Chef Wang’s Kitchen

On my recent trip to Orlando’s Chinatown, on West Colonial Drive west of downtown, I stopped by Zero Degrees for a snack and some sweet drinks, and then I went on to bring home some takeout from Chef Wang’s Kitchen (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Chef-Wangs-Kitchen/1957726267879134), a well-regarded Chinese restaurant in the same shopping center as Zero Degrees.  Once again, this was a whole new area I was exploring, too far from work to jet off to for lunch, but it came highly recommended.

I ordered beef chow fun, one of my favorite Chinese dishes anywhere, with tender beef, onions, scallions, and wide, flat, chewy noodles.  After including the beef chow fun from Peter’s Kitchen, another fantastic local Chinese restaurant, in my Orlando Weekly Top Five Dishes of 2017 column, I am always on the lookout for other restaurants’ versions of this classic.  Chef Wang’s did not disappoint.  Now I always ask to hold the bean sprouts in everything, as I’ve never been that big a fan of those crunchy little things, and it makes a hugely positive difference for me.

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My wife requested cashew chicken for herself, stir-fried with onions and bell peppers in a thick, sweet-ish sauce.  I’m not big on nuts in anything, but this was much tastier and more satisfying than I expected, considering I finished it for her a few days later.  (She is not big on leftovers, whereas I live for them.)

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I also ordered us a very generous portion of pan-fried pork dumplings, which were terrific.

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And after almost a year of hype, what finally made me drop everything and schlep across town to Chef Wang’s: the BEEF KNISH.  Yes, dear readers, you heard it here first.  There’s a stereotype that American Jews love Chinese food, and many of us do.  For me and so many family members and friends, a Jewish Christmas involves going out to see a movie and getting Chinese food on Christmas Day.  My family and I have never kept kosher, but despite the prevalence of pork and shellfish in Chinese food, I have often wondered why there isn’t more crossover between Americanized Chinese and American Jewish cuisines.  But now there’s a BEEF KNISH.

The order comes with two knishes, made fresh to order.  Each one is about four inches diameter and a good inch thick, with a soft, chewy, doughy shell and a filling of hot (not spicy) tender beef seasoned with some chives, onions, and garlic.

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Here’s one of them after I took a bite.  I gotta tell you, at first I was shocked by how much liquid came pouring out when I bit into it.  It drenched my plate and hand!  At first I was wondering if these would be like xiao long bao, the infamous soup dumplings that apparently nobody in Orlando serves, but so many local foodies lust after.  But no, this was not exactly a soup shower, but a grease geyser!  Don’t get me wrong, these cross-cultural delights were delicious, and also an engineering marvel in how the perfectly-sealed baked dough shell didn’t allow for any leaking liquid.

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I have to say, Orlando absolutely kills it with Chinese food.  We have Chef Wang’s Kitchen and Taste of Chengdu (really creative and spicy Szechuan cuisine) both west of downtown on Colonial, my old favorites Chuan Lu Garden (also Szechuan) and Peter’s Kitchen east of downtown on Colonial along with old stand-by Tasty Wok, and Yummy House in Altamonte Springs.  They’re all worthwhile and worth visiting, and all a cut above your shopping plaza storefronts or mall food court Chinese places.  Chef Wang’s is great, and in great company.

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Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe

For Orlando residents in the know, even though we have hot and hip foodie neighborhoods like Mills 50, the Milk District, and Winter Park, one of our most up-and-coming areas is Sanford, about half an hour north of downtown Orlando, in Seminole County.  Sanford boasts a quaint, picturesque, historic downtown area of its own, with plenty of exciting restaurants, bars, and breweries along its cobblestone streets to tempt and tantalize anyone who appreciates good meals and tasty beverages.

Maybe downtown Sanford’s most beloved culinary destination is the German restaurant Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe (https://www.hollerbachs.com/).  Theo Hollerbach has expanded his empire into a very good German market and deli (Magnolia Square Market), and even a clothing store for all your lederhosen and dirndl needs.  But the restaurant is the main draw, a place to drink giant beers (if that’s your thing) and eat heaping plates of hearty, delicious food in a fun, festive, casual atmosphere.

