Luke’s Kitchen and Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mediterranean Deli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston’s Fish House

I crave seafood pretty much all the time.  I don’t think it’s a shellfish impulse, but I like to say I’m on a seafood diet — if I see food, I’ll eat it, especially if it’s seafood.

While Orlando isn’t swimming in an abundance of seafood restaurants like our neighboring cities on Florida’s two coasts, we have a few local favorites.  Shortly after we started dating back in 2006, my wife and her parents introduced me to Boston’s Fish House (http://www.bostonsfishhouse.com/Home).  Modeled after the coastal seafood establishments of New England rather than beachy, tropical Florida seafood shacks, Boston’s specializes in fried favorites: shrimp, scallops, fresh fish (usually cod and/or haddock, but also farm-raised catfish), oysters, and clams.  But if you don’t want your denizens of the deep deep-fried, they also offer broiled salmon, pan-seared mahi, and even a chilled Maine-style lobster salad sandwich, which you probably know better as a lobstah roll.

However, my in-laws always opt for the seafood combo platter, which comes with a mountain of fried shrimp, scallops, fish, onion rings, and a choice of oysters, clam strips, or whole belly clams, a rare treat that you rarely see at any Florida seafood restaurants.  Oh, and you get two sides with it too! This platter comes in two sizes, the smaller Mate’s Platter and the larger Captain’s Platter.  You get more than enough food for two hungry people to share if you order the Captain’s Platter, so it’s just a question of everybody being on the same page.  For example, my mother-in-law doesn’t like scallops so she asks them to substitute extra fish.  My wife and I agree that the fish is the blandest part, so I’ll usually ask if we could get clams AND oysters but no fish.  They are always really cool and patient regarding these substitutes.

Be warned in advance: Boston’s gets REALLY crowded in the evening, especially on Fridays and weekends, especially with the “early bird crowd.”  Most of the time, I’ll call in a takeout order and pick it up, bypassing the long lines that queue up.

On our most recent visit, I ordered two platters but decided to experiment a little, beyond the fried standards.  No matter what, the clams and oysters are served fried, along with the onion rings.  Here they are:DSC01785

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the onion rings, since this is a recurring Saboscrivner feature we like to call RING THE ALARM!  [Insert AIR HORN NOISE! here.]  A lot of people go ga-ga over Boston’s thin, crispy onion rings, sporting the same batter as their fried seafood.  I like them, I certainly enjoy eating them (usually dipped in their tartar sauce or ketchup), but I just can’t rank them among my favorite onion rings, which are generally more of a beer-battered style.DSC01790

But moving past the fried stuff, you have some options with the shrimp and scallops, beyond just getting them dipped in the same old batter and fried.  One of our favorites is to get them broiled in butter and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, which happen to be my favorite crackers and the not-so-secret ingredient in my favorite pie recipe.  Here are those beautiful, buttery, broiled crustaceans and mollusks from my wife’s order:dsc01788.jpg

I happened to be craving pasta this particular evening, so I thought I’d get the food home and make some fettuccine really quickly, then toss it with my shrimp and scallops that were broiled in garlic butter and white wine:DSC01789They came out great, needless to say.

Since we ordered two platters, we got four sides between them, and my wife and I both love the broccoli salad they make at Boston’s: crispy, fresh broccoli florets tossed in a sweet, creamy dressing with bacon, golden raisins, and pumpkin seeds.  It’s delicious and refreshing, and it makes us feel like we are eating slightly healthier, because broccoli.DSC01786

But who are we kidding?  Between the plethora of fried foods, rich shellfish, and all that butter, they also make really nice garlic bread, which I can never refuse when we indulge at Boston’s:dsc01787.jpg

So that’s pretty much it.  I don’t even remember the last time we ate at the actual restaurant, but we live just close enough to Boston’s that the food is still hot by the time I get it home.  Always hot, and always good.  Stop by, just for the halibut.

And now I feel like I’m floundering, so I will clam up.

