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 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!

Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet

Hey, folks.  Sorry about the delay.  I’m working on the most important writing assignment of my life, which unfortunately has nothing to do with restaurant reviews or food in general.  I have a few recent reviews I need to share when I take breaks, so don’t give up on me — I’d never give up on you!

I should start out by saying that I like sushi a lot.  I don’t eat it or write about it as much as I do sandwiches, burgers, or pasta, because I rarely partake.  I consider sushi a rare treat and almost a “luxury meal” for a few reasons:

  • It is so beautifully, artfully prepared,
  • It is difficult to make well at home (as opposed to sandwiches or pasta) so I leave it to the professionals, and
  • It ain’t cheap!

The expense is usually what keeps me from gorging on gorgeous fresh nigiri or being ridiculously ravenous for radiant rolls.  The fact that it takes so much sushi to fill me up can become a dangerous proposition, especially at an upscale establishment.  And these ultra-elite sushi restaurants that promise you the best omakase dining experience ever — I’m sure they’re wonderful, but too rich for my blood.

I almost didn’t take note when some of the good folks on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook recommended Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet, an all-you-can-eat affair in Altamonte Springs.  (http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/)  My wife has never been a fan of buffet dining, so we almost never go to them.  I grew up eating at Chinese buffets throughout Miami with my dad, and I regularly visited Gainesville’s all-you-can-eat Chinese and pizza buffets during my college years, when I was all about quantity over quality.  They helped keep me alive through a few degrees!

These days, I can’t eat like I used to, and I at least attempt to be a little healthier through portion control and exercise, so all-you-can-eat is less of a draw for me.  Plus, I can’t help but be a little more skeptical about all-you-can-eat sushi, after reading Kitchen Confidential and getting older and coming more to terms with my own mortality.

But Mikado’s sushi is extremely fresh and extremely high quality, they assured me.  And there’s a huge variety to choose from — always music to my ears.  If you go for dinner, they even have sashimi (fresh slices of fish on their own, without rice to fill you up), and everything is included for only $25 per person!  WHAAAAT?  How can this be?  The Foodie Forum rarely steers me wrong, so I realized I hadn’t had sushi in forever, and this Mikado had to be worth a try.  My longtime readers know I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.  I had an afternoon off, so I told my wife we’d arrive at 5:00 when Mikado opened for dinner, to be there first when everything was freshly-made.

And I’m so glad we gave it a try, because it was AWESOME.  The sumptuous variety and quality of the sushi seriously exceeded my expectations.  Even my wife was extremely impressed (and relieved).  Sushi chefs were hard at work behind the buffet, replenishing everything.  The preparations were artful, and everything was well-labeled so you knew what each piece was.  (Of course, it was difficult to keep it all straight once things made it to our plates.)

This was my first trip to the buffet:

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I count 22 pieces on this plate, each one better than the last.  I love rolls, and they offered some really creative and intricate ones — no boring California rolls for me (although if you like those, they had them too)!  I know purists may scoff at rolls, but I love the blend of flavors, textures, and colors and the beautiful presentation.  They may not be traditional like nigiri, but I couldn’t get enough of them.

And this was my second trip, when I discovered the sashimi, as well as marinated tuna and salmon crudo, ceviche, and different chilled seafood salads.  As far as the sashimi, the mackerel (saba) is always my favorite because it reminds me of pickled herring, one of the foods of my people, but they were all top-notch.

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Are there 18 pieces on this plate?  Sharp-eyed readers may come up with a more accurate count.

Here is the buffet menu, to further tantalize and tempt:
http://www.mikadosushiorlando.com/buffet/dinner-menu.php

I love raw oysters, and they have them too.  Yes, I’ve heard about the “months-with-an-R” warning, but the only reason I didn’t try an oyster was because I came for the sushi.  They had plenty of delicious-looking hot foods too, but I was a man on a mission, and that mission was to eat all the sushi I could.

