Francisco’s Taco Madness

I think we can all agree that 2020 is one of the worst years ever, but on a personal level, I had a pretty rotten 2017 too.  That summer, I was hospitalized with the worst pain of my life that turned out to be kidney stones (thanks for nothing, keto diet!).  Then two weeks later I got what was probably the second-worst pain of my life, which turned out to be pneumonia, which I almost certainly caught in the hospital the first time.  I missed two weeks of work recovering, and it all really shook me up and made me realize I’m getting old, and things are going to keep breaking.  (And back then, even after that one-two punch, I didn’t know the half of it!)

Toward the end of those two weeks, I was out running errands, feeling sorry for myself, and also feeling hungry.  What else is new, am I right?  Driving down State Road 17-92, I passed the Lowe’s home improvement store and saw a familiar white trailer with a red and white striped awning, a sight I had seen countless times over the years.  But this day, I was curious enough to stop, and I had all the time in the world to linger.  It smelled so good, and as I perused the handwritten menu, I knew I had chosen wisely.  The Mexican food was some of the best I’d ever tasted, and it was incredibly cheap and so satisfying.  It helped lift me out of a deep existential depression, and made me feel physically better, too.  This was a real treasure, and I felt like I had discovered it, despite them always being busy and having long lines.
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I would later learn that taco trailer was called Francisco’s Taco Madness (https://www.facebook.com/Franciscos-Taco-Madness-Pinedo-rental-173063512788695/), and it became one of my favorite sights to see in Casselberry, whenever I drove by the Fern Park Lowe’s on State Road 17-92, just south of Semoran Boulevard.  You have to follow their Facebook page to know when they’re going to be serving, but it’s usually between Wednesday and Saturday, afternoons only, usually just between 1 PM and 6 PM.  I’ve been back many times over the last few years, but Saturdays are typically my only opportunity to visit.  And since the lines really do get long, my recommendation is to be there close to the beginning, when they’re still putting up that striped awning.

Most recently, after a few weeks of being shut down, Francisco’s Taco Madness announced their triumphant return starting this past Tuesday, June 30th.  They wouldn’t be at Lowe’s anymore, but at a new location literally two minutes away:

Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People
704 Prairie Lake Dr.
Fern Park, FL 32730

They are also asking diners to text their pickup orders to 407.865.4697, to cut down on crowds and help with social distancing.  NOW’S YOUR CHANCE, PEOPLE!

Here is the menu:
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I ordered my wife her favorite: two carne asada tacos, with cilantro, guacamole, and a splash of hot sauce, hold the onions ($2 each):
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I got myself one chorizo taco with all of that, plus onions ($2):
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Here are some lovely tacos from an earlier visit:
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And I got my favorite burrito in all of Orlando, Francisco’s al pastor burrito ($8).  It is huge and perfect in every way, the archetypal burrito of your dreams and mine:
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It is so good that I included it in my list of Top Five Dishes of 2017, published in the Orlando Weekly‘s end of the year issue.

Here’s a cross-section so you can see the deliciousness wrapped inside that grilled 12″ flour tortilla: the perfectly marinated and slightly sweet al pastor pork, rice, beans, cheese, onions, peppers, guacamole, and a piquant sauce.  It’s truly unparalleled.
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This time I treated myself to a fresh-squeezed lemonade (something I have a hard time turning down), and I got the large for $4, which just comes in a styrofoam cup.  It was really refreshing, especially after waiting outside in the early summer heat for my order to come up — probably the longest sustained period I’ve been outdoors since the quarantine started in March.  They also offer regular canned sodas and bottled Jarritos Mexican sodas, made with cane sugar, which I love and recommend.
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You can see that Francisco’s Taco Madness also offers quesadillas (which my wife loves), hamburgers, hot dogs, a kielbasa sausage sandwich, a barbecue pulled pork sandwich, a Philly cheesesteak, and even chicken salad.  I’ve been tempted in the past by the kielbasa, which I’m imagining comes on a nice, lightly-griddled roll and covered with onions and peppers, but I always return to that al pastor burrito and one or more tacos.

Orlando is lucky to have so many outstanding Mexican options, especially for tacos.  I’ve already reviewed my other favorites, which I think are synonymous with the best in town (Tortas El Rey, Hunger Street Tacos, MX Taco), but no list of my favorites or the best would be complete without Francisco’s Taco Madness.  If you’re also driving through Fern Park and see that red and white striped awning over their white decorated trailer, stop whatever you’re doing, pull into Anderson Motors – Good Cars 4 Good People, and text your order to 407.865.4697.  You will be so happy you did, and you’ll wonder what took you so long.

