Deli Desires

I try to spare my readers too many similar reviews in a row, plus I like to switch up my cuisines up to keep this blog as interesting as possible.  My readership is low enough as it is, am I right?  But even though I discovered The Pastrami Project two weeks ago and made it the subject of my most recent review, I have since discovered another delicatessen in Orlando, mere minutes away from the Pastrami Project food truck.  It’s a brand-new restaurant called Deli Desires (https://delidesires.com/), located one block north of Colonial Drive on Ferncreek Avenue.

For the last several months, Deli Desires ran a delivery-only business model over Instagram, similar to recent sensation Brad’s Underground Pizza, but started a soft opening in their new brick and mortar location last weekend and is continuing the soft opening this weekend.  I don’t believe they are doing phone or online orders yet, but since I couldn’t find a menu online, I went in person to pick up an early lunch on Friday, not knowing how crowded it would be or what they would have available.  Luckily, when I arrived around 11:45, there was no line, but a line grew by the time I left with my food.  Just so you all know, at least during the soft opening, Deli Desires is open for breakfast and lunch only, and just on Friday through Sunday.  It’s a small space with no seating — strictly a takeout operation for now, which is just fine with me.  And I’m always pleased to see the full staff of a restaurant wearing masks at all times, and wearing them the right way, covering their noses.  Wearing your mask with your nose hanging out totally defeats the purpose, like walking around with your schmeckle sticking out of your pants.  And yet you see it all the time!  (The noses, that is.  During a pandemic, consider it just as bad.)

There’s a lot to look at inside Deli Desires, with large shelves on each side with gourmet groceries — local honey, hot sauce, fancy canned seafood, giant jars of Duke’s mayo (the only kind of mayo I will buy), T-shirts, and a whole rack of Herr’s potato chips, which are excellent, especially the ketchup chips.  Directly in front, they have a display of Dr. Brown’s canned sodas (good root beer and cream soda, but I can’t recommend the Cel-Ray soda) and boxes of kosher salt.

You know what else is fine?  All the food.  Damn fine deli fare.  Here’s the menu, since they didn’t have a website up at the time I wrote this review, just the Instagram page.  It’s very unique for a deli menu — some classics, but definitely modern interpretations of the classics.

When I told my co-worker, a regular member of our Friday “lunch bunch” that I was going to a new deli and asked if she wanted anything, she asked if the menu was online, and I said I couldn’t find it and had no idea what they would have.  She told me she likes Reubens, in case they have one.  (Who doesn’t like Reubens?)  Well, they didn’t have a Reuben, but they did have a different kind of corned beef sandwich ($10) — a “Big Mac”-style corned beef sandwich with shredded lettuce and pickles (in place of the sauerkraut on a Reuben), special sauce (already very similar to the Russian or thousand island dressings that accompany Reubens), and served on a soft, fresh-baked sesame seeded roll.  I didn’t taste this sandwich I brought back for her, but she said it all worked well together.  When I placed the order with the very patient and welcoming Tyson at the counter, he told me they make everything from scratch, including curing their own corned beef.

My regular readers know how much I love delis, especially all the smoked, cured, and pickled meats and fish.  I saw a whitefish salad sandwich on the menu ($10) and had to have it.  Whitefish is a large fish that is often smoked whole, until the skin turns a beautiful golden color.  Then the flaky, oily, smoky flesh is scooped and scraped out, mixed with mayonnaise, dill, usually chopped celery, and other herbs and spices.  I just love it, and I’m already overjoyed on the rare occasions I can find a whole smoked whitefish or “chub” in a store and make my own whitefish salad.  But it’s a labor-intensive process, making sure to remove all the inedible hair-thin bones that look like clear plastic and can really get caught in your throat.  That’s why it is even more pleasing when the professionals do the work.  This was delicious whitefish salad on the same kind of soft seeded roll — big chunks of fish mixed with mayo (Duke’s!) and lots of dill.  It was topped by crispy “celery salad,” with long, paper-thin strands of celery and red radish that must have been sliced with a razor-sharp mandoline slicer.  They topped it with a slice of muenster cheese too, almost making it like their version of a tuna melt, that diner classic.  Of course the sandwich was served cold, as it should be.

While I was there for the soft opening, I wanted to try a second sandwich, so I could eat a little of both at work and finish them for dinner.  I decided to go with the scrapple sandwich ($8), although it was a difficult decision.  This was an excellent breakfast sandwich that would be a welcome meal at any time of day, not just in the morning.  For those that don’t know, scrapple is a breakfast meat that is made by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid-Atlantic states, kind of like a sausage or meatloaf, but a looser consistency.  It is often made with pork scraps, herbs, and spices, and then some fillers like flour and other grains, and served sliced and pan-fried.  I’ve had it before from one of the Amish food stands in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite places in the entire world.  I don’t know what Deli Desires puts into their scrapple, but I definitely tasted sage, making it reminiscent of a more crumbly pork breakfast sausage.  (Hey, they have a BLT on the menu too, so they never claimed to be a kosher deli!)  They also included a perfectly fried over-medium egg that held up perfectly until I got back to work and tried cutting the sandwich in half with a plastic knife, when it started to run.  But it was nice dipping the bialy in the warm, rich, runny yolk. 

What’s a bialy, you ask?  They are similar to bagels, but unfortunately, a lot less popular.  I love ’em, though.  Bagels have that smooth, shiny outer coating because they are boiled in huge kettles of water before being baked.  Bialys aren’t boiled, just baked, so they have more of a traditional outer crust, but are still soft, chewy, and fluffy on the inside like bagels.  They lack the holes that help make bagels bagels, but they do have an indentation that usually contains diced cooked onions and poppy seeds.  Deli Desires makes a very good bialy, and they are few and far between.  (Bagel King, our regular standard place for bagels, much closer to home, also bakes their own bialys.)

