Chain Reactions: Culver’s

Culver’s ( is a fast food chain that was founded in in Sauk City, Wisconsin, in 1984.  I tried it on a short trip to Wisconsin over 20 years ago, to visit the weird, wonderful, and uniquely American roadside attraction The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  Now we have multiple Culver’s locations across Central Florida, and since I am obsessed with regional restaurants and food trends, I appreciate having more options to choose from, chains or not.

Culver’s is famous for its frozen custard, “ButterBurgers,” and breaded, fried cheese curds.  But even though the ButterBurgers are above average fast food burgers, my wife and I usually return when we’re in the mood for delicious fish, hand-battered and deep-fried.  Culver’s has the best fried fish of any fast food restaurants, and better than a surprising amount of seafood restaurants and Irish and British pubs we’ve been to.

Specifically, they serve North Atlantic cod, which you can get as a sandwich or as a dinner with two or three pieces of fish.  Sometimes my wife and I will split a three-piece North Atlantic cod dinner, which comes with fries, cole slaw, and a roll, but you can select two sides of your choice if you don’t want fries (standard crinkle-cut fries) or cole slaw.  Ring the Alarm!  Culver’s has excellent onion rings, with beer batter coating similar to the battered cod filets.  They are my favorite fast food onion rings.  They are considered a Premium side, so you have to pay a small upcharge for them.  DO IT!

Here’s a close-up of the battered fish from a different visit.  It will make you say “Oh my cod!”

As great as the Atlantic cod is (and it is), Culver’s brings out a different battered, fried fish once a year for a limited time: Canadian Northwoods walleye, which is a very light, buttery fish.  Even though this sandwich is $7.99, which seems expensive for fast food, it is worth every penny.  I added the creamy, crunchy cole slaw on top of the sandwich, too:By the way, the Culver’s website says the tartar sauce includes olives, capers and sweet relish!  I would not have guessed olives or capers, but they list the ingredients right on the peel-off lid of the little dipping cup.

That walleye doesn’t look that different from the cod, but trust me, you could tell the difference in a taste test.  The sandwich comes with a bit of lettuce and tartar sauce underneath the fish, and the bun is buttered and lightly grilled like all Culver’s sandwich buns.  That’s always a nice touch.   

I already said that I think the ButterBurgers are just okay, but Culver’s amazed and astonished when they came out with this limited-time special: the “Curderburger.”  It is exactly what you think — a burger served on the typical bun (buttered and lightly grilled, thank you very much), topped with a “cheese crown.”  Yes, that is a giant breaded and fried cheese curd patty, and it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.  (Because “SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF CHEESE!”)

Here’s a cross-section, with melty, molten cheddar cheese curd leaking out of the fried patty on top of the burger.  You probably shouldn’t eat more than one of these a year, or the Curderburger could become a Murderburger.  Luckily, it is a limited-time menu item. 
I should note that back in the ’90s, my brother and I were enamored with a similar decadent burger from the late, lamented chain restaurant Bennigan’s, the “Wheelhouse burger,” topped with what was essentially a mozzarella cheese stick in patty form instead of stick form.  And I have to give a shout-out to Orlando’s beloved Se7enbites, the Southern restaurant and bakery where Chef Trina Gregory-Propst created the Italian Stallion burger, topped with tomato jam, pesto aioli, and a mozzarella cheese plank.  But I digress!

This is my wife’s favorite Signature side, the pretzel bites, which you have to pay a $1.50 upcharge for if you get them in a combo with a sandwich or a dinner.  But again, like so many things at Culver’s, they are totally worth it.  The outside crust is lightly crackly and crispy and buttery and salty, and the inside is pillowy soft.  They come with a little dipping cup of Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce for dipping, but they don’t need anything — and I say that as someone who always likes dipping things in other things. 

In fact, I tried a few of the different dipping sauces with onion rings, as you can see.  That’s the Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce on the left in the unlabeled cup.  The Boom Boom sauce is a little spicy and surprisingly thick and heavy, but the creamy, tangy Culver’s Signature sauce SLAPS.  Those are both recent discoveries from my last trip, and I would definitely get that Signature sauce again.

