Royal Castle (Miami)

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  My small subset of subscribers should have subsequently seen it e-mailed to them, but I unpublished it immediately… UNTIL NOW, when it’s shined and polished for public consumption.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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC02631

DSC02632

DSC02633

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

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

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

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

Nikki’s Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Olympia Restaurant

“Hangin’ on the corner of 52nd and Broadway
Cars passin’ by, but none of ’em seem to go my way
An’ New York City, well I wish I was on a highway
Back to Olympia”
–“Olympia, WA,” written by Tim Armstrong, Matt Freeman, and Lars Frederiksen

With all due respect to legendary punk band Rancid and their ABSOLUTELY FLAWLESS 1995 album “…And Out Come the Wolves,” I only shared the chorus lyrics from that wistful song because I too wish I was on a highway back to Olympia, but a very different one than the one they meant.

Olympia Restaurant (https://www.olympiaorlando.com/) is Orlando’s oldest Greek restaurant, founded in 1979.  I’ve been a few times over the years, but not nearly often enough.  On my most recent visit, with a new co-worker and friend who loves the place, I realized that I need to return a lot more frequently.  This guy is an accomplished attorney who also plays drums in the ska-punk band Sucker Punch, so he’s basically one of the coolest people I know.  (And I don’t just say that because I’m an ex-ska-punk musician myself.)  He’s an Orlando native who has been a regular at Olympia his entire life, and if you know Olympia, you can tell it’s the kind of local institution that would retain regulars through the decades.

On past visits, I’ve ordered the gyro lunch special many times, which comes with outstanding fries.  And as a big sardine eater (some folks call me the Dean of Sardines*), I’ve enjoyed Olympia’s marides, or fried smelts — small, sardine-like fish that are lightly breaded and fried until crispy.  Unfortunately they were out of smelts on my most recent visit back in February, but the allure of fried seafood was hard to overcome.

When I asked about the fried kalamari, our server enthusiastically told us it was the best in town.  I think it has to be up there among the best, if not the best.  This huge and satisfying appetizer portion was only $8, and the squid were fried to crispy perfection, still tender and not overcooked to the point of being chewy and rubbery.  I really liked the fried onions and green peppers the kalamari came tossed with, and the rich tomato sauce that was perfect for dipping.  I’ve become enough of a squid fan that I’ve made it at home a few times, but never fried like this.  Olympia may have inspired me to try it, but I’d usually rather leave breading and frying to the seasoned professionals — no pun intended.DSC02989

My friend chose the Greek salad with his lunch, which was fresh and colorful, with nice shreds of feta cheese and a kalamata olive plunked in the middle:DSC02991

And he ordered the gyro dinner ($13), which came with a generous portion of rice topped with tomato sauce, some of my favorite pita bread anywhere, and excellent fresh tzatziki sauce for dipping:DSC02992

I chose the soup of the day, lentil soup, with my lunch.  I’ve become a huge lentil soup fan, especially since you can make infinite variations of it, and lentils are healthy, versatile, cheap, and delicious.  DSC02990

And as tempted as I was by a gyro, I ordered one of my favorite dishes that is much harder to find on menus: pastitsio ($13), which is like the Greek version of lasagna.  It is made with long, uncut ziti noodles, ground beef or lamb, a creamy bechamel sauce, and topped with a rich and zesty tomato sauce.  I loved it.  It came with nice, crunchy green beans on the side, a vegetable I rarely order but usually enjoy.  DSC02993

A cross-section of this architectural marvel:DSC02994

Long-time Saboscrivner readers might remember I ordered the pastitsio at Theo’s Kitchen back in the summer of 2018.  Then again, I can’t imagine anyone would remember that detail, and I would be a little concerned if I had obsessive superfans who did.  But the dish is rare enough on menus, even at Greek restaurants, that I always love to try everyone’s different versions.  Olympia’s pastitsio was definitely the better of the two.

This visit with my friend made me realize I need to work Olympia back into my regular restaurant rotation.  It has withstood the test of time serving all the classic Greek dishes almost as long as I’ve been alive — over 40 years.  With the restaurant business so tenuous even in the best of times, that’s a colossal accomplishment, worthy of praise and continued support.  When my work reopens, it’s close enough that I can and will swing by whenever I want.

But now more than ever, in this difficult time where restaurants are limited to takeout orders, consider dropping by and placing an order, whether you’re a returning regular or just happen to be craving Herculean portions of Greek food.  (See what I did there?)  Your takeout lunch or dinner will ascend to new, godlike heights at Olympia.  (See what I did there?)

*Nobody calls me the Dean of Sardines.  YET.

Beefy King

Beefy King (http://beefyking.com/) is an Orlando legend and also a time capsule.  The sandwich shop was founded in 1968 and still stands proudly on Bumby Avenue, just south of Colonial Drive, in the “Milk District” neighborhood east of downtown Orlando.

The hours are:
Monday – Friday: 10:00 AM  – 5:30 PM (but the dining room closes at 3:00, so it’s drive-through only from 3:00 – 5:30)
Saturday: 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM
Sunday: Closeddsc02711.jpg

It was originally a local chain of six restaurants, but this is the only one that remains.  Three generations of owners later, they’re still doing things very much the same way after 50+ years: serving sandwiches of roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, barbecue beef and pork, turkey, and ham on soft, steamed kaiser rolls, alongside their legendary Beefy Spuds (think tater tots), onion rings, delicious chili, and more.DSC02707

Beefy King survived an arson attempt in November, so this feels like the right time to sing its praises, now that it has reopened for business.  It didn’t seem worse for the wear when I met one of my favorite fellow foodie friends there for lunch the week after it reopened.  This is why YOU COME AT THE KING, YOU BEST NOT MISS!

