Thai Singha

Thai Singha (https://thaisingha.net/) is the first Thai restaurant I ever visited in Orlando, shortly after meeting my wife and starting to date her, back in 2006.  It is out in the sprawling Waterford Lakes shopping center in East Orlando, south of the University of Central Florida.  The area is full of restaurants, but not many stand out and draw attention.  Thai Singha definitely does, or at least it should.

We realized it had been years since we had gone together, especially after discovering newer favorites like Mee Thai and Naradeva Thai, both wonderful places.  But you never forget your first, especially since Thai Singha is where I discovered my favorite Thai dish that is now my benchmark order at any new Thai restaurant, to compare and contrast them all.

My wife started with hot ginger tea ($2.95), which smelled really good and came in a neat-looking receptacle:

Then she ordered one of her favorite dishes, that she also introduced me to at Thai Singha over 15 years ago: mee grob ($6.95).  Some restaurants call it mee krob or meekrob, but many around Orlando don’t serve it at all.  It is a veritable mountain of crispy rice noodles, shrimp, pork, and tofu, tossed in a tangy sweet sauce and garnished with scallions and bean sprouts.  It is awesome, folks.  It is very sticky, crunchy, sweet, salty, and sour — a feast for all the senses.  The shrimp is fried so nicely that you can even crunch and swallow the crispy tails.  It is one of the only places where I like tofu, but I fully admit I haven’t had enough tofu to discount it completely.  Maybe everyone is already wise to the joys of mee grob, but if ya don’t know, now you know.

My wife ordered her favorite entree as well: late night noodles with a combination of shrimp, scallops, and squid ($16.95).  You can choose any of the options from the “Favorite Dishes” section of the menu to come with mixed vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, or pork for $11.50, shrimp for $14.50, or a meat combo or this seafood combo for $16.95.The late night noodles are soft, chewy rice noodles stir-fried to perfection, then tossed in a light soy sauce with eggs, the shrimp, the buttery little bay scallops, and the tender squid, and served over a bit of lettuce.  She loves it.

And this is my favorite Thai dish, made with the same flat, wide, perfectly chewy rice noodles: drunken noodles, also known as pad kee mao or pad kee mow.  I got mine with tender pork for $11.50, and I always wish the portion was bigger here, because it is so incredibly delicious.  Drunken noodles are stir-fried with onions, green bell peppers, fresh Thai basil leaves, and a sweet chili paste sauce.  It is always sweet and spicy at once, which I just love in any cuisine, and the Thai basil brings such a unique herby flavor — very different than the typical basil in Italian recipes.  Despite the name, there is no alcohol in this dish, but it is a common, beloved Thai street food for drunken revelers.  I’m sure the late night noodles have a similar origin story from nocturnal hawkers and their grateful post-partying clientele.

So that’s our first Thai restaurant we were able to share with each other, Thai Singha.  I am pleased to report we enjoyed it as much as ever after being away for far too long.  I was just sad to see it dimly lit and not busy, despite it always bustling during our past visits, too long ago.  We got there in the late afternoon on a recent Friday, too early for the dinner hour, but we were the only diners in the place, while others popped in and out to pick up sporadic takeout orders.  It is difficult to get to Waterford Lakes, and we rarely end up on that east side of Orlando anyway, but it remains a treasure well worth braving UCF-area traffic to return to from time to time.  Over the years we’ve been together, we have ordered other dishes on the menu that are always solid, but we are always a little disappointed when we don’t go with our favorites here.  Now you’ve seen our go-to dishes, so pay it a visit, decide on your own favorites, and let me know what they are!

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

This is a review that is years overdue.  Ever since the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse (https://www.4rsmokehouse.com/) location opened in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 (where the wonderful Hunger Street Tacos now stands), my wife and I have been huge fans.  As John Rivers expanded his barbecue empire, we became regulars, and I introduced many friends to it, both locals and out-of-towners.  It was some of the best barbecue we had ever eaten, and still is.  Even as talented newcomers have exploded onto the Orlando barbecue scene, like Git-N-Messy BBQ (RIP, Chef Chuck Cobb) and Smokemade Meats + Eats, 4 Rivers remains a homegrown favorite that remains pretty consistent, even with 13 locations throughout Florida.

