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.

Benjamin French Bakery

My wife and I have always loved Benjamin French Bakery (https://www.benjaminfrenchbakery.com/), the cute bakery-cafe in Thornton Park, a picturesque neighborhood near downtown Orlando.  We don’t go as often as we would like, because it is extremely difficult to park around there.  I figure the local hipsters can easily walk to the restaurants and bars in their neighborhood, but they ought to rename the place “Thornton No-Park” for everyone else.

Well, after a recent morning doctor’s appointment, we found ourselves in the area in the morning on a weekday, so we figured we had a chance to park nearby and enjoy a relaxing brunch at Benjamin.  Luckily, my plan worked.  It had been so long since our last visit, we ran slightly amok, but we are a fun couple who knows how to party, so we ordered food with reckless abandon.

While we sat at an indoor table and waited for our meals, we couldn’t resist tearing into some of our bounty of baked goods.  The plain croissants from Benjamin French Bakery ($2.89 each) are the finest I’ve ever had.  So rich and buttery, so flaky and crispy, so many soft inner layers.  Granted, I’ve never been to France, or even the France part of Epcot, but these are pretty mind-blowing.  To quote Run the Jewels, “Ooh, la la, ah, oui oui!”
In addition to the two plain croissants, my wife picked an almond croissant ($3.99; the triangle in the bottom left), I got a blueberry pastry ($3.99; center), and we split the gorgeous apple turnover ($3.69; cut in half in the bottom right).  The turnover was magnificent, but I still give the plain croissants the nod for being the best in this box.  The other two pastries were fine, but they look like they’ve been partying in Miami, don’t they?

Then our beautiful food arrived.  My wife got the Bordeaux sandwich ($9.95) on a fresh baguette, although you can choose any of the sandwiches as a pressed panini as well.   The sandwich contains brie cheese, apple, grapes, and mixed greens, plus tomato and balsamic vinegar, but she asked them to hold those.  Brie is one of the only cheeses  my wife likes, and one of the only cheeses I don’t like, which is one of those weird little things about life.  They were very generous with the brie on the sandwich, and the baguette was warm, perfectly crusty on the outside, while soft and yielding inside.

I had a hard time choosing between two sandwiches, but ended up with the Bastia sandwich ($9.95) on a fresh baguette.  It contains paper-thin slices of prosciutto (one of my favorite meats), mozzarella cheese, mixed greens, tomato, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.  It’s a very different vibe from the Italian subs and hoagies that are my favorite meals, with the baguette so much smaller and crustier than most soft sub rolls.  But still, I felt so continental, enjoying what is essentially a fancy ham and cheese sandwich for brunch at this nice little cafe on a weekday.  Hey, I might not be a Francophile, but at least you know I know where France is.There is another really terrific baguette sandwich I love here, the St. Tropez, with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumbers, but my love of prosciutto won out this day.

Still, smoked salmon sounded good too — doesn’t it always? — so I took a chance and also ordered the Oceanne quiche ($8.20) for us to split.  This lovely quiche contains smoked salmon, spinach, cherry tomato, lemon, feta cheese, and in addition, according to Benjamin’s website, “cheese.”  Which cheese?  Mozzarella?  Gruyere?  I would have liked to know, but it doesn’t matter, because it was so delicious!

The Oceanne with a slice already cut out:

I hate that quiche was a stupid punchline among lowest common denominator sitcoms and hacky stand-up comics in the ’80s and ’90s — a food that “real men” wouldn’t dare eat because it’s fancy and French, hon hon hon!  How ignorant and xenophobic can you get, with a little misogyny and homophobia baked in?  What is quiche, but eggs, cheese, and often some kind of meat baked into a savory pie, in a buttery, flaky pie crust?  If that isn’t a manly meal, I don’t know what is!  Fictional manly man Ron Swanson would probably love quiche!  But that’s stupid too, just like any “battle of the sexes” humor.  Everyone would probably like quiche, unless they hate eggs or pie crust.  I don’t understand why quiche isn’t the official meal of the United States of America — cheese-and-egg pie, to be enjoyed any time of the day or night.  Maybe, just like socialized medicine, quiche just desperately needs to be rebranded to reach the audience that would embrace it if they gave it a chance.  Patriot Pie, anybody?