Here’s a roast beef sandwich ($4.55) served with steamed, diced onions — the classic sandwich around here.
DSC02710

As you can see, it’s very juicy roast beef — much juicier and much less salty than Arby’s.  I added some creamy horseradish sauce, which comes in squeeze bottles and is delicious on anything and everything, but especially roast beef sandwiches.  dsc02071.jpg

Here’s another roast beef sandwich with spicy barbecue sauce.  (They have mild barbecue sauce too; don’t worry!)  The steaming process makes the kaiser rolls nice and soft too, which really works well.  DSC02074

This is an extra-large two-meat sandwich with pastrami and corned beef, plus melty white American cheese and steamed onions ($8.50).  I ended up adding some of that creamy horseradish to it, too.  They have mustard, but only the yellow kind, and this sandwich is too good for yellow mustard, if you ask me.  dsc02709.jpg

I’m a huge fan of Beefy King’s chili, full of meat, beans, tomatoes, onions, and peppers.  I always opt to get it with a slice of white American cheese that melts into it so nicely.  If you’ve had Wendy’s chili before, this is similar, but a hundred times better.DSC02075

RING THE ALARM!  Beefy King has onion rings that just cry out to be dipped in the mild or hot barbecue sauces or creamy horseradish sauce.
DSC02072

And here are the golden-brown Beefy Spuds, also perfect for dipping.DSC02708DSC02076

Save room for a hand-spun milkshake!  Beefy King offers vanilla, chocolate, cherry, and my personal favorite, orange.  I skipped the orange shake this time, but I either regret ordering it or regret not ordering it.

Beefy King isn’t just a time capsule, despite being a real piece of classic Orlando that doesn’t have anything to do with “Mickey’s House.”  It’s even more than a great place to grab a quick, affordable lunch in Orlando’s Milk District (although between Beefy King, Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market, Bad As’s Sandwich, and Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I argue the city should officially rename it The Sandwich District).  It’s also a survivor.  To be the last remaining location from a small chain, and to have made it all these decades unchanged, even emerging like the proverbial phoenix after an arson attempt after 51 years, means it’s a living legend, an inimitable institution, the kind of restaurant all Orlando locals should experience for themselves.  When even culinary luminary Alton Brown and late-night laughing boy Jimmy Fallon know to seek it out, you know the word on the street is good.

The King is back.

Long live the King.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sausage itself had a nice bit of heat, but best of all was the snappiness it had, due to what was probably a natural casing.  This is definitely the kind of thing to eat with a knife and fork, but of course I didn’t.  Here’s a cross-section:
dsc02337.jpg

My long-time readers know I order onion rings whenever I can, to see if they match my very high standards.  It’s a little recurring feature I like to call

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

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

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

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

The New York Adventure Part 6: Katz’s Delicatessen

I promise my wife and I didn’t schlep all the way to New York to just eat Jewish deli food for our tenth anniversary trip, although that remains a huge part of The City’s culture and history, as well as its appeal for both of us.  I might be a secular, non-practicing Jew, but that food fills me with nostalgia for my childhood, as well as for early-to-mid 20th Century Jewish big city experiences I feel and relate to strongly, despite not being born yet.  Does that make sense?

I’ve written before about how food embodies our shared human experiences: our history, our politics, our economics, art, science, even religion.  And while I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere, I feel a sense of belonging to something larger and greater than myself when I nosh on a knish, a bagel with pickled fish, or a pastrami sandwich.  My wife indulges me, and she appreciates the food as well.  It might not feel like as big a deal if we could get all the same food at the same quality level at home, but we can’t, so going to the iconic originals, the legendary landmarks, the places that have survived a century because they’re that damn good, is a big damn deal.

My family was not what you might call “of the travelers.”  My parents, both teachers in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, were (and still are, in retirement) hard-working, patient, generous, and awesome, but we never took many trips when I was younger.  That’s why when we went to New York in the summer of 1991, it was the most profound and transformative experience of my life thus far.  My dad is from Brooklyn — specifically the East New York neighborhood that hasn’t been gentrified and hipsterized like so many other parts of the borough — so I feel like New York is in my blood, despite never having lived there.

That was a whirlwind trip, indulgent for all of us.  My brother and I had never even flown before.  We stayed near Central Park (and even took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Park, which I do not recommend), visited family in Brooklyn, took in museums, made a pilgrimage to the legendary comic book store Forbidden Planet (much larger back then than it is now, enough to blow my middle school mind with its two floors).  On top of that, we ate at great Jewish delis of decades past that have long since closed their doors: the Stage Deli, the Carnegie Deli, and Lindy’s in Manhattan, and Grabstein’s in Brooklyn.  Despite everything in the City feeling more decrepit and dangerous back then, it was an awe-inspiring and unforgettable trip that made a huge impact on my life.  I had always romanticized New York from my dad’s stories about growing up, my lifelong obsession with DC and Marvel Comics, and my teenage love affairs with jazz and punk music.  But after seeing, feeling, and tasting it for myself that summer, New York changed me forever.  I desperately wanted to go to NYU for film school, but obviously that never happened.  I spent the next 15+ years fantasizing about a return trip and everything I would do, see, and eat there.

Even though my parents would never consider themselves “foodies” (and often wonder how the hell I ended up like I did), I think our original New York trip sowed the seeds of my own desire for culinary capers and appetizing adventures.  I finally made it back to New York with my wife while we were just dating, and the post-9/11 City felt much cleaner and safer than it did in 1991.  That time we took in my first real Broadway shows and visited maybe the most iconic New York delicatessen of all, Katz’s Delicatessen (https://katzsdelicatessen.com/).  And we returned again, to the City and to Katz’s, for our honeymoon a few years later, in 2009.  Finally, a decade later, we were back once more.

