Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant

The first time I ever heard of Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant (https://www.lascarretasmexicanrest.com/), my heart filled with joy and hope, then immediate disappointment.  When I first saw a sign that the restaurant was opening soon in the Publix plaza on the corner of University Boulevard and Goldenrod Road in east Winter Park, I was overjoyed, thinking at first it meant an outpost of La Carreta, my family’s favorite Cuban restaurant chain in Miami, was coming to the Orlando area.

But I quickly noticed the sign was pluralized: “Las Carretas,” not “La Carreta,” and that it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, not Cuban.  We already have far more good Mexican restaurants here than in Miami, but I got over that initial disappointment and forgot about it for a while.  It opened earlier this year, and diners started posting really positive reviews on the Orlando Foodie Forum Presented by Tasty Chomps!, and I started paying attention all over again.

Well, I have eaten there four times now, and I can happily report that Las Carretas is an excellent Mexican restaurant, and we should be happy it’s here.  The initial fault was mine for misreading the sign and getting my hopes up.  It might not be the beloved Cuban restaurant of my past, but it is the terrific Mexican restaurant of my present and future.

The Las Carretas menu is HUGE, so I strongly suggest studying it in advance.  On our first visit, my wife and I started our first meal with a couple of aguas frescas ($4.99 each), sweet, non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverages that are much tastier and more refreshing than sodas, and much better for cutting the heat of spicy food.  I chose horchata (left), sweet, creamy rice milk seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.  My wife chose coco nuez, a rich and creamy agua fresca made with coconut milk, coconut shreds, and crushed pecans.  I’m not big on nuts, but I do love coconut, and I liked her drink even more than mine.  These are gigantic glass mugs, by the way — think German biergarten mugs.  No free refills, though!  (Yes, I asked.)

They have a self-service salsa bar!  Just use hand sanitizer before and after, and fill the little plastic cups with chilled fresh salsas and pickled vegetables (jalapeños, carrots, onions, nopal cactus strips) to your heart’s content.  They will be perfect for the fresh, crispy, thin tortilla chips about to grace your table.

Here are those chips with an assortment of salsas.  The white stuff turned out to be a tangy, creamy, cool salad dressing, but it was nice to dip the chips in, and it works well cutting the heat of some of the spicier ones.   The dark salsa next to it is a smoky chipotle salsa, blended smooth so it is thin, with no chunks in it.  That one was my wife’s favorite by far.  They’re all a little bit different, so if you’re anything like me, a self-proclaimed salsaholic, you will want to try little dabs of all of them on your chips.  One or two are extremely spicy, but I honestly don’t remember which of these were the spicy ones.  I think the orange one on the left was fiery, so be prepared!

My wife ordered table-side guacamole ($8.99), hold the jalapeños and easy on the tomatoes and onions.  It was made with care and flair by a nice lady who probably has to make guacamole in front of people all day, pushing her cart around the restaurant like teachers who wanted to show a video in class back in the day.  It was some of the freshest, nicest guac I’ve ever had.

For her meal, my wife chose the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99), a dazzling platter of grilled shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, and bacon, with grilled peppers and onions, topped with melty oaxaca cheese and sliced avocado, tomato, and radish.  She loved it, except for the cheese.  She thought it overwhelmed the more subtle seafood flavors.  I’ve never noticed alambres on a menu before, but all of the ones at Las Carretas come with five tortillas.  She chose corn tortillas with it.   
This picture barely communicates the size of the platter and exactly how much food comes on it!

I couldn’t resist an alambre either, but I chose the alambre mata hambre ($16.99), which lived up to its name as a true “hunger killer.”  It was an equally massive platter of pork loin, al pastor pork, carne asada (grilled steak seasoned with lime), chorizo, bacon, ham, grilled bell peppers, onions, pineapple, melty oaxaca cheese, and topped with sliced avocado, tomato, and radish, and served with five tortillas (flour for me):

The a la carte menu has a lot of options for people who like to sample things, like a single cheese tamale ($3.50), which we both thought was just okay:

This is an a la carte beef burrito ($3.99), served “wet” (smothered in sauce and melted cheese).  It’s a classic wet burrito, which is making me reminiscent for Taco Viva, a South Florida fast food chain that predated Taco Bell in the ’80s.  They all closed decades ago, but they gave me my first tastes of Mexican food as a kid, igniting a lifelong love affair.  I don’t even know if Taco Viva was any damn good by Mexican food standards (probably not), but you know what is?  Las Carretas and this burrito right here:

This is a huge a la carte chile relleno stuffed with cheese ($4.99).  After I was so disappointed Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s removed chiles rellenos from its menu at some point in the last year and a half, I was thrilled to discover such a good one here at Las Carretas, with a lightly crispy batter that didn’t get soggy under all that sauce, and didn’t fall or peel off.

