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.

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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!

 

The New York Adventure Part 6: Katz’s Delicatessen

I promise my wife and I didn’t schlep all the way to New York to just eat Jewish deli food for our tenth anniversary trip, although that remains a huge part of The City’s culture and history, as well as its appeal for both of us.  I might be a secular, non-practicing Jew, but that food fills me with nostalgia for my childhood, as well as for early-to-mid 20th Century Jewish big city experiences I feel and relate to strongly, despite not being born yet.  Does that make sense?

I’ve written before about how food embodies our shared human experiences: our history, our politics, our economics, art, science, even religion.  And while I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere, I feel a sense of belonging to something larger and greater than myself when I nosh on a knish, a bagel with pickled fish, or a pastrami sandwich.  My wife indulges me, and she appreciates the food as well.  It might not feel like as big a deal if we could get all the same food at the same quality level at home, but we can’t, so going to the iconic originals, the legendary landmarks, the places that have survived a century because they’re that damn good, is a big damn deal.

My family was not what you might call “of the travelers.”  My parents, both teachers in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, were (and still are, in retirement) hard-working, patient, generous, and awesome, but we never took many trips when I was younger.  That’s why when we went to New York in the summer of 1991, it was the most profound and transformative experience of my life thus far.  My dad is from Brooklyn — specifically the East New York neighborhood that hasn’t been gentrified and hipsterized like so many other parts of the borough — so I feel like New York is in my blood, despite never having lived there.

That was a whirlwind trip, indulgent for all of us.  My brother and I had never even flown before.  We stayed near Central Park (and even took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Park, which I do not recommend), visited family in Brooklyn, took in museums, made a pilgrimage to the legendary comic book store Forbidden Planet (much larger back then than it is now, enough to blow my middle school mind with its two floors).  On top of that, we ate at great Jewish delis of decades past that have long since closed their doors: the Stage Deli, the Carnegie Deli, and Lindy’s in Manhattan, and Grabstein’s in Brooklyn.  Despite everything in the City feeling more decrepit and dangerous back then, it was an awe-inspiring and unforgettable trip that made a huge impact on my life.  I had always romanticized New York from my dad’s stories about growing up, my lifelong obsession with DC and Marvel Comics, and my teenage love affairs with jazz and punk music.  But after seeing, feeling, and tasting it for myself that summer, New York changed me forever.  I desperately wanted to go to NYU for film school, but obviously that never happened.  I spent the next 15+ years fantasizing about a return trip and everything I would do, see, and eat there.

Even though my parents would never consider themselves “foodies” (and often wonder how the hell I ended up like I did), I think our original New York trip sowed the seeds of my own desire for culinary capers and appetizing adventures.  I finally made it back to New York with my wife while we were just dating, and the post-9/11 City felt much cleaner and safer than it did in 1991.  That time we took in my first real Broadway shows and visited maybe the most iconic New York delicatessen of all, Katz’s Delicatessen (https://katzsdelicatessen.com/).  And we returned again, to the City and to Katz’s, for our honeymoon a few years later, in 2009.  Finally, a decade later, we were back once more.

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Katz’s feels chaotic when you’re a laid-back Floridian.  When you go in, you get a ticket, and then you can either get in line with one of the meat cutters behind the counter, or wait for a table with a waiter, who is usually cartoonishly brusque and rude (and yet, strangely charming).  I told my wife to grab an open table outside of the waiters’ section, and I lined up.  As you can see, it’s kind of a free-for-all.  They’ve been doing this for over a hundred years, but could there possibly be a better way to get everyone in and out?DSC02186When you finally get to the front of the line, if you order pastrami, the cutter will cut you a small slice on a plate, for you to sample.  Make sure you have a buck on hand for the customary tip.  Keep in mind, because they hand-slice the meat at Katz’s, it comes out much thicker and juicier than most sandwich shops with thin, machine-sliced pastrami.  Normally I prefer my deli meats sliced thin, but there’s nothing like this.

