Washington D.C. Part 5: Momofuku CCDC

It’s hard to choose what was the best meal of my trip.  China Chilcano‘s Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion feast with friends was legendary, and the Union Market was everything I love, with a trifecta of sandwiches, again shared with friends.  (Well, we shared the experience, but they didn’t want any of my three sandwiches, even though I offered!)  But Momofuku CCDC (https://ccdc.momofuku.com/), the Washington D.C. outpost of celebrity chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant empire, was also a meal to remember — once again improved exponentially by the excellent company.

I had sampled one of David Chang’s iconic dishes once before, his pork belly bao, when I visited the Momofuku-affiliated Milk Bar bakery on our NYC honeymoon back in 2009.  As great as delightful Chef Christina Tosi’s baked goods were, I was overjoyed that they were serving those famous bao there, and so lucky I got to try it.  I’ve tried to duplicate that pork belly bao at home over the years, but I’ve been waiting a decade for a chance to sample more food from the Momofuku family.

I am in a group that held an evening business meeting at our big professional conference, and we scheduled some dine-arounds for our members after the meeting.  There was a list of D.C. restaurants near the convention center for people to choose from, and I volunteered to “host” a group at Momofuku CCDC, just because I wanted to eat there so badly.  Four people signed up, and the five of us walked over together.  I knew most of them, but mostly just by their impeccable reputations, and none of them knew each other.  I made everyone do an icebreaker (which could have gone badly but didn’t), and by the end of our incredible dinner, I think everyone parted as frolleagues — colleagues who had become friends.

One of the CCDC specialties is bing bread, which is kind of like a cross between a pancake, a tortilla, and a pita.  It was soft and fluffy and warm and steamy, and perfect to spread things on or rip pieces off to dip into stuff.  Somehow a group of information professionals failed to make any “Bing” jokes, but it had been a long day and we were hungry.

My bing bread came with salted chili pimento cheese, topped with bread and butter pickled kohlrabi ($7).  Pimento cheese is rapidly joining onion rings as something I’ll order whenever it’s on the menu, and I loved it.  It has been a few weeks since this meal, but I’m 90% sure this was served chilled, which I always prefer to warm versions.DSC02445

One of my companions got the bing bread with chicken liver mousse, topped with fennel jam, Chinese five spice seasoning, and toasted almonds ($15).  I desperately wanted to try it because I love chopped chicken liver, but we had just met on the walk over here, and I didn’t dare ask her for a taste.  She seemed to really enjoy it, though.DSC02449

These were my garlic noodles, with crab, shrimp, corn, green tomato relish, and Thai basil ($33, which is out of my comfort zone for what I’d normally order as an entree, but I was at Momofuku CCDC and probably won’t ever make it back!).  I’m so glad I splurged, because it was amazing.  DSC02446

Someone else ordered charred broccoli with smoked béarnaise sauce ($13).  It normally comes with XO vinaigrette, but she’s a vegetarian so she asked them to hold it.  I discovered XO sauce recently, and now I’m a little obsessed with it — a rich, savory umami-bomb of a condiment made with dried shrimp and scallops, cured Chinese ham (or bacon or lap xeong Chinese sausage), chilies, onions, garlic, soy sauce, and/or oyster sauce, cooked into a thick jam, sometimes with oil added, and in this case, vinegar.  I should have asked if they would serve the XO vinaigrette on the side so I could try it, but it didn’t occur to me until just now, because these are the things I dwell on, weeks after the fact.DSC02448

I’m not seeing this on the menu, but it looks like the same charred broccoli dish served with softshell crab, so that must have been a special that night.  My colleague demonstrated his good taste, between the softshell crab and his seersucker jacket.  (I was sporting mine too, and miraculously didn’t get anything on it.)DSC02447

And this has to be the spicy cucumber, served with crushed almonds and togarashi seasoning ($7).  This would be a great restaurant for vegetarians, since they had several options that are much more interesting and luxurious than their usual choices of fries or a salad.DSC02450

After dinner, four of the five of us, now bonded over this magnificent meal, piled into a Lyft to attend a fancy party at the Library of Congress.  (Not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story!)  Then we split up almost immediately once we got there, but at least we’re all cool now.  And at least they didn’t see me completely wipe out on some slippery marble stairs in the Great Hall.  Luckily I wasn’t carrying anything and didn’t hurt myself, or worse yet, anyone else.

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Washington D.C. Part 4: Union Market, Red Apron, Neopol Savory Smokery

There’s nothing I love more than exploring a good food market or food hall, and I’ve been to a lot of the greatest ones in the country.  Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Seattle’s Pike Place Market are my two all-time favorites, but I’ve also had way too much fun at Baltimore’s Lexington Market (home of Faidley’s Seafood, which I have reviewed right here!), San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and Columbus, Ohio’s North Market.  You can keep your fine dining experiences, with chefs who decide what you’re going to eat and obsequious waiters who hover behind you.  Not my idea of a good time!  Give me a sprawling maze of food stalls with local luxuries, exotic eats, stunning sandwiches, and gorgeous groceries, and I’m in Saboscrivner heaven.

