Poke Hana

It could be said that poke is having a moment.  The Hawaiian dish consists of cubes of fresh raw fish, marinated with sauces and seasonings and served over rice with a variety of toppings.  If you like sushi, there’s no reason you wouldn’t love poke too.   Plus, poke bowls are infinitely customizable, and these days, diners crave quick, healthy meals they can get made to their specifications.

Orlando already has several poke options, including several locations of the excellent Da Kine Poke, the related Big Kahuna and Island Fin Poke, Bento Cafe (which was serving poke-style don bowls for several years), and even Costco offers high-quality, authentically Hawaiian ahi tuna poke every once in a while.  Most of these poke joints (aside from Costco) follow the assembly line model popularized by Chipotle and several Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, in which you choose your base (white or brown rice, sometimes salad greens), your protein (ahi tuna, other fish, or tofu), and your toppings and sauces.

Orlando’s newest poke place is my current favorite, Poke Hana (https://www.poke-hana.com/), located on East Colonial Drive right at the Mills Avenue intersection, one of our greatest foodie neighborhoods in the city.  I believe they opened in late August or early September.  They have a large, bright restaurant space with a lot of natural light and an easy-to-miss parking lot in the back, to avoid the hassle and danger of trying to parallel-park in one of the few spots along busy Colonial Drive.  I’ve been there twice now, and I’m a little obsessed with it at the moment.

At Poke Hana, you can choose from white or brown rice or mixed greens for your base, and ahi tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), and tako (octopus) for your seafood proteins.  I’ve been twice now, and I’ve asked for half-ahi and half-salmon both times.  These bowls are a reasonable $13 each.  They also have non-seafood protein options: Hawaiian-style kalua pulled pork, hula chicken, garlic shrimp (shell-on), and fried tofu.  I haven’t tried any of these yet, although I can’t wait to try the kalua pork.  They also have Spam musubi, another Hawaiian specialty with a rectangular slice of fried Spam served over a pillow of chilled, seasoned sticky rice, like a larger piece of nigiri sushi.

Now you have to choose a sauce: shoyu (soy sauce with ginger), Maui (traditional Hawaiian-style, with some finely-chopped macadamia nuts and chili flakes for a bit of heat), spicy (my favorite, a sriracha aioli with tiny orange masago fish eggs, like the spicy mayo that often accompanies sushi rolls), and a Korean-style kimchi.  Some of the poke places serve the sauce on the side or squirt it on top, but Poke Hana mixes it together with your protein of choice before serving it to you, which I appreciate, because I would just do that anyway.

And while other poke restaurants usually have a long list of toppings, Poke Hana keeps it simple and traditional.  As much as I’ve loved having the option of diced mango, sliced avocado, or crispy fried onions over my poke elsewhere, you only get three toppings at Poke Hana: thin-sliced pickled cucumbers (which I love, despite not being a huge pickle fan, although I’m trying to learn to appreciate pickles more), edamame (those green soybeans), and seaweed salad.  I must admit, I’ve never been into edamame or seaweed salad, so after trying them on my first visit, I asked to hold those but to get extra pickled cucumbers on my second visit.

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The poke bowl isn’t the largest, but it is very satisfying and filling.  Everything is fresh, and the flavors and textures work perfectly together.  I could easily have eaten two, or a portion twice its size, but who needs that?  Then again, that isn’t all I ate!

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I also tried a side order of macaroni salad.  My constant readers know how much I love onion rings, to the point where I feel obligated to sample them anywhere they’re on the menu.  I have a few other foods I’m like that with: chili (WHY?  Because everyone’s chili is a little bit different!), root beer (same), and pasta and/or macaroni salads.  Hawaiian-style macaroni salad is mayo-based (usually Best Foods, which is sold as Hellman’s in the eastern U.S.), and there is a slight sweetness to it.  My lifelong gold standard for a mayo-based macaroni salad is from Publix supermarket, but the macaroni salad at Poke Hana is my new favorite.  It’s pretty simple, but it does have some nice orange accents from finely-shredded carrot, and the elbow noodles were surprisingly al dente.  It was a damn fine macaroni salad, and I’m sure it would go great with the kalua pork sliders, served on pillowy-soft, sweet Hawaiian rolls  (my favorites for making bison sliders at home).