The Coop

John Rivers has built a successful restaurant empire from right here in the Orlando area, starting with his first, tiny 4 Rivers Smokehouse location in Winter Park that grew into an empire throughout Florida and even beyond.  We love 4 Rivers for barbecue, and I will get around to reviewing it here eventually, even though we’ve been there countless times over the last decade.

Mr. Rivers founded The Coop (https://asouthernaffair.com/), his Southern home-cookin’ restaurant, back in 2014, also in Winter Park.  I made it our goal to be there on opening day, and my wife and I were within the first 20 or so people lined up for lunch that first day.  At some point they started serving breakfast, and one morning a few years back, we met John Rivers, the man himself.  We had to gush a bit over how much we love 4 Rivers and The Coop, and I can tell you he could not have been friendlier, more down-to-Earth, more humble, or more welcoming.  He even treated us to breakfast that morning, which he did NOT have to do.  He does a lot of charitable work with these restaurants as well, and is an all-around mensch.

Anyway, The Coop serves some of the best fried chicken in Orlando and all kinds of down-home Southern sides and other dishes.  Chicken and waffles?  Chicken and dumplings?  Roasted chicken?  Shrimp and grits?  Fried seafood?  Pimento cheese?  Biscuits?  Cornbread?  Delicious breakfasts?  Decadent desserts?  You name it, they have it.

I have lost count of the times we’ve been there since it opened five years ago.  I have also brought my best friend from Miami there, and lots of co-workers as well.  This review is based on our two most recent visits.

Even though I love a good fried chicken thigh, The Coop’s roasted chicken is quite good, so I’ve been ordering it more often.  You can get a quarter- or half-chicken a la carte, or with two or three sides and a biscuit or cornbread.  I always get collard greens at The Coop and 4 Rivers.  Theirs are some of the best greens I’ve ever had.  They are slow-cooked with smoked pork, and I always add some generous dashes of pepper vinegar to them.  I can even drink the juice when I finish those greens, it is that delicious.  That square thing below is actually a biscuit, and it is flaky and rich.  Feel free to add butter, jam, syrup, or dip it in your meat juices or barbecue sauce, but it doesn’t need anything.coop1

Thighs and legs are my favorite parts of any bird, so I always go for the dark meat quarter chicken (or sometimes the half, if I’m hungry enough).  The skin is attached, brushed with barbecue sauce or some kind of sweet glaze but not smoked like the chicken at 4 Rivers.  It is always moist, juicy, and tender.  I asked for it with a side of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which might look like ranch and smell like ranch, but BROTHER, it ain’t ranch.  It is creamy, peppery, tangy, and subtly sweet, so it goes well with any kind of chicken, especially with that skin.  coop2

I also chose the side called “Hoppin’ John,” a Southern stew of rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra.  It is always okay, never quite as good as I think it’s going to be, but some people go gaga over this dish.  coop3

My wife loves fried catfish more than anyone I’ve ever met, so she vacillates between ordering fried chicken and catfish at The Coop.  She ordered catfish both of our last two visits, which comes with grits and hush puppies.  These are grits cooked the real, traditional way, as “NO SELF-RESPECTIN’ SOUTHERNER USES INSTANT GRITS.”  The Coop takes pride in its grits!

This was from one visit:coop4

And this was from a different visit.  This time, the hush puppies came out later, hot, crispy, and fresh.  She’s not so big on hush puppies, which is great, because I ate them, dipping them in the remoulade sauce that came with the catfish.  (She has never been into condiments or sauces or dipping things in other things, whereas I obsess over that.)20190103_125257_resized

As for me, I switched things around and created a new dish.  I’m not wild about grits, believe it or not, which is ironic because I love the way shrimp is prepared in shrimp and grits, that classic Low Country cuisine dish from the Carolinas and Georgia, stewed with salty, smoky andouille sausage and sometimes tasso ham.  Totally kosher, am I right?