Ze Germans have so many polysyllabic words that fit very specific situations and feelings, and the one they all take to heart at Hollerbach’s is gemütlichkeit, “a sense of well being one feels when enjoying the company of friends and family while savoring good food and drink.”  You might not be able to pronounce it, especially after one of those aforementioned giant beers, but you will definitely feel it.

It doesn’t get much more fun or festive than this huge, soft, fresh Bavarian pretzel, which is served with with delicious sweet mustard (remember, the Saboscrivner is a mustard aficionado!) and savory, spicy beer-cheese spread called obadza.  The two of us didn’t finish the whole thing, although we easily could have.  Luckily, my wife isn’t into condiments, dips, sauces, or spreads, so more mustard and obadza for me!dsc01773

At Hollerbach’s, I will usually order some combination of wurst (sausages), which are often just a mustard delivery system for me.  But for our most recent lunch, I tried something new, and I’m so glad I did.  This is eisbein, a skinless, bone-in pork shank, roasted to rich, tender perfection.  The bone slid right out with no meat attached to it, and I could practically cut it with my fork!  It made me so happy.dsc01775

All the sides at Hollerbach’s are terrific, but I got mine with excellent sauerkraut (served warm with bacon, onions, and apples, and sweeter than what you’re used to on hot dogs) and potato salad (also served warm, with applewood smoked bacon, onions, pickles and vinegar, and sweeter and tangier than most potato salad you’ve had before).  Obviously the sides were very complementary, and both worked well with the rich pork.  This German mustard was quite spicy and helped open up my sinuses!

My wife always orders her favorite dish at Hollerbach’s: pork schnitzel, pounded flat and tender, coated in a cracker crumb breading, and pan-fried.  She loves it with spätzle, which are buttery, cheesy, chewy homemade dumplings.  For the uninitiated, they are kind of like tiny, uneven-textured, golden, buttery, pan-fried gnocchi.  dsc01774

They have a huge covered patio, and on cool, sunny days, we love to sit outside to eat, people-watch, and especially dog-watch.  They almost always feature live music — usually a singing guitarist on the patio when we go for lunch on weekends, and a traditional German musical duo, Jimmy and Eckhard, that performs in the evenings, when people hoist their enormous beer steins and the place becomes a lot more raucous.

Hollerbach’s has beautiful cakes and other desserts that always tempt us, but this time, we walked directly across the street for my favorite ice cream in the Orlando area at Wondermade.  I will have to review them some other time, but trust me — they have damn fine ice cream.  But I really need to make it back, because my wife was too full and tired to head back around the corner to Hollerbach’s Magnolia Square Market, one of the best places around to buy sausages, salami, and other cured meats, as well as baked goods and other German groceries.  An ethnic market with cured meats?  That’s Saboscrivner heaven, friends.

The Coop

John Rivers has built a successful restaurant empire from right here in the Orlando area, starting with his first, tiny 4 Rivers Smokehouse location in Winter Park that grew into an empire throughout Florida and even beyond.  We love 4 Rivers for barbecue, and I will get around to reviewing it here eventually, even though we’ve been there countless times over the last decade.

Mr. Rivers founded The Coop (https://asouthernaffair.com/), his Southern home-cookin’ restaurant, back in 2014, also in Winter Park.  I made it our goal to be there on opening day, and my wife and I were within the first 20 or so people lined up for lunch that first day.  At some point they started serving breakfast, and one morning a few years back, we met John Rivers, the man himself.  We had to gush a bit over how much we love 4 Rivers and The Coop, and I can tell you he could not have been friendlier, more down-to-Earth, more humble, or more welcoming.  He even treated us to breakfast that morning, which he did NOT have to do.  He does a lot of charitable work with these restaurants as well, and is an all-around mensch.

Anyway, The Coop serves some of the best fried chicken in Orlando and all kinds of down-home Southern sides and other dishes.  Chicken and waffles?  Chicken and dumplings?  Roasted chicken?  Shrimp and grits?  Fried seafood?  Pimento cheese?  Biscuits?  Cornbread?  Delicious breakfasts?  Decadent desserts?  You name it, they have it.

I have lost count of the times we’ve been there since it opened five years ago.  I have also brought my best friend from Miami there, and lots of co-workers as well.  This review is based on our two most recent visits.