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I love tropical fruit.  I could take or leave boring apples (including apple juice), but I have a hard time saying no to anything involving pineapple, mango, or guava.  Maybe it’s because I was raised in Miami.  Now that I’m an altacocker and acid reflux is a recurring concern, I must be careful, but I wasn’t going to turn down the Hawaiian Sun tropical fruit drinks that Poke Hana offers.  I couldn’t decide between guava nectar and lilikoi (passion fruit) juice, so I got a can of each, drank one with my meal, and drank the other one in my car on the way back to work.  The guava nectar was fine, with a little bit of grittiness you should expect from guava nectar, but the passion fruit drink was so sweet and tart and refreshing and awesome.  I’ve never had it before, but it quickly became a favorite.  I don’t drink, but I have to imagine it would be amazing mixed with rum, vodka, or maybe even tequila.

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Finally, since this was my first visit and I planned to review it, I had to try one of the desserts: haupia pie.  It consists of three freshly-fried spring rolls stuffed with creamy coconut custard and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and coconut shavings.  Um, YES, PLEASE!  I also love anything coconutty, even though coconut sometimes disagrees with me.  TMI, I realize that, but this felt like a risk worth taking, for the sake of journalism.

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I had no complaints, neither as I ate the delicious haupia pie nor in the hours that followed.  Crispy and soft, crunchy and sticky, and extremely rich and decadent, I definitely recommend it.

When I returned two days later with my wife, she tried Poke Hana’s other dessert called butter mochi, which was also rich and decadent.  It was a square of cake, already sliced and wrapped in plastic wrap, similar to pound cake or sponge cake, but better.  It was also chewier, perhaps due to the presence of glutinous rice paste, also known as mochi.  We both liked it a lot.

I don’t mind saying that I could eat a poke bowl and a side of macaroni salad at Poke Hana every day and never tire of it.  I don’t think I could give higher praise than that.  I wish them the best of luck, and I hope they last forever in this location.  I’m definitely going to become a regular here!

Pizza Bruno

Okay, it has been far too long.  I had a big work project to complete in September, with my continued employment and entire career at stake, but I got that done.  I promise I’ll never leave you again!

This morning my wife and I returned to one of our favorite new discoveries of 2018, Pizza Bruno, a small, hip restaurant out on Curry Ford Road.  (http://www.pizzabrunofl.com/)  I have been a fan of the chef/owner, Bruno Zacchini, for years — ever since he used to set up a food cart, Big Bruno’s Bites, in front of the old Redlight Redlight bar on Bennett and Colonial, where one of my other favorite newer restaurants, Blue Jacket Grille (see my review here), is now.  After a stint as chef at the lost and lamented Oblivion Taproom on Colonial, Chef Bruno opened his own pizzeria, and it is one of Orlando’s best.

In addition to dinner, they open at 11 AM on weekends to serve their regular menu plus some brunch specialties, and starting TOMORROW, October 8th, they will start serving LUNCH!  That will be a game changer for me, since Pizza Bruno is a lot closer to work than it is to home.  I can’t wait.

But today, my wife and I treated ourselves.  We arrived shortly after they opened at 11 AM, and we HAD to order the garlic knots, which are the absolute best garlic knots ever.  With all the work stress I’ve been dealing with over the last two months, I’ve been craving garlic bread constantly, as a comfort food.  I won’t tell you how many frozen loaves of garlic bread I’ve baked at home, or how many of them have been disappointing and made me feel a lot worse about myself afterwards.  (Spoiler alert: almost all of them.)

Bruno’s “Too Much Garlic” knots are on a whole other level.  They’re not soaked through with oil, but they are the absolute perfect consistency — appropriately soft, with the slightest crispy exterior.  The garlic topping needs to be bottled and sold in supermarkets, and the cup of marinara sauce is an underrated complement.  A word of warning to the Saboscrivner Squad: Pizza Bruno often runs out of garlic knots in the evening, so if you go, go early so you don’t run the risk of missing out one of Orlando’s finest carbs.

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As if that wasn’t enough, the brunch menu offered us a new option: the best knots in town, sans garlic, but covered with sticky cinnamon-sugar glaze and served with a thick, rich mascarpone cheese spread infused with orange.  Kind of like cinnamon rolls, only far better than Cinnabon.  Of course my wife and I accepted the challenge to compare these cinnamon-sugar knots to our favorite garlic knots.  Needless to say, they were great, and the citrusy mascarpone amazed and astonished.