I had a crazy idea, but I didn’t know if they would let me get away with it.  I asked if I could get the shrimp with something other than grits, and the patient girl told me that some people get the shrimp ladled over white rice.  I had other plans that day, and asked if I could get the shrimp over macaroni and cheese!  (The Coop has really nice, creamy macaroni and cheese, by the way.  It is never dried-out.)  She indulged me, and this is something they should seriously add to the menu, because it was forking amazing.  In fact, inspired by my bravado and culinary creativity, the older gentleman in line behind me requested the same thing!  Dear readers, have I become a dreaded “influencer”?  Say it ain’t so!20190103_124811_resized

And they always have beautiful cakes there, so my wife got this piece of chocolate cake wrapped up to go, which she loved.coop5

So yeah, come to The Coop for the excellent fried chicken, but stay for everything else!  Just don’t bother showing up on Sundays, because it is closed.  Of course, now I have incepted the idea into your heads that you will crave Coop food on Sundays, as we too often do.

My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner readers (Saboscrivnerinos? Can I use that?) know there’s nothing I love as much as a good Italian sub. This year alone, I’ve reviewed two excellent new sub shops in Orlando: Stasio’s Italian Market & Deli (where I enjoyed the namesake Stasio sandwich) and Manzano’s Deli (where I raved about the Rocco). My Orlando Weekly list of the top five dishes I ate in 2017 included the Capone, the excellent Italian sub occasionally offered by Bad As’s Sandwich.

But my first love has always been LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (http://laspadas.com/), which I’ve been a devoted fan of ever since I first heard about it from a mechanic when I was getting my oil changed, two cars ago. Thank you, Tuffy mechanic, wherever you are! (Probably Tuffy.)

LaSpada’s is a little mom-and-pop establishment on Lee Road, just off I-4, and only ten minutes from Winter Park Village. The website lists other locations in Sanford and Orange City, which I have never been to, but people near them are lucky and should try their local ones. There are some completely unaffiliated LaSpada’s hoagie shops in South Florida, but they have their own website, different (smaller) menus, and are not connected in any way that I can tell.  I went to one in Davie once, and it was good, but not nearly as good as the LaSpada’s we are lucky to have here in Orlando.

Anyway, this might be heresy, but I think cheesesteaks are just okay — I’d rather order almost any other kind of sandwich. They can be tasty, but a lot of the time they’re greasy and boiling lava hot, to the point where your tongue and the inside of your mouth are blistered beyond belief so you don’t get to taste the meat and cheese. That said, if you want a cheesesteak in Orlando, I would be shocked if you could find a better one anywhere else. I know they offer provolone and American cheese as options; I’m not sure if you can get it with the regional favorite of Cheez Whiz.

What I go to LaSpada’s for is a particular Italian hoagie called the LaSpada’s Famous, a gargantuan architectural marvel featuring genoa salami, pepper ham, capicola, sopressata, prosciutto, and sharp provolone on an overstuffed soft roll. It smells like heaven and tastes even better than it smells. Lettuce, tomato, and onion come standard, and if I had one tiny complaint, it’s that the onion is chopped rather than sliced paper-thin. You can add hot or sweet peppers for a slight upcharge, which I usually do, but I forgot to ask for them on my latest visit, when I ordered my LaSpada’s Famous hoagie to go.  Since I took it home, I added my own hot pepper relish, sliced cherry peppers, and a drizzle of balsamic glaze to make a great thing even better.

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This is the large, which costs $12.50 — a bargain at twice the price, given how staggeringly large it is.

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I have a regular feature on The Saboscrivner called Ring the Alarm! whenever I review onion rings. I am always on a quest for good onion rings, as well as Italian subs, and LaSpada’s onion rings are among my favorites anywhere. They have a crispy beer batter coating that imparts a good flavor, doesn’t get soggy with grease, and doesn’t crumble or fall off. Remember I ordered these to go, and even though grease soaked through the bag a bit, they were still crispy and perfect by the time I got them home, 20 minutes later. These are the gold(en brown) standard of onion rings, as far as I’m concerned.