Bagel King

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
–Omar Little, from The Wire (the greatest show of all time)

It’s no secret your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner loves bagels.  They are, after all, the food of my people.  I grew up eating bagels with my family on Sunday mornings in Kendall (one of Miami’s more staid suburbs) from a series of bagel shops and delis that are all decades gone.  On this very blog, I’ve waxed poetic about some of New York City’s best bagels, from the extraordinary Ess-A-Bagel and the rapturous Russ & Daughters Cafe.  I’ve sung the praises of Pickles Delicatessen in nearby Longwood, where their bagels are shipped frozen from New York, and they are almost as good as the real things, hot and fresh when you’re right there.

But if you want freshly baked bagels in the Orlando area, your best option is Casselberry’s Bagel King (https://www.bagelking.net/).  I’ve been going to Bagel King since I moved here in 2004, first with one of my good friends and former roommates, and then with my wife, ever since we started dating in 2006.  It’s a “friendly neighborhood” place too, with a wide open dining room and plenty of natural light streaming in, a gleaming glass case full of pastries baked in house, and a floor-to-ceiling rack of different freshly baked bagels behind the front counter.  You can order takeout at the counter (as everyone has to do these days), but in happier, safer times, it was a great place to grab a table for a leisurely breakfast or lunch.

This was the bagel selection on a recent busy weekend after the takeout lunch crowd came and went, but they still had everything I wanted:
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I can’t tell you how many times I ordered the “Fresh Fish Fantasy” ($10.99) over the last 15 years, where you can choose a bagel with cold-smoked nova salmon (what most people think of as “lox”) or much saltier belly lox, along with cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers on the side.  Almost as many times as I would belt out “Well it’s just a fresh fish fantasy, baby!” in my head over that bouncy Tom Tom Club sample, to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “Well it’s just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby!”  I would always opt for an everything bagel, thick and fluffy with that shiny exterior that only comes from boiling, dusted with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, or a crustier, non-boiled bialy roll with its oniony center.

Close-up of a bialy, for the uninitiated:
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Sometimes I’d switch up the Fresh Fish Fantasy formula and instead opt for smoked whitefish salad on a toasted everything bagel or bialy ($10.99), or sometimes I’d indulge and get Tinamarie’s stuffed potato knish ($8.99): pastrami, corned beef, roast beef, or turkey (I would NEVER get turkey) with provolone, caramelized onions, and dusseldorf mustard, served on a homemade potato knish, split open like a sandwich.  For those of you who have been deprived, a knish is a pastry made of a thin layer of dough wrapped around seasoned mashed potatoes.  You can buy delicious Gabila’s brand knishes in the frozen case at Publix (they are fried and made in New York), but a lot of bagel shops and delis bake theirs, including Bagel King.  You can buy a mini-knish for 99 cents or a full-sized one for $2, and your life will be so much better if you do.

However, my wife never deviates from her formula: a toasted, buttered everything bagel ($1.99) with a side order of pastrami ($4.49), always sliced into strips and cooked on the grill until it was slightly crispy, like bacon.  Bagel King isn’t a kosher restaurant, by the way — you can get applewood-smoked bacon with your eggs, cheddar cheese on your burger (on a pretzel roll), or provolone on any number of thick, meaty, overstuffed sandwiches.  But they also offer turkey sausage and turkey ham.

Most bagels are $1 each, or you can get a baker’s dozen (13) for $10.  Bagels freeze exceptionally well, especially if you slice them first, seal them in plastic bags, squeeze all the air out, and freeze them immediately.  Then they warm up perfectly in a toaster oven… or you can microwave them for 30 seconds before the toaster oven, if you always forget to slice them before freezing, like I usually do.

On this most recent trip, I stocked up with bagels to freeze: nine everything bagels and nine bialys.
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They were even kind enough to throw in these sweet treats: a raspberry danish pastry and a huge, dense cinnamon roll.
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Bagel King also makes their own flavored cream cheeses, which you can order on your bagel or get to-go tubs.  The savory veggie, bruschetta, chunky nova, and smooth lox cream cheeses are all outstanding, but they have sweet ones too, like strawberry, Nutella, and almond amaretto.  I just wouldn’t recommend those sweet ones on an everything bagel or a bialy!DSC03059

So that’s Bagel King, another old stalwart, and your source for the best fresh bagels in Orlando.  I’m so lucky to live near the one in Casselberry, but there are also locations in Winter Park, Lake Mary, Debary, and a wholesale location in Orlando.  Now more than ever, I know we’re all seeking comfort food.  To me, few meals are as comfortable as a good bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.  If that sounds the least bit good to you, come at the king, and don’t miss.

 

Alex’s Fresh Kitchen

I’m sure my regular readers are all doing their part to keep themselves and others safe by staying home, and so is your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner.  But we still have to eat, and I feel obligated to help our local restaurants by ordering takeout when I can (pretty much limited to weekends, on my way home from the pharmacy or grocery store) and spreading the good word about them, to encourage others to keep ordering too.

