El Rey De Las Fritas (Miami)

El Rey De Las Fritas (https://elreydelasfritas.com/) is one of Miami’s most famous and iconic casual restaurants, a Cuban diner that was founded by Victoriano “Benito” Gonzalez and his wife, Angelina “Gallega” Gonzalez, the current owner.  Over the decades, they expanded their restaurant to four locations, three in Miami proper and one in Hialeah.

My BFF (best food friend) and I ate lunch at the original El Rey De Las Fritas on my trip to Miami back in July, before picking up takeout from the nearby Sanguich De Miami to eat later.  The restaurants are located a relatively short walk from each other along Miami’s historic Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street), the legendary stretch of Little Havana that is the colorful and vibrant center of Miami’s Cuban community.  This was my first-ever visit to El Rey De Las Fritas, and I think we did it right.

Sitting at stools along the long counter for a classic diner experience, we started out by ordering four croquetas de jamon to share ($1.50 each).  My friend occasionally reviews the best croquetas in and around Miami in a recurring feature called “The Croqueta Diaries” on his own food and culture blog, so I was with a real connoisseur.  These were pretty classic, standard croquetas with the typical creamy filling of diced ham mixed with bechamel sauce, fried to golden perfection with cracker crumb coating.

I was surprised by how large the menu was, with so many Cuban dishes to choose from beyond the iconic fritas.  Because I didn’t study it enough in advance, I panicked and ordered a batido de guayaba (guava milkshake; $5).  It was really thick and didn’t have a strong guava flavor, and wasn’t even super-refreshing for this hot July day.  I might have been better off with some limonada or jugo de maracuya (passion fruit juice), or even a cafe con leche, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

But anyway, the whole point of going to El Rey De Las Fritas was to order the classic Cuban frita, a specially seasoned burger patty on a Cuban roll topped with diced onions and a mountain of crispy, freshly fried shoestring potatoes (papitas julianas).  It also comes with a tangy red sauce that looks like ketchup and smells like ketchup, but brother, it ain’t ketchup!  I opted for the frita especial con queso, a cheeseburger frita ($4.95, just a 20-cent upcharge for cheese).  It was even better than it looks, and you can see how good it looks.  Our fritas were definitely better than the ones we tried at Polo Norte in Miami, back in March 2020, and even those weren’t bad by any means.

I even brought a frita original ($4.75) to bring back to my wife in Orlando, since she likes her burgers sin queso (without cheese).  But she didn’t want it, so I brought it to work to eat at my desk, the same sad way I always eat my lunches.  But this day I had an unexpected leftover frita burger, so it was a lot less sad than usual. 

I got a little obsessed with fritas during the work-from-home period of the pandemic in 2020, so I experimented a lot with different recipes for the meat and the sauce, although I always used those crunchy fried potato sticks that come in a can.  Still, after finally trying the real deal at Miami’s most legendary frita joint, it’s hard to beat the professionals.  The iconic institution El Rey truly was the king of fritas.


The Saboscrivner’s Top Stand-Up Comedy Specials of 2022

I’m a lifelong comedy nerd.  Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, The Simpsons, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Eddie Murphy, The State, Ghostbusters, the Marx Brothers, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League International comics, Tom Lehrer, Bugs Bunny, The Tick, Laurel and Hardy, Spike Jones, Seinfeld, and a dog-eared book of corny old Henny Youngman one-liners helped mold and shape my sense of humor.

I love good comedy, and I specify “good,” because there is so much bad comedy out there.  Too much, really.  Comedy is one of the hardest things to write and perform well,  so I have the utmost respect for the writers, actors, and stand-up comics who make me laugh, especially because laughing is such a better alternative to crying and/or screaming.  These days we need all the help we can get to not cry or scream.  I know I do.

I especially love stand-up comedy, so here is my list of my favorite stand-up specials to come out in 2022:

9. Patton Oswalt: We All Scream (Netflix).  Oswalt is one of my all-time favorite stand-ups and the last comedian I saw live before the pandemic struck, back in February 2020.  I always root for him as a fellow nerd who made good, but We All Scream meandered a bit too much for me.  It wasn’t as tight or focused as some of his previous specials, but I’m so happy he has found happiness in his life again after losing his first wife, and that he’s still doing what he does — almost an elder statesman of stand-up at this point.

8. Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel (HBO Max).  I wasn’t super-familiar with his work before, but this was a very bold, brave, heartfelt, and personal performance leading up to a huge moment.  If you’re going to watch it, please don’t read anything about it first, because almost every reviewer spoils it.

7. Atsuko Okatsuka: The Intruder (HBO Max).  I wasn’t familiar with her at all and still have no idea where she came from.  We just clicked on this randomly, and Okatsuka was silly, clever, and likeable.  I look forward to whatever she does next.

6. Lil Rel Howery: I Said It.  Y’all Thinking It.  (HBO Max).  This was just joyful.  Rel is a comedian who doesn’t set out to be some kind of bold truth-teller or a combative curmudgeon.  He just brings infectious enthusiasm to his stories and anecdotes, like a less obnoxious Kevin Hart, and it was delightful.  I enjoyed this special a lot more than his previous one, Live in Crenshaw.

5. Neal Brennan: Blocks (Netflix).  Another bold and fearless performance.  If there’s one thing I can’t stand about comedy, it’s “angry alpha bro” stand-ups who come out with a heel stage persona and try to be acerbic and confrontational, punching down and reveling in being bullies.  Brennan isn’t a bully by any means (unlike what his former collaborator has become), but I loved how confrontational he got at times here, discussing some big issues from his own life and life in general while being unafraid to alienate the audience.

4. John Gondelman: People Pleaser (Amazon Prime Video, Tubi).  Another new name and face for me, but I just liked the guy immediately.  He’s such a mensch!  Loves his wife, doesn’t punch down or go for shitty cheap shots, clever wordplay, good crowd work, terrific payoff at the end.  Whatever he does next, I’ll be paying attention.

3. Catherine Cohen: The Twist…?  She’s Gorgeous (Netflix).  This was as much a musical cabaret show as a stand-up performance, and I was enrapt.  Cohen’s stage persona is an attention-craving Millennial diva caricature, somehow sexy, raunchy, and deeply neurotic all at once.  Accompanied on the piano by unsung hero Henry Koperski, this was the kind of lounge act I’ve loved ever since I was a kid, even though they didn’t exist by the time I was born and haven’t made much of a comeback since then.  She’s a true star in the making, and I hope to see her perform her bawdy, melodramatic musical comedy live some day, before she gets too popular to keep playing in small, intimate cabaret venues.

