Swine & Sons

So, has anyone heard about any good chicken sandwiches lately?

Let me rewind for a bit.  This week the Internet went insane over chicken sandwiches, something I rarely order anywhere.  When there’s a burger available, I never give the chicken sandwich a second look.  At fast food places, even if I’m not in the mood for a burger, I’m more likely to order the fish sandwich than the chicken sandwich!  Even when I go to a fried chicken joint, I’ll usually get a couple of crispy fried thighs, rather than a sandwich.  Too often, the classic fried chicken sandwich contains a dry chicken breast, or worse yet, a dry tender or two.  I’ve been burned by dry, bland white meat too often, and don’t get me started ranting about dry, bland, boring-ass Thanksgiving turkeys.  I always prefer dark meat, and thighs usually hide my favorite morsels of meat on the entire chicken: the oysters, tucked away under a bone, two little perfect bites per bird.

But people are losing their damn minds over this chicken sandwich, which gave me a serious case of the FOMO.*  I had to venture forth to see what the hype was about, and so I could blog about it and get some external validation before everyone moves onto the next foodie fad.  Wait, did I just write that?

Well, to none of my regular readers’ surprise, I ordered two different chicken sandwiches: spicy and extra-spicy.  And I’m happy to report they were the best damn chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had!  But they didn’t come from that chain.  Nope.  And not that chain either.  They came from a a beloved local restaurant that just happens to be located in a butcher shop.  Not that one; the other one!

Swine & Sons (https://swineandsons.com/) started out as the third restaurant in James and Julie Petrakis’ locally-grown empire, following their flagship Winter Park gastropub The Ravenous Pig and their upscale Southern restaurant Cask & Larder.  With Chefs Rhys and Alexia Gawlak in charge, Swine & Sons opened in a small space next door to the old Cask & Larder location on Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, and I made sure my wife and I were there on the very first day they opened for business.  We were some of their first customers through the door on Day One, and they had a good thing going from the onset.  It was always meant as a more casual restaurant compared to the others, a quick-service place with sandwiches, house-cured charcuterie, and lots of prepared takeout options.  And despite having limited seating and parking, it became a hit, like the Petrakis’ other establishments.

But the only constant is change.  In recent years, Cask & Larder moved to the Southwest Airlines terminal at Orlando International Airport, and The Ravenous Pig moved into the space Cask & Larder vacated on Fairbanks, which is much nicer and larger than the old Ravenous Pig location, with more parking.  The Gawlaks bought Swine & Sons from the Petrakises, and in March 2019, they moved across the street, into The Local Butcher & Market, an upscale full-service butcher shop.  (Da Kine Poke, one of Orlando’s best poke places, also has a counter location inside The Local Butcher.)  There are still tables to enjoy the Gawlaks’ delicious food in there, don’t worry.  And luckily, there are a lot more parking spaces!  Just keep in mind that it closes at 4:00 PM every day, so you’d have to be a real early bird to have dinner there.

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Anyway, Swine & Sons is one of the only Orlando restaurants I know of that serves Nashville-style hot chicken, which I was first introduced to at the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year.  After the chicken is marinated (often in seasoned buttermilk), breaded or battered, and fried, it is covered in a spice paste that’s heavy on the cayenne pepper, so every surface is spicy.  It was amazing, and very different from the popular new fast food spicy chicken sandwich where any heat comes from a spicy mayo-based sauce. At Hattie B’s, I ordered a medium thigh and a hot thigh. They were crispy and crunchy and set my mouth ablaze, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
(To avoid any confusion, this photo is from Hattie B’s in Nashville, just in case the cup and the above paragraph didn’t give it away.  That’s medium on the left and hot on the right, and the hot was HOT.)
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I tried the Nashville hot chicken at Cooper’s Hawk when I reviewed it earlier this year, and even though I liked that restaurant quite a bit, the hot chicken wasn’t that hot or that crunchy.  So my quest continued, and I’m so glad that the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 led me to Swine & Sons in search of a truly singular spicy chicken sandwich experience.

