Swine & Sons

So, has anyone heard about any good chicken sandwiches lately?

Let me rewind for a bit.  This week the Internet went insane over chicken sandwiches, something I rarely order anywhere.  When there’s a burger available, I never give the chicken sandwich a second look.  At fast food places, even if I’m not in the mood for a burger, I’m more likely to order the fish sandwich than the chicken sandwich!  Even when I go to a fried chicken joint, I’ll usually get a couple of crispy fried thighs, rather than a sandwich.  Too often, the classic fried chicken sandwich contains a dry chicken breast, or worse yet, a dry tender or two.  I’ve been burned by dry, bland white meat too often, and don’t get me started ranting about dry, bland, boring-ass Thanksgiving turkeys.  I always prefer dark meat, and thighs usually hide my favorite morsels of meat on the entire chicken: the oysters, tucked away under a bone, two little perfect bites per bird.

But people are losing their damn minds over this chicken sandwich, which gave me a serious case of the FOMO.*  I had to venture forth to see what the hype was about, and so I could blog about it and get some external validation before everyone moves onto the next foodie fad.  Wait, did I just write that?

Well, to none of my regular readers’ surprise, I ordered two different chicken sandwiches: spicy and extra-spicy.  And I’m happy to report they were the best damn chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had!  But they didn’t come from that chain.  Nope.  And not that chain either.  They came from a a beloved local restaurant that just happens to be located in a butcher shop.  Not that one; the other one!

Swine & Sons (https://swineandsons.com/) started out as the third restaurant in James and Julie Petrakis’ locally-grown empire, following their flagship Winter Park gastropub The Ravenous Pig and their upscale Southern restaurant Cask & Larder.  With Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak in charge, Swine & Sons opened in a small space next door to the old Cask & Larder location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, and I made sure my wife and I were there on the very first day they opened for business.  We were some of their first customers through the door on Day One, and they had a good thing going from the onset.  It was always meant as a more casual restaurant compared to the others, a quick-service place with sandwiches, house-cured charcuterie, and lots of prepared takeout options.  And despite having limited seating and parking, it became a hit, like the Petrakis’ other establishments.

But the only constant is change.  In recent years, Cask & Larder moved to the Southwest Airlines terminal at Orlando International Airport, and The Ravenous Pig moved into the space Cask & Larder vacated on Fairbanks, which is much nicer and larger than the old Ravenous Pig location, with more parking.  The Gawlaks bought Swine & Sons from the Petrakises, and in March 2019, they moved across the street, into The Local Butcher & Market, an upscale full-service butcher shop.  (Da Kine Poke, one of Orlando’s best poke places, also has a counter location inside The Local Butcher.)  There are still tables to enjoy the Gawlaks’ delicious food in there, don’t worry.  And luckily, there are a lot more parking spaces!  Just keep in mind that it closes at 4:00 PM every day, so you’d have to be a real early bird to have dinner there.

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Anyway, Swine & Sons is one of the only Orlando restaurants I know of that serves Nashville-style hot chicken, which I was first introduced to at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year.  After the chicken is marinated (often in seasoned buttermilk), breaded or battered, and fried, it is covered in a spice paste that’s heavy on the cayenne pepper, so every surface is spicy.  It was amazing, and very different from the popular new fast food spicy chicken sandwich where any heat comes from a spicy mayo-based sauce. At Hattie B’s, I ordered a medium thigh and a hot thigh. They were crispy and crunchy and set my mouth ablaze, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
(To avoid any confusion, this photo is from Hattie B’s in Nashville, just in case the cup and the above paragraph didn’t give it away.  That’s medium on the left and hot on the right, and the hot was HOT.)
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I tried the Nashville hot chicken at Cooper’s Hawk when I reviewed it earlier this year, and even though I liked that restaurant quite a bit, the hot chicken wasn’t that hot or that crunchy.  So my quest continued, and I’m so glad that the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 led me to Swine & Sons in search of a truly singular spicy chicken sandwich experience.

In fact, maybe with all the chicken sandwich hype and debating, Swine & Sons recently debuted a hotter hot chicken sandwich.  Their current menu showed the classic version, referred to as the “Party,” and the newer, hotter model called the “Rager.”  The very patient woman working the counter told me they use the same spice blend, but the Rager contains three times the cayenne pepper.  They use Bell & Evans all-natural chicken breasts, and she explained that they first brine them, then they smoke them, and then they fry them.  I was already on board even before she mentioned smoking, but that would have pushed me over the edge.  I love any smoked foods — meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, you name it.  I was ready for a life-changing flavor sensation, so of course I ordered one of each ($11 per sandwich), intending to eat half the Party and half the Rager there and save the other halves for later.