2. Kyle Kinane: Trampoline in a Ditch (YouTube).  This was a recorded version of the tour set I saw Kinane perform in Orlando in 2018.  He has such a great deep voice, and he’s one of the best storytellers in the comedy game.  He is a self-proclaimed “dirtbag” who nevertheless seeks out the joy and wonder in everyday life.  A story he tells about taking his mother to a bowling alley left me in tears at the live show, and I was so glad it was included in this recorded version.  Yes, the link above leads to the entire show, completely free.  You’re welcome.

1. Tom Papa: What a Day! (Netflix).  As a performer, Papa is so cool, even though his stories about marriage and fatherhood are anything but cool.  He does everything Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia do on stage, only smoother, faster, and more effortless-looking — and don’t get me wrong, I like those gentlemen too, and I’ve seen Gaffigan live twice.  I discovered Tom Papa from his “Out in America” segments on the late, lamented Live From Here radio show (a reworking of A Prairie Home Companion that made it much more music- and comedy-focused and in touch with modern sensibilities, but was unfortunately another victim of the pandemic).  Papa has a few other stand-up specials, and each one is a breath of fresh air and well worth seeking out.  His stories may be about the mundane trivialities and annoyances of middle age, but his delivery is anything but mundane.

Orlando Weekly published my Top Ten Tastes of 2022!

For the sixth year in a row, I am grateful to Orlando Weekly and its excellent, exceptional, exemplary editrix Jessica Bryce Young, for including my latest annual list of my favorite things I ate in Orlando this year: my Top Ten Tastes of 2022.


Here are links to my full, detailed Saboscrivner reviews of every restaurant I included on the 2022 list:
Wako Taco
John and John’s – A Pizza Shop
The Pastrami Project
Thai Singha
Ray’s Deli and More
The Escobar Kitchen
JAM Hot Chicken
Hanalei Shave Ice
Kabuto Sushi and Grill (I’m so sad that  it closed permanently TWO DAYS AGO!)
And I haven’t reviewed Crocante yet, since I’m hoping to go at least one more time first, but it’s great too.

Also, here is is one convenient link to all my previous annual lists for Orlando Weekly.  So much for my secret identity, even though pretty much everyone knows who I am anyway… kind of like all of Clark Kent’s co-workers and all the fancy people who have spent any time around Bruce Wayne.

Happy New Year, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!  Here’s to a better, safer, healthier, happier 2023 for all.  Hopefully we all eat well, and maybe we can even share some meals in the new year.

The Saboscrivner’s Top 15 TV Shows of 2022

Welcome back, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!  Every year I make my dozens of readers wonder why they should seek television and movie recommendations on a food blog, but let’s face it, not that many people seek restaurant recommendations here either.  So let’s get on with it!

15. George and Tammy (Showtime).  An acting master class from the great Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as troubled country music icons George Jones and Tammy Wynette, two incredible songwriters and performers who loved each other as best they could.  The miniseries isn’t over yet, but it has been excellent so far.  I’m really impressed that Shannon and Chastain, two of my favorite actors, are doing their own singing.

14. Fleishman Is In Trouble (FX on Hulu).  Taffy Brodesser-Akner adapted her own first novel into this miniseries, and it is depressing, but beautifully written.  The Fleishman in trouble seems to be the newly divorced doctor dad navigating dating apps and single parenting in Manhattan, after his wife completely disappears.  But when the focus shifts to his best friend (played by the wonderful Lizzy Caplan, who is also the narrator), we learn he might not be the only Fleishman in trouble, and that every divorce — every story — has at least two sides.  There is one episode left, and I have a good feeling it won’t disappoint.

13. The White Lotus, season 2 (HBO Max).  I enjoyed this season, with horrible, attractive rich people on vacation at a Sicilian resort, more than the first season in Hawaii.  Most of the characters really were awful, but because the show opened with the discovery of a body and a mention of “a few” more deaths, I enjoyed it the most for the murder mystery aspect, figuring out who would kill and who would be killed, searching for clues and crafting theories that might have been more interesting than the way things actually played out.  Season 1 was more about racism, classism, and colonialism, but this season focused more about sex (especially the transactional nature of sex), infidelity, and the mind games people play with their partners and themselves.  Anything about infidelity and cheating makes me feel really depressed, but I appreciated that I felt real tension during the finale episode, waiting for everything to go wrong.  Even if I didn’t love the show like some of these others on my list, I give it props for making me feel anything at all and giving me a chance to speculate between episodes.  

12. Reacher, season 1 (Amazon Prime Video).  This show about a former military police investigator embroiled in small-town intrigue reminded me of two of my all-time favorite shows: Justified (although Reacher isn’t nearly as clever and witty) and Banshee (although Reacher isn’t nearly as badass).  Still, I enjoyed the hypercompetent protagonist solving mysteries and owning the corrupt local yokels.  I’ve never read the novels this show is based on, but my father and my father-in-law both love them, which speaks volumes — no pun intended.

11. Our Flag Means Death, season 1 (HBO Max).  I didn’t expect to like a show about pirates, especially when I found out it was supposed to be a comedy.  But then it turned into an unlikely romantic comedy, and it became the feel-good show of 2022, like Ted Lasso and Schitt’s Creek in previous years.  If you don’t like it at first, I can’t say I disagree with you.  But especially now that you don’t have to wait for a new episode every week, hang around until Blackbeard shows up, played by New Zealand actor-writer-director Taiki Waititi.  That’s when the show gets good and will become great.

10. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, season 1 (Disney+).  I’m definitely feeling Marvel Studios burnout, y’all.  This show definitely wasn’t perfect, but it edged the charming Our Flag Means Death out of my Top Ten because it stars one of my favorite actresses, Tatiana Maslany, playing one of my favorite comic book characters, Jennifer Walters, a mousy lawyer who becomes the big, green, fun-loving, sexy superheroine She-Hulk.  This show did its best to delve into some of the weird legal issues that would come up in a world of superheroes and supervillains, crazy future technology, unnatural powers, people being snapped out of existence and coming back to life en masse, and so forth.  It did provide a nice view of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” from the point of view of regular people trying to deal with the weirdness.  I just wish it had more weight to it, even though it’s a superhero show and a comedy at that.

It seemed clear to me that the writers’ room was more comfortable writing about Jen’s relationship woes and trouble with men than the legal stuff, which is totally fine.  Those parts really fleshed out her character and mattered in the end.  But everything felt so rushed, when they could have developed the other characters more, extended entire scenes, and given everything a chance to breathe and matter.  Longer episodes would have helped with the pacing, but maybe it came down to budget issues.  I’m sure you’ve already heard about the second-to-last episode, in which my favorite Marvel character shows up and reminds us how awesome he is.  Then the season finale is super-fun and joyful, and it probably pissed off all the right people.  I know it’s a big ask, but if you can binge through the whole season, you will probably enjoy it.  Episodes are short (I argue too short), so it should be an easy binge.

