamic vinaigrette on a sub roll, for $11.  That’s my idea of a good time!  My vegetarian co-worker ordered the Melenzani sandwich, with eggplant, spinach, roasted red peppers, marinated tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and balsamic reduction, which only came as a panini, for $11.  (Editor’s note: she e-mailed and said it came on a sub roll after all, despite the menu saying it would be a panini.)

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They were slammed on their first day, so it gave us time to browse around.  At the deli, I ordered some sliced Italian beef brisket and porchetta, both made in-house, while my co-worker picked up some beautiful fresh sfogliatelle (flaky, shell-shaped pastries) from their bakery counter.  They had plenty of other meats and cheeses, huge square slices of pizza ($4.95 for a gigantic slice), deli salads and vegetables, including broccoli rabe, multicolored roasted peppers, stuffed cherry peppers, and sundried tomatoes glistening in oil, marinated imported anchovies that looked like actual silvery fish and not the salty brown fillets that everyone except me dreads on their pizza, and prepared Italian meatballs and sausage.  Shelf-stable groceries included all kinds of fancy pasta you will NOT find at Publix, and plenty of cans, jars, and bottles of delicious Italian delicacies.

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Stasio’s does not have tables, but the store is lined with a long counter for people to enjoy their food while sitting on stools.  We brought ours back to work, though.  They also have an espresso counter near the cash registers at the front, and it looks like you can also order wine by the glass there, but I could be wrong.  (Don’t drink, wasn’t paying that close attention.)

Upon returning to work, I couldn’t be more pleased to say how great the sub was.  The melange of meats worked together in perfect harmony with the fresh “mutsadell” (I promise I’ll never do that again), and roasted red peppers are a welcome addition to almost any sandwich.  I’m sure someone is wondering how the sub roll was, and I’m happy to report it was the perfect amount of chewy with an exterior that wasn’t too crusty — just how I like them.  The rolls were also baked in-house, of course.  I would have liked more toppings on the sub — lettuce, tomato, maybe some of the long hot peppers they advertised on other sandwiches — but ordering was a bit of sensory overload today, and I didn’t even ask.  Next time!

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I also impulse-bought a Manhattan Special espresso soda in a glass bottle, because even though I’m not much of a coffee drinker, I sure love trying new and interesting soda flavors.  It was good, although I think a cappuccino/latte version with some creaminess would have been much better.  All they had were regular and diet version of the espresso soda, though.

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Well, I am very happy Stasio’s is finally open, and so close to my work!  I’ll definitely add it to my regular restaurant rotation, and I suggest my dozens of loyal readers (bakers’ dozens?) give it a try at your earliest convenience.  I wish them the best and welcome them to the neighborhood!

ADDENDUM: My co-worker gave me one of her shell-shaped sfogliatelle pastries, and it was delicious.  The crispy outer dough is very flaky and fragile, able to be peeled apart in thin, spiral-like layers.  The inside is kind of like a thick, lightly-sweetened cheese (not creamy or runny at all, more like the filling of a cheese danish but not nearly as sweet), speckled with tiny, chewy bits of candied lemon for a subtle fresh citrus taste and scent.

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Just in time for July 4th, let’s talk about favorite groceries.

Here’s some food for thought (heh) for Independence Day, when some of us may be off work and possibly cooking with our families and friends.  Have fun, stay hydrated, and definitely stay safe, whether you’re grilling over an open flame or blowing stuff up.

I write a lot about restaurants, but I don’t eat out all the time, I assure you.  I do love grocery shopping, though.  I go to multiple supermarkets to find the best deals and best things to eat.  It’s the only kind of shopping I enjoy.

But I gots to know: What groceries do YOU strongly recommend? What do you buy that you love, that’s better than anything else? What have you discovered recently that you don’t know how you lived without? And where do you find it?

Some examples:

Hot dogs: I grew up in a Hebrew National household, then I became a Sabrett loyalist when I moved out and started shopping and cooking for myself, but the Boar’s Head all-beef hot dogs that come clumped and tightly shrink-wrapped together in a package of seven are even better. Similar garlicky flavor, but these have the perfect snap of a natural casing. I only buy hot dogs once or twice a year, but now I always go for these.  I might have to get some today!

Mustard: BaTampte for a good everyday deli mustard (easily available at Publix), and Beaver jalapeno mustard for something delicious that’s hotter (but is unfortunately much harder to find locally). I was surprised by how good the Grey Poupon Deli Mustard and Mild and Creamy Mustard were, last time Publix had a BOGO deal, since I’m not big on regular dijon. I’d definitely get more of those.*

*I have every intention of writing more about mustard, since I love it so much.  Expect a new recurring feature on this blog called Cutting the Mustard.  You heard it here first, faithful foodie followers!

