Ring the Alarm! Twisted Root Burger Co.

Twisted Root Burger Co. (https://www.twistedrootburgerco.com/) is the latest fast-casual burger chain out of Texas to come to Orlando, after Hopdoddy Burger Bar opened earlier this year in the Pointe Orlando mall on International Drive.  But luckily for us, Twisted Root opened much closer to where we live, in a little shopping center on Aloma Avenue and Howell Branch Road that has been brought back to life by an influx of new restaurants, including the adjoining Pho Cali and Quickly Boba, which I reviewed in 2018.

Twisted Root goes for a theme of irreverent, wacky fun, with animal head busts above the counter where you order, letting you know which ones are available to eat on any given day.  From right to left:dsc02661.jpg

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After you place your order, you can go get drinks.  There is a full bar, and more options than usual for the non-drinkers.  I love hip hop and my wife loves Law and Order: SVU, so this was a delightful display:DSC02667

Twisted Root serves its own fountain sodas, all made with cane sugar instead of the usual high fructose corn syrup.  I sampled sips of the watermelon Ice-T, cream soda, root beer, and lemonade, and the cream soda was my favorite.  A refillable drink is $2.25, by the way.  I think that would be worth it for most, just to try their versions of all the different sodas and teas.dsc02669.jpgdsc02670.jpg

Pass the soda fountain and you will encounter the pickle bar.  I’ve written before about how I’ve never been a big fan of pickles, but I’m all about trying them now, to grow my appreciation for them.  Needless to say, I had to try all five varieties here, especially since they’re free!  From left to right: atomic (spicy), sweet & spicy, ranch, bread & butter, and dill.  I think I liked the bread & butter pickles the most, and there was only one flavor I really disliked — I think it was probably the ranch.  DSC02672This was a nice feature, especially because I’m not willing to shell out for whole jars of pickles I might not like, the way I do with mustards and other condiments (and new flavors of chips and sodas).

When you order, they give you a buzzer with a pop culture icon on it to alert you that your food is ready to pick up from the counter.  We got Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which was aces with me, because I used to be a huge pro wrestling fan and am slowly wading back into that pool, and also because he elevates almost every movie he’s in.  Seriously, The Rock makes decent movies better and terrible movies tolerable.  When our buzzer went off so quickly, I was surprised our food was already ready, since the place was so slammed they had shut down one of their cash registers to give the kitchen a chance to catch up.  But it was just my wife’s s’mores milkshake ($6).  dsc02674.jpg
Her verdict: it was okay.  She thought the marshmallow tasted like lighter fluid.  I had some and liked it fine, I think even more than she did.  But I could take or leave marshmallows, whereas she is a connoisseur.

It didn’t take that much longer for The Rock to buzz us again, letting me know our food was ready.  I ordered the Freedom Melt ($11), served on “Texas toast” with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onion straws, and brisket on top — a very “me” burger to order.  Be forewarned that Twisted Root cooks all burgers MEDIUM WELL unless you ask them not to, and I’m not down with that.  I asked for mine medium rare, and it came out between medium rare and medium, but still very juicy.  DSC02675I’ve been spoiled by too much great barbecue brisket, at our well-respected homegrown chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse, and most recently, at the fantastic Git-N-Messy Barbecue in Sanford.  So I guess I was expecting shredded (but recognizable) brisket on top of my burger, instead of the finely-chopped (and probably sauced) meat I got.  It was tastier than I expected and definitely tastier than it looked, nice and smoky (again, possibly from the sauce), but it reminded me of really tender chopped beef jerky even more than brisket.

I haven’t done a

[Air horn]
RING THE ALARM!
[/Air horn]

feature in a while, but Twisted Root offers fried onion strings ($3), and those count!  They were good — never as satisfying or substantial as thicker-cut, beer-battered onion rings, but they added a good dimension to my burger and gave me stuff to dip (more on that later).

My wife ordered a venison burger ($10), one of the special game meats, on “Texas toast,” otherwise served plain.  I didn’t get a picture of it, but it looked like pretty much any other burger.  She ate the whole thing, which is a good sign that she liked it.  She ordered hand-cut potato chips ($2) as her side, a nice-sized order of crispy (not overly crunchy) chips that were just salty enough.  I had to help her finish those, happily.
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A friendly manager came by to ask us how we were liking everything, and she was really craving honest feedback.  The ONLY complaint I had, and it’s a minor one, was that the “Texas toast” wasn’t what we were expecting.  I really love getting Texas toast at my beloved Waffle House — thick slices of white Wonder bread, spread liberally with butter and then grilled on both sides.  The “Texas toast” both of our burgers came on was just regular white bread: not thick, not square, not Wonder, definitely not buttered or grilled, and barely even toasted.  I always hate to complain about anything, but she asked, and it was a minor quibble.  I think thicker bread, buttered and grilled, would add so much richness to the burgers.  If they don’t change it, I’ll simply order a brioche bun with my burger on my next visit.

I was already digging Twisted Root offering so many choices (sodas, sides, pickles), but their condiment game is also strong.  Every table has squeeze bottles of Heinz ketchup and yellow mustard, plus these three beauties.  The horseradish Dijon mustard was fabulous (I’d buy a jar), the ancho chipotle ketchup was great, but as much as I love root beer AND barbecue sauce, I thought it was a little too thin and tasted a little too much of molasses.
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So this restaurant is a real “get” for our quiet, boring little area where Winter Springs, Oviedo, and Winter Park run together.  It was super-busy when we were there, but that was also a Friday night on its opening week.  I think they will do very well, especially since the shopping center has returned to life.  I liked my burger much more than some of the more popular fast-casual contenders, and I love all the different options and how close it is to our home.