There were almost too many good choices for dessert, but on this first visit, my wife chose fried ice cream ($5.99).  The scoop of vanilla had a nice, thin, crackly coating she liked that reminded me of crushed corn flakes, and that was her favorite part.  I preferred the fried flour shell/”bowl,” so that worked out well for both of us.  But we had other dessert ideas that would have to wait for our second visit.

My wife and I went back for a second lunch a couple of weeks later (months ago, at this point), and met a good friend there.  I ordered the chimichanga ($9.99 on the lunch menu), sort of like a burrito wrapped in a flour tortilla, then lightly fried.  It was smothered with a sticky, thick cheese sauce and stuffed with beef tips that ended up being kind of like pot roast.  The Mexican rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream were nice, fresh accompaniments that kept the beef, sticky cheese sauce, and crispy shell from feeling too heavy.

Our friend got enchiladas rancheras ($9.99) on the lunch menu — cheese-stuffed enchiladas topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, green and red bell peppers, and enchilada sauce.  I swear there are enchiladas under there!

My wife went back to the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99) again, only asked for it without cheese this time.  She liked it even better without the melted cheese contrasting against the seafood.

This one cracked me up.  I always love tortas, Mexican sandwiches on bolillo rolls, so I ordered the one torta on Las Carretas’ menu, the torta toloqueña ($11.99 on the lunch menu), intending to split it with our friend.  The sandwich comes with chicken milanesa (a chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded, and fried), ham, oaxaca cheese, pineapple, “vinegar mixed manzano pepper,” tomato, avocado, ketchup, mayonnaise… and salchicha, which I know means sausage.  Well, I expecting more like a chorizo-like sausage, and not these hot dogs on top!  That’s my bad.  I should have known better.  All three of us had a good laugh over it, and we still shared the salty, overstuffed torta.  It was an unexpected surprise, but it was still a really decadent and satisfying sandwich.  This torta toloqueña was the only time in my life I’ve ever been okay with ketchup being anywhere near hot dogs.

We couldn’t decide between two desserts, so we got both!  These are the churros ($4.99), served with caramel and chocolate sauces:

And sopapillas ($5.99), fried flour tortilla wedges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with honey, and served with a rapidly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I couldn’t tell you which of the three desserts was my favorite, but they all involved comparable flavors.

On both of these visits, I was thinking about how much my co-workers would enjoy Las Carretas, so a few weeks later, at the first mention of a work lunch, I was quick to suggest this place.  When I returned to Las Carretas for my third time, I brought three co-workers with me.  None of them are the adventurous eaters I am, so we often end up at Chili’s, Miller’s Ale House, or Gator’s Dockside for work lunches.  But I implored them to give this new Mexican restaurant a chance, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

They weren’t.

My vegetarian supervisor and friend ordered enchiladas vegetarianas ($10.99), three enchiladas stuffed with zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, and mushrooms, topped with ranchera sauce and mozzarella cheese:

Another co-worker, my former supervisor who has since been promoted, ordered this beautiful campeche quesadilla ($13.99), with grilled shrimp, onions, bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese:

I ordered the party tacos ($14.99), because nothing says “party” like a lunch with your current and former supervisors and one other guy, where you talk all about work before having to drive back to work and not fall asleep.  Anyway, you get an order of six tacos and can try two proteins in them.  Frankly, I would have preferred an option where I could buy six individual tacos, all with different proteins, but I chose wisely: cabeza (tender, moist, fatty beef head; along the top) and al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated in pineapple juice; along the bottom).  Both were so delicious and satisfying, not dry at all like the meats occasionally are at even the best taquerias.  This is an incredible dish, and a good deal too.

And another guy got a trio of tacos, but I don’t remember which ones these are.  Carne asada would be my best guess.