On my trip to D.C., one of my frolleagues (a professional colleague who became a friend) invited me to the Union Market (https://unionmarketdc.com/), figuring I would have a great time.  She knows me well, because she was spot-on.  She and her husband, former D.C. denizens, were kind enough to pick me up, and we met another D.C.-based frolleague there.  I was so grateful to the three of them for hanging out with me, showing me around, and indulging me as I tried this and that, as I probably would not have made it to the market or even known about it, if left to my own devices.  Originally founded as the Centre Market in 1871, the Union Market has gone through many iterations over the decades, always changing to stay current and relevant, until it evolved into the hip foodie destination it is today.  I’d kill to have something similar here in Orlando!

I was first drawn to a sign that said Neopol Savory Smokery (http://neopolsmokery.com/), with a picture of a fish. dsc02419.jpg

Regular readers know I love my fish smoked, cured, and/or pickled (the food of my people), so my one friend and I headed straight to Neopol.  dsc02417.jpgdsc02418.jpgIt was almost impossible to choose, but my seasoned friend (the D.C. local) chose a smoked salmon BLT with avocado ($10):
DSC02426I went with a smoked whitefish salad sandwich ($10) on really nice, fresh, sliced white bread, adorned with lettuce, tomato, and onion.  I love cool, creamy, smoky whitefish salad, and it’s really hard to come by here in Orlando.  I’ve made it myself before, but even finding the golden smoked whitefish (sometimes called “chubs”) is a difficult task around here, and then you have to pick out hundreds of needle-thin, plastic-like bones.  This whitefish salad sandwich was excellent, and a heck of a lot easier than attempting to duplicate it at home.  dsc02425.jpgdsc02427.jpg

One super-cool thing I noticed about Neopol was a sign that said several of their employees are deaf, so patrons should make sure their have someone’s full attention and make eye contact before placing their order.  This made all the sense in the world, because I noticed the Union Market is very close to Gallaudet University, the largest university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the United States.  The entire market is very deaf-friendly, with deaf employees and interpreters who can speak and understand American Sign Language (ASL), plus lots of deaf patrons, many of whom are affiliated with Gallaudet.  This article from Gallaudet’s website has more information.

These major urban food markets usually have a butcher shop displaying beautiful steaks, chops, sausages, and seafood that I wish I could take home to prepare, except I’m usually far from home.  So I couldn’t believe it when I saw a gleaming glass case full of my absolute favorite: cured meats.  This was Red Apron Butcher (https://redapronbutchery.com/), a place you have to see to believe!  DSC02421DSC02422

Here’s a screen shot from Red Apron Butcher’s website with everything they offer.  We desperately need this place back home!  Well, maybe my wallet and my cholesterol don’t need it.  This is the stuff that dreams are made of:
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Luckily for me, Red Apron also offers tempting and very reasonably-priced sandwiches:dsc02420.jpg

I knew I had to sample their Italian sandwich ($12), which comes with “4 meats” (I checked, and they were hot cotto, pork cotto, cappicola, and bologna), sharp provolone, pickled peppers, iceberg lettuce, onion, and an herb vinaigrette.  It was a top-notch Italian, as you might guess.   I liked how finely-shredded the lettuce and onions were, and how the dressing held it all in place, so it was less likely to slide off the soft roll.DSC02429dsc02430.jpg

But figuring I would bring leftovers back to my hotel room for a quiet dinner that evening, I decided to pick a second sandwich.  That’s my classic go-to plan, to eat half of each sandwich at the market (or wherever I am) and save the other halves for later.  It was so hard to choose, since everything on the menu looked so good.  But a chorizo burger or a meatball sub wouldn’t be quite as good back in my room later, without a microwave to heat them up.  So I eventually went with a simple grilled cheese with spicy smoked pimento cheese (so not such a simple grilled cheese after all!) on toasted white Pullman bread ($7).  I love pimento cheese, and I’m getting to the point where I’ll usually order it wherever I can find it, since everyone’s version is a little different — kind of like how I am with onion rings, chili, and Italian subs.  However, I prefer the bread in my grilled cheese a little more buttery and a little less toasty.DSC02428

Meanwhile, my other friend got an Indian dosa from DC Dosa (I passed due to having a fantastic dosa relatively recently), and her husband went to TaKorean Korean Taco Grill.  A place like the Union Market is so perfect for hanging out with family or friends because everyone can get whatever they want, and then you just reconvene at the communal tables to eat together.  It’s also a fantastic place for sharing your meals and trying new things.

Finally, I took a deep dive into the world of falooda, the sweet Indian dessert drink that can be layered with a variety of interesting ingredients.  My friend was raving about her cool, refreshing falooda from the Toli Moli Burmese Bodega (https://www.tolimolidc.com/), and on this ridiculously humid day, after a huge lunch, I easily succumbed to peer pressure and ordered one for myself.  According to the website, “Toli Moli” translates to “a little of this and a little of that,” which is a perfect way to describe the falooda drinks.