Oh, one last thing: the men’s restroom is wallpapered with silly memes and sayings about the most overrated action movie “star” of all time, which I feel obligated to point out after praising the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson earlier in this review.  Yes, you can’t wash your hands without being inundated with tall tales of Texas’ own adopted son Chuck Norris, who I don’t think ever made a good movie or TV show.  I don’t know how beatifying Chuck Norris became a thing.  Sure, he was a legit martial artist, unlike many of the other action actors of the ’70s and ’80s, but Norris was a charisma vacuum, compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham, The Rock, and the vast majority of superhero actors.  Heck, even Jean-Claude Van Damme had two great (or at least memorable) movies in his career, and if any Saboscrivner readers think you can guess what they are, then let me know!

Moghul Indian Cuisine

Growing up, we never ate Indian food.  My parents generally eschewed anything with even a reputation of being spicy, so no Korean, no Indian, no Thai (we went out for Thai once, and the new flavors literally made my dad ANGRY), and nothing from a Chinese menu with a flame or pepper icon next to it.  Back in the ’90s, even Mexican was a rare treat for me, and that usually meant driving through Taco Bell — which helped sustain me through high school and college.

When more adventurous friends introduced me to Indian food, it opened me up to a whole new world of flavors and spices, but it was still a rare event to go out for Indian.  I used to eat it once a year at most, usually by myself — sometimes even when I traveled to work conferences out of town.  And I’d always seek out Indian buffets to maximize the number of different dishes I could sample and the amount of food I could eat.  All-you-can-eat buffets are not only economical, but they are a great introduction to the cuisine for unfamiliar diners.

That said, India is a huge country — a whole subcontinent! — with many different regional styles of cooking.  This really became apparent when I attended a festive weekend lunch at the Hindu Society of Central Florida’s temple earlier this year and enjoyed a vegetarian feast full of giant dosas and other unfamiliar offerings, all South Indian specialties.  With that in mind, Indian buffets are going to stick to the most popular, familiar dishes that American palates are used to, and probably nothing too intimidating or spicy.  There are a lot of lamb dishes in Indian cuisine, which is great if you love lamb like I do, but since it’s a more expensive meat, I’ve never found a buffet that offered lamb.  That’s too baaaaaaaad.

Since I started working with a particular colleague at the beginning of 2013, we’ve gone out to lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch more times than I can count.  She’s vegetarian and loves Indian food, and I’m always happy to get out of the office and hang out with her.  She is not only a legitimately good person who I’m honored to call a friend, but she’s amazing at her job, and I’ve learned so much from her over the years.  I’m a better librarian and professor because of her ideas and influence, and thanks to our occasional lunches out, I’m also way more familiar with Indian food than I would be otherwise.

That restaurant is Moghul Indian Cuisine (http://www.moghulindian.com/), located on the east side of busy Semoran Boulevard, between Aloma Avenue to the north and University Boulevard to the south.  Moghul has a very affordable lunch buffet ($8.95), but also a longer menu full of delicious dishes you can’t get from the buffet.  I have recently decided to broaden my horizons and order a new entree on each subsequent visit.

Here’s a look at the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which I have ordered from countless times, but decided to forego on my most recent two visits, which I’m reviewing here:dsc02491.jpg

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Since I started ordering off the menu, I get thin and crispy pappadams served at our table, the same ones available on the buffet.  They come with spicy tomato and onion chutney, sweet and tangy tamarind chutney, and cool, creamy, and slightly spicy coriander and mint chutney.DSC02492

I love samosas, but in all my lunch visits to Moghul where I ordered off the buffet, I had never ordered them.  I decided to order the vegetable samosas ($3.95) on these two recent trips, and I realized I should have been ordering them all along.  You get two in an order, so on both of these visits, I had one and gave the other to my vegetarian co-worker.  The fried shell was very light, airy, and flaky — not greasy at all.  The lightly curry-seasoned potatoes and peas inside were tasty, and that shell was really something special.DSC02604

A look inside that samosa:dsc02605.jpg

This was a non-vegetarian friend’s trip to the buffet.  Looks like she got butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, and saag paneer (the stewed spinach in the top right), among other things — all Indian buffet classics.DSC02494

And my vegetarian colleague got all this good stuff, including eggplant, pakoras (vegetables breaded in chick pea flour and fried until crunchy), and naan bread.
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On one recent visit I ordered the Goan dish lamb vindaloo ($13.95) for the first time ever, and I was brave and ordered it HOT.  Not “Indian hot,” because I still had to go back to work, but not my usual, safe medium either.  And I am relieved to report I could handle it just fine.  Moghul’s menu describes vindaloo as “lamb marinated with vinegar, chilies and spices,” and it definitely had an acidic tang to it, no doubt from the vinegar.  DSC02495

Apparently vindaloo has Portuguese roots, and historically it called for meat to be marinated in wine and garlic.  Along the way, and especially as the dish rose in popularity in British Indian cooking, palm vinegar replaced the wine.  But I love vinegar, so it’s all good!DSC02497