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Because LaSpada’s doesn’t have dinner hours and is far from where I work, I only make it over there two or three times a year.  My little tradition is to go see a movie by myself at the Winter Park Regal theater and then treat myself to a LaSpada’s Famous afterwards (although I only eat half at a time because it’s so huge).  I’m so glad it’s there, and as good as it is.  It’s a real treasure, and definitely one of Orlando’s hidden gems that not enough people know about.

Mee Thai

Happy holidays, folks!  Sorry it has been a while since my last review, but I have written a few new ones I’m getting ready to stuff down your chimneys.

I rarely eat Thai food — I have to get that out of the way right away.  Always a late bloomer, I only ever ate it ONCE before I left my parents’ home to go off to college.  We had a jazz musician friend who was playing a gig at a Thai restaurant in Miami, and he invited us out.  My parents really don’t like trying new foods or going to new places, but they were cool enough to step out of their comfort zones that evening.  But none of us were prepared in the pre-Internet era of the mid-’90s to know what we might like, so we all very likely ordered the wrong things.  I know my dad didn’t like his at all.  It was a whole new world of spices and flavors, and he was not having it.  He said his food made his bald spot tingle, and it made him ANGRY, like he was about to Hulk out.  So that was it for Thai food for a few more years.

At least now, I’ve been to enough Thai restaurants over the years to generally know what I like and what I don’t.  My favorite dish is pad kee mao, AKA drunken noodles: wide, flat, chewy rice noodles stir-fried with a protein, onions, bell peppers, basil, sometimes carrots, and some spices.  It gets its name not because the recipe includes any alcohol, but because it’s great late-night drunk food.  I believe it, but as a non-drinker, trust me when I say it’s perfectly fine no matter what state you’re in or when you enjoy it.  It can be spicy, but I tend to go with medium heat.  That’s my go-to dish whenever I try a new Thai restaurant, because even when it’s mediocre, it’s still pretty good.  Don’t get me wrong, I also like pad Thai and some other dishes, but drunken noodles are where it’s at.

Well, I’ve been hearing great things about Mee Thai (https://mee-thairestaurant.business.site/) for a while, on Lee Road in Orlando, not far off I-4 exit 88.  Mee Thai is ten minutes from Winter Park Village, and two minutes from another favorite of mine, LaSpada’s Cheesesteaks and Hoagies.  It’s a small building with a green roof that makes it hard to miss in a relatively industrial stretch of road with a surprising amount of intriguing restaurants around.  And Mee Thai, specializing in food from the Esan region of Thailand, was definitely intriguing.

When I arrived, the two ladies working were extremely friendly and welcoming, especially when I said I’ve been reading good reviews online and this was my first visit.  I was ordering takeout to bring home for my wife, but they were so nice, I already couldn’t wait to come back with her to dine in.  I ordered drunken noodles with chicken for myself, pad Thai with beef for my wife, a Thai iced coffee for her, and an order of Thai doughnuts to share for dessert.  They didn’t have mi krop, my wife’s favorite Thai appetizer, but it was still a large menu with lots of selections.  The menu had prices for lunch and dinner entree portions, I didn’t specify, and they didn’t ask, but it was lunchtime, so I assumed they gave me the lunch portions.

While I waited in the restaurant, the young lady was kind enough to bring me a small salad to enjoy.  It was a simple salad with crispy iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, but the dressing brought it to a whole other level.  It was some kind of vinaigrette, a little sweet, kind of a creamy white color, and I feel like a boob because I’m not enough of a Thai food expert to describe it any better, but it was delicious.  I would have bought a whole bottle of that salad dressing if they sold it.  Anyway, here is the salad they packed for me to bring home for my wife.  (She didn’t eat it today, so hopefully I’ll get to have it tomorrow!)

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When I got the food home, we were both extremely impressed by the quality, freshness, and flavors of everything, plus the generous portion sizes (pretty huge if they were the lunch portions).  The drunken noodles had that chewy consistency I love, and while I think I would have been happier with beef or pork, the white meat chicken was so flavorful, if a little dry.  The medium heat had a pleasant kick, and next time I might be brave enough to try the hot, but maybe not “Thai hot.”  I love what Thai basil brings to this dish, plus the onions and bell peppers, which were stir-fried to a very nice softness.  It was such a large portion that I didn’t finish it all in one sitting, which is a good thing that I don’t do often enough.