Well, that’s my review of Benjamin French Bakery, one of my favorite breakfast and brunch spots in Orlando, as well as one of my favorite bakeries.  The croissants and baguettes are second to none around here.  I wish I could say the same for the parking situation, but going at an off-time (not around 11 AM on a weekend) seemed to help.  And don’t forget to treat yourself to a quiche, capisce?

AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.

The Pastrami Project

On an episode of Seinfeld, a woman George Costanza was infatuated with once said that “pastrami is the most sensual of the salted, cured meats,” and I think she had a point.  As much as I pine for prosciutto and swoon for salami, pastrami definitely holds the title and championship belt as the greatest of all cured meats.  If you’ve heard of The Pastrami Project (http://www.pastramiproject.com/) before, you may have already tasted the best pastrami I’ve ever had outside of New York City, or you may have seen the humble food truck featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network.  No matter what you think of host Guy Fieri’s frosted tips and Smashmouth-inspired sartorial style, he is a real mensch who shines a well-deserved spotlight on local restaurants across the country, just like I attempt on a smaller scale in The Saboscrivner.  On a trip to Orlando a few years ago, Guy already raised hometown heroes Se7en Bites and Mrs. Potato to new levels of visibility and fame, and also made a pilgrimage to The Pastrami Project in Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives Season 26, episode 11, “Multicultural Cooking.”  I’ve been wanting to try it for years, long before the Triple-D episode, but never made it there until this past week.

You see, self-proclaimed “Pastranomer” (a portmanteau for the pantheon!) George Markward only sets up his food truck behind Cafe Travastere on Magnolia Avenue near downtown Orlando Mondays through Fridays, from 10 AM until 2 PM — perfect timing for a late breakfast or a workday lunch for normal people.  But for almost a decade, I’ve been working the very weird hours of 11 AM to 8 PM, so I don’t usually even eat my first meal of the day until after George drives away.  Luckily, this past Monday, I took my wife to a doctor’s appointment a mile from the Pastrami Project truck (of course I checked), so we had the perfect opportunity to pick up lunch and bring it home to enjoy.  My only regret was not doing this much sooner, like years sooner.

The affable Mr. Markward:

Here’s the current menu with prices.  Right-click and open in a new tab for a larger image.  You can see George serves breakfast too, if you aren’t craving deli delicacies:

We started out with an order of three potato latkes ($5), served with sour cream.  You can also choose applesauce instead of sour cream, but we have applesauce at home.  These weren’t flat pancakes like most latkes I’ve had, but thick fritters that were still hot when we got them home, with perfect crispy exteriors and soft, savory insides.  I tasted a lot of onion, garlic, and pepper.  If you like fries and home fries, do yourself a favor (and a flavor) and try some potato latkes some time.  Ideally these.  

My wife couldn’t decide between the pastrami and the brisket, and I wanted to try both, so we got a sandwich of each.  His sliced beef brisket sandwich ($12) comes with creamy cole slaw, half of a small half-sour pickle, and “donkey sauce,” a roasted garlic aioli that is definitely a tribute to his biggest benefactor, Mr. Fieri.  My wife isn’t big on sauces on anything, whereas I love ’em, so George kindly served the sauce on the side.  I’ve had plenty of delicious, moist, marbled, flavorful brisket from Jewish delis and barbecue restaurants alike, and unfortunately plenty of bland, dry, sad brisket too.  This sandwich was the former.  So rich and flavorful!  If that rye bread looks good, IT WAS.  George bakes his own rye loaves, and it is so soft!  The bread is too often an afterthought on deli sandwiches like these.  At Katz’s, their underwhelming rye is more like a small, edible napkin, which is why true deli aficionados know to pay the small upcharge to get your sandwich on a club roll.  (I once had the opportunity to mention Katz’s club rolls to Phil Rosenthal, the genial host of food and travel show Somebody Feed Phil, and a fellow lover of old-school deli culture.  He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, but now you do, steadfast Saboscrivnerinos!)  But anyway, George’s rye bread slices are plenty thick enough to support a heavy sandwich and hold up to the juice, grease, and mustard very well, and I appreciate that he doesn’t go overboard with the caraway seeds in his rye.  The seeds add some flavor, but I don’t like too many caraway seeds in my rye, and luckily they are few and far between here.

But beyond the brisket, the star of the show is definitely the pastrami.  The regular pastrami sandwich is also $12, or you can pay an additional $9 for double the meat, which is what we did.  Hey, when we went to the iconic Lower East Side institution Katz’s Delicatessen in 2019, the gargantuan pastrami sandwiches cost $23, so George charging $21 for a nearly Katz’s-sized double-meat sandwich on better bread with cole slaw and the pickle is reasonable.