On my fourth visit with one of the same co-workers, she got queso dip ($3.99) and table-side guacamole ($8.99) to go with the fresh tortilla chips:

And I tried yet another new dish, the Texas burrito ($11.99), a dry burrito (not smothered in cheese and sauce, so you can hold it and eat it), stuffed with crumbled chorizo sausage (another one of my favorite Mexican meats), rice, beans, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado sauce.  It was awesome and huge.  Look at it on this large, long plate:

And you thought it smelled good on the outside!

So that’s a massive review based on my four meals at Las Carretas, all eaten at the restaurant.  With how close it is to both work and home, I expect I will continue to be a regular at this place, especially since they have a large, covered outdoor seating area for when the weather finally cools down (and avoiding people carrying the Delta variant in the meantime).  Las Carretas may not be Miami’s La Carreta, but it is one of Orlando’s best Mexican restaurants, and now one of my favorites.  I can’t imagine anyone going out to eat here and being disappointed.  It’s a real crowd-pleaser in every way.

Pizzeria Valdiano

I have reviewed most of my favorite pizzerias in Orlando, but one of my oldest favorites that I hadn’t been back to in a while is Pizzeria Valdiano (http://www.pizzeriavaldiano.com/) in the Winter Park Village shopping center, right next door to my favorite movie theater.  I hadn’t been to a movie in over a year and a half thanks to the pandemic, but back in July, I finally broke down and saw a new release I’ve been looking forward to for over a year.

Unfortunately the movie (Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins) was a colossal disappointment for this lifelong G.I. Joe fan and collector, but you know what wasn’t disappointing?  A quick lunch before the movie at Pizzeria Valdiano!

Here is one of the best slices of New York-style pizza in Orlando ($3.85), nice and crispy with melty cheese and garlicky, oregano-ey tomato sauce, the perfect New Yawk slice:

And one of my favorite slices of Sicilian pizza ($4.35), perfectly thick,  crunchy and fluffy at the same time.  Could this be the best Sicilian pizza in the city?  Top two or three, without a doubt!

Pizzeria Valdiano is the only pizzeria I know of in Orlando that serves a “Grandma” pizza — a Sicilian pizza without mozzarella cheese on top, just parmesan.  This is a single Grandma slice ($4.35), with the same blend of fluffy and crunchy attributes, and even more robust sauce.

Look, people have strong opinions about pizza, I get it.  I do too.  There are definitely trendier pizzerias, some of which I just love.  If you want Chicago-style deep dish or a fancy double-decker pizza, Brad’s Underground Pizza (now in a permanent location!) has you covered.  If you want Neapolitan-style, you can’t do better than Pizza Bruno.  But for the two kinds of pizza that are closest to my heart due to nostalgia, New York and Sicilian, there are only a few worthy options, especially if you prefer to order by the slice, as I do: Del Dio, Antonella’s, Paradiso, and right here at Pizzeria Valdiano.

Being next to the movie theater brings me even more nostalgia and warm feelings.  I’ve always loved going to the movies, especially catching an early weekend matinee and following it with a nice lunch out.  For so long, this theater was my tradition, to be followed by either a hoagie from nearby LaSpada’s or a couple of slices from Valdiano right next door.  I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable enough to return to seeing movies in the theater, minus this one unfortunate miscalculation, but at least the pizza was as good as ever.

 

 

 

Kombu Sushi Ramen

Sushi is one of my favorite foods, but I rarely eat it because you pay for quality, and that means decent sushi isn’t cheap, and next-level sushi is expensive.  Plus, it takes so much sushi to fill me up, it isn’t a cost-effective meal for me (excluding my beloved all-you-can-eat Mikado in Altamonte Springs, which I still contend is one of the best bangs for your buck anywhere).

A few weeks ago, my wife and I agreed that sushi sounded good for dinner, and I asked her to choose one of three sushi restaurants near us to order takeout from: two we hadn’t been to, and one we hadn’t been to in a few years.  She looked at all three menus online and chose one of the new ones that opened earlier this year, not far from us: Kombu Sushi Ramen (https://www.facebook.com/KombuSushiRamen/) on Aloma Avenue in a less-traveled part of Winter Park.  We went a little bit nuts with ordering, but the sushi ended up being just what we dreamed of for far too long.  (The last time I had sushi was earlier this year, while we both spent 30 days together in the hospital.  That sushi was one of the best things I ate from the hospital cafeteria, but I was looking forward to something far better, in more pleasant surroundings.)