Party:
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Rager:
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Both of the sandwiches were served on identical white sandwich rolls, with plenty of sliced pickles and little dipping cups of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based sauce I have come to really like with my chicken.  I’m usually not a pickle person, but I’ve been trying to develop more of an appreciation for pickles, and these were great.  Definitely some of the best pickles I’ve ever tried.  Surely they were house-made.  The chicken breasts with their crunchy breading and oily, spice-laden exterior coating were balanced perfectly with the soft roll and the crispy pickles (not overly sour or “dilly”).  I left the cool, creamy white sauce on the side for dipping random bites, lest it overpower the other flavors or cut the heat too much.  I would have preferred a soft, rich buttery brioche bun for these sandwiches, which would have both contrasted and cut the heat more than the plain white roll, but it still worked very well.

These chicken sandwiches were CRON-CHY!  Each bite had a satisfying crunch that is missing from too much fried chicken.  Under the breading, they were also juicy and moist.  Even beloved fried chicken establishments have let me down too often — even places I’ve given good reviews to in the past.  But these were everything you wish fried chicken sandwiches could be in terms of texture and consistency.

Party:
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And what of the heat, you ask?  The Party had a pleasant heat that would certainly be too much for my in-laws, my parents, and my wife, but anyone who enjoys spicy food will be fine with it.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Rager, but I’ve been pushing my limits with spicy food lately, maybe trying to feel more alive in this scary and unknowable world.  My eyes were watering, and I had to blow my nose more than once, but my body reacts like that whenever I eat anything spicy, so those weren’t new and unfamiliar reactions to this heat.  Despite all that, I was expecting it to be hotter, to maybe push into a place of unpleasant heat, but it was fine.  It was better than fine; it was awesome.  And through the heat, you could taste the smoky flavor.  They didn’t clash or overpower each other — smoke and fire burning together in crackling harmony.

Rager (see it through my tears!)
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I definitely like the oil-based spice rub on Nashville-style hot chicken compared to most other kinds of spicy chicken.  Don’t get me started on typical sports bar buffalo wings, which never do anything for me.  It might be the funkiness of the vinegar-based hot sauce, but those wings are often too crunchy, whether they are breaded or not, and they’re simultaneously dry and greasy.  And even though I couldn’t begin to identify the spices in the Swine & Sons chicken sandwiches (aside from the obvious cayenne pepper), at least they don’t have to increase the heat to ludicrous levels for macho bragging rights, with ridiculous names like “Atomic Hellfire,” “Habanero Apocalypse,” and “Ass-Blaster 5000.”

There was a slight sweetness emerging from the heat in both of these sandwiches, making me wonder if there was some sugar in the spice blend.  I loved it.  They were exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had been craving and chasing since hitting Hattie B’s in April 2018.  The smoky flavor made it through, so there were a lot of unique tastes and textures going on at once.  I have to say I preferred both of these chicken sandwiches to the two thighs I had back in Nashville.  Were they the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had?  In a week where people are getting passionate about chicken sandwiches, I’m going to do the same and say YES, yes they were.  As I write this review, far too late on a work night, I am so excited that I still have the other halves in my fridge, waiting for me… maybe even taunting me.

While I was there, I also ordered Swine & Sons’ macaroni and cheese, which I hadn’t had in several years.  It was $4 for a decent-sized side order, and it was very rich.  The cheeses (cheddar and fontina) were melty and the pasta was al dente, so I was more than content.  There was also a nice crumb topping made from cheddar-chive biscuit crumbs.  A lot of places bake their mac and cheese so the whole thing comes out dry, sacrificing that nice meltiness for overly-crispy edges and noodles you can barely chew anymore, but that was definitely not the case here.  DSC02509

I’ve ordered other sandwiches at Swine & Sons on my handful of previous visits over the years, including a good Southern-inspired take on the classic Cuban sandwich.  I think I even had a house-made hot dog there once, although it has been so long, I don’t even remember how they served it.  But today, in my first visit to their new location inside The Local Butcher & Market, Swine & Sons showed me the great heights a fried chicken sandwich could reach in the right hands, from the right kitchen.  It was hot, but all that heat was pure flavor, not just burning, tingling pain and regret.  It was crunchy, but not so hard that I felt like I was going to break a tooth.  It wasn’t dry, and it sure wasn’t bland.  It was a chicken sandwich all others should aspire to be.