You can also get it made as a Reuben, grilled with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, or as a Rachel, grilled with cole slaw, Swiss, and Russian dressing, for an additional $2 either way, but me being me, I already had sauerkraut and Russian dressing at home.

I asked George about his creative process, and he took me through how he makes his pastrami from scratch.  He takes the big briskets and cuts them to fit in his storage containers, then pierces them with hundreds of tiny holes before curing them for a week.  Then he rubs on his spice rub, smokes them, refrigerates them to make them easier to hand-slice, and finally steams the thick slices on a steam table before building his sandwiches.  I mentioned that his pastrami is the best I’ve ever had in Florida, and the only thing that has come close to the legendary hand-sliced pastrami at Katz’s.  George said Katz’s final step is boiling their pastrami, which surprised the hell out of me, because that would wash a lot of the spice and flavor out, as opposed to his method of steaming the slices.  Clearly his process is long and involved, but makes a huge difference.

In fact, these photos came from our first visit a week ago on Monday, and we liked that pastrami so much, my wife asked me to return for another double-meat sandwich on Wednesday!  So spoiler alert: of course I did.  I have a hard time disappointing her in any way.  The second sandwich was even bigger and prettier, so naturally I forgot to take a photo of it.  FYI, George automatically adds mustard to his pastrami sandwiches, so if you don’t like mustard (like my wife) or you have a giant mustard collection of your own to experiment with back at home (like me), make sure to ask him to hold the mustard or put it on the side.

Finally, my wife always appreciates a bit of dessert, and I saw George was selling black and white cookies ($2), another New York City specialty that she loves.  If you’ve never had one, the best black and whites are more like a soft but firm sponge cake than a crumbly, crunchy cookie, and they are quite large.  When I showed her this one from Daisy’s, from a New Jersey bakery that supplies many NYC restaurants, cafes, and stores, she exclaimed “This is a really good brand!”, which sounds like something I would say.  George told me he could bake his own, but they wouldn’t be as good as this.

To wrap this up, even if you don’t believe your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner after all this time, trust in Guy Fieri.  He does so much good, spreading the word about beloved local restaurants on his show that seems to be on cable as often as Law & Order reruns.  He helped make Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites into a camera-ready culinary sensation, featured Rafaela Cabede and her wonderful restaurant Mrs. Potato, and brought more business and well-deserved acclaim to George Markward and The Pastrami Project.  On our first visit, while we were waiting for our order, two dudes on their way back to Nashville, Tennessee, were just picking up theirs, to eat on the long drive home.  That speaks volumes, that a humble food truck is a now a can’t-miss destination for tourists.  So if you’re an Orlando local, especially if you’re anywhere near downtown during the week, don’t wait as long as I did.

Pastrami, that most sensual of the salted, cured meats, really is kind of like sex — even if it’s just okay, it is still AWESOME.  But sometimes it can be mind-blowing and unforgettable, like the pastrami from The Pastrami Project.  And then you’ll probably crave it all the time.

Mason Jar Provisions

Mason Jar Provisions (https://www.masonjarprovisionsorlando.com/) is a brand-new Southern restaurant that just opened in the space recently vacated by Big Time Street Food, which I reviewed earlier this year after my one and only visit (before a KRS-One concert, which was one of the last fun things I did pre-pandemic).  Located in the Thornton Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, it’s a very small space with a few seats at a counter, but the restaurant is attached to Burton’s Bar next door (and now owned by the same people).  Diners can take their food through a doorway over to Burton’s and walk back and forth between the establishments.  By the time people read this, their hours will be 12 noon to 10 PM.

Before continuing my review, you have to check out this menu.  Everything looked so delicious and tempting, I had a hard time choosing between six or seven different things.  I had to go back to edit this review after first publishing it because I belatedly learned Mason Jar Provisions is co-owned by chef A.J. Haines, who used to cook at one of our favorite, long-gone, much-missed Italian restaurants, Wolfie’s PizzaMia, and he used to work magic and miracles in that kitchen.  Burton’s General Manager Jeff Darnell is the other co-owner.  But because Thornton Park is pretty far from us and parking is difficult around there, I called in a pretty big order on a weekday afternoon I had off, and was lucky enough to be able to park right in front to pick it up.  That probably would not have happened in the evening or on a weekend.