I’m much less likely to drive all around the Orlando area on food missions like I used to, so I have a renewed focus on what’s good in the neighborhood.  (Sorry.)  Late in 2019, my quiet and unassuming suburb of Casselberry got a new little restaurant: Alex’s Fresh Kitchen (https://www.alexsfreshkitchenfl.com/).  It opened in a space on Semoran Boulevard just south of Red Bug Lake Road once held by Five Boroughs Pizzeria.  Who?  Exactly.  I visited the pizzeria once and thought it was perfectly okay, but it closed before I could write a review.  Alex’s Fresh Kitchen, on the other hand, is a welcome addition to this side of town, and a place I intend to become a regular at.

Alex Diaz is the chef-owner of this small, quaint restaurant with an open kitchen.  He cooks, and his mother, Deborah McDowell, who I didn’t get to meet, provides the baked goods.  Alex was a convivial guy, definitely proud of his place despite suffering from the slowdown all restaurants are dealing with.  But he had other locals, clearly regulars, coming in for takeout before and after me, so I’m glad people are finding out about his Fresh Kitchen.

I used to not be a big chicken sandwich guy, but the last year has led to me appreciating the humble fried chicken sandwich more, as you might have seen in my reviews of Popeye’s, Swine & Sons (which I named one of my favorite dishes of 2019 in Orlando Weekly), and Chicken Fire (which I tried and loved even before they introduced a chicken sandwich of their own).  I had heard from multiple trusted foodies that Alex’s offers a worthy chicken sandwich, so of course I had to try it.
DSC03064 Their version ($12) is a fried or grilled chicken breast (I chose fried because when we’re under a stay-at-home order, we all deserve a little treat), served on a brioche bun with garlic aioli, cabbage slaw, and pickles that were made in house.  I always prefer chicken thighs, especially when the chicken is being fried, but even with white meat, it was still a large and tasty sandwich.

DSC03062I also ordered the burger special ($13), and I’m so glad I did, because it was one of the tastiest burgers I’ve eaten in a really long time, and not just because we’ve been quarantined at home.  It was an eight-ounce burger cooked medium rare, exactly how I requested, served on the same kind of lightly-griddled brioche bun, and topped with fried onion strings, barbecue sauce, pulled bacon, and the most delicious roasted tomato aioli — a pretty perfect burger.  I can’t rave about this burger enough.  Alex told me he runs a different burger special almost every week, so this was a passing thing, but I hope he brings it back or maybe makes it the regular burger, in addition to rotating specials.

DSC03066I placed my takeout order over the phone, and Alex offered me the choice of fries, home fries, or salad.  I had a hard time deciding between fries and home fries, especially because I make and eat salads all the time, but usually leave deep-frying to the professionals.  Luckily, with ordering the chicken sandwich and the burger, I got an order of fries and an order of home fries.  Even though I live ten minutes from Alex’s, the fries were lukewarm and a little soggy by the time I got home and started eating, but I devoured them anyway.  They were good fries, and I suspect they’d be great fries when we’re able to eat in restaurants again.

What was great, however, were the little plastic cups of roasted tomato aioli and roasted onion aioli that Alex included for me.  Longtime readers know what a fan I am of condiments, dips, and sauces, and these were mind-blowing.  I wish he sold these two house-made aiolis in jars, because I’d buy multiple jars and give them to friends and colleagues as gifts.  Ask my wife, who was eating something else while I had this food — I kept exclaiming how good the fries were dipped in these two aiolis, especially the roasted onion one.  I was even cursing with enthusiastic disbelief, and I’m sure I pumped my fist more than once.  They were that good.

DSC03065The home fries were even better than the fries.  The fried potato chunks were a little soft,  but I’m sure they would have been crispier if eaten immediately.  They were very well-seasoned, and there were strips of onion and bell pepper tossed in with them.  I don’t order home fries very often, but I’m so glad I got these.  They were more flavorful than the regular fries so they didn’t benefit as much from the aioli duo, but you bet I tried every different combination and permutation anyway.

Alex’s mother, Deborah McDowell, makes the desserts at the Fresh Kitchen.  I saw a beautiful chocolate peanut butter cake, as well as a beguiling ube cake:
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But maybe my favorite dessert in the world is an Atlantic Beach Pie that I make.  This is the recipe, except I make the crust out of Ritz crackers (the best crackers) instead of the traditional Saltines,  You end up with a pie that is sweet, rich, creamy, sticky, buttery, tart, salty, and crunchy, and perfect year-round (but especially as a summer dessert).  So when I saw Deborah also makes a lemon pie for Alex’s Fresh Kitchen, I had to try her version.  She didn’t opt for the buttery, salty, cracker crust, instead going for a thick, moist graham cracker crust.  Her lemon filling was more custardy than mine, much less tart, and also firmer, while mine comes out more runny.  I was so happy I tried it.  Creamy, citrusy pies are the best.DSC03069

