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.

AdventHealth: 30 Days of Hospital Dining

Wait a minute… is The Saboscrivner really going to review the food at AdventHealth, Orlando’s largest chain of hospitals?  Yes, but I have a good reason.  My wife had a major surgery in May that necessitated spending nine days in AdventHealth Orlando, followed by another three weeks in AdventHealth Winter Park.  It was heavy and scary stuff, and I didn’t want her to go it alone.  I am so grateful that my employer allowed me to take a leave of absence from work, and that both hospitals allowed me to move in with her and spend every post-surgical moment at her side.  (Both of us are fully vaccinated.)  So we both lived in hospitals for 30 days — from May 11th through June 10th — and that meant eating a lot of hospital meals.  This massive review may prove useful if any of my readers, or any of their family or friends, are ever hospitalized in an AdventHealth facility, or even if you end up visiting anyone there.  But I hope you all stay healthy and safe and never have to come here, unless it’s for a positive reason, like having a baby or getting a cool prosthetic or something.

AdventHealth is a faith-based nonprofit that claims to have “nearly 50 hospital campuses and hundreds of care sites in diverse markets throughout nine states” (see https://www.adventhealth.com/who-we-are).  Despite the health care company’s strong Christian values and mission, everyone is welcome and included — staff, patients, and visitors alike.  I can say with confidence that the doctors, nurses, and therapists took exceptional care of my wife, when she needed it the most.

Now onto the food!  Both hospitals have cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and there is some surprisingly good food to be had there.  It tends to be more flavorful than the food served to the patients in their rooms, which tends to be blander, with less salt and fewer herbs, spices, and strong flavors.  The much larger AdventHealth Orlando has a much larger cafeteria, the Welch Cafe, which puts out the most options at lunchtime, the busiest time, and far fewer things to choose from in the evening.  There is an Italian station that has pizza, pasta, and rotating specials, a sandwich station where you can get a custom-made sandwich, a salad bar, a fresh sushi station, lots of pre-packaged “grab and go” options, sweets, and a lot more.  With some options, there is a price per pound and you pay whatever your meal weighs, and others have fixed prices.

I should also note that AdventHealth, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, used to only serve vegetarian food, and only in recent years started serving meat.  They do not serve any pork at all, though — not in the cafeterias or the in-room meals for patients, and not even at the Wendy’s across the street from AdventHealth Orlando.  So you’ll see a lot of beef and/or turkey substitutions for pork products, and at least one of them ended up being really good.

My wife was in AdventHealth Orlando for a total of nine days, so I ate in the Welch Cafe a few times.  Here are some of the highlights:

BWAAAAAAH!  BWAH BWAH BWAAAAAAH!
RING THE ALARM!  I had surprisingly great onion rings with my very first meal at the Welch Cafe, sleep-deprived and full of fear after delivering my wife to the hospital at 5 AM to be prepped for surgery.  After waiting for hours outside the surgical wing, I figured I might as well keep up my strength and eat something that tasted good.  These onion rings ($1.75, priced out at $7.29 per pound from the burger bar) were better than many others I’ve had around Orlando, believe it or not.   

For me, pasta is comfort food, so I indulged three times with different types of penne pasta in red sauces.  This first one, which I ate on Day One while my wife was under the knife, was kind of like penne in an alfredo sauce, but I also asked for a warm blanket of marinara over the top.  I seem to recall some pieces of tender chicken in there too.  I was worried sick about her and felt guilty eating, but I knew I would have passed out or succumbed to a stress migraine if I didn’t have something substantial.   

On two subsequent Welch Cafe visits, I got different versions of baked penne with ground beef ($4.29), both of which hit the spot.  You can’t go wrong with hearty baked pasta dishes like this:

This was a pre-made meatball sub (a very reasonable $4.99) that was much better than I expected. 

At least during the busiest hours in the middle of the day, you can get a custom sandwich made at the deli counter.  The one time I indulged, I opted for pastrami on a sub roll (a little over $7), with creamy horseradish sauce, lettuce, tomato, onions, banana peppers, and jalapeño peppers, and the nice lady even pressed it on the grill (note the grill marks in the sub roll).  It wasn’t any kind of ideal pastrami sandwich like Katz’s Deli in NYC or Orlando’s own Pastrami Project, but it was savory and spicy and messy in the best possible way.  That blend of flavors and textures provided a much-needed brief reprieve from the stress of that particular day at the hospital.  And as far as I’m concerned, that is the main goal of pretty much any sandwich.     

Yes, there is sushi available in the Welch Cafe, and yes, I had to try it.  There was a sushi chef making it fresh every day, at least around lunchtime, and then they would remain in the “grab and go” cooler for the dinner crowd.

It was pretty much on par with grocery store sushi, and I figured if it gave me any problems, I was already in a hospital.  This was the sushi sampler platter I chose.  It looked pretty, and eating it felt luxurious, like I didn’t even deserve to be enjoying something this nice while my wife was resting and healing several floors above me.

The sampler ($10.89) included some tuna and salmon nigiri, some California rolls wrapped in tuna and salmon, and a volcano roll topped with crispy rice, spicy mayo, and eel sauce.  Like I said, it was fresh, and it was luxurious.  I haven’t had any sushi since then, but just looking at this picture, I’d get something similar again without trepidation.

The Welch Cafeteria even had desserts!  I had to try the tres leches ($2.49), and it was perfectly fine, if not up to the standard of Miami’s legendary Cuban restaurant Versailles:

At one point, I brought this cookies and cream cheesecake (probably also around $2.49) back up to our room to share.  It was also fine, but I think my wife would have enjoyed it more under almost any other circumstances:

After nine days there immediately after her surgery, she was transferred to the inpatient rehabilitation unit in AdventHealth Winter Park for almost three weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy.  It is a much smaller hospital, with a commensurately smaller cafeteria in the basement.  The onion rings definitely aren’t as good there — kind of soggy — but on this day, the special was a surprisingly spicy and tender beef dish that was probably braised, or maybe even cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.  I liked it quite a bit.  My wife didn’t want anything to do with it.