DSC02188

Katz’s feels chaotic when you’re a laid-back Floridian.  When you go in, you get a ticket, and then you can either get in line with one of the meat cutters behind the counter, or wait for a table with a waiter, who is usually cartoonishly brusque and rude (and yet, strangely charming).  I told my wife to grab an open table outside of the waiters’ section, and I lined up.  As you can see, it’s kind of a free-for-all.  They’ve been doing this for over a hundred years, but could there possibly be a better way to get everyone in and out?DSC02186When you finally get to the front of the line, if you order pastrami, the cutter will cut you a small slice on a plate, for you to sample.  Make sure you have a buck on hand for the customary tip.  Keep in mind, because they hand-slice the meat at Katz’s, it comes out much thicker and juicier than most sandwich shops with thin, machine-sliced pastrami.  Normally I prefer my deli meats sliced thin, but there’s nothing like this.

Anyway, here it is, the finest pastrami sandwich known to man, hand-sliced right in front of me.  I asked for a little fattier, juicier pastrami — none of that lean stuff for us.  A little helpful hint from your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner: When you’re at Katz’s, pay the $1 upcharge and get your sandwich on a CLUB ROLL, dig me?  The rye bread they use is essentially an edible napkin, because it barely holds up under the weight and greasy juices of the copious amounts of cured and smoked meats.  The club roll is delicious, and it supports the meat and condiments better.  Rye is for suckas.  DSC02183

This was a $23 sandwich, but two healthy, hungry people can easily split it and be satisfied.  I added some of their mustard to my half and even dabbed a bit in a small plastic cup of Russian dressing, meant for their Reubens, but my wife would do no such thing.  DSC02184

Pickles are included.  Just as I did on my previous visit, ten years ago on our honeymoon, I tried both kinds, but just couldn’t get into them.  I am truly trying to develop a taste for pickles, but kosher dills and half-sours just don’t tickle my pickle.  DSC02185

Anyway, leaving is a whole big production, because you have to present your ticket when you leave, then weave through the hangry crowd to get to the front.  But here’s another helpful hint: If you’re paying with a credit card, pay in the back.  We went to the front and waited to check out, only to find out they only accept cash up there.  Rather than force my wife to hustle back through the hungry, hangry hordes, I was lucky I had some sock money on hand (or in sock, to be accurate), so we settled up and escaped.

Katz’s can be an exhausting experience — I definitely wouldn’t go there for a chill, relaxing meal — but there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had in New York, which means there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had anywhere else.

The New York Adventure Part 5: Russ & Daughters Cafe

Russ & Daughters Cafe (http://www.russanddaughterscafe.com/) opened for business in 2014, but it still feels like a time capsule of old-school Jewish New York, particularly representative of the early 20th Century Lower East Side.  And it should, because the original Russ & Daughters “appetizing store” is still going strong after opening over 100 years ago, in 1914.  The sit-down cafe appropriately opened a full century later, with gleaming retro interiors, luxurious booths, and tantalizing displays, reminiscent of the original.  dsc02160.jpg

DSC02163

This was another pilgrimage for me.  My wife and I have been to New York more than once before and even hung out in the Lower East Side, but never made it to the original Russ & Daughters storefront.  The more accessible and comfortable Cafe didn’t even exist when we were last there for our honeymoon in 2009.  So I studied the menu in advance, determined to do it right.

I started us out with two mini potato knishes, which came with some good deli mustard.  I’m much more of a knish guy than my wife, and since I didn’t indulge in knishes at Ess-A-Bagel or Junior’s, I figured it was now or never.  They did not disappoint.  They were very soft, with a nice oniony flavor in the potato filling and a soft, yielding dough shell I could cut with the side of my fork.  If you don’t know from knishes, those baked (or occasionally fried) pockets of dough stuffed with potatoes or other fillings, I highly recommend them, especially if you’re anything like me and sometimes crave a mustard delivery device.  Publix has started carrying the Gabila’s brand in the frozen food section, and those are some of my favorites.  But these were no slouches.
DSC02168

My wife ordered the Shtetl platter: an everything bagel with smoked sable, after I turned her onto it at Ess-A-Bagel.  While she said it was all very good, the bagel was smaller than Ess-A, and they skimped on the sable.  You can see the thin slices they served her, whereas Ess-A packed their much larger bagel with thicker slices and chunks of the good stuff.  I ended up with all her tomatoes and onions, as well as the goat cream cheese, which was a little funky for her tastes, despite how much she loves goats.  It wasn’t baaaaaaaaad.DSC02165

As the self-proclaimed Dean of Sardines, I am also a lifelong fan of pickled herring.  My family used to bring in bagels on Sunday mornings at our suburban Miami home, always with cream cheese, nova salmon, and a jar of Vita or Skansen brand pickled herring, and I have loved it ever since.  The most common kinds that you can even buy at Publix are boneless herring fillets, shiny and silvery, either in a wine and vinegar sauce or a sour cream sauce, both sweetened and packed with onions.  Definitely not something to serve or eat on a hot date, but way more delicious than they sound.  I guess they would have to be, right?

I was overjoyed to order a sampler platter with four different kinds of pickled herring to try: regular pickled (along the top), roll-mops (two long, thin fillets wrapped around pickled onions), schmaltz (fat) herring on the bottom left (cured in salt and sugar), and matjes herring on the bottom right (mature schmaltz herring cured for a longer period of time, tinted red by sandalwood).  The matjes herring was juicy but incredibly salty, sour, and tangy, even by pickled fish standards, and even by my own standards.  It was a bit much — still worth trying, but I definitely wouldn’t order it again.  DSC02167
Anyway, the platter came with a mound of sweet, vinegary pickled onions, surprisingly tasty pickled beets, and a sprig of fresh dill.