We did indulge in dessert, simply because it was there, and it looked so pretty.  My wife had their creme brulee that was more like flan, and I had tiny tastes of tiramisu, banana pudding, and mango mousse cake.  But that was it for me.  I don’t remember the last time I was so full, but it was totally worth it.

I should note that Mikado charges you a fee for wasting food, especially if you load up on nigiri pieces, eat the fish, and leave the rice over. I have no problem with this, as I hate to see food wasted under any circumstances. Pace yourself, scope out your options before loading up your plate, try small tastes of everything in case you don’t like something, and don’t be a jerk who snatches up half the buffet and leaves so much of it behind.

We ate like kings for 25 bucks each, and Mikado’s quality definitely matched the quantity — rare for an all-you-can-eat buffet setting, even rarer for good sushi.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Even if you’re a regular at your favorite hip, trendy, upscale sushi restaurant, give Mikado a chance, and I promise you will be pleasantly surprised and very possibly blown away.  You can’t beat it.  I’ve been wanting to go back ever since, which is the best possible recommendation I can give any restaurant.

Ring the Alarm! Raglan Road

This past weekend, my wife and I journeyed to Disney Springs to see the ridiculously talented singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/actress Janelle Monae perform at the House of Blues.  Needless to say, she was incredible.  I’ve been a fan of her Afro-futuristic feminist funk-soul-pop-hip hop-R&B for almost a decade, and this was our first opportunity to see her live.  If you ever get the chance to see her, DO IT.  You won’t regret it.  She might be the most talented and culturally relevant female musician out there right now, and yes, I did consider your favorite artist.  I would be thrilled to introduce my readers to her best material, but here’s her song “Americans” off her new album Dirty Computer, which I think serves as an anthem and rallying cry for the progressive, inclusive, empathetic resistance in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POZNheF-KdY

Anyway, we’ve had good, bad, and plenty of so-so experiences dining at Disney Springs, so we opted to return to an old favorite, the boisterous Irish pub Raglan Road.  Sprawling, loud, and crowded, you can always count on a festive atmosphere, solid food, and friendly service.  This evening, they had a three-piece Irish band playing Celtic folk music, along with winsome Irish dancers clogging away on a central stage. Sometimes it can be too loud to have a conversation, but we were seated a decent distance from the stage, ironically in the “Music Room,” where we could hear and enjoy the music perfectly without it drowning out each other’s voices.

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It’s hard to not get caught up in the welcoming old-country vibe and party atmosphere of the place, and I’ve never been to Ireland and don’t think I have any Irish in me. But when I listen to the Pogues, I feel a strong kinship with Irish culture, and when I set foot in a good pub, I feel the same.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even drink!

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Of course, every meal at Raglan Road starts with slices of rich, brown Irish soda bread, served with a masterful dipping sauce that is Guinness stout ale reduced with sugar and mixed with olive oil.  It is so good, and it sets the tone for everything to follow.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture this time.

On previous visits, we have defaulted to Irish pub classics like fish and chips, bangers and mash, or bacon loin and cabbage (much more traditional than the 19th Century New York City substitution of corned beef and cabbage).  Once we arrived early enough on a Sunday for them to offer a full Irish breakfast option, which I had to go for (much to the chagrin of my body).  My favorite part is always the black pudding (AKA blood sausage), and I’m 100% serious.  It is delicious, and I wish it was a regular menu item.

This time, the menu had several new options since the last time we were there (maybe two years ago), so we decided to split two entrees that were new to us.  My wife loves sea scallops, pork belly, and gnocchi, those chewy, potatoey dumplings, so she had a hard time saying no to the “Gnocchi See, Gnocchi Do,” with handmade potato gnocchi, seared Georges bank scallops, crispy pork belly, tomatoes, and kale in a white wine butter sauce.  She was kind enough to share some of it with me, although she gave me one whole scallop and the dish only came with three!  That’s true love, folks.