I always crave hot dogs around summer holidays, and usually buy a pack around those times of year to cook at home.  We spent Memorial Day in the hospital, so I grabbed this simple all-beef hot dog ($2.79) from the basement cafeteria that day.  It tasted a lot like a Costco hot dog, but not as cheap, as big, or quite as good.  With packets of yellow mustard and relish, it transported me away for a few brief bites to an imagined backyard cookout with friends, before I found myself back at my wife’s hospital bedside.

On one of the last days before she was discharged, the cafeteria offered a gyro as a daily special ($4.79).  I have a hard time turning down gyros anywhere, so I had to try it.  The processed, seasoned, sliced gyro meat (usually a blend of beef and lamb) was topped with shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes, served with a tiny cup of creamy, tart tzatziki sauce, and served on a warm flatbread-style pita, it was comfort food.  Nowhere near as good as Orlando’s best gyro at Mediterranean Deli, but still better than many of the other meals I had eaten over this past month.  These onion rings ($2.69) were slightly better than that first bunch, too.

But the highlight of this cafeteria was the customizable 6″ personal pizzas for $3.99, made to order with the ingredients of your choice, and then baked in a tiny, powerful oven and presented to you two or three minutes later.  These were better than they had any right to be from a basement hospital cafeteria!  (Technically, they were underground pizzas, but a fella named Brad has built his brand around that moniker.)

I went all out with beef sausage, turkey ham, turkey pepperoni, red onion, jalapeño peppers on my pizza.  When it came out of the oven, the gentleman brushed the crust with garlic butter, and upon my request, drizzled it with balsamic glaze.  It was a damn fine pizza, I have to admit.  

I brought a couple of those basement (not underground!) pizzas back for my wife, who preferred them to most of the daily trays from Nutritional Services.  Longtime Saboscrivner scholars may remember she isn’t into tomatoey sauces, so I would order her pizzas to be brushed with a garlic butter base, and then I’d request beef sausage and mushrooms on them for her.  

So that’s what hospital staff and visitors can eat, but what about patients in their rooms?  Well, Nutritional Services delivers three meals a day to patients, and they offer a surprising amount of choices.   I tried to figure out a pattern for weeks, and then in our final week, they brought us the actual menu, which I have photographed here.  (Right-click and open them in new tabs for larger images.)

If someone from Nutritional Services manages to catch a patient in her room (between physical and occupational therapy appointments, in my wife’s case), they will take her order for all three meals for the next day, entering her choices on a tablet.  If not, the patient will just get whatever the daily specials are.  Since my wife really has to be in the mood for specific foods even when she isn’t distracted by chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and new pain from grueling therapy, I ended up helping her eat a lot of meals she wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t want anything to do with.  Also, I obsessively saved condiment and seasoning packets in our room, much like I imagine prisoners doing to make prison food more tolerable.

Do yourself a favor — if you are admitted as a patient at AdventHealth, ask Nutritional Services for a printed menu, so you can see what all the options are at all times, since they don’t always tell you every single thing you can choose from.  That way, you can also be more prepared when they come to your room to take your order.

These beef sausages, one of the Nutritional Services option for patients’ in-room breakfasts, are the same ones you can get sliced on your cafeteria pizzas.  They might not look very appetizing, but I really liked these, and even my wife embraced the greatness of the beef sausage by the end of her stay.  They were very savory, with a different texture than standard pork breakfast sausage, not as greasy, and not nearly as heavy with sage either.  I would order these in my beloved Waffle House or at another breakfast joint if they were available, or even buy them at the store to make at home.

Sliced brisket with chimichurri sauce, always served with a soft corn souffle (I amused myself by calling it “corn pone,” a term that cracks me up for no real reason) and green beans.  I make much better green beans, but I actually liked this quite a bit, and even my wife did too.

Chicken tenders.  A little bland and way too small to satisfy, but perfectly adequate, especially with some Ken’s honey mustard dressing as a dip.

Macaroni and cheese and baked sweet plantains.  My two favorite sides with any lunch or dinner orders.  I would always try to remind her to order them for me, or request to substitute them instead of boring sides like the plain white rice pictured above.  The mac and cheese was similar to what you would get at a lot of barbecue joints and Southern “meat and three”-style diners or cafeterias.  Of course I’ve had better, because this is a hospital, but I’ve had much worse.  These came with an eggy “spinach patty” that my wife kinda sorta liked, but it didn’t do much for me.

A cheeseburger that had that Burger King flame-broiled taste.  It was a little dry and not terribly juicy, but I appreciated having the general flavors and textures of a cheeseburger for the first time in a month.

My wife also ordered several vegetarian Beyond burgers as alternatives to the daily specials, which meant I ended up finishing several Beyond burgers throughout our stay.  We both used to like those, but I think we burned ourselves out on them for all time.

Lasagna rollatini, with ricotta cheese inside.  Like I said, my wife famously doesn’t like tomatoey sauces, but we quickly learned these are too dry and pretty bland with sauce served on the side, or not at all.  At least I thought they were definitely better with the sauce on them.  With just a few days left in her stay, we learned from the brochure that she could have been requesting the lasagna roll-ups with pesto sauce all along, but we never got to try that.

Chipotle chicken breast, served with yellow rice and “fajita vegetables.”  The chicken was always dry, but it had a little bit of heat, and I would eat it because she never wanted anything to do with it.

Mojo cod, served with white rice, black beans, a whole wheat roll, and more of those plantains.  Not her thing at all.  Not really mine either (but for the plantains), but I always ate it until I convinced her to request other stuff on mojo cod days.

In those final days, once we had the Nutritional Services menu and knew there were other options to choose from, my wife ordered me sandwiches with soups, while she drank Ensures and ate snacks I brought to the room from Trader Joe’s.  She knows how much I love sandwiches.

