Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.

Smokemade Meats + Eats

Sometimes my parents joke that they have no idea why I like so many different kinds of food that my family never ate when I was growing up.  I got curious and wanted to try new things once I was on my own, out of their house, taking the advice of cultured, worldly friends or the Internet hive-mind.  Not my dad, though!  He likes what he likes, he’s set in his ways, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t on a constant quest for the best too!  Just today I reassured my dad that he is a big reason I appreciate food as much as I do.  He used to drive all over Miami to find the best Chinese buffets, hot dog carts, New York pizza (by the slice!), bagels, Cuban bistec milanesa, and pastrami sandwiches.  He’d schlep up to an hour for a good meal, so that’s where I get it from.  We had a heartfelt conversation where I told him that I love all the same foods he loves, but along the way, I just figured out I like to eat other things too.  We had one of those “We’re not so different, you and I” moments over the phone.

Well, another kind of food my dad actually likes is barbecue… as long as it is not too saucy or spicy, that is!  He got me into barbecue at the legendary Shorty’s in Miami, and we ate there together countless times.  Barbecue is a reliable crowd-pleaser and a timeless and true American art form, like jazz, blues, and comic books.  Most people have strong opinions and great loyalty to barbecue, but even when we find a ‘cue joint we like, we’re always scanning the sky for scintillating smoke signals, seeking something equally good or even better.  And today I think I found that place.

Smokemade Meats + Eats (https://www.smokemade.com/) is a pop-up restaurant that started pitching a tent and serving up Texas-style barbecue at local breweries around Orlando earlier this year.  I’m back at work with a heavy teaching load, so between that and the pandemic worsening in Florida, I’ve been laying low, avoiding crowds, and not exploring as much as I would like.  But after several months of frustration, I finally made to a Smokemade pop-up at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store in Orlando’s Milk District and met Tyler Brunache, the sorcerer supreme of smoke and mystical maven of meat.  Tyler, an FSU graduate (which I’ll forgive) started barbecuing in Washington D.C. before returning home to Orlando, and we should all be glad he made that decision.  You have to follow Smokemade on Facebook or Instagram and find out where he’ll next appear, so you can try this delicious food for yourselves.

I hated crowds and long lines before social distancing was cool, so I was smart and made it to Whippoorwill Beer House on the early side, before it got overrun with Milk District hipsters.  I parked right in front of the establishment (a very pleasant surprise), and Smokemade was already set up in a tent in the parking lot with Tyler, three associates, and a very tenacious bee flying around inside the tent, occasionally landing on them but going unnoticed.  Everyone was friendly as they were taking and assembling orders, and nobody seemed perturbed about the bee, even though I warned two of the guys to watch out for it.  Those guys are nonchalant AF.  I would have gotten the hell out of that tent until the bee got bored and took off.  He must have been there because of all the positive buzz online.

Anyway, even with the curious bee, I was one of the first in line, so I was able to order and get my food packed up within ten minutes.  Keep in mind that proper barbecue is smoked low and slow — low temperatures for hours at a time.  Tyler’s beef brisket is smoked for 16 hours, his pulled pork is smoked for ten hours, his pork spare ribs are smoked for six hours, and his scratch-made sausages are cold-smoked for four hours.  Then all the meats have to rest for hours before serving to be at their best, kind of like me.  So even though I got my order quickly, it took over 24 hours to get ready behind the scenes.  What looks like a pop-up to us takes days of planning, prepping, and perfecting.  And looking at drool-worthy photos of Smokemade’s food online over the past few months, it sure looks like Tyler Brunache has perfected his process.

So what did I get?

Well, whenever I try any new restaurant, I always like to order something where I can sample as many different flavors as I can.  Here, that was the Texas Trinity Platter ($29), featuring a half-pound of beef brisket, a half-pound of pork spare ribs, and two sausages.  Keep in mind, I was bringing all of this home to share with my wife!

