Paris Banh Mi Cafe Bakery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuan Lu Garden

Even though I have discovered the glory of Taste of Chengdu and Chef Wang’s Kitchen over the last few months, I always end up returning to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Orlando, Chuan Lu Garden (http://www.chuanluorlando.com/).  There are two locations: one at the heart of the Mills 50 District, Orlando’s best neighborhood for dining out, and a newer one in east Orlando on Alafaya Trail, closer to UCF

Like Taste of Chengdu, fewer than 15 minutes away, Chuan Lu Garden specializes in spicy Szechuan cuisine, with peppercorns that numb your mouth and make everything tingle. It’s a different kind of heat than what most hot sauce heroes and chile cheerleaders are used to, but those flavors are highlighted in several dishes throughout the lengthy menu, like la zi chicken and la zi fish (crispy fried, breaded pieces that bring the tingle). I appreciate some heat some of the time, but I tend to play it safer and stick to the delicious hand-cut and hand-pulled noodle offerings.

This review is based on several visits over the last few months:

Visit #1: We met dear friends from Gainesville who were in town with tickets to see Hamilton.  Unfortunately, I am an idiot and gave them directions to the wrong Chuan Lu Garden location.  They drove all the way to east Orlando, when we were waiting for them near downtown, chosen purposely to put them near the theater.  But they are badasses who didn’t sweat it and weren’t even mad at me.  They made it to where we were in 15 minutes flat, and I ordered some vegetarian dishes for them in the meantime.  (I treated them to dinner too, but I was planning to do that anyway, even before I almost ruined their night and put them in danger of missing the greatest musical of all time.)

I ordered myself one of my favorite dishes on the menu, cumin lamb, which is much less blurry in person:DSC01808

My wife’s noodle soup with roast duck, the dish that finally won her over after years of me hyping up Chuan Lu Garden, making her a devoted fan:
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Our glorious pan-fried pork buns (sadly not the xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, that Orlando foodies constantly crave):
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Fried tofu with vegetables and the remnants of vegetable fried rice, after the four of us mostly devoured it:dsc01811.jpg

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Visit #2: Just the two of us.

Maybe the best Singapore mei fun noodles I’ve ever ordered anywhere, though curiously not very spicy compared to some others I’ve had.  These noodles were thin and ethereal, reminding me almost of cotton candy threads (although obviously neither sticky nor sweet).  I couldn’t get enough of them, and even my wife was amazed by their lighter-than-air texture and great flavor.chuan_IMG_0013

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take two:
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And a roast duck appetizer, full of tiny little bones to watch out for:chuan_IMG_0014

For the first time ever in my experiences at Chuan Lu Garden, they presented us with a separate dim sum menu.  Having been recently introduced to egg custard tarts by one of my favorite local foodies, I had to pay it forward and order them to share with my wife.  She loved them, like flaky little custard pies.chuan_IMG_0016

Visit #3: Just the two of us again.

I ordered one of my favorite dishes on the menu: dan dan noodles with spicy ground pork, served with thin-sliced cucumbers that do a great job counterbalancing the chili oil with their own crunchy coolness.DSC01827DSC01829

My wife’s roast duck noodle soup, take three, but this time with the wide, flat noodles:DSC01828

More of that quacktacular roast duck:DSC01832

And one of my favorite dishes here, the onion pancake, which is much more like a thick paratha or super-thick flour tortilla than an American-style pancake.  The outside is crispy, but the inside has a wonderful, rich, buttery crispness, with scallions baked into it.DSC01830DSC01831

Since I originally wrote this blog entry, I have brought her home roast duck noodle soup a few more times, often with an extra order of duck to go with it.  She loves it, and what’s not to love?

And guess what, fearless Saboscrivnerinos? Chuan Lu Garden now has a full dim sum menu, including the coveted soup dumplings! I haven’t tried them there yet, but how can you go wrong? It’s SOUP… in a DUMPLING!