If you’re reading a food blog (even this food blog, you dozens of stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!), you probably know that there are different regional barbecue styles: smoked brisket crusted with dark, peppery bark in Texas, pulled pork and ribs in Memphis, ribs with a sticky, sweet, tomatoey sauce in Kansas City, and in North Carolina your pork may come with a mustard-based sauce or a thin, vinegary sauce, depending where you are in the state.  Florida has never had its own barbecue style, but we’re already such a mishmash of cultures and cuisines from around the country and the world, it makes sense that John Rivers would take it upon himself to travel the country, try all the best stuff, and start his own restaurant to “de-regionalize” barbecue, as the 4 Rivers website explains.  It’s a great way to sample different barbecue styles, and if you don’t know the difference, then it doesn’t matter, and it’s just a great place to eat.

But even though my wife and I were regulars at the Longwood location for the longest time, we hadn’t been back to 4 Rivers in a few years, at least not since I started this blog in the summer of 2018.  The menu grew over time, and then shrank back, paring down to the essentials as the Winter Park location grew into a mighty local chain.  My wife’s favorite meats, the smoked prime rib and tri-tip steak (a California barbecue specialty) disappeared from the menu, and so did her favorite dessert, the brownie-like Texas sheet cake.  Plus, I was always on the lookout for new entrants into Orlando’s barbecue biz, trying to expand my palate and report back on the latest and greatest.

But then I saw that 4 Rivers brought back their smoked prime rib as a sandwich, just as a special for the month of December, and I knew we had to go back for it!  Even if you’ve been there before to enjoy the brisket, pork, chicken, ribs, and burnt ends, you must try the prime rib sandwich ($13.99) while you can.  It comes with thick slices of tender, medium-rare aged ribeye steak, first smoked and then finished on the grill, served on a grilled bun (like a potato bun) with melted provolone cheese, crispy onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.  It’s a masterful sandwich with a very generous portion of meat.  I got one with the works, and I got one for my wife with no cheese or onions and horseradish sauce on the side.  Here’s a cross-section of mine:

My wife and I both love ribs, and she occasionally asks me to bring home ribs from Sonny’s Real Pit Barbecue, because it’s so convenient.  But I think we had both forgotten how far superior the ribs from 4 Rivers are, because this 1/2 rack platter of St. Louis-style ribs ($20.27) was magnificent.  The meat is juicy and tender, and it easily separates from the bone.  The pork spare ribs are seasoned with 4 Rivers’ all-purpose rub (which you can buy), then smoked, then lightly brushed with a honey barbecue sauce that finishes them with a lightly sticky, shiny glaze.  They are awesome.  And even though the half-rack just comes with six ribs, each one is a good size, and we had more than enough food to get three or four meals out of everything.

Ordering the 1/2-rack rib platter on the 4 Rivers website,  it gave me the option to add additional meats for a small upcharge.  It had been so long since we had been there, I decided to add on some brisket for the very nominal price of $3.84, for a more complete review that would include another one of my old favorites.  It came with four decent slices of lean, smoky beef brisket.   I definitely prefer moister, fattier brisket, but that’s on me for not specifying my preference when placing the order.  It was still good, though. 

But that’s not all!  The platter is an amazing bargain because it comes with three sides you can choose.  At any barbecue joint, the sides should ideally be given as much care and quality as the meats, but they are too often treated as afterthoughts.  Not so at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  I chose three of our old favorite sides: some of the best barbecue baked beans ever (made with pork and brisket!), my favorite collard greens (simmered with ham, onions, and garlic), and smokehouse corn (sautéed with smoked tomatoes, onions, and garlic and served with chopped cilantro; well worth a 50-cent upcharge).  You can always order sides separately if you don’t get a platter; the beans and collards are $2.89 each and the corn is $3.39, or you can add them onto sandwich orders for $1.75 and $2.25, respectively. But the platter is a gift that keeps on giving, because you can also choose between Texas jalapeño cornbread or  a dinner roll.  Of course I chose the cornbread, and of course I forgot to photograph it, but you can imagine what a square of cornbread looks like, especially if you’re reading a review of a barbecue restaurant on a food blog.