9. Andor, season 1 (Disney+).  The least-“Star Warsy” Star Wars thing I’ve ever seen, and also one of the best.  The show’s tone is grim and bleak, the pacing can be slow and ponderous, and there isn’t a lot of comic relief to break up all that darkness, but there are definitely moments of catharsis and hope that make it all worthwhile.  It is a prequel to a prequel, set a few years before the events of the Rogue One movie, which in turn is set right before the first Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New HopeAndor is all about the rise of fascism and authoritarianism in the form of the Empire, and how regular people — not Jedi knights, not members of a special family — can stand against it.  It wouldn’t be spoiling anything to tell you that Andor’s highlights include a daring heist, a heart-pounding prison break, and a brave, brutal uprising in the streets, plus a handful of rousing monologues and heartfelt speeches.  But if that doesn’t sound “Star Warsy” enough for you, there is also a cute, cool, and loyal new droid and a visit to “Planet Miami.”

8. Peacemaker, season 1 (HBO Max).  Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith was introduced in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad movie, which I liked much better than the previous article-less Suicide Squad, but still didn’t love.  As a result, I wasn’t expecting much from this show, but it went a long way toward redeeming Chris, a violent, macho, immature jerk.  By the end, he was still a violent, macho, immature jerk, but he dealt with his daddy issues and learned how to function on a team, make friends, think for himself, and do the right thing.  It was a really interesting deconstruction of toxic masculinity and childhood trauma, with plenty of raunchy humor and gory violence to keep it from ever feeling too serious or weighty.

I’ll argue to anyone that pro wrestler-turned-actor John Cena  is one of the greatest comic actors out there.  He really made us hate, laugh at, and care for the deeply problematic Chris.  But the highlight of the show was Freddie Stroma playing Vigilante, a bizarre adaptation of one of my low-key favorite DC Comics characters.  The guy stole every scene he was in and made you root and cheer for a very weird and unsettling character.  So James Gunn made a super-fun and funny show, and now he’s in charge of all DC movies and TV shows moving forward.  I feel like they may finally be in the right hands after Peacemaker.  Also, the show has what is probably the best opening title sequence of all time.  You’ll never want to skip it because it’s infectious in every possible way, and you’ll notice new little details about it every time.

7. The Afterparty, season 1 (Apple TV+).  A really clever and entertaining show that’s a murder mystery, but also a comedy.  A group of old friends attend their high school reunion, followed by an afterparty at a famous classmate’s house.  Someone ends up dead, and a police detective arrives to interview all the attendees, since everyone is a suspect.  But the structure is so cool: every episode is a different interview, so you see the same events play out as flashbacks from multiple perspectives, filling in the gaps for the audience so we get a clearer picture of the evening’s events.  And even cooler, every episode is also a different genre, depending on which unreliable narrator is telling the story, so we get a rom-com, an action movie, a musical, and more.  It wrapped up the loose ends in an extremely satisfying way, and yet somehow, we’re getting a second season!

6. The Righteous Gemstones, season 2 (HBO Max).  Another show I fully expected to hate, and did at the very beginning, but ended up really enjoying.  We binged both seasons back to back, but only season 2 aired in 2022.  It’s a comedy about a family of wealthy televangelists in South Carolina, and how hilariously screwed up they all are.  The widowed patriarch (John Goodman) is detached, disapproving, and paternalistic, the eldest son (co-creator and showrunner Danny McBride) is ambitious but overestimates his competence and intelligence, the middle daughter (comedy secret weapon Edie Patterson) is sexually inappropriate and practically feral, and the youngest son is… not-so-secretly gay, but doesn’t realize it?  His plots are a bit of a comedy vacuum, but the rest of the show had us howling with laughter.  And then the great Walton Goggins is in it as their scheming Uncle Baby Billy, a former Christian music child star, now in his 60s after squandering countless opportunities and wasting most of his life.  I never had any patience for McBride’s loudmouthed Southern jackass characters, but his humor totally grew on me, so much so that we even went back and binged Vice Principals, his previous show that he and Goggins starred in together.  That’s a more uncomfortable watch, but also entertaining.

5. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, season 1 (Paramount+).  This is it, folks.  My favorite Star Trek of all time.  Better than the current Discovery (which I also enjoy) and any of the previous, beloved series.  Discovery season 2 introduced the core trio at the heart of Strange New Worlds (so I would recommend watching at least that season too): Ethan Peck as Mr. Spock, Rebecca Romijn as Number One, and Anson Mount, one charming and handsome dude, as the best fictional boss ever, Captain Christopher Pike.  With his empathy and emotional intelligence, Pike is my favorite Star Trek captain of all time, and he really makes the show.  Strange New Worlds perfects the formula of exploring, making contact with alien races, solving problems, and bonding with the crew that has made Star Trek endure through the decades.  If you have ever been skeptical, or you think Star Trek is boring, or you don’t get what all the Trekkies love but wish you did (as I have through much of my life), this is the show for you.  It’s pure joy — fun, optimistic, hopeful, feel-good entertainment about the smartest, bravest, kindest, most heroic people doing their best and being their best.

4. The Bear, season 1 (FX on Hulu).  As much as I love restaurants (which is A LOT, considering I review them in this blog), I’ve never worked in the restaurant business, or any food service or hospitality jobs.  A lot of my friends have, though, and I have the utmost respect for the people who cook and serve me.  I realize it’s a hard job, but no show has ever shown a more realistic look at life in a restaurant kitchen than The Bear, about a fine dining chef who returns to run his family’s dumpy Italian beef sandwich restaurant in Chicago after his brother commits suicide.  The show is so stressful.  You feel it when the kitchen is slammed with orders, when co-workers yell and scream at each other, when family fights, when egos clash.  Chefs and kitchen staff have told me how accurate it all is, and I feel even more awe toward them.  But on top of the gripping, gritty drama, the show also made me really hungry for Chicago-style Italian beefs (I like mine with hot giardiniera but not dipped), and also for spaghetti.  If you know, you know.

3. Atlanta, seasons 3 and 4 (FX on Hulu).  Donald Glover hasn’t proven me wrong yet.  I’ve been a fan since he his earliest Childish Gambino mixtapes and his days as a young writer on 30 Rock, where he gifted the world with “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.”  I quit watching Community around the same time he left the show, I saw him perform stand-up live in 2012, I’ve listened to all his albums more times than I can count, and I’ve loved Atlanta from the beginning, which seems like a long time ago (2016, damn!).  This year we got two seasons, after a few years with none, and they were remarkable.  There were several stand-alone episodes that felt like experimental short films, that were always interesting even when they didn’t include the four central characters.  And when we caught up with Earn, Alfred, Darius, and Van (played by four of my favorite actors: Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, the effortlessly cool LaKeith Stanfield, and Zazie Beetz), it was like spending time with old friends.