On my second, more recent trip, I ordered a different lamb dish, the Kashmiri dish rogan josh ($13.95), also HOT.  Once again, it was delicious, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to handle the heat.  The menu describes this dish as “lamb cooked in curry sauce with yogurt, tomato and spices.”  This sauce was richer and thicker than the vindaloo — not as tangy, despite the addition of tomato.  I liked it so much I slurped up all the leftover sauce with a spoon after finishing the chunks of tender lamb, no additional rice required!  Despite my pledge to try new things every time, I would totally order the lamb rogan josh again.
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Since these entrees don’t come with bread, I ordered onion kulcha ($3.50) for the first time ever with my vindaloo, as an alternative to the standard naan.  Like naan, kulcha is a bread baked in a tandoor (a clay oven), and this one is stuffed with onions, cumin, and cilantro.  I loved it so much!DSC02496

Even though I am forcing myself to order a new entree every time, I had to get that onion kulcha again on my second recent visit, to accompany the rogan josh.  It was so rich and buttery and soft and fragrant.  I just love sauteed onions and soft, fluffy, buttery bread.  They probably use ghee in the kitchen at Moghul; I am happy to clarify that.
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I drive by Moghul almost twice a day on my way to and from work, and it sure is tempting to order just onion kulcha every night on my way home.  I can’t do it, but have I thought about it?DSC02607

YUP!

(What I’m really going to have to do is learn to make my own onion kulcha at home, and maybe regular naan bread too, if it can be done without a tandoor.  But I’m going to leave the rest of this deliciousness to the professionals.)

The good news is Moghul is close to work, my co-worker loves Indian food even more than I do, and I have every intention of returning often to keep expanding my palate, both in terms of new dishes and spice levels.  Just keep in mind that Moghul is closed on Mondays.

Rosati’s Pizza

I watch a lot of TV, but I like to think I only watch good shows — well-made, well-written, well-acted.  And if I watch a sitcom, it’s going to be legitimately funny, not one of those cringeworthy canned-laughter multicams.  One of my newest TV discoveries is South Side on Comedy Central, a sitcom set in the South Side of Chicago, created by the insanely talented and hilarious Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle.  This showrunner duo also has an even funnier show on IFC called Sherman’s Showcase, which will certainly end up in my Top Ten Shows of 2019.  I highly recommend jumping into both shows while you can, since their first seasons are still airing, and you can catch up on the Comedy Central and IFC websites I linked to above, or maybe on demand.

Anyway, in last night’s episode of South Side, the lead character Simon made the controversial claim of not liking Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza because “It’s just a lasagna with crust.”  I too have joked before that “It’s not pizza; it’s a casserole!”  I’ve found deep dish pizza to be far too greasy, dense, and heavy — both by weight and how it sits in my gut afterwards.  But my wife loves the stuff, the same way I swear by Sicilian pizza, like the kind they serve at one of my local favorites, Pizzeria Del Dio.

But fate intervened yesterday, in the form of one of my Orlando Foodie Forum friends posting that Rosati’s (https://myrosatis.com/), a Chicago pizzeria known for its deep dish, was opening at the intersection of University and Goldenrod where the Lucky’s Market is, not far from where I work.  Still chuckling over the “lasagna with crust” comment, I mentioned it to my wife during the South Side commercial break, and since she loves it so much, we decided to go today.  It was the second day this Rosati’s location was open for business, but they were ready for us, and they made an excellent first impression.  It was even more of a treat after eating everything in our fridge and freezer for most of the last week, expecting a hurricane that never made it here.

Rosati’s opened in a very small space.  It is set up mostly like a takeout pizzeria where you order at the counter, but they do have two tables that can each seat four, as well as a counter with some high-top stools.  We had every intention of eating there, so we could try the pizza hot and fresh.  As you can see, they also offer appetizers, wings, salads, pasta dishes, sandwiches, and desserts.  It’s probably much easier to read the menu on the website above, but this way you can see some prices.DSC02513DSC02514

We ordered the 10″ deep dish with sausage, the smallest one they make, which can feed two to three people.  Even though we were hungry, we know this is rich and heavy pizza, and a little goes a long way.  It came out in about 15 minutes, and it was great!  It didn’t have the greasy, buttery crust that Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s pizzas are known for.  (We had Lou’s on a Chicago trip about five years ago, and Aldi sometimes sells frozen Giordano’s.)  This crust was light and fluffy, with a nice crispy outer layer that wasn’t burnt or dry.  It reminded me more of the brilliant and easy cast-iron skillet pizza recipe I have perfected over the last year, created by Bon Appetit’s delightful and creative test chef Claire Saffitz.  The tomato sauce was much chunkier than typical pizza sauce, in typical Chicago deep dish fashion, the cheese was melty and had a nice pull to it, and the sausage was flavorful and not overly greasy either.  DSC02515

Rosati’s only had paper plates available because they were still getting situated, but that was totally fine with us.  Here’s a single slice from the pizza that looks small, but it’s a lot of food.  I ate two slices and my wife just had one, so we have plenty of leftovers to warm in our toaster oven tomorrow.DSC02517

But surprise of surprises, Rosati’s sells three kinds of pizza: deep dish (apparently a bigger hit among Chicago’s tourists), a thin-crust pizza that many locals prefer, and a hand-rolled “double-dough” pizza.  You can order single slices of the double-dough (though not the thin-crust), so I had to try it as well.  It’s a large slice, not unlike a typical New York-style slice, but thicker and softer, without the thin crispiness of New York pizza.  I asked for pepperoni on this single slice, and as you can see, they were extremely generous with the pepperoni.  DSC02516I also appreciated that each slice of pepperoni didn’t curl into a crunchy little grease-cup, which is why I’m sometimes hesitant to order pepperoni on pizza.  Blasphemy, you say?  I prefer my pepperoni cold on a sandwich, but this was a good example of a slice of pepperoni pizza.  And just so you all know, I cut this slice down the middle and have only eaten half so far.