Anyway, here it is, the finest pastrami sandwich known to man, hand-sliced right in front of me.  I asked for a little fattier, juicier pastrami — none of that lean stuff for us.  A little helpful hint from your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner: When you’re at Katz’s, pay the $1 upcharge and get your sandwich on a CLUB ROLL, dig me?  The rye bread they use is essentially an edible napkin, because it barely holds up under the weight and greasy juices of the copious amounts of cured and smoked meats.  The club roll is delicious, and it supports the meat and condiments better.  Rye is for suckas.  DSC02183

This was a $23 sandwich, but two healthy, hungry people can easily split it and be satisfied.  I added some of their mustard to my half and even dabbed a bit in a small plastic cup of Russian dressing, meant for their Reubens, but my wife would do no such thing.  DSC02184

Pickles are included.  Just as I did on my previous visit, ten years ago on our honeymoon, I tried both kinds, but just couldn’t get into them.  I am truly trying to develop a taste for pickles, but kosher dills and half-sours just don’t tickle my pickle.  DSC02185

Anyway, leaving is a whole big production, because you have to present your ticket when you leave, then weave through the hangry crowd to get to the front.  But here’s another helpful hint: If you’re paying with a credit card, pay in the back.  We went to the front and waited to check out, only to find out they only accept cash up there.  Rather than force my wife to hustle back through the hungry, hangry hordes, I was lucky I had some sock money on hand (or in sock, to be accurate), so we settled up and escaped.

Katz’s can be an exhausting experience — I definitely wouldn’t go there for a chill, relaxing meal — but there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had in New York, which means there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had anywhere else.

The New York Adventure Part 4: Xi’an Famous Foods

One of the restaurants I researched for our New York trip, after reading raves for years, was Xi’an Famous Foods (https://www.xianfoods.com/), a family-owned Chinese restaurant specializing in spicy noodle dishes, with eleven Manhattan locations, three in Queens, and one in Brooklyn.  From its humble beginning in a tiny mall basement food stall in Flushing, Queens, in 2005, Xi’an has grown into a familiar New York City institution.

According to the website, the city of Xi’an in northwestern China created a unique cuisine incorporating Middle Eastern influences and lots of spices, including mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns.  I have reviewed some of Orlando’s own Szechuan-influenced restaurants, Taste of Chengdu and Chuan Lu Garden, and I’m always a noodle fan, so I had to try Xi’an Famous Foods while I could.  Luckily, while we were touring our favorite museum, the always illuminating Museum of Modern Art, I looked out a second-floor window and saw a Xi’an location directly across the street!  It was meant to be.

Unfortunately, this location wasn’t the most accessible for my walker-wielding wife, who courageously climbed down a few steps to enter.  We took note of all of our “adventures in accessibility” in New York and realized how lucky we are that most buildings and businesses in Orlando are accessible for people with disabilities, compared to larger, older cities.  New York is still rad, but that was an ongoing issue throughout our trips, past and present.  But I digress.

Anyway, Xi’an Famous Foods posted its full menu on the wall inside, with photos — something we really appreciated, that I wish more restaurants would do.  DSC02149

My wife was a little intimidated by the promised spiciness, and the place was hopping with the lunch rush, so we compromised with me ordering my meal to go, to enjoy back in our room.  Chili oil leaked in the bag on the way back to our hotel and made a huge mess, which made photography difficult, but I did my best.

This was the dish I fantasized about in advance: hand-ripped wide biangbiang noodles with stewed oxtails.  Everyone warned me to order the noodles with the cumin lamb, and I do love cumin lamb, but oxtails win out.  DSC02152
That’s a dish I crave almost constantly, especially from Jamaican restaurants, despite indulging only once or twice a year.  I’ve made slow-braised oxtails at home too, but since she doesn’t care for them, it almost seems like more trouble than it’s worth.  Needless to say, these oxtails were much spicier than the Jamaican recipes I am used to, and I even ordered it mild (better safe than sorry, I figured).  They were tender and unctious, though, just as they should be from the slow stewing or braising process.  The noodles were delicious, with a great chewiness.

But since I’m also a cumin lamb fanboy, I had to try it too.  Luckily, Xi’an offers a spicy cumin lamb burger, a sandwich on a crispy flatbread bun that was like a cross between a pita and an English muffin, in terms of texture.  The bun didn’t do much for me, but the lamb was tender, flavorful, and very, very spicy.  I wimped out with the noodles, but felt I owed it to myself and to the cook to try something at maximum strength.DSC02156

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaaal!DSC02154Final thought on the famous cumin lamb: NOT BAAAAAAAD.

