St. Johns River Steak & Seafood

A while back, we met one of my wife’s best friends for lunch at St. Johns River Steak & Seafood (https://stjrss.com/), a lovely restaurant near where she lives in Sanford.  My wife and I had never been there before, but the biggest draw was being able to sit outdoors on the huge covered patio overlooking picturesque Lake Monroe on a glorious spring day.

My wife and I shared a bowl of gumbo ($9), which looks very small due to the large bowl they served it in, with just a small space in the middle.  The  rich, thick, spicy, tomatoey stew contained chicken, shrimp, crawfish, and andouille sausage, and I think I liked it a lot more than my wife did. 

I also ordered gator bites ($15) for the three of us to share.  Gator is almost a novelty food.  I don’t know anyone who loves it, but when people see it on menus, especially in casual seafood restaurants in places like Louisiana and Florida, we feel obligated to order it, I gar-ron-tee.  Maybe it’s an “eat them before they eat you” defense mechanism, or a way to prove our local “Florida Man” bona fides.  Anyway, these were chewy and chickeny, as gator bites usually are.  I think we got them grilled, but you can also get them fried or blackened.

All three of us were in the mood for grouper, which is one of the finest fish you can eat.  A surprising amount of local seafood restaurants don’t offer grouper on their menus, and some others sneakily serve other, lesser fish, even when they advertise grouper.  We figured we were coming to a place that would treat us grouper groupies right.

Our friend ordered a Caesar salad ($9) with grouper added on (I can’t find my receipt, but some of the other protein add-ons were $9, or it might have been whatever “market price” was that day).

My wife ordered the fried grouper sandwich ($18.50) and upgraded to a side of Sidewinder fries (an extra $2).  The regular sides that come with sandwiches are house-made chips or cole slaw, but we both love Sidewinder fries.  They might be some of my favorite fries ever.  It came with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on a lightly grilled brioche bun, but since I love sandwiches and my wife doesn’t, I took her bun and vegetables to turn my own grouper (see below) into a sandwich. 

And I got a blackened grouper entree ($27) with two sides: rich and creamy macaroni (really penne pasta) and cheese, and terrific onion rings.  RING THE ALARM!

Sadly, all three of us thought our grouper was a little dry.  Mine reminded me more of a denser fish like mahi, and was less flaky and buttery than grouper I’ve had elsewhere.  But the two sides were top-notch, and I really enjoyed them.

Sanford’s food scene is really blowing up with wonderful restaurants and hip bars and breweries in the quaint downtown area.  There are so many choices, it can be hard to choose.  We used to always end up at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, and last summer I discovered Christo’s wonderful diner and their legendary Greek nachos.  But it is nice to know about a seafood option too, moments away from that main drag on First Street, and with that gorgeous patio and lake view.  I can’t decide if I would give the grouper another try when I inevitably return to St. Johns River Steak & Seafood or branch out to another favorite like soft shell crab or even jambalaya.  However, I would definitely get the onion rings, mac and cheese, and Sidewinder fries again… and probably leave the gator to first-timers.

The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

JAM Hot Chicken

JAM Hot Chicken (https://www.jamhotchickenfl.com/) opened in Winter Park in late 2021, with a walk-up window location previously occupied by The Sausage Shack, a hot dog place I loved for its huge selection of mustards.  Sadly, it did not last there, but JAM is a welcome addition to the Winter Park landscape.  There is no indoor seating — you order at the window and then enjoy your food at the picnic tables or benches outside on picturesque New England Avenue, in the Hannibal Square area.  On a day that isn’t too hot or humid, an outdoor lunch in this scenic setting can feel like heaven, even when the delicious hot chicken sets your tongue ablaze.

This was my “sando” ($14, but worth every penny).  The HUGE chicken sandwich contains a Bell & Evans chicken breast, fried and seasoned to perfection, topped with crunchy pickle slices (I think they were my beloved Grillo’s), crispy slaw made with cabbage, red onion, apple cider vinegar, and no mayo, creamy comeback sauce (I would slather this on anything!), and served on a great buttered bun.  It was a magnificent chicken sandwich, up there with the best Nashville-style hot chicken I’ve ever had… and I’ve been to the legendary Hattie B’s IN Nashville.  
I ordered mine Hot, which is actually the middle level of heat.  Plain means no heat (for people like my wife), then Mild has “just a touch” of heat, and the next levels are Hot, Hotter, and JAM (marked on the menu with “You’ve been warned”).  I think next time I’ll tempt fate and try the JAM.   I love Nashville hot chicken because you don’t just get your ass kicked by pure heat; there is always so much delicious flavor, and that’s spicy food should deliver.  There is usually a touch of sweetness too, to help offset the spice.  It’s a delicate balance that I now crave, and JAM’s sando perfectly straddles that fine line.

Since I was driving home, I opted against ordering fries, knowing they would be cold by the time I returned.  I’ll have to return, because they looked good.  Instead, I got the cheddar bob mac ($5), which is in the Top Two best macaroni and cheese dishes I’ve had in Orlando.  It was really that incredible, knocking my socks off after the chicken sando already did that.  (Good thing I was wearing two pairs of socks!) The dark stuff on top was perfectly crispy, crunchy, buttery — maybe cracker crumbs?  It added a lot of terrific texture to the mac and cheese.  I also loved that the mac and cheese was cheesy and sticky, but not overly creamy.  Of course I could be wrong, but I don’t think this cheddary concoction was based on a bechamel sauce.  I find bechamel-based mac and cheese doesn’t always impart the cheesy texture and flavor I’m looking for.

The JAM Hot Chicken website also boasts an outstanding playlist that features a lot of choice ’90s and ’00s hip hop and R&B, making it even cooler — or hotter, if you will.  Wu-Tang Clan and several of its members’ solo projects, Beastie Boys (stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know I love ’em), Outkast, The Pharcyde (Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is an all-time Top Ten hip hop album as far as I’m concerned), Souls of Mischief, and the late, great MF Doom — all aces in my book.

We already have some great hot chicken in and around Orlando, including Chicken Fire (which made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 list) and Swine & Sons (which made my 2019 list, that I was honored to be included on alongside Orlando Weekly’s regular food writer Faiyaz Kara).  JAM Hot Chicken is the newest entrant into this growing field, and I was thrilled to discover it in this unassuming location, because it was awesome.  In fact, just like I say whenever “Poison,” “Motownphilly,” or “This Is How We Do It” come on the radio, THAT’S MY JAM!