I remember when 4 Rivers Smokehouse was all the rage throughout Orlando — a beloved homegrown institution that always got recommended whenever locals or tourists wanted to know the best places to eat.  As it became more successful, it opened more locations and became more familiar, and I think people started to sleep on it, or worse yet, dismiss it as a monstrous chain that might sacrifice quality or authenticity as it expanded.  It was game-changing in 2009, but Orlando has grown so much as a culinary city since then, and now we have even more good locally owned and operated restaurants in the city, including some other great places for barbecue.  But just because 4 Rivers might not be Orlando’s hottest barbecue joint anymore doesn’t mean it has fallen by the wayside or rested on its laurels.  The food is still solid, and even if they took some of our old standards off the menu, the classics are still sticking around, and you can pay attention to the monthly specials for new or returning favorites.  We should not have stayed away this long, but 4 Rivers isn’t going anywhere, and now we aren’t either.  Just be aware that all 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are closed on Sunday, so plan accordingly!

Build My Burgers

Build My Burgers (https://www.buildmyburgers.com/) sounds like something an old-timey Southern lady would say, as an expression of surprise or exasperation: “Well, build mah burgers!”  But no such phrase exists, although maybe it should.  Instead, Build My Burgers is a new fast-casual burger restaurant that opened in a small shopping plaza on University Boulevard, just a few minutes west of the University of Central Florida.  It is an independent, locally owned restaurant, and it could really use your support, because Build My Burgers will build you a tasty burger to your exact specifications, with dozens of options to customize it.  You can have a lot of fun here.  I sure did.

The burgers themselves are Black Angus beef, served as thin, “smashed” patties.  They might not be as thick or juicy as the patties from a burger joint like Fuddruckers or Teak, but they pack a lot of flavor and are clearly high-quality beef.  You can also choose regular or spicy fried chicken, a veggie burger, or an Impossible Burger if you don’t feel like beef.  Brioche is the standard bun, but you could also get your burger or sandwich on a thicker pretzel bun for a $2 upcharge or a lettuce bed for no additional cost, for the keto dieters out there.  (I did keto for five miserable months in 2017, and let’s just say it did not end well.)

But best of all about Build My Burgers, at least in my book, is the voluminous list of burger toppings and condiments to choose from.  I know some people’s brains short-circuit and shut down when faced with too many choices, but I love being able to choose so many different flavors and textures to make a one-of-a-kind meal, whether I’m customizing a poke bowl, a sandwich, a burrito, or a burger, in this case.

I opted for a double-patty burger ($8.99) with two slices of American cheese (75 cents each) on the standard brioche bun.  From there, I asked them to add ketchup, spicy mustard, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, pickles, roasted red peppers, crunchy potato sticks (making their second appearance in a row on The Saboscrivner blog), and guacamole.  Our food arrived on metal trays,  with the burgers wrapped up, fast food-style, already assembled.  Good grief, that was an insanely beautiful, messy, and delicious burger!

My wife likes to keep things simple, so she ordered a single burger ($6.49) on the pretzel bun (a $2 upcharge), and only opted to add thousand island dressing, which was a really good condiment pairing.  She ended up thinking the pretzel bun was just okay, but probably would have preferred the brioche.  I thought the denser, thicker pretzel bun would have been balanced better with a thicker, two-patty burger and more toppings and condiments. 
Next time she’ll get a burger on a brioche bun with guacamole, and next time I’ll probably get something very similar to what I got this time, but add thousand island.  We both thought the crinkle-cut fries, dusted with a peppery seasoning, were just okay.