In fact, maybe with all the chicken sandwich hype and debating, Swine & Sons recently debuted a hotter hot chicken sandwich.  Their current menu showed the classic version, referred to as the “Party,” and the newer, hotter model called the “Rager.”  The very patient woman working the counter told me they use the same spice blend, but the Rager contains three times the cayenne pepper.  They use Bell & Evans all-natural chicken breasts, and she explained that they first brine them, then they smoke them, and then they fry them.  I was already on board even before she mentioned smoking, but that would have pushed me over the edge.  I love any smoked foods — meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, you name it.  I was ready for a life-changing flavor sensation, so of course I ordered one of each ($11 per sandwich), intending to eat half the Party and half the Rager there and save the other halves for later.

Party:
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Rager:
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Both of the sandwiches were served on identical white sandwich rolls, with plenty of sliced pickles and little dipping cups of Alabama-style white barbecue sauce, a mayo-based sauce I have come to really like with my chicken.  I’m usually not a pickle person, but I’ve been trying to develop more of an appreciation for pickles, and these were great.  Definitely some of the best pickles I’ve ever tried.  Surely they were house-made.  The chicken breasts with their crunchy breading and oily, spice-laden exterior coating were balanced perfectly with the soft roll and the crispy pickles (not overly sour or “dilly”).  I left the cool, creamy white sauce on the side for dipping random bites, lest it overpower the other flavors or cut the heat too much.  I would have preferred a soft, rich buttery brioche bun for these sandwiches, which would have both contrasted and cut the heat more than the plain white roll, but it still worked very well.

These chicken sandwiches were CRON-CHY!  Each bite had a satisfying crunch that is missing from too much fried chicken.  Under the breading, they were also juicy and moist.  Even beloved fried chicken establishments have let me down too often — even places I’ve given good reviews to in the past.  But these were everything you wish fried chicken sandwiches could be in terms of texture and consistency.

Party:
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And what of the heat, you ask?  The Party had a pleasant heat that would certainly be too much for my in-laws, my parents, and my wife, but anyone who enjoys spicy food will be fine with it.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Rager, but I’ve been pushing my limits with spicy food lately, maybe trying to feel more alive in this scary and unknowable world.  My eyes were watering, and I had to blow my nose more than once, but my body reacts like that whenever I eat anything spicy, so those weren’t new and unfamiliar reactions to this heat.  Despite all that, I was expecting it to be hotter, to maybe push into a place of unpleasant heat, but it was fine.  It was better than fine; it was awesome.  And through the heat, you could taste the smoky flavor.  They didn’t clash or overpower each other — smoke and fire burning together in crackling harmony.

Rager (see it through my tears!)
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I definitely like the oil-based spice rub on Nashville-style hot chicken compared to most other kinds of spicy chicken.  Don’t get me started on typical sports bar buffalo wings, which never do anything for me.  It might be the funkiness of the vinegar-based hot sauce, but those wings are often too crunchy, whether they are breaded or not, and they’re simultaneously dry and greasy.  And even though I couldn’t begin to identify the spices in the Swine & Sons chicken sandwiches (aside from the obvious cayenne pepper), at least they don’t have to increase the heat to ludicrous levels for macho bragging rights, with ridiculous names like “Atomic Hellfire,” “Habanero Apocalypse,” and “Ass-Blaster 5000.”

There was a slight sweetness emerging from the heat in both of these sandwiches, making me wonder if there was some sugar in the spice blend.  I loved it.  They were exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had been craving and chasing since hitting Hattie B’s in April 2018.  The smoky flavor made it through, so there were a lot of unique tastes and textures going on at once.  I have to say I preferred both of these chicken sandwiches to the two thighs I had back in Nashville.  Were they the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had?  In a week where people are getting passionate about chicken sandwiches, I’m going to do the same and say YES, yes they were.  As I write this review, far too late on a work night, I am so excited that I still have the other halves in my fridge, waiting for me… maybe even taunting me.