I don’t know if they could serve a non-spicy version of the sandwich for the some who don’t like it hot, but right now I’m convinced Swine & Sons can do anything.  And while it is more expensive than the fast food chicken sandwiches making headlines and stirring up strong feelings, you get what you pay for.  I think these were dramatically, exponentially better than any chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had, and I hope my readers will feel the heat sooner rather than later.  The Gawlaks are like culinary royalty in Winter Park and Orlando, and this place isn’t exactly a secret.  But despite all that, you shouldn’t have to worry about long lines and sandwiches selling out, as transcendent as they are.

*Fear Of Missing Out.

I’m so ashamed.

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Maple Street Biscuit Company

Despite living not too far from Oviedo, I almost never drive all the way east to head out there.  Every time I do, I’m always amazed by how much the area has been developed, with so many new restaurants popping up.  One of Oviedo’s newest neighbors is the Maple Street Biscuit Company (https://maplestreetbiscuits.com), a small chain that was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, and has since expanded into six Southern states (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas).  Despite being a chain, it has a very “down-home” Southern feeling, with everything in the bright, spacious dining room made of wood (or wood veneers).

Maple Street Biscuit Company specializes in fried chicken sandwiches made with fresh, white meat chicken breasts on fresh-baked biscuits, but they have lots of other options.  They make their jams and jellies from scratch too, which is not that common anymore.

I ordered the Squawking Goat sandwich, which includes fried chicken breast, a fried goat cheese medallion, and house-made pepper jelly on one of those fantastic biscuits.  I loved it.  It was awesome.  They were generous with the pepper jelly, ladling it on all over the plate, so it was definitely a sandwich to eat with a knife and fork.  I thought the goat cheese “medallion” was quite small, but it was so delicious, coated in seasoned bread crumbs, that I craved more.

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My wife ordered the Sticky Maple sandwich, with a fried chicken breast and pecanwood smoked bacon on a biscuit, with real maple syrup from the Bissell Family Farm served on the side.  (They usually pour it right on.)

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We had meant to share the Smoky Mountain Mac n Cheese, a $4 side of macaroni and cheese made with three different types of cheese and topped with a crunchy cheese cracker crumble, but then I think my wife remembered she isn’t the hugest mac and cheese fan.  More for me, I thought!  But the portion was very small, so it wasn’t that much more for me after all.  Still, it was rich and cheesy and gooey and tasty, so how can I complain?

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Also pictured above is the iced cinnamon pecan biscuit they were gracious enough to include with our order because it was our first visit.  It was delicious — much more of a dessert that something you should eat for breakfast, but I feel that way about most breakfast pastries (muffins, doughnuts, danishes, Pop-Tarts, and their ilk).  The icing was very fresh and very thin, like you would find on a cinnamon roll or a good cheese danish.  

My wife studied the menu in advance, and she knew she wanted the house-made ganache hot chocolate with steamed milk.  She tasted cinnamon and said it reminded her of Mexican hot chocolate, which she always loves.

I rarely drink coffee, but I love anything with vanilla and maple flavors, so I couldn’t turn down an iced maple vanilla latte.  Of course it was more like a dessert than anything else, but that’s how I like my coffee (like my women): sweet, smooth, and cool.

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And finally, because we didn’t have enough carbs and sugar already, they had fresh-baked cookies near the cash register, where you place your order, and we couldn’t resist trying the lemon blueberry cookie.  I was surprised my wife suggested it, since I love anything with lemon and with berries, and she usually doesn’t, opting for chocolatey sweets instead.  And I think she liked it, but I definitely liked it more.  It was obviously very freshly-baked, extremely soft, still warm, and delightfully lemony.  We ripped into it so quickly, I almost forgot to photograph it, as you will be able to tell:

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Maple Street Biscuit Company closes at 2:00 most days and stays closed on Sundays, so it isn’t the easiest place for us to get to.  Still, I’m glad we were finally able to try it.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I definitely would return to get that Squawking Goat again, and maybe I’ll ask for extra fried goat cheese next time.  I’d get that cookie again, too!

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.