But I had to get two bialys to enjoy later: a standard one with caramelized onions in the center (left) and a smoked jalapeño and muenster bialy (right), the same kind the scrapple and egg sandwich came on.  These bialys were $3 each.

I saw they had potato salad ($3), so as long as I was already running amok with carbs (glorious carbs!), I wanted to try that too.  These were small redskin potatoes, very tender with some nice texture from the skins, mixed with mayo and lots of dill, for almost a Scandinavian style of potato salad.  But I have remarked before that the Scandinavians and the Jews share some culinary traditions — the aforementioned smoked, cured, and pickled fish, dark rye bread, lots of dill, and potato salad too, apparently.  This was a generous helping of potato salad that I finished in two sittings, but probably could have made last even longer.  It was just too good, though.   

And even though I had no intention of ordering dessert, Deli Desires had an assortment of fresh-baked desserts under glass domes on the counter.  There’s something about a pie under a glass dome, like at a diner, that makes it even more tempting to me than a pie in a fridge or sitting on a windowsill, like in old-timey cartoons.  It’s kind of like putting a statue on a pedestal… or putting a very attractive person on a pedestal, for that matter.

One of the daily desserts was right up my alley — a cara cara orange pie on a graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream and a chewy, sticky dried orange slice.  Conceptually, it is very similar to Florida’s beloved key lime pie, and very close to my all-time favorite dessert, a tart and creamy “Atlantic Beach pie” that I make with fresh-squeezed citrus juices on a buttery, salty crust made from crushed Ritz crackers.  This slice was $6, but I just had to try it, for science — to compare it to my Atlantic Beach pie recipe and see how I stacked up to a seasoned baker. 

Needless to say, it was good.  Firmer and less runny than my similar pie, and I’ll have to figure out how they do that.  However, it was served at room temperature, and I think it would have been even tastier served chilled, like how I serve my pie and pretty much any key lime pie from anywhere.  Of course I could have stuck it in the fridge for an hour, but even after eating everything else I ate, once I opened the box and tasted my first tiny taste of the slice, I couldn’t wait.  Also, cara cara oranges are more tart than our standard, familiar navel oranges, but the pie didn’t have that acidic tartness I love so much in citrusy desserts.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it!

I considered waiting a week or two after my Pastrami Project review to publish this one and running a different piece in its place.  But since Deli Desires is still in its soft opening phase, I wanted to get the word out that Mills 50 district has an exciting new deli in a permanent location, and it’s open for business and excellent, right out of the gate.  Check with them first, in case their hours change in the days and weeks to come, but everything I tried was terrific, and I look forward to returning and working my way through the menu.

Many of their offerings are fresh, new takes on traditional New York/Jewish delicatessen fare.  You could almost call it “hipster deli,” but I don’t want that to sound like a diss in any way.  Delis have long been an endangered species among restaurants, decades before this pandemic started threatening the entire restaurant industry.  It breaks my heart to read about these august culinary landmarks closing down in big cities around the country, sometimes after half a century or longer in business.  But I get it — neighborhood demographics change, urban rents skyrocket, and a Jewish deli might seem stodgy and stale compared to some of the hot new food trends, especially for those who didn’t grow up in a family that loved that kind of food, as mine did.  But there is always hope!  Over the last decade or so, even as some of the iconic delis have baked their last bagels, cured their last corned beef, and plated their last pastrami, a young, hip, adventurous group of chefs has started revitalizing and rejuvenating the entire concept of the deli, reaching out to younger, hipper, more adventurous diners, offering some twists on the old standards, elevating and reinventing classic dishes while still paying homage to the old ways.  That’s what chef-owner Hannah Jaffe is doing here with her delicious, delectable, decadent Deli Desires, and it it’s going to catch on here in Orlando.  We’ve needed this for a long time, and now it’s here — and not that far from my day job either.  *I* need this.  Don’t let me down, people.  You will desire this deli, take it from me.

Sus Hi Eatstation

I am a sucker for extravagant sushi rolls and poke bowls that I get to customize myself, with the ingredients of my choice — different fish, vegetables, toppings, condiments.  They’re beautiful to the eye, refreshing, delicious, and you can go as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  I’ve reviewed and sung the praises of two of my favorite local restaurants: Poke Hana and Bento Cafe, but I recently paid my first visit to the homegrown chain Sus Hi Eatstation (https://sushieatstation.com/), founded here in Orlando by local couple Robert and Teresa Ly.

I don’t know why it took me so long.  Sus Hi Eatstation has several locations around town, with the “build your own” model popularized by Subway, Chipotle, and so many other successful fast food and fast casual restaurants.  They are also vaguely ninja-themed, and as an ’80s kid who grew up loving G.I. Joe and Daredevil comics, I have nothing but love for ninjas (and G.I. Joe, and Daredevil) to this day.  If anything, I wish they leaned into the ninja theme even more, especially in this era of everyone wearing masks in public.  (But don’t worry, everyone working at Sus Hi when I visited was wearing normal masks.)

I went to the closest location in Altamonte Springs, and  I should mention that at least during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sus Hi Eatstation has customers place all orders from a touchscreen kiosk or online through the website.  When I got there, I used the kiosk, and they had a pump bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it, so have no fear.  At the front of the store, the dutiful staff members (who really could have been dressed like ninjas, I’m just sayin’) are meticulously assembling orders from the mise en place ingredients arranged in front of them, just like so many other fast casual eateries.