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Believe it or not, I eat salads quite often at home, and I pack them in my work lunches quite frequently.  But my wife NEVER wants a salad when I offer to make her one.  Who here knows the Steely Dan song “FM (No Static At All),” in which Donald Fagen sings “No static at all”?  Well, we sing “No salad at all” to the same tune, knowing that she will never ask me for one.  But at Pizza Bruno, they serve a kale salad she absolutely loves, with golden raisins, candied pecans, pecorino romano cheese, and emperor dressing (their version of Caesar dressing), so she got another one of those today.  I’m not the biggest kale fan in the world, but it’s a very good salad.  It just comes in a tiny wooden bowl despite being quite large, so some spillage is unavoidable.

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Bruno’s pizzas are twelve inches in diameter, cut into six slices, and are a relatively thin-crust, Neapolitan style.  They aren’t as crispy or large as New York-style pizzas, but the crust is much softer than you’d get at a place like Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, which is served with burnt spots.  In the past, I’ve ordered the New Haven-style clam pizza, but they didn’t have it as an option today due to a clam shortage.  This is a picture of the clam pizza from a previous visit:

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Today I got the “Tight Socks” pizza, with red sauce, mozzarella, good quality pepperoni, emperor dressing (very subtle), and fresh Thai basil leaves on top.  It was great, as always.

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My wife ordered a newer pizza off the brunch menu, although it is apparently available for dinner as well.  The G&B is a white pizza (which is great for my wife, who doesn’t love tomato-based sauces the way I do), with fresh mozzarella,  guanciale (one of my favorite cured meats, made from the jowl of a pig, then fried up crispy like very posh bacon), blueberries, and a drizzle of real maple syrup across the top.  It might sound like a desserty thing, but it is much more savory than sweet due to the rich, crunchy saltiness of the guanciale and the tartness of the juicy blueberries.  She loved it.  I had a piece too, and it was terrific.

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As you might expect, we ended up with a lot of leftovers, which is totally fine with us.  I cannot recommend Pizza Bruno highly enough.  As much as New York-style and Sicilian-style pizzas are close to my heart, since that’s what I grew up eating in Miami with my Brooklyn-raised dad, I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to call Pizza Bruno the best pizzeria in Orlando, with its creative Neapolitan-style pies, incredible knots, and wonderful service.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to our server Frankie, who was a delight — enthusiastic, knowledgeable, friendly, patient, and an overall good time.  Thank you, Frankie, for making our day!

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Trevi Pasta

This was a stressful week, but it ended well.  I was able to pick up my wife from her job on Thursday evening (after an unexpected emergency that ended up working out).  That was nice, because I almost never get to do that.  As usual, I suggested going out to dinner to decompress, and as usual, I offered her a bunch of options.  She is a much pickier eater than I, and too often, her catch phrase when trying to choose a restaurant or even a type of food to eat is “Nothing sounds good.”

But that night, she was craving fresh pasta, ideally squid ink pasta.  I’m not typically the biggest fan of going out for pasta because let’s face it — restaurant pasta dishes are expensive, and I buy good-quality DeCecco pasta, cook it perfectly al dente at home in well-salted water (with no oil, ever!), and either make my own sauces or doctor up a good commercial sauce like Mezzetta or Rao’s.  But I’m not hardcore enough to make fresh pasta from scratch, so it’s a rare and worthwhile indulgence.  There was only one possible place to go: Trevi Pasta in Orlando’s hip College Park neighborhood near downtown.  https://www.trevipasta.com/

Trevi Pasta is a very small, family-owned operation famous for fresh, homemade pastas and sauces.  They also have delicious gelato and other Italian desserts, and some Italian groceries.

Get this — they didn’t have squid ink pasta that night, but they told me they would have it this weekend.  But the chef had a very small amount in the kitchen, and he brought it out for us to try, just to be a cool and good guy!  It was served simply, with olive oil and herbs, and it was black as the night, briny, and al dente AF:20180906_190157_resized

Trevi Pasta regularly changes their offerings, so don’t be like us and ask what they have, since they post a huge menu right near the entrance:
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Here’s another version of the menu:
https://www.facebook.com/TreviPasta/app/1637598386514901/

My wife chose the potato gnocchi, usually a favorite of both of ours, but this gnocchi blew away the starchy store-bought kinds we usually get.  She got hers with alfredo sauce and a huge, soft looking blob of burrata, that smooth, soft blend of fresh mozzarella cheese and cream.