Since there is often talk about Chicago’s beloved Italian beef sandwiches on the Orlando Foodie Forum, I saw Rosati’s offered them and had to order one for later.  This was obviously a lot of food, and you haven’t even seen it all yet!  The Italian beef sandwich came with fries, and we did eat most of them at the restaurant, since cold fries are a shande (a shame) and an abomination.  They were crinkle-cut fries, very well-salted, and served with packets of Red Gold ketchup, a brand you hardly ever see around here.  (Maybe it’s also a Chicago thing.)  My wife loves crinkle-cut fries, so that was a nice little bonus.  DSC02518

We chatted with one of the gentlemen in charge of opening up this Rosati’s location.  He told us he is based in Chicago but travels around the country for the company, opening up new restaurants and training the staff.  We talked a little about different regional pizzas and the food scenes in Chicago and Orlando, and we wished him well as he got this location up and running.

And he couldn’t have been a nicer guy, because while we were still elbow-deep in pizza and fries, he came out with this box of zeppole for us, little nuggets of pizza dough, crispy on the outside and fluffy-soft on the inside, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a big dipping cup of gooey Nutella.  This was completely complimentary, just for us being so enthusiastic on their second day.  We were very touched by the unexpected gift, and my wife was over the moon because she loves desserts like this.  They’re kind of like beignets.  This was a giant portion, and we haven’t even made a dent in half of it.  DSC02520

So we came home with lots of leftovers:DSC02521

And I unwrapped the Italian beef sandwich and heated it up for dinner.  For those who are unfamiliar, an Italian beef is a famous Chicago street food, served at establishments like Portillo’s (which has expanded into Florida but not Orlando yet) and Buona Beef.  The sandwich is stuffed with thin slices of seasoned roast beef, served on an Italian roll, often with au jus and topped with sweet peppers, hot pickled giardinera vegetables, or a combination of the two.  If you think I asked for the combination, you’d be right.  I also paid a $1 upcharge to get my Italian beef on garlic bread, because I am grateful to be gainfully employed and don’t have to worry about such things anymore.  DSC02522

Here it is with the au jus, which I opted to get on the side in a cup, rather than have it poured over the sandwich (“dipped,” another option, but it would have made a real mess since I ate it several hours later).DSC02523

It was very tasty and good quality, but extremely salty.  Between our pizza lunch and this sandwich for dinner, I have drunk several glasses of water and a big bottle of Gatorade today.  I love a good roast beef sandwich, but I think I prefer mine cold, with rare roast beef, some kind of cheese, some kind of onions (grilled, sauteed, or caramelized), horseradish, mustard, and a creamy sauce to tie it all together.  That’s not to say there was anything wrong with this Italian beef.  I haven’t had one in many years, and Rosati’s nailed this quintessential Chicago classic, as synonymous with the Windy City as the Blues Brothers and da Bearss (and hopefully one day, South Side).  But like the deep dish pizza, you have to be in the mood for it.  You have to be ready.  You might want to set aside some time for a nap, and to have some Gatorade on hand to rehydrate due to all the salt.

So that’s Rosati’s.  We liked it, we’ll definitely go back, and I hope they stick around and are successful.  We don’t have many options in Orlando for deep dish pizza or Italian beef sandwiches, so if you’re from Chicago and missing your old favorites, or you just love the new and novel like we do, pay them a visit and give them a warm welcome to Winter Park!

Swine & Sons

So, has anyone heard about any good chicken sandwiches lately?

Let me rewind for a bit.  This week the Internet went insane over chicken sandwiches, something I rarely order anywhere.  When there’s a burger available, I never give the chicken sandwich a second look.  At fast food places, even if I’m not in the mood for a burger, I’m more likely to order the fish sandwich than the chicken sandwich!  Even when I go to a fried chicken joint, I’ll usually get a couple of crispy fried thighs, rather than a sandwich.  Too often, the classic fried chicken sandwich contains a dry chicken breast, or worse yet, a dry tender or two.  I’ve been burned by dry, bland white meat too often, and don’t get me started ranting about dry, bland, boring-ass Thanksgiving turkeys.  I always prefer dark meat, and thighs usually hide my favorite morsels of meat on the entire chicken: the oysters, tucked away under a bone, two little perfect bites per bird.

But people are losing their damn minds over this chicken sandwich, which gave me a serious case of the FOMO.*  I had to venture forth to see what the hype was about, and so I could blog about it and get some external validation before everyone moves onto the next foodie fad.  Wait, did I just write that?

