DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart

Ever since I first tried Taglish in late 2019, chef-owner Michael Collantes’ Filipino-American fusion restaurant located inside Lotte Plaza Market‘s food court, I have been obsessed with the flavors of Filipino food.  I’ve been back to Taglish several times and tried many different dishes, each more delicious than the next, but Orlando just doesn’t have that many Filipino restaurants.  A former co-worker who left our workplace to marry a Filipino guy in Montreal used to bring in takeout from DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Deguzman-Oriental-Food-Mart/149298135096257), a Filipino convenience store on East Colonial Drive, just west of State Road 417.  Thanks to his generosity, I had sampled some of their dishes before, but never been there, so I recently decided to do something about that.

DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart is a humble convenience store connected to a Citgo gas station.  In addition to the usual snacks you would expect at a convenience store, they carry an assortment of Filipino groceries, but the star is the shining steam table of fresh, hot food they prepare daily.  A few weeks ago, on a busy, chilly day, I stopped in for an early lunch and decided to order a few different things to treat myself. 

Unfortunately I was eating in my office, so I avoided the tempting-looking crispy fried milkfish, which I figured would be too messy to eat on the job.  Next time, milkfish!

I had been craving pancit, so I got a large serving ($10.00) and made a few meals out of it.  Pancit is a dish of tender rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, eggs, onions, celery, and carrots, and soy sauce.  It wasn’t overly salty or greasy, which is always a relief.  It it totally hit the spot.   

I also got a small container of pork adobo ($5.50), a stew of large, tender chunks of pork braised in a rich, thick gravy made of soy sauce, vinegar and garlic, with plenty of whole black peppercorns in there too.  Soy sauce and vinegar are common ingredients in Filipino cuisine, and I just love the vinegar-heavy flavors that bring sourness and also sweetness, complemented by the saltiness of the soy sauce.  It is really nothing like adobo seasoning or adobo dishes from Latin-American countries that I’ve had.   

Since this was a rare cold day in Orlando, I couldn’t resist ordering a small container of beef caldereta ($7.50) too, another rich, heavy braised dish.  Caldereta is a Filipino take on beef stew, definitely spicier than the pork adobo, but still pretty mild.  “Tangy” might be the best descriptor, due to the tomatoey sauce with chunks of potato, onion, red bell pepper, carrot, and even  black olives in there.  The meat was extremely tender, and the broth had a great flavor.  I am such a sucker for braised meats, especially in the wintertime (which is just a few weeks here in Central Florida), but I love them year-round.   

Don’t worry — like I said, I got three or four meals out of everything I ordered.  I tried spooning the pork adobo and beef caldereta juices over the pancit — both separately and together, creating new and exciting flavor combinations.  As a guy with a vinegar collection that rivals my multitude of mustards, familiarizing myself with vinegar-centric Filipino food has been a fun adventure.  I have bought a few seasoned Filipino vinegars of my own — Suka Pinakurat spicy coconut vinegar and Datu Puti spicy cane vinegar — and I’ve made my own version of the dish adobong sitaw at home several times now, substituting green beans for the more traditional (and harder to find) long beans.  But I haven’t attempted to recreate any other Filipino dishes.  It’s intimidating, but I am more than happy to leave it to the experts in the meantime.

Don’t let the fact that DeGuzman is a convenience store connected to a gas station put you off.  I have always tried to highlight “non-traditional” restaurants on The Saboscrivner, because if you’re willing to take a chance and try new things, you can find some incredible, memorable meals at food trucks, food courts and food halls, farmer’s markets, restaurants inside grocery stores, convenience stores, bowling alleys, and more.  Here we are, eleven months into this pandemic, and restaurants are still struggling everywhere.  Businesses like these are clever, focusing on takeout business rather than customers dining in and doing what they can to survive, and I’m glad we have options like them.  Now I am really glad to have the option of amazing, fresh, homemade food at DeGuzman Oriental Food Mart, just moments from my job and easily accessible from most parts of Orlando.

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
DSC02929

But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

Deli Desires

I try to spare my readers too many similar reviews in a row, plus I like to switch up my cuisines up to keep this blog as interesting as possible.  My readership is low enough as it is, am I right?  But even though I discovered The Pastrami Project two weeks ago and made it the subject of my most recent review, I have since discovered another delicatessen in Orlando, mere minutes away from the Pastrami Project food truck.  It’s a brand-new restaurant called Deli Desires (https://delidesires.com/), located one block north of Colonial Drive on Ferncreek Avenue.

For the last several months, Deli Desires ran a delivery-only business model over Instagram, similar to recent sensation Brad’s Underground Pizza, but started a soft opening in their new brick and mortar location last weekend and is continuing the soft opening this weekend.  I don’t believe they are doing phone or online orders yet, but since I couldn’t find a menu online, I went in person to pick up an early lunch on Friday, not knowing how crowded it would be or what they would have available.  Luckily, when I arrived around 11:45, there was no line, but a line grew by the time I left with my food.  Just so you all know, at least during the soft opening, Deli Desires is open for breakfast and lunch only, and just on Friday through Sunday.  It’s a small space with no seating — strictly a takeout operation for now, which is just fine with me.  And I’m always pleased to see the full staff of a restaurant wearing masks at all times, and wearing them the right way, covering their noses.  Wearing your mask with your nose hanging out totally defeats the purpose, like walking around with your schmeckle sticking out of your pants.  And yet you see it all the time!  (The noses, that is.  During a pandemic, consider it just as bad.)

There’s a lot to look at inside Deli Desires, with large shelves on each side with gourmet groceries — local honey, hot sauce, fancy canned seafood, giant jars of Duke’s mayo (the only kind of mayo I will buy), T-shirts, and a whole rack of Herr’s potato chips, which are excellent, especially the ketchup chips.  Directly in front, they have a display of Dr. Brown’s canned sodas (good root beer and cream soda, but I can’t recommend the Cel-Ray soda) and boxes of kosher salt.

You know what else is fine?  All the food.  Damn fine deli fare.  Here’s the menu, since they didn’t have a website up at the time I wrote this review, just the Instagram page.  It’s very unique for a deli menu — some classics, but definitely modern interpretations of the classics.