I am pretty sure she ordered the Royal, which contains pomegranate-ginger jellies and basil seeds suspended in paprika-infused milk, vanilla ice cream, and housemade rosewater syrup.  I almost ordered that too, but the guy at the counter suggested the Mango Mogul, which contains layers of mango jellies and basil seeds floating in turmeric-infused almond & coconut milk, mango sorbet from Washington D.C.’s own Ruby Scoops Ice Cream and Sorbet, and housemade rosewater syrup.  I was a little skeptical about the almond and coconut milk, but I do love mango, so I went for it.  It reminded me a bit of the sweet boba tea slushes I’ve had at Orlando Vietnamese restaurants and teahouses, only with the chewy stuff in a thicker milkshake.  (And I tend to hold the chewy stuff, but when in Rome — or D.C. — do what the locals do!)  Falooda might be the next trend to hit Orlando, so you heard it here first.dsc02431.jpg

Once again, I would probably have never discovered the falooda on my own, much less ordered it, so I was grateful to these fellow foodie frolleagues for broadening my horizons this day, and for showing me what has to be one of the most delicious destinations in D.C.  I loved the Union Market so much, and this lunch with these friends was definitely one of the highlights of my conference.  I never would have made it there without them, or even known to seek it out, but I’m so glad I did, and when you’re in D.C., you should too.

Washington D.C. Part 3: China Chilcano

On the first night of my conference in D.C., I hung out with a dear friend and two of her awesome business colleagues at our opening reception, then accompanied them on a quest before dinner.  We ended up at the Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese restaurant China Chilcano (https://chinachilcano.com/), owned and operated by the now-legendary chef, philanthropist, and amazing human being José Andrés.  Chef Andrés is currently a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in Puerto Rico after the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017. And on top of all of that, he was also the culinary consultant for one of my favorite shows ever, Hannibal, where he worked alongside food stylist Janice Poon and showrunner Bryan Fuller in making Hannibal Lecter’s Grand Guignol gourmet creations look tantalizing and tasty.  It’s an amazing show — far better than the movies! — and you can currently stream all three seasons on Amazon Prime.  Trust me on this one.  It’s one of the best food shows ever, on top of being a ripping psychological thriller.

The China Chilcano website describes the interesting fusion of three cuisines.  Criollo is the native Peruvian style of cooking, “Chifa is where traditional Chinese techniques meet the exotic flair of Peruvian ingredients, while Nikkei features Japanese-inspired dishes using native techniques and ingredients.”  I know Peruvian-Chinese chifa was a thing, but I had somehow made it this far in life without ever trying it.  I’m sadly not that well-versed in traditional Peruvian food either, but this delightfully delicious dinner convinced me to dig deeper into it back home.DSC02393

Here’s the menu, even though it’s also on the website:
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We were lucky enough to get reservations for China Chilcano on a Saturday night, and it was hopping!  When we were first seated, our server brought out a bowl of really crunchy Inca-style roasted corn, similar to the Corn Nuts some people love as snacks.  I gotta admit, I wasn’t a huge fan.  These were way too hard and crunchy for me.
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Lucky for us, we happened to visit during the Ceviche Festival!  I sure love sushi and poke, but I’m not nearly as experienced with ceviche, raw seafood “cooked” by the acid in citrus juices, a staple of Peruvian cuisine.  My very generous dining companions picked up the tab and went all out.  We chose three ceviches dishes and shared everything:dsc02394.jpg

This was the ceviche Nikkei: big eye tuna, soy-cured egg yolk, ponzu sauce, puffed quinoa, avocado, crunchy jicama, red onion, and furikake seasoning.  It looked gorgeous and tasted even better.  DSC02400

This was the salmon tiradito, with Ora king salmon, watermelon radish, avocado, and sweety-drop peppers.  It was one of the most beautiful plates of food I’ve ever been served, and I think we all agreed on that, but its beauty didn’t stop us from devouring it.DSC02403

And this was the ceviche anticuchero (my choice), with smoked mackerel, aji panca leche de tigre (a citrus-based spicy marinade made with a fruity, smoky Peruvian pepper), burnt avocado, potatoes, and onions.  Delicious.  DSC02404DSC02405

These were Szechuan chili wontons, a Chifa-style dish with shrimp and pork dumplings, Szechuan chili oil, and fermented black beans.DSC02409

These were lamb pot stickers called Pegao Norteño, a Criollo-style dish with aderezo norteño (northern dressing?), crispy cumin lace, and gold flake.  I felt bougie and weird eating anything served with gold flake, and I don’t think it added anything to the dish, which was already very beautiful.  Good pot stickers, though — and I always love any preparations of lamb.  The crispy cumin lace was very thin and fragile and easily snapped apart, with the pot stickers easy to remove from underneath.DSC02410

