The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

Ray’s Deli & More

I really drove out of my way to find Ray’s Deli & More (https://www.raysdeliandmore.com/), which is the closest thing I’ve ever found in Orlando to the bodega-delis of New York City.  It is located at 6101 South Orange Avenue in Orlando’s Pinecastle neighborhood, south of downtown (and south of the SoDo district).  Once Orange Avenue splits apart into one-way southbound and northbound streets, you’ll find Ray’s in the middle.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside — just a generic convenience store with an outdoor table and a lot of signs in the window — but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all the fresh, made-to-order sandwiches you can order there.

The menu is on the website, but I also took photos of the menu board above the counter.  You can right-click these photos and open them in a new tab for larger images.

Here is the deli case with plenty of high-quality Boar’s Head meats and cheeses you can buy by the pound.  (The prices are also on the menu board above.)  The top shelf also includes sides of potato salad, pasta salad, egg salad, and some slices of cheesecake and red velvet cake, among other things. 

The main reason I sought out Ray’s Deli & More was to try the legendary chopped cheese sandwich ($10.99), a New York bodega classic, referred to in so many hip hop lyrics.  They aren’t popular outside the five boroughs, but I recently learned that two different convenience store sandwich counters in Orlando offer the chopped cheese.  I recently tried the one that is closer to me, but that was after five separate attempts to catch them open for business.  Ray’s is across town, but it was totally worth the 45-minute schlep to the Pinecastle neighborhood south of downtown Orlando, because they were open for business during the hours they advertised, cooking up a storm, and the food turned out to be awesome.Imagine a cheeseburger and a Philly cheesesteak hooked up after a crazy night at the club, and the chopped cheese is their beautiful, greasy, cheesy love child.  It is two angus burgers chopped up on the flattop grill with onions and peppers, then placed on a sub roll with American cheese, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo, and then pressed on a panini press until the cheese melts.  It was still warm by the time I got it home, and it was awesome.  So satisfying!  I always love a good burger, but I find Philly cheesesteaks often disappoint (except for the one at Cavo’s Bar & Kitchen, which is the best one I’ve ever had in Florida, and it made my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021).  This chopped cheese sandwich lived up to all the hip hop hype and combined the best of both worlds.  I loved it!

This was the very substantial Italian combo sub ($11.99), stuffed with Boar’s Head genoa salami, prosciutto, capocollo, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, and raw onion.  I stuck it in the fridge as soon as I got home and enjoyed half that evening and the other half the next day, once it was chilled.  I liked it a lot, especially once I got home and added some peppers and a splash of balsamic vinaigrette dressing to it.  The sub roll was very soft, almost like a large hot dog bun.  I don’t like rolls that are too crusty, but a slightly crustier roll might help bring this sub over the top.  No regrets, though.  I’m always happy to order an Italian sub anywhere, and I definitely recommend it!

Both sandwiches (and I assume all the others) came with a wee bag of chips (I chose Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch Doritos for both, since I haven’t tried that odd flavor combo before) and a canned soda.  The convenience store has a huge selection of bottled and canned drinks, but the freebie choices were pretty basic: Coke, Coke Zero, Pepsi, Mountain Dew.  Still, free is free!  I used to drink Mountain Dew A LOT, back in school, and a few sips from this can reminded me why I don’t drink much soda at all anymore.

Longtime readers, my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know that whenever onion rings are available, I WILL order them.  These onion rings ($3.99) were just okay.  They reminded me of the ones at Burger King, but you get a huge portion of them.  They were limp and lukewarm by the time I got them home, but heating them up in the toaster oven the next day helped them get crispier and more satisfying.  Essentially, these were condiment delivery devices.  But still, RING THE ALARM!

Anyway, Ray’s Deli & More has this huge sandwich selection, plus prepared foods like several Italian pasta dishes, another case with some fried empanadas and other goodies, and they said they also serve breakfast sandwiches all day.  This could be another source for New York transplants to track down their classic bodega bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, among other things.  It’s a full convenience store with groceries, snacks, sodas, beer, wine, and all the accessories you might want to find at a smoke shop, too.  It has a lot more character than a Wawa or 7-Eleven, and it was busy enough that plenty of people already know how good it is.  I drove all the way across town to Ray’s for a chopped cheese, an Italian sub, and onion rings, and I didn’t leave empty-handed or disappointed.  The only thing this bodega was missing was a great cat, ideally one who takes a pet like no problem!

 

Uncle Dendog’s

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with comic books, to the point of making it a serious field of academic study.  Heck, this food blog is even inspired by a comic book series called Chew.  (Check the page heading, in case you’ve never glanced at it before.)  But as much as I love the characters, I focus the most on the creators who write and draw them, and I can always identify their unique, defining styles.  For example, the legendary Jack Kirby (co-creator of most of the Marvel characters you would recognize) specialized in burly, square-jawed heroes and imposing alien technology surrounded by crackling energy.  Jim Lee‘s human figures look like flawless gods and goddesses.  Arthur Adams draws huge monsters and super-cute women, always with extraordinary attention to detail.  Kevin Maguire and Steve Lieber are masters of expressive faces, who can convey so much emotion — and especially humor — with just a look.

Where am I going with this?  Well, as a self-proclaimed food writer, I don’t pretend to be the expert on food that I am on comics, but I feel like I’m at a point where I recognize the signature styles and flourishes of some of the talented chefs who prepare the food I love so much.  I can always identify the best comic creators by their written voices and artwork, whether they work on a mainstream superhero comic, a crime graphic novel for “mature readers,” or a deeply personal, autobiographical, self-published story, and some chefs stand out to me the same way, even when they transcend cuisines.

Orlando is home to some real innovators and creative dynamos who have built a strong culinary culture here, and one of my favorite local chefs is Denni Cha.  He has been cooking since he was nine years old, ever since his grandmother taught him to cook in the kitchen of her Korean restaurant.  I first discovered his food in the summer of 2020, when he ran a Japanese pop-up called Itamae Densho out of The Local Butcher, the Winter Park meat market that also hosts previous Saboscrivner review subject Swine & Sons and Da Kine Poke.  I reviewed the gorgeous, almost otherworldly looking chirashi bowls I brought home from Itamae Densho — maybe the most beautiful things I saw in 2020, an otherwise ugly and stressful year.  They were like little landscapes in a bowl — multiple kinds of fresh fish and vegetables over rice, even adorned with edible flowers and ziggurats of fractal romanesco jutting past gleaming orbs of salmon roe.

Unfortunately, Itamae Densho is no more, but Chef Denni is back with his latest venture, something far removed from chirashi bowls but still totally in character and on brand: Uncle Dendog’s (https://www.instagram.com/uncle.dendogs/), a food truck (really a trailer) that specializes in Korean corn dogs and other street foods with a foreign, fusiony focus.  Follow his Instagram page to see where he’s going to turn up next!

I was the first person to arrive at Uncle Dendog’s this past Friday night, set up outside Orlando Brewing, the brewery and taproom south and west of downtown Orlando.  Not being a drinker, I had never been there before, so I didn’t know how busy it would get later or how the parking situation would be.  But I do prefer to grab my food on the early side, especially since I was bringing it home after work. 

I have taken the liberty of posting photos of the menu, although it may change from week to week or even night to night.  I knew I had to try one of Uncle Dendog’s signature K-Dawgs, so it was just a question of choosing which one.   
But I knew he had a new special, just weeks after opening for the first time, and that was what drew me out on this rainy evening.