My wife likes her food relatively plain and unadorned, without any condiments or sauces.  So I ordered her the regular beef burger ($9) with its lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and ketchup on the side.  It’s the kind of burger that is smashed flat on the griddle, cooked to medium well.  It was served on a lightly-griddled brioche bun with a huge order of seasoned fries.  masonjar1

You may have also noticed two huge chicken tenders, which I also ordered for her, because she was intrigued by both.  She doesn’t eat a lot, so we both figured she’d probably get three or four meals out of the big burger and the tenders (which actually come in an order of three for $9).  She thought the burger was a perfectly okay burger, but LOVED the tenders.  These were mild, but they also come in medium, hot, inferno, blackstrap (molasses) barbecue, or dry rub flavors.  We were given a choice of a cup of ranch or blue cheese (she never wants either, so I chose blue cheese for myself), and they also came with a cup of buffalo sauce and four celery sticks.

I had been reading hype and praise for the titular Mason Jar burger ($13), so that’s what I had to get… well, one of the things I had to get.  It contained TWO beef patties, tasso ham (such a nice alternative to bacon!), creamy and tangy remoulade sauce, melty American cheese (longtime Saboscrivnerinos know it’s one of my favorite cheeses to put on a burger), plus the usual lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles.  I like pickles now, so these were all welcome toppings for me.  masonjar2
The burger was juicy and flavorful, despite my initial skepticism about it being cooked to medium well, the grilled brioche bun was rich and perfect, and everything held together for an intoxicating melange of flavors, colors, and textures without threatening to slip and slide apart as I enjoyed it at home.  And despite the schlep back to the Casselberry suburbs, the fries were still warm by the time I got home!

Maybe the most curious thing on the menu was the collard melt sandwich ($12), featuring braised collard greens, house-made smoked pimento cheese, chow chow (a Southern cabbage-based relish that is sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, but always tangy), and balsamic reduction, all on grilled sourdough bread.  These are all flavors I love that I never thought of combining into a sandwich, so I’m glad someone more creative than I did.  It came with even more fries.masonjar4I didn’t even eat this until the following day, after warming it up in the toaster oven.  It was a winner.  I seriously love collards, pimento cheese, anything cabbagey, and anything smoky, so it was a killer-diller, no-filler, thriller goriller of a sandwich for me.  Vegetarians, rejoice!  As long as you allow yourself to experience the joy of cheese, here’s a new sandwich every vegetarian in Orlando should seek out.

If it seems like I brought home a lot of food, I did.  I wanted to order a few different things because I was trying a new place, because it’s hard to get over to Thornton Park, and because I wanted to give myself a break from cooking and avoid even being tempted to leave the house again for the next few days.  And with all of this in mind, I also ordered the hot chicken sandwich.  (My parents must be so proud.)  I’ve been very obsessed with hot chicken ever since eating at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2017, and I’m thrilled that Orlando has so many wonderful hot chicken options now, including Swine & Sons (a smoked thigh sandwich), Chicken Fire (tenders in or out of a sandwich), and Git-N-Messy BBQ (not covered in my review, but his hot half chicken may rule them all).

Mason Jar Provisions’ menu says their hot chicken sandwich ($13) says it’s a smoked, breaded, and deep-fried chicken thigh served with hot sauce, bread and butter pickle slices, and cole slaw, served on a grilled brioche bun with even more fries on the side.
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As you can see, the sandwich included two smaller breaded thighs, but it wasn’t dripping in the intense oily, spicy seasoning of Nashville hot chicken like the aforementioned restaurants.  It was incredibly tender and juicy meat, but it wasn’t really hot either.  Like a couple of kids, I traded my wife the not-really-hot thighs from the sandwich for her burger patty — each missing a bite, so it was a very fair trade.   They were thoughtful enough to pack the cole slaw in a separate cup with a lid, to avoid creating a mess that would have ruined the crispiness of the chicken and soaked through the bun and fries on my way home.

As much as I enjoyed my Mason Jar burger and the collard melt sandwich and would probably order them again in the future, I probably wouldn’t get the chicken sandwich again.  Not when they offer a braised barbecue short rib hoagie with pickled onions and pickles (the Dave Dog).  Why didn’t I get that instead?  However, my wife gives the chicken tenders her Saboscrivner Spouse Seal of Approval, and she knows tenders because she is the most tender person there is!