A cold roast beef sandwich on marble rye with three-bean chili.  I liked both, especially adding a bit of mustard to the sandwich.  The chili reminded me of a vegetarian version of Wendy’s chili, so not the worst thing in the world.  It also provided amusement for both of us later.

A cold turkey and havarti sandwich on marble rye, improved by yellow mustard and mayo, with chicken noodle soup (never my favorite soup):

I didn’t remember to photograph all the meals, but these were a few that (unfortunately) showed up more than once:

Sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots.  She couldn’t even deal with the smell of this one, but I thought it was okay.  I do stand by the controversial take that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is bland and boring AF.

Bruschetta chicken breast (dry), covered with diced tomatoes, and served with unsauced penne pasta, underdone brussels sprouts, and splashed with balsamic vinegar.  This could have been a much better dish than it was.  I make pretty good brussels sprouts at home by oven-roasting them, and the few times I had this meal, it inspired me to improve my brussels sprouts game even more.

Spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli.  I ate it every time because she wouldn’t, and I can’t abide by wasting food.  I love spaghetti and meat sauce.  I couldn’t bring myself to love this spaghetti and meat sauce.

Pot roast.  Just like a lot of people’s pot roast, you can chew it forever and nothing happens.  It made me want to experiment with pot roast when we got home, to try marinating and braising and using ingredients like bold Italian vinaigrettes and jars of spicy pickled giardinera vegetables.

Nutritional Services also offered desserts and snacks.  None of the baked goods were great, but I rekindled my lifelong love of orange sherbet, and now I feel the need to buy some to keep in the freezer at all times.  (No, Megan Draper, it does not smell or taste like perfume!)  And I taught my wife the joy of using graham crackers to scoop up vanilla pudding.

So that’s pretty much it.  I also brought in takeout for us a few times, but for 30 days, we lived in these two AdventHealth hospitals and mostly ate hospital food.  Some things were surprisingly good, or at least better than you would expect.  Others were much, much worse.  I’m glad that she was discharged just over a week ago, and now I’m able to go grocery shopping again, to cook for us again, and to take my wife out to eat wherever we want again.  I sincerely hope you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos never have to spend this much time in the hospital, so you never have to try most of these meals for yourselves, but I also hoped this would be an interesting look at some of Orlando and Winter Park’s most “exclusive” dining.

La Hacienda

La Hacienda (https://linktr.ee/lahaciendarestaurant) is a Mexican restaurant in Winter Park, on the southwest corner of Semoran Boulevard (State Road 436) and Aloma Avenue.  It has its own adjoining grocery store, similar to my old favorite near work, Tortilleria El Progreso.  I actually pass both going to and from work every day, but had only ever stopped into La Hacienda to pick up fresh tortillas and Mexican snacks.  But after so many years of always being in too much of a hurry, I recently ate at the restaurant for the first time, with my wife — one of our first post-vaccination meals out together.

My sense of blocking sucks, but here are our complimentary chips and salsa, with my large pineapple agua fresca ($2.50) nearly covering my wife’s small horchata agua fresca ($1.49).  The pineapple is one of the best aguas frescas I’ve ever had anywhere, with lots of real fruit pulp in it.  The horchata was nice and refreshing too.  Very cinnamony.  These chips desperately needed to be salted, ideally right when they came out of the fryer, as they were pretty bland.  But the salsa was terrific.  It must have been made fresh, because it was much better than most table salsas I’ve had at similar Mexican restaurants, with a roasted tomato flavor.  I would totally buy this salsa by the jar.

My wife suggested we get the Hacienda sampler platter ($7.99), but we were both a little underwhelmed by it.  You have more of the unsalted chips, covered with refried beans and molten lava-hot queso to serve as nachos in the middle, two crispy beef flautas (which she usually likes), and then a quesadilla on the right side with seasoned ground beef in a soft flour tortilla.  She wasn’t into the quesadilla at all after one bite, so I ate it.  She wasn’t really feeling the queso either, so I ate everything it touched.  It was kind of bland.  Guacamole was okay.  I would skip this sampler in the future.  The menu is huge, and there are plenty of more interesting offerings to be had here.

Whenever I’m at a new Mexican restaurant that serves traditional tacos on corn tortillas, dressed with only fresh cilantro and diced onions, with multiple meats to choose from, I like to order an assortment of those tacos to sample the different meats.  They are usually small and cheap, so I get a nice variety and a chance to gauge what the restaurant does best.  From left to right I got birria (shredded and steamed barbecue beef; a real foodie trend of the past two years), lengua (tender braised beef tongue), pescado (fried fish), al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated with pineapple juice and traditionally shaved off a spit), chorizo (crumbled spicy pork sausage), and carne asada (grilled steak). Each of these beauties was $1.79, except for the fish taco that was $3.49.  The plate came garnished with a lime wedge to squirt over each taco, soft marinated carrot slices (delicious), and crispy sliced radishes.  I ran out of steam and couldn’t eat the carne asada, but I mostly ordered that one for my wife to try, since that is usually her go-to Mexican meat.

In fact, she ordered two carne asada sopes ($2.99 each), served open-faced on thick, puffy fried corn shells that are much thicker than tortillas, that serve kind of like a shallow cup or bowl.   They were topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and crumbled cotija cheese.She always orders sopes at one of our favorite establishments, Tortas El Rey, and I think those remain the reigning champions for her.

I was so full that I was feeling ill, but my wife wanted dessert, so we ordered the helado frito, or fried ice cream ($4.99).  It was a huge portion — a big scoop of rock-hard vanilla ice cream covered in a really nice, crispy fried breading, and served in a fried flour tortilla like the kind taco salads come in.  It was drizzled with caramel sauce and served with whipped cream and sprinkles.  For some reason, she didn’t like the fried breading around the ice cream, but that was my favorite part, so that worked out well for us.  