What really sold me on finally trying Build My Burgers were people’s photos of the onion rings.  Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos know I am an onion ring aficionado, and I’ll try onion rings anywhere I find them.  Those inevitable onion ring reviews get a special tag: RING THE ALARM!  And these onion rings ($4.99) are “my type,” with their golden brown batter.  Perfect size, shape, color, consistency, and taste.  Flawless onion rings, worth ringing the alarm for. 

My wife was really craving a chocolate shake ($5.99), but also asked me if I had any interest in sharing an order of fried Oreos ($5.99).  That’s a decadent double dessert right there, but I realized neither of us had ever had fried Oreos before, so why not?  Anything the Scots love has to be pretty good, right?  Well, she seemed to really like the shake, and I enjoyed the obligatory sip I took. 
Does anyone remember Pulp Fiction, one of the biggest movies to come out in 1994?  I was in 11th grade at the time, and I was absolutely obsessed with it.  Anywhere, there was a whole discussion about how a cheesy ’50s diner-themed restaurant in L.A. served five-dollar milkshakes, and what a ripoff that was.  I always think of that moment in the film whenever I encounter milkshakes, because over 25 years later, five dollars is pretty standard, and many places cost far more.  Vincent Vega would have lost his damn mind if he saw the $15.99 “freaky shakes” on the Build My Burgers menu, but those are huge, opulent, towering structures meant to be photographed and shared (but not picked up, because all kinds of stuff is stuck to the outside of the glasses).  This standard chocolate milkshake in a standard plastic cup suited my wife just fine.

And because you were wondering, here’s a cross-section of the fried Oreos.  They were actually better than I expected, in that the batter was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and the Oreo still had some crunch to it.  I was expecting a sad, greasy mess that would make me feel guiltier than usual, and also a little disappointed.  Well, they weren’t greasy or disappointing at all, I’m happy to report!

I don’t end up on the east side of Orlando near UCF to eat very often, but if you’re out there, you can definitely count on a tasty burger from Build My Burgers.  Any of my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I value freedom of choice, and how much I love being able to customize and trick out my meals with a variety of options.  This is the perfect place for that.  Even vegetarians would be very content.  I look forward to returning and improvising some new crazy burger combination, but in the meantime, I wanted to spread the word about a relatively new restaurant that could use every bit of support.

Mei’s Kitchen

Mei’s Kitchen (https://www.meiskitchenorlando.com/) is a brand-new Taiwanese restaurant that opened less than a month ago in East Orlando, in the Publix plaza on University Drive and Dean Road, right off State Road 417.  It is two doors down from another restaurant I discovered and reviewed this year, Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill.  So if you ever can’t decide between Jamaican and Taiwanese food (a situation that most people may never find themselves in, but I have a feeling I will often), this is the place to go.

As usual, friends on The Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps on Facebook were even quicker to discover Mei’s Kitchen, and have been posting tantalizing photos and singing its praises for the last two or three weeks.  I have been wanting to make it over there, and finally made it on Memorial Day, a rare Monday off work.  I called in our takeout order as I was leaving the house, hopped on the 417, stopped into Publix for a few groceries, and my order was ready and bagged up when I got to Mei’s, about 20 minutes after making the call.

It’s a large and beautiful dining room in the unassuming shopping center, which they spent months completely refurbishing after the previous tenant, Chinese restaurant Pu Yi, closed.  Sadly, the dining room was empty, but I was there before 5:00 PM on a Monday, Mei’s is still less than a month old and doesn’t seem to have much word of mouth yet, and of course there are COVID-19 concerns.  I don’t plan to resume dining in restaurants anytime soon, but I’m still happy to order takeout to support locally-owned establishments, and I tip like I’m taking up one of their tables.  And now for the word of mouth — I’m here to tell you that the food was terrific and a terrific bargain, and they could really use your business.

