Lechonera El Barrio

Maybe the best lunch value to be found in the Orlando area is at Lechonera El Barrio (https://www.facebook.com/Lechonera-El-Barrio-Restaurant-1519366968315699/), a small, modest cafeteria on Semoran Boulevard, located at 435 North Semoran, on the east side, between East Colonial Drive and State Road 408.  They serve huge, hearty, heaping helpings of heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban food at extremely low prices — perfect to pop into for a quick lunch to go, that can usually be turned into two or even three meals.  There are a few tables there, but I’ve never lingered.  It’s so close to work, I’m usually in and out, often picking up additional food for other co-workers to turn them into enduring fans of the place.  Even President Obama ate there, during a visit to Orlando for his 2012 campaign, and there is a photo on the wall to prove it, alongside several other (much) lower-profile celebrity guests.

Whether you’re eating in or taking out, food is served in styrofoam to-go boxes, with a medium costing $5 or a large costing $8.  I usually spring for the large, just because the leftovers heat up well, and I know my leftovers will never go to waste.  I never understand people who let their leftovers rot in our tiny break room fridge at work, or worse yet, “forget about them” at home.  To me, ignoring your restaurant leftovers is the equivalent of having a night of steamy romance and passion with a very hot partner of your preferred gender, but losing all interest in seeing them again for another tryst the following day.  WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?  But I digress.

First, you start out choosing your rice for the foundation of your giant food box: white (which is always more tender, fluffy, and buttery than the white rice I make at home in a rice cooker), yellow (even more buttery) with gandules (pigeon peas), or moros (white rice mixed with black beans; you’ll never be morose if you try it).
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I always try to time my rare visits for Fridays, because I know that’s when they’ll serve paella-style yellow rice mixed with seafood — bits of fish, shrimp with tails on, and even small bay scallops and mussels still in the shell, all stewed together with red bell peppers and peas.  That’s what I always go for.  Pardon the blurriness of this photo, taken through glass.  dsc02654.jpg

Then you can choose black or red beans, and while I like black beans (good Miami boy that I am), I almost always choose red beans, because they were never an option at the Cuban restaurants I grew up going to, and I like them even more.  I usually opt for my beans on the side in a separate container, even though I often pour them over my rice once I reach my final destination (usually our sad little break room at work, although I guess I made it sound more ominous than that).  You choose an entree after that, and then a side, which may include boiled yucca, tostones (crispy fried slices of unripe plantains), or maduros (sweet and sticky fried ripe plantains, one of my favorite foods in the world).

Entree choices include quartered or halved roasted rotisserie chickens marinated in garlicky mojo criollo, pernil (tender roast pork, often with delicious crispy bits of skin attached), pepper steak, costillas (ribs), and different stewed beef, chicken, pork, and even fish dishes.  Most people I know opt for white meat chicken, which occasionally disappoints due to sitting out a little too long and being dry.  I have much better luck with dark meat, but I rarely order the chicken here.  Pernil pork is almost always awesome, and I always ask (in my best awful Spanish) for pieces of that crispy skin.  I think once they had rabos (stewed oxtails), and I was in heaven, because I always love oxtail, whether it’s in Jamaican, Latin, or Asian recipes.
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But on my most recent visit, I was craving pastelon, a dish that’s kind of like Puerto Rican lasagna: layers of sweet plantains and seasoned ground beef, topped with a bechamel sauce and white cheese (mozzarella?), then baked into a casserole and served in large slices the size of Rubik’s cubes.  I got my pastelon with a large order of seafood paella rice, red beans on the side, and maduros, so I ended up with plantains and more plantains, and definitely engaged in some carb-loading.  It was a ton of delicious food for only $8.  DSC02658

Because I try to be a stand-up guy, on my way out the door, I asked three co-workers if they wanted anything, and two actually did.  Someone wanted a Cuban sandwich, which I was pleased to see they used the fresh pernil pork in, before pressing it on a sandwich press with the usual ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles.  It was a nice-sized sandwich for only $5, and I guarantee the pork was a lot fresher and higher-quality than it would be at lots of places that specialize in Cubanos.dsc02655.jpg