I definitely liked our meal at La Hacienda more than my wife did, but she might have preferred it if she ordered different things.  I definitely enjoyed the birria, al pastor, chorizo, and fried fish tacos, the marinated carrots, and the salsa that came with the chips (but the chips themselves, ehhhh, not so much).  I would go back, but I think she would take a pass.  With Tortilleria El Progreso so close to work, I don’t know if I could wrangle work colleagues to grab lunch here (once we start doing that again), or even drive the extra distance to pick up takeout to eat at work.  But it would be a convenient stop to pick up takeout on my way home, now that I know what’s good and what is just so-so.  Tortas El Rey is just so far, and our other favorite, Francisco’s Taco Madness, is never open at night or on Sundays, so it could be a nice option to have solid, authentic Mexican food near home in the future.

Antonella’s Pizzeria

Don’t listen to New Yorkers — there really is good pizza to be found in Orlando!  I grew up in Miami eating three kinds of pizza:

  1. New York-style pizza — large, crispy, thin, foldable slices with melty, elastic cheese, dripping orange grease.
  2. Sicilian pizza — thick rectangular slices with crispy crust and bottom, and soft, fluffy interior.
  3. School lunch pizza (always on Thursday) — also rectangular, but flat and crispy like a flatbread, and the cheese could usually be peeled off in one solid sheet.  This was not good pizza by any standard, but we loved it as kids, and I still associate Thursdays with “PIZZA FOR LUNCH!  PIZZA FOR LUNCH!” chants.

But anyway, to this day, my two go-to pizza styles are New York-style and Sicilian.  Even though I like other kinds — Neapolitan pies, coal oven pizza, even St. Louis-style pizza, crackery-thin with gooey Provel cheese — those two are my lifelong favorites, and there are plenty of good pizzerias around Orlando to get New York-style pizza.  I’ve already reviewed several of them, but a few of those, like Pizzeria Del Dio and Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria, also offer the harder-to-find rectangular Sicilian pizzas.  I’m happy to report that one more pizzeria offers both styles, with two convenient locations on opposite ends of Winter Park: Antonella’s Pizzeria (https://www.antonellaspizza.com/).

Antonella’s original location is on Fairbanks Avenue, between New York and Pennsylvania Avenues, right near Rollins College and tony Park Avenue.  I ate there once, many years ago, but I can’t find the photos I took of that quick lunch (a slice of pizza and an Italian sub), although I’m sure they were awful photos.  The newest location that opened earlier this year is much closer to my work, on University Avenue, just east of Goldenrod Road.  It’s a small, modern, cozy space, and I look forward to lingering there for more leisurely work lunches in the months to come. 

Here is Antonella’s lunch menu, which is not listed on the website with the regular menu.

On my first visit to the new location, I ordered takeout for myself and my work “lunch bunch,” starting us out with a half-dozen garlic knots ($5.95).  These were darker than I like, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, parmesan, and herbs to add rich, pungent flavors.  They also came with a dipping cup of marinara sauce, as all garlic rolls should.

I always have to try a plain slice at any New York-style pizzeria to use as a benchmark and a “control.”  This slice was $3, and it was outstanding, just as it was on my first trip to Antonella’s older location a few years ago.  Nice and crispy, large enough to fold, tangy red sauce with the slightest sweetness, and the cheese had a good “pull” to it.   

Another co-worker and I each enjoyed a slice of Sicilian pizza topped with pepperoni ($4.50 each,or $4 without the single topping).  This is definitely some of the best Sicilian pizza in Orlando.  The rectangular slices are aren’t as wide as Del Dio or Paradiso, but they are long and thick.  (BWAH HA HA!)

One co-worker asked for a slice of pizza bianca (mozzarella and ricotta cheese with no red sauce; $3.75) and a plain Sicilian slice ($4).  She seemed to love them.

Meatballs are another one of my Italian restaurant benchmarks, so I had to try Antonella’s version (a side of two meatballs, cut in half so it looked like I got four, for $5.95).  They were very soft, tender, yielding, flavorful, and I got much more of that good sauce to dip my crusts in. 

On a second trip, I brought some takeout home so my wife could try Antonella’s food.  I got another slice of pizza for myself and more garlic knots for us to share.  I also got one of her go-to Italian dishes, eggplant rollatini ($15.95).  This thin-sliced eggplant dish is rolled up with ricotta cheese, then breaded, fried, topped with red sauce and mozzarella cheese, then baked to melt the cheese.  She prefers it really light on the sauce, and they did it her way:

It came with a choice of pasta, plus soup or salad.  She told me to choose, and I went with the pasta e fagioli soup of the day, good old “pasta fa-ZHOOL” with ditalini pasta, white beans, onions, carrots, celery, and herbs in chicken broth with little bits of chicken.  It was delicious! 

One of our favorite Orlando Italian restaurants of times past was Wolfie’s PizzaMia on Orange Avenue.  We loved it with all our hearts, and our hearts ached when it closed.  Since then, Chef A.J. Haines has found a new home making Southern comfort food and occasional fresh pasta dishes at Mason Jar Provisions, but at Wolfie’s, he introduced us to the wonders of arancini, a ball of risotto stuffed with meat, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried until the outer surface is crispy, the rice inside is soft and almost creamy, and the seasoned ground beef in the center is warm and welcoming.  Antonella’s version of arancini ($4.95), served with a side of that robust red sauce, did not disappoint.

It reminds me a lot of my beloved Cuban papas rellenas, but instead of a baseball-sized ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with picadillo, you have the creamy risotto in arancini.  Also, there were peas in with the seasoned meat, unlike the picadillo in a papa rellena (which sometimes includes olives).

Finally, anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows how my absolute favorite things to eat are cured deli meats, especially when assembled in an Italian sub.  I had to try the Antonella’s Combo hero ($10.95), with ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and house dressing on a soft sub roll, served cold (although you could get it hot too). 

