Chain Reactions: White Castle

“I chill at White Castle ’cause it’s the best/
But I’m fly at Fatburger when I’m way out west.”
–The Beastie Boys, “The New Style” (1986)

I’ve always been fascinated by the restaurants that I read about in books, saw in movies and TV shows, and heard referenced in songs, that weren’t anywhere near me in Florida.  I’d think about how good that faraway food looked and sounded, and sometimes I’d even read menus and reviews online, even for places I doubted I would ever get to eat at.

The hell year 2020 encouraged a lot of people to seek comfort in nostalgia.  For me, that meant getting back into G.I. Joe in a major way, and also taking a deep dive into the back catalog of the legendary Beastie Boys, those fun-loving rap-rockers, quintessential New Yorkers, and fellow Jewish goofballs.  I always kinda liked them, going all the way back to elementary school, but during a year where we all worried about getting sick and dying, Mike D, Ad-Rock, and the late, great MCA brought me some much-needed joy and distraction.  I played their albums on repeat every time I drove anywhere, giving me ample opportunity to analyze and obsess over the songs.  They always made me laugh, and they impressed me with how they improved as musicians and matured as lyricists (and as people) from their debut album License to Ill (1986) all the way to their final album before Adam “MCA” Yauch’s tragic death, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011).

The Beastie Boys also made a lot of White Castle (https://www.whitecastle.com/) references in their lyrics, especially on License to Ill.  They recorded that first album as teenagers before their careers blew up, so they probably ate there all the time.  Every time I heard those songs, I craved White Castle’s tiny, greasy, oniony slider burgers, when all we had here in Orlando is its Southern rival/counterpart, Krystal.  I unapologetically like Krystal quite a bit, don’t get me wrong, but I knew there would be differences.  I’ve never had a chance to visit a White Castle while traveling, and I’ve always avoided the frozen boxes of White Castle sliders you can buy at most grocery stores, as I planned to save myself for the real deal some day.

“And I can always make ’em smile/
From White Castle to the Nile.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Girls” (1986)

Well, in 2021, the 100th anniversary of White Castle, the fast food chain opened its first Florida location since the 1970s right here in Orlando, and it also happened to be the world’s largest White Castle.  It first opened on May 3rd, but I didn’t make it there until mid-July, when the opening hype and lines that lasted hours eventually died down, and when I had slightly less going on in my own life.  The White Castle is down on the touristy side of town, over half an hour from my job during optimal traffic conditions, and almost an hour from home.  I cautiously drove down there on a weekday afternoon, hoping I wouldn’t get stuck waiting an hour or more.  And I couldn’t help but smile when I arrived at last and saw this sign, emblazoned with their Latin catchphrase “Desideres ego ergo sum,” or “I Crave, Therefore I Am.”

“Because being bad news is what we’re all about/
We went to White Castle and we got thrown out.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Slow Ride” (1986)

Once I arrived, the drive-through line looked long and didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I opted to park and eat on the premises.  There was a line to order inside that reached outside, but I only had to wait about ten minutes in the sweltering midday July heat and humidity before I made it through the doors into blasting air conditioning.  They only had one cashier taking orders at a register, possibly giving a slammed kitchen a chance to catch up with orders, but of course by the time I finally made my way to the front, about half an hour later, they added a second cashier.  A few people got fed up with waiting and left, but I am relieved to report that nobody got thrown out.

“Get down with Mike D and it ain’t no hassle/
I got the ladies of the eighties from here to White Castle.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Hold It Now, Hit It” (1986)

After studying the Orlando-specific menu, I knew I wanted sliders, and lots of ’em.  I could put away those tiny beef patties steamed with onions, melty cheese, and soft buns.  At Krystal I usually eat a dozen at a time when I partake once or twice a year, but this was White Castle, baby.  For the past two and a half months, I’ve seen photos of my fellow Orlandoans leaving with Crave Cases ($30.59), blue and white cardboard briefcases that carry 30 sliders, and beset by FOMO, I was excited to get one of those for myself.  I was hoping to mix and match many different kinds of sliders, but when I got there, they were adamant that you could only get the regular hamburger or cheeseburger sliders in the Crave Case.  So I got one anyway, figuring I would have a ludicrous amount of leftovers, and I could freeze plenty for later.