George’s chili is considered a Signature side too, so you have to pay a $1.50 upcharge for it as well.  I always love chili, and if it’s offered on a menu, I will always try it.  The website boasts that this is “medium-spicy” chili con carne, but keep in mind this is a chain restaurant from Wisconsin, and I found it very mild.  It is made by simmering ground beef (the same stuff the burgers are made of, naturally), diced tomatoes, dark red kidney beans, peppers, onion and celery, and a “secret blend of peppery spices.”  With Culver’s always making a big deal about its Wisconsin roots and all its great cheese, I thought the chili could really use some shredded cheese or the cheddar cheese sauce on top to melt into it. 

I appreciate fast food restaurants that don’t just offer burgers and chicken, but have all kinds of odd, offbeat options.  You may have already noticed Culver’s is cool like that, but they even have a pot roast sandwich made with hand-shredded braised chuck roast.  I have a deep, abiding love of slow-braised and stewed meats, cooked until they are moist and tender and falling apart.  Too many people under-season their pot roast and dry it out, to the point that you can chew it forever and nothing happens, but not so with this sandwich.  It was a tasty, savory alternative to the standard burgers and fried fish, and I would definitely get it again some time.

In addition to the ButterBurgers, the frozen custard is a big draw at Culver’s and a major part of its brand.  It is my wife’s favorite part — even more than the fish.  She usually opts for the chocolate custard with chunks of Butterfinger candy swirled in, but this time she got it with some chocolate syrup, pecans, and a cherry on top. 

I’ve been sitting on this review for the better part of a year, waiting for the triumphant return of Culver’s lemon ice, a summer treat that sadly disappears for the rest of the year.  Summer is my least-favorite season here in hot, humid, sticky, sweltering Florida, but I do love all the sweet, cold, refreshing drinks and treats that come out in the summer.  My favorite is Culver’s lemon ice — in this case, a strawberry-mango lemon ice cooler, which is real slow-frozen lemonade swirled with real fruit.  It is definitely a dessert, not as wholesome and nutritious as a smoothie (although smoothies are also high in calories and carbs), but I love ’em.  Culver’s actually has lemon ice smoothies as well, where they mix the lemon ice and fruit with their vanilla custard, but I like them more tangy and acidic and less creamy.  I drank a fair bit on the drive home before I could take this photo, but they really do fill the cup all the way up.  I’m trying to avoid sweets and desserts and sugary sodas, but I can see enjoying a few more lemon ice coolers before the summer of 2023 ends.

The thing on the right is a chocolate custard with M&Ms mixed in — my wife’s choice, of course.

So that’s Culver’s.  They take longer to prepare your meal than most other fast food establishments, and cost considerably more, but you pay for quality, including fresh food cooked to order every time.  I must admit I always look askance at the receipt on every trip to Culver’s and think “REALLY?”  But the two kinds of fish (the cod and limited-time walleye), the onion rings, the pretzel bites, and the lemon ices never disappoint, and my wife loves that chocolate custard too.  Anyone who has ever read my food blog knows that I don’t consider myself too cool or too sophisticated to enjoy fast food.  I am neither an elitist nor a health nut.  Culver’s is definitely well above average for fast food, so give it a try if you haven’t already.  And if you have, what are YOUR Culver’s favorites?


Kung Fu Dumpling

I remember reading about Kung Fu Dumpling ( some time last year.  A new Chinese restaurant that specializes in dumplings and noodles sounded great, but it’s in Oviedo, at 7 Alafaya Woods Blvd #4000, right off Alafaya Trail — a direction I rarely drive in.  I tried it for the first time this past summer when I got home late from an out-of-town work trip, exhausted and hungry after dropping a co-worker off at home near there.  I figured I would end up with disappointing fast food, but when I drove by Kung Fu Dumpling and saw the lights on, you won’t believe how quickly I turned in there.

This is the inside.  There are several tables, but it was pretty quiet after 10 PM on a Sunday.  Since I didn’t even plan to stop by, I perused the menu and ordered at the counter, overjoyed that this long travel day was going to have a happy ending.   

The space is brightly lit with festive decor, and it’s sparkling clean inside.  I was relieved to hang around in the dining room while they prepared my food, after the stress of flying.  I was messing around on my phone, but it seemed like all the food I ordered was ready in about ten minutes.   