When I told my co-worker, a regular member of our Friday “lunch bunch” that I was going to a new deli and asked if she wanted anything, she asked if the menu was online, and I said I couldn’t find it and had no idea what they would have.  She told me she likes Reubens, in case they have one.  (Who doesn’t like Reubens?)  Well, they didn’t have a Reuben, but they did have a different kind of corned beef sandwich ($10) — a “Big Mac”-style corned beef sandwich with shredded lettuce and pickles (in place of the sauerkraut on a Reuben), special sauce (already very similar to the Russian or thousand island dressings that accompany Reubens), and served on a soft, fresh-baked sesame seeded roll.  I didn’t taste this sandwich I brought back for her, but she said it all worked well together.  When I placed the order with the very patient and welcoming Tyson at the counter, he told me they make everything from scratch, including curing their own corned beef.

My regular readers know how much I love delis, especially all the smoked, cured, and pickled meats and fish.  I saw a whitefish salad sandwich on the menu ($10) and had to have it.  Whitefish is a large fish that is often smoked whole, until the skin turns a beautiful golden color.  Then the flaky, oily, smoky flesh is scooped and scraped out, mixed with mayonnaise, dill, usually chopped celery, and other herbs and spices.  I just love it, and I’m already overjoyed on the rare occasions I can find a whole smoked whitefish or “chub” in a store and make my own whitefish salad.  But it’s a labor-intensive process, making sure to remove all the inedible hair-thin bones that look like clear plastic and can really get caught in your throat.  That’s why it is even more pleasing when the professionals do the work.  This was delicious whitefish salad on the same kind of soft seeded roll — big chunks of fish mixed with mayo (Duke’s!) and lots of dill.  It was topped by crispy “celery salad,” with long, paper-thin strands of celery and red radish that must have been sliced with a razor-sharp mandoline slicer.  They topped it with a slice of muenster cheese too, almost making it like their version of a tuna melt, that diner classic.  Of course the sandwich was served cold, as it should be.

While I was there for the soft opening, I wanted to try a second sandwich, so I could eat a little of both at work and finish them for dinner.  I decided to go with the scrapple sandwich ($8), although it was a difficult decision.  This was an excellent breakfast sandwich that would be a welcome meal at any time of day, not just in the morning.  For those that don’t know, scrapple is a breakfast meat that is made by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid-Atlantic states, kind of like a sausage or meatloaf, but a looser consistency.  It is often made with pork scraps, herbs, and spices, and then some fillers like flour and other grains, and served sliced and pan-fried.  I’ve had it before from one of the Amish food stands in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite places in the entire world.  I don’t know what Deli Desires puts into their scrapple, but I definitely tasted sage, making it reminiscent of a more crumbly pork breakfast sausage.  (Hey, they have a BLT on the menu too, so they never claimed to be a kosher deli!)  They also included a perfectly fried over-medium egg that held up perfectly until I got back to work and tried cutting the sandwich in half with a plastic knife, when it started to run.  But it was nice dipping the bialy in the warm, rich, runny yolk. 

What’s a bialy, you ask?  They are similar to bagels, but unfortunately, a lot less popular.  I love ’em, though.  Bagels have that smooth, shiny outer coating because they are boiled in huge kettles of water before being baked.  Bialys aren’t boiled, just baked, so they have more of a traditional outer crust, but are still soft, chewy, and fluffy on the inside like bagels.  They lack the holes that help make bagels bagels, but they do have an indentation that usually contains diced cooked onions and poppy seeds.  Deli Desires makes a very good bialy, and they are few and far between.  (Bagel King, our regular standard place for bagels, much closer to home, also bakes their own bialys.)

But I had to get two bialys to enjoy later: a standard one with caramelized onions in the center (left) and a smoked jalapeño and muenster bialy (right), the same kind the scrapple and egg sandwich came on.  These bialys were $3 each.

I saw they had potato salad ($3), so as long as I was already running amok with carbs (glorious carbs!), I wanted to try that too.  These were small redskin potatoes, very tender with some nice texture from the skins, mixed with mayo and lots of dill, for almost a Scandinavian style of potato salad.  But I have remarked before that the Scandinavians and the Jews share some culinary traditions — the aforementioned smoked, cured, and pickled fish, dark rye bread, lots of dill, and potato salad too, apparently.  This was a generous helping of potato salad that I finished in two sittings, but probably could have made last even longer.  It was just too good, though.   

And even though I had no intention of ordering dessert, Deli Desires had an assortment of fresh-baked desserts under glass domes on the counter.  There’s something about a pie under a glass dome, like at a diner, that makes it even more tempting to me than a pie in a fridge or sitting on a windowsill, like in old-timey cartoons.  It’s kind of like putting a statue on a pedestal… or putting a very attractive person on a pedestal, for that matter.

One of the daily desserts was right up my alley — a cara cara orange pie on a graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream and a chewy, sticky dried orange slice.  Conceptually, it is very similar to Florida’s beloved key lime pie, and very close to my all-time favorite dessert, a tart and creamy “Atlantic Beach pie” that I make with fresh-squeezed citrus juices on a buttery, salty crust made from crushed Ritz crackers.  This slice was $6, but I just had to try it, for science — to compare it to my Atlantic Beach pie recipe and see how I stacked up to a seasoned baker. 

Needless to say, it was good.  Firmer and less runny than my similar pie, and I’ll have to figure out how they do that.  However, it was served at room temperature, and I think it would have been even tastier served chilled, like how I serve my pie and pretty much any key lime pie from anywhere.  Of course I could have stuck it in the fridge for an hour, but even after eating everything else I ate, once I opened the box and tasted my first tiny taste of the slice, I couldn’t wait.  Also, cara cara oranges are more tart than our standard, familiar navel oranges, but the pie didn’t have that acidic tartness I love so much in citrusy desserts.  But don’t get me wrong, I liked it!

I considered waiting a week or two after my Pastrami Project review to publish this one and running a different piece in its place.  But since Deli Desires is still in its soft opening phase, I wanted to get the word out that Mills 50 district has an exciting new deli in a permanent location, and it’s open for business and excellent, right out of the gate.  Check with them first, in case their hours change in the days and weeks to come, but everything I tried was terrific, and I look forward to returning and working my way through the menu.