I half-expected the Crave Case to glow when I opened it, like the MacGuffin briefcase in Pulp Fiction.  But nope, instead it just contained 30 cheese sliders, arranged neatly in their little cardboard sleeves.  The stuff that dreams are made of… or perhaps nightmares.

“Ad-Rock, AKA sharp cheddar/
My rhymes are better.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Triple Trouble” (2004)

Here’s a close-up of the three types of cheese sliders I ordered.  White Castle has three cheese options: jalapeño (left), smoked cheddar (middle), and American (right), so of course I ordered ten of each to fill my Crave Case.  I liked them all.  I think American cheese is pretty much the perfect cheeseburger cheese.  It’s tangy and melts so well.  But the other two, the jalapeño and the smoked cheddar, tasted even more processed than the American cheese!  Nothing but love, though.  This was a long time coming, but they were delicious and worth the wait.  I’m glad I never succumbed to the allure of the frozen White Castle sliders you can buy at Publix and even Aldi.  I suspect they would have been disappointing compared to the real deal.I should note for the unfamiliar that White Castle sliders only come with steamed onions and a pickle slice.  The menu above the registers at the restaurant says ketchup and mustard are available by request, and I do love condiments, but it was important to me on this first-ever pilgrimage to try them the most authentic way possible.  I didn’t add ketchup, mustard, or any other condiments to the sliders I ate at the restaurants, and they were still extremely flavorful due to the onions and the melty cheeses.

“I’d like a lettuce, tomato and muenster on rye/
All this cheese is gonna make me cry.”
The Beastie Boys, “Shazam!” (2004)

Since I ordered a lot of other stuff that seemed like it would be more important to eat while it was hot and fresh, I brought the vast majority of the cheese sliders in my Crave Case home.   It didn’t fit in my fridge, so I transferred the remaining sliders into some airtight containers, and I snacked on them in the subsequent days.  Microwave them on a plate for 45 seconds, and they don’t taste that different from how they did fresh off the flattop grill at the restaurant.  I also got a little more creative with condiments at home, but it turned out a little bit of ketchup and plain yellow mustard complemented them best.  You really can’t go wrong with the classics!

“White Castle fries only come in one size.”
–The Beastie Boys, “Slow and Low” (1986)

A lot has changed since License to Ill dropped in 1986, as White Castle fries now come in multiple sizes.  I ordered the small ($2.59), and due to a mix-up with my order (yes, folks, that’s another Beastie Boys album reference!), I ended up with a free large sack of fries too.  These were crispy crinkle-cut fries that were excellent, by fast food standards.  I was hardly able to make a dent in them at the restaurant, but I brought them home, and our toaster oven resuscitated them surprisingly well.  I shared them with my wife, and we got four servings out of this unexpected windfall of fries.  Even she loved them after their trip through the toaster oven, which neither of us were expecting.

“And that’s wrong, y’all, over the long haul/
You can’t cut the mustard when you’re fronting it all.”
The Beastie Boys, “Professor Booty” (1992)

“Well I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce/
You’ve got the rhyme and reason, but got no cause.”
The Beastie Boys, “So Whatcha Want” (1992)

I keep that hot sauce hot, not mild and weak/
It’s gonna burn your mouth until you wet your beak.”
The Beastie Boys, “Hey Fuck You” (2004)

At White Castle, you can request a variety of dipping sauces.  In addition to a handful of ketchup packets, I ended up with barbecue sauce, honey mustard, and Zesty Zing Sauce, which are all exactly what you expect.  The creamy Zing Sauce isn’t hot at all, and just barely qualifies as zesty, if you ask me.  I also requested the “Spicy Dusseldorf Mustard,” but they didn’t give me any of those.  As a mustard maven, I was disappointed that they cut that mustard from my order.  I could have lived without the BBQ sauce, but I wanted to try that spicy Dusseldorf!  Oh well.

“Mike D!  (YEAH?)  With your bad self running things/
(WHAT’S UP?)  With your bad breath — Onion rings!”
–The Beastie Boys, “Shake Your Rump” (1989)

According to White Castle’s online menu, the restaurants serve both onion rings and onion chips, but the Orlando location only serves onion chips ($3.79 for a large sack).  As an onion ring aficionado, I had to try them, so even though these aren’t rings, I will still denote this review with a RING THE ALARM! tag, like I do whenever I try onion rings or similarly fried onions anywhere.  And these “chips” were rad, despite the misleading moniker.  They were more like onion petals, like thicker, larger, crunchier, somehow less greasy Bloomin’ Onion pieces, only breaded instead of battered.  Thick breading, crunchy, not overly greasy, firm enough to dip and not have them fall apart.  Yes, they were very salty, like pretty much everything else I sampled, but I liked them a lot and would definitely order them on a return trip.   