It tasted good, because of course it did, but there are bigger and better Italian subs elsewhere in the city, and I have sung their praises often: LaSpada’s, Manzano’s, Stasio’s (which occasionally serves huge and awesome square slices of Sicilian pizza), and Tornatore’s (which also boasts excellent New York-style pizza).  I would have liked a better meat-to-bread ratio in this hero sandwich.  I’m not sorry I tried it, but next time I’ll stick to Antonella’s wondrous pizza, which is definitely some of the best in Orlando.  Come in and try it for yourself, and I’m sure you will agree.  I hope even transplanted New Yorkers will be pleasantly surprised.

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
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But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

Fiddler’s Green Irish Pub

I don’t drink anymore, but I always appreciate an atmospheric pub or bar that serves warm, hearty fare.  Pub grub is some of the ultimate comfort food, especially when the temperature finally drops a bit (which in Florida means a few days in the 50s and nights in the 40s).  I miss the old Fox’s Sherron Inn in South Miami, a dimly lit dive bar straight out of a Tom Waits song, jukebox and all, that served surprisingly good food.  It has been gone for over a decade, and it makes me sad that there’s no trace remaining, and too many people will never even know it was there.

But on a happier note, ever since I moved to Orlando in late 2004, I’ve been a huge fan of the great Irish pub in Winter Park, Fiddler’s Green (https://fiddlersgreen.pub/).  It feels like it was teleported here directly from Ireland — full of dark wood, no windows, a cozy little hideout near Park Avenue and Rollins College.  Luckily almost everyone knows the place, and those who know it love it.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve eaten countless meals at Fiddler’s Green that nourished the body and the soul, always accompanied by my wife or friends or co-workers, and good times were had by all.  Once, on one of their rare visits up here, I even brought my parents to Fiddler’s Green.  These are people who like what they like and don’t always like trying new things, but they loved it.  Years later, they still talk about the dinner we had — certainly nothing fancy, but one of those “perfect in every way” meals that just hit the spot for everyone.

This is the fish and chips ($17.95) that won my parents over, and also my wife’s go-to order at Fiddler’s Green.  You get three huge beer-battered Atlantic cod filets, fried to crispy golden-brown perfection — never too greasy, always tender, with just the right level of crunch to the batter.  The batter stays on and maintained that ideal crispness even after transporting my most recent order home.  The fish is served with a cool, creamy remoulade sauce, with the slightest tangy zip to it. 

Here’s a close-up of that gorgeous fried fish.  It’ll make you moan “Oh my cod!”

And here are the chips, delicious potato wedges.  I figure anyone reading this review knows that with British and Irish fish and chips, the “chips” refer to fries, and if you want thinner, crunchier potato chips, those are “crisps.”  So much for a common language, eh wot?  As far as fries/chips go, I’m often skeptical of potato wedges because they are rarely crispy, and if I wanted a baked potato (which I never do), I’d just order a baked potato.  But these are firm on the outside and soft on the inside, but not flaking apart either. 

You might expect an Irish pub would serve potatoes using multiple masterful methods, and you’d be right.  These are the ceili chips ($4.95), which are actually the potato chips most of us know and love… so in Irish pub parlance, they are crisps.  Don’t expect the hard crunchiness of store-bought kettle chips — these are thinner and crispier, and thankfully never soggy from grease.  We can’t go to Fiddler’s Green and not order a round of these. 

Longtime Saboscrivner subscribers know I am obsessed with condiments, so whenever we would go to Fiddler’s Green, I would request a bottle of HP Sauce for the table and dunk the ceili chips (crisps) and potato wedges (chips) in it.  It’s a British condiment that’s a dark reddish-brown, savory and tangy, with a superficial similarity to our A1 sauce, but a million times better.  I asked for a few dipping cups of HP Sauce with this takeout order, and they were kind enough to oblige, but I really should just buy a bottle at our local British Shoppe in Orlando’s Mills 50 district.

I am especially obsessed with mustards, and Fiddler’s also has glass bottles of sinus-clearing Coleman’s prepared English mustard that they will bring to the table upon request.  A little of that stuff goes a long way, but it’s totally worth trying a dab, especially if you are congested.

But after all this talk of fried potatoes and far-flung condiments, I ordered myself an entree that was also really good: Irish stew ($16.95), a thick, rich, heavy concoction of lamb, potatoes, carrots, “and a hint of thyme,” according to the website.  Lamb is one of my favorite meats and thyme is one of favorite herbs, and you can definitely taste them in a perfect melange in this stew.  Of course they top it with a dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and some scallions.  Some people might mix it into the stew like it’s a container of hummus with a little island of sun-dried tomatoes in the middle, but I prefer to get a little morsel of the mash in every spoonful of stew. 

This is one of those ultimate cold weather comfort foods for me, like chili and lasagna.  If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, I’d love to sit down to another bowl of Irish stew inside Fiddler’s Green the next time we get a cold (for Florida) day.  It just feels good — the warmth, the familiarity, the surroundings, the Irish music playing in the background or sometimes performed live by wonderful local musicians.

On other visits, I have also enjoyed the corned beef and cabbage (the best thing to add a dab of the Coleman’s mustard to), bangers and mash with these delicious caramelized pearl onions I would eat by the bowlful, and rich potato leek soup, topped with bacon and cheddar cheese.  I think of these as fall and winter foods, even though we don’t really get a fall here, and our winter consists of random days that add up to about two weeks out of the year.

Long before COVID, I was at a point where I don’t hang out at bars and pubs anymore unless I’m eating or going out of my way to catch live music.  That said, Fiddler’s Green has always felt warm and welcoming, like a piece of home.  I love that it’s a little dark inside with no windows.  On a sweltering, humid Florida summer day, it can transport you to the old country, even if Ireland was never your people’s old country.  And on our rare days of jacket weather, it feels like a safe, comforting cave in the best possible way.  Maybe some day soon, we can all feel safe and comfortable huddling in there again, over pints and chips (crisps) with family and friends.  In the meantime, I’ll keep ordering takeout from here, and hopefully we have a few more chilly days this season for maximum enjoyment of it.