Many of their offerings are fresh, new takes on traditional New York/Jewish delicatessen fare.  You could almost call it “hipster deli,” but I don’t want that to sound like a diss in any way.  Delis have long been an endangered species among restaurants, decades before this pandemic started threatening the entire restaurant industry.  It breaks my heart to read about these august culinary landmarks closing down in big cities around the country, sometimes after half a century or longer in business.  But I get it — neighborhood demographics change, urban rents skyrocket, and a Jewish deli might seem stodgy and stale compared to some of the hot new food trends, especially for those who didn’t grow up in a family that loved that kind of food, as mine did.  But there is always hope!  Over the last decade or so, even as some of the iconic delis have baked their last bagels, cured their last corned beef, and plated their last pastrami, a young, hip, adventurous group of chefs has started revitalizing and rejuvenating the entire concept of the deli, reaching out to younger, hipper, more adventurous diners, offering some twists on the old standards, elevating and reinventing classic dishes while still paying homage to the old ways.  That’s what chef-owner Hannah Jaffe is doing here with her delicious, delectable, decadent Deli Desires, and it it’s going to catch on here in Orlando.  We’ve needed this for a long time, and now it’s here — and not that far from my day job either.  *I* need this.  Don’t let me down, people.  You will desire this deli, take it from me.

The Pastrami Project

On an episode of Seinfeld, a woman George Costanza was infatuated with once said that “pastrami is the most sensual of the salted, cured meats,” and I think she had a point.  As much as I pine for prosciutto and swoon for salami, pastrami definitely holds the title and championship belt as the greatest of all cured meats.  If you’ve heard of The Pastrami Project (http://www.pastramiproject.com/) before, you may have already tasted the best pastrami I’ve ever had outside of New York City, or you may have seen the humble food truck featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network.  No matter what you think of host Guy Fieri’s frosted tips and Smashmouth-inspired sartorial style, he is a real mensch who shines a well-deserved spotlight on local restaurants across the country, just like I attempt on a smaller scale in The Saboscrivner.  On a trip to Orlando a few years ago, Guy already raised hometown heroes Se7en Bites and Mrs. Potato to new levels of visibility and fame, and also made a pilgrimage to The Pastrami Project in Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives Season 26, episode 11, “Multicultural Cooking.”  I’ve been wanting to try it for years, long before the Triple-D episode, but never made it there until this past week.

You see, self-proclaimed “Pastranomer” (a portmanteau for the pantheon!) George Markward only sets up his food truck behind Cafe Travastere on Magnolia Avenue near downtown Orlando Mondays through Fridays, from 10 AM until 2 PM — perfect timing for a late breakfast or a workday lunch for normal people.  But for almost a decade, I’ve been working the very weird hours of 11 AM to 8 PM, so I don’t usually even eat my first meal of the day until after George drives away.  Luckily, this past Monday, I took my wife to a doctor’s appointment a mile from the Pastrami Project truck (of course I checked), so we had the perfect opportunity to pick up lunch and bring it home to enjoy.  My only regret was not doing this much sooner, like years sooner.

The affable Mr. Markward:

Here’s the current menu with prices.  Right-click and open in a new tab for a larger image.  You can see George serves breakfast too, if you aren’t craving deli delicacies:

We started out with an order of three potato latkes ($5), served with sour cream.  You can also choose applesauce instead of sour cream, but we have applesauce at home.  These weren’t flat pancakes like most latkes I’ve had, but thick fritters that were still hot when we got them home, with perfect crispy exteriors and soft, savory insides.  I tasted a lot of onion, garlic, and pepper.  If you like fries and home fries, do yourself a favor (and a flavor) and try some potato latkes some time.  Ideally these.  

My wife couldn’t decide between the pastrami and the brisket, and I wanted to try both, so we got a sandwich of each.  His sliced beef brisket sandwich ($12) comes with creamy cole slaw, half of a small half-sour pickle, and “donkey sauce,” a roasted garlic aioli that is definitely a tribute to his biggest benefactor, Mr. Fieri.  My wife isn’t big on sauces on anything, whereas I love ’em, so George kindly served the sauce on the side.  I’ve had plenty of delicious, moist, marbled, flavorful brisket from Jewish delis and barbecue restaurants alike, and unfortunately plenty of bland, dry, sad brisket too.  This sandwich was the former.  So rich and flavorful!  If that rye bread looks good, IT WAS.  George bakes his own rye loaves, and it is so soft!  The bread is too often an afterthought on deli sandwiches like these.  At Katz’s, their underwhelming rye is more like a small, edible napkin, which is why true deli aficionados know to pay the small upcharge to get your sandwich on a club roll.  (I once had the opportunity to mention Katz’s club rolls to Phil Rosenthal, the genial host of food and travel show Somebody Feed Phil, and a fellow lover of old-school deli culture.  He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, but now you do, steadfast Saboscrivnerinos!)  But anyway, George’s rye bread slices are plenty thick enough to support a heavy sandwich and hold up to the juice, grease, and mustard very well, and I appreciate that he doesn’t go overboard with the caraway seeds in his rye.  The seeds add some flavor, but I don’t like too many caraway seeds in my rye, and luckily they are few and far between here.

But beyond the brisket, the star of the show is definitely the pastrami.  The regular pastrami sandwich is also $12, or you can pay an additional $9 for double the meat, which is what we did.  Hey, when we went to the iconic Lower East Side institution Katz’s Delicatessen in 2019, the gargantuan pastrami sandwiches cost $23, so George charging $21 for a nearly Katz’s-sized double-meat sandwich on better bread with cole slaw and the pickle is reasonable.

You can also get it made as a Reuben, grilled with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, or as a Rachel, grilled with cole slaw, Swiss, and Russian dressing, for an additional $2 either way, but me being me, I already had sauerkraut and Russian dressing at home.

I asked George about his creative process, and he took me through how he makes his pastrami from scratch.  He takes the big briskets and cuts them to fit in his storage containers, then pierces them with hundreds of tiny holes before curing them for a week.  Then he rubs on his spice rub, smokes them, refrigerates them to make them easier to hand-slice, and finally steams the thick slices on a steam table before building his sandwiches.  I mentioned that his pastrami is the best I’ve ever had in Florida, and the only thing that has come close to the legendary hand-sliced pastrami at Katz’s.  George said Katz’s final step is boiling their pastrami, which surprised the hell out of me, because that would wash a lot of the spice and flavor out, as opposed to his method of steaming the slices.  Clearly his process is long and involved, but makes a huge difference.

In fact, these photos came from our first visit a week ago on Monday, and we liked that pastrami so much, my wife asked me to return for another double-meat sandwich on Wednesday!  So spoiler alert: of course I did.  I have a hard time disappointing her in any way.  The second sandwich was even bigger and prettier, so naturally I forgot to take a photo of it.  FYI, George automatically adds mustard to his pastrami sandwiches, so if you don’t like mustard (like my wife) or you have a giant mustard collection of your own to experiment with back at home (like me), make sure to ask him to hold the mustard or put it on the side.