When I got home with this massive takeout order, I opened the heaviest box first to reveal the Texas Trinity Platter, and this is what we saw.  WOW.  But you’re not even seeing all of it here!

The first thing I did was remove that half-pound slice of brisket to portion it out.  Look at that gorgeous color, that bark, that marbling!  My photo fails to describe just how thick and substantial it is.  But it’s magnificent, masterful meat.  I asked for our brisket to be a little more moist and fatty, rather than lean.  Trust me, it’s better.  Texas-style barbecue is never served drenched in sauce, but even though we got several small cups of barbecue sauce, none of the meats really needed it.  This brisket stands on its own just fine.

By the way, you can also order a brisket sandwich on a roll for $15, and they look huge.

Underneath, you can see what is essentially a double-order of spare ribs, since I added on an extra half-pound ($9).  Hey, my wife and I both love ribs, and I knew she wouldn’t want any of the sausages.  The ribs are magnificent.  The sweet, sticky, peppery glaze adds tremendous texture and fabulous flavor.  These ribs are so tender, not only do they fall off the bone, but I swear I chewed up part of one of the bones, since it was as tender as the meat surrounding it!   Today, Tyler offered two different kinds of sausages, his popular cheddar jalapeño sausage, and a hot gut sausage.  I requested one of each in the Texas Trinity Platter, and they are both coarsely ground in natural casings (hence the “hot gut” moniker) that give you a satisfying crispy crunch sensation when you bite into them.  They were both heavy and dense sausages, and with everything else we tried, I could only eat a small segment of each.  The cheddar jalapeño was my favorite of the two, with pockets of oozing orange cheddar and a pleasant heat throughout.

Since I can’t always make it to these ephemeral pop-ups around town, I ordered what I could, while I could.  This here is a half-pound portion of pulled pork ($10), not included in the Texas Trinity Platter, but well worth trying.  It is much more understated than the brisket, ribs, and sausages, but I’d still totally recommend it.  You can also order a pulled pork sandwich on a roll for $11.  They were generous with the scratch-made barbecue sauce, which is thin and vinegary, not the usual thick slurry of ketchup, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial smoke flavor like too many sauces.

Barbecue focuses on the meats, but sides are part of the experience.  I couldn’t leave without trying three of Smokemade’s sides: coleslaw made with red cabbage and apples, jalapeño dill potato salad, and pinto beans that are spicier and more savory than the typical sweet “barbecue” baked beans served with Southern BBQ.  Each of these sides cost $3.50.  I liked the beans the most, but the meats are the real reason to chase down Smokemade.
Honestly, my favorite among all these pictured sides were the pickle slices and pink pickled onions in the top left corner of the box, and those actually came with the Texas Trinity Platter!  I already love pickled onions (I make my own), and I am starting to consider myself more of a pickle aficionado, but I really liked these.  Their puckery, pungent punches complemented the salty, smoky meats very well — even better than the actual separate side items, in my opinion.  I asked Tyler, and he said they make everything from scratch except for the slices of white bread that came with the platter.  I don’t know if he would consider selling his pickles and pickled onions in larger portions in the future, but if he offers them, run, don’t walk.

Finally, I couldn’t come home to face my wife without a dessert, so I chose bread pudding over key lime pie (I love it but she doesn’t) and banana pudding.  Each of the three desserts costs $4.  This was a nice-sized chunk of sugary-sweet, soft, moist bread pudding, featuring cinnamon and caramel flavors.  We thought it might have been made with challah bread, as it did taste somewhat eggy.  We each had a nice-sized portion earlier tonight, and there is still some bread pudding left for tomorrow (with my wife’s name on it).  I’d love to try the banana pudding and key lime pie on a future visit.

You might have noticed this was a lot of food for two people, but I fully expected we would get multiple meals out of it, especially with me packing lunches for work to wolf down between classes and reference interviews, and her being home for the time being.  And it was all so good, neither of us will mind eating amazing Texas-style barbecue for another couple of days.