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My wife was a little surprised at first that her pad Thai didn’t have the orange hue she is used to, but if anything, that probably makes this version of the dish a little healthier and a little more authentic.  It had everything — tender, juicy beef, chewy noodles, a little citrusy tang and sweetness in the aftertaste.  I had to try it as well, and we both agreed it was one of the better versions of pad Thai we’ve had around here.  Probably the best.  Same goes for my drunken noodles.  Very impressed.

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The Thai doughnuts came with an order of six.  They were light and fluffy, not greasy at all, and they came with a little dipping container of sweetened condensed milk.  Now, I LOVE sweetened condensed milk.  It’s so fantastic as a component in desserts, but I think I’d be perfectly content if dessert WAS sweetened condensed milk.  Just bring me a can and a spoon, and I’ll go to town.

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So that’s Mee Thai, a wonderful restaurant that has been open for about a year, that I highly recommend.  I’ll give it my seal of approval over every other Thai restaurant we’ve been to in Orlando, which is at least six or seven of them, and I think these prices were cheaper than most of the others I’ve been to.  They are open seven days a week, from 11 AM to 9:30 PM, they are incredibly nice, and the food is great.  I intend to become more well-versed in Thai food in 2019, and I can promise I’ll go back to Mee Thai regularly to try new things and revisit my go-to favorite, drunken noodles.

Pho Cali and Quickly Boba

There’s a strip shopping center along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park (in an area that feels more like Casselberry) that once housed a Publix and several other businesses.  The Publix moved to a newer location ten minutes up the road, and most of the other tenants moved out.  I thought the entire strip was dead for sure, but a gym moved in, and now some restaurants have opened in there.  One of them is essentially two restaurants in one: a new Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Cali (https://www.facebook.com/phocalialoma/menu/), connected to an interesting chain called Quickly Boba.  They share the slick, modern dining room, but Pho Cali has table service, while you order at the counter at Quickly Boba.  They just opened in late August.

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The night I stopped by to check them out, I ended up bringing home some takeout from both.  Pho Cali has a pretty typical menu for a Vietnamese restaurant, but a little more expensive than most of the restaurants in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood.  My wife asked for grilled beef with rice vermicelli, her go-to standard when she doesn’t order pho.  It even came with three spring rolls, which were a pleasant little bonus.

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I’ve been to a few other Quickly locations in Orlando, and they’re all a little bit different.  They usually offer boba teas, smoothies, and slushes with a long list of flavors, macarons, and sometimes they have food menus with spicy popcorn chicken, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on baguettes, or even poke bowls.  This location had a lot of bakery items and desserts I’ve never seen at other Quickly stores, displayed in attractive glass cases.

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This is where they customize your boba drinks, and dig the multicolored macarons on top of the glass.

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I was thrilled to see that this location had banh mi, because sometimes I crave those sandwiches, my previous favorite banh mi shop Mai Bistro closed recently, and the current reigning contender, Nha Trang, is much further from home than this place.

A good thing about banh mi sandwiches is that they’re usually cheap, like in the $5 range.  In addition to whichever sandwich filling you choose, as the crusty baguettes are typically dressed with butter or mayo, pork liver pate (similar to liverwurst or braunschweiger, but less smoky-tasting), crunchy pickled carrot and daikon radish, cucumber spears, sprigs of refreshing cilantro, and slices of fresh, crunchy jalapeno peppers, which are much hotter than the pickled jalapenos most people are used to.  I was impressed to see this Quickly had an open area where you could watch your sandwiches being made and request custom ingredients, a la Subway.  Most places just disappear into the back to make them.

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I usually get a cold cut combo sandwich, but I noticed this Quickly location had crawfish on the menu, so I decided to get one of each, have half of each when I got them home, and save the other halves for the next day.  I don’t know why I was expecting breaded and deep-fried crawfish tails, but these were chilled and marinated, like a tangy crawfish salad.  I like seafood salads, so I figured I would try it.