There were a few things in my massive order that I didn’t love, but that’s because for the purposes of writing a more complete and exhaustive review, I didn’t just stick to the specialties of the house (or castle, if you will).  I don’t know when I’ll make it back out there, so I just ordered everything I could.

“I can do the Freak, the Patty Duke, and the Spank/
Gotta free the funky fish from the funky fish tanks.”
The Beastie Boys, “Finger Lickin’ Good” (1992)

“Don’t forget the tartar sauce, yo, cause it’s sad/
All these crab rappers, they’re rappin’ like crabs.”
The Beastie Boys, “Too Many Rappers” (2011)

This was the panko-crusted fish slider ($2.09), served on the same soft, steamed slider bun with a slice of American cheese.  I figured I would try it, because I have some nostalgic love for McDonald’s ol’ Filet-O-Fish, and I think Culver’s has a legitimately GREAT fast food fried fish sandwich.  This one wasn’t as good as either of those. I’m relieved that this fish wasn’t funky, but it was a little sad.  The Beastie Boys were correct: tartar sauce would have improved it immensely, as it elevates those two superior fried fish sandwiches.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?/
I egged the chicken, and then I ate his leg!”
–The Beastie Boys, “Eggman” (1989)

The Chicken Ring slider ($1.89) wasn’t anything special.  White Castle serves highly processed white meat Chicken Rings, like their own version of nuggets, but I found this slider with two Chicken Rings and a little slice of American cheese to be bland and tasteless.  I wouldn’t bother getting it again.  If you happen to like the Chicken Rings, you can also order them as a side, like the fries and onion chips, and not just in one size.

“Now we be grillin’ cheese and flippin’ flapjacks/
With the diamond stylus, yo, we cutting wax.
The Beastie Boys, “3 the Hard Way” (2004)

“To the heart of the matter, the mic I shatter/
So cold on the mic, I make your teeth chatter/
You climb the corporate ladder/
To make your pockets fatter/
We be flipping styles like pancake batter.”
The Beastie Boys, “Say It” (2011)

White Castle also serves breakfast all day, and I felt obligated to try its versions of breakfast sandwiches.  Instead of standard breakfast sliders on the same steamed buns, I opted for two Belgian waffle sliders ($2.69 each): one with bacon, egg, and cheese, and one with sausage, egg, and cheese.  These were heavier and greasier than any of the other sliders I ate, and I can’t say I loved them.  I think the waffles would have been better if they were a little crispier and a little sweeter to counterbalance the salty meat, egg, and cheese, like McDonald’s McGriddles (which are trashy junk food for sure, but satisfying and delicious).  As it was, the waffles were mostly just greasy and doughy.

The sausage was a standard breakfast sausage patty where salt and sage were the main flavors, but I preferred it to the bacon, which didn’t add much.  Don’t let me dissuade you from trying these for yourself, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, but I wouldn’t get them again.

I’m not walking around, looking to get you cake/
The D is for Diamonds, not for Drake’s
.”
The Beastie Boys, “Oh Word?” (2004)

I had to try White Castle’s three desserts on-a-stick: birthday cake on-a-stick, fudge-dipped brownie on-a-stick, and fudge-dipped cheesecake on-a-stick ($1.29 each).  I brought these home to share with my wife, because I was too full to touch them at the restaurant.

They were really tiny and cute, but we both thought they were all waaaay too sweet.  The cheesecake (bottom right) was by far the best, because it had a slight acidic tang and a moist graham cracker crust.  I wouldn’t bother to get the other two again, but at least they were moist and not dry, like I was expecting.