Kombu is in a little building that looks like a house, and it probably used to be a house a long time ago.  Once I arrived, I only had to wait a few more minutes for my takeout order to be ready.  The dining room was very nice, modern, and clean.  It was busy on an early weekend evening, always a good sign.  The sushi chefs were definitely hustling behind the sushi bar, and the hostess was kind enough to offer me a glass of water while I waited.  It was a nice place I would like to see succeed.

Always health-conscious, my wife gravitates toward sashimi, thin slices of fresh, raw seafood without the usual rice, to avoid some carbs (or preferably, to save the carbs for dessert).  She ordered this sashimi dinner ($24.95), with 20 assorted pieces of fresh fish and shellfish slices selected by the chef.  This lovely arrangement included tuna, salmon, escolar (AKA white tuna or butterfish), surimi (AKA “krab,” white fish processed to look and taste like crab), and one of her favorite seafoods, tako (AKA octopus, at the 12:00 position).  She really loves octopus, whether it is grilled, fried, or served like this (not raw but actually cooked; thanks to a sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino for correcting me on this).   

Below on the left, you can see my order of mackerel sashimi ($4.50 for the three shimmering silver pieces of fish).  I always love saba (mackerel) because it tastes like pickled herring, with a little bit of sweetness and a light, vinegary tang.  Next to that, in the back, is my wife’s extra escolar sashimi ($5 for the three white pieces), and our bagel roll ($5.95), a favorite of mine, with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and avocado. 

Here are two more rolls we shared, a crunch roll ($5.50) and a crunchy spicy salmon roll ($6.95).  The crunch roll (left) included krab, spicy mayo, avocado, and tempura “chips” on the top, and it is drizzled with kabayaki sauce, a sweet soy-based glaze, similar to eel sauce. 
The crunchy spicy salmon roll (right) was a delicious blend of strong flavors and interesting textures, with spicy salmon, tempura chips on the inside, and drizzled with one of my favorite condiments (and not just for sushi, but especially for sushi), spicy mayo.

And this is one of my favorites anywhere, the volcano roll ($12.95).  This majestic mountain was built around a sushi roll containing tuna and cream cheese, topped with avocado, “baked krab special,” tempura chips, spicy mayo, kabayaki sauce, and tobiko, the tiny, salty, delicate orange pearls that are flying fish roe.  My wife liked this too, but I had been craving sushi for so long, it hit the spot so perfectly.   

Here’s another angle of the volcano roll, so you can see the rolls themselves.  All sushi is painstakingly prepared, with a lot of effort that goes into a beautiful presentation.   

The artful presentation is part of the price of admission right there, but I thought the prices at Kombu were all very reasonable for the good quality of this sushi and sashimi.  There are definitely fancier sushi places that are also more “authentic,” with less krab, less spicy mayo, fewer rolls in general.  There’s a time and a place for those upscale and authentic restaurants, at least for some, but this is the kind of sushi I know the best and love the most.  I’d consider Kombu more of an “everyday luxury,” and I mean that in the best possible way.  It isn’t exclusive or precious or snooty — it’s wonderful, fresh food made with precision and care, that you can enjoy whenever you want to do something really nice for yourself.  For me, believe it or not, that isn’t often enough.

Because Kombu has sushi and ramen in its title, I felt like I had to sample the ramen too, in order to write a worthy review.  I defaulted to my old favorite, tonkotsu ramen, but chose the mayu tonkotsu ramen here ($13.50) and asked them to hold the kikurage, those skinny little alien-looking mushrooms.  Note the noodles, two chashu pork slices, two ajitama egg halves, menma (AKA seasoned bamboo shoots), green onions, and lots of crunchy fried diced garlic.  The fried garlic and black garlic oil are what makes the mayu tonkotsu different from the regular tonkotsu, which comes with shredded red ginger instead.  As any restaurant packing up soup in a takeout order should, they packaged the tonkotsu broth in a separate container so the noodles wouldn’t get soggy on my way home.