But wait, there’s more!  My herring platter also came with slices of soft, fresh-baked pumpernickel bread and three different dipping sauces: a creamy mustard sauce with dill (top), a thicker and sweeter mustard (left), and a sweet cream sauce (right).  I cleaned my plate, eating everything as a careful ritual: tear off a piece of pump, dip one side lightly in one of the sauces, add a piece of fish (never mixing the different kinds), top with pickled onions, repeat.  I think they brought just enough bread to cycle through all the different possible combinations and permutations.  It was good pumpernickel, and I have been craving more ever since.  In fact, I bought some upon returning home, but wouldn’t ya know it?  It was better in New York.  (Must be the water!)DSC02169

We left with these delightful little coffee-flavored hard candies from the Netherlands, a nice alternative to a mint (although after eating all that fish, a mint might have been better for my breath).dsc02173.jpg

Oh, here’s a bonus shot of the original Russ & Daughters appetizing store, the one that opened in 1914.  It was a short walk from the much newer Cafe, and an even shorter walk from the equally legendary Katz’s Delicatessen (which is coming, Saboscrivnerinos!).  I went inside just so I could have the experience, but it was a mad mob scene.  I took a number — 446 — but they had only just called 404.  There are no tables to eat anything there, and whatever I would have wanted to buy was perishable and would never have survived the voyage home, so I left empty-handed.DSC02191

I was very sad that the timing of our New York adventure occurred before June 12th, the start of the New Catch Holland Herring season at Russ & Daughters.  These are supposedly the best herrings in the world, and you eat them standing up, holding them by the tail and lowering them down into your mouth, like cartoon cats.  Back in that more innocent time when it was cool to like Louis C.K., he brought Parker Posey to Russ & Daughters on a date in an episode of Louie, and they ate the New Catch Herrings together.  Just like when he showcased Veselka on another episode of the show, I have wanted to go to there ever since.  Mission accomplished!

Tampaversary Part 2: La Segunda Central Bakery

Our original plan was to have lunch somewhere after checking out of our Tampa hotel, then to visit another nearby local landmark, La Segunda Central Bakery, to get some pastries and possibly sandwiches to go, before driving back to Orlando.  But when we woke up, my wife was hungry, ready to get home sooner, and didn’t want to wait for most restaurants to open at 11.  We decided to go straight to La Segunda and then take off, and to save other restaurants for other trips, when we have more time and could make plans with local friends.

We easily found La Segunda Central Bakery (https://www.lasegundabakery.com/), but what I didn’t realize was that it was just a takeout operation with no dine-in seating.  They have a second location that is more of a cafe setup, but leave it to me to want to visit the original.  We are already huge fans of Tampa’s other historic bakery, Alessi (http://www.alessibakery.com/), which was founded in 1912.  La Segunda had been described as very similar, and it was founded in 1915.  I wanted to compare the legendary bakeries, and I can safely say they are both great, and if you like one, you’ll certainly like the other and ought to give it a chance too.

Since they didn’t have tables, we just decided to get stuff to go, and to have a mini-picnic in the car on our way out of town.  My wife ordered buttered Cuban toast with a side of crispy bacon, made on the absolutely gigantic loaves of Cuban bread people were carrying out by the armful.  These loaves were several feet long; my wife is five feet tall, and they very well could have been her height!  La Segunda’s website purports to be “the world’s largest producer of authentic Cuban bread,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is true.  We were both a little distracted by sensory overload in that bakery, and it didn’t occur to me to order one of those giant loaves to go.  Oh well, another time.  I grew up in Miami, so I’ve had A LOT of Cuban bread.  It’s great the first day, but by the second day, Harley Quinn cosplayers could definitely use it as a prop baseball bat.  But I digress!

I don’t eat breakfast and don’t like to eat a heavy meal before a long drive, so I just ordered stuff to enjoy later on.  I ordered two of La Segunda’s sandwiches: the Medianoche and the Patrinostro.  Growing up in Miami, my typically non-adventurous family loved Cuban food, and we had some of the best Cuban food in the country to choose from, all within a small radius of our suburban home.  My mom instilled in me a love of the medianoche (midnight) sandwich over the traditional Cuban sandwich, and I stand by it to this day.  Both contain the same ingredients: roast pork marinated in mojo criollo (with onion, garlic, and sour orange juice), sweet sliced ham, swiss cheese, mustard (typically yellow mustard, one of the only times this mustard aficionado is A-OK with the plain yellow stuff), and sliced pickles.  I’m trying to make myself like pickles more, but one of the rare times I’ve always been a fan is on medianoche and Cuban sandwiches.

Anyway, whether you get the sandwich on Cuban bread or the sweet, yellow medianoche roll (similar to challah), it is then pressed flat (sometimes buttered first), to warm the ingredients, melt the cheese, and get the bread super-crispy.  Miami people may recoil in shock and disappointment (and I know my best friend will be pissed), but I actually love the Tampa version of these sandwiches.  Due to the Italian influence, Tampa Cubans and medianoches also include genoa salami with the roast pork and sweet, smoky ham, and one could argue that anything with genoa salami is better than the same thing without.  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!  And when I finally tried it at home, it was an excellent example of a medianoche.  Perfect confluence of ingredients on that wonderful sweet, crispy-yet-yielding yellow bread.  La Segunda advertises a “special sauce” instead of mustard.  I couldn’t pick up on what it was (probably a remoulade or some kind of Mustardayonnaise), but it was a great sandwich regardless.