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I went with the spicy “inferno” pasta, and I chose tagliatelle — wider than fettuccine, not as wide as papardelle.  I paired it with amatriciana sauce, my favorite pasta sauce, which I often make at home from scratch with San Marzano tomatoes, pancetta, onions, and lots of crushed red pepper flakes.  I opted to get mine with meatballs too, and I ended up with four delicious little meatballs with a dense, spongy consistency and lots of flavor.

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We both agreed they were the best bowls of pasta we’ve had in a very long time.

The only thing that didn’t blow us away were the rolls, which were on the hard side:

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Then for dessert, we went back to look at some of those beautiful gelato flavors, and the nice lady at Trevi Pasta allowed us to sample a few.

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My wife chose two scoops: panna cotta and cookies and cream (sorry about not having a photo), and I went with pineapple (I’ll always try anything pineappley) and passion fruit.  Both were rich and intensely-flavored and refreshing.  Passion fruit is not a fruit or a flavor I usually try, but it was so good — maybe even better than the pineapple!

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Each gelato came with a tasty wafer cookie stamped with “Buon Appetito,” which was a nice touch.

I can’t say this was a cheap meal, but it was one of the more delicious restaurant meals either of us have had in a long time, and I don’t mind paying for very high quality.  Trevi Pasta’s pasta, sauce, meatballs, and gelato were all masterful, and I have zero regrets.  They will also sell any of their fresh pastas by the pound so you can prepare them at home.

In fact, I went back earlier today and picked up some freshly-cut squid ink fettuccine pasta, since we only got a tiny taste the other night.  It was beautiful, delicious, and the same perfect texture after cooking for three and a half minutes in boiling water as salty as the sea.

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Arby’s

Wait a minute!  Is he really reviewing ARBY’S?  (https://arbys.com/)  He’s only had a food blog for two months and he’s talking about a fast food chain, and a critically-derided, notably un-hip fast food chain?

I try to be good.  I try to support local restaurants AND avoid fast food as much as possible, but I’m only human.  I’m a sucker for Krystal sliders, I have a nostalgic fondness for McDonald’s breakfasts (and was thrilled when they started offering all-day breakfast, even though I rarely partake), and Arby’s hits the spot more often than not (although I almost never go).  Sure, I think of obnoxious little Sherri from The Simpsons (or was it her twin Terri?) whining “I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s!”, which I think ruined it for a whole generation.  But the truth is, Arby’s is cool.  It’s always trying new things, taking risks, adding crazy new menu items, and killing it with social media marketing — and these gambles are working!  Arby’s is the quirky, likable guy in a rom-com who might not end up with the girl, but he has a full and rich life with friends, hobbies, a good job, and you rooted for him and know he’s going to be okay.

I went twice in 2017, which was twice as often as I had gone in the previous decade.  Once was to try their porchetta sandwich while it lasted (surprisingly good), and the other time was to try their venison steak sandwich the one special day they offered it (incredibly good).  Yes, this is a fast food chain people regularly crack on, but they’re rolling out porchetta, a pretty classy Italian pork preparation that you rarely even see on menus at Italian restaurants and takes some real talent and patience to make at home, and venison, which is almost impossible to get unless you’re friends with hunters.  They’re not just adding bacon or chips or (eurgh) sriracha (sorry, it’s nasty!) to the same tired old offerings.  They’re introducing people to entirely new meats, which is a noble and ambitious undertaking!  

So yesterday, my best friend sent me this entertaining and insightful essay about the new golden age of Arby’s, and I was impressed by the writer’s obvious passion and enthusiasm, something I always try for here on The Saboscrivner.

He touched on all my thoughts more eloquently and at greater length than I would, so I’m not even going to try to top it.  But I am extremely suggestible when it comes to food, so of course that means I had to try Arby’s again.  I went today for lunch, and I have no regrets.

Their current limited-time special is the Smokehouse beef short rib sandwich, served with melty cheddar cheese, crispy onions, and barbecue sauce on Texas toast.  I’m always happy to find Texas toast, whether it’s made into garlic bread, served as a sandwich, or just lightly toasted and buttered and served with some Zaxby’s chicken tenders.  This sandwich was a real winner.  I have to admit, it was better than some sandwiches I’ve had from barbecue restaurants.  It was a decent size, with lots of flavors and textures going on, and the shredded, smoked short rib was very tender and tasty.  The Texas toast held everything together well.  I’m always disappointed when some barbecue places serve their wondrous, lovingly-prepared, low-and-slow-smoked meats on the cheapest buns or white bread, but not so here.