They were really big scallops, perfectly seared, sweet and buttery.  But I almost hate ordering scallops at restaurants because you can usually end up counting them on one hand.  The tomatoes were halved grape tomatoes.  She’s not a tomato fan and I got too full to finish them.  I would have preferred regular diced tomatoes, or better yet, sun-dried tomatoes, which would have added another nice texture and a little sweetness.

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I asked what her second choice was, so I could order that and share it with her.  We both love game meats, or any gamier meat, so we were both tempted by the Boaring Burger, a grilled wild boar burger with Cashel blue cheese, crispy onion strings, arugula, port and pear chutney, and herb aioli, served on a floury potato bun.  We both thought the wild boar was a little dry, but at least it had a nice flavor (much more interesting than most pork, which I find almost as bland as boneless, skinless chicken breasts).  There was nothing “boaring” about it!

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The burger had a lot of contrasting tastes and textures that worked well together, and the bun held it all in place well.  It even came with a nice little side salad, and a crunchy sweet pickle garnish.  Believe it or not, I’m not generally a fan of pickles, but I am working on developing more of an appreciation for them.

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And since I had a choice of side and the fries/chips walking out of the kitchen looked a little light and unappealing, I opted for onion rings.  That’s right, folks, this ended up being a RING THE ALARM! feature!  (Cue the air horns!)

I must admit, these are not my favorite kinds of onion rings.  They were huge, and the batter was thick, heavy, and crunchy, but at least not overly greasy.  I suspect it may be the same kind of batter they use for their fried fish, but despite being referred to as “beer battered onion rings” on the menu, they aren’t the golden-brown beer battered rings I’m on a never-ending quest for.  But for a change, my wife actually liked them — or at least the crunchy batter.  She peeled a few of them and left the onions behind for me!

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Raglan Road has one of my all-time favorite desserts, a rich bread and butter pudding that almost defies explanation, especially because I haven’t had it in a few years.  But we were both very full, she had already had mini-cupcakes from the nearby Sprinkles bakery, and we had a concert to go to at a sold-out venue with limited restrooms, so I figured “Why tempt fate?”  Get to be my age, you Millennials, and you’ll start enjoying the same interior monologues with every meal YOU eat.

Sláinte!

Baltimore, Part 3: A Tale of Two Crabcakes (Phillips and Faidley’s)

Well, I’m already home from my trip to Baltimore, back at work, back in the real world.  It was a nice second visit to Charm City.  I learned a lot, saw some old friends, made some new ones, and had a few really terrific meals (plus some not so blog-worthy ones, including a trip to Subway).

Baltimore is really known for its famous crabs: blue crabs steamed in Old Bay seasoning and served in the shell, which you smash with mallets and pick apart, and the classier, less-messy alternative, crabcakes.  Crabcakes should be soft and fork-tender, with their outer surfaces only slightly crispy from being pan-seared or broiled.  They aren’t batter-dipped or deep-fried.  It’s a croquette of shredded crabmeat, probably some bread crumbs, possibly onions, peppers, garlic, celery, herbs and spices, and maybe an egg to bind it together.  Obviously the best crabcakes are heavy on the crab and light on the fillers.

Now, you’ve probably tried a crabcake at some point in your life, but the ones in Baltimore are unmatched.  I was lucky enough to try two of the city’s iconic crabcakes at two very different restaurants.  You could say I was on a seafood diet on this trip: when I would see food, I’d eat it, as long as it was seafood.

This past Friday evening (7.13.18), I walked to Phillips, a giant seafood restaurant in the touristy Inner Harbor area, to meet two friends for dinner.  (https://www.phillipsseafood.com/)  Phillips is a pretty nice place, and their crabcakes were no exception.