DSC01716.JPG

And since I had to experience La Segunda’s Cuban bread for myself, my second sandwich order was the Patrinostro, an Italian sandwich with ham, capicola, mortadella, pepperoni, provolone cheese, onions, oil, and vinegar.  I asked for it hot because I wanted the pressed Cuban bread, and asked them to leave the lettuce and tomatoes off, since I wouldn’t be eating it for two hours and didn’t want them to get slimy on a hot sandwich.  I was conflicted, because I don’t like my Italian cured meats hot, but everything was still delicious by the time we got home, and the bread was still crispy.  It looked naked without the lettuce and tomatoes, so I added my own tomatoes, as well as hot cherry pepper relish and a drizzle of balsamic glaze at home.  It was good, but it would have been better fully dressed and eaten immediately, with cold ingredients served on bread that had already been pressed and warmed by itself.

DSC01715

I also ordered two slices of scachatta, which I was delighted to see at La Segunda.  I first read about scachatta on Saveur’s website years ago, a pizza-like bread served only at Tampa’s historic Italian-influenced Cuban bakeries.  It is served cold or at room temperature on soft bread tinted yellow by egg yolks, with a savory-sweet tomato sauce containing very finely-ground beef, and no cheese melted on top like any pizza you’re envisioning.  Alessi’s scachatta has a dusting of parmesan like the lightest snowfall, and La Segunda’s didn’t seem to have any cheese at all.  It might sound weird, and if you’re expecting traditional pizza, you may be a little disappointed.  But think of it as its own delicious hybrid and give it a fair chance.  I love the stuff and wish I could get it anywhere in Orlando, but maybe that’s for the best.  I can’t tell you whose scachatta is better, but they are both damn fine.

DSC01714

My wife also ordered a selection of cookies that were weighed by the pound.  I think of them as “tea cookies” — little things with sprinkles and powdered sugar coatings and shaped liked red and green leaves.  Bakeries of my Miami youth used to carry those, and my mom loved them too.  They have never really been my thing — if I’m going to eat a cookie, I want it to be soft and chewy… or an Oreo in their latest weird flavors.

DSC01711

I couldn’t leave this beautiful bakery without getting myself something sweet too, so I gambled and chose a little square of pineapple crumb cake, since I love anything pineappley, as well as crumb cake.  When I finally got home and tried it, it was superb.  Moist, rich cake with the most delicious sticky-sweet pineapple glaze and streusel-esque topping.  It only cost $1.95, and it put any of the extravagant, expensive, and somewhat disappointing desserts from Bern’s to shame.

DSC01713

So La Segunda was awesome.  Would I go back?  Honestly, I think we’d probably return to Alessi Bakery instead, where you can at least sit down and eat a meal.  But everything we tried was just as good here, don’t get me wrong.

Tampaversary Part 1: Bern’s Steak House

Trigger warning for extreme bougie content: WE DO NOT EAT LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME.

For years, my wife and I have been talking about going to the legendary Bern’s Steak House (https://bernssteakhouse.com/) in Tampa to celebrate a special occasion.  It’s a long way to travel for a meal, but from all accounts, Bern’s is THE meal, the ultimate destination for foodie high-rollers or one-time wannabes like us.  It doesn’t help that my wife doesn’t fare well on long car rides, but Bern’s actually owns its own hotel right across the street, the Epicurean Hotel (https://epicureanhotel.com/), to help break up the trip and give weary, stuffed travelers a chance to rest and digest.

Neither restaurant nor hotel are cheap, but we’ve been putting this off for years, we both celebrated some milestones at work recently, we had our ninth wedding anniversary to celebrate, and best of all, neither of us ended up hospitalized this year, after we both did in the summer of 2017.  So for the first time ever, I was able to use some saved Marriott points and bought the rest of the points to cover a night at the Epicurean, for far less than it would have cost out of pocket.  (I think I can best describe the regular room rate as “far out of our price range” or “What the hell is this, midtown Manhattan?”)  And two months ago, I made a reservation at Bern’s, which gets booked up almost that far in advance.  I can’t speak for my wife, but I can say I looked forward to it for weeks, fastidiously studying Bern’s voluminous menu in the meantime.

The menu is pretty much a treatise on steaks, which are the house specialty.  Bern’s brags about serving dry-aged steaks, which I had never had before.  With all honesty, I’m not a big steak eater, and I’d always prefer a good burger to a good steak, for reasons of taste, customizability, and value.  But my wife LOVES a good steak, especially after I turned her onto ribeyes.  This menu has pages and pages of steak descriptions, describing cuts of meat, cooking temperatures, thickness, aging, and so forth.  I felt like I was researching engagement rings again!

But I’m jumping ahead.  When we first arrived at Bern’s, the nondescript white building looked like it could have been anything but a fancy steakhouse: maybe an industrial warehouse or a factory.  But stepping inside was like entering a different world, or at least a different century.  The lobby looked like a set from Moulin Rouge: all red walls, dark wood, gold, giant portraits, and dim lighting, giving it all an anachronistic and otherworldly feeling, like 19th Century French brothel meets David Lynch’s Black Lodge.  I was definitely feeling sensory overload, and my eyes had trouble adjusting to the low lights and everything there was to look at.

Our reservation was at 5:00, since we’re the youngest early bird diners you’ll ever meet.  We met our server, Erhan, who was the best guy ever.  He was our wise, patient, helpful guide through this extravagant evening, and we have never experienced better service anywhere.  If we had a question, Erhan was there to answer it like the best reference librarians I’ve ever worked with (and I would know, since I am one).  Apparently servers at Bern’s train for a year before they start out on the floor, and that painstaking training showed. You get the impression the man had seen and heard it all, and knew it all.

