Prohibition Kitchen (St. Augustine)

This past weekend, my wife and I ventured out to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, for my first time in almost 20 years and her first visit since elementary school.  We were going to a concert on Saturday night, but we decided to get a motel, stay the night, and use the day to explore a bit of the Historic District and grab a late lunch somewhere good.  Prohibition Kitchen (https://pkstaug.com/) came highly recommended, and it looked very much like our kind of place — a gastropub with an eclectic menu and a unique retro aesthetic.

Our motel was a real dump (I booked it online), and parking near the Historic District was a nightmare, but we were charmed by the beautiful old buildings and laid-back, touristy vibe of the Historic District once we finally got there and found a parking space.  Driving from Orlando, we had definitely built up an appetite, so we arrived at Prohibition Kitchen just in time, on our way to hangry.

It’s a long restaurant that goes pretty far back, with a long bar along the right side.  It was pretty busy when we go in, with a huge crowd gathered for the Florida Gators game.  We waited about half an hour for a table, but after how long it took us to park and find the place, we didn’t mind waiting.  Luckily, we arrived late in the fourth quarter, and the bar crowd cleared out when the UF game ended and the UCF game began.

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There is a stage to the right of the entrance for live music (which they feature many evenings).  This is a happening place!
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Stairs up to second floor loft section:
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We started out with a cup of beer cheese soup ($4), garnished with toasted pretzel crumbles.  It was excellent, with a nice texture that wasn’t too sticky or goopy, and not too smooth and uniform like most queso dips.  It even had the slightest bit of spice.  I would make this at home if I could find a similar recipe; it was that good.DSC02552

This was the German-style pretzel, served with beer cheese dip ($10).  It was light, fluffy, and buttery, with the slightest crispness to the outer crust.  I have nothing but love for Auntie Anne’s pretzels — in fact, they are the only thing that redeems my rare trips to malls — and this was similar to those, but on a much grander scale.  We have a hard time saying no to any kind of soft pretzels.DSC02553

However, the beer cheese dip, included in the price, was identical to the separate cup of beer cheese soup I ordered, and the same size, too.  Could our server have warned me that if I wanted to try the soup, I’d get a cup with the pretzel, to save me $4?  Sure, she could have, and it would have been appreciated.  And $4 isn’t going to break the bank for us, but it would have been a perfect opportunity to give me a heads-up.  Did I need two cups of beer cheese soup and/or dip?  Nope.  But did I slurp down two cups?  I sure as hell did, since I paid extra for one of them!

My wife made the best choice at this lunch, ordering the Maine lobster roll ($21), which actually came out as a pair of lobster rolls, both on grilled, buttered, New England-style split-top buns.  The lobstah meat was in big chunks, cool and refreshing, dressed with mayo, diced celery, chervil leaves, and Old Bay seasoning.  She gave me a delicious bite, and because she doesn’t dig on sandwiches, I ended up eating most of both buns, fan of buttered toast that I am.  DSC02554dsc02555.jpg

Having studied the menu in advance, I figured I would go with the Prohibition Kitchen signature burger ($16): a half-pound blend of sirloin, short rib, and brisket, served medium-rare with red onion bacon jam, a fried egg, and Red Dragon cheese, along with the typical lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles.  Red Dragon isn’t just a Hannibal Lecter novel anymore, but a Welsh cheddar made with whole grain mustard seeds and Welsh brown ale.  I’ve only ever had it once or twice ever, but as a fan of cheeses with stuff in them, and especially as a mustard aficionado, I figured I was choosing wisely.  I love onion jam and/or bacon jam as burger toppings, too.  I even ate all my pickles, and they weren’t bad!  DSC02556

Like BurgerFi, they brand the buns — in this case a fluffy brioche bun, which you can never go wrong with.DSC02557

The burger was perfectly fine.  Greasy, juicy, lots of flavors going on.  But on a humid day of walking around pushing my wife in her wheelchair over the cobblestone streets of St. Augustine’s Historic District, and especially with a concert to look forward to that night, I would have preferred the cool, refreshing lobster rolls she ordered to a heavy burger.  But I always say she’s the smart one, and that was one more example of why.