Finally, my wife always appreciates a bit of dessert, and I saw George was selling black and white cookies ($2), another New York City specialty that she loves.  If you’ve never had one, the best black and whites are more like a soft but firm sponge cake than a crumbly, crunchy cookie, and they are quite large.  When I showed her this one from Daisy’s, from a New Jersey bakery that supplies many NYC restaurants, cafes, and stores, she exclaimed “This is a really good brand!”, which sounds like something I would say.  George told me he could bake his own, but they wouldn’t be as good as this.

To wrap this up, even if you don’t believe your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner after all this time, trust in Guy Fieri.  He does so much good, spreading the word about beloved local restaurants on his show that seems to be on cable as often as Law & Order reruns.  He helped make Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites into a camera-ready culinary sensation, featured Rafaela Cabede and her wonderful restaurant Mrs. Potato, and brought more business and well-deserved acclaim to George Markward and The Pastrami Project.  On our first visit, while we were waiting for our order, two dudes on their way back to Nashville, Tennessee, were just picking up theirs, to eat on the long drive home.  That speaks volumes, that a humble food truck is a now a can’t-miss destination for tourists.  So if you’re an Orlando local, especially if you’re anywhere near downtown during the week, don’t wait as long as I did.

Pastrami, that most sensual of the salted, cured meats, really is kind of like sex — even if it’s just okay, it is still AWESOME.  But sometimes it can be mind-blowing and unforgettable, like the pastrami from The Pastrami Project.  And then you’ll probably crave it all the time.

Edward’s Gourmet Confections and Fine Coffees

EDITOR’S NOTE: When I first published this review, just over 24 hours ago, I announced that Edward Hawk Neal-Paci would be partnering with Donut Central and Fuelpresso in Winter Park to make his citrus-glazed croissant doughnuts available for sale there throughout the week.  Unfortunately, after a trial week, that won’t be happening after all, and I have edited my review to reflect that.  I don’t want any potential or returning fans to go to Donut Central looking for those perfect pastries and end up disappointed in your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, or especially in Edward.

***

Okay, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos.  I’ve found another dessert to add to my pantheon of all-time favorite desserts.  We are lucky and blessed here in Orlando to be surrounded by so many incredible bakeries, including my two personal favorites, Se7en Bites and Sister Honey’s.  But I’ve discovered another talented master baker, on the same high level as Se7en Bites’ Trina Gregory-Propst and Sister Honey’s Evette Rahman.  And just like both of them, he’s a really friendly and nice person, a prince among men, a real mensch.  (I’ve never met a jerk-ass baker, though.  Have you?  Maybe you have to be sweet to create sweets.)  His name is Edward Hawk Neal-Paci, and his new business is called  Edward’s Gourmet Confections and Fine Coffees (https://www.facebook.com/sweetsbyedward).

I first met Edward back in late November, where he was set up at the Longwood Farmers’ Market on a Sunday.  That’s where you can find him most Sundays.  He also sells his wares at the Audubon Park Community Market on Monday evenings, but I teach a night class on Mondays this semester, so that ain’t happening for me.  But before that, I had followed him on Facebook for a few months, salivating over his photos and descriptions of creative, hand-crafted baked goods and getting more and more psyched for my first visit due to the enthusiastic, rave reviews.  I’m much more into savory, salty, spicy foods, but I appreciate the sweet stuff as much as anyone, especially pastries made with care and love.


When I finally met up with Edward at Longwood, I tried two of his brioche doughnuts: one strawberry and one cookies and cream.  These were light and fluffy, airy, and absolutely gorgeous — not heavy and greasy like far too many doughnuts.  As I get older and become more of an anhedonic altacocker, I can’t deal with the acid reflux I get from some oily, greasy foods like doughnuts.  It makes me sad that I don’t enjoy them that much anymore, even from bakeries and doughnut shops I once dug.  But I assure you that his decadent doughnuts didn’t have that effect on me.

Here’s that strawberry brioche boi.  More on the other in a bit.  Look at that rich, smooth, shiny icing.  It actually tasted like strawberries — like the actual fruit! — rather than just cloying sugar dyed pink.

But I was so lucky to get the main thing I came for that morning — his very last citrus-glazed croissant doughnut.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the cronut out of New York City, the beautiful, perfect love child of a rich, flaky croissant and a doughnut.  That’s what this is — the thing I mentioned earlier, one of those rare perfect foods — an all-time Top Five dessert in my 40+ years on this big blue ball o’dirt.

Here’s the aforementioned cookies and cream brioche doughnut and the star of this review, the citrus-glazed croissant doughnut:

I would later learn from Edward that the citrus-glazed croissant doughnut includes not one, not two, but five kinds of hand-squeezed fresh citrus juices: orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, and tangerine.  And the laminated croissant dough isn’t just plain croissant dough, goodness no (although that would be good enough for most of us), but orange croissant dough, made with rich European butter, in *81* separate layers.  I started gently pulling it apart, layer by layer, but couldn’t pick out all 81, although I believe every word the man says.  That’s why to me, cooking may be an art, but baking is equal parts art, science, and magic.  And this man is the Sorcerer Supreme, the Master of the Mystic Arts, when it comes to doughnuts and croissants.

Here are cross-sections of all three, back at the Saboscrivner’s Sanctum Sanctorum:

Finally, Edward amazed and astonished me with a savory croissant stuffed with three of my favorite things to eat, together or separately: serrano ham, goat cheese, and figs.  It was an award-winning combination: salty, sweet, chewy (with the slightest crunch from those fig seeds), and a little funky from the goat cheese, especially wrapped and baked inside the soft, flaky, buttery croissant.  It was like a dream.

Of course I have to show you the cross-section:

Apparently I missed out on a beloved apple fritter and sweet potato pie, but I have faith that old favorites will return throughout the year, as Edward also introduces new desserts destined to be classics.

This past week, Edward embarked on a new adventure: an all-too brief period selling his citrus-glazed croissant doughnuts and citrus-glazed bites (small cubes about a quarter of the size of a full croissant doughnut) at Donut Central and Fuelpresso (https://www.donutcentral.com/) in Winter Park, on the southeastern corner of Aloma Avenue and Semoran Boulevard.  Edward used to work there, so he teamed up with his former employer, providing his citrus specialties for sale alongside their own doughnuts.  Unfortunately, he thought he might have a longer partnership with Donut Central, but it didn’t work out.  Still, I’m glad I caught him there, for the purposes of this review.

