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 UCF

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

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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!