The appetizers beckoned.  I love oysters, and I heard Bern’s oysters were among the best you can have anywhere.  Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t care for oysters at all, and it would have felt wrong to order something she couldn’t enjoy too.  Now that our weather is FINALLY getting cool, some $1 oyster nights are going to be on my agenda.

However, there was something even fancier, even rarer, even more celebratory that intrigued us both: CAVIAR.  The menu has a whole page of caviar selections, ranging from semi-reasonable ($25) to ridiculous ($190).  Over a decade ago, we attended the wedding of dear friends we never get to see anymore, and they had a caviar bar at their reception.  I’m not sure how many of the other guests partook, but my wife and I went crazy, like cartoon cats at an all-you-can-eat bird buffet.  We still talk about their storybook-perfect wedding and that caviar bar to this day, and this was our first opportunity to recreate the experience.  Hey, this was a convergence of multiple special occasions, and I don’t think any Orlando restaurants even offer caviar.  None of the places we go, anyway! The closest we get is masago on our spicy poke bowls.

My wife chose the very moderate (for caviar) black hackleback sturgeon, and Bern’s serves it with so many accoutrements, which I love.  It came with the traditional Russian accompaniments of sour cream and the most finely-diced red onions, egg whites, and egg yolks I have ever seen, with the most perfect brioche toast points ever.  It also came with six flavored foams as additional condiments, each one adding its own dimensions to the buttery, briny black pearls.  I wish I could remember each one of the foams, dear Sabo-Squad, but there was definitely an avocado one (the green one), a potato and bacon foam (fourth one down), a curry foam (yellow), and a blue cheese foam (the one on the bottom, with blue cheese crumbles on top).  I’m forgetting the first and third ones.  Now, I am a sucker for any condiments and sauces, and they were neat, but the traditional sour cream, onions, and eggs went much better with the caviar.

DSC01700

This was so good, our eyes were rolling back in our heads. “Like a sturgeon! Touched for the very first time!”

DSC01701

What really completed the whole caviar ritual was a plate of six Yukon Gold potato blinis, perfectly soft potato pancakes that are nothing like the crispy, greasy, fried latkes I think of as potato pancakes.  These blinis were lighter than air, soft and creamy, the ideal little pillows to top with a dollop of sour cream and a smaller dollop of black pearls.  I am totally going to recreate them at home.  They were too good, and they’d be great in place of traditional breakfast pancakes too.  Imagine “silver dollar flappies” that just melt away in your mouth, and you have these blinis.

DSC01702

After we inhaled every single morsel of everything (my wife, to her credit, didn’t indulge in the condiments at all), Erhan returned to counsel us on steaks.  At Bern’s, a party of two can split a larger steak if they want the same cut, which they recommend over each person ordering their own.  We both wanted the Delmonico, which is their ribeye, and we chose a whopping 16-ounce steak to share, that is 1 3/4″ thick.  Luckily, we both like our steaks rare, after a lifetime of restaurants and parents overcooking them.  At Bern’s, they are so exacting that they have varying degrees of rare, but we opted for a warm red center and a slight outer crust.  Erhan said they would even trim the outer fat and serve it on two separate plates, which was nice.  These are all U.S.D.A. Prime steaks, by the way.  You can occasionally find this highest quality meat at Costco, but rarely at supermarkets.

Best of all, all of Bern’s steaks come with a plethora of side orders, which is a million times better than most upscale steakhouses that serve everything a la carte and nickel-and-dime you to death with expensive sides (another reason I’m not a steakhouse fan).  As pricey as Bern’s is (and it is), it is also a bargain if you just want a good steak dinner and some sides.  The included sides are French onion soup, a house salad with a choice of housemade dressings, a baked potato that can be dressed with any combination of butter, sour cream, crumbled bacon, and chives, thin and crispy fried onion straws, and fresh vegetables from Bern’s own farm.  What I didn’t realize was that ordering the larger steak for two meant we would get two of every side.  I honestly thought we’d get one of each side and have to split them or decide who got what.  Rube alert!

I already love French onion soup, and this was easily the best I’ve ever had.  It was so rich and beefy and decadent, and came with garlic toast and spelt toast, a kind of grain we were both unfamiliar with.  My wife really impressed me by digging into her soup.  I love onions (and caramelize them all the time at home), but she really, really doesn’t like them (and hates the smell when I cook them).  I thought it was cool that she not only took a risk by trying it, but that she ended up liking it.  How could you not?  Incredible French onion soup. My wife thought the spelt toast was like “teething biscuits,” and it was quite hard, but softened up nicely when dunked in the soup.

DSC01703

Next came the colorful house salads, with vegetables from Bern’s farm.  I was very impressed that they peeled the tomatoes.  WHO DOES THAT!?! I am always on a quest for good salad dressings to liven up my own salads, and I was excited by the list of Bern’s housemade dressings.  My wife chose one of my top picks, a macadamia nut vanilla bean vinaigrette.  I asked the ever-patient Erhan if I could sample two different dressings, and he hooked me up.  Grateful, I chose maple dijon (I love mustards and anything mapley) and creamy white balsamic Italian.  The salad was fine, but those three dressings were without a doubt the best salad dressings I’ve ever had, with the creamy white balsamic Italian in first place, then the vanilla bean vinaigrette.  They each came in fancy little metal pitchers, and even when we were finished with our salads, I asked to keep the dressings to dip the forthcoming onion straws into.  I wish Bern’s sold these salad dressings in bottles.  Ken’s Steak House can do it, Bern’s! Why can’t you?