The cold cut banh mi:

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The crawfish banh mi:20181022_204138_resized

Both were very fresh and tasty.  They’re always much lighter and more refreshing than most subs or hoagies, and a good banh mi should taste very fresh, with a variety of textures and flavors: crunchy bread and vegetables, soft meat fillings, some tangy, some spicy, and richness from the creamy mayo and smooth pate.  I don’t know if they dethrone Nha Trang or the late, lamented Mai Bistro, but they hit the spot, the price was right, and I’m glad I have the option much closer to home.

I also picked out a bun from the Quickly bakery case, with strands of salty, soft shredded pork baked on the top.  It was a savory bun with the slightest hint of sweetness, very buttery, and much softer and lighter than you would expect.

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It’s an interesting combination, and maybe just what this desolate shopping strip needs to revitalize itself.  I’m happy to provide some good word of mouth to help send business their way, and I wish them the best over there on Aloma.  It’s a very nice, cool dining room, reminiscent of Bento, a local favorite.  I think if people check it out, they will be pleasantly surprised.  Even if Pho Cali is a little more expensive than the Mills 50 stalwarts that have been serving Vietnamese food for far longer, I suspect it will win over folks in Winter Park, Winter Springs, Casselberry, and Oviedo that don’t want to drive all the way out there.

And next time I’ll actually try the pho!

Kai Asian Street Fare

It’s rare we get an exciting new restaurant in my neighborhood, but Kai Asian Street Fare (http://www.kaistreetfare.com/) started out strong when it opened earlier this year in a small, nondescript shopping strip on Semoran, just south of Howell Branch, and it has been improving exponentially since then.

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My first trip was back in early April, and my wife and I ordered and shared several of Kai’s eclectic dishes:

The “Dude Where’s My Ca” fish taco was very different from my favorite Asian fusion fried cod taco at Tako Cheena, but it was nice and crispy, not greasy at all, and had a good blend of flavors going on.

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They had three different varieties of Korean fried chicken wings, but since my wife doesn’t like spicy, we went with a safe soy-garlic flavor:

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I appreciate clever names, especially puns, so “I’m in Love with the Pho Pho” earned bonus points from me right away.  It wasn’t my favorite bowl of pho I’ve ever had, but it the broth was rich and fragrant, and it came with tender slices of beef and chewy meatballs.  I just have a TENDON-cy to want beef tendon in my pho, and that wasn’t an option at Kai.

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The “Legendary” garlic noodles with shrimp were one of the best noodle dishes I have ever tasted, and will surely make my list of favorite dishes of 2018.

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Finally, the “On Fleek” pork and shrimp wontons were as tasty as they were pretty, especially rolled around in the leftover garlic noodle drippings:

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Well, life gets in the way, and I had a few really hectic and stressful months since then, so I didn’t make it back to Kai for a while, all while positive reviews kept rolling in.  Two weeks ago, I finally returned on a weekend, just intending to get some takeout for lunch, when I ran into a friend from the Orlando Foodie Forum, who was there meeting another friend for lunch.  They graciously allowed me to join them, so that was super-fun, and of course we ordered and shared even more wonderful food.  Everything I tried on this second visit in October was even better than my first trip.  Plus, they had some interesting weekend-only specials which we took advantage of, so I’m so glad I went.

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Since my first visit, they have added a few more wing flavors, so each of us ordered a different one.  One friend ordered mango habanero wings, which were succulently sticky, sweet, and spicy.  I love mangoes in any shape and form, and I’m cool with spicy food, but habanero peppers are usually a little much for me, and I tend to avoid them.  Not these — they had such a great flavor, instead of just doubling down on ass-kicking heat like a lot of lesser wings at terrible sports bars and other awful wing chains.