My other colleague asked for “mofongo and chicken,” and I failed to press for additional details, in my haste.  The mofongo — a mountain of mashed plantains mixed up with bits of chicharrones (pork fat and skin), garlic, and other seasonings — was prepared to order, so that took about ten minutes.  They served it with what looked like a quarter of the rotisserie chicken, most likely white meat, and only charged $6 for all of that!  I will now admit I’ve only ever had mofongo once, at a different restaurant, and wasn’t blown away.dsc02657.jpg

But our Friday only improved from there, because when I brought our food back to work, we did what I always hope my dining companions will want to do — we shared everything.  I got to sample the super-solid Cuban sandwich as well as the mofongo, which was much better from Lechonera El Barrio, helped immensely by pungent, vinegary, almost creamy, ridiculously good garlic sauce.  My one colleague who requested the mofongo joked that it’s pretty much an excuse to eat the garlic sauce, and I can totally see where she’s coming from with that.  Make sure you ask for it.  I’m going to request it from now on, even if I don’t order mofongo!  I also shared my pastelon, which seemed to go over well, and both ladies were brave enough to sample the morcilla sausage I asked for on the side, and seemed to like that too.

Morcilla is rich and savory blood sausage with a nice crispy casing and an interesting — but not unpleasant — gritty-but-soft texture.  Here it is in my little sampler with mofongo and part of the Cuban sandwich:dsc02659.jpg

Some foodies joke that they don’t always want to share their favorite spots because then everyone will go to them, but as a librarian, a nerd, and your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner, I’m all about sharing information — and also sharing the love.  This is a small, locally-owned business you may have driven by dozens or hundreds of times and never thought to stop there.  You may be intimidated to go there if you don’t speak much Spanish.  (My Spanish is laughably bad, but I understand it much better than I can speak it, and I’m always able to end up with what I want by pointing, smiling, and nodding, when all else fails.)  They don’t even have a website or a menu online.  But Lechonera El Barrio is another one of those hidden treasures in Orlando.  It is not upscale, romantic, or hipster-cool.  It isn’t deconstructing, reinventing, or challenging cuisine.  It’s a cafeteria, and a very good one at that.  What it lacks in ambiance, it more than makes up for in value, quantity, and quality.  This is simple, tasty food, and you get so much of it.  Plus, you can be out the door quickly with enough food for two or three meals, for under $10.  That is a rare and wonderful thing.

Beefy King

Beefy King (http://beefyking.com/) is an Orlando legend and also a time capsule.  The sandwich shop was founded in 1968 and still stands proudly on Bumby Avenue, just south of Colonial Drive, in the “Milk District” neighborhood east of downtown Orlando.

The hours are:
Monday – Friday: 10:00 AM  – 5:30 PM (but the dining room closes at 3:00, so it’s drive-through only from 3:00 – 5:30)
Saturday: 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM
Sunday: Closeddsc02711.jpg

It was originally a local chain of six restaurants, but this is the only one that remains.  Three generations of owners later, they’re still doing things very much the same way after 50+ years: serving sandwiches of roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, barbecue beef and pork, turkey, and ham on soft, steamed kaiser rolls, alongside their legendary Beefy Spuds (think tater tots), onion rings, delicious chili, and more.DSC02707

Beefy King survived an arson attempt in November, so this feels like the right time to sing its praises, now that it has reopened for business.  It didn’t seem worse for the wear when I met a one of my favorite fellow foodie friends there for lunch the week after it had reopened.  This is why YOU COME AT THE KING, YOU BEST NOT MISS!

Here’s a roast beef sandwich ($4.55) served with steamed, diced onions — the classic sandwich around here.
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As you can see, it’s very juicy roast beef — much juicier and much less salty than Arby’s.  I added some creamy horseradish sauce, which comes in squeeze bottles and is delicious on anything and everything, but especially roast beef sandwiches.  dsc02071.jpg

Here’s another roast beef sandwich with spicy barbecue sauce.  (They have mild barbecue sauce too; don’t worry!)  The steaming process makes the kaiser rolls nice and soft too, which really works well.  DSC02074