This was it: “Not-So Native Fry Bread Tacos.”  For many years, I’ve heard and read about Navajo-style tacos, a Southwestern delicacy of meat, cheese, peppers, corn, beans, sauces, and more, served on crispy, pillowy, salty, greasy fry bread, a traditional staple food of Native Americans throughout the American Southwest.

Fry bread may be delicious, but it has a fraught, controversial history in Navajo culture due to the lasting effects of colonialism, when the U.S. government gave the Navajo people flour, sugar, salt, and lard as they were forced to relocate onto desolate, dusty reservations where they could no longer grow traditional, healthy crops like corn, beans, and squash.  There is a schism within the Native American community, and even among Native American chefs, about whether fry bread is an unhealthy, lasting symbol of oppression or a tasty treat born out of resistance and resilience.  It is absolutely not my place to decide or judge which side is right, but I can say a few non-controversial things with certainty, though:
1.) Chef Denni Cha is of Native American (and Korean) descent,
2.) He told me a while back that he planned to offer fry bread tacos as a tribute to his Native American heritage, so I’ve been looking forward to them ever since, and
3.) They were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Yes, in my LIFE.

But first things first: I asked Chef Denni’s lovely wife and partner, Monica, which K-Dawg (Korean corn dog) she recommended, and she told me to go with the Korean in Bogota ($10), a massive meat treat with the lightest, crispiest batter coating a perfect, smoky, salty sausage.  Korean corn dogs are definitely Internet- and Instagram-trendy right now because of how photogenic and eye-catching they are, and this one was no exception.  It was a true fusion: an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog lovingly skewered, dipped in a special batter, and fried until it is crispy outside and lusciously soft inside — an archetypal Korean corn dog even if I had ordered it plain.  But Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers are famous for being served with lots of condiments and toppings, so this was a tribute to those — hence “Korean in Bogota.”  More fusion.  More loving, respectful tribute.  Just like in comic books, this was a legit crossover.     
As the menu said, the corn dog is topped with shiso-cilantro garlic aioli, salsa rosada, pineapple salsa, and crunchy potato sticks, and sprinkled with sugar, for a variety of colors, flavors, and textures — salty, crunchy, spicy, creamy, fruity, greasy, soft, cool, sweet, hot.  (When I asked about the sugar, Denni said “Korean Hotdogs usually get heavily dusted in sugar. We do so much else with them that we just lightly sprinkle it.”)  Anyway, I’m glad I took this home and ate it over a table, because it would have been really messy eating standing up at the brewery or in the parking lot outside.

Next up, I brought home an order of lightly breaded wings ($9).  My wife loves wings, but as much as I appreciate sauces and condiments, she isn’t big on them, so I got these plain with her in mind.  The order came with six huge wings in crispy golden-brown batter, and they were really good.  The battered exterior was still crunchy and warm by the time I got home.  I asked, and this batter for the wings is different from the batter he uses for the corn dogs and fry bread.   

If you want something a little more exciting than plain wings, the other alternative is to get them tossed in a sweet, sticky kimchi sauce.  When Chef Denni kindly asked if I wanted a little ramekin of the sauce on the side, I said YES, which is what you say if someone asks if you are a god, or if you want some sauce on the side.  That sauce was so good, we poured it over the four and a half wings we hadn’t eaten yet, and it made them even better.  Even after saucing, they stayed crunchy and never got soggy, even after reheating some leftover wings in the toaster oven the next day!   
I don’t have a lot of experience eating kimchi, which is weird, because I love pickled vegetables, I’ll eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar or can, and I regularly cook braised cabbage at home.  I need to develop my taste for kimchi, just like I did for pickles.  But this sweet kimchi sauce made these fine wings even finer.

I saved the best for last, which speaks volumes, considering how great the corn dog and the wings were.  I ordered two of the Not-So Native fry bread tacos ($10 each), one for each of us.  They came in the same box and looked like the stuff that dreams are made of.  Topped with braised beef, beer cheese, cilantro-garlic aioli, salsa, corn, black beans, and more potato sticks, they were another amazing, astonishing amalgam of fantastic, fabulous flavors and terrific, tantalizing textures.  But what really took these from tasty street food to next-level works of art was the fry bread itself.  
Chef Denni was very forthcoming when I asked him about the fry bread later on.  He uses the same batter he uses for the K-Dawgz (corn dogs), only he lets it proof longer, for a total of 48 hours, to get to the right consistency for his fry bread.  My wife described the texture of being like a really good, really thick “old-fashioned” doughnut (those wrinkly glazed ones, sometimes called sour cream cake doughnuts), only crispy on the outside.  Denni agreed, saying he has compared them to “savory doughnuts” before, but more airy and fluffy.  I swear, you’ve never had tacos like this before, and I’m 100% sure nobody else in Orlando is making these.  The closest thing I could compare them to are sopes, but they are way better than any sopes my wife and I have ever tried.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking these, unless you keep kosher (in which case, ask to hold the warm, gooey beer cheese) or are a vegetarian (in which case, ask to hold the delicious, tender, savory braised beef).  Heck, even going to town on some plain fry bread would be a treat, maybe with some hot honey squirted on it like the best sopapilla ever.  But don’t miss these Not-So Native tacos!

And here’s a mediocre photo of Uncle Dendog himself, Denni Cha, hard at work in the trailer, packing up my takeout order in his panda sushi apron.  He actually took a moment to pose for me, but I said “Thank you!” like a boob before actually taking the picture, so he moved, and this is what I got — totally my fault.  I’m sorry, Chef.

So what does this have to do with the comic book artists?  Well, I told you I’m starting to identify local chefs from their styles, just like the artists I’ve admired for decades.  And after having Chef Denni’s chirashi bowls at Itamae Densho and now his Colombian-inspired Korean corn dogs and Native American fry bread tacos, I think the common element that identifies and unifies his style as a chef is the sheer beauty of it.  His serving dishes are the canvases of an iconoclastic visionary artist, whether they’re bowls with a base of rice or takeout boxes with paper trays inside.  And he builds these mixed-media structures, assembling them from diverse, colorful, fresh, dazzling ingredients that you might not even think belong together, but that’s only because we don’t think like he does.  Especially here in Uncle Dendog’s trailer/studio, he’s creating cross-cultural culinary mashups and remixes — appropriate, because he is also a musician — and elevating humble, familiar street food to eye-catching, awe-inspiring fine art.  You’ll know it when you see it, because you won’t forget it… especially once you taste it.

Chain Reactions: Chuy’s

Chuy’s (http://www.chuys.com/) is a Tex-Mex chain that was founded in Austin, Texas, in 1982.  I’ve been to three separate locations here in Orlando: multiple meals in Winter Park, a few times to Waterford Lakes (a location that has since closed), and down by the airport once with co-workers.  Chuy’s has a fun, funky, kitschy, irreverent vibe, and the food is always prepared fresh, from scratch.  Portions are huge, and prices are very fair.