“Check-ch-check-check-check-ch-check it out/
What-wha-what-what-what’s it all about/
Work-wa-work-work-work-wa-work it out/
Let’s turn this motherfucking party out.”
The Beastie Boys, “Ch-Check It Out” (2004)

So after all my years on the planet, I finally made my pilgrimage to one of America’s oldest and most iconic fast food restaurants, a favorite choice of late-night partiers, fictional stoners (and surely some real ones too), and one of my all-time favorite hip hop groups.  Did White Castle live up to the decades of hype, especially from my beloved Beastie Boys’ enthusiastic endorsements?  It did, absolutely — at least the iconic sliders, the fries, and  the onion chips.  Everything else, the tangential items, weren’t anything special to me, and I wouldn’t bother with them again, but I don’t regret trying them either.  Longtime readers know how much I love trying new things.  Even if I don’t always love everything I eat, I live for novelty, especially new eating experiences.

When we first learned White Castle was opening in Orlando, almost two years ago, a lot of the usual online suspects were skeptical and dismissive.  It’s just fast food, they said.  It’s cheap, greasy, salty, unhealthy, low-quality fast food — nothing to get excited about.  Well, I have to agree with all of their statements in the previous sentence, except I argue that it is worth getting excited about.  For transplants from up north, especially New York and New Jersey (and we sure have plenty of them here), White Castle brings a nostalgic taste of home to Orlando at last.  For born-and-raised Floridians who have never had it before, it might be fast food, and it might be a chain, but at least it’s something new in this area that’s going to be slightly different from everything else here, so let’s let them enjoy it.  Plus, it is employing local people!  And for people like me who were already inclined to like White Castle due to loving the sliders at Krystal and Miami’s last remaining Royal Castle, and who could probably spit most of the verses from License to Ill, it was a long-overdue culinary experience, literally decades in the making.  I don’t know when I’ll return to this White Castle — probably not unless a visiting friend desperately wants to try it — but I’m so happy it’s here now, and so relieved to have finally made it.  So check-ch-check-check-check-ch-check it out!

Domu

I can’t believe Orlando’s super-hip Japanese restaurant Domu (http://domufl.com/) opened in November 2016, and it took me over three years to make it there!  Located in the East End Market in the hipsterrific Audubon Park neighborhood, the very limited parking spaces fill up quickly, and I had been warned about infamous long waits, even during less busy times.  Plus, I work late during the week, and Domu doesn’t accept reservations or even allow takeout orders!  That’s their prerogative, I guess.  I figured being difficult to get into only added to the hype and made it a hotter foodie destination, but considering my wife and I don’t go out to eat as much as we used to, and she often prefers takeout at home, we stayed away, not wanting to deal with the aggravation.

But Domu now opens for brunch at 11 AM on weekends, with mostly the same menu.  I knew I could finally try it if I got there right when it opened, so on a recent Sunday morning, I was the first person to arrive, right around 10:30 — already having to park in an overflow lot for the East End Market.  (And because it rained and all the enthusiastic Domu diners went to wait under an overhang, about a dozen people got in before me once the doors finally opened.)  But I got seated at the bar, had very friendly service from Leah, and I’m glad to report what many of my faithful readers already knew — Domu was worth the wait.

The things I would hear the most about are Korean fried chicken wings and ramen, so in true Saboscrivner style, I ordered both.  The wings (an order of six for an extremely reasonable $9) came out quickly, and they were absolute units, thicc with crispy breading that wasn’t heavy or greasy.  They were covered with a sweet, sticky, slightly spicy sauce that was a little thinner than the sauce on the huge and crispy Korean wings my wife and I love so much at Hawkers.  But these wings lived up to all the hype.dsc02752.jpg

I ate three of them and still had ramen coming, but I was relieved to find out that even though Domu doesn’t allow takeout orders, they will still provide you with a box to bring your leftovers home.  (If not, those three wings were coming home in my guayabera pockets, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that.)  I happily packed up the remaining wings for my wife, and they were still warm by the time I got them home to her.  (This story has a bittersweet ending: she took one bite and immediately decreed them to be too spicy, so I finished them a little later!)