Tuscany Pizza

Sometimes the best food can come from the humblest locations.  A co-worker from New Jersey with strong opinions about good pizza recommended Tuscany Pizza (http://www.tuscanypizzawp.com/), a tiny storefront pizzeria in a tiny shopping plaza on Howell Branch Road, in the Seminole County side of Winter Park, very close to Casselberry.  This co-worker and I have enjoyed pizzas from Pizzeria Del Dio and Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria before, and she said Tuscany was easily as good, if not better (in her opinion).  I had to find out for myself, so I’ve been there twice so far and ordered takeout both times.  They have a few small inside tables, but I’m still not dining in anytime soon.

On my first visit ordering takeout earlier this year, I brought home Tuscany’s thin crust sausage pizza.  You can get regular hand-tossed or thin crust for the same price, or “thick crust” (not sure if that’s specifically Chicago-style deep dish, or just slightly thicker than normal) for a dollar more.  I believe this was an 18″ XX large for $14.99, because it was only a dollar more than the 16″ X large.  It was very good, but not that different from a regular hand-tossed pizza in consistency and size, lacking the crispy, crackery crunch you expect from thin crust pizza.  My wife and I still enjoyed it, though.tuscany1

This was another thin crust XX large sausage pizza from a second, more recent visit, cut in the “party cut” style in rectangles I associate with thin-crust pizza.  Maybe due to the party cut, it felt crispier.

I always have to try the regular hand-tossed style too, and I’m somehow convinced this kind of pizza is always better by the slice than as a whole pie.  These were two slices of regular New York-style pizza for $2.29 each.  They automatically cut them into four thinner slices, which was perfectly fine with me.  And even though these were also on the thin side, I think I preferred them just because they were separate slices and not an entire pie.  tuscany2

We both like stromboli, so we decided to try a large stromboli supreme ($18.99).  It was ridiculously large, and the two of us got multiple meals out of it.tuscany3

The stromboli supreme is full of pepperoni, ham, cheese, onions, green peppers, and tomatoes.  The regular stromboli doesn’t include the vegetables.  This reminds me of a joke I tell my poor students every semester: “What’s the difference between the Supreme Court and a regular court?”  They’re always so earnest, they start volunteering serious, thoughtful answers before I interrupt: “The Supreme Court costs more, but it’s larger and comes with extra toppings.”  That’s what I call a wayhomer, a joke you might not get immediately, but you’ll figure it out on the way home.  Somehow I still get decent evaluations from my students.tuscany4

These were delicious and beautiful garlic knots — an order of twelve for $5.29 (although we actually got 14, if you count them).  They could have used more garlic butter, but they were still absolutely delicious — fluffy and soft inside, light and crispy crust outside, and fun to untwist.  The marinara sauce was thick and robust, which I always appreciate, and they weren’t stingy with two nice-sized cups.  My wife isn’t a sauce person or a dipper, so it was all mine!tuscany5

It’s easy to miss Tuscany Pizza unless you go looking for it, or stumble upon it on a mission for doughnuts at Donut King or shaved ice at Rainbow Sno-Cones Shaved Ice in the same plaza.  There is a hot dog place in there too, but I haven’t tried it yet.  And we all know there are plenty of good pizzerias in and around Orlando, so don’t let your New York and New Jersey friends convince you they all suck.  Tuscany joins the esteemed ranks of the aforementioned Del Dio and Paradiso, Tornatore’s, and Tomasino’s for excellent New York-style pizza, and from what I hear (or don’t hear) online, they might be the least-known of all of these pizzerias, so please give them a chance.

Cowboy Dips & Chips at Brooklyn South Bar at Aloma Bowl

I’m not a great bowler, so because I’m not great at it, I never really enjoyed the experience of bowling.  I remember going to kids’ birthday parties at bowling alleys and slinking off to play video games in the arcades, to spare myself some public humiliation at a formative age where everything felt like public humiliation.  This was my usual schtick at even more depressing parties at the roller skating rink when we were a few years older, back when Miami booty bass and freestyle music blared from the speakers, the soundtrack to everyone (except me) starting to kiss.

Of course, this was still during a golden age of arcade video games, back when nobody thought twice about touching things in public places that everyone else had been touching, and there were no hand sanitizer or wipes anywhere.  So as a result of arcades falling out of vogue and being a grown-ass man who avoids awkward social situations as a matter of course, I haven’t been to a bowling alley in over a decade.

Well, I am also a grown-ass man who loves sandwiches and potato chips, as stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know too well.  I recently learned of the existence of Cowboy Food & Drink, a restaurant in the perhaps-tellingly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio, that serves barbecue and American food.  They spun their concept off into Cowboy Dips & Chips (https://www.cowboyfoodanddrink.com/dips-and-chips), which serves a selection of sandwiches with au jus dip and fresh, house-made potato chips at bowling alleys, including two right here in Orlando.  They even donate a portion of the proceeds to charities!  I was intrigued, so last night I went to Aloma Bowl in nearby Winter Park on my way home from work.  Here is the menu for the Brooklyn South Bar, the snack bar at Aloma Bowl, which includes the new Cowboy Dips & Chips: https://www.alomabowlingcenters.com/aloma/food-drinks/.

As you can see, they offer two kinds of sandwiches on “butter-toasted rolls”: pastrami and roast beef.  Of course I had to try them both, and because I am a good husband, I brought one of each home for my wife as well.  They were both a good value, with lots of meat.  Of the two, the pastrami ($10) was much better, with lots of delicious fatty marbling, but not too much.  Here was mine.  I paid a 75-cent upcharge for grilled onions to try theirs, even though I had some at home, and I got creamy hot mustard on the side, to compare it to the multitude of mustards in my mustard collection.

My wife had her plain pastrami sandwich for lunch today.  It heated up well in our little toaster oven, and she enjoyed it:

I also got us each a roast beef sandwich ($8), and I paid a 75-cent upcharge for Swiss cheese on mine, and got pickles and creamy horseradish sauce on the side.  It was honestly just okay, and I wouldn’t get it again.  I love a good roast beef sandwich, but I would have preferred the roast beef to be a lot more rare, with more seasoning. 