This was the Aeropuerto, a Chifa-style dish with fried rice, egg noodles, crisp sweet potato, seasonal vegetables, soy bean sprouts, and “airplanes” (see the pink leafy thing on top).  I didn’t order this dish, and when our server mentioned it had mushrooms in it, I refrained from trying it.  DSC02413

This final dish was another one of my selections: the Concolon, another Chifa-style dish that was described on the menu as being “perfect for the table.”  It was a crispy fried rice pot with pork belly from Heritage Farm in Seven Springs, NC, egg, lap xeong Chinese sausage (one of my favorite ingredients), bok choy, and rocoto peppers.  I asked them to serve the shitaake mushrooms on the side, for my sake.  I liked the crispy pork rinds on the top and loved the sweet, chewy Chinese sausage, something I’m always happy to see when it turns up in my fried rice.DSC02414

As you can see, it was a pretty legendary dinner.  I am so grateful to my old friend and her teammates, who I am lucky to now consider friends as well, for inviting me along with them and treating me to this sumptuous fusion feast.  This was my first visit to one of Chef José Andrés’ restaurants, and it would not be my last!

Washington D.C. Part 2: SUNdeVICH

Once I made it to my D.C. hotel, I embarked on an exhausting day of sightseeing — really the only day I had to play tourist.  After a nearly-sleepless night, a ridiculously early flight, and a big breakfast at Ben’s Chili Bowl at the airport, I walked from my hotel down to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, then went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and then all the way down the National Mall to take a tour of the awe-inspiring Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.  Any one of those landmarks could easily take a day or more to fully appreciate, but I realized my time was limited in D.C., and I wanted to see and do everything I could.  It ended up being a great day, full of education and inspiration, but also a long and exhausting one.  I walked much more than I’m used to — in uncomfortable dress shoes, no less — through oppressive heat and humidity on par with ours in Florida.  All those countless hours on the elliptical machine in my nice, air-conditioned gym didn’t prepare me for that.

So when I finally made it back to my hotel room, I did the usual — make it dark, make it icy-cold, and make fists with my toes in the carpet.  After a lot of water and Gatorade, I was ready for some dinner — something simple, within walking distance, that I could eat alone, to decompress and chill out before all the heavy-duty socializing of the next few days.  I found the perfect place about a half-mile walk from my hotel: SUNdeVICH (http://sundevich.com/).

A casual sandwich shop built into an old garage, SUNdeVICH has international flair, with sandwiches taking their namesakes from major international cities.  The menu is large and eclectic, with a little something for everyone, no matter what mood you’re in, including if you’re dehydrated and exhausted.dsc02380.jpg

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As usual, I had a hard time deciding, with all the options before me.  But thinking ahead to how busy I was about to be the following day, I decided to order two sandwiches, try them both tonight, and have plenty left for tomorrow, when I’d have conferencey stuff going on and couldn’t sneak off to eat anywhere good.  Did I want the Rome (an Italian sandwich with my beloved cured meats)?  The Berlin (a bratwurst with sauerkraut and mustard)?  The Havana (a Cuban sandwich)?  The Memphis (barbecue chicken)?  The Seoul (bulgogi beef with kimchi and Asian slaw)?  All sound good and any would have satisfied, but this was my one chance to get a little weird at SUNdeVICH.

I chose the Istanbul ($13), with ground beef and lamb, sumac onions, tomato, tzatziki, and fresh herbs, and the Shiraz ($12), with beef tongue, pickled vegetables, and mustard.  All things a Saboscrivner loves!  I also ordered a side of the intriguing Russian salad ($5), with chicken, potato, egg, peas, gherkins, carrots, and mayo.

This was back in the comfort of my room, with dinner, lunch for the next day, and not nearly enough Gatorade, after all that walking.  The Russian salad came with a huge bag of baguette ends for spreading and/or dipping.  They were very generous with these, and while I would have made them into garlic toast or croutons had I been home, there was just no way I could eat all that bread, on top of the nicer, fresher baguettes my two sandwiches came on.  DSC02384

This was the Istanbul (not Constantinople, NEVER Constantinople!)  The beef and lamb was made into a chargrilled patty, similar to the kofte I make at home — the consistency of a dense burger or slice of meatloaf.  Everything was seasoned very well, the tzatziki did a good job cooling the primary flavors of salt, garlic, and onion, and did I mention how fresh the bread was?  Well, it was.DSC02385DSC02387

And this was the Shiraz.  I love beef tongue, whether it’s pickled like corned beef at a Jewish deli or slow-braised in a lengua taco.  This preparation wasn’t exactly like either, but the slices were still very tender.  The pickled vegetables were cauliflower, celery, and carrot, like a finely-chopped giardinera salad, and the mustard was whole-grain variety, with crunchy little round seeds.  It was an interesting combination I never would have come up with on my own, but I’m glad I chose it.   DSC02386DSC02388

And the Russian salad?  Sorry I don’t have a close-up, but imagine a mayo-based chicken/potato/egg salad hybrid with peas, and you’ll have it.  I appreciate a cool, creamy salad accompanying rich, hearty sandwiches, and it was a much more interesting choice than plain old potato salad.  I wish the included baguettes had been toasted or grilled, but they wouldn’t have been as crispy by the time I got back to my room anyway.