DSC01704

Finally, the steaks arrived, accompanied by the baked potatoes, onion straws, and two vegetables of the day, the most delicious, rich, buttery green beans and shredded carrots served with almonds.  I’m not a baked potato guy, so I pretty much just ate the top part that was loaded with all the toppings.  The steaks were superb, though.  Cooked to absolute perfection, as you can see.  Like I said, I’ve never had a dry-aged steak before, so I’m not enough of a connoisseur to tell a major difference in taste or texture.  What I can say is that it was one of the finest steaks of my life.  Top two, maybe, with only Christner’s right here in Orlando coming close.

DSC01705

I’ll also RING THE ALARM, even though the thin onion straws aren’t exactly onion rings.  They were well-seasoned, crispy, not greasy at all, not overly salty, and held up to dipping in the remaining maple dijon dressing.

Well, at this point, we were pretty stuffed, but part of the iconic Bern’s experience is to go upstairs to finish your meal in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, “built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms.”  I get it — they want to clear tables in the main dining room, so ushering folks upstairs to a separate dessert room is genius.  I paid our check (holy crap!), and we thanked Erhan profusely before heading off.  Observant regular readers already know my wife and I don’t drink, but the bill could easily have been doubled if we did.  As a result, we opted to skip the tour of Bern’s vaunted wine cellar, housing one of the largest collections of wine in the United States. To oenophiles, “cellar tour” might be the most beautiful-sounding phrase in the English language.

That said, we accepted their invitation to take a tour of Bern’s busy, bustling kitchen.  (It’s not like we’re special people; they offer both tours to all diners.)  The kitchen was where my wife really felt sensory overload, but the short behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating to me.  I’ve never worked in restaurants even though so many of my friends did, but I’m fascinated by the process, of peering behind the curtain and seeing how the sausage is made (figuratively, in this case, as there is no sausage on the menu, nor even an awe-inspiring burger made from cuts of Bern’s fabulous steaks.  What’s up with that?).  The kitchen was HUGE — much larger than either of us could have ever imagined — with a gigantic, tireless staff.

Next, we took the elevator up to the Dessert Room, and they really aren’t kidding about the private rooms, except they’re more like booths.  You really feel like you’re eating dessert inside of a phone booth made out of a giant wooden barrel.  The quarters were tight, but intimate, and the dessert menu is also something to behold.  This is where I feel like we both chose poorly (of course, we were no longer under Erhan’s protection up there), and they were the only disappointments of the evening.  We heard so much hype about the housemade macadamia nut ice cream sundae, so that’s what my wife ordered.  It was fine, I guess.  I’m not into nuts or chocolate as much as she is, but I think even she thought it was just okay.

DSC01710

I guess we had a bit of miscommunication, because I ordered the Taste of Bern’s, a sampler that includes five desserts, expecting my wife would want to try all of them.  It comes with Macadamia Decadence Cake, King Midas (a carrot nut cake topped with more freakin’ macadamia nut ice cream), banana cheese pie, chocolate cheese pie, and vanilla cheesecake.  Little did I know that the five desserts would be literally mouse-sized portions, or that my wife would be too full to care about sampling all of them at that late point in the evening, almost three hours after we arrived.  I liked the banana cheese pie morsel quite a bit (fourth one) and probably would have preferred a full serving of that.  None of the others did much for me, I must admit.  I love cheesecake like crazy, but I’ve had better.  Oh well, we still had the experience.

DSC01709

Also, the Dessert Room barrel-booths all come equipped with a telephone and a series of buttons that play different music through a speaker: jazz, Broadway standards, pop, and live music from a piano player stationed somewhere on the premises.  The phone is to call the piano player with requests.  Well, most of the buttons didn’t work, and we didn’t want to try playing “stump the piano player” with contemporary requests, although I still wonder if he would have known any Tori Amos (for my wife), Tom Waits (for me), or St. Vincent (for both of us).

We practically rolled back to our hotel across the street, which was a godsend, and crashed for the night much earlier than usual.  Aside from dessert being underwhelming for both of us, we have absolutely no regrets about going, spending the money, and finally getting the full Bern’s Steak House experience.  But I asked my wife if she would ever want to go back, and she said no, it was fine, she had a great time, but she got it out of her system completely.  I have to agree.  I was, and am, content.

We were celebrating being married for nine years, being relatively healthy (especially compared to the last year), and feeling mostly stable and safe at our respective jobs, so it was worth a step out of our comfort zones for a night like this.  I’m so grateful I was in the financial position to treat my wife to this little weekend anniversary getaway, but leaving Bern’s and checking out of the Epicurean Hotel the next morning felt like a return to reality, snapping out of this swanky fantasy and back to real life.

For better and for worse, Bern’s is a real time capsule — a piece of luxurious mid-Century Americana, at once tacky (the decor) and classy (pretty much everything else).  I’m glad they have withstood the test of time and bravely doubled down on what they have always done, rather than submitting to trends, modernizing, and going more casual.  This is the kind of place the Rat Pack would go if they went to Tampa back in the day, or where Henry Hill would have taken his wife (or possibly his mistress) if Goodfellas had a little side story set in Tampa.  I’m imagining the interior monologues, sweeping Steadicam shots, and Scorsese’s swingin’ ’70s song choices even now.  Bern’s does everything with the utmost care and the highest quality, and you get what you pay for.  They certainly go out of their way to put you at ease (even though decadence and luxury make me uncontrollably uncomfortable every time) and give you an unforgettable evening.

But I promise you, fearless readers: my next restaurant review will feel more like classic Saboscrivner, with a trip to one of Tampa’s legendary bakeries that is over a century old.  Stay tuned for TAMPAVERSARY PART 2!