What’s this?  Fake palm trees… “growing” in the dining room?  It’s crazy, I tell ya!DSC02761

I know some people are really skeptical of chains, but Chuy’s is always solid.  I can’t think of many other Mexican restaurants that make their corn AND flour tortillas from scratch, and you can really taste the difference.  I am NOT a fan of shelf-stable grocery store tortillas!  As far as I can tell, they make everything from scratch here.  The thin, crispy tortilla chips they bring to your table for free are freshly fried from those corn tortillas, and they come with a chilled salsa that has more heat than most restaurant salsas.  You can also request a creamy jalapeño sauce that is like a cool, slightly spicy ranch dip, but much better than ranch.

Here’s that overflowing complimentary basket of their light, thin, crispy tortilla chips, with the chilled salsa and creamy jalapeño sauce.  I love both of these because they are obviously made fresh, actually spicy, and both served chilled.  I am never as big a fan of room temperature salsa.

This is my wife’s favorite tortilla soup.  It is chicken broth-based, with lots of shredded chicken, melty white cheese, tomatoes, carrots, celery, avocado, and crispy fried strips of fresh corn tortillas.  Before Chuy’s opened a restaurant in Winter Park, sometimes she’d ask me to pick it up for her from the Waterford Lakes location.  Despite how awful traffic gets heading east on Colonial Drive in the evening, I’d still run the errand, because I love her, and she loves that soup!  (Of course, that location has since closed.)  On this last trip from early 2020, we even ended up getting a second cup to go, and I returned a few days later to bring her home a larger order.  DSC02763

This was her taco and enchilada plate from that February 2020 visit.  Knowing her, I’m guessing she got grilled steak in them, as opposed to chicken or seasoned ground beef.  You get very generous portions at Chuy’s, including that mountain of Mexican rice and that sea of refried beans.  DSC02765

And this was my chile relleno and enchilada plate.  The chile relleno is a batter-dipped and fried pepper stuffed with ground beef and covered in Tex-Mex sauce, kind of like a chili con carne.  The enchilada is stuffed with shredded chicken and covered in spicy, tangy, creamy Boom-Boom sauce, a Chuy’s specialty.  DSC02766Chuy’s used to have my favorite chile relleno.  A lot of Mexican restaurants use a batter that is too thick, heavy, and eggy, and it ends up soggy, greasy, and sloughing off the pepper.  Not so here.  This chile relleno batter always stayed crispy and didn’t disintegrate.

Unfortunately, starting around the time of the pandemic, Chuy’s cut its menu offerings back, removing many of the truly unique Tex-Mex dishes I had come to love.  The chile relleno pictured above?  GONE.  The combo platters you just salivated over?  GONE.  The chili con carne Tex-Mex sauce?  GONE.  I always meant to order the green chile fried chicken, but too bad, so sad — it’s off the menu too.  And so is the delicious carne guisada, a beef stew that was a lunch special one rare and lucky time I went, that I always hoped to get again.

We hadn’t been back in over a year, even though I’ve been ordering takeout all over town, mostly due to Chuy’s shrinking the menu.  But we recently found ourselves near the Winter Park location after a doctor appointment.  This was our first restaurant meal together in over a year — on the covered outdoor patio — since we were hungry and stressed, it was a beautiful day, and we had both been fully vaccinated.

We had never sprung for the guacamole ($7.59) before, but it was so good, and it complemented the freshly fried chips so well.

At least my wife was still able to get her favorite tortilla soup ($8.69 for a bowl, which is larger than the cup that was pictured above from our previous pre-pandemic visit):

I got the Chuychanga ($12.99), my favorite of the remaining entrees.  This shredded chicken and cheese chimichanga (essentially a deep-fried burrito) has such an amazing texture, I would love the experience of eating it even if it wasn’t quite so tasty.  But it is really damn delicious, so that makes it even better.  I’m sorry I didn’t get an interior photo, but I really tore into the thing.

I think they upcharged me a dollar because I asked for a side of Boom-Boom sauce, the spicy queso sauce.  It was great with the Chuychanga and the chips. 

I have to give Chuy’s all the credit in the world for making their own flour and corn tortillas fresh and in-house.  That really makes a huge difference for Mexican and Tex-Mex food.  We even bought a dozen flour tortillas to take home ($3.25, a real steal) because they are so damn good.  Now I’m just hoping they bring back all those much-missed menu options some day.  Orlando has no shortage of fantastic Mexican restaurants, and I always prefer to eat local, but Chuy’s never disappointed — at least not until they cut the chile relleno and so much else from their menu.

Bombay Street Kitchen

Hold onto your hats, true believers, because I’m bringing you a review of my favorite new restaurant to open so far in 2021.  Five months into the year, I’m pleased as punch to profess that Orlando has a big hit on its hands with Bombay Street Kitchen, a beautiful new Indian restaurant located on South Orange Blossom Trail near the Lancaster Road intersection, directly next door to one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey.  It takes a special schlep for me to get down to that side of town, but it’s so worth it, more now than ever before.

I can’t rave enough about this place, and I had to visit it twice, a week apart, just to try as many dishes as I could to do justice to it in a review.  Bombay Street Kitchen boasts a huge menu, covering cuisine from all over the Indian subcontinent, a stark contrast against many other Indian restaurants that focus on a certain geographical area.  My Saboscrivner suggestion is to study the multitudinous menu options in advance.  The good news is that a lot of the dishes are extremely reasonably priced, and it is an ideal place to go with a group of fully vaccinated, like-minded, culinarily curious colleagues and compatriots, so you can order multiple dishes and share everything.

Or, you can go alone and still order multiple dishes, as I did for my first trip there this past weekend, for an early Saturday lunch.  I arrived right when it opened at 11:30, and I ate like a king, or at least a man who just got out of prison.  The dining room is gorgeous — modern and very colorful.

I started with an order of pani puri ($7), puffs of crispy, hollow, paper-thin fried bread stuffed with seasoned potatoes, and served with two bottles of tangy water to splash into them before eating.  The brown bottle is sweet and the green is spicy.  This was a new dish to me, one I learned about while watching the delightful kids’ show Waffles + Mochi on Netflix, where two puppets travel around the world learning about food.  Despite being child-free by choice, my wife and I enjoyed the hell out of the show, and I never forgot Waffles and Mochi singing about a “pani puri party,” so I couldn’t resist.  I’m so glad those puppets hipped me to the popular Indian street food, because it was so good!   The whimsical plating in the little cart adds to the pani puri party atmosphere here.  Since there were eight pani puri puffs, I was methodical and tried two plain, two splashed with the sweet water, two splashed with the spicy water, and two splashed with both.  I couldn’t even tell you which one was best, because I loved every possible permutation.

When I saw keema pav ($11) on the menu under “bigger plates,” I was intrigued.  The description simply read “pav bread, minced lamb, onions.”  Well, I love bread (despite not knowing what pav bread was), lamb, and onions, so I was an easy mark.  Then this beautiful platter arrived, with three perfect little buns, a bowl of what looked like chili, and some diced tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, and shredded red cabbage,  Was it really a make-your-own sandwich kind of setup?  I never would have expected that, but this was one of those rare times when I took a wild guess on a menu and was rewarded with a new take on a familiar, beloved comfort food — in this case, sloppy joe sandwiches.  The pav bread was like perfect little hamburger buns with smooth, shiny crowns, the ideal size for sliders.  The cut sides were lightly grilled (as all good burger buns should be) and dabbed with what looked like a cilantro-mint chutney (the green sauce) and another sauce that was really good.  The minced lamb was served as a spicy chili, not that different from the chili I love to make at home the minute Florida temperatures dip below 70 degrees.  As much as I love to cook with ground lamb, I’ve never used it in my chili before, worried that the unique gamey flavor of lamb would get lost amid the tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices I use.  This wasn’t the same familiar chili or sloppy joe recipe most Americans would know, but it was a comparable dish, and the lamb flavor came through.  This picture is much prettier than what my assembled “sloppy joes” would eventually look like., but they were so delicious and fun to assemble.  Looking it up later, I learned that “pav” just means bread, but it comes from the Portuguese word “pão” for bread, since Portuguese explorers (colonists) brought their bread recipes to India.  I have enjoyed all the Indian breads I’ve tried before — naan, roti, parathas, and kulcha — but pav was completely new to me, and yet completely familiar.