This is an extra-large two-meat sandwich with pastrami and corned beef, plus melty white American cheese and steamed onions ($8.50).  I ended up adding some of that creamy horseradish to it, too.  They have mustard, but only the yellow kind, and this sandwich is too good for yellow mustard, if you ask me.  dsc02709.jpg

I’m a huge fan of Beefy King’s chili, full of meat, beans, tomatoes, onions, and peppers.  I always opt to get it with a slice of white American cheese that melts into it so nicely.  If you’ve had Wendy’s chili before, this is similar, but a hundred times better.DSC02075

RING THE ALARM!  Beefy King has onion rings that just cry out to be dipped in the mild or hot barbecue sauces or creamy horseradish sauce.
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And here are the golden-brown Beefy Spuds, also perfect for dipping.DSC02708DSC02076

Save room for a hand-spun milkshake!  Beefy King offers vanilla, chocolate, cherry, and my personal favorite, orange.  I skipped the orange shake this time, but I either regret ordering it or regret not ordering it.

Beefy King isn’t just a time capsule, despite being a real piece of classic Orlando that doesn’t have anything to do with “Mickey’s House.”  It’s even more than a great place to grab a quick, affordable lunch in Orlando’s Milk District (although between Beefy King, Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market, Bad As’s Sandwich, and Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, I argue the city should officially rename it The Sandwich District).  It’s also a survivor.  To be the last remaining location from a small chain, and to have made it all these decades unchanged, even emerging like the proverbial phoenix after an arson attempt after 51 years, means it’s a living legend, an inimitable institution, the kind of restaurant all Orlando locals should experience for themselves.  When even culinary luminary Alton Brown and late-night laughing boy Jimmy Fallon know to seek it out, you know the word on the street is good.

The King is back.

Long live the King.

Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria

I’ve started going to a new pizzeria recently — or at least a new one for me.  I found out Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria (https://paradisorestaurantandpizzeria.com/) had been open for four years, and I had been driving past it almost every day, on Semoran Boulevard north of Colonial Drive.  (There is another, unrelated Paradiso somewhere else, but this is definitely the one at 1502 North Semoran, with the phone number 407-745-4226.)  It’s very close to where I work, and I’m glad to say it’s great.  I’ve been three times in the last two months, and will certainly keep returning and help spread the word.  If you crave large, thin, crispy, melty, gooey slices of New York-style pizza, Paradiso serves one of the best versions in Orlando.DSC02558

I brought home takeout on my first visit, and I couldn’t wait to get some of those slices ($2.25 each) back to share with my wife.  A lot of the time, pizza is never the same once you get it back home, because it steams in the box and loses that crispiness.  Not so with these beauties.  I always like ordering a few slices because the two of us definitely can’t finish a whole large pizza in one sitting, and it’s never as good the next day, even after a trip through the toaster oven.  The slices were fantastic.  Definitely one of the best examples of New York pizza in the city.
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I had to try Paradiso’s Sicilian pizza as well, since that is a lifelong favorite of mine, and far too rare.  These slices ($2.99 each) were crispy too, but they didn’t have the doughy softness I look for, in combination with the crispiness.  Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed these immensely, but I still give Pizzeria Del Dio the edge for best Sicilian pizza in Orlando.DSC02543

This was a deluxe stromboli, with pepperoni, sausage, onions, and cheese — hold the mushrooms for me.  This was the small ($8.99), and it was still huge.  My wife surprised me by loving it, and what’s not to love?  Apologies for not photographing a cross-section of it.  DSC02544

On my most recent visit, I brought home the same stromboli, but a large ($16.99), which I carved a piece out of before remembering to photograph it.  That’s diagonal through a box made for 20″ extra-large pizzas, keep in mind.
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Excellent garlic knots ($3.99) that were soft and fluffy, not dense and hard like baseballs.  You get a nice-sized order for the price, and they don’t skimp on the garlic:DSC02546

At one point, I convinced a co-worker to order Paradiso with me on a workday, and I picked it up and brought it back to the office.  My co-worker ordered a cheese calzone for her dinner that night (I’m assuming this is the small for $7.99):DSC02559