I had been dying to try the Taiwanese beef noodle soup ($10.95), and it ended up being one of the most delicious and satisfying noodle soups I’ve ever had.  I was grateful they packed the broth (with beef) and the noodles (with finely-chopped cilantro and what I believe are pickled mustard greens) separately, so the noodles didn’t become a soggy, gloopy mess on my drive home.DSC03170

I poured some of the broth and all of the beef into the noodle container with enough room to mix it around, and I still had lots of broth left over (which I’ll add my own noodles to).  The beef was very tender, and I’m pretty sure it was brisket — one of my favorite cuts of beef.DSC03172

It was so satisfying, and not nearly as salty as I expected.  I’ve had countless bowls of pho, and I’ve finally started wading into the world of “fancy” (non-instant) ramen, but nothing could have prepared me for the perfection of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  Of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I had to research it further, and I found this Grub Street article that lists the best Taiwanese beef noodle soup locations in New York, with more background about the ingredients and cooking processes that make it so unique and special.  The article says “[m]any consider it to be the national dish of Taiwan,” and I can see why!DSC03173

The Taiwanese sausage fried rice ($7.95) wasn’t that different from other fried rice dishes I’ve enjoyed in the past, but its hard to go wrong with fried rice.  I love lap cheong (AKA lạp xưởng in Vietnamese), dried Chinese pork sausage that is chewy and slightly sweet.  It is one of my favorite ingredients in fried rice, and one that doesn’t get included often enough.  This version of the dish wasn’t overly greasy or salty, and the rice had a nice chewiness to it.  It was loaded with scrambled eggs, peas, and diced onion and carrot, in addition to the sausage.

We ordered so much food, I put the fried rice away after a tiny taste, only to devour it the following day after stirring in a little Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, a versatile Szechuan condiment you can find any any Asian market.  But here it is, pre-spicy chili crisping:
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I hadn’t had softshell crabs in a long time, so I was happy to see a salt and pepper soft shell crab appetizer on the menu — two crispy fried crabs for $7.95.  They were both bisected down the middle and came with a generous helping of delicious spicy mayo, which I love on sushi (and almost anything else) way more than I should.  These weren’t greasy either, which is always a nice surprise.DSC03168

Here’s a close-up of the fried crabs.  I really appreciated that Mei’s uses those plastic takeout containers with plastic lids that snap into place.  They are recyclable and dishwasher-safe, so we always clean and save these.  They are perfect for food storage beyond their original use.  DSC03169

But wait, we aren’t done yet!  My wife usually likes fluffy bao buns, so we ordered all three varieties of bao for her, not even realizing Mei’s Kitchen includes two bao in each order!  We were expecting one of each kind of bao, so that was a nice surprise.

So we got traditional gua bao with braised pork belly, garnished with fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and crushed roasted peanuts ($2.95 for two):
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Fried pork belly bao with shredded cucumber and sesame seed dressing ($3.50 for two):
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And fried shrimp bao with avocado and more of that spicy mayo ($3.95 for two):
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As you can see, the bao came in regular styrofoam boxes.

It was a quite a feast that yielded plenty of leftovers, and this was actually our first time having Taiwanese food.  If you like Chinese, you’ll love Taiwanese!  I wish Mei’s Kitchen well.  Most of Orlando’s best Chinese restaurants are all the way out on Colonial Drive (Peter’s Kitchen, Taste of Chengdu, Chuan Lu Garden), so this is somewhat closer to home.  The food is excellent, the portions are generous, the dining room is new and nice, and the prices are extremely reasonable, so here’s that word of mouth Mei’s could definitely use.  Give them a chance, and you won’t be sorry.  I’d definitely recommend everything we tried, and they have a whole lot more to choose from as well.

Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill

I really love Jamaican food.  Even though I usually go to the Golden Krust restaurant in Waterford Lakes to get my fix, I thought I would try a new place I’ve heard good things about — well, new to me, anyway — Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill (http://www.jamaicanbarandgrill.com/).  Located on University and Dean Roads, right off the 417, Mark’s is very close to the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University, East Orlando, and Winter Park.  It’s a small and casual restaurant in a shopping center with a Publix.  They have plenty of tables to dine in, and it seems like a relaxed little oasis.  But I ordered takeout on both of my visits.