I have to admit it was a particular special that drew me in that day.  One of Sus Hi’s specialties is sushi burritos wrapped in huge flour tortillas, and for a $1.50 upcharge, you can get them crusted with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so they have a crunchy outer layer, but the sushi inside is still cool and refreshing.  That already sounded amazing — certainly not traditional, but a nice, fusiony presentation.  But now, they are running a special where you can get the burrito covered with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and deep-fried for a $3 upcharge.  Yes, I’m not proud, but as soon as I learned that was a current menu option, I had to have it!

The basic burrito is $8.50, and I chose a base of white rice.  (The other options are brown rice and lettuce.)  When you customize a Sus Hi burrito, you get to select three proteins.  I had already studied the menu in advance, and even though they offer steak and chicken, I went to a place called Sus Hi because I wanted sushi.  I selected tuna (a 50-cent upcharge), salmon (a 75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab, which is shredded surimi tossed in spicy mayo.  I added on cream cheese, cucumbers, shredded purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning.  It was gorgeous!

Sus Hi allows you to get up to three different sauces with a burrito, and I opted for sauces on the side so I could taste everything better.  The bright orange sauce on the top left is an additional sauce that comes special with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito.  I thought it was going to be like a spicy queso, but it was more of a very spicy mayo, with the intensity of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  The paler sauce next to it is classic creamy, tangy white sauce.  Below we have orange fire sauce, which was like a smoky chili mayo, probably with chipotle flavor added, and the slightly lighter orange sauce on the bottom right is standard spicy mayo, which I unapologetically love with my sushi and poke.

Sus Hi also offers regular and sweet soy sauces, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce, sweet chili sauce, mango habanero sauce, regular sriracha (meh), and yellow sriracha (better), among others.

The burrito was HUGE, and I am making a conscious effort to eat smaller portions in 2021, so I got two meals out of it.  The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted outer surface wasn’t quite as crunchy as I expected, nor as flamin’ hot, but I still enjoyed it.  It was a novelty, something I’m glad I tried but wouldn’t order again.  I suspect the regular panko-crusted burrito will probably have a better texture.

But while I was at Sus Hi for my first time, I figured I might as well try a bowl too.  I selected a regular bowl ($9.95) with brown rice as the base, in my half-hearted, conflicted attempt to eat slightly healthier.  I usually don’t like brown rice, but theirs wasn’t bad at all!  Again, I selected the same three proteins: tuna (50-cent upcharge), salmon (75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab.  I kept my toppings pretty similar to the burrito: cream cheese (you can see the little scoop near the bottom), cucumber, purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning, but I also had them add sliced pickled jalapenos, crunchy noodles, and pickled ginger.  Hey, why not, right?

I swear there is tuna, salmon, and krab under all that in the paper bowl.  In fact, I was really impressed by the size of the “regular” bowl, and how generous they were with everything they put in it.  A lot of places will scrimp on toppings and especially proteins, but I feel like this is a terrific deal — a huge portion of a lot of fresh, tasty food.

I got the same three sauces on the side with this bowl: spicy mayo, white sauce, and fire sauce.  In the future, now that I’ve tried those sauces separately, I’d be more likely to just order one or more on top of the bowl, for ease of mixing everything together.  You can also purchase Sus Hi’s sauces in bottles if you fall in love with any of them.  I wish more restaurants would offer their sauces, condiments, and dressings for sale, but it never hurts to ask!

After all these years, I finally see why Sus Hi Eatstation is so popular, with such a devoted following around Orlando.  People love sushi, and they love freedom of choice.  I’m sure I will return, probably going back for a similar version of everything I tried for this review.  I don’t know how long the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted sushi burrito will last, but if that was on your bucket list, I strongly encourage you to cross it off while you can!

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.

Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)

Hawkers Asian Street Fare

The pan-Asian restaurant Hawkers (https://eathawkers.com/) started as a small, hip, industrial-looking modern space on Mills Avenue, in what may be Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, Mills 50.  Since 2011, it has expanded into ten locations in multiple states, and for good reason: it’s terrific.  We’ve gone countless times since it opened, almost always to that original location.

Hawkers specializes in diverse street food specialties from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, and more.  Portions are relatively small, so it’s a great place to go with a group and share lots of dishes.  And very few items on the menu are over $10, so you don’t have to worry too much or feel too guilty ordering more than one dish to sample new things.

Hawkers is a real treasure, and it has emerged as one of my favorite restaurants to bring out-of-town visitors — a perfect distillation of Orlando’s multicultural culinary scene, especially its Asian influences.  It has impressed good friends from far and wide when they come to visit, and in the meantime, it has become a safe, reliable place to bring my wife when one or both of us have a hard time deciding what sounds best.  If you want something healthy or heavy, meaty or veggie, cool or spicy, noodles or rice, soups or salads, and now even a sweet treat of a brunch, Hawkers will have something you like.

For my most recent visit, I caught up with an old friend with connections to my old Miami friend group, who I then got to know better while we both studied in Gainesville.  I hadn’t seen him since 2006, which is insane.  In that time, we both met amazing women and got married, and he had kids.  It’s crazy!  Life happens.  He happened to be in Orlando for work that day and looked me up, hoping to meet for dinner and remembering I’m the guy who knows where to eat around here.  I was so glad to catch up with my old friend, and I knew Hawkers would be the perfect place to get together.  I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t amazed and astonished by it.