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I had also recently been advised to try Arby’s gyro and their onion rings, a combo I enjoyed at Theo’s Kitchen earlier this summer (see my recent review here).  I knew they had a gyro, but it never occurred to me to try it until a few people vouched for it.  And like I said, there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, right?  Well, this one was better than some I’ve had from dedicated Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants.  It certainly wasn’t the best gyro I’ve ever had, but it was far from the worst, and only $3.99.  This was the good kind of pita bread — nice and soft, like you get from actual gyro shops but never find at the supermarket.  They included a generous portion of thin-sliced, processed gyro meat, which is usually a salty, garlicky beef and lamb combo, plus tzatziki sauce, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and thin slices of onion.

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I can’t say the same for the onion rings, which had that craggy, crumby breading that mostly fell off.  I can’t Ring the Alarm! in good conscience for these rings.  At least Arby’s has some good dipping sauces in pumps: their legendary Horsey sauce (creamy horseradish), very decent three-pepper sauce that is more like a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce than an actual hot sauce (which is more than fine with me), and a creamy Dijon mustard sauce.

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Finally, because this was a hectic week and we’re heading into our busiest and most stressful time of the year at work, I treated myself to an orange cream shake, because orange shakes are hard to find, and I freakin’ love them.

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I also brought back a Jamocha shake for one beloved co-worker and two cherry turnovers for another one.  Food gifts are some of the best gifts, if you ask me.

So yeah, Arby’s.  If you haven’t had it since you were a teenager, or if pop culture has conditioned you to think it can’t possibly be any good, think again, and try it again.  Even if you don’t love their old-school roast beef sandwiches (tasty, but super-salty), they have a ton of newer menu options including the limited-time Smokehouse beef short rib, and I definitely vouch for that.  Their seasoned curly fries might be the best in the game, and I wish I had gotten those instead of the onion rings.  Nowadays they have Italian subs, Reubens, smoked brisket sandwiches, and even some healthy-looking options!  Seriously, try it, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Ring the Alarm! Theo’s Kitchen

It feels like a while since I wrote my last review here, and I have a few more in the pipeline.  But this one is about a hidden gem here in Orlando, on Curry Ford Road: Theo’s Kitchen (https://www.theoskitchen.com/).  It’s in an older, nondescript shopping strip near a Winn-Dixie supermarket, and you might not know it’s there at all unless you’ve been hipped to its existence.  Consider yourselves hipped.

Have you ever craved really good, crispy, tender, juicy fried chicken, but also been dying for Greek food?  Has that ever happened to you too?  Well, you’re in luck, because Theo’s serves what has to be my favorite fried chicken in the Orlando area (The Coop is very good, don’t get me wrong, but not quite as consistent as it used to be), plus they have a whole menu of Greek specialties, when you can’t decide or when you just want to treat yo’self and have it all.

I’ve been to Theo’s twice this summer since discovering it, once again thanks to the local gourmands, connoisseurs, and aficionados on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook.  On my first visit, I met a fellow Foodie Forumite there, a really good guy who is always visiting and recommending restaurants around town.  I’ll name him if he’s okay with that, but for now, better safe than sorry.  GREAT guy with good taste and a never-ending thirst for adventure, culinary and otherwise.

On that visit, I ordered a gyro (because there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, am I right, you guys?), a chicken thigh so I could sample the legendary fried chicken, and an order of onion rings, because THAT’S RIGHT, THIS IS ANOTHER INSTALLMENT OF RING THE ALARM!  (AIR HORN!)  My friend ordered the gyro king (same thing but with feta cheese added), a Greek salad, and chicken and rice soup.  The gyro was very good, and the onion rings were the kind I love, with a nice beer batter coating, the ideal thickness and consistency.

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My friend seemed to love all of his food, and the salad was definitely beautiful.

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I don’t mean to downplay any of that, but the chicken thigh was excellent.  The crispness was so perfect, but it was almost all in the skin, rather than a heavy, greasy layer of breading or batter.  It was very moist and juicy.  There wasn’t a lot of seasoning on the chicken — The Coop and even Popeye’s season their fried chicken more — but it didn’t need it, seriously.  Theo’s website says “Our Special method of broasted pressure frying in peanut oil makes your Fried Chicken light, evenly cooked and full of naturally delicious flavors.”  (See https://www.theoskitchen.com/menu.)