And for her lunch, a 10″ white pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses and garlic ($9.99) with mushrooms and black olives added ($1.25 each).  She is from New Jersey, so she has high standards for pizza that are hard to meet around here.  I got her into Del Dio, as one of the best local pizzerias that New York and New Jersey transplants appreciate, and I believe she liked this as well.  DSC02560

I couldn’t go without getting another perfect slice for myself:DSC02561

But I also decided to try a 12″ chicken parmesan sub ($7.99).  This thing was a BEAST!  It was huge, and I could barely eat half at work.  I asked them to add onions and peppers, which was a good call.  It was fine, but the chicken breast was a little dry, and I probably would have been happier with a meatball parm or sausage, onions, and peppers sub instead, or a cold Italian hoagie.  But don’t get me wrong, I had the whole thing eaten by the next day.  DSC02563DSC02564

And there was indeed a next time!  On my third and most recent visit, I got the meatball sub ($7.99) with onions and peppers, and I liked it as much as I expected to.  More, even!dsc02715.jpg

Also, it has been a while, but I have to RING THE ALARM! for Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria, because they have really good onion rings ($3.99).  These are the kind I’m always searching for, with a beer-battered coating.  They are very similar to the onion rings at Pizzeria Del Dio, in fact.  It might not be the most obvious choice to order onion rings at a pizzeria, but I love the rings at both places.  That’s ketchup in the little cup, though — not marinara sauce.  Mental note: next time, ask for marinara sauce too.  Just don’t dip my sub or pizza crust in the ketchup, because that would be nasty.DSC02562

Believe it or not, I don’t eat pizza a lot.  Seriously!  But we have so many wonderful locally-owned pizzerias that I don’t see any point to ordering from the big national chains and wasting calories and carbs on mediocre, depressing, mass-produced pizza.  I know I’ve compared Paradiso to Del Dio more than once in this review, but it’s a blessing that we have two outstanding New York-style pizzerias in the same part of Orlando, and so close to where I work.  If you like Del Dio, I implore you to try Paradiso too.  I don’t think you’ll be sorry.  I just wish I had tried them sooner, but better late than never.DSC02714

Taglish

Taglish (https://www.taglishfl.com/) just soft-opened a few weeks ago, and it quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  “Taglish” is clever shorthand for Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines, and English, and the name fits perfectly, because Chef Michael Collantes envisioned it as a Filipino-American fusion restaurant.DSC02696

Located in the small-but-bustling food court of one of my new favorite foodie destinations in Orlando, Lotte Plaza Market on West Colonial Drive and John Young Parkway in West Orlando, Taglish has filled a void that many of us didn’t even realize was there — an introduction (for many foodies) to the delicious flavors and textures of Filipino food.  Filipino restaurants are still rare in most parts of the country, especially here.  But since Taglish announced its soft opening, I’ve been twice so far, a week apart, and I fantasized about returning that whole week in between.  On my first visit, knowing Taglish opened at 11 AM and wanting to beat the rush, I arrived around 11:15 and barely had to wait in line at all.

The first thing  you might notice upon lining up are the four drinks served in “bubblers”: ube horchata, strawberry hibiscus, cucumber pear, and mango calamansi lemonade.  (The lady in front of me in line moved a bag at the exact wrong moment to cover that last sign, but trust me.)  Drinks are $2.70, except for the ube horchata, which is $3.95.  But you can always make any meal into a combo for $4, which includes a drink (plus a nominal upcharge if you want the ube horchata, which you probably will).DSC02694

On my first visit, I chose the ube horchata.  Ube is a purple yam that is popular in Filipino desserts, and horchata is one of my favorite drinks to order with Mexican food: a rice milk often flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, perfect for cutting the heat of spicy dishes.  It was thick and rich and sweet, but not overwhelmingly sweet.  Having no experience tasting ube before, it reminded me of the vanilla-scented taro milk tea my wife always orders at Vietnamese restaurants and Asian tea shops, right down to the similar shade of lavender.  dsc02680.jpg