For this dinner, I started us out with an order of roti canai, which are buttery, flaky Malaysian flatbreads.  Think about a really good, fresh, fluffy flour tortilla getting it on with a layer you peel off a delicate French croissant, and you’ll come close to the glory and grandeur of a Malaysian roti.  An order of a single roti with a cup of curry sauce for dipping is $3, and each additional roti costs $1.50.  Count on ordering at least one roti for everyone in your party, and I guarantee you’ll want more.  Even people with the most unadventurous palates will love these, although those people might want to forego the curry sauce.  If you have kids, they will love these things too.dsc02328.jpg

I also requested an order of Korean twice-fried chicken wings ($8), which are my favorite wings anywhere, ever.  My wife agrees, and so does my best food friend (BFF) who lives in Miami.  And now, so does this old friend.  These are huge wings, with the thickest, crispiest breading, slathered in a sticky, sweet, spicy, garlicky gochujang sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and fresh cilantro.  An order of five wings costs $8, and my friend liked them so much, he ordered more.
DSC02327 These wings made my Orlando Weekly list of five favorite dishes of 2017.  They are perfect in every way.  They’re thick, meaty, juicy, crunchy, sweet (but not too sweet), and spicy (but definitely not too spicy).  I hate the tiny, dry, burnt-to-a-crisp sports bar wings that too many restaurants and bars serve, slathered in oily hot sauce designed to burn on the way in and the way out.  To me, there’s no point to even eating wings like that.  They’re just sad.  These Korean twice-fried wings are the opposite: pure happiness.

Next up were the chicka-rones ($6), crispy fried chicken skins tossed in jerk seasoning.  The menu says these are Filipino-style.  I loved them, especially as a nice alternative to pork rinds (AKA chicharrones, hence the clever name of this dish), which can sometimes be too hard to bite through, or so crunchy they can shred the inside of your mouth.  DSC02329For the first time ever, I recently fried up my own chicken skins at home into a crispy Jewish delicacy called gribenes, and rendered the fat (schmaltz) for cooking with later.  Fried chicken skins are so much lighter and less oppressive-feeling than pork rinds, so I’m definitely a convert.

My friend was craving something spicy, so he went with a dish I had never tried before: Kin’s prawn mee ($9), a hot noodle soup with spicy prawn broth, shrimp, chicken, wheat noodles, hard-boiled egg, yow choy (Chinese greens), bean sprouts, and fried shallots.  He was sweating, but he loved it.  I might order this in the future, since he was so enthusiastic about it.DSC02330

And I also picked a new noodle dish, knowing those are always safe bets.  This was the Yaki udon ($8.50): thick and chewy udon noodles (always a favorite), chicken, eggs, onions, spring onions, and carrots.  It comes with bean sprouts too, but I am not the biggest fan, so I asked them to hold the bean sprouts — never a problem at Hawkers.  It had pretty mild heat, but it was pleasant.  We both enjoyed this one, and I’d totally order it again.  DSC02331In the past, I have loved so many of Hawkers’ noodle dishes: curry-seasoned Singapore mei fun with chicken and shrimp, beef haw fun (with wide, flat noodles, similar to the beef chow fun I order at almost every Chinese restaurant that offers it), char kway teow, and spicy pad Thai.  Now I’m adding the Yaki udon to this all-star lineup.  The only problem in the future is what to choose: an old favorite or an exciting new possibility.  You can’t go wrong either way, trust me.

Anyway, I parted ways with my old friend after dinner, determined to keep in touch better and not let thirteen more years go by.  He seemed to really enjoy the restaurant and our menu selections, which I totally expected, but the last thing I ever want to do is recommend something that disappoints, staunch Saboscrivner subscribers included.  A bad meal always depresses me, because not only is it a bad meal, but there’s the opportunity cost of not being able to enjoy a good meal in its place.  I can safely say that Hawkers is a crowd-pleaser, and if you haven’t given it a chance yet, you won’t be sorry.

In fact, to sweeten the deal, Hawkers started serving brunch recently, but only on weekends and only at their newer, larger location in Windemere, much further from where we live.  People’s photos of the new menu items looked enticing, so my wife and I recently took the trip out there, a few weeks after they rolled out the brunch menu, figuring they would have time to work out any potential bugs.  Though we were one of the first parties to arrive when the restaurant opened that morning, it took an extraordinarily long time for us to get seated.  I normally don’t remark on things like this on my blog, but it seemed weird, given that the restaurant was completely empty after just opening for business, with lots of staff available.  We couldn’t help but be amused by one woman who (politely and diplomatically) complained about the delay before leaving.  My wife expressed a gesture of solidarity with her as she walked out, and then I figured we were going to get lousy service and would end up feeling like chumps.  But once we finally got seated, the service improved exponentially, and it was worth the wait.

I’m a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, so I marked out when I saw this brunch item called Hash Rules Everything Around Me.  How could I not order that?  Dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all!  The dish included fried pork belly, crisp tater tots, bell peppers, and onions, topped with an egg fried over easy, smothered in curry gravy.  Everything about this dish worked for me, with the runny richness of the egg cascading down and melding with the spicy gravy, forming a killer sauce for those tots.  They were the best tots I’ve ever had, and the pork belly was everything I love about pork belly — a crispy (but not crunchy) exterior, giving way to smooth, unctious, yielding deliciousness. DSC02092DSC02094

Xiao long bao, AKA soup dumplings!  On the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, people had been hyping these up for years and bemoaning their absence in Orlando before they popped up on a few local restaurants’ menus recently.  Hawkers was the first or second to offer these steamed classics in town.DSC02095

Frankly, I think they’re kind of messy to eat, and dare I say it — more trouble than they’re worth.  If you don’t eat the whole thing in one bite, the broth leaks out, and if you do eat the whole thing in one bite, you can burn a layer of skin out of your mouth.  DSC02097

Think about how perfect a pizza is, and then consider the calzone — everything you love about a pizza, but the inverse.  Not bad, per se, but inside out and a little awkward to eat.  Now think about a bowl of good wonton soup.  Are you envisioning it?  So warm and comforting!  Well, the xiao long bao is the calzone version of wonton soup, with pork, crab, and broth inside the wonton, each soup dumpling its own little microcosm.  DSC02098

