Susuru

I fully admit that one hip dining trend that totally passed me by is ramen.  I subsisted on instant ramen noodles, spaghetti, and canned tuna and sardines for far too many years of my life, fueling myself through far too many degrees.  And while I still like those ridiculously salty and unhealthy noodles today, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around $10+ bowls of “fancy” ramen, after dining on 7-for-$1 Maruchan and Nissin noodles for so long.  I’ve even tried a few ramen bowls from nicer restaurants, but found them bland and disappointing, and often overloaded with those long, thin, alien-looking mushrooms with the tiny caps that ruin the whole thing for me.

But my best friend was in town recently to judge the National Pie Championships with me, and on the rare times we get to visit each other (me being in Orlando or him back in Miami), we always try to show off the newest and/or best restaurants in our home cities to each other.  One place I’ve been hearing great things about restaurant is Susuru (https://www.susuruorl.com), the new Japanese izakaya (casual pub) down near Disney World, close to where he was staying.  It’s extraordinarily easy to find if you take I-4 to exit 68 and get off on State Road 535, also known as Apopka-Vineland Road.

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Susuru features a quirky, funky, retro-hipster-otaku decor that you never see anywhere:DSC02039

As a lifelong action figure collector, I got a kick out of the view in the hallway when I left the men’s room:dsc02036.jpg

And as a cat lover with a few maneki nekos at home to hopefully bring some luck, I loved this little dude next to the bar:dsc02038.jpg

I’m sure my readers care far more about the menu, which wasn’t available on Susuru’s website when I checked, so here it is.  Note that this is a Japanese restaurant that serves no sushi.  Also note that none of the food is too expensive, so I encourage you to order several different dishes and share them:dsc02037.jpg

My buddy and I each ordered tonkotsu ramen ($10), with pork chashu, shoyu soft egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori, and tonkotsu broth.  I have to admit, I was still a little skeptical, given my limited experience with overpriced and mediocre “fancy” ramen, but this was so delicious, I can’t stop thinking about it almost two weeks later.  (“Or talking about it!”, my wife would say.)  DSC02042The broth was so rich and flavorful, almost creamy despite containing no dairy at all.  Even the bamboo shoots, which I had misgivings about, were soft and yielding, like thick al dente pasta sheets.  I’ve never been able to cook an egg to that perfect soft-boiled consistency, with the rich, runny yolk that infused the broth.  The noodles were so far beyond the instant ramen bricks of my college days, it was like graduating from your school cafeteria lunches to a gourmet feast.  And the pork!  The PORK!  It melted in my mouth.  It was sliced thin, and it was so tender and unctuous.  Once again, perfect in every way!

We also split the mentaiko fries ($6), which were McDonald’s-style fries topped with spicy cod roe mayonnaise and shredded nori (seaweed).  I love anything salty, spicy, and fishy, but these were almost like a salt overload.  Delicious, though.  I have to imagine this would be a great dish to order while drinking beer.DSC02043

Skewers, skewers, all kinds of skewers!  These skewers of meat are cut into perfect, uniform, bite-sized pieces and grilled over a charcoal flame.  From left to right, we ordered sausage, chicken hearts, short rib, chicken skin, and the two on the right are both chicken thighs.  The Kurobota (pork honey sausage) had the texture of a hot dog and didn’t taste that different, although it picked up nice flavor from the charcoal grill they used.  The short rib (in the middle) was a little tough, although still very rich and tasty.  I am drawn to sausages and short rib dishes anywhere I go and count them among my favorite meats.  That said…DSC02045I never thought I’d end up liking chicken more than sausage or short rib, but I sure did here.  All three types of chicken skewers (yakitori) were indeed better — not that I disliked the sausage or short rib!  But they were among the most delicious chicken-related items I’ve ever eaten in my life.  They had a fantastic taste they picked up from being grilled, especially those thighs.  My only disappointment was that they ran out of chicken oyster yakitori, an off-menu special for the evening.  Those two tiny, dark morsels of meat are my favorite part of the chicken, which is why I usually gravitate toward preparing thighs or roasting whole birds at home.

