Tortilleria El Progreso

Orlando is full of hidden treasures, and my latest discovery is Tortilleria El Progreso (https://www.tortilleriaelprogreso.com/), nestled in a nondescript strip shopping center in the shadow of a Home Depot, along a busy, industrial stretch of East Colonial Drive, west of the 417 and east of Semoran Boulevard.  It is a bustling Mexican restaurant and a full Mexican grocery store with a butcher shop, a bakery, an ice cream counter, and more.  This is real Mexican food, authentic and pure — the kind of place that makes its own tortillas, chips, and everything else from scratch.  The menu is huge, the service is friendly, the prices are cheap, the portions are large, and the colorful, welcoming dining room with hand-painted chairs makes you feel transported away from Orlando, to a vacation destination south of the border.

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I went for lunch with a professional colleague who trusts my restaurant-choosing judgment and was kind enough to treat.  We started out with complimentary chips and salsa, and we could tell the chips were fresh, made from actual tortillas not long before our arrival:

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Whenever I see tortas on a menu, I go for it.  If there’s one thing I love more than a good taco, it’s a good sandwich, and tortas are the best of both worlds: Mexican ingredients on a soft bolillo or telera roll, with meat, a schmear of refried beans, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, onions, sometimes peppers, and a dab of mayo or sour cream.  I got a barbacoa torta, with tender, oven-braised beef.  It even came with unexpected fries, but the fries weren’t anything special, and I didn’t dare fill up on them.  20180927_124658_resized

But I couldn’t visit a new Mexican restaurant and not sample two of my favorite meats, so I got a chorizo (spicy crumbled sausage) taco on a flour tortilla and an al pastor (marinated pork) taco on a corn tortilla, so I could try both kinds of tortillas too.  All the tacos came simply garnished with diced raw onions and chopped cilantro, with lime wedges on the side.  I am pleased to say everything was delicious.  20180927_124836_resized

My colleague ordered three tacos: shredded chicken and sauteed beef, hold the onions.20180927_124704_resized

We were also offered a choice of red or green salsas for the table, so of course I asked for both.  The green tomatillo salsa was medium-spicy, and the red had quite a bit of heat.  These were homemade as well:
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We also decided to try a side order of the Mexican rice, which was soft, fluffy, even a little buttery.  I have a rice cooker at home because my rice never comes out right from a pot, but I still never get it as perfect as all the restaurant rice I enjoy.  I stirred a little of the salsas into the rice, to make a good thing even better.20180927_131138_resized

I was overjoyed to see aguas frescas on the menu, which is one of my tests for how authentic and good a Mexican restaurant is going to be.  These refreshing drinks are sweet, but not as sweet as high fructose corn syrup-laden sodas, they aren’t carbonated, and they’re ideal for cutting the heat of spicy Mexican food.  I ordered a piña agua fresca because I will always try anything pineappley, and I recommended another one of my favorites to my colleague: horchata, which is a sweet rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.  I didn’t snap photos of those, but they were both terrific.

I can’t wait to return to Tortilleria El Progreso and try some more menu items, including some of those other aguas frescas, and some of the paletas (popsicles) and helados (ice creams) in the big case at the front of the restaurant.  It looked like the market side had bolillo rolls in the bakery section for tortas, fresh tortillas, sodas, snacks, and other groceries worth exploring.  I love grocery shopping at new places almost as much as I love trying new restaurants, so I will definitely be back to this newly-discovered hidden treasure that plenty of other people surely already knew about.

Arby’s

Wait a minute!  Is he really reviewing ARBY’S?  (https://arbys.com/)  He’s only had a food blog for two months and he’s talking about a fast food chain, and a critically-derided, notably un-hip fast food chain?

I try to be good.  I try to support local restaurants AND avoid fast food as much as possible, but I’m only human.  I’m a sucker for Krystal sliders, I have a nostalgic fondness for McDonald’s breakfasts (and was thrilled when they started offering all-day breakfast, even though I rarely partake), and Arby’s hits the spot more often than not (although I almost never go).  Sure, I think of obnoxious little Sherri from The Simpsons (or was it her twin Terri?) whining “I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s!”, which I think ruined it for a whole generation.  But the truth is, Arby’s is cool.  It’s always trying new things, taking risks, adding crazy new menu items, and killing it with social media marketing — and these gambles are working!  Arby’s is the quirky, likable guy in a rom-com who might not end up with the girl, but he has a full and rich life with friends, hobbies, a good job, and you rooted for him and know he’s going to be okay.