While I was there, I also ordered Swine & Sons’ macaroni and cheese, which I hadn’t had in several years.  It was $4 for a decent-sized side order, and it was very rich.  The cheeses (cheddar and fontina) were melty and the pasta was al dente, so I was more than content.  There was also a nice crumb topping made from cheddar-chive biscuit crumbs.  A lot of places bake their mac and cheese so the whole thing comes out dry, sacrificing that nice meltiness for overly-crispy edges and noodles you can barely chew anymore, but that was definitely not the case here.  DSC02509

I’ve ordered other sandwiches at Swine & Sons on my handful of previous visits over the years, including a good Southern-inspired take on the classic Cuban sandwich.  I think I even had a house-made hot dog there once, although it has been so long, I don’t even remember how they served it.  But today, in my first visit to their new location inside The Local Butcher & Market, Swine & Sons showed me the great heights a fried chicken sandwich could reach in the right hands, from the right kitchen.  It was hot, but all that heat was pure flavor, not just burning, tingling pain and regret.  It was crunchy, but not so hard that I felt like I was going to break a tooth.  It wasn’t dry, and it sure wasn’t bland.  It was a chicken sandwich all others should aspire to be.

I don’t know if they could serve a non-spicy version of the sandwich for the some who don’t like it hot, but right now I’m convinced Swine & Sons can do anything.  And while it is more expensive than the fast food chicken sandwiches making headlines and stirring up strong feelings, you get what you pay for.  I think these were dramatically, exponentially better than any chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had, and I hope my readers will feel the heat sooner rather than later.  The Gawlaks are like culinary royalty in Winter Park and Orlando, and this place isn’t exactly a secret.  But despite all that, you shouldn’t have to worry about long lines and sandwiches selling out, as transcendent as they are.

*Fear Of Missing Out.

I’m so ashamed.

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Naradeva Thai

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s going to the mall.  The only kinds of shopping I like are grocery shopping and comic book shopping.  However, once or twice a year I end up near Orlando’s upscale Mall at Millenia, rarely for anything I need.  At least there’s a very welcoming and well-stocked Coliseum of Comics location near that mall, along with one of my favorite Thai  restaurants anywhere, ever: Naradeva Thai (http://naradevathai.com/).

In the middle of a sprawling retail district, in the shadow of a Super Target, Naradeva feels like an oasis.  It’s definitely one of the best restaurants in that part of Orlando, but because it’s tucked into a little strip of shops (a musical instrument store, a GameStop, a Subway, and the aforementioned Coliseum of Comics), it is easy to miss.  But once you get inside, you will see what I mean about the sense of calm, relaxation, and beauty that will wash over you.  It’s one of the prettiest dining spaces anywhere in the city, on top of serving top-notch Thai food.  It is a sanctuary.DSC02472

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Going there recently with my wife, we both bemoaned the fact that Naradeva is across town from us, or otherwise we would be regulars for sure.  Even in the blistering August heat and sweltering humidity, it feels cooler inside, with the calming sounds of a little waterfall soothing us after weaving through the unknowable weekend traffic on I-4.

We both started our lunch with sweet, rich, creamy Thai iced coffees (one of the few kinds of coffee I like):dsc02476.jpg

After stirring it up (little darlin’):dsc02477.jpg

Back when I reviewed the wonderful Mee Thai last fall, I mentioned that I don’t eat enough Thai food and would like to try more dishes and even experiment with upping the heat levels.  Sadly, I haven’t done that enough.  On a rare trip to Naradeva, I defaulted to my favorite Thai dish: pad kee mao, also known as drunken noodles.  I feel like I need to try every Thai restaurant’s version of this, since everyone makes it a little different, and even a mediocre version is still going to be good.  Naradeva’s pad kee mao was above and beyond.  It was exactly what I wanted and needed, with nice chewy rice noodles, ground pork, crispy bell peppers and green beans, scallions, Thai basil, and bamboo shoot strips all stir-fried together.  I used to be skeptical about bamboo shoots, but they’re great — chewy and inoffensive.  One reason I love pad kee mao is the slight sweetness that cuts through the spice, probably from the basil leaves.  DSC02481I wish the noodles they used were thicker and wider, but those super-thick and wide noodles are pretty hard to find around here.  I tried the “hot” version for the first time, up from my usual medium heat.