Speaking of which, since I wasn’t expecting the pav to be familiar buns, I also ordered chilli naan ($4), the soft, warm, fresh bread baked in a clay tandoor oven, that goes so well with any Indian dishes.  For some reason, I was expecting it would be stuffed or covered with chunks of spicy peppers, maybe cooked or maybe pickled, but it was just sprinkled with dried chili flakes, like what I often shake onto pizza.  Still, it was great naan.

Longtime readers (The Saboscrivner Squad, aka Saboscrivnerinos) know I like to eat and review onion rings anywhere I go.  I have a whole category for those reviews, accompanied in my mind by a DJ’s obnoxious air horn sound effect:

RING THE ALARM!
BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!  BWAA BWAHH BWAAAHHHHHH!

Of course Bombay Street Kitchen doesn’t serve onion rings, but they have the Indian equivalent: crispy, deep-fried fritters called onion bhaji ($5), which featured some unfamiliar but very welcome spices in the batter and served with cool cilantro-mint chutney (green) and sweet, sticky tamarind chutney (brown).  I loved these, needless to say. 

I should note that I had a new, fun, cool experience on my first visit to Bombay Street Kitchen.  A family of three was seated near me as all of my dishes were being walked out of the kitchen.  The father asked me what everything I ordered was, and me being me, I very enthusiastically told him what I got, what was in it, and how much I was enjoying it.  When the server came by to take their orders, he told her to just bring him everything I got.  I felt so validated, especially when I asked them how they liked everything.  I can’t speak for the mom or the teenage daughter, but the dad seemed over the moon with all of our selections.  He said “You should be a food writer!”  Of course, me being me, I told him I did write a local food blog.  On my way out, I found a receipt in my pocket (ever the professional), wrote down http://www.saboscrivner.com, and dropped it on their table.  So I says to him, I says “If you’re ever REALLY bored, you should check out my food blog!”

On my second visit today, I met two friends from the Orlando Foodie Forum, a delightful couple who are the coolest people, who make me feel cooler just by being friendly and welcoming toward me.  I met them for the first time in a local French-Vietnamese bakery, Paris Banh Mi, almost two years ago, and somehow they recognized me just from being Facebook friends.  Today was the first time we ever actually hung out and shared a meal, but hopefully not the last.

We started out with  refreshing mango lassis ($3.50 each), and I made mine last, to help neutralize any spicy food ahead.

My friends, much hipper and more worldly than I, have had pani puri before, but I had to order it again to share the pani puri party with them, so they could try Bombay Street Kitchen’s take and check out the little cart:

One of my friends also ordered the lamb keema pav today, and they dug into making their own little sloppy joe sliders with the spicy ground lamb “chili.”  As much as I liked it last weekend, I stayed out of theirs and let them have all the fun with it this time.

I had my eye on the Szechuan chicken hakka noodles ($11), but my friend ordered it and let me try it.  I was introduced to Indo-Chinese food at Rasa, a really nice Indian restaurant I discovered and reviewed in early 2020, just months before it closed permanently.  I’m glad Bombay Street Kitchen isn’t going anywhere, because this was one of my favorite dishes of the day.  The rice noodles had just a little heat from the chili sauce they were stir-fried in, but nothing overwhelming, like I was expecting from the Szechuan designation.  The chunks of chicken were crispy and savory, and there were nice, tender-yet-crunchy slices of stir-fried onion and multicolored bell peppers mixed into the dish.  I always gravitate toward noodle dishes, and this is one I will remember and return to. 

I had been curious about the chicken momo ($9), a Nepalese dish of pan-fried chicken dumplings.  They tasted even better than they look, and they weren’t spicy, like I had been expecting. 

My friend was excited to see chicken lollipops ($9), so he ordered the dish of chicken “winglets,” rubbed with chili and spices and fried until crispy.  Normally I’d pass on a dish with that description, thinking that I could try fried chicken wings anywhere, but I’m so glad he ordered this and let me try one.  It was so great — very crunchy, tender and juicy, and extremely well-seasoned, with the perfect amount of heat.  Absolutely delicious.  Much more interesting than the name let on.

But wait, there’s more!  My one friend ordered the masala dosa ($9), a gigantic, crispy rice crepe stuffed with yellow curry-spiced potatoes and curry leaves.  It’s hard to get a sense of scale, looking at this thing, but this dosa is the kind of thing that would draw everyone’s attention in the dining room when a server walks it out to your table.  I quote the great thespian Jason Statham in the 1998 Guy Ritchie film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels: “It’s as long as my arm.  I wish it was as long as something else!”We all pulled pieces off this colossal crepe, and dipped our divided dosa in a lentil-based vegetable curry called sambar, along with coconut chutney (in the smaller cup).  No double-dipping was done.

Dosas are a South Indian street food specialty I tried for the first time in 2019, at the Hindu Temple cafeteria in nearby Casselberry.  As long as we were ordering so much food to share, I couldn’t help ordering a second dose of dosa, specifically the street special dosa ($11).  This one didn’t arrive looking as staggeringly stupendous, because it was already neatly sliced into three equal pieces, but it was still a huge overall portion.  It had the same pleasing, paper-thin, crispy texture, but it was stuffed with a variety of vegetables, not unlike an Indian burrito.  This one was another hit with all of us, and new to all of us as well.

I had never heard of xacuti (pronounced “za-COO-tee”), but it is a curry dish my friends love, made with coconut masala gravy.  You can order xacuti with chicken for $15, or fish, shrimp, or goat for $17.  They ordered it with goat and let me try it, and for that, I was grateful.  I developed an appreciation for spicy lamb curries like vindaloo and rogan josh at my usual Indian restaurant, Moghul, but never had anything like this before.  The goat had a few small bones, but the meat was so tender, the bone chunks were easy to pull out.

I had to order onion-garlic naan for us to share ($4), and it went so well with the xacuti and the other sauces we shared.

I realize this has been a long review, but this was also after two visits to Bombay Street Kitchen, a week apart.  And the second visit had three people ordering multiple dishes to share, so I pass all of our accumulated knowledge and experience onto you, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos.  Like any good nerd, I tend to get enthusiastic about the things I love, especially when something is new and novel, broadens my horizons, brings new experiences, and changes my world for the better.  Well, I hate to overhype anything, but this restaurant is worthy of every bit of hype, praise, enthusiasm, and excitement it garners.  Every single dish knocked it out of the park — or the cricket stadium, if you will.