Even though I love a good fried chicken thigh, The Coop’s roasted chicken is quite good, so I’ve been ordering it more often.  You can get a quarter- or half-chicken a la carte, or with two or three sides and a biscuit or cornbread.  I always get collard greens at The Coop and 4 Rivers.  Theirs are some of the best greens I’ve ever had.  They are slow-cooked with smoked pork, and I always add some generous dashes of pepper vinegar to them.  I can even drink the juice when I finish those greens, it is that delicious.  That square thing below is actually a biscuit, and it is flaky and rich.  Feel free to add butter, jam, syrup, or dip it in your meat juices or barbecue sauce, but it doesn’t need anything.coop1

Thighs and legs are my favorite parts of any bird, so I always go for the dark meat quarter chicken (or sometimes the half, if I’m hungry enough).  The skin is attached, brushed with barbecue sauce or some kind of sweet glaze but not smoked like the chicken at 4 Rivers.  It is always moist, juicy, and tender.  I asked for it with a side of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which might look like ranch and smell like ranch, but BROTHER, it ain’t ranch.  It is creamy, peppery, tangy, and subtly sweet, so it goes well with any kind of chicken, especially with that skin.  coop2

I also chose the side called “Hoppin’ John,” a Southern stew of rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra.  It is always okay, never quite as good as I think it’s going to be, but some people go gaga over this dish.  coop3

My wife loves fried catfish more than anyone I’ve ever met, so she vacillates between ordering fried chicken and catfish at The Coop.  She ordered catfish both of our last two visits, which comes with grits and hush puppies.  These are grits cooked the real, traditional way, as “NO SELF-RESPECTIN’ SOUTHERNER USES INSTANT GRITS.”  The Coop takes pride in its grits!

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And this was from a different visit.  This time, the hush puppies came out later, hot, crispy, and fresh.  She’s not so big on hush puppies, which is great, because I ate them, dipping them in the remoulade sauce that came with the catfish.  (She has never been into condiments or sauces or dipping things in other things, whereas I obsess over that.)20190103_125257_resized

As for me, I switched things around and created a new dish.  I’m not wild about grits, believe it or not, which is ironic because I love the way shrimp is prepared in shrimp and grits, that classic Low Country cuisine dish from the Carolinas and Georgia, stewed with salty, smoky andouille sausage and sometimes tasso ham.  Totally kosher, am I right?

I had a crazy idea, but I didn’t know if they would let me get away with it.  I asked if I could get the shrimp with something other than grits, and the patient girl told me that some people get the shrimp ladled over white rice.  I had other plans that day, and asked if I could get the shrimp over macaroni and cheese!  (The Coop has really nice, creamy macaroni and cheese, by the way.  It is never dried-out.)  She indulged me, and this is something they should seriously add to the menu, because it was forking amazing.  In fact, inspired by my bravado and culinary creativity, the older gentleman in line behind me requested the same thing!  Dear readers, have I become a dreaded “influencer”?  Say it ain’t so!20190103_124811_resized

And they always have beautiful cakes there, so my wife got this piece of chocolate cake wrapped up to go, which she loved.coop5

So yeah, come to The Coop for the excellent fried chicken, but stay for everything else!  Just don’t bother showing up on Sundays, because it is closed.  Of course, now I have incepted the idea into your heads that you will crave Coop food on Sundays, as we too often do.

Zero Degrees

The other day I drove further west than I’ve ever driven before, in my almost 15 years in Orlando.  There’s a whole “Chinatown” west of downtown, even past Taste of Chengdu, with lots of Asian markets and restaurants, as well as a Caribbean supermarket.  It felt like I unlocked a new level in a video game, venturing to an unfamiliar new area and discovering all kinds of exciting, even legendary places to eat and explore in the future.

I went out that way on a quest for a certain kind of hot sauce, after coming up empty at three much closer Asian markets.  I finally found it at the Tan Tien Oriental Market, and a few doors down from it, I stumbled upon Zero Degrees (https://zerodegreescompany.com/).  It immediately felt like a Southern California sort of place due to a lot of Mexican and Asian fusion food and beverages, and the website confirmed it was founded in (that other) Orange County.