On my first visit, I decided to finally try the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish.  It was served with boiled dumplings, boiled green bananas, and sweet fried plantains.  I’ve had saltfish once before, at Golden Krust, but never with ackee or the boiled sides.DSC02890

Ackee is actually a fruit!  Fresh, it looks like large, shiny black balls (the seeds) popping out of a pale pink apple-like fruit, and it is highly toxic.  But if you boil the ackee and then saute it with salted cod, it comes to resemble scrambled eggs, and tasted kind of like them too, but a bit more bitter.  I liked it a lot, especially with the onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes mixed in.DSC02891I have to admit, as much as I liked my first ackee and saltfish, I didn’t love the boiled bananas or boiled dumplings.  Both were kind of plain “starch bombs.”  The boiled dumplings were incredibly dense, slippery, and chewy.  The bananas weren’t sweet at all because they are unripe, kind of like green plantains.  But these were more like bland-tains!

Oxtails are one of my favorite dishes to eat anytime, anyplace, any cuisine.  I’ve written before about how I like them more than steak.  They are so rich and beefy, tender and juicy from stewing or braising them, and from all that gelatin.  You can’t possibly look cool while eating oxtails because they’re sticky and slippery, and you have to hold them in your hands, eat the meat off the rock-hard bones (it will be tender enough to pull right off), and then suck and gnaw what’s left, without having them squirt out of your hands and divebomb your clothes or your dining companions.
DSC02888The oxtails at Mark’s were on point, especially served over rice and peas in their rich, almost slightly sweet gravy (I would have liked even more gravy over the rice), with sides of steamed cabbage and fried sweet plantains, another one of my all-time favorite foods.

After that weekend feast (which I swear I turned into three separate meals), I went back the following Friday and brought back an even larger feast of a lunch to share with two of my co-workers in our break room.  We all chipped in for certain dishes — I might be a cool guy, but I wasn’t about to buy all this food myself.

Another round of those delicious oxtails so my co-workers could try it for the first time:
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Brown stew chicken, one of my favorite dishes.  This was another one I bought to share, but I brought the vast majority of it home and ate it two days later.  I suspect it would have been better fresh and hot.  I’ve had brown stew chicken from elsewhere that was more tomatoey, maybe from ketchup as an ingredient.  This was a mix of different pieces of chicken, both white and dark meat.
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Jerk chicken over white rice with plantains.  I had one bite with a nice spice to it, but wasn’t anywhere close to overwhelmingly spicy.  DSC02894

Curried goat (pardon the blurriness).  This was another one of my co-workers’ choices.  I’ve eaten curried goat before and liked it fine, but as a warning for the uninitiated, it is full of tiny little bones.  However, in recent years, my wife has become a huge fan of baby goats, and I’ve taken her to a local dairy farm multiple times to frolic in the field with adorable baby goats that are as soft, cute, funny, and playful as puppies.  This has made me take a step back from eating this particular meat, but no judgment from me toward those who like it!DSC02896

Spicy shrimp fried rice with lots of vegetables.  I snagged a shrimp, and it was very tasty.DSC02895

Callaloo, a bitter, spinach-like vegetable stewed with onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers.  I had only ever tried it once before, at Golden Krust (once again, see that review).  I usally love bitter, braised and stewed greens like collards, spinach, and broccoli rabe.  But just like the boiled dumplings that came with the ackee and saltfish, I’m glad I tried it, but I probably won’t order it again at Mark’s. DSC02897

I always like to enjoy a pineapple soda when I have Jamaican food, especially the DG brand, so I brought back a bottle for each of us.  Sadly, pineapple isn’t the easiest soda flavor to find, no matter which brand.  But these two ladies had never tried ANY pineapple soda before, not even from Fanta!  Needless to say, they liked it too.DSC02900