I was lucky enough to see him again and meet his charming husband Eric when I popped in this past Saturday, the second day his citrus-glazed croissant doughnuts were available at Donut Central.  This was when I learned about the different citrus juices, the 81 layers, and Edward’s background as an accountant.  (I am a huge proponent of anyone who changes careers and ends up doing what they love the second time around, since I did that too, and it saved my life.)

Here are the citrus-glazed croissant doughnut bites ($6.50 for four).  These things totally melt in your mouth.

And here are three (because I couldn’t resist eating the fourth one right away) drizzled with rich, velvety chocolate.  Chocolate and orange go together surprisingly well, although I think I prefer them pure and unadulterated.

I planned to just get some of the croissant doughnut bites, but we chatted for a while, fully masked and socially distanced.  After 15 or 20 minutes flew by, Edward had a whole batch of fresh citrus-glazed croissant doughnuts ready, and I was able to leave with a whole one ($5), still warm.  It was the best one yet.

Some of those luscious laminated layers:

This croissant doughnut sings.  First of all, you can see the tiny flecks of orange, yellow, and green zest from oranges, lemons, and limes in the freshly applied glaze.  The pastry is crispy and crackly, yet soft and yielding whether you bite in or deconstruct it, layer by buttery layer.  It’s sweet (as if there was any doubt), but also surprisingly tart, with the refreshing bite of fresh-squeezed juice(s).  There’s a lot going on with this pastry, a lot to unpack — hence all those layers.  It is the best of all possible worlds, and it will remind you why, for all of its many problems, we are pretty lucky to live here in Florida.

Edward’s citrus-glazed croissant doughnut reminds me of an infamous contest a few years ago, where local chefs and bakers were invited to submit dessert recipes to be considered as the “signature dish” of Orlando, our City Beautiful.  The only stipulation is that they had to include one ingredient, so synonymous with Central Florida and Orlando history.  If you guessed citrus, you’d be… wrong!  The chosen ingredient was honey, and the contentious contest led to a controversial champion, a precious, fancy dessert most people couldn’t even pronounce, from a single restaurant that has since closed.

I’m always fascinated when I travel to different cities that really do have a distinct local dish, where every restaurant serves their own unique, individual take on it.  Think NY pizza or bagels, Philly cheesesteaks (even though DiNic’s roast pork sandwich is better than any cheesesteak), barbecue in Texas and Memphis, Cuban sandwiches in Miami, Cuban sandwiches in Tampa.  (That’ll get a debate going!)  I think that has to happen organically, over time — and I’m talking decades or longer, not mere years.  And it definitely can’t be decided unilaterally, based on a single contest.  Marketing helps, but the people have to choose.

Orlando has an incredible culinary scene that I’ve tried to do my part to highlight, but we’re not at a point yet where a single dish can represent our entire diverse dining dominion.  This was one of the many topics Edward, Eric, and I discussed while I waited for my croissant doughnut.  But that said… if Orlando was to have a single food that represented the city and its history, geography, economics, and culture, a dish that everyone should try because they would love it… this would be the one.  I’m calling it.

I’d like to say you heard it here first, you savvy, sophisticated Saboscrivnerinos, but the legend of Edward Hawk Neal-Paci and his citrus-glazed croissant doughnuts has been exponentially expanding for months.  The man has big plans for 2021, and whatever he does next, I wish him the best of all things.  The farmers’ markets, the week-long team-up with Donut Central and Fuelpresso (which ended up being like a pop-up) — I think we’re ogling the outrageous origin of enterprising Edward’s excellent empire.  I strongly advise you to follow him on social media and seek out this this delectable doughnut, this crushworthy croissant, this peerless pastry, sooner rather than later, just so you can say “I knew him when.”

Sus Hi Eatstation

I am a sucker for extravagant sushi rolls and poke bowls that I get to customize myself, with the ingredients of my choice — different fish, vegetables, toppings, condiments.  They’re beautiful to the eye, refreshing, delicious, and you can go as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  I’ve reviewed and sung the praises of two of my favorite local restaurants: Poke Hana and Bento Cafe, but I recently paid my first visit to the homegrown chain Sus Hi Eatstation (https://sushieatstation.com/), founded here in Orlando by local couple Robert and Teresa Ly.

I don’t know why it took me so long.  Sus Hi Eatstation has several locations around town, with the “build your own” model popularized by Subway, Chipotle, and so many other successful fast food and fast casual restaurants.  They are also vaguely ninja-themed, and as an ’80s kid who grew up loving G.I. Joe and Daredevil comics, I have nothing but love for ninjas (and G.I. Joe, and Daredevil) to this day.  If anything, I wish they leaned into the ninja theme even more, especially in this era of everyone wearing masks in public.  (But don’t worry, everyone working at Sus Hi when I visited was wearing normal masks.)

I went to the closest location in Altamonte Springs, and  I should mention that at least during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sus Hi Eatstation has customers place all orders from a touchscreen kiosk or online through the website.  When I got there, I used the kiosk, and they had a pump bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it, so have no fear.  At the front of the store, the dutiful staff members (who really could have been dressed like ninjas, I’m just sayin’) are meticulously assembling orders from the mise en place ingredients arranged in front of them, just like so many other fast casual eateries.

I have to admit it was a particular special that drew me in that day.  One of Sus Hi’s specialties is sushi burritos wrapped in huge flour tortillas, and for a $1.50 upcharge, you can get them crusted with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so they have a crunchy outer layer, but the sushi inside is still cool and refreshing.  That already sounded amazing — certainly not traditional, but a nice, fusiony presentation.  But now, they are running a special where you can get the burrito covered with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and deep-fried for a $3 upcharge.  Yes, I’m not proud, but as soon as I learned that was a current menu option, I had to have it!

The basic burrito is $8.50, and I chose a base of white rice.  (The other options are brown rice and lettuce.)  When you customize a Sus Hi burrito, you get to select three proteins.  I had already studied the menu in advance, and even though they offer steak and chicken, I went to a place called Sus Hi because I wanted sushi.  I selected tuna (a 50-cent upcharge), salmon (a 75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab, which is shredded surimi tossed in spicy mayo.  I added on cream cheese, cucumbers, shredded purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning.  It was gorgeous!

Sus Hi allows you to get up to three different sauces with a burrito, and I opted for sauces on the side so I could taste everything better.  The bright orange sauce on the top left is an additional sauce that comes special with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito.  I thought it was going to be like a spicy queso, but it was more of a very spicy mayo, with the intensity of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  The paler sauce next to it is classic creamy, tangy white sauce.  Below we have orange fire sauce, which was like a smoky chili mayo, probably with chipotle flavor added, and the slightly lighter orange sauce on the bottom right is standard spicy mayo, which I unapologetically love with my sushi and poke.