Folks, it’s an unknowable, scary, and outright dangerous time right now.  The restaurant business was hard enough already before COVID-19 pandemic struck, and we’ve seen too many beloved local eateries struggling and shuttering over the last few months.  I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be opening up now, in late June, as infection rates are increasing almost exponentially here in Orlando.  But we still have to eat, and restaurants are still considered essential businesses that are staying open to serve the rest of us.  Most people are going to venture out of their bunkers for takeout food eventually.  I implore you all to choose wisely and eat locally when you do, to support local restaurants that rely on your business and will appreciate your business.  So consider paying a visit to Mason Jar Provisions, one of Orlando’s newest restaurants, for some Southern comfort food at a time when we can all use some comfort in our lives.  Check out these drool-worthy photos and treat yourselves to something tasty and satisfying.  It might just be the highlight of your week, as it was of mine.

Nikki’s Place

It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive.  Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining.  But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody.  I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.

That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday.  It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant.  It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952.  Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins.  An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.

So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort.  I know I do.  Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed.  When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind.  Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays.  (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)

As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service.  When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance.  (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!)  They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready.  I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour.  This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway.  Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike.  I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived.  This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first.  We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.

Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them.  I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version.  Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite.  They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes.  They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
DSC03192All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food.  The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before.  I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.

My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25).  I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus.  Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had.  As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time.  Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere.  It was a nice-sized fillet, too.DSC03195My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides.  I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top.  It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it.  The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended.  It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before.  I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.

Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later.  As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings.  Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them.  She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample!  I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.

As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013.  They weren’t at all what I expected.  They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari?  And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all.  I liked it and would totally order it in the future!

But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me.  They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone.  They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.  DSC03194

I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today!  I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic.  Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli.  I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful.  This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad.  It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute.  It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.

My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables.  It was so soft and tender.  Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could.  It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.

You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos.  All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome.  Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread.  I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet.  On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home.  It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.

But wait, there’s more!  Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert.  A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!DSC03196Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie.  This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie).  It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.

As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite.  It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit!  Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.

You’re probably hungry now.  I hope so.  That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner!  But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years.  Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore.  Restaurants come and go.  It’s a tough business.  The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both.  I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD.  After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.

That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy.  It nourishes the body, mind, and soul.  It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future.  I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything.  It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does.  Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades.  It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today.  Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food.  Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!

 

Tako Cheena

My wife and I have always been huge fans of Tako Cheena (http://mytakocheena.com/), the creative and bohemian Asian-Latin fusion restaurant on Mills Avenue, north of Colonial, in one of Orlando’s finest foodie neighborhoods, Mills 50.  It used to be in a tiny space in a little strip plaza on Mills, with very few parking spaces in front, to the point where we’d often have to circle the block six or ten or twenty times, or more realistically, time our visits for when the place was just opening up.  There was a somewhat steep step up that limited the accessibility for my walker-wielding wife, and a tiny, cramped dining room that further limited her mobility inside once I helped hoist her up.  The food was always delicious, but it wasn’t the most comfortable surroundings, despite the hip, colorful, artsy decor.
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Well, I was recently craving Tako Cheena after a rough week, and to my great joy, they recently moved into a larger building mere steps from their old location.  And it has an actual parking lot, plus a spacious outdoor patio.  I was just picking up takeout from an outside-facing window, so I didn’t linger or even peek inside to look at indoor seating.  However, the new location already looks so much more comfortable and accessible, and that is like a dream come true for us.
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The covered patio overlooks Mills Avenue, and you can see it is steps away from the original location:
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Since the menu on the website doesn’t have most of their newer menu additions of the last few years, or any prices, this was the best shot I could get of the posted menu.  A past favorite, Mary’s Greek Lil Lamb (a gyro in taco form) has never been on their old menu on the website, so I didn’t even think to order one this time, but I was glad to see it has been added to the new menu.  The pernil asado, slow-roasted, marinated pork, is pretty darn great too, but I didn’t order that either on my most recent visit.
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Since I haven’t even been here since I started this blog two years ago, I ordered a bunch of our old favorites.  I got us each a panko-crusted cod “tako” ($4.50), with spicy mayo, shredded cabbage, and scallions on a soft flour tortilla.  This was the first time they asked me if I wanted flour or corn tortillas, but they could have started giving customers that choice at any point in the last two or three years.  These are my favorite fish tacos in Orlando, and I was sad to learn they were out of the usual sweet and sour onion sauce that goes on them, but they were still delicious.  My wife, who always used to love these, thought hers was too spicy, so I ended up eating most of hers too.  I love spicy mayo on anything, so they were perfect for me, as usual.
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Miami kid that I am, I have a hard time turning down empanadas, those crispy-fried half moon-shaped pastries stuffed with a variety of savory or sometimes sweet fillings, sealed with a crimped edge.  Different cultures make different empanadas, but I always prefer a deep-fried, crispy flour pastry shell, and those are the ones they make here.  Tako Cheena always offers different beef, chicken, and vegan empanadas of the day ($3.25 each), always rotating creative fusion ingredients in each one.  I asked what the beef empanada of the day was, and this one had seasoned ground beef like picadillo with mashed potatoes and sweet plantains.  Yes please!  I could have easily eaten two of more of those crispy fried pastries, especially since sweet plantains are a top ten favorite food for me, but I stuck to one.
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The empanadas come with a very small plastic dipping cup of salsa.  When I placed my phone order, the guy asked if I wanted sweet or spicy.  I asked if I could try both, and he said yes.  Well, my bill had a “GG” next to the empanada at no charge, and an “HJ” that I was charged 50 cents for, so that’s how I learned additional salsas come at a cost.  I don’t mind, because I always love trying new salsas.  I could be wrong, but looking at Tako Cheena’s website and the menu above, I’m guessing the “GG” refers to ginger guava salsa, and the “HJ” is probably habanero jackfruit salsa, even though they list it as “jackfruit habanero.”