Finally, I had ordered a roti, a chewy, doughy Jamaican flatbread, to share with everyone, since I liked the one I got at Golden Krust once.  But even though I was charged for it, the roti was left out of my takeout order, even though I specifically asked “Is everything here?  Even the roti?”  I order takeout a lot — much more than I actually eat at restaurants these days — and this happens from time to time.  I get pissed, and sometimes I hold grudges.  There are a few popular and well-loved local restaurants I’ve never returned to, after being charged for takeout items that weren’t included.  And I don’t want to hear that I should have checked.  When these places are slammed and my order is already boxed and bagged up next to the register, none of us have time to open every box and bag back up to conduct a roll call.

But despite stewing over the missing roti more than a week later, I realize I need to simmer down, as the legendary Robert Nesta Marley sang.  In the end, I liked the food at Mark’s enough to sing its praises here and now.  As if that doesn’t count for enough, I will still happily return, as a much closer source for really delicious Jamaican food.  Plus, they have something called “Rasta pasta,” and I really want to find out what that is next time!

Chain Reactions: Bento

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Chain Reactions: Golden Krust

My intro to Jamaican culture came when I attended the University of Florida in the latter half of the ’90s.  I used to joke that every new UF student got a free copy of Bob Marley’s Legend CD and a Marley poster for their dorm rooms when they enrolled, because they were so ubiquitous on campus.  (Of course, college students today probably wouldn’t even know what to do with a CD.)  During my Gainesville days, I gravitated toward a different kind of Jamaican music: ska.  The mid-to-late ’90s era was the “third wave” of ska, when high school band geeks combined the traditional Jamaican dance music (usually much faster than reggae, with an emphasis on guitar upstrokes) with the speed and anarchic energy of punk rock.  So there were a lot of thrift store suits, skinny ties, retro-looking bowling shirts, and even a pair of black and white Doc Martens brogues in my checkered past (no pun intended), and I even played in a ska-punk band myself.

But as for the cuisine, I was poor as hell back then and definitely hadn’t developed the love for food and desire to try new things that drives me, over half my life later.  I don’t know how I developed my great love of Jamaican food.  My family certainly never ate it growing up in the suburbs of Miami.  However, along the way, I finally got exposed to the classic Jamaican dishes, and it was love at first bite.  I’m crazy about tender, juicy braised oxtails, brown stew chicken, jerk chicken and pork, and delicious spicy beef patties in their yellow, flaky crusts.  And my favorite local restaurant for getting my Jamaican fix is Golden Krust (http://www.orlandogoldenkrust.com/), particularly the location on Alafaya Trail near the 408 in East Orlando, across from Waterford Lakes.  There are three Orlando locations in all, plus a fourth in Clermont.

First, a little background.  Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill was founded by the late Lowell Hawthorne in The Bronx, New York.  The corporation distributes its perfect patties and other retail products to grocery stores around the U.S. (including our very own Publix, at least in Florida), and has over 120 restaurant franchise locations in nine states: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.  The restaurants all carry lots of Jamaican groceries and baked goods, in addition to the cafeteria-style hot food menu.

Here’s the menu, posted above the counter.  Everything is very affordable, and the portions are gargantuan:
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This is one of my favorite dishes from any cuisine, any culture: braised oxtails, served here with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and my beloved sweet plantains.  This is one of my ultimate comfort foods.  I think I would rather eat oxtails than a steak!  I’ve made them at home before, but nothing ever comes out this well.  The meat is so tender, moist, juicy, unctious, yielding, flavorful.  It is NOT a spicy dish.  There is even a subtle sweetness to it, but don’t go in thinking all Jamaican food is breathe-fire spicy.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.IMG_0033
There is a lot of soft, chewy gelatin left on the irregularly-shaped bones, and that’s always worth sucking or gnawing off every morsel.  This is not a meal to order on a job interview or a first date (well, maybe a first date), but I’ve still eaten it at work, dressed in a full suit, always worried about a saucy piece of meat slipping out of my fingers and splattering me.  It’s a risk worth taking.