Sus Hi also offers regular and sweet soy sauces, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce, sweet chili sauce, mango habanero sauce, regular sriracha (meh), and yellow sriracha (better), among others.

The burrito was HUGE, and I am making a conscious effort to eat smaller portions in 2021, so I got two meals out of it.  The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted outer surface wasn’t quite as crunchy as I expected, nor as flamin’ hot, but I still enjoyed it.  It was a novelty, something I’m glad I tried but wouldn’t order again.  I suspect the regular panko-crusted burrito will probably have a better texture.

But while I was at Sus Hi for my first time, I figured I might as well try a bowl too.  I selected a regular bowl ($9.95) with brown rice as the base, in my half-hearted, conflicted attempt to eat slightly healthier.  I usually don’t like brown rice, but theirs wasn’t bad at all!  Again, I selected the same three proteins: tuna (50-cent upcharge), salmon (75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab.  I kept my toppings pretty similar to the burrito: cream cheese (you can see the little scoop near the bottom), cucumber, purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning, but I also had them add sliced pickled jalapenos, crunchy noodles, and pickled ginger.  Hey, why not, right?

I swear there is tuna, salmon, and krab under all that in the paper bowl.  In fact, I was really impressed by the size of the “regular” bowl, and how generous they were with everything they put in it.  A lot of places will scrimp on toppings and especially proteins, but I feel like this is a terrific deal — a huge portion of a lot of fresh, tasty food.

I got the same three sauces on the side with this bowl: spicy mayo, white sauce, and fire sauce.  In the future, now that I’ve tried those sauces separately, I’d be more likely to just order one or more on top of the bowl, for ease of mixing everything together.  You can also purchase Sus Hi’s sauces in bottles if you fall in love with any of them.  I wish more restaurants would offer their sauces, condiments, and dressings for sale, but it never hurts to ask!

After all these years, I finally see why Sus Hi Eatstation is so popular, with such a devoted following around Orlando.  People love sushi, and they love freedom of choice.  I’m sure I will return, probably going back for a similar version of everything I tried for this review.  I don’t know how long the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted sushi burrito will last, but if that was on your bucket list, I strongly encourage you to cross it off while you can!

Polo Norte (Miami)

The last day I ate a meal in an actual restaurant was March 7th.  I was hanging out with my best friend in Miami on my first trip down in over two years, and we made the most of that pre-pandemic day by eating at FOUR restaurants.  We started our morning with cafes con leche and Miami’s best croquetas de jamon at Islas Canarias in West Kendall, but then the real challenge began.  From there, we made our way to Polo Norte (https://polonorterestaurant.com/), a Cuban restaurant with five locations around South Florida, to sample Cuban pizza and Cuban burgers called fritas.

Feeling invincible, with a long day ahead of us, we started with a half-order of garlic rolls, or pan de ajo ($1.85):DSC03007

This was a personal pizza con chorizo ($7.95), with finely diced sausage baked under the cheese.  The cheese was appropriately melty, the dough was pretty soft with the expected crispy bottom, and the chorizo was salty.  Funny enough, it didn’t remind me of Mexican-style chorizo, red and crumbly and and perfect with eggs in breakfast tacos and burritos, nor Spanish-style chorizo, dry, rich, and spicy, like salami meant for the most special of occasions.  This chorizo was salty above all else, and the entire pizza was pretty greasy.DSC03009

We shared that, and we also shared this personal pizza con maduros ($7.95)!  Yesssss, since Polo Norte is a Cuban pizza joint, you can get sweet, ripe, fried plantains on your pizza.  Maduros are a top ten favorite food of mine in any form.DSC03008

These Cuban pizzas were okay.  Even though my life was more complete, it wasn’t necessarily changed for the better.  I’m so glad I tried them, after growing up in Miami and not even knowing these existed for my first few decades, but there are certainly better regional pizza styles to seek out, even when you’re in Miami.  (I’m a Sicilian pizza fanboy to this day, after so many slices from Cozzoli’s in the Dadeland Mall food court, growing up in Kendall in the ’80s.)

But while we were at Polo Norte, already the second stop on our day of gorging ourselves around Miami, we each had to get a frita con queso ($3.95 each), a Cuban-style cheeseburger that is famous around Miami and virtually unknown elsewhere.  Not only did my best friend and I have our first Cuban pizza experience at Polo Norte, despite growing up in the 305, this was also my first-ever frita. DSC03010

Since our trip to Polo Norte, I’ve become a little obsessed with the frita burger and researched it a lot.  I have experimented a lot more with cooking at home over the last year, especially during this quarantine period, and recreated the frita several times following this recipe from the Three Guys From Miami, to great success.

The burger patties are seasoned in a way that most burgers aren’t, with paprika, cumin, garlic, and onion.  Adding so many additional flavors to the meat before cooking it makes it a little like meatloaf, as far as I’m concerned, but I love meatloaf almost as much as I love burgers.  But instead of thick meatloaf sandwiches, fritas should still be thin burger patties smashed flat on the cooking surface.  A red sauce is often squirted onto it while cooking, adding to the savory flavors.  It is tangy, but not spicy, because Cuban food is rarely spicy.  Then the burger is served on a bun that has also been lightly griddled (either a Cuban roll or a regular soft hamburger bun) with additional onion, a squirt of ketchup, cheese if you want (I always want cheese), and a mountain of crispy julienned potatoes or commercial potato sticks.

I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to return to Polo Norte on future trips to Miami, just because those visits are so infrequent and short, there are so many great restaurants to try, and my best friend, my family, and I all have our own favorites already.  But if you’ve ever wanted to try a whole new style of pizza and find yourself down south, this is one of the leading places to experience Cuban-style pizza, and you should totally get a frita burger while you’re there.  I’m reasonably sure nobody serves Cuban pizza here in Orlando, so I’m especially glad I got to try them at Polo Norte last year.

BaanChan Thai Restaurant

I had been hearing about BaanChan Thai Restaurant (https://www.baanchanorlando.com/) for years before finally making it there in December.  I brought back takeout for my “lunch bunch” at work, and everyone really enjoyed what they ordered.  It’s way out east on Colonial Drive, further east than I usually venture, almost out to Alafaya.  But it is easily accessible via the 417 and convenient for anyone in the UCF area.

