QuesaLoco

I just got home from Orlando’s newest Mexican restaurant, QuesaLoco (https://quesaloco.com/), which opened for business TODAY, Saturday, January 15, 2022.  I was the fifth person in line, about half an hour before it opened at 2:00, and they had a mariachi band playing festive, deafening music to make it a truly special, memorable occasion.  But today wasn’t my first experience with QuesaLoco.  Flash back with me to the fall of 2021, if you will — an era when some of us had received our boosters and were feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time in a while, in the era before we had ever heard of the Omicron Variant.

Last fall was when I first discovered QuesaLoco, in its original incarnation as a food truck, which I noticed while randomly driving by.  The QuesaLoco food truck had been setting up in front of the Lotto Zone convenience store at 4550 North Goldenrod Road in Winter Park, between Aloma Avenue and University Boulevard, on Friday evenings and weekend afternoons and evenings.  Unfortunately, I was thwarted by a ridiculously long line on that first attempt to stop.  Always seeking the new and novel and figuring anyone lined up at an unfamiliar food truck knows what’s up, I went home and looked it up, and made a plan to visit the truck as soon as I was able — ideally when the line was shorter.

I headed straight there after work on a Friday evening in the fall, planning to get there 20 minutes before it opened at 6:00.  I was the sixth person in line, and many more people queued up behind me.  Of course it started to pour rain, but nobody ran for cover or got frustrated and left.  Once the truck opened for business, they took orders very quickly and efficiently, and I think only about 15 minutes passed before I, lucky number six, got served.  The truck had a crew of five people, and they were all hustling like crazy to get everyone’s food ready.  I figured it was going to be good, but had no idea exactly what treasures I would be unboxing once I got home to my wife.

On that first visit, I started with a simple chorizo taco ($2.50), with crumbled spicy sausage, raw onions, and chopped cilantro on a very fresh, handmade corn tortilla.  It was a triumphant taco, everything you hope a chorizo taco will look, smell, taste, and even feel like.  The only thing you could do to improve this taco would be to increase its size, but this wasn’t the only thing I ordered.

Birria is a very trendy item in Mexican food these days — slow-braised shredded beef (or sometimes goat), served in tacos and other Mexican dishes (and sometimes even in ramen noodle soup!), usually accompanied by a dipping cup of rich consomme broth.  QuesaLoco offered birria in several different ways, so I opted for the most unfamiliar, a mulita ($6).  This was similar to a quesadilla, except instead of a flour tortilla, it was served as two fried corn tortillas stuffed with shredded birria beef, cheese, onion, and cilantro, dunked in consomme, and topped with sprinkles of cotija cheese before being wrapped up for me.   I’ve never noticed mulitas on any other Mexican menus around here, but consider me a card-carrying convert to the mulita militia.  (If only I still had my mullet!)
The extra cup of consomme on the side is a $1 upcharge, but I strongly recommend it, even if you aren’t ordering birria!  Unlike some other birria consomme I’ve seen and tried elsewhere, this one wasn’t bright orange with oil, but a legitimate broth that was rich and flavorful, perfect to dip things in, but probably just as good to sip on a cool day.

Finally, the coup de grace: a torta, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a sandwich full of al pastor (pork marinated in spices with pineapple and usually sliced off a rotating spit called a trompo), which is one of my favorite meats, period.  This sensational, stupendous sandwich was $12, and worth every penny.  It’s a truly titanic torta, the fresh, soft, lightly grilled roll stuffed with plenty of al pastor, melted cheese, cotija cheese, onions, tomatoes, cilantro,  and crema.  I have always been a huge fan of the tortas from the venerable Tortas El Rey, and I think this torta can easily stand alongside them in the sandwich pantheon.  After the small chorizo taco and the birria mulita, I got two additional meals out of this torta!

I ordered this carne asada quesadilla ($10) for my wife, and we were both blown away by how huge, heavy, and delicious it was.

Here’s a different angle.  Like everything else, they were extremely generous with the meat, cheese, and cilantro.  (She doesn’t like onions, so I always ask places to hold the onions for her.  Me, I love onions, but I love her more.)

This outstanding limon (lime) agua fresca ($4.50 for a large) was so cold,  refreshing, and delicious.  It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying, and did not taste artificial at all.  The sweetness was balanced perfectly by the acidic tang of real lime juice and the sweet, spicy chamoy and Tajin seasoning around the rim of the cup (a 50-cent upcharge).  It splashed around in my cupholder on the drive home because they couldn’t put a lid on it for obvious reasons, but it was worth it.   