Kung Fu Dumpling offers many familiar dim sum dishes, and I couldn’t resist bringing home an order of homemade fried pork, shrimp, and chive dumplings (three for $6), since I know my wife likes those too.  If you’ve had these dumplings anywhere else, you know what you’re getting, and you’ll be very happy with them.  I figure some restaurants serve frozen ones, but these tasted very fresh.  

Pardon the shadows, but these were another dim sum favorite of mine, pan-fried pork buns (two for $5).  I wolfed these down, standing up in my kitchen, before I could even unpack my luggage.  We all know they’re never as good the next day!

I was thrilled to see my go-to standard Chinese restaurant dish, beef chow fun ($17), made with homemade wide, flat, chewy rice noodles, stir-fried with sliced beef, onions, and scallions.  Neither of us are huge fans of bean sprouts, so I asked them to hold those, and I was happy to not have to pick them out.  This was a shining example of beef chow fun.  In fact, one could consider it beef chow fun for the whole family.

I couldn’t help ordering a second dish I knew my wife and I could share: pad Thai ($15), a classic dish of stir-fried noodles (also homemade!) with eggs, chicken, shrimp, scallions, carrots, peanuts, and lime wedges to give it a little tangy tartness.  There is a mysterious sour-sweet flavor I often encounter in pad Thai that I love that might be tamarind, but it could also be lime.  Anyway, I don’t order pad Thai often enough at Thai restaurants, but I’m glad I ordered this version at Kung Fu Dumpling, especially with the homemade noodles.  My wife liked it too.

This is from the “Asian Wraps” section of the menu: a green scallion pancake wrap, with sweet red char siu barbecue pork stuffed inside ($10).  I’ve had similar scallion pancakes at Chuan Lu Garden, and this one worked well as a tortilla-like wrap.  I loved the combination of flavors and textures here.

This is a black sesame pancake ($5.50) that was very similar to a Malaysian paratha or roti, but not as buttery.  I know my wife doesn’t like onions or scallions, but she absolutely loved this, as I figured she would.  I resolved to return and bring her more, since I thought the pancakes and wraps were limited-time specials.  But looking at the Kung Fu Dumpling menu online, I’m pleased to say both the black sesame pancake, the green scallion pancake (also $5.50), and all the “Asian wraps” continue to be available.

So I returned to Kung Fu Dumpling a week or two later, bringing her two of those black sesame pancakes.  My wife also requested the teriyaki Buddha’s Delight ($14), a vegetarian dish with stir-fried tofu, broccoli, carrots, and onions (which I dutifully picked out and ate for her) in a lightly sweet teriyaki sauce.  I didn’t take a picture of it, but it came with fragrant jasmine rice.

And after over-ordering on my first visit, when I was delirious from travel fatigue, I stuck to one new dish the second time: Korean pan-seared braised pork belly over lo mein noodles ($16).  I hoped she would want to share this dish too, and I believe she liked the slice of tender pork belly she tried.  As for me, I loved it.  

So that’s my review of Kung Fu Dumpling, after two visits.  I’m still rarely in that part of Oviedo, where it approaches East Orlando and turns into UCF before you know it.  But even if you don’t live or work anywhere in the area, I still highly recommend Kung Fu Dumpling for your pan-Asian comfort food needs.  Whether you’re craving Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese flavors, you will find something you love here.  If you want late-night dim sum, they have you covered.  If you crave tender homemade noodles (as I so often do), you’ll be in for such a treat.  As the great thespian Keanu Reeves said after a grueling training session in The Matrix (1999): “I know kung fu.”  Now you, constant reader, also know Kung Fu.

Ramen Takagi

There are some foods I crave literally all of the time.  Loaded Italian subs.  Turkish lahmacun.  Nova salmon.  Jamaican oxtails.  Hot pastrami with grilled onions and good mustard.  Prosciutto.  Oysters.  Auntie Anne’s pretzels.  (Sorry, not sorry!)  Obviously I don’t eat them all the time because I don’t want to die, but I sure do love them.  And another one on this list is tonkotsu ramen, springy noodles and fat-marbled chashu pork slices in a gloriously rich and creamy pork bone broth.  There are other kinds of ramen that are all worthy of love, but for me, tonkotsu is the bowl that rules them all.

There are a few restaurants to get a delicious bowl of ramen around Orlando, and I’ve reviewed a few of them: Susuru down near Disney Springs, Domu in the East End Market in Orlando’s hip Audubon Park neighborhood, Kai Asian Street Fare on the edge of Casselberry and Winter Park, Jade Sushi & New Asian in College Park near downtown Orlando.