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Wait a minute, Mr. Saboscrivner, Sir, you might be thinking.  “BROASTED”?  Is that a typo?  How unlike you!  Is that even a THING?  No, I promise, I copied and pasted that directly from the Theo’s Kitchen website and cited my source (always cite your sources, folks), but it is a thing.  It’s essentially fried chicken that is also pressure-cooked while it’s fried, prepared in special equipment made by the Wisconsin-based Broaster Company.

Because I am a serious food blogger and a researcher by trade, I dug a little deeper to investigate broasted chicken, since now I’m invested, and I’m sure you are too.  Here’s a 2004 Washington Post article all about broasted chicken:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/2004/04/21/this-chickens-not-roasted-broiled-or-fried-its-broasted-good-luck-finding-it-though/63ba6fe5-6af4-45bc-b0c3-8a8b26d8ea87/?utm_term=.b0f7e26c53b9

And a shorter Atlas Obscura article, for the “TL,DR” crowd (although I can’t imagine any of them would still be sticking around my blog!):
https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/broasted-chicken

So anyway, it was awesome.  I’ve never had fried chicken quite like it before, but I think it cracked the code for the perfect blend of flavor, freshness, texture, and lack of heavy, nasty, slimy greasiness.

I went back to Theo’s Kitchen more recently with one of my co-workers, who was kind enough to treat me to lunch, even though I had every intention of treating him that day.  What a blessing it is to have good co-workers, since that can make or break so many jobs.  He ordered a two-piece meal with a breast and a thigh, with some nice, crispy, crinkle-cut fries, and an order of fried mushrooms, which I cannot eat (but I was nice enough to take a picture of them for you).20180807_125052_resized

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I had another spot-on perfect broasted chicken thigh:

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Also, because I was craving pasta and haven’t had this in years (not since my beloved Patsio’s Diner in Casselberry closed), I ordered pastitsio, which is like a Greek version of lasagna.  It is a casserole of uncut ziti noodles and a rich, tomatoey sauce with ground beef and what had to be a fair bit of cinnamon.  (This makes sense, because I love Cincinnati-style chili, originally a recipe of Greek immigrants that is made with cinnamon and served over spaghetti.)

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The pastitsio even came with one of their beautiful Greek salads, and they were very generous with the feta:

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So Theo’s Kitchen is a casual little place in a strip shopping center that looks like hundreds of others, the kind of restaurant you could drive by every day and never notice, or live your whole life in a city and never know about.  It is an open room with lots of little tables and natural light from a big glass storefront window overlooking the parking lot.  Maybe not anyone’s idea of a “sexy date night” restaurant, but a fine choice for any occasion.  It has it all!  Greek food?  Check.  Greek food is good, and often healthy, and there aren’t a ton of Greek restaurants.  Fried chicken is good, and not healthy at all, but it’s dry and disappointing too often when you get it from fast food chains and supermarkets.  Not so at Theo’s Kitchen, where you get the best of both worlds.

Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet

Hey, folks.  Sorry about the delay.  I’m working on the most important writing assignment of my life, which unfortunately has nothing to do with restaurant reviews or food in general.  I have a few recent reviews I need to share when I take breaks, so don’t give up on me — I’d never give up on you!

I should start out by saying that I like sushi a lot.  I don’t eat it or write about it as much as I do sandwiches, burgers, or pasta, because I rarely partake.  I consider sushi a rare treat and almost a “luxury meal” for a few reasons:

  • It is so beautifully, artfully prepared,
  • It is difficult to make well at home (as opposed to sandwiches or pasta) so I leave it to the professionals, and
  • It ain’t cheap!

The expense is usually what keeps me from gorging on gorgeous fresh nigiri or being ridiculously ravenous for radiant rolls.  The fact that it takes so much sushi to fill me up can become a dangerous proposition, especially at an upscale establishment.  And these ultra-elite sushi restaurants that promise you the best omakase dining experience ever — I’m sure they’re wonderful, but too rich for my blood.