I went twice in 2017, which was twice as often as I had gone in the previous decade.  Once was to try their porchetta sandwich while it lasted (surprisingly good), and the other time was to try their venison steak sandwich the one special day they offered it (incredibly good).  Yes, this is a fast food chain people regularly crack on, but they’re rolling out porchetta, a pretty classy Italian pork preparation that you rarely even see on menus at Italian restaurants and takes some real talent and patience to make at home, and venison, which is almost impossible to get unless you’re friends with hunters.  They’re not just adding bacon or chips or (eurgh) sriracha (sorry, it’s nasty!) to the same tired old offerings.  They’re introducing people to entirely new meats, which is a noble and ambitious undertaking!  

So yesterday, my best friend sent me this entertaining and insightful essay about the new golden age of Arby’s, and I was impressed by the writer’s obvious passion and enthusiasm, something I always try for here on The Saboscrivner.

He touched on all my thoughts more eloquently and at greater length than I would, so I’m not even going to try to top it.  But I am extremely suggestible when it comes to food, so of course that means I had to try Arby’s again.  I went today for lunch, and I have no regrets.

Their current limited-time special is the Smokehouse beef short rib sandwich, served with melty cheddar cheese, crispy onions, and barbecue sauce on Texas toast.  I’m always happy to find Texas toast, whether it’s made into garlic bread, served as a sandwich, or just lightly toasted and buttered and served with some Zaxby’s chicken tenders.  This sandwich was a real winner.  I have to admit, it was better than some sandwiches I’ve had from barbecue restaurants.  It was a decent size, with lots of flavors and textures going on, and the shredded, smoked short rib was very tender and tasty.  The Texas toast held everything together well.  I’m always disappointed when some barbecue places serve their wondrous, lovingly-prepared, low-and-slow-smoked meats on the cheapest buns or white bread, but not so here.

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I had also recently been advised to try Arby’s gyro and their onion rings, a combo I enjoyed at Theo’s Kitchen earlier this summer (see my recent review here).  I knew they had a gyro, but it never occurred to me to try it until a few people vouched for it.  And like I said, there’s no such thing as a bad gyro, right?  Well, this one was better than some I’ve had from dedicated Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants.  It certainly wasn’t the best gyro I’ve ever had, but it was far from the worst, and only $3.99.  This was the good kind of pita bread — nice and soft, like you get from actual gyro shops but never find at the supermarket.  They included a generous portion of thin-sliced, processed gyro meat, which is usually a salty, garlicky beef and lamb combo, plus tzatziki sauce, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and thin slices of onion.

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I can’t say the same for the onion rings, which had that craggy, crumby breading that mostly fell off.  I can’t Ring the Alarm! in good conscience for these rings.  At least Arby’s has some good dipping sauces in pumps: their legendary Horsey sauce (creamy horseradish), very decent three-pepper sauce that is more like a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce than an actual hot sauce (which is more than fine with me), and a creamy Dijon mustard sauce.

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Finally, because this was a hectic week and we’re heading into our busiest and most stressful time of the year at work, I treated myself to an orange cream shake, because orange shakes are hard to find, and I freakin’ love them.

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I also brought back a Jamocha shake for one beloved co-worker and two cherry turnovers for another one.  Food gifts are some of the best gifts, if you ask me.

So yeah, Arby’s.  If you haven’t had it since you were a teenager, or if pop culture has conditioned you to think it can’t possibly be any good, think again, and try it again.  Even if you don’t love their old-school roast beef sandwiches (tasty, but super-salty), they have a ton of newer menu options including the limited-time Smokehouse beef short rib, and I definitely vouch for that.  Their seasoned curly fries might be the best in the game, and I wish I had gotten those instead of the onion rings.  Nowadays they have Italian subs, Reubens, smoked brisket sandwiches, and even some healthy-looking options!  Seriously, try it, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market: Opening Day review!

Well, after tracking its progress for what seems like a year, Orlando’s first Italian deli and market, Stasio’s, finally opened for business today, as a soft opening.  (https://www.facebook.com/Stasios-Italian-deli-194418224503776/)  I love Italian delis and markets — Mazzaro’s Market in St. Petersburg is one of my favorite destinations in all of Florida (and I don’t just mean restaurants), and DeLaurenti inside Pike Place Market in Seattle and Eataly in Chicago are two of the coolest places I’ve ever been.  Needless to say, I had to make a pilgrimage to Stasio’s on its opening day, and I’m so glad I did, because they are filling a void in Orlando’s burgeoning culinary scene.  The family that owns Stasio’s also founded the venerable and much-missed Louie and Maria’s Italian restaurant, as well as the Pizzeria Valdiano location in Waterford Lakes, so they aren’t new to Orlando or to delicious Italian food.