Zero Degrees has an eclectic menu full of frosty, sweet, refreshing (non-alcoholic) drinks, including fruit slushes, sweet shakes, limeades, milk teas (including Thai iced tea), green teas, Vietnamese iced coffee (with sweetened condensed milk, so good!), and Mexican horchata (sweetened rice milk), which can all be ordered with or without chewy boba pearls made from tapioca.  They even have a Splitcup: a cup split down the middle into two separate compartments, so you can order two drinks in the same cup without having them mix together, for $5.50.

The food menu is snack-focused, featuring different variations of fries, nachos, elotes (Mexican street corn), chicharrones (pork rinds), and macaroni and cheese with a variety of toppings, including cheese, carne asada beef, and crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I knew carne asada fries is a real L.A. thing.  They also have wings and crispy popcorn chicken bites, in salt and pepper or honey barbecue flavors.

I was in a hurry and had a hard time deciding, but I went with the garlic noodle dish (a larger entree, but still only $6), stir-fried in butter and garlic, with melty Cotija cheese and topped with grilled carne asada beef (a $3.50 upcharge).  You can also get it with shrimp (also $3.50) and/or an egg ($1.50).  It was great.  Really rich, probably horrible for me, but it hit the spot.  The beef had a hint of lime to it, and I’m sure it would be great over the other items on the menu, like the fries.

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I also ordered Zero Degrees’ signature drink, the Mangonada ($6), a fresh mango slush with chamoy (a salty-sweet-sour sauce made from pickled plums or apricots that made its way to Mexico from China), Tajin (a spicy chili-lime spice powder that is popular sprinkled on fruit in Mexico), and topped with chunks of fresh mango.  They asked me if I wanted my Mangonada spicy or not spicy, and I chose spicy.  It has a lot of nice flavor, but it wasn’t “burn your tongue” spicy in the least.  We have a bottle of Tajin at home, and we’ve found it is great on certain fruit, especially melons.  It worked beautifully with the mango in the drink.  And this was my first experience trying chamoy, so now I want to try it in other things, too!  20190107_152742_resized

If that straw looks weird, it’s because it is coated with spicy-tangy-fruity-sweet-sour-salty-chewy tamarind candy, making a unique sensory and taste experience.  The tamarind candy straw was also a $1 upcharge, but I figured “Why not?”, especially since I live so far from this place.  I admit the straw was more hassle than it was worth, especially since it didn’t extend past the plastic lid when touching the bottom of the cup.  Also, it was messy, sticky, and hard to bite the chewy candy off the plastic, especially while driving.  I don’t think I’d bother to get that straw again, but I’m glad I tried it.

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I returned to Zero Degrees a few days later, even though it’s quite a distance away, because I wanted to explore the Chinatown area further.  (Stay tuned, Saboscrivner Society of America!)  I also really wanted to try the strawberry limeade and strawberry horchata, so the SplitCup was the perfect solution to my dilemma.  Apologies for the pic, dear readers — it was an unseasonably hot January afternoon, and I drank most of the limeade before I got it home to take a (not even that) decent photo.  They used fresh strawberries in both beverages that tasted just like my homemade strawberry smoothies do, with no extra sugar or sweet syrup added to them.

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I also brought my wife an ube milkshake.  The purple yam, popular in Filipino desserts, tasted more like vanilla to both of us, but it was a beautiful purple color (her favorite color), so I knew (hoped) she would like it.  It came garnished with a toasted marshmallow (she loves those), some rainbow-colored sour belt chewy candy, and glittery purple sugar.  If I actually used Instagram like a normal food blogger in 2019, this would be the kind of thing I’d be ‘Gramming about.  But instead, you’re hearing it here first!

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I don’t know when I’ll return to Zero Degrees because it’s literally across town, but I’m so glad I accidentally discovered it and took the time to try it twice in the same week.  I’d love to go back  and get the mac and cheese covered with Flamin’ Hot Cheeto dust, but I’ve done enough damage for this week.  Eating healthy in 2019, yea yea!

Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza

I generally try to avoid chain restaurants, but everyone has some chains they like.  One of my favorites is Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (https://acfp.com/), a chain founded in 2002 right here in Florida — Fort Lauderdale, to be exact.  Not only do they have excellent pizza baked in an 800-degree coal fired oven, they also serve some of my absolute favorite chicken wings and unique ribs I love, that are totally different than what you’d get at any barbecue joints.