Back in 1985, before some of my dozens of readers were even born, a rock group called The Power Station sang “Some like it hot, and some sweat when the heat is on.”  Well, no matter which of those you are, whether you love spicy food or hate it, you’re going to find a lot of flavors to savor at Bombay Street Kitchen.  If you’re a vegetarian or an omnivore, if you crave new foods to try or take comfort in the familiar, if you’re an Indian food aficionado, the most casual of diners, or worried you’re stepping a little too far out of your culinary comfort zone, you’re coming to the right place.  I give Bombay Street Kitchen one of my highest possible Saboscrivner Seals of Superiority, so come join the pani puri party!

High Tide Harry’s

High Tide Harry’s (https://hightideharrys.com/) is a wonderful, casual  seafood restaurant owned and operated by the Heretick family.  Located on South Semoran Boulevard, between Curry Ford Road and Orlando International Airport, it is easily accessible via State Roads 408 or 528.  I think it is worth the drive from pretty much anywhere.

It used to be five minutes from my job, and my co-workers and I would go there for lunch every so often.  They have a whole menu of lunch specials that are an excellent deal, and the food and service have always been great.  When the restaurant moved further south a few years ago, it seemed so much further from work than it actually is, and I had only been once since it moved to that newer, larger, nicer location.

Well, cut to last week, when I was working a 13-hour day, starting with a class at 9 AM, another class at 2 PM, and then my own regular class that starts at 8 PM and ends at 9:35 PM.  I was exhausted by the middle of the day, and I began to fantasize about getting out of the office for a relaxing late lunch, actually eating AT a restaurant — but somewhere with outdoor seating and not a lot of people packed together.  High Tide Harry’s came to mind, since I recently read somewhere that it was taking extra safety precautions during COVID-19 to enforce mask use and social distancing.  The restaurant has a small outdoor patio, and to put diners’ minds even more at ease, the staff also set up a large tent with additional socially-distanced tables in the parking lot.  That all sounded safe enough for me, after not having eaten at a restaurant in over a year… but a lot would depend on how crowded it was.

Well, with my 2:00 class ending at 3:30, I would get there at an off time between lunch and dinner, and High Tide Harry’s is famous for happy hour specials, like $1 oysters and clams and $5 appetizers.  This was it.  It had to happen.  I love it when a plan comes together!  I left work at 3:33 and was there at 3:45.  Not too far at all!

I don’t remember the last time I was so excited to eat at a restaurant, but that white and blue building beckoned.

I asked to sit outside, and they directed me to the small covered patio on the side of the building.  It was a hot day, but the sun wasn’t beating directly down on me.  I was in the shade, there was a nice breeze, and I felt the sun on my face for the first time in what seemed like a long time.  I was tired, hungry, and my voice was already going after lecturing for two full 90-minute classes that day (so far), and I was so ready to dig into some happy hour specials.  This was going to be my happiest hour in a really long time.

I started out with one of my favorite things to eat, a platter of a dozen raw oysters on the half shell, served on a platter of ice ($1 each during happy hour).  These were so fresh, plump, and briny.  The taste and texture aren’t for everyone, but I consider them such a luxurious food, like something I need to save for a special occasion or a big personal reward.  I love oysters, but haven’t had a chance to enjoy raw ones in over two years, between sticking to the “months with an ‘r'” rule and of course COVID-19.  As you might guess, oysters aren’t optimal takeout food, unless you buy a bunch to shuck at home, which I admit I have never done.   I took my time with each of these, inhaling their salty aromas and sipping the liquor out of the shells.  (“Liquor” is referring to the oysters’ natural juices — I don’t even drink, and especially wouldn’t drink during a workday!).  Only then did I embrace my inner otter, slurping up each briny bivalve, making sure to chew each one to savor the full flavor and not just gulp them down like someone would throw back a shot.  I typically don’t add anything to my oysters because I don’t like covering up their unique taste — no lemon, horseradish, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, or crackers — but I appreciated having the options.

I also ordered some fried clams from the long list of (mostly fried) appetizers marked down to $5 during happy hour.  I’ve had fried clams at High Tide Harry’s before, but again, it had been too many years.  Sometimes restaurants can overcook these to the point where they are chewy rubber bands that aren’t even crispy anymore, just greasy and depressing.  But these were so tender, crunchy, and hardly greasy.  I dipped many of them in the tangy cocktail sauce that came with the oysters, but they didn’t even need it.

And what’s that I hear?  Could it be–?!  Is it–!?  IT IS!

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

You know it, true believers!  Despite eating all those lunches at High Tide Harry’s in times past, because I always stuck to the smaller lunch menu back in the day, somehow I never ordered the onion rings here!  Well, better late than never, because they were terrific.  This big plate of golden-brown, crunchy, pungent happiness is also $5 during happy hour. 

After putting all of that away, my attentive and patient server Kenzie asked how I liked the oysters.  I gushed that I hadn’t had oysters in a long time, and hadn’t even eaten at a restaurant for over a year, like I had just emerged from a bunker or something.  She asked if I wanted more, and suggested I try them her favorite way: charbroiled instead of raw.  I’m an easy mark when it comes to food — make a suggestion, and 99 times out of 100, I’ll try it.  I’ve never had charbroiled oysters before, but this half-dozen (still $1 each during happy hour) were so decadent — topped with garlic, herbs, bread crumbs, and LOTS of butter, and served with a great piece of garlic bread that wasn’t too crusty.  Apparently this preparation is similar to a legendary New Orleans restaurant called Drago’s.  I haven’t been back to New Orleans in over 20 years and never had charbroiled oysters anywhere there, but I can at least vouch for High Tide Harry’s version being amazing.

Then I figured while I was dining out for the first time in far too long, decompressing on Harry’s patio, feeling that breeze on my face on a hot March afternoon, enjoying a well-deserved feast in the middle of a 13-hour workday, I might as well order a dozen steamed clams too.  YOLO.  I rarely indulge on this level, but they are also $1 each during happy hour!  What did you think I was going to say, steamed hams?  No, I am not from Albany, Utica, or anywhere else in upstate New York.  I love fried clams, and I love clam sauce over pasta, but these steamed clams were a little chewier and blander than I prefer.  The melted butter in the little dipping cup on the side helped, because what doesn’t melted butter help?  But whenever I return, I’ll probably get more oysters and apps (including more of those fried clams) and avoid the steamed clams.  Don’t get me wrong, I ate them all and liked them, just not as much as I liked everything else.  I mostly ordered steamed clams to make the Simpsons reference most of my readers didn’t even catch or appreciate.  Tough crowd!

So if you couldn’t already tell, High Tide Harry’s is a real treasure of a restaurant in south Orlando, just a little far from the foodie-centric parts of town where most favorite local restaurants are clustered.  They are taking COVID-19 seriously, and are very big on safety, cleaning, and social distancing, with plenty of outdoor tables on their small patio and the much larger tent.  If you refuse to wear a mask, you’re not welcome there, and I am so glad the Heretick family and their staff are enforcing that rule.  I know people occasionally hassle them about it, but I’m glad they aren’t capitulating.  Because of this alone, on top of being a long-running family business with great food, I feel really good about giving them my business and helping boost the signal to encourage others to dine there.  High Tide Harry’s happy hour, from 2:00 to 5:00 Tuesday through Sunday, is one of the best deals in town, especially if you love oysters, clams, and tasty fried things.  Next time you’re feeling like starting a seafood diet, where if you see food, you’ll eat it, especially if it’s seafood, consider starting it at High Tide Harry’s.