Well, to none of my regular readers’ surprise, I ordered two different chicken sandwiches: spicy and extra-spicy.  And I’m happy to report they were the best damn chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had!  But they didn’t come from that chain.  Nope.  And not that chain either.  They came from a a beloved local restaurant that just happens to be located in a butcher shop.  Not that one; the other one!

Swine & Sons (https://swineandsons.com/) started out as the third restaurant in James and Julie Petrakis’ locally-grown empire, following their flagship Winter Park gastropub The Ravenous Pig and their upscale Southern restaurant Cask & Larder.  With Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak in charge, Swine & Sons opened in a small space next door to the old Cask & Larder location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, and I made sure my wife and I were there on the very first day they opened for business.  We were some of their first customers through the door on Day One, and they had a good thing going from the onset.  It was always meant as a more casual restaurant compared to the others, a quick-service place with sandwiches, house-cured charcuterie, and lots of prepared takeout options.  And despite having limited seating and parking, it became a hit, like the Petrakis’ other establishments.

But the only constant is change.  In recent years, Cask & Larder moved to the Southwest Airlines terminal at Orlando International Airport, and The Ravenous Pig moved into the space Cask & Larder vacated on Fairbanks, which is much nicer and larger than the old Ravenous Pig location, with more parking.  The Gawlaks bought Swine & Sons from the Petrakises, and in March 2019, they moved across the street, into The Local Butcher & Market, an upscale full-service butcher shop.  (Da Kine Poke, one of Orlando’s best poke places, also has a counter location inside The Local Butcher.)  There are still tables to enjoy the Gawlaks’ delicious food in there, don’t worry.  And luckily, there are a lot more parking spaces!  Just keep in mind that it closes at 4:00 PM every day, so you’d have to be a real early bird to have dinner there.

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Anyway, Swine & Sons is one of the only Orlando restaurants I know of that serves Nashville-style hot chicken, which I was first introduced to at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year.  After the chicken is marinated (often in seasoned buttermilk), breaded or battered, and fried, it is covered in a spice paste that’s heavy on the cayenne pepper, so every surface is spicy.  It was amazing, and very different from the popular new fast food spicy chicken sandwich where any heat comes from a spicy mayo-based sauce. At Hattie B’s, I ordered a medium thigh and a hot thigh. They were crispy and crunchy and set my mouth ablaze, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
(To avoid any confusion, this photo is from Hattie B’s in Nashville, just in case the cup and the above paragraph didn’t give it away.  That’s medium on the left and hot on the right, and the hot was HOT.)
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I tried the Nashville hot chicken at Cooper’s Hawk when I reviewed it earlier this year, and even though I liked that restaurant quite a bit, the hot chicken wasn’t that hot or that crunchy.  So my quest continued, and I’m so glad that the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 led me to Swine & Sons in search of a truly singular spicy chicken sandwich experience.

In fact, maybe with all the chicken sandwich hype and debating, Swine & Sons recently debuted a hotter hot chicken sandwich.  Their current menu showed the classic version, referred to as the “Party,” and the newer, hotter model called the “Rager.”  The very patient woman working the counter told me they use the same spice blend, but the Rager contains three times the cayenne pepper.  They use Bell & Evans all-natural chicken breasts, and she explained that they first brine them, then they smoke them, and then they fry them.  I was already on board even before she mentioned smoking, but that would have pushed me over the edge.  I love any smoked foods — meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, you name it.  I was ready for a life-changing flavor sensation, so of course I ordered one of each ($11 per sandwich), intending to eat half the Party and half the Rager there and save the other halves for later.

Party:
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Rager:
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Both of the sandwiches were served on identical white sandwich rolls, with plenty of sliced pickles and little dipping cups of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based sauce I have come to really like with my chicken.  I’m usually not a pickle person, but I’ve been trying to develop more of an appreciation for pickles, and these were great.  Definitely some of the best pickles I’ve ever tried.  Surely they were house-made.  The chicken breasts with their crunchy breading and oily, spice-laden exterior coating were balanced perfectly with the soft roll and the crispy pickles (not overly sour or “dilly”).  I left the cool, creamy white sauce on the side for dipping random bites, lest it overpower the other flavors or cut the heat too much.  I would have preferred a soft, rich buttery brioche bun for these sandwiches, which would have both contrasted and cut the heat more than the plain white roll, but it still worked very well.

These chicken sandwiches were CRON-CHY!  Each bite had a satisfying crunch that is missing from too much fried chicken.  Under the breading, they were also juicy and moist.  Even beloved fried chicken establishments have let me down too often — even places I’ve given good reviews to in the past.  But these were everything you wish fried chicken sandwiches could be in terms of texture and consistency.

Party:
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And what of the heat, you ask?  The Party had a pleasant heat that would certainly be too much for my in-laws, my parents, and my wife, but anyone who enjoys spicy food will be fine with it.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Rager, but I’ve been pushing my limits with spicy food lately, maybe trying to feel more alive in this scary and unknowable world.  My eyes were watering, and I had to blow my nose more than once, but my body reacts like that whenever I eat anything spicy, so those weren’t new and unfamiliar reactions to this heat.  Despite all that, I was expecting it to be hotter, to maybe push into a place of unpleasant heat, but it was fine.  It was better than fine; it was awesome.  And through the heat, you could taste the smoky flavor.  They didn’t clash or overpower each other — smoke and fire burning together in crackling harmony.