Although the dish I ordered wasn’t spicy at all, it was one of the tastiest, most satisfying meals I’ve eaten anywhere, in a long, long time.  I asked Barbara, the extraordinarily friendly and welcoming cashier, what she recommended, because everything sounded interesting, and she recommended I try the sisig ($9.50) — a dish of crispy pork pan-seared in garlic, tomato, onion, and jalapeno, served over rice (I opted for garlic rice instead of the regular white rice), topped with a poached egg and a drizzle of garlic mayo.  I made it into a combo for an additional $4, to include the above drink and two lumpia, crispy pork-stuffed spring rolls served with sweet chili sauce for dipping (just out of frame).DSC02681

Constant readers, I can’t sing the praises of this sisig dish nearly enough, or in enough detail to honor the fictional definition of the term Saboscrivner.  It exceeded my every expectation in the best possible way.  I splashed on a bit of spicy vinegar from a glass bottle in a small condiment area next to the cash register, and that spicy sourness just brought out all the strong, rich flavors even more.  The perfectly poached egg ran richly over everything, and the bits of tomato, onion, jalapeno, and garlic added the slightest spice.  I would eat this dish every week if I could.  I felt like I was floating afterwards, and I surely bored my wife and a few acquaintances raving about it for days after the fact.  I even e-mailed Chef Collantes to gush about how much I enjoyed it, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to write me back.

By the way, you give them your phone number when you place your order, and they text you to come pick up your food on a tray when it’s ready.  This could get precarious later in the day when every seat in the food court is taken, so I encourage you to arrive with friends, or make some once you get there!

Well, after that auspicious first visit, I returned a week later, on another Saturday.  Unfortunately I got to Lotte Plaza Market around 1:30 PM that second visit, so there was already a long line at Taglish — great for them, and only the most minor of annoyances for me.  But good word has been spreading, and I only hope to spread it further.

Barbara even remembered me from the previous week, and I remembered her second-place recommendation from when she suggested the sisig.  As much as I loved it, I had to try something new, for the sake of the Saboscrivner’s subscribers.  So I ordered the chicken adobo burrito ($8.95) — a thick burrito stuffed to the bursting point with classic Filipino dish chicken adobo (also served as a bowl over rice), garlic rice, fried potatoes, and stewed mung beans, wrapped in a large flour tortilla and almost defying the laws of physics.  It was outstanding!  So many flavors, textures, and even colors to appreciate and explore.
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This was a perfect example of a fusion dish, and I loved it.  My only regret is very minor — I might have been able to analyze each component better and savor the ingredients if I had ordered this as a bowl over rice, instead of wrapped in the lightly grilled tortilla.  For example, I’ve never had monggo (stewed mung beans) before, and I still can’t really describe it, since it melded together with everything else in the burrito.  But it was all fantastic!DSC02701

But as long as I was there, I had to try something else that has always caught my eye on the menu: the longaniza burger.  Longaniza is a Filipino pork sausage that is a little bit sweet, often eaten as a breakfast meat (if I’m not mistaken).  Here, the homemade longaniza sausage was crafted into a burger patty and served on a soft, buttered, grilled bun (possibly a King’s Hawaiian roll), topped with a slice of grilled pineapple, garlic mayo, and a salad of sweet, tangy, vinegary, pickled, shredded papaya called atchara, which I loved.  DSC02702Note the two included lumpia and the serving of crispy seasoned potatoes, which stayed warm and crispy throughout my meal.  I got another small cup of sweet chili sauce, but next time I will request banana ketchup for the fried potatoes, just because I love dipping sauces and condiments — especially new and unfamiliar ones.

Close-up on the slaw-like atchara, which I would love to buy a jar of and put on everything.  I really like vinegar, and I am drawn to Filipino cuisine because vinegar is such a common and important ingredient.  Also dig that wonderful grilled, buttered bun.  I wish everyone who served burgers, dogs, and sandwiches would take a lesson from this.DSC02698

A cross-section.  The slight crispiness of the atchara really balanced out the softer ingredients (the bun, grilled sausage patty, and pineapple slice).  DSC02703