Even for brunch, we couldn’t go to Hawkers and not order the twice-fried Korean chicken wings.  Yes, don’t worry — many of your regular favorites are still available on the brunch menu.  Check the website to confirm, though!  These wings were as sticky, sweet, and spicy as usual.  DSC02099

This was a brunch dish that might as well have been on the dessert menu: the Hong Kong bubble waffle, stuffed with whipped cream, fresh lemon custard, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  If you’ve never had a bubble waffle, remedy that.  It is sweet and eggy with the lightest, crispiest outer shell, but so soft and fluffy inside.  This one got soggy and cool quickly due to the whipped cream, but was still tasty.  DSC02091

I can see bubble waffles being a very satisfying street food, especially if you just get handed a warm waffle and eat it by tearing bubbles off or just biting off a bubble at a time.  The whipped cream and especially the lemon custard would have been better as dips for the waffle itself, rather than being served inside of it to make the whole thing soggy.DSC02093

And this sweet brunch dish (pretty much another dessert) was called Stacks on Stacks: Japanese souffle pancakes, so trendy and Instagrammable.  The pancakes were tall, thick, and very jiggly and fluffy, served with bananas, Nutella, whipped cream, and drizzled with a housemade sesame peanut sauce.  (Fo’ drizzle.)  I didn’t think this was that fantastic.  The pancakes were kind of doughy and a little dry, even with all the toppings.  I honestly prefer IHOP and Cracker Barrel pancakes, and I’m not that big on Nutella, sesame, or peanuts.  This dish just wasn’t for me, but I suspect many of my regular readers and “brunch squad” types will love it.DSC02100

I always order a Vietnamese iced coffee at Hawkers, especially if I’m going to have anything spicy.  It’s one of the only coffee drinks I’ll drink, rich and sweet with condensed milk.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet with condensed milk, and ready to jolt me awake.  That morning, my wife ordered a “mocktail” called the Tang Dynasty, with tangy pineapple juice, orange juice, tamarind, salt, and ginger ale.dsc02090.jpg

I’m generally not a brunch fan — my regular readers know I consider it a disappointing ripoff of a meal, especially since neither of us drink — but I’m glad we experienced the new brunch at Hawkers once.  I don’t think we’ll rush back, but mostly because the Windemere location is quite far from us.  We’re still huge fans of the tried-and-true original location for lunch and dinner, especially those Korean twice-fried wings, the roti canai, and all those noodles.  And if you come to visit me from a town that doesn’t have a Hawkers location yet, we might just end up there.  So far, all the friends I’ve dragged there have emerged huge fans, so watch out!

 

Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

One of Orlando’s culinary highlights is its burgeoning Vietnamese restaurant scene.  The Mills 50 neighborhood near downtown Orlando (the intersection of Mills Avenue, AKA Highway 17-92, and Colonial Drive, AKA State Road 50) might be the best part of town for dining out, period.  We have the most Vietnamese restaurants centered around there, plus lots of Vietnamese and other Asian markets.  Vietnamese cuisine carries some French influences, from delicate pastries to banh mi, sub sandwiches with various cured meats and pickled vegetables on perfect crisp baguettes.  Even Vietnamese iced coffee, or cà phê sữa đá, is a strong dark roast served over ice with sweetened condensed milk — ooh la la, hon hon hon!  So rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.

Amid all our other Vietnamese options, we have a new choice that just opened recently and is getting plenty of well-deserved foodie buzz: Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery (https://parisbanhmicafebakery.com/).  It’s not a full-service, sit-down restaurant, but a casual cafe, wide open with modern decor, specializing in banh mi sandwiches, baked goods, and tasty beverages.  You order at the counter, but first you have to run the gauntlet of all those beautiful, fresh-baked pastries on display.  DSC02305

I arrived after the lunch rush on Independence Day, after treating myself to a mid-morning showing of the new Spider-Man sequel on a day off work.  The baked goods were picked over, but there was still plenty to choose from:DSC02304

When you enter, grab a tray and a pair of tongs, because you can start serving yourself on your way up to the counter.  A hungry or sweet-toothed person can do a lot of damage, but at least these pastries aren’t expensive, so you can make some choices and have a good time with a mostly-clear conscience.DSC02301

I had been warned to not miss these flaky round pastries stuffed with savory seasoned ground beef.  They were kept in a separate glass case on top of the front counter, being kept warm.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I would have chosen one anyway.  I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially at only $2:DSC02300

I selected an assortment of five pastries to bring home to share with my wife, but a kind gentleman who worked there advised me of their special deal of buying five and getting a sixth free.  How could I refuse?  So I walked out with a flaky margherita pastry with tomato filling (top left; $3), a cheese croissant that was much more like a cheese danish (top middle; $2), a sweet cheese blueberry croissant (top right; $2.80), the warm, meat-stuffed pastry that rang up as a pate chaud (bottom left; $2), a mozzarella and tomato sauce-filled pastry that was kind of like a really good pizza Hot Pocket (bottom; $3), and a sweet, buttery, flaky kouign amann (the round one on the right; $2.80).
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Here is the banh mi menu, at last!  These are a bargain at $5 each, and they are extremely high-quality, especially the fresh-baked baguettes, so crispy outside and so soft inside.  I’ve had some banh mi served to me on stale baguettes that shatter when you bite into them, and a couple you could use as baseball bats, but I can’t conceive of such a thing at Paris Banh Mi.  dsc02307.jpgI ended up choosing a B1 special combination, with several different cold cuts (served cold), and a B2 grilled pork (served warm), both to go.