I have been following QuesaLoco’s social media ever since that first visit, and they promised their long-awaited permanent restaurant location  would be opening soon.  Well, constant readers, that day was today, and the new location is open for business and already awesome.

The brick and mortar location of QuesaLoco is up and running at 971 West Fairbanks Avenue, a few doors down from Mediterranean Deli, home of the best gyro in Orlando and one of my Top Twelve Tastes of 2021

After the staff cut the ribbon right at 2:00, they let us inside.  The interior walls are covered with beautiful, colorful murals inspired by Mexican folk art, especially Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery.

Even the restroom doors are painted:

The six-piece mariachi band was tearing it up!  I had to shout my order over their brassy serenade (and through my unflattering-but-necessary N95 mask), but Silvia on the cash register rang everything up correctly.   

After how much I loved the limon agua fresca from the food truck a few months ago, I was excited that they had so many flavors available here at the restaurant:

I ended up choosing pineapple and fresa (strawberry), which were $4 each.  The strawberry surprised me by being very creamy, almost like melted strawberry ice cream.  I drank a little on the way home, but saved plenty for my wife because I knew she would like it too.  Pineapple is my go-to agua fresca flavor, and this one did not disappoint, but next time I’ll get different ones.

Once I got home, the first thing I tried was the taco de cecina ($4), a traditional taco from Tampico, Mexico.  It features fried skirt steak (arrechera), chopped into small pieces and wrapped in two soft, fried corn tortillas, with diced onion and cilantro, sliced avocado, and crema, with grilled onions and a whole grilled, blistered jalapeño toreado on the side.

My wife usually likes sopes from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Tortas El Rey, so I ordered her a sope from QuesaLoco ($5.50).  Sopes are a fried masa corn disc (sometimes puffy, sometimes flatter like this one), topped with the al pastor pork I liked so much in my torta last time, refried beans, crumbled cotija cheese, and crema.  I asked them to hold the lettuce, tomato, and onions, since the lettuce would have wilted on the drive home, and my wife isn’t into tomatoes or onions anyway.

Because I loved that beautiful torta so much on my visit to the food truck, I thought I might order another torta today, but wasn’t sure which meat I would choose.  My decision was made for me when I saw QuesaLoco’s brand-new, expanded menu, with the option of the torta de la Barda ($15).  This classic street sandwich from Tampico has everything: sliced ham, shredded beef, crumbled chorizo, pork jam, stewed chicharrones (pork skins), crumbled cotija cheese, refried beans, tomatoes, avocado, onions, and salsa verde on another perfectly soft Mexican roll.  It is huge, but I put it away.

As I said earlier, birria is one of the house specialties at QuesaLoco.  But since I had already sampled tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and the birria itself in my first-ever mulita, this time I couldn’t resist a new menu item: birria ramen ($12).  Yes!  They serve ramen noodle soup made with the consommé broth, onions, cilantro, and sliced radishes.  I guess they must have larger bowls for customers who dine in, since my takeout order was divided into two smaller styrofoam cups.  But that was fine with me, because it automatically divided it into two portions for me for later.

This is so unbelievably good.  Better than it looks, better than you’re probably even thinking.  It is the best kind of fusion cuisine — a dish that combines flavors and cultures, without detracting from either. 

I’m so glad I was one of the first people in line at QuesaLoco on its opening day, because the line was pretty long when I left.  People were wrapped around the side of the small plaza’s parking lot, and a few shot me dirty looks as I left with two large bags and two colorful cups.  But just like going to the doctor’s office, you want to try to get to a hot new restaurant early, because the longer you wait, the more they might be slowed down.  No matter when you go, rest assured that QuesaLoco will be worth the wait.  If you loved the food truck, you’ll only find more to love in their beautiful dining room, with its lovely artwork and expanded menu.  And if you never got to try the food truck (which is going on hiatus for a while), then you are in for such a treat.  You can’t go wrong trying anything I ordered on either of my visits, but I don’t think anything on the new menu could possibly disappoint.  Even though you won’t get the opening day experience with live mariachis blowing the roof off the place, you’re going to have an incredible meal… or two or three, if you order like I did.