This is Naradeva’s Thai red barbecue pork fried rice, which we ordered to split because we both love it so much.  It’s definitely my favorite fried rice dish anywhere.  The char siu-style pork is juicy, sweet, and tender.  It pretty much melts in your mouth.  They add eggs and scallions, plus the cilantro garnish on top, keeping it pretty simple but never boring or bland.  It’s amazing, and as long as you eat pork, I would strongly recommend any visitors to Naradeva try this dish.DSC02480

And my wife, who always has impeccable taste, selected the boneless duck in sweet and sour sauce, which was as gorgeous to look at as it was delectable to eat.  Naradeva serves their duck in a very light batter that comes out crispy from deep-frying, but never too crunchy or heavy with batter, and never dripping with grease.  You can choose from three sauces: tangy sweet and sour, pad kaprow Thai basil sauce (that probably would have been similar to the sauce on my pad kee mao), or red curry sauce.  But I know she doesn’t like curry or anything spicy, so she chose wisely and regretted nothing.  The sweet and sour sauce includes onions (which I dutifully picked out for her, like a good husband), tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber and pineapple chunks.

I can’t get over this plating!DSC02482

The duck comes with white jasmine rice, which neither of us paid much attention to, not with that perfect fried rice there between us.  But I took it home and made it into my own (not nearly as good) fried rice a day or two later.

On past visits to Naradeva, we have treated ourselves to puffy fried Thai doughnuts served with coconut custard dip, but we had more errands to run and were pretty full after this particular meal.  We will definitely return, though.  I’m sure our blood pressure and stress levels drop every time we visit that gorgeous restaurant, as we transport ourselves to a serene jungle oasis.  It’s even worth braving the bougie mall if I can stop at Naradeva on the way in or out.  And after that luxurious lunch, I found a comic I had been looking for forever at the shop a few doors down, and I even had a coupon for a $5 discount.  As my man Cube once said, “I gotta say it was a good day.”

Washington D.C. Part 5: Momofuku CCDC

It’s hard to choose what was the best meal of my trip.  China Chilcano‘s Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion feast with friends was legendary, and the Union Market was everything I love, with a trifecta of sandwiches, again shared with friends.  (Well, we shared the experience, but they didn’t want any of my three sandwiches, even though I offered!)  But Momofuku CCDC (https://ccdc.momofuku.com/), the Washington D.C. outpost of celebrity chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant empire, was also a meal to remember — once again improved exponentially by the excellent company.

I had sampled one of David Chang’s iconic dishes once before, his pork belly bao, when I visited the Momofuku-affiliated Milk Bar bakery on our NYC honeymoon back in 2009.  As great as delightful Chef Christina Tosi’s baked goods were, I was overjoyed that they were serving those famous bao there, and so lucky I got to try it.  I’ve tried to duplicate that pork belly bao at home over the years, but I’ve been waiting a decade for a chance to sample more food from the Momofuku family.

I am in a group that held an evening business meeting at our big professional conference, and we scheduled some dine-arounds for our members after the meeting.  There was a list of D.C. restaurants near the convention center for people to choose from, and I volunteered to “host” a group at Momofuku CCDC, just because I wanted to eat there so badly.  Four people signed up, and the five of us walked over together.  I knew most of them, but mostly just by their impeccable reputations, and none of them knew each other.  I made everyone do an icebreaker (which could have gone badly but didn’t), and by the end of our incredible dinner, I think everyone parted as frolleagues — colleagues who had become friends.

One of the CCDC specialties is bing bread, which is kind of like a cross between a pancake, a tortilla, and a pita.  It was soft and fluffy and warm and steamy, and perfect to spread things on or rip pieces off to dip into stuff.  Somehow a group of information professionals failed to make any “Bing” jokes, but it had been a long day and we were hungry.