On this second visit, I paid $4 for the combo again (dig the lumpia above), and tried the refreshingly tart mango calamansi lemonade.  Calamansi, also known as the Philippine lime, is a small citrus fruit used in a lot of Filipino recipes.  I had never tasted it before, but my research tells me it’s a hybrid of the kumquat and mandarin orange.  Plus, I already love mangoes in anything, and I’ll always drink lemonade when it’s an option.
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This time, I was lucky enough to meet the amiable Chef Collantes, shake his hand, and tell him in person how wonderful his food is, and how friendly, patient, and helpful his staff is.  He is the former Culinary Director of Bento, a small, local chain of pan-Asian restaurants I have been a big fan of since the first one opened in Gainesville in 2003, the last year I lived there.  I’ve eaten countless custom poke bowls, sushi rolls, bento boxes, and udon noodles at Bento’s numerous Orlando locations — even on my wedding day, ten years ago — but this reminded me to make it back there soon to write a Saboscrivner review.  The fact that Chef Collantes might have created some of my favorite dishes at Bento before opening Taglish (and subsequently blowing my mind with that sisig) makes all the sense in the world.

I wish him and his staff the best of all things, but they already have a huge hit on their hands.  For many, Filipino food will be unfamiliar and novel, but even though people will come in to try something new and different, I’m convinced they will get hooked and become regulars, like I hope to be.

Chicken Fire

There is one local foodie friend of mine, a fellow educator and fellow lover of hip hop, who I always agree with on all gustatory matters.  We haven’t met in real life yet, but she’s definitely one of my BFFs — my Best Food Friends.  Whenever she posts about trying anything new and liking it, I always pay attention, because I know it is going to be awesome.  Follow her Instagram as @Fork07, and just like I never try to steer my readers wrong, she won’t either.

One of her latest discoveries became one of mine as well: Chicken Fire (https://www.facebook.com/eatchickenfire/), a new food truck specializing in Nashville-style hot chicken, that is currently all the rage.  I’ve been obsessed with it ever since trying it at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2018, and I was thrilled to discover that Swine & Sons makes an outstanding SMOKED hot chicken sandwich, right here in Winter Park.  I gave them a glowing review a few months ago. 

Well, Chicken Fire is the new Nashville hot chicken contender, and I can assure you that the chicken is straight fire.  It tastes closer to Nashville standard Hattie B’s than Swine & Sons’ smoked hot chicken.  Don’t get me wrong, both are great, but if you’re craving that one-of-a-kind Nashville burn, do I have the truck for you.DSC02686

Chef Kwame Boakye serves up chicken tenders at four strengths: Soulful (seasoned like regular fried chicken, but not spicy at all), Mild, Medium, and Hot.dsc02689.jpg

On the recent Sunday morning I caught the Chicken Fire truck at the East End Market in Orlando’s Audubon Park neighborhood, I arrived almost 45 minutes before he opened and ended up being the sixth person in what became a very long line, wrapping around the whole front of the East End Market building.  Chef Kwame was outside his eye-catching food truck, taking orders by hand and warmly greeting every customer with a handshake and a welcome.  I had already messaged him on Facebook to ask for his whereabouts, so I was exciting to meet The Man.  He could not have been warmer or friendlier.

I ordered a Big Box ($12) that comes with four tenders, a little container of Fire sauce (a creamy, tangy sauce that goes great with any flavor of chicken tender, similar to Hattie B’s “comeback sauce,” with more flavor going on than Alabama-style white barbecue sauce), and two slices of white bread underneath — a necessary and welcome addition for helping to cut the heat.  I asked Kwame if I could get one tender of each flavor: Soulful, Mild, Medium, and Hot.  He said he doesn’t usually do that, but he would make it happen for me.  I was grateful, because I was really looking forward to trying each one to share my thoughts.

It didn’t take long for my order to come up, and since it was crowded at the East End Market as well as being a cool, drizzly morning, I drove straight home to share my spoils with my wife.  I figured the non-spicy Soulful tender had her name on it, since she doesn’t eat a lot and avoids anything spicy.  (Hattie B’s in Nashville does something similar, with their “Southern” tender as the completely non-spicy one, even below Mild.)

From left to right: Hot, Medium, Mild, Soulful.dsc02690.jpg

Luckily, there was plenty of food for me.  These are huge white meat chicken tenders, juicy and moist and fried to crispy perfection.  But they are not for the faint of heart!  The Mild would easily be a medium at most other places, the Medium was hot enough to make my eyes water, and the Hot, in its deep, dark, intimidating red color… WOOOOOOOOO!  (Imagine more of a Ric Flair “WOOOOO!” than a Will Smith “WOO!”, and you’ll have the right idea.)  Powerful stuff.