I really liked SUNdeVICH and how creative and diverse the menu was.  We’re lucky to have lots of great sandwich shops here in Orlando, but I was thinking this particular international concept would do really well here.  After my first day in Washington D.C., it hit the spot and possibly saved my life.  But I was there for a few more days, which means a few more meals and a few more reviews yet to come.  Stay tuned, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

Washington D.C. Part 1: Ben’s Chili Bowl (RING THE ALARM!)

I am very lucky to be able to travel to professional conferences in different cities once in a while.  My profession has two major annual conferences: a huge national one in July and a smaller Southeastern conference in the spring.  In a really good year, I get to attend both.  Some years, my employer doesn’t have the budget to send me to either.  But each and every conference I attend is a gift.  I love them, because I get to visit and explore new cities, attend programs to help me improve at my job, learn from the best people in our field, catch up with my frolleagues (colleagues who have become friends), and eat at new restaurants along the way.

Our latest conference was in Washington D.C., and people are always shocked when I told them I’ve never been to our nation’s capital before.  Well, better late than never!  Even though this was a particularly busy conference, I was able to arrive a day early to play tourist.

That first day in D.C. was long and exhausting, but I credit a big breakfast at Reagan International Airport for giving me the strength to make it through.  I arrived so early, I figured I should kill a little time before even taking the Metro to check into my hotel.  And instead of the usual airport chains, I found a location of the Washington D.C. institution Ben’s Chili Bowl (https://www.benschilibowl.com/), a favorite of locals, tourists, celebrities, and even President Obama. DSC02332

Of course, most people opt for the historic location on U Street, founded by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958.  While that would have been a lot more atmospheric, I couldn’t beat the convenience of passing right by it on my way out of the airport. And I had wanted to try Ben’s anyway, so it worked out perfectly.DSC02334

So this was my healthy, balanced breakfast, around 9 AM after getting three hours of sleep the night before:

A spicy chili half-smoke sausage, grilled and served on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce.  The tomato-based chili con carne was very thin, with finely-ground beef — a pretty-standard hot dog chili, but that’s the best kind to put on a dog. DSC02335

The sausage itself had a nice bit of heat, but best of all was the snappiness it had, due to what was probably a natural casing.  This is definitely the kind of thing to eat with a knife and fork, but of course I didn’t.  Here’s a cross-section:
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My long-time readers know I order onion rings whenever I can, to see if they match my very high standards.  It’s a little recurring feature I like to call

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

For maybe the first time ever, I was a little disappointed that Ben’s served such a large portion of onion rings.  I never eat breakfast, I was still tired, and I was steeling myself for a really busy, physical day, so I knew I couldn’t eat them all, and I would make myself sick trying.  Luckily, they weren’t my absolute favorite kind of onion ring — instead of the golden beer battered rings I always seek, these had a crispy bread crumb coating that peeled off pretty easily.  Not awful by any means, but not my favorite onion rings ever.  I didn’t feel too guilty leaving some of them behind, since I knew they wouldn’t be worth dragging back to my hotel room to eat cold later.

And since this meal came with a huge, early morning blast of fat, salt, spice, and grease, I ordered a pineapple milkshake too, because I love pineapple anything, and I figured it would be cool and soothing after the spicy sausage, chili, and rings.  It was very thick and refreshing, but I wish it had been more pineappley.  It might have saved me from getting some acid reflux later on, so no regrets from me.dsc02336.jpg

After that, I never made it to the original Ben’s Chili Bowl location for that historic D.C. dining experience, but I was content.  I had always heard great things about Ben’s, and I’m glad I got to try the food for myself, even if it was in an airport location.  This wasn’t bad at all, but the meals I ate in Washington D.C. only got better from here.

Hawkers Asian Street Fare

The pan-Asian restaurant Hawkers (https://eathawkers.com/) started as a small, hip, industrial-looking modern space on Mills Avenue, in what may be Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, Mills 50.  Since 2011, it has expanded into ten locations in multiple states, and for good reason: it’s terrific.  We’ve gone countless times since it opened, almost always to that original location.

Hawkers specializes in diverse street food specialties from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, and more.  Portions are relatively small, so it’s a great place to go with a group and share lots of dishes.  And very few items on the menu are over $10, so you don’t have to worry too much or feel too guilty ordering more than one dish to sample new things.

Hawkers is a real treasure, and it has emerged as one of my favorite restaurants to bring out-of-town visitors — a perfect distillation of Orlando’s multicultural culinary scene, especially its Asian influences.  It has impressed good friends from far and wide when they come to visit, and in the meantime, it has become a safe, reliable place to bring my wife when one or both of us have a hard time deciding what sounds best.  If you want something healthy or heavy, meaty or veggie, cool or spicy, noodles or rice, soups or salads, and now even a sweet treat of a brunch, Hawkers will have something you like.