If you’re skeptical about chicken hearts, I implore you to give these a try.  I’ve bought hearts at Publix to cook at home (marinate in a vinaigrette dressing and then saute them).  I love the rich, organ-y flavor, like delicious chicken liver, but mine always come out chewy.  These were anything but chewy — far more tender than I ever expected chicken hearts could be.  Whoever is working the grill at Susuru is a master at his or her craft.

So I’m definitely a huge fan of Susuru.  If you spend time down near the theme parks or come to Orlando on vacation, venture off park property and go check it out.  Seriously, if it wasn’t an hour from home, I would become a regular for sure.  I’m already planning my next Susuru adventure!

The Polite Pig

Well-traveled Orlando foodies are probably familiar with The Ravenous Pig, one of our finest local restaurants.  Situated in Winter Park, James and Julie Petrakis’ venerable institution was founded in 2007 and quickly established itself as one of the shining stars of Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  I still consider it a “special occasion” sort of restaurant and don’t go as often as I would like, but it never disappoints.  I’ll have to get back there one of these days to write a proper review, as it’s the sort of place that all locals and tourists alike ought to make a pilgrimage to.

In the meantime, the Petrakises have expanded their empire with a few other local restaurants, including The Polite Pig (https://politepig.com/), a fast-casual barbecue joint, which opened in 2017 in Disney Springs.  For the uninitiated, this is an area outside of the actual Disney theme parks (so you don’t have to pay for admission or even parking to visit it), specializing in shopping and dining.  It has grown immensely over the last few years and added a lot of high-profile restaurants, including some helmed by celebrity chefs.  It is cool to see our local legends establishing a foothold in there too, and The Polite Pig provides the Petrakises a greater chance to feed and impress guests from around the world.  It’s a relative bargain for Disney Springs, where many of the restaurants are more upscale, with prices to match.  Because it’s casual, fast, reasonably-priced, and the food is hearty, familiar, and GOOD, it is a great option for families with kids and any other visitors who want to avoid white tablecloth joints and entrees priced over $20.

My BFF (best food friend) and I went there in May of 2017, just a few days after it opened, and we both agreed it was fine.  Not bad at all, but he lives in Miami and I live almost an hour away from that side of Orlando, so neither of us were going to rush back.  But he visited Disney recently with his mom (my first-grade teacher), so we agreed it would be a swell place to meet for lunch to catch up.  And I’m so glad we chose it, because we both liked it so much more this time, almost two years later.  I would unequivocally recommend it to anyone visiting Disney Springs, especially if you like meat and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg.

We ordered our food and paid at the counter, and it seemed like it was delivered to us in a matter of minutes, but we were also smart and got there right when it opened at 11 AM.  By the time we left, it was mobbed, and the rest of Disney Springs was mobbed too.  All the barbecue sandwiches come with a choice of a side order, and the entrees come with a small jalapeno cornbread muffin, “signature Polite slaw,” and a choice of a side.  My friend and his mom (who is no longer my first-grade teacher, so I am proud to also call her my friend) both ordered baby back ribs, which come covered with a dry rub and sweet, sticky barbecue sauce glaze.  I got to try a rib, and it was very tender.  Like any good smoked ribs, the meat doesn’t exactly “fall off” the bone, but they were extremely tender, not dry or stringy or tough at all.

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He chose baked beans as his side, and she went with crispy waffle fries, dusted with barbecue seasoning.

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I decided to go with the barbecue cheddar sausage, which the menu said was covered with a bourbon glaze.  The outside had a subtle sweetness, and the natural casing had a very good snap when I bit into it, something I always appreciate in sausages and hot dogs.  That’s what I call the pursuit of snappiness! 

I got four decent-sized cuts and immediately gave one to my buddy.  I was impressed that the cheese was gooey and melty in each bite I took.  True to form, I chose macaroni and cheese as my side, which was also nice and melty with white cheese and al dente mini-shell pasta.  I’ve gone twice now and always turned away from the tomato watermelon salad with feta, basil, and pickled onions at the final moment, but maybe next time I’ll try that.  It sounds delightfully refreshing.