Those slices of white bread under the tenders (from the excellent Olde Hearth Bread Company in East End Market, which provides bread and baked goods to many local restaurants) was a real lifesaver in putting out the fire on my tongue, but it could only do so much.  I was also relieved to have cold milk at home, since water would not have done much to abate the burning.

I hate the song, but these hurt so good.

I also paid $3 for an order of Kwame’s excellent, cool, creamy, crunchy cole slaw, another heat-cutter, and 50 cents for an extra container of Fire sauce, since the one that came with the Big Box wasn’t nearly enough.  If he sold Fire sauce in bottles, especially convenient squeeze bottles, I would totally buy one for myself and others to give as gifts.  “Merry Christmas!  Have some Fire sauce!”  Too bad I can’t mail these hot chicken tenders, or I’d consider doing that too.  I have friends in other cities who would love them, even in Nashville, ground zero for legendary hot chicken.

Be on the lookout for Chef Kwame popping up with his Chicken Fire truck around Orlando during what remains of November and throughout December.  Check his Facebook page for dates and times so you catch him, but it looks like he’ll be at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store on Friday evenings, Redlight Redlight in Audubon Park on Saturday evenings, and if you’re very lucky, you might also catch him at East End Market another Sunday during the day.

But best of all, starting in January, Chicken Fire will become one of the regular food trucks featured at Orlando’s centrally-located A La Cart food truck park.  2020 is going to be the year hot chicken reigns supreme in our City Beautiful, between Swine & Sons’ spicy, smokin’ sandwich and Chicken Fire’s tangy, tantalizing tenders.  Wherever that truck goes, I will follow… with plenty of bread and milk!

Twisted Root Burger Co.

Twisted Root Burger Co. (https://www.twistedrootburgerco.com/) is the latest fast-casual burger chain out of Texas to come to Orlando, after Hopdoddy Burger Bar opened earlier this year in the Pointe Orlando mall on International Drive.  But luckily for us, Twisted Root opened much closer to where we live, in a little shopping center on Aloma Avenue and Howell Branch Road that has been brought back to life by an influx of new restaurants, including the adjoining Pho Cali and Quickly Boba, which I reviewed in 2018.

Twisted Root goes for a theme of irreverent, wacky fun, with animal head busts above the counter where you order, letting you know which ones are available to eat on any given day.  From right to left:dsc02661.jpg

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After you place your order, you can go get drinks.  There is a full bar, and more options than usual for the non-drinkers.  I love hip hop and my wife loves Law and Order: SVU, so this was a delightful display:DSC02667

Twisted Root serves its own fountain sodas, all made with cane sugar instead of the usual high fructose corn syrup.  I sampled sips of the watermelon Ice-T, cream soda, root beer, and lemonade, and the cream soda was my favorite.  A refillable drink is $2.25, by the way.  I think that would be worth it for most, just to try their versions of all the different sodas and teas.dsc02669.jpgdsc02670.jpg

Pass the soda fountain and you will encounter the pickle bar.  I’ve written before about how I’ve never been a big fan of pickles, but I’m all about trying them now, to grow my appreciation for them.  Needless to say, I had to try all five varieties here, especially since they’re free!  From left to right: atomic (spicy), sweet & spicy, ranch, bread & butter, and dill.  I think I liked the bread & butter pickles the most, and there was only one flavor I really disliked — I think it was probably the ranch.  DSC02672This was a nice feature, especially because I’m not willing to shell out for whole jars of pickles I might not like, the way I do with mustards and other condiments (and new flavors of chips and sodas).