I wish I had more to say, but I just wish I could have tried more things.  I don’t think you can go wrong with anything atop these biangbiang noodles: not just oxtails or cumin lamb, but also spicy ground pork (like the dan dan noodles I love so much), stewed pork, spicy and sour pork belly, bone-in dark meat chicken, vegetables, and even plain noodles tossed in chili oil.  You can get most of the noodle dishes in soup as well, plus dumplings stuffed with spicy and sour lamb or spinach and vermicelli noodles, with or without soup.  Everything was very affordable, and as we could tell from the midday crowd, Xi’an Famous Foods must be a hot lunch spot for New Yorkers around the city (no pun intended).  I’m glad I finally got to feel the heat for myself.

Hinckley’s Fancy Meats

I’ve been hearing about Chef Matt Hinckley and his cured culinary creations for carnivores for a while now.  After focusing on mail-order charcuterie sales, he recently opened Hinckley’s Fancy Meats (https://www.hinckleymeats.com/), a storefront inside Orlando’s East End Market, a small but great foodie destination in the hip-but-family-friendly Audubon Park neighborhood.  You can buy his meat masterpieces by the pound there — think bacon, sausages, pastrami, mojo-marinated pork, tasso ham, porchetta (slow-cooked, boneless pork roast), and rustic pâtés, terrines, and rillettes, all on display in a nice glass deli case.  But now, you can also order sandwiches featuring that marvelous multiude of meats.  If that’s not fancy, I don’t know what is!
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(By the way, if you aren’t sure of the differences between pâtés, terrines, and rillettes, as I originally wasn’t, or if you’ve never even tried them, Food Republic has a very helpful guide.)

Last month, I met a group from the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook for lunch at the East End Market, and many of us visited Hinckley’s for the first time.  I studied the menu in advance, as I always do, but still couldn’t decide, so I ordered two sandwiches.  Because I meant to share and let my new foodie friends sample the goods — yeah, that’s the ticket!  (Don’t worry, Constant Readers — I got two meals out of them.)

I ordered the porchetta sandwich, which is hard to find anywhere in Florida, as well as Chef Hinckley’s take on the banh mi, those French-inspired Vietnamese sandwiches I love so much.  DSC01988

The porchetta sandwich ($14) includes salsa piccante, broccoli rabe (one of my favorite vegetables, especially cooked with sausage or other rich, salty meats), and roasted peppers on a crusty ciabatta roll.  I would have preferred a softer roll, but it was still very tasty, with a lot going on in the sandwich.  DSC01984

The porchetta wasn’t quite as juicy as I was expecting, but it was still very flavorful and tender.  All the ingredients worked very well together.DSC01986

But even though the porchetta sandwich was good, the banh mi (also $14) was GREAT.  Banh mi sandwiches are usually served on a French baguette and may be spread with some combination of butter, mayo, or pate, with a variety of pork-based cold cuts, grilled beef or chicken, or other kinds of meat, topped with pickled vegetables (usually cucumber, carrot, and daikon radish), fresh cilantro, and fresh jalapeños or other hot peppers.  Hinckley’s Fancy version of the banh mi normally features country pâté and duck liver pâté with pickled carrot, daikon radish, and hot peppers and cilantro on the toasty grilled baguette.

But on the day I went, Hinckley’s offered a special kind of thick-sliced, coarse Cajun terrine of pork, confit duck gizzard and hearts, tasso ham, and smoked turkey sausage as an alternative to put in the banh mi.  (I sent them a Facebook message to verify all of this deliciousness, to make sure I got it right.)  Here’s a better photo from Hinckley’s Instagram account.  How could I refuse, with all the recognizable chunks of different meats to sample?  It was AWESOME.DSC01985

A new friend was magnanimous enough to order this charcuterie board ($22) for the group to share.  It came with sliced porchetta di testa (boneless pig head), thick and rich chicken liver pâté (the jar on the right), and chilled spuma di lardo (the jar on top), which is creamy whipped pork fat, sea salt, and honey.  It also included toasted baguette rounds to spread the spreads on, and a Dijon-style mustard.  So fancy for lunch on a workday!  I’d love to see Lunchables (which are essentially charcuterie boards for children) create a culinary masterpiece like this.  DSC01987