I almost didn’t take note when some of the good folks on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook recommended Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet, an all-you-can-eat affair in Altamonte Springs.  (http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/)  My wife has never been a fan of buffet dining, so we almost never go to them.  I grew up eating at Chinese buffets throughout Miami with my dad, and I regularly visited Gainesville’s all-you-can-eat Chinese and pizza buffets during my college years, when I was all about quantity over quality.  They helped keep me alive through a few degrees!

These days, I can’t eat like I used to, and I at least attempt to be a little healthier through portion control and exercise, so all-you-can-eat is less of a draw for me.  Plus, I can’t help but be a little more skeptical about all-you-can-eat sushi, after reading Kitchen Confidential and getting older and coming more to terms with my own mortality.

But Mikado’s sushi is extremely fresh and extremely high quality, they assured me.  And there’s a huge variety to choose from — always music to my ears.  If you go for dinner, they even have sashimi (fresh slices of fish on their own, without rice to fill you up), and everything is included for only $25 per person!  WHAAAAT?  How can this be?  The Foodie Forum rarely steers me wrong, so I realized I hadn’t had sushi in forever, and this Mikado had to be worth a try.  My longtime readers know I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.  I had an afternoon off, so I told my wife we’d arrive at 5:00 when Mikado opened for dinner, to be there first when everything was freshly-made.

And I’m so glad we gave it a try, because it was AWESOME.  The sumptuous variety and quality of the sushi seriously exceeded my expectations.  Even my wife was extremely impressed (and relieved).  Sushi chefs were hard at work behind the buffet, replenishing everything.  The preparations were artful, and everything was well-labeled so you knew what each piece was.  (Of course, it was difficult to keep it all straight once things made it to our plates.)

This was my first trip to the buffet:

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I count 22 pieces on this plate, each one better than the last.  I love rolls, and they offered some really creative and intricate ones — no boring California rolls for me (although if you like those, they had them too)!  I know purists may scoff at rolls, but I love the blend of flavors, textures, and colors and the beautiful presentation.  They may not be traditional like nigiri, but I couldn’t get enough of them.

And this was my second trip, when I discovered the sashimi, as well as marinated tuna and salmon crudo, ceviche, and different chilled seafood salads.  As far as the sashimi, the mackerel (saba) is always my favorite because it reminds me of pickled herring, one of the foods of my people, but they were all top-notch.

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Are there 18 pieces on this plate?  Sharp-eyed readers may come up with a more accurate count.

Here is the buffet menu, to further tantalize and tempt:
http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/dinner-menu.php

I love raw oysters, and they have them too.  Yes, I’ve heard about the “months-with-an-R” warning, but the only reason I didn’t try an oyster was because I came for the sushi.  They had plenty of delicious-looking hot foods too, but I was a man on a mission, and that mission was to eat all the sushi I could.

We did indulge in dessert, simply because it was there, and it looked so pretty.  My wife had their creme brulee that was more like flan, and I had tiny tastes of tiramisu, banana pudding, and mango mousse cake.  But that was it for me.  I don’t remember the last time I was so full, but it was totally worth it.

I should note that Mikado charges you a fee for wasting food, especially if you load up on nigiri pieces, eat the fish, and leave the rice over. I have no problem with this, as I hate to see food wasted under any circumstances. Pace yourself, scope out your options before loading up your plate, try small tastes of everything in case you don’t like something, and don’t be a jerk who snatches up half the buffet and leaves so much of it behind.

We ate like kings for 25 bucks each, and Mikado’s quality definitely matched the quantity — rare for an all-you-can-eat buffet setting, even rarer for good sushi.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Even if you’re a regular at your favorite hip, trendy, upscale sushi restaurant, give Mikado a chance, and I promise you will be pleasantly surprised and very possibly blown away.  You can’t beat it.  I’ve been wanting to go back ever since, which is the best possible recommendation I can give any restaurant.