Rager (see it through my tears!)
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I definitely like the oil-based spice rub on Nashville-style hot chicken compared to most other kinds of spicy chicken.  Don’t get me started on typical sports bar buffalo wings, which never do anything for me.  It might be the funkiness of the vinegar-based hot sauce, but those wings are often too crunchy, whether they are breaded or not, and they’re simultaneously dry and greasy.  And even though I couldn’t begin to identify the spices in the Swine & Sons chicken sandwiches (aside from the obvious cayenne pepper), at least they don’t have to increase the heat to ludicrous levels for macho bragging rights, with ridiculous names like “Atomic Hellfire,” “Habanero Apocalypse,” and “Ass-Blaster 5000.”

There was a slight sweetness emerging from the heat in both of these sandwiches, making me wonder if there was some sugar in the spice blend.  I loved it.  They were exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had been craving and chasing since hitting Hattie B’s in April 2018.  The smoky flavor made it through, so there were a lot of unique tastes and textures going on at once.  I have to say I preferred both of these chicken sandwiches to the two thighs I had back in Nashville.  Were they the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had?  In a week where people are getting passionate about chicken sandwiches, I’m going to do the same and say YES, yes they were.  As I write this review, far too late on a work night, I am so excited that I still have the other halves in my fridge, waiting for me… maybe even taunting me.

While I was there, I also ordered Swine & Sons’ macaroni and cheese, which I hadn’t had in several years.  It was $4 for a decent-sized side order, and it was very rich.  The cheeses (cheddar and fontina) were melty and the pasta was al dente, so I was more than content.  There was also a nice crumb topping made from cheddar-chive biscuit crumbs.  A lot of places bake their mac and cheese so the whole thing comes out dry, sacrificing that nice meltiness for overly-crispy edges and noodles you can barely chew anymore, but that was definitely not the case here.  DSC02509

I’ve ordered other sandwiches at Swine & Sons on my handful of previous visits over the years, including a good Southern-inspired take on the classic Cuban sandwich.  I think I even had a house-made hot dog there once, although it has been so long, I don’t even remember how they served it.  But today, in my first visit to their new location inside The Local Butcher & Market, Swine & Sons showed me the great heights a fried chicken sandwich could reach in the right hands, from the right kitchen.  It was hot, but all that heat was pure flavor, not just burning, tingling pain and regret.  It was crunchy, but not so hard that I felt like I was going to break a tooth.  It wasn’t dry, and it sure wasn’t bland.  It was a chicken sandwich all others should aspire to be.

I don’t know if they could serve a non-spicy version of the sandwich for the some who don’t like it hot, but right now I’m convinced Swine & Sons can do anything.  And while it is more expensive than the fast food chicken sandwiches making headlines and stirring up strong feelings, you get what you pay for.  I think these were dramatically, exponentially better than any chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had, and I hope my readers will feel the heat sooner rather than later.  The Gawlaks are like culinary royalty in Winter Park and Orlando, and this place isn’t exactly a secret.  But despite all that, you shouldn’t have to worry about long lines and sandwiches selling out, as transcendent as they are.

*Fear Of Missing Out.

I’m so ashamed.

Hunger Street Tacos

Orlando has a plethora of fantastic Mexican restaurants, from the upscale to the cheap and casual, from Americanized to authentic.  One that is consistently in the pantheon of best Mexican food is Hunger Street Tacos (http://hungerstreettacos.com/) on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from I-4.  Brothers Joseph and David Creech, the chef-owner-operators, and Joseph’s wife Seydi, serve a unique menu of authentic street foods you would definitely encounter in Mexico City, and most of their dishes are totally singular here in Orlando.  You won’t find them on most local menus, and even if you did, you won’t find their equals.  I love the Creech Brothers’ story on the Hunger Street website that describes their formative years spent in Mexico and how they studied the local street foods and authentically recreated them here, starting with a catering business and culminating in their restaurant, in the original location of the now-legendary 4 Rivers Smokehouse.

Unfortunately, Hunger Street Tacos is too far from my job to dash off there for lunch, and since I work late and they are closed on Sundays, I don’t make it there nearly often enough.  It had been far too long since my last visit, but thankfully my wife and I recently made it back there on a Saturday at 11 AM, while they still served some special brunch menu items, but before it got too hot and before they got too crowded.

As usual, we arrived hungry and over-ordered, so we could try a bunch of different dishes and end up with delicious leftovers for later:

Sauteed mushroom quesadilla ($4.75) for my wife, and vegetarian tinga quesadilla ($4.75) for me, on crispy grilled flour tortillas.  I love the vegetarian tinga, with sauteed onion, garlic, cabbage, and chipotle peppers that made it the spiciest dish I tried (but not too spicy, for those who fear the heat).  Both quesadillas include Chihuahua cheese (which, I must clarify, comes from the Chihuahua state in Mexico, not from actual chihuahuas).DSC02060

Campechano taco with pulled brisket and crumbled chorizo ($3.75) and fried avocado taco ($3.75).  This brisket is crispy from being cooked in a hot griddle after being slow-cooked, and the fried avocado is the perfect consistency — light and crispy outside, warm and soft on the inside.  DSC02061

Hibiscus and guacamole taco ($3.00).  Yes, they are actual hibiscus flowers, and they are so delicious.  They remind me a little of one of my favorite vegetable dishes, braised red cabbage, with their look and texture underneath that delicious fresh guacamole and tomatoes, but it’s hard to fully describe their unique flavor.DSC02062