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My magnanimous friend also ordered us the slider trio to share: three mini-sandwiches on tiny, soft brioche rolls.  The fried chicken sandwich came topped with sweet & smoky barbecue sauce, Duke’s mayo, pickles, and cole slaw.  The Southern Pig included pulled pork, fennel-apple slaw, tangy mustard barbecue sauce, and Duke’s mayo, the only kind of mayo I ever buy for my house.  I think our table’s favorite was the Low & Slow Brisket, with Prime brisket, pimento cheese, porter barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, and onion straws.  I was reminded that on our earlier visit almost two years ago, we ordered the Southern Pig and Low & Slow Brisket sandwiches and split them both.  Even these mini-slider versions were better than what we remembered from back then, which only speaks well of The Polite Pig and how much it has improved.

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Speaking of barbecue sauces, they have four house-made sauces “on tap,” and you can fill little paper cups to dip to your heart’s content: Lil John’s Signature Porter sauce (made with a reduction of Working Man porter beer, brewed at another Petrakis restaurant, the Cask & Larder), Layla’s sweet sauce, Thomas’s Southern Gold sauce (a mustard-vinegar hybrid), and an Alabama-style white barbecue sauce that pairs excellently with chicken… and surprisingly everything else.  I’m not the kind of person who pours ranch dressing all over my food, but this white sauce is different.  If you’re skeptical, try a tiny taste in one of the paper cups.  It’s free, so you have nothing to lose!

The Polite Pig offers fountain sodas — mostly Coke products, but also excellent root beer and lemonade from the Blue Sky brand, made with cane sugar.  I try to be so good about not drinking sodas, but I really like root beer and lemonade, so I couldn’t resist.  Of course they were cold and refreshing.  When we were there two years ago, I remember being half-dead, exhausted and sun-baked after spending half the day waiting in lines and schlepping around the Orlando MegaCon (sprawling pop culture convention for nerds and geeks alike), and I slaked my thirst with Blue Sky orange-mango soda, but they didn’t have that one anymore.  The root beer had a vanilla creamy taste, which I always appreciate compared to the more herbal, “biting” root beers, so that was a good choice.

And finally, they were offering chocolate chip cookies from Gideon’s Bakehouse, located in Orlando’s very East End Market, which I will argue is the best chocolate chip cookie anywhere, and certainly anywhere in our city beautiful.  My buddy loves chocolate chip cookies and supposedly makes some pretty great ones himself, but I got one for him and his mom to split, after hyping it up for the last year.  They might have been stuffed from an excellent lunch, but they made room for that cookie, which lives up to all the hype.  Sorry I didn’t get a photo of it, but check out the website above.

So that’s it!  If you’re on Disney property, they’ve got ya.  You’re going to pay, so it’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay, and what you get for your money.  The Polite Pig is a fantastic option if you’re relaxing at Disney Springs and don’t want to go to a more upscale and expensive restaurant.  Vegetarians will have to stick to side orders or salads (hold the bacon!), so they would be better served almost anywhere else, but most meat-eaters will be perfectly pleased by the Polite Pig.  And here’s a helpful hint: it’s right outside of the Lime Garage at Disney Springs, so if you’re just going to eat there and don’t want to linger, that’s the place you want to park.

 

 

Ring the Alarm! Raglan Road

This past weekend, my wife and I journeyed to Disney Springs to see the ridiculously talented singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/actress Janelle Monae perform at the House of Blues.  Needless to say, she was incredible.  I’ve been a fan of her Afro-futuristic feminist funk-soul-pop-hip hop-R&B for almost a decade, and this was our first opportunity to see her live.  If you ever get the chance to see her, DO IT.  You won’t regret it.  She might be the most talented and culturally relevant female musician out there right now, and yes, I did consider your favorite artist.  I would be thrilled to introduce my readers to her best material, but here’s her song “Americans” off her new album Dirty Computer, which I think serves as an anthem and rallying cry for the progressive, inclusive, empathetic resistance in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY

Anyway, we’ve had good, bad, and plenty of so-so experiences dining at Disney Springs, so we opted to return to an old favorite, the boisterous Irish pub Raglan Road.  Sprawling, loud, and crowded, you can always count on a festive atmosphere, solid food, and friendly service.  This evening, they had a three-piece Irish band playing Celtic folk music, along with winsome Irish dancers clogging away on a central stage. Sometimes it can be too loud to have a conversation, but we were seated a decent distance from the stage, ironically in the “Music Room,” where we could hear and enjoy the music perfectly without it drowning out each other’s voices.