Here they are, unwrapped back at home.  I’d definitely rank them among the best banh mi in a city blessed to have lots of good ones to choose from.
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Here is the drink menu, also posted above the counter.  The Paris By Night latte looked beautiful, and you can never go wrong with iced coffee or Thai iced tea, but I chose a drink I’ve been hearing about for months but haven’t had a chance to try yet: milk tea with cheese foam ($5).  dsc02306.jpg

This was my cool, creamy milk tea with cheese foam.  It’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise.  The milk tea is sweet and refreshing, and never tastes too much like tea to me, but I’m okay with that.  The foam at the top is kind of like a sweetened cream cheese, but not thick and solid like cheesecake.  It’s sticky and frothy and a little salty — more like thicker, sticky, salty whipped cream.  Go ahead and giggle — get it out of your system — but I swear it works.  I enjoyed this drink and would totally order it again.  DSC02298

On my way out, I took some more photos of the beautiful cakes, eclairs, napoleons, macarons, tarts, and other pastries in their glass cases up front.  Things like this never tempt me that much, but I have no doubt each one would be wonderful.  My parents, who are definitely not adventurous eaters, go gaga over French pastries like these, so I’d love to take them here if they ever make it up from Miami to visit us.  No pressure, though!  (I know they read my blog and wonder how I got this way.)

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Best of all, on this visit — my first visit — someone called my name, and it was three friendly and delightful regulars from the Orlando Foodie Forum, the Facebook group that inspires my food blogging, and hopefully I inspire some of them with my recommendations right here.  Even on a national holiday and a day off work, after seeing Spider-Man and picking out delicious food to bring home, the biggest treat of all was meeting Rasha, Brian, and Yousuf.  They were warm and welcoming — fellow foodies I had never met before, but they recognized me and were kind enough to introduce themselves and make that connection.  This was their second time getting food from Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, and I think they’ve even returned since last week.  I can’t blame them.  I already knew they had impeccable taste, and this place is GOOD.

When you make it to Mills 50, it’s hard to choose where to eat.  You can have spicy Szechuan Chinese at Chuan Lu Garden, cool and refreshing Hawaiian poke at Poke Hana, or endless Vietnamese restaurants like Pho 88 — all reliable recipients of the Saboscrivner Seal of Approval.  But no matter where you go for lunch or dinner, consider saving some room for a sweet dessert, a snack to go, or some frothy milk tea (and don’t forget the cheese foam!) at Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, or make a special trip there for some of the best banh mi in Orlando.  It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I’d be shocked if anyone visited and couldn’t find something to love.

Chuan Lu Garden

Even though I have discovered the glory of Taste of Chengdu and Chef Wang’s Kitchen over the last few months, I always end up returning to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Orlando, Chuan Lu Garden (http://www.chuanluorlando.com/).  There are two locations: one at the heart of the Mills 50 District, Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, and a newer one in east Orlando on Alafaya Trail, closer to the University of Central Florida.

Like Taste of Chengdu, fewer than 15 minutes away, Chuan Lu Garden specializes in spicy Szechuan cuisine, with peppercorns that numb your mouth and make everything tingle. It’s a different kind of heat than what most hot sauce heroes and chile cheerleaders are used to, but those flavors are highlighted in several dishes throughout the lengthy menu, like la zi chicken and la zi fish (crispy fried, breaded pieces that bring the tingle). I appreciate some heat some of the time, but I tend to play it safer and stick to the delicious hand-cut and hand-pulled noodle offerings.

This review is based on several visits over the last few months:

Visit #1: We met dear friends from Gainesville who were in town with tickets to see Hamilton.  Unfortunately, I am an idiot and gave them directions to the wrong Chuan Lu Garden location.  They drove all the way to east Orlando, when we were waiting for them near downtown, chosen purposely to put them near the theater.  But they are badasses who didn’t sweat it and weren’t even mad at me.  They made it to where we were in 15 minutes flat, and I ordered some vegetarian dishes for them in the meantime.  (I treated them to dinner too, but I was planning to do that anyway, even before I almost ruined their night and put them in danger of missing the greatest musical of all time.)

I ordered myself one of my favorite dishes on the menu, cumin lamb, which is much less blurry in person:DSC01808

My wife’s noodle soup with roast duck, the dish that finally won her over after years of me hyping up Chuan Lu Garden, making her a devoted fan:
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Our glorious pan-fried pork buns (sadly not the xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, that Orlando foodies constantly crave):
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Fried tofu with vegetables and the remnants of vegetable fried rice, after the four of us mostly devoured it:dsc01811.jpg

Vegetable noodle soup:DSC01809

Visit #2: Just the two of us.

Maybe the best Singapore mei fun noodles I’ve ever ordered anywhere, though curiously not very spicy compared to some others I’ve had.  These noodles were thin and ethereal, reminding me almost of cotton candy threads (although obviously neither sticky nor sweet).  I couldn’t get enough of them, and even my wife was amazed by their lighter-than-air texture and great flavor.chuan_IMG_0013

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take two:
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And a roast duck appetizer, full of tiny little bones to watch out for:chuan_IMG_0014

For the first time ever in my experiences at Chuan Lu Garden, they presented us with a separate dim sum menu.  Having been recently introduced to egg custard tarts by one of my favorite local foodies, I had to pay it forward and order them to share with my wife.  She loved them, like flaky little custard pies.chuan_IMG_0016

Visit #3: Just the two of us again.

I ordered one of my favorite dishes on the menu: dan dan noodles with spicy ground pork, served with thin-sliced cucumbers that do a great job counterbalancing the chili oil with their own crunchy coolness.DSC01827DSC01829

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take three, but this time with the wide, flat noodles:DSC01828

More of that quacktacular roast duck:DSC01832

And one of my favorite dishes here, the onion pancake, which is much more like a thick paratha or super-thick flour tortilla than an American-style pancake.  The outside is crispy, but the inside has a wonderful, rich, buttery crispness, with scallions baked into it.DSC01830DSC01831

Since I originally wrote this blog entry, I have brought her home roast duck noodle soup a few more times, often with an extra order of duck to go with it.  She loves it, and what’s not to love?