Here is a smaller, lunch-sized portion of brown stew chicken, also served with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and sweet plantains.  This is some of the most tender and flavorful chicken I’ve ever had.  I’ve attempted to recreate this dish too, but they are the masters.  IMG_0035

Really good baked macaroni and cheese, which I had somehow never tried at Golden Krust before:IMG_0034.jpg

On a second, more recent trip, I got a spicy, flaky beef and cheese patty in their signature golden crust (Krust).  It is pictured on top of soft, fluffy coco bread, which you eat like a sandwich — meat wrapped in carbs wrapped in more carbs.
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This was my first time trying the traditional breakfast dish of saltfish: flaky, sauteed salt cod, which was cooked with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and spices.  It had a nice spiciness, but nowhere close to as hot as you might be thinking.  It is Jamaica’s national dish.  Here it was served alongside spinach-like greens called callalou.  I liked the callalou even more than the usual stewed cabbage, and I would definitely order this combination again.  There are rice and peas underneath the saltfish and greens.DSC02233

I also ordered a roti, which is a chewy, soft, tortilla-like wrap that is served with your choice of meat.  You can tear off pieces of the roti and use them to scoop up the meat or sauce.  It was prepared to order, folded into several layers, and stuffed with a crumbly, curry-flavored filling that was a pleasant surprise.  DSC02235

Of course I had to choose oxtail as my meat again, and between the roti and my rice and peas, I took care of every drop of that rich gravy.DSC02234

I usually order a pineapple soda to accompany Jamaican food whenever I have it, or occasionally a refreshing grapefruit soda called Ting.  But this time I tried something new: a vanilla-flavored drink called Irish Moss, which is really thick and heavy from carageenan (red seaweed, a surprisingly common thickening ingredient in a lot of drinks and dairy products).  It tasted exactly like store-bought eggnog, and between being cool, creamy, and having that rich mouth-feel, it was perfect for cutting the heat.  You have to shake it really well, because otherwise you’ll end up with small, chewy chunks!
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Upon conducting some post-meal research (only the best for The Saboscrivner’s baker’s dozens of readers!), I learned that these Irish Moss soft drinks are marketed as an aphrodisiac, particularly for men.  I guess the brand name “Big Bamboo” should have been a big damn clue.  I wasn’t feeling particularly amorous after such a large and heavy meal, or especially after such a thick and heavy beverage, but I thought it was ironic that it was vanilla-flavored, and I’m only into vanilla when it comes to food and drinks.

Yeah, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!

Chain Reactions: Cooper’s Hawk

My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while.  It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before.  I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.

But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little.  Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing.  If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out.  It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there.  But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.

It was seriously hard to choose.  The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices.  There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more.  I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.

I’ve never been a pork chop fan.  Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.

But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.

When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen!  She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me.  Pure perfection, dear readers.  She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor.  And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all.  It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side.  (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)ch1.jpg

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As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender.  I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should).  Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes!) and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes.  When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos.  It makes a difference!  Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold.  And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did.  To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.

It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings.  The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.ch3

I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish.  I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them.  But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them.  And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings.  She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big.  They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts!  If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.

The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all.  I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold.  They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty.  I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning.  Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.  ch4

Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert!  I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake.  It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house.  I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great.  The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel.  My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.ch5

A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place.  Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.”  They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater.  Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods!  (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!)

But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would.  So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!

My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish).  She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day.  It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.DSC01836

My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.DSC01834

My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese.  She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint.  They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler.  (She asked and they answered!)DSC01835

And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando.  The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.

I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues.  It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners.  It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all.  I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can.   I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time.  Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!

I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera.  Sorry.  Mea culpa.  I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
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My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday.  This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle.  She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:DSC01837

After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:

The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
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Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
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And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust.  Very sweet, rich, and heavy.  I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious.  I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.DSC01840

Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it,  speaks volumes right there.  Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them.  It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes.  It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits.  And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!  If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board).  My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.