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It’s hard to not get caught up in the welcoming old-country vibe and party atmosphere of the place, and I’ve never been to Ireland and don’t think I have any Irish in me. But when I listen to the Pogues, I feel a strong kinship with Irish culture, and when I set foot in a good pub, I feel the same.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even drink!

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Of course, every meal at Raglan Road starts with slices of rich, brown Irish soda bread, served with a masterful dipping sauce that is Guinness stout ale reduced with sugar and mixed with olive oil.  It is so good, and it sets the tone for everything to follow.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture this time.

On previous visits, we have defaulted to Irish pub classics like fish and chips, bangers and mash, or bacon loin and cabbage (much more traditional than the 19th Century New York City substitution of corned beef and cabbage).  Once we arrived early enough on a Sunday for them to offer a full Irish breakfast option, which I had to go for (much to the chagrin of my body).  My favorite part is always the black pudding (AKA blood sausage), and I’m 100% serious.  It is delicious, and I wish it was a regular menu item.

This time, the menu had several new options since the last time we were there (maybe two years ago), so we decided to split two entrees that were new to us.  My wife loves sea scallops, pork belly, and gnocchi, those chewy, potatoey dumplings, so she had a hard time saying no to the “Gnocchi See, Gnocchi Do,” with handmade potato gnocchi, seared Georges bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce.  She was kind enough to share some of it with me, although she gave me one whole scallop and the dish only came with three!  That’s true love, folks.

They were really big scallops, perfectly seared, sweet and buttery.  But I almost hate ordering scallops at restaurants because you can usually end up counting them on one hand.  The tomatoes were halved grape tomatoes.  She’s not a tomato fan and I got too full to finish them.  I would have preferred regular diced tomatoes, or better yet, sun-dried tomatoes, which would have added another nice texture and a little sweetness.

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I asked what her second choice was, so I could order that and share it with her.  We both love game meats, or any gamier meat, so we were both tempted by the Boaring Burger, a grilled wild boar burger with Cashel blue cheese, crispy onion strings, arugula, port and pear chutney, and herb aioli, served on a floury potato bun.  We both thought the wild boar was a little dry, but at least it had a nice flavor (much more interesting than most pork, which I find almost as bland as boneless, skinless chicken breasts).  There was nothing “boaring” about it!

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The burger had a lot of contrasting tastes and textures that worked well together, and the bun held it all in place well.  It even came with a nice little side salad, and a crunchy sweet pickle garnish.  Believe it or not, I’m not generally a fan of pickles, but I am working on developing more of an appreciation for them.

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And since I had a choice of side and the fries/chips walking out of the kitchen looked a little light and unappealing, I opted for onion rings.  That’s right, folks, this ended up being a RING THE ALARM! feature!  (Cue the air horns!)

I must admit, these are not my favorite kinds of onion rings.  They were huge, and the batter was thick, heavy, and crunchy, but at least not overly greasy.  I suspect it may be the same kind of batter they use for their fried fish, but despite being referred to as “beer battered onion rings” on the menu, they aren’t the golden-brown beer battered rings I’m on a never-ending quest for.  But for a change, my wife actually liked them — or at least the crunchy batter.  She peeled a few of them and left the onions behind for me!

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Raglan Road has one of my all-time favorite desserts, a rich bread and butter pudding that almost defies explanation, especially because I haven’t had it in a few years.  But we were both very full, she had already had mini-cupcakes from the nearby Sprinkles bakery, and we had a concert to go to at a sold-out venue with limited restrooms, so I figured “Why tempt fate?”  Get to be my age, you Millennials, and you’ll start enjoying the same interior monologues with every meal YOU eat.

Sláinte!