Season 3 had the crew hanging out in Europe, but I preferred seeing them back home in the ATL in Season 4, exploring its secret passages and endless parking garages, avoiding angry old white ladies and deranged Tyler Perry analogues, navigating family squabbles and Black-owned sushi restaurants, going to therapy, and forming complicated revenge plots.  The show is over now, but it went out on top.  There was funny Atlanta, surreal Atlanta, and even scary Atlanta, but never any mediocre or bad Atlanta.

2. Severance, season 1 (Apple TV+).  The less you know when you watch this show, the better experience you will have.  It’s complicated and sometimes confounding.  It’s a workplace drama, a dark comedy, a mystery, dystopian science fiction, and existential horror, all at once.  It has some of the best acting, writing, and directing I’ve seen this year.  It sucked me in, had me on the edge of my seat with clammy-palmed tension, and made me feel extremely uncomfortable at times.  But I see that as a good thing, the fact that it made me feel any strong emotions at all, when so much entertainment is designed to be bland and banal, disposable and empty.  I am notoriously bad at maintaining a healthy work-life balance, so Severance hit me hard.  I guess I’m the target audience, and I doubt I’m alone.  Don’t read anything about it, don’t watch any teasers or trailers, just watch it before some fool spoils it for you.  You can get a free week trial subscription for Apple TV+, and I swear you’ll binge it within the week.  Then keep it long enough to squeeze in The Afterparty and Ted Lasso, too.

1. Better Call Saul, season 6 (AMC).  You knew this was coming.  The final season to one of my favorite shows of all time, which was a prequel/spinoff of another one of my favorite shows of all time, and they stuck the landing.  They wrapped up everyone’s story arcs and/or set them up for Breaking Bad in the perfect possible ways.  There were moments of extreme tension balanced by cathartic humor, shocking deaths, and plenty of wild plot twists as details set up over the course of two long-running shows, some over a decade old, finally paid off.  The last few episodes flashed forward to events that took place after Breaking Bad, which I think many of us were waiting for the entire time, to learn the final fates of Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takovic and our beloved Kim Wexler, played by the best damn actress on television, Rhea Seehorn.  They both broke bad, did some terrible things, and had even more terrible things done to them.  In the end, I think they both redeemed themselves, but in ways that would have been hard for anyone to predict.  I’m sure most people reading a list of some nerd’s favorite TV shows of the year have already watched all of Saul, but if you haven’t, it’s never too late to start.  You definitely won’t be sorry.

For anyone who made it this far, here are my lists from previous years:

Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade (2011-2021)
Top Ten TV Shows of 2021
Top Twenty TV Shows of 2020
Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019
Top Ten Movies of 2019
Top Ten TV Shows of 2018
Top Ten Movies of 2018

The Nauti Lobstah

The Nauti Lobstah (https://www.thenautilobstah.com/) is a casual seafood restaurant in Apopka, specializing in New England-style seafood, particularly the iconic lobster roll sandwiches.  It used to be known as The Catfish Place, a restaurant that had been around for 38 years, but I never made it there for that incarnation.  Owners Christine, Cara and Mike took it over in December 2020, and Mike (the chef) added some seafood specialties from his native New England to the existing menu.  They took a place that two generations of locals loved and added to it, while keeping everything that worked.

My wife and I both love lobstah rolls (or lobster rolls, if you must).  These are classic New England sandwiches with lobster meat on a toasted New England-style split-top hot dog bun, but The Nauti Lobster serves their versions on brioche rolls.  There are two kinds, and we each have a favorite.  I prefer the classic (Maine?) lobstah roll, served cold with mayonnaise, like lobster salad.  We decided to each get our favorite version and DARE… TO COMPARE!

This is the cool, refreshing version of the lobstah roll with mayo stirred into the decadent meat ($28).  We got homemade potato chips as the side with this one.  Schlepping back from Apopka to Casselberry, I thought fries would have been cold and pointless by the time I got home with our food.

Here’s a close-up of the lobstah roll.  I had the best lobstah roll of my life at Neptune Oyster in Boston’s North End, but for the Orlando area, this was pretty delicious.  There aren’t many lobstah rolls to choose from around here.   

My wife ordered the warm Connecticut lobstah roll.  The meat came immersed in melted butter in a separate container, so it wouldn’t completely soak through the roll and render it useless.  She liked it a lot too.  She chose sweet potato casserole as her side, rich and sweet with pecans, kind of like getting a dessert.

RING THE ALARM, because I also ordered an appetizer order of onion rings.  Longtime readers know that I’ll try onion rings anywhere they’re on the menu.  These had a nice, crispy, golden batter coating (which I always prefer to breaded onion rings), and they came with tangy “tiger horseradish sauce” (not pictured, but you can guess what it looks and tastes like).  If there’s ever a thick orange or pink sauce that is described as tangy, zesty, spicy, and/or creamy, you can bet I’m going to try it.  I am the Condiment King!

We also shared a lunch special platter of fried clam strips with hush puppies ($18) — a holdover from the Catfish Place era.  These clams were not too chewy or rubbery, which is always a pleasant surprise.

You can choose a side, and I got creamed spinach, which was good and rich, but also made me feel pride for eating something green and healthy.  Yeah, that’s the ticket!

While it’s a bit of a drive for us to make it to The Nauti Lobster, I’d definitely go back, ideally to eat on the premises.  I liked the feeling of the large dining area.  It felt like a friendly, comfortably, cozy, welcoming place to eat, especially since so many items on this menu are best consumed immediately, whether they are fried to perfection or drenched in butter.  If Apopka is a haul for us, I can imagine what a schlep it is for my readers living in Orlando proper.  But trust me, you won’t be disappointed if you make the trek.  There are desserts on the menu that we didn’t try, but if you’re all the way out there, you could also consider stopping by my other better-late-than-never Apopka discovery of 2022, Aunt Gingibread’s Bakery, for some baked goods to go.


Jaleo (https://www.jaleo.com/location/jaleo-disney-springs/) is an upscale Spanish restaurant, founded by the successful celebrity chef, restauranteur, and humanitarian Jose Andres.  When he’s not feeding people in international crisis zones with his World Central Kitchen charity, he runs several other restaurants, including China Chilcano, the Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese restaurant in Washington, D.C., which I ate at and reviewed in 2019.  But Jaleo, featuring the tastes of his native Spain, is probably his most famous, with locations in D.C., Chicago, Las Vegas, and right here in Orlando.

The two-story Jaleo location at Disney Springs is absolute huge and beautiful.  It is almost like sensory overload in there, with so much to look at even before your senses are overwhelmed by the tapas coming your way. 

The design really is busy, but stunning.

Peep these gorgeous hanging hams.  As Michael Jackson might have said, “JAMON!”