This was the most decadent, luxurious meal I’ve had in over a year.  It was just what I needed on that long workday, just what I needed for way too long before that.  Between bites, I would close my eyes and pretend I was much further away than I actually was — not facing a parking lot and busy State Road 436 on a late lunch break before returning to work and teaching another class that evening, and definitely not wearing a dress shirt and a tie.  Hey, at least I had rolled my sleeves up.  That’s about as laid-back as I ever get, but it’s progress.

Valisa Bakery

EDITOR’S NOTE: Valisa Bakery CLOSED at some point in April or May of 2022.

***

I pass Valisa Bakery (https://www.valisabakery.net/) every day on my way to and from work. It’s a Puerto Rican bakery that serves breakfast, lunch, and plenty of pastries and other snacks and sweets, and it’s another one of Orlando’s little treasures. This week, my co-worker had heard about a pulpo (octopus) sandwich they serve, so it sounded like a perfect opportunity to return, bring back takeout lunch for both of us, and finally review a place I’ve always enjoyed on my past visits.

This was her pulpo sandwich ($11.95), with chunks of tender octopus  marinated in a citrus vinaigrette, with lettuce and tomato on fresh pressed bread.  She wasn’t expecting it to be served chilled like ceviche, but it looked and sounded really refreshing, like a great summer sandwich.

I decided to finally try a tripleta ($8.50), the Puerto Rican sandwich that is great late-night drunk food and just as good in the middle of a workday when you don’t even drink.  Tripletas can have infinite variations, as long as there are three meats on it.  This one had thin-sliced, sauteed steak, roast pork, and sliced ham, served on a soft, fluffy, fresh roll with lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce (awesome), and creamy mayo-ketchup — an awesome combination.  It was so big and heavy, I only ate half at work and finished it at home that night.

Tripleta close-up:

I was intrigued by the daily lunch specials, especially a Thursday special called canoas.  I had to look it up, but canoas are sweet fried whole plantains, cut down the middle, stuffed with seasoned ground beef like picadillo, topped with a white cheese, and baked until it melts, so they look like little canoes.  With that in mind, I was ready to take a canoe trip.  I ordered two canoas ($3.50 each), not knowing how big they would be, but they were huge.  My co-worker and I each had one, and I loved them.  They reminded me of pastelon, my favorite Puerto Rican dish that I’ve had, which is kind of like a lasagna but with layers of sweet plantains instead of pasta sheets.  Canoas were like single servings of pastelon.

Any good Latin restaurant should have great rice that is better than the rice I can make at home, and Valisa Bakery was no exception.  I tried their yellow rice, which looked and tasted more like fried rice, rich from being cooked with pieces of pork, including rich, fatty chicharron.  I have a hard time going anywhere and not trying macaroni salad or pasta salad, so I tried an eight-ounce container of ensalada de coditos ($2) and was glad I did.  It was a creamy macaroni salad (but not runny at all), and the elbow noodles were very al dente.  Of course I shared this too!

Finally, I already knew that Valisa Bakery baked some really good quesitos -sweet, flaky pastries stuffed with cream cheese that are like the beautiful love child of a glazed croissant and a cheese danish.  I have an unimpeachable favorite destination for quesitos in Orlando, but Valisa is my second-favorite, and these quesitos ($2 each) were not disappointing.

So as you can tell, Valisa Bakery is more than just a bakery.  It’s a great bakery, but it’s also a breakfast joint, a cafeteria with rotating daily hot lunch specials, a deli with a scintillating selection of sandwiches, and a Puerto Rican restaurant where you can get tostones, mofongo, and more.  And did I mention it’s a great bakery too?  I have enjoyed it for years, so I’m a little ashamed it took me this long to return and write a long-overdue review.

Sister Honey’s Bakery

Orlando is blessed with an abundance of wonderful, locally-owned bakeries.  I’ve reviewed many of our best ones already, so please click here to see all my other bakery reviews.  But I had yet to review one of my favorites, to add it to my bakery pantheon (or pan-pantheon): Sister Honey’s Bakery (https://www.sisterhoneys.com/).

Sister Honey’s is a Black-owned bakery in the SoDo area (South of Downtown Orlando), named for owner Evette Rahman’s mother’s nickname.  Evette is a champion baker with awards and accolades to spare.  From 2014 to 2016, she took the Best in Show awards at the National Pie Championships, hosted right here in Orlando by the American Pie Council.  That’s the pie-baking equivalent of winning Best Director three years in a row at the Academy Awards!  (I had the honor of serving as a pie judge in this prestigious competition in 2018 and 2019, and wrote about it right here on this blog.)  As of 2017, Evette had won 27 blue ribbons from the National Pie Championships, including a staggering 10 alone in 2016.

So needless to say, if you haven’t been to Sister Honey’s before, knowing this now, your expectations will be pretty high.  Well, I promise that they’ll be even higher if you make it all the way through this review, and you WON’T be disappointed.

As far as I’m concerned, Evette makes the best key lime pie I’ve ever had, and key lime pie is one of my Top Five all-time desserts.  This is the whole pie, which I’ve never bought from her:
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But in all the years I’ve been going, I think I’ve eaten the equivalent of a whole key lime pie, one decadent slice ($5.99) at a time.
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Key lime pie isn’t the hardest thing in the world to make at home, and Publix even makes a damn fine one, but you have to try Sister Honey’s version at least once, to see how it stands alone.

I’ve also had the strawberry cheese pie many times, with its thick graham cracker crust, gooey cream cheese base, fresh strawberries, and fresh whipped cream.  It was the National Pie Championships Best in Show winner in 2014, and the judges chose wisely.
20200711_123803On my most recent visit, Evette brought this pie out from the back when I was already about to pay, so I was able to request a last-second slice but wasn’t able take a picture of the whole pie.  It melted a little in my car on the long drive home, but you get the idea of its pure decadent deliciousness.

My wife’s favorite delectable dessert from Sister Honey’s is the vanilla bean pound cake.  Usually the icing on the top is perfectly smooth, but I smeared it taking it out of its plastic clamshell box, so that’s on me.  It’s incredibly moist and vanilla-ey, and the icing is never heavy or greasy like the gross buttercream on a lot of supermarket cakes.
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Rear view:DSC03198

Coconut and German chocolate cakes on display.  The coconut cake is my wife’s second-favorite:DSC03190

Here’s the latest slice of coconut cake she got ($5.99).  It looks much better in person, and it is incredibly moist and rich.  The gooey coconutty filling between layers is my favorite part of this cake.20200711_123722

This was the first time I ever saw a golden pineapple cake available.  Longtime readers know how much I love anything pineappley, so I had to go for it. 20200711_112811

Here’s the slice I got ($7.99).  The cake itself and the icing were both more subtle than I expected.
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I make a mean pineapple upside-down cake that my in-laws crave, to the point where I make it for us every Thanksgiving instead of more traditional Thanksgiving desserts.  It’s also a big hit at work potlucks.  But I make it using a Duncan Hines pineapple cake box mix that smells and tastes as “pineappley” as you might expect, probably due to being so processed and artificial.  Evette’s cake has real chunks of pineapple in the icing between the cake layers and the delicious topping, and if anything, it probably has more real pineapple and pineapple juice in it than the store-bought cake mix I’m more used to.  It was another hit.