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to attend an annual conference for my professional organization in Dallas, Texas.  Of course I had to try the local barbecue, so I sought out the famous and highly recommended Pecan Lodge.  It was amazing — easily some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten.  Maybe the best.  I’ve never had anything quite like it in Florida, until now.  I never forgot that meal, but I can tell you that Tyler Brunache’s food from Smokemade Meats + Eats looks, smells, and tastes just like that real-deal Texas ‘cue I enjoyed so much in Dallas and dreamed about ever since.

Seriously, don’t sleep on Smokemade, and don’t write it off as a logistical nightmare just because there isn’t a permanent, brick-and-mortar location.  Follow the social media, figure out where Smokemade Meats+ Eats will pop up next, get there early so they don’t sell out of what you want, and go with friends so you can sample a little bit of everything on the menu.  But be careful out there, and drink responsibly at all these breweries!

Back in 1996, the great singer/songwriter/actor/Texan Lyle Lovett sang “That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.”  Well, I’m not from Texas, and neither is Tyler, and statistically, most of you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos probably aren’t either.  But take it from The Saboscrivner: you want this Texas barbecue anyway!  Heck, even my dad would.

Yellow Spoon Kitchen

Orlando is a really diverse, multicultural, cosmopolitan city — far more than most outsiders would believe, and sadly far more than most tourists ever get to see for themselves.  But locals know we have so much more going on than theme parks and chain restaurants (even though for most people, there is a time and a place for those too).  Our culinary scene has advanced so much that we have all kinds of exciting pop-up restaurants now, many of them cooking out of ghost kitchens and specializing in takeout food you preorder online.  This is a great way to adapt to the changing needs of diners, allowing creative chefs and enterprising entrepreneurs to minimize expenses and personal contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, when fewer people feel comfortable dining in restaurant dining rooms.  I’m always on the lookout for new, unfamiliar cuisines I’ve never tried before, especially when pop-up restaurants are involved.  These ephemeral eateries motivate me to get out and try things while I can, because you never know when they’ll be back, or what they will offer next time.

So imagine my excitement when I first hear about Yellow Spoon Kitchen (https://yellowspoonkitchen.com/) on the tried and true Orlando Foodie Forum Facebook Group.  This is a pop-up restaurant specializing in Indonesian cuisine, which is definitely new to me, as well as healthy pre-made meals.  Guess which one caught my attention!

The young chef behind Yellow Spoon Kitchen, Ridwan Nurjaman, is also a sushi chef, according to his Facebook profile.  This is an ambitious side hustle, introducing a mostly unfamiliar population to Indonesian food out of a shared ghost kitchen in the East End Market in Audubon Park.  But that’s a great location for him — in one of Orlando’s foodie landmarks, our small food hall easily accessible from most of our hippest, most diverse, and most open-minded neighborhoods that are home to some of our finest local restaurants.  This week he advertised two different Indonesian dishes up for preorder this weekend, so I ordered one of each — one for me and one for my wife — and requested to pick them up today, Saturday, at noon.

Me being me, I arrived almost an hour early because parking is terrible at the East End Market on weekends.  Then I realized I had no idea where the food pickup was supposed to be.  The place isn’t that large, but the e-mail receipt didn’t have any information, so I searched high and low for the mysterious ghost kitchen.  At one point I walked through some unmarked doors on the second floor of the building and interrupted a church service, with a keyboard player and singers and everything.  That was definitely not one of my finest moments!  Eventually I found a door in the very back of the market with a small sign on it — the ghost kitchen entrance, where we could pick up our Yellow Spoon Kitchen preorders.  My order wasn’t ready until after 12:30, but I had a book I have to read for work, and I was content to wait in the back and avoid everyone eating at tables in the busy parts of the food hall.  I’m still doing everything I can to avoid crowds and any unmasked people, which includes pretty much everyone dining in public.