Baltimore, Part 3: A Tale of Two Crabcakes (Phillips and Faidley’s)

Well, I’m already home from my trip to Baltimore, back at work, back in the real world.  It was a nice second visit to Charm City.  I learned a lot, saw some old friends, made some new ones, and had a few really terrific meals (plus some not so blog-worthy ones, including a trip to Subway because I was pressed for time and it was the best option around).

Baltimore is really known for its famous crabs: blue crabs steamed in Old Bay seasoning and served in the shell, which you smash with mallets and pick apart, and the classier, less-messy alternative, crabcakes.  Crabcakes should be soft and fork-tender, with their outer surfaces only slightly crispy from being pan-seared or broiled.  They aren’t batter-dipped or deep-fried.  It’s a croquette of shredded crabmeat, probably some bread crumbs, possibly onions, peppers, garlic, celery, herbs and spices, and maybe an egg to bind it together.  Obviously the best crabcakes are heavy on the crab and light on the fillers.

Now, you’ve probably tried a crabcake at some point in your life, but the ones in Baltimore are unmatched.  I was lucky enough to try two of the city’s iconic crabcakes at two very different restaurants.  You could say I was on a seafood diet on this trip: when I would see food, I’d eat it, as long as it was seafood.

This past Friday evening (7.13.18), I walked to Phillips, a giant seafood restaurant in the touristy Inner Harbor area, to meet two friends for dinner.  (https://www.phillipsseafood.com/)  Phillips is a pretty nice place, and their crabcakes were no exception.

phillips1

phillips2

These Hooper’s Island crabcakes came with roasted, seasoned potatoes and a nice blend of seasonal vegetables.  Those are two sides I would rarely choose myself, but I enjoyed both more than I expected to.  They also came with a tangy remoulade sauce, a great accompaniment for almost any seafood that is a good alternative to tartar sauce.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  They were delicious, and the company at dinner was unparalleled.  But I already knew there were better crabcakes to be found in Baltimore, from my previous visit back in 2011.  Would I make it back there in time?

Well, of course I did, hence the title of this post.  Baltimore’s hottest spot for crabcakes is Faidley Seafood, a legendary restaurant and seafood market inside the Lexington Market.  (http://www.faidleyscrabcakes.com/ and http://lexingtonmarket.com/)  I’m a huge fan of food markets, and they have been some of my favorite travel destinations in cities over the years: the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the North Market in Columbus, Ohio, and the granddaddy of them all, the Lexington Market, founded in 1782.  There’s a lot of history at this place — you can feel it.  It’s nestled in the middle of a historic part of downtown Baltimore, walkable from the Inner Harbor, but not in a direction most tourists would automatically head in.  The indoor market shows its age, and it definitely isn’t fancy, but it’s totally worth visiting and checking out the 88 vendors — especially Faidley.

Founded in 1886 and a Lexington Market resident from the beginning, Faidley Seafood feels like a time capsule in the best way.  It’s a little intimidating at first, since there’s a lot going on at multiple counters throughout the restaurant: a fresh fish counter on your left when you walk in off Paca Street, an oyster bar right in the middle, and the counter where you order crabcakes and other food on the right.  They will prepare any fresh fish you choose, in addition to their regular menu items, which is pretty cool.

faidleyB

faidleyA

faidleyC

They sell a few different crabcake varieties, as well as seafood platters, where you can try multiple things.  When I went yesterday (7.17.18), I opted for a seafood platter with a backfin crabcake, fried oysters, and fried clams, which also came with two sides.  I got macaroni salad and potato salad, since I like trying everyone’s different versions.  And they had onion rings, so this is also a stealth RING THE ALARM! feature!

faidley1

The fried oysters and clams were great.  Sometimes you can order those and taste nothing but breading and grease and wonder if there were any mollusks in there, but these were so fresh, and not at all greasy.  The potato salad and macaroni salad were thick (I hate it when the mayo is runny), creamy, cool, refreshing, and incredibly well-seasoned.  They gave me cocktail sauce and tartar sauce, which were nice for some dipping, but not necessary, given how flavorful everything was.

faidley2

The crabcake was the best I’ve ever had, and I felt that way after my earlier trip to Faidley Seafood back in 2011.  It was seasoned better than the one at Phillips, and I greatly preferred Faidley’s much more casual and historic atmosphere.  A classy sit-down restaurant versus a bustling, historic seafood market where you order at a counter and stand up to eat at long tables — you’d think the better one would be obvious, but I prefer casual and historic anyway, and Faidley’s crabcake was just superior.  (And I often eat over my kitchen counter at home, so I’m used to standing up while I eat!)  It was my favorite meal of the entire trip to Baltimore, and I’m so glad I fit it in before a long and frustrating afternoon at the airport.

Crabcake close-up:

faidleycrabcake

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the onion rings, since we have a local seafood restaurant that makes onion rings that I don’t care for at all, but these were terrific.  Some of the better ones I’ve had — the perfect thickness, the perfect batter, the perfect texture and taste.  They were perfect in every way, not that I should have been surprised.

faidleyrings

If you’ve ever watched The Wire (which I mentioned is my favorite show of all time), two different characters refer to Faidley’s in two different scenes: Omar mentions it to his partner, and McNulty brings a bag of crabcakes to two excited cops as a favor.  David Simon, the showrunner, was a long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun and more recently, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, so if you don’t believe me, believe him.  Not many people know their way around Baltimore better.  If you visit Baltimore and can only go one place for its legendary crabcakes, eschew the touristy Phillips and soak up the local culture at Faidley Seafood in the Lexington Market.  Just go for lunch, since they aren’t open for dinner!