Here is the mayu tonkotsu ramen with the broth added.  It was delicious, because you can’t ever go wrong with tonkotsu ramen (unless of course you’re a vegetarian or strictly kosher or halal, due to the broth being made from pork bones simmering for days).  My only issue with this takeout feast from Kombu is that the broth wasn’t the rich, creamy, opaque pork bone broth I’m used to from tonkotsu ramen.  This was more of a watery broth than I was expecting.  It was still tasty, salty, and porky, but not thick or creamy like I’ve gotten spoiled by.

So that’s my long-overdue review of Kombu Sushi Ramen.  I would happily return anytime for the sushi, but for ramen, tonkotsu or otherwise, I would probably sooner return to Ramen Takagi, just five minutes east on Aloma, still my favorite ramen spot.  Hey, that would be a great double feature dinner right there!

Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe

Lombardi’s Seafood, located on Fairbanks Avenue on the Winter Park side of I-4, has been the premier place to purchase fresh seafood in the Orlando area since opening in 1961.  That’s a 50-year culinary tradition, which is in itself rare in our young city.  Rarer still, the seafood market remains a family business, now owned by a third generation of Lombardis.  That’s a special thing, worthy of recognition and support.  Lombardi’s Seafood relocated to its current location in 2015 and opened a casual restaurant inside the nicer-than-ever surroundings, Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe (https://lombardis.com/#cafe).  I ate there once, shortly after it opened, but hadn’t been back for a while.

Well, my wife and I had both been craving seafood the entire month we spent in the hospital, so within the first four weeks we were back home this summer, I ate at Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe a whopping three times, including twice with her.  And despite finding a flawless favorite fish early on, I made sure to order something different every time, for the purpose of constructing a more compelling and comprehensive composition of comparisons and contrasts.  You’re welcome, constant readers!  Just keep in mind that even though you can always buy fine fresh fish for festively feeding family and friends, the cafe is closed on Sundays, even though the market is open.

On my first recent visit, I was alone, and I was hungry.  Figuring I would have leftovers, I started out with the smoked fish dip as an appetizer ($8).  It arrived with a beautiful presentation: a substantial scoop of the smoky stuff surrounded by a refreshing rainbow of various vegetables: crunchy carrot and celery sticks, cool cucumber slices, piquant pickled jalapeños, and my absolute favorites, crunchy pickled onions in a shade I can only describe as “Barbie Dream House pink.”  These things are so tangy and sweet and delicious, I make them at home in massive quantities and put them on everything.  The smoked fish dip was good, but the pickled onions, adding that vinegary tang and crunch to the smoky, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth coolness, elevated it to a next-level app.

As much as I love my cured, smoked, and pickled fish, as well as raw fish in sushi and poke and canned fish like sardines, I don’t eat nearly enough cooked fish.  I’ve never dared to buy or cook my favorite fish, grouper, but I jumped at the opportunity to try Lombardi’s grouper sandwich ($18), served simply with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce on the side on an excellent brioche bun.  I ordered it blackened (the other options were grilled and fried), and it was perfect in every way.  Easily in the Top Two grouper sandwiches I’ve eaten in my life, and the other was at a place we love in Clearwater Beach that I plan to return to and review in February 2022.  (Let’s all try to make it that far!)Sandwiches and baskets come with two sides, so I chose the collard greens (stewed with slices of sausage; allegedly andouille) and sweet corn fritters that I forgot to photograph, but you’ll see them a little later.  Anyway, I can’t recommend this sandwich highly enough.  It was everything a fish sandwich should be, and the blackened seasoning imparted terrific flavor without overpowering the taste of the fish, and didn’t make it too spicy either.  Apparently a lot of restaurants sneakily sell other, lesser fish that they label as grouper and price accordingly, but this is the real deal, and you don’t see it on many menus around Orlando.

Flash forward a week, and after my regular raves and habitual hype, I brought my wife to Lombardi’s to give it another try, years after our first visit.  She surmised the Saboscrivner wouldn’t steer her askew and settled on the same sandwich for herself, this time with hush puppies (she didn’t care for these, but I sure did) and sweet corn fritters (I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t like these).  She was a blackened grouper sandwich convert too — another grouper groupie, if you will.