Rib taco ($4.75), a current special that will eventually be added to the regular menu.  It is a bone-in pork rib, and the meat is so tender, you can simply squeeze the rib inside the tortilla to pull out the bone.  DSC02063

I was so excited to try the al pastor taco ($3.75, I believe), but it wasn’t ready when we arrived at 11 AM on a Saturday!  Luckily, they had it ready before we left, so I had to go back inside to order one.  It was totally worth the wait — one of the best al pastor dishes I’ve ever had, and that is one of my favorite dishes to order anywhere.  The marinated pork is sliced fresh off a vertical trompo (think of how gyro meat or shawarma is often sliced off a rotating spit), and I don’t think anyone else in the city does it this way.  The taco came simply garnished with onions, cilantro, a nice piece of fresh pineapple, and squeezing a lime wedge over it made it pure perfection.
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This is Hunger Street’s chicharron de queso ($8.00), a house specialty that you cannot order to go, since it wouldn’t be the same when it isn’t hot, fresh, and perfectly crispy.  Yes, this is gouda cheese, melted, stretched, and fried until it has almost a potato chip consistency.  It comes with guacamole and spicy red salsa, and my advice (really Chef David Creech’s advice) is to use the crispy cheese to scoop up some of both, so you get all the flavors and textures in one bite.  This would be a fantastic dish for low-carb and keto dieters who want something crispy and salty and are in chip withdrawal.  Been there, done that!DSC02064The chicharron de queso was so huge, we couldn’t finish it at the restaurant, so we ended up bringing a lot of it home.  Wisely, I didn’t put it in the refrigerator, where it might have turned soggy.  I left it on our kitchen counter on an uncharacteristically cool April day, so it was still mostly crispy later that evening.

And finally, this is one of their Saturday brunch dishes, churro French toast ($7.90), created from English muffin bread from Orlando’s own Olde Hearth Bread Company.  Light and eggy and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, this is what convinced my wife to have an early lunch here, and she absolutely loved it.  It was beautiful to behold, and its taste lived up to its looks!  DSC02065

I can’t say enough good things about Hunger Street Tacos or the warm and welcoming Super Creech Bros.  While geography and timing keep me from going as often as I would like, it is one of those Orlando restaurants that is constantly experimenting, improving, and impressing.  It never disappoints.  That al pastor is my new gold standard, and if you’re a vegetarian or have vegetarian friends, I can’t recommend it highly enough, with dishes like the hibiscus taco, chicharron de queso, vegetarian tinga quesadilla, mushroom quesadilla (more for you!), or the squash blossom quesadilla, which we didn’t even order this time.

Luke’s Kitchen and Bar

Luke’s Kitchen and Bar (http://eatatlukes.com/) is in a beautiful, modern, comfortable location along 17-92 in Maitland, nestled between Winter Park and Casselberry, and easily accessible via I-4.  The restaurant location has been a few other things over the years, including a Steak & Ale location for the longest time.  However, Luke’s owner/operator Brandon McGlamery (who also runs the tony Luma and Prato on Park Avenue in nearby Winter Park) has the business skills and culinary talent to make Luke’s a success.

I recently visited Luke’s for the first time with some colleagues, just in time for happy hour.  Fun was had by all, and I would definitely return.  Dear readers, please keep in mind I did not order nor eat all of this food.  This was everything that five people shared.

Fresh potato chips served with a high-class version of French onion dip (that might have had a bit of bleu cheese blended in).  These were a crowd-pleaser.  The chips were thin, light, and crispy; not greasy at all, and not too crunchy like kettle chips.DSC01850

French fries with thyme, rosemary, and sea salt.  I didn’t order these.  They were perfectly okay, but I will always choose chips over fries.DSC01852

A mid-Atlantic take on a chilled shrimp cocktail, with the shrimp seasoned with Old Bay:DSC01851

This was my wee little fried oyster po’boy.  It was on the happy hour menu for the shocking price of $4, so I figured “How could I go wrong?”  Well, it was delicious, but it was the size of a slider.  Maybe I should not have been surprised, but it was so tasty I wasn’t disappointed.  DSC01853

Following the trend of wee foods, Luke’s supposedly has amazing deviled eggs.  I didn’t feel like a whole order of them, so I was overjoyed when our patient server said I could order just one, to try it.  It was one of the better deviled eggs I’ve ever had, garnished with excellent crispy shallots and tasty shishito pepper jam that was the shi-shit.DSC01857

Roasted eggplant dip (AKA babganoush), served with cucumber, mint, and multigrain toast.  I don’t think I even tried this one, but my babaganoush-loving co-worker was really happy with it.DSC01854

A very good and very thicc cheeseburger, from the happy hour menu.  Served simply with lettuce, tomato, PICKLED onion (niiiice), and I think there were pickles on it too (which I’m getting better at eating and enjoying).  It came out a perfect medium-rare, and was extremely juicy.  I offered my friends a chance to try this one, but it ended up being all mine.DSC01855

I ordered these for the group, because I am a class act: outstanding fluffy Parker House rolls, served with the most delicious caramelized honey butter (spread onto the wooden serving board in the background).  You can never go wrong with Parker House-style yeast rolls. DSC01858

And the coup de grace: mussels, which I ordered to share with everyone, but these were most decidedly NOT on the happy hour menu, so they cost around $20.  They did, however, come garnished beautifully with tomato, fennel, purple basil, and grilled, oil-rubbed sourdough bread.  They were great, but we all would have been fine without them.DSC01859

So Luke’s is definitely a solid choice for happy hour, or lunch or dinner if you prefer.  It could be a great destination if you’re planning to catch a movie afterwards in Winter Park or at the Enzian, our beloved art-house movie theater right near the restaurant in Maitland.  Luke’s location is perfect if you’re considering a romantic after-dinner stroll around lovely Lake Lily, essentially across the street.  Happy hour would be ideal for that, since the park stays open until sunset.