Well, after this first visit, I was already a fan of Alex’s, so I returned this past weekend for more takeout.  I got myself one of his weekly specials, an 8″ Philly cheesesteak sandwich ($12), with a side of those terrific home fries.  It was tasty, but not as juicy or greasy as cheesesteaks I’m used to from places like LaSpada’s.  I feel like it could have used more melty cheese, but it still hit the spot.DSC03076

After my week of raving about Alex’s, and my dear wife not being able to escape my raving, she asked me to order her the mini chicken and waffles ($11).  By the time I got it home and unpacked it for her, there didn’t seem to be anything “mini” about it.  It was a large Belgian-style waffle, already cut into quarters, and served with two medium-sized pieces of fried chicken breast.  Some parts of the fried chicken were burnt, but she ate it anyway, scorched spots and all.  I’m sure this was an anomaly, because my chicken sandwich from the previous visit was fried to perfection.DSC03077
The chicken and waffles came with four little cups of various accompaniments.  From left to right: maple syrup (maybe “pancake syrup,” which I honestly prefer sometimes due to growing up with it), a sweet, caramelized, almost toffee-like topping that she loved on the waffles, what I think was cinnamon sugar (we didn’t try this, and it’s still in our fridge), and her favorite, a sweet and sticky vanilla sauce.

And because nobody deserves a treat more than my poor wife, who has been cooped up at home for weeks, I brought her back a slice of the chocolate peanut butter cake ($7), which happens to be gluten-free.  She absolutely loved it, chocolate lover that she is.  Just like last week’s burger was my favorite thing I’ve tried from Alex’s, this cake was definitely her favorite.DSC03075

It’s great to have one more good restaurant offering comfort and consistency close to home, especially because we’re hardly going anywhere these days.  Alex’s Fresh Kitchen is a relatively new addition to Casselberry’s limited dining options, but I’m so glad Alex and his mom are here, now more than ever.  Ironically, their restaurant is across the street from my gym, but they’re open and the gym is closed.  I can’t go there three times a week like I was going to the gym, but I’ll keep going when I can, especially now that I’m following their Facebook page for updates on the new burgers and other weekly specials.  Welcome to the neighborhood, Alex and Deborah!  Constant readers, make them feel welcome.

Tomasino’s New York Pizzeria

Sometimes you never know the wonders in your own neighborhood, and you can live in a place for years before you discover them.  My wife and I were neighbors for two years — me living with one of my good friends and her living with her parents, five minutes away — before we met on OKCupid.  And in our very neighborhood was a pizzeria I’ve been driving past for over 15 years, that we finally took a chance on trying in recent weeks.  It turned out to be another pleasant surprise moments from our driveway.  This is Tomasino’s New York Pizzeria (http://www.tomasinospizza.com/), with three locations in Orlando (along East Colonial between Primrose and Bumby, in the “Milk District”), Winter Springs (near us), and Lake Mary (I never go up there, so I have no idea what it’s near).

For our first visit, we decided to dine in, because pizza is always better hot and fresh out of the oven.  The Winter Park Tomasino’s is a very small space, but we are early birds whenever possible and got seated immediately.  Later on, as you will find out, they get slammed.  We started out with an order of fresh-baked garlicky cheese knots ($3.99), drenched in thick, melty garlic butter, dusted with Romano cheese, and served with the most delicious marinara sauce for dipping.  Deez knots were very soft and fluffy, which we always like.  Sometimes garlic knots can be too dense and chewy, like little softballs, but not these!DSC02861

This was the 14″ Arthur Avenue-style pizza ($18.99), named after the famous old street of Italian restaurants, delis, and grocery stores in the Bronx.  This pizza sounded perfect for me, topped with spicy soppressata salami, caramelized onions, and goat cheese — these are a few of my favorite things!  They finish it off with a drizzle of their “spicy marinade” that definitely contains crushed red pepper, that pizzeria tabletop standard.  However, I couldn’t shake the fact (no pun intended) that it tasted like the Frank’s Red Hot sauce you put on Buffalo-style hot wings.  DSC02862

Here’s a slice of the Arthur Avenue pie.  I love vinegar and spice, but I’m not the biggest fan of hot Buffalo wings, and that was the overwhelming flavor on this particular pizza, due to that “spicy marinade.”  I would have tried it no matter what, but next time I’ll just stick to plain cheese or splurge on meatballs, onions, and peppers as toppings. DSC02863

My wife opted for two slices: a Don Tomasino slice ($4) and a regular cheese slice ($2.50), both cut from larger 18″ pizzas.  The Don Tomasino is their regular bianca pizza (mozzarella, ricotta, parmigiana and fresh garlic, with no red sauce), topped with thin-sliced breaded eggplant, spinach, fresh tomatoes, and drizzled with their “special pink sauce” (like a vodka sauce).  DSC02864
She didn’t even come close to finishing these, but as usual, I greatly preferred the crispy texture of these large slices to my 14″ pie.  When I return (AND I DID), I’m going to stick to slices, like I usually do at my other local favorite pizzerias Del Dio and Paradiso.