We’ve never tried her carrot cake, but for $5.99 a slice, how can you possibly go wrong?  If you see it up close, the smooth cream cheese frosting (my favorite part of any carrot cake) is sprinkled with gleaming orange and green sugar crystals.20200711_112759

Sister Honey’s also offers multiple types of cupcakes, which I fully admit aren’t usually my thing, although I’m sure hers are a cut above the rest.  Seen below: Peanut butter chocolate, German chocolate, and Very vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).20200711_112742

Seen below: Cookies & cream and Chocolate vanilla cupcakes ($2.99 each).
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Evette has cookies too, and the wedge-shaped shortbread cookies are rich, buttery, and quite good, but I think the pies and cakes are the star attractions at Sister Honey’s.
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Sister Honey’s is a good distance away from home, so it requires a special trip to make it there.  I always shoot for Saturdays around 11:30, to give them time to put everything out after opening at 11:00.  (You heard it here first!)  Evette’s husband Andy is always manning the front, boxing up slices, patiently answering questions, and ringing people up.  I admit I’ve never actually met Evette, but I’ve dealt with Andy so many times over the last few years that he recognizes me now, even with my mask on, and always asks how my wife is doing.  He’s a real mensch, and I hold them both in high esteem.

It is a very small bakery space with no indoor seating, so plan on getting everything to go.  But these days, that’s the safest bet anywhere, anyway.  You may want to bring a cooler if you’re planning to get perishable pies like the key lime pie and strawberry cheese pie above, or Evette’s equally exquisite coconut cream pie.  They might melt and droop a bit in this oppressive summer heat, even if you’re running the air conditioner in your car.  But the cakes are ideally left out at room temperature, as Andy advises, to avoid drying them out in the fridge.

I can’t sing the praises of this bakery and its award-winning baker enough.  Anytime anyone asks wants to know the best key lime pie in Florida, this is where I direct them.  Yeah, I said it!  Pretty much anything I photographed and discussed above is the best of its kind that you’ll find in Orlando.  Now more than ever, we need to be showing love to our small businesses, and especially Black-owned businesses.  If you’re wistfully wishing for cakes, pies, cupcakes, and cookies that transcend the Publix bakery, schlep down to SoDo for Sister Honey’s, where Evette Rahman will make your life that much sweeter.

 

Lechonera El Barrio

Maybe the best lunch value to be found in the Orlando area is at Lechonera El Barrio (https://www.facebook.com/Lechonera-El-Barrio-Restaurant-1519366968315699/), a small, modest cafeteria on Semoran Boulevard, located at 435 North Semoran, on the east side, between East Colonial Drive and State Road 408.  They serve huge, hearty, heaping helpings of heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban food at extremely low prices — perfect to pop into for a quick lunch to go, that can usually be turned into two or even three meals.  There are a few tables there, but I’ve never lingered.  It’s so close to work, I’m usually in and out, often picking up additional food for other co-workers to turn them into enduring fans of the place.  Even President Obama ate there, during a visit to Orlando for his 2012 campaign, and there is a photo on the wall to prove it, alongside several other (much) lower-profile celebrity guests.

Whether you’re eating in or taking out, food is served in styrofoam to-go boxes, with a medium costing $5 or a large costing $8.  I usually spring for the large, just because the leftovers heat up well, and I know my leftovers will never go to waste.  I never understand people who let their leftovers rot in our tiny break room fridge at work, or worse yet, “forget about them” at home.  To me, ignoring your restaurant leftovers is the equivalent of having a night of steamy romance and passion with a very hot partner of your preferred gender, but losing all interest in seeing them again for another tryst the following day.  WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?  But I digress.

First, you start out choosing your rice for the foundation of your giant food box: white (which is always more tender, fluffy, and buttery than the white rice I make at home in a rice cooker), yellow (even more buttery) with gandules (pigeon peas), or moros (white rice mixed with black beans; you’ll never be morose if you try it).
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I always try to time my rare visits for Fridays, because I know that’s when they’ll serve paella-style yellow rice mixed with seafood — bits of fish, shrimp with tails on, and even small bay scallops and mussels still in the shell, all stewed together with red bell peppers and peas.  That’s what I always go for.  Pardon the blurriness of this photo, taken through glass.  dsc02654.jpg

Then you can choose black or red beans, and while I like black beans (good Miami boy that I am), I almost always choose red beans, because they were never an option at the Cuban restaurants I grew up going to, and I like them even more.  I usually opt for my beans on the side in a separate container, even though I often pour them over my rice once I reach my final destination (usually our sad little break room at work, although I guess I made it sound more ominous than that).  You choose an entree after that, and then a side, which may include boiled yucca, tostones (crispy fried slices of unripe plantains), or maduros (sweet and sticky fried ripe plantains, one of my favorite foods in the world).

Entree choices include quartered or halved roasted rotisserie chickens marinated in garlicky mojo criollo, pernil (tender roast pork, often with delicious crispy bits of skin attached), pepper steak, costillas (ribs), and different stewed beef, chicken, pork, and even fish dishes.  Most people I know opt for white meat chicken, which occasionally disappoints due to sitting out a little too long and being dry.  I have much better luck with dark meat, but I rarely order the chicken here.  Pernil pork is almost always awesome, and I always ask (in my best awful Spanish) for pieces of that crispy skin.  I think once they had rabos (stewed oxtails), and I was in heaven, because I always love oxtail, whether it’s in Jamaican, Latin, or Asian recipes.
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But on my most recent visit, I was craving pastelon, a dish that’s kind of like Puerto Rican lasagna: layers of sweet plantains and seasoned ground beef, topped with a bechamel sauce and white cheese (mozzarella?), then baked into a casserole and served in large slices the size of Rubik’s cubes.  I got my pastelon with a large order of seafood paella rice, red beans on the side, and maduros, so I ended up with plantains and more plantains, and definitely engaged in some carb-loading.  It was a ton of delicious food for only $8.  DSC02658

Because I try to be a stand-up guy, on my way out the door, I asked three co-workers if they wanted anything, and two actually did.  Someone wanted a Cuban sandwich, which I was pleased to see they used the fresh pernil pork in, before pressing it on a sandwich press with the usual ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles.  It was a nice-sized sandwich for only $5, and I guarantee the pork was a lot fresher and higher-quality than it would be at lots of places that specialize in Cubanos.dsc02655.jpg

My other colleague asked for “mofongo and chicken,” and I failed to press for additional details, in my haste.  The mofongo — a mountain of mashed plantains mixed up with bits of chicharrones (pork fat and skin), garlic, and other seasonings — was prepared to order, so that took about ten minutes.  They served it with what looked like a quarter of the rotisserie chicken, most likely white meat, and only charged $6 for all of that!  I will now admit I’ve only ever had mofongo once, at a different restaurant, and wasn’t blown away.dsc02657.jpg

But our Friday only improved from there, because when I brought our food back to work, we did what I always hope my dining companions will want to do — we shared everything.  I got to sample the super-solid Cuban sandwich as well as the mofongo, which was much better from Lechonera El Barrio, helped immensely by pungent, vinegary, almost creamy, ridiculously good garlic sauce.  My one colleague who requested the mofongo joked that it’s pretty much an excuse to eat the garlic sauce, and I can totally see where she’s coming from with that.  Make sure you ask for it.  I’m going to request it from now on, even if I don’t order mofongo!  I also shared my pastelon, which seemed to go over well, and both ladies were brave enough to sample the morcilla sausage I asked for on the side, and seemed to like that too.