And then my ravishing, rapturous, radical ramen arrived.  All the ramen options all sounded good, but I picked a popular favorite, the Richie Rich ($13), named after a hokey old comic book that helped me learn how to read when I was two years old.  It comes with fresh, house-made ramen noodles in a miso-shoyu pork bone broth, with chashu pork, an ajitama brulee egg (half a hard-boiled egg, but with a rich, deep orange, almost custard-like yolk, caramelized on its surface with a blowtorch), scallions, fried garlic, black garlic oil, and domudana.  (I’m afraid I have no idea what domudana is.)  I am very lucky that I mentioned being allergic to mushrooms, because another ingredient, kikurage, is actually the wood ear or “Jew’s ear” mushroom, and Leah was kind enough to warn me and promise they would leave it out.  That was a close one.  That Jew’s ear would have destroyed this Jew’s stomach!DSC02753

I am still new to traditional/”fancy” ramen, after subsisting on cheap Nissin and Maruchan instant ramen noodles for so many years.  However, I loved the ramen I tried at Susuru earlier this year, and Domu’s Richie Rich was my latest foray into the exciting world of Big Ramen.  It was so delicious, I slurped it all up in record time, even after demolishing those three wondrous wings, and I’ve been craving more ever since.  The broth was so creamy! The pork melted in my mouth!  That egg was magical!  The noodles were streets ahead of any ramen I’ve ever had before (which amounts to the good stuff at Susuru and lots of cheap, unhealthy, instant crap).  I don’t know if anyone else in Orlando goes to the trouble of making their own fresh ramen noodles, but Domu is doing something really amazing in that open kitchen.  And like I said, I’m late to this party, but many of you already knew that.
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The Domu website says its name translates as slang for “a dream come true,” and I’m sure that is true for owner Sonny Nguyen, who is starting his own culinary empire here in Orlando.  There is now a second, brand-new Domu location in Dr. Phillips, plus the fast-casual Domu Chibi in Waterford Lakes.  His new izakaya pub Tori Tori in the Mills 50 district impressed me when I was there recently, and I know that has quickly become another local hit.  After waiting three years, hearing raves about the ramen and whispers about the wings, I had an extremely pleasant and positive experience there myself, without any of the nightmarish waits I had read about.  (Saboscrivner Sage Suggestion #1: GET TO RESTAURANTS WHEN THEY OPEN!)  So you could say my dream came true at Domu as well.

 

Rasa

Get off I-4 at exit 74 in Orlando, and you’ll be on Sand Lake Road, near a stretch referred to as “Restaurant Row.”  It is very close to the touristy International Drive, the Orange County Convention Center, and the Universal Studios theme parks.  Many of the restaurants in the immediate area are upscale, aimed at convention-goers with generous per diems and expense accounts, but there are plenty of options — including some at lower price points, luckily.  While I’m almost never out here to eat, there are some hidden gems that I continue to learn about all the time.

One of these Restaurant Row rewards is the radiant Rasa (https://www.eatatrasa.com/).  The long, modern-designed dining room is gorgeous — sexy, even! — but instead of overpriced steaks, bank-breaking seafood, or mediocre Mexican, you can enjoy some of the most unique and interesting Indian food in Orlando.  Rasa specializes in South Indian cuisine as well as Indo-Chinese, which is exactly what you think it is: Indian-Chinese fusion fare.DSC02855

I don’t even drink, but that’s still a nice bar.DSC02853

The most exclusive table is in the back, closed off behind glass, with a lush wall of verdant vegetation to put diners at ease. dsc02852.jpg

I went with one of my closest friends who is a vegetarian, so we stuck to vegetarian dishes so we could sample and share everything.  I had seen photos of the triple Schezwan [sp] rice, so I definitely wanted to try that.  It comes with soft noodles, fried rice, fried noodles, peppers, broccoli, scallions, and my old foe mushrooms, which they gladly left out of our order.  For our protein, we got paneer cheese ($14).  Our server even warned us it was hot, but I’ve been practicing ordering “hot” Indian dishes at Moghul, and both of us love hot sauces, so we were brave and bold and went for it. DSC02854It was spicy, but we handled ourselves with courage and honor.  And it was a beautiful and delicious dish with incredible flavors and textures.  I’m used to paneer cheese being much softer, cubed up with spinach in saag paneer, but the pieces on the left were thick, solid-feeling fried strips of the cheese, similar in consistency to dense halloumi cheese when it is grilled or pan-fried.  The fried rice is underneath the cylindrical tower of soft noodles, and it’s worth excavating to find it.  This was an awesome dish that I’d probably order every time I return, despite my constant impulse to branch out and try more things.