On one visit to the Altamonte Springs location in late 2018, I brought home a lunch-sized Paulie’s Pie, my favorite of their pizzas, with mini-meatballs, crumbled Italian sausage, ricotta cheese, and sweet peppers (you can also choose hot peppers), in addition to their tangy red sauce and regular mozzarella.  The crust has some burned spots, but it never tastes burnt or ashy.  It’s a thin crust, but not super-crispy.  It is softer than you think, and it is awesome.  img_0007

These are the oven-roasted pork spare ribs, roasted in the coal oven with garlic, rosemary, white wine, and spicy vinegar peppers (I can’t get enough of those things!).  You can get an order of six (I did) or twelve.  I love barbecue ribs, and these are nothing like them, but they’re outstanding.  So tender — the meat easily peels off the bone, but doesn’t just “fall apart.”  The flavor is incredible, but they sure are spicy.img_0009

This is a piece of their oven-baked focaccia bread, which is very soft, but it has a perfectly light, crispy (but NOT crunchy) exterior.  img_0011

On a more recent visit in late November, I treated myself to a LARGE Paulie’s Pie to go, knowing I’d get three or four meals out of it.  dsc01719

Yea yea, that’s the stuff.dsc01717

They also had new spice-rubbed wings, which I decided to try since I love their original oven-roasted wings so much, and these were a limited-time fall special.  They were fine, but I prefer the flavor of the originals.  Plus, the original wings come buried under a mountain of caramelized onions, with more of that great focaccia bread.  I feel like I missed out on those beloved accompaniments with the special wings.dsc01718

They happened to have a promotion going on where I got a free order of pumpkin cannoli, so that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  I’m not usually the biggest pumpkin fanboy, but these were great.  The pumpkin cream filling was very subtly pumpkin-flavored, to the point where even a pumpkin hater would not have had a problem with them.  They were dusted with cinnamon and a squirt of sticky, syrupy pumpkin glaze.  I liked them a lot and made a mental note to try their regular cannoli on a future visit.  dsc01720

I have a top three pizza ranking for Orlando, and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza is definitely in it, alongside Pizza Bruno (which I have reviewed before) and Pizzeria Del Dio.  All three are very different, but all superb and worth trying.  I’m pickier on wings, but Anthony’s wings are definitely in my top four wings in town, along with Kai Asian Street Fare, Hawkers, and 4 Rivers Smokehouse.  All very different wings, and none of them are the traditional fried-to-a-crisp, burn-your-mouth-and-ass-off Buffalo-style sports bar wings.

Anthony’s also offers some lunch sandwiches on their focaccia bread, and you can buy a reusable metal pot of their meatballs in sauce.  I have never indulged that much, but if I was throwing a party, I’d consider it.  Oh, who am I kidding?  We hardly ever entertain anymore.  I’d probably just buy the pot o’meatballs and eat them all myself over the course of a week.  Dare to dream…

Taste of Chengdu

Before the end of 2018, I was able to meet a large group of Orlando Foodie Forum members at one of Orlando’s hottest (no pun intended restaurants), Taste of Chengdu.  Connected to a Best Western hotel west of downtown Orlando on West Colonial Drive, Taste of Chengdu has emerged as one of our best and most innovative Chinese restaurants, with Chef Tiger Tang specializing in spicy Szechuan cuisine.  This is not a place to go for glistening honey garlic chicken, sticky-sweet spareribs, greasy fried egg rolls, or a buffet with crab rangoons and Jell-O for dessert (although they do have a handful of more Americanized dishes available).  In fact, it might be a little intimidating for those with unadventurous palates and anyone who prefers their food non-spicy.  But it’s a fantastic restaurant if you want to try new things and exciting, unfamiliar variations on Chinese classics.

The lunch organizer worked it out with Chef Tiger in advance that he would send a bunch of dishes out of the kitchen for us to pass around and share, family-style, and we would each pay a flat fee of $20, plus tax.  It was a real bargain, as there would be no way to ever try this many dishes in one sitting under normal circumstances.  Some of these were regular menu items, and some were his new and innovative creations, just for our gathering of intrepid eaters.

So since I don’t have official titles for everything, my descriptions that follow are the best I could do.