Morcilla is rich and savory blood sausage with a nice crispy casing and an interesting — but not unpleasant — gritty-but-soft texture.  Here it is in my little sampler with mofongo and part of the Cuban sandwich:dsc02659.jpg

Some foodies joke that they don’t always want to share their favorite spots because then everyone will go to them, but as a librarian, a nerd, and your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, I’m all about sharing information — and also sharing the love.  This is a small, locally-owned business you may have driven by dozens or hundreds of times and never thought to stop there.  You may be intimidated to go there if you don’t speak much Spanish.  (My Spanish is laughably bad, but I understand it much better than I can speak it, and I’m always able to end up with what I want by pointing, smiling, and nodding, when all else fails.)  They don’t even have a website or a menu online.  But Lechonera El Barrio is another one of those hidden treasures in Orlando.  It is not upscale, romantic, or hipster-cool.  It isn’t deconstructing, reinventing, or challenging cuisine.  It’s a cafeteria, and a very good one at that.  What it lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in value, quantity, and quality.  This is simple, tasty food, and you get so much of it.  Plus, you can be out the door quickly with enough food for two or three meals, for under $10.  That is a rare and wonderful thing.

Tortas El Rey

In Orlando, we are so lucky to have amazing Mexican food in so many different styles and price ranges.  I have reviewed some of our best establishments already, like the beloved Hunger Street Tacos and MX Taco, as well as hidden gems like Tortilleria El Progreso.  But with all due respect to those wonderful restaurants, my all-time favorite might be Tortas El Rey (http://www.tortas-el-rey.com/), an unassuming drive-through establishment on Orange Blossom Trail north of the Florida Mall near Lancaster Road, almost an hour from where I live.  Maybe it’s because I’m so rarely on that side of Orlando that it’s a rare treat, but I dream about it often and recommend it even more often.

Housed in a former Checkers location, the small white and red building has a few outdoor picnic-style tables with large umbrellas providing a bit of shade, but other than that, it’s strictly a to-go operation.  Sometimes the drive-through line can get quite long, but they make all their food fresh to order, so your patience will pay off.  On top of being fresh, authentic, and amazing, it’s CHEAP.  I don’t know how they do it, but I encourage you to venture out there, arrive hungry, and over-order.  Try everything you can.  You’re not gonna regret it!

My wife is a big fan of the sopes, thick fried shells covered with the meat of her choice, crumbled queso blanco, sour cream, and shredded lettuce.  I almost never see sopes on menus elsewhere.  And she’s really partial to the carne asada, marinated, chopped, grilled steak with a distinct lime flavor from the marinade.

Here is a carne asada sope ($3.95) I brought her home this past weekend:DSC02597

A different sope from a different visit:DSC02486

Did I mention she loves carne asada?  Here’s the carne asada quesadilla ($6.25) in a soft, lightly grilled flour tortilla, served with sour cream and shredded lettuce.  It’s quite large, with big wedges camouflaged underneath the ones you can easily see here.DSC02596

The tacos are very small, but super-cheap, at $1.80 each.  On your first visit, you might decide to try each of the meats in a different taco, and then you can branch out to other dishes once you figure out your favorite meat.  They come wrapped in two soft, lightly-grilled corn tortillas and garnished simply with diced cilantro, diced onions, and a spicy red hot sauce.

This is a carne asada taco (slightly higher at $1.89, unless that was a typo in the printed menu), hold the onions and hot sauce (for my wife, of course):DSC02489

I almost always drive through and get my food to go, but this past weekend, I lingered at one of the tables just to get this shot of taco nirvana to share with my Saboscrivner Squad.  I ordered three tacos ($1.80 each) with the works (cilantro, onions, and hot sauce): chorizo (crumbled Mexican sausage) at the top, cabeza (tender, braised beef head) on the left, and al pastor (pork marinated in pineapple juice with a slight sweet taste) on the right.  These tacos are everything tacos should aspire to be.  If these sound a little intimidating, fear not, because they also offer grilled chicken, carnitas (fried pork), and that old faithful, carne asada.DSC02595

I’ll almost always order al pastor when I see it on a menu, and I’ve tried it several ways at Tortas El Rey.  This was an al pastor burrito I ordered on a previous visit.  The burritos ($6.99 each) are huge — soft flour tortillas stuffed with the meat of your choice, seasoned rice, refried beans, and cheese, then lightly cooked on the griddle.  By the time you unwrap them from their foil wrapper, they are soft, chewy, gooey, melty pillows of deliciousness.  It’s almost too big and heavy to eat in one piece, especially since it will start to sag as you get deeper into it.  DSC02488

And this is a beautiful torta al pastor from my most recent visit, which I brought home after enjoying those three tacos al fresco.  Tortas ($7.25 each) are Mexican sandwiches served on bolillo rolls, and at Tortas El Rey, they come with refried beans, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced pickled jalapenos, avocado, and sour cream.  DSC02598DSC02600

I always love tortas, and I’ve tried several of them here.  They even serve a Milanesa torta with steak pounded flat, breaded in cracker crumbs, and deep-fried until crispy.  I associate Milanesas more with Cuban food than Mexican (as in my Rey’s Cuban Cafe review), but I always love a good crossover — or fusion, since we’re talking about food and not comic books!

All orders should come with tiny plastic cups of house-made red and green hot sauces (I prefer red, but do try both), and little plastic baggies tied up with some pickled carrots, grilled onions, and lime wedges inside.  I rarely use the limes, but I’m always happy to add the onions and carrots to my torta.  Make sure you ask for these, so they don’t forget to give them to you!

I didn’t photograph the large styrofoam cup of a pineapple-flavored agua fresca I gulped down in the unseasonable October heat and humidity, but trust me, grab an agua fresca when you come here.  (A medium is $2.65, but be a big shot and pay $3.50 for the large; you will happily drink it all.)  They are some of my favorite soft drinks ever, non-carbonated and often made with real fruit and other fresh ingredients.  They are cool and refreshing and sweet, but never as sickly-sweet as sodas made with high fructose corn syrup.  They also offer a tangy limonada (limeade), horchata (sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting through the heat of spicy food), and jamaica, a fruity, tropical-tasting red drink made from hibiscus flowers.  Especially because I don’t drink, I always treat myself to an agua fresca when I visit a Mexican restaurant that offers them, and they pair perfectly with any dish I’ve ever encountered.  I’m also a sucker for anything pineappley.

I am smiling just thinking back to how amazing this food tasted and smelled, and I’m smelling it now as I write up this review at 1 AM on a work night.  It’s funny how closely our sense of smell is tied to memory.  Tortas El Rey is definitely one of my favorite places to eat in all of Orlando.  If it was closer, I’d go far more often, but maybe it’s a good thing it’s all the way across town.  It makes my infrequent visits that much more special, especially since I have to plan my errands to make it the last stop before heading back home.  If you’re looking for fancy, upscale, indoor seating, air conditioning — keep driving.  But if you want authentic Mexican food, cooked from scratch, made with love, full of flavor, and so very cheap, it’s worth venturing out of your proverbial and physical comfort zone onto OBT and looking for the tiny white and red building.  Tell the nice ladies behind the heavily fortified window that I sent you… and they’ll have no idea who or what you’re talking about.  But if you like tacos (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), you really need to experience the humble majesty of Tortas El Rey for yourself.