Last year, I was introduced to dosas, giant, thin, crispy crepes of fermented rice and lentil flour, when I joined fellow foodies at the Hindu Temple in Casselberry.  I didn’t think my friend had ever gotten a dose of a dosa before, so we had to order the paper Masala dosa ($11).  It definitely draws attention when it arrives at your table, rolled into a long, hollow, paper-thin cylinder.  It was served with the most delicious curry-spiced potatoes, a thin red sauce that seemed to have chunks of eggplant, and tomato and coconut chutneys.  The only way to attack this guy is to tear off pieces and dip it in different things.  It is somehow crispy yet soft at the same time.
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And this was the channa batura ($12): puffy white leavened bread, served with spiced chickpeas stewed with tomatoes and topped with sun-dried fenugreek leaves called kasoori methi.  At first glance, it made me think of the puffy lavas bread at beloved Turkish restaurants Cappadocia and Bosphorous that I’ve reviewed before, but despite being puffed up with air, this was much thinner than either of those, with a completely different texture.  It almost reminded me of a super-thin funnel cake or elephant ear — essentially fried dough, lightly crispy but also soft, and somehow in a completely different way than the dosa.  DSC02857

Not only did we love it, but since I brought home our leftovers, my wife loved it too — and I have yet to get her into Indian food.  I just knew she would love this bread.  And this was the sole recommendation from our server, who at one point warned us we might be ordering too much food!  I really appreciated this recommendation.

Anyway, as much as I enjoy our closest Indian restaurant Moghul, the menu at Rasa is almost completely different, with the emphasis on South Indian and Indo-Chinese cuisines.  I really liked trying so many new things and sharing them with my friend, and I would totally come back to Rasa.  It’s a shame it is all the way across town.  But if you’re visiting Universal Studios or the convention center, or if you want to have a hot date down that way, Rasa would be a great choice, and not just because some of the food is quite spicy.  It’s such a cool, sexy room with ambience you don’t get at many Indian restaurants, with a really unique menu that I haven’t encountered anywhere else.

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.

Chain Reactions: Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza

I generally try to avoid chain restaurants, but everyone has some chains they like.  One of my favorites is Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (https://acfp.com/), a chain founded in 2002 right here in Florida — Fort Lauderdale, to be exact.  Not only do they have excellent pizza baked in an 800-degree coal fired oven, they also serve some of my absolute favorite chicken wings and unique ribs I love, that are totally different than what you’d get at any barbecue joints.

On one visit to the Altamonte Springs location in late 2018, I brought home a lunch-sized Paulie’s Pie, my favorite of their pizzas, with mini-meatballs, crumbled Italian sausage, ricotta cheese, and sweet peppers (you can also choose hot peppers), in addition to their tangy red sauce and regular mozzarella.  The crust has some burned spots, but it never tastes burnt or ashy.  It’s a thin crust, but not super-crispy.  It is softer than you think, and it is awesome.  img_0007

These are the oven-roasted pork spare ribs, roasted in the coal oven with garlic, rosemary, white wine, and spicy vinegar peppers (I can’t get enough of those things!).  You can get an order of six (I did) or twelve.  I love barbecue ribs, and these are nothing like them, but they’re outstanding.  So tender — the meat easily peels off the bone, but doesn’t just “fall apart.”  The flavor is incredible, but they sure are spicy.img_0009

This is a piece of their oven-baked focaccia bread, which is very soft, but it has a perfectly light, crispy (but NOT crunchy) exterior.  img_0011

On a more recent visit in late November, I treated myself to a LARGE Paulie’s Pie to go, knowing I’d get three or four meals out of it.  dsc01719

Yea yea, that’s the stuff.dsc01717

They also had new spice-rubbed wings, which I decided to try since I love their original oven-roasted wings so much, and these were a limited-time fall special.  They were fine, but I prefer the flavor of the originals.  Plus, the original wings come buried under a mountain of caramelized onions, with more of that great focaccia bread.  I feel like I missed out on those beloved accompaniments with the special wings.dsc01718

They happened to have a promotion going on where I got a free order of pumpkin cannoli, so that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  I’m not usually the biggest pumpkin fanboy, but these were great.  The pumpkin cream filling was very subtly pumpkin-flavored, to the point where even a pumpkin hater would not have had a problem with them.  They were dusted with cinnamon and a squirt of sticky, syrupy pumpkin glaze.  I liked them a lot and made a mental note to try their regular cannoli on a future visit.  dsc01720

I have a top three pizza ranking for Orlando, and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza is definitely in it, alongside Pizza Bruno (which I have reviewed before) and Pizzeria Del Dio.  All three are very different, but all superb and worth trying.  I’m pickier on wings, but Anthony’s wings are definitely in my top four wings in town, along with Kai Asian Street Fare, Hawkers, and 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  All very different wings, and none of them are the traditional fried-to-a-crisp, burn-your-mouth-and-ass-off Buffalo-style sports bar wings.