Cold boiled chicken in a spicy chili sauce with sesame seeds and scallions:dsc01737

Bamboo!  And while I was expecting this to be woody and fibrous and awful, it was delicious.  It reminded me a lot of rich, chewy, meaty mushrooms, which I cannot eat due to some digestive allergy.  I think vegetarians would love this dish, and I surprised myself by really liking it.dsc01738

Cool sliced cucumbers in a garlicky sauce.  An excellent palate cleanser between the dish that preceded it and the one that followed.  It never would have occurred to me to order a cucumber dish at a Chinese restaurant, but they were cool, fresh, and crispy and well with everything else we tried.dsc01739

Green tea fried rice with bacon.  Loved it!  I always order fried rice at pretty much any Chinese restaurant, and this one was one of the better fried rice dishes I’ve tried anywhere.dsc01740

This was a duck dish that everyone around our large table devoured.  The duck was sliced thin and pan-fried, extremely soft and tender, not greasy at all. It was served in a brown sauce with green leeks.dsc01741

These stir-fried shrimp, in a spicy sauce similar to dan dan sauce with finely-minced pork, might have been my favorite dish of the entire lunch.  The shrimp were huge, with lightly crispy outsides from the frying process.  Apparently Chef Tiger normally serves these in the shell, with heads and legs and everything, but was kind enough to de-shell them for our group.  Shell yeah!dsc01742

Cold sesame noodles, very good:dsc01743

A “hot pot” of spicy, crispy, breaded fried fish, with onions, potatoes, peppers, and lotus root (the first time I had ever tried lotus root).  If you’ve ever tried the la zi fish at Chuan Lu Garden, this was similar, but a lot better.  It was spiced with the Szechuan peppercorns that deliver a tingling, numbing, almost metallic sensation to your lips and tongue, which is more pleasant than it sounds.  dsc01744

Whole fried snapper in a tomatoey sweet and sour sauce with a spicy dimension to it.  One of my fellow diners was cool enough to filet the fish for everyone, making it a heck of a lot easier to share and eat.  Another one of the best dishes that I admit would probably have intimidated me as a solo diner.dsc01745

Wok-seared green beans, better than green beans have any right to be:dsc01746

Finally, Szechuan wontons in chili oil — some of the finest damn wontons ever.  I could have easily eaten a whole big bowl just of these, but this was a lunch of sampling, so I made do with these two.  dsc01747

I NEVER make it west of downtown, so there’s a whole side of Orlando I need to explore for more Saboscrivner-worthy dining.  But I had been reading so many rave reviews for Taste of Chengdu for so much of 2018, I’m glad I finally got to get in there before the year was over and share all these delicious dishes with my fellow foodies.  If you don’t mind spicy food, especially trying new things, definitely hit up Taste of Chengdu.  Whatever you order will be top-notch, under the watchful eye of Chef Tiger.

MX Taco (soft opening!)

Happy New Year, Sabo-bots and Sabo-cons!  Here’s hoping that 2019 brings us all health, happiness, and some truly memorable meals.

Yesterday I attended the soft opening of Orlando’s newest taco spot, MX Taco.  Chef-owner Ryan Manning started out cooking in kitchens across Mexico, and his specialty is cuisine from the Yucatan region.  He was the chef of the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C. before he brought his expertise with authentic Mexican cuisine to our city.

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We already have plenty of taco joints and Mexican restaurants to choose from, and some of my favorites include Tortas El Rey, Francisco’s Taco Madness, and Hunger Street Tacos.  But the good news is that they provide something to satisfy everyone.  None of these restaurants are exactly alike, and they all have unique specialties, strengths, and weaknesses, so there is room for all.  Besides, tacos are tasty!

MX Taco is a tiny little spot on Bumby Avenue, near Lou’s Lounge and Saigon Noodle and Grill, with Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market across the street.  There are only four tables (three of which are high-tops), and you order and pay at the counter.  For the soft opening, Chef Manning wasn’t offering every single item on their exciting menu, but most of them were available, and I tried everything I could.

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I absolutely love that MX Taco’s menu is a map of Mexico, showing you which region each individual dish comes from.  I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Mexico, but I love geography and how food influences and is in turn influenced by geography, economics, and culture at large.  It’s rare when you can order food at a restaurant and learn something at the same time.