For my most recent visit, I caught up with an old friend with connections to my old Miami friend group, who I then got to know better while we both studied in Gainesville.  I hadn’t seen him since 2006, which is insane.  In that time, we both met amazing women and got married, and he had kids.  It’s crazy!  Life happens.  He happened to be in Orlando for work that day and looked me up, hoping to meet for dinner and remembering I’m the guy who knows where to eat around here.  I was so glad to catch up with my old friend, and I knew Hawkers would be the perfect place to get together.  I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t amazed and astonished by it.

For this dinner, I started us out with an order of roti canai, which are buttery, flaky Malaysian flatbreads.  Think about a really good, fresh, fluffy flour tortilla getting it on with a layer you peel off a delicate French croissant, and you’ll come close to the glory and grandeur of a Malaysian roti.  An order of a single roti with a cup of curry sauce for dipping is $3, and each additional roti costs $1.50.  Count on ordering at least one roti for everyone in your party, and I guarantee you’ll want more.  Even people with the most unadventurous palates will love these, although those people might want to forego the curry sauce.  If you have kids, they will love these things too.dsc02328.jpg

I also requested an order of Korean twice-fried chicken wings ($8), which are my favorite wings anywhere, ever.  My wife agrees, and so does my best food friend (BFF) who lives in Miami.  And now, so does this old friend.  These are huge wings, with the thickest, crispiest breading, slathered in a sticky, sweet, spicy, garlicky gochujang sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and fresh cilantro.  An order of five wings costs $8, and my friend liked them so much, he ordered more.
DSC02327 These wings made my Orlando Weekly list of five favorite dishes of 2017.  They are perfect in every way.  They’re thick, meaty, juicy, crunchy, sweet (but not too sweet), and spicy (but definitely not too spicy).  I hate the tiny, dry, burnt-to-a-crisp sports bar wings that too many restaurants and bars serve, slathered in oily hot sauce designed to burn on the way in and the way out.  To me, there’s no point to even eating wings like that.  They’re just sad.  These Korean twice-fried wings are the opposite: pure happiness.

Next up were the chicka-rones ($6), crispy fried chicken skins tossed in jerk seasoning.  The menu says these are Filipino-style.  I loved them, especially as a nice alternative to pork rinds (AKA chicharrones, hence the clever name of this dish), which can sometimes be too hard to bite through, or so crunchy they can shred the inside of your mouth.  DSC02329For the first time ever, I recently fried up my own chicken skins at home into a crispy Jewish delicacy called gribenes, and rendered the fat (schmaltz) for cooking with later.  Fried chicken skins are so much lighter and less oppressive-feeling than pork rinds, so I’m definitely a convert.

My friend was craving something spicy, so he went with a dish I had never tried before: Kin’s prawn mee ($9), a hot noodle soup with spicy prawn broth, shrimp, chicken, wheat noodles, hard-boiled egg, yow choy (Chinese greens), bean sprouts, and fried shallots.  He was sweating, but he loved it.  I might order this in the future, since he was so enthusiastic about it.DSC02330

And I also picked a new noodle dish, knowing those are always safe bets.  This was the Yaki udon ($8.50): thick and chewy udon noodles (always a favorite), chicken, eggs, onions, spring onions, and carrots.  It comes with bean sprouts too, but I am not the biggest fan, so I asked them to hold the bean sprouts — never a problem at Hawkers.  It had pretty mild heat, but it was pleasant.  We both enjoyed this one, and I’d totally order it again.  DSC02331In the past, I have loved so many of Hawkers’ noodle dishes: curry-seasoned Singapore mei fun with chicken and shrimp, beef haw fun (with wide, flat noodles, similar to the beef chow fun I order at almost every Chinese restaurant that offers it), char kway teow, and spicy pad Thai.  Now I’m adding the Yaki udon to this all-star lineup.  The only problem in the future is what to choose: an old favorite or an exciting new possibility.  You can’t go wrong either way, trust me.

Anyway, I parted ways with my old friend after dinner, determined to keep in touch better and not let thirteen more years go by.  He seemed to really enjoy the restaurant and our menu selections, which I totally expected, but the last thing I ever want to do is recommend something that disappoints, staunch Saboscrivner subscribers included.  A bad meal always depresses me, because not only is it a bad meal, but there’s the opportunity cost of not being able to enjoy a good meal in its place.  I can safely say that Hawkers is a crowd-pleaser, and if you haven’t given it a chance yet, you won’t be sorry.

In fact, to sweeten the deal, Hawkers started serving brunch recently, but only on weekends and only at their newer, larger location in Windemere, much further from where we live.  People’s photos of the new menu items looked enticing, so my wife and I recently took the trip out there, a few weeks after they rolled out the brunch menu, figuring they would have time to work out any potential bugs.  Though we were one of the first parties to arrive when the restaurant opened that morning, it took an extraordinarily long time for us to get seated.  I normally don’t remark on things like this on my blog, but it seemed weird, given that the restaurant was completely empty after just opening for business, with lots of staff available.  We couldn’t help but be amused by one woman who (politely and diplomatically) complained about the delay before leaving.  My wife expressed a gesture of solidarity with her as she walked out, and then I figured we were going to get lousy service and would end up feeling like chumps.  But once we finally got seated, the service improved exponentially, and it was worth the wait.