But this past week, a brand-new restaurant specializing in ramen opened on Aloma Avenue in Oviedo, between Tuskawilla Road and the 417, placing it very close to Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Winter Park, and ten minutes from our home.  The place is Ramen Takagi (, and I’ve been waiting months for it to finally open.  (It is open every day except Tuesdays!)  When I arrived, I was the only customer, but three staff members were chatting inside.  I was pleased to see they were all wearing masks, even though they were alone in their restaurant, and they were warm and friendly when I got there and introduced myself.  After visiting tonight for the first time, I was so glad to welcome them to the neighborhood, and I promised these new neighbors they would be seeing a lot more of me.

This is the tonkotsu ramen ($13), with the sliced chashu pork, ajitamago (a marinated, soft-boiled egg), pickled ginger, and scallions over a generous portion of perfectly-cooked noodles.  Even before adding the broth, it was beautiful.

This is the rich, creamy pork bone broth, which had already started separating in the ten minutes it took me to drive home, but a quick stir melded everything back together.  I appreciated it so much that they packed the broth separately.

Here’s the beautiful bowl with the broth stirred up and poured in over everything.  I loved it so very much.  Is it my favorite tonkotsu ramen in Orlando?  It was one of those meals that was so good, my eyes rolled back into my head.  It’s a heck of a lot more convenient than Domu (which has the excellent Richie Rich tonkotsu I reviewed earlier this year, pre-pandemic), and so much closer than Susuru, which I liked a lot, but it’s an hour from our door.  So for multiple reasons, it might be my new favorite.  It might become your new favorite too.

I couldn’t resist trying the mazesoba ($11), an order of savory ground pork with diced chashu, another ajitamago egg, strips of nori seaweed, and scallions over noodles.  This is a brothless ramen dish, and it was still tasty, but the tonkotsu broth was so good, it was hard for the mazesoba to measure up.  In the near future, I will try all the other forms of ramen at Ramen Takagi: shio (chicken bone broth with a salt base), shoyu (chicken bone broth with a soy base), and miso (pork and chicken blended broth, which can be ordered spicy or non-spicy).

This was kaedama, literally translated to an extra order of noodles, which were a very reasonable $1.50.  I had considered adding them to any leftover tonkotsu broth, but instead my wife really enjoyed them with just a small splash of the broth. 

These are onigiri, tasty triangles of seafood wrapped in sushi rice and wrapped again in delicious nori, the same thin sheets of crispy seaweed used for sushi rolls.  I liked how these came wrapped in cellophane with a red stripe down the center that you pull to tear it open, and then release the cellophane from the sides.

I chose the tuna with mayo (left, $2.50) and the smoked salmon (right, $3).  For the tuna with mayo, I was really expecting raw or seared ahi tuna, rich and purple, hopefully adorned with the orange spicy mayo I love so much with sushi, poke, and pretty much everything.  I was surprised it was more like tuna salad.  It wasn’t bad, just not at all what I expected.  I liked the smoked salmon more, but even it was flakes of smoked salmon instead of… I don’t know if I expected thin slices of nova or belly lox or what.  Still, as always, I’m so glad I tried them.

As I said, Ramen Takagi just opened a week ago, after the sign had been up for several months.  I was starting to worry the restaurant might end up another casualty of 2020, and they might never open their doors at all.  But they’re here, and they’re already off to a bang-up start.  I was extremely impressed by their mask protocol, being alone in the shop without the prying eyes of concerned customers, and they had their masks on, taking things seriously before they could have possibly seen me approach.  And I was just as impressed by the quality of my takeout food.

I’m so glad to have another great restaurant near our home, along with a much closer and quicker source for one of my favorite dishes, tonkotsu ramen.  When I was in college, eating instant Nissin noodles that cost a buck for seven salty single servings, I never would have dreamed that over 20 years later, I’d have a wonderful wife, make an okay living, write a food blog that a handful of people actually read, or pay $13 for a bowl of delicious, beautiful, fresh ramen without thinking twice about it.  It makes me feel very lucky to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, and eating what I’m eating.  I intend to become a regular at Ramen Takagi, and I encourage my dozens of readers to do the same!