Anthony’s also offers some lunch sandwiches on their focaccia bread, and you can buy a reusable metal pot of their meatballs in sauce.  I have never indulged that much, but if I was throwing a party, I’d consider it.  Oh, who am I kidding?  We hardly ever entertain anymore.  I’d probably just buy the pot o’meatballs and eat them all myself over the course of a week.  Dare to dream…

Bosphorous

On Sunday evening, I met a friend at Bosphorous, the beautiful Turkish restaurant on Park Avenue in Winter Park.  (https://www.bosphorousrestaurant.com/)  It is one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando, and it never disappoints.  This time was no exception.

My friend had never been there before; I suggested it because she is vegetarian, and other vegetarian friends I’ve brought there thought they died and went to heaven, with all the delicious options to choose from.

We shared the mixed appetizer platter with puffy lavas bread, which is almost a requirement when you eat there.  The soft, pita-like bread will arrive at your table puffed up with hot air, and you need to pierce it with fork tines to deflate it to avoid being burned.  Then rip off pieces and go to town with the cool, refreshing dips in the platter.  I have said that everything tastes better in sandwich or dip form, and these dips are among the finest around.  The platter also comes with one of Bosphorous’ stuffed grape leaves, sliced in two, and a few kalamata olives and cornichons (tiny pickles, which I love, even though I’m normally not big on pickles).  You have to order the lavas bread separately, but you’ll regret it if you don’t!
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One of my favorites is the savory tomato and sauteed eggplant dip called soslu patlican.  I could eat a whole jar of that stuff in no time.  I should really learn how to make it myself!  The platter also includes babaganoush (smoked eggplant dip), tabbuli (similar to couscous), ezme (a spicy salsa-like dip with tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and other peppers, and walnuts), and haydari (a thick, creamy yogurt dip with walnuts).

My absolute favorite, which my wife loves too, is taramosalata, which is a creamy, salty, fish roe concoction.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t included this time, replaced with a thin, creamy dip called cacik, with yogurt, cucumber, mint, and dill.   (My brilliant brother, one of my most loyal readers, suggested cacik might be etymologically related to the similar Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki, and he’s probably right!)  I guess without the taramosalata, the whole platter is vegetarian, so that makes some sense.  It doesn’t even seem to be on the menu anymore!
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If you don’t want to spring for the whole platter, you can always order any of these dips separately, but for first-time diners, I strongly recommend trying them all, so you can pick out the ones you like best.  My least-favorite is the hummus, because it’s just plain hummus, which I eat all the time.  I wonder if they let you mix and match.  It never occurred to me to ask!

While my wife and I usually share the mixed appetizer platter and an order of doner kebap (similar to gyro meat, and served on a bed of rich and buttery rice pilaf, perfect for wrapping up in the lavas bread), this time I tried something new to me: the lahmacun, which is like Turkish pizza — flatbreads that were at once both crispy and soft, covered with ground lamb in a piquant sauce.  It comes accompanied by shredded, pickled red cabbage, beets, and red onions (love it!), plus some mixed greens and sliced tomatoes.  You put the vegetables on the lahmacun half-moons, pour on a little of the incredible vinaigrette dressing, fold it, and eat it like a sandwich.  I loved it.

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My friend ordered the spinach and feta pide, a pastry “boat” that was warm and soft, stuffed with sauteed spinach and melty, cheesy goodness, topped with sliced tomatoes.  She was suitably impressed.

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Unfortunately, my wife was down for the count with a migraine to end all migraines, which is the only reason she didn’t join us for dinner.  But I ordered another mixed appetizer platter and a whole lavas bread to bring home to her, which she appreciated.  (Except they forgot the stuffed grape leaves on this one — First World Problems Alert!)  This is one of the ways you make a marriage work, you guys.