And guess what, fearless Saboscrivnerinos? Chuan Lu Garden now has a full dim sum menu, including the coveted soup dumplings! I haven’t tried them there yet, but how can you go wrong? It’s SOUP… in a DUMPLING!

Pho 88

Well, before it got hot in Orlando again, it was remarkably chilly for a little while there.  I look forward to those brief blasts of winter all year, every year.  I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, which I guess makes me a true Florida Man.  I hate our humid, oppressive, sticky summers and eagerly anticipate the few weeks a year where we can walk outside, eat outside, and see the one coat or jacket everyone owns.  We don’t have to shovel snow or drive on icy roads, so our cold is a novelty, and we know it won’t last.

Winter is also perfect soup weather, and there are few soups finer than phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup that so many Orlando restaurants have perfected.  I have yet to get into the trend of fancy bowls of ramen, after so many years of subsisting on seven-for-$1 bricks of instant ramen noodles.  On the other hand, pho (which I was taught to pronounce “fuh,” although I hear “foe” all the time) is so warm and rich and hearty that it is a welcome meal year-round, not too heavy or hot to enjoy in warmer months.  But nothing beats a steaming bowl in 40-degree winter weather.

Slow-simmered broth is flavored with spices including cinnamon and star anise, and it includes rice vermicelli and different cuts of meat.  Thin slices of rare beef eye round are the most common, but other bowls of pho may also include beef brisket or flank steak, chewy beef meatballs (completely different from the meatballs you’d get with spaghetti or in a sub), tendon, and tripe.  Pho usually contains paper-thin slices of onion and diced green onions as well.  Then lucky diners can continue to customize their pho with sprigs of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts (I’ve never been a fan, sorry), fresh slices of jalapeno peppers, and fresh lime wedges, which come on a separate plate.  Hoisin sauce, sriracha, and sambal oelek (chili garlic sauce) are common condiments that are always available on Vietnamese restaurant tables.  No two bowls of pho end up alike, which is part of its charm.

Anyway, we are very lucky to have a large Vietnamese population in Orlando, and plenty of delicious Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, mostly centered in the Mills 50 district near downtown.  I’ve tried most of them at least once, but I always return to two favorites: Saigon Noodle and Grill or the subject of this review, Pho 88 (http://www.pho88orlando.com/).  My wife and I had our first date at yet another local Vietnamese restaurant, Lac Viet, but we’ve been going to Pho 88 for many years.  Located on Mills Avenue, just north of busy Colonial Drive in the heart of our foodie-friendly Mills 50 district, Pho 88 also has more parking than a lot of the other nearby restaurants, which is one more reason we end up there as often as we do.  Not only do we like it a lot and seek it out, it often becomes our fallback choice when we can’t park near anywhere else.

This review is based on our two most recent visits to Pho 88.  My wife tends to crave pho even more often than I do, and during our most recent cold snap, she demanded it two nights in a row.  So like a good husband, we went two nights in a row!

The first night, we both ordered pho.  She likes the simple pho tai, with thin-sliced rare beef eye round.  I prefer the pho dặc biệt combination with the rare beef slices plus fatty brisket, well-done flank steak, dense and chewy meatballs, and soft, chewy, rich tendon.  Tendon and book tripe almost always come together, and while I must admit the texture of tripe doesn’t do much for me, I never ask them to hold it.  Here is my bowl, after I tore up several basil leaves and added them in.  These are HUGE bowls, by the way.  20181129_185826_resized

Instagram-hip foodies love to get the shot of pulling perfect noodles out of a perfect bowl of pho.  Most of you are already acquainted with the limitations of my phone camera, so apologies in advance for this action shot:
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On our second visit the next evening, my wife ordered her favorite pho tai again, but I decided to switch it up and get something spicy for the chilly night: a different kind of noodle soup called bún bò huế.  It contains thicker rice noodles than the vermicelli in pho, pork roll (similar to bologna, but chewier and cut thicker), well-done flank steak, lemongrass, and white and green onion in a rich, spicy, orangey-red broth.  It cleared up my sinuses and warmed my body from head to toe.20181130_184243_resized

Bun bo hue action shot:20181130_184359_resized

I am also a fan of banh mi sandwiches, which demonstrate the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine.  Served on a crusty baguette, my favorite banh mi includes a variety of pork-based cold cuts and is served with a spread of butter and liver pate on each side of the roll, cool, shredded pickled carrot and daikon radish, refreshing sprigs of fresh cilantro, and spicy slices of fresh (never jarred) jalapeno peppers.  Best of all, these sandwiches are usually quite cheap, often $4 or $5.  Pho 88 is one of the few Orlando Vietnamese restaurants that serves banh mi as well as pho, so I’ll often order a banh mi as an appetizer, devour half there, and save the other half for later.  I did NOT order a banh mi with my soup two nights in a row, just that first night.  20181129_184836_resized

Well, we’re over halfway into February and our local weather is already back into the 80s, but like I said, pho hits the spot year-round at Pho 88.

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

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

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

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

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

Poke Hana

It could be said that poke is having a moment.  The Hawaiian dish consists of cubes of fresh raw fish, marinated with sauces and seasonings and served over rice with a variety of toppings.  If you like sushi, there’s no reason you wouldn’t love poke too.   Plus, poke bowls are infinitely customizable, and these days, diners crave quick, healthy meals they can get made to their specifications.