Knishes: Pickles Deli in Longwood used to be the only place I could get a good potato knish in the area. They serve Gabila’s knishes, which are the best — made in New York, of course, but became rare a few years ago after a factory fire. Yes, there was a nationwide knish shortage! Well, I’ve found them in the frozen case at Publix now, and I highly recommend them, whether you’re a knish maven or some kind of n00b. Make sure you have some good mustard on hand for them!

Macaroni and potato salads: I’ve tried them all, I’ve made them with all kinds of different recipes, but I always go back to Publix for my favorite versions. The New York and Southern potato salads are both excellent.

Pasta sauce: After growing up with nasty Ragu as a kid and begging my mom to switch to Prego like my friends’ moms, I made my own for many years — first from doctoring a jar of Prego with a can of tomato paste and all kinds of other ingredients, and now by using canned San Marzano tomatoes and making it from scratch. But if I’m in a hurry, nothing beats Rao’s Arrabbiata sauce. It’s a little pricey, but you can occasionally find sales at Fresh Market or Target, and it is perfect in every way. I’ve been to many Italian restaurants whose red sauces aren’t nearly as good as Rao’s.

Hot sauce: Minorcan Mayhem datil pepper sauce. They have it on the tables at 4 Rivers Smokehouse, so you can try it there before buying it, and of course they sell the bottles. So tasty, with a lot of flavor rather than pure ass-kicking heat (which I hate). There’s even a subtle sweetness. I highly recommend it.
https://www.minorcanmayhem.com/

Whisps: these tiny, crispy crackers are made of 100% parmesan cheese, so they’re a life-changer if you’re on a low-carb diet but are craving salty, crunchy snacks and don’t feel like pork rinds. (The story of my life for the last year and a half.) I’ve seen tiny bags at Publix, or you can stock up on a larger bag at Costco for about $10. They are awesome.

Salami: Aldi is my new favorite supermarket, and they sell pre-sliced dry salami in regular (similar to genoa) and spicy (similar to pepperoni) varieties, at $5.99 per pound. They are great. The slices aren’t paper-thin, so they have a nice chewiness, and the spicy one is delicious. I always keep it on hand for snacks, along with Aldi’s sliced provolone cheese, which is usually $1.89 for an eight-ounce package with 12 slices.

By the way, If you haven’t been to Aldi, check it out. Bring a quarter for a shopping cart and bring your own bags, but you’ll find so much high-quality food that’s often the same stuff you could buy anywhere else, for a fraction of the price. I’m a convert. And they get new, random, often fascinating stuff all the time — I got a really rad record player that transforms into a briefcase there two weeks ago — so it’s worth making regular visits to see what they have.

What do the rest of you recommend?

Bravo Supermarket

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of grocery stores and grocery shopping.  It’s the only kind of shopping I enjoy, in fact.  I regularly stop at multiple stores to pick things up: Aldi (my favorite), Publix, Costco, occasionally Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, and Target if I’m near them.

We recently had a Bravo Supermarket open near us, which is aimed at the Latinx community and specializes in groceries and prepared foods from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.  (https://www.bravosupermarkets.com/)

The prices are fantastic, and as you would expect, they carry all kinds of stuff Publix doesn’t.  I got my wife an assortment of coconut waters, since they have over a dozen different brands and varieties: some with pulp and some without pulp, some roasted, some “young” coconut, etc.

The hot foods counter is set up like a cafeteria line, where you can get a styrofoam box stuffed to bursting with the rice of your choice (white, yellow with pigeon peas, or a specialty rice) with an entree and a side, for $7 and change.  I’ve been twice so far.  Last week, I brought home roast pork over yellow rice with tostones (crispy-fried plantains) for my wife and stewed goat over fried rice with maduros (sweet plantains) for myself.  Today being a Friday, I remembered they had rabo (oxtail) as a special of the day, and I always love oxtail.  I got mine over moros rice (white rice stewed with black beans and onions) with maduros.

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It was really good oxtail, but nothing beats when I get it at the Jamaican restaurant Golden Krust, one of my favorites.  I’ll have to go back soon and review it.

The prepared foods counter also has quesitos, empanadas, pastellitos, Jamaican beef patties, some desserts, and they will make you Cuban coffee, too.  Their quesitos (pastries stuffed with sweetened cream cheese) are very tasty, but much doughier and chewier than I’m used to.  The quesitos from the Cuban restaurants back home in Miami were usually made of a flakier, crispier, almost croissant-like dough that often shattered when you bit into them.  Both are good, though.