When you order, they give you a buzzer with a pop culture icon on it to alert you that your food is ready to pick up from the counter.  We got Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which was aces with me, because I used to be a huge pro wrestling fan and am slowly wading back into that pool, and also because he elevates almost every movie he’s in.  Seriously, The Rock makes decent movies better and terrible movies tolerable.  When our buzzer went off so quickly, I was surprised our food was already ready, since the place was so slammed they had shut down one of their cash registers to give the kitchen a chance to catch up.  But it was just my wife’s s’mores milkshake ($6).  dsc02674.jpg
Her verdict: it was okay.  She thought the marshmallow tasted like lighter fluid.  I had some and liked it fine, I think even more than she did.  But I could take or leave marshmallows, whereas she is a connoisseur.

It didn’t take that much longer for The Rock to buzz us again, letting me know our food was ready.  I ordered the Freedom Melt ($11), served on “Texas toast” with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onion straws, and brisket on top — a very “me” burger to order.  Be forewarned that Twisted Root cooks all burgers MEDIUM WELL unless you ask them not to, and I’m not down with that.  I asked for mine medium rare, and it came out between medium rare and medium, but still very juicy.  DSC02675I’ve been spoiled by too much great barbecue brisket, at our well-respected homegrown chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse, and most recently, at the fantastic Git-N-Messy Barbecue in Sanford.  So I guess I was expecting shredded (but recognizable) brisket on top of my burger, instead of the finely-chopped (and probably sauced) meat I got.  It was tastier than I expected and definitely tastier than it looked, nice and smoky (again, possibly from the sauce), but it reminded me of really tender chopped beef jerky even more than brisket.

I haven’t done a

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RING THE ALARM!
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feature in a while, but Twisted Root offers fried onion strings ($3), and those count!  They were good — never as satisfying or substantial as thicker-cut, beer-battered onion rings, but they added a good dimension to my burger and gave me stuff to dip (more on that later).

My wife ordered a venison burger ($10), one of the special game meats, on “Texas toast,” otherwise served plain.  I didn’t get a picture of it, but it looked like pretty much any other burger.  She ate the whole thing, which is a good sign that she liked it.  She ordered hand-cut potato chips ($2) as her side, a nice-sized order of crispy (not overly crunchy) chips that were just salty enough.  I had to help her finish those, happily.
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A friendly manager came by to ask us how we were liking everything, and she was really craving honest feedback.  The ONLY complaint I had, and it’s a minor one, was that the “Texas toast” wasn’t what we were expecting.  I really love getting Texas toast at my beloved Waffle House — thick slices of white Wonder bread, spread liberally with butter and then grilled on both sides.  The “Texas toast” both of our burgers came on was just regular white bread: not thick, not square, not Wonder, definitely not buttered or grilled, and barely even toasted.  I always hate to complain about anything, but she asked, and it was a minor quibble.  I think thicker bread, buttered and grilled, would add so much richness to the burgers.  If they don’t change it, I’ll simply order a brioche bun with my burger on my next visit.

I was already digging Twisted Root offering so many choices (sodas, sides, pickles), but their condiment game is also strong.  Every table has squeeze bottles of Heinz ketchup and yellow mustard, plus these three beauties.  The horseradish Dijon mustard was fabulous (I’d buy a jar), the ancho chipotle ketchup was great, but as much as I love root beer AND barbecue sauce, I thought it was a little too thin and tasted a little too much of molasses.
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So this restaurant is a real “get” for our quiet, boring little area where Winter Springs, Oviedo, and Winter Park run together.  It was super-busy when we were there, but that was also a Friday night on its opening week.  I think they will do very well, especially since the shopping center has returned to life.  I liked my burger much more than some of the more popular fast-casual contenders, and I love all the different options and how close it is to our home.

Oh, one last thing: the men’s restroom is wallpapered with silly memes and sayings about the most overrated action movie “star” of all time, which I feel obligated to point out after praising the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson earlier in this review.  Yes, you can’t wash your hands without being inundated with tall tales of Texas’ own adopted son Chuck Norris, who I don’t think ever made a good movie or TV show.  I don’t know how beatifying Chuck Norris became a thing.  Sure, he was a legit martial artist, unlike many of the other action actors of the ’70s and ’80s, but Norris was a charisma vacuum, compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham, The Rock, and the vast majority of superhero actors.  Heck, even Jean-Claude Van Damme had two great (or at least memorable) movies in his career, and if any Saboscrivner readers think you can guess what they are, then let me know!

Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)