I’m a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, so I marked out when I saw this brunch item called Hash Rules Everything Around Me.  How could I not order that?  Dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all!  The dish included fried pork belly, crisp tater tots, bell peppers, and onions, topped with an egg fried over easy, smothered in curry gravy.  Everything about this dish worked for me, with the runny richness of the egg cascading down and melding with the spicy gravy, forming a killer sauce for those tots.  They were the best tots I’ve ever had, and the pork belly was everything I love about pork belly — a crispy (but not crunchy) exterior, giving way to smooth, unctious, yielding deliciousness. DSC02092DSC02094

Xiao long bao, AKA soup dumplings!  On the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook, people had been hyping these up for years and bemoaning their absence in Orlando before they popped up on a few local restaurants’ menus recently.  Hawkers was the first or second to offer these steamed classics in town.DSC02095

Frankly, I think they’re kind of messy to eat, and dare I say it — more trouble than they’re worth.  If you don’t eat the whole thing in one bite, the broth leaks out, and if you do eat the whole thing in one bite, you can burn a layer of skin out of your mouth.  DSC02097

Think about how perfect a pizza is, and then consider the calzone — everything you love about a pizza, but the inverse.  Not bad, per se, but inside out and a little awkward to eat.  Now think about a bowl of good wonton soup.  Are you envisioning it?  So warm and comforting!  Well, the xiao long bao is the calzone version of wonton soup, with pork, crab, and broth inside the wonton, each soup dumpling its own little microcosm.  DSC02098

Even for brunch, we couldn’t go to Hawkers and not order the twice-fried Korean chicken wings.  Yes, don’t worry — many of your regular favorites are still available on the brunch menu.  Check the website to confirm, though!  These wings were as sticky, sweet, and spicy as usual.  DSC02099

This was a brunch dish that might as well have been on the dessert menu: the Hong Kong bubble waffle, stuffed with whipped cream, fresh lemon custard, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  If you’ve never had a bubble waffle, remedy that.  It is sweet and eggy with the lightest, crispiest outer shell, but so soft and fluffy inside.  This one got soggy and cool quickly due to the whipped cream, but was still tasty.  DSC02091

I can see bubble waffles being a very satisfying street food, especially if you just get handed a warm waffle and eat it by tearing bubbles off or just biting off a bubble at a time.  The whipped cream and especially the lemon custard would have been better as dips for the waffle itself, rather than being served inside of it to make the whole thing soggy.DSC02093

And this sweet brunch dish (pretty much another dessert) was called Stacks on Stacks: Japanese souffle pancakes, so trendy and Instagrammable.  The pancakes were tall, thick, and very jiggly and fluffy, served with bananas, Nutella, whipped cream, and drizzled with a housemade sesame peanut sauce.  (Fo’ drizzle.)  I didn’t think this was that fantastic.  The pancakes were kind of doughy and a little dry, even with all the toppings.  I honestly prefer IHOP and Cracker Barrel pancakes, and I’m not that big on Nutella, sesame, or peanuts.  This dish just wasn’t for me, but I suspect many of my regular readers and “brunch squad” types will love it.DSC02100

I always order a Vietnamese iced coffee at Hawkers, especially if I’m going to have anything spicy.  It’s one of the only coffee drinks I’ll drink, rich and sweet with condensed milk.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet with condensed milk, and ready to jolt me awake.  That morning, my wife ordered a “mocktail” called the Tang Dynasty, with tangy pineapple juice, orange juice, tamarind, salt, and ginger ale.dsc02090.jpg

I’m generally not a brunch fan — my regular readers know I consider it a disappointing ripoff of a meal, especially since neither of us drink — but I’m glad we experienced the new brunch at Hawkers once.  I don’t think we’ll rush back, but mostly because the Windemere location is quite far from us.  We’re still huge fans of the tried-and-true original location for lunch and dinner, especially those Korean twice-fried wings, the roti canai, and all those noodles.  And if you come to visit me from a town that doesn’t have a Hawkers location yet, we might just end up there.  So far, all the friends I’ve dragged there have emerged huge fans, so watch out!

 

Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

One of Orlando’s culinary highlights is its burgeoning Vietnamese restaurant scene.  The Mills 50 neighborhood near downtown Orlando (the intersection of Mills Avenue, AKA Highway 17-92, and Colonial Drive, AKA State Road 50) might be the best part of town for dining out, period.  We have the most Vietnamese restaurants centered around there, plus lots of Vietnamese and other Asian markets.  Vietnamese cuisine carries some French influences, from delicate pastries to banh mi, sub sandwiches with various cured meats and pickled vegetables on perfect crisp baguettes.  Even Vietnamese iced coffee, or cà phê sữa đá, is a strong dark roast served over ice with sweetened condensed milk — ooh la la, hon hon hon!  So rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.  I like my coffee like I like my women: rich and sweet, refreshing and delicious.