My favorite deli roast beef is Dietz & Watson London broil, which you can buy at the deli counters at Winn-Dixie and Sprouts.  That stuff is the best, and I highly recommend it to all.  My wife and I are also suckers for a classic roast beef sandwich from Arby’s or our local legend Beefy King.  This looked more like “real” shaved roast beef than Arby’s or Beefy King, but didn’t have as much flavor.  It wasn’t as salty as those, and it was sliced thicker, so it wasn’t as tender as I would have liked either.

As much as my wife agreed with me that the pastrami was good, she didn’t care for the roast beef either, so we ended up with a spare(Bowling!)  I finished her plain sandwich for lunch today, warmed in the toaster oven with muenster cheese and onions I had sauteed myself, then doctored up with some of my favorite mustard and pickles.  That improved it immensely.  But here it was last night, still warm when I got it home:

Each of the four sandwiches came with a large plastic cup of au jus.  I’m not usually a fan of a WAS (wet-ass sandwich), and probably wouldn’t choose to dip if I was eating at the bowling alley, just to avoid making a mess.  I tried dipping the roast beef sandwich last night after changing out of my work clothes, but it didn’t add much to the flavor aside from salt, and made those good rolls wet and gushy.  But I can’t bear to dump these out — I am totally going to figure out something to do with the au jus.

I also got three orders of the house-made chips ($2 each), since they had three flavors to choose from: salted, BBQ, and salt and vinegar, which I always call “salty Vinnies.”  My wife only likes plain chips, but she really enjoyed these.  They had a fantastic texture, a good crunch without being too hard, and weren’t greasy at all.  I was a little worried because the BBQ and salty Vinnies didn’t look like they were covered with much flavor seasoning, but they tasted great.  The salty Vinnies in particular were delicious, and I would love to get some of that vinegar powder to use for different things at home, since I already have a huge vinegar collection to rival my mustard collection.

Finally, since I was already buying four sandwiches and three orders of potato chips at a bowling alley after a long day of work, I got an order of funnel cake fries from the regular snack bar menu ($5).  They were a little crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, warm, and sweet, just like you would expect and hope for.  They reminded us both a lot of the old Burger King French toast sticks from their breakfast menu in the ’90s (and possibly still; I haven’t gone to Burger King in many years).

It might seem counterintuitive to go to a bowling alley snack bar in search of good food, but if you’ve been reading my blog or anything I’ve ever written about food, you know I’m on the lookout for a good meal anywhere, and it’s amazing where you can find it if you’re willing to look.  Some of my favorite tacos and Nashville hot chicken come from local food trucks, my absolute favorite barbecue came from a gas station convenience store up until very recently (stay tuned for an update on that!), and one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando is a stall in a food court inside a Korean supermarket.  So why not a bowling alley snack bar?

I can appreciate upscale luxury, but I don’t always feel comfortable paying for it (especially since I’m still not dining in at any restaurants anytime soon), and I’d always rather take a gamble on something delicious, casual, and cheap, especially when it’s off the beaten path.  Those treasures that require a little hunting are often the most satisfying to find.  And while the roast beef sandwich was just okay, my wife (a tougher food critic than I) agreed with me that the pastrami sandwich and the chips were quite good, better than some standard restaurants.  The staff was great too — friendly, fast, all masked.  Just knowing there’s one more place in Orlando to get a decent pastrami sandwich and some house-made chips in different flavors makes me feel like all hope is not lost.

Itamae Densho

I just recently learned about the existence of Itamae Densho (https://itamae-densho.square.site/), a Japanese restaurant affiliated with local favorite (and Saboscrivner favorite) Swine & Sons inside The Local Butcher & Market, a gourmet butcher shop and market in Winter Park.  Local chef Denni Cha set up there a week ago, creating beautiful donburi, bowls of sushi-seasoned rice topped with stunningly gorgeous arrays of raw fish, fresh and pickled vegetables, actual flowers, and so much more.  I’m a huge fan of poke and sushi, but I’m used to very casual build-your-own poke bowl places, and I’ve never done a full-on omakase dinner experience.  So even though these donburi look almost too pretty to eat, I wanted to destroy something beautiful.

I placed my online order on the above website late last night and paid in advance with my credit card.  The automated e-mail told me my order would be ready after 5:50 PM today, and since I grew up in a home where “Early is on time and on time is late,” I was there right on the dot.  I met Denni, who said they would just need some time to assemble everything so it would be at its freshest, and I appreciated that he didn’t have it already made, sitting there waiting for me.  I was out the door with three bowls packed in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe containers in about ten minutes.

This is the Salmon Oyako donburi ($16) that my wife ate most of.  The website describes it as including “Wild King Salmon Tataki, House Cured Salmon Roe, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182329

Note the little yellow flowers and the beautiful green romanesco cauliflower, which has fascinating fractal patterns.  It looks like sci-fi food, and I always remember Rey actually eating some in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  The salmon roe popped lightly in our mouths like delicate, salty, fishy bubbles, and the salmon was incredibly fresh.

This was the “Tuna x Tuna” donburi ($15), with “Tuna Sashimi, Tuna, Densho-Style Tuna, Yuzu-Kosho Aiolo, Tobiko, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182309

I love tuna, so I was in tuna heaven with this one.  I also liked the seaweed salad, which had a nice crunch and a subtle saltiness from soy sauce.  The leafy green surrounding the roe in the above photo had an interesting bitter taste.  But those thin slices of pepper are serrano peppers with the seeds and ribs intact, so they are no joke.  I’m used to jalapeños, which are further down the Scoville scale, heat-wise.  Plus, I usually remove the seeds and ribs when I prepare jalapeños at home, always while wearing disposable gloves (a lesson learned the hard way, after one horrific incident I won’t go into in this space, in mixed company).  Anyway, before too long, we were like a couple of kids: her picking out the serrano slices for me, and me picking the tiny flowers off with my chopsticks for her.  (I don’t think they added much in the way of flavor, but damn, were they cute!)