We are lucky to have some incredible sandwich shops in Orlando, most of which only opened within the last two years.  I’ve already reviewed several of my favorites —  LaSpada’s, Stasio’s, Manzano’s — and that’s on top of all the places that serve banh mi sandwiches.  A review of another big sandwich joint, maybe the biggest and best of them all is coming, I promise.  But Hinckley’s Fancy Meats is doing things nobody else is, curing its own meats and reinventing the classics with creative new twists.  It’s a great addition to our local sandwich scene, and all carnivores should check it out.

The Polite Pig

Well-traveled Orlando foodies are probably familiar with The Ravenous Pig, one of our finest local restaurants.  Situated in Winter Park, James and Julie Petrakis’ venerable institution was founded in 2007 and quickly established itself as one of the shining stars of Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  I still consider it a “special occasion” sort of restaurant and don’t go as often as I would like, but it never disappoints.  I’ll have to get back there one of these days to write a proper review, as it’s the sort of place that all locals and tourists alike ought to make a pilgrimage to.

In the meantime, the Petrakises have expanded their empire with a few other local restaurants, including The Polite Pig (https://politepig.com/), a fast-casual barbecue joint, which opened in 2017 in Disney Springs.  For the uninitiated, this is an area outside of the actual Disney theme parks (so you don’t have to pay for admission or even parking to visit it), specializing in shopping and dining.  It has grown immensely over the last few years and added a lot of high-profile restaurants, including some helmed by celebrity chefs.  It is cool to see our local legends establishing a foothold in there too, and The Polite Pig provides the Petrakises a greater chance to feed and impress guests from around the world.  It’s a relative bargain for Disney Springs, where many of the restaurants are more upscale, with prices to match.  Because it’s casual, fast, reasonably-priced, and the food is hearty, familiar, and GOOD, it is a great option for families with kids and any other visitors who want to avoid white tablecloth joints and entrees priced over $20.

My BFF (best food friend) and I went there in May of 2017, just a few days after it opened, and we both agreed it was fine.  Not bad at all, but he lives in Miami and I live almost an hour away from that side of Orlando, so neither of us were going to rush back.  But he visited Disney recently with his mom (my first-grade teacher), so we agreed it would be a swell place to meet for lunch to catch up.  And I’m so glad we chose it, because we both liked it so much more this time, almost two years later.  I would unequivocally recommend it to anyone visiting Disney Springs, especially if you like meat and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg.

We ordered our food and paid at the counter, and it seemed like it was delivered to us in a matter of minutes, but we were also smart and got there right when it opened at 11 AM.  By the time we left, it was mobbed, and the rest of Disney Springs was mobbed too.  All the barbecue sandwiches come with a choice of a side order, and the entrees come with a small jalapeno cornbread muffin, “signature Polite slaw,” and a choice of a side.  My friend and his mom (who is no longer my first-grade teacher, so I am proud to also call her my friend) both ordered baby back ribs, which come covered with a dry rub and sweet, sticky barbecue sauce glaze.  I got to try a rib, and it was very tender.  Like any good smoked ribs, the meat doesn’t exactly “fall off” the bone, but they were extremely tender, not dry or stringy or tough at all.

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He chose baked beans as his side, and she went with crispy waffle fries, dusted with barbecue seasoning.

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I decided to go with the barbecue cheddar sausage, which the menu said was covered with a bourbon glaze.  The outside had a subtle sweetness, and the natural casing had a very good snap when I bit into it, something I always appreciate in sausages and hot dogs.  That’s what I call the pursuit of snappiness! 

I got four decent-sized cuts and immediately gave one to my buddy.  I was impressed that the cheese was gooey and melty in each bite I took.  True to form, I chose macaroni and cheese as my side, which was also nice and melty with white cheese and al dente mini-shell pasta.  I’ve gone twice now and always turned away from the tomato watermelon salad with feta, basil, and pickled onions at the final moment, but maybe next time I’ll try that.  It sounds delightfully refreshing.