My bing bread came with salted chili pimento cheese, topped with bread and butter pickled kohlrabi ($7).  Pimento cheese is rapidly joining onion rings as something I’ll order whenever it’s on the menu, and I loved it.  It has been a few weeks since this meal, but I’m 90% sure this was served chilled, which I always prefer to warm versions.DSC02445

One of my companions got the bing bread with chicken liver mousse, topped with fennel jam, Chinese five spice seasoning, and toasted almonds ($15).  I desperately wanted to try it because I love chopped chicken liver, but we had just met on the walk over here, and I didn’t dare ask her for a taste.  She seemed to really enjoy it, though.DSC02449

These were my garlic noodles, with crab, shrimp, corn, green tomato relish, and Thai basil ($33, which is out of my comfort zone for what I’d normally order as an entree, but I was at Momofuku CCDC and probably won’t ever make it back!).  I’m so glad I splurged, because it was amazing.  DSC02446

Someone else ordered charred broccoli with smoked béarnaise sauce ($13).  It normally comes with XO vinaigrette, but she’s a vegetarian so she asked them to hold it.  I discovered XO sauce recently, and now I’m a little obsessed with it — a rich, savory umami-bomb of a condiment made with dried shrimp and scallops, cured Chinese ham (or bacon or lap xeong Chinese sausage), chilies, onions, garlic, soy sauce, and/or oyster sauce, cooked into a thick jam, sometimes with oil added, and in this case, vinegar.  I should have asked if they would serve the XO vinaigrette on the side so I could try it, but it didn’t occur to me until just now, because these are the things I dwell on, weeks after the fact.DSC02448

I’m not seeing this on the menu, but it looks like the same charred broccoli dish served with softshell crab, so that must have been a special that night.  My colleague demonstrated his good taste, between the softshell crab and his seersucker jacket.  (I was sporting mine too, and miraculously didn’t get anything on it.)DSC02447

And this has to be the spicy cucumber, served with crushed almonds and togarashi seasoning ($7).  This would be a great restaurant for vegetarians, since they had several options that are much more interesting and luxurious than their usual choices of fries or a salad.DSC02450

After dinner, four of the five of us, now bonded over this magnificent meal, piled into a Lyft to attend a fancy party at the Library of Congress.  (Not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story!)  Then we split up almost immediately once we got there, but at least we’re all cool now.  And at least they didn’t see me completely wipe out on some slippery marble stairs in the Great Hall.  Luckily I wasn’t carrying anything and didn’t hurt myself, or worse yet, anyone else.

Golden Krust

My intro to Jamaican culture came when I attended the University of Florida in the latter half of the ’90s.  I used to joke that every new UF student got a free copy of Bob Marley’s Legend CD and a Marley poster for their dorm rooms when they enrolled, because they were so ubiquitous on campus.  (Of course, college students today probably wouldn’t even know what to do with a CD.)  During my Gainesville days, I gravitated toward a different kind of Jamaican music: ska.  The mid-to-late ’90s era was the “third wave” of ska, when high school band geeks combined the traditional Jamaican dance music (usually much faster than reggae, with an emphasis on guitar upstrokes) with the speed and anarchic energy of punk rock.  So there were a lot of thrift store suits, skinny ties, retro-looking bowling shirts, and even a pair of black and white Doc Martens brogues in my checkered past (no pun intended), and I even played in a ska-punk band myself.

But as for the cuisine, I was poor as hell back then and definitely hadn’t developed the love for food and desire to try new things that drives me, over half my life later.  I don’t know how I developed my great love of Jamaican food.  My family certainly never ate it growing up in the suburbs of Miami.  However, along the way, I finally got exposed to the classic Jamaican dishes, and it was love at first bite.  I’m crazy about tender, juicy braised oxtails, brown stew chicken, jerk chicken and pork, and delicious spicy beef patties in their yellow, flaky crusts.  And my favorite local restaurant for getting my Jamaican fix is Golden Krust (http://www.orlandogoldenkrust.com/), particularly the location on Alafaya Trail near the 408 in East Orlando, across from Waterford Lakes.  There are three Orlando locations in all, plus a fourth in Clermont.