For the record, the fries were very forgettable, and neither of us ate very many of them.  I could have gotten a cup of beer cheese soup instead of the fries for a $2 upcharge, which would have at least saved me $2 (or gotten me a third cup of beer cheese soup), but I really need to let this go.

Anyway, that was the one meal we got to eat in St. Augustine, although after lunch, my wife bought two kinds of fudge and a big bag of different flavors of saltwater taffy at one of the many ubiquitous candy shops along St. George Street, one of the main drags.  We were both charmed by the touristy Historic District and swore to return together, when we didn’t have a concert to take up our evening.  We might even stay there next time to explore the history, culture, architecture, and food more, since we sure as hell are never going back to that dingy, decrepit, desolate dive of a motel, and it would be nice not to fight for a parking space every time we wanted to come and go.  And while we’d probably seek out other local eateries on a future visit, I’d still recommend Prohibition Kitchen to any St. Augustine newcomers.  The lobstah rolls, giant pretzel, and beer cheese soup were all well worth it.

Bad As’s Sandwich

Regular readers know I am a huge fan of sandwiches, and one of my favorites for the last two years has been Bad As’s Sandwich (http://badasssandwiches.com/), located on Primrose and Robinson in the hip, foodie-friendly “Milk District” neighborhood east of downtown Orlando.  Chef John Collazo is a “sandwich artist” in the truest, purest sense — a culinary visionary who is constantly creating memorable sandwiches, combining ingredients both familiar and exotic.  He even bakes his own French rolls, which are soft, but lightly grilled for a perfect crispiness in each bite.

All sandwiches come with house-made kettle chips, or tater tots, chicharrones (pork rinds), or canaritos (sweet plantains) for a slight upcharge.  They also offer soups, salads, smaller sandwiches at evening happy hours, and breakfast sandwiches, which I have not been lucky enough to try yet.

Chef John, his lovely wife and partner Jamilza, and their entire staff are always so friendly and welcoming.  This is one of the places in Orlando I feel like a “regular,” which is something I always wanted to be, ever since I was a little kid, going with my dad to Chinese restaurants across the Miami suburbs where everybody knew his name.

In addition to the standard sandwich menu, Chef John regularly rolls out weekly specials:  creative, exotic sandwiches that are simply too good to last.  As great as the regular offerings are, these specials are usually what brings me back.  They often run out early in the day, but luckily for me, Bad As’s isn’t too far from work.  When I receive word of the weekly specials by following them on Facebook, I’ll often rush over there to catch one while I can.

I went back this past Friday for their weekly special, the ConDorito, with Dorito-crusted herbed chicken, crispy fried jalapenos, house-made cheese sauce (they call it “cheese goo”), shredded lettuce, salsa fresca, fresh crema.  Like so many of the specials, it was an explosion of different flavors, textures, and colors.  This was a sandwich that really deserved to be eaten in the restaurant, but I brought it back to work and then wolfed down half of it before remembering to take a picture.  And it wasn’t even a good picture.

Here’s their Facebook post with a much more appetizing photo than mine would have been.

Chef John is a civic-minded mensch who does what he can for his community.  Over the last two weeks, for every ConDorito special sold, Bad As’s Sandwich promised to donate $5 to Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen disaster relief organization to help the Bahamas relief effort, after the islands were decimated by Hurricane Dorian.  He doesn’t have to do that — or anything — but it’s a noble thing to do.  Even though I would have wanted to try a Dorito-crusted chicken sandwich regardless, I was thrilled that part of what I paid was going toward a worthy charitable cause.

And they delivered a donation of $700 on September 15th, the day I finally finished writing about Bad As’s.  I’ve been working on this review for the better part of 2019, since they keep rolling out new special sandwiches I wanted to write about, but today was a significant day to publish this piece.   See this post from the Bad As’s Sandwich Facebook page.

