Cafe Madrid

Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine.  Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay.  I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food.  We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.

As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami.  So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day.  Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me.  I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner!  I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/).  It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.

And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant.  Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters.  They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation.  It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials.  It ended up being exactly what I… wanted?  NO.  It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.

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Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich.  I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.

The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house.  It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo.  Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant.  It was great!  DSC01800

The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself.  I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo.  You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”dsc01802.jpg

Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better.  And you know what?  It was a delicious sandwich, even cold.  I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich.  The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for).  It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.  DSC01806DSC01807

I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like.  The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche.  Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux.  But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.

In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised.  I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home.  And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.dsc01801.jpg

I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada.  (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)dsc01799.jpg

And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.DSC01803

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So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location.  If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place.  And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was.  While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.

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Pizza Bruno

Okay, it has been far too long.  I had a big work project to complete in September, with my continued employment and entire career at stake, but I got that done.  I promise I’ll never leave you again!

This morning my wife and I returned to one of our favorite new discoveries of 2018, Pizza Bruno, a small, hip restaurant out on Curry Ford Road.  (http://www.pizzabrunofl.com/)  I have been a fan of the chef/owner, Bruno Zacchini, for years — ever since he used to set up a food cart, Big Bruno’s Bites, in front of the old Redlight Redlight bar on Bennett and Colonial, where one of my other favorite newer restaurants, Blue Jacket Grille (see my review here), is now.  After a stint as chef at the lost and lamented Oblivion Taproom on Colonial, Chef Bruno opened his own pizzeria, and it is one of Orlando’s best.

In addition to dinner, they open at 11 AM on weekends to serve their regular menu plus some brunch specialties, and starting TOMORROW, October 8th, they will start serving LUNCH!  That will be a game changer for me, since Pizza Bruno is a lot closer to work than it is to home.  I can’t wait.

But today, my wife and I treated ourselves.  We arrived shortly after they opened at 11 AM, and we HAD to order the garlic knots, which are the absolute best garlic knots ever.  With all the work stress I’ve been dealing with over the last two months, I’ve been craving garlic bread constantly, as a comfort food.  I won’t tell you how many frozen loaves of garlic bread I’ve baked at home, or how many of them have been disappointing and made me feel a lot worse about myself afterwards.  (Spoiler alert: almost all of them.)

Bruno’s “Too Much Garlic” knots are on a whole other level.  They’re not soaked through with oil, but they are the absolute perfect consistency — appropriately soft, with the slightest crispy exterior.  The garlic topping needs to be bottled and sold in supermarkets, and the cup of marinara sauce is an underrated complement.  A word of warning to the Saboscrivner Squad: Pizza Bruno often runs out of garlic knots in the evening, so if you go, go early so you don’t run the risk of missing out one of Orlando’s finest carbs.

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As if that wasn’t enough, the brunch menu offered us a new option: the best knots in town, sans garlic, but covered with sticky cinnamon-sugar glaze and served with a thick, rich mascarpone cheese spread infused with orange.  Kind of like cinnamon rolls, only far better than Cinnabon.  Of course my wife and I accepted the challenge to compare these cinnamon-sugar knots to our favorite garlic knots.  Needless to say, they were great, and the citrusy mascarpone amazed and astonished.

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Believe it or not, I eat salads quite often at home, and I pack them in my work lunches quite frequently.  But my wife NEVER wants a salad when I offer to make her one.  Who here knows the Steely Dan song “FM (No Static At All),” in which Donald Fagen sings “No static at all”?  Well, we sing “No salad at all” to the same tune, knowing that she will never ask me for one.  But at Pizza Bruno, they serve a kale salad she absolutely loves, with golden raisins, candied pecans, pecorino romano cheese, and emperor dressing (their version of Caesar dressing), so she got another one of those today.  I’m not the biggest kale fan in the world, but it’s a very good salad.  It just comes in a tiny wooden bowl despite being quite large, so some spillage is unavoidable.

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Bruno’s pizzas are twelve inches in diameter, cut into six slices, and are a relatively thin-crust, Neapolitan style.  They aren’t as crispy or large as New York-style pizzas, but the crust is much softer than you’d get at a place like Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, which is served with burnt spots.  In the past, I’ve ordered the New Haven-style clam pizza, but they didn’t have it as an option today due to a clam shortage.  This is a picture of the clam pizza from a previous visit:

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Today I got the “Tight Socks” pizza, with red sauce, mozzarella, good quality pepperoni, emperor dressing (very subtle), and fresh Thai basil leaves on top.  It was great, as always.

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My wife ordered a newer pizza off the brunch menu, although it is apparently available for dinner as well.  The G&B is a white pizza (which is great for my wife, who doesn’t love tomato-based sauces the way I do), with fresh mozzarella,  guanciale (one of my favorite cured meats, made from the jowl of a pig, then fried up crispy like very posh bacon), blueberries, and a drizzle of real maple syrup across the top.  It might sound like a desserty thing, but it is much more savory than sweet due to the rich, crunchy saltiness of the guanciale and the tartness of the juicy blueberries.  She loved it.  I had a piece too, and it was terrific.

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As you might expect, we ended up with a lot of leftovers, which is totally fine with us.  I cannot recommend Pizza Bruno highly enough.  As much as New York-style and Sicilian-style pizzas are close to my heart, since that’s what I grew up eating in Miami with my Brooklyn-raised dad, I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to call Pizza Bruno the best pizzeria in Orlando, with its creative Neapolitan-style pies, incredible knots, and wonderful service.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to our server Frankie, who was a delight — enthusiastic, knowledgeable, friendly, patient, and an overall good time.  Thank you, Frankie, for making our day!