The website advertises “BURRITOS THE SIZE OF BABY’S [sic] ARMS,” and they aren’t exaggerating.  I ordered the Korean burrito ($10.75), stuffed to almost bursting with sweet and savory marinated beef bulgogi, kimchi fried rice with mixed vegetables, crema, sriracha, ginger scallion oil, and cilantro.  It was a really interesting blend of flavors and textures wrapped in that huge, straining flour tortilla, which is one reason I prefer burritos to tacos.  (GASP!)  It’s so huge, I saved half for the next day, and even the half is a generous portion.  That isn’t something I normally order at Tako Cheena, but I wanted to present more of a variety of options for my baker’s dozens of readers.

Look at how much room it takes up on our now-familiar green plates!
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Here’s a shot with burrito and empanada interiors:
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Another one of our long-time favorites isn’t listed on the menu on the website, but Tako Cheena has incredible arepas, sweet corn patties stuffed with a variety of ingredients.  Our favorite is the four-cheese arepa ($7.50) with a big fried cheese patty, topped with pickled shredded carrots and other vegetables (maybe jicama or daikon radish?  Although it looks similar to Filipino atchara, or pickled papaya salad), and spicy mayo.
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Picking a favorite item on the whole menu feels like being forced to pick a favorite child, for those who have more than one child, but this arepa might be it:DSC03100

Cross-section.  I should note that the cheese is lightly fried on its exterior, but not battered or breaded like my beloved mozzarella sticks.  It’s more like halloumi cheese that way, with a similar texture.DSC03104

One thing you probably noticed by now, that I definitely appreciated, was how they packed all our takeout food either wrapped in foil wrappers or placed in cardboard boxes.  It was nice to see some eco-friendly alternatives to styrofoam.

Even though some restaurants are reopening for dining in, my wife and I are in no hurry to start doing that again anytime soon.  But now that Tako Cheena has a parking lot of its own and that convenient walk-up window, I’ll probably order more takeout from them in the weeks and months to come.  I’m glad an old favorite is more accessible than ever before, and as good as ever.

College Park Cafe

I’ve written a lot about being from Miami and growing up eating the best Cuban food in the country.  If there’s one thing I hope I’ve shown the world on The Saboscrivner, it’s that Orlando has an exciting, burgeoning culinary scene, one that allows us to hold our own against other midsize-to-large cities.  We even have Cuban restaurants, but even though some of them are good, very few compare to the plethora of excellent Cuban dining options four hours south of us in Miami.  And nowhere is that more clear than with the legendary Cuban sandwich, AKA the Cubano.  Plenty of good ones, but nothing that matches the iconic Versailles restaurant, the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban community and a can’t-miss destination for locals and tourists alike.  Versailles’ Cuban sandwich is even featured in Jon Favreau’s delightful movie Chef, one of the best food-related movies ever made, which I strongly recommend to all my readers (most of whom have probably seen it already).