As much as I could eat that grouper sandwich all the time, I was feeling shellfish, so I ordered a dozen oysters for myself at a very reasonable $1 each.  For too many years, I trusted in the antiquated advice that you can’t safely eat oysters during months that don’t have an “R” in their names — namely, the sweltering summer.  But I’ve been researching that rebop (dig my day job), and oyster harvesting methods have changed so much in modern times, it is quite safe.   These briny beauties were plump, cool, luxurious, and perfectly shucked, unlike some other restaurants that don’t completely separate the oyster from the half-shell, those shuckers.  No ill effects or stomach wrecks, I’m relieved to report.

I also got a sandwich with the fish of the day ($10), which happened to be black tip shark!  I’ve never had shark before, so of course I had to try it, to report back to my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos about what it was like to devour the most dangerous, deadliest denizen of the deep.  As a result, I ordered the shark grilled rather than blackened, to fully savor the flavor.  I thought it was blander than the grouper (ordering it blackened would have probably helped), and it was a firmer fish — less buttery than the grouper, but not flaky either, like most white fish.  I’d equate it to swordfish, as a point of comparison, although I think swordfish is more flavorful.  I’m glad I  wrapped my jaws around this shark sandwich, but I don’t know if I’d attack the apex predator again, as long as there are other fish in the sea.     Note the hush puppies and collard greens as my two sides here.  Still good!

I wrote this review on the eve of my third recent visit to Lombardi’s, again with my wondrous, winsome wife.  You thought we were done?  No, son, we’re just getting started!

Instead of raw oysters, this time we started out with an app we could both enjoy: a platter of fried clam strips ($10), served in a very light and crispy batter, not greasy at all.  My wife preferred these clam strips to the ones at her family’s old seafood standard, another Winter Park landmark, Boston’s Fish House.

Since the clam strips were a platter, we chose fries (pretty standard fries) and cole slaw (nice and crunchy and cool, and not too much mayo) as the two sides.  The hush puppies and corn fritters are the superior sides, for certain.

My wife’s first choice, the whole fried snapper, wasn’t available, so she opted for a platter of her own, with fried mahi ($13) and a double order of the corn fritters.  These heat up remarkably well in the toaster oven, so fear not — we didn’t eat all the fried stuff in one sitting.  Now I’m not a big mahi fan, but she likes it well enough, or thought she did.  This mahi would probably have been better blackened or grilled, given that flaky texture that is kind of dry.  It’s a generous portion of fish, that’s for sure, but it just isn’t the fish for me. 

And me, despite the grouper’s gravitational pull, I opted to order the fried oyster po’boy ($15), with a handful of huge fried oysters on an excellent Cuban roll with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade sauce.  I remembered to request a ramekin of those perfectly pink pickled onions to place on the po’boy.  It was a sensational sandwich, with such a breathtaking blend of flavors, textures, and colors.  Fried oysters are always good, and remoulade sauce is an ace accompaniment for them.  But Lombardi’s sandwich game is so strong, right down to the radical rolls.  The breathtaking brioche rolls from the other sandwiches really complete them, and so did this Cuban roll — so soft, yet lightly grilled for an ideal texture.  It wasn’t just some tasteless white bread for pointless extra carbs, but a crucial component of this peerless po’boy.

So as you can see, 30 days in the hospital necessitated my wife and I go on seafood diets for a little while: when we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  I was saddened that we stayed away from Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe as long as we had, especially because it wasn’t for any real reason.  Three for three, these were excellent meals, and so reasonably priced by seafood standards.  It is worth noting that the cafe menu proudly proclaims that almost all seafood is caught locally, and even off their own boat, the F/V Bottom Line, out of sunny St. Petersburg on Florida’s west coast (y’all know it’s the best coast).

Also, for a $4 upcharge, you can purchase any of the fresh fish and shellfish available in the glass display cases and ask the friendly fishmongers to have the Seafood Cafe prepare it for you — even things that aren’t on the menu!  How cool is that?

Orlando may be nestled inland, which may afford us some protection from  hurricanes and flooding, but we don’t have immediate access to our state’s beaches and warm waters here.  Luckily for us we have Lombardi’s, with their 50 years of seafood experience, a true mom-and-pop shop where you can buy the freshest Florida fish and cook it yourself, or seat yourself in the Seafood Cafe and leave the grilling, blackening, and frying to the experts.  The Lombardi family runs a tight ship, so mullet over and give them a try, just for the halibut.

Chain Reactions: Chuy’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!”
DSC02929

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.