First, a little background.  Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill was founded by the late Lowell Hawthorne in The Bronx, New York.  The corporation distributes its perfect patties and other retail products to grocery stores around the U.S. (including our very own Publix, at least in Florida), and has over 120 restaurant franchise locations in nine states: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.  The restaurants all carry lots of Jamaican groceries and baked goods, in addition to the cafeteria-style hot food menu.

Here’s the menu, posted above the counter.  Everything is very affordable, and the portions are gargantuan:
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This is one of my favorite dishes from any cuisine, any culture: braised oxtails, served here with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and my beloved sweet plantains.  This is one of my ultimate comfort foods.  I think I would rather eat oxtails than a steak!  I’ve made them at home before, but nothing ever comes out this well.  The meat is so tender, moist, juicy, unctious, yielding, flavorful.  It is NOT a spicy dish.  There is even a subtly sweetness to it, but don’t go in thinking all Jamaican food is breathe-fire spicy.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.IMG_0033
There is a lot of soft, chewy gelatin left on the irregularly-shaped bones, and that’s always worth sucking or gnawing off every morsel.  This is not a meal to order on a job interview or a first date (well, maybe a first date), but I’ve still eaten it at work, dressed in a full suit, always worried about a saucy piece of meat slipping out of my fingers and splattering me.  It’s a risk worth taking.

Here is a smaller, lunch-sized portion of brown stew chicken, also served with rice and peas and cabbage with mixed vegetables and sweet plantains.  This is some of the most tender and flavorful chicken I’ve ever had.  I’ve attempted to recreate this dish too, but they are the masters.  IMG_0035

Really good baked macaroni and cheese, which I had somehow never tried at Golden Krust before:IMG_0034.jpg

On a second, more recent trip, I got a spicy, flaky beef and cheese patty in their signature golden crust (Krust).  It is pictured on top of soft, fluffy coco bread, which you eat like a sandwich — meat wrapped in carbs wrapped in more carbs.
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This was my first time trying the traditional breakfast dish of saltfish: flaky, sauteed salt cod, which was cooked with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and spices.  It had a nice spiciness, but nowhere close to as hot as you might be thinking.  It is Jamaica’s national dish.  Here it was served alongside spinach-like greens called callalou.  I liked the callalou even more than the usual stewed cabbage, and I would definitely order this combination again.  There are rice and peas underneath the saltfish and greens.DSC02233

I also ordered a roti, which is a chewy, soft, tortilla-like wrap that is served with your choice of meat.  You can tear off pieces of the roti and use them to scoop up the meat or sauce.  It was prepared to order, folded into several layers, and stuffed with a crumbly, curry-flavored filling that was a pleasant surprise.  DSC02235

Of course I had to choose oxtail as my meat again, and between the roti and my rice and peas, I took care of every drop of that rich gravy.DSC02234

I usually order a pineapple soda to accompany Jamaican food whenever I have it, or occasionally a refreshing grapefruit soda called Ting.  But this time I tried something new: a vanilla-flavored drink called Irish Moss, which is really thick and heavy from carageenan (red seaweed, a surprisingly common thickening ingredient in a lot of drinks and dairy products).  It tasted exactly like store-bought eggnog, and between being cool, creamy, and having that rich mouth-feel, it was perfect for cutting the heat.  You have to shake it really well, because otherwise you’ll end up with small, chewy chunks!
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Upon conducting some post-meal research (only the best for The Saboscrivner’s baker’s dozens of readers!), I learned that these Irish Moss soft drinks are marketed as an aphrodisiac, particularly for men.  I guess the brand name “Big Bamboo” should have been a big damn clue.  I wasn’t feeling particularly amorous after such a large and heavy meal, or especially after such a thick and heavy beverage, but I thought it was ironic that it was vanilla-flavored, and I’m only into vanilla when it comes to food and drinks.

Yeah, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!

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.

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

Vegetable noodle soup:DSC01809

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!