Luke’s has a large menu, attentive staff, and my colleagues who ordered cocktails seemed over-the-moon pleased with them.  Chef McGlamery and his crew seem to be doing everything right.  Whether you’re there to hang out with friends, celebrate with family, impress a hot date, or just decompress after a long work week, I think you will agree.  I hate to be the guy that says this, but Luke’s, the Force will be with you… always.

Mediterranean Deli

My wife doesn’t share my fascination with certain foods. Sandwiches, cured meats, cheeses, anything in tomato sauce, flavored chips, dips, sauces, condiments, spicy stuff — I love all that, and she leaves them to me.  That said, she is way more into chicken wings, chocolate, and other sweets than I am, generally.  But one thing we can always agree upon is a good gyro.  We love gyros, and we’re always on the lookout for good ones, since it’s almost impossible to duplicate that salty, garlicky gyro meat at home, whether it’s beef, lamb, or a processed blend of both.  I buy ground lamb and make it into a gyro-flavored meatloaf of sorts, but it still isn’t the same as that salty, garlicky meat sliced off a spit.

(FYI, the father of processed gyro meat was a Jewish guy named John Garlic.  I love that so much.)

Well, after hearing about its wondrous gyros on the Orlando Foodie Forum for years, we finally sought out the Mediterranean Deli, west of I-4 at 981 West Fairbanks Avenue, OrlandoFL 32804, but this one was not easy to find.  I drove by it twice since it’s a small location in a tiny plaza that was half under construction, and there was no sign easily visible from the road.  I always panic a bit when I can’t find what I’m looking for, but we eventually figured it out.  I am so glad we didn’t get frustrated and give up on this mission, because it is my new favorite gyro spot in town.

For the purposes of this review, I went twice, a few weeks apart, and ate pretty much the same stuff, because all of my photos came out horribly the first time.  (I only had my terrible phone camera on me, and not my halfway-decent camera.)  To help get people enthusiastic about trying Mediterranean Deli instead of inadvertently turning them off to it, all of these photos are from my second visit, when I brought everything home to share with my wife.

This was my huge gyro, sliced off a spit and served on soft, warm, lightly grilled pita bread with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and red onion, and cool, creamy, garlicky tzatziki sauce.  It is stuffed beyond belief, and a smart person might keep it wrapped in its paper and foil wrap, unpeeling just enough for a few bites at a time to avoid it falling to pieces.  But to get a proper photo just for you, dear readers, I opened it up.  No regrets.img_0067.jpg

My wife’s equally enormous gyro, hold the tomatoes and onions.  She got three meals out of it!img_0066.jpg

The gyro meals come with a side salad for something like $8, including a free canned drink.  My wife said she didn’t want any sides, so I picked two for myself: a vinaigrette-based pasta salad (left) and an absolutely delicious mayo-based seafood pasta salad, with imitation crabmeat and medium-sized, perfectly al dente shell pasta.  I always love any kinds of pasta or macaroni salad, but the seafood version will become my new go-to side.  They also offer fresh Greek and Mediterranean-style salads, hummus, and tabouleh as options, but I make green salads all the time at home, buy hummus often, and don’t like parsley enough to get into tabouleh.img_0065.jpg

This is a nice rectangular slice of spinach pie, AKA boreeka, with sheets of flaky dough layered with sauteed, tender, perfectly-seasoned spinach and feta cheese, then baked to a golden brown.  It is soft, warm, crispy, flaky perfection.  I could easily and happily eat the entire large pan my slice was cut out of.IMG_0068

I love stuffed grape leaves, often called dolmas or dolmades.  Sometimes they are stuffed with ground meat and rice and served warm, but I honestly prefer the vegetarian versions that are just stuffed with seasoned rice and served cold, marinated in oil and occasionally vinegar.  These are the latter, and I could eat dozens of them, too.  The side order comes with a generous helping of extra tzatziki sauce, which is very thick and perfect for dipping them.img_0069.jpg

Mediterranean Deli is a tiny little restaurant in a tiny little strip that looks like it has seen better days.  The restaurant isn’t fancy at all, but it is awesome, and locals know it.  I never even drove west of I-4 on Fairbanks before until I heard this place existed, but I’m so glad I went a little out of my way to discover it for myself.  I will argue they serve the absolute best gyro in Orlando, and everything else I ate was awesome as well.  It’s a real bargain too, for the amount and quality of food you get.  With any luck, you will meet the owner, warm and welcoming Walaid, who greets everyone as “My friend.”

By the way, Mediterranean Deli doesn’t have a website, but the phone number is listed online as 407-539-2650.  There are also photos of the menu on that inexplicably popular review site that rhymes with “help” and occasionally provides some.