Orlando already has several poke options, including several locations of the excellent Da Kine Poke, the related Big Kahuna and Island Fin Poke, Bento Cafe (which was serving poke-style don bowls for several years), and even Costco offers high-quality, authentically Hawaiian ahi tuna poke every once in a while.  Most of these poke joints (aside from Costco) follow the assembly line model popularized by Chipotle and several fast-casual Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, in which you choose your base (white or brown rice, sometimes salad greens), your protein (ahi tuna, other fish, or tofu), and your toppings and sauces.

Orlando’s newest poke place is my current favorite, Poke Hana (https://www.poke-hana.com/), located on East Colonial Drive right at the Mills Avenue intersection, one of our greatest foodie neighborhoods in the city.  I believe they opened in late August or early September.  They have a large, bright restaurant space with a lot of natural light and an easy-to-miss parking lot in the back, to avoid the hassle and danger of trying to parallel-park in one of the few spots along busy Colonial Drive.  I’ve been there twice now, and I’m a little obsessed with it at the moment.

At Poke Hana, you can choose from white or brown rice or mixed greens for your base, and ahi tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), and tako (octopus) for your seafood proteins.  I’ve been twice now, and I’ve asked for half-ahi and half-salmon both times.  These bowls are a reasonable $13 each.  They also have non-seafood protein options: Hawaiian-style kalua pulled pork, hula chicken, garlic shrimp (shell-on), and fried tofu.  I haven’t tried any of these yet, although I can’t wait to try the kalua pork.  They also have Spam musubi, another Hawaiian specialty with a rectangular slice of fried Spam served over a pillow of chilled, seasoned sticky rice, like a larger piece of nigiri sushi.

Now you have to choose a sauce: shoyu (soy sauce with ginger), Maui (traditional Hawaiian-style, with some finely-chopped macadamia nuts and chili flakes for a bit of heat), spicy (my favorite, a sriracha aioli with tiny orange masago fish eggs, like the spicy mayo that often accompanies sushi rolls), and a Korean-style kimchi.  Some of the poke places serve the sauce on the side or squirt it on top, but Poke Hana mixes it together with your protein of choice before serving it to you, which I appreciate, because I would just do that anyway.

And while other poke restaurants usually have a long list of toppings, Poke Hana keeps it simple and traditional.  As much as I’ve loved having the option of diced mango, sliced avocado, or crispy fried onions over my poke elsewhere, you only get three toppings at Poke Hana: thin-sliced pickled cucumbers (which I love, despite not being a huge pickle fan, although I’m trying to learn to appreciate pickles more), edamame (those green soybeans), and seaweed salad.  I must admit, I’ve never been into edamame or seaweed salad, so after trying them on my first visit, I asked to hold those but to get extra pickled cucumbers on my second visit.

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The poke bowl isn’t the largest, but it is very satisfying and filling.  Everything is fresh, and the flavors and textures work perfectly together.  I could easily have eaten two, or a portion twice its size, but who needs that?  Then again, that isn’t all I ate!

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I also tried a side order of macaroni salad.  My constant readers know how much I love onion rings, to the point where I feel obligated to sample them anywhere they’re on the menu.  I have a few other foods I’m like that with: chili (WHY?  Because everyone’s chili is a little bit different!), root beer (same), and pasta and/or macaroni salads.  Hawaiian-style macaroni salad is mayo-based (usually Best Foods, which is sold as Hellman’s in the eastern U.S.), and there is a slight sweetness to it.  My lifelong gold standard for a mayo-based macaroni salad is from Publix supermarket, but the macaroni salad at Poke Hana is my new favorite.  It’s pretty simple, but it does have some nice orange accents from finely-shredded carrot, and the elbow noodles were surprisingly al dente.  It was a damn fine macaroni salad, and I’m sure it would go great with the kalua pork sliders, served on pillowy-soft, sweet Hawaiian rolls  (my favorites for making bison sliders at home).

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I love tropical fruit.  I could take or leave boring apples (including apple juice), but I have a hard time saying no to anything involving pineapple, mango, or guava.  Maybe it’s because I was raised in Miami.  Now that I’m an altacocker and acid reflux is a recurring concern, I must be careful, but I wasn’t going to turn down the Hawaiian Sun tropical fruit drinks that Poke Hana offers.  I couldn’t decide between guava nectar and lilikoi (passion fruit) juice, so I got a can of each, drank one with my meal, and drank the other one in my car on the way back to work.  The guava nectar was fine, with a little bit of grittiness you should expect from guava nectar, but the passion fruit drink was so sweet and tart and refreshing and awesome.  I’ve never had it before, but it quickly became a favorite.  I don’t drink, but I have to imagine it would be amazing mixed with rum, vodka, or maybe even tequila.

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Finally, since this was my first visit and I planned to review it, I had to try one of the desserts: haupia pie.  It consists of three freshly-fried spring rolls stuffed with creamy coconut custard and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and coconut shavings.  Um, YES, PLEASE!  I also love anything coconutty, even though coconut sometimes disagrees with me.  TMI, I realize that, but this felt like a risk worth taking, for the sake of journalism.

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I had no complaints, neither as I ate the delicious haupia pie nor in the hours that followed.  Crispy and soft, crunchy and sticky, and extremely rich and decadent, I definitely recommend it.

When I returned two days later with my wife, she tried Poke Hana’s other dessert called butter mochi, which was also rich and decadent.  It was a square of cake, already sliced and wrapped in plastic wrap, similar to pound cake or sponge cake, but better.  It was also chewier, perhaps due to the presence of glutinous rice paste, also known as mochi.  We both liked it a lot.

I don’t mind saying that I could eat a poke bowl and a side of macaroni salad at Poke Hana every day and never tire of it.  I don’t think I could give higher praise than that.  I wish them the best of luck, and I hope they last forever in this location.  I’m definitely going to become a regular here!