Taste of Chengdu

Before the end of 2018, I was able to meet a large group of Orlando Foodie Forum members at one of Orlando’s hottest (no pun intended restaurants), Taste of Chengdu.  Connected to a Best Western hotel west of downtown Orlando on West Colonial Drive, Taste of Chengdu has emerged as one of our best and most innovative Chinese restaurants, with Chef Tiger Tang specializing in spicy Szechuan cuisine.  This is not a place to go for glistening honey garlic chicken, sticky-sweet spareribs, greasy fried egg rolls, or a buffet with crab rangoons and Jell-O for dessert (although they do have a handful of more Americanized dishes available).  In fact, it might be a little intimidating for those with unadventurous palates and anyone who prefers their food non-spicy.  But it’s a fantastic restaurant if you want to try new things and exciting, unfamiliar variations on Chinese classics.

The lunch organizer worked it out with Chef Tiger in advance that he would send a bunch of dishes out of the kitchen for us to pass around and share, family-style, and we would each pay a flat fee of $20, plus tax.  It was a real bargain, as there would be no way to ever try this many dishes in one sitting under normal circumstances.  Some of these were regular menu items, and some were his new and innovative creations, just for our gathering of intrepid eaters.

So since I don’t have official titles for everything, my descriptions that follow are the best I could do.

Cold boiled chicken in a spicy chili sauce with sesame seeds and scallions:dsc01737

Bamboo!  And while I was expecting this to be woody and fibrous and awful, it was delicious.  It reminded me a lot of rich, chewy, meaty mushrooms, which I cannot eat due to some digestive allergy.  I think vegetarians would love this dish, and I surprised myself by really liking it.dsc01738

Cool sliced cucumbers in a garlicky sauce.  An excellent palate cleanser between the dish that preceded it and the one that followed.  It never would have occurred to me to order a cucumber dish at a Chinese restaurant, but they were cool, fresh, and crispy and well with everything else we tried.dsc01739

Green tea fried rice with bacon.  Loved it!  I always order fried rice at pretty much any Chinese restaurant, and this one was one of the better fried rice dishes I’ve tried anywhere.dsc01740

This was a duck dish that everyone around our large table devoured.  The duck was sliced thin and pan-fried, extremely soft and tender, not greasy at all. It was served in a brown sauce with green leeks.dsc01741

These stir-fried shrimp, in a spicy sauce similar to dan dan sauce with finely-minced pork, might have been my favorite dish of the entire lunch.  The shrimp were huge, with lightly crispy outsides from the frying process.  Apparently Chef Tiger normally serves these in the shell, with heads and legs and everything, but was kind enough to de-shell them for our group.  Shell yeah!dsc01742

Cold sesame noodles, very good:dsc01743

A “hot pot” of spicy, crispy, breaded fried fish, with onions, potatoes, peppers, and lotus root (the first time I had ever tried lotus root).  If you’ve ever tried the la zi fish at Chuan Lu Garden, this was similar, but a lot better.  It was spiced with the Szechuan peppercorns that deliver a tingling, numbing, almost metallic sensation to your lips and tongue, which is more pleasant than it sounds.  dsc01744

Whole fried snapper in a tomatoey sweet and sour sauce with a spicy dimension to it.  One of my fellow diners was cool enough to filet the fish for everyone, making it a heck of a lot easier to share and eat.  Another one of the best dishes that I admit would probably have intimidated me as a solo diner.dsc01745

Wok-seared green beans, better than green beans have any right to be:dsc01746

Finally, Szechuan wontons in chili oil — some of the finest damn wontons ever.  I could have easily eaten a whole big bowl just of these, but this was a lunch of sampling, so I made do with these two.  dsc01747

I NEVER make it west of downtown, so there’s a whole side of Orlando I need to explore for more Saboscrivner-worthy dining.  But I had been reading so many rave reviews for Taste of Chengdu for so much of 2018, I’m glad I finally got to get in there before the year was over and share all these delicious dishes with my fellow foodies.  If you don’t mind spicy food, especially trying new things, definitely hit up Taste of Chengdu.  Whatever you order will be top-notch, under the watchful eye of Chef Tiger.