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My co-worker and I arrived around 1 PM, and I was glad to see the place busy and bustling.  We immediately got in line to order sandwiches at the deli counter, where we were presented with a laminated menu.  For me, choosing the Stasio sandwich was an easy choice: prosciutto, hot capicola, mild soppressata, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, red onion, and white balsamic vinaigrette on a sub roll, for $11.  That’s my idea of a good time!  My vegetarian co-worker ordered the Melenzani sandwich, with eggplant, spinach, roasted red peppers, marinated tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and balsamic reduction, which only came as a panini, for $11.  (Editor’s note: she e-mailed and said it came on a sub roll after all, despite the menu saying it would be a panini.)

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They were slammed on their first day, so it gave us time to browse around.  At the deli, I ordered some sliced Italian beef brisket and porchetta, both made in-house, while my co-worker picked up some beautiful fresh sfogliatelle (flaky, shell-shaped pastries) from their bakery counter.  They had plenty of other meats and cheeses, huge square slices of pizza ($4.95 for a gigantic slice), deli salads and vegetables, including broccoli rabe, multicolored roasted peppers, stuffed cherry peppers, and sundried tomatoes glistening in oil, marinated imported anchovies that looked like actual silvery fish and not the salty brown fillets that everyone except me dreads on their pizza, and prepared Italian meatballs and sausage.  Shelf-stable groceries included all kinds of fancy pasta you will NOT find at Publix, and plenty of cans, jars, and bottles of delicious Italian delicacies.

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Stasio’s does not have tables, but the store is lined with a long counter for people to enjoy their food while sitting on stools.  We brought ours back to work, though.  They also have an espresso counter near the cash registers at the front, and it looks like you can also order wine by the glass there, but I could be wrong.  (Don’t drink, wasn’t paying that close attention.)

Upon returning to work, I couldn’t be more pleased to say how great the sub was.  The melange of meats worked together in perfect harmony with the fresh “mutsadell” (I promise I’ll never do that again), and roasted red peppers are a welcome addition to almost any sandwich.  I’m sure someone is wondering how the sub roll was, and I’m happy to report it was the perfect amount of chewy with an exterior that wasn’t too crusty — just how I like them.  The rolls were also baked in-house, of course.  I would have liked more toppings on the sub — lettuce, tomato, maybe some of the long hot peppers they advertised on other sandwiches — but ordering was a bit of sensory overload today, and I didn’t even ask.  Next time!

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I also impulse-bought a Manhattan Special espresso soda in a glass bottle, because even though I’m not much of a coffee drinker, I sure love trying new and interesting soda flavors.  It was good, although I think a cappuccino/latte version with some creaminess would have been much better.  All they had were regular and diet version of the espresso soda, though.

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Well, I am very happy Stasio’s is finally open, and so close to my work!  I’ll definitely add it to my regular restaurant rotation, and I suggest my dozens of loyal readers (bakers’ dozens?) give it a try at your earliest convenience.  I wish them the best and welcome them to the neighborhood!

ADDENDUM: My co-worker gave me one of her shell-shaped sfogliatelle pastries, and it was delicious.  The crispy outer dough is very flaky and fragile, able to be peeled apart in thin, spiral-like layers.  The inside is kind of like a thick, lightly-sweetened cheese (not creamy or runny at all, more like the filling of a cheese danish but not nearly as sweet), speckled with tiny, chewy bits of candied lemon for a subtle fresh citrus taste and scent.

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Baltimore, Part 1: Attman’s Deli

I am in Baltimore, Maryland for the next few days.  When I am lucky enough to take work trips, I always try to explore, eat, and soak up the local culture as much as I can on my own limited time.  I despise driving in unfamiliar places, so whenever I travel, I walk when I can, take public transportation if it’s available, or rely on ride-sharing services or cabs.  Luckily, Baltimore has a fantastic public transportation system.  I took a light rail from the airport to my hotel for $1.80, and took a free bus to and from my first restaurant destination.  Figuring out the public transportation systems when I travel makes me feel more like a “man of the world,” and not just a lifelong Floridian who has to drive everywhere to get anywhere.  I was last in Baltimore on a short trip with my wife in 2011, but even before that, the city was already close to my heart.