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Ring the Alarm! Theo’s Kitchen

It feels like a while since I wrote my last review here, and I have a few more in the pipeline.  But this one is about a hidden gem here in Orlando, on Curry Ford Road: Theo’s Kitchen (https://www.theoskitchen.com/).  It’s in an older, nondescript shopping strip near a Winn-Dixie supermarket, and you might not know it’s there at all unless you’ve been hipped to its existence.  Consider yourselves hipped.

Have you ever craved really good, crispy, tender, juicy fried chicken, but also been dying for Greek food?  Has that ever happened to you too?  Well, you’re in luck, because Theo’s serves what has to be my favorite fried chicken in the Orlando area (The Coop is very good, don’t get me wrong, but not quite as consistent as it used to be), plus they have a whole menu of Greek specialties, when you can’t decide or when you just want to treat yo’self and have it all.

I’ve been to Theo’s twice this summer since discovering it, once again thanks to the local gourmands, connoisseurs, and aficionados on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook.  On my first visit, I met a fellow Foodie Forumite there, a really good guy who is always visiting and recommending restaurants around town.  I’ll name him if he’s okay with that, but for now, better safe than sorry.  GREAT guy with good taste and a never-ending thirst for adventure, culinary and otherwise.

On that visit, I ordered a gyro (because there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, am I right, you guys?), a chicken thigh so I could sample the legendary fried chicken, and an order of onion rings, because THAT’S RIGHT, THIS IS ANOTHER INSTALLMENT OF RING THE ALARM!  (AIR HORN!)  My friend ordered the gyro king (same thing but with feta cheese added), a Greek salad, and chicken and rice soup.  The gyro was very good, and the onion rings were the kind I love, with a nice beer batter coating, the ideal thickness and consistency.

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My friend seemed to love all of his food, and the salad was definitely beautiful.

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I don’t mean to downplay any of that, but the chicken thigh was excellent.  The crispness was so perfect, but it was almost all in the skin, rather than a heavy, greasy layer of breading or batter.  It was very moist and juicy.  There wasn’t a lot of seasoning on the chicken — The Coop and even Popeye’s season their fried chicken more — but it didn’t need it, seriously.  Theo’s website says “Our Special method of broasted pressure frying in peanut oil makes your Fried Chicken light, evenly cooked and full of naturally delicious flavors.”  (See https://www.theoskitchen.com/menu.)

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Wait a minute, Mr. Saboscrivner, Sir, you might be thinking.  “BROASTED”?  Is that a typo?  How unlike you!  Is that even a THING?  No, I promise, I copied and pasted that directly from the Theo’s Kitchen website and cited my source (always cite your sources, folks), but it is a thing.  It’s essentially fried chicken that is also pressure-cooked while it’s fried, prepared in special equipment made by the Wisconsin-based Broaster Company.

Because I am a serious food blogger and a researcher by trade, I dug a little deeper to investigate broasted chicken, since now I’m invested, and I’m sure you are too.  Here’s a 2004 Washington Post article all about broasted chicken:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/2004/04/21/this-chickens-not-roasted-broiled-or-fried-its-broasted-good-luck-finding-it-though/63ba6fe5-6af4-45bc-b0c3-8a8b26d8ea87/?utm_term=.b0f7e26c53b9

And a shorter Atlas Obscura article, for the “TL,DR” crowd (although I can’t imagine any of them would still be sticking around my blog!):
https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/broasted-chicken

So anyway, it was awesome.  I’ve never had fried chicken quite like it before, but I think it cracked the code for the perfect blend of flavor, freshness, texture, and lack of heavy, nasty, slimy greasiness.

I went back to Theo’s Kitchen more recently with one of my co-workers, who was kind enough to treat me to lunch, even though I had every intention of treating him that day.  What a blessing it is to have good co-workers, since that can make or break so many jobs.  He ordered a two-piece meal with a breast and a thigh, with some nice, crispy, crinkle-cut fries, and an order of fried mushrooms, which I cannot eat (but I was nice enough to take a picture of them for you).20180807_125052_resized

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I had another spot-on perfect broasted chicken thigh:

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Also, because I was craving pasta and haven’t had this in years (not since my beloved Patsio’s Diner in Casselberry closed), I ordered pastitsio, which is like a Greek version of lasagna.  It is a casserole of uncut ziti noodles and a rich, tomatoey sauce with ground beef and what had to be a fair bit of cinnamon.  (This makes sense, because I love Cincinnati-style chili, originally a recipe of Greek immigrants that is made with cinnamon and served over spaghetti.)

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The pastitsio even came with one of their beautiful Greek salads, and they were very generous with the feta:

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So Theo’s Kitchen is a casual little place in a strip shopping center that looks like hundreds of others, the kind of restaurant you could drive by every day and never notice, or live your whole life in a city and never know about.  It is an open room with lots of little tables and natural light from a big glass storefront window overlooking the parking lot.  Maybe not anyone’s idea of a “sexy date night” restaurant, but a fine choice for any occasion.  It has it all!  Greek food?  Check.  Greek food is good, and often healthy, and there aren’t a ton of Greek restaurants.  Fried chicken is good, and not healthy at all, but it’s dry and disappointing too often when you get it from fast food chains and supermarkets.  Not so at Theo’s Kitchen, where you get the best of both worlds.