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My magnanimous friend also ordered us the slider trio to share: three mini-sandwiches on tiny, soft brioche rolls.  The fried chicken sandwich came topped with sweet & smoky barbecue sauce, Duke’s mayo, pickles, and cole slaw.  The Southern Pig included pulled pork, fennel-apple slaw, tangy mustard barbecue sauce, and Duke’s mayo, the only kind of mayo I ever buy for my house.  I think our table’s favorite was the Low & Slow Brisket, with Prime brisket, pimento cheese, porter barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, and onion straws.  I was reminded that on our earlier visit almost two years ago, we ordered the Southern Pig and Low & Slow Brisket sandwiches and split them both.  Even these mini-slider versions were better than what we remembered from back then, which only speaks well of The Polite Pig and how much it has improved.

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Speaking of barbecue sauces, they have four house-made sauces “on tap,” and you can fill little paper cups to dip to your heart’s content: Lil John’s Signature Porter sauce (made with a reduction of Working Man porter beer, brewed at another Petrakis restaurant, the Cask & Larder), Layla’s sweet sauce, Thomas’s Southern Gold sauce (a mustard-vinegar hybrid), and an Alabama-style white barbecue sauce that pairs excellently with chicken… and surprisingly everything else.  I’m not the kind of person who pours ranch dressing all over my food, but this white sauce is different.  If you’re skeptical, try a tiny taste in one of the paper cups.  It’s free, so you have nothing to lose!

The Polite Pig offers fountain sodas — mostly Coke products, but also excellent root beer and lemonade from the Blue Sky brand, made with cane sugar.  I try to be so good about not drinking sodas, but I really like root beer and lemonade, so I couldn’t resist.  Of course they were cold and refreshing.  When we were there two years ago, I remember being half-dead, exhausted and sun-baked after spending half the day waiting in lines and schlepping around the Orlando MegaCon (sprawling pop culture convention for nerds and geeks alike), and I slaked my thirst with Blue Sky orange-mango soda, but they didn’t have that one anymore.  The root beer had a vanilla creamy taste, which I always appreciate compared to the more herbal, “biting” root beers, so that was a good choice.

And finally, they were offering chocolate chip cookies from Gideon’s Bakehouse, located in Orlando’s very East End Market, which I will argue is the best chocolate chip cookie anywhere, and certainly anywhere in our city beautiful.  My buddy loves chocolate chip cookies and supposedly makes some pretty great ones himself, but I got one for him and his mom to split, after hyping it up for the last year.  They might have been stuffed from an excellent lunch, but they made room for that cookie, which lives up to all the hype.  Sorry I didn’t get a photo of it, but check out the website above.

So that’s it!  If you’re on Disney property, they’ve got ya.  You’re going to pay, so it’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay, and what you get for your money.  The Polite Pig is a fantastic option if you’re relaxing at Disney Springs and don’t want to go to a more upscale and expensive restaurant.  Vegetarians will have to stick to side orders or salads (hold the bacon!), so they would be better served almost anywhere else, but most meat-eaters will be perfectly pleased by the Polite Pig.  And here’s a helpful hint: it’s right outside of the Lime Garage at Disney Springs, so if you’re just going to eat there and don’t want to linger, that’s the place you want to park.

 

 

Sette (pre-opening media event)

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Well, folks, your friend and humble narrator The Saboscrivner has finally done it! Tonight I attended my first-ever media event to review a new restaurant: Sette (https://www.setteitalian.com/), the Italian restaurant owned and operated by Orlando’s beloved Chef Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites and her wife Va Propst.  Located at 1407 N Orange Ave, Orlando, Florida 32804, Sette is across the street from scenic Lake Ivanhoe, in a spot where several restaurants have come and gone.  This one is going to be different because of the people behind it, their vision, their hospitality, and their sheer culinary talent.

Chef Trina flexing her mussels in her spacious open kitchen:DSC01912

This was an auspicious beginning for what I suspect will become one of Orlando’s hottest restaurants.  Sette opens this Friday, March 22nd, and I suggest you get in as soon as you can.  It will be open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:00 PM, Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:00 PM, and Sundays 1:00 to 8:00 PM.  You can call 407.704.7771 for information and reservations in the meantime.