This is an Indonesian “heavy salad” called gado-gado ($10), requested by my wife.  According to the website, gado-gado is an “Indonesian salad of slightly boiled, blanched or steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, boiled potato, fried tofu and tempeh, and lontong (rice wrapped in a banana leaf), served with magic spicy peanut sauce dressing.  In 2018, gado-gado was promoted as one of six national dishes of Indonesia.”  Neither of us noticed any hard-boiled eggs or rice in a banana leaf in this particular salad, but there were definitely bean sprouts on the bottom.  She loves tofu, tempeh, and peanut sauce, so I think those were her favorite parts.   

This was the peanut sauce, in a generous-sized plastic cup:

This was my meal, the nasi padang ($13), a segmented platter with all kinds of dishes, like a Japanese bento box, an old-school TV dinner, or the school lunches of my youth, only a lot better than the latter two.  Whenever I eat somewhere new, I usually have a hard time deciding between a few dishes, so I always love some kind of sampler platter that lets me try a few different things.  I was so happy this was something he offered today, since it was my crash course in Indonesian food.  The top left dish is beef rendang, a spicy, savory stew of beef slow-cooked in coconut milk, herbs, and spices for hours until it is fork-tender.  It’s kind of like a curry, but more of a dry curry that isn’t overly saucy.  I tasted some familiar flavors, but as a whole, it was an entirely new taste experience for me.  To the right of the beef rendang was a savory omelet full of peppers and other vegetables.  Miraculously, it was still warm by the time I got it home.  I love omelets and cooked them often for myself at home, until a recent physical confirmed I have high cholesterol and blood pressure, and my doctor told me eggs are the enemy.  (Funny, I know I indulge in delicious and unhealthy foods sometimes, but I always thought eggs were a reasonably healthy and uncontroversial thing to eat.  What are you gonna do?)  And next to that was a bed of rice, perfect for cutting the heat of some of the dishes in the bottom left compartment.

The immediate bottom left of the nasi padang tray contained jackfruit curry.  Jackfruit is a large tropical fruit grown between India and Malaysia.  It isn’t sweet, but vegetarians love it because it can be used in a lot of savory recipe as a decent meat substitute.  The texture was softer and more yielding than chicken or pork, but I could finally see what my vegetarian friends rave about, how it could be a satisfying substitution in so many dishes because it takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in — in this case, a mildly spicy curry sauce.

The greens in the photo above are steamed kale.  I usually hate the harsh texture of raw kale, but I’ve enjoyed it in a stew with sausage, potatoes, and white beans, and I liked it with this softer texture from steaming.  It was seasoned with something that made it surprisingly spicy, though.

Directly above the kale, there are red and green condiments called sambal.  The green one is sambal ijo, and forgive me, but I don’t know what the red one is called.  I ate every drop of these, mixed with the rice, because they were so spicy.  The green sambal ijo was much hotter than the red one, but I liked the flavor of the red one more.

At first I was like “Man, what a small little chicken leg!” but this was the standout of the nasi padang — definitely my favorite part, and one of the best pieces of chicken I’ve eaten in some time.  It was fried, but not breaded or crispy, and definitely not greasy.  I would not be surprised if it was brined or marinated first, because it had such a good flavor — very savory, with a hint of sweetness.  No spiciness here, unlike several of the other ingredients.  I wish Chef Ridwan would offer a whole meal of Indonesian fried chicken, because I would totally order that.

These were lightly crispy, crunchy, salty chips that were included.  I’m not sure which of the two meals they came with (maybe both?), but I have bought similar chips at Asian markets around Orlando, and I always like them.

I thought about holding off on writing my review of Yellow Spoon Kitchen because I don’t know when and where Chef Ridwan will pop back up with new menu items.  But life is so unknowable these days, and everyone is still hunkering down and ordering takeout, while craving some novelty to break up the monotony.  I wanted to start spreading the good word now, so people can be on the lookout for his eventual triumphant return and discover his Indonesian cooking for themselves.