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Another friend ordered the Szechuan dry-rub wings.  I’m developing a palate for Szechuan cuisine, which has a different kind of heat, a tingling and numbing heat that can be weirdly addictive (and sometimes has a slight metallic aftertaste).  These wings weren’t as strongly numbing as some Szechuan seasonings I’ve had at Orlando’s Chuan Lu Garden, and they seemed to be balanced by some sugar in the dry rub that cut the heat.  Since I was on my way to work after this lunch, I wisely avoided the peppers themselves.

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Those were both weekend specials, but I ordered the spicy tang wings off the regular menu, which I didn’t get to try on my first visit.  They were the most like the Korean fried chicken wings at Hawkers, which have been my favorite and gold standard so far:

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All of Kai’s wings are absolutely huge, meaty, and tender, with nice crispy breading that stays on, and never soaking in puddles of oil or grease.  I don’t know how they do it!  I am definitely a convert.  Not to take away from Hawkers’ wonderful wings, but these are easily as good — just different, and well worth trying if you already like Hawkers (or anyone else’s, really).

That day, they also had two varieties of freshly-made ho fun noodles, which are wide, flat, chewy noodles that I love.  I ordered the dan dan noodles with spicy ground chicken in chili oil, and my friend ordered the seafood ho fun noodles with shrimp, squid, beef, and rich XO sauce, a luxurious thick sauce from Hong Kong traditionally made with dried scallops, shrimp, ham, chilies, and spices.  Well, I’m here to tell you that the only way Kai could have beaten its own Legendary garlic noodles was with these two ho fun noodle dishes.  Wow.  Two weeks later and I still smile and salivate, thinking about them.  I don’t know if I’ve ever ordered other Asian noodle dishes this good.  I implore my readers to try them on a weekend, but with any luck, Kai will add them to the regular daily menu.

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This is my spicy chicken dan dan noodle bowl.  It was outstanding, folks.  It had an interesting visual flourish: the flakes on top are dehydrated bonito (fish) flakes, and when added to a steaming hot dish, they appear to dance or move!  We were all a little surprised by that, but it was a cool effect.  IT’S ALIVE!  (Not really, though.)  I didn’t get a picture of my friend’s seafood ho fun, but trust me, it looked almost as good as it tasted, which was really good.

We were all fanboying and fangirling out, chatting up the chef and our cool server throughout the meal, and the chef brought us one more thing to try, on the house: dry pho noodles, served with farm-raised chicken, crunchy chicharrones, and broth on the side.  The chicken was chewier than most chicken I’m used to, I guess from the bird actually being able to walk around freely and build up muscles.  The chicharrones weren’t like styrofoamy store-bought pork rinds, but actual crispy, crunchy chunks of rich, fatty pork.  The noodles (which were probably also house-made) stood on their own when we mixed a good sauce into them, and then we only drizzled on as much broth as we wanted for our own portions.  I love pho, but I have to be in the mood for it, and this was a nice alternative to wanting the flavors and textures but not sitting down to a steaming bowl of soup on a hot, humid day.  It was definitely better than the traditional pho I tried back in April.  I apologize for not having a photo of that either (although some patient, bleary-eyed Saboscrivner readers may be relieved!)

Well, I’m shocked and saddened it took me so many months to return to Kai Asian Street Fare and even longer to write a proper review, but I give it my highest recommendation.  If you follow the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, you will see it has emerged as a popular local favorite for good reason, and a godsend for those of us who don’t feel like schlepping down to Mills 50 for the city’s best Asian restaurants.  Kai definitely belongs in that rarified group, so don’t hold its suburban location against it.  I wish them the best of luck and all the success in the world, although they are already achieving it.  I just beg them to make those ho fun noodles a daily thing!  Also, as a music nerd, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention they were playing an incredible selection of ’90s hip hop and R&B the entire time, taking me right back to some of the more tolerable parts of high school.  Mad props to our server, who took credit for the bangin’ playlist.