The restaurant seats 150, and they have regular tables as well as high-tops, both inside and outside, and seating at the inside bar as well.  I am pleased to report they have a parking lot (a rarity along that stretch of Orange Avenue near downtown Orlando), but I suspect it will fill up quickly.

Dig the homey, retro decor that screams “Italian restaurant!” without going into cliche territory.  You won’t find any red and white checkered tablecloths, candles melted into Chianti bottles, or artwork of stereotypical Italian chefs with Super Mario mustaches.
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The spacious and inviting outdoor patio:DSC01886

Even the musical selections fit the vibe perfectly: mid-century standards by the Italian-American triumvirate of Frank, Tony, and Dean, two of the three major Louies (Armstrong and Prima, but no Jordan), some jazz, nothing grating or out of place.

A welcoming bar well-stocked with wine, staffed by friendly bartenders serving up incredibly creative cocktails:DSC01887

Plenty of reds and whites I didn’t drink, but I was assured they have a great selection:DSC01889DSC01890

Most of the evening I nursed this blood orange Italian soda, which was crisp and clean and refreshing, and not cloyingly sweet like most store-bought sodas.  The bartender made this using one of several Italian syrups.  It looked like lavender, rose, and pistachio were among the other options, and I know they employ these in making cocktails as well. dsc01930.jpg

I don’t always get excited about salads, but this Caesar salad, with garlicky dressing and garlic parmesan croutons, and shaved parmesan cheese over romaine, was one of the best Caesar salads I’ve ever had, and well worth getting pumped over.DSC01893

I didn’t get to actually sample this beautiful Cucina salad, with romaine, cucumber, tomatoes, goat cheese, pine nuts, champagne dijon vinaigrette, and more of the garlic parmesan croutons, and I regret that.DSC01897

Trina and Va make their pastas from scratch.  I learned that all their extruded (shaped) pastas are vegan (think spaghetti, linguini, bucatini, etc.), but the flat pasta sheets, like their lasagna noodles, are not vegan due to containing eggs.  I can say that the pasta dishes I sampled tonight are easily some of the finest pastas I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying, and I LOVE pasta, and I’ve been to Babbo in New York (long before we knew what Mario Batali was really like).

Their lasagna was one of my favorite dishes, made with one long pasta sheet, painstakingly folded and assembled with layers of beef bolognese sauce, ricotta cheese, and pecorino romano, on a bed of creamy bechamel sauce.  Look at it!  Bellissima!DSC01923

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This was my favorite of all the pasta dishes, though.  These were so perfect, so chewy and thick.  I loved every bite, every morsel.  The sauce was so fresh and tangy.  It was an unfamiliar noodle to me called paccheri (kind of like a thicker rigatoni), in my favorite Italian sauce of all: amatriciana, the slightest bit spicy and a little bit salty from cured meats like guanciale, or in this case, pancetta.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.DSC01894DSC01900

I love thick, chewy, fresh pasta, and this bucatini carbonara was so good.  Tossed in eggs with crispy pancetta (bacon’s superior cousin), grated pecorino romano cheese, and peas, it was heavy and rich and oh so satisfying.  I never understand why carbonara isn’t more popular across the U.S. as a breakfast dish, considering it’s pasta served with eggs, bacon (although pancetta is always betta’), and cheese.DSC01924

More pasta: wonderful pesto linguini next to a stack of crispy fried eggplant, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese, shaved pecorino romano, and fresh basil.  I’m usually not the biggest fan of eggplant, but this was one of two eggplant dishes tonight that totally won me over and made me a fan.  DSC01914

I absolutely loved the clam linguini, served with small neck clams, crispy pancetta, fennel, and a thick, rich lemon white wine sauce.DSC01920

Continuing with delicious bivalves, the Prince Edward Island mussels were on point, served in a lemon white wine sauce with fresh basil and grilled crusty bread.  Hard to eat neatly while standing up, but totally worth it.  DSC01891

This antipasta dish was maybe the greatest surprise of the night: Italian sausage served with fennel and… it ain’t new potatoes, it ain’t olives, and it ain’t what I was expecting, always-disappointing grape tomatoes, ready to explode and burn the hell out of my mouth.  DSC01922Nope, this sausage and fennel is served with blistered GRAPES, and they work so well together, the savory saltiness and the sweetness and tartness of the grapes.  I never would have thought of it, but that’s why Trina and Va are the visionary restauranteurs and I’m a librarian who writes about food as a hobby.