My one co-worker ordered the BaanChan ramen ($10), with noodles in a spicy lemongrass soup, mushrooms, onions, scallions, cilantro, whole chiles, and lime.  It came with a soy-marinated soft boiled egg and several large deep-fried, breaded shrimp.  This was a a uniquely Thai take on ramen.  They wisely packed the broth, the fried shrimp, and all the other stuff in three separate containers for her.  My photo of the broth came out blurry, so I left it out.  You’re welcome!

Three of us ordered my go-to Thai dish, drunken noodles ($8.50), at various levels of heat.  Because I like to tempt fate and sometimes ruin my afternoons at the workplace, I asked for mine to be hot.  Drunken noodles, sometimes called pad kee mow or pad kee mao, are wide, flat noodles stir-fried to an al dente consistency in a spicy sauce with onions, bell peppers, and Thai basil, plus a protein.  I chose pork, which was tender and not dried out from the stir-frying.  These were much more oily than other drunken noodles I’ve ordered elsewhere, at places like Mee Thai, Naradeva Thai, and Thai Singha, but still had a lot of flavor and A LOT of heat.

Someone’s food came with fluffy jasmine rice, but it went unclaimed.  That was a relief to me, because I ate it to cut some of the lingering heat from the spicy, oleaginous noodles.  Sometimes carbs can save your life!

I also ordered two small appetizers for myself, so I could make everything last for lunch and dinner.  I asked around, and a lot of people recommended the Thai heaven beef ($4.50), which is fried beef jerky!  Because it was fried and not just cured like a lot of conventional jerky I’ve had, in addition to being sticky, sweet, salty, and slightly spicy, it was oily and also quite firm and crunchy, which I wasn’t expecting.  I can see why this is a popular crowd-pleaser at BaanChan, but I don’t know if I would order it again.

My absolute favorite thing I tried on this first visit to BaanChan was the Thai sausage ($4).  It was chewy and savory with a slightly crispy exterior, not spicy at all.  It was a terrific sausage, and I loved it.  It came with paper-thin slices of pickled ginger like you might get with sushi, and some intimidating-looking whole chiles that I wisely avoided.

You can also see a fried pot sticker that one of my co-workers gave me from her order ($4.50 for four).  It was stuffed with ground, seasoned pork and vegetables and was a pretty standard pot sticker, but you can never go wrong with those.

I was glad to finally try BaanChan after reading about it for years.  Whenever I make it back, I’ll definitely order that amazing sausage again, and I’ll probably try the pineapple fried rice, chili jam, or larb next time to switch things up.

Orlando Weekly published my Top Ten Tastes of 2020!

I am honored to have one of my end-of-the-year lists included in our wonderful local alt-weekly newspaper, Orlando Weekly, for the FOURTH year in a row.  This piece, my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, didn’t make it into the print edition, but it is a blog piece on their website for all to see.

https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/top-tastes-2020-the-10-best-dishes-we-tried-in-orlando-this-year/Content?oid=28559241

Here’s a link to my 2017, 2018, and 2019 Orlando Weekly lists.

Happy New Year to all of my dozens of readers!  Stay warm, healthy, and safe in 2021.  Don’t forget to eat something good — because you deserve it, and because these local restaurants could use all the help they can get.

The Saboscrivner’s Top 20 TV Shows of 2020

The Saboscrivner’s Top 20 TV Shows of 2020

These are the shows I would rank 11-20, in no specific order.  They were perfectly fine and entertaining.  I enjoyed most of these shows most of the time, but I watched too much good TV this year, and they didn’t crack my Top Ten.

Upload s1 (Amazon Prime)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Doom Patrol s2 (HBO Max)
Bosch s6 (Amazon Prime)
Dead to Me s2 (Netflix)
Umbrella Academy s2 (Netflix)
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow s5 (CW)
Hunters s1 (Amazon Prime)
Fargo s4 (FX; now on Hulu)
Medical Police s1 (Netflix)

Now for my Top Ten, ranked in order:

10. Lovecraft Country s1 (HBO) – Probably the most ambitious and audacious show I watched all year, a 1950s period piece with a majority Black cast that contrasts fictional horrors (eldritch horror, body horror, cosmic horror) with real social horrors that continue to perpetuate today. Each episode had a very different feel, all harkening back to weird tales from pulp fiction – a creepy cabin in the woods, a cult of wealthy white wizards, a haunted house, an Indiana Jones-style adventure full of deadly booby traps, body swapping, a sex demon, a tour of the multiverse, malevolent spirits tormenting an innocent, and time travel back to one of the darkest hours in our history – and all while highlighting issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, police brutality, and systemic inequality. If it sounds heavy, it sometimes is. There were uneven points and some aspects I didn’t love, but the show hits more than it misses. It deserves all the credit in the world for trying, and for being unafraid to shock audiences and make them uncomfortable. And it seemed to make Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett into stars, which they deserve to become. It was definitely one of the shows that captured the zeitgeist of 2020, this hell year.

9. Snowpiercer s1 (TNT) – Another show that captured the zeitgeist, this was a bleak and grim postapocalyptic adventure, where survivors of a frozen planet live on a titanic train that hurtles around the dead Earth, trapped in strict social strata, with the first class passengers continuing lives of luxury while the tail section subsists in squalor. Of course there are class struggles, which lead to a murder mystery and a violent uprising. I think this show comes closest to the feeling of Game of Thrones, with its social order of dangerous, depraved haves and rebellious have-nots with nothing to lose, where life is cheap and justice and equality are unheard of. And I’m always thrilled to see my ‘90s crush Jennifer Connelly and the multitalented Daveed Diggs in anything.

8. The Good Place s4 (NBC) – We got the final four episodes of this triumphant show way back in January, which feels like a lifetime ago. A rare show that cracked us up, kept us guessing, and stealthily gave us ideas for how to be better people, The Good Place offered us humor, hope, and love over the last four years when we really needed all of the above. It culminated in a finale that was both beautiful and sad. I will never forget this show, and I’ll never stop recommending it.

7. Perry Mason s1 (HBO) – A wonderful neo-noir with a fantastic cast headlined by Matthew Rhys, Tatiana Maslany, Shea Whigham, and John Lithgow. Here, Perry Mason is a rumpled, low-rent detective in 1930s L.A., but the season is his origin story for becoming a legendary trial attorney. It’s another bleak and grim show, but we don’t watch noir for moral uplift or happy endings, do we? It’s gorgeous to look at and remarkably well made in every aspect. I hope HBO makes more.