 

 

Manzano’s Deli

Anyone who knows me knows I love a few things: my wife, comic books, lounge acts with girl singers, cats, and Italian deli sandwiches.  Here in Orlando, LaSpada’s has always been my favorite spot for an Italian hoagie bursting at the seams with cured Italian meats, sharp provolone cheese, and crispy fresh vegetables and pickled peppers.  In 2017, Bad As’s Sandwich changed the game with their limited-time special, the Capone, which made my list of the year’s top five dishes.  (Yeah, I’m probably gonna be citing that forever.)  Then Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market opened this summer, and I reviewed it right here, on its opening day.

We are lucky to have one more great sub shop in town now: Manzano’s Deli (http://manzanowinterpark.com/), on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, moments from Park Avenue and Rollins College, and directly next door to the Little Blue Donut Co.  Manzano’s already has two beloved locations in DeLand and New Smyrna Beach, which I’ve never been to, but you can bet I checked their menus as soon as I heard one was opening here.  Well, they finally opened for business in September, and my first visit lived up to all the expectations and hype.

You see, most sub shops will offer ONE Italian hoagie-type sandwich if you’re lucky, with salami, ham, and other cured, sliced deli meats, served cold.  (I’ve never been a fan of sandwiches like this served hot, with the meats crispy and greasy.)  Manzano’s has SEVERAL, and they’re all a little bit different.  Looking at their menu, you must choose between the Italian Stallion, the Balboa, the V, the Pauly, the Rocco, and the Goodfella, and their ingredients aren’t listed in any specific order, making it a little difficult to compare and contrast when you’re hungry and in a hurry.

So for the benefit of my Saboscrivner Squad, I have created the Manzano’s Matrix, to help you choose the best possible Italian sandwich at a glance:
manzanos_matrix As you can see, the Rocco is the sandwich with the most ingredients.  The Italian Stallion and the Goodfella are the same, except the Stallion has pepperoni, so I can’t imagine ordering the Goodfella unless you hate pepperoni.  The Balboa and the V are the two with fresh mozzarella, but no overlapping meats, so that presents a difficult choice.  But yeah, I like to maximize my sandwich experience, so I chose the Rocco… and I chose wisely.

Look at this thing!

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Look at it!

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That’s the whole sandwich (15″ for $16.99), and it is enormous.  I think most hungry people can easily make do with a half ($10.49).  Yes, it’s more expensive than Subway, Wawa, and even Jersey Mike’s, but you pay for quality, and this was an extremely high-quality sandwich.  On top of being huge, the crusty bread was very fresh (flown in from New York), and the meats and cheeses were all from Boar’s Head, so you know they’re good.  The Rocco comes with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, roasted red peppers (love ’em!), oil and vinegar, and two ingredients I asked them to hold, because I don’t think they belong on an Italian sub: black olives and mayo.  No thank you!  Mayo has its place, but not here.

I did ask them to add the sun-dried tomato spread that is a option on some of their other sandwiches, and they were kind enough to oblige.  The sun-dried tomatoes are marinated in oil, so by the time I got this sandwich back to our little break room at work, it was quite soggy and messy to eat, but probably even more delicious.  In fact, chilling it in the fridge for a few hours might have made it even better (and probably necessitated eating it with a fork and knife), but it was great as is.

If you aren’t into Italian deli meats, they still have plenty for you, don’t worry: turkey, chicken, roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, tuna salad, egg salad, etc.  Manzano’s also serves paninis in addition to their giant subs, as well as salads and breakfast sandwiches in the morning.  They can even craft you a custom sandwich with your choice of ingredients if their menu options aren’t tempting enough.

I look forward to returning, even though I think I’ve already figured out what their best sandwich is, and I’ll no doubt order it again.  It’s a rough location there on Fairbanks, with very limited parking nearby.  The location used to house Tatame Tea and Sake Lounge, one of the spots I took my wife on our first date back in 2006, but even someplace that cool couldn’t last.  That’s the only drawback I can see, but hopefully Manzano’s will stay busy with lots of walk-in traffic from Rollins students, faculty, and staff.  And if you ever feel like an amazing sandwich and a doughnut, you have this place and the Little Blue Donut Co. right next door.  How can you go wrong with that?  YOU CAN’T.