My favorite television show of all time is The Wire, David Simon’s Baltimore-set epic that unfolds like a great American novel with a cast of hundreds, about the failure of the war on drugs, the struggles of cops and criminals alike, the collapse of blue collar jobs, the failing public school system, the decline of print journalism.  It’s about how institutions always tear down individuals who try to change things for the better, but how you still have to try, to fight the powers that be.  It’s often bleak and grim, sometimes heart-wrenchingly sad, occasionally uproariously funny, and incredibly well-written and well-acted.  The cast members, primarily actors of color, have gone onto higher-profile roles in more popular shows as well as movies, and I’m always happy to see them pop up.  The Wire ran for five seasons on HBO, from 2002 to 2008, and you can still watch it by streaming on Amazon Prime or HBO Go.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here’s the offical website with a trailer for the series: https://www.hbo.com/the-wire

To make this food-related, I discovered The Wire after it had ended, like so many other fans — but better late than never.  Long before the show was available to stream online, one of my former students always raved about it, and she had been discussing shopping around for a Crock-Pot.  We worked out a deal: I traded her my Crock-Pot in exchange for borrowing her DVDs of the complete series!  She changed my life for the better (and now I own my own DVDs), and I hope she had better luck with that Crock-Pot than I did.

Anyway, back to Baltimore!  My first stop, after checking into my hotel, was to take one of the city’s wonderful free buses to Attman’s Deli, a legendary Jewish deli founded in 1915.  (https://attmansdeli.com/)  I’m a sucker for the food, culture, and history of Jewish delis, and for any restaurants with that kind of resilience.  In this era where everything is ephemeral, I am drawn to those institutions that are obviously doing everything right in order to last decades, whether they change with the times or are so good at what they do that they don’t have to.

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To my surprise, Attman’s isn’t a table service restaurant.  You enter and line up in a long, narrow corridor at the deli counter, place your order, pay for it at the end, and then take it to a dining room or to go.  The sandwiches and other options are listed above the counter, but the menu is overwhelmingly long, so I suggest you study it in advance, as I did, or grab a paper menu when you enter (since that includes the prices, whereas the listings above the deli counter don’t).

I chose the Lombard Street (named for the street Attman’s is on), a double-decker sandwich that comes with pastrami, corned beef, chopped liver, and Russian dressing on rye bread, for a pretty fair $14.95.  I figured that was a good way to try a lot of deli staples at once.  I also ordered a potato knish, because those are so rare nowadays (as are delis in general), and because this is The Saboscrivner, I had to get an order of onion rings so this review could also be a RING THE ALARM! feature.

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The knish was good.  For those who don’t know a knish from kishka, it’s a baked or fried dumpling stuffed with savory fillings, usually mashed potatoes seasoned with onions, but sometimes kasha (boiled, seasoned buckwheat grains), ground beef, or even spinach.  This was a baked knish, the more common variety, but the legendary knishes made by Gabila’s in New York are fried.  The doughy outer shell was soft, but held up firmly enough to properly contain the potatoey filling, and the potatoes had a rich, oniony flavor.  It was everything a baked knish should be.  I like my knishes with lots of deli mustard.  (Stay tuned for CUTTING THE MUSTARD, another planned recurring feature when I start reviewing mustards.)

The sandwich was delicious.  Not as hugely overstuffed as Katz’s infamous deli sandwiches in New York, which is fine, because I didn’t have to deconstruct it or dislocate my jaw in the process.  I sampled the corned beef, pastrami, and chopped liver separately, to fully appreciate them, as well as together in the sandwich as a melange of salty, juicy, beefy flavors.  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, cured meats, and I was glad to have chosen wisely from that long, almost intimidating menu.  (https://attmansdeli.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Attmans-Carryout-menu-2018_web.pdf)  In fact, I was so wise that I saved half of the sandwich for later, and I am thrilled that my hotel room has a fridge AND a microwave!

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And the onion rings?  Well, they were fine, but not my favorite kind of onion rings.  They were a little thicker than optimal, with a coating that was kind of like crispy bread crumbs, with that unmistakable jagged surface.  The coating stayed on well, which is always appreciated, but beer battered onion rings are still my Platonic ideal.  Ring the Alarm!

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Well, stay tuned for more Baltimore food reviews in the days to come.

 

 

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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