6. Schitt’s Creek s6 (Netflix) – Now here’s a show we watch for moral uplift and happy endings. My wife and I had never seen this show or even heard much about it until it won all of the Emmys earlier this year, so we binged all six seasons and fell in love with it, after a slow start. This is the epitome of a feel-good show, detailing a rich, spoiled family’s fall from grace, and how they had to lose everything to learn how to be good people. The admittedly lousy town of Schitt’s Creek changed the Roses for the better, but they changed the town and its inhabitants for the better as well. Everyone made the most of their opportunities to grow and change, learned humility, and found success, friendship, love, and happiness they never dreamed would be possible. Who couldn’t use some of that right now? The last three episodes of the sixth and final season are just one scene of pure joy after another, and I guarantee you’ll cry happy tears when you aren’t laughing.

5. Ted Lasso s1 (Apple TV+) – Maybe the most pleasant surprise of 2020, an Apple TV+ show from Bill Lawrence, the creator of the great sitcom Scrubs, starring the affable Saturday Night Live alumnus Jason Sudeikis in the role he was born to play. Ted Lasso is a genial Midwestern college football coach hired to come to England to manage a struggling soccer team. He takes the gig, despite knowing next to nothing about soccer. But the show is first and foremost a character piece about one of the biggest mensches in fiction, right up there with Superman, Captain America, and Special Agent Dale Cooper.  He’s a kind, empathetic, patient, loyal, and surprisingly wise mentor, friend, and boss.  He helps, uplifts, and improves the lives of everyone he encounters. There is no cynicism here, but don’t get me wrong – it’s not a saccharine-sweet, glurgy, preachy show either. I hate that stuff, so don’t worry. Also, it is often hilarious. While I harbored concerns about a show in 2020 about a clearly mediocre and undeserving white dude who gets rewarded with a good job he doesn’t belong in, I was proven wrong. Coach Lasso’s empathy and humanity make him the right man for the job, and it’s about damn time for that.

4. The Mandalorian s2 (Disney+) – We binged both seasons back to back late this year, and I enjoyed it more than anything Star Wars-related since the original trilogy of my youth. After eight movies in between that ranged from good (Episode VII) to unnecessary (Solo) to terrible (take a guess!), The Mandalorian distilled everything I have always loved about Star Wars and made it into a galaxy-spanning western and a homage to Lone Wolf and Cub. By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Beskar-armored bounty hunter who doesn’t remove his helmet for anyone, and the adorable and gifted child under his protection. Season 2 improved on Season 1 in almost every way by introducing new and old allies, raising the stakes, and tying the show into the larger Star Wars continuity. The finale was pure fan-service in the best possible way, but I had plenty of mark-out moments throughout the season, including when one of my favorite actors, associated with other modern badass westerns, showed up as an ally, and when a beloved Star Wars character reappeared for a redemption arc. This show is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and it showed.

3. Black Monday s2 (Showtime) – Another show we binged during the pandemic, and very possibly the least-known show in my Top Ten. A Showtime series about Wall Street iconoclasts and schemers set in the late ‘80s, it will bring to mind Scorsese’s excellent Wolf of Wall Street (the funniest movie he ever made) and John Landis’ 1983 classic Trading Places. Yes, it’s a sitcom, but an intricately plotted sitcom about some really smart, really awful people double- and triple-crossing each other as they claw their way to the top, like crabs in a barrel. Full of hilarious ‘80s references, terrible fashions, and ridiculously clever wordplay (from David Caspe, the creator of Happy Endings), this is the best and funniest show you’ve very likely never heard of. And on top of that, it will shock you with some major plot twists along the way. Plus, it stars Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, and Casey Wilson, who elevate almost everything they’re in.

2. AEW Dynamite (TNT) – The hell year 2020 made me a pro wrestling fan again, after I drifted away from WWE 15 years ago, when the great Eddie Guerrero died tragicially. This brand-new wrestling federation owned by billionaire Tony Khan started airing on TNT last fall, but watching Dynamite on Wednesday nights became a pleasant routine for me during the pandemic, and something I would look forward to all week. I thrilled to the in-ring action, learned everything I could about the characters on the screen and their real-life personalities, and became a “mark” for several of the incredibly talented and charismatic performers, who regularly risk their health and safety to tell stories, take bumps, defy gravity, and sometimes bleed for our entertainment. As usual, I gravitated toward underdogs like Orange Cassidy, Sonny Kiss, John Silver, and “The Librarian” Leva Bates, mostly good guys and goofballs. But on AEW, even the main-eventers are all hard workers and generous performers who share the spotlight and don’t make everything all about them.

AEW Dynamite aired my favorite TV moment of 2020: “Le Dinner Debonair,” a taped segment where two pompous heel (bad guy) wrestlers tried to psych each other out over a steak dinner, only to transition into an old-timey Hollywood musical number with full choreography, where they both sang and danced. It was entrancing. This past week, a wrestler who went by the character name Brodie Lee died suddenly. He was a year younger than me, but in peak physical condition, unlike me. He was a giant man who played a convincing heel (bad guy) who I never appreciated enough on screen, but was apparently the nicest guy ever, with a wife and two young sons. Last night I watched the most beautiful episode of Dynamite, a fitting tribute to the man’s career and life, both cut far too short. I cried when they showed a montage of his best moments, set to my musical hero Tom Waits’ song “Ol’ 55.” It was a wrestling show made with care, pride, and love, from people who seem to love their jobs, their craft, and their co-workers. AEW doesn’t seem to suffer from the massive egos and backstage politics of the WCW and WWE, that I used to watch and get frustrated by. The veterans constantly “put over” (elevate) the young talent of tomorrow, and everyone collaborates and supports each other, even while pretending to cause each other grievous bodily harm.

1. Better Call Saul s5 (AMC) – The best-acted, best-written, best show on TV. It fills me with tension and dread the way its predecessor Breaking Bad did, but I argue this prequel/spinoff series has surpassed the original show. I always say comedians make excellent dramatic actors because they have so much inner darkness to draw from, and I think everyone realized that about series lead Bob Odenkirk a long time ago. But this season belonged to the best and most underrated actress on television, Rhea Seehorn, whose character Kim Wexler is the heart and soul of the show. She consistently amazes and astonishes. I’m still hoping for a flash-forward to a happy ending for Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, but the fact that Kim’s fate remains completely unknown makes her scenes that much more riveting. This might have been the best season yet, and that’s the highest possible praise.

For anyone who cares, here are my lists from 2019 and 2018:

Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019
Top Ten Movies of 2019
Top Ten TV Shows of 2018
Top Ten Movies of 2018