Amid all our other Vietnamese options, we have a new choice that just opened recently and is getting plenty of well-deserved foodie buzz: Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery (https://parisbanhmicafebakery.com/).  It’s not a full-service, sit-down restaurant, but a casual cafe, wide open with modern decor, specializing in banh mi sandwiches, baked goods, and tasty beverages.  You order at the counter, but first you have to run the gauntlet of all those beautiful, fresh-baked pastries on display.  DSC02305

I arrived after the lunch rush on Independence Day, after treating myself to a mid-morning showing of the new Spider-Man sequel on a day off work.  The baked goods were picked over, but there was still plenty to choose from:DSC02304

When you enter, grab a tray and a pair of tongs, because you can start serving yourself on your way up to the counter.  A hungry or sweet-toothed person can do a lot of damage, but at least these pastries aren’t expensive, so you can make some choices and have a good time with a mostly-clear conscience.DSC02301

I had been warned to not miss these flaky round pastries stuffed with savory seasoned ground beef.  They were kept in a separate glass case on top of the front counter, being kept warm.  As soon as I saw them, I knew I would have chosen one anyway.  I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially at only $2:DSC02300

I selected an assortment of five pastries to bring home to share with my wife, but a kind gentleman who worked there advised me of their special deal of buying five and getting a sixth free.  How could I refuse?  So I walked out with a flaky margherita pastry with tomato filling (top left; $3), a cheese croissant that was much more like a cheese danish (top middle; $2), a sweet cheese blueberry croissant (top right; $2.80), the warm, meat-stuffed pastry that rang up as a pate chaud (bottom left; $2), a mozzarella and tomato sauce-filled pastry that was kind of like a really good pizza Hot Pocket (bottom; $3), and a sweet, buttery, flaky kouign amann (the round one on the right; $2.80).
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Here is the banh mi menu, at last!  These are a bargain at $5 each, and they are extremely high-quality, especially the fresh-baked baguettes, so crispy outside and so soft inside.  I’ve had some banh mi served to me on stale baguettes that shatter when you bite into them, and a couple you could use as baseball bats, but I can’t conceive of such a thing at Paris Banh Mi.  dsc02307.jpgI ended up choosing a B1 special combination, with several different cold cuts (served cold), and a B2 grilled pork (served warm), both to go.

Here they are, unwrapped back at home.  I’d definitely rank them among the best banh mi in a city blessed to have lots of good ones to choose from.
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Here is the drink menu, also posted above the counter.  The Paris By Night latte looked beautiful, and you can never go wrong with iced coffee or Thai iced tea, but I chose a drink I’ve been hearing about for months but haven’t had a chance to try yet: milk tea with cheese foam ($5).  dsc02306.jpg

This was my cool, creamy milk tea with cheese foam.  It’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise.  The milk tea is sweet and refreshing, and never tastes too much like tea to me, but I’m okay with that.  The foam at the top is kind of like a sweetened cream cheese, but not thick and solid like cheesecake.  It’s sticky and frothy and a little salty — more like thicker, sticky, salty whipped cream.  Go ahead and giggle — get it out of your system — but I swear it works.  I enjoyed this drink and would totally order it again.  DSC02298

On my way out, I took some more photos of the beautiful cakes, eclairs, napoleons, macarons, tarts, and other pastries in their glass cases up front.  Things like this never tempt me that much, but I have no doubt each one would be wonderful.  My parents, who are definitely not adventurous eaters, go gaga over French pastries like these, so I’d love to take them here if they ever make it up from Miami to visit us.  No pressure, though!  (I know they read my blog and wonder how I got this way.)

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Best of all, on this visit — my first visit — someone called my name, and it was three friendly and delightful regulars from the Orlando Foodie Forum, the Facebook group that inspires my food blogging, and hopefully I inspire some of them with my recommendations right here.  Even on a national holiday and a day off work, after seeing Spider-Man and picking out delicious food to bring home, the biggest treat of all was meeting Rasha, Brian, and Yousuf.  They were warm and welcoming — fellow foodies I had never met before, but they recognized me and were kind enough to introduce themselves and make that connection.  This was their second time getting food from Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, and I think they’ve even returned since last week.  I can’t blame them.  I already knew they had impeccable taste, and this place is GOOD.

When you make it to Mills 50, it’s hard to choose where to eat.  You can have spicy Szechuan Chinese at Chuan Lu Garden, cool and refreshing Hawaiian poke at Poke Hana, or endless Vietnamese restaurants like Pho 88 — all reliable recipients of the Saboscrivner Seal of Approval.  But no matter where you go for lunch or dinner, consider saving some room for a sweet dessert, a snack to go, or some frothy milk tea (and don’t forget the cheese foam!) at Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery, or make a special trip there for some of the best banh mi in Orlando.  It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I’d be shocked if anyone visited and couldn’t find something to love.