This location opened in March 2019, and I had been wanting to go since the beginning.  But with COVID, major medical stuff, a job change, and lots of other life stuff getting in the way, I finally made it to Jaleo earlier this year, back in May, which seems like a lifetime ago.   I went for a leisurely lunch with three colleagues from work, all top-notch librarians I don’t get to work directly with anymore, but I think the world of them.  None of us had ever been here before, so we shared almost everything, which is the best way to do Jaleo — in a group with friends who understand sharing is caring.  Each of us ordered a few dishes and paid our own way, so I will present our epic meal more of less in order of how things came out from the kitchen.

Two colleagues shared this pitcher of sangria, which they seemed to like.  I don’t know how much it cost and didn’t try it because I don’t drink, but it’s Spanish red wine mixed with fruit, so I’m sure you can’t go too wrong.

This is pan con tomate ($14), toasted slices of bread rubbed with fresh tomato, which sounds too simple to be good, and definitely too simple to be worth $14.  But it was worth it, even split four ways.  Better than tomato-rubbed toast has any right to be!  It was so good, another person in my party ordered a second portion for the table.

This was the coca Idiazabal ($10), a handmade rosemary and olive oil cracker topped with membrillo (a jelly-like paste made of the quince fruit, so rich, sticky, and sweet!) and Idiazabal cheese, grated into soft, silky strands.  I had never had quince before, but it reminded me of the guava paste that is ubiquitous in pastelitos and other Cuban desserts from growing up in Miami.  We cracked the coca cracker into quarters as best we could and enjoyed the blend of sweet and salty, crunchy and gooey.   

This was my vegetarian colleague’s manzanas con hinojo y queso Manchego ($13), a salad of sliced apples, fennel, Manchego cheese (a Spanish cheese made from sheep milk), walnuts, and sherry dressing.  I don’t remember much about the bite I got, but I do love fragrant fennel (I like to use it in pasta con la sarde, a dish of pasta and sardines) and salty Manchego.   It would be a great palate cleanser to take bites of between heavier, richer, meaty dishes.   

I definitely ordered this dish, which I swear looked a lot more appetizing in person: the cebolla asada ($11), a huge roasted sweet onion topped with pine nuts and funky-but-delicious Valdeón blue cheese.  Everyone knows how much I love onions, especially when they are marinated and/or caramelized.  This was magnificent, especially with the blue cheese on top.  Part of me imagined enjoying a gigantic, juicy burger topped with this bad boy, but that wouldn’t be Jaleo’s style.

So many months have passed, I think this soup my one vegetarian colleague ordered is the gazpacho de remolacha con queso de cabra ($11), red beet gazpacho with goat cheese, oranges, and pistachios.  It was the only thing on the table I did not sample, but if that’s indeed what it is, it sounds good enough to even win over Lisa Simpson’s gazpacho-mocking family at that one cookout.

Me being the connoisseur of cured meats, I couldn’t go to Jaleo and not order the jamon Serrano ($13), a platter of the most delicious Serrano ham, cured for 24 months.  These paper-thin slices were served with these delightful little crispy bread twists to wrap them around.  Like the best prosciutto, this jamon was salty and unctuous and could melt away in your mouth.  My one male colleague seemed to like it; the ladies wanted nothing to do with it, so more for me!

This was the espinacas a la Catalana ($14), sautéed spinach with pine nuts, raisins and apples.  Once again, I can’t take credit for ordering such a healthy, wholesome dish, but it was so amazing.  I think we had leftovers of a few things at the end of our lunch, including this, and I took them all home because I am shameless.  My wife tried it and loved it, and I attempted a copycat recipe not long after that was okay, but not nearly as good as this.  I mean, look at this!   I do love cooked greens, and the slight sweetness from the fruit made such a difference, especially with the tender crunch of the apples and the chewiness of the raisins (“Nature’s candy,” as my mom would say, trying desperately to convince my brother and I as little kids, and probably herself as well.)

Next up we have the gambas al ajillo ($19), or according to the menu, “The very, very famous tapa of shrimp sautéed with garlic.”  I don’t really care how famous they are, but they were some of the tastiest shrimp I’ve ever had.  I can’t rave enough about how perfectly every dish in this epic lunch was seasoned, and the gambas were no exception.

My mighty colleague ordered this paella of the day for himself, and our patient server warned us it would take about 45 minutes.  It came toward the end of the meal, when we were all visibly fatigued, but I honorably and dutifully helped him get through it.  Constant readers, I wish I could tell you what this exact paella of the day was, but that memory is lost in time, like tears in the rain.  The menu narrows down the kind of rice to “Bomba rice from Valencia or Calasparra from Murcia,” and it definitely included tender chicken, some kind of pork, and also shrimp, with a swirl of garlic aioli on the plate, as if it wasn’t rich enough already.  Not everything is worth the wait, but this paella was.This is where I admit I’ve had bad experiences with paella elsewhere.  Usually you pay a lot and wait a long time, and the rice comes out underdone.  Just disheartening experiences overall, which is why I didn’t order a traditional rice-based paella for myself, even in this temple of Spanish cuisine, with a menu created by one of the greatest chefs in the world.  Because the rice was tender and everything came together, it was probably the best paella I’ve ever had.

This was the last dish I ordered myself: rossejat negra ($32), a different kind of paella made with toasted Catalonian fideos pasta instead of rice, head-on shrimp, squid ink, calamari sofrito, and dollops of creamy, garlicky aioli.  The picture isn’t great, because it looks like some burnt crud on the pan, but that was actually pasta dyed black with squid ink, a gourmet treat that always impresses my wife and me whenever we see it, maybe because we are goths at heart.  I cannot vouch for the placement of the huge shrimp in this dish, but I’m sure there was no ill intent.  The pasta was al dente in places, but the edges that touched the pan were crispy like pegao, the crispy rice from the bottom of the rice cooker that some people dismiss but others (like my wife) love.  The dollops of creamy, garlicky aioli stood out against the blackness of the pasta and the blackness of the pan, reminding me of a line Alan Moore wrote in the comic book Top Ten #8, later plagiarized by Nic Pizzolatto in the first season finale of True Detective, about seeing stars shining in the night sky, and how there is so much darkness out there, but just to see any light at all means the light is winning.  Well, nobody else wanted anything to do with my rossejat negra, which means I was definitely winning!

My colleague who is a huge Disney fan ordered this dessert, and I honestly don’t remember if I tried a bite or not.  It is the Selva Negra ($14), created to celebrate Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary, lasting throughout 2022 and into March 2023.  The menu describes “a decadent mousse made of Manjari 64% chocolate atop a crunchy feulletine base with black cherry chocolate sponge cake and topped with a chocolate glace.”  That’s pretty impressive to me, considering my favorite dessert is a creamy citrus pie in a crust made of crushed Ritz crackers.  This right here is some serious gourmet… stuff.