Chain Reactions: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirsty Gator

Thirsty Gator (http://thirstygator.net/) is a great dive bar and casual restaurant located on a lonely stretch of Goldenrod Road between University Drive and East Colonial Drive.  The address plants it firmly in Winter Park, but the surrounding area doesn’t look or feel like Winter Park.  To be completely honest, entering the bar feels like you’ve entered a portal that transports you to the Southern college town of Gainesville, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.  It doesn’t even matter when you knew Gainesville best — it will feel like Gainesville from “back in the day,” whenever that day was for you.

As if the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, Thirsty Gator is a Florida Gators-themed bar, so I’m sure it is a hot destination when Gator games are on or when University of Florida alumni in Orlando are feeling particularly nostalgic.  I have a few degrees from UF, but as I get older, I rarely feel that nostalgia for “bright college days, oh carefree days that fly” anymore.  I had some of the best and worst times of my life during my seven years as a UF student, but I met a lot of amazing friends there, and I’m so honored to know them and so proud of what they have all become.  Also, I fully realize I am able to lead the life I live now — educated, gainfully employed, happily married — because of what I accomplished back then, so in the end, it all worked out.  I never thought I’d feel more content and fulfilled in my 40s than I did in my late teens and 20s, but here I am.  Aw heck, when I was in my 20s, there were times I honestly didn’t think I would even make it to my 40s, but here I am, doing better than pretty much anyone expected, myself included.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, it really does get better.  I’m living proof of that.

But enough about an old man’s reflections of times past.  On to the food!

I brought home an order of ten mild wings ($15):

And an order of ten garlic wings ($15):
These are some of my favorite wings in Orlando.  I’ve written before about how I dislike typical sports bar wings that are tiny, greasy, crunchy, and dry.  These are the exact opposite — decent-sized wings that are tender, moist, juicy, incredibly well-seasoned, and barely greasy at all because they are baked, not fried.  I probably would have preferred them hot, but then my wife couldn’t enjoy them at all, and we always endeavor to share.  Thirsty Gator may be known for its seafood, but don’t sleep on these wings!  Seriously, they have to be near the top of the Top Five in Orlando.

My wife and I can never refuse the allure of a soft pretzel.  This one was $3.25, and it was pretty large, soft, and buttery.  It wasn’t as flaky and perfect as an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel (the only thing I like going to malls for anymore), but still hit the spot.  That is yellow mustard in the little plastic cup, not butter! 

I can never resist garlic rolls or garlic bread either, and this garlic bread was $3.25.  You get four pieces that are similar to the frozen loaves of Cole’s garlic bread I enjoy a little bit too much.  They had softened by the time I got everything home, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, and herbs on them.  You just can’t go wrong with garlic bread.

And the main reason I got takeout from Thirsty Gator, rock shrimp (market price; currently $21.95 per pound).  This delectable denizen of the deep rarely appears on any restaurant menus, and this is the one restaurant I know of in Orlando that specializes in the little crustaceans.  These are peel-and-eat rock shrimp, and their shells are slightly harder to pierce, penetrate, and peel than the typical shrimp we all know and love.  So they’re more work, but totally worth it.

This is what one of the rock shrimp looks like peeled.  The meat is succulent and sweet, and my wife and I agree they taste more like lobster than shrimp.   
Funny enough, one of our featured songs at our wedding was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s.  If you’ve ever had spiny lobster, AKA langoustine or langostino, those guys are the real-life rock lobsters, and I honestly think they taste more like regular shrimp than lobster.

These are a real treat, and since each one is a bit of a hassle to peel, you never take these for granted.  The peeling process may not be appealing, but you never eat rock shrimp without appreciating each sweet, tender morsel.  As a result, we took our time making our way through the pound we got.  They are served warm, but we also enjoyed them chilled out of the fridge the next day.

Aside from the rock shrimp and the wings, the other big food specialty at Thirsty Gator is the fresh raw oysters, but those aren’t great takeout food.  I’ve made no secret of my great love of oysters, so I’ll just have to go back another time to enjoy them in person.  Whether you love the Gators, hate them, or just fear them as so many do, there is so much to love at Thirsty Gator.

 

 

 

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

EDIT on 10/18/2021: Lombardi’s Seafood posted this announcement on Facebook:
“As of today we are closing the cafe at Lombardi’s seafood. We are expanding our retail market offerings to include more prepared items, salads, produce, meats and grocery items that compliment our seafood. In order to accomplish this, we need the space that is currently occupied by the cafe. We appreciate all the love and support everyone has shown to the cafe over the years. We are excited for you to see what new changes are coming to the Market!”

***

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.