We shared a slice of strawberry cheesecake for dessert, since Tomasino’s gets cheesecake from the legendary Junior’s restaurant in Brooklyn.  This past summer, my wife and I went to New York and ate at two different Junior’s locations in the theater district.  I argue Junior’s bakes the best cheesecake anywhere — far better than your jiggly Japanese cheesecakes, the Publix bakery, and especially the Cheesecake Factory.  It’s nice to know we can get Junior’s slices at Pickles Deli in Longwood as well.DSC02865

More recently, I brought home takeout from Tomasino’s, so we had a second round of trying stuff.

We got the garlicky cheese knots again:DSC02956

My wife got another slices of the Don Tomasino pizza:
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I got my own slice of plain cheese this time (topped with her tomatoes that I dutifully plucked off the Don Tomasino, since she doesn’t like raw tomatoes:
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And a very good meatball sub ($7.99), with onions and peppers added.  Don’t worry, I only ate a few bites after two knots and the slice of pizza.  It heated up perfectly well in the toaster oven the next day.
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And for dessert, my wife wanted to try the chocolate mousse, which was very rich.  She barely made it through half of the decadent domelike dessert, and I only had a few bites, so she had plenty left to enjoy the next day.
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A cross-section, showing the layers of lusciousness:DSC02960

But I placed this pickup order on a Friday evening, just before leaving work at 6:00, and let me tell you, Tomasino’s was a standing room only crowd by the time I got there.  The only thing harder than getting a table was getting a parking space, especially with the even larger and busier Gators Dockside restaurant next door.  So keep in mind Tomasino’s delivers too, for peak times like that.  But also keep in mind that our pizza slices were cold by the time I got home, ten minutes away.  Pizza — especially thin and crispy New York-style slices like they serve here — is always better eaten at the restaurant, hot and fresh out of the oven, like I warned at the beginning of this review.  We knew better, but don’t get me wrong — the food was still good.  I’m glad we finally gave our friendly neighborhood Tomasino’s a chance, and after two visits, we have every intention of becoming regulars.

Rey’s Cuban Cafe

My wife and I love Cuban food, and I’m from Miami, so I grew up eating some of the best Cuban food in the world.  My parents definitely weren’t into exploring new cuisines, but we often feasted on Cuban delicacies, and as a result, I feel like my standards are high.  I’m always on a quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando, and my latest discovery has been Rey’s Cuban Cafe (https://www.reyscubancafe.com/), a small and unassuming restaurant in Fern Park, not too far from where we live.  Rey’s has about eight indoor tables and a few more on an outdoor patio, but I’ve only ever brought home takeout from there.  It’s ten minutes away, so the food is always nice and hot by the time I get it home.  I went three times before writing this review.

My wife’s favorite dish from any Cuban restaurant is bistec empanado (which I’ve seen as empanizado on other restaurants’ menus): tender steak pounded flat, breaded, and deep-fried ($9).  This is served over white rice with fried yuca.DSC02311

Here’s her bistec empanado from our second visit.  This time it came with garlicky boiled yuca, which she prefers:
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I am a sucker for liver dishes, which are rare enough on most menus, but Rey’s has two different versions.  This is higado Italiano ($10.99), strips of tender beef liver sauteed with onions and green and red bell peppers in a tangy tomato sauce.  I usually order yellow rice instead of white when there is a choice, and I can never refuse maduros, sweet fried plantains, which are one of my favorite foods in the whole world.  The onions are from my wife’s steak, since I love them and she most definitely does not.  DSC02312

This past weekend, my wife was craving bistec empanado again, and I had just donated blood, as I try to do every eight weeks.  Liver sounded awesome, probably to help replace some of the iron I had just gladly given up, so I ordered the regular bistec de higado, liver steak ($9.99).  It was very thin and tender — a perfect consistency.  I wish they had really slathered it in onions, like gone to town with cebollas.DSC02566

I always like to get red beans when I have a choice between black and red.  Rey’s red beans are served like a stew, with chunks of potatoes and little bits of onions and pork.  I wish they had a little more smoky flavor and spice, but I’ve always gotten takeout, so I add my own hot sauce at home.  I realize Cuban food is rarely spicy.DSC02569

I am a huge fan of Jon Favreau’s wonderful movie Chef, about an L.A. chef who finds new inspiration for cooking after a trip to Miami.  He buys a food truck and drives back home with his buddy and his son, selling Cuban sandwiches and bonding as they drive cross-country.  I can’t believe I never saw it until this past summer, so I was a little obsessed with Cuban sandwiches that particular weekend in July.  I remember stopping by Rey’s for the first time for my own inspiration as I prepared to marinate and roast my own pork shoulder for homemade Cubanos.  (That ended up being the best thing I ever cooked.)