I don’t know why it has taken me over half a year to finish writing this review.  Needless to say, the four of us ate like royalty this day.  But the fact that it was four generous and mostly adventurous people made it the ideal situation at Jaleo.  The tapas-style portions aren’t gigantic, but most are bigger than you think, definitely big enough to share with a group this size.  And that’s the way to do tapas correctly — to order a bunch of different things and share them.  Share with friends, with family, with dates and mates, even with former co-workers.  A meal like this lends itself to sharing, so as many people as possible can experience the majestic flavors of Spain and the creative brilliance and love of Chef Jose Andres and his talented kitchen staff.  You could go alone and order a couple of dishes, but I don’t know if that experience would be the same.  That’s why it took me so long to finally make it to Jaleo, and why I won’t return until the circumstances are right, and I can bring more people I care about to share with.  Sharing food (and even information about food) is one of my love languages for sure (you’re welcome!), and one of Chef Andres’ too, as he continues to lead World Central Kitchen to feed people at disaster sites and war zones around the world.  He’s a true mensch, and he deserves our support.  You can donate to World Central Kitchen, AND you can also enjoy a sumptuous, unforgettable meal at Jaleo next time you’re down near Disney.

Hanalei Shave Ice

Hanalei Shave Ice (https://www.instagram.com/hanaleishaveice/) is a refreshing new addition to Orlando’s sweet scene, run by native Hawaiian Brandy Ford, who has a fascinating story of her own.  Located at The House on Lang in the Mills 50 neighborhood, one of Orlando’s best areas for food, this welcoming and festive trailer serves up authentic Hawaiian-style shave ice (never “shaved” ice!) treats that are a perfect, soft consistency, almost like snow, topped with your choice of several delicious sauces, which are so much more than just flavored syrups.

Brandy offers dozens of flavors of shave ice, and all but one of her sauces are homemade, with all-natural ingredients.  I do like orange-flavored desserts, but she went out of her way to warn me that the orange flavor contains food coloring.  It might still be awesome, but I would sooner start with the others that she makes herself.  And so I did.

In the article I linked to above, Brandy tells the story of buying a vintage ice shaving machine from Hawaii that had been used in a grocery store.  She spoke to her father and realized it was not only from the same store where he worked decades ago, but it was the exact same machine he used when he made shave ices back in the day.  Here is my delicious shave ice, posed in that meaningful, multigenerational machine (although she used a more modern machine to make it):

So this was my shave ice, with a combination of two flavors, lilikoi (passion fruit, my latest flavor obsession) and strawberry guava.  There are little chunks of strawberry on top, and it is drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, which makes everything better.  Brandy asked if I wanted it sprinkled with li hing mui, a dried plum powder that is popular in Hawaii, and I told her to go for it.  Good call.  Li hing mui adds a sweet-salty-sour taste to fruit and desserts, and it reminded me of the chamoy sauce I have enjoyed in mangonadas in the past, but different.

Here’s a close-up.  The shave ice is so silky and smooth, similar to the texture of Jeremiah’s Italian Ice, for all you Orlando locals who have enjoyed it in the past.  It isn’t in big chunks, and the flavor syrups distribute well throughout the entire cup, so you are not left with unflavored ice or a pool of plain water at the bottom, something that always frustrates me about Slurpees and similar “slush” desserts.

On my second visit, I got a combination of two different flavors: key lime pie (in my all-time Top Five desserts, so I had to try her version), and piña colada, once again topped with sweetened condensed milk (which may also place in my Top Five desserts, just as a solo act!).  Again, it was so sweet, refreshing, and just delightful.  I think the two flavors would work better separately, or combined with other things rather than with each other, but this way I got a taste of both.
When I used to teach my students about library materials, we would discuss legal treatises, and inevitably, one kid in every class would insist on pronouncing it “treat-ICE” (rather than “treat-ISS”).  Nope, sorry, but thanks for playing!  But here at Hanalei Shave Ice, you can get actual treat-ICES.

On weekends, she offers malasadas, traditional Portuguese doughnuts that are extremely popular in Hawaii, particularly the ones from the famous Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu.  (I’ve never been to Hawaii, but I make a living with my research skills!)

I brought home a half-dozen beautiful malasadas:

Here’s the soft, fluffy, inviting inside of a malasada, perfect for filling with three flavors of ice cream: vanilla, ube (sweet purple yam), or cheese (which I will definitely try next time), or tropical fruit sauces.  Unfortunately, Brandy didn’t have the lilikoi and guava sauces the day I got these, but I was happy to accept and eat them plain.  They were like really fresh, really good, really LARGE doughnuts, clearly hand-made with love rather than rolled off an assembly line.

At Hanalei Shave Ice, you can pay with cash, Apple Pay, Zelle, CashApp, or Venmo.  Apparently I am an old, because I don’t have any of these apps, just Paypal, since I have been buying, selling, and trading collectible comic books and action figures online since the ’90s.  So I paid cash, which I rarely do anywhere else.

You need to check out Hanalei Shave Ice.  While I usually hate that Orlando doesn’t get a real winter with cold weather that lasts more than a day or two, an upside is that we can enjoy cold, sweet treats year-round.  Brandy Ford has ample experience in the restaurant industry as a chef and manager, but since she decided on this phase of her career, she’s building a loyal following with Hawaiian hospitality here at the House on Lang in Mills 50.  She’s so warm and welcoming, quirky and kind.  Her shave ices are so refreshing, and you have almost infinite flavor combinations to keep coming back and treating yourself.  They’re so much lighter than ice cream, to the point where you can convince yourself you’re actually eating health food here!  I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Hawaii, but Orlando is already building up a deep bench of restaurants serving Hawaiian favorites, like my beloved Poke Hana and Hanalei Shave Ice, just minutes away from each other.  I’ll have to bring my wife out there one day, because I’m already such a huge fan of the local specialties.

Wako Taco

Wako Taco (http://www.wakotaco.com/web/) is a casual Tex-Mex restaurant on Ronald Reagan Boulevard in Longwood, located directly next door to Hourglass Brewing, a huge brewery and 240-seat taproom that always has 40+ beers on tap, in very cool, nerd-chic surroundings.  There are a few tables at Wako Taco, but the two establishments are connected by a doorway, allowing people to bring Wako Taco’s delicious food into the huge brewery to enjoy there.