Well, dear readers (all those bakers’ dozens of you), I think I’ve finally located Orlando’s finest Cuban sandwich, one that can stand alongside los mejores en Miami, in large part because it’s larger than many of them.  It’s at College Park Cafe (https://collegeparkcafe.com/), a humble diner in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, a place just far enough out of my regular radius that I rarely venture out that way.  I’ve been seeing Facebook posts from them and from foodie friends, singing the praises of the Cuban sandwich and other food, so I had to try it for myself, and I’m so glad I did.  A sign outside the diner advertises “The Best Cuban Sandwich In Town!”, and they ain’t kidding.

College Park Cafe is open from 6:30 AM until 2:00 PM, so I planned to get lunch from here, knowing they aren’t open for dinner.  I called in my takeout order and spoke to Barbara’s son Juan, who was very friendly and patient.  I had to make a few stops on my way there, and Juan called me back to let me know they were out of something I ordered, and called back a second time when I was about five minutes away, to let me know my order was ready.  I appreciated the communication.  Later, I spoke to cook and owner Barbara Martinez over Facebook Messenger while I was writing this review, and she said her family moved to Orlando from South Florida a year ago and took over the diner in August of 2019.  That’s when they added Cuban dishes to the large menu full of American breakfast and lunch classics.

Of course I ordered the Cubano ($10.50) for myself, and I chose one of my lifelong favorite foods, sweet plantains (maduros) as the one side the sandwich comes with. DSC03125

Opened up to show off all the shredded, marinated, roast pork, thin-sliced sweet ham, melty Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, sliced pickles, and crunchy potato sticks on this sandwich.  Potato sticks aren’t typical, but they were a nice touch — says the guy who likes to put chips in almost any sandwich.DSC03126

And a cross-section, so you can see just how thick this sandwich really is:
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Sweet plantains with black beans (more about them below):DSC03121

I also got a side order of onion rings ($2.50) because this was my first visit to the College Park Cafe, and whenever I see onion rings on a menu, I have to try them.  That’s why this review gets a [AIR HORN!] RING THE ALARM! [/AIR HORN!] tag.  It was a great value for a generous order of small, mostly uniform onion rings that were still warm by the time I got them home.  Served with some ketchup I keep chillin’ in the fridge for such rare occasions, they were a nice accompaniment to that awe-inspiring Cubano.
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My wife wanted palomilla steak ($11.50), a thin, marinated, grilled Cuban-style steak, which came with rice, beans (she chose black beans), and salty fried plantains (tostones), which she always prefers to the sweet ones.  I always plate the food when I come home with takeout, especially in these pandemic days, and that means I always try a little bite of whatever she ordered.  She likes and orders steaks far more than I do, but WOW, I was in heaven after one bite of this thin, flat, tender palomilla.  My eyes rolled back in my head, and I was reeling from the excellent seasoning.  There was garlic, cumin, maybe the sour orange juice of a mojo criollo marinade.  It was an explosion of deliciousness, all from one bite.  And because my wife hates onions and I love them, I slid all the grilled, seasoned onions off the top of her steak to enjoy myself.  DSC03120

Tostones!
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When I got there, I saw they had a rich-looking chocolate cake under a glass dome, as any good diner should.  My wife always loves chocolate, so I got her a slice of that too.  It looked like they have flan as well, but I had to save some stuff for future visits.
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I would have ordered the Cuban frita sliders, small burgers made with a blend of ground beef and chorizo sausage, usually served on buns pressed in a plancha like the Cuban bread of a Cubano sandwich, and topped with potato sticks and onions.  But unfortunately they were out on this visit.  I discovered frita burgers relatively late in my life, on my most recent trip back home to Miami in early March, right before the pandemic struck, and I have a review of that restaurant written and ready to run on a week I don’t have anything new to report on locally.  I don’t know of anyone in Orlando serving fritas aside from College Park Cafe, so I’ll definitely return to try those.  I don’t think anything could keep me from ordering another one of those perfect, overstuffed Cubanos, though.  That thing would be a bargain at twice the price.  It really is that damn good, and not just by Orlando standards either.