And this was the Densho-Style chirashi donburi ($18), with “Chef’s Selection of sashimi grade fish with various garnished flavor profiles, house-cured salmon roe, unagi, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”
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Aside from tuna, salmon, and the roe, I think I recognized hamachi (yellowtail) in this bowl, plus more of the other ingredients.  The sushi rice was excellent, and even my wife, who normally doesn’t like the sweet rice vinegar flavor in sushi rice, enjoyed it.  My wife was the first one to discover that all three bowls had crispy fried onions near the bottom, underneath the rice.  She doesn’t normally like onions at all, but she enjoyed what these brought to the table.  As for me, I love onions, so I was very content.

I’m sure there is a grand tradition of this beautiful presentation in Japanese cuisine, but we usually don’t go to those high-end sushi restaurants.  However, my wife and I were both reminded of the award-winning restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark.  No, we’ve never been there either, but it has been featured in many food and travel shows, including the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil.  Those are all awesome shows that any Saboscrivner reader would love, if you don’t already.  Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, prepares these picturesque plates of fancy food that look like tiny terrariums, or dioramas for fairies and elves to live in.  He uses lots of edible flowers and plants to build a little scene, and that’s what Denni Cha’s lovely donburi bowls made us think of.  As long as he’s set up at The Local Butcher & Market, preparing these dishes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, I encourage all of you to place some preorders on his website.  But do it early, because I have a feeling he may only make so many of these every day, and you don’t want to miss out.

Light on the Sugar Bakery

I used to joke that living in Casselberry, we almost always have to drive 20+ minutes to get to Orlando’s hottest restaurants in the hipper, trendier areas like Winter Park, the Milk District, and Mills 50.  But since we started sheltering in place due to the pandemic, I’ve tried to stay much closer to home the rare times I venture out for takeout, and I’ve come to discover a lot of nearby gems like Alex’s Fresh Kitchen and Tomasino’s Pizza in recent reviews, alongside neighborhood favorites like Bagel King, Waffle House, and Kai Asian Street Fare.

I was overjoyed when my choice for Orlando’s best barbecue, Git-N-Messy BBQ, relocated from Sanford to the edge of Winter Park and Oviedo, much closer to us.  And since we started quarantining, I’ve picked up takeout from Git-N-Messy several times.  Best of all, there is a relatively new bakery right across the street from Git-N-Messy, in the same shopping center as Pho Cali/Quickly Boba and Twisted Root Burger Co.  It’s a small Asian bakery called Light on the Sugar (https://www.lightonthesugar.com/), and it is so good, we’re still in shock that it opened on our side of town and not one of these hipster neighborhoods.  

My wife and I first visited Light on the Sugar on our way to have dinner at Tomasino’s for the first time in mid-January of this year, back when you could still linger at restaurants, cafes, and even bakeries without a second thought.  We were face to face with glass cases full of beautiful baked goods — cakes, cream puffs, croissants, danishes, and more.  The bakery was already getting excellent word of mouth on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, so we were excited to be there and trying to take our time deciding what to bring home with us.  DSC02858

Even more choices (pardon the reflections):DSC02859

Unfortunately, I left this first visit very annoyed, due to an employee who was relentlessly rushing us to make a quick decision.  The place was empty aside from us, so it’s not like we were holding anyone else up.  And we had every intention of choosing quite a few treats to bring home, so the guy’s rude attitude really got on my nerves.  We made our choices and went on to dinner, both turned off by the experience.  In fact, I might have not returned at all, except that everything was so amazing.  My wife had fallen for these delectable, decadent desserts, so that inauspicious first visit became the first of many over a relatively short time.

This was what we brought home the first time: a cream puff topped with Froot Loops, a slice of their beautiful and intricate chocolate crepe cake, and a plain croissant.DSC02868

I liked the bites I tried of things, but she just went wild for them.  The cream puff is so light and delicate, but the rich cream in the middle is really something special.  As you saw in the first photo, they have many different varieties of cream puffs on any given day, including strawberry, matcha, ube (purple yam, taking off in popularity here in the States), and Earl Grey, but she loves her sugary cereals.  And the chocolate crepe cake, made of dozens of layers of thin crepes, also wowed my chocolate-loving wife.  DSC02867

On one of my many subsequent visits after picking up takeout from Git-N-Messy BBQ across the street, they didn’t have the Froot Loops cream puffs she loves, but I was able to bring her comparable Lucky Charms cream puffs that were also a big hit at home.DSC03044

You can tell these baked goods are all fresh and of the highest quality, but none of them are cloyingly, overwhelmingly sweet… hence the name.  They are also less heavy than baked goods from some other bakeries (4 Rivers Smokehouse’s Sweet Shop comes to mind) — these are almost ethereal, by comparison.

I’ve also been lucky enough to find a Japanese milk loaf on a few of my visits to Light on the Sugar, and I can never resist bringing one home.  This loaf of bread is rich and buttery, like a cross between brioche and challah.  It makes great French toast, or it’s perfect to just slice and enjoy with some good salted butter.
DSC02869

I should note that Winter Park’s Bread & Co., another very good Asian bakery, also bakes a Japanese-style milk bread that I love, but my wife prefers Light on the Sugar’s version.

And I should also note that on the multiple visits I’ve made since that first unnecessarily stressful visit with my wife, I have received nothing but friendly and warm service from several female employees.  I haven’t seen that one rude guy again since, and he may not even still be there.  Since everything is takeout only these days, I’m usually in and out in two minutes, especially now that I know what my wife likes best.  But it’s a great bakery and well worth a visit, whether you live in our quieter part of town, or even if you’re surrounded by Orlando’s other good bakeries in the cooler areas.  Like every other restaurant we like, I hope they’ve been holding up through this scary and unknowable time.  But the best way to save the places and things you love is to actually support them, so stop by Light on the Sugar soon and try a few things.  You might even plan your visit around picking up some other takeout at any of the great nearby restaurants, who all need your support as well.