Itamae Densho

I just recently learned about the existence of Itamae Densho (https://itamae-densho.square.site/), a Japanese restaurant affiliated with local favorite (and Saboscrivner favorite) Swine & Sons inside The Local Butcher & Market, a gourmet butcher shop and market in Winter Park.  Local chef Denni Cha set up there a week ago, creating beautiful donburi, bowls of sushi-seasoned rice topped with stunningly gorgeous arrays of raw fish, fresh and pickled vegetables, actual flowers, and so much more.  I’m a huge fan of poke and sushi, but I’m used to very casual build-your-own poke bowl places, and I’ve never done a full-on omakase dinner experience.  So even though these donburi look almost too pretty to eat, I wanted to destroy something beautiful.

I placed my online order on the above website late last night and paid in advance with my credit card.  The automated e-mail told me my order would be ready after 5:50 PM today, and since I grew up in a home where “Early is on time and on time is late,” I was there right on the dot.  I met Denni, who said they would just need some time to assemble everything so it would be at its freshest, and I appreciated that he didn’t have it already made, sitting there waiting for me.  I was out the door with three bowls packed in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe containers in about ten minutes.

This is the Salmon Oyako donburi ($16) that my wife ate most of.  The website describes it as including “Wild King Salmon Tataki, House Cured Salmon Roe, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182329

Note the little yellow flowers and the beautiful green romanesco cauliflower, which has fascinating fractal patterns.  It looks like sci-fi food, and I always remember Rey actually eating some in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  The salmon roe popped lightly in our mouths like delicate, salty, fishy bubbles, and the salmon was incredibly fresh.

This was the “Tuna x Tuna” donburi ($15), with “Tuna Sashimi, Tuna, Densho-Style Tuna, Yuzu-Kosho Aiolo, Tobiko, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182309

I love tuna, so I was in tuna heaven with this one.  I also liked the seaweed salad, which had a nice crunch and a subtle saltiness from soy sauce.  The leafy green surrounding the roe in the above photo had an interesting bitter taste.  But those thin slices of pepper are serrano peppers with the seeds and ribs intact, so they are no joke.  I’m used to jalapeños, which are further down the Scoville scale, heat-wise.  Plus, I usually remove the seeds and ribs when I prepare jalapeños at home, always while wearing disposable gloves (a lesson learned the hard way, after one horrific incident I won’t go into in this space, in mixed company).  Anyway, before too long, we were like a couple of kids: her picking out the serrano slices for me, and me picking the tiny flowers off with my chopsticks for her.  (I don’t think they added much in the way of flavor, but damn, were they cute!)

And this was the Densho-Style chirashi donburi ($18), with “Chef’s Selection of sashimi grade fish with various garnished flavor profiles, house-cured salmon roe, unagi, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”
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Aside from tuna, salmon, and the roe, I think I recognized hamachi (yellowtail) in this bowl, plus more of the other ingredients.  The sushi rice was excellent, and even my wife, who normally doesn’t like the sweet rice vinegar flavor in sushi rice, enjoyed it.  My wife was the first one to discover that all three bowls had crispy fried onions near the bottom, underneath the rice.  She doesn’t normally like onions at all, but she enjoyed what these brought to the table.  As for me, I love onions, so I was very content.

I’m sure there is a grand tradition of this beautiful presentation in Japanese cuisine, but we usually don’t go to those high-end sushi restaurants.  However, my wife and I were both reminded of the award-winning restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark.  No, we’ve never been there either, but it has been featured in many food and travel shows, including the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil.  Those are all awesome shows that any Saboscrivner reader would love, if you don’t already.  Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, prepares these picturesque plates of fancy food that look like tiny terrariums, or dioramas for fairies and elves to live in.  He uses lots of edible flowers and plants to build a little scene, and that’s what Denni Cha’s lovely donburi bowls made us think of.  As long as he’s set up at The Local Butcher & Market, preparing these dishes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, I encourage all of you to place some preorders on his website.  But do it early, because I have a feeling he may only make so many of these every day, and you don’t want to miss out.