Ring the Alarm! Raglan Road

This past weekend, my wife and I journeyed to Disney Springs to see the ridiculously talented singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/actress Janelle Monae perform at the House of Blues.  Needless to say, she was incredible.  I’ve been a fan of her Afro-futuristic feminist funk-soul-pop-hip hop-R&B for almost a decade, and this was our first opportunity to see her live.  If you ever get the chance to see her, DO IT.  You won’t regret it.  She might be the most talented and culturally relevant female musician out there right now, and yes, I did consider your favorite artist.  I would be thrilled to introduce my readers to her best material, but here’s her song “Americans” off her new album Dirty Computer, which I think serves as an anthem and rallying cry for the progressive, inclusive, empathetic resistance in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY

Anyway, we’ve had good, bad, and plenty of so-so experiences dining at Disney Springs, so we opted to return to an old favorite, the boisterous Irish pub Raglan Road.  Sprawling, loud, and crowded, you can always count on a festive atmosphere, solid food, and friendly service.  This evening, they had a three-piece Irish band playing Celtic folk music, along with winsome Irish dancers clogging away on a central stage. Sometimes it can be too loud to have a conversation, but we were seated a decent distance from the stage, ironically in the “Music Room,” where we could hear and enjoy the music perfectly without it drowning out each other’s voices.

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It’s hard to not get caught up in the welcoming old-country vibe and party atmosphere of the place, and I’ve never been to Ireland and don’t think I have any Irish in me. But when I listen to the Pogues, I feel a strong kinship with Irish culture, and when I set foot in a good pub, I feel the same.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even drink!

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Of course, every meal at Raglan Road starts with slices of rich, brown Irish soda bread, served with a masterful dipping sauce that is Guinness stout ale reduced with sugar and mixed with olive oil.  It is so good, and it sets the tone for everything to follow.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture this time.

On previous visits, we have defaulted to Irish pub classics like fish and chips, bangers and mash, or bacon loin and cabbage (much more traditional than the 19th Century New York City substitution of corned beef and cabbage).  Once we arrived early enough on a Sunday for them to offer a full Irish breakfast option, which I had to go for (much to the chagrin of my body).  My favorite part is always the black pudding (AKA blood sausage), and I’m 100% serious.  It is delicious, and I wish it was a regular menu item.

This time, the menu had several new options since the last time we were there (maybe two years ago), so we decided to split two entrees that were new to us.  My wife loves sea scallops, pork belly, and gnocchi, those chewy, potatoey dumplings, so she had a hard time saying no to the “Gnocchi See, Gnocchi Do,” with handmade potato gnocchi, seared Georges bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce.  She was kind enough to share some of it with me, although she gave me one whole scallop and the dish only came with three!  That’s true love, folks.

They were really big scallops, perfectly seared, sweet and buttery.  But I almost hate ordering scallops at restaurants because you can usually end up counting them on one hand.  The tomatoes were halved grape tomatoes.  She’s not a tomato fan and I got too full to finish them.  I would have preferred regular diced tomatoes, or better yet, sun-dried tomatoes, which would have added another nice texture and a little sweetness.

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I asked what her second choice was, so I could order that and share it with her.  We both love game meats, or any gamier meat, so we were both tempted by the Boaring Burger, a grilled wild boar burger with Cashel blue cheese, crispy onion strings, arugula, port and pear chutney, and herb aioli, served on a floury potato bun.  We both thought the wild boar was a little dry, but at least it had a nice flavor (much more interesting than most pork, which I find almost as bland as boneless, skinless chicken breasts).  There was nothing “boaring” about it!

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The burger had a lot of contrasting tastes and textures that worked well together, and the bun held it all in place well.  It even came with a nice little side salad, and a crunchy sweet pickle garnish.  Believe it or not, I’m not generally a fan of pickles, but I am working on developing more of an appreciation for them.

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And since I had a choice of side and the fries/chips walking out of the kitchen looked a little light and unappealing, I opted for onion rings.  That’s right, folks, this ended up being a RING THE ALARM! feature!  (Cue the air horns!)

I must admit, these are not my favorite kinds of onion rings.  They were huge, and the batter was thick, heavy, and crunchy, but at least not overly greasy.  I suspect it may be the same kind of batter they use for their fried fish, but despite being referred to as “beer battered onion rings” on the menu, they aren’t the golden-brown beer battered rings I’m on a never-ending quest for.  But for a change, my wife actually liked them — or at least the crunchy batter.  She peeled a few of them and left the onions behind for me!

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Raglan Road has one of my all-time favorite desserts, a rich bread and butter pudding that almost defies explanation, especially because I haven’t had it in a few years.  But we were both very full, she had already had mini-cupcakes from the nearby Sprinkles bakery, and we had a concert to go to at a sold-out venue with limited restrooms, so I figured “Why tempt fate?”  Get to be my age, you Millennials, and you’ll start enjoying the same interior monologues with every meal YOU eat.

Sláinte!