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These Hooper’s Island crabcakes came with roasted, seasoned potatoes and a nice blend of seasonal vegetables.  Those are two sides I would rarely choose myself, but I enjoyed both more than I expected to.  They also came with a tangy remoulade sauce, a great accompaniment for almost any seafood that is a good alternative to tartar sauce.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  They were delicious, and the company at dinner was unparalleled.  But I already knew there were better crabcakes to be found in Baltimore, from my previous visit back in 2011.  Would I make it back there in time?

Well, of course I did, hence the title of this post.  Baltimore’s hottest spot for crabcakes is Faidley Seafood, a legendary restaurant and seafood market inside the Lexington Market.  (http://www.faidleyscrabcakes.com/ and http://lexingtonmarket.com/)  I’m a huge fan of food markets, and they have been some of my favorite travel destinations in cities over the years: the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the North Market in Columbus, Ohio, and the granddaddy of them all, the Lexington Market, founded in 1782.  There’s a lot of history at this place — you can feel it.  It’s nestled in the middle of a historic part of downtown Baltimore, walkable from the Inner Harbor, but not in a direction most tourists would automatically head in.  The indoor market shows its age, and it definitely isn’t fancy, but it’s totally worth visiting and checking out the 88 vendors — especially Faidley.

Founded in 1886 and a Lexington Market resident from the beginning, Faidley Seafood feels like a time capsule in the best way.  It’s a little intimidating at first, since there’s a lot going on at multiple counters throughout the restaurant: a fresh fish counter on your left when you walk in off Paca Street, an oyster bar right in the middle, and the counter where you order crabcakes and other food on the right.  They will prepare any fresh fish you choose, in addition to their regular menu items, which is pretty cool.

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They sell a few different crabcake varieties, as well as seafood platters, where you can try multiple things.  When I went yesterday (7.17.18), I opted for a seafood platter with a backfin crabcake, fried oysters, and fried clams, which also came with two sides.  I got macaroni salad and potato salad, since I like trying everyone’s different versions.  And they had onion rings, so this is also a stealth RING THE ALARM! feature!

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The fried oysters and clams were great.  Sometimes you can order those and taste nothing but breading and grease and wonder if there were any mollusks in there, but these were so fresh, and not at all greasy.  The potato salad and macaroni salad were thick (I hate it when the mayo is runny), creamy, cool, refreshing, and incredibly well-seasoned.  They gave me cocktail sauce and tartar sauce, which were nice for some dipping, but not necessary, given how flavorful everything was.

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The crabcake was the best I’ve ever had, and I felt that way after my earlier trip to Faidley Seafood back in 2011.  It was seasoned better than the one at Phillips, and I greatly preferred Faidley’s much more casual and historic atmosphere.  A classy sit-down restaurant versus a bustling, historic seafood market where you order at a counter and stand up to eat at long tables — you’d think the better one would be obvious, but I prefer casual and historic anyway, and Faidley’s crabcake was just superior.  (And I often eat over my kitchen counter at home, so I’m used to standing up while I eat!)  It was my favorite meal of the entire trip to Baltimore, and I’m so glad I fit it in before a long and frustrating afternoon at the airport.

Crabcake close-up:

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from the onion rings, since we have a local seafood restaurant that makes onion rings that I don’t care for at all, but these were terrific.  Some of the better ones I’ve had — the perfect thickness, the perfect batter, the perfect texture and taste.  They were perfect in every way, not that I should have been surprised.

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If you’ve ever watched The Wire (which I mentioned is my favorite show of all time), two different characters refer to Faidley’s in two different scenes: Omar mentions it to his partner, and McNulty brings a bag of crabcakes to two excited cops as a favor.  David Simon, the showrunner, was a long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun and more recently, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, so if you don’t believe me, believe him.  Not many people know their way around Baltimore better.  If you visit Baltimore and can only go one place for its legendary crabcakes, eschew the touristy Phillips and soak up the local culture at Faidley Seafood in the Lexington Market.  Just go for lunch, since they aren’t open for dinner!