Pho 88

Well, before it got hot in Orlando again, it was remarkably chilly for a little while there.  I look forward to those brief blasts of winter all year, every year.  I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, which I guess makes me a true Florida Man.  I hate our humid, oppressive, sticky summers and eagerly anticipate the few weeks a year where we can walk outside, eat outside, and see the one coat or jacket everyone owns.  We don’t have to shovel snow or drive on icy roads, so our cold is a novelty, and we know it won’t last.

Winter is also perfect soup weather, and there are few soups finer than phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup that so many Orlando restaurants have perfected.  I have yet to get into the trend of fancy bowls of ramen, after so many years of subsisting on seven-for-$1 bricks of instant ramen noodles.  On the other hand, pho (which I was taught to pronounce “fuh,” although I hear “foe” all the time) is so warm and rich and hearty that it is a welcome meal year-round, not too heavy or hot to enjoy in warmer months.  But nothing beats a steaming bowl in 40-degree winter weather.

Slow-simmered broth is flavored with spices including cinnamon and star anise, and it includes rice vermicelli and different cuts of meat.  Thin slices of rare beef eye round are the most common, but other bowls of pho may also include beef brisket or flank steak, chewy beef meatballs (completely different from the meatballs you’d get with spaghetti or in a sub), tendon, and tripe.  Pho usually contains paper-thin slices of onion and diced green onions as well.  Then lucky diners can continue to customize their pho with sprigs of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts (I’ve never been a fan, sorry), fresh slices of jalapeno peppers, and fresh lime wedges, which come on a separate plate.  Hoisin sauce, sriracha, and sambal oelek (chili garlic sauce) are common condiments that are always available on Vietnamese restaurant tables.  No two bowls of pho end up alike, which is part of its charm.

Anyway, we are very lucky to have a large Vietnamese population in Orlando, and plenty of delicious Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, mostly centered in the Mills 50 district near downtown.  I’ve tried most of them at least once, but I always return to two favorites: Saigon Noodle and Grill or the subject of this review, Pho 88 (http://www.pho88orlando.com/).  My wife and I had our first date at yet another local Vietnamese restaurant, Lac Viet, but we’ve been going to Pho 88 for many years.  Located on Mills Avenue, just north of busy Colonial Drive in the heart of our foodie-friendly Mills 50 district, Pho 88 also has more parking than a lot of the other nearby restaurants, which is one more reason we end up there as often as we do.  Not only do we like it a lot and seek it out, it often becomes our fallback choice when we can’t park near anywhere else.

This review is based on our two most recent visits to Pho 88.  My wife tends to crave pho even more often than I do, and during our most recent cold snap, she demanded it two nights in a row.  So like a good husband, we went two nights in a row!

The first night, we both ordered pho.  She likes the simple pho tai, with thin-sliced rare beef eye round.  I prefer the pho dặc biệt combination with the rare beef slices plus fatty brisket, well-done flank steak, dense and chewy meatballs, and soft, chewy, rich tendon.  Tendon and book tripe almost always come together, and while I must admit the texture of tripe doesn’t do much for me, I never ask them to hold it.  Here is my bowl, after I tore up several basil leaves and added them in.  These are HUGE bowls, by the way.  20181129_185826_resized

Instagram-hip foodies love to get the shot of pulling perfect noodles out of a perfect bowl of pho.  Most of you are already acquainted with the limitations of my phone camera, so apologies in advance for this action shot:
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On our second visit the next evening, my wife ordered her favorite pho tai again, but I decided to switch it up and get something spicy for the chilly night: a different kind of noodle soup called bún bò huế.  It contains thicker rice noodles than the vermicelli in pho, pork roll (similar to bologna, but chewier and cut thicker), well-done flank steak, lemongrass, and white and green onion in a rich, spicy, orangey-red broth.  It cleared up my sinuses and warmed my body from head to toe.20181130_184243_resized