One of my favorite special sandwiches they served in 2018 was the Polpetta, with house-made meatballs in roasted tomato sauce, fried mozzarella (they had me at fried mozzarella!), prosciutto (everything is better wrapped in prosciutto), and fresh baby arugula.  Good God, Lemon!  Does it get any better than that?  Somehow, YES!  20180509_113658_resized

Last year, they offered the Poseidon sandwich, with generous chunks of chilled Alaskan king crab and Fuji apple slaw, slathered with spicy gochujang mayo, and topped with beautiful chili threads.  It was another one of their numerous creative special sandwiches that only stick around for a week, so I was thrilled to try one while I could.  It came with fresh, house-made chicharrones (pork rinds), a delicious snack that is great for low-carb dieters when they’re craving salty, crunchy chips or crackers.  Since then, they have put out a similar Poseidon 2.0 sandwich with lobster, like the most badass lobstah roll ever.  (I prefer crab to lobster.)20180825_120945_resized

Speaking of pork rinds, sometimes we get lucky and the special sandwiches get added to the permanent menu.  This happened in March of this year with the Ya-Mon, a sandwich with jerk chicken, gouda cheese, sweet plantains (one of my food weaknesses), pork rinds, jalapeno pesto, mango jam, and jerk lime mayo.  If you missed out on it before, now it’s here to stay.

Another beloved special that was recently added to the menu is the Django, a sandwich that featured house-made sliced ribeye, smoked gouda pimento cheese (YESSSS!), caramelized onions (the best thing you can do to onions), piquillo peppers, and honey horseradish on charred bread.  “These are a few of my favorite things!”  And (possibly) named after one of my Top Five favorite guitarists, too!  Sorry I didn’t get a good photo of this one, folks.  I figured I could include the blurry pic I snapped when I enjoyed a Django sandwich back in 2018, but didn’t want anyone to lose their appetites.

My absolute favorite Bad As’s sandwich is yet another limited-time special.  It has made a few comebacks since I listed it one of my Top Five Favorite Dishes of 2017 in Orlando Weekly, one of my proudest moments.  It’s the Capone, an unique and unparalleled Italian sandwich with pepperoni, serrano ham, chorizo cantimpalo (like a cross between pepperoni and salami), capocollo, soppressata, aged provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickled onions, Thai basil manchego aioli (MAMA MIA!), and spicy vinaigrette to tie it all together — everything a growing boy needs.  dsc01784

It’s a beautiful marvel of a sandwich, and it warms my heart whenever they bring it back.  That said, you can order the Capone hot or cold, and I go for cold every time.  Italian sandwiches with cured meats and vegetables never taste the same to me hot — the meats get crispy and greasy, and the lettuce and tomatoes get slimy.  If you’ve only ever had pepperoni turned into crunchy little grease-bowls on a pizza, try it cold in a sandwich some time.  Ideally THIS sandwich.  Your life will never be the same.  dsc01781

Close-up on those fresh, crispy kettle chips:dsc01782

I ordered this particular Capone earlier this year, on an uncharacteristically chilly winter day in Orlando, so I decided to get some soup with it.  Bad As’s is well-known for their creamy tomato bisque, so I tried that for the first time and was not disappointed.  It came with delicious fresh croutons that unfortunately got soggy in the soup by the time I brought my takeout order back to work, as well as chunks of gouda cheese that created a delightfully-unexpected chewy contrast. dsc01783.jpg

And vegetarians shouldn’t despair, because one of the regular sandwiches is the HHH (Happy Healthy Humans), with a trio of roasted vegetables: zucchini, cauliflower, and mushrooms, plus lettuce, tomatoes, pickled onions, crispy chips, fontina cheese, and sun-dried tomato aioli.  When I picked up my ConDorito sandwich the other day, I brought back the HHH for one of my co-workers, only she requested that they substitute saffron aioli for the sun-dried tomato aioli, and they were kind enough to oblige.  She loved it so much, she was doing “jazz hands.”  I can’t eat mushrooms, but I have no doubt I would have loved it too, if I order one sans ‘shrooms.

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Bad As’s isn’t quite three years old yet, but I hope it lasts forever.  Chef John, Jamilza, and his badass-but-welcoming crew are definitely running one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  In fact, with the presence of Bad As’s Sandwich, Stasio’s Italian Deli & Market, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, Beefy King, and even Se7en Bites, Orlando’s hip, happening Milk District should strongly consider rebranding itself as the Sandwich District.

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 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.

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.