But before I made my own, I enjoyed Rey’s Cuban Deluxe ($7.99), with the usual sliced roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, plus the additions of salami, Spanish sausage, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo.  Did I add one of the many mustards from my collection when I got this sandwich home?  Long-time Saboscrivnerinos will know the answer is YES.  DSC02313(My homemade Cuban sandwich was better, but this wasn’t bad at all.  I’d skip the lettuce and tomato next time, for sure.)

You can’t go wrong with buttery Cuban toast on the side of any meal:
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One of these times I brought home takeout, I was in the mood for good empanadas (although as comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada).  I ate them too quickly to take pictures of their fillings, but two of them were stuffed with picadillo, or seasoned ground beef, and the other was a pizza empanada, stuffed with hearty tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.
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There are many kinds of empanadas, with many Latin-American countries specializing in their own versions.  However, Cuban empanadas, with their flaky fried flour crusts, have always been my favorites.

And on our last visit, pastelitos (pastries) were two for the price of one, so I brought home a quesito filled with sweet cream cheese and a pastelito with guava and cream cheese.  These were perfectly fine, but not on the level of Versailles and La Carreta from back home in Miami (also known as “The 3-0-5”).  I was also craving croquetas de jamon, crispy fried croquettes stuffed with a soft, yielding filling of diced ham and bechamel sauce.  Those always hit the spot!
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I don’t think Rey’s Cuban Cafe is elevating Cuban food to new levels or putting gourmet twists on anything.  It’s comfort food, pure and simple — hearty food that reminds me of home (even though the food was one of the only things I liked about growing up in Miami).  My quest for the best Cuban food in Orlando certainly continues, but you could do a lot worse than Rey’s.  You can see the generous portion sizes and extremely reasonable prices.  Everything is fresh and tasty, and they accomplish everything they set out to do.

The Hindu Society of Central Florida Cafeteria

One of the new foodie friends I’ve made in Orlando is Isha Shah, the influencer who runs the Will Fly For Chai Facebook and Instagram accounts.  She is an excellent photographer, a top-notch writer with exquisite taste, and a genuinely kind and good person.  She is originally from India, but she and her husband have lived in Orlando for 17 years, and they are vegetarians who love to eat, cook, and travel.  (Like and follow Will Fly For Chai, by the way!  I bestow the Saboscrivner Seal of Sublimeness upon it, and upon her.)

Once a month, Isha will organize a meet-up of local foodies at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, but I had never been able to attend these gatherings before… until this past weekend, when we met at the Hindu Society of Central Florida (https://www.orlandohindutemple.org/), a beautiful temple nestled in the suburbs of Casselberry, ten minutes from where I’ve been living for a decade!  It opened in 2005, four years before we moved into our home, and I had no idea it was so close.  My regular readers will know I love discovering new things, places, and experiences, and nothing amazes and astonishes me more than finding hidden treasures close to home.  This is a perfect example of one of those.  DSC02294

There is a cafeteria on the premises that specializes in South Indian food, and she recommended it highly.  Now, I like almost all the Indian food I’ve ever tried, but I’m definitely not an expert.  I’ve been to a certain Indian lunch buffet near my work countless times, and I like all the standard, familiar dishes, but I knew this was going to be different.  Here I’d have Isha to guide me, explain things, and make recommendations.  Because I’m not well-versed in Indian cuisine, I also wanted to test my limits with spices, since most of the food on the lunch buffet is very mild (which is probably for the best, considering they expect us to return to work and continue to be productive).  I figured the dishes served at the temple cafeteria might be a little hotter.  I looked forward to this lunch all week.

I had met Isha once before, at a lunch at the East End Market (see my Hinckley’s Fancy Meats review), but this time I also met her cool husband and her delightful mom, as well as several old and new friends and acquaintances from the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps.  The cafeteria was a standard setup where you order and pay at a window, then wait for your number to be called and bring your tray of food to one of the many tables.  They had a handwritten menu on a large dry-erase board, offering most of the options listed on the website.  Everything was vegetarian, and most of it was new and unfamiliar to me.  In typical Saboscrivner fashion, I over-ordered, expecting I’d share everything with the lunch bunch:

An order of vada ($5), which had the texture of good cake doughnuts — battered and deep-fried with the slightest crispy exterior but a soft, dense interior, only savory instead of sweet.  These three vada came with a bowl of sambhar, a thick, lentil-based vegetable stew, meant to either soak or dip pieces in.  They also came with coconut chutney (top right).
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A samosa plate ($4), featuring three pyramid-shaped deep-fried pastries stuffed with spiced potatoes, onions, and peas.  I’ve had samosas before, but these were the best ones I’ve ever had.  They were such a great blend of textures, with the outer pastry shell very close to the Cuban empanadas of my childhood, fried to perfection but not greasy at all. DSC02287