Bun bo hue action shot:20181130_184359_resized

I am also a fan of banh mi sandwiches, which demonstrate the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine.  Served on a crusty baguette, my favorite banh mi includes a variety of pork-based cold cuts and is served with a spread of butter and liver pate on each side of the roll, cool, shredded pickled carrot and daikon radish, refreshing sprigs of fresh cilantro, and spicy slices of fresh (never jarred) jalapeno peppers.  Best of all, these sandwiches are usually quite cheap, often $4 or $5.  Pho 88 is one of the few Orlando Vietnamese restaurants that serves banh mi as well as pho, so I’ll often order a banh mi as an appetizer, devour half there, and save the other half for later.  I did NOT order a banh mi with my soup two nights in a row, just that first night.  20181129_184836_resized

Well, we’re over halfway into February and our local weather is already back into the 80s, but like I said, pho hits the spot year-round at Pho 88.

My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

Poke Hana

It could be said that poke is having a moment.  The Hawaiian dish consists of cubes of fresh raw fish, marinated with sauces and seasonings and served over rice with a variety of toppings.  If you like sushi, there’s no reason you wouldn’t love poke too.   Plus, poke bowls are infinitely customizable, and these days, diners crave quick, healthy meals they can get made to their specifications.

Orlando already has several poke options, including several locations of the excellent Da Kine Poke, the related Big Kahuna and Island Fin Poke, Bento Cafe (which was serving poke-style don bowls for several years), and even Costco offers high-quality, authentically Hawaiian ahi tuna poke every once in a while.  Most of these poke joints (aside from Costco) follow the assembly line model popularized by Chipotle and several fast-casual Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, in which you choose your base (white or brown rice, sometimes salad greens), your protein (ahi tuna, other fish, or tofu), and your toppings and sauces.

Orlando’s newest poke place is my current favorite, Poke Hana (https://www.poke-hana.com/), located on East Colonial Drive right at the Mills Avenue intersection, one of our greatest foodie neighborhoods in the city.  I believe they opened in late August or early September.  They have a large, bright restaurant space with a lot of natural light and an easy-to-miss parking lot in the back, to avoid the hassle and danger of trying to parallel-park in one of the few spots along busy Colonial Drive.  I’ve been there twice now, and I’m a little obsessed with it at the moment.

At Poke Hana, you can choose from white or brown rice or mixed greens for your base, and ahi tuna, salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), and tako (octopus) for your seafood proteins.  I’ve been twice now, and I’ve asked for half-ahi and half-salmon both times.  These bowls are a reasonable $13 each.  They also have non-seafood protein options: Hawaiian-style kalua pulled pork, hula chicken, garlic shrimp (shell-on), and fried tofu.  I haven’t tried any of these yet, although I can’t wait to try the kalua pork.  They also have Spam musubi, another Hawaiian specialty with a rectangular slice of fried Spam served over a pillow of chilled, seasoned sticky rice, like a larger piece of nigiri sushi.

Now you have to choose a sauce: shoyu (soy sauce with ginger), Maui (traditional Hawaiian-style, with some finely-chopped macadamia nuts and chili flakes for a bit of heat), spicy (my favorite, a sriracha aioli with tiny orange masago fish eggs, like the spicy mayo that often accompanies sushi rolls), and a Korean-style kimchi.  Some of the poke places serve the sauce on the side or squirt it on top, but Poke Hana mixes it together with your protein of choice before serving it to you, which I appreciate, because I would just do that anyway.

And while other poke restaurants usually have a long list of toppings, Poke Hana keeps it simple and traditional.  As much as I’ve loved having the option of diced mango, sliced avocado, or crispy fried onions over my poke elsewhere, you only get three toppings at Poke Hana: thin-sliced pickled cucumbers (which I love, despite not being a huge pickle fan, although I’m trying to learn to appreciate pickles more), edamame (those green soybeans), and seaweed salad.  I must admit, I’ve never been into edamame or seaweed salad, so after trying them on my first visit, I asked to hold those but to get extra pickled cucumbers on my second visit.

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The poke bowl isn’t the largest, but it is very satisfying and filling.  Everything is fresh, and the flavors and textures work perfectly together.  I could easily have eaten two, or a portion twice its size, but who needs that?  Then again, that isn’t all I ate!