I think I first discovered Wako Taco in 2016, and I’m ashamed I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet, since I have always been a fan.  For one thing, I love the lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) mask motif, in its logo and decorations.  I hadn’t been in for quite some time, and they have since displayed all kinds of colorful masks worn by different luchadores… and they are all for sale!  (Yes, I was tempted.  No, I didn’t buy one.  This time.)  I couldn’t help but think of the very cool El Santo Taqueria I visited on Miami’s Calle Ocho, in the heart of Little Havana, back in 2019.   That place was so rad, especially with how hard they went with the lucha libre theming, but I greatly prefer the food at Wako Taco.
Note that the Wako Taco folks also displayed a Masters of the Universe Castle Greyskull on the top left shelf, along with He-Man and Skeletor Funko Pops.  That was never my thing, not as a kid nor as a nerdy adult collector, but I appreciate anyone’s cool collections.

You can read the menu online, but I took shots of the menu on large screens above the counter where you order, in part to show off the continuing lucha libre mask theming.  You can get larger images of the menu if you right-click these photos and open them in new tabs.

Here’s the other side:

On my first visit to Wako Taco (as well as all my subsequent visits, come to think of it), I ordered the finest chimichanga ($13.75) of my life.  Look at this work of art.  Even taken years ago on an older, much crappier phone camera, it’s still beautiful and beguiling.  For the uninitiated, a chimichanga is a deep-fried burrito.  I just love the golden crispiness of the deep-fried flour tortilla that becomes a shell, encasing the meat, beans, cheese, and rice inside.  It is topped with diced tomatoes, queso, and drizzles of guacamole and sour cream.  You can get your choice of meats, and this photo above contained my usual, spicy pulled puerco pibil.

Below you can see my most recent chimichanga.  Better camera, worse photo.  It was totally my mistake for trying ground beef instead of the superb pibil pork this time, and the green bell peppers chopped up on top would have been so much better sautéed, fajita-style, as they have been on all my past visits.  This was an anomaly, I can assure you.  It was still good, don’t get me wrong, but you never forget your first time.

This sandwich below is called the Dirty Concha ($9), and it contains Wako Taco’s outstanding puerco pibil and crunchy, pink pickled red onions on a sweet roll called a concha, kind of a neat alternative to a typical Mexican torta sandwich on a bolillo roll.  Believe it or not, that pink stuff you’re seeing on top of the bun is sweet, sticky sugar stripes.  It was a sandwich full of contrasts, between the piquant pibil, the tangy and slightly sweet pickled onions, the “habanero drizzle” I didn’t realize was there (but it would explain how surprisingly spicy the sandwich was, in a good way), and the sweet bun.   It also came with a side of blue corn chips that could have used a little more salt, but were fine.  I added a few to the sandwich to add a crunch factor to all those other amazing ingenious ingredients.

Below is another favorite I usually add onto my order, the namesake Wako Taco ($3.30), a breaded, fried, cheese-stuffed jalapeño topped with queso, refried beans, pico de gallo salsa, and sliced jalapeño, served in a soft flour tortilla.  I can’t leave without one of these things!

And this is a new discovery, a hibiscus tinga ($4.80).  Forgive the bad lighting, but this is a snack of actual hibiscus flowers, sautéed with onions and tomatoes and served in a soft flour tortilla.  The menu said it would be topped with grilled cactus (nopales, which sound about as weird as eating hibiscus, although both are tasty), but I didn’t notice no nopales.   It is a tasty dish for vegetarians and carnivores alike, though.

Wako Taco also has aguas frescas, those refreshing, non-carbonated, non-alcoholic drinks I love to see at any Mexican restaurant (and judge the ones that don’t have them).  On my most recent visit, they had horchata (creamy rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, so great for cutting the heat after a spicy bite) and jamaica (pronounced “ha-MY-kuh,” usually a dark red or purplish color, flavored with hibiscus flowers and lots of sugar).  I ordered an horchata, but I was sad they didn’t have piña (pineapple), a favorite flavor from past visits.  Sometimes I would even swing by and grab a piña agua fresca while running errands on hot days when I wasn’t ordering any food.

But those times were few and far between, because I find it hard to be in the neighborhood of Wako Taco (sometimes visiting Acme Superstore, Longwood’s museum-like comic book and collectible toy store) and not stopping by for a snack or a whole damn meal.  Orlando has no shortage of awesome and authentic Mexican restaurants, but if you like Tex-Mex, and especially chimichangas, or if you like hanging out at breweries while you eat, this is definitely the place for you.

Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (Miami)

Of all the restaurants I’ve written reviews for, I’ve been going to Arbetter’s Hot Dogs (https://www.arbetterhotdogs.com/index.html) the longest, ever since I was a little kid in the ’80s.  It’s an institution in Miami’s Westchester neighborhood, not far from where I grew up in Kendall, where my parents and brother still live.  The bright yellow building on Bird Road (SW 40th Street), just west of Galloway Road (SW 87th Avenue), has been serving up Miami’s most iconic hot dogs since 1972, after first opening in 1960 in a different location.  It has survived everything, from recessions to fickle foodie trends, keeping its prices low and its aesthetics simple and old-school.  It reminds me of Orlando’s beloved Beefy King that way, another culinary time capsule from a bygone era that continues to survive and thrive because it never changed what people love about it.

Even though my dad wouldn’t ever consider himself a foodie, he introduced me to all of his favorite Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis in Miami in the ’80s and ’90s, starting me on my lifelong quest to discover all the best food and tell people about it, whether they asked or not.  He would also take me to Arbetter’s, usually after trips to A&M Comics and Books, another Bird Road landmark that still survives today, the second-oldest comic book store in the country.  These jaunts fueled my lifelong loves of comic books and reading in general (and also hot dogs).

It had been far too long since I returned to this legendary hot dog spot for a taste of my youth, so it was fitting I made it back to finally write a review in 2022, its 50th anniversary in the Bird Road location.  That’s an incredible feat for any restaurant, especially in expensive, clout-chasing Miami.

Prices have gone up since the mid-’90s, the last time I was a permanent resident of Miami, but not as much as you would think:

I ordered two hot dogs, even though I could have easily eaten several more.  As Lake Street Dive sang (but surely not referring to hot dogs), they go down smooth.  On the left, behold Arbetter’s West Virginia dog ($3.99, a bargain at twice the price), topped with yellow mustard, onions, creamy cole slaw, and their delicious house-made chili (with no beans ever).  What a combination, between the crunch of the cabbage and onions versus the softness of the dog and the bun, the acidity of the chili and the pungence of the mustard versus the creamy coolness of the slaw.  On the right you see a traditional dog with mustard and sauerkraut ($2.99), the “control” in this little experiment.  The dogs are simple, and so are the plain buns. 
Since my last visit, back in 2015, Arbetter’s started selling grilled, all-beef, natural casing Sabrett hot dogs for slightly more money, which are high-quality dogs that I love and recommend.  But visiting the place I grew up and this particularly nostalgic restaurant, I had to go with the old-school boiled dogs, which are softer and smokier than the Sabretts, but not as salty or garlicky.  They tasted just as good as I remembered, and they went down soooo smooth.