The show-stopper was the dosa ($6), an absolutely huge South Indian crispy crepe.  The batter is made from fermented rice and black lentil flour, then fried in a skillet and folded or rolled into a very thin, delicate, crispy wrap, perfect for stuffing with fillings or breaking off pieces to dip into things.  This took the longest to cook, but it was worth the wait.  The dosas are so big, everyone was taken by surprise by them.
DSC02292I ordered my dosa with masala, a slightly spicy blend of potatoes, fried onions, and peas seasoned with curry spices.  I thought the dosa might come stuffed with the masala, but instead it was served on the side, which was perfectly fine.  It also came with coconut chutney that was nice for cutting a bit of the spice.  Whenever I return, I will be brave and order the mysore dosa, which came stuffed with a spicy chili paste.  The kind and concerned man taking the orders warned me it would be too spicy, so I deferred to his judgment this time, but Isha shared a piece of hers, and I could totally handle it!  Next time.
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Expecting heat, I ordered a cup of mango lassi ($1.50), a sweet and cooling yogurt drink that is my go-to beverage at Indian restaurants — not just for cutting the heat, but because I love anything with mangoes.  This was a very small plastic cup, so I sipped to make it last, but I was glad to have it near at hand.

My friend ordered idli, which are softer, fluffier discs that are similar to the vada, but not deep-fried, so I suspect not as flavorful or as interesting, texture-wise.  More experienced people advised him to rip them into chunks and soak them in the sambhar.  I didn’t try these, but I wondered if they might be similar to the consistency of bao buns.
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He also ordered chole poori, which was fried, leavened flatbread (which looked similar to puffy flour tortillas) served with a bowl of chole, a spicy curry made out of chickpeas.  I didn’t try this either, but I will next time!DSC02289

Finally, as the group wrapped up our meals and started gathering to take a tour of the serene and welcoming Hindu temple, I got talked into ordering a mango kulfi dessert ($3) — smooth and creamy mango ice cream with real chunks of fruit on a wooden popsicle stick.  I would have been fine with the cool sweetness of my wee cup of mango lassi, but I was glad I succumbed to the peer pressure, because it was a hot day, and the kulfi was a refreshing treat as we ventured back outside.  DSC02293

I felt very calm and comfortable as we wandered through the temple itself, shoes left in racks outside.  Isha encouraged us to explore the altars and just take everything in.  Wanting to be respectful, I didn’t take any pictures or even check my phone inside the temple, so I felt more attuned to my surroundings, maybe more mindful, certainly less distracted than I usually feel.  The holiness of the large, open, ornately-decorated room was palpable.  There was so much culture and history to behold that it felt as much like a museum to me as it did a temple.  Since I eschew organized religion myself, museums always feel like holy places to me, where you can learn about other cultures and contemplate our place in the larger framework of the world.  (I feel the same about libraries, but I am, after all, a librarian.) I asked some general questions about the temple and about Hinduism that I hope weren’t stupid, but Isha was very patient and informative, and so was a Hindu priest who happened to be nearby.  I couldn’t get over how welcome I felt — how welcome she made us all feel there.  As if a large, cheap, tasty, and NEW lunch with nice people wasn’t enough, I learned a lot too.

And one more big lesson I learned was about myself: that I eat A LOT of meat. (I’m sure you have noticed, dear readers!) I have always had the utmost respect for my vegetarian friends, but this lunch reminded me how delicious and satisfying vegetarian food can be. I never missed meat in any of these dishes, so it made me think about being more mindful and maybe not feeling obligated to include meat in every meal I eat as a matter of course or habit.

It was the best Sunday afternoon I’ve had in quite a while.  And by the way, the cafeteria is open (to all, including the public) on Fridays from 6:00 to 8:30 PM and Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

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My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

Kai Asian Street Fare

It’s rare we get an exciting new restaurant in my neighborhood, but Kai Asian Street Fare (http://www.kaistreetfare.com/) started out strong when it opened earlier this year in a small, nondescript shopping strip on Semoran, just south of Howell Branch, and it has been improving exponentially since then.

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My first trip was back in early April, and my wife and I ordered and shared several of Kai’s eclectic dishes:

The “Dude Where’s My Ca” fish taco was very different from my favorite Asian fusion fried cod taco at Tako Cheena, but it was nice and crispy, not greasy at all, and had a good blend of flavors going on.

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They had three different varieties of Korean fried chicken wings, but since my wife doesn’t like spicy, we went with a safe soy-garlic flavor:

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I appreciate clever names, especially puns, so “I’m in Love with the Pho Pho” earned bonus points from me right away.  It wasn’t my favorite bowl of pho I’ve ever had, but it the broth was rich and fragrant, and it came with tender slices of beef and chewy meatballs.  I just have a TENDON-cy to want beef tendon in my pho, and that wasn’t an option at Kai.

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The “Legendary” garlic noodles with shrimp were one of the best noodle dishes I have ever tasted, and will surely make my list of favorite dishes of 2018.