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I also tried a side order of macaroni salad.  My constant readers know how much I love onion rings, to the point where I feel obligated to sample them anywhere they’re on the menu.  I have a few other foods I’m like that with: chili (WHY?  Because everyone’s chili is a little bit different!), root beer (same), and pasta and/or macaroni salads.  Hawaiian-style macaroni salad is mayo-based (usually Best Foods, which is sold as Hellman’s in the eastern U.S.), and there is a slight sweetness to it.  My lifelong gold standard for a mayo-based macaroni salad is from Publix supermarket, but the macaroni salad at Poke Hana is my new favorite.  It’s pretty simple, but it does have some nice orange accents from finely-shredded carrot, and the elbow noodles were surprisingly al dente.  It was a damn fine macaroni salad, and I’m sure it would go great with the kalua pork sliders, served on pillowy-soft, sweet Hawaiian rolls  (my favorites for making bison sliders at home).

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I love tropical fruit.  I could take or leave boring apples (including apple juice), but I have a hard time saying no to anything involving pineapple, mango, or guava.  Maybe it’s because I was raised in Miami.  Now that I’m an altacocker and acid reflux is a recurring concern, I must be careful, but I wasn’t going to turn down the Hawaiian Sun tropical fruit drinks that Poke Hana offers.  I couldn’t decide between guava nectar and lilikoi (passion fruit) juice, so I got a can of each, drank one with my meal, and drank the other one in my car on the way back to work.  The guava nectar was fine, with a little bit of grittiness you should expect from guava nectar, but the passion fruit drink was so sweet and tart and refreshing and awesome.  I’ve never had it before, but it quickly became a favorite.  I don’t drink, but I have to imagine it would be amazing mixed with rum, vodka, or maybe even tequila.

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Finally, since this was my first visit and I planned to review it, I had to try one of the desserts: haupia pie.  It consists of three freshly-fried spring rolls stuffed with creamy coconut custard and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and coconut shavings.  Um, YES, PLEASE!  I also love anything coconutty, even though coconut sometimes disagrees with me.  TMI, I realize that, but this felt like a risk worth taking, for the sake of journalism.

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I had no complaints, neither as I ate the delicious haupia pie nor in the hours that followed.  Crispy and soft, crunchy and sticky, and extremely rich and decadent, I definitely recommend it.

When I returned two days later with my wife, she tried Poke Hana’s other dessert called butter mochi, which was also rich and decadent.  It was a square of cake, already sliced and wrapped in plastic wrap, similar to pound cake or sponge cake, but better.  It was also chewier, perhaps due to the presence of glutinous rice paste, also known as mochi.  We both liked it a lot.

I don’t mind saying that I could eat a poke bowl and a side of macaroni salad at Poke Hana every day and never tire of it.  I don’t think I could give higher praise than that.  I wish them the best of luck, and I hope they last forever in this location.  I’m definitely going to become a regular here!

Orlando Meats

My wife and I had an awesome lunch at Orlando Meats (http://orlandomeats.com/). Today I got their new “Snackriligious” sandwich, chicken-fried lasagna with ricotta on a roll, which is as good as you would think. Better, even.

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My wife got a delicious-looking beef and mushroom blended burger called the Smurf House, cooked to a perfect medium-rare. I can’t do mushrooms, but still tasted a tiny morsel, and it was excellent. I didn’t get a picture, but trust me, she is still raving about it. Their regular burger, though not gigantic (neither was this one), is still extremely satisfying and might be THE best burger in Orlando.

Orlando Meats is a treasure. They have the best chips (fried in beef tallow!) and cole slaw, too. The chips are the PERFECT consistency — not as crunchy as kettle chips, not as thin, crumbly, and inconsequential as something like Lay’s — the ideal middle ground.

They make their own doughnuts too, probably fried in lard. But they were surprisingly light and fluffy. My wife liked the churro doughnut with cinnamon sugar best. I still prefer Donut King, but I’m really glad we tried them.

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