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Prices are extremely reasonable, since you order tacos and other items individually — everything I ordered was either $3, $3.25, or $3.50.

At the restaurant, I ordered the cochinita pibil taco (pulled pork with bitter orange and pickled onion from the Yucatan region), the bistec en salsa roja taco (braised steak with pepper sauce and avocado from the Sonora region), the quesadilla con chorizo (Oaxacan cheese and crumbled chorizo sausage from Mexico City), and a piña (pineapple) agua fresca, a sweet, cold, refreshing drink made with fresh pineapple and surely plenty of sugar.  The food came out quickly, and everything was delicious.

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I love cochinita pibil (sometimes referred to on menus as puerco pibil) and order it whenever Mexican restaurants offer it, which isn’t often.  I always think back to the cheesy action movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico, where Johnny Depp’s corrupt CIA agent ordered puerco pibil everywhere he ate, in a quest for the best version of the dish.  When he finally found it, he went into the kitchen and shot the chef to “consecrate the moment.”  It’s a good thing that was a fictional movie (and even better that the real Johnny Depp is somewhere far, far away from us), or otherwise Chef Manning might have been in danger!  It was so fresh and so good.  The chorizo in the quesadilla was excellent as well, and I’m a big chorizo fan too.

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They have three housemade hot sauces available in bottles on the tables.  From left to right: a medium arbol chile sauce that is orange, a mild guajillo pepper-based sauce that is thick and dark red, and a fiendishly-hot habanero sauce.  The Guajillo was my favorite.  Habanero is usually too much for me, but I had to try it, and I appreciated that it packed a lot of flavor (a bit fruity, in fact!), rather than just painful heat like too many sadistic sauces.

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I placed a takeout order to bring some food back home to my wife, and while I waited, Chef Manning insisted I try his avocado ice cream.  It was very smooth, soft, and creamy — not icy or chunky at all.  It tasted so much better than you’d ever expect avocado ice cream to taste, and I say this as someone who loves ice cream and avocados.  It was topped with pepitas (pumpkin seeds, possibly lightly toasted?), toasted shredded coconut, and dark chocolate shavings.  It was a small cup, but I highly recommend it to anyone who dines at MX Taco, as it was a nice palate cleanser and worked well for cutting any lingering heat.

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My wife insisted on letting me sample all the food I brought home for her: a carnitas taco (confit pulled pork, onion, and cilantro from the Michoacan region), a bistec con sikil pak taco (steak, avocado, pickled onion, and pumpkin seed sauce, which I asked for on the side, from the Yucatan region), a quesadilla (with Oaxacan cheese and chipotle crema, from Mexico City), and an order of totopos (chips) and guacamole.  The guacamole was excellent, I have to say.  Extremely fresh — some of the best I’ve had anywhere around here, including more upscale Mexican restaurants that make a big production of “tableside guac.”  It was a nice-sized serving of guacamole, too.

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Sharp-eyed Saboscrivner followers will probably recognize our green plates by now:

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I also got her an horchata con coco agua fresca, rice water sweetened with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and coconut — some of her favorite flavors in one drink, and an ideal heat-cutter.  It was the thickest and richest horchata I’ve ever sampled, that’s for sure.  I love aguas frescas, but a lot of them are made from sugary powdered mixes, not that dissimilar from Kool-Aid.  I could tell both my pineapple drink and her horchata were very fresh.

It should go without saying that everything is made fresh in-house.  The only exception are the tortillas, corn tortillas Chef Manning told me he gets from a tortilleria in Atlanta.  I almost hate to admit it, but I prefer flour tortillas, and I’ve never had quesadillas on corn tortillas before.  The totopos looked like they might have been made from the same corn tortillas.  I thought they could have used some salt, but the guac was good enough to offset that.

Orlando taco lovers, I encourage you to make it over to MX Taco sooner rather than later, to try the newest taqueria in town and see how it stacks up to your established favorites.  I guarantee it will be different enough from the tried-and-true taco joints that you’ll appreciate having it as one more option.  Just FYI, Chef Manning told me he will be closed today (Friday, January 4th) and open for limited hours over the next week: 4:00 to 8:00 PM, starting tomorrow, Saturday the 5th.