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Finally, the “On Fleek” pork and shrimp wontons were as tasty as they were pretty, especially rolled around in the leftover garlic noodle drippings:

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Well, life gets in the way, and I had a few really hectic and stressful months since then, so I didn’t make it back to Kai for a while, all while positive reviews kept rolling in.  Two weeks ago, I finally returned on a weekend, just intending to get some takeout for lunch, when I ran into a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum, who was there meeting another friend for lunch.  They graciously allowed me to join them, so that was super-fun, and of course we ordered and shared even more wonderful food.  Everything I tried on this second visit in October was even better than my first trip.  Plus, they had some interesting weekend-only specials which we took advantage of, so I’m so glad I went.

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Since my first visit, they have added a few more wing flavors, so each of us ordered a different one.  One friend ordered mango habanero wings, which were succulently sticky, sweet, and spicy.  I love mangoes in any shape and form, and I’m cool with spicy food, but habanero peppers are usually a little much for me, and I tend to avoid them.  Not these — they had such a great flavor, instead of just doubling down on ass-kicking heat like a lot of lesser wings at terrible sports bars and other awful wing chains.

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Another friend ordered the Szechuan dry-rub wings.  I’m developing a palate for Szechuan cuisine, which has a different kind of heat, a tingling and numbing heat that can be weirdly addictive (and sometimes has a slight metallic aftertaste).  These wings weren’t as strongly numbing as some Szechuan seasonings I’ve had at Orlando’s Chuan Lu Garden, and they seemed to be balanced by some sugar in the dry rub that cut the heat.  Since I was on my way to work after this lunch, I wisely avoided the peppers themselves.

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Those were both weekend specials, but I ordered the spicy tang wings off the regular menu, which I didn’t get to try on my first visit.  They were the most like the Korean fried chicken wings at Hawkers, which have been my favorite and gold standard so far:

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All of Kai’s wings are absolutely huge, meaty, and tender, with nice crispy breading that stays on, and never soaking in puddles of oil or grease.  I don’t know how they do it!  I am definitely a convert.  Not to take away from Hawkers’ wonderful wings, but these are easily as good — just different, and well worth trying if you already like Hawkers (or anyone else’s, really).

That day, they also had two varieties of freshly-made ho fun noodles, which are wide, flat, chewy noodles that I love.  I ordered the dan dan noodles with spicy ground chicken in chili oil, and my friend ordered the seafood ho fun noodles with shrimp, squid, beef, and rich XO sauce, a luxurious thick sauce from Hong Kong traditionally made with dried scallops, shrimp, ham, chilies, and spices.  Well, I’m here to tell you that the only way Kai could have beaten its own Legendary garlic noodles was with these two ho fun noodle dishes.  Wow.  Two weeks later and I still smile and salivate, thinking about them.  I don’t know if I’ve ever ordered other Asian noodle dishes this good.  I implore my readers to try them on a weekend, but with any luck, Kai will add them to the regular daily menu.

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This is my spicy chicken dan dan noodle bowl.  It was outstanding, folks.  It had an interesting visual flourish: the flakes on top are dehydrated bonito (fish) flakes, and when added to a steaming hot dish, they appear to dance or move!  We were all a little surprised by that, but it was a cool effect.  IT’S ALIVE!  (Not really, though.)  I didn’t get a picture of my friend’s seafood ho fun, but trust me, it looked almost as good as it tasted, which was really good.

We were all fanboying and fangirling out, chatting up the chef and our cool server throughout the meal, and the chef brought us one more thing to try, on the house: dry pho noodles, served with farm-raised chicken, crunchy chicharrones, and broth on the side.  The chicken was chewier than most chicken I’m used to, I guess from the bird actually being able to walk around freely and build up muscles.  The chicharrones weren’t like styrofoamy store-bought pork rinds, but actual crispy, crunchy chunks of rich, fatty pork.  The noodles (which were probably also house-made) stood on their own when we mixed a good sauce into them, and then we only drizzled on as much broth as we wanted for our own portions.  I love pho, but I have to be in the mood for it, and this was a nice alternative to wanting the flavors and textures but not sitting down to a steaming bowl of soup on a hot, humid day.  It was definitely better than the traditional pho I tried back in April.  I apologize for not having a photo of that either (although some patient, bleary-eyed Saboscrivner readers may be relieved!)

Well, I’m shocked and saddened it took me so many months to return to Kai Asian Street Fare and even longer to write a proper review, but I give it my highest recommendation.  If you follow the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, you will see it has emerged as a popular local favorite for good reason, and a godsend for those of us who don’t feel like schlepping down to Mills 50 for the city’s best Asian restaurants.  Kai definitely belongs in that rarified group, so don’t hold its suburban location against it.  I wish them the best of luck and all the success in the world, although they are already achieving it.  I just beg them to make those ho fun noodles a daily thing!  Also, as a music nerd, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention they were playing an incredible selection of ’90s hip hop and R&B the entire time, taking me right back to some of the more tolerable parts of high school.  Mad props to our server, who took credit for the bangin’ playlist.

 

 

Bravo Supermarket

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

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

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

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

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

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