So that’s College Park Cafe, a friendly neighborhood diner with all your timeless diner classics: Reubens, patty melts, Greek omelettes, country-fried steak, eggs Benedict, chili cheeseburgers, anything you can picture in your diner dreams.  They even have an unlimited salad for $8.99 (for dine-in only), or $11.99 when paired with a few different entrees.  But the Cuban food is the real star of the show, and it’s definitely some of the best Cuban food to be had in Orlando, good enough to hold its own in Tampa or Miami.  The Martinez family is so incredibly nice, and I shouldn’t have to remind you that they could really use every bit of support.  Plus, normally parking along Edgewater Drive in College Park is kind of a nightmare, but it wasn’t bad at all on a Saturday afternoon during a pandemic.  Trust me — if you and the people you’re comfortable being within six feet of can’t decide between breakfast, diner food, and Cuban cuisine, have I got the place for you.

Big Time Street Food

NOTE: Big Time Street Food closed in May 2020, just months after I wrote this review.

Big Time Street Food (https://www.bigtimestreetfood.co/) was on my list of newer places to try for the longest time.  Located in hip and pretty Thornton Park, near downtown Orlando, it is connected to Burton’s Bar and even shares a door with the neighborhood watering hole.  But I emphasize neighborhood, because both places really are meant for residents of the immediate neighborhood due to a major lack of nearby parking spaces.  Over the last year or so, I’ve done several “drive-bys” of Big Time Street Food, hoping to find a nearby parking space so I could finally try the food, to no avail.

But back in early January, I had a chance to see hip-hop legend KRS-One perform at The Abbey, a downtown concert and event venue located a few blocks away from Big Time.  I made sure to park in a convenient garage located between the two and headed to Big Time first, to eat a giant, heavy meal before a long and late concert.  (I’ve been to hundreds of concerts and totally know better, but this was my best chance to finally make it here, Saboscrivenerinos.  You’re welcome!)

Big Time Street Food is a very small and casual space.  You order at the counter and can then sit on one of the few stools at a counter, or go next door to Burton’s, and they bring you your order when it’s ready.  I studied the menu in advance, but couldn’t decide between two things.  My Constant Readers can take a wild guess as to what I did next — yes, I ordered both!

This is the Holy Chicken sandwich ($7.99).  You’re staring at an extra large, fresh-fried chicken thigh, a generous amount of dill pickle slices (after a long quest, I finally like most pickles!), and lightly spicy “gochu-mayo” on a soft, lightly-griddled sweet potato roll.  It’s like an artisanal version of the beloved Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich, and yes, it’s better.dsc02835.jpg

Despite knowing I was going to have to stand in the same place for several hours, and despite knowing how gross club restrooms can be (especially when you’re in desperate need of one), I couldn’t stop myself from also ordering the Chorizo Montoya burger ($7.99).  This beauty contains a “smash burger” patty, chorizo sausage, oaxaca cheese, avocado, grilled onion, roasted tomato aioli on the same soft, lightly griddled bun.  It was a damn fine burger I’d rank alongside Orlando’s finest.  dsc02837.jpg

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Believe it or not, I had every intention of eating half of the chicken sandwich and half of the burger, and putting the other halves back in my car, because luckily it was a cool evening.  But in true Saboscrivner fashion, I devoured both while they were at their hottest and freshest.  I have no regrets now, and luckily I didn’t have any regrets during the concert either.

It ended up being a really fun night.  I arrived early enough to get right up next to the stage to see several opening rappers, followed by the trailblazing teacher KRS-One, who exploded out of the Bronx in the late ’80s as the star of Boogie Down Productions, before becoming a vaunted solo MC throughout the ’90s.  I suspect many Saboscrivnerinos might recognize KRS-One from the closing rap verse on REM’s “Radio Song,” the first track off their 1991 album Out of Time, or maybe as the subject of Sublime’s respectful tribute to the master himself, “KRS-One.”  A socially-conscious, spiritual, and political rapper, he concerned himself with educating and empowering his listeners, spitting cautionary tales that warn against crime, violence, and police brutality.  I highly recommend the compilation album A Retrospective as the perfect gateway to his finest work.  And I’m thrilled to report he is still teaching lessons today (when we need his voice more than ever), without slowing down or missing a beat.

And after wolfing down two delicious sandwiches from Big Time Street Food directly before the show, I was relieved to not have miss a beat either.

Chain Reactions: Bento

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.