Despite all appearances, these are crispy eggplant “meat” balls, completely vegetarian, topped with sauce, dollops of ricotta cheese, and fresh basil, and served over polenta.  This was the other eggplant dish I loved:DSC01916

They served a similar preparation of actual beef meatballs too.  I tried and enjoyed a few of them, in fact, but didn’t get a good photo.  Trust me, if you like meatballs, you’ll love Sette’s meatballs.

This is another vegetarian dish, sort of a ratatouille, with tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini served over rich risotto.DSC01896

And these were arancini, crispy fried balls stuffed with risotto, tangy gorgonzola cheese, and figs, served over a pesto cream sauce, and topped with crispy pancetta (which can easily be left off to accommodate vegetarians) and a balsamic glaze drizzle.DSC01902

Sette’s desserts were out of this world, as you would expect for the culinary wunderkind behind Se7en Bites.  My favorite was their unique take on the classic Italian tiramisu, a semifreddo (semi-frozen), cool, creamy concoction with a thin layer of ladyfingers that reminded me more of the graham cracker crust in a good pie, texture-wise, with espresso and dark chocolate ganache along the bottom.DSC01936DSC01937

They also served us amoretti cookies, very soft and chewy almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar and served with the most delicious and delightful little glasses of milk.  I thought there was something in the milk to make it sweeter, and it turned out it was “spiked” with white chocolate liqueur!  I don’t drink, but once I found out, it was so tasty I at least had to finish my little cup.  My wife will LOVE these cookies, since she loves anything almond-flavored.DSC01906DSC01933Almond lovers, they also serve a cocktail called “That’s Amore-etti,” with Real McCoy rum, almond syrup, DiSaronno amaretto, and almond milk.  I can imagine these cookies pairing very well with it.

Tonight they also served an olive oil cake with rosemary-accented lemon curd and lemon mascarpone buttercream icing, moist and tangy and fresh-tasting.  Loved it!DSC01911DSC01903

And while I’m not the biggest chocolate guy, this dense, brownie-like chocolate cake was garnished with fresh orange marmalade, candied oranges, and fresh chantilly cream.  The chantilly cream was my favorite part, and I would happily eat an entire bowl of that as a dessert!DSC01910DSC01909

This was a particularly special night for me because it was the first media event I’ve ever attended at a restaurant.  I’ve been reviewing and recommending restaurants and writing about food online for many years, on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook and on the old Chowhound.com website before that.  Despite all that, it took me forever to gain the self-confidence to match my passion for food writing — I didn’t start The Saboscrivner until last June, 2018, so as usual, I’m a late bloomer.

While I’ve met several Foodie Forum members at various lunches over the last several months, tonight was the first time I met many of our serious and devoted Orlando food and lifestyle bloggers.  Of course everyone seemed to know and be friends with each other already, but I always feel like the odd man out, even when I attend professional conferences with my own colleagues in my field.  Just about everyone I met tonight was warm and friendly, though.  We were all caught up in sampling these delicious dishes at Sette, and I like to think I bonded with some people and didn’t embarrass myself or cramp anybody’s style.

I’ve been a fan of Chef Trina ever since she made her signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pies for sale at Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, years before Se7en Bites even existed, long before Guy Fieri helped make her nationally renowned by featuring her on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Guy’s Grocery Games.  I couldn’t be happier for her or prouder of her, and I was honored to be one of the local luminaries invited to chronicle Sette’s pre-opening event.  Every dish I tried was better than the last, I found myself saying more than once tonight.  Even though I was thrilled to be one of the lucky people to get this early look and taste, I would be raving about Sette no matter what.  In fact, as I write this at 12:30 AM, knowing I have to be awake in three hours to catch a flight to one of those aforementioned professional conferences, I’m already planning to take my wife to Sette as soon as possible upon my return, to enjoy it as any guest surely will.

Trust me — Sette is going to be Orlando’s next big thing.  Brava, Trina and Va!  Brava.