Arbetter’s has always had awesome fries (currently $3.69), made even better by getting them topped with chili and molten melted cheese ($4.99).  Instead of getting fries on my July 2022 visit, I opted for the onion rings instead ($3.69), because as my constant readers know, I will ALWAYS opt for onion rings and review them on this blog in a little feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!  These were great onion rings — breaded rather than battered, not too thick or too thin, not too greasy, not ripping out of the breading.  I definitely rank them as “the good kind” of onion rings.  I dipped them in a ridiculous mound of ketchup, but in retrospect, I failed my readers and also myself by not getting them topped with chili and cheese (which would have also been $4.99, just like the fries).

Finally writing this review a few months after my meal at Arbetter’s, I’m feeling that nostalgia again and wishing I could get some right now.  I’ll almost certainly pick up a pack of hot dogs when I finally leave the house today, and I already have buns, a jar of Silver Floss kraut, and a multifarious multitude of mustards, plus some ground chuck defrosting in the fridge and a block of habanero cheddar begging to be shredded — everything I need for some chili cheese dogs and classic hot dogs of my own.  But it won’t be the same, not without that old yellow building with the same old faded posters and signs, the sense of community, and the memories of my youth.

I always felt like a stranger at home, growing up in Miami.  I have a good family and wonderful friends I’m still in touch with, but now I enjoy my rare visits to the city a lot more than I ever liked living there.  The food is a major aspect of why I appreciate Miami so much more now, and why I feel pride for my hometown that I never felt back in the day.  Even though Arbetter’s Hot Dogs isn’t fancy or glamorous, it’s an icon, an institution, and a survivor.  It still brings people together, over 50 years later, and makes them feel good, feel special, feel home.  And if that isn’t a microcosm for Miami, I don’t know what is.

Friends Indian Cuisine

Friends Indian Cuisine (https://friendsindiancuisine.com/) is a new halal Indian restaurant on South Semoran Boulevard, just north of Curry Ford Road in South Orlando, south of State Road 408.  It opened earlier this year (2022) and is building a loyal following due to excellent word of mouth.  The location has hosted a handful of restaurants before, but hopefully Friends is here to stay.  I have dined in twice and brought home takeout another time, so I couldn’t wait on this review any longer.  The short version: Friends is fantastic.  It’s another great recommendation to Orlando’s Indian restaurant scene, which I am slowly but surely working my way through.

From my first takeout trip, I brought home the two dishes I know my wife likes: butter chicken (left; $13.99) and palak paneer (right; $12.99) — both mild, for her sake.  The butter chicken is a delicious dish that was her gateway to appreciating Indian food: shredded dark meat chicken (all leg meat) stewed in a creamy tomato sauce.  It is very similar to chicken tikka masala (also on the menu for $14.99), but I’ve brought both to my wife before, and she prefers the butter chicken.  I love it too.  The palak paneer is cubes of cottage cheese (the paneer part) cooked with spinach in a creamy sauce.  It is another great gateway dish for people unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, especially vegetarians.  I’ve ordered an extremely similar dish called saag paneer at other Indian restaurants, but I just researched the difference: palak paneer is always made with spinach, while saag paneer can be made with spinach and/or any other leafy greens, particularly mustard greens.  Mystery solved!

I ordered lamb karahi ($14.99) for myself: boneless lamb strips cooked with tomatoes, onions, and green bell peppers in a curry sauce, served over basmati rice that came on the side.  Normally I order hot lamb vindaloo at Indian restaurants, but I switched it up to try the karahi for the first time.  I still got it hot, but it was a lot less vinegary and pungent than the vindaloo.   

I brought home an appetizer portion of vegetable pakoras ($4.99), a serving of six mixed vegetable patties dipped in chickpea batter and fried until golden-brown and crispy.  I thought my wife would like them too, but I ended up enjoying them more than she did, especially with tamarind sauce for dipping.

This was an order of tandoori paratha (top; $3.49), which is whole wheat bread layered with butter, and regular butter naan (bottom; $2.49, or you can get it with your entree as an alternative to plain basmati rice).  I wanted my wife to be able to compare and contrast them, but they were very similar.  Both breads were soft and warm from having been baked in a clay oven called a tandoor, and we really enjoyed both.  I am more used to buttery, flaky Malaysian-style parathas than the Indian variety, so this tandoori paratha was much more naan-like.  But trust me — I could eat these naan-stop.

If you don’t feel like ordering off the menu, or if you’re a newer convert to the wonderfulness of Indian food, Friends Indian Cuisine offers a daily all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $12.99 on weekdays and $14.99 on weekends, from 11:30 AM until 3:30 PM.  I’ve had the lunch buffet twice now, and it is terrific.  The dishes on the buffet are all mildly spiced for a wide range of palates.

Here are all the options from my most recent visit:

You grab your plate near the naan bread, aloo pakora (crispy battered and fried potatoes that were replenished right after I took this photo, of course), a lentil soup, that I did not try, and sweet gulab jamon, a dessert dish of cake-like balls in a sugary syrup.

Here you have plain white basmati rice, palak paneer (which we have already established is awesome), mixed vegetable curry, and aloo cholay, a dish with cubed potatoes and chickpeas cooked in a spicy curry sauce.

Moving down the line, they offer vegetable rice pilaf, chicken biryani (terrific), chicken curry, chicken korma in a creamy cashew sauce, butter chicken (I love this so much), and moist and tender tandoori chicken thighs and legs.

And finally, you can get cool, creamy raita (a yogurt sauce that is perfect for neutralizing spicy dishes), green chutney, tangy-sweet tamarind sauce, intimidating-looking green chili peppers, chopped red onion, lemon and orange wedges, a green salad, and rice pudding, another sweet dish.

This was my first plate, where I sampled a little bit of everything.  The butter chicken, tandoori chicken, palak paneer, and chicken biryani were my favorites from the lunch buffet.

On my most recent trip to the buffet with two work colleagues, I got an order of vegetable samosas ($4.99) for us to share.  These were perfect potato pyramids, with seasoned potatoes and peas in lightly fried, crispy crusts.  They split one and liked it, and I was too full to try mine until the next morning at home, but it was still great then.

Since Friends Indian Cuisine is so convenient to my job, I look forward to becoming more of a regular over the months and years, even as I branch out and continue to try other Indian restaurants throughout Orlando.  My family NEVER ate Indian food when I was growing up in Miami, and I never ate it that often until the last few years, in my quest to discover the best food anywhere and everywhere and share my thoughts on it.  Now I’m making up for lost time, and I’m thrilled to recommend one more great local Indian restaurant to expand my palate and my experience.

And hey, if you were expecting a Friends reference since I always make pop